I’m 22 and used to be a Sting Ray, way back, three years before. Nobody even recognizes me at Larry’s Bar, and why the fuck would they, but I’m drunk with Dr. Allen.
From never being in sun or eating, Dr. Allen has a shucked-out face, gray-hard. First round, he always says, “Aha! Dinner is poured.”
Now he’s going, “There is no god but there is a conscience and, man, I would rather suffer a god’s wrath than that.”
He talks with gut-punch clout because he is a professor of Political Science and was arrested for a protest and he’s killing himself with drink (though 1968, ruptured university, riots, troops on campus, spiked dope, narcs, undercover student rats, it was, like, name your poison). And because he is rumored to have cirrhosis of the liver we younger ones see he’s doomed and talks only the fatal truth. I don’t think he weighs 90 pounds.
A grandma woman in an apron keeps stoking our booth-- “Y’all look like you need another pitcher of beer”--and the wooden spaces are dark and varnished, the lightbulbs amber, they got fifty-cent bean soup with Saltines. I mean, five bucks at Larry’s, you’re wrecked and fed.
Dennis, my age, ten years younger than Dr. Allen, his ex-student, says, “Well. Is it a conscience in some sense of a moral in-built response animals have, or plain old rational regret?”
“I am saying that being me is cancer, stage four, man.” And he fits a gaze on me through a cave of snarled hair and beard and says, “You’re kidding right, Ringo?”
Meaning no doubt my shirt and hair. The Sting Rays, 1965, we bought these skinny suits and shirts of matching indigo with long collars and toad sticker boots, and I’m still like a dandy in these old clothes, really worn out.
In fear (I am slow, and dim) I pat my head, a kid patting his dog, and say, (it comes out demented), “Well, I dig. Conscience. I mean. I have regrets.”
“You regret buying that faggot shirt?” he says.
“Anything to get laid,” Dennis says, trying to rescue me.
“Didn’t work, did it, bowl-hair?”
“Hey, c’mon, leave him alone,” Dennis says. Loyal Dennis.
“No, I’m leaving him alone, if he can explain what he’s doing on Earth?”
Thing is, ‘Ringo’ is so square, such a square Las Vegas jab and makes me mad and I go, “How old are you? No, wait. How fuckin old are you? And why are you drinking with people half your age?”
“Because you’re buying and I’d drink with termites if they were paying. I’d prefer them to you, pou, crétin.”
I was in a band but dumb as socks and stayed a virgin. I say this. Stupid as a cardoor, plus a virgin. And the girl fans made randy by the music and dope-festivals of our gigs always went off with Danny or Nick or Rory, my band mates, and I sat in the dark gym or dance hall among the equipment and heavy guitars not thinking at all. Then I loaded the U-Haul hitch-on by myself. Nobody had roadies then.
I mean, we couldn’t play but we had suits and shirts. Rory could make some chords on his Mexican starburst Fender so we spliced his guitar chord into a splitter box and plugged a wire into his header and cabinet and one into Nick’s Vox amp and cab, so at least the sound was fat and fuzzy (I loved it actually) and then Danny had a new Shure microphone plugged into the header because the places we played there was no PA for rock vocals—it was 1965- so Danny’s voice was mashed up with Nick’s bad bass, which had no bottom, really, and Danny sang and you could not hear anyway but we were fuckin dreadful. No, we had this song, Sally Ann, named for two girls we knew, and we could play that and Louie Louie, but we were a joke.
So what? My sweaty bandmates went off with Upper Arlington girls in vans and had sex in the vans smoking marijuana and going crazy and the night world was full of redeeming-all-love-and-peace-and- impulse-grat, but then history turned bad before I got anything but still lived at home reading Comic books and Pop Fan Magazines and Mickey Spillane. I watched late late movies.
The streets at the time have bigger older trees than now, all over hell are big trees and after eleven the streets are empty in 1968, maybe one prowl car and you can drive drunk which I always did, even in the morning going to Ohio State University classes where I was getting C’s and still a junior. But now we’re driving from Larry’s Bar in the deep night, Dennis and me, and a sociopath who doesn’t matter called Ray. Dennis is smoldering.
“Man, listen, I know that Dr. Allen can be a jerk, Bobby, I know, but—”
“What the fuck is this Doctor Allen shit all the time? Lester is a Professor and he never says, I am Doctor Rhimes. Your fuckin dad is a professor and I’ve never said, ‘Hey, Doctor Dennis’s Dad!’ A doctor does surgery.”
From the back seat Ray goes, “Bobby gets a year’s subscription to the Journal of Higher Education.”
“What I am trying to say—" says Dennis.
“Is that Bobby is a homo,” says Ray.
”No, it’s that Dr. Allen, is going up before some faculty board on charges—he won’t say what—you can guess--and it really looks bad. Even if he gets probation, he will lose benefits, and his ex and his kid need health insurance. God knows he needs it. And, more probably, he loses his whole job. Everything.”
“Good,” I say.
Ray says, “You dumb motherfucker.” Nail on the head.
I am. True.
But we go to the 24/7 White Castle and eat two dozen burgers and split a bag of fries before I drop off Dennis and Ray.
I park the car, my father’s car, on the lawn of our nice brick house in a suburb north of Columbus because the beers and vodka and grease food have caught me in a spell of bad judgement and in the kitchen cove above the refrigerator are ten bottles of Cutty Sark shipped back from Bermuda duty-free by my dad in a yellow carboard box, ten fifths of Cutty Sark after a trip we took there in 1962—and dad doesn’t hardly drink so I open and I guzzle from one and carry it around.
I am trying to express just right the exact metabolic dynamics of the evening.
It all seems so important 200 light years later. Now. The elements.
Not that anything happened. I went over the dark September grass to the neighbor’s nice suburban brick house and knocked on Beth’s bedroom window. Her Grandmother, Mrs. Pennyfeather Senior, in a nightdress from a horror movie and with a gigantic nose answered the window and said, “It’s two eleven a.m., Bobby. I like that shirt. You brought me Cutty Sark?”
“Thank you. Sure take the bottle. Is Beth awake?”
“At two eleven am?” She takes my dad’s Scotch. “You know something funny?”
That’s what I like about her a lot. She’s abnormal.
“What’s funny is I am awake because I’m old. The old don’t sleep except when they’re not supposed to. And the young don’t sleep when they’re supposed to. They stay up all night and sleep in class.”
“I’m living proof.”
“So who says get eight hours? Who says get in bed at ten? Get up at six. Stupid forty-year-old businessmen. Get to work at my company and work on my assembly lines for minimum wages and be awake! They make all the rules. They’ll get K.J. killed too.”
K.J. was Beth’s brother, Mrs. Pennyfeather’s grandson, in Vietnam. Big brocaded leaf roofs of black were over me and between them were late summer stars, bright, and I saw the upswoop of the backyard ending in a long line of box hedges and the new blue moon made it look like snow, white shining on the dew.
“Who are you talking to, Gran?”
I tell Beth it’s me and I am drunk, she says No shit Sherlock and says she will tinkle and meet me around by the lawnmower shed. They are the Pennyfeathers, Beth Pennyfeather, with a grandmother and you can go talk to them about anything.
Beth is wearing a cloth winter coat and pedal pusher pants with Capezios when she comes out. “Today I had to do a practicum which is an observation and assistance thing in a real classroom at Sharon Elementary and I don’t want to be a teacher any more, man. Kids are grotty. Their noses run, they wipe their snot on their pants and pee themselves. They’re like Gran. Gran can be so grotty I can’t even eat around her. Are you asleep, Bobby?”
“I can’t see your face. Wowee you’re drunk . You’re so drunk that I want to barf.”
“I was thinking about my conscience and what I regret.”
She seems WHAM interested all of a sudden, not just in everything, which is usual Beth-ness, everything in the wide world needs her attention, but in what I will say and have just said. Her features rearrange in the moonlight to a curiosity that’s sweet, as when a deer tilts its head at you. She wants to know what I think. What I will say.
Summing up that band I was in, she told me, long ago, “We girls always said unanimously Rory was the cute one, Danny was the blond one, Nick was the sexiest one and you were the dumb one, except when you played that song, Sally Ann. You seemed smarter.”
Which comment stuck. So it is Beth who kick-starts me forever forward, whose querying face in the blue moon is a lesson of great profundity on self-regard, and beyond any standards of beauty, cute, pretty, is possessed of a magic that is transpositional. She is charming because she is more interested in me than in herself or anything else for a heartbeat.
I sit on the grass and light a cigarette which Beth takes and I light another cigarette.
“Like you’ve seen how with bands, the girls are hysterical?”
“Um, I am a girl.”
“This chick, one night in Urbana, dig, at that place the Sugar Shack, she wants to rap with me after the gig.”
“Stop the world.”
“Don’t fuck around. I need you here.”
She shakes all over in frustration, doing a hoppy dance, “Just tell me! Talk faster!”
“We went out, and, you know, cornfields and cows and we go out nobody around we’re kissing, leaning on the car, I am rubbing her tits and she wants to ball I think but I say I can’t. I told her I was in love with somebody else.”
Beth yawns and says, “You’re probably queer, Bobby. No wonder you never try nothing with me.”
Do you feel that the world, from the flea on the ear of the rat to the spinning planets in their arcing orbits to the plotting government to everybody everywhere is charging at great speed and with tsunami momentum and intent, all having zippo zero nothing to do with your consent, support or your ability to change it, or, not even change it, but comment on it and if you did who the fuck would care? Would listen?
We were a dink band and had nothing, unlike the band with the guy who could play a twelve string Rickenbacker and they had a singer with a great Brian Jones haircut, and we were nothing.
But even for us, behind the stagelights, you can’t see how many people are out there and it feels like a monster, like a big need wanting to be fulfilled. It was Tidily Winks but I played my Ludwig pearl drums in a band for a while. Over the lifetime since, it got to be a big thing maybe. Me and The Beatles and Stones, you know?
Because. People would say, “Like, what’s happening?” and I was happening for a second. Even the dumb one in the group was more happening than any politician, actor, athlete then, there. Rory is 5 feet and six inches with a big guitar and a he makes chords and a radio guy asks him, “Where is the world going?”
For a newspaper interview after one gig, these grown-ups say to Danny, who all he thinks about is tail and what lyrics will get the most, they ask him about Youth today. What do we want?
What do we think of truly great music like Frank Sinatra or Les Brown?
We want a cigarette and Ritalin and cooler suits and pointier boots. Frank Sinatra and Les Brown suck dick. And we want money. Better bangs. Cooler rhymes.
“I’m waiting on what this has to do with your conscience,” Beth goes. “News to me you have one. That was a joke.”
“Right. So no, I’m not, I’m fairly sure queer. I get all hot even just looking at a girl’s bare feet.” And this scares Beth in the dark.
“Come on! My stupid feet?”
“Anything girly. Elbows. The way you have voices that are different.”
“Am I safe out here with you?”
And so much for that. So I pat my hair and go back to being the old me. “What are you going to do if you don’t teach? Didn’t you build everything around that?”
And like Mrs. Pennyfeather says, why sleep because some boss says you should? I just wander around and fuck around and it gets light but the moon is up, a circle on this opal morning over dark roofs and I back the car off the lawn and go down High Street to my 8a.m. History of Europe Between the Wars class and park by the stadium, which is a big Nazi-like Roman Colosseum. I don’t know trees, but many have yellowing leaves or they’re kind of orange and these flower beds are bright red or some Autumn-like deal. Out from the R.O.T.C building over there are National Guard troops gathering with rows of APC’s, for transporting soldiers and tanks with tread and canons. So if there’s a riot today, they can me drop me with a fusillade of M-1 bullets and run me over to be safe. Maybe we need more Dr. Allens, is my thought.
This campus is old, built in a circle around an oval that looks a mile around this early and with Romanesque buildings and Square glass box buildings and small lakes and thousands of sleepy people in a community of hush. Just shoes squeaking and pants and skirts swishing and a transistor radio somebody’s carrying, Walk Away Renee, no louder than distant lawn equipment starting, grr.
There’s a tent with soldiers in line in gray-green jungle camo, so we won’t see them, getting coffee, snake-black rifles on them because of the Columbia U riots maybe. Great.
In Lyons Hall, kids are sleeping on the floor and there’s an asshole with bongo drums cross legged being groovy and he sneers at my boots with the heel that’s loose and out of date.
“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…” he goes and bips on the drumheads.
The lecturer for my class, is foreign from somewhere and his voice pours from his mouth in an olive oil seamless stream with hardly any stops for breath and he has mimeographed bundles so fuck me, it is a quiz day and he gives out these fragrant bundles and says, “Zo--you’llhavetwentyminutestofill--ineveryzingbettertoguezzthan leaveemptyeachzectionhazapointvalueazzigned…”
He gives us pencils to use and under the first essay question about the Hapsburg Empire I write:
“I should have fucked the Urbana girl that was what I was supposed to do she was young and thought I was a star from her dreams and I owed it to her even if she was cherry and I should have been a great drummer instead of with my head up my ass I should have told people I am not the dumb one listen, listen listen your country hates you and we are hating it back Bang bang bang on the fucking drums, your country will shoot you, your own people you went to school with in uniforms will shoot you, and your parents will send you to be killed and their kids in the National Guard will shoot you dead, and I don’t regret anything I did my conscience tears me up for what I didn’t do, and I had a chance, I was there, you will NEVER be there professor, I was there, and I did nothing with the great chances I had and instead left everyone frustrated, them and me, ME which is worst, even last night, with Beth, which is when I understood everything, and I didn’t even kiss her, I just gave up on the girl who made me see—”
I was so fucking thirsty for water. I just finished,” …made me see all I gave up.”