Chapter Twenty-Five (Kentfield)
— — —
Ginny’s run-in with the cops and the ongoing lawsuit took some of the steam out of the Christmas stuff of 1967. By her standards, it wasn’t all that bad, just a scrape or two, a single abduction by a young black cab driver and a lame suicide attempt inspired by a Maxfield Parrish painting and a sudden feeling of kinship with Ophelia — she waded out into the little duck pond across from the Portals of the Past in Golden Gate Park, covered herself up with handfuls of vegetation and lay down onto her back in the shallow water, but didn’t manage to drown.
She got a degree in psychology from San Francisco State in the spring. She was still short a few credits, but her father’s lawyer got the school to give her the thing anyway. Her father sent her a note saying that he was proud of her.
Toward the end of the summer of 1968, we gave up the apartment on Shrader Street. Tom Piper was working as an engineer and had moved up to Marin County. Haight Street had turned into nothing but junkies and speed freaks. Everyone was moving up to Marin County by then. Tom got a house near a river in San Anselmo. Ginny had always wanted to live in a place near a river. Tom was glad to have her. Their relationship was still platonic. He thought this was his big chance.
I stayed at Elliot’s apartment in the city for a while, then Elliot and I rented a house together in Marin County ourselves, just the two of us. The house was in Kentfield. The backyard went clear up to the top of Mt. Tamalpias. There was a cement fishpond in the front yard.
The only reason Elliot and I could afford to live there was that the house was a wreck. The Independent Journal advertised it as a “Handyman Special.” It needed things like a new foundation, rewiring and the plumbing replaced, but the first thing Elliot and I fixed-up was the fishpond. It was full of dirt. It hadn’t been used in twenty years. Ginny found the fishpond. We didn’t know it was even a fishpond. We thought it was dirt. Once Elliot and I moved to Marin, Ginny spent most of her time over at our house. Poor Tom Piper, he was pissed.
After Ginny found the fishpond, the three of us went to work. We dug the dirt out of it and patched the cracks in the cement and painted it blue and filled it with water and put in a bunch of goldfish — brown goldfish, orange goldfish, black goldfish, Creamsicle goldfish, spotted goldfish, you name it.
Elliot got some old rusted, wrought-iron chairs from his mother. We cleaned them and sanded them, and Elliot got a long extension cord for his compressor and airbrushed them a pretty shade of grayish-white, and the three of us settled back in our wrought iron chairs around our freshly refurbished fishpond. We may not have had any wiring or sewer pipes, and some of the faucets might have dripped a little, but we had a hell of a place to sit around and wonder how we were going to get wiring and faucets that didn’t drip.
— — —
It was quiet out there. We didn’t talk much. There wasn’t a lot to say. Elliot was still in love with Virginia. She still knew it. We all still knew it. We all still pretended not to notice. Robins hopped around under the bushes. A Monarch butterfly fluttered from one rotting calla lily to another.
One of the fish was biting at the top of the water. They were just ordinary goldfish. One of them died now and then. The rest of them ate it. We found stringy orange carcasses lapping up against the powder blue shore. The fish biting the air was one of those bulbous, raisin-colored things with flowing, useless fins.
The surface of the water reflected branches of the huge pine tree in the front yard. There were puffy clouds crawling across the sky. Ginny tossed a stone at the fish biting the surface of the water. The pond rippled. The clouds got jumbled up. The branches of the pine tree shimmered like a mirage. The goldfish all dove to the bottom of the pond, stabilizing themselves with their tails, taking lazy gulps of water.
“Why’d you do that?” Elliot asked.
“I hate that bug-eyed fucker. He keeps chasing Ondine.”
“The pretty orange and white one.” She pointed.
She’d named them all. Genghis Kahn. Ondine. Willow. Heloise. Abelard. Sri Ramakrishna. Semolina Pilchard. Mowgli. Raskolnikov. I forget the rest. There were about fourteen all together. Some were friends. Others were bitter enemies. A few didn’t take sides.
Elliot and I got to be buddies again. He tried to teach me how to paint. I was hopeless. He tried to show me how to use an airbrush. I was more hopeless. He tried to get me to dance like a flamenco dancer while he played his guitar. I laughed. Ginny danced like a flamenco dancer for him. He tried to teach me all kinds of things. I was as much a novice as he was a genius at everything he tried to teach me.
We had long philosophical conversations. He was still a pacifist. He asked me once if I had any idea how many living things nobody could even see — dust mites in the carpet, frail, sharp-nosed creatures clinging to grains of pollen the relative size of hot air balloons, infinitesimal little rhinoceros-looking things that spent their lives carting flakes of dead skin off the sheets at night. According to Elliot, it was impossible to calculate the number of sentient organisms that got sucked into oblivion every time some insensitive brute took it upon himself to breathe.
“Half of all life on Earth is invisible,” Elliot said.
“You’re full of shit,” I told him.
“Why you’re full of shit? I have no idea.”
“In what way, then, am I full of shit?”
“You want examples? Okay. In the first place, if you take it to its logical conclusion, everything is invisible. I mean, all anything’s made out of is cells and molecules and atoms and electrons and stuff nobody can see, right? So that blows your whole theory right there. How can half of anything be invisible if everything is? And what makes you think anything’s even alive to begin with? You think you’re alive? Or me? You think I’m alive? Or some dust mite? How can that be? Because you think we are? If everything’s nothing but inanimate atoms, what makes life? Tell me that. Do you know? No. Are atoms alive? Name me one atom that’s even partly alive. Nickel? Cadmium? Boron? That’s what makes life such a big fucking mystery — nobody can figure it out — and anyone who thinks he can is full of shit. That’s the definition. Thinking you know anything means you’re full of shit.”
“And where, exactly, did you learn all this?”
“From taking acid.”
Elliot hadn’t ever taken LSD. I had. Ha!
— — —
Ginny thrived over at our house. She was in her element: Perpetual Adoration. Elliot doted on her. She dug it. Elliot sprayed urethane foam all over the walls and the ceiling of one of the upstairs bedrooms for her. It was “Ginny’s Room.” She kept her latest shrine there. He airbrushed the foam to make the room look like she was in a tree. She said she felt like a bird when she walked in the door, like she could fly if she wanted to. It didn’t last, but the three of us liked hanging out with each other in Kentfield.
I was working at a job as a vault teller on Montgomery Street, at the main branch of the Bank of America. By the beginning of fall, Ginny and Elliot were alone with each other all day. I didn’t get home until way after dark. She lounged around half naked and told him nonsense stories while he painted pictures of her.
One thing didn’t lead to another. The pictures weren’t representational. The last thing they looked like was Ginny, but they made you feel how he felt about her. Why they never just fucked and got it the hell over with, I have no idea — out of consideration for me, I suppose, but that just made it worse. It was achingly romantic. He was Lancelot; she was Guinevere.
When I got off work, the bus let me out by the Seven-Eleven on Sir Francis Drake. After you got past the smell of exhaust and the blink of neon from the highway, the street sloped down into what used to be a narrow, grassy meadow, back before civilization took over. Sometimes at night it seemed to get that way again. I imagined what it must have been like to be one of the coastal Indians who used to live there, taking refuge from the cold in the hollow of a dead redwood, peering up at the same incomprehensible shawl of stars. There was a street light every so often now, sure, and the road was paved and there was that stop sign at Madrone, but if you really put your mind to it you could still feel how it might have been to have been an Indian living in our little valley before civilization took over.
I remember walking home one night. It must have been November. I could see my breath. It was getting close to Christmas again. I wasn’t thinking about being an Indian. I was watching my feet step on shadows of themselves. When I got directly under each of the streetlights, my shadow would disappear and a new shadow would grow out in front of me again. I heard a faint scream — probably from some TV. Then I heard a pretty good-sized pane of glass break and heard another scream, a louder scream. It sounded like Ginny. It was. Fuck.
I ran the rest of the way down to the house, crashed through the side door, ran up the back stairs, through the kitchen and into the living room. Elliot was sitting on top of her. He had her arms pinned to the floor with his knees and was trying to cover her mouth. His hand was bloody from where she’d bitten him. He looked up at me. He was scared. He wasn’t acting. His cheek twitched. His mouth trembled. There were tears in his eyes. I didn’t laugh. The living room window was shattered.
“Could you do this?” Elliot asked.
We traded places. I sat on Ginny while he tended to his hand. I didn’t ask what had happened. It didn’t matter. She was drunk. I was used to it. Elliot wasn’t. That was the one thing I was always better at than him — taking care of Ginny when she went nuts. I was a genius at taking care of Ginny when she went nuts.
— — —
Elliot and I had to move. It was the beginning of my fifth and final Christmas with Virginia Good. We all went our separate ways. Ginny stayed at Tom’s place in San Anselmo. Elliot went to his mother’s new house. I moved back to San Francisco, into a studio apartment on Central, across the Panhandle from where my newly married sister, Nicki, and her husband, Murph, were living on Fell Street. Murph had settled down some since he used to hang out with Thulin and Ralph Wood.
Ginny still came over to my apartment a lot. It was well into December. It was probably my fault. I should have known better. We went over to Nicki and Murph’s one night. They had their Christmas tree up. There were lights everywhere and presents under the tree and Christmas cards on the mantle. Bing Crosby was singing sappy Christmas songs. Their newborn baby boy, Myles Cadet Murphy, was asleep in his bassinet in their bedroom. Ginny got drunk and tried to fuck Murph on the living room floor in front of my sister and me.
I shouldn’t have taken her over there. I knew how she got. Of course it was my fault. What the hell was I thinking? Nicki was sitting on the couch with a glass of wine in her hand, watching very closely as Ginny climbed into her husband’s lap. Nicki never liked Ginny much to begin with. Most women didn’t think much of Ginny. Some women liked her — Brenda and Mary had — but most women didn’t.
Murph was cute about it. He frowned and shook his head and screwed up the corner of his mouth and raised his eyebrows and laughed uncomfortably while she put her arms around his neck and squirmed in his lap. Nicki looked at me. I was sitting across the room in an armchair. She looked back down at Ginny and her husband on the floor between us and looked at me again.
Nicki and I both felt sorry for Murph. He didn’t know what to do. I got up, took Ginny by the arm, pulled her off Murph’s lap and said, “Come on, we’re going.”
“No. I need to know what he wants,” Ginny said. “He needs to know.”
“I don’t need to know shit,” Murph said. “I know everything I want to know.”
“No. You don’t. You need to know what you want.”
“And you know what that is?” Nicki asked. Then she laughed. Then she frowned. Then she screwed up the side of her mouth and shook her head.
“I do. He knows, too. Murph knows. Don’t you, Murph? Don’t you?”
“Ginny, shut the fuck up,” I said.
I was pissed. Finally pissed. Permanently pissed. Fed up. Tired. Bored. I can’t explain it. I’m not even going to try. It wasn’t emotional in the least. It was factual. Enough was enough. Watching Ginny and Murph was the last straw. She was nothing but a drunk. You see drunks on the street. They come up to you in bars. They’re boring. They’re stupid. Nothing they do or say has any meaning. It doesn’t matter whether they live or die — and suddenly somehow, that was it.
I don’t know what else she said. I don’t know what else I said. Ginny eventually took off with a couple of Mexican garbage men at around five in the morning. The last I saw of her, she was on the running board of a Sunset Scavenger Service truck. I didn’t care. I didn’t want anything to do with any of it anymore, and went up to my parents’ house in Oregon again.
Tom Piper got to handle the rest of Christmas that year. He thought he was up to it. He wasn’t. Here’s the second to last letter I still have. It doesn’t have a date, but this one had to have been from sometime around Christmas of 1968:
“Gerry: I am in a hospital — and have been for three days. But not me — a ream of identities all using THIS body. I have some kind of brain damage. The experiences have been HUGE — from deepest despair to laughter — never really happy though. I’m too sick. I must see you. And Elliot. You both I saw during ‘various’ stages of minds and you are both quite different than ordinary humans. I am being fed through the arm by a bottle and through the fanny with something they put in.
“Before I had my last 2 pills I was a MESS MESS MESS and wanted to die. The pain was unendurable in my head and tum. I couldn’t move and gagged which broke my head apart. OH I must tell you how it happened. Tom did it. He hit me perfectly and I fell and broke something in my spine. I stayed home and was strange but quiet…no drinking…so drinking doesn’t have anything to do with this one — finally I just fell in a swoon and went potty all over myself.
“He took me to Kaiser emergency where the doctors found blood in my spinal column and put me in ambulances for the city where I am now. They will do an EEG when I am well enough. (Damn — that’s when they stick millions of pins in your skull and make you sit there forever.) Are you surprised at all this? I have no idea when I’ll be plopped into a bramble of pain and other worlds again.
“Last night they had to make me naked and put ICE towels all over me to bring the fever down. It was AWFUL. ICKY. Now I feel OK except for a headache which is continual but less. There IS something physically wrong in my head. I am SO weird from one minute to the next. WHERE ARE YOU? COME! I seriously may really KILL myself. That’s all. Tom will mail this…bye…it’s late.”
Along with the letter, Tom Piper enclosed this note:
“She’s in the Kaiser Hospital on Geary Street. I didn’t hit her. I threw her away from me. The doctor found blood in her spinal fluid from a probable burst blood vessel around the brain. They are keeping her in the hospital because the tests that they would have to make in order to know exactly what is wrong are quite painful and they can achieve the same result by merely keeping her under close observation. She has a temperature of 102. They are doing things to lower it. She has had a powerful headache continually since the fall. She is mentally confused frequently. The doctor said tonight that they would probably do another spinal tap Friday to see if she needs to remain in the hospital until sometime next week.”
The multimedia version has music by Gene Autry, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Richard Harris, Neil Young, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Placido Domingo, but this voice only version ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: