Chapter Twenty-Nine (Burlingame)

— — —

Note: Here’s the voice only chapter of the video book, in case you want to watch while you read. The multimedia version has music by Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, but this version ain’t bad all on its own:

Dick Joseph had stopped by that morning while I was at work. Elliot and I had known Dick Joseph since he was a freckle-faced kid in high school. By the summer of 1972, Dick Joseph had a bushy red beard. Everyone liked Dick Joseph — Ralph, Thulin, John White, me, Elliot, Ginny, Melanie, Wendy, Susie — we all liked Dick Joseph. He was the gadfly of the universe; nobody didn’t like Dick Joseph.

One of the things Melanie especially liked about Dick Joseph was that he didn’t read anything but Russian novels. He refused to read anything but Russian novels. He eschewed all books but Russian novels. That cracked her up. Dick Joseph wouldn’t even hear about any books but Russian novels.

“I’m reading Faulkner,” Melanie would say. “Light in August.”

“Fuck Faulkner. Faulkner eats shit.” Dick would put his hands over his ears, close his eyes and repeat the names of Russian novelists like a mantra: “Leonid Andreyev, Fydor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Sholokhov, Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn…”

He made her laugh.

Melanie loved books. She read and read, but there were always so many more books yet to read. Dick Joseph got her to think about maybe just reading French novels or English novels or American novels, but she didn’t. She read everything — Indian novels, South American novels, you name it.

Another thing Melanie liked about Dick Joseph was that he sold drugs for a living — predominately cocaine, but he dabbled in marijuana, crystal meth and downers when he could get them at a fair price. Melanie loved barbiturates; barbiturates and books. She and Dick Joseph sat around the kitchen table that morning and talked about Russian novels while he manicured a couple of pounds of marijuana. When he was through, Dick Joseph gave Melanie a little jar of Nembutal and left the stems and seeds from the marijuana in a trash bag under the sink.

— — —

Ginny and Elliot showed up at around six that evening. She was carrying a small, round, light blue overnight case. He had on a faded camouflage shirt and was carrying a couple half-gallon bottles of Gallo Pink Chablis. I had just gotten home from work. I was in the kitchen. Melanie was cooking enchiladas and telling me what she and Dick Joseph had talked about when he had stopped by that morning. I still had my tie on. I was tired. Wendy was coloring in a coloring book on the cool tiles in front of the fireplace. The sun was shining through the kitchen windows. We hadn’t been expecting Ginny and Elliot. They just showed up.

We drank wine and ate enchiladas. The sun went down. Wendy went to bed. The four of us went into the living room and drank more wine. Melanie took a few of the Nembutals Dick Joseph had given her. I opened a bag of tortilla chips, brought them out to the living room in the big popcorn-popping pan we used to use, and put them on the floor in front of Melanie’s chair. Ginny and Elliot and I all sat on the floor in front of the popcorn pan.

Melanie wasn’t very sociable. Ginny kept trying to get her to talk, to open up, to say what was on her mind — to yell or kick and scream and throw things if that was what she felt like doing — but Melanie didn’t feel like doing any of those things. She didn’t feel like talking. Ginny made a halfhearted attempt to get the ball rolling.

“You can’t just sit there,” she said. “I mean, you can if you want, I guess, but if you don’t want us here, you should just say so. Talk about passive-aggressive. Gadfrees! What if I threw stuff at you?”

Melanie cocked her head slowly and looked directly into Ginny’s eyes.

Ginny picked up a handful of tortilla chips and tossed them in a slow arc toward Melanie. A few stuck in her hair. Melanie looked at me. Ginny looked at me. I didn’t say anything. Elliot and I looked at each other. Nobody said anything to anyone.

“This is absurd. What if I threw the whole pan?” Ginny laughed, picked up the popcorn pan and tossed what was left of the tortilla chips across the room. Melanie looked like a little maple tree with dried up tortilla chips hanging from her like autumn leaves, and still she didn’t say anything.

Then Ginny stood up, took the empty popcorn pan over to Melanie’s chair and started bonging it onto her head — Bong! Bong! Bong! I watched. I thought Melanie was going to say something, but she didn’t. She just sat there. It hurt, sure, you could see that, but she was brave, she was stoical, she had too much pride to show that it hurt. Elliot got up and took the popcorn pan away from Virginia. He held up one finger. “No hitting.”

“Oh, dear.” Ginny covered her mouth and peeked impishly out from under her bangs. “I’m sorry.”

Around midnight, Elliot went over to Melanie and sat on the arm of her chair. He pushed her hair away from her face and tried to kiss her, but she had taken so much Nembutal by then that she was pretty close to catatonic — she didn’t resist, exactly; she just wasn’t all that enthusiastic. He didn’t push it. He got up and went out the back door — to sleep in the hammock, I presumed. It was a warm night.

Not long after Elliot left, Melanie passed out in her chair. I took the last couple of Nembutals she still had clenched in her fist, put them into my pants’ pocket, carried her into our bedroom, put her into bed and covered her up with her clothes still on.

That left Ginny and me alone in the living room. She was drunk. Blacked out. Her eyes had clicked off the way they did. The light in them was gone. I had a hard time even recognizing her for a while. Putting things out of your mind changes them. She was different from how I remembered her. I had her all tucked away in pat memories of how we used to be together, and now here she was, right in front of me, out like a light, and I wasn’t sure who she even was anymore.

There were scars that hadn’t been there before, scars on her face, on her hands. She was older. There were lines around her mouth and at the corners of her eyes. The whole time we were together came cascading back — how we met, how she’d been so unattainable, so young, so sought after, how she had taught me everything I knew, everything I know, how she laughed, the way her mouth used to get — and for a second I just wanted to forget about Melanie and Wendy and Elliot and my job and my house and Susie and her puppies and everything I had or wanted to have and run away together, just the two of us, Ginny and me, just run and run.

“I’m going to put on my jammies,” she said.

She took her overnight case into the bathroom. When she came back she was wearing a light blue flannel nightgown with a picture of Raggedy Ann on the front of it. She sat on the floor with her knees apart and her feet under the backs of her thighs. She was wearing her usual white cotton panties. Her hair hid her face. She peeked out from under her bangs. We talked and touched each other’s hands. She shook her hair away from her face. She was deranged. She had no conscience or guilt or guile. We talked in whispers and laughed because we were shy — we’d known each other so well for so long it was funny that we could still be shy.

It wasn’t until practically dawn that we finally got up off the floor and went over to the couch. I still had my tie on from work. It was loose and my shirt was unbuttoned, but that was the first time I had noticed that I still had my tie on. I left it on. I just took off my pants. I pushed her nightgown up above her tiny tits and pulled her white cotton panties off one leg and left them on the other leg and fucked her.

By then it was mainly just something we had to do — for my sake and her sake and Elliot’s sake and Melanie’s sake — so we could just say, okay, we did it, and let whatever was going to happen go ahead and happen. It was more or less philosophical, I guess. We wanted it to play itself out — so we fucked each other on the couch and got it the hell over with.

— — —

When we were through, Ginny and I went into Melanie’s bedroom, our bedroom, Melanie’s and mine. Ginny was still unsteadily sipping at a glass of wine. The sun was barely up. Elliot was in the back yard. I saw one of the arms of his camouflage shirt hanging over the side of the hammock. Steam came up from the grass. Robins were hopping around. Melanie was sound asleep. The pillow had made wrinkles in her cheek. Some of her hair was in her mouth. There were still a few stray tortilla chips here and there. I sat on the edge of the bed.

“Are you awake?”

Melanie made some lip smacking noises and swallowed. I shook her shoulder. She opened one eye and smiled and said, “I’m not sure. Am I?”

“We need to talk.”

“What time is it?”

“Early.”

She closed her eye again and pulled on my arm like she was trying to get me back into bed with her, like she didn’t know I hadn’t been sleeping next to her all night, like it was just another innocent morning.

“I have to tell you something,” I said.

“Tell me later.”

“Ginny and I had sex on the couch last night.”

Melanie opened both eyes and blinked.

Ginny made her way over to the other side of the bed. She was still in her Raggedy Ann nightgown. She reached her tiny, tentative hand out to touch Melanie’s hair, to comfort her — and Melanie, sweet, meek Melanie, mild as a mouse, sat bolt upright, reared back and slugged Ginny square in the mouth with her fist.

Whack!

It was a solid shot — straight to the jaw. Ginny reeled backwards and somewhat sideways. Her elbow smashed through the window against the far wall, the window that faced the house next door, the house with the Kerry Blue and the bomb shelter in the basement.

“Hey!” Ginny frowned and looked down at the cut on her elbow. “Ow!” She looked plaintively over at me, held up her arm and said, “That hurt.”

Then Melanie threw things. Ginny ducked. Melanie’s aim was accurate, but Ginny had amazingly quick reflexes for someone as drunk as she was. A hardbound copy of Magic Mountain, a pair of pinking shears and a frilly table lamp all went flying straight at Ginny’s head.

Elliot was standing in the doorway by then. Melanie came tearing out of bed, still in the clothes she’d had on the night before, and made a beeline toward Ginny with a wild look in her eyes, like she was going to scratch Ginny’s face off, like she was going to wring her neck or grab her by the hair and bash her face into a wall again and again until Ginny was dead.

Ginny squeezed past Elliot, went into the bathroom and locked the door. Elliot and I didn’t let Melanie get past us. Then Wendy was standing behind Elliot, rubbing her eyes. When she saw Wendy, Melanie calmed down some. I got Wendy ready for school — had her brush her teeth and get dressed while I made her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and found her a package of Ho-Ho’s.

After Wendy was gone, the cops showed up. The next door neighbors must have called them. We were all out in the living room again. Melanie was in the same chair she’d been in the night before. She refused to look at the couch. Ginny and Elliot were sitting on the floor. I was standing next to Melanie’s chair. Ginny had changed out of her nightgown. Melanie was trying to light the filter end of one of her True Blues when I saw at least six uniformed police officers on the porch, peering in through the windows.

I opened the door. I didn’t exactly invite them in, but I did open the door. Cops came rushing in, tripping over themselves, fanning out into all the other rooms in the house, looking everywhere. When they found the stems and seeds Dick Joseph had left in the trash bag under the kitchen sink, the cops were stoked. The one who found the dope held up the trash bag like it was Medusa’s freshly chopped off head and said, “Well, well, well, lookie what we got here.”

Melanie and I were under arrest. Since they didn’t live there, Ginny and Elliot were free to leave. Melanie and I were taken to jail in separate squad cars. They never would have found the Nembutal in my pocket if I had managed to stick them down the crack in the back seat of the cop car like I was trying to do, but I had these handcuffs on, see. I felt like Houdini — all twisted up like a contortionist, trying to push the squirmy little yellow bastards out of my pocket so I could slip them down the crack in the car seat, with my hands handcuffed behind my back.

One of the cops looked over his shoulder at me.

“What do you got there?” He frowned.

“Just a little Nembutal,” I said.