You spend so much time thinking that you don’t see what’s in front of you.
“What was that?”
Knock knock knock.
“What was that?”
“Someone’s at the door.”
“Don’t answer it.”
Knock knock knock knock.
It was midnight, Saturday night. Vin, Meadow, Angelo, and I were sitting in the dark, tripping our balls off.
Four hours earlier, Angelo and I had arrived at Vin and Meadow’s apartment, a renovated two-room, two-story loft on the old, narrow part of East Carson Street. On Vin’s kitchen counter, Angelo unwrapped a small folded square of aluminum foil and revealed four rectangles of white paper smaller than the nail on my little finger. Meadow’s dog — a short-haired mutt of mixed hunting and fighting persuasion — sniffed around the edges of the counter, curious about what we were eating. The heat kicked on and a gust from the overhead vent blew the foil, the paper tabs and all, off the counter and onto the floor. The dog lunged after them.
“Kermit! No!” Meadow caught the dog by the collar. Vin scooped the foil and the tabs off the floor.
“Hah!” said Vin. “That was almost four unhappy people and one fucked-up dog.”
“Shit. He could have inhaled them,” I said. All four tabs together were the size of half a postage stamp.
“Where’d you say your friend got this again?” Vin asked, holding up an unmarked white paper rectangle on the tip of his finger and squinting.
Vin had done more acid than all the rest of us combined. A lot more. I’d only tripped twice before, both times with him. Neither Angelo nor Meadow had ever tripped.
“He wouldn’t say,” I replied. “Whenever I try to ask him about it he just clams up.”
“We think he made it himself,” said Angelo.
“Huh,” said Vin, looking skeptical.
I suspected that this stuff was something special. Our source was a friend we trusted, a PhD student in chemistry at Pitt. When we’d approached him, he only asked how many people there would be, not how many doses we needed, acting more like a sommelier than a dealer. I’d suggested that although there were four of us, Vin might want two tabs. He ignored me and delivered exactly four tabs on the morning of the day I’d specified.
“You guys ready?” Vin asked.
“Let’s get the show started,” I said.
Vin stuck the tab on his tongue.
The rest of us took one and did the same.
Forty-five minutes later, I felt the electric tingles — my psyche getting pressed into its seat on the runway as the pilot hit the gas. I’d brought a guitar, with a vague thought of writing. I drifted around the fretboard for a while, not really trying to do anything, just feeling my way, improvising chord progressions, falling back now-and-then on a droning modal riff in an odd time signature that I used sometimes for a kind of musical meditation. The guitar was bright, sparkly. After some time, I landed on this arpeggiated mournful thing in A-minor that resolved defiantly to a hard-struck G-major chord at the end.
“Dude! What the fuck is that?” Angelo shouted, coming over from the kitchen. “Do it again!”
I played it over.
“Is that new?”
“Just now,” I said.
“Keep playing it.”
Sometimes you know you’ve got something good. There’s that feeling, that satisfaction. I played it again. Again. Again. Again. Soon, my fingers felt weird. Each time I’d fret a string, it would press right through my finger and stretch over the top of it, over the nail. I looked at my hands. Everything looked normal.
“Why’d you stop?” Angelo asked.
“I can’t explain it.”
I started playing again. The strings kept going through my fingers. I looked around the room. It was just Vin’s apartment. I played through it again, then stopped.
Angelo was sitting on the sofa, eyes closed. He had flattened out the small square of aluminium foil that had held the tabs. He grasped it between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, and ran his fingertips over it slowly.
“I have to stop,” I said. “The strings keep going through my fingers.”
“Put on a CD,” Angelo said, unconcerned with the state of my fingers.
I opened the glass-front cabinet that held Vin’s stereo, got the power on, opened the CD drawer, and dropped in a disc from the stack that Angelo had brought. He’d found a list on rec.music.gdead of albums that were supposed to be good to trip to. The CD drawer closed. The lights were on, and I was hitting the buttons. No sound came out.
“The fuck you doing over there?” asked Angelo.
“I dunno. The input is on ‘CD’ but I get no sound.”
I kept hitting buttons and turning knobs. Nothing.
Vin reached over my shoulder. He did something and the music started.
“Press play. Turn up the volume,” he said.
An hour later, I stood in the kitchen, my eye pressed against the clock display of the microwave. Behind the array of blue LEDs, the tiny screen opened onto a black void that extended on and on and on, infinite and empty, my personal window on the heat death of the universe. Behind me, R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction wrapped around the apartment, layers upon layers of leafy texture like kudzu overtaking a forest. We’d moved through the stack of CDs. Rush’s A Farewell to Kings had seemed like a good idea but came on feeling thin and mechanical. It was vetoed by consensus. Fables, by contrast, was a message in invisible ink, seen at last under the right conditions to deliver a trove of hidden meaning, transmitted directly into our minds. A communion.
“…and like Kohoutek, you were gone….”
“They know!” I said, still peering with one eye into the void. “They know. When they wrote this, they knew.”
“Yeah, they definitely know,” someone replied.
Vin sat on a kitchen chair, feet flat on the floor, hands on his thighs, staring straight ahead. He looked at me like he’d just understood something for the first time.
“What?” I asked.
“This acid is rockin’ right on,” he said.
His trip was not mine, and mine wasn’t his, and I would never know what he was seeing. But I accepted this as just another layer of the new truth that now surrounded us.
“Hey! Come up here! Come up here! You have to see this!” Meadow called from above me. She had disappeared upstairs into the bedroom an immeasurable time ago. Angelo was in the kitchen, still holding the aluminum foil in the fingers of both hands. Vin was lying on the floor with his ear against the body of the guitar, plucking one string over and over, so quietly that I couldn’t hear it.
“Come up here!” Meadow shouted, her voice joy. “You gotta see this.”
I went up.
She was sitting on the floor of the bedroom in front of a small black dresser in the corner. She turned to me, smiling like a child, her hair falling in a black mass across half her face. Standing over her, I could see, through the open neck of her shirt, part of the angel-wing tattoo on the top of her right breast. On another night, I might have felt a pang of lust, but things like that were all so irrelevant now.
“Look,” she said. “You see how they move?”
I sat next to her. The dresser was glossy black, decorated in an East Asian motif. The drawer pulls were shaped like women in colorful silk robes, with ivory faces and black hair up in tall buns. On alternating drawers, the pulls were offset to form a diagonal pattern.
I looked at them expecting nothing. So far, I had seen no visuals.
“Just stare at the women.”
I stared. They moved. Each woman traced out a circle three or four inches in diameter. Alternating women moved in opposite directions, clockwise, counter-clockwise, all of them choreographed into a single dance.
I looked away, then looked back. They were still moving. It wasn’t like those optical illusions where you think you see motion in the corner of your eye but it stops when you try to focus on it. They were moving even when I looked straight at them. I reached out and grabbed one with my hand. It stopped moving while I held it, but the others kept on in their dance. When I let go, the one I’d been holding rejoined the others.
“Whoa,” I said.
“But…” A thought was dawning on me. “But this means it’s all a lie.”
“How do you mean?”
“All a hallucination.”
“That’s kinda the point, isn’t it?” She laughed.
“No, I mean, all of it. If I can sit here and see this thing moving, and know it’s not moving, then none of it is real. The ladies aren’t moving. The guitar strings didn’t go through my fingers. The music isn’t any more profound than usual. There is no communion. All the spiritual awakenings, the ‘mind expansion’, it’s all just a hallucination. Nobody’s mind has ever been expanded. They just hallucinated that it was expanded.”
She turned toward me. I looked in her dark eyes and then looked away, afraid that in her engorged pupils I’d see the same black emptiness I’d seen inside the microwave.
“Oh Danny,” she said. “You spend so much time thinking. Sometimes you don’t see the things that are right in front of you.”
We watched the dresser for a while longer, then she got up and went downstairs. The ladies danced in slow circles.
Midnight. Back downstairs. Someone had turned off the lights. R.E.M. had given way to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The opening chords of “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” unfolded in the room like one of those origami fortune tellers that the girls in the neighborhood made when we were kids. They’d write messages and draw colors on the inner surfaces and then stick their fingers up inside and flip them back and forth to expose different inner faces. But now, instead of just sixteen faces inside, the song kept unfolding and unfolding, a kaleidoscope, made not of paper or even of sound or light or color, but of some raw aesthetic medium, outside the senses. Nobody talked. Anthony Kiedis’s gravelly baritone chanted the rhythm of a slow-but-unstoppable thing that drives all else before it. The screech of feedback that comes behind the vocals in the second verse, cutting off, then returning, was the inspired flourish of a virtuoso directly channeling the emotions of god.
I went to the window, pulled back the curtains, and looked down at Carson Street. In the sodium-vapor orange of the streetlights, weekend revelers walked along toward Nick’s and Mario’s and Blue Lou’s. Cars passed in the slow jam of Saturday night. Inside, we were inspired, divine. Out there, they were ignorant, infidels. Inside the bubble of the apartment was warmth and texture and truth. Outside, all was cold and flat and false.
The knock came like a someone brushing against the table where we’d spent all night constructing a tower of cards.
Knock knock knock.
“What was that?”
“Someone’s at the door.”
“Don’t answer it.”
Knock knock knock knock.
“Meadow?” The voice came from outside. “Vin?”
“That’s Scotty,” Meadow said.
Scotty was a friend of Meadow’s from high school, a hanger-on, an afterthought in the crowd of twenty-somethings that had been drawn into the vacuum of vacant apartments and empty steelworker bars on the South Side in the years since the J&L Works shut down.
“Don’t answer,” I said. “He’ll go away.”
Knock knock knock.
“Go see what he wants,” Meadow said.
Vin got up and opened the door, admitting a stark shaft of yellow light along the wall. It left the room dark where we sat but felt like the bare bulb of an inquisitor.
Scotty stepped in, sandy hair and a nervous smile beneath a curve-brimmed ballcap. “Hey, a bunch of folks are heading up to Jack’s-18th-Street. You guys want to come?”
“Yeah, uh, no,” said Vin. “I don’t think so.” Then after a pause, “Do you guys want to go?”
“No,” I said.
Scotty peered into the darkness, trying to see who else was there.
“What’re you guys doing?” he asked.
There was a long silence. It occurred to me how softly the music was playing. Only a minute before it had seemed to fill my entire consciousness.
“Nothing,” said Vin.
Another long silence.
“Well, uh, can I hang with you guys?”
“Uh, what’s wrong with you guys?” Scotty asked around a nervous chuckle.
Vin stuck his tongue out and touched his index finger to the middle of it.
Scotty just looked more confused.
“Tripping,” said Vin. “On acid. Hard.”
“Oh. Well, can I hang and party with you?”
“Look,” said Vin. “We took it like four hours ago and we’re peaking right now. You really don’t want to hang around and be the one guy not tripping. We wouldn’t be much fun.”
Scotty stood, shifting his weight from one foot to the other for a minute as we stared at him from the darkness. “Oh. Okay,” he said at last. “ Well. I’ll call you tomorrow then.”
“Yeah, you do that.”
“Bye Scotty,” said Meadow. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
The door shut and the room returned to darkness. The tower of cards lay heaped on the floor.
“That sucked,” I said.
“Stop it,” said Meadow.
Angelo reached over and turned on the lamp next to the sofa.
“I’m hungry,” said Vin. “Anyone want pizza?”
“Me! Me!” said Meadow.
“I don’t think I could eat,” I said. The thought was horrifying.
“I could,” said Angelo.
Vin picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hi, yeah, I want to order a pie for delivery…. Vin… extra large with pepperoni and mushrooms…” He gave the address and phone number and hung up. “He said it’ll be an hour.”
“That’s an eternity,” I said.
Vin picked up the phone and hit redial.
“Yeah, I just called… like ten seconds ago… Vin? … Yeah, that’s the one. Cancel the delivery, we’ll come pick it up. … Thanks, boss.”
He hung up.
“Fifteen minutes. You want to come get it with me, Danno? It’s right down the street.”
The fall breeze hit me on the sidewalk and I shivered. The door to the building was halfway back on 14th Street. When we got up to the corner at Carson I froze. The party crowd flowed by and I watched them all walking, acting like everything was normal, ignoring me as if I was normal. Nothing was normal. That we could just walk out here among the normal people, functioning in the world, felt like a betrayal of everything we’d just been through. It was wrong.
Vin turned the corner and kept walking, then looked over and saw I wasn’t beside him and turned and came back to me.
“Hey. You okay, boss?”
“I don’t know.” I could feel my eyes wide, my face tightening. “I don’t know.”
“Everything’s fine, brother,” he said, his voice low and soft. “You’re fine. Everything’s the same as any other Saturday night.”
I looked up at him, gravitating to the sound of concern in his voice, and realized, somehow, that it was the same tone that I heard every time he greeted me. Each time he saw me and asked me how I’d been, it wasn’t just a greeting, but a genuine desire to know that I was alright. I looked him in the eyes. It was no wonder he got all the girls, my tall, beautiful friend, with the delicate features and the quick wit, and the hair that had been so blondie-blonde when we were kids, now darkened to a golden brown. If he asked the girls how they were doing with that same tone in his voice, how could they resist him?
I had never had that, that sympathy. In my world, we all had our struggles, and we defined ourselves by how we met them. I wasn’t one to suggest that a friend couldn’t carry his load.
He leaned toward me. For a second, I thought he might kiss me, but he only put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Come on. Let’s get that pie.”
The pizza shop was three blocks away. It smelled of flour and bread baking and it occurred to me that maybe I could eat. The guy slid the box across the counter. “That’s fifteen forty-five,” he said.
“Can you pay the man?” Vin asked, picking up the pizza. “My hands are full.”
I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and handed it over. I was sure that twenty was greater than fifteen.
“You got forty-five cents?” asked the guy at the register. “I’m short on ones.”
I fished in my pocket, pulled out a pile of change, stared into my palm, and time stopped. The array of different sized coins flashed up at me, unidentifiable. I could no more count out forty-five cents from that pile than I could operate an abacus. I stopped trying to count, absorbed in the shiny circles. What I was doing? It didn’t matter. Time had stopped.
Vin set down the pizza, reached into my hand, pulled out some coins and handed them to the man, who shook his head, dropped them in the register drawer and shut it.
Back at the apartment, Vin set the pizza box in the exact spot on the kitchen counter where we’d unwrapped the doses, hours earlier. The other three all grabbed slices, so I did too. I bit off the tip and chewed. It was as if my mouth had been assembled incorrectly. I struggled to put together the right sequence of actions to operate it, but I managed to chew a wad of bread and cheese enough and swallow it without choking. It slid down my esophagus like a rat down a garden hose. I set the slice back in the pizza box and walked away.
“I don’t know how you guys can eat,” I said.
“It’s delicious!” said Meadow, starting a second slice.
“You’re making too big a deal out of this,” said Vin to me.
After Meadow’s third slice, she put her hand on her belly. “Maybe that was a bad idea.”
We all sat down again in the living room and looked at each other. The bubble had been punctured.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Meadow suggested.
Run. Don’t ask why, or to where. Just run.
The peak of the trip was past. The bright, intricate and multi-layered structures of truth that had been built up inside the apartment had collapsed and what was left behind was a new and different species of buzz, as if the torrential imperatives of youth, all the questions and desires that spurred us on into the cynical 90’s had been distilled into liquid and were falling from the sky. We ran to feel it splash harder against our faces. In the dark streets between Carson and the river, red brick row-houses flashed past, old steelworker houses, no yards or porches or stoops, their front doors opening straight onto the sidewalk. Vin ran ahead, then me, then Meadow. Angelo brought up the rear.
“Wait!” Meadow called, as we passed an empty lot, partitioned from the sidewalk by a low chain-link fence. “Wait!” There was desperation in her voice.
I stopped and turned. Angelo ran past us.
Meadow stood, panting, then bent at the waist over the top of the fence and vomited. One, two, three heaves, then she stayed bent a while longer, breathing hard and spitting.
“Whoa,” she whispered. “That was weird.”
She straightened, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, and said, “It’s okay. I’m okay now.”
I remembered her as I had first met her, two years before, when she had followed Vin off the dance floor at The Upstage one Monday night — short skirt, fishnets, red Doc Martens, her hair a tangled black mess bobbed off below her ears, her black mesh top transparent everywhere except two patches of fabric over her breasts. Badass. Quarter drafts and industrial dance music brought out the best kind of girls. Now her hair was longer, the boots were the same, and in between, she was dressed like a greaser boy from the 1950’s: loose blue jeans rolled in a four-inch cuff at the bottom, a white v-neck t-shirt, and a black leather jacket with shiny zippers.
“I’m okay now,” she said again.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Fuckin-A.” She smiled.
I looked over my shoulder. Vin and Angelo were three quarters of a block away and still running.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said. I grabbed her hand, and we ran. For an eternal microsecond, we were pure: no motives, no thoughts of past or future. Ahead, Vin reached the corner and looked back over his shoulder. He stopped and turned to face us, a long silhouette against the streetlights in the distance. He saw us. I didn’t care. I held on to her hand.
Then, in the span of a running footfall, it was finals week of freshman year, April, 1987. I was leaning against a wall, making out with Renee Richards in the narrow space between the houses outside her apartment on Semple Street. Renee had invited Vin to the party, and Vin had brought me. He had spent the car ride over telling me how much he liked her, and how psyched he was to get this chance. Now he was on the back porch, calling my name, asking if anyone knew where I was, and peering around the corner into the dark space between the houses. I had failed in my duties as his wingman. Renee’s short, gymnastic body — so like Meadow’s — pressed against me. Her hands locked behind my neck. Her breasts, pushed up a little too much in a bra a little too tight, pressed against my ribs. She kissed me again, then pulled away and grinned at me like a villain. Her hair was teased up and sprayed into that late-eighties half-dome structure that girls liked. Behind her eyelashes — bulbous with mascara like the stamens of some exotic flower — her blue eyes looked back at me, bold and full of mischief, a magic mirror that showed me the person I wished I was. In the car driving home that night, I explained myself in the logic of men: when you’re eighteen years old and drunk and a pretty girl drags you by the hand into the bushes to make out, you shoot first and ask questions later. Vin wasn’t angry. Just sad. We both agreed that our friendship was too important to let any girl come between us. Neither of us went out with Renee again — unless you count that time the next year when she gave me a hand job on her sofa after a party. But we weren’t really going out then, and after that, I never saw her again.
Another footfall and I was back in 1993, tripping on acid, running through the South Side hand-in-hand with Vin’s girl. Vin stood at the corner, watching us, his hands motionless at his sides, a somber shadow. Before we reached him, he turned and ran again, following Angelo, down 18th Street toward the river.
By the time we crossed the train track and turned into Riverfront Park, Meadow and I had let go our hands and the group was four separate people again. We were all gassed, walking, our hearts pounding. The waning acid mixed with fresh endorphins to produce a calm that matched the slow roll of the Monongahela in the night. No one talked. We walked along the road, down the length of the park, past the boat ramp, under the high deck of the Birmingham Bridge, to the turnaround circle. The sky was thick and low, glowing with the reflected amber light of forty thousand streetlights. The trees on either side, still holding their half-turned leaves, threw down a deeper night on either side of us. Somewhere atop the dark mass of the hills across the river was Vin’s and my old apartment, with the fire escape up the back and the crazy view from the top. I wondered if someone was up there now, looking across toward us.
We circled the turnaround and started back, walking downriver. In the distance stood the lit-up catenary of the 10th Street Bridge, and behind it, the towers of downtown. Vin, still walking a bit ahead, turned at the semi-circular driveway for the boat launch, then walked out onto the dock, where he stood like a sentinel watching the dark, flat water. Angelo wandered into the shadows under the trees. Meadow and I kept walking along the road.
“So you and Vin are moving to San Francisco,” I said, stating aloud the thing that had lain silent between us all that night. It was the reason we were taking this trip now, and not some other time. “Are you excited?”
“I’m not going,” she said, “just Vin.”
“Oh,” I replied. I was, at that moment, incapable of surprise.
“Man, this acid was really clean,” Vin said.
It was after four and we were back in the apartment, in the living room, in the dark, coming down. Vin sprawled in the big recliner. Meadow and I lay at opposite ends of the long sofa under the windows. Angelo took the loveseat, lying on his back, legs thrown over one end, eyes closed, holding the little square of aluminum foil between the thumb and forefinger of each hand and rubbing it gently.
“No shit,” I said. I felt like I was wrapped in a sleeping bag made of warm, soft static. “I feel fine. No kind of hangover at all. That shit you got at Richfield a couple years ago, I spent the second half of the trip with a kraken wrapped around my neck, jamming its beak up into the base of my skull.”
“Krakens have beaks?” Meadow asked.
“I have a bit of a headache, actually,” Angelo said. Nothing’s perfect, I guess.
“Dude, you still got that piece of foil?” I asked. “What’s that about?”
“It’s the map,” he said as if that was an answer.
“The Map of the Trip. We’ve been following it all night.”
I let the warm static envelop me like hearing the ocean through my skin.
After a while, Vin leaned forward.
“I’m out of smokes,” he said. “I’m gonna run down to the Stop-N-Go, anyone want to come with me?”
“I don’t want to move,” I said.
“Baby, just wait until morning,” said Meadow.
Angelo was asleep, one arm hanging down toward the floor. Below his hand, I could make out the dim reflection of the Map of the Trip where it had fallen.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” said Vin.
He put on his jacket and I closed my eyes against the blast of light as he opened and closed the front door. I slid up into a sitting position and turned to the window. Leaning my head against the glass, I saw Vin come around the corner below, collar up, hands in pockets, and stride off down the sidewalk. I took off my glasses, set them on the windowsill, and settled back down into my cocoon. Meadow’s face was a pale smudge in the darkness across from me.
“So,” I said. “San Francisco. That was news to me. I mean, Vin never said you were going, but he never said you weren’t either. I just assumed.”
“I’m not surprised he didn’t say more to you.”
I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean. “You don’t want to go?” I asked.
“Vin—” she said, then paused so long I thought she’d fallen asleep. At last, she continued, “Vincent is working through some things, and they’re not things that I can help him with. But no, I don’t want to live in San Francisco.”
“Well,” I said after a minute. “If you ever want to talk… or whatever… you know how to find me.”
“I don’t think that’d be a good idea,” she said, her voice sleepy. “I’m going to bed, so you can stretch out down here.” She kicked her blanket over onto my legs, then took another blanket and laid it over Angelo. Then she was gone upstairs.
I slid up again and looked out the window. The street was empty.
More fiction from JP Fosterson
Jackson had arrived at the time in a boy’s life when the eating begins. The real eating.
Copyright © 2019, JP Fosterson. All rights reserved.