IN THE FOREST,
IN THE CATHEDRAL,
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
• • •
I went down to the Fred Meyer on Hawthorne and bought a bunch of apples and a five-pound bag of rice. Lord knows how long I deliriously wandered those aisles in that huge fluorescent warehouse. I had only been awake for fifteen minutes or so . . . I was slanted as hell, feverish, and on a lot of cough syrup. It was the end of the night and the only people in there were sad people. They were hungry and alone, and I was one of them.
When I returned to the parking lot I sat for a long time in the car that I’m borrowing. I watched the lights flicker on the Bagdad Theater. I heard nothing. I put on some music. I went back to nothing.
It may have been a half hour or more before I decided to get moving . . . It’s hard to say for sure on account of the ocean of dextromethorphan flowing through my veins. At any rate I was probably just beyond the limit of safely operating a motor vehicle but I ripped out of the parking lot anyway. Back on the streets, all empty, I neglected to go right in the direction of home, and instead kept going straight. I drove for a mile or so to Reed College, where I knew I could do a lot of walking in the dark, and where no one would stop me from doing so.
Parked on the street and headed into the campus, mostly deserted. As I neared the dorms I heard a sort of pulsing. In my state I knew it was something resembling music. I drew closer and saw red and blue lights pouring out of a cathedral-like building, and a white hearse parked out front. I approached the building and went inside. There on a low stage were three dudes getting heavy with their heavy stuff. It was some sort of doom-y operatic sci-fi sludge . . . and it wasn’t necessarily good, but I dug it anyway, mostly because of the cough syrup, and also because they were performing for all of three people. You’ve got to respect something like that. I stayed there for a while, standing in the back in the shadows, and watched this strange scene, thinking it was pure and beautiful.
My throat was shredded on account of my head cold so I went searching for a water fountain. Outside I found a large courtyard populated by maybe thirty people. In the grass was a bounce house. Mysteriously there was a big inflatable happy face with arms and legs affixed to the side. The happy face was bouncing up and down because people were bouncing up and down inside his bounce house. I made a mental note that I would return to the bounce house later, after I had been properly hydrated. It seemed like a good place to make friends, or at the very least do a little bouncing around.
There were a lot of people standing around and smoking. Some of them were swigging beers. Their faces were soft and round. As I passed through them I heard little scraps of their conversations. I could tell their lives were mostly unburdened from any real responsibility. I figured maybe it was some sort of end of the year party for the freshmen, which would make me nearly ten years older than them. God dang it, I thought, that’s a riot. That’s really something else.
In a dark field beyond a dorm shaped like a castle, I saw little clusters of adult-aged children chain smoking and talking in quiet voices. I approached a ring of five and bummed a smoke. I don’t even smoke cigarettes, and I still had not done anything about my throat, but I took the thing anyway. In my experience an itinerant loner is just slightly less creepy if he’s smoking a cigarette. He may not be doing much, but at least he’s doing something.
I phoned my roommate Matt. I cued him in on my discovery, told him he would dig it. I was in bad shape, I said, but I was determined to have fun with it anyway, and wouldn’t he like to do the same. He said he’d be right over, and that he would bring a bottle of red wine with him.
I cut through the cathedral to get to the side with the white hearse. There were still just a handful of people in there dancing around in their own little worlds. I really did respect that. I kept on going. I kicked the side door open and stepped outside into that dark, dark night. There was a little red chair near the entrance and I had me a good old fashioned sit down . . . I took a pack of matches out of my breast pocket and lit it up the cigarette I had stowed atop my left ear. I read the lettering on the side. It was a Camel Turkish Gold. It tasted like cardboard and sawdust. I would burn through it in less than five minutes. With the cheap stuff you always do.
A girl came out of the cathedral looking spooked as hell. She was breathing heavily. She said the air was suffocating to her and that she needed some of the fresh stuff before she plunged back into it. I reminded her she was standing next to a trash can. She said, “Well, you know what I mean!” We talked about the white hearse for a long time. It was five feet away from my chair. I told her a hearse was a sensible vehicle for any fine American to drive, since you never really know when someone’s going to drop dead. She said, “You could drive around with your own coffin in there. Y’know, just in case.” I thought that was great. She asked for a drag of my cigarette, inhaled deeply, and took off somewhere.
Matt arrived with wine. It was wrapped in a paper bag. We passed it back and forth, as you do, and made our way to the bounce house. The two of us kicked off our shoes and slid beneath the big smiley face’s legs and through the low opening. Inside there were eight or nine fresh-faced freshmen sucking on whipped cream dispensers and making out. They were killing their brain cells with nitrous oxide. It looked like a screaming good time, if you were into that sort of thing.
One of them, a girl in a black pineapple-print button-down shirt, got real close and asked us who we were. We said something, I can’t remember what, but it was good enough for her. She asked if we did whip-its and we said we had no interest in them, since there were more interesting ways to get loaded. She bounced away.
There was a ramp on the far side of the bounce house with a sort of ladder attached. I climbed it to see what there was to see. It lead to an opening, which lead to a slide, which emptied you back out onto the lawn. In the center of this opening was an inflatable uvula. An overweight kid was clinging to it for dear life. He was sucking on a whipped cream dispenser.
“You want some of this, man?”
“I’m good. I like dumb stuff like that, just not that dumb stuff specifically.”
“I hear ya. This shit is so dumb.”
“Some other time, maybe.”
He pointed to his friends, still writhing on the floor of the bounce house, their brains temporarily obliterated and their bodies temporarily useless. They were all sucking that stuff down, and immediately making out with the person nearest to them. I have no knowledge of this sort of thing, but I reckoned that maybe you could “share” the high through a kiss . . . or maybe it just felt nice to be brainless like that with someone else. God only knows. I saluted the dude sitting next to me and threw myself down the slide. My body felt terrible but I was having me a good old time anyway.
Matt followed me down the slide. I told him about the dark field beyond the castle dorm and we got to walking. The little clusters were still clustering so we ran through them. Near a rain-soaked couch in the middle of the field we found an inflatable raft. There was a soft slope near the baseball diamond so we took turns surfing down it on the raft.
Hearing our glee, a girl with a shaved head approached me in the dark and asked if she could give it a shot. I told her she would be crazy not to and she handed me her phone and her keys and made several attempts at it, laughing like a psycho the whole time. Eventually she got good at it. She thanked us and I returned her things and she skipped away.
The field began to clear out, and soon we were alone. We sang a few Elvis tunes as loud as possible, probably waking up the castle dorm people. Having exhausted our lungs we returned to the other side where the bounce house resided. The courtyard too was deserted. Mr. Happy was all that remained . . . and of course we went right up to him and started punching the son of a bitch in the face. Matt grabbed his inflatable leg and tugged at it hard while I whaled on him big time. The novelty wore off right quick and we decided to call it a night.
On our way out we passed through the campus radio station. It was a small room lit by dark blue lights. There was godawful music blaring inside and no one was around. We sat down. We sat there for some time. Eventually the DJ returned. I was sitting in his chair. He passive aggressively asked me to move. I moved to another chair. A girl who had been dancing in the cathedral came in and flopped down on the couch. She was far gone on something. Her eyes were like plastic and she was spaced the hell out. I looked at her and she gazed darkly into my eyes. No one said anything. The room was loud with hip hop and Mario sound effects. Matt left the room. I stayed in the room. The girl and I stared at each other for a long time. Neither of us blinked. She nodded along to the music and made waves with her hands. I was still floating on a fever dream, dead tired, and half mad on orange syrup. We kept staring at each other. It was late. It was nearly three in the morning. I decided I wanted to be alone. I slapped my hands on my thighs and stood up. The girl’s eyes followed mine as they went higher into the air. I broke away. I kicked the door open and disappeared.