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The Giveaway: Some Spring Valley Hippies Hit the Jackpot

Our strange East County friends

The skeptics among us allowed the group to hold a meeting at our place. The group was a peculiar assortment of scraggly youths, 30ish clerks and salesmen, bookworms of all ages, and pudgy matrons.  - Image by J.D. Crowe
The skeptics among us allowed the group to hold a meeting at our place. The group was a peculiar assortment of scraggly youths, 30ish clerks and salesmen, bookworms of all ages, and pudgy matrons.

A bushy-haired kid was hitchhiking on Sweetwater Road. I picked him up at the crest of the hill, just past the light at Kenwood. He mumbled something, hung his head crookedly so he could watch me from the corner of his eye. On his lap in both hands, he held The Living Bible.

"Well, then, I guess we're goners." Tony sat ponderously fanning the Bible's pages until his thumb appeared to snag on the book of John.

I wouldn't have picked him up if I'd known he was a Christian. In those years following my conversion at a Billy Graham crusade, everywhere I looked stood an evangelist I didn't want to talk to. If I told them I believed, they'd ask where I worshipped. When I confessed that I didn't, they'd want to know why and would pester me until I gained still another parcel of guilt. If I denied any faith, they'd sermonize endlessly. You meet up with a Christian, I thought, it's one of those lose-lose deals.

We'd developed a rule that while using the bathroom to shave or shower, we'd leave the door unlocked so others could come and go.

"Where you going?" I asked the kid.

He directed me to a modest tract house on Harness Street, on my way home. I pulled to the curb, thinking I'd escaped, that he either was a Jesus freak of the hermit variety or else at first glance he'd judged me as a lost cause.

He got out of my van, gave me a little bow and asked, in a voice high and tender, "Do you love the Lord?"

"Sure," I mumbled.

He smiled rapturously, thanked God, and closed the door. He' shuffled halfway across the lawn before I called out, "Hey," I pointed to our place. "The lime-colored dump with the second story over the garage. I live there. Drop in if you feel like it."

A lot of years later, hearing a line attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi - "Preach the Good News all the time. If necessary, use words." - I thought first of Tony. IN less than a mil, his presence had softened my heart.

I went home and told my wife about the guy. Laura and I lived on a lower slope of Dictionary Hill in Spring Valley, overlooking Mount Miguel High School. Our place was a half acre on the west side of Helix Street, between a history teacher, his wife and two daughters, and an older couple, uprooted Midwestern farm people. We had fruit trees, a goat, a flock of chickens, a vegetable garden, and plenty of roommates - about ten dogs and cats and a dozen or so people occupying the two-bedroom house, one-bedroom apartment, garage, storage room, a shed, a milk truck beneath one of the pepper trees, and a tent beneath the other. Five of us played together in a band. Guitar, bass, drums, flute, saxophone. The whole band except our drummer.

Dinner was waiting. Chopped zucchini over brown rice, with cheese. Or Swiss chard and sour cream tacos. Or split pea soup. Or chili, the beef replaced by home-cured olives. For the last year, since Ron and Pat had arrived in their milk truck, we'd been vegetarians.

Ron and Pat were tiny. Standing on Ron's shoulders, Pat couldn't have dunked a basketball. They had identical waist-length hair. Ron's black, Pat's blonde.

With a preacher's fervor, Ron had enlightened us about the evils, physical and spiritual, of partaking in flesh and blood. The worst thing, he said, it made us fierce, aggressive. There was no way to peace while we insisted upon gobbling creatures. He persuaded so well that eight of his audience gave up the junk immediately. Steve and I held out a couple weeks, devouring all the bacon, minute steaks, and ground chuck they'd left behind.

We dined like an old-time family except that, for lack of a suitable table, we sat all over the living room. That was how Tony found us, swabbing our plated with wheatberry bread, waiting on that evening's server to bring out the chocolate pudding.

There were always people dropping by. Most visitors hardly got noticed. But Tony's eyes were a little bugged and more fixed than other peoples'. Tall and gangly, he ambled like a cowboy. When he spoke, eve said hi, he leaned slightly toward those he addressed.

"Anybody want to read the Bible?" he asked meekly.

Accompanied by a chorus of murmurs, half of us disappeared. The rest - Laurent, Steve, Ron and Pat, and I - sat on the living room floor around the coffee table made from a slab of tree trunk and the top of a telephone cable spool. Laura delivered the pudding and spoons.

Laurent sat glowering intensely at Tony, though he meant no harm. He studied every newcomer that way, as though trying to decide if they might've arrived on a spaceship. Laurent was only 21, hardly older than Tony. After a couple years in the Merchant Marine, he was trying to deliver his mind back to earth, now that he'd become a father. Every day he and Madeline would go visit their baby in the hospital, where she resided in an incubator - she'd arrived over three months prematurely.

Laurent and Madeline were atypical. While he'd been crossing the China Sea on a ship called the Mystic Mariner, she'd been lured to a commune in Hawaii where the wealthy character who owned the land decreed that nobody could ingest anything except water, brown rice, and LSD. She wandered the beach and jungle, stoned, bewildered.

A couple thousand sea miles southwest, Laurent was struck by the conviction that a spaceship was going to swoop down, hijack him, and speed to another dimension where years would pass during an instant of earth time. There the space folks would teach him the secret of art so that he could return home a genius. Laurent roamed the deck, smoking grass and restlessly waiting for the eerie lights to appear.

On the big island, Madeline grew so delirious and famished she contracted leprosy. The commune owner sent her for a cure. She'd hardly left the place when she met Laurent. They'd hardly spoken when Corina was conceived.

"Where did you come from?" Laurent asked Tony.

Tony said he lived down the hill with a group of kids from his church.

"Okay then, how'd you end up in church?"

Tony furrowed his brow, "Well, last year I was staying in Berkeley, and one night I was up there in the hills and I met Jesus, and then pretty soon I came back home, and my friend Barry was going to this church, and..."

"Hold it. Back up," Laurent demanded. " You met Jesus in the Berkeley hills."

"Yep."

"So, did you shake his hand or give him a hug? I mean, was he really there?"

"Sort of," Tony muttered.

"What's that mean?"

"Well, he was there but he wasn't."

"You'd dropped acid, right?"

"Uh-huh," Tony confessed, bowing his head and opening his Bible.

He read us the 20th chapter of John's gospel. About the empty tomb and Jesus charging Thomas the skeptic. "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have believed," Tony kept losing his place and fumbling with the Bible as if the lines and columns undulated. At the end of the chapter, he closed the Bible on his finger, sighed reverently and asked, "Do you guys believe Christ died and got resurrected?"

All I heard from the sorrowful place into which I'd fallen were murmurs that sounded vaguely affirmative and my own lame assent.

"You should try real hard to make up your mind," Tony suggested. "Because if he did, then he's God, and we better trust him. And do like he said."

Ron finished licking his spoon. "What if he didn't?"

"Well, then, I guess we're goners." Tony sat ponderously fanning the Bible's pages until his thumb appeared to snag on the book of John. He squinted at the text and sighed winsomely. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." For a half hour, Tony fielded our queries about what did that funky word "believe" really mean and what were the conditions of this eternal life. For every question Tony found a scripture. Even when Laurent challenged him to think for himself, he flipped to a passage about the feebleness of our understanding. After he read about our need to get born again, he asked, "Anybody here besides Ken accepted Jesus as their savior?"

Everybody's eyes turned on me, and Steve said, "You got born again?"

"Yep," I muttered.

"When was this?"

"A few years ago."

Steve nodded, got up, and headed for the kitchen with his pudding bowl. Just before he stepped out of sight, he turned and nailed me with a look I translated as, "I might've bought this stuff except it appears that if I get saved, all that might happen is I wind up like you."

The back door shut behind Steve. The others stood and wandered away. I walked Tony outside. He blessed me and started down the hill while I leaned against my van, weak with shame because in all those years I hadn't told Steve about the night I'd turned to Christ.

Steve was like my brother. Since high school we'd played music together. Steve, his brother Bill, and I. Bill was the wizard on lead guitar. I played rhythm, so Steve took bass, and we harmonized on vocals.

Bill and I had been pals since eighth grade, and Steve was a couple years younger. He was earnest, ingenuous. While Bill turned everything short of death into a joke, Steve you could trust with your heartaches and dilemmas. He and I had spent every evening for a couple of months paneling the basement in drywall and egg cartons, running wires to new electrical outlets, making the place suit our band. During that time, smoking and sipping Boone's Farm, we'd gabbed about most everything. Except Jesus.

Finally, after Laura called out several times, I dragged myself inside, brushed my teeth, and met her in our bedroom. She was staring at a Bible. Setting it on the floor, she talked for a minute about how sweet Tony was, then related an argument she'd had with Pam, Bill's wife. They'd disagreed on kitchen matters, how to organize bowls and silverware.

"I'm not bossy, am I?"

"Not very," I said, which seemed the wrong answer, since Laura gave me a scowl, I rolled onto her side, and burrowed her head into the pillow. Most every night Laura called me into the bedroom so we could talk for a minute. When she'd conked out, rather than lie and brood, I'd rise, go out to the living room, and light up. Laura was intolerant of drugs. I could only grab a peaceful smoke if she was gone or unconscious. Then I'd reach for my guitar, chord and strum, working in some new bass run I'd learned, fleeing my laments and frustrations. Escaping tough questions like, "Why is Tony devoted to God and I'm not?"

About nine months after she was conceived, the doctors released Corina from her incubator into the care of Madeline and Laurent, though her heartbeat was weak and irregular. In a year or so, the doctors said, when she grew a little stronger, they'd need to operate.

Madeline was restless and unpredictable. Sometimes she'd disappear. But Laurent hardly left Corina's side except to visit a Jamul farm where he bought the raw goat's milk a homeopath had prescribed for his daughter. Besides those trips, the farthest he'd range from his baby was to the garden, the basement to listen or ask us to turn down, or to the main house living room when Tony dropped by on Sunday afternoons to lead us in Bible study.

He might've arrived earlier or invited us to a morning service, except it would've been no use because of our Saturday rehearsals.

Saturday mornings, our friend Sandy would arrive bearing gifts - a handful of time-release amphetamine diet pills we called blackbirds. Strong medicine. One capsule would drive us to the basement where we'd strum, pound, and shout until Sunday at three or four a.m. Then I couldn't sleep without downing a Seconal. Our ban used a silly name I won't reveal. We should've been called the Blackbirds.

We played some rock, country rock, and folk rock, but mostly blues inspired by Robert Johnson, Paul Butterfield, B.B. King, and James Cotton. On lead guitar, Bill played fast and intricate. The rest of us were less than awesome. Still, we had persevered enough; so that finally securing a drummer not quite as maniacal as his forerunners, we could pick up an occasional job at a party or cut-rate nightclub. Lately, Ron's alto sax and Pat's flute and vocals had given us a peculiar sound.

For the way he spoke gently and with staunch assurance of God's concern for even such riffraff as me, I steadily grew to love Tony more.

Pam and Bill occupied the bedroom next to Laura's and mine. When their baby arrived, Pam wanted a place less smoky and quieter, where Vanessa wouldn't be awakened at three a.m. by a screeching guitar and saxophone. They moved to Fletcher Hills to stay with Pam's mother. Steve grabbed their bedroom.

Madeline was the next to flee. She took Corina, which broke Laurent's heart. For a month, between schemes and promises to win them back, he roamed the yard wailing and lamenting. I found him weeping beneath the jacaranda. Crawling through the garden at dawn. Several nights in a row he sat cross-legged in the field between our place and the Williamses', which made the rest of us speculate and worry that he might've returned to waiting for a spaceship to deliver him elsewhere.

Laura was attending Grossmont College, where she befriended a psychology teacher who took an interest in our semi-communal ways. When a troubled student he was counseling suddenly found herself homeless, he suggested she spend a couple days at our place. Her name was Lynne.

We often had guests. Travelers passing through San Diego on their way to Mexico. Friends who'd gotten kicked out by parents or lovers and needed a sofa to flop on while looking for the next place. But nobody moved in permanently without the rest of us agreeing, and we were selective.

Laurent's brother was a good-hearted fellow, but overly fond of drugs, especially heroin. One afternoon I was writing my first novel, at my desk in what would've been the dining room if we hadn't declared it the office. Laurent's brother staggered in, accompanied by two fellow junkies. He greeted me congenially then, without asking put an album on the stereo. The Velvet Underground and Nico, a group I enjoyed around midnight, but who didn't serve well as a background for my typing. Though dozens of attempts to write in this passway between the living room and kitchen had taught me concentration. Nico's sexy moan broke through.

Finally I got up and confronted the junkies, who lay sprawled on the living room rug. Laurent's brothergrinned and said howdy as though for the first time in weeks.

"Look," I explained, "I'm trying to write a story."

"Oh yeah? What kind of story? Adventure?"

"Sure. Anyway, how about you guys hang out in the back yard or someplace till I'm done."

"Hey, no problem."

They got up and staggered through the dining room and kitchen while I turned off the stereo. Returning to my desk, I typed a few lines and had just made the passage from the real world to Mexico a few years past when six feet clomped through the kitchen. The next minute, Nico was droning, even louder than before.

This time I yelped. "What's the matter with the back yard?"

Laurent's brother slapped his brow, shook his head dolefully. "Hey, sorry, boss. We forgot."

If he'd ever gotten mean or belligerent, we'd have banned him from the place. But he only acted witless, oblivious. Several times he asked to move in. Laurent argued that his brother probably only abused himself because he felt unloved. Our welcome and concern might reform him. Still we voted him down.

A few days with Lynne and the couch was plenty. At first we had no complaints except her omnipresence. Every conversation Lynne had to join, with her phony voice and gestures. A drama major, she acted as if the world were literally a stage. Her clothes , makeup bag, and school books cluttered the living room. She rarely offered to cook or clean. After a week during which nobody witnessed her applying for jobs or seeking another residence, we'd lost all patience. I got assigned to persuade Lynne to find another place by the weekend.

For two days she tried to befriend me. I couldn't escape her. If I was under the car changing the oil, she'd appear." Hi, Ken, what're you doing?" Whenever I sat typing, I'd feel breath on my ear. "How's the story coming, Ken? Mind if I read along?"

On Friday night, she invited Laurent to a movie and treated him. It was probably his first break from lamenting in the month since Madeline had disappeared. Lynne spent the night in his apartment over the garage and the next morning moved her things up there.

Now that she and Laurent were a couple, ejecting her became a delicate matter, which I chose to avoid. Besides, she was out of the living room, off the sofa, and she no longer peered over my shoulder while I sat writing. For days, while she and Laurent frolicked above the garage, she might as well have been gone, except that she served to distract Laurent from his grieving. We didn't find him weeping in the garden. He no longer sat in the field staring out to space. A couple times we heard him laugh.

They didn't eat with the rest of us. Laurent said Lynne felt uncomfortable downstairs because we'd told her to get lost. One evening while Lynne fixed their dinner, Laurent spent a few minutes on the porch with Steve and me. We discussed some innocuous matter, then I asked how he felt about Lynne's company.

I'd expected an easy reply. But his face hardened, brows furled, and he seemed to ponder darkly, "Well, she keeps me from thinking too much, that's for sure. And there's...the weirdest thing is...it takes me ten times as long to have an orgasm with Lynne as it ever did with Madeline. I wonder if she could be a sex goddess."

Because I laughed, he glared for a minute, then gave a perfunctory smile. Steve deliberated and finally offered, "Maybe it's because she's kind of ugly."

Laurent sat rubbing his chin, staring toward a bed of gladiolus Laura had planted beside the porch. After a minute he wheeled on Steve. "I'd never thought about it that way. It could be."

A couple days later, Laurent decided to move from the apartment to the basement, which Steve had vacated when he took the room Pam and Bill had given up. The basement was drafty, the floor concrete, and the nearest bathroom was upstairs, which you had to share with at least seven people. But since he survived on a student loan, odd jobs, and a meager art scholarship from a local women's club, Laurent chose to suffer the inconvenience for the sake of $20 each month.

The morning of the move, I heard Lynne berating him while they lugged a recliner chair down the stairs. Then she refused to help him carry any more. She sat on the lawn smoking cigarettes and griping to all who passed by, "The basement is a slimy hole. I'm not living there."

When Steve came home from visiting his folks, Lynne followed him into his room. I hung around the kitchen, futilely trying to eavesdrop. The only words I caught were Lynne's curses. Finally Steve came out alone, shrugged at me and walked out back and around to the basement. His dialogue with Laurent went something like, "Lynne says you're acting like a blah, blah."

"That's because she's a blah, blah, and besides, blah blah."

"She's not so bad as all that," Steve contended. "She's got problems. No place to live. No job. A mother that hates her."

"Okay, Steve. If she's not so bad, you take her."

Lynne moved her gear into Steve's room. Once again she ate with us, peered over my shoulder, monopolized the bathroom. Laura took such offense at the woman's behavior I dreamed about her loading the target rifle with which she'd earned trophies and medals. Each day at least one of the others would remind me that nearly two weeks ago I'd been delegated to throw her out.

I would've, gladly, now that she'd proven her character by seducing whichever single man had the nicest accommodations. Only I worried that Steve might cling to her. We might lose Steve.

The only time I could surely corner Steve alone was early morning. Lynne never rose before nine.

Over coffee I asked Steve how he felt about our booting Lynne. I expected him to argue, but he only brooded a minute. "She's got a job interview tomorrow. Can we give her a few days?"

The next day I got home from my job about 11 a.m. and discovered Lynne's bags piled beside the milk truck, beneath the pepper tree in our parking lot, up the steps from the front lawn. Steve and Laurent sat on the porch, gabbing congenially. They were discussing Lynne's mouthiness during sex, the way she'd chirp and coo and whisper stupid flatteries.

"Who threw her junk in the parking lot?" I asked.

They both raised their hands and grinned like a team who'd just conquered the blue ribbon. "I got tired of hearing her badmouth you guys," Steve said.

Sharing the old couch, we swapped conjectures about whether she'd wheedle and fuss or throw a fit and attack us.

She was driving Steve's old Falcon Futura. Pulling in, she almost flattened her suitcase. She leaped out of the car, dashed around front, and stood over her gear, hands on her hips as though she were scolding the suitcase and duffel bag. Finally she picked them up and strode down the steps, up the path across the lawn, past us without a glance, into the house, and directly to Steve's room. We heard the bags thud on the hardwood.

"Oookay," Steve said.

He got up and sauntered inside, past Lynne, who had occupied the recliner, into his room, and back out with her suitcase and duffel bag, across the lawn and up the steps to the parking lot. He dropped the stuff, brushed off his hands, and returned to join Laurent and me on the porch sofa.

For most of an hour we heard Lynne sobbing dramatically before she walked to the phone and called somebody who must've picked her up. We didn't see her go. We were in the basement, Steve and I practicing a new song. Laurent sketching.

Joe, who often pitched his tent in our yard, had spent most of the winter in Mexico and returned emaciated. He said he'd contracted both hepatitis and amoebic dysentery, but a couple weeks of fasting cured him.

One afternoon he walked alone to the liquor store and returned accompanied by Yvonne and her baby.

Yvonne was a beauty, only 17, of Mexican and Yaqui descent. She was living with her mom, stepfather, and half-brother, down the hill and across the valley toward Sweetwater Reservoir. Most every day, carrying her baby Donovan, she'd walk to our place. Even after Joe packed his tent and moved to a boat in a Shelter Island marina, Yvonne hung around our place, which brightened my days. She often stayed over. Nobody minded. She possessed such an airy spirit and cheerful presence that if the women got envious about the way their men delighted in Yvonne, they kept their peace about it.

A year or so before, out of inclination and necessity, we'd developed a rule that while using the bathroom to shave or shower, we'd leave the door unlocked so others could come and go. Before long our bashfulness had faded so thoroughly, I could sit and gab with Pat or Yvonne with they showered, as if they were in the kitchen, dressed and peeling potatoes.

Yvonne took lots of showers.

Nearly every Sunday afternoon following our Bible study with Tony, a carload of us would go to Indian Springs in Jamul, where our friends rented most of the cabin in an oak grove.

One day that year, Charles Manson had shown up at our friend Karl's cabin. He'd driven a VW bus from L.A., bringing Karl's wife's younger sister to haul back some of her stuff. Mostly records. They spent a few hours visiting, during which Manson prophesied to Karl about an upcoming race war wherein black people would exterminate the whites and run things until they realized they weren't smart enough and went looking for a white guy to lead them. Then Charlie would surface and save the world.

That night Karl told me about the lunatic who'd raved so convincingly that for a second now and then he almost seemed credible.

We were standing outside the Candy Company, a La Mesa coffeehouse that belonged to our friends Fred and Cliff. Fred lived in the Indian Springs cabin above Karl's. Sunday afternoons, Fred would invite us all out for a barbecue. The purists brought sprout-and-mushroom burgers, while Steve and I usually followed St. Paul's admonition - in the company of heathens, we ate what the heathens did.

Fred's barbecues were the best parties going because of the music. Whoever was booked that weekend at the Candy Company would usually stay with Fred. Jackson Browne played there. Steve Martin. Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Linda Ronstadt. Big Mama Thornton. Lightnin' Hopkins. Hoyt Axton. We got to drink, smoke, gab, feast, and jam with lots of talented people.

On one of those Sundays, Laurent drank a couple of shots of tequila, even though three years past he'd sworn off alcohol along with the drugs that had sparked his predictions of kidnappers from space.

The tequila made him nauseous. I was driving him home when a sharp pain struck his abdomen. I stopped at the market for Pepto Bismol. It didn't help. I raced home. Yvonne rubbed his belly, which made him yowl. All evening his face was contorted and he sweated as though with a dangerous fever, though his temperature was normal. Yvonne fixed an ice pack for his belly and daubed his brow with damp washcloths. Being a mother, she knew the tricks. She nursed him through the night. By morning when his pain subsided, she and Laurent were lovers. A week later they shared the basement.

Though Pam and Bill weren't living at our place, they spent most of the weekends there while Bill rehearsed with our band and Pam told us about Edgar Cayce, a psychic through whom dead guys revealed the past, explained mysteries, and prophesied. After a few of her pitches, Laura, Steve, and Pat accompanied her to a meeting of the Edgar Cayce study group she had joined. They came home from meetings with stories about their past lives, during which they'd usually been aristocrats, philosophers, martyrs, heroes, the sidekicks of prophets. When I inquired why they'd never been termites or skunks, Pam explained that they might've endured those lives too, but ascended spirits only bothered to reveal stuff that was relevant to our current predicaments and needs.

Out of curiosity, the skeptics among us allowed the group to hold a meeting at our place. Tony asked if he could attend and watch.

The group was a peculiar assortment of scraggly youths, 30ish clerks and salesmen, bookworms of all ages, and pudgy matrons. Their leader, Grace, was one of the latter. Though I'd never met her before, she greeted me as though we'd been intimate through several lifetimes.

They sat in a circle and held hands while Grace recited a prayer that invoked about 40 gods. Afterwards they launched straight into channeling. Grace babbled a message from a British fellow who called himself a professor yet couldn't formulate a sentence without using "bloody," "blimey," or "bloke."

Tony, Ron, and I were in the dining room, appalled to observe how easily our friends and wives could get duped. but the next channel was almost convincing. He was about 30. His slacks and button-down shirt were starched and creased. His familiar spirit was a Russian. The accent was slight but distinct. Though I hadn't asked, he picked on me. My latest past life, he claimed I'd spent as a brutal, reactionary general in the army of Czar Nicholas.

Afterward, while I walked Tony home, he asked, "Do you believe those people?"

"Nope."

"Laura and Steve and Pam do, though?"

"I guess."

"Ken, do you think Satan's really strong?"

"You'd know better than I do," I said, " What do you think?"

We walked the last block in silence while Tony contemplated. At the curb beside his house he spun to face me and leaned close. "I think he's getting stronger all the time."

Our band found a steady job. Friday and Saturday nights at the Garthunderous Wimbletoad, in the center of Del Mar. It was fun. But we spent more than our take on gas money, strings, beer, snacks, and the speakers we blew out. The last few weeks we only stayed on because of a promise the owner made that we could front for the Youngbloods at a Palomar College concert. He offered us $500, a hundred less than it would've cost for each of us to join the musician's union, a condition we'd need to meet. Then we would've had to rent amps and speakers. The $300 net loss, 50 apiece, we might've accepted. But $800 front money, when the promoter was at best a tightwad who might stiff us in the end, was more than our egos could bear.

When at last we quit the Wimbletoad, we vowed to rehearse two nights each week as well as Saturdays and to learn at least a few popular covers and requests. Soon we began to audition other clubs. But, our music aside, with antique Fender amps and Radio Shack speakers that made eerie buzz and blat sounds, we couldn't compete with groups whose giant Altec Lansing speakers would set a large nightclub to quaking in 4/4 time.

We had a goat. Sister Batrille. A demonic creature on a mission to destroy everything I built or planted. She devoured the tar paper off the chicken coop, the welcome mat out front of the basement, the handles of my rake and shovel. Her favorite delicacies were the fruit trees. If I fenced them with chicken wire, she ate it. For dessert she nibbled the leaves and shoots.

I had bought stronger fencing and dragged it to the rear corner of our yard beside the field between us and the Williamses. I pounded a tall stake and glared at the goat, which I'd leashed to a mutilated fig tree, hoping she'd comprehended the message that the next target of my sledgehammer could be her nose.

Yvonne came tripping out of the house and around toward the basement. She'd been using the shower and wore nothing except a towel on her head. All at once my anger fled.

In the field next door, old John Williams was chugging back and forth in the ancient tractor from which he couldn't bear to part when they'd retired and given up their North Dakota farm. Twice each year he hitched on the mower attachment and groomed the field.

Yvonne waved at me. Forgetting old John, I beckoned her to join me. She stepped lightly across the yard, dodging between trellised boysenberry vines. The day was a gem, hot, but dry, and smogless. I felt assured of defeating that goat. Yvonne stood beside me, brown and glistening, admiring my new fence. We might've been in Eden.

But John Williams spotted Yvonne.

He'd made the lower turn and straightened for the uphill pass. With his double take, the tractor bucked. The throttle must've slipped. His jaw dropped nearly to his lap, and dizziness must've overcome him. He careened toward Yvonne so far, his hands socked the ground. All that kept him from toppling off and being mowed to death was that the toe of his boot that wedged beneath the tractor seat.

Yvonne grabbed the towel off her head. Wrapping it modestly, she ran with me to his rescue.

That year I was a bus driver for San Diego City Schools, chauffeuring retarded kids in a 12-passenger International Carryall. The kids were lovable but impetuous. You never know when one might throw a fit or lunge for the window, announcing that he could fly.

Music seemed the best constraint. They'd bounce, wave their arms, sing along. We had a jolly time, as long as there was music. The bust featured a pushbutton radio, AM only, which I set to the one country and tree Top 40 stations most effective at distracting the kids.

One of the stations promoted itself with a big giveaway. Every hour or so they'd make a "random" phone call. If the person who answered could recite the jackpot amount to the penny, he'd win the whole pot. But nobody could. It seemed nobody besides me and the retarded kids paid attention to that station. The disc jockeys kept adding money, making phone calls, adding more money. About the time it reached ten grand, I got a premonition that the jackpot was mine. Although I constantly received premonitions, and consistently they proved wrong, this one I obeyed.

All day long, both shifts in the school bus, back and forth from home to the Clairemont bus garage, to SDSU, which I attended part time. I jotted the new number in my notebook. I kept the radio on that station even at home, until I despised nearly every song. Not only were most of them nitwitted, but they played them over and over. I told Laura and the others about my premonition so they'd quit shutting off the radio and would keep track themselves in case a disc jockey called while I was out. They humored me.

One evening, during dinner, Pat answered the phone and passed it to me. "Some guy who pronounces your name all wrong," she said. Expecting a salesmen, I grumbled hello.

"Ken?" he inquired.

"Who's this?"

"You don't know me." He asked if ever listened to the station that offered the big giveaway. I admitted so, and he asked how I'd like to win their jackpot.

"Huh?"

"I can help," he said.

"How's that?"

"Easy.”

If I was interested, I should meet him at nine in a cocktail lounge at the Stardust Hotel. He instructed me to wear jeans and sneakers with a dress shirt and tie, so he could pick me out.

As I hung up I felt cold and shivery. I told Laura I was going to meet a guy about a job for the band. The only person to whom I spilled the truth was Ron, probably because I sensed that beneath his monkish self-control - he and Pat even practiced celibacy for months at a time - lurked a heart as larcenous as mine.

In the cocktail lounge there was a large aquarium in which two bare-breasted women in mermaid tails performed a synchronized routine wherein water ballet met the Watusi. I settled at a table next to another at which a tall, swarthy fellow accepted money from an older man then jotted notes onto a pad. I'd gotten a beer and was studying the mermaids, enjoying the way their hair flowed, when the swindler tapped my shoulder.

He was about my age, 24, maybe a few years older. Medium height, light-brown hair, medium build, brownish-gray eyes - if they were the windows to his soul, he didn't have one. They might as well have been milky glass.

He gave me his name or a.k.a., sat down across the table called for a beer, and gazed around. Finally he turned to me. "You want to hear the deal?"

"Yep."

"It goes like this. At the station they pick numbers out of the phone book. They make a list a couple days ahead. The DJs work straight off the list. You're on it. I tell you when they're going to call. We split."

After marveling at my premonition come true, I sipped beer and calculated, trying to figure where his advantage lay, why should I cut him in. Finally I asked.

"You cut me in or else you don't get called. See, I've got a friend that works at the station, has access to the list. You say yes, I give you the day, tell you morning, afternoon, evening. Say no, you get scratched off the list. It's simple."

"It stinks," I growled. "Man, I've been writing down those numbers for a week now. You hadn't called, I would've won anyway."

"Maybe, unless I cut a deal with the guy before you on the list - by the time they call you, the jackpot's cleaned out and starting over at 50 bucks."

"Suppose somebody wins it legitimately, before they call me?"

He shrugged like a gracious loser. "Then we split 50 bucks."

The bookie at the next table must've eavesdropped. With a glance our way, he smiled icily and wagged his head, then swiveled his chair and scowled at the mermaids.

"What if we get popped?" I asked the swindler.

"How's that going to happen?" He allowed me a moment to speculate. "This isn't the first time we've played this game. So, how about it?"

I brooded, chewed my thumbnail. "How many people on the list?"

"A hundred."

"Why'd you pick me?"

"It's where my finger stopped. When I called - you've got an honest voice." He chuckled and offered me a cigarette. "How about it?"

"I don't know."

"You want to sleep on it, I'll phone you bright and early. If you're not home or don't answer..." He blew a kiss into the smoky air.

All the way home, between relishing what I could do with five and a half thousand dollars, I grumbled curses of outrage to think how this thief was trying to clip me of a fortune.

That damned jackpot was rightfully mine, I told Laura the minute I stormed into the house. Ron and Steve had waited up. I sent them to rouse the others. When we'd all gathered in the living room, I confessed the whole scheme and asked their advice.

"It's dishonest," Laura said.

"Do you think the DJ's going to ask if I plan to split with a swindler? I'm not cheating anybody. I'm the one getting robbed."

"How about that?" Laurent said. "Why do you have to pay this guy? What if you say you're going to split, then don't?"

"Then I'm lying, I've got a conscience to deal with, and I also get to worry if the guy's a lunatic who'll burn down the house or something."

Pat was nodding vigorously. "Besides, anything that comes of a lie will go wrong. It's a cosmic law. I should call Grace and ask her to channel, see what the ascended masters have to say."

I firmly rejected her offer, then Laurent asked about my plans for the money. Gazing around the silent room, I reviewed the alternatives. From my angle, there were three. Be wicked - keep the whole pot and try to ignore my friends' indignation. Or risk it all outfitting our band, which would please only half of us. Or I could divide it equally between us - including Bill and Pam and our drummer. That way each could buy his own equipment, everybody would be content, while our band leaped toward the big time.

"We'll split it equally," I announced. "That's if I decide to go through with the deal."

Ron came and sat beside me, gripped my knee and squeezed, while he gazed at the others. "Here's my idea - Ken's the only one who's got something to lose. If it goes wrong, he's the one that gets busted."

"How could it go wrong?" I asked.

"There's always something can go wrong. Always. So you're taking the risk and we've got nothing to lose. I say we give you the right to make up your own mind."

Everybody agreed, as they rose and wandered toward their beds. Except Yvonne, who stepped over and hugged me. "If you feel better not doing it, please don't. Okay?"

Laura and I lay in bed for a while talking ethics. Gently she contended that even if I didn't need to tell a lie, I'd have to participate in one. But she also suggested I ought to trust my heart and declared that she believed I'd make the right decision.

I considered walking to Tony's house, only I hesitated to wake him up at one a.m., and I was reasonably sure he'd say that Christ would tell me to refuse if I had the faintest doubt, if the action could tarnish my spirit or soul. There was no use in punishing myself with Tony's, or Jesus', wisdom and concern when I'd already taken Laura's advice and sided with my sorry heart - which longed to make everybody happy.

As a final gesture, I got up and consulted the bible. I opened it at random. To a page in Chronicles. I was relieved to find nothing that seemed to apply.

After a fitful sleep, I woke to the swindler's phone call. "How much is the jackpot?"

"A lot," I muttered.

"Eleven thousand, one hundred twenty-seven dollars and sixty-two cents. Got that?"

"Hold on." I reach for pend and paper.

"You're third on the list. We're dealing?"

"Yeah," I growled.

Since they called somebody every hour or so beginning at 8:00 a.m. we turned the morning into a celebration. Pat went out and robbed the chickens, got Swiss chard from the garden, and made us omelettes. Steve drove to the Thriftimart for bear claws. We all sat around the living room, radio blaring, and belittled popular songs.

The DJ called early. We listened to him dialing. Steve and Laurent pulled me out of my chair, escorted me to the telephone. "Is this...Ken...Cuke-lin?" the DJ bellowed.

"Close enough. Who's this?"

He told me and, allowing time for suspense, asked why I wasn't out working.

"I'm lazy."

"Oh, ha-ha. Well, what radio station do you listen to Ken?"

"Mostly that one out of Del Rio, Texas."

"Oh, yeah the Wolfman," he rasped. "So what's your favorite song?"

"Dust My Broom."

"Who sings that?"

"Robert Johnson."

"He a new guy?"

"A dead guy."

"Okay... Well, then, shall we get down to business?"

"Business?" I heard Yvonne remark how innocent I sounded and Laurent quip that I must be a born liar. The DJ explained about the jackpot and asked if I'd ever tuned in.

"I'll be darned," I said. "I was spinning the dial a few minutes ago, landed on your station. Was that you adding money to the giveaway?"

"That was me! Do you remember the amount, to the penny?"

"Sure."

"To the penny?"

"Eleven thousand, two hundred and three dollars and thirteen cents."

"You win," he howled. "You win! He wins!"

I expected a little revelry, for some of the DJ's enthusiasm, phony as it might've been, to stir at least a couple of us to dance or whoop. But everybody sat in silence, watching me.

The DJ asked what I'd do with the money.

"Maybe live in the tropics for ten years," I said. "Surf. Eat tamales. Dive for oysters, maybe."

"Aren't you going to buy anything?"

"Towels. A new pair of sunglasses." Tiring of my answers, he switched me to an officer person who commented that I sounded awfully cool for somebody who'd just won a fortune. I shuddered but declined to honor his suspicions with an answer. We made arrangements where and when I should pick up the loot, then they released me from the phone. I'd only hugged Yvonne, Laura, Pat, and Steven when it clanged again. Steve answered and passed it to me. It was my supervisor from the bus garage.

"Lucky you were sick this morning. Hadn't been, it would've cost you eleven grand."

Another guy who didn't believe I'd won on the level. I made some crack about the rewards of virtue. He cackled and suggested that - if I planned to continue driving a bus rather than retiring or becoming an entrepreneur - I should consider buying new Levi's instead of dressing like a hobo.

"See you Monday, Brain." I hung up and swilled a glass of champagne that had materialized. We toasted, laughed, took mock-solemn oaths not to allow wealth to spoil our simple, proletarian natures. All that time I kept an eye on the door and the parking lot, waiting for the police to arrive.

Our celebration had just cooled down and I as munching a peanut butter sandwich when the first old friend called with a business proposition. He wanted to buy a certain house in Lemon Grove, fix it up for a rental, then buy another. Not long after I brushed him off, another opportunist phoned. Since the last time we'd met, in junior high, he'd become a stockbroker.

The couple hours before we went out for pizza, using coupons, I sat curled around my guitar listening to whoever answered the phone tell callers I'd moved to Costa Rica and working out the chords to "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

After pizza we drove to the Jail, a club on Garnet in Pacific Beach where we'd been playing Sunday evenings the past couple months. They'd offered us a quarter of reach pitcher they sold and a promise to advertise and book us Friday and Saturdays before too long. It sounded okay, until we learned that most Sunday drinkers are repentant or broke. Thirty pitchers, $7.50 for the six of us, was a good night. And every weekend that passed, their promises got more tentative.

Vindictively, we ran up an IOU, drank our fill, then resigned. Who needed the Jail when by next week we'd have bought a four-column P.A. with a mixer, two Vox guitar amps with speakers galore, a Fender Bassman with four Altec Lansings, Rogers drums with Zildjian cymbals? In a month, we might be headlining at the Troubadour in Hollywood or the Lighthouse in Santa Monica.

Except on Tuesday, about 20 hours after I'd passed out checks to everybody, Bill announced he was moving to San Francisco to find a more progressive band. Blues was growing old, he said.

Nobody would join me in coaxing him to stay. Not even Pam, who would follow as soon as he found a gig. Steve was his loyal brother, who trusted Bill's wisdom. Our drummer had sped off somewhere on his Triumph 650. A couple days later, he would call from Vegas, asking me for a loan. Ron and Pat didn't fret over Bill's desertion, since they'd decided to pack up their milk truck and head for Oregon. Before they squandered their share of the loot, they'd make a down payment on a farm. Even Laurent and Yvonne chose to flee, to Eureka where he'd decided to finish a college degree in art.

Laura beckoned me into our room, sat me down, and rubbed my shoulders. "Kenny," she whispered. "You can find another band, or you guys'll get back together on day. But first, we can go to Europe like we've always wanted. It's the perfect time."

They all spoke as if the giveaway had set them free to chase some dream they'd been nursing all along. But I wonder if we might've all sensed the curse descending and hoped to outrun the damned thing.

In July I finished my novel. A teacher of mine referred me to a certain New York agent, who promised to read the manuscript before we passed through New York.

We spent August in Oregon on Ron and Pat's farm, then parked our van at my mom's place, arranged for a drive-away car, and cruised east in time to see New England's autumn. We met my new agent on the 35th floor of a New York skyscraper a few minutes after some vengeful writer or performer had called in a bomb threat. My agent wore a suit that probably cost more than our share of the giveaway. Though he represented big shots, he was hardly older than me and confessed that he'd read my novel while stoned, yet couldn't put it down.

Laura and I soared off to Europe on a budget flight, crammed in with about a thousand college dropouts who didn't realize they had a pre-famous author among them. Our first stop was Brussels, where our friend Gus had discovered a medical school for $5 a year. Gus had lived with us for a couple years and had been so shameless a womanizer that if anybody asked why he'd left the country, we told them he'd run out of fresh women. He knew about the giveaway and how I had split the loot. One minute he'd imply that I was a saint, the next he'd say I was loco or had been led astray by hippie ideals, which were okay most of the time and fine to meditate upon, but not worth ten grand.

Nobody knew the fraud except those of us who shared in it. Not even Gus, whom I'd known since eighth grade and trusted perfectly. So I couldn't admit that part of the reason I shared was to buy myself partners in crime.

From Brussels we caught a train north to Bergen, Norway. The next few months we made our way south just ahead of the bitter cold. Arriving in Hamburg, Paris, Andorra, Madrid, and Casablanca - the destinations we'd written home about - we made straight for American Express, anticipating a legal-sized envelope with a book contract inside. But all we got was letters, usually one from Steve about the new people occupying our home, one from my mother about her dog, and a package from Laura's mom containing strange gifts like $2 bills and pantyhose.

Every Saturday, January through early March, while we camped on a Moroccan beach, spending about $6 a week of the hundred or so that remained of the giveaway and our life savings, one of us would hitch a ride to the American Express in Agadir.

When wanderlust next bit, we caught a ride across North Africa to Tunis, from where we sailed to Sicily, hitched rides in trucks with maniacal drivers who'd blast through small towns with an elbow on the horn and foot denting the floorboard. We sailed from Brindisi and arrived in Athens with 50 cents. We had to choose between a bust to the American Express office and one to the village of Nea Makri, where an ex-student of our high school teacher neighbor had been living, the last we'd heard.

We plunked our last change into the busman's strongbox and a few minutes later hopped off in front of the American Express. The line for mail was long and slow. A couple of overweight Texans nagged the clerk about a damaged package. At least they stomped away, and the clerk brought me the envelope with my name in capitals and "William Morris Agency" in the upper left corner. Inside were three rejection letters and a note that read, "Sorry. How about revising a couple of things, like..."

I became mute from distress. Laura bargained with a bus driver, traded him a dozen Moroccan beads for our passage to Nea Makri, a beach town on the Bay of Marathon, a couple miles sough of the U.S. Navy communications station where Rick, our neighbor's ex-student, worked as an apprentice electrician. He and his girlfriend Juanita gave us our own room in their cottage.

Soon Laura got hired as a waitress on the base, and I found a job at the American school for military brats. A couple of days a week, I substitute taught in the middle school, usually English, history, or softball. My mom sent a copy of my novel, and through most of April I worked hard revising. The day I'd finished penciling changes, a hellhound pup Juanita called Bufus sprang onto the kitchen table, lifted his leg, and sopped my life's work.

In early July, a couple of months after Laura had announced she needed out from under my shadow, I landed at Kennedy Airport alone. My plan was to visit my agent and accept the offer that by now, I imagined, he must've secured for my twice-revised novel. I'd take the contract to a bank. They'd lend me the price of a flight home in time for my mom's July 10 birthday. Instead, after visiting my agent, I plodded downtown to Greenwich Village, wondering how a guy could rave about my novel and ten months later declare it unpublishable.

I found a jeweler who gave me $50 for a half kilo of Moroccan beads, then I arranged for a rental car. From Travelers Aid I got the names of a couple of Europeans who'd share gas to the West Coast. We sped through the nights so I could reach home July 9.

Back on Helix Street, since all the other rooms were taken, I moved into the basement. My old friend Terry had our old room upstairs next to Steve's. A new couple occupied the apartment. A neighbor girl inhabited the storage room off the garage. Ron was back from Oregon in his milk truck under the pepper tree.

During the ten months since we'd left their farm, he and Pat had gotten disillusioned because farming hadn't quieted their spirits. They must've blamed each other. Until midwinter they'd fought and held on. But finally Pat ran home to Spring Valley, where she spent a few weeks on the couch before moving in with Steve. Where Ron found her.

For days he and Pat screamed and accused. When Steve tried to mediate, he was pummeled by Pat, shoved and threatened by Ron, who was a tough little guy and explosive. You always wondered if one day he'd give up pacifism and mutilated somebody.

By the time I returned, a month or so after Pat had found yet another man, a sailor who moonlighted at a gas station down the hill, Ron was attending primal therapy sessions. I might awake at 3:00 a.m. to his howling, and he was always smashing things. Usually they belongs to Steve. Like the ceramic Venus de Milo Steve had bought in Tijuana and made into a fountain by running a hose up through her torso. Ron socked her in the belly and broke her in two.

He might've gone back to the farm after assimilating the loss of his woman, except two months in a row, he'd written the check, stamped the envelope, tossed it on his dashboard where it blended with health food brochures and grocery coupons. Neither check go mailed, and since they'd bought the place on a land contract, they lost it.

Later that year, Pat and the sailor got married and became Jehovah's Witnesses, about the same time Ron started worshipping at Skyline Wesleyan Church across the valley. Another year and he'd leave us for a Baptist Bible college.

It seemed the rock bands of San Francisco hadn't laid in wait for the arrival of Bill's guitar. He gave the adventure about a month until he got strep throat. Then he climbed on a Greyhound. Pam was in the second term of her second pregnancy, so Bill took a job with the welfare department. Nights he sat drinking and fingering jazz chords while Pam rushed around performing motherly chores. Fearing that if Pam got her way, he'd become the father of a multitude, he reminded her of his music ambitions and gave several dozen reasons why he preferred not to spend 30 years as an eligibility worker.

Pam agreed to get her tubes tied and let on she had. So when, only months after Melissa arrived, she announced their third child's conception, Bill spring up in outrage, dumping her off his lap onto the floor, where she yowled like a cougar before attacking him so viciously he snatched up his Gibson and fled.

While he roomed with his folks in La Mesa, Bill stopped by to tell us the latest from the Edgar Cayce group. How Grace had channeled the news that the child Pam carried wasn't Bill's at all, but one who'd been immaculately conceived. A boy who'd become their messiah.

Bill, Steve, Ron, and I slapped our legs, slid off the sofa, pounded the floor. It was the best time we shared after the giveaway. Usually we stood on guard. To me it felt as if the sky had fallen and too many people had been crushed.

There was Mike, a vegetarian who abhorred vegetables and ate mostly peanut butter and candy bars, a handsome kid but terrified of females, whom he longs for too passionately. So he'd get drunk and mournful. Twice in that state he locked the bathroom door and slashed a vein, then wept and wailed for me to save him.

One of my oldest friends, a mythically rugged guy, moved in when he and his wife broke up. Before long, he'd swallowed a jar of sleeping pills on top of too much tequila. We found him in a lump in the back yard.

Every week that tragedy spared us, I suspected it was prowling nearby, waiting for my vigilance to tire and studying my defenses.

By September, Laura had discovered who she was and come home. She wanted a child. Before long we conceived my daughter. While she grew and Laura became ever more joyous and contented, I was perplexed by the weirdest chain of maladies. I suffered boils on my knees, in the armpits, up the nose. Then hypochondria struck me.

The band had reunited to rehearse for a benefit at the rehab center for heroin addicts where Laurent's brother resided. Sandy came by with her blackbirds. About midnight, the muscles around my heart began twitching. They twitched for months. Six or seven years would pass before I gave up monitoring most every beat.

But my baby daughter redeemed that year. Darcy came with great puffy cheeks and fluttery eyes, wispy hair, blond like in old photos of my dad. She would laugh and coo, want to nurse all day long. If she fussed, we took her for a ride - she'd make little poof sounds while drifting to sleep. Only a few weeks old, she learned how to give a raspberry. At two months she could draw spiderwebs. She awakened me to love.

Darcy was one reason we decided to move to Iowa, where I'd return to school in hopes that my next novel wouldn't get tagged unpublishable. But we would've left the old house anyway, before I'd let Darcy stay in a home over which a curse had fallen. Misguided fellow that I remained, despite lessons and signs, I thought the curse was on the place.

Tony might've set me straight, except he'd become schizophrenic. When the kids from his church gave up their house down the hill, while Laura and I lounged on the beach in Morocco, Tony got lost and woke up at County Mental Health in a room with a couple of hobos who transformed before his eyes into demons.

They released him to his sister, who lived up the hill from our place. He discarded the medicine they'd prescribed. He'd wander to our place and stumble around grinning or muttering feebly. If we gave him coffee, he'd spill it. Food, he'd take a bite then forget. When I asked him to read the Bible, he might open it and gape at the page, looking bewildered as though I'd flipped it upside down.

I still see him walking or perched on the bus stop at the corner of La Mesa Boulevard and University Avenue. He dresses cleanly. He still has bushy hair. He carries two duffel bags and always leans forward from the waist and neck, as though peering into the future. It's been a couple years since I've stopped, because every time I did, it broke my heart. I want to redeem Tony, to make amends in the name of our whole mutinous generation. But all I can think to do is pray.

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The skeptics among us allowed the group to hold a meeting at our place. The group was a peculiar assortment of scraggly youths, 30ish clerks and salesmen, bookworms of all ages, and pudgy matrons.  - Image by J.D. Crowe
The skeptics among us allowed the group to hold a meeting at our place. The group was a peculiar assortment of scraggly youths, 30ish clerks and salesmen, bookworms of all ages, and pudgy matrons.

A bushy-haired kid was hitchhiking on Sweetwater Road. I picked him up at the crest of the hill, just past the light at Kenwood. He mumbled something, hung his head crookedly so he could watch me from the corner of his eye. On his lap in both hands, he held The Living Bible.

"Well, then, I guess we're goners." Tony sat ponderously fanning the Bible's pages until his thumb appeared to snag on the book of John.

I wouldn't have picked him up if I'd known he was a Christian. In those years following my conversion at a Billy Graham crusade, everywhere I looked stood an evangelist I didn't want to talk to. If I told them I believed, they'd ask where I worshipped. When I confessed that I didn't, they'd want to know why and would pester me until I gained still another parcel of guilt. If I denied any faith, they'd sermonize endlessly. You meet up with a Christian, I thought, it's one of those lose-lose deals.

We'd developed a rule that while using the bathroom to shave or shower, we'd leave the door unlocked so others could come and go.

"Where you going?" I asked the kid.

He directed me to a modest tract house on Harness Street, on my way home. I pulled to the curb, thinking I'd escaped, that he either was a Jesus freak of the hermit variety or else at first glance he'd judged me as a lost cause.

He got out of my van, gave me a little bow and asked, in a voice high and tender, "Do you love the Lord?"

"Sure," I mumbled.

He smiled rapturously, thanked God, and closed the door. He' shuffled halfway across the lawn before I called out, "Hey," I pointed to our place. "The lime-colored dump with the second story over the garage. I live there. Drop in if you feel like it."

A lot of years later, hearing a line attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi - "Preach the Good News all the time. If necessary, use words." - I thought first of Tony. IN less than a mil, his presence had softened my heart.

I went home and told my wife about the guy. Laura and I lived on a lower slope of Dictionary Hill in Spring Valley, overlooking Mount Miguel High School. Our place was a half acre on the west side of Helix Street, between a history teacher, his wife and two daughters, and an older couple, uprooted Midwestern farm people. We had fruit trees, a goat, a flock of chickens, a vegetable garden, and plenty of roommates - about ten dogs and cats and a dozen or so people occupying the two-bedroom house, one-bedroom apartment, garage, storage room, a shed, a milk truck beneath one of the pepper trees, and a tent beneath the other. Five of us played together in a band. Guitar, bass, drums, flute, saxophone. The whole band except our drummer.

Dinner was waiting. Chopped zucchini over brown rice, with cheese. Or Swiss chard and sour cream tacos. Or split pea soup. Or chili, the beef replaced by home-cured olives. For the last year, since Ron and Pat had arrived in their milk truck, we'd been vegetarians.

Ron and Pat were tiny. Standing on Ron's shoulders, Pat couldn't have dunked a basketball. They had identical waist-length hair. Ron's black, Pat's blonde.

With a preacher's fervor, Ron had enlightened us about the evils, physical and spiritual, of partaking in flesh and blood. The worst thing, he said, it made us fierce, aggressive. There was no way to peace while we insisted upon gobbling creatures. He persuaded so well that eight of his audience gave up the junk immediately. Steve and I held out a couple weeks, devouring all the bacon, minute steaks, and ground chuck they'd left behind.

We dined like an old-time family except that, for lack of a suitable table, we sat all over the living room. That was how Tony found us, swabbing our plated with wheatberry bread, waiting on that evening's server to bring out the chocolate pudding.

There were always people dropping by. Most visitors hardly got noticed. But Tony's eyes were a little bugged and more fixed than other peoples'. Tall and gangly, he ambled like a cowboy. When he spoke, eve said hi, he leaned slightly toward those he addressed.

"Anybody want to read the Bible?" he asked meekly.

Accompanied by a chorus of murmurs, half of us disappeared. The rest - Laurent, Steve, Ron and Pat, and I - sat on the living room floor around the coffee table made from a slab of tree trunk and the top of a telephone cable spool. Laura delivered the pudding and spoons.

Laurent sat glowering intensely at Tony, though he meant no harm. He studied every newcomer that way, as though trying to decide if they might've arrived on a spaceship. Laurent was only 21, hardly older than Tony. After a couple years in the Merchant Marine, he was trying to deliver his mind back to earth, now that he'd become a father. Every day he and Madeline would go visit their baby in the hospital, where she resided in an incubator - she'd arrived over three months prematurely.

Laurent and Madeline were atypical. While he'd been crossing the China Sea on a ship called the Mystic Mariner, she'd been lured to a commune in Hawaii where the wealthy character who owned the land decreed that nobody could ingest anything except water, brown rice, and LSD. She wandered the beach and jungle, stoned, bewildered.

A couple thousand sea miles southwest, Laurent was struck by the conviction that a spaceship was going to swoop down, hijack him, and speed to another dimension where years would pass during an instant of earth time. There the space folks would teach him the secret of art so that he could return home a genius. Laurent roamed the deck, smoking grass and restlessly waiting for the eerie lights to appear.

On the big island, Madeline grew so delirious and famished she contracted leprosy. The commune owner sent her for a cure. She'd hardly left the place when she met Laurent. They'd hardly spoken when Corina was conceived.

"Where did you come from?" Laurent asked Tony.

Tony said he lived down the hill with a group of kids from his church.

"Okay then, how'd you end up in church?"

Tony furrowed his brow, "Well, last year I was staying in Berkeley, and one night I was up there in the hills and I met Jesus, and then pretty soon I came back home, and my friend Barry was going to this church, and..."

"Hold it. Back up," Laurent demanded. " You met Jesus in the Berkeley hills."

"Yep."

"So, did you shake his hand or give him a hug? I mean, was he really there?"

"Sort of," Tony muttered.

"What's that mean?"

"Well, he was there but he wasn't."

"You'd dropped acid, right?"

"Uh-huh," Tony confessed, bowing his head and opening his Bible.

He read us the 20th chapter of John's gospel. About the empty tomb and Jesus charging Thomas the skeptic. "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have believed," Tony kept losing his place and fumbling with the Bible as if the lines and columns undulated. At the end of the chapter, he closed the Bible on his finger, sighed reverently and asked, "Do you guys believe Christ died and got resurrected?"

All I heard from the sorrowful place into which I'd fallen were murmurs that sounded vaguely affirmative and my own lame assent.

"You should try real hard to make up your mind," Tony suggested. "Because if he did, then he's God, and we better trust him. And do like he said."

Ron finished licking his spoon. "What if he didn't?"

"Well, then, I guess we're goners." Tony sat ponderously fanning the Bible's pages until his thumb appeared to snag on the book of John. He squinted at the text and sighed winsomely. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." For a half hour, Tony fielded our queries about what did that funky word "believe" really mean and what were the conditions of this eternal life. For every question Tony found a scripture. Even when Laurent challenged him to think for himself, he flipped to a passage about the feebleness of our understanding. After he read about our need to get born again, he asked, "Anybody here besides Ken accepted Jesus as their savior?"

Everybody's eyes turned on me, and Steve said, "You got born again?"

"Yep," I muttered.

"When was this?"

"A few years ago."

Steve nodded, got up, and headed for the kitchen with his pudding bowl. Just before he stepped out of sight, he turned and nailed me with a look I translated as, "I might've bought this stuff except it appears that if I get saved, all that might happen is I wind up like you."

The back door shut behind Steve. The others stood and wandered away. I walked Tony outside. He blessed me and started down the hill while I leaned against my van, weak with shame because in all those years I hadn't told Steve about the night I'd turned to Christ.

Steve was like my brother. Since high school we'd played music together. Steve, his brother Bill, and I. Bill was the wizard on lead guitar. I played rhythm, so Steve took bass, and we harmonized on vocals.

Bill and I had been pals since eighth grade, and Steve was a couple years younger. He was earnest, ingenuous. While Bill turned everything short of death into a joke, Steve you could trust with your heartaches and dilemmas. He and I had spent every evening for a couple of months paneling the basement in drywall and egg cartons, running wires to new electrical outlets, making the place suit our band. During that time, smoking and sipping Boone's Farm, we'd gabbed about most everything. Except Jesus.

Finally, after Laura called out several times, I dragged myself inside, brushed my teeth, and met her in our bedroom. She was staring at a Bible. Setting it on the floor, she talked for a minute about how sweet Tony was, then related an argument she'd had with Pam, Bill's wife. They'd disagreed on kitchen matters, how to organize bowls and silverware.

"I'm not bossy, am I?"

"Not very," I said, which seemed the wrong answer, since Laura gave me a scowl, I rolled onto her side, and burrowed her head into the pillow. Most every night Laura called me into the bedroom so we could talk for a minute. When she'd conked out, rather than lie and brood, I'd rise, go out to the living room, and light up. Laura was intolerant of drugs. I could only grab a peaceful smoke if she was gone or unconscious. Then I'd reach for my guitar, chord and strum, working in some new bass run I'd learned, fleeing my laments and frustrations. Escaping tough questions like, "Why is Tony devoted to God and I'm not?"

About nine months after she was conceived, the doctors released Corina from her incubator into the care of Madeline and Laurent, though her heartbeat was weak and irregular. In a year or so, the doctors said, when she grew a little stronger, they'd need to operate.

Madeline was restless and unpredictable. Sometimes she'd disappear. But Laurent hardly left Corina's side except to visit a Jamul farm where he bought the raw goat's milk a homeopath had prescribed for his daughter. Besides those trips, the farthest he'd range from his baby was to the garden, the basement to listen or ask us to turn down, or to the main house living room when Tony dropped by on Sunday afternoons to lead us in Bible study.

He might've arrived earlier or invited us to a morning service, except it would've been no use because of our Saturday rehearsals.

Saturday mornings, our friend Sandy would arrive bearing gifts - a handful of time-release amphetamine diet pills we called blackbirds. Strong medicine. One capsule would drive us to the basement where we'd strum, pound, and shout until Sunday at three or four a.m. Then I couldn't sleep without downing a Seconal. Our ban used a silly name I won't reveal. We should've been called the Blackbirds.

We played some rock, country rock, and folk rock, but mostly blues inspired by Robert Johnson, Paul Butterfield, B.B. King, and James Cotton. On lead guitar, Bill played fast and intricate. The rest of us were less than awesome. Still, we had persevered enough; so that finally securing a drummer not quite as maniacal as his forerunners, we could pick up an occasional job at a party or cut-rate nightclub. Lately, Ron's alto sax and Pat's flute and vocals had given us a peculiar sound.

For the way he spoke gently and with staunch assurance of God's concern for even such riffraff as me, I steadily grew to love Tony more.

Pam and Bill occupied the bedroom next to Laura's and mine. When their baby arrived, Pam wanted a place less smoky and quieter, where Vanessa wouldn't be awakened at three a.m. by a screeching guitar and saxophone. They moved to Fletcher Hills to stay with Pam's mother. Steve grabbed their bedroom.

Madeline was the next to flee. She took Corina, which broke Laurent's heart. For a month, between schemes and promises to win them back, he roamed the yard wailing and lamenting. I found him weeping beneath the jacaranda. Crawling through the garden at dawn. Several nights in a row he sat cross-legged in the field between our place and the Williamses', which made the rest of us speculate and worry that he might've returned to waiting for a spaceship to deliver him elsewhere.

Laura was attending Grossmont College, where she befriended a psychology teacher who took an interest in our semi-communal ways. When a troubled student he was counseling suddenly found herself homeless, he suggested she spend a couple days at our place. Her name was Lynne.

We often had guests. Travelers passing through San Diego on their way to Mexico. Friends who'd gotten kicked out by parents or lovers and needed a sofa to flop on while looking for the next place. But nobody moved in permanently without the rest of us agreeing, and we were selective.

Laurent's brother was a good-hearted fellow, but overly fond of drugs, especially heroin. One afternoon I was writing my first novel, at my desk in what would've been the dining room if we hadn't declared it the office. Laurent's brother staggered in, accompanied by two fellow junkies. He greeted me congenially then, without asking put an album on the stereo. The Velvet Underground and Nico, a group I enjoyed around midnight, but who didn't serve well as a background for my typing. Though dozens of attempts to write in this passway between the living room and kitchen had taught me concentration. Nico's sexy moan broke through.

Finally I got up and confronted the junkies, who lay sprawled on the living room rug. Laurent's brothergrinned and said howdy as though for the first time in weeks.

"Look," I explained, "I'm trying to write a story."

"Oh yeah? What kind of story? Adventure?"

"Sure. Anyway, how about you guys hang out in the back yard or someplace till I'm done."

"Hey, no problem."

They got up and staggered through the dining room and kitchen while I turned off the stereo. Returning to my desk, I typed a few lines and had just made the passage from the real world to Mexico a few years past when six feet clomped through the kitchen. The next minute, Nico was droning, even louder than before.

This time I yelped. "What's the matter with the back yard?"

Laurent's brother slapped his brow, shook his head dolefully. "Hey, sorry, boss. We forgot."

If he'd ever gotten mean or belligerent, we'd have banned him from the place. But he only acted witless, oblivious. Several times he asked to move in. Laurent argued that his brother probably only abused himself because he felt unloved. Our welcome and concern might reform him. Still we voted him down.

A few days with Lynne and the couch was plenty. At first we had no complaints except her omnipresence. Every conversation Lynne had to join, with her phony voice and gestures. A drama major, she acted as if the world were literally a stage. Her clothes , makeup bag, and school books cluttered the living room. She rarely offered to cook or clean. After a week during which nobody witnessed her applying for jobs or seeking another residence, we'd lost all patience. I got assigned to persuade Lynne to find another place by the weekend.

For two days she tried to befriend me. I couldn't escape her. If I was under the car changing the oil, she'd appear." Hi, Ken, what're you doing?" Whenever I sat typing, I'd feel breath on my ear. "How's the story coming, Ken? Mind if I read along?"

On Friday night, she invited Laurent to a movie and treated him. It was probably his first break from lamenting in the month since Madeline had disappeared. Lynne spent the night in his apartment over the garage and the next morning moved her things up there.

Now that she and Laurent were a couple, ejecting her became a delicate matter, which I chose to avoid. Besides, she was out of the living room, off the sofa, and she no longer peered over my shoulder while I sat writing. For days, while she and Laurent frolicked above the garage, she might as well have been gone, except that she served to distract Laurent from his grieving. We didn't find him weeping in the garden. He no longer sat in the field staring out to space. A couple times we heard him laugh.

They didn't eat with the rest of us. Laurent said Lynne felt uncomfortable downstairs because we'd told her to get lost. One evening while Lynne fixed their dinner, Laurent spent a few minutes on the porch with Steve and me. We discussed some innocuous matter, then I asked how he felt about Lynne's company.

I'd expected an easy reply. But his face hardened, brows furled, and he seemed to ponder darkly, "Well, she keeps me from thinking too much, that's for sure. And there's...the weirdest thing is...it takes me ten times as long to have an orgasm with Lynne as it ever did with Madeline. I wonder if she could be a sex goddess."

Because I laughed, he glared for a minute, then gave a perfunctory smile. Steve deliberated and finally offered, "Maybe it's because she's kind of ugly."

Laurent sat rubbing his chin, staring toward a bed of gladiolus Laura had planted beside the porch. After a minute he wheeled on Steve. "I'd never thought about it that way. It could be."

A couple days later, Laurent decided to move from the apartment to the basement, which Steve had vacated when he took the room Pam and Bill had given up. The basement was drafty, the floor concrete, and the nearest bathroom was upstairs, which you had to share with at least seven people. But since he survived on a student loan, odd jobs, and a meager art scholarship from a local women's club, Laurent chose to suffer the inconvenience for the sake of $20 each month.

The morning of the move, I heard Lynne berating him while they lugged a recliner chair down the stairs. Then she refused to help him carry any more. She sat on the lawn smoking cigarettes and griping to all who passed by, "The basement is a slimy hole. I'm not living there."

When Steve came home from visiting his folks, Lynne followed him into his room. I hung around the kitchen, futilely trying to eavesdrop. The only words I caught were Lynne's curses. Finally Steve came out alone, shrugged at me and walked out back and around to the basement. His dialogue with Laurent went something like, "Lynne says you're acting like a blah, blah."

"That's because she's a blah, blah, and besides, blah blah."

"She's not so bad as all that," Steve contended. "She's got problems. No place to live. No job. A mother that hates her."

"Okay, Steve. If she's not so bad, you take her."

Lynne moved her gear into Steve's room. Once again she ate with us, peered over my shoulder, monopolized the bathroom. Laura took such offense at the woman's behavior I dreamed about her loading the target rifle with which she'd earned trophies and medals. Each day at least one of the others would remind me that nearly two weeks ago I'd been delegated to throw her out.

I would've, gladly, now that she'd proven her character by seducing whichever single man had the nicest accommodations. Only I worried that Steve might cling to her. We might lose Steve.

The only time I could surely corner Steve alone was early morning. Lynne never rose before nine.

Over coffee I asked Steve how he felt about our booting Lynne. I expected him to argue, but he only brooded a minute. "She's got a job interview tomorrow. Can we give her a few days?"

The next day I got home from my job about 11 a.m. and discovered Lynne's bags piled beside the milk truck, beneath the pepper tree in our parking lot, up the steps from the front lawn. Steve and Laurent sat on the porch, gabbing congenially. They were discussing Lynne's mouthiness during sex, the way she'd chirp and coo and whisper stupid flatteries.

"Who threw her junk in the parking lot?" I asked.

They both raised their hands and grinned like a team who'd just conquered the blue ribbon. "I got tired of hearing her badmouth you guys," Steve said.

Sharing the old couch, we swapped conjectures about whether she'd wheedle and fuss or throw a fit and attack us.

She was driving Steve's old Falcon Futura. Pulling in, she almost flattened her suitcase. She leaped out of the car, dashed around front, and stood over her gear, hands on her hips as though she were scolding the suitcase and duffel bag. Finally she picked them up and strode down the steps, up the path across the lawn, past us without a glance, into the house, and directly to Steve's room. We heard the bags thud on the hardwood.

"Oookay," Steve said.

He got up and sauntered inside, past Lynne, who had occupied the recliner, into his room, and back out with her suitcase and duffel bag, across the lawn and up the steps to the parking lot. He dropped the stuff, brushed off his hands, and returned to join Laurent and me on the porch sofa.

For most of an hour we heard Lynne sobbing dramatically before she walked to the phone and called somebody who must've picked her up. We didn't see her go. We were in the basement, Steve and I practicing a new song. Laurent sketching.

Joe, who often pitched his tent in our yard, had spent most of the winter in Mexico and returned emaciated. He said he'd contracted both hepatitis and amoebic dysentery, but a couple weeks of fasting cured him.

One afternoon he walked alone to the liquor store and returned accompanied by Yvonne and her baby.

Yvonne was a beauty, only 17, of Mexican and Yaqui descent. She was living with her mom, stepfather, and half-brother, down the hill and across the valley toward Sweetwater Reservoir. Most every day, carrying her baby Donovan, she'd walk to our place. Even after Joe packed his tent and moved to a boat in a Shelter Island marina, Yvonne hung around our place, which brightened my days. She often stayed over. Nobody minded. She possessed such an airy spirit and cheerful presence that if the women got envious about the way their men delighted in Yvonne, they kept their peace about it.

A year or so before, out of inclination and necessity, we'd developed a rule that while using the bathroom to shave or shower, we'd leave the door unlocked so others could come and go. Before long our bashfulness had faded so thoroughly, I could sit and gab with Pat or Yvonne with they showered, as if they were in the kitchen, dressed and peeling potatoes.

Yvonne took lots of showers.

Nearly every Sunday afternoon following our Bible study with Tony, a carload of us would go to Indian Springs in Jamul, where our friends rented most of the cabin in an oak grove.

One day that year, Charles Manson had shown up at our friend Karl's cabin. He'd driven a VW bus from L.A., bringing Karl's wife's younger sister to haul back some of her stuff. Mostly records. They spent a few hours visiting, during which Manson prophesied to Karl about an upcoming race war wherein black people would exterminate the whites and run things until they realized they weren't smart enough and went looking for a white guy to lead them. Then Charlie would surface and save the world.

That night Karl told me about the lunatic who'd raved so convincingly that for a second now and then he almost seemed credible.

We were standing outside the Candy Company, a La Mesa coffeehouse that belonged to our friends Fred and Cliff. Fred lived in the Indian Springs cabin above Karl's. Sunday afternoons, Fred would invite us all out for a barbecue. The purists brought sprout-and-mushroom burgers, while Steve and I usually followed St. Paul's admonition - in the company of heathens, we ate what the heathens did.

Fred's barbecues were the best parties going because of the music. Whoever was booked that weekend at the Candy Company would usually stay with Fred. Jackson Browne played there. Steve Martin. Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Linda Ronstadt. Big Mama Thornton. Lightnin' Hopkins. Hoyt Axton. We got to drink, smoke, gab, feast, and jam with lots of talented people.

On one of those Sundays, Laurent drank a couple of shots of tequila, even though three years past he'd sworn off alcohol along with the drugs that had sparked his predictions of kidnappers from space.

The tequila made him nauseous. I was driving him home when a sharp pain struck his abdomen. I stopped at the market for Pepto Bismol. It didn't help. I raced home. Yvonne rubbed his belly, which made him yowl. All evening his face was contorted and he sweated as though with a dangerous fever, though his temperature was normal. Yvonne fixed an ice pack for his belly and daubed his brow with damp washcloths. Being a mother, she knew the tricks. She nursed him through the night. By morning when his pain subsided, she and Laurent were lovers. A week later they shared the basement.

Though Pam and Bill weren't living at our place, they spent most of the weekends there while Bill rehearsed with our band and Pam told us about Edgar Cayce, a psychic through whom dead guys revealed the past, explained mysteries, and prophesied. After a few of her pitches, Laura, Steve, and Pat accompanied her to a meeting of the Edgar Cayce study group she had joined. They came home from meetings with stories about their past lives, during which they'd usually been aristocrats, philosophers, martyrs, heroes, the sidekicks of prophets. When I inquired why they'd never been termites or skunks, Pam explained that they might've endured those lives too, but ascended spirits only bothered to reveal stuff that was relevant to our current predicaments and needs.

Out of curiosity, the skeptics among us allowed the group to hold a meeting at our place. Tony asked if he could attend and watch.

The group was a peculiar assortment of scraggly youths, 30ish clerks and salesmen, bookworms of all ages, and pudgy matrons. Their leader, Grace, was one of the latter. Though I'd never met her before, she greeted me as though we'd been intimate through several lifetimes.

They sat in a circle and held hands while Grace recited a prayer that invoked about 40 gods. Afterwards they launched straight into channeling. Grace babbled a message from a British fellow who called himself a professor yet couldn't formulate a sentence without using "bloody," "blimey," or "bloke."

Tony, Ron, and I were in the dining room, appalled to observe how easily our friends and wives could get duped. but the next channel was almost convincing. He was about 30. His slacks and button-down shirt were starched and creased. His familiar spirit was a Russian. The accent was slight but distinct. Though I hadn't asked, he picked on me. My latest past life, he claimed I'd spent as a brutal, reactionary general in the army of Czar Nicholas.

Afterward, while I walked Tony home, he asked, "Do you believe those people?"

"Nope."

"Laura and Steve and Pam do, though?"

"I guess."

"Ken, do you think Satan's really strong?"

"You'd know better than I do," I said, " What do you think?"

We walked the last block in silence while Tony contemplated. At the curb beside his house he spun to face me and leaned close. "I think he's getting stronger all the time."

Our band found a steady job. Friday and Saturday nights at the Garthunderous Wimbletoad, in the center of Del Mar. It was fun. But we spent more than our take on gas money, strings, beer, snacks, and the speakers we blew out. The last few weeks we only stayed on because of a promise the owner made that we could front for the Youngbloods at a Palomar College concert. He offered us $500, a hundred less than it would've cost for each of us to join the musician's union, a condition we'd need to meet. Then we would've had to rent amps and speakers. The $300 net loss, 50 apiece, we might've accepted. But $800 front money, when the promoter was at best a tightwad who might stiff us in the end, was more than our egos could bear.

When at last we quit the Wimbletoad, we vowed to rehearse two nights each week as well as Saturdays and to learn at least a few popular covers and requests. Soon we began to audition other clubs. But, our music aside, with antique Fender amps and Radio Shack speakers that made eerie buzz and blat sounds, we couldn't compete with groups whose giant Altec Lansing speakers would set a large nightclub to quaking in 4/4 time.

We had a goat. Sister Batrille. A demonic creature on a mission to destroy everything I built or planted. She devoured the tar paper off the chicken coop, the welcome mat out front of the basement, the handles of my rake and shovel. Her favorite delicacies were the fruit trees. If I fenced them with chicken wire, she ate it. For dessert she nibbled the leaves and shoots.

I had bought stronger fencing and dragged it to the rear corner of our yard beside the field between us and the Williamses. I pounded a tall stake and glared at the goat, which I'd leashed to a mutilated fig tree, hoping she'd comprehended the message that the next target of my sledgehammer could be her nose.

Yvonne came tripping out of the house and around toward the basement. She'd been using the shower and wore nothing except a towel on her head. All at once my anger fled.

In the field next door, old John Williams was chugging back and forth in the ancient tractor from which he couldn't bear to part when they'd retired and given up their North Dakota farm. Twice each year he hitched on the mower attachment and groomed the field.

Yvonne waved at me. Forgetting old John, I beckoned her to join me. She stepped lightly across the yard, dodging between trellised boysenberry vines. The day was a gem, hot, but dry, and smogless. I felt assured of defeating that goat. Yvonne stood beside me, brown and glistening, admiring my new fence. We might've been in Eden.

But John Williams spotted Yvonne.

He'd made the lower turn and straightened for the uphill pass. With his double take, the tractor bucked. The throttle must've slipped. His jaw dropped nearly to his lap, and dizziness must've overcome him. He careened toward Yvonne so far, his hands socked the ground. All that kept him from toppling off and being mowed to death was that the toe of his boot that wedged beneath the tractor seat.

Yvonne grabbed the towel off her head. Wrapping it modestly, she ran with me to his rescue.

That year I was a bus driver for San Diego City Schools, chauffeuring retarded kids in a 12-passenger International Carryall. The kids were lovable but impetuous. You never know when one might throw a fit or lunge for the window, announcing that he could fly.

Music seemed the best constraint. They'd bounce, wave their arms, sing along. We had a jolly time, as long as there was music. The bust featured a pushbutton radio, AM only, which I set to the one country and tree Top 40 stations most effective at distracting the kids.

One of the stations promoted itself with a big giveaway. Every hour or so they'd make a "random" phone call. If the person who answered could recite the jackpot amount to the penny, he'd win the whole pot. But nobody could. It seemed nobody besides me and the retarded kids paid attention to that station. The disc jockeys kept adding money, making phone calls, adding more money. About the time it reached ten grand, I got a premonition that the jackpot was mine. Although I constantly received premonitions, and consistently they proved wrong, this one I obeyed.

All day long, both shifts in the school bus, back and forth from home to the Clairemont bus garage, to SDSU, which I attended part time. I jotted the new number in my notebook. I kept the radio on that station even at home, until I despised nearly every song. Not only were most of them nitwitted, but they played them over and over. I told Laura and the others about my premonition so they'd quit shutting off the radio and would keep track themselves in case a disc jockey called while I was out. They humored me.

One evening, during dinner, Pat answered the phone and passed it to me. "Some guy who pronounces your name all wrong," she said. Expecting a salesmen, I grumbled hello.

"Ken?" he inquired.

"Who's this?"

"You don't know me." He asked if ever listened to the station that offered the big giveaway. I admitted so, and he asked how I'd like to win their jackpot.

"Huh?"

"I can help," he said.

"How's that?"

"Easy.”

If I was interested, I should meet him at nine in a cocktail lounge at the Stardust Hotel. He instructed me to wear jeans and sneakers with a dress shirt and tie, so he could pick me out.

As I hung up I felt cold and shivery. I told Laura I was going to meet a guy about a job for the band. The only person to whom I spilled the truth was Ron, probably because I sensed that beneath his monkish self-control - he and Pat even practiced celibacy for months at a time - lurked a heart as larcenous as mine.

In the cocktail lounge there was a large aquarium in which two bare-breasted women in mermaid tails performed a synchronized routine wherein water ballet met the Watusi. I settled at a table next to another at which a tall, swarthy fellow accepted money from an older man then jotted notes onto a pad. I'd gotten a beer and was studying the mermaids, enjoying the way their hair flowed, when the swindler tapped my shoulder.

He was about my age, 24, maybe a few years older. Medium height, light-brown hair, medium build, brownish-gray eyes - if they were the windows to his soul, he didn't have one. They might as well have been milky glass.

He gave me his name or a.k.a., sat down across the table called for a beer, and gazed around. Finally he turned to me. "You want to hear the deal?"

"Yep."

"It goes like this. At the station they pick numbers out of the phone book. They make a list a couple days ahead. The DJs work straight off the list. You're on it. I tell you when they're going to call. We split."

After marveling at my premonition come true, I sipped beer and calculated, trying to figure where his advantage lay, why should I cut him in. Finally I asked.

"You cut me in or else you don't get called. See, I've got a friend that works at the station, has access to the list. You say yes, I give you the day, tell you morning, afternoon, evening. Say no, you get scratched off the list. It's simple."

"It stinks," I growled. "Man, I've been writing down those numbers for a week now. You hadn't called, I would've won anyway."

"Maybe, unless I cut a deal with the guy before you on the list - by the time they call you, the jackpot's cleaned out and starting over at 50 bucks."

"Suppose somebody wins it legitimately, before they call me?"

He shrugged like a gracious loser. "Then we split 50 bucks."

The bookie at the next table must've eavesdropped. With a glance our way, he smiled icily and wagged his head, then swiveled his chair and scowled at the mermaids.

"What if we get popped?" I asked the swindler.

"How's that going to happen?" He allowed me a moment to speculate. "This isn't the first time we've played this game. So, how about it?"

I brooded, chewed my thumbnail. "How many people on the list?"

"A hundred."

"Why'd you pick me?"

"It's where my finger stopped. When I called - you've got an honest voice." He chuckled and offered me a cigarette. "How about it?"

"I don't know."

"You want to sleep on it, I'll phone you bright and early. If you're not home or don't answer..." He blew a kiss into the smoky air.

All the way home, between relishing what I could do with five and a half thousand dollars, I grumbled curses of outrage to think how this thief was trying to clip me of a fortune.

That damned jackpot was rightfully mine, I told Laura the minute I stormed into the house. Ron and Steve had waited up. I sent them to rouse the others. When we'd all gathered in the living room, I confessed the whole scheme and asked their advice.

"It's dishonest," Laura said.

"Do you think the DJ's going to ask if I plan to split with a swindler? I'm not cheating anybody. I'm the one getting robbed."

"How about that?" Laurent said. "Why do you have to pay this guy? What if you say you're going to split, then don't?"

"Then I'm lying, I've got a conscience to deal with, and I also get to worry if the guy's a lunatic who'll burn down the house or something."

Pat was nodding vigorously. "Besides, anything that comes of a lie will go wrong. It's a cosmic law. I should call Grace and ask her to channel, see what the ascended masters have to say."

I firmly rejected her offer, then Laurent asked about my plans for the money. Gazing around the silent room, I reviewed the alternatives. From my angle, there were three. Be wicked - keep the whole pot and try to ignore my friends' indignation. Or risk it all outfitting our band, which would please only half of us. Or I could divide it equally between us - including Bill and Pam and our drummer. That way each could buy his own equipment, everybody would be content, while our band leaped toward the big time.

"We'll split it equally," I announced. "That's if I decide to go through with the deal."

Ron came and sat beside me, gripped my knee and squeezed, while he gazed at the others. "Here's my idea - Ken's the only one who's got something to lose. If it goes wrong, he's the one that gets busted."

"How could it go wrong?" I asked.

"There's always something can go wrong. Always. So you're taking the risk and we've got nothing to lose. I say we give you the right to make up your own mind."

Everybody agreed, as they rose and wandered toward their beds. Except Yvonne, who stepped over and hugged me. "If you feel better not doing it, please don't. Okay?"

Laura and I lay in bed for a while talking ethics. Gently she contended that even if I didn't need to tell a lie, I'd have to participate in one. But she also suggested I ought to trust my heart and declared that she believed I'd make the right decision.

I considered walking to Tony's house, only I hesitated to wake him up at one a.m., and I was reasonably sure he'd say that Christ would tell me to refuse if I had the faintest doubt, if the action could tarnish my spirit or soul. There was no use in punishing myself with Tony's, or Jesus', wisdom and concern when I'd already taken Laura's advice and sided with my sorry heart - which longed to make everybody happy.

As a final gesture, I got up and consulted the bible. I opened it at random. To a page in Chronicles. I was relieved to find nothing that seemed to apply.

After a fitful sleep, I woke to the swindler's phone call. "How much is the jackpot?"

"A lot," I muttered.

"Eleven thousand, one hundred twenty-seven dollars and sixty-two cents. Got that?"

"Hold on." I reach for pend and paper.

"You're third on the list. We're dealing?"

"Yeah," I growled.

Since they called somebody every hour or so beginning at 8:00 a.m. we turned the morning into a celebration. Pat went out and robbed the chickens, got Swiss chard from the garden, and made us omelettes. Steve drove to the Thriftimart for bear claws. We all sat around the living room, radio blaring, and belittled popular songs.

The DJ called early. We listened to him dialing. Steve and Laurent pulled me out of my chair, escorted me to the telephone. "Is this...Ken...Cuke-lin?" the DJ bellowed.

"Close enough. Who's this?"

He told me and, allowing time for suspense, asked why I wasn't out working.

"I'm lazy."

"Oh, ha-ha. Well, what radio station do you listen to Ken?"

"Mostly that one out of Del Rio, Texas."

"Oh, yeah the Wolfman," he rasped. "So what's your favorite song?"

"Dust My Broom."

"Who sings that?"

"Robert Johnson."

"He a new guy?"

"A dead guy."

"Okay... Well, then, shall we get down to business?"

"Business?" I heard Yvonne remark how innocent I sounded and Laurent quip that I must be a born liar. The DJ explained about the jackpot and asked if I'd ever tuned in.

"I'll be darned," I said. "I was spinning the dial a few minutes ago, landed on your station. Was that you adding money to the giveaway?"

"That was me! Do you remember the amount, to the penny?"

"Sure."

"To the penny?"

"Eleven thousand, two hundred and three dollars and thirteen cents."

"You win," he howled. "You win! He wins!"

I expected a little revelry, for some of the DJ's enthusiasm, phony as it might've been, to stir at least a couple of us to dance or whoop. But everybody sat in silence, watching me.

The DJ asked what I'd do with the money.

"Maybe live in the tropics for ten years," I said. "Surf. Eat tamales. Dive for oysters, maybe."

"Aren't you going to buy anything?"

"Towels. A new pair of sunglasses." Tiring of my answers, he switched me to an officer person who commented that I sounded awfully cool for somebody who'd just won a fortune. I shuddered but declined to honor his suspicions with an answer. We made arrangements where and when I should pick up the loot, then they released me from the phone. I'd only hugged Yvonne, Laura, Pat, and Steven when it clanged again. Steve answered and passed it to me. It was my supervisor from the bus garage.

"Lucky you were sick this morning. Hadn't been, it would've cost you eleven grand."

Another guy who didn't believe I'd won on the level. I made some crack about the rewards of virtue. He cackled and suggested that - if I planned to continue driving a bus rather than retiring or becoming an entrepreneur - I should consider buying new Levi's instead of dressing like a hobo.

"See you Monday, Brain." I hung up and swilled a glass of champagne that had materialized. We toasted, laughed, took mock-solemn oaths not to allow wealth to spoil our simple, proletarian natures. All that time I kept an eye on the door and the parking lot, waiting for the police to arrive.

Our celebration had just cooled down and I as munching a peanut butter sandwich when the first old friend called with a business proposition. He wanted to buy a certain house in Lemon Grove, fix it up for a rental, then buy another. Not long after I brushed him off, another opportunist phoned. Since the last time we'd met, in junior high, he'd become a stockbroker.

The couple hours before we went out for pizza, using coupons, I sat curled around my guitar listening to whoever answered the phone tell callers I'd moved to Costa Rica and working out the chords to "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

After pizza we drove to the Jail, a club on Garnet in Pacific Beach where we'd been playing Sunday evenings the past couple months. They'd offered us a quarter of reach pitcher they sold and a promise to advertise and book us Friday and Saturdays before too long. It sounded okay, until we learned that most Sunday drinkers are repentant or broke. Thirty pitchers, $7.50 for the six of us, was a good night. And every weekend that passed, their promises got more tentative.

Vindictively, we ran up an IOU, drank our fill, then resigned. Who needed the Jail when by next week we'd have bought a four-column P.A. with a mixer, two Vox guitar amps with speakers galore, a Fender Bassman with four Altec Lansings, Rogers drums with Zildjian cymbals? In a month, we might be headlining at the Troubadour in Hollywood or the Lighthouse in Santa Monica.

Except on Tuesday, about 20 hours after I'd passed out checks to everybody, Bill announced he was moving to San Francisco to find a more progressive band. Blues was growing old, he said.

Nobody would join me in coaxing him to stay. Not even Pam, who would follow as soon as he found a gig. Steve was his loyal brother, who trusted Bill's wisdom. Our drummer had sped off somewhere on his Triumph 650. A couple days later, he would call from Vegas, asking me for a loan. Ron and Pat didn't fret over Bill's desertion, since they'd decided to pack up their milk truck and head for Oregon. Before they squandered their share of the loot, they'd make a down payment on a farm. Even Laurent and Yvonne chose to flee, to Eureka where he'd decided to finish a college degree in art.

Laura beckoned me into our room, sat me down, and rubbed my shoulders. "Kenny," she whispered. "You can find another band, or you guys'll get back together on day. But first, we can go to Europe like we've always wanted. It's the perfect time."

They all spoke as if the giveaway had set them free to chase some dream they'd been nursing all along. But I wonder if we might've all sensed the curse descending and hoped to outrun the damned thing.

In July I finished my novel. A teacher of mine referred me to a certain New York agent, who promised to read the manuscript before we passed through New York.

We spent August in Oregon on Ron and Pat's farm, then parked our van at my mom's place, arranged for a drive-away car, and cruised east in time to see New England's autumn. We met my new agent on the 35th floor of a New York skyscraper a few minutes after some vengeful writer or performer had called in a bomb threat. My agent wore a suit that probably cost more than our share of the giveaway. Though he represented big shots, he was hardly older than me and confessed that he'd read my novel while stoned, yet couldn't put it down.

Laura and I soared off to Europe on a budget flight, crammed in with about a thousand college dropouts who didn't realize they had a pre-famous author among them. Our first stop was Brussels, where our friend Gus had discovered a medical school for $5 a year. Gus had lived with us for a couple years and had been so shameless a womanizer that if anybody asked why he'd left the country, we told them he'd run out of fresh women. He knew about the giveaway and how I had split the loot. One minute he'd imply that I was a saint, the next he'd say I was loco or had been led astray by hippie ideals, which were okay most of the time and fine to meditate upon, but not worth ten grand.

Nobody knew the fraud except those of us who shared in it. Not even Gus, whom I'd known since eighth grade and trusted perfectly. So I couldn't admit that part of the reason I shared was to buy myself partners in crime.

From Brussels we caught a train north to Bergen, Norway. The next few months we made our way south just ahead of the bitter cold. Arriving in Hamburg, Paris, Andorra, Madrid, and Casablanca - the destinations we'd written home about - we made straight for American Express, anticipating a legal-sized envelope with a book contract inside. But all we got was letters, usually one from Steve about the new people occupying our home, one from my mother about her dog, and a package from Laura's mom containing strange gifts like $2 bills and pantyhose.

Every Saturday, January through early March, while we camped on a Moroccan beach, spending about $6 a week of the hundred or so that remained of the giveaway and our life savings, one of us would hitch a ride to the American Express in Agadir.

When wanderlust next bit, we caught a ride across North Africa to Tunis, from where we sailed to Sicily, hitched rides in trucks with maniacal drivers who'd blast through small towns with an elbow on the horn and foot denting the floorboard. We sailed from Brindisi and arrived in Athens with 50 cents. We had to choose between a bust to the American Express office and one to the village of Nea Makri, where an ex-student of our high school teacher neighbor had been living, the last we'd heard.

We plunked our last change into the busman's strongbox and a few minutes later hopped off in front of the American Express. The line for mail was long and slow. A couple of overweight Texans nagged the clerk about a damaged package. At least they stomped away, and the clerk brought me the envelope with my name in capitals and "William Morris Agency" in the upper left corner. Inside were three rejection letters and a note that read, "Sorry. How about revising a couple of things, like..."

I became mute from distress. Laura bargained with a bus driver, traded him a dozen Moroccan beads for our passage to Nea Makri, a beach town on the Bay of Marathon, a couple miles sough of the U.S. Navy communications station where Rick, our neighbor's ex-student, worked as an apprentice electrician. He and his girlfriend Juanita gave us our own room in their cottage.

Soon Laura got hired as a waitress on the base, and I found a job at the American school for military brats. A couple of days a week, I substitute taught in the middle school, usually English, history, or softball. My mom sent a copy of my novel, and through most of April I worked hard revising. The day I'd finished penciling changes, a hellhound pup Juanita called Bufus sprang onto the kitchen table, lifted his leg, and sopped my life's work.

In early July, a couple of months after Laura had announced she needed out from under my shadow, I landed at Kennedy Airport alone. My plan was to visit my agent and accept the offer that by now, I imagined, he must've secured for my twice-revised novel. I'd take the contract to a bank. They'd lend me the price of a flight home in time for my mom's July 10 birthday. Instead, after visiting my agent, I plodded downtown to Greenwich Village, wondering how a guy could rave about my novel and ten months later declare it unpublishable.

I found a jeweler who gave me $50 for a half kilo of Moroccan beads, then I arranged for a rental car. From Travelers Aid I got the names of a couple of Europeans who'd share gas to the West Coast. We sped through the nights so I could reach home July 9.

Back on Helix Street, since all the other rooms were taken, I moved into the basement. My old friend Terry had our old room upstairs next to Steve's. A new couple occupied the apartment. A neighbor girl inhabited the storage room off the garage. Ron was back from Oregon in his milk truck under the pepper tree.

During the ten months since we'd left their farm, he and Pat had gotten disillusioned because farming hadn't quieted their spirits. They must've blamed each other. Until midwinter they'd fought and held on. But finally Pat ran home to Spring Valley, where she spent a few weeks on the couch before moving in with Steve. Where Ron found her.

For days he and Pat screamed and accused. When Steve tried to mediate, he was pummeled by Pat, shoved and threatened by Ron, who was a tough little guy and explosive. You always wondered if one day he'd give up pacifism and mutilated somebody.

By the time I returned, a month or so after Pat had found yet another man, a sailor who moonlighted at a gas station down the hill, Ron was attending primal therapy sessions. I might awake at 3:00 a.m. to his howling, and he was always smashing things. Usually they belongs to Steve. Like the ceramic Venus de Milo Steve had bought in Tijuana and made into a fountain by running a hose up through her torso. Ron socked her in the belly and broke her in two.

He might've gone back to the farm after assimilating the loss of his woman, except two months in a row, he'd written the check, stamped the envelope, tossed it on his dashboard where it blended with health food brochures and grocery coupons. Neither check go mailed, and since they'd bought the place on a land contract, they lost it.

Later that year, Pat and the sailor got married and became Jehovah's Witnesses, about the same time Ron started worshipping at Skyline Wesleyan Church across the valley. Another year and he'd leave us for a Baptist Bible college.

It seemed the rock bands of San Francisco hadn't laid in wait for the arrival of Bill's guitar. He gave the adventure about a month until he got strep throat. Then he climbed on a Greyhound. Pam was in the second term of her second pregnancy, so Bill took a job with the welfare department. Nights he sat drinking and fingering jazz chords while Pam rushed around performing motherly chores. Fearing that if Pam got her way, he'd become the father of a multitude, he reminded her of his music ambitions and gave several dozen reasons why he preferred not to spend 30 years as an eligibility worker.

Pam agreed to get her tubes tied and let on she had. So when, only months after Melissa arrived, she announced their third child's conception, Bill spring up in outrage, dumping her off his lap onto the floor, where she yowled like a cougar before attacking him so viciously he snatched up his Gibson and fled.

While he roomed with his folks in La Mesa, Bill stopped by to tell us the latest from the Edgar Cayce group. How Grace had channeled the news that the child Pam carried wasn't Bill's at all, but one who'd been immaculately conceived. A boy who'd become their messiah.

Bill, Steve, Ron, and I slapped our legs, slid off the sofa, pounded the floor. It was the best time we shared after the giveaway. Usually we stood on guard. To me it felt as if the sky had fallen and too many people had been crushed.

There was Mike, a vegetarian who abhorred vegetables and ate mostly peanut butter and candy bars, a handsome kid but terrified of females, whom he longs for too passionately. So he'd get drunk and mournful. Twice in that state he locked the bathroom door and slashed a vein, then wept and wailed for me to save him.

One of my oldest friends, a mythically rugged guy, moved in when he and his wife broke up. Before long, he'd swallowed a jar of sleeping pills on top of too much tequila. We found him in a lump in the back yard.

Every week that tragedy spared us, I suspected it was prowling nearby, waiting for my vigilance to tire and studying my defenses.

By September, Laura had discovered who she was and come home. She wanted a child. Before long we conceived my daughter. While she grew and Laura became ever more joyous and contented, I was perplexed by the weirdest chain of maladies. I suffered boils on my knees, in the armpits, up the nose. Then hypochondria struck me.

The band had reunited to rehearse for a benefit at the rehab center for heroin addicts where Laurent's brother resided. Sandy came by with her blackbirds. About midnight, the muscles around my heart began twitching. They twitched for months. Six or seven years would pass before I gave up monitoring most every beat.

But my baby daughter redeemed that year. Darcy came with great puffy cheeks and fluttery eyes, wispy hair, blond like in old photos of my dad. She would laugh and coo, want to nurse all day long. If she fussed, we took her for a ride - she'd make little poof sounds while drifting to sleep. Only a few weeks old, she learned how to give a raspberry. At two months she could draw spiderwebs. She awakened me to love.

Darcy was one reason we decided to move to Iowa, where I'd return to school in hopes that my next novel wouldn't get tagged unpublishable. But we would've left the old house anyway, before I'd let Darcy stay in a home over which a curse had fallen. Misguided fellow that I remained, despite lessons and signs, I thought the curse was on the place.

Tony might've set me straight, except he'd become schizophrenic. When the kids from his church gave up their house down the hill, while Laura and I lounged on the beach in Morocco, Tony got lost and woke up at County Mental Health in a room with a couple of hobos who transformed before his eyes into demons.

They released him to his sister, who lived up the hill from our place. He discarded the medicine they'd prescribed. He'd wander to our place and stumble around grinning or muttering feebly. If we gave him coffee, he'd spill it. Food, he'd take a bite then forget. When I asked him to read the Bible, he might open it and gape at the page, looking bewildered as though I'd flipped it upside down.

I still see him walking or perched on the bus stop at the corner of La Mesa Boulevard and University Avenue. He dresses cleanly. He still has bushy hair. He carries two duffel bags and always leans forward from the waist and neck, as though peering into the future. It's been a couple years since I've stopped, because every time I did, it broke my heart. I want to redeem Tony, to make amends in the name of our whole mutinous generation. But all I can think to do is pray.

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