I worked as a substitute teacher around the Grossmont High School district while struggling with my second novel, in hopes that it wouldn’t end up on the shelf with my first novel. By the school year’s end, I lost the patience substitute teaching required. Any day, I might have plucked some 14-year-old out of his seat and bounced him head first down the corridor. So I went job-hunting and found myself principal of a school at Camp X, in the mountains 80 miles east near Jacumba.
Helix Street household, 1972
The camp, which belonged to a huge black fellow named J.B., featured oak glens and chaparral hills, a pond that covered several acres, a community room, an office building, and six cabins, each of them named for a legendary ball player. Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson. The neighboring properties were ranches and a small Indian reservation. Since the road to the camp crossed Indian land and the Indians were just hostile enough to refuse passage to official vehicles, neither sheriffs nor fire crews were liable to visit, even in emergencies.
J.B. lavished promises of an industrial arts building, renovated ball fields, a bus to use on field trips. He promised that within six months, the camp would be a showplace where boys could discover their value and learn skills to build decent lives. Only J.B. was a liar.
The boys were wards of the L. A. County court system. Most of them read at about second-grade level. Through summer, I was their only teacher. In October 1973, when the L.A. Unified School District delivered their promise of minimal funding, I hired two other teachers.
Jane was a young black woman, gifted in art and writing, pretty, but so thin people worried about her health. She lived in San Diego and rode to the camp with me. On the way, we told each other our stories.
Probably because I sensed hell approaching, I gave Jane an account of my first bout with terror, when one of my father’s first angina attacks occurred in a bucket, high above Long Beach, at an amusement park called the Pike. Hoisted by a cable, the bucket rose to a height from which you could view the L.A. Civic Center, the San Bernardino and Santa Ana Mountains, Catalina Island. Its passengers were my dad, me, a young couple, and the guide — who pointed out the landmarks and finally radioed Earth to request our descent. But the hoist operator replied that the damned machine had stalled again.
Hurray, I thought. My father doubled over with heart pains. He managed to grab and swallow a few nitroglycerin pills before he collapsed. His face turned ashen then purplish. Every second of a half hour I thought I saw him die.
My wife Laura and I lived in the basement of a Spring Valley two-bedroom house on a hillside half acre. There were gardens, fruit trees, chickens, a goat, and ten people. The first couple of years we lived there, when most of us played in a rock and blues band, the place was lively with music and debates about ethics, food, and God. But a curse had struck.
One roommate, a street evangelist Christian, had descended into schizophrenia and been institutionalized. A middle-aged veteran of the Pachuco wars had moved in and brought his nephew. The uncle was battling the remains of a heroin addiction. The nephew was a lonely, brooding kid, driven from his home and his mother by a violent stepfather. He found a companion in another newcomer who sang like Jim Morrison but lacked charisma. He drank, strummed guitar, and crooned “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” After a six-pack or so, he would blubber a vow to call this or that woman. But he never called. In August he locked himself in the bathroom, slit his wrist, and moaned for my help but wouldn’t open the door. I had to bust the lock and rush him to the fire station.
A month later, an old friend showed up after his wife kicked him out. We were on our way to a movie and invited him along, but he declined. He drank most of a quart of tequila, washing down a bottle of sleeping pills. Later I found him lying in the doorway to the basement and had to drag his 230 pounds to the fire station.
On Saturday, Christmas eve, my old partner Steve pulled into the dirt lot beside our place, after two years’ absence, during which he’d finished college at Humboldt State University. He was driving a ’48 Dodge pickup with a cracked front windshield. His girlfriend Yvonne had clobbered it with a brick as he pulled away. They had feuded over her friendship with another guy. In the midst of that trouble, Steve fell for a new woman, a friend of Yvonne’s. But one November day as they walked through the Trinity Mountains, a pain attacked his stomach so ferociously he decided it had to be caused by a demon.
When he confessed this to his new “soul mate,” she said, “You’re weird,” and caught a bus back home to New Jersey the next day. But Steve wouldn’t give up. He was going to appear at her door with a bouquet, an engagement ring, and the news that he’d found his vocation. He would turn from art to sciences and become a physician.
Compared to Steve, I felt useless, robotic, misguided, uninspired, stale. My marriage appeared sunk. Laura and I only spoke in passing. Camp X school was a flop, yet I felt ashamed to leave for three days’ vacation. Writing all day on Sundays, my only free day each week, I made no progress on my novel. Often I was too tired to sleep and would lie awake muttering forlorn prayers. Though I felt light-years removed from God, on the day after Christmas, while a crowd banged guitars and sang in the living room, I sprawled on our bed and petitioned Him to raise me from the dead and grant me intensity like Steve’s.
On the day I discovered hell, my friend Bob joined Jane and me on our trek up the mountain. He was student teaching and needed to log observation hours at a nontraditional school. We warned him that the camp might be tense.
The Monday before Christmas, Jane and I had driven into the camp and found an enormous pig chained to the oak tree in the clearing. Donald was feeding it grain out of the palm of his hand. Donald was the boy who most inspired me to remain at the camp. He was 13 years old and had lived on the streets until convicted of selling weapons.
The next day, we found Donald standing beside the oak, above the carcass of his pig. He looked deranged and bedraggled, as if he’d stood all night in the rain, all morning in a dusty wind. His mop of wooly grayish hair was flecked with dirt and dried specks of leaves.
“She dead,” Donald croaked. His muddy chin trembled. Then his gravelly voice roared, “That boy Jeff! Him and Q! Lucy be squealing, like she try to tell us all something. Q slam and slam this board with the nails till she die. You watch and see don’t I kill him!”
Over Christmas, the boys looted the kitchen at night and broke into the tool shed looking for any substance that would tweak their brains.
A sheriffs car was parked outside the general store at the junction of the paved road and the two-mile trail that led through the Indian reservation to the camp. Alan, a pale boy whose lying and thievery had gotten him booted from one foster placement to the next, sat in the back of the cruiser, in the cage. The doors were locked, the windows had no handles. The sheriff, whom I found inside buying gum, said Alan had shoplifted cheese crackers with peanut butter. The sheriff released him to me.
On the way to camp Alan recounted his AWOL adventure. Sure the Crips, led by Little J, were plotting to snuff him, having accused him of stealing a stash of pills. So he had decided to run off until after the holidays, when J.B. was supposed to return. He’d hitched to San Diego and spent the holiday panhandling around Belmont Park, sleeping with drunks beside the Mission Beach jetty. “This foxy chick took me home for Christmas dinner,” he boasted, “but some old bitch threw me out. Probably her of lady.”
As we neared the camp, I must have sensed what the day would bring. Bob could read my face, since he and I had traveled around the country and shared an apartment. “What’s up?” he said. “You look like that time you freaked on acid.”
He was talking about a Saturday three years past, when I’d swallowed a tab of LSD, then roamed our yard contemplating chickens, bugs, and Swiss chard until Laura reminded me that we were going to dinner at Barrett Junction, 30 miles out the Tecate highway, with a dozen friends. She asked me to call them, and I might have declined the chore if I hadn’t been stupefied. I called a few people and began to recognize I was too stoned to organize anything when a high school friend phoned. Back when we’d known each other, six years before, drugs weren’t an issue. For all I knew, by now he might belong to the FBI. I couldn’t confess to the LSD, or he might think me a fiend. Neither could I decipher his queries or ask sensible questions. After a loaded silence, he mumbled good-bye and hung up. I stood still. The phone dropped from my hand. The pounding of my heart was bruising my trachea. Breathing became conscious labor. I staggered outside, terrified by the conviction that my every molecule was in mutiny. If my will slackened for an instant, I would disintegrate or fall prey to some alien power.
The backup house parents at the camp were Walt and Esther, the older couple who served as handyman and cook. They lived next door but could run over during emergencies. Though Esther wouldn’t arrive before 9:00, the dining hall doors were open wide. Michael Jackson blasted out of J.B.’s radio from the office, which was off-limits to the boys, most of whom we found sprawled in the office lobby, smoking, drinking Kool-Aid, eating crackers, corn flakes, bread and jam they’d looted out of the dining hall. As we entered, half of them slunk out the back way and wandered into the oak grove. Q, Rat, Little J, and Jeff stayed behind. Q was black, handsome, and tallest of the boys. His common expression was a smirking glower. He and Rat — a slight, younger boy who possessed the brightest vocabulary and highest reading level in camp — perched on the sofa and love seat, watching us defiantly.
“José around?” I asked. José was my friend and the newly hired part-time counselor. A month ago, though I warned him that J.B. was a crook, he’d agreed to an internship.
“He left when Bill come,” Rat said. “He say, ‘Don’t be messing up on Bill.’ ”
Jeff, a pudgy white kid of 16, giggled. The others laughed cruelly. I walked into J.B.’s office, held the door for Bob and Jane, and shut it behind them. When the door latched, Bob declared, “This place is an asylum.”
“It’s not always this tense,” Jane said. “Lord, today the air feels polluted with hate.”
Bob stared out the window. “Aren’t there guards or anything?”
“It’s a foster placement, not a detention facility.”
“Was one of those kids the one who shot an old lady?”
“Yeah. Little J. The stocky one with buzzed hair.”
“And who fried a retarded kid’s eye with a cigarette?”
“So why do they send those kind here, where there aren’t any guards?”
I asked Jane to phone J.B.’s place in Beverly Hills while I went looking for Bill, our teacher of math and sciences, a young white man who earned minor respect from the boys for his basketball skills. Besides teaching, he agreed to spend three nights a week in the rusty travel trailer, which sat on flat tires beside the pond, while J.B. took those days in Los Angeles, allegedly fundraising.
The boys had vacated the trashed waiting room. As I walked past the oak tree, Willy ran out from behind the dining hall and joined me. Out of eight or nine boys I had seen this morning, only Willy looked calm. He was a smooth-talking Puerto Rican who had taken up burglary to support his womanizing habit. We walked together toward the trailer between the ball field and the pond.
“What’s up?” I asked. “Did Q and his partners take over the place?”
“They going crazy, is all. Pissed off, man.”
“You and J.B. and the police and their mamas and everybody, you know.”
“You know, J.B. all the time be lying. Besides, Santa Claus don’t bring what they want. They all getting sick of oatmeal and peanut butter. Ain’t no good dope up here. No girls either. You know, things.”
“What’s with Bill? Did they stomp him?”
“Aw, Q tells Jeff, ‘Go on and say to Mister Wizard, “We going to do a science project. We going to cut your dick off, see do it grow back.” ’ Jeff always does like Q tells him. Pretty soon, Bill’s creeping down to his trailer. Miguel goes down there to ask him arithmetic, some stuff about how much overtime do you got to work at minimum wage to make a couple hundred a week. Bill and him have to shout through the window, ’cause Bill, he’s got the door locked, won’t open up.”
Bill had spotted us. As we ducked into the shade of his tarpaulin awning, he threw open the trailer door and urged us to enter.
We sat around the cramped dining nook, our knees rubbing each others’, while Bill offered his conclusions—how the boys had discovered the jimson weed that grew on the far slope of the hill; how between that and the grass and the Methedrine a friend of Jeff’s delivered before José could chase him away, the boys who weren’t loaded were coming down. And according to whispers Bill overheard, at least one of the boys had a gun.
As Willy and I left the trailer, Bill locked it. We noticed that across the pond, Miguel was laboring with a hacksaw, cutting the chain that secured the rowboat. Willy said, “Be cool, Professor,” and started across the ball field to join Miguel. In the office, Jane was giving Bob profiles of the boys. She had spoken to J.B., who infuriated her by insinuating he wouldn’t discuss the predicaments at the camp with anybody except me. “Meaning, Jane’s hysterical,” she hissed. “You call the fool. I’m not going to hear any more of his attitude today.” She dialed his number and shoved the phone at me.
After a couple rings, J.B. growled hello. I passed along Bill’s conclusions and what Willy had told me, adding that J.B. had best believe it; the boys were on the edge of mutiny. They had looted the kitchen, trashed his lobby. Miguel was presently hacksawing the rowboat free.
“Find out who’s got the gun,” he demanded. “Get that punk away from my rowboat and make them clean up the lobby. I find a dust mote in there, nobody's getting a nibble of the food I’m bringing down. And don’t you go calling the sheriffs, Professor. We can take care of our own.”
“And you’re on your way?”
“Yeah, here I go, heading for the door.”
Alan ran into the office, his nose and lip bleeding, one sleeve of his windbreaker tom off. He staggered to the wall and collapsed against it, slid down to the floor. Jane knelt beside him and softly asked for an explanation.
“I ain’t telling a thing,” he whimpered.
Jane helped him peel off the rest of the windbreaker, gave him tissues to daub away the blood, brought a damp paper towel from the restroom. As he wiped his eyes, he groaned, “I’m as good as dead.”
“When I was running away, he shouts, says if I go snitch, I’m dead. Get me out of here, Professor.”
“I ain’t telling.”
We heard Walt and Esther arrive and go into the dining hall. Jane joined them and helped with the cleanup. Bob accompanied her while I stayed behind to question Alan, who refused to enlighten me about the gun or drugs but claimed he’d seen Donald perched in a tree. I pictured Donald there with the gun on his lap, waiting to blast Q’s head open from the topside.
Nine o’clock a.m. was time for my reading class to begin. As we crossed the clearing, Alan hung close beside me like a toddler clutches pant legs. He froze when Q strutted out of the dining hall. Flashing his most predatory grin, Q turned and bobbed slowly downhill toward the pond.
Jane stood alone in the dining hall, in the midst of whitewashed picnic benches. She leaned on a broom and gazed past us at the door.
“What’d he say?” Alan asked. “Oh,” she murmured, “just being his sweet self. He said all the boys were talking gang rape, only they decided it would be a drag with a skinny bitch like me.”
We decided to attempt our normal schedule. In the classroom we found Donald’s Charlie Brown books trashed and strewn around the tables and floor. While I gathered them and began repairs, Jane set up for an art project, a charcoal sketch of a cat figurine, but not a student appeared except Willy, who only dropped in to tell us he wouldn’t attend classes today.
“How about Donald?” I asked. “Have you seen him?”
“I don’t see nobody, man, only us vatos cruising the pond, round and round, getting dizzy.”
To get Alan to draw a sketch with Jane, I had to cross the room to her table; he wouldn’t leave my side. Bob returned from assisting the handyman and encouraged Alan, who was sketching a cat nothing like the figurine. His cat featured a long, pointed nose and tail and bushy whiskers. I tried to watch his progress but strange sensations distracted me—icy spots on my hands and fingers, as if some frigid creature had touched me. I imagined an albino devil inviting me to join her for a stroll. I lay my head in my arms on the table, so Jane and the boys couldn’t notice my fright. My skin felt both hot and clammy. My temples throbbed I attempted many rhythms and depths of breathing.
Esther tiptoed into our classroom. “The boys cleaned us out. There’s not a morsel. I’m going to run to the store.”
“But J.B. already owes you a fortune,” I said.
“I know, but we can’t let the boys starve or go robbing the neighbors.”
Soon after she left, a distant gun cracked. The next moment, Donald walked in. He stopped beside the door, stared around, then picked up one of the few intact Charlie Brown books and joined us. He wore a freshly laundered T-shirt, polished boots. His face looked just washed, so the freckles shone. A hair pick stuck up from his crown like a purple cowlick.
“Look at you, handsome,” Jane said. “Have you got a date?”
“No,” he croaked, then opened the Charlie Brown book and sat beside me. I asked if he was okay. He stared me in the eye and nodded with such conviction, it appeared he’d grown into a man over Christmas, and to prove it was so, he read the entire book, mumbling the words without asking for help.
A few minutes before noon, Jane left for the bathroom in the office. Donald was critiquing Alan’s cat sketch. “Ain’t no cat have whiskers that long. And his neck so skinny, he look like a giraffe.” After he finished, while Alan pouted, Esther came in with a plate of bologna sandwiches and said that she and her husband were going home, but we should be sure to call them in case of an emergency. Meanwhile, she would plan a cheap, wholesome evening meal.
Bob, Alan, Donald, and I carried the sandwiches to the office where we’d stashed a few sodas in J.B.’s small refrigerator. In the chair behind J.B.’s desk, Jane sat rigid, gnawing a thumbnail.
“Q again,” she said, wiping her mouth as if she’d spoken a dirty word. “Him and Jeff and Little J, all three came running from up at the cabins, waving me down like they’ve got a message. Jeff gets in my face with his silly grin. He says, ‘We all held us a powwow and decided, since you’re a pig, we’re all going to tie you to the tree and make you bleed, like we did to that other pig.’ ”
She made a shuffle-kick at nothing, stood frozen a moment, then jumped around the desk and yanked open the middle drawer. Her hand darted in and out with one of J.B.’s prized cigars. She gripped it in both hands, snapped it in two, and began shredding the remains, while I grabbed the phone and dialed J.B.’s number. When he answered, I yelled, “You keep saying you’re on your way! And every time I call you’re still — aw, hell, never mind. You’ve got a million excuses. All that matters to me right now is — if you’re still there next time I call, I’m gone.”
Alan sputtered, “You ain’t gonna leave without me?”
In a flat voice meant to placate, J.B. said, “What’s the latest?”
“Let’s see. Q and Jeff are threatening to tie Jane to the tree and rape her. We’re out of food, except what Esther had to buy for lunches. Nobody showed up for school. Alan thinks they’re going to kill him. To sum it up, J.B., what we’ve got here is an incipient riot.”
“Incipient,” J.B. growled. “I’ll be there by, say, 2:30.” Donald asked me to write “incipient” and its meaning, so I did, then we ate, drank our sodas, and grimaced at each other. The phone rang. Jane took the call, listened, said, “J.B.’s not here. Just a minute,” and passed the receiver to me.
A sheriff asked my position at the camp and reported that an elderly couple had phoned in a complaint that a group of our boys, a half dozen or so, had marched through their orchard, heading south toward the highway. While I pictured Q and his crew descending upon the rest area and hijacking a Budweiser truck, the sheriff suggested I gather all the boys, count heads, and get back to him.
Leaving Bob, Jane, Donald, and Alan to protect each other, I walked outside, listened, and gazed around, my nerves electric, as though the Santa Ana wind was inside me. The sense of being followed seized me. I imagined ghosts in the trees. The clouds had blown south and hung in a ridge along the border. The smaller branches of oaks rustled. By listening closely, I heard a tractor engine ignite, a bell at the village school ring, somebody whistle loudly. I rounded the pond where Miguel, Willy, and Julio were spinning themselves dizzy in the rowboat, whooping in Spanish. I climbed the hill to the lookout and spotted cows and goats out beyond the wire fencing and a CHP cruiser chasing a red sports car down the grade.
An arroyo ran along the far base of the hill. I knew of a washed-away cave where boys used to hide if they’d angered J.B. They lounged in the shaded sand until evening, when a beer and dinner mellowed him.
I crept to the arroyo’s edge, knelt, and bent to peer beneath the overhang. A lanky redhead the boys called Orphan Arnie yelped, “Whoa.” His two companions rolled over and stared bug-eyed at me. Preston, once a candidate for all-city fullback — before he assaulted an arresting officer — appeared soberest of the three. “We be staying out of trouble, Professor, and that’s all we doing.”
“What kind of trouble are you staying out off?”
“Go on, man. What you think — we gonna snitch on our homeboys?”
“Then how about you go find Q and his amigos and tell them the sheriffs after them, and if he nabs them outside the camp, no way I’m taking them back — they go straight to the Hall.”
“Damn!” Amie yipped. “You be bad, Professor.” He and his sidekick Lewis giggled, and Lewis toppled backward onto the sand.
I crossed the meadow, kept wheeling around hoping to spot whoever it was following me, but I saw nobody. There were campfire rings all over the meadow and hillside, as if the boys had been picnicking nightly. The morning glory vine at the edge of the oak grove was harvested clean of its psychedelic seeds. I climbed through the grove to the high side, walked alongside the rail fence that marked Walt and Esther’s property, and finished my rounds by latching the driveway gate.
In the office, Bob and Jane sat stiffly awaiting my report while Alan shot marbles on the floor and Donald leaned back in J.B.’s chair looking smug, as if he might smoke the cigar he was fondling any second. I reported what I’d seen, then phoned J.B.’s number, hoping he wouldn’t answer. He did, and I snapped, “Don’t tell me, you’re on your way out the door.”
“How am I supposed to take care of business so I can leave when you keep me on the line bellyaching?”
I swallowed enough of my fury so I could speak. “The sheriff called. It looks like Q, Rat, Jeff, and Little J are out setting up a robbery.”
“Sheriffs!” J.B. bellowed. “Why is it you can’t keep a eye on a few boys just till I get there? You just sit tight and try not to mess up anymore. José ought to be there any minute.”
“I called him. And I’m on my way out the door.”
When I hung up, Donald was at the window. “Look here,” he croaked, “out where the Indians stay — smoke signals.” Alan sprang up and raced around the desk to the window. I gazed out over their heads. The plume didn’t look like any signal, but it was from the reservation. It could be a heap of trash, I thought, or a corn field they were burning. I returned to the phone, dialed the sheriffs number, reported the smoke and the four missing boys. Bob, Jane, Alan, and Donald hustled outside and up the road to where they could overlook the fire — a blazing wooden shack that might have been a chicken roost, a tool shed or somebody’s idea of a residence. It looked harmless enough, clear of any other buildings, trees, or thick brush. A half dozen Indians stood pointing hoses from which I could see no water escaping — they looked like a mime troupe parodying a fire brigade. One man threw down his hose and began stomping a circle around himself as though etching a firebreak.
As I neared the others, all my systems—of breath, blood, and electricity — raced like engines at a speedway starting line. I reeled, and they revved higher until there seemed to be no pauses, only a steady gush, blow, and flash. I tried to distract from death’s approach with peripheral thoughts — Who would keep plumbers from cheating my mother? Was I drooling? Who was tugging my arm?
Jane was. “What’s going on?” she pleaded.
I only shook my head; no way could I describe the fit that had passed through me, nor in its wake could I talk about anything else.
My friend José’s VW van came bounding up the road. He pulled through the gate, parked, and walked back to us. For about a minute, he stood beside me watching the fire, shaking his head, and smiling fatalistically through his fuzzy beard. Finally he lay his arm around my shoulders and led me a few steps away.
“You okay, brother?”
“J.B. says you’re cracking up.”
“Cracking up? That’s why he called you. Because I’m cracking up.” I wheeled and stomped down the hill toward the office, grumbling denials. Hey, if I’m cracking up, it's only because I’m the only one around this asylum who hasn't cracked up already.
Anger bewildered my fingers. I dialed the phone three times before J.B. answered. I slugged the palm of my hand with the receiver before shouting, “So, here’s the latest—the sheriffs are looking for Q’s platoon, who probably were the guys who torched a shack at the Indians’ place. José’s here, and I’m gone.”
“Fine. As long as José’s there, take the afternoon off.”
“Did you hear me, J.B.? For good, I’m gone. And Jane’s going with me, and probably Alan, because he’s freaked. If I can talk him into it, I’ll take Donald.” J.B. blitzed me with a string of curses. Then came a half minute of silence. I imagined him wiping his brow and kneading the back of his neck. “Professor,” he said softly, “why are you giving me all kind of headaches just when we’re about to turn the corner?”
“I guess I’m crazy. Like you told José.”
He breathed heavily into the phone. “You’re not crazy. You’re just a coward.”
All the way down the mountain and through the night, J.B.’s accusation echoed inside me.
No matter what assurance Jane or Bob offered, I kept hearing J.B.’s words. No matter how many times Laura or anybody contended that I had chosen the right — the only — move or applauded me for giving the camp as much loyalty as I had. No matter how many logical arguments I constructed. Though I knew for a fact that J.B. was an embezzler. No matter how solid my reasons...
All that week, I tried to get lost in my novel, about a converted hippie, a “Jesus freak,” who had run away to a cabin in the woods above Lake Tahoe. As long as I could be her, my hands remained dry, I didn’t feel my every pulse. I wrote 15 hours a day.
On Saturday, José called with the big news. J.B. had arrived Tuesday evening in a borrowed van carrying the boys who had spent the holidays at home. He held meetings and elicited promises. Thursday morning, Alan’s probation officer returned him to the camp with orders to stay put until they could find him another facility. That afternoon, José returned to relieve J.B. who drove the van to L.A.
“It was just me and 24 boys,” José said. “J.B. was going to drive straight up and back, five or six hours, but he got stuck in traffic and didn’t show till after midnight. I knew something was wrong when Rat and Jeff didn’t get to dinner until we were cleaning up. Esther made spaghetti. Jeff and Rat came running in all out of breath and giggling and demanded food.
“An hour later, I’m tromping over the hill to order a bunch of the boys who’re sitting around a bonfire to quit the shouting and laughing and hit the sack, when I hear a shout from the cabins. I look, and Babe Ruth’s on fire. Before I can get there, it’s crackling like it’s made out of newspaper. Then the door flies open and this thing comes running out, so white I still don’t know if it was Alan or his ghost Whichever, he flies up the hill and disappears.
“By now, somebody’s called the forestry, and they’re on the phone to the Indians to get permission to cross the land. The Indians tell them to go to hell, as usual, so we all race around spraying the other cabins and the dining room until Babe Ruth’s ashes were soaked.
“Then J.B. pulls in and blows like Krakatoa, yelling he’s going to shut down tomorrow and make damn sure they all go straight to prison, at CYA. Well, by now Jeff and Rat are missing again. Only this time they’re locked in Ty Cobb, cranked on meth and armed like the cavalry. See, they’d been staking out the ranch house down past the cottonwoods, and tonight they busted in, made off with three or four rifles and a shotgun. And they tell J.B. where to shove all his threats about CYA. Rat’s yelling how they can kill his ass before he’s going to hard time. Jeff’s half cheering, the other half bawling.
“Finally J.B. goes up and bargains with the Indians to let the sheriff cross the reservation, and about 4:00 a.m. when the meth’s wearing off and deputies are peeking out from behind every building, looking through their rifle scopes, Jeff and Rat see the light.”
When Camp X shut down due to J.B.’s indictment on charges of misappropriating Neighborhood Youth Corps funds, Laura and Jane argued that I should feel vindicated. But vindication wasn’t what I needed. It seemed what I needed was an exorcist. Though by now I had quit shivering and no longer spent nights in my van playing sentry, waiting for Q to make good his threat to torch my house, I still heard J.B. calling me a coward and myself mumbling, “Amen.”
I had taken a job with the county welfare department. Once a week I had to visit nursing homes and persuade the walking dead to scribble a shaky X on the dotted line. Usually I sat at my desk writing narratives and filling out forms. One afternoon, I scratched my chest and noticed a lump straight between the nipples. The lump had been there for a year or so, but today a blinding insight struck—it must be cancerous.
With blurred vision and hands perspiring so that no amount of willpower could help me grip my pencil, I staggered to my supervisor and told him I needed to see a doctor. I sped to the Mission Gorge Kaiser facility and waited in Urgent Care, blood pounding against my temples.
At last a nurse inspected me and announced, “Your temp’s normal. You stand 6'1" and weigh 182. Your blood pressure is...oh my, 140 over 95. Let’s try that again.”
The nurse poofed away into darkness, leaving me alone in desolation to stand or fall before my new vision of the truth — that it wasn’t cancer I should fear but the angina that had killed my dad. Surely he had passed the curse along, and drug abuse caused my symptoms to materialize 20 years early. Any second, my heart could rattle its final note.
I drove wildly, as if I could outrace the Bad Guy. Back at work, the pencil lead kept snapping. My head whirled from the excess blood racing through it, and at last I called Laura.
On the ride to County Hospital I confessed. There was no way left to conceal my terror. I admitted that I so feared death, the fear would surely drive my heart to a terrifying rate, which would escalate the fear, which in turn would tax my heart until it killed me. The only chance was that County Mental Health could fill me with a drug and break the cycle.
While we waited almost two hours in the lobby, Laura petted my arm and kept saying, “Just relax, Kenny.”
“Yeah, right,” I growled. Something was feeding me the truth, that I had reached the outskirts of hell, from where the cries of the damned clamored so loudly, they seemed to issue from my own body. It was twilight and always would be.