The author in El Salto de Huanacatlán, 1968
I liked drugs and adventure. So l wanted to go to Mexico and take Laura with me. Only she contended that her parents would disown her if we traveled together unmarried.
Laura was in Bell Gardens, a suburb of Los Angeles where every back yard had a two-story duplex full of kids and cockroaches. As a VISTA volunteer, she spent long hours chauffeuring people to job opportunities and hospitals and comforting desperate mothers.
The author in El Salto de Huanacatlán, 1968
I had just turned 22; she was a year and a half younger. For three years we had been dating. The first week of October 1967 I spent wired on diet pills, studying for midterms. The night after my last midterm, Laura called. On top of her neighbors’ endless problems, the landlord had chased her around the kitchen. If he came back and tried it again, she was going to have to move. I offered to drive up and threaten the landlord. She said, “Just come up and hold me, please.”
I didn’t drink in those days, preferring marijuana straight or with amphetamine. But when I arrived at Laura’s place and a neighbor dropped by and offered Jim Beam, I chose to act neighborly. After four sleepless nights and a few gulps of Jim Beam, my brain conjured a solution to our predicament — Laura and I should get married. About two o’clock in the morning, I woke her and proposed.
The next night we had tickets to see an old blues singer named Lightnin’ Hopkins at a La Mesa coffeehouse. We stayed through his many encores, then drove to Yuma and staggered through the motions — blood tests and a drive back across the line to Winterhaven for the ceremony at Gretna Green Chapel.
An Existentialist Honeymoon
Our friends Larry and Ben had come home for Christmas from a beach town in the tropics, south of Mazatlan. They talked about jungle birds, giant tortoises, bananas and mangoes for the picking, hospitable natives, any kind of drug you wanted for almost nothing. Powered by Methedrine diet pills, I worked nonstop on my VW bus.
So far, Laura and I weren’t living happily ever after. She wanted more attention than I offered, and she didn’t understand why we were going to take Ben, Larry, and his brother Steve along on our honeymoon. “To share gas,” I said, and promised that after a week or so, we could ditch them and go on alone. Laura relented, to pacify me. I had become surly and easily spooked, on account of a Methedrine habit. About twice a week, a cop would pull me over because I had long hair and drove ugly vehicles. My throat was bruised from swallowing joints. I drove looking over my shoulder, woke up nights listening for prowlers. Laura insisted that Dysoxin wasn’t helping my nerves. I snarled at her but promised to give up “speed” as soon as we crossed the border.
Ben was a year younger than me. His parents owned a nursery. He was handsome, muscular, and could engage in intelligent conversation. I would have predicted a bountiful life for him.
Larry and Steve were Sicilian. Larry was outgoing, loud, short, and stocky. Steve, a year younger, was half a head taller, thinner, twice as intense. His black hair frizzed out a foot all around. Steve was the artist and thinker. He seemed the stranger of the two. Both had served in the Merchant Marine, on cargo ships to Singapore and Vietnam. Steve had last journeyed on the Mystic Mariner. He saw the name as an omen. Nights at sea, he’d pace the deck, smoking marijuana and watching the stars. The way he told it, one night on the China Sea, a spacecraft appeared and through vibrations the space people communicated their interest in him. Every night thereafter, he stood lookout for their return, believing they would arrive and carry him away.
Mexican immigration detained us at the Mexicali crossing for an hour and clipped Steve and me for $10 apiece before they relaxed the rule they’d made up about not allowing longhaired males into their country. As we pulled away from the gate, Ben took a baggie out of his pocket and started rolling.
I snapped, “All the time we were in that office you were holding?”
“Be cool,” Larry said. “We’re home free, in Mexico.”
Having used my last Methedrine pills early that morning, I growled, “Be cool?” My eyes felt glued open.
The desert always affected me according to my condition. When my spirit had been lighter, I could watch the frisky clouds and agate blue sky, the wandering shadows and wildflowers. This day, I saw jagged mountains, snake-skins on the road, buzzards circling.
At the Sonoita immigration checkpoint, I suspected each of the dozen cops was praying to his patron saint that he could waste me before somebody else did. Larry had brought a pocketful of LSD. I commanded him and Ben to keep the drugs in their pockets.
The immigration officers maintained we each were required to have $200. None of us possessed that much. The officers sympathized but declared that looking the other way would risk their positions. Therefore, they announced, we should each give them $5.
I let Steve drive, drank a few beers, and mellowed through sunset and dusk. But Mexico gets awfully dark. In the dark, I could imagine cops behind every billboard and dumpster. I took the wheel again, on one of those elevated, shoulderless Mexican highways. One false move and you careen down the slope—in a VW bus, you roll. We rounded a blind corner.
Suddenly all I could see were taillights.
When my eyes quit pulsing, I made sense of the picture: a couple dozen cars backed up and a cop with his hand resting on a sidearm, a rifle on a strap hanging from his shoulder. I yelled at Ben and Larry to jump out the side door and pitch their dope into the night, but Larry said, “Huh?”
Then the cop was at my window. In Spanish he told me that a bridge had washed out. “It’s okay,” he said. “Diez pesos” Ten pesos for what? I asked, but he was already walking to the car that had skidded in behind me. Ben woke up and rolled a joint. I ordered him not to smoke the damned thing until we were on our way. He said, “Ken, you’re not in the Estados Unidos. You’re in Mexico. The cops aren’t fascists. They’re not going to hassle us unless we get weird or steal something or hurt somebody.” Cars disappeared one by one from the front of the line, and we crept forward. Larry and Steve got out and investigated. Steve came back and said, “The bridge crashed. They’re going to hitch us to a tractor and tow us across the river.”
I sat squeezing the wheel, my teeth gritted, wishing to God I had just kept three or four Methedrine pills. But an hour later, as we nosed into the Rio Sonora, I promised God and Laura that if we survived, I would drive straight through Hermosillo without detouring to the farmacia.
Laura said, “You already promised to give up speed. Were you going to break your promise?”
At the middle of the river, the tractor was half submerged. We floated behind. Old Volkswagens were supposed to be watertight, and ours passed the test.
Lying at the base of the Sierra Madre foothills, Culiacan was the marijuana capital of the universe and possibly the darkest city. Any streetlights it had were burned out. We arrived about midnight. Steve was driving, Larry riding shotgun. I had tried to doze and finally turned to imagining tomorrow on a sunny Guaymas beach, hypnotized into peace by the Sea of Cortez.
“Over there,” Larry said. “A saloon. Let’s get a case of Bohemia.”
Steve pulled into the gravel lot in front of a building that looked like a cross between a warehouse and the general store in a western movie—weather-beaten boards and a porch that resembled a loading dock.
Larry jumped out and hustled toward the entrance. On the porch, women in miniskirts surrounded him. I told Steve to move over, slid into the driver’s seat, and distracted myself watching the young, bony, barefooted women. Larry broke free of them and went inside. After a few minutes, he came out accompanied by two men. A civilian and a cop. They talked and gestured, then the two men crossed the parking lot to a ’68 Chevy and pulled away.
Larry opened the side rear doors of my van and jumped in. “Did I make a fucking deal or what? Twelve bucks for a kilo.”
“For a what?” Laura yelped.
I climbed halfway over my seat. “From a cop? You’re buying a kilo from a cop?”
“Yeah, but he’s cool.”
“Good,” I snarled, “then he’ll give you a ride to San Bias.”
While we argued, I fired the motor and enacted a ’58 VW van’s best imitation of speeding down the highway.
A few miles north of downtown Mazatlan, there was a hill about 100 feet high that rose out of the seashore. At its base on the inland side was a patio restaurant called Lupe’s. We parked in the neighboring campground. The residents were mostly gringos, a few dozen of us. One guy was a UC-Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in psychopharmacology. Paradise, he called himself. His mission was to sample different combos of drugs and record their effects. Every day we would see him scribbling in his notebook while he stumbled along the beach. Larry and Ben made friends with a red-haired guy from Los Angeles who reminded me of Archie from the comics and who enjoyed drugs as much as Ben and Larry did. He’d been in Mexico a year or so and knew every source. He talked about places like a Oaxaca cafe that only served magic mushrooms in a delicious sauce and villages where Huichol Indians rolled giant marijuana leaves into cigars.
There was a young family from Marin County, mom and dad so handsome we nicknamed them Tom and Toni Terrific. They claimed to have sold everything and left the U.S. with no intention of returning. There had to be a better place, he said, or at least one that doesn’t wage war to enrich its capitalists. First they were going to try Costa Rica.
All day and into the evening, a fat policeman hung around mooching food off whoever was cooking or spreading peanut butter or cutting up strawberries, papayas, bananas, and pineapples for one of the fruit salads that became our staple. He wasn’t interested in busting any of us, as long as we remained peaceful and kept giving him food. He didn’t only eat it, but filled a sack to take home to his wife and eight children, supplementing his 20-pesos-a-week salary (about $1.60).
I slept a lot, played my guitar, swam, or lay on the beach reading Tolkien and fighting off what Ben diagnosed as the heebie-jeebies. Its symptoms included tweaked vision that saw every insect as a scorpion and every human as a potential adversary; hearing that noted every heartbeat, brain cell explosion, and surge of blood through my arteries.
In the evenings, we built fires on the sand near the rocky point at the base of the hill, smoked for a while, then Steve would get up and wander along the shoreline a quarter mile or so beyond the campgrounds to a deserted beach. There he sat, tooting the clarinet he’d brought and waiting for the spaceship to arrive. One night I tagged along.
“Suppose you’re not nuts,” I said. “Suppose these spaceships are real. How come you’re not afraid, if you think they’re going to whisk you away?”
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” he said, “because all they’re going to do is teach me the secret of art. That’s where great artists come from. Space people teach them the secret of art, but usually they don’t even know it happened, because though it might take years in space, not even a second passes here—do you know how the theory of relativity works?”
“Well, years can pass out in space in this much of our time.” He snapped his fingers. “And so, because not even a second passes here in all the time they’re onboard, the artists don’t remember what happens. They just think they flashed out for an instant. Pretty soon they forget the whole episode, but they remember inside, in the part of us the Greeks called the Muse, which is actually what the space people taught them.”
As the days passed, my brain alarm sounded less often. Two weeks into Mexico, I could sleep hours at a stretch. Only a few times a night would I wake to the roosters, to the laugh of a stoned hippie girl or an unmuffled car roaring up the coast road while the driver bellowed accompaniment to mariachi trumpets. I wasn’t alarmed when the bartender at Lupe’s picked up his machete to whack a coconut. I had given up suspecting that the couple parked next to us, who slept in a tent behind their Buick with its Nevada plates, were the agents of a government conspiracy.
I didn’t suffer a relapse until Ben and Larry’s redheaded side-kick got busted. Archie had been walking back from thefarmacia through a field of sugar cane, smoking a number. Suddenly the Feds swarmed, knocked him down, searched and cuffed and dragged him away. A Mexican boy had seen it all and ran to tell us. Ben and Larry caught a taxi to the police station. A few hours later, they returned with the sorry news. Archie was gone for at least 30 days.
“What happened,” Larry said, “is the Feds got a tip that somebody was growing pot in the sugar cane field. So they’re out snooping when Archie comes along, puffing on a doobie, and they jump him.”
Ben said, “He was carrying morphine syringes—that’s why they popped him. Pills, grass, they don’t give a damn. But don’t let them catch you with a needle.”
Still, I sensed the fat policeman was setting us up, and one night the Feds would raid Lupe’s campground. But they would find an empty campsite.
During colonial times, San Bias was a major seaport. An old customs house and a hotel remains that could pass for a Germanic castle. Across the street from the castle, in the bar of a newer hotel, was an elevated pond containing two large alligators. Rumor held that the proprietor drugged the old gators to keep them from snapping off the hands of careless borrachos.
A block away, the middle of town featured a glorious plaza where toucans and parrots perched in the carob trees and vendors squeezed oranges and offered tumblers of juice for a peso — less than a dime. There were benches all around. A certain bench, at the far end near the Catholic church, drew me as though it were a relic from my childhood. I felt safe on it. Whenever I got spooked, I could sit listening to the birds, waiting for the church bell to ring at the turn of the hour. A spell of peace would arrive.
We slept in the VW. The first night, we parked it outside the palapa a gringo named Pete had rented for $7 a month. It was on the beach about a mile outside of town, a two-story A-frame thatched hut. Including Ben and Larry, about a dozen people lived there. Any time, day or night, somebody would be in the loft smoking out of a giant hookah. You could smell the place from afar. Pete claimed that one night when the power plant for the area failed and there was cloud cover so the jungle went dark, he would’ve been stuck in town except he was able to find his way by the scent.
Pete was a handsome, blond rock and roll bassist from the East Coast by way of Hollywood, an elder amongst us at 25, with six months in Mexico. “The thing about Mexican cops is,” he advised, “you don’t want to cross them. A few weeks ago down in Manzanillo, this lame surfer from Santa Barbara put the moves on this federale’s daughter. The next week, they rounded up all the gringos under 40 and ran them through drug tests, and out of about 100, only 2 or 3 got sprung. The rest are going to stay in the pen until who knows? Once they nab you — everybody thinks you pay the mordida and you’re home free, but it’s not always like that. There’s macho and egos involved. Sometimes they play games with your head, just for kicks.”
The first night I lay awake listening to jungle noises—night birds, a laughing burro, strange swishes that made me picture Tarzan riding a vine from tree to tree, and the cackles of stoned people in the loft. Between the noise and nips from the tiny flying insects the locals called hahinis, I didn’t sleep. By dawn I was sure every vehicle that clattered up the road was a bus the Feds would use to transport us to their version of Devil’s Island.
Laura and I decided to move. We chose a campground next door to the castle, a few blocks off the plaza. We spent our days wandering the dirt roads and jungle trails, doctoring our hahinibites with lemon, reading on the beach. Every day or so, we hiked to Pete’s place and visited with Steve — and Ben and Larry if they were coherent.
Easter was approaching. Pete said there would be a mob of Mexican tourists in San Bias over Semana Santa, making that week a good time to lie low or disappear; with tourists came federates. Last Easter, according to Pete, about 15 gringos got jailed and deported after one of them, loaded on acid, marched into the Catholic church beside the plaza and staggered up the aisle during mass, shedding his clothes along the way. He bounded onto the altar and superimposed himself in front of the cross, arms spread against the crossbeam. He called it art. The Mexican people disagreed.
“One thing you’ve got to remember,” Pete said, “the Mexicans own the country. We don’t.”
Ben added, “They’re cool as long as we don’t outrage them and mind our own business.”
One day we were walking from town to the palapa, Pete, Laura, and I. The rainy season had commenced. We were halfway to the palapa when the deluge began with raindrops big as tennis balls. Parked at the edge of the dirt road was an old Rambler with Oregon plates and two surfboards on top, lashed to a rack with bungee cords. Pete ran for it, opened the door, and dove in, followed by Laura and me. Inside were paperback books, a portable radio, a camera, blankets, and towels. We sat watching rain explode on the windshield.
Pete remarked, “Aren’t these Mexicans decent, man? The guys who own the Rambler, about a month ago they took off, up to the States to get a new generator or something they couldn’t find down here: They just leave the car wide open. Look at this.” He reached to the dash and picked up a soft pack of Marlboros. “A whole month, nobody even helped themselves to a cigarette. I’ll tell you what, though. They better get back before Semana Santa. The turistas, when they’re finished, all that’ll be left is the frame.”
A week before Good Friday, a gang of us were eating turtle soup around a bonfire outside Pete’s neighbor’s shack when Ben announced he was bored with subsisting on pills and grass when we only had to drive a few hours and score a ton of peyote buttons for nothing. While the Mexican tourists raised hell in San Bias, he suggested, why not take a run to the montañas?
Larry seconded. Steve had been wearying of the crowded palapa. And since the little trailer park where Laura and I camped had been overrun by families with kids and dogs, we agreed.
The Mercado Central in Guadalajara was like a walled city, with a thousand stalls on each of three levels and a crowd like Disneyland’s on July 4, only poorer. The air was shrill and musky. Steve and I retreated to a quieter area where trucks could pull in and unload. We rested a minute before Steve got mistaken for a sideshow. Since we’d crossed the border, most everybody had gawked at his long, frizzy hair. Here, a couple of awestruck girls approached him. Soon other girls materialized and joined them, followed by children and adults until they became a mob. Steve chased them away.
Laura wanted to spend all day exploring the vast Mercado, admiring the yarn art, embroidery, weavings, and retables, but Steve was depressed, and Ben and Larry had scored. In the aisles of potions and herbs, they bought a potato sack full of peyote buttons.
In Mazatlán, Paradise had told Larry about a village on the shore of Lake Chapala. Take a left where the Chapala highway dead-ends at the lake, he’d said. About a mile up, the road turns to dirt or mud. Keep going until you reach the village.
The road was ten miles of baked mud. The sky was a dull steely gray, as if the clouds didn’t only cover but filled the atmosphere. By the time we reached the village, I was determined to veto the place, to turn around and drive 200 miles back to the coast or anywhere that didn’t appear so cursed.
As we rattled into the village, a trio of Indian men were walking across the muddy plaza. They ignored us, but Larry chased them down and asked directions. One of the Indians pointed to a square house on the other side of the plaza. Like all the houses surrounding the barren town plaza, this one was built of mud, brittle and cracked.
The sky rumbled. There was no relief to the iron-gray, lumpy clouds. “Looks like we found shelter just in time,” Larry said as he and Ben strode toward the mud casita. Steve walked behind them.
Laura clutched my arm. “I don’t like this place.”
“Don’t start prophesying doom,” I snapped.
“I wasn’t,” she said with a pout.
“All the time, you do.”
“Kenny, even if it’s just for tonight, let’s be patient with each other.”
For once we agreed. I took her hand and apologized for being a lousy companion. I might brood or growl anytime the malevolent angel whispered, “Your number’s up, hotshot. Something’s going to blow, and you’ll see how fragile life is.”
By the time we reached the casita porch, Larry had been pounding on the door for a few minutes — on the offensive, as always. I expected some maniac, scatter-gun leveled, to fling open the door and boom. I was about to suggest he lighten up when the door creaked open.
Edgar Allen Poe might’ve shrunk from describing the man who appeared. He was bony and pallid, with tangled black curls and a week-old beard. A night creature, either a vampire or a junkie musician, I thought. He rasped, “Yeah?”
As though he hadn’t noticed the unwelcome, Larry cheerfully announced that Paradise had directed us here. “Thought we might score a place to flop, get the fuck out of the rain, and purchase a little fucking skag.”
The man’s yellow eyes swept up and down. “Who sent you?” His voice was shallow, breathless.
“Paradise. This weird dude from Berkeley. Real brainy guy.” From the background came eerie noises off a nylon-stringed guitar. Squeaks, runs so fast the notes blurred, harmonic bleeps.
Larry introduced the rest of us. The man in the doorway stared. Larry asked his name. The man only stared. I noticed the scabrous tracks on his arms.
“So, we’ll call you Juan,” Larry said “Juan’s a fine fucking name.”
The man turned and walked away. Ben asked, “Can we go in?”
Larry in the lead, single file, we crept inside. Except in the very middle, the packed dirt floor Was covered with stuffed cotton mattresses, $2 each at army surplus stores. The window slits were boarded. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a kerosene lamp and candles in tin cans. Nothing was lit. The guitar player looked wedged into a corner. He could have been the other guy’s older brother, his disintegration slightly more progressed. If not for the music, I might have mistaken him for a painting on the plaster wall. Legs outstretched, he held the guitar to his belly as if it were his bride.
Ben, Steve, and Larry flopped on mattresses, while Laura and I stood watching the guitar player. The only part of him that looked alive were his fingers. He played an extended run that used every note on the neck and every bend, mute, and slide. A genius, I thought. He finished and started over. We sat on a mattress I picked for its location next to a collection of books. Paperbacks in piles about two feet high. Turgenev. Milton. Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy. Sartre. Dante.
While the guitarist played the same run for the fifth time, I noticed Larry and Juan trading a small envelope for a large stack of pesos. Laura was staring at a lizard on the wall. “I’m going to the bus,” she muttered just before the sky rumbled a last warning. Wind screeched and something smacked the wall. “I’m still going to the bus,” she said defiantly.
Before she got up, Steve crawled from his mattress to ours. “This is not a good place.”
The guitarist raised his head and glared as though Steve had insulted him. When he missed a lick, he tensed and lifted the guitar just enough that I thought he was going to throw it at Steve, who sat scowling until he looked up and whispered to me, “I wonder if these people came here to die.”
“They brought the right books, then,” I whispered.
Larry shouted, “Hey, guys, want to help us snort this mighty fucking fine junk?”
We declined, and Laura and I excused ourselves.
While the storm rocked us and streaks of bluish lightning pierced the lake, Laura and I huddled on the rear floor of our bus, heating tortillas on the Coleman and spreading peanut butter on them. Each crack and flash seemed closer and brighter. The rain was like stones peppering the roof. Water seeped around every window gasket and oozed down the panes. We made up the bed and lay entwined, shivering together. I slept a while and woke to a sheet of lightning beyond the row of casitas that turned them bluish and made them appear to hover a few yards above ground. I dozed again, then woke to a ghostly wail I imagined coming from the junkies’ casita, but as I lay at attention, I suspected it came from my brain. Laura was clutching my arm and leg. A sliver of sun appeared along the top of a mountain. I freed myself from Laura’s grasp and walked out along a path of dark mud to the gravel shore. While tossing pebbles into the lake, I felt delivered, as though I’d survived purgatory.
The morning was brilliant, cloudless, and crisp. Sparkles bounced across the lake. By the time I returned to the bus, Laura had made coffee. I scrambled eggs and potatoes. After breakfast, we took a walk along the shore. Skiffs full of Indians dotted the lake. Now and then a child or woman would appear nearby, then spot us and hustle away.
We found Steve drinking the last of our coffee. I told him about the Indians treating us like lepers. He knew why. Late last night, Juan had explained that the village used to be a haven for people the Mexicans called existencialistas. One by one, the casitas around the plaza had been rented to gringos. The Indians had built a new village over the next hill. Gradually, the Indian children quit coming to sell fish and vegetables. The Mercado shut down and the fruit vendors disappeared, and finally the old woman who used to supply tortillas deserted them. Then a drizzly winter set in, and most of the gringos headed for the coast.
I asked, “ Why’d all the Indians leave?”
“Bad vibes, I guess.”
“I’ll say. Let’s get out of here.” Larry and Ben lobbied for waiting a day or so, but I owned the wheels. We packed up and skidded back along the muddy road to the town of Chapala, a resort and retirement community. The buildings looked vaguely European. A dance pavilion perched on a platform over the water, a lakeside patio cafe serving churros and croissants. Older, respectable gringos strolled around, peering into an arts and crafts gallery, carrying string bags out of the mercantile, shooting us accusing glances. While we lounged in the cafe, a retired U.S. Navy chief gave us directions in a voice that implied he’d rather see us go to hell.
About noon we arrived at El Salto, an oasis in the sparsely wooded mountains. Pools in a lazy river, willowy overhanging trees and mossy grass, lily pads, croaking frogs, schools of fat goldfish. The small campground was occupied by a French couple and a pair of fiftyish gringos in a bubble-top Dodge van. The Mexicans who ran the place had a short travel-trailer with a thatched hut add-on. Their kids and chickens ran wild. We selected a campsite beside a pool, about 100 yards downstream from the falls.
Larry chatted with the Frenchman and learned there was a village a half mile up the dirt
road where a storekeeper sold licuados, blended fresh fruit and canned milk. Just the ticket, Larry decided, for cutting the vile taste of peyote. He and Ben and Steve picked out a dozen of the ripest peyote buttons, which looked like moldy golf balls. Laura asked me, “Are you going to take peyote?”
“Kenny, you need drugs like Florida needs more hurricanes.”
When Larry invited me to join them, I said, “Maybe next time.”
Larry, Ben, and Steve walked out of sight around the bend. A school bus clattered up the gravel road and into the campground, lurched to a stop two campsites away from us. The door creaked open and children filed out — 20 or 30 of them, followed by a single teacher who lifted a whistle to his mouth and blew. The kids scattered, some toward the falls, others to the edge of the pond.
I sat in the doorway of the rear of my van, strumming my guitar. I had been growing the fingernails on my right hand and was learning to pick with the two middle fingers while using a flat pick between thumb and forefinger. Finger dexterity isn’t one of my aptitudes—this technique had been challenging me for a year, but I was starting to master a few tunes, “Freight Train” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Feeling good as I did, I began to sing along.
Laura had gone wandering, looking for picturesque weeds with which to decorate and clutter our bus. Two kids approached and stopped a dozen yards away. A boy and a girl, each about four feet tall, wearing white shirts, their big eyes shining like river stones. I made the mistake of nodding to them. They stepped nearer. A few others came over, then more. They started whispering, laughing, pointing at me, calling their friends.
My brain throbbed. I tried to keep playing, but my fingers got stiff and cold. When I stopped and stared, some of the kids waved their hands, chattered gibberish, pointed at me until it felt as if they’d pooled all their primal energy and were attacking me with it. I believed their keen eyes had detected my wickedness.
The pack had closed in around me until the bellies of two little girls rubbed against my
knees. They shouted, “Otra! ;Otra!” demanding I play again. I tried to smile and attempted to pick the guitar, but my eyes whirled and my fingers beaded with cold sweat. The kids yelled louder, as if they’d dropped a month’s allowance on tickets to see me, and I was blowing them off. I tried to shut them out and focus on a song, but my heart was thumping on my back and chest. I turned and laid my guitar on the bed, drew my legs up into the bus. The kids howled while I nudged them to back off far enough so I could close the doors.
The kids wandered off. I lay on the bed, cradling my guitar, feeling condemned to eternal solitude.
Laura returned before the others did. I asked her to pack up, because we were leaving, going south.
“I decided that we ought to travel alone, do the honeymoon thing.”
“That’s not it, Kenny. There’s something else going on.”
“Yeah, okay, and I’ll tell you about it when we’re on the road. Just hurry, please.”
The something else she had noticed was my transformation. That day I became the person I remained 17 years later, when Laura and I were parting. At the time, she scolded, “That’s your biggest problem, Ken — the only thing you want out of life is peace.