With Christmas break, they were soon pulled apart. Call me, write me, we’ll be back together in no time. In an unbearably long anticipation.

In the next-door apartment, a sadist beat the tar out of a wailing baby: “Louder, you miserable bastard, I want to hear it hurt!” Like dropping a cat down the sewer. In those days, you didn’t call the police or social workers.

Some things shift for the better. In Aunt Berthanna’s hallway, purple vase hoarded who knew what mementos.

Ah! Home! A refrigerator filled with plastic. The disordering of her “DORN!” or worse yet, “DORN LUCAS!” yelled up that stairwell had conditioned him to cringe even when someone cried out his surname “MACKENZIE! DORN MACKENZIE!” in a cranky mothers’ tone. If it’s so almighty important, let her come to him. She demanded he interrupt his schoolwork, the term papers and final exams due immediately on his return to campus, dash downstairs, listen to her complaint, then run to the basement for a can of string beans or to the attic for an empty hat box. He saw how she’d rather watch soap operas than her own life or chat away precious hours with self-defeating apologies, while ignoring answers square before herself. He and his contemporaries were determined not to become like their parents. Never!

Fortunately, there was mail, for this was a time when long-distance phoning was prohibitively expensive for anything but the shortest conversations. The kid and Pepper’s imaginations took flight, unhindered by vocal tone, twitches, or embarrassing pauses. Sometimes they even achieved acrobatics of phrasing and mental doodling normal speech foreclosed. Had they been able to keep our relationship at this epistolary level, all might have remained, well, nearly divine. Of course, most people require their saints to come with flesh attached. The kid missed his Pepper and her endless supply of kisses. Nothing was more real than that.


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Interstate highways were killing the railroads. Hollywood was overtaking Manhattan as the center of international influence. Maybe, he thought, the nation was in a race of obsolescence. The big action was taking place at the fringes of the continent – San Francisco and Greenwich Village – rather than in the center: Iowa and Indiana had become back country as much as Montana and Wyoming. Maybe more.

He drove north along the bluffs. Turned in, parked the car, and climbed to a spot towering over a dam and barge locks in the Mississippi. Already, deep cold had frozen the surface. As he gazed down, a large black bird with a white head and white tail stretched a massive wingspan and soared below him, drifting out over water kept open by heavy current. Teak-wick! The kid had never before seen an American bald eagle. Teak-wick! All power before him! Teak-wick! Behind him were mysterious earthen mounds, the burial remains of Adena or Hopewell natives who lived at this site a millennium or two earlier. He peeled a strip of shaggy bark from a sycamore trunk and turned to traipse back to the car.

Today, with a computer, the image would be manipulated with ease. Not so, in his darkroom isolation. He could ask if one form of perfection is superior to another. Any answer would have a hollow ring.

In town, anticipating Christmas, the Salvation Army kettles kept ringing.

At home, he kept picking up the phone to hear only buzzing.


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Except for the big protests, the ’oozers never appeared in the media’s eye. They weren’t Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Allen Ginsberg, Cher, Wavy Gravy, or the Grateful Dead. They were simply mud turtles increasingly appearing in hippie garb. They were simply trying to get by.

“Cost anything?” It was Jed, of course.

“Freebie, for certain.”

Nonetheless, the university president’s campaign of irritation wore on. Champ sensed that head resident counselor – the administration’s neighborhood face – was working on something ominous, and if the Joint Venture’s first two editions hadn’t produced quite the effect the ’oozers had desired, at least knowing heads were nodding in their direction.


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In general, however, the emphasis was on fun, rather than joy or contentment. They’d been suckered by another TV deception! Before abiding in Chthonian House, every ’oozer had too often sat in front of his family’s flickering screen rather than gathering for discussion or cards or live music or quilting. Perhaps painting an elderly neighbor’s barn was the more enjoyable option. Back when most of the kid’s circle considered money a dirty word – as long as there was enough of it to pay tuition and meet their needs. Just call Dad. Most didn’t even know the cost of a carrot. Not from seed-gathering, for certain.


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They didn’t even know they dwelled in a landscape laced with caves – some of them running right under the campus. As a geology major, Leon Cody could have explained the workings of this underground. As a geography major, Dikran could have related the importance of flowing waters to the human condition. As a transportation major, Bruce could have linked underground energies to great subway systems. Indeed, had they effectively put all their studies together, there would have been a tremendous convergence. They held the potential of redirecting society, any way they united.

The ’oozers could have learned a lot from Leon’s collection of geodes, the bumpy brown rocks he collected in the surrounding countryside; they often appeared ugly, even repulsive, until cracked open with a geologist’s hammer. He always hoped they’d be hollow, their interior cavities filled with crystals that would appear even more wondrous when viewed under the ultraviolet “black” light. The ’oozers could have estimated people like geodes, anticipating whether they would be stone cold through and through or whether their heads and hearts would glimmer and astonish.

“Sometimes girls can be like that, especially when they’re both constantly on the go. They’re only roommates,” Mitch would have retorted.

Or females, beginning at the other end with Spencer’s mother. How far could you trust an old-boys’ network?

“See what you’re missing, Love!” her son whispered, betrayed by his own feelings of being left out of a movement that simultaneously disgusted and seduced him. He had buried too many yearnings – too much life force – for too long.

“Intellectualism is merely extensive rationalization,” Nita shrugged. Teak-wick! “The library is just footsteps and bells.” Teak-wick! “Did you catch the spring buds when they were taut, cracking in rainfall?” Teak-wick! “Gray branches exploding in bloom?” Teak-wick! “Earthworms mating on the rain-washed sidewalk?” Teak-wick!


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She was about to sweep away shards remaining from his high school crackup – more precisely, his breaking up over romance in his senior year. Ever since, his heart and skull had continued warring, sometimes erupting feverishly into a death mask mirrored in his own hands. Despite later dates and embraces, the artistic and social projects he retreated to whenever that suffocating midnight grip loosened, the self-therapy of hunchbacked miles along thunderstorm’d sidewalks, the scalding showers, exhausted jogging, throbbing woofers and shrill tweeters, hours of dreamless sleep – the kid had never fully eluded that gigantic amoeba. Disconcertingly, in trying to withdraw, he rolled back to his own deficiencies time and time again. The most painful message in all this, perhaps, was that he could not conquer everything he set out to accomplish; many things would remain beyond his range or his abilities.

In that brief, disastrous infatuation he had sought validation. Having a beautiful, charming, intelligent girlfriend would be a sign of completeness, of fulfillment. He believed that something in the mystery of woman spelled salvation, which is, of course, a terrible weight to place upon anyone. How could he burden his beloved with his own suffering? Any American boy who isn’t an athlete is handicapped – especially in the nation’s heartland. He wasn’t sturdy enough for football or even basketball, swift enough for track or cross-country, forceful enough for baseball, at least for the success he demanded of himself. He knew these activities weren’t “play,” despite usage, and believed only victory would compensate pain and exertion. His strengths and speed lay elsewhere.

But he remained loyal to people and institutions. Adolescent birds leave nests and stake out new territory. He yearned for loving, a special acceptance.

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True love doesn’t hit that way, the kid thought. No, he argued, it starts slow and builds over years. He envisioned Tessa Logan in Grindingle and wondered what could possibly be better. But Mitch had called, to say he needed a place to stay for the weekend. Said he had found the love of his life. And so, practical concerns pressed.

“I’m not sure. I’ll hitch down Friday, don’t know exactly when I’ll arrive. Depends on the rides.”

The kid, meanwhile, needed to discover there’s nothing more glorious than the many manifestations of intimacy. Mitch said he had to get away from his campus a bit.

“Of course. So what’s the big deal? Is your ex-prima donna, prima mamma after your tail with a pitchfork?”

“No, no, nothing like that. It’s simply that Nita attends Daffodil, just like you.”

Which is when the kid realized he’d been indoors too long. When, in being set up for a magical introduction, he entered a lobby where any wait would feel like an eternity. Getting an elevator could take eons.

Didn’t matter. Rather, the spirit wrapped in strawberry and Dublin-colored suede a step behind her caught his attention. The soft voice had him hoping to capture each syllable. Whatever pierced him at that time would affect his memory forever, even if he could remember next to nothing of what was actually said.


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