Last updated on March 27th, 2019 at 09:04 pm
This story appears in the book Toward an Interior Sun: Awakening by a Master, and the Difficult Journey toward Discipleship. In this collection of short stories, Max Reif digs deep to offer an entertaining and insightful account of this arduous spiritual trek. The tales lead the reader from epiphanies of youth, to the life of a spiritual seeker, to a deepening awareness of the maturity required for true discipleship. Learn more about the book.
Part One: Tunnel
Coming back from the lake, we re-entered the St. Louis metro area on St. Charles Rock Road. I was in the back seat next to Elise, my beautiful, blonde new girlfriend. Both her parents in front seemed older than my own. Her father was driving. He had a roofing business, Elise had told me.
Crossing I-270 and then Lindbergh Boulevard, the car entered St. Ann and my contentment yielded to the feelings I always had on this route through the county. The hodge-podge of asphalt, strip malls, featureless office buildings and shopping centres without a whiff of aesthetic or even a plan, seemed to be closing in on me. Life suddenly seemed hopeless, its possibilities nil.
I’d been raised a mere 10 or so miles away in a world of shady trees, parks, large brick homes and a bastion of culture called Washington University. Nearby was Clayton, with its much more stylish business centre, as well as the up-to-date library where Mother worked. Then came Ladue, the wealthy suburb where the modern ranch homes and even mansions were hidden by forest-like stands of trees, vines and bramble. When driving west on Ladue Road, you felt you were in uninterrupted nature, and then it dawned on you that this was an example of what money could buy.
I sat back and tried to be patient. St. Ann passed and my contentment returned. I gave Elise’s hand a squeeze. The summer was turning out a million times better than had seemed possible when I’d returned home after my sophomore year at Northwestern, a mere month ago.
I’d come back a wreck. My light had gone out months before, and was still out. There was scarcely any way to hide the truth from my parents now, as I’d tried to do during our weekly phone calls throughout the school year. I had no clue how to rekindle the light, or if it could even be done.
It all had to do with love, of course. I’d met someone in the fall at a forum where my apartment mate Bernie and other student leaders were discussing the student movement. The past spring, we at Northwestern had joined our compatriots all over the world in mounting campus demonstrations. The feeling as the new ’67-8 academic year began was you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
I wasn’t a leader, but I was friends with leaders, and I wrote for the semi-underground newspaper we’d started, the Real Press. I felt like a semi-celebrity: much closer to the vortexes of energy and action than I’d been most of the year before. Back then, I’d practically fallen through a hole in the Earth. An incident in which I’d been roughed up by campus security had wounded my ego so badly, it had lit a fire in me that resulted in a new identity as a radical. I exulted in this, and loved answering people’s question, “What are you?”—meaning I guess, Democrat, Republican or whatever—with “I’m a Radical!” Sometimes I could see the asker cower. There was power in the word, even a vague feeling of smoke from an anarchist bomb that might be lurking in my shoulder bag.
This sense of identity enabled me to talk to the pretty, dark-haired girl who was jostled up against me in the crowd as the forum adjourned for socializing. I’d ended up inviting her to dinner the coming Saturday. With the help of a few tokes of hashish, we’d gone into my tiny bedroom at our clapboard Maple Street apartment a few blocks from campus. There, I’d discovered I’d hooked a tiger! Not only was she attractive, she also meant business in bed! She clawed, scratched and screamed when I touched her. Her passion was a thrill, but also a problem—my God, if she’s this intense, she’s going to need me to go all the way!
I didn’t know if I was capable of that. In spite of having had steady girlfriends since junior high, my experience was limited to kissing and at most, heavy necking. I believed I’d had several wet dreams, but my conscious manhood had been delayed somehow, probably by something that had happened in childhood. I might even know what it was, but everything inside was very dark and murky, and I felt under the spell of some taboo. There were moods and fantasies that came on me at times and brought out “someone else,” yet I walled off the whole messy business as much as I could. As far as actually encountering a woman sexually—would I ever be able to do that?
In spite of being unsure of the road to sexual wholeness, I sensed it was time to move along on the journey. I’d returned to campus this year as Northwestern sales rep for Portal Publications, which printed the West Coast rock concert posters with their intriguing psychedelic art and lettering. I’d written the company and had received a catalogue and exclusive rights to take orders in the dorms. This never really came to much, except that thumbing through the catalogue one day I’d seen an ad for a poster titled “Yab-Yum,” which showed a naked woman astride a naked man, the two surrounded by a pink, paisley background.
Up to this point in my life, I’d have been far too inhibited to order such a thing. Now I did. When it arrived, I hung it on my bedroom wall. I felt, somehow, that I was calling such experiences into my life. It hadn’t been long before they’d showed up.
As our relationship and our love-making progressed, my girlfriend took to saying in a hushed, bedroom whisper, “You’re insatiable!” At first I accepted that as a compliment, but slowly it began to dawn on me that what she meant was that a man as aroused as I was usually had an orgasm.
I couldn’t tell her the truth. She had told me once, in response to my query, that she was a virgin. I’d said nothing about my own past, but tried to “act experienced,” whatever that meant. My act was a wash. Insatiable. How could I become “satiable”?
One night several weeks into our relationship, I was studying for my first economics test. I’d signed up for the course believing it behooved someone in the New Left to know something about that subject. I faced many hours with the textbook, having gotten very little from the lectures or the chapters I’d previously tried to read. After a while, still finding the prose deadly, I retreated to bed, propping myself up against the wall with pillows and tried to continue.
I found myself dallying almost vacantly with my penis with one hand, gently stroking it as I read. I drifted away from the book into a fantasy, and suddenly, from deep inside, felt a mighty force rising unexpectedly! It took me a moment to even realize what it was. Like an ocean tide, it kept rising and rising. No wonder this force held such a central place in human consciousness! Finally, it exploded out the tip of my penis and a stream of whitish liquid shot several inches into the air! The stuff continued to pour and pour out, accompanied by the most intensely pleasurable feelings I’d ever experienced.
After a surprising length of time, the electric thrill slowly subsided. I lay spent upon my bed, a dazed, happy expression on my face, my book face-down on my chest. Its cover was a little wet. Who cared? Arriving at the classroom later that morning, I could still feel the tingling in my crotch. It made me smile. All anxiety about the economics test had vanished. In the night, I had passed a much greater test.
I smiled again every time I thought of the unlikely way in which I’d “discovered my manhood.” Well, as good as any other way! Although I still didn’t know the precise mechanics of “how to do it” with an actual woman, I felt that, now, would take care of itself. That very night, I wet the bed and both our bodies with another mighty surge. No more whispers of “insatiable.” I, we, were off and running!
There followed three months of intense cocooning in that bedroom—even skipping morning classes together sometimes to make love. It was as if I’d lived in some cardboard world until now, and suddenly had travelled with her as guide through a jungle, to the outer wall of an ivory Temple. We’d entered the Temple together. Who cared what the rest of the world had to offer? It was nothing compared to this! The cardboard world could collapse in ruins and decay, for all I cared.
Winter break came. My lover and I returned to our respective hometowns. Hers was in Marin County, California, across the bay from San Francisco. Writing her a passionate letter every day, I began to feel concern when no replies had arrived after nearly a week. Was the mail getting delivered? Had I gotten the right address? Each day I continued to wait for the mailman like a faithful dog in the front hall of our house. When I heard the clink of the metal box on the ivy-covered brick wall outside, I expectantly opened the heavy oak door, only to meet disappointment yet again.
Back on campus, my worst fears were realized. My beloved told me she’d reunited with her high school boyfriend. Not only that, but though he was 2,000 miles away again, she wanted to see me less. Sometimes now on a Friday night, she stayed in the dorms to visit her friend Don, a boy who had such huge problems, she said, that he was seeing a psychiatrist. I commiserated with her in sympathy for poor Don, and yet it seemed her spending time with him, whatever they were doing, was part of the leaking away of my very raison d’être.
A week or two after our return to the campus, we went to see the movie everyone was talking about, The Graduate. I sat spellbound, taking in the lush scenes of Berkeley and the Big Sur coast. I felt awed that this creature beside me had actually grown up near there! Midway through the film I leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I want to come and live with you in your magic city by the bay!”
She looked straight ahead and whispered, loudly enough for me to hear: “I’ve left you.”
When the film was over, I drove us back to my place. Bernie, my apartment mate, was out as usual. The two of us smoked a joint and went into my bedroom. I’m certain that the next vignette took place in that very bedroom. Yet every time I picture it in my mind, the backdrop I see is some hardscrabble dive with windows fronting on a freight yard!
Eyeing her as she sat on the edge of my bed in her very becoming salt-and-pepper dress, I thought of those dagger words, “I’ve left you.” And yet here she was! As if to prove that, I reached out, took her in my arms, and embraced her tightly. She allowed me to do so. But though I had her body firmly in my embrace, I knew I did not have her! There was absolutely nothing I could do to have her, ever again.
The paradox was unbearable! I withdrew my arms and simply sat on the chair near the bed and looked at her once again. I hated myself for not being enough for her! Clenching both fists, I began to pound my chest, and then my head, as hard as I could. I had failed. It was my fault I didn’t have what she wanted.
After a time, I stopped hitting myself and looked at her again. Once more, I heard her words in my mind and reached out to try to prove them false. Again, the effort was futile and I turned my redoubled rage upon myself.
After three rounds of this, she rose and walked to the door of our rear-entrance apartment, then out onto the porch. Bathed in moonlight, she descended the wooden steps to the backyard, continuing around to the front sidewalk. I remained alone with my grief and self-pity.
And yet, we had been lovers. Fate arranged one more meeting. I no longer remember whether one of us phoned the other that Saturday night, in the dead of winter, or whether we “ran into each other” walking along Lake Michigan beside its natural wonder, the great white waves that appeared to have been flash-frozen in mid-leap toward shore.
We walked back to my place together and I lit some candles. Then we made the most gentle, perfect love, in perfect silence, a true lovers’ farewell.
That night was not a reversal, however. It was more a moment out of time. After that, she no longer returned my calls, and I soon stopped trying. It was months later, in the spring, when I saw her next. We passed one another one morning in the student grill and stopped to talk briefly. I found it hard to relate. Wearing shorts, she seemed skinnier than I remembered—partly the person I’d known, partly someone else.
I remained tormented. I still lived in my white Temple. The whiteness of my symbol had likely been her flesh. I lived there like a twin whose womb-mate has died. Her memory haunted my every moment. Her shadow seemed everywhere, but she was nowhere.
I was still enrolled as a full-time student, with hundreds of pages each week to read for my literature courses alone. I had a job during dinner hour washing pots at an Italian restaurant around the corner from the apartment. I still tried to help with the Real Press, but I was pathetically unable to concentrate. Sometimes I skipped a morning class, the way she and I had done together, and went back home to the locus of our former love rituals, just to lie in bed alone.
When the weather turned warm, I found a partial refuge. I would take my books and go sit on a park bench along the strip of green that ran beside the lake south of campus. I wasn’t successful at my efforts to keep up with reading assignments, but the grass, trees, lake and sky, especially that magical, healing green, brought a relative calming. As long as I was there, on what I called “my island,” I survived.
As spring progressed, I encountered a bearded poet, an acquaintance who’d just been jilted by his girlfriend. We began to commiserate. Once he even came to my island of green, sat on the bench beside me, and railed about his former lover, the capitalist system, and any number of other things. My bench seemed to have become a pirate ship that day.
Another time the two of us visited a friend of his, a Czech student named Hruska, who lived in a rooming house. From Hruska’s record player, a voice wailed with a pain I recognized. My poet friend and I examined the album cover. On the back was a strange painting of a woman with her wrists chained, looking at and reaching up through bright orange flames. The front of the album had a grainy sepia photo of a rather handsome man, and the words: Songs of Leonard Cohen.
I passed my courses somehow, distinguishing myself in only one of them. I’d been excited about taking an advanced seminar in short story writing. My first effort was a stream-of-consciousness piece about—what else?—her. The teacher, a diminutive young man with thick glasses and a pock-marked face, gave me a B, commenting that my language was musical but the piece was too subjective to be called a story. I had another major story to go and was simply out of commission as far as being able to write at all on any other subject.
But among the campus politicos and eccentrics who would drop by our place was a certain grad student who happened to show up that week. This handlebar-mustachioed fellow always carried a beige leather pouch with him. All present would gather around the kitchen table during his visits, to watch him pour out its contents and announce their colourful names. He had a loud, affected voice like a hippie train conductor: “Black African ganja!” or “Ammmmmyl nitrate!”
The week my story was due, his voice declared “Pure crystal meth!” Though the idea of taking speed made me anxious, I knew it was my only chance at successfully completing the assignment. I bought some, licked it down, and soon felt like Superman. Several hours later I had written, longhand, a complete story about the world my high school friends and I had inhabited on weekend nights: our rivalry with another group, driving around in my convertible and our adventures “pool-hopping” late at night. Its mood was a little like the movie American Graffiti that came out a few years later. By the time I’d finished typing it up, my system felt totally drained. I slept almost a whole day and night. But I got it in on time.
When I met with the teacher for our last conference, he spoke like an elder performing an initiation. “This piece is wonderful,” he said. “I’m giving you an A for the course!” I sensed he knew how important it was to me to succeed at something, at this point in my life.
Even in my dark night, there was something for me to take, to be proud of, to build on.
Part Two: Mandala
On a sunny, hot day in June, I walked down the sidewalk on Maple Street for the last time, weighed down by a suitcase in one hand and a full duffel bag slung over a shoulder. Spring quarter was over and I had decided never to return to Northwestern. Two years had been enough. I had discovered an identity, only to learn that a political identity was not sufficient to sustain me through lost love. I still did not know how to recover my wholeness, or if that was even possible—only that I would never voluntarily return to this place.
Back in St. Louis, my dad soon sensed my being out of sorts and sent me to a psychiatrist for an evaluation. I was supposed to resume a business partnership with him that had been very lucrative the previous summer, but begged off for a week or two, telling him I needed a little more time to rest.
By my second week in town I was still living aimlessly: reading, walking and driving around while trying to think of a way to postpone responsibilities further. One afternoon, I was walking home from the library along Washington, a shady, doglegged street that ran parallel to our own, two blocks north. Passing the home of a pair of twins I’d gone through the public schools with, I noticed a blonde head up on the porch. A moment later that head shouted my name and a lean dancer’s body appeared, running down the steps to meet me.
“When did you get home?” she asked excitedly, taking my outstretched hands.
“About a week ago. You?”
“Two weeks. And I’m not going back next year. I’m taking a year off. I may have a job in a hospital.”
“I’m not going back to Northwestern, either.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Transfer, I guess. But I haven’t decided where.”
“How are you spending your summer?”
“I’m supposed to work with Dad again. Probably start next week. But so far I’m just taking it easy. I had a tough spring.”
“Me, too,” she said.
I was silent, not wanting to talk more about my own state. Should I ask why her spring had been tough?
“Here we are around the corner from each other again,” Elise went on. “Remember that summer just before college, when you gave us a ride in your ice cream truck?” We both smiled.
“After all those years as neighbours,” I said, “I finally started getting to know the Hallwell twins, just as we were all about to move away.” We both fell silent a moment. I thought of how our friendship had developed further, freshman year. The pledge class of my fraternity, from which I’d deactivated soon after, had gone to visit the Madison chapter. Knowing Elise was in school there, I’d phoned her and snuck away to meet her at a campus tavern. We’d talked for several hours. It was the closest I’d felt to anyone since leaving for college.
As we stood there now, an idea floated through my head. “Hey,” I said. “I noticed that the cherries in my parent’s backyard are ripe. If somebody doesn’t pick them, the birds will. Why don’t you come over some time and we can do it together! They’re sour ones, OK to eat but really good in pies.”
“I’d like to,” she said. “My mom might even want to make a pie or two.” Elise’s mother had been an English war bride and their home looked a bit like a country cottage in the midlands.
“What day would be good?” I asked.
“Hmmm. I have another interview at the hospital tomorrow morning. After that I’m free, though. How about two o’clock?”
“Perfect,” I said. “See you then!” I left feeling cheered. At least now in my dark tunnel, there was one thing to look forward to.
At five before two the next day I sat on our front porch, legs dangling down, with a large, white plastic bowl on my lap. I saw Elise come into view walking down Williams Avenue, which connected our two streets. She waved her arm and smiled. Waving back and grasping the bowl at my side, I stood up to welcome her.
Her long strides quickly crossed the street to my parents’ corner house. She followed me through the arched wooden gate with its peeling white paint and rusting handle, to the backyard. As I pushed it open it scraped the sidewalk, which led into the yard through a narrow passageway between our house and the fence to the Morgans’ property next door. We passed the pink-and-white patio from whose centre rose what remains the largest catalpa tree I’ve ever seen, with its yearly popcorn flowers in full bloom. The cherry tree, speckled pink with fruit, stood across a neglected lawn, beside a black fence that looked down onto a winding, sunken driveway with high, cracked cement walls. A few starlings squawked in the upper branches of the tree.
I handed Elise my bowl and climbed up into the tree, then motioned for her to give the bowl back. After wedging it into the crotch between two large, leafy branches, I extended a hand and helped her up. It was an easy climbing tree even when I was a kid. I started picking cherries and dropping them in the bowl. Standing on another branch across the tree, Elise saw my technique and began to do her own picking.
We laboured silently. The branches were drooping with fruit. The bowl filled up quickly. She had climbed a little higher than I had now. I looked up at her just as she looked down at me, and we both laughed.
The sun’s rays filtered gently through the canopy of leaves.
“Wow, it’s a little green world up here!” Elise exclaimed.
“Isn’t it beautiful? I tell you, though, this wasn’t as much fun when I did it alone last year. By the way, I almost forgot to ask—how was your interview this morning?”
“I think I’ve got the job. It’s in the lab. Most of what I’ll do— there’s no delicate way to say it—is analyze stool samples!”
“That sounds like fun!” I laughed.
“I’ll be a microbiologist! I’ve been getting interested in science lately.”
“You’re not going to be a dancer? Weren’t you majoring in dance?”
“Yes, and I’ve started taking classes with a teacher I like here, too. But I don’t think I’ll ever go to New York or anything.”
“I’m not sure I love it enough. My sister loves both dance and theatre. She has to be doing at least one of them. I’m not sure it’s quite that way for me.”
“I might be starting to love writing that way,” I mused shyly. “I wrote a short story at Northwestern that the teacher raved about.”
“I’d like to read it,” she said. “Weren’t you majoring in journalism?”
“I transferred into English.”
“You’ve always been a writer,” she said. “ I remember your column in the Tom-Tom.”
“Lord! I feel embarrassed to think about that!” I replied. “This story’s different. Confidentially, I actually took speed to write it. I wouldn’t have been able to do it, otherwise, considering the state I was in.”
“Some of my friends have used diet pills to study. It’s tempting,” she said.
“I don’t ever want to get near the stuff again,” I agreed. “It’s too powerful! Half an hour after licking up the powder, I became a genius. I could see all of literature, the whole history of the English language. Every sentence I wrote would start at the very beginning of history—maybe even the beginning of Creation. And there were allusions to all the authors I’d been studying. One paragraph would be in the style of Lawrence; the next one would imitate Joyce.”
“What was the story about?” she asked.
“About high school—the guys I used to go around with on Saturday nights. How we’d find a kind of freedom sneaking into rich people’s swimming pools in Ladue. How we were seeking freedom, but those nights were about the only times I ever really felt free. And about the rivalry between our group and the Marquees, remember them? I was desperately jealous of their fast cars, beautiful girls and general cool. I’m proud of the story, but it still left me wondering whether I’m really a writer or whether it was just the drug.”
“I don’t think it could have been just the drug, I mean, you could give methamphetamine to plenty of people, and they wouldn’t come up with great short stories.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. “But I have to know! It’s still basically the only thing I’ve written that has any merit. I got inspired after Allen Ginsberg came to Northwestern and started writing verse. Nothing I’d show anyone now, but at least I was trying. Well, enough about that. Did you have a boyfriend at Wisconsin?”
“Sort of. For a while. There was a German fellow, he used to always tell me “You are a nymph of der voods!” But it didn’t really go anywhere. He was in love with an image.”
All the time we’d been talking, we had continued picking cherries. Now, the bowl was full. I picked it up gently, cradled it against my breast, and climbed down from the tree. Then I took Elise’s hand and helped her down. We both stood on the ground again, but the ground was different now. My legs felt as if they were growing up from it, anchored like they, themselves, were solid, healthy trees. The dark tunnel had vanished. The world was green and I was solidly in it.
Elise stood before me, smiling. We took each other’s hands. Looking into one another’s eyes, in awe of the transformative mystery that we had innocently entered in the green branches of my parents’ tree, we moved toward one another and kissed.
Part Three: Artist and businessman
Our pattern of connection began to evolve. During the days, we pursued our separate needs and interests. Around dinner time, one of us would phone the other, and we usually ended up getting together. I remained resurrected, out of the tunnel. There was life after lost love.
One night, Elise had something else to do. I went for a drive in the city alone, listening to the radio and seeing how things had changed there since I’d last been in town. Coming up Olive Street in midtown, I suddenly found myself amid the remnants of Gaslight Square, a neighbourhood that had been alive with beatnik coffeehouses, restaurants and bistros as recently as my first departure for college. Jack Kerouac had even set a chapter of On The Road there. My parents had taken my brother and me to the best-known cabaret, the Crystal Palace, to see the Smothers Brothers on my 12th birthday.
Now, Gaslight Square had the look of a bombed-out city. Piles of rubble lay everywhere. The mock-ancient columns in front of Smoky Joe’s, a Greek restaurant that was all boarded up now, had become real ruins. Even though Dad had mentioned on the phone once that a tourist had been murdered nearby, and people had felt unsafe and stopped coming, it was a shock to see.
Soon after passing the Boyle Street intersection where activity had been centred, I was surprised to feel myself overcome with emotion. I felt a need to write. My hand was actually quivering. Pulling over to the curb, I got a notebook and pen out of my bag, flicked on the car’s inside light, and fluently began to scrawl line after line of free-form verse until the cloud of feeling finally had been released.
Reading the page over, I was pleased to discover that the vivid contrast between the past and present of Gaslight Square had become a broader symbol: the poem was an elegy for an absent Mother. Begun in relation to the surroundings, the verse had dipped into the vat of my own internal grief. I had a mother, but emotionally, it seemed there were places in me I didn’t know. I felt deeply satisfied with the piece as a poem. As I closed the notebook, a particularly pleasing line echoed through my mind: “since your great hip shook itself to sleep.”
Driving home, I pondered. The muse had now visited me twice, yet there was no telling when this sensitivity would come again. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could wrestle to the ground and order to produce. It spoke on its own terms. It seemed my short story had not been a fluke or a mere drug-induced experience. Although this piece was verse and that one prose, they had been drawn from the same well.
I couldn’t wait to type up the poem and read it to Elise.
As Dad always reminded me—well, in his own words, “Son, there’s a practical side to life!” He’d suddenly accosted me verbally when I was home for spring break in my freshman year, during the intermission of a play our family had gone to downtown. In reply to something I’d said, he’d looked at me with an expression of disgust and half-shouted, “You’re a dreamer! You live in a dream world!”
I can see now that he had some awareness of how helpless I felt away from home. I also know he had been a dreamer himself once. He’d wanted to go to film school on the GI Bill, and get more training in camera work, editing, or even acting. He’d done some acting in Los Angeles before the war. During their engagement, Mother had said she’d go back there with him. Then at the last minute, she got cold feet. I was already born then and Dad refused to abandon his family, but he was stuck in St. Louis for years in jobs he hated.
It was a bit more complicated than that, but those were the bare facts. It seemed that if he couldn’t be a dreamer, no one else could, either.
The previous summer, Dad had gotten me active in “practical life.” When a loading dock job he’d found me had fallen through at the last minute, he’d asked whether I might be willing to help him with a little business he wanted to start. By now he was an assistant property manager at a huge apartment complex. It was the first job he really liked, after years in the family furniture store and more years pounding the pavement selling linoleum and carpet.
He’d conceived the idea of a St. Louis Area Apartment Guide, a booklet that could be easily mailed or handed out at corporate or government offices. Every city has one today. Dad may or may not have been the first person to ever think of the idea, but St. Louis had certainly never had anything of the kind before.
He needed someone to make the rounds of the many apartment complexes in the area and explain the idea: how we would send the booklets to large corporations, chambers of commerce, the armed forces and such places, and then anyone who rented an apartment from the Guide would earn us a $50 commission from management. It was a simple but flawless plan. Indeed, it ended up putting me through my second year at Northwestern.
Furthermore, our neighbour Eddie Hanniken was a printer, and Dad knew Eddie could do the book for a fraction of what retail printing would cost. There was a caveat: Eddie was an alcoholic who sometimes disappeared on long binges. But Dad believed he could “sit on him” and make him get the job done.
So I’d spent much of the summer of ’67 in a sport coat and tie, carrying a briefcase filled with our contracts and publicity materials, driving the metro area from Mehlville in the south to Florissant in the north, and from the Mississippi River to West County. Many of the compounds’ themes embodied a touch of fantasy. I visited a Japanese-style complex with a tea garden; one with pretend London Townhouses that had British flags flying everywhere; modern high-rises built alongside old churches in the central city; a number of “California-style” developments; and the big one where Dad worked, where all the streets were named after birds.
The results were remarkable! I signed up a large percentage of the owners and managers. It was almost too obvious that when these men saw the young go-getter I appeared to be—they saw themselves! Given that and the fact that the booklet really did make perfect economic sense, we had enough signed contracts to print and distribute even before I went back to Northwestern.
Eddie came through with flying colours, and the finished project looked good. I delivered stacks to the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, plus the HR departments of McDonnell Aircraft, Monsanto, Budweiser, and a whole list of other places. The back cover featured a gorgeous photo of Mansion House Center, consisting of three glass-and-steel riverfront high-rises perfectly framed by the Gateway Arch.
There’s a crazy little side story about Mansion House’s participation. I’ll tell it because it sheds light on my family and its values.
The company signed our contract on my second visit. When I arrived at their top-floor office for a third time, it was just to pick up their artwork. However, as I sat in the waiting room John Cox, the tall, white-haired Texan who was personal secretary to the Executive Director, appeared and said, “Mr. Ashton would like to speak with you.”
That was a surprise! Thus far, Mr. Cox had been the proxy for the company and we’d conducted all our business in his office. Now, I was ushered into his boss’s inner sanctum. Paul Ashton, a bulky, well-dressed man with sharp eyes and a shiny bald head, rose from his desk to meet me as I came in, and shook my hand firmly.
“I love your verve and enthusiasm,” he said when we were both seated. “John has told me all about it. But there are limits to what you can accomplish with the tools available to you. I would like you to seriously consider working with us on your project. We have access to the very latest market research platforms. We could accomplish things together that you’d never dream of.”
It sounded good. My parents were wild with excitement that night when I told them. We even drank a toast at dinner. We were like a stage family whose protégé has been discovered.
It took us only another week to realize that, preposterous as the idea may sound, Ashton and his big-shots were trying to swindle us out of our fledgling business! Some papers I was given to sign constituted a thinly-veiled attempt to steal the enterprise.
We quickly ended our dealings with Mansion House, though their ad remained as the booklet’s handsome back cover. My parents accepted their middle-class status once more, and I no longer saw dollar signs staring back every time I looked in their eyes. (Frankly, my own eyes had not been exempt, either.) During the next year, Dad sent me a newspaper article telling how Ashton had been indicted for embezzling company funds, and had been sentenced to a prison term.
After Elise and I got together, the light inside me shone brightly again. I told Dad I was ready to go to work on the second edition of the Guide. It was, after all, a golden goose: a summer’s work, and it had gone on laying its eggs all year long.
But wouldn’t you know—it wasn’t the same! Dad had a way of speaking to people sometimes, as if he owned them. As a boy I’d helped him move furniture, which he rented to tenants, into their apartments at the same development he now helped manage. He often vented his frustration, as we carried a clumsy sofa together up a winding staircase, by shouting abuse at me. His invectives featured many repetitions of the word “stupid”—words that probably still affect my sense of self-worth.
When I’d been little, he would light up whenever he saw me, and that pure love remains one of my inspirations. His disappointments over time, as well as the increasing complexity of parenting my brother and me as we grew older, became the reasons for his outbursts.
In the summer of 1968, people around the world were declaring their freedom from situations of former servitude. A mere two days after I reported for work, as I was loading my briefcase, Dad shouted, “No, not that way, stupid! Be careful, will you ever learn?” I screamed back, “Listen, I’m not taking your shit this year! Treat me like a human being or I’m out of here!” I stuffed my material in the briefcase and drove away.
When something similar happened a few days later, I shouted “I quit!” I left the briefcase at the house and drove straight to the swimming pool behind my friend Michael’s house, a few blocks away. Climbing out of the car, I ripped the tie off my neck and hurled the symbol of workaday oppression into the air. In the little cabana I changed into my swimsuit, then stood on one end of the pool and dove. It was four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. Down, down into the clear water I plummeted, down to where there was no time, no world! I felt the cool water baptize me into a new, free life.
Part Four: Loose wires
A few of my friends who, like me, were back in town for the summer, had rented an apartment in a gritty neighbourhood just inside the St. Louis city limits. Once in a while we played cards there. Sometimes we just hung out and read. The idea was to have a place for that, and someplace private to bring a date.
After the debacle with my father, though, I didn’t feel I could live in the same house with him, and I moved into the apartment. My friends tolerated this. If they were irritated by my stretching the sense of our understanding, they never said anything. They still came by whenever they wanted.
I would stop by the house on Waterman now and then to visit Mother, trying to time those visits so that Dad would never be there. Once, though, I miscalculated. His station wagon drove up as I was leaving. He got out and climbed the hill that sloped up from the sidewalk like a chieftain approaching a rebellious contender. I was an interloper, a trespasser. The primal father began his effort to re-claim his turf.
“Get out!” he shouted.
“I’m visiting Mother! I have a right to! What are you doing here now?”
“Go get a job and take care of yourself!”
We continued our brouhaha, there on the flat hilltop lawn. We fought with words and body posture, over inches and feet, the way whole armies had during World War I. There were no blows, but Dad’s words were fueled by a burning coal of a heart, and I replied with my own rage. I soon realized, however, with the sane part of my mind, that no good could possibly come of our clash. I spoke past my father to give Mother, who was now standing at the opened front door, my parting regards, and walked down the hill to my car.
Elise and I continued our evening rendezvous. Sometimes we’d go out, but more often I’d go over to her place. We’d sit in the living room, watch TV and talk with her mother. After a while her mom would go to bed. We would then retire to a den at the front of the house and indulge in kissing and foreplay that became wonderfully intense. I would leave around midnight, feeling like a king.
One night in particular, I remember striding down the walkway back to my car as a breeze blew through the branches of the huge, leafy maples that lined the sidewalk. I felt as if I owned the street, owned the night. There was no one to diminish my joy. At 20, I had a beautiful girlfriend and I might also be a poet!
As I got in my car and turned the key, the radio was playing “Just Call Me Angel of the Morning,” a somewhat popular song that seemed as if it had been written in paradise. And I drove home, along avenues of quiet joy, of that paradise.
My memories of the summer flit by like sights outside a car window, probably because quite a few of them took place in cars. There had been my first outing with Elise and her parents, to their land on the lake with their little portable “housie” on it, a couple of hours from the city. I didn’t feel completely at ease with my girlfriend’s parents; what young man does? But I was touched that they had invited me, and I wanted to make a good impression, and I think the day went well.
Not long after, Elise asked if I wanted to drive (she didn’t drive) us to Madison to visit her sister, who was studying there for the summer. I phoned a friend in Evanston and we made a little vacation of it, staying a night in each university town and another in a motel on the way back. Her golden hair splayed on the pillow each night, and the lush patchwork fields of Illinois and southern Wisconsin passing by as she sat beside me, were like a picturesque quilt of heady waking dreams by day. Even my dad, with whom I was now somewhat reconciled, sounded envious. I wanted to spend my whole life like I was spending this summer: loving, travelling, writing.
And who was to say I could not?
Underlying everything between Elise and me, somehow, was the subject of sex. If that had ever been a question with my Northwestern girlfriend, her raw passion had quickly answered it. Interesting, how relationships differed. Elise and I were affectionate companions and neither of us was a cold fish, but the matter of whether, and when, we would have sexual intercourse loomed over us. As we became more and more involved, it lingered behind everything we did. On our trip, we shared a bed and played, but stopped short of “the big one.”
What were we, really? Serious partners? It seemed that way to me. Our connection had restored my life. I felt grateful. The idea that we would ever look back on our relationship as a “summer idyll” was ludicrous.
One day Elise invited me to go back to the lake, just the two of us, on the coming Sunday. We packed a few things and set out mid-morning. Arriving around noon, we spread a blanket near the shore. We dawdled, read and hiked awhile before getting out the picnic basket and having lunch. After a rest, we went for a swim. I held her in the water. Glancing over towards the nearby shore, my eyes happened to wander to one of those “jellied” strings of frog eggs, partly floating in the water and partly hanging on a thin reed.
We got out of the water and lay on the blanket in the warm late-afternoon sun.
“I think this would be a good time to make love,” Elise said.
I lay looking up at the sun, shading my eyes. Nothing came out of my mouth.
“Did you hear me?” she asked
“Yes,” I said. “I just don’t know if I can do it right now.” I turned over and embraced her. She was unresponsive.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”
A little while later, we packed our things and drove silently back to the city. Again we passed through St. Ann, and I felt the nausea come up in my belly.
The next evening she didn’t phone. I felt too vulnerable to call her. In some ways, she had been “the man” in our relationship, the one who usually initiated contact.
I tried to deal with all the loose ends that were shaking around inside me again. I really didn’t know why I hadn’t been able to respond, beside the lake. Did I need the security of a room? A bed? I hadn’t been able to muster myself for one of the tests life was always arranging, sometimes without warning, and it’d had this night-and-day effect. Once more now, the hunger of my heart was like a lion devouring me from inside.
The Director of Admissions of a small, experimental college in Florida happened to be in St. Louis soon after I’d inquired about the school. We had lunch together, talking as we ate. When we’d finished, he pronounced me admitted.
A few weeks earlier, a man from Kansas City had phoned about purchasing the Apartment Guide business. In this case, a couple of dinners and some conversation ended in his handing Dad and me a cheque which, while falling short of making us rich, was reasonable compensation. Dad had accepted that the Guide wasn’t going to happen anymore, and had become ready to let it go. He continued to rail for years after, however, about my “hippie philosophy.” He quoted words he said I’d uttered practically up until the time of his death three decades later: “You don’t believe in work! ‘You do as much as you have to, to get by.’ That’s your philosophy.” I may have said those words. I don’t remember. If they’d ever been my credo, however, they’ve long ceased to be. The truth is far more complicated.
Yet another poem came to me in a semi-trance one day, even in the midst of my turmoil over Elise’s disappearance. I became mesmerized while contemplating the beauty of a peach tree whose round, colourful fruit was nearing ripeness. It seemed to represent a wholeness that is the culmination of all ripening processes in the world, a perfection pervading existence.
Across the globe that very day, Russian tanks were rolling into Czechoslovakia to put an abrupt end to what everyone had called the Prague Spring–the recent, localized thaw in the Cold War. My poem made reference to this event, ending with the lines, “On streets of Prague today / you bear your smooth fruit,” implying that universal ripening prevails even over catastrophe. Through poetry, I was learning, it becomes possible to participate in the life of the entire planet!
Elise continued to remain aloof. I never did call her. The loose ends inside me remained unresolved.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. On a whim in mid-August, I flew to Texas and spent 10 days baking in the mesquite hill country near Kerrville, where my Northwestern apartment-mate’s family owned a ranch that in the summer became a camp for kids. On the way there, I stayed overnight in Austin with Herman, a young man with a huge, dishevelled White-Afro and a terrible scar on his chin.
I met Herman on the street. We walked the town for hours as twilight, and then night, came on. I enjoyed Austin’s Spanish, subtropical atmosphere. Herman said he’d been in Vietnam, chewing on a Pongee-stick pipe, when a bomb had gone off nearby. The impact had knocked him down and the sharp stick had gone all the way through his face.
Around 10 pm, he said he was going home, and invited me to crash at his place. It turned out that meant sleeping beside him on the double bed in his messy, clothing-strewn room.
In the middle of the night a beautiful girl came in through the bedroom door. She climbed into the bed on Herman’s side, across from me, and began making love with him. I feigned sleep, but this was a bit much for me. When they finished and seemed to be sleeping themselves, I rose, picked up my duffel bag, and left as quietly as I could.
“There are many, many ways / for the terribly free / to scar their faces,” I wrote my notebook on a bench a little later, about a person whose life had taken him beyond anything I could imagine.
For the flight home, after my time at the ranch, I decided to fly out of Dallas instead of Austin. That gave me a chance to thumb the couple of hundred extra miles, and possibly have more adventures. I spent an hour between rides in a cottonwood grove next to a stream that seemed to be the end of nowhere. A pick-up truck stopped and let me off two hours later by a big traffic circle outside of Tyler. It had gotten dark. Unsuccessful in getting a ride from there, I lay down in a ditch to try to sleep. After a while, huge hives broke out all over my body. Scratching myself furiously for an hour or two, I finally gave up and walked to a motel across the way and took a long, hot shower in the safe environment my room. The hives disappeared as if they’d never existed, and I slept like a baby, feeling I’d been through heaven and hell in a single night.
All too soon I was back in St. Louis, getting ready to leave again, this time for Florida. My recent escapades on the road had seemed to bring experiences exponentially faster than settled life, and I felt hungry for more. I was like the blind man feeding the elephant, only this “beast” seemingly had infinite different kinds of features.
Underneath all this, I was still crying for my summer love. I believed I knew why Elise had dumped me, but I simply could not bear to phone her or stop by and hear it from her. I decided I would just start over at my new school. I’d always wanted to live in Florida.
I made my flight, heart still raw, wondering how long it would take for its scars to heal–yet even now, ready to give living another try.
Author’s Note: This story is based on events in my life at around age 20. Several scenes describe “recreational” drug use. A couple of years later, I experienced a spiritual Communion with the Indian spiritual figure Meher Baba, and shortly after read God in a Pill?, a pamphlet conveying Baba’s views that drugs are harmful physically, mentally and spiritually. I ceased all such drug use and have never resumed. The incidents in this piece describe a young man’s searching, before he knew better.
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image 1: The airplane climbs via Shutterstock; image 2: White traditional Chedi temple via Shutterstock; image 3: Books via Shutterstock; image 4: lovely blonde via Shutterstock; image 5: Cherry picking via Shutterstock; image 6: man diving via Shutterstock; image 7: Plum peach tree via Shutterstock