Berkeley was warm and full of rain. I’d never felt a warm winter. I’d never seen needles of rain in January, silhouetted against the gray-green of eucalyptus. I’d never sat in my shirtsleeves on the back porch of a January day. Weeks before, I had sat on a rock in the hot sunshine of the bay, drunk on Christmas champagne and eating oranges. My head was awhirl with the maelstrom of the tour, its full and complete cessation allowing me space to think about where we had been, what we had done. All of it was about us, all of us. Now, I was alone.
Sometimes dates aren't dates and aren't full of sweet nothings.
I wanted to drive up Route One, clear my head. The coast north of San Francisco had become full of atmosphere for me, from trips I had taken with my cousin on my first expedition west, after my freshman year at Harvard. Then, the voyages north felt like freedom. I wanted to feel that freedom again. I borrowed my cousin’s Volkswagen bus. I planned to visit friends who had emigrated from their Pullman apartment in the Haight to a shack in the Mendocino pines.
A big Pacific storm battered the coast. No matter — I was game for the trip north. Shrunken by the cold winters of Boston, I was in love with the warm, wet benevolence of the California rainy season.
The summer before, my cousin — in a zealous campaign to commit suicide by clambering up glacier-sheared granite faces in Yosemite – had rolled the VW bus off the outside of a curve in the oak and brown foothills of the Sierras. In seconds, the bus transmogrified from cube to parallelogram, blowing out all the side windows
Miraculously, physics and the whimsy of trajectory had spared the front of the bus. My cousin and I popped in a new windshield and the thing still steered straight, so we put it back on the road.
When I was about to leave, my cousin asked me to do him a favor. His current girlfriend knew a girl who wanted a ride north. According to Eric’s girlfriend, this girl had to get out of the city. She had some friends up in Mendocino. She knew of a place we could crash, halfway up the coast, in Point Arena. My brain lit up with images of the two of us lying naked in a cabin in the sequoias while rain washed the wilderness into a blur beyond the window panes.
Kathy was a living with a bunch of people in a rambling, unpainted fisherman’s house perched on the hillside overlooking a Standard Oil refinery. Her pad was draped with potheads and generally unmotivated freaks, but my cousin knew them all, and that’s how I met Kathy.
The day we were to drive north, the wet, windy warmth of El Nino softened the silhouettes of hillside fisherman’s shanties and blurred the belching dragon of the nearby refinery. I pulled the VW to the curb and honked. Kathy appeared on the upstairs porch of her rickety hillside castle. All arms and legs, she loped down the outside staircase like an Afghan hound. That struck a familiar chord.
She had a guy in tow, a ruddy monster with a surfer’s sunburn and bleached blond mop. He might have made some cash diving for abalone, or maybe he was a dope dealer. Who knew? It seemed remarkable that the guy wasn’t in Vietnam, but anything that kept anybody from killing or dying in that war was all right with me. Still, was I supposed to drive this boyfriend or whatever all the way to Mendocino?
Kathy climbed aboard. “He’s not coming,” she whispered.
The galoot hooked a hoof around Kathy’s long neck and pulled her head through the open window. He pressed her face to his squat, sunburned puss and smacked her on the lips. “Be good.” He was trying to sound sweet. He pushed Kathy’s head back inside the bus.
“Don’t forget to feed the cats.” Kathy arranged a knapsack at her feet and pulled an orange hooded fisherman’s slicker around her narrow shoulders. Professional garb. Her boyfriend’s.
“Don’t do nothin’ I wouldn’t do.” The boyfriend or whatever glared at me.
I chose to leave it alone, staring instead at the weather through the windshield and bobbing my head to the rhythm of the wipers. I didn’t want to raise this guy’s hackles. I had been hit plenty by cops, and sucker-punched more than once.
The surfer-fisherman-doper stepped away from the distorted bus and I lurched us into motion. This guy had put the whole deal with Kathy on a different footing.
“Jeez,” I said. “You two look pretty cozy.”
“Been together long?”
We drove in silence over the camel-hump arches of the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, past the federal pen at San Quentin, past San Rafael Rock & Sand where a sway-backed quarry building hunkered in a gravel pit like a latter-day Noah’s ark. We pulled onto the freeway and pushed north, the wind billowing at our tail.
Rain lashed the windshield and blew past the open windows in a warm haze. We whined north into the rolling winter-green hills around Santa Rosa. I poked questions at Kathy, but it was like butt-bumping a frog.
“So where you from?”
She tucked long legs beneath the orange slicker.
“Originally, I mean. Nobody’s born here,” I continued.
Kathy looked out the window.
“Actually, I lied. My cousins were born here.”
“Oklahoma,” she said.
“I was born in Oklahoma.”
Ah. She was starting to loosen up.
“Oklahoma. I’ve never been there.”
“Don’t go.” She leaned her chin on her knees.
“Who…me?” I turned to look at her. “Don’t go? Don’t go where? I mean, I’m not going anywhere. Well, actually, we’re going somewhere … through Gualala, around the corner at Point Arena, all the way to Mendocino, right?”
“Whatever. Just don’t go to Oklahoma.”
“Oh.” Hmmm, I thought. Quite a sense of humor.
She shrugged and stared through the windshield. “There’s nothin’ there.”
From where I’m at, when one actor drops his or her lines, the other actor has to improvise. When the other actor recovers, it’s usually possible to stumble back to the script.
Kathy was no actor. She had dropped her lines without knowing or caring, so I slipped into improvised monolog mode. I expounded on my theatrical adventures, the show we had done on all those campuses, the marvels of commedia dell’arte, its medieval “street” origins, the anti-war ruckuses we had joined.
I rapped about the pigs who broke windows at the U. of Wisconsin where the makers of napalm tested their concoctions. I riffed on draft cards, tac squads, light shows, cop harassment, and a burning ROTC headquarters in Ohio. I invoked the names of Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendryx, Angela Davis, Che Guevara, Huey Newton, Allen Ginsberg, Martin Luther King. I was rocking out while the road wound beneath us.
Kathy stayed silent.
Late that afternoon, we cruised into Point Arena. The storm had not abated and, with the sun going down, it was getting cold in the lopsided bus. At that time, Point Arena was still a hardware town, supplying ranchers and loggers and fisherman. A movie palace, a firehouse, the fisherman’s cooperative, and a flapjack café loomed out of the rain-swept landscape. A Rino brand gas station sold fuel out of old hand-crank pumps. The concrete architecture harked back to WPA construction projects of the 1930s.
“So where’s this place?” I asked. “Where we can crash.”
“My friends told me that the name’s on the mailbox.”
“Wow,” I said. “A whole sentence.”
Kathy stared at me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just a little cranky, what with the cold and the wind and the rain and the noise of the engine and the overwhelming silence of the person sitting next to me. Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I’m sorry, too.”
She did seem pretty damned sorry. But what did she have to be sorry about? Some great, past, unforgotten tragedy? A loss? The plight of the world? I didn’t pry. I craved companionship, not angst. I had enough angst of my own. “So what’s the name?” I asked.
“No. I mean on the mailbox.”
I stopped in front of the café. “You want something to eat?”
Kathy shook her head. “Let’s just get there,” she said. “It’s getting dark.”
“What, like the witches are gonna come out?”
Kathy said nothing. I had to admit, Point Arena didn’t look particularly friendly. I didn’t take lumberjacks to be sympathetic to longhairs, peaceniks, or draft-dodging commie freaks. I had gotten the dirty hippie treatment plenty of times; it was rarely conducive to good humor, good digestion, or romance, of which I was hopeful.
I pulled the earrings out of my left earlobe, tucked my hair under an old navy watch cap, jumped out of the crooked bus, and pushed my way into the café. A woman with a pale complexion and a waitress’s apron gave me a head-to-toe appraisal.
“I’m looking for the Tucker place. Can you tell me…?”
“Just north ‘a town.” She squinted at me. “They friends of yours?”
“Friend of a friend.” I could feel my hair begin to creep out from under the watch cap.
“They ain’t there. The Tuckers. They been rentin’ the place to a buncha hippies.” She picked up a coffee pot. “You know that, dontcha?”
“That’s okay,” I replied. “We’re just staying the night. We…”
The lean lady floated to the far end of the counter to fill a trucker’s cup. She muttered as she poured.
The man glanced at me. A trucker’s pot belly pushed at his plaid shirt and stretched his suspenders. A purple, polka-dotted engineer’s cap sat high on his forehead.
The trucker stared.
“Nice hat,” I offered and backed out the door into the wind and climbed into the bus. The twisted VW door screeched as I pulled it shut.
“Just north of town,” I repeated.
Kathy said nothing.
I ground the crooked bus up the hill. The structures thinned, the highway darkened and turned hard left toward the coast.
“There it is!” Kathy nearly raised her voice. “Tucker.”
The Tuckers, whoever they were, had converted an old farmer’s water tower into a home. The top floor boasted chest-high portholes that looked out on the sea.
“Wow,” she exclaimed. “They said it was a tower. What a trip.” She leapt out, crouched by the door, produced a key, and disappeared inside.
I followed. A circular wrought-iron staircase wound to the second story where a flat-black, conical fireplace hung suspended from the ceiling.
I dragged in the sleeping bags and packs. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The place was totally cool. We were alone together. There were no interfering brother or sister hippies to be found. So much for village gossip, I thought. The fireplace worked, the kitchen was full of pots, pans, bottles and cans, the rain was lashing at the portholes, and Kathy was mine, all mine. Silent, perhaps, but mine, nevertheless.
“It’s really cool,” she said, looking at me for confirmation.
“It sure is,” I replied, meeting her gray eyes. My confidence was boundless. We built a fire together. I cooked omelets on the stove. She toasted sourdough bread over the open flames in the fireplace. Things were looking up. Communication was possible.
We lit candles, smoked a joint. Kathy shed her clothes for a flannel nightgown. A gallon of Red Mountain burgundy roosted on the kitchen counter.
After dinner, we sat on the floor, the gallon of Red Mountain between us, and stared into the fire. Silently.
“Some trip, huh?” I said with bravado, took a swig from the jug and handed it to her.
“Yeah,” she said, putting the jug back on the floor, untasted.
I made advances.
Kathy backed away.
I bared a shoulder, grasped a flannelled flank.
Kathy retreated like a snail to the shelter of her sleeping bag. She assumed a fetal position and covered her head. “G’night,” she mumbled.
I said goodnight. I fed the fire, drank burgundy, and brooded. Hadn’t I driven her up here? Shit. We had toasted our journey with wine — Well, I had toasted our journey with wine — in front of a crackling fire but now I sat alone, my cold ass growing colder as the sea-wet moisture invaded the tower’s flooring. Why me? I asked. Or more accurately — why not me? Wasn’t I an intrepid revolutionary? Wasn’t love supposed to be free? And free-flowing?
After all the war stories I had told her — twelve weeks on the road, liberating campus radio stations, leading chanting students into war-research facilities — surely she understood the significance of the moment, of every moment in the revolution. This was one such moment, never to be repeated in the ongoing cosmic chaos. An intense and beautiful moment in the ugliness of a world at war. And speaking of war, dammit, wasn’t I a soldier in the war at home? Didn’t she like me? Didn’t she get it? Girls said “yes” to guys who said “no.” That’s what the bumper sticker said.
Soon, changes would begin to come down – not just for me, but for everyone. As the war ground on, women — not girls — had declared a new war at home. They demanded to be heard at strategy meetings. They had shouted down the sexism in their ranks. “Vietnamese women and girls fight alongside the men and boys in their guerrilla war,” they called out to the men. “Those Vietnamese women, aren’t they your heroes, too? We fight alongside you in our own streets. And we don’t need to be your heroes – or your heroines. You need to recognize that we are your equals.”
When the river rises the dam will break. But the time had not yet come. I was still running on the fumes of male supremacy, twisting around the knots and sinews of an old power structure in my guts. Back then, I wasn’t ready to admit that I had driven through the warm California rain in a lop-sided VW bus with a person whom I regarded as an opportunity, when, really, she was a forlorn young woman who had wanted nothing more than a ride north.
# # #
* Excerpted from a novel-in-progress and close enough to the truth. — cd
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.