Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Best Intentions

            He wants to be the Jewish Neil Young. When his parents hear him say it, they frown, shuffle their feet, and wag their fingers. No good Jewish boy plays in a rock and roll band, especially the sort of four and five piece crews coming out of California with their suntans, long hair, and marijuana smoke trailing behind them. Mike does not care. He wraps his arms around the idea that rock and roll will change the world and, even if it means shaming his family like his father screams, even if it means his childhood world turns its back on him, he isn't going to let go. He sees no other way.
             His father owns Evansville's oldest newspaper for many years until selling his stake and retiring in the early 1970's. His mother is a music instructor at a private school. Both parents are orthodox and visiting synagogue is not a choice. Mike questions everything he hears, pushing back against the rituals, the commandments, their attempts at wedging him into their design for living. He wants to leave, taking to the road and playing guitar, and kick the life he knows into the past. Flip-off the faith of his ancestors, spit on their kippahs, throw aside their rules and punishments, and mold a new identity from that. When he hears Neil Young for the first time in 1972, his cousin Clark sits beside him, leaning towards the speaker.
            “Wow, what’s this song called?” Clark says.
            Mike glances at the album sleeve. "Cinnamon Girl."
            “Listen to that guitar! This sounds incredible, Mike! What’s this guy’s name again?”
            “Neil Young. Used to be in a band called Buffalo Springfield.”
            Clark stares into the speaker and his eyes are blinking fast. “Never heard of them.”
            “Man, I’ve never heard anything like this before.”
            The growling, thrashing guitar chords are razors dissecting his life. They are cutting out the fat, the thick buffers his parents build to shield him from the world. The long, piercing string bends quicken his pulse and straighten his back. By the time Mike graduates from high school a year later, he has a car and a plan.
            “Dad, I’m not going to school in the fall. I’m gonna travel, see the country, play my guitar.”
            They are sitting at the dining room table. His father is writing out checks for household expenses and, when he hears Mike's words, shoves the checkbook and papers off the table. He pulls his head back, frowns, and flings his hand through the air. “Do you realize what you are saying? The chances that you are taking with your future?”
            “I don’t care. Maybe I'll go to school, but I'm going to go out and meet life first."
            “You are a fool, Michael, and a dreamer. You should be getting ready for school, yet you insist on this waste of time." His father coughs and strokes his hand across his shirt, smoothing out the wrinkles. "Be forewarned, Michael, that we're not paying for this in anyway and we will not bail you out of any scrapes.”
            Mike holds his legs together and clinches his fists. “I don’t expect you to, dad.”
            His father stares at him, then rolls his eyes and looks away. "You don't know what's waiting for you out there. America doesn't care about your guitar playing, your dreams, or the good in your heart." He turns his chin downward and arches an eyebrow. "And nor should it." He turns, reaches down, picks up his checkbook, and waves it in the air like a winning lottery ticket. "This is what matters, Michael. What you love only matters if it's making money and dreams are just that - dreams. They don't prepare you for life, they don't make money, and they never come true." He slaps his hand on the tabletop, turns, and starts picking up the papers from the floor.
            Mike shakes his head and stands. “I disagree. It’s a new day in America. Things are changing.”
            “Disagree if you like. You've made up your mind to hurt yourself and your family." The words are bursting out of him. He stares at Mike, leans his head back, and shrugs. "It's not a new day in America, Michael, but believe what you want. Children often do, despite the truth. There’s a lot coming to you, I am afraid.”
            In the summer of 1973, Mike drives his van out of Evansville tapping the steering wheel, bopping his head, and smoking marijuana. These are the days of Watergate, Wounded Knee, and the end of Vietnam. He thinks Nixon is reaping his karmic reward, the Indians should have killed more FBI agents, and marching ends wars. He is free, speeding west, and pictures himself playing his guitar just before sunrise on a California beach. The thought moistens his eyes and makes him smile.
            On the second day, he stops at a campground outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. No clouds stain the lustrous, blue carpet sky and the surrounding dense thickets of prairie grass are weaving in a soft breeze. Mike washes his body before cooking pork and beans on a campground grill. When he finishes eating, he rolls a large joint and walks through the campground.
            Mike sees a school bus while walking. Cinder blocks are elevating the rear end of the bus, a flat tire leans against a tree, and three people are sitting near the bus eating sandwiches.
There is an overweight man in his early thirties wearing brown corduroy jeans, a thin white t-shirt, and fraying sandals. White strains streak his long, thick beard and his thin hair brushes against his shoulders. He is scowling, his jaw shifting from side to side. There is a young guy, maybe twenty, with a thick mane of blonde hair, muscular arms, and a wide, round chest. The third person is a woman, also in her early twenties, and hovering near the younger man. Her long blonde hair is thin and reaches the middle of her back, the greasy strands knotting and sticking together. She has a gaunt, oval face, a fair complexion, and sharp features. There is a deep slope at the end of her nose and the tip juts out like a pointing finger. Her jaw is triangular and has a long, shallow dimple. She is tall, over six feet, and slender.
            “Hey man, you guys need help?” Mike asks.
            The two men look at each other. The younger man looks back at Mike and smiles. “Yeah, brother. There’s some heavy liftin’ here and we could use some help.”
            Mike extends his hand to the younger man first. “My name’s Mike.”
            “I’m Tim. This is my older brother Stan and my girl, Terri.”
            Stan shakes Mike's hand, gripping it tight enough to grind his knuckles together. Terri stands and bounces over to him. She hugs him, wrapping her arms around his neck, and pressing her body against his. “Man, it’s really cool to meet you! Ya got a joint, brother?”
            Mike smiles and widens his eyes. "Yup, I do. Let’s smoke out before we work.”
            The four of them sit in a circle near the bus and, as they smoke, Mike asks questions. Like him, all three hail from the Midwest and are driving cross-country. They have friends living at a commune south of Sacramento who invite them. A day ago, a rear tire blows out, but if they buy a new tire, they will be out of money, so they are sitting here waiting for Terri's father to wire cash.
            “So where ya goin’, man?” Terri asks.
            “California first. I wanna play my guitar in Golden Gate Park, on the beach at sunrise, and see Frisco. After that, I’ll go back east and then head south.”
            “Seeing the country, eh?” Tim asks.
            Mike nods. “Yeah, man. The war’s over, America’s America again. Things are gonna change for the better. I wanna see the country before I go off to college.”
            Tim smiles and glances at Stan. “Good idea. Fuck the war, never should have happened.”
            “I did a tour. 71’.” Stan says to Mike.
            “You didn’t try to dodge the draft?” Mike asks.
            “Couldn’t. I was on trial for some shit and they gave me a choice.”
            “What kind of shit?” Mike asks.
            “Don't worry about it. Just bullshit.” Stan spits the words out and chills Mike with his glare.
            “Hey, man, you think we can get a ride to the next town? We need some stuff.” Tim asks.
            Mike shrugs, tilts his head to the side, and nods. “Sure, man, I’ll help ya out.”
            The four of them walk to Mike’s van and, once out on the highway, they are talking again. Terri sits behind the passenger seat, Tim and Stan sitting behind her and Mike.
            “So ya really think that since the war’s over, everything’s gonna be different?” Tim says.
            Mike furrows his eyebrows and nods. “Yeah, man, how could it not be? It’s gotta be better.”
            “I didn’t see better in ‘Nam, man.”
            “I'll bet. You were a soldier, anyone would be outta their mind in that situation.” Mike says.
            “What the hell do you know about bein’ in that situation?” Stan says. He arches his voice, mocking Mike.
            Mike feels his stomach fluttering. He shifts in the driver's seat and grits his teeth. “I don’t know anything about it, man. I didn’t mean to offend. I just figure that’s the way it is.”
            Tim reaches forward and pats Mike on the shoulder. "Don't worry about, Mike. You're cool with us.” He leans back and sighs. "Yeah, the war's over, but so what? The war here never ends."
            Mike opens his mouth to speak, but Terri puts her hand on his arm and squeezes him." So, you play guitar?"
            “Yeah. I've got some money, but this guitar and a pound of grass I have will make me money," Mike says.
            “Really? You've got a pound in the van?" Stan asks.
            Mike turns his head towards the men and nods. "Oh yeah, got it before I left Indiana." He hears Stan mumbling something indecipherable and the two men jostling.
            Tim coughs. “Let’s do it after we score those tires," he says.
            Mike puckers his lips, smiles, and nods. "Cool, man."
            The highway is a narrow, granite vein dividing long plains of grass and Mike widens his eyes when he sees blurry, distant mountains swelling from the horizon. His window is open and his arm rests on the window frame as he drives. He raises his chin a little and his heartbeat quickens. No one is telling him what to do anymore. He is driving to a new land, a new world, where people are free and working hand in hand with one another to spread love, learn, and grow as human beings. No more synagogue, no more social protocols, no more imprisoning him in structures and designs that rob him of the room he needs to stretch and grow. His hair stands and pimples rise when the strong breeze sweeping over his arm tickles his skin.
            “So you said fuck college, I’m gonna travel, play my guitar and sell pot, huh?” Terri says. She giggles.
            “Yeah. I’m not going to do it forever or anything, you know?”
            “Outta sight, man. I betcha your folks weren’t happy.”
            “They weren’t, but I don’t care.”
            She slowly crosses her legs and rubs them against each other, hoping Mike notices. Mike looks over, turns his eyes back to the highway, and says nothing. He thinks her legs look like two long toothpicks with small, round splinters of bone bulging from her knees.
             “Hey man, do you think we could stop for a while? I got a bum knee that I need to stretch out. Need to piss too,” Stan says.
            “Sure, man. I’ll break out some of that weed too and roll a joint.”
            Mike drives another half mile before pulling over to the shoulder of the highway. The four climb out of the van. The western sun flickers behind billowing splashes of cloud smearing the sky. Stan stretches his back and stares off into the distance. Mike sees Tim whispering into Terri’s ear.
            “I gotta piss too,” Mike says.
            Tim nods and looks at Stan. Mike turns and takes four steps before he hears someone walking behind him. When he starts to turn his head, his head explodes, pains searing his senses and knocking him unconscious.
            A truck driver sees him alongside Highway 80, fifteen miles east of Cheyenne. Blood covers his face and an inch wide skull fracture is on the back of his head. He is still bleeding, his pulse racing, slowing down, stopping, and racing again, his chest straining for each shallow breath. The truck driver loads him into his vehicle and saves his life.
            The police arrest no one and the brain damage shreds Mike's memories. He remembers how the wind feels on that day. He remembers seeing the long plains of slumping prairie grass, Terri's giggle, and Stan's withering glare, but he recalls nothing else. His family brings him home. Mike never plays his guitar at sunrise sitting on a California beach, never finds the people working hand in hand to bring the world together, drinks and stays in bed for days at a time, but his family does not care. They tell each other that none of it matters; Michael is still Michael, even in this state. His thick blonde hair still parts best to the left, his slender jaw still gives his face a gentle look, and his eyes are as blue as ever. Mike is the only one who knows what he has lost. He is gone, dead, three people murdering his dreams for a sputtering van, an acoustic guitar, and a pound of marijuana, and will not dream again.

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