Scooby Dooby Doo, Where Are You?
by Velma Dinkley
It's one of those days where I hate both Smith and Corona. Though they produce fine products for those of us who so unwisely decided we had something to say and needed something to say it with, they have also created the smallest word processor screens in the known universe. Then again, I'm legally blind and would probably still be squinting through lenses thick as radiation shielding at a screen the size of a Times Square billboard. Now that I've wrung you of sympathy ("Oh, that poor myopic millionaire!"), let me try and remember why the hell I'm writing this. Ah yes...
So I'm approached by the glad handing editor of this magazine and praised into writing a series of pieces. The topic? Well, I'm afraid it's me. "Dearest," he oozes, "we want the story behind the story of the world's best and best selling novelist. America's most acclaimed writer of popular fiction." Didn't sound like anyone I knew. I suggested they look up that guy from Maine. You know, the one whose name always dwarfs the title of whatever bogey man epic he's spit out this month.
"Darling," he continues with a gentle prod to the ego, "the question on everyone's lips is 'Who is this woman? How does her mind work? Where did she come from?' I think you owe it to your readers to answer these questions."
I had to forcefully restrain the cackle that so desperately wanted to break free at this moment. Spending, as I do, a lot of time around people equipped with lips, I couldn't recall having once heard any of these questions. And as for my readers, I owed them nothing more than another book.
But two things appealed to me about this suggestion. One was the outrageous amount of money he was offering (safely hidden away in the bank by now, thank you). Like so many of today's authors authors with a realistic approach to the art of commerce and the commerce of art, authors with homes on both coasts and extravagant, demanding little habits I placed my hands on my knees, bent over, and allowed myself to be banged by a gang of zeros. Degrading? Nah. I merely closed my eyes and pictured the face of my accountant.
The other thing that attracted me to this little autobiographical escapade was strictly personal. Turns out I've always kind of wanted to know the answers to those very questions that are supposedly taking up so much breath amongst the speaking public. Who is this woman? How does her mind work? Where did she come from?
I was going to embark on an introspective mystery ramble, and what's more, I was going to be paid for it. But this time I would be alone. This time there wouldn't be a green van or a talking dog...
There are plenty of clues; nothing so obscure as dust levels or cryptic codes made of dancing stick figures, these are the more obvious clues of life and experience. But let me backtrack here and set the scene properly.
With a reverse "Locomotion" and a rewound James Brown shimmy step, we're in the fall of 1966. More specifically, we're on the campus of Providence College in Rhode Island. It was the time that it was and even this noble institution couldn't escape the touch of "the Revolution." Speaking for myself, as the freshest of freshmen I was completely unprepared for the sights, sounds, and smells of the counter culture. Material worthy of one of my spiritual mentor's classic black and white intros:
"Picture if you will a girl. Barely eighteen. Awkward, maybe even what some unkind soul might describe as 'homely.' Her modest saddle shoe pumps have barely tapped, much less danced, to the beat of "Love Me Do." Yet here, at the temple of learning, her ears will hear such new sounds and her eyes, hidden behind dowdy frames, will be met with such new sights. Miss Velma Dinkley is about to meet her first hippy in the Twilight Zone."
Thanks, Mr. Serling, I'll take it from here.
I am frumpy. I always have been and I always will be. There, I've said it. But beyond caricature is just how frumpy I was the day my family put me on that bus in Plum City, Wisconsin. I arrived at college with twenty pounds of spiral notebooks and two suitcases full of pleated skirts and big, baggy sweaters all the better to hide my poor, lumpy excuse for a figure. With this cleverly devised camouflage I was ready to disappear into the world of academia. I wanted this refuge. I didn't quite get it.
The Providence campus is a thing of beauty in the early fall. There are still warm breezes coming in from the coast and the golden filtered light of its sunset was enough to paint my first collegiate hours in a somewhat hopeful hue. This feeling of invigorating anticipation buoyed me as I wandered through courtyard after building after courtyard with absolutely no idea of where I was supposed to end up. Lack of direction is normal in young adults, but this was ridiculous.
A campus map in one hand and my portable typewriter in the other, everything else hanging off of various and sundry physical protuberances, I wasn't exactly watching where I was going. I turned a corner even more blind than usual and BAM!
My glasses flew off. My Herculean labour of bags tumbled to the ground. The map saw this as its one chance at freedom and took to the wind, flapping away as serenely as Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
"Wow, when worlds collide! Like, are you okay?" A voice came out of the blurry nowhere the world becomes approximately four inches from my eyes.
Already kneeling, I sent my hands out on a desperate search and find mission. "I need my glasses…."
"Hey, yeah. Looking for sight, I can get into that," the voice said. "I's got something for you right here. Get it? 'Eyes'?"
Actually I wasn't too amused but I don't think that mattered much to the voice which turned out to be a he. The unidentified male knelt beside me and slid the glasses back onto my face. The first thing I saw was the smile.
One of the dopiest (literally, as I soon discovered) expressions I had ever seen on a human being, but sweet. This guy was about my age and very tall, lanky, even squatting on the ground next to me. That close to him, I could smell his clothes his ratty T shirt and threadbare bell bottoms. They smelled like incense definitely and something else, something exotic that I couldn't place. His sandy brown hair was longish. Tousled and tangled, three-days dirty and wind combed. He was trying valiantly to grow a goatee but all his face could muster was a patch right along the line of his chin. He smiled, swaying slightly, and kept on smiling.
"Thanks." I said, ever the master of repartee.
We stood and he continued to help me gather my stuff.
"No problem, cosmically speaking. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, who's writing this down?"
"Yes. So true." I replied, deciding at the last minute to add, "Right on."
As soon as he finished laughing, he was kind enough to point me towards my dorm.
"Look me up if you ever get lost again. I will show you the way, sister. I'm better than any map!"
He laughed and walked off, still smiling. And clopping. I looked at his feet as he loped away. Sandals. He was wearing sandals. My eyes bulged. I had just met my first hippy.
Was he "tripping"? Had he burned his draft card? Did he bathe? These and other naive sociological questions filled the space between the point of impact and my dorm.
A beautiful old building with somewhat less beautiful hallways painted an almost painful shade of peach. Room B34. At the threshold, an effort to merely set down my typewriter resulted in yet another avalanche of Lady Samsonite. I opened the door.
Copper is not an adequate enough word to describe the color. Something softer, more golden, but just as fiery. The first thing I notice about someone is almost always the one thing that will sum them up in my mind for the rest of time. With the hippy it was his smile. With Miss Daphne Blake it was her hair. The redness of her hair. The Viking funeral of her hair.
I think I might have even gasped.
She turned from where she stood against the light coming in from the thin curtained window, her hand covering the mouthpiece of the phone she had pressed to her ear. She gave me a look of impatient expectation that only truly beautiful people seem to get away with.
"Well?" she said with the customary exasperated waving gesture. Come into the room, shut the door, and keep your mouth closed. Ah, I get it.
She continued into the phone. "M hm? ... Oh, my roommate just showed up. ... No! I don't think so! Not unless she's a brain! ... It's when? ... Okay, seven thirty. I'm so excited! It may sound corny, but I've wanted to pledge Delta Delta Delta my whole life! ... Great! Bye!"
After unpacking everything (my sweater collection got quite a snide look from her, indeed), setting up my desk, and even lying quietly on my bed, staring at the ceiling for an hour, she finally hung up the phone. I decided to break the ice.
"Is there any sorority you haven't wanted to pledge your whole life?"
She stood, actually posed, her green eyes cutting into me with the kind of unwavering arrogance that only truly beautiful people seem to get away with. "Are you going to be a bitch?"
"No. A Lit major."
And then she laughed and every preconceived notion I had of her dissolved in those warm sounds. She was looking at me differently too.
"So you picked up on my little spiel there, huh?"
I sat up and mimed a phone, "'It may sound corny, but I've wanted to pledge fill in sorority here my whole life!'"
We laughed. We exchanged names and life histories. Daphne Blake was a pampered, precious thing from Virginia whose father had called her "Doll" since she was two and would continue to do so until he dropped dead over their backyard barbecue in 1979. Daphne Blake was the head cheerleader at Williamstown High from '63 to '66. She never missed a day of school and got a special certificate of perfect attendance at her graduation. No surprises here, except for the nagging sense I had that Daphne was just as aware as I that there were no surprises here. Just as frankly, she explained that her manic need to join a sorority was borne out of her certainty that the only real fun to be found on campus was behind doors branded with the Greek alphabet. I suggested she try looking a little harder.
Two months past that first introduction two months full of giggly, fifth-grade sleepover fun Daphne still hadn't pledged any sorority and didn't seem to miss it. But she did find something of note: a boyfriend.
"Hey, Daph, we on for an old Twilight Zone and a bowl of popcorn?"
"Not tonight, Velma. I've got a quarterback to sack."
"The libido calls, huh?"
I joked with her, but below the surface I was always bothered by her seeming eagerness to live down to expectations. She knew that, as a WASP princess in the making, she was supposed to rack up a string of hunks with campus visibility and wealthy fathers and so she did. A catalogue of potential husbands lined up and waiting for the redhead in the blindfold to be spun and spun and stopped, her finger vaguely pointing out the not too-particular one who would "win" her. A quarterback. I was disappointed but not surprised. Bring on the quarterback!
A quick rap on the door at almost 8:00 and Daphne, in a burst of near painful perkiness, skipped to the door. The smile was fixed, her breasts craned like astronomy hobbyists thanks to an underwire bullet bra stolen from her aunt who hadn't used it since '57. Miss Daphne Blake was ready and oh-so willing. A steadying breath through clenched teeth and she opened the door.
A chin. The chin to end all chins. That's all I remember standing on the other side of that door. Over the years I knew him, I came to appreciate his nearly perfect profile, flawless blue eyes, and too true to come out of a bottle blonde hair. But Fred Jones was to me, first and foremost, The Chin.
"Fred, this is my roommate Velma."
He gave a little half nod, thrusting that chin of his forward in a gesture that most of the world's nations would conceive of as an act of war. I nearly ducked. "Hey," he said.
"Hi," I said. And that was how it all began.
The comedy cast, all that remained were the rehearsals. Needless to say, Daphne and Fred really hit it off; I say needless because it was fated, inevitable, doomed. But these two star aligned lovers held their heads high and accepted their fate with full pearly smiles and the kind of safe dignity only truly beautiful people seem to get away with.
Sometime into that next morning Daphne's euphoria slammed headfirst into the brick wall of my artistic angst. Sunk into my mattress with nothing for company other than a snowy TV screen and the repetitive stutter of my lowercase "x" key masking the less than genius opening lines of a short story entitled, if memory serves, "Murder Most Fowl," I was not prepared for the skipping firestorm that burst into B34. My eyes red from hours of staring down the muse of my frustration, I was less than eager to bask in this premature dawn that had broken all over the place.
"How could he be so perfect? How, I ask you, can two people be so perfect together?"
"How could a crazed farmer kill his entire family with a frozen chicken?" I countered.
She ignored me and carried that glow with her into the bathroom. She draped that glow in her pastel green peek a boo nightie the one she usually saved for the eyes of her many rich as they are gorgeous as they are horny suitors. She lay that glow between little-girl sheets and sighed as she drifted away. A sigh only I heard. I dropped "Murder Most Fowl" and gave myself over to other dreams.
Dreams were just about all I had for the next few weeks. That and Western Lit. 101 and Moon Pies and the Late Late Show. My friend Daphne was a brief blazing guest star in those early days of bliss. Her time belonged to one Frederick Allan Jones of the Palo Alto Joneses and her time card was being punched regularly in the back of Fred's emerald green custom van. And me? 10:30, Channel 9: Double Indemnity followed by Mark Of The Vampire. Ah, romance.
I can't even imagine where the idea first occurred to them. Was it in town over malts at Renny's Diner? Was it strolling along the small rocky cliffs at the ocean's edge? Or was it lying red faced and sticky in a tangle of sweaty sheets that one or the other said, "Maybe we could set Velma up with Shag?" No, I'll never know just who to thank for formally introducing me to Norville Rogers. By "formally," I mean had already briefly met the man everyone (including myself eventually) called "Shaggy."
Born into a powerful small-town family (Pop was the mayor of Wrightford, New Jersey), Norville "Shaggy" Rogers only did one thing his elders approved of he went to college. If he didn't exactly go to his classes or learn anything, well, Norville had still gone to college. Shaggy was brilliant in his own subdued way, a genius in matters of life and laughter. Such a religion this man followed. If thou art hungry, so shalt thou eat until thou art not so hungry. If thou art tired, so shalt thou sleep until thou art bored of sleeping. If thou art bummed, spare everyone else the trip. This timely philosophy as well as the supply of various mind tampering substances he always seemed to have on hand got him into Kappa Kappa Omega. He became Fred's fraternity brother and source to a sizeable percentage of Providence's experimental student body. On my first day in Rhode Island, he had replaced my glasses with gentle hands and a dopey smile. The night I was introduced to him, Shaggy had no memory of that moment, afternoon, or three days on either side. But he still smiled and was very pleased to meet me.
What an odd foursome we must have made that wintry night outside of the Palace movie house arguing over whether to see Doctor Zhivago or The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. The Redhead and The Chin opted for Alan Arkin's newest funny accent, I held out for epic snowy romance and Julie Christie's red flushed nostrils flaring and snorting the frozen mist of passion. Shaggy was, as he always would be, pleasantly neutral. "Y'know, they both sound good. Mm, hot-buttered popcorn." Point taken. An hour and a half of medium sized yocks later, we were back into the cold laughing our way down the sidewalk to Renny's. Fred and Shaggy took the lead, mimicking Arkin's mangled Russian/English at twice the courteous volume. "EEMAIRGENCY, EEMAIRGENCY! PLEZ TO GET FROM STRIT!"
Fred, Daphne, and myself each had a burger and fries. Shaggy managed two cheeseburgers, a bowl of chili, fries and gravy, a vanilla milkshake and a slice of apple pie à la mode. This is documented; I kept the receipt as proof.
Somewhere between Renny's and B34 things got a little bit tricky. Put succinctly, we parked behind the Fine Arts building. The engine was turned off and the radio was turned up. " y soul and my highest inspiration; without you baby what good am I? What goo ood am I?"
The message was sent and received: Shag and I could sit in the front seat and pretend nothing was happening behind that groovy bead curtain, or we could, like, vanish. Either way the perfect couple weren't about to wait for the returns from our precincts, they were already celebrating the landslide. Without a word between us, Shaggy and I both reached for the door handle. My last glimpse inside the van as we slid the door closed was the slightest accidental view of Daphne's back through the plastic curtain beads. Her sweater worked up but not yet off, her fine smooth skin. Fred's hands, wide and strong, seemed to hold her together and tear her apart at the same time. A lick of jealous color burned my neck, and I was startled to find I had no idea what I was jealous of. I shut the door on their increasingly frantic kisses and felt shame.
I walked a mite hurriedly along those snowy concrete paths from parking lot to dorm, but Shaggy loped right along behind me. His gait carried him easily, his few uttered pleasantries expressed him just as easily; there wasn't an ounce of pressure in this man, I doubt he had the inclination or ability to ever force his agenda on the world at large. Shaggy followed, gave me space, and had lit up a pretty serious joint by the time we had reached my doorway.
"Want a hit, Velma?"
My eyes bugged. Once that oh so specific odor hit me I stopped breathing (Just one whiff you're hooked for life! Reefer Madness the weed with roots in Hell!). This was every sin my parents back in Plum City feared I would succumb to rolled into one spit sealed Zig Zag paper! I shook my head in a complete failure of casual coolness and stuttered, "N no, I I, uh "
Not so dimmed by chemicals as I suspected, Shaggy picked up my squirming vibes. He almost apologetically put the joint out by poking it in the snow. "Hey, that's cool. No problemo." Finding its way back into his pocket, the joint was saved for later.
Customary "good night, I had a nice time"s were exchanged and I was bequeathed yet another of his warm, easy smiles. On the still winter wind, we could faintly pick up Fred's radio; Tommy James telling anybody who cared to know that his baby did the hanky panky. Shaggy bobbed his head sweetly and turned to lope away. And this is where I surprised myself. I watched my hand reach through the night and grab Shaggy's arm. I spun him to face me (ridiculously easy to do), hoisted myself on tippy toes, and collided with his dopey, confused expression in a sizzling imitation-Lauren-Bacall kiss. I held it as long as they ever allowed it in the movies eight Mississippi, nine Mississippi, ten Mississippi and let the boy go.
He rocked on his heels for a second. "Zoinks!" was all he managed. Poor Shaggy.
Shag mumbled something else and slunk away into the cold shadows. My first college date, my first ERA kiss, and all I could think as I let myself back into the womb of B34 was "Take that, Daphne Blake!"
ONE, TWO, THREE, WHAT'RE WE FIGHTIN' FOR?
These are the moments and stories that my nieces and nephews would have dreaded in their Hanna Barbera childhoods. So ironic that, in the throes of their acneed teens, these stories are now all they want to hear from their Aunt Velma. No, it's not my handful of star spangled dinners at Mortons or my one brief sit to the right of Mr. David Letterman they want to hear about, it's "Did you really do acid?" and "How big was Sly Stone's afro for real?" Our sons and daughters are after our past, or at least Hollywood's version. Their hearts have been captured by those dusty copies of Sergeant Pepper's and Electric Ladyland we ended up with after the divorce. Our children have been seduced by the romance of the Revolution, looking on our g g generation with awe for its mere existence. We are the befuddled veterans heroes by default not wanting to deflate them by admitting that most of us were too busy just surviving from New Year's '60 to New Year's '69 to have reverently chronicled the time and place of our first bell bottom purchase.
Okay, you got me. August 23, 1965, the day of Susie Ralston's 17th birthday party. They were purple and cost me ten bucks.
1967. I knew what was happening in the world around me. I was aware of the movements and the anti movements. I was hip to the latest sounds and moves. My mother sent me the latest recipes from Mcall's. But truly, and this is the point I'm making about the significance of being a part of the Aquarian Age, I was just trying to keep my grades up. Concentrating on Faulkner's stylistic use of voice and Poe's morbidly sexual imagery took precedent over the signing of the space demilitarization treaty or Super Bowl I. But there was one of our number who was becoming deeply affected by the course of human events. And I never would've suspected it would be her.
"The five hundredth U.S. plane has been shot down over North Vietnam, Vel. Five hundred crews won't be coming home. ... Velma?"
"Sorry, what were you saying?"
To see those green eyes flashing that kind of passionate indignation was to feel like the world's greatest sinner. I took my head out of the books long enough to hear her detail the plans for a trip to New York to join the big protest march from Central Park to the U.N. It was just a little over a week away, Fred and Shaggy were going, would I come along?
"And miss classes?"
In her favor, she did not completely give me up at that moment for a hopelessly out of touch tool of the Establishment, though her disappointed sigh cut through the whole of my vital organs. So I went.
A sea of people I could have (and might have) gone to high school with chanting about the needless deaths of thousands of people I could have (and might have) gone to high school with. It rubbed off after a while and soon I was less interested in taking snapshots of the Flatiron Building than I was in getting some sweeping changes in our government's foreign policy. A sheep automatically bleating whatever slogan rippled spontaneously through the flock without any clear idea of what kind of response was expected. I had never bothered to ask Daphne just what her solutions to the Vietnam problem were, but I relished seeing her that fired up. Strands of hair plastered across her sweaty forehead as she pumped the air with one fist, the other arm snaked around Fred's waist; hip-to-hip they marched, a single unit protesting machine, the very image of young love and social consciousness.
I would like to think it was just being that young and excited; I would like some excuse why I fell into hoarse throated jingoist shouting matches with the pearl clutching middle of the road public that eyed our great stinking circus with something akin to spiritual panic as it wound its way through the streets of the world's city to the doorstep to the world's City Hall. Yes, on the grey haired side of twenty seven years later, I would still like some excuse for what happened next.
One minute Shaggy's passing out "party favors" to his surrounding march mates, the next minute he's being shoved hard to the pavement by a highly indignant beat cop. In that instant, most of the crowd simply stepped over or around Shag, assuming he'd tripped. Until I shrieked his name after seeing the blood on his face and systematically launched myself at the policeman who was poised and ready to take on all comers. One heartfelt but ultimately pathetic slap that my anaemic cousin Rhonda would've laughed off was reflexively answered with a solid THOCK across the temple by the cop's night stick a short, dull sound that nonetheless seemed to ring like the chimes of the old First Lutheran back in Plum City. The curtain sped down and I hit 5th Avenue in a blessed, motherly darkness.
In my absence, I am led to believe it was actually Fred who interceded on my behalf. Interceded so forcefully that it took Shaggy and three other protesters to pull him off the cop. It was a minor skirmish all told, barely a ripple in that great anarchic river.
I swam up from the deep, deep below surfacing in the back of Fred's van and into another atmosphere. A half hour had passed and we were apparently on our way back to Providence in a rolling smoke house.
"Hey, she's comin' back!"
Shaggy leaned over me and politely attempted to wave away the fog of reefer smoke, those glassy eyes cleared with a sweet look of concern.
"Like, how do you feel, Velma? How's your head?"
He handed his joint off to Daphne who took a hit and held onto it.
"It's throbbing a little," I said, taking gentle inventory with my fingertips, "but I feel weird. Kinda, um, slow." And it was true, I felt genuinely light headed and I knew it wasn't just from loss of blood.
Fred snorted, "Second hand high!"
"No! Are you serious!" I bolted up, a little more mortified than necessary, causing my head to pound enthusiastically.
Daphne turned around in the passenger's seat. "It's okay, Vel, you're not going to Hell."
Shaggy was nodding, a gesture which for him always looked like a duck bobbing for waterbugs. "It's cool, sis. It's, like, a natural painkiller; strictly medicinal. You're not the only one who got brained by the Man." He shoved his face at mine pointing out the nasty gash across the bridge of his nose.
But I was too distracted by the path the joint had now made from Daphne's hand to Fred's. The quarterback took a long hit.
"What about Fred? Is Fred in pain?"
Fred flashed a very lazy grin at me in the rear view mirror. "No, but I'm really stressed."
"Yeah, and it's been one mellow jaunt so far, hasn't it?"
"You don't get it! I'm talking about a ton and a half of vehicle going over sixty miles per hour being piloted by a pot smoking numbskull with reduced reflex responses and impaired judgement capabilities!" They giggled, all three of them giggled as I huffed. "Okay, laugh, you goons! You just keep laughing when they're pulling our scorched corpses out of the wreckage!"
Only Fred laughed this time, "Mmm, barbecue anybody?" Shaggy actually perked up, "Hey, yeah?"
Fred's habit of purposely deflating any point I tried to make infuriated me. I sat back and seethed.
Daphne sized me up with her soft, stoned eyes. "Lighten up just a bit, Vel, it's good for the complexion. Here " And Daphne held out the retrieved joint out to me the same way my mother used to present the first forkful of a casserole she knew I was bound to dislike. And I couldn't tell if she was so sure I wouldn't or so sure I would, it was a poker faced challenge but I felt the return of that little voice, that little voice that had me kissing Shaggy, that made me reach out and snatch the smouldering roll of weed and shove its spit damp end between my lips. I sucked in for all I was worth.
Somewhere in my mind, through the violent coughing fit that presently ensued, my little voice hiccuped, "Take that, Daphne Blake!"
Shaggy patted my back and Daphne ventilated the van by rolling down her window. I eagerly inhaled that fresh air, Daphne watching my wryly. "You're not gonna start apologizing to your dad again, are you?"
The back of my throat was burning, a rush of warmth spread all the way down to my toes, and my eyes swam through a new spring of tears to find the redhead. "What?" I croaked.
But it was Fred who answered gleefully, "The whole time you were out you kept babbling about how sorry you were, 'I'm sorry, Daddy,' 'Please forgive me, Daddy'!"
Shaggy swivelled back around, "Yeah, like, what was up with that?"
I was wiping at my tear streaked cheeks and a tremble started in my shoulders that I knew had nothing to do with the marijuana. "Go ahead, Daphne. You tell 'em."
She couldn't help but smile and I couldn't blame her. "Poppa Dinkley is the sheriff of Plum City, Wisconsin."
They laughed very hard and very long (it was very good pot). By the time the pig noises died down, I was ready for another hit of the demon weed. I reached for the joint from a surprised Shaggy.
He approvingly watched me take a much more careful drag and asked, "So, like, how does it feel to be a revolutionary?"
The second toke hit me in a very tingly wave, I liked the place I was at very much. "Jinkies!" I think I exclaimed and we laughed all the way home.
I WILL SHOW YOU THE WAY
I wouldn't like to give the impression that my life suddenly became The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, but I was certainly a freer spirit after my braining for The Cause. If nothing else, I was a lot less anxious. No more breath holding for me; our little get togethers were now looser occasions marked by plenty of high-frequency giggling and voracious snacking binges. Though never as adventurous as my compatriots, I was perfectly at home sitting cross legged on my crocheted throw rug from home with Shaggy's head in my lap passing the world's fattest doobie between us, listening to Janis.
Oh, yes, the wheel had come 'round again and taken me along with it. Velma Dinkley had finally tapped into the Zeitgeist of her times. And sweet Lord Almighty, how my grades suffered.
Somewhere, behind the half lidded eyes and permanent grin, an idea had been brewing in Shaggy's let me up I've had enough mind. "California," he said suddenly one evening in B34 where Daphne was feeding Fred ice cream in front of the TV and I was trying to skim my way through Miller's Tropic Of Cancer. One word was all Shaggy offered before closing his eyes and slipping away somewhere purple, electric and mellow.
Four nights later, at the Kappa Kappa Omega "Beer Bust Bacchanal," we suddenly couldn't find him. The party was already a washout for me that no amount of grass or "Devil's Piss" punch could improve. All those frat boys in their boxer shorts howling and leering. And then there was Daphne's little show. Several sheets to the wind and sailing merrily away, Miss Blake somehow ended up on a table go going to "Little Bit O' Soul," tossing crowd-pleasing looks to the testosteronic throng, shaking her hips under that carefully pinned toga and lifting her coppery tresses with long, sultry rakes of her perfect fingers. They stamped and bayed and tore her apart with their eyes and she loved every second of it. I was repulsed. Looking for the refuge of Shaggy, I instead spotted Fred at the back of the crowd, his own eyes darkening and a sweaty rush of blood boiling across his bare chest. Shaggy's disappearance was probably the only thing that kept their brouhaha from becoming a massacre. Fred was moving through the crowd of his drooling brothers like a blind runaway train, barrelling straight at his table dancing girlfriend. And my voice was the emergency brake, "Where's Shaggy?" Fred stopped, Daphne stopped, the frat boys kept on twisting.
The reason for our mutual concern had very little to do with the six trays of party foods that Shaggy had hoovered fifteen minutes into the soiree, the more specific cause may have been the two full on tabs of acid he had dropped after the second time they had played "Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)." Where was Shaggy? The three of us hustled.
While the party raged and ralphed around us, we covered every square inch of that two-story frat castle, over and under kitchen cabinets and girlie magazine strewn closets, with nary a trace of Shaggy's existence to show for our detective work. It may have hit us all at once. When we reconvened at the top of the stairs, disturbing an amorous couple petting it pretty hard, and immediately after Fred said, "That's it, there's nowhere left to look," our heads lifted in unison towards the ceiling as if responding to a sudden angelic chorus or a George Reeves flyby in his padded union suit. Again we moved as one, tearing for the attic stairs.
I don't know why we, with several quarts of liquor and a couple of joints between us, thought we were in a better state of mind than the Shag to handle shingle footwork at a fifty degree angle, but there we were, driven by dark thoughts of our trippy friend stepping off the roof in an attempt to hug the stars, ourselves stumbling along the incline, urging the serenely perched silhouette ahead of us not to jump. Shaggy never even turned his head, but remained squatted, arms hugging his knees to his chest, absorbing the blue moonlight. He did smile though, to reassure his rescuers that he was in a safe place and planned to stay there. And as we finally grabbed some shingle ourselves, he spoke again two words this time, but a definite addendum to his previous cryptic utterance. "San Francisco," he said, then shoved a handful of potato chips from a mystery source into his mouth.
Among our little quartet we had pretty much abandoned our various and sundry curricula for free, pointless days of being. Nothing seemed truly important anymore; Daphne was quick to point out that with Vietnamese children hugging American soldiers and pulling the pins to the grenades they had hidden under their clothes, what the hell was the point of sweating a term paper? It seemed the world was spinning out of control and the only power one had over the whole mess was to live, to live with all the force we could manage. Well, it sounded good at the time. As did Shaggy's proposal when it finally found its way out of his unique mental fog bank. The last revelation was handed down to us the morning after The Paint Job.
The mid afternoon sun woke me giggling and confused. Too much of everything that I can't recall. One thing I'll say for "recreational" drugs, they brought me dreams ten times stranger than anything I've ever written since. I even kept a journal on the nightstand to jot them down come morning, but in leafing through them now, they definitely lost something in the translation of a conscious, sober mind. Regardless, in those late, yellow hours when I finally slipped on my glasses and stumbled out of Daphne's bed, unfortunately alone (big surprise!), with the inside of my mouth feeling like pink Fiberglas insulation, I spent maybe two minutes just trying to find my missing roomie. And I might've spent an hour more in groggy confusion looking under piles of underwear if the door hadn't suddenly burst open and if her hand hadn't grabbed my wrist, pulling me into the dorm hallway still in my flannel p.j.s. "Daph? Wait !"
But she just grinned like a maniac and arched those perfect eyebrows. "You've got to see this!"
Clambering down the stairs like a couple of sugar powered children on Christmas morning, we kept on going right out of the front door and onto the lawn. And there, having left telltale tread marks from ten yards down the street, rested Fred's van taking up residence on the dorm's postage stamp yard like an enormous green hippo with headlights. Only it wasn't just green anymore. The van's spring field of vibrant emerald had sprouted flowers. Big, outlandish, Peter Max excuse for flowers. All around the psychedelic Chevy were purple and orange spatters and spills from the emptied spray cans littering the ground; the boys had been generous, they'd wanted to flower the earth as well. I was shocked into stone while Daph was laughing so hard she had to stamp her little feet.
We threw open the back doors and discovered the artists in their natural habitat. Sprawled on the makeshift bed, Shaggy and Fred snoozed away, paint stained arms draped over their eyes. Fred's body was up quicker than his mind. "Wuzza ?" he queried.
Not surprisingly it took even longer to rouse Shag. Fred, somewhat more alert, stepped in with his proven method. "Allow me, ladies..." He then proceeded to strip off Shaggy's sandals and tickle the soles of his feet. Slight tics at the edges of Shag's mouth suggested it was beginning to work, so then we all joined in. Before long we had him cackling like a hyena. It was, all told, a great success though our chemically enhanced visionary awoke with terminal hiccups.
He looked at Fred, "Di hid they like the v hic an?"
"What were you guys thinking?" I asked.
"Haight hek Ashbury," he answered, grinning.
Fred laughed, "Don't look at me. Somewhere around two this morning, Shag said the van needed to grow some flowers. Sounded perfectly logical at the time."
"Haight Ashb hurry," Shag insisted.
For once we kept our mouths shut and waited. This proved to be just the trick; after gulping in a few held breaths, Shaggy elaborated.
"It's where everything is hic appening. It's, like, where we need to be. The world hec isn't gonna be changed from here, man. W hic we've got to, like, go to the center huc of the energy. We've gotta tap in f ic or peace."
I don't know if any of us was taking this long formulated scheme seriously at this point, but, tellingly, we let him go on.
"And the acid! They, like, just p hass it around over there, man! ... On the street!"
He grinned and nodded, happy with the thought and happy to let it sink in for a second. Daphne and Fred had already begun picking up the paint cans.
Shaggy was still bobbing.
AND THE WIND CRIED SCOOBY
On TV there were still stories I could sink into. Film noir, fast stories of desperate men and dangerous women. Betrayals in half light. And there were flesh-and-blood faces and friends who walked through those days, occasionally lifting me out of my self imposed retreat from Daphne's happiness and direction. I hid too from the guilt of my recurring shameful thoughts. But it wasn't enough anymore; I couldn't disconnect. The television was a window another analogy stands the test of time and the fantasies the box offered were interrupted more and more frequently by glimpses of those bleeding children in the jungle and those dancing children in the streets of California. Resistance was futile.
It was a real drencher, coming down in steamy sheets, misting off the pavement. Fred's van shot through Providence's back roads in an odd, uncharacteristic silence; its occupants together but isolated, by all definitions sober. Not that the four of us were tense we had become by then tighter than family, there had simply come over us a slate grey cloud of discontent and restlessness. A heavy thunderhead bound to burst.
"Fred watch out !"
It was Daphne's voice that split the foggy silence in the van like captured lightning. Fred's reflexes were equally abrupt, swerving the big green crate sharply out of the path of whatever that four legged shape in the headlights had been. We shared a terrifying six-second spinout about which my clearest memory is of Shaggy actually giggling all the way through it.
Once the rocking stopped and we each took jittery inventory of our wounds (none to be found), we scrambled out of the van only to discover it two wheels deep in a sodden ditch. It took Shag, Fred and I pushing from behind while Daphne worked the pedals to get the van back on the road; the wheels spitting mud and pebbles at us all the way up the slope. And we three, looking like refugees from some cheesy '50s horror flick, Night Of The Mud Fiends maybe, had a silent, smiling audience to the whole slapstick fiasco. It's somehow fitting that Shaggy was the one to spot him.
"Hey, pooch! Like, woof!"
Now, I would not presume to say that a two and a half-foot, sixty one pound Great Dane with a perpetually cocked eyebrow changed our four lives forever, but it was definitely the harbinger of things to come. It stood across the road eyeing us with utter amusement, its coat slick as an eel's from the rain and its panting sounding for all the world like a giggle.
Fred was not amused and very nearly took off its head with the tire iron for the damage his beloved van had suffered. Daphne coaxed him down and Shaggy and I slowly made our way for the stray dog. We held out our hands and made babyish noises to keep the animal from becoming alarmed. We needn't have bothered. This tall, lanky thing with big clumsy paws just sat back on its haunches and waited, completely unconcerned at our approach. Its tail even wagged.
Against Fred's vengeful wishes, we coaxed the stray dog into the van. It hopped right up and took command of the space, doing a round of the perimeter, and shooting us a look of "Well? Coming or aren't you?" Once we climbed in - Fred back at the wheel and Daphne turned around to take a gander at our new acquaintance - we shut the doors. And that's when the dog started to shake the water off its hide in great, violent gyrations like a hula dancer on speed. Shag and I dropped back and used our arms to block just in time while the ever-lovely Daphne got a faceful. She was laughing and sputtering and the Great Dane's expression suggested he was at least half as amused as we. It was five-way love at first sight. Well, maybe four-way. Fred took one look at the muddy paw prints tracked across his make-out mattress and just fumed.
"Alright. Let's find whoever owns the damned thing."
Providence is not that big a town even including the college population so it's not surprising we undertook a block-by-block, house-by-house, search-and-return mission on behalf of that nameless, faceless kid who would indubitably be crying his/her eyes out over his/her errant best friend. Mostly we were met with the kind of stares and terse politeness that one might reserve for the Manson Family. No, no one knew the dog and why would anyone in their right mind be carting it around in a downpour? After awhile we stayed in the van and simply drove in wider and wider circles, training one half-attentive eye out for "missing dog" flyers on the telephone poles that slipped past us in the wet dark. We turned on the radio, we hummed along, we kept driving.
Neighborhoods thinned, streets became interstates, there were no more telephone poles. We kept driving.
It was around the time that Rhode Island became Connecticut that it dawned on us what we were doing. And yet we never spoke it out loud. Say what you will about the frivolousness of our quest and the disparity of our eventual destinations, we never turned back. We kept driving.
Five thirty-five AM. Somewhere outside Rochester, NY, the slightest suggestion of salmon pink and royal blue stretched quietly along the sky's basement and we rolled through the ghost hours in a cartoon-garden van, its shudder, bump, and rumble having lulled Shaggy and the dog to sleep with only us bleary-eyed gals to keep Fred company. Craning around to take in the picture, I had to laugh. Daphne, her eyelids drooping and fluttering, raised her head and assembled a ravishingly drowsy smile. We were looking at our new dynamic duo, the enormous clumsy beast wrapped up in the accommodating limbs of the other enormous clumsy beast. They both breathed in deep with a synchronized little wheeze. They both drooled. The sweetness of the scene was cavity-inducing. On an impulse I serenaded them in my best pseudo-Ol' Blue Eyes with:
"Strangers in the night, scooby-dooby-doo..."
The Great Dane lifted its head as if in answer and fixed me briefly with its blank, moist eyes before settling back onto Shaggy's chest. From out of nowhere, Shaggy muttered, "He heard his name."
Nothing else and his wheezing was rejoined.
The three of us over-laughed in the wired, frantic way that belongs to the wee hours. The cackle of the fatigued. We kept driving.
SET IT FREE
Once, when I was seven years old, I ran away from home.
I had been caught in the empty choir loft at the First Lutheran playing "doctor" with my best friend at the time - who just happened to be Becky Travers. We didn't know there was anything wrong with it, but from the look on our parents faces as they jerked our little flowery dresses back on with hard, frantic tugs, it was made abundantly clear that we were the worst little girls in the world. No words, none were necessary. Where once I believed I'd be celebrating my eighth birthday at the Winter Fantasy Ice Rink, it was now for sure I'd be blowing out my candles in Hell. I don't think I cried, but I know I blushed hot and red - not only embarrassed but angry at not knowing what I had to be embarrassed about. It was the start of a shame that took years to vanquish.
So I decided I had to leave not only my parents and my comfortable room, but the whole of Plum City as well. I would leave that very night, but I had to be extra clever about it. Not every second-grade runaway has a sheriff for a father.
With the utmost guile and secrecy I packed only the most necessary of my belongings into my boring old tartan plaid Aladdin lunchbox. Jar of peanut butter, sleeve of crackers, my 45 of "The Monster Mash," The ABC Murders in paperback, and, of course, my toothbrush and tube of Crest. I folded plenty of clean undies into my pink plastic Barbie suitcase so that my Mom would be somewhat sated. Then I was ready to go.
I waited until the light under my parent's door winked off and gave it another fifteen minutes for safety. The way was clear at last.
I slid open my window with trembling, sweaty hands. Sweaty because I happened to have been wearing my winter mittens throughout the operation. No fingerprints, see? I was a bright youngster for sure, too hip to the ins and outs of crime and punishment, there was no way the coppers would be able to pin my own disappearance on me.
You could say I was a bit proud of my criminal genius as I slipped easily from my window to the friendly waiting branches of the oak beside our house. My plan was working like clockwork. Next stop - Canada - where, under my new name of Ramona Eloise D'artagnan (exotic and mysterious, n'est pas?) I would instantly fall in with the wrong kind of folks, the rough crowd. All the thieves, cutthroats, and thugs would accept me as one of their own, and, in time, Sheriff Martin Dinkley's only little girl would be recognized as their natural leader: the Moriarty of Montreal. I would even send maddening clues of my nefarious plots back to the Plum City police department and watch them scramble. Someone's snatched all the gold in Fort Knox! They've yanked the Crown Jewels right out from under the Queen's snoot! Some fiend has kidnapped Peggy Lee and is demanding a trillion dollars ransom! Who! Why Ramona "The Devil" D'artagnan of course - arch supervillain who can sleep late every day and play doctor with anyone she pleases.
It was nearly too beautiful to imagine and it probably would've worked too - if not for the appropriately named Mr. Stinks, a neighborhood cat so foul of stench that it should have never surprised me in a million years. One could, normally, have smelled Mr. Stinks coming from miles away, but this was, ironically enough, the night of the day of Mr. Stinks' annual tub washing. When that furry shadow leapt onto the branch in front of me with a luminescent blur of sulphuric yellow eyes, I jerked back with a squeal and toppled from my perch, mercifully avoiding concussions and bone breaks on the way down.
Dad was outside in a policeman's hurry, holding not his work piece but his more recreational .20-gauge shotgun he affectionately dubbed "Twitchy Tess." He made the corners of the house in a crouching run and brought T.T. to bear on the clump of hydrangeas that was shrieking and wailing to wake the dead.
After checking me over to make sure I hadn't done any permanent (i.e. expensive) damage, Dad gripped me hard by the shoulders and locked eyes with me while Mom stood with her arms crossed in front of her chest firing off stern, probing questions with just a sprinkling of panic. His eyes and her questions - a formidable combination. I found I couldn't answer them, not the simplest question in the bunch, and I couldn't stop crying. Faced with my hysteria , shame, and inability to communicate the reasons behind my flight down the oak with a lunchbox, a suitcase and a pair of mittens, my father did the only reasonable thing he could do: He put me in jail.
Yeah, I'll admit it was an odd, almost medieval form of punishment that if it had happened in this day and age could've resulted in my suing my parents right out of their comfortable suburban splendor. To our over-sensitized ears, the idea of locking a 7-year-old girl in a jail cell sets off our media-fuelled "CHILD ABUSE" alarms, but, let's face it, it was Wisconsin at the end of the '50s and this was how my father decided to teach me a lesson. And, really, I came out of it just fine.
It was a tidy cell having held barely a dozen folks in the previous five years, but it seemed like the dark, grey pit of some evil duke's castle from which I would never again venture forth. Never again to bask in the light of day, the taste of an Eskimo pie but a far distant memory. I cried for the entire length of my gruelling 20-minute sentence.
My father turned the key and swung the door open. He came to me and wrapped me in his big, big arms. It felt like I was hugging a mountain with scratchy five o'clock shadow. He shushed my whimpering and said, "Do you know now? Do you know how much we love you? Enough to lock you up forever."
It's a strange thing to hear echoing back from across the years, stranger still the way it comforted me.
"Sometimes, Vel, when you love something so much, you have to hold onto it and never let it go."
Apparently the old man had never heard the one about "if you love something, set it free...," and I was a bit too young to argue the case for free will. But I felt safe back then.
Until the summer of '67 when we all ran away from home. Together. And it didn't feel safe and it didn't feel sure, it just felt right. We kept driving because we had all tandemly realized that it was up to us to free ourselves.
Though that didn't keep me from looking over my shoulder from time to time, sure I would spot Plum City's sole police cruiser, cherries lit and spinning.
ON THE ROAD
We meandered. That's the best word to describe the course of our travels; no route, only Points A and B. We saw the country in stretches of blacktop. We came to know America by its back yards and billboards and roadside diners. One thing's for sure, we made the great gray ribbon of our nation's veins just a bit more colorful. That flowerful van got us more than our share of flat stares and shaken heads. We were freaks, aliens and scum, and that was alright by us. We kept driving.
Just outside of Cleveland in a little town called Devola, Ohio, we pulled off of I-90 and into a national forest and parked out under the stars. This quickly became our favorite pattern of travel. We spent our nights in forests, woods, even the occasional parking lot, never once paying for a hotel room.
It was cozy and we were tight, but it soon became apparent that Shag and I would have to spring for a pup tent. It was impossible and, well, a mite creepy to sleep in the back of the same van with a couple of sexual carnivores of the calibre of Fred and Daphne. They were discreet up to a point, but there was no way they were going to go celibate just for our comfort.
Was this a workable arrangement? Allow me to propose another entirely unrelated question: Would you eat a cow patty if someone put whipped cream on top? I'll assume your answer falls in the negative category and move on.
"How long are you gonna wait, Vel?"
Daphne and I were spending some quality time in a Laundromat in Social Circle, Georgia. Leaving, as we had, with no announcement or preparation, had left us with just the clothes on our backs, literally. It was several days into the trip before we went thrift shopping and picked up musty thirdhand wardrobes for less money than a large pizza pie. On this particular day, we ladies had volunteered to fulfil our domestic roles and do the washin', while the boys (and Scooby) tended to collecting supplies.
Oh, well, we made sure they had to pick up some maxi-pads for us and watching them squirm made handling their rancid tube socks worth it.
"I wasn't aware there was a deadline, Daph."
"Hey, if you're scared, I understand. But it goes so fast. I don't even remember my first time."
I refused to look up from sorting the whites from the permanent press. "Quite the sparkling endorsement. You should be the national spokeswoman for deflowering."
But Daphne was elsewhere, squinting into her past, fishing, "I think I was fourteen..."
"Daph, please, " I intruded, "no offence but I'm not interested in your old war stories, nor am I in the market for a sexual rolemodel."
She was enjoying this just a bit too much. "You ever notice the way Shaggy automatically agrees with whatever you say? It's so sweet. And sometimes I catch him watching you out of the corner of his eye and smiling. He has the most adorable smile, don't you think?"
I was shoving quarters into the washing machine and trying to avoid looking at her. I squealed a bit in impotent frustration, "Rraagh! Enough! Not interested! If you think Shag is so friggin' cute then why don't you mount the poor skinny boy yourself?"
I think I might have, for once, stunned the cheerleader. She dropped the topic for the moment and lit up a cigarette. I was drawn to the red ring of lipstick she had left around the filter like her own signature. Those were the kind of lips she had, the kind that left a mark.
It was a silent few minutes that followed. Already well-hypnotized by the slosh and spin of waterlogged undies and soap suds, I'd nearly forgotten whatever it was we'd been talking about. Until Daphne's reflection, a darker, shadowy her looking back at me from the glass porthole of the washer, spoke through a veil of smoke.
"Do you ever take care of yourself, Velma?"
Her eyelids were lowered slyly, her voice at the bottom of its register. Naive as I was at the time I really didn't catch on at first.
"What? You mean like dieting or exercise?"
She laughed high and hoarsely, ending in a few smoker's coughs. I patted her on the back until she recovered. When she looked up, her eyes were wet and sparkling with puckish mirth.
"Do you ever do your homework? Do you ever pet the cat? Tickle the clam? Stroke the mink?"
It hit me in a burn across my cheeks and the tips of my ears. I put a shocked hand to my mouth and had to look away.
"Christ, Daphne! I can't believe you sometimes!"
She was laughing again, rocking back and forth, grabbing hold of my knee as if to stop herself.
"And I love you, Velma Dinkley of Plum City, Wisconsin - every blushing inch of you!"
I really flared up then, but it was nice. We were waiting out the spin cycle and her hand was on my knee.
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
If those who refer to themselves as "critics" are to be believed, I am supposedly a novelist of some "labyrinthine genius" who takes "devilish delight in morbidly over-wrought plots etched in blood and forensic detail" and who could benefit from "intensive roto-rootering of her deliciously twisted psyche." I love that one. I'll leave it up to you, dear reader, to concur with or disclaim this quick-sketch portrait of yours truly. Myself, for every paragraph I've crafted around little old ladies ground into Italian sausage or vacuum cleaners being emptied to reveal anonymous severed genitalia clogging up the works, I still see myself as that near-blind mouse of a girl in orange turtleneck sweaters who spent too many hours with unresolved sexual confusion and the Late Late Show.
I guess the very first story came after greasy truck-stop food. Yep, blame an entire career of nefarious fiction on road-worn boredom and the chicken fried steak in Bugscuffle, Tennessee.
It's not that he was particularly ugly. His face had the hook and hard angles of a character actor from a '30s melodrama; the gaunt, sunken cheeks and spidery eyebrows of a Dickensian villain. Indeed, in retrospect, I realized that my habit of casting the random passers-by in my stories by the most superficial summation of their physical presence's was a throwback to the Victorian idea of describing fictional characters on popular anatomical stereotypes, something akin to the superstitious belief in the "science" of phrenology. It's not that he was particularly ugly, but, well, he just looked like a bad guy. And he was the sloppiest eater of soup I've ever seen.
This older gentleman was sitting two tables away from us at The Axle Stop dressed in a shiny grey suit that was probably worn out of the store (and every day since) in 1953. The local realtor, maybe, or funeral-home director. He was lost in a world of flashing pewter spoons and lumpy vegetable soup. He was all birdish movements and necktie stains, but he inspired me onto a flight of pot-fuelled, chicken-fried-steak-fed high whimsy.
"See that old guy over there?" I started, indicating my target with a french fry.
They swivelled, fixed him, and nodded.
"That's Mr. Jenkins. He's a swell old guy, much beloved, and he also owns the fairgrounds just outside of town."
"Hey, yeah?" Shaggy bobbed along with it while Fred quizzed, "How do you know? You've never been here before."
Daphne just rolled her eyes at her boyfriend's thickness.
I let it come. "And what a place. It stopped being home to fun and laughter long ago. The Tilt-A-Whirl is still, the carousel is gray and dusty, the framework of the roller coaster is just a skeletal shadow against the sky. It's no wonder so many of the locals believe the place is haunted..."
And I had them. Even Fred stopped moving the mashed potatoes around on his plate and listened while I told the tale of four strangely familiar young adults travelling the country in a floral green van with a big, clumsy, grinning Great Dane, who just needed somewhere to stay for the night. Hey, how about those old, abandoned fairgrounds?
Many chills and spills followed as I layered my story with enough red herrings to choke a walrus, twists and turns stacking up like junk from a Mary Roberts Rinehart garage sale. A spectral figure stepping from the shadows of a decaying Fun House, nothing but a swirling cloak and a pair of burning eyes - the Phantom of Bedford County! There were chases and pratfalls and cheap comedy at the expense of Shaggy and his canine counterpart. While I cast Fred, Daphne, and myself in somewhat true, if broader, versions of ourselves, I got quite a chuckle out of making Shag and Scoob into the jittery cowards of the bunch. For someone as chemically mellow as Norville Rogers this was a stretch indeed. The closest I'd ever seen Shaggy get to real fear was the occasional burst of manic paranoia he was subject to whenever we were pulled over by the cops (which in the South seemed to be once every fifteen minutes). But even then Shaggy was a master thespian and an absolute genius at stash concealment. We, by the grace of a very groovy God, never got busted. Not once.
Over at the counter, getting steady refills on their coffee and trading dirty jokes with the waitress, were two state troopers who, bim bam allakazaam, became Officers Thomerson and Hicks, the sceptical lawmen who refused the wild stories of our intrepid sleuths as a bunch of hysterical, drug-induced nonsense. They knew the real reason behind the disturbances at the fairgrounds; they had their eyes on none other than Mr. Jenkins' no-good, fuck-up nephew Carl (courtesy of the rough-looking young trucker who'd wandered in at just the right moment). Seems Carl had recently been released from prison after a 3-year sentence for trying to torch his uncle's park. If anyone was out to ruin old Mr. Jenkins, it would be his shifty firebug nephew.
But what about the Phantom's footprints? They were clearly somewhat dainty 8 ½s, while Carl Jenkins boasted size-11 boots. And what of the mysterious lights from the Fun House in the dead of night? And the unmarked trucks parked out back that seemed to vanish with the dawn?
It all led to a trap laid by our four free-wheeling amateur detectives, a showdown in the Fun House's hall of mirrors. With Scooby-Doo's alert nose as their secret weapon, they let the dog take them right to the man in the cloak and ghoulish mask. When the lights came up the kids were able to turn over the Phantom to officers Thomerson and Hicks who were dumbfounded when the mysterious spook was revealed to be -
"Hey! It's Old Man Jenkins!"
At which point Carl Jenkins stepped out from behind the control panel where it was he who threw the lights on at our - I mean the kids' - cue. With his help, the character who was very much like myself laid out the plot of kindly Mr. Jenkins' years-old drug manufacturing and smuggling operation based right there in the park.
Carl had himself suspected something was afoot when he found himself framed for the fire that his uncle had actually set. Appearing as a poor old man forced to shut down his wonderful fairgrounds, Jenkins had concocted the Phantom ruse to scare off any thrill-seeking locals who might stumble across his actual reasons for keeping the park empty.
"And I would've kept right on getting away with it too," spat Old Man Jenkins, "if it hadn't been for you kids and that meddling mutt of yours!"
Okay, it was simple and silly, but it was a fun way to cap off a lunch in ol' Dixieland. We were still chuckling about it and debating some of the finer points of the plot as we exited the Axle Stop to find Scoob waiting patiently just outside the door, more interested in our leftovers than in whatever it was we were laughing about.
More adventures followed; each extemporaneous tale zigzagging madly from cleverness to absurdity just as that ludicrous van ("The Mystery Machine" as we'd begun to call it in honor of our fantasy status as amateur sleuths) took us from Arkansas to Texas to Kansas to Iowa and on and on, backwards and forwards but always inching west. We saw towns that seemed to have died prematurely, held together by empty streets and porches full of old folks. We saw cities snapping at a frenzied pace as if trying too hard to pretend there was nothing wrong at home; there was still plenty to be bought and sold, appointments to be kept. But everywhere we went there were signs, traces, reminders of a country full of lost boys and girls. How many flags had we seen flying at half-mast? How many front pages decorated with military portraits of acneed teens, local boys died good, heroes for the sod?
And, conversely, how many others did we pass, meet, talk with who had taken our road and left parents and family wondering after them just as they would had their children been half a world away crawling through Vietnamese jungles? Either way, there was grief and a lack of understanding on both sides. As proud as we might have been as an uncompromising generation with a new idea, I see things a bit differently from here and find myself sympathetic towards the mothers and fathers. It can't have been easy to watch us run or die or lose ourselves. How many prayers were wasted on us?
I think there was definitely some guilt riding with us in the Mystery Machine that summer of '67. It filled the quiet spaces when the radio was off. It slept with us through the weary nights in strange places. It saw sunsets and sunrises with us from one ocean to another. And it was wearing at us. We were glad we'd left the "Institution" behind, but what we were heading for was vague - and that vagueness was unsatisfactory.
The strain was taking its toll on our happy couple. If Shaggy had been our visionary and Scooby-Doo our karmic catalyst, then it fell on Fred to be our captain. It was a natural role for him; his movements were always sure, blessed, and we naturally looked to him for our rock in the storm. Even Daphne, as strong-willed an individual as she was and is, leaned on Fred. We needed him to be the unwavering pilot on our journey. Besides, the van was his.
But there were times - in a campground here, a grocery store there - when something nasty would boil to the surface of his usually perfect, stonily blond facade. Like the occasion of our one and only communal bathing experience in a lake in South Dakota when Shaggy, truly enjoying the open air and idyllic surroundings, stood tall and skinny and naked in the clear water and lifted his arms to the sky. He rambled on, in true Shaggy fashion, a modestly poetic paean to the elements, to Mother Earth and Father Sky while Scooby-Doo splashed at the water's edge chasing dragonflies.
Every muscle in Fred's body tensed as he dropped his head and, his eyes peering out from under his dripping hair, coldly told his friend to, "cut the hippy shit for one goddamned minute."
It stunned both Daphne and myself, though Shaggy just sagged with a grin and let it roll right off his back. We were quiet for the rest of our swim, though, from a distance, I heard Daphne doing her best to get to the bottom of Fred's behavior without taking his head off; quite a feat for the redhead. I don't know how or if he responded, but this was just one instance, halfway into our trip, of the tension that was building between our captain and his first mate. Rough seas were ahead, and yet pleasant, uncharted waters as well.
It became my job, or so I felt, to offset the growing discomfort amongst our little foursome. Shaggy and Scooby were unending sources of wackiness and simple joy, but even they seemed to react empathetically to our conditions as children do when Mommy and Daddy are fighting. As conjoined at the soul as they were, they shared each other's moods symbiotically. And nothing in the world was as heart-breaking as those two when sad. So here I came, with all the weapons my imagination had to bear.
We had already tangled with ghosts, killer robots, swamp creatures and Aztec mummies, and now I let it all fly. From time to time we joined other groups of hippies, freaks and nomads in the forests and parks where we created transient communes for a day or two and soon it slipped out that I was a storyteller. Something very unique began to happen.
Our camps would fill with various youth from every conceivable shade of the sixties spectrum. Someone almost always had a guitar and had learned just enough of the collected works of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, someone almost always had just enough drugs to turn the evening into a "happening." It was a dangerously free environment and there I was - the pop shamaness of the campfire.
I was usually half-goaded, half-eager to weave a tale of ludicrous malevolence and daring-do for those gathered that were still somewhat lucid and not off getting laid in the bushes. If it was a ghost story they wanted, I gave it to 'em, good and scary and always tightly resolved. If they wanted mysteries, I cooked up some doozies with just enough local color and cameos for the listeners to feel they walked through the stories themselves. I aimed to amuse and to please. There are some who might say I'm at it still.
But this was my weapon, this was my own peace through diversion, and I found myself enjoying the newfound elasticity of my imagination and the effect it seemed to have on those within earshot. Not that I was writing anything down; these custom-fit yarns were too entrenched in the moment. Many was the time a fully stoned audience member would suggest, in the middle of a jewel-heist thriller, that the plot be enlivened by the unexpected involvement of the Three Stooges or Batman and Robin. BAM! BIFF! It happened. I had no qualms about unravelling mysteries that depended upon the expert deductive assistance of, say, Mama Cass.
It was like a summer camp that never ended and the sound of laughter and singing carried us through the weeks and across the country. We were part of something beautiful and simple and, yes, irresponsible that we felt our elders were deeply jealous of. And maybe they were. But we were not, and couldn't be, truly of one heart, one mind, though we wanted to believe this was true. And our reminder sat there across the campfire, and behind the wheel, something darkening his sky blue eyes. Something he was daring us to uncover.
Fred had become our mystery.
THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW
"Take a good look. 'Frederick Allen Jones' – that's me!"
His eyes blazed and demanded to be met. There was confession and confrontation etched into his very posture as he thrust forward, perched on the makeshift cushion his backpack provided, holding the card before him like a crucifix in the hands of a half-ashamed Van Helsing warding off a pack of vampires who were more mortified than anything else.
And it had been such a good day.
We had crossed into California just before noon, and, though there was no celebration to mark the occasion (someone had neglected to inform the governor or hire a band), we each erected a commemorative plaque along that stretch of Highway 347. Don't bother looking for them because we carry them with us - the landmarks of memory.
By this point in our journey, in the late days of the summer of '67, the Mystery Machine was leading a small caravan of hippy trucks, hippy bugs, and hippy microbuses. We were the Chosen People in tie-dye and beads fleeing Pharaoh's army and beginning our own forty years of wandering through the desert – which, with a full tank of gas and a AAA map, would probably only take a day or so.
Had we kept on truckin' we could have made the Pacific Coast Highway by nightfall, but the consensus was we'd all be fools if we resisted the temptation to brave a day in Death Valley.
Shaggy thought it sounded dangerous, but everyone else thought it sounded fun. In the end, as usual, we probably would've been better off listening to Shag.
The wagons circled at the base of one of the ragged, rainbow-hued foothills, tires crackling across the parched seabed floor of the desert which looked to me like one of those microscopic close-ups of teenaged skin in an acne commercial. We, with the confidence of plenty of food, water and umbrellas for shade, stepped onto the Mercurian landscape and met the sun.
Before long touch football games had broken out in the 120-plus-degree heat. These were, perhaps, the shortest games in the history of the sport as assorted players fainted dead away amidst the powdery dunes. Less strenuous activities – like sightseeing, amateur photography, and lying very, very still – ruled the remainder of the day. As baked (literally) as we were, it was Shaggy's inspiration to try some actual baking in a neighboring camper's propane stove. Coaxed along by the skinny-legged owner of the camper, she of the Swedish braids and bewitching giggle, Shag had sacrificed the last of his Grade-A brown-tar hash – the same stuff that had prompted him to believe, on several tripped-out occasions, that Scooby could actually talk in a weird "Mr. Ed with a speech impediment" fashion that he tried to imitate for us - to a mixing bowl. Experimenting with his own variation on Ms. Alice B. Toklas's infamous brownies, Shaggy set out to make hash cookies.
A fine idea whose time had not quite come, thanks largely to Shaggy and his assistant chef being distracted by their baser instincts. The stink of smouldering baked goods acting as the interruptus to their coitus, Shaggy leapt from the young lady's bed and, pink as the day the world met him, used his own shirt to yank the burning tray out of the stove. He tossed the hard, blackened cookies, tin and all, out the door and returned to more pressing matters.
It wasn't until the shadows began to stretch across the harsh, jagged terrain and the painful, bleached colors of the day eased and dimmed, that anyone noticed how odd Scooby was acting. Or that the scattered debris field of wasted cookies, full of hashy goodness, had completely disappeared.
It took Shaggy, me, and three other helpful souls to calm the poor, tripping beast – spinning in pointless circles, hopping, yipping, and kicking like a puppy in the midst of an epic daymare. Eventually it was Shaggy who talked Scooby down, forcing bowl after bowl of water into him and ceaselessly petting his quivering flanks.
Throughout this surreal, morbidly hilarious incident and, indeed, for the whole of the day, Fred had been his normal (of late) uncommunicative self. He brushed by Daphne endless times without the slightest word. He eyed the rest of us with an unreadable blankness that none could fathom. Frankly, most of us were too intimidated to try.
As the sun took its toll, leaving the majority of the free spirits of our merry band drained and lethargic, Fred had quietly and with machine-like efficiency, gone about making camp. When darkness fell, as if by magic, there was a fire, food, and my pup tent pitched and ready. No one complained, no one said anything.
Leaving Scooby in the tender care of his afternoon playmate (upon reflection, she was almost surely named Ondia Skyflower or some variation on the theme), Shaggy returned to the fold and we were once more the family we wanted to be. Perhaps sensing the weirdness of the "vibes" our little quartet was generating, this was one campfire that was uninterrupted by sing-alongs or guests. Elsewhere across the campsite, other gatherings happened without us, but hushed, subdued. A shared look between Daphne and me, origin unspoken but understood, commented on the oddness that had settled in our midst. Maybe we had reached some major crossroads without realizing it. Or maybe it was just dinner in Death Valley.
"Mmm – hey, is there any chilli left?" Shaggy was wiping his bowl clean with his fingers and then sucking the grease from his stick-thin digits.
"No," answered Fred bluntly, "there's nothing left – at all. You and the fucking dog have cleaned us out."
Chastened, Shaggy ducked his head, "Sorry."
Daphne was staring emerald green death rays at her one and only and the corners of her mouth twitched. I felt it prudent to grab the wheel.
"So, is Scoob gonna be okay?"
Shaggy looked relieved to be asked, his goofy smile peeking again, "Oh yeah, yeah. At the very least he saw God. Like, that is one enlightened pooch, man. It gave me an idea though – "
We waited several seconds until it became clear that Shaggy wasn't pausing for dramatic effect but had, in fact, become entranced by the ant bites of the top of his foot.
"Shaggy?" Daphne prompted.
"You said it gave you an idea?"
Blink. "Hm?" Blink, blink. "Oh – yeah, like, when I finally perfect those hash cookies – I mean, when they don't burn up – I'm thinking of callin' 'em 'Scooby Snacks'."
Daphne and I both broke into a cackle, shortly joined by Shaggy's own high-pitched asthmatic giggle which was cut short by the clang of Fred's metal mug against stone as he knocked the last coffee grounds into the fire. Again it registered with Daphne, who wasn't in the mood to let anything slide, but this time I wasn't fast enough to intervene.
It looked, for a second, as if her voice had pinned Fred against some invisible wall. He returned with all of his accustomed wit.
"What do you mean 'what'?"
She pursued, she flailed her hands, she caught fire. "What is it! Huh! What is hanging over you lately? What is your goddammed problem!"
He didn't turn away, but he also remained silent, just meeting her gaze and simmering.
"Can you talk about it? Will you? Or is this thing so freakin' big that we, the best friends you have in the world, just wouldn't understand!"
Now he did look away and his voice was quiet. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.
"No. It's not that big." His fingers fastened on something and withdrew it – a slip of paper maybe, or a- "In fact, it fits right in your pocket."
We had all seen one before, but still it was a threatening, alien object.
"A draft card?" I said, my eyes bugging behind my bulletproof lenses.
Daphne, on the other hand, was completely unperturbed. "So?" she said, "Toss it on the fire. Finito."
Shaggy joined in, "Yeah, man, torch it. That's what I did."
Fred, still cranked up, shut his friend down, "No you didn't! You lost yours, you moron!"
Shaggy reflected briefly, nodded, and continued, "But I woulda burned it – same principle."
"Yeah, well, I'm not you, Norville," Fred growled, "See?"
He made sure the card passed in front of each of our eyes.
"Take a good look. 'Frederick Allen Jones' – that's me!"
Life can turn on the capricious edge of a spinning, flashing dime and this day, with its accidental hilarity and uninvited tension, had spun off enough dimes to make a long-distance call to Antarctica. As the shadows had fallen in this valley, swept along by the shrill, unobstructed winds, they only added to the desert cold that had settled over our hearts in such a brief moment. Call Antarctica? We were already there.
Fear tainted Daphne's words now, "Fred – what are you saying?"
"I'm saying – what I mean is-," Fred's jaw tensed and flexed, "A month ago was my 20th birthday."
"I know, " Daphne said, "We were in Texas. We bought you that cake."
"Which Shaggy and Scooby demolished," I chimed in for some vague reason.
Shaggy sulked, "Sorry again."
Fred continued, "I called my parents collect from a pay phone – to let them know we were okay and see if they'd cooled down any about the whole dropping-out thing – testing the waters, you know? They made a point of telling me about Jimmy Howar."
Shag clued in, "Howar – hey, that's your old high school buddy, right? What's he up to?"
"Not much. He's dead."
The whole desert drew in its breath, held it, too embarrassed to intrude.
"Jimmy and I were best friends probably since we were zygotes. I was the quarterback, he was the receiver. I made the play, he made the touchdown. We were going to be each other's best man. We were the Dynamic Duo and that's the way it should've been forever." Fred stared into the fire as if it were a photo album. "Once when we were kids, we saw this movie together – The Sands Of Iwo Jima – you guys ever see that?"
"Sure," me, of course, "John Wayne and John Agar."
"Yeah. Great flick. We decided that would be us. We'd be Marines together, we'd storm the beach somewhere, someday; we would plant the flag and come home heroes. Only the way it worked out, I went to college and he actually enlisted."
"Little kids make all kinds of crazy pledges." Daphne interjected, "It doesn't mean-"
"I hung out with you guys – smoking grass for peace – while he was doing what he said he would. And paying for it. A landmine in the middle of the fucking DMZ blew him into eighths. The biggest chunk of him was sent home in a box with his tags and a medal."
"Jesus," I said.
Shaggy, his eyes awake now, shook his head, "That's like this guy who was over there with my cousin. They said he-"
"Shaggy," Daphne stopped him. "We all know these stories – too many of them – but it was his choice to go."
Fred countered, "Just like it was my choice not to burn this thing. ... My choice to go when I'm called."
This concept, so sudden and destructive coming from a source once thought solid and benign, was its own landmine. Our hearts shrank in our chests, dodging the shrapnel.
Daphne's eyes had gone wide with disbelief, "Why! Because of some thick-headed guilt over the death of your friend?"
"No. Because I'm not entirely certain that this whole 'tune in, turn on, drop out' thing is really coming from some moral outrage – or if it's just a more romantic form of cowardice. You know I don't want to kill anybody – and I sure as hell don't want to die – but I don't like the feeling that I'm just running away." He turned to Shaggy, "If you were honest with yourself, Shag, you'd realize you've got the same doubts."
"Then you don't know shit, man," Shaggy said as he stood, his expression a mix of frustration and sadness that I'd never seen grace his features before. He pointed one grease-stained finger at Fred's draft card. "That thing is a solid bummer and it'll make you as dead as Jimmy."
And with those sobering words, Shag wandered off towards his hippy chick's camper, sure to find comfort there and the welcome grin of Scooby Doo.
Which left me with the happy couple. But not for long.
Though I'm sure it mattered to him what his friends thought of his decision, there was only one voice he was tuned into that night. And it had dropped to its chilliest register.
"If you feel that massacring jungle farmers in order to foil the Communist plot to take over the world will somehow make you a 'Man,' then go right ahead. But if you think for one second that that's a man I would let touch me, then I have some sad news for you, Soldier Boy."
She turned on her heel and made for the van. Within seconds I was alone in front of the dying fire.
YUMMY, YUMMY, YUMMY
Later that night I sat with my knees to my chest and both Shaggy's and my sleeping bags wrapped around me for warmth. Pen in hand, I attacked a much abused spiral notebook that had done nothing to deserve the literary thrashings I dealt its college-ruled pages. The wind made a snapping flag out of my tent and I tried hard to focus on its sound rather than the depressing hysterics I was unavoidably audience to coming from the back of the van just scant feet away. In the days before the Walkman, one heard a lot of things one would rather not have.
Friends can surprise you. No matter how many years you've known a person – inside and out, to the core, you've got their number – there can be a layer you never reach, a facet you overlook. One day you might catch your quiet friend singing opera in the shower. One day the cynic is discovered weeping at a phone commercial on TV. One day the cheapskate picks up the check. It's not always a drastic turnaround – on the degree scale it might be more akin to a 135 or a 97 as opposed to a full 180 – but it's enough to open your eyes to them anew, to rediscover this person. Friends can surprise you and they certainly had that night; the slamming of the van's door serving as an exclamation mark.
The sudden silence was cause enough for me to lift my head out of the notebook for a second, just in time to meet Daphne's eyes as she parted the flap of the tent.
She looked raw and certainly more flustered than she was willing to let on.
"Okay for me to come in?"
It was a weird question, but I made the appropriate "What, are you kidding?" invitation face. She came inside and dropped to her knees, shuffling over to meet me and peering down at the notebook in anxious interest.
"What are you writing?" she asked and it became clear she was determined to act as if she hadn't just spent the last two hours shrieking at the love of her life.
"Um, just some of my campfire stories – the ones that I can remember. I thought a couple of them were pretty good."
"Oh – they are," she emphasised with genuine enough inflection to flatter me, "That's a great idea. I think it's so great that you can, you know, come up with that stuff – and imagination like that, it's –" Her chin was starting to hitch so she spoke faster, "I'm so jealous, really. You've got all this talent ... and I've got ... I've got –"
And she caved in, her eyes squeezing out a sudden spring of fresh tears. It was like watching a Ferris wheel collapse, still bright and spinning, but faltering, tilting, and then... Now I was crying too.
I hugged her in, her face settling into the crook in my neck, and we rocked. The girl was torn up and it rang my heart like a tin-plated bell to see her this way.
She spoke, her words muffled against my chest.
"Was I wrong?"
I wanted more than anything to comfort, but my Libran nature demanded equanimity. "It's his life, Daph, his choice to make."
"If – if he loved me, really loved me, there's no way he could even think about going!"
Her hair was softer than I imagined it would be as I stroked it, trying to pet away her sorrow. "It's got nothing to do with love. You know that. That big idiot loves you more than life. But this is about him down the road, being able to live with himself. I think masculinity is more complicated than we suspect – it's like a complex."
"Fuck him and his 'masculinity complex'," she grumbled.
It started as a hiccup but it grew, until we were both jiggling with laughter. It was welcome and warm, if a bit snotty at this point. We still clutched as it slowly subsided.
Her voice was softer when she spoke again, I could hear her trying to hold onto her smile.
"I guess he does love me, the poor bastard. I'm such a righteous cunt sometimes, I probably deserve to have my boyfriend drafted."
"Hey," I interjected, "cut yourself some slack. You're smart, beautiful, funny, and you really care about the world around you. Fred got lucky and he knows it."
She laughed, but it was a shy little laugh; it was her turn to be flattered.
She pulled back from me and was now peering into my eyes, summing me up or taking me in. It was, ridiculously, a scary moment for me.
"I think you love me a little too, don't you, Vel?"
If I could have vanished in a puff of smoke at that very second or bolted out of there like a panicky cartoon character leaving a me-shaped hole in the wall of the tent I would have, and I would have kept on running all the way back to Plum City. But then her hand was on my cheek. And then she kissed me. All power left me; a fuse had popped somewhere and I was left in the dark. The warm, wet dark.
When the kiss was over, Daphne set me back in place like a stringless marionette. I distinctly remember saying her name, though no sound escaped my lips.
She smiled, "It's okay, kid. We've known you were a lezzie for a while now."
Which was funny, because I hadn't known until right then. Yet still I protested.
"Wha-! Daph? Where'd you ever get an idea like that?"
She smirked, "You mean you never thought about it? Thought about me – 'that way'?"
My face was as hot as a skillet. "Look, if this is just because I never – you know – with Shaggy, that hardly means that I-"
"Ssh," she said and once again pressed her lips to mine. I felt myself responding this time. I had to. I had to. Longer, more delicious, our tongues do-si-do-ing, my hands mapping the valley of her back. I wanted it to go on forever – I wanted it to stop right then.
"This is wrong," my voice was an unconvincing whisper.
"This is right."
I pushed her back, gently, my hand resting above her breast. "You just had a nasty fight with Fred. This isn't about me and – and this isn't what you want. Really."
It was the truth. However close we were, however strongly she felt for me, she was still in the wrong bed that night. We both knew it. And that's not how I wanted it to happen, if it was ever going to, that is.
"Tonight I need to be with somebody who loves me," she stated quite frankly, "Somebody who I love. Somebody who's never let me down." And as she said this she was pulling off her shirt – a simple enough gesture of immeasurable power and divine resolution.
I think I might have even gasped.
So, yes, noble intentions aside, we did it anyway.
This isn't the kind of tell-all where I would lavish upon my readers every juicy detail of this most intimate of encounters. It was too special, too magical to give to you (no offence). Until that night, somewhere in Death Valley, I was a virgin and the most beautiful woman, the most beautiful friend, I have ever known, changed my life forever. With her hands and mouth and heart. I have had many lovers since, many of whom I have felt for much more intensely than ever I did Miss Daphne Blake, but I have never experienced a night as romantic as that desert night, with its new tastes and textures. She had opened the last door to my being, the one I'd been afraid of all my life, and even if she slid right back through, she showed me there was nothing to fear. There were no monsters – no phantoms or Aztec mummies – on the other side.
In the afterglow, I watched her sleep.
Who knows what Fred must've thought the next morning when he came to the tent, unzipping it brusquely and starting in a desperate, worried voice, "Velma, have you seen-?"
We were still wrapped up in each other, heads together, arms and legs entwined. His entrance had woken us with a groggy start. Daphne squinted back at his "does-not-compute" expression.
"What do you want, Fred?"
For a second he could only stand there, his gaze flicking back and forth from Daphne to me, as if, though mightily confused, he knew he was intruding on – something.
"Uh, to give you this," he said finally, opening his clenched right fist and loosing a small shower of gray paper ash onto the tent floor. Only a thumb-sized corner of the draft card remained to prove what it had once been. "There. It's gone. Just like that."
Instead of the triumphant smile that was her due, Daphne bit it back and maintained her icily aloof tone.
"Give us a minute, would you?"
Just short of scratching his head, Fred robotically swivelled and, with one last uncertain look over his shoulder, ducked right back out of the tent.
The instant he was gone Daphne lit up, electrically pleased with herself and the state of her world.
I knew she would return to him, I knew that the previous night had been an aberration, but this certainty couldn't disguise the disappointment in my half-hearted, "Congratulations."
She received it, her expression softening with sympathy. She slipped my glasses on tenderly but they couldn't have made things any clearer. "Oh, hon. Be who you are and people will love you. They won't be able to help themselves, believe me."
A sweet sentiment that has, however, been proven wrong on more than one occasion, but I took it to heart as good advice and good policy.
She dressed quickly, slipping back into her earth-tone blouse and Navajo print skirt, and bounded excitedly towards the tent flap – only stopping there at the threshold to turn back, saying, "And thank you."
This was a curveball. "For what?" I asked, snapping my bra on.
"For last night ... and for everything I haven't thanked you for before now."
"You're welcome," I said, but she was already gone.
BE SURE TO WEAR FLOWERS IN YOUR HAIR
By afternoon we had traded the desert for the coast. The white-crowned breakers of this friendlier sea pulsing and pushing us up the PCH, faster and faster – past L.A. and the crooked, beckoning finger of Hollywood, escaping her embrace into the winding cliffs beyond.
It wasn't the best of days for me. In my accustomed place, not just in the van but in our emotional quadrangle, I sat and watched the two up front as they steered us ever north with the unerring compass of their love. Yes, sir, Fred was one lucky s.o.b. – and I knew it better than anyone.
We couldn't stop, the salt air sustaining us as we all took turns behind the wheel. Even Shaggy. Day became night and the ocean swallowed the grapefruit sun. Sometime past midnight we made the Bay.
Greater poets than I have framed the beauty of San Francisco and who am I to compete with their gilded constructs of hyperbole; indeed, in the face of every ode, laud and hymn rightfully bestowed upon this city, I have only this to say: They're selling the place short.
Even as we arrived in darkness, the lights from the cereal-box buildings stacked in rows along the hills making the city seem like a giant domino stunt waiting to happen, we knew we had, with semi-divine guidance, found our true home. Scooby sensed it too; the dog was more alert than I'd ever seen him, his big wet nose pressed to the window. Shaggy just grinned and nodded. The charge was here, the air was electric, the city was alive, even the rise and dip of its streets giving a pulse to the last mile of our vague mission. If San Francisco was the heart of this wild and troublesome thing that was our generation, then the Mystery Machine was just another cell being pumped through its veins.
Along a crowded side street bordering Golden Gate Park, we heard guitars and tambourines and laughter. We stopped driving.
The fold welcomed us with open arms and plenty of grass. It seemed like we had an entire city full of friends and we soon found out that we hadn't even traveled the farthest to join the parade. We met hippies from Canada and England and Belgium; you could hardly walk five feet without bumping into another Indian guru. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but in that city at that time, it was easy to believe that we had, in fact, won. It seemed like we'd taken over and all the cops and the conservative, tie-wearing, middle-aged public were just spectators who held no real power. The sense of community was overwhelming and in no time at all our little group had a place to crash.
Homebase was a 3-story house on the corner of Oak and Clayton owned by somebody we never met and rented by a constantly shifting number of Jesus freaks and Hell's Angels, but we fell for it immediately with its ridiculous gables and bay windows. We stayed there, as a group, well into Watergate, before things finally got too complicated. But it was perfect, just a couple of blocks uphill from the thick of Haight; the basement of the house next door was a four-star acid lab and the Grateful Dead were practically neighbors.
We had earned our hippy credentials by now; we'd dropped out of school, alienated our parents, scoffed at the law, protested the war, and done enough drugs to make this memoir at times too hazy to pull together; yet we had missed out on a lot of the big events that the youngsters are so anxious to hear tell of. For instance, to our eternal chagrin, we missed Monterey Pop by hardly more than a month, and as for the Human Be-In, we were still tokin' away in our dorm rooms in Rhode Island while the tribes gathered here in Golden Gate Park. Still, there were face-offs with the National Guard in Berkeley, marches down Market Street, parties where you were likely to end up on the roof with Dr. Timothy Leary or have Allen Ginsburg ask you where the bathroom was. And, of course, there was always the music.
Even after that ol' bugaboo "responsibility" kicked in and forced us to look for jobs, we still made time for shows at the Fillmore and the Avalon. Thanks to Bill Graham we saw them all: Janis and Big Brother, the Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, Moby Grape, the Byrds, even the Doors once. But soon, for Shaggy at least, there was only one band that mattered. After catching them live in the middle of a packed bill at a nowhere club in the Mission on a Thursday night, Shaggy claimed to have seen, or at least heard, God. And, apparently, the Deity had a kick-ass horn section and went by the name of Sly and the Family Stone.
It was a surprising choice for Shag, whose scarecrow limbs were awkwardly fastened for funk and whose sedate soul was a bit too relaxed to locate his "groove thing." But, then again, it was perfectly logical – amongst the mindless psychedelia and apocalyptic message rock of the time, "Sly Stone," nee Sylvester Stewart, and his interracial family of a band pumped out a radically fun vibe; they were a great positive carnival that promoted a sense of hope for the future. "You're in trouble when you find it's hard for you to smile, a simple song might make it better for a little while." Shaggy believed it.
I'm not sure at what point he officially became their roadie, but by the fall of '67 Shaggy was lugging their equipment about and supplying the band with his new and improved Scooby snacks. They were a funny, sweet bunch and they even invited Shaggy and Scoob into the studio as they recorded their breakout track "Everyday People" which includes their inspired tribute to everybody's favorite Great Dane – "and so on, and so on, and scooby-dooby-doo." Now you know.
This rather unlikely entry into the music industry made Shaggy the first among us to find a job, but we soon fell in line. Daphne took the high road, working essentially for free with the Diggers, an anarcho-socialist collective whose purpose was to lend a hand to the flower children who hadn't planned on necessities like food and shelter. Fred, on the other hand, found a more lucrative gig somewhere on the low road by becoming a teller at the Bank of America. With his stylishly shagged but never hippy-length hair and his Neil Armstrong looks, it was possible for him to slip in undetected under The Man's radar. We used to joke that he was our "double-agent."
Myself, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was at a post anti-war rally shindig that someone introduced me to Gabe Katz who, at the time, was editor on a fledgling independent rag called The Oracle. Though I think it was just his ever-so subtle way of hitting on me, he did offer me an assignment as tryout for a spot on the paper. Gabe had me do a piece on the closing of The Psychedelic Shop, the Thelin brothers' first and foremost Haight head shop. Though it was still a going concern, Ron and Jay decided to close their doors on October 6th which they officially declared "Death of Hippy Day." Grown disillusioned by the (inevitable) corruption of the hippy ideal as a tool for advertisers and every bored middle-class teen without an idea of their own, the Thelins put up an obituary notice and filled a coffin full of beads and flowers and peace-sign posters, all the stereotypical accoutrements. They solemnly marched that wooden box to the panhandle of the park then set it ablaze. It was a funny, sad, and markedly prescient occasion, and it yielded up a decent article full of my wry commentary and probing insights.
Katz didn't print it and admonished me for my wry commentary and probing insights, but he hired me on anyway as a copy editor and sometime feature writer. It was a nice place to start.
In due time and in recognition of my status as a fledgling lesbian radical, I was handed the "gay beat," which in San Francisco covered considerable ground. I became a sort of voice for a subculture within the counter-culture and, as such, attracted my first real following ... and lots of dates with fervent young dykes. The response my columns garnered was far more broad and meaningful than my campfire bullshitting sessions – I was part of a community that was just beginning to take pride in its unity and it felt good, felt like family – and yet, when I was approached by a small, lesbocentric publishing house, Maedchen Press, about putting out a compilation of my articles, I said, of course, yes – but with a condition. They also had to publish the novel on which I was currently working.
What the hell, they responded, envisioning a vanity release with a miniscule print run. Contracts, such as they were, were signed and months passed. Tucked away in my little attic room, I wrote and rewrote, hammered and polished that stack of paper into something resembling a novel. It was freeing and terrifying work but it became my life for a while – in fact, Shaggy had to physically drag me to the TV one night to show me what looked like a flickering black-and-white movie about a man on the moon. A cheesy spacesuit and a Saturday-morning-serial backdrop. I didn't realize what I was seeing, much less its importance, until later – until that damned novel was finished.
Meanwhile, the book of essays, called The Girl Who Came To Stay: Notes from the Sapphic Underground, was published to near universal indifference. The sales trickled in and then stopped completely, the total count falling well short of the first printing. It is one of my fondest fantasies to someday run across a dusty, yellowed copy still buried in the stacks at City Lights. It sure wasn't funny then, however, and I turned over my new manuscript with sweaty hands, sure that their offer to publish would be reneged in light of The Girl...'s poor showing. I needn't have worried for the gals at Maedchen were as good as their word. Loose Lips, my first published mystery and the debut of my first successful character – lesbian P.I. Ramona Eloise D'artagnan – was on its way to the printers. A novelist, for better or worse, had been born.
I'll never forget that day, November 18, 1969, when I first held the thing in my hands. The smooth weight of it, the glossy sheen of the cover, and the slight crackle of the spine as it opened. Even the cheesy cover art – a death certificate blotted by a blood red lip-print; it all just meant real. Mine. All those obedient little black letters falling in line on those white, white pages in the formations that I had ordered, me, the person whose name was on the cover. I tucked my baby under my arm and caught the next bus home.
The place was dark and quiet in the middle of the day. Shaggy had been to Woodstock and back by then. As he remembered it, he had dropped some friendly acid as he loaded the Family Stone's gear onstage and ended up hugging onto a speaker stack for ten minutes, delaying Sly's history-making bow at the world's largest outdoor concert. He'd gotten some of the bad stuff and it took four security guys to pry him off and hustle him backstage. Shag described a vision in which he saw the mind-boggling crowd of muddy hippies as rows upon rows of little brown teeth snapping at him. Eleven hours later he found himself in a first-aid tent watching as the woman with the giant Scooby head, which was shaking at him rather judgmentally, dissolved into Cynthia, one of the horn-blowers in the band, asking him if he was okay. Well, here it was, almost three months later and Shag was still recoiling from the nightmarish sensory overload. He'd spent his time since then with the blinds drawn and a pillow over his head. "Okay" in regards to Shaggy became an increasingly relative term.
His fragile emotional state didn't stop me however from busting into the living room with my novel thrust before me like a shield.
"Guess what!" I announced.
Scooby was already receptive, tongue lolling and tail wagging; it took Shag a couple of beats before he could lift his head from the couch to intone, "Wha- Vel - ?"
Which is when the front door exploded inward and the sun's reflection off two pairs of perfect teeth thoroughly stole the wind from my sails, leaving me adrift in the middle of what should've been my Big Day. We were both squinting, Shag and I, as the happy couple shrieked at the top of their happy lungs, "We're getting MARRIED!"
Scooby promptly ran for the open door and wasted no time in "laying his burden down" in the middle of Daphne's flowerbed. As omens go...
TRY, TRY, TRY TO SEPARATE THEM
I got a postcard today. In one of those instances of convenient synchronicity, this morning, before sitting down to begin these last chapters of remembrance, I trekked out to the mailbox (a typical writer's avoidance tactic – it was that or do laundry) and opened it to find a colorful picture postcard of Venice Beach at sunset. On the flip side was Daphne's instantly recognizable handwriting, tiny, perfect, and precise. Her print being that small, she was able to work an impressive amount of info onto that paper square. There are the standard inquiries into my well-being. How is my father? Am I seeing anyone? She lets me know that business is going well and the boys are doing great. Travis is entering his second year of law school and Justin's band was recently signed to a major label. It was a welcome update on the lives of people I love who are very far away, comforting in its banal details. Until, and here Fate takes pity on an aging memoirist, Daph trumpets in big(ger) block letters, "HAVE I GOT AN ENDING FOR YOUR STORY!" And as I read on, I felt the physical intersection of past and present like a hydraulic lift under my breakfast chair. Everything clicked, happy and sad falling together in a jigsaw-puzzle moment.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves, I seem to remember we were on our way to a wedding.
Two disasters occurred on May 4, 1970, and I was only present for one of them. While four student protesters were dying on the grounds of Kent State, brought down by National Guard bullets, a cluster of free spirits in caftans stood barefoot amongst the ruins of San Francisco's Cliff House as the spring tides slammed against the rocks below. I had come with Valerie, my first serious girlfriend. She was the bass player and percussionist in a gimmicky, one-hit wonder bubblegum pop band (does anybody remember Josie and the Pussycats?) but, more importantly, she was black and beautiful. We were truly in love I believe, but, even better, we were making a Statement and in those days it was hard to tell which aspect of the relationship was more important.
In the absence of her disapproving father, Daphne asked me to proxy. It was an odd honor bequeathed to me, but I accepted. So, as two mandolin players and their friend on conga drum performed a unique instrumental version of Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," I walked Daphne into the circle of loved ones and, with appropriate gravity, placed her hand in Fred's. Do you, Red, take The Chin to be your lawfully wedded husband?
In retrospect, it was a truly beautiful ceremony. The sun glistening off the Golden Gate Bridge just beyond the cliffs. The melodious voice of the Unitarian minister as he spoke of the union of souls. Scooby Doo in bow-tie for the occasion very obediently sitting on his haunches and only sporadically eyeing the tables of food awaiting the reception. Even Fred and Daphne's handwritten vows (which both had, secretly, asked me to proofread and polish) left many an eye misty. Everything was going smoothly, the day quickly taking on a dreamlike dimension, right up until the minister asked Shaggy to present the rings. Eight-miles high since the day began, Shaggy just swayed on his ankles and blinked heavy-lidded eyes at us; it's doubtful he knew where he was. When Fred reached out to steady him, Shag took a defensive step backwards, in the process releasing a sudden spout of vomit and collapsing into the food table. He was still down there, convulsing, when the ambulance arrived, everyone holding him and forcing his head sideways, Scooby just feet away digging happily into the 3-tiered wedding cake that had been Fred and Daph's only nod to convention.
It was the first time Shaggy OD'd. It wasn't the last.
After the last of Shaggy's breakfast - amphetamines, hash and whiskey – had been pumped from his stomach, the wedding party was allowed to look in on him. Most social historians mark the disaster at Altamont or the Tate-LaBianca murders as the end of the '60s dream, the point where the innocence of an entire generation was irretrievably lost, but for me it was that day in Shaggy's ICU. It shouldn't have surprised any of us, Shaggy had always pushed his own boundaries, and, though I would never point a hypocritical finger, there was most likely not a voice of moderation amongst his new family in the music scene. Our friend had been away a lot of the time, on tour with the band, and each time he returned he was a little farther away. His personality never really changed, it just dimmed, detached. That's why, when he finally awoke in that hospital bed with a clarity I hadn't seen in years, awareness and fear plainly written in his eyes, I started sobbing uncontrollably beside him. The newlyweds linked arms around my shoulders and even Shag tried to soothe me by clumsily patting my hand with his own. It was a cold, bony thing.
"Hey now, sister," he croaked, his voice a little abused by that morning's show, "No more of that. It, like, gets better from here." I never wanted to believe anything more in my whole life.
Shaggy did get better. Then got worse. Then even worse. Then better – for a while. Then he just vanished. One morning in the fall of '72, he got up early, packed his bags and called for Scooby. The two of them just headed out like they had done dozens of times before whenever Sly hit the road. I groggily told him goodbye. "Send me a postcard," I said and he smiled. It was a running joke between us. Even after touring England and Europe, Shaggy had consistently failed to drop us a line – he claimed he could never figure out how many stamps he needed. It wasn't until two weeks later, after running into the band's road manager, that I realized that there was no tour and that early morning send off was the last glimpse I would ever have of the boy and his dog. It turns out Shaggy had been kicked off the crew five months before for reasons I never successfully divined. This was disturbing information and the three of us spent months quizzing any and everybody; had they heard or seen anything of Shag and Scoob? But I soon found my real-life detective skills somewhat lacking. After a while I even stopped checking the obituaries for the name "Rogers, Norville."
And then there were three.
Considering the start they got, the happy couple actually did very well for quite some time. Perhaps in reaction to the scary trail Shaggy had blazed, Fred and Daphne took small steps backwards into safer, more conservative territory. Fred stayed on at the bank, becoming a shift manager, while Daphne took on temp work with a realtor's office. They reestablished contact with their parents and were able to use those family ties to their advantage; with a little financial aid, the lovebirds were soon able to lease a little house of their own. I knew the day would come, and, to be honest, the last thing I wanted to become was a live-in lesbian auntie for the uber-offspring they were already planning. Still, I was over for dinner every other night and I watched with morbid interest as The Joneses of Pacific Heights began settling into a sitcom simulacrum of married life. "Honey, did you burn the roast again?"
It all started to go so fast. Travis was born in '74. Justin followed in '76. I watched my friends change diapers and put bikes together on Christmas Eve. I saw pounds add on and drop off, I saw hair thin and dull with the hint of gray. I watched them argue and drink too much and hurt each other with words and glances. I was witness to the various infidelities, big and small, on both sides. And I was there when the divorce papers were signed, standing squarely in the middle, trying to give support to both friends equally, friends who could no longer support each other. It was 1983 and they parted ways with the kind of sad sureness and grudging amicability that only truly beautiful people seem to get away with.
I was always a little jealous of them, what they had, even if it ended on such a false note, but I had little reason to complain.
My first novel was a surprise, word-of-mouth hit, and by the time of Fred and Daphne's nuptials had gone into its third printing. I was thrilled when Maedchen asked me if I had anything else kicking around in my head. It was like someone handed me a jackhammer and pointed me to the dam. I churned out six other Ramona E. D'artagnan mysteries over the next few years, each one selling even better than the last. The sixth, Murder, She Sighed, actually rated a write-up in the New York Times Book Review and it was better than sex, ice cream, winning the lottery, and finding a parking space right in front of the door all rolled up in one. I had been Edgar nominated twice by then, but as much fun as I was having and though I had every reason to keep the status quo, I felt like shaking things up a bit. The Ramona fans (those ardent ladies, and a few gentlemen, who call themselves "R.E.D.heads") will never forgive the day I introduced detective Ed Killgaren, the hero of my breakaway bestseller Two Wrongs.
Almost immediately I was attacked by my hardcore fans, accused of selling out and turning my back on "my people." It took the support of another popular lesbian author, Rita Mae Brown (herself an able dabbler at the mystery form), to make it acceptable to the Sisterhood that I had now chosen to relate the adventures of a heterosexual (gasp!) male (double-gasp!) detective. I liked Ed, his laid-back, affable manner so like Shaggy's and so different from Ramona's cynical edge, and I never regretted creating him. I hadn't abandoned Ramona, I just had no idea what she wanted to say anymore. Until '92 when, horrified by the escalating frequency of hate crimes across the country, I was prompted to do something creatively drastic. My next novel was a serious look at "gay bashing" disguised as a suspense thriller in which I brought Ramona and Ed together for the first time. Bedfellows was hugely controversial, yet successful, drawing, as it did, fire from some who said I had no business using "summer reading as a gimmicked platform for social politics" and others who merely blamed me for "attempting relevance." That book is currently in its eighth printing.
Amidst the hoopla, I returned to Plum City to attend my mother's funeral. And I never went back to the coast. Dad's been in shaky health for a few years and that was certainly a factor in staying but mostly I think I needed to be here for me. The prodigal daughter had done all right for herself, but she still felt like a fugitive from the things in life that matter. I needed to come home to pick up the pieces and sort through the clues.
The idea of a traditional drawing-room mystery has always appealed to me, where the denouement takes place behind a locked door and an elegantly dressed sleuth addresses an equally elegant assemblage with, "I suppose you're all wondering why I've brought you here tonight. One of you, in this room, is a murderer." But I never could pull it off. Life itself, with its clumsy entrances and exits, its meaningless twists and messy resolutions, wouldn't let me. Who's to say what telling fragment solves the conundrum that wears my face and cashes my checks? Is it my father's jail cell? Or my mother's typewriter? Was it a night in Death Valley? Or those old turtleneck sweaters? Is it the picture of the puzzle on the box, whole and together, the way it should look, or is it the pieces that are missing?
I got a postcard today from an old friend. She lives in L.A. and has made it big in real estate. Her hair is still as red as a desert sunset even if, I suspect, that may be the name of the wash-in color she uses to keep it that way (I'll hear about this later). She writes of her sons and even fills me in on her ex, another friend of mine, who has turned his father's car dealership into Palo Alto's largest and is planning marriage number three to a 24-year-old business-school graduate with, as my friend puts it, "tits that belong in the Macy's parade." They stay in touch not just for the kids' sake, and though she likes to describe him as much fatter and balder than he really is, I think the feelings still run deep after all this time.
"HAVE I GOT AN ENDING FOR YOUR STORY!" she tells me.
"I was driving a client through Venice over the weekend – nothing's available down there and I was trying to scare him off with the local ambiance. Cruising along the beach and pointing out all the freakiest specimens; the rollerblading grandma in the thong bikini, the Goth street kids digging through Taco Bell's dumpster, the street guy in the stained tux and aluminum foil hat. And then there's the gaunt, sunburned guy in tie-dye selling kites on the beach – the guy who looks just like Shaggy! I swear to God! I was a stoplight away before it hit me and I thought about turning back to know for sure, but I couldn't. I wanted it to be him so bad that I couldn't risk finding out it wasn't – does that make sense? But if it was him, I thought you should know he was smiling."
It was him. It had to be. Not just because part of me needs to know he's still out there and well. Not just because I love him in a way I've never loved another man. But because it fits, it makes sense. As long as he's alive so is the most important part of my life; as long as he lives so does the dream that they tried so hard to cremate one day, so long ago, in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park. The Thelins's obituary was premature, and where there is no corpse, there is no mystery. Case closed.
Wisconsin will be blanketed in snow soon, but I am warm in the best of places. You, dear reader, have followed me on a long, strange trip and I can't for the life of me figure out what you may have gotten out of the journey. For myself, I have the answers to those impertinent questions posed by that rather unctuous editor and I can turn that harsh interrogator's spotlight back on the present where it belongs. Tonight I will dream of a friend's smile and the panting giggle of a bemused Great Dane. Tomorrow I will tell another story.
"...and so on, and so on, and Scooby-Dooby-Doo..."