I woke up at the crack of dawn. My eyes felt heavy and my mouth was parched but worse than that, my mind was racing. Had Brian really said what I thought he said? Had I really walked away from him like it meant nothing to me? When I walked into the living room to grab my cigarettes I was shocked to see him asleep on the couch. I figured he would have gone to Julie’s room like I suggested. For a moment I stood there staring at him as he slept and I thought of that week when he was mine, when he slept beside of me and I woke up every morning smiling because I knew that he was there. Over the summer I had changed. I became stronger yet I still loved him, didn’t I? But now I knew what that love could do to me, what Brian could do to me, and I wouldn’t give in to him as easily as I had before. “Bri, wake up. If we’re going to get there before noon we’ve got to get ready. Come on.” I said, shaking his leg to wake him up.
“Christ, you are cruel.” He mumbled, sitting up and looking at me like I just stole his dog. “Do you at least have coffee?” I shook my head no. “A smoke?” I smiled and threw a cigarette at him. He turned it over in his hand, looking at it like a foreign object. “Would it be too much to ask for a match?”
I tossed him my book of matches and announced, “I am going to take a shower. When I’m done we’ll go so do whatever it is that men do to get ready.”
I heard him snicker as I turned away. When I was finally put together I walked into the kitchen to find a cup of coffee from a donut shop down the street and a note saying Brian had borrowed my car to go change and get his own. He told me not to worry, that the part of town his room was in was seedy but even a thief wouldn’t touch my car. Oh yeah, I thought as I sipped the coffee, it’s going to be a fun trip.
“Are you dressed for Frisco or have you just spent too much time around the Beach?” I climbed into Brian’s car with my cloth bag and notebook in my hand and I tried to glare in response to his asinine question. My attempt to shut him up was futile. “You know why the Beats used to call kids like you hippies?” I wasn’t going to dignify his question with a response. Staring straight ahead in silence I waited for him to go on knowing too well that he would. “They called them hippies because they were too young to get into the clubs but they wanted to follow the Beats around, they wanted to be hip. So the beats called them little hippies, to mock them, ya know?”
Looking at him with a sideways glance I replied, “That is very interesting, McVie, but who do you suppose it was that came up with the term bastard to describe people like you? Is it Latin, do you think?”
Laughing at the insult, Brian asked innocently, “Are you in a mood, darling?”
“I wasn’t and don’t call me darling, Professor. Just drive!” I lit up a cigarette to calm my nerves which were suddenly on edge. Brian took it right out of my hand with a smile, no doubt satisfied that he had gotten under my skin. I wasn’t going to indulge him in a fight for the smoke so I just lit up another one and I sat back for the long drive ahead of me.
About an hour into the ride Brian asked louder than he needed to, “So about this interview thing?”
I looked over at him in disbelief. I hadn’t held out hope that he would go through with it. He was a guarded person, after all, and it would be read by one of his coworkers. Even if Blackwell didn’t realize it was about Brian, Brian would know that his past was being viewed by a stranger. “You didn’t seem terribly interested in the idea when I brought it up last night.” I replied dryly.
“Yeah, well, you were stoned and I was stoned…I had other things on my mind. But today I’m straight and if you want to do your assignment on me then I will answer whatever you ask honestly.” He declared with a sheepish grin. “On one condition.”
I knew there had to be a stipulation lurking somewhere. “Which is?”
“That no one except you and me knows that it is about me. I don’t need the kids in your class or Blackwell knowing my life story. Hell, I was up all night trying to decide if I wanted you to know more than you do already. But as long as no one else knows, I’ll do it, ok?” There was that tightening of his jaw when I smiled over at him. I couldn’t believe he was really doing that for me. When I moved closer and I put my arm in the crook of his I felt him tense up. When I kissed his cheek and whispered a small thanks the look in his eyes was almost wild. What is he thinking, I wondered. What demons lurked behind those troubled eyes? “If you are going to do it you might want to start. Four hours, remember? We’ve got three hours left. I’ve read your articles. This could take a while.”
My face was hot and my insides were mush at having been so close to him. Why? Why did he bring out the foolish little girl in me? It wasn’t fair. Opening up my notebook I brought to take notes from Jack, I took up my pen and wondered what the hell to ask him. I knew I had to tread lightly. He was sweet enough to do it. The last thing I wanted to do was ask him something that would upset him. “We’ll start with the easy questions. What are the month and the year of your birth?”
“You know that already.” He protested. When I shrugged he reluctantly came out with, “January 1939.”
“Where were you born?” I asked quickly.
“Chicago, Illinois. Are you going to ask me something that don’t know sometime soon? If not you can answer these without my help.” His impatience was setting in.
“Christ you are moody today! Ok, describe a moment in your life that changed you forever and made you who you are today.” There it was, that careless question. Brian tensed up from head to toe and there was that look, that craziness in his eyes. Having never been around anyone who was abused before I met him, it never occurred to me that what happened to him would be the first thing that came to his mind. When I looked at him and watched him go to a place in his head that I thought was dark and horrible, I knew instantly what I had unwittingly done. I put no more thought into it. Crumbling up the paper, I threw it out the window and whispered softly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t…I wasn’t…I didn’t think. I just didn’t think”
Just like that the madness vanished from him and there he sat looking puzzled. “Why did you do that? How the hell are you going to finish the assignment if you toss it out the damned car window?”
“I’m not worried about it. It’s not that important to me. It was stupid of me to ask you to do it. I’m sorry. I was thinking of myself and it was selfish…”
“Hey, calm down, will you? You were not being selfish, you were being practical. Who else are you going to get to do it?” When he put his hand on my leg it was gentle, the gesture comforting.
“Jack can do it. Hell, he would love to do it! I would get an A for sure because there is nothing about his life or his conspiracy theories that he wouldn’t gladly share with everyone. What’s even better is that Blackwell knows him so if he sounds crazy, if the paper sounds crazy, he will totally understand. You don’t have to drive yourself nuts over some damned assignment.” I covered his hand with my own and smiled at him.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?” He asked, his tone softer and kinder than it had been since he woke up.
“Yeah, you can help me think of questions to ask an ex-beatnik psychopath!” I replied with a giggle.
“Well, it is about fucking time Sanders! If you had come last night we could have started on this hours ago!” Jack shouted as soon as I came through the shop door.
“Oh bullshit, Jack! You and I both know that you just crawled out of bed. It’s not even noon yet, asshole! You are lucky I’m here at all. And what the hell are we starting on exactly? It’s not like we are putting a paper together! I’m just picking up some issues!” I shouted back.
Coming toward me and not paying any attention to the sharp edge in my tone, Jack went on saying, “No, we are also making a list of next month’s topics. I know you are back in school but the show must go on. You need the money, I need the money…” I watched as Jack’s eyes shifted from me to Brian. “And who is your little guest, Elizabeth?”
“He’s my professor, Jack. And this is not about him. What sort of topics were you thinking of?” I asked wanting to get this over with as soon as possible. I was hungry and I did not want to spend my whole Saturday cooped up in the store with Jack.
“Not everyone brings their professors on road trips with them, you know?” Until then I hadn’t noticed how much Jack acted like Brian. A persistent pain in the ass.
To my surprise, Brian moved up to shake Jack’s hand saying with a fake smile, “Hi. My name is Brian McVie and I am just a friend.” Then without waiting on a reply from Jack, Brian went about the store pretending to look at everything.
Jack’s expression was that of shock and I wanted to laugh at him but there was business to attend to, wasn’t there? “Ok, now that you’ve stuck your nose into my personal life, tell me about this list of topics.” I knew if I didn’t keep Jack on the right track I would indeed waste my whole day with him.
“Oh yeah, yeah…Well, follow me to the counter. I put the list in the register so I wouldn’t lose it. Now, everything on the list is up to you. What you want to do put a check mark beside of it and what you don’t want to do just…cross it out or something. The one exception to this is the article about the Watts Riot that went down in L.A. before you came home. I’ve got the address of a guy that was involved in the whole damned six days of it. I want you to go and talk to him. Now, he lives in a really bad end of town so don’t go at night and I’m not sure how his neighbors are going to feel about a little white girl strolling up in their part of town so you might want to take someone with you that has a little more muscle than Julie.” Handing me the list across the glass counter Jack looked satisfied that I would comply with his demand and not say another word about it. Jack was wrong.
Looking down at the address I burst out laughing. He wasn’t serious! I hadn’t been in L.A. long enough to know where a decent taco joint was but I already knew that someone like me did not tread into territory like that! “Are you fucking crazy? I am not going to do this! No way and how dare you even ask me to! Are you trying to get me shot, stabbed…what?” I was outraged.
“Hey, listen, our readers want to know what went down in L.A. I figure enough time has passed so that tempers have cooled a bit but it is recent enough that this guy will remember the details and the emotions. The people buying our paper are sick of hearing the points of views of the white cops. They want the other side of the story. Who else is going to do it if we don’t?”
“We? If we don’t? That’s the fucking problem! It’s my ass on the line here! This isn’t like a list of questions for Dylan. I could be killed especially this soon after the riots yet this is your idea and you will get just as much of the profit as I will. It’s not right, asshole!”
Since the paper started Jack had never asked me to do anything dangerous before. He might have asked me to do things I wasn’t sure I could but he had never told me to do everything short of drawing a target on my head to get a story. I think it hurt my feelings a little that he could think my life a fair trade for a story. “So what the hell do you want, Liz? I need this story and there isn’t anyone else. You are all I have.”
“Let me see the address, Lizzy.” Brian demanded. When had he come up behind me? Silently I handed him the paper and I tried not to laugh when Jack mouthed the word ‘Lizzy’ with a roll of his eyes. “I know this guy and I know the neighborhood. Don’t worry about it. Tomorrow I’ll take you over and you’ll get your story. James is really a good kid and if we’re lucky we’ll get there in time to catch his grandma cooking Sunday brunch. You couldn’t buy food any better.” Of course Brian would know someone with a grandmother that cooked. At times he reminded me more of a stray cat than a brilliant teacher.
With that problem taken care of I got out my notebook and tore from it the paper with my questions for Jack written on it. I also handed him two blank pages saying, “Now, here is what you can do for me. Answer these questions while I go over the topics. Don’t ask me questions and don’t give me shit or you can kiss your Watts story goodbye.”
Not bothering to wait for an answer I found a corner in the shop where I wasn’t likely to be disturbed and I went to work. I heard him make a comment about my rag but I ignored it. However, when I heard Brian’s lowered voice asking Jack what he thought he was doing, my attention was focused on the front of the shop. “Do you have any idea how fucking dangerous it is since the riot went down? Black against white. That is how people in that area viewed it and whether she realizes it or not she was right when she said she could end up dead. What kind of heartless asshole sends a nineteen year old girl out to slaughter over a fucking newspaper?”
I had to strain to hear Jack’s response above the bell of the door announcing more customers but I did manage to catch, “Listen here, Mr. Professor, I don’t tell you how to run your classroom don’t tell me how to run my paper!”
“Your paper? That’s a fucking joke! There wouldn’t be a paper without her and you know it!” Brian seethed. I had to put a stop to this spectacle before things got bad. Both of them had tempers and the motivation to make an ugly scene out of a simple dispute.
“Acid? What do you want on acid?” I asked loud enough for everyone to hear.
“There’s this new cat here in Frisco, goes by Owsley, and he’s manufacturing LSD. He wants to promote it so he came to me. He wants you and a couple of friends to try it and write a story talking about your experiences. Basically he wants to dispel the rumors, get rid of the fears, and get people comfortable enough to trip. You get the LSD for free if you say yeah.” Jack explained all of this in his best professional tone.
“No, I’ll pass but we might want to keep it in mind for later. I have to get more backbone before I’ll go through with that. I’ve checked four major topics and one album review. Is that enough?” I asked still sitting on the floor hidden by a rack of blue jeans.
“Yep, that’s plenty. I finished this weird little test you gave me. What the hell is it for, man?” Jack, the paranoid head case. What had I been thinking?
“Your friend Professor Blackwell’s journalism class. Don’t panic, Jack. He’s the only person besides me who will read it. The president, the FBI, the IRS, none of them will have access to it.” Standing up I laughed at the look of indignation on his face.
“I am not that paranoid! Geez, you make me sound crazy!” He protested in his own defense but when he handed me the pages his name had been crossed off of each one.
“I’m sorry I made you sound crazy, Loser. Now where are these fucking papers I’m taking to Venice Beach? I want to get something to eat and go home.” I explained with a yawn.
“As you wish, My Lady.” He replied with a bow. Brian looked at me as if he was insane and I only laughed. Going upstairs, he returned with three large boxes. I marveled at how well his tiny frame supported them all even though they were stacked up higher than his head. Sitting them on the counter he explained, “Each box has the amount of papers that were requested by the shop owner. The names and addresses of the places are on top of the stack of papers. Just take them where the note says.”
“I didn’t realize there were three headshops in Venice.” I replied offhandedly.
“Actually only two of them are going to headshops.” As he said this he began to grin in that way that meant trouble.
“Where is the third one going, Jack?” I asked, half afraid to hear the answer.
“A church in L.A. I guess it’s part of God’s mission. Help the freaks see the light! Halluaha!” He shouted in his best preacher man’s voice. “They are using our papers as a trap, man, but they are also paying you upfront for all of them because they plan on giving them away.”
“Only you! Only you could get a church to buy an underground, anti-establishment, pro rock n’ roll paper! You’re crazy! You really are. But I can tolerate it as long as I get my half of the money. I’ll be back up next weekend with whatever money we get and maybe a couple of the articles and the album review…Speaking of that, why don’t you get me the album?” Jack sighed in that get-off-my-ass sort of way but he crossed the room and quickly returned with the record he wanted me to write about. “So I will see you next weekend?”
“Yeah, I guess. I’ll call you sometime this week or something. You know, make sure you lived through the ghetto experience and all of that.” Jack raised his eyes to meet Brian’s and said in the friendliest of tones, “It was nice to meet you, Professor. Please come back and see us again sometime, man.”
As we sat down to eat at a burger joint just up the street from the shop I decided to read over Jack’s responses to my questions. My eyes scanned the page drifting over boring stats until I came to the question I had asked Brian in the car about a moment that changed his life. Before I could stop myself I burst into hysterical laughter prompting half of the restaurant to look at me as if I were crazy. “Liz, what the hell is wrong with you?” Brian barked out, embarrassed by my outburst. Because I couldn’t catch my breath I handed the paper to him and pointed to the question and answer. “The moment that changed my life happened like three years ago when I gave up on the awful beat scene and I came to this part of San Francisco. Once here I realized that the government and the aliens from Roswell are working together to track our every move. Since my enlightenment I have taken the necessary steps to ensure I cannot be tracked. I am now free. You are all slaves. Fuck the establishment!” Brian read out loud with his brows furrowed in disbelief. “Is this crazy bastard serious?” He asked.
“That is the worst part of all. I think he might be dead serious.” I replied, giggling a little more. Madness was all around.
Once we were back on the road crossing the Golden Gate Bridge I said softly, “I’m sorry you didn’t exactly hit it off with Jack. At least if you two had liked one another and you would’ve hung out a little the trip wouldn’t have been wasted for you.”
“Who the hell said the trip was a waste for me? It’s not like I had anything else to do. At least I wasn’t alone or hanging out at a bar or something. It was great to hang out with you all day. As for being sorry that Jack and I didn’t get along, don’t be. The guy is a total jack ass! Is he in the habit of asking you to do shit like this? Fucking lunatic!” Brian retorted furiously.
“No, that was a first. I couldn’t believe him but I know Jack. He just wasn’t thinking of the danger. His mind was focused only on the story and nothing else. It’s not that he purposely wanted to put me in harm’s way. He just doesn’t have enough sense to realize that going to that part of town this soon after the riots could end really badly for me. You shouldn’t hold it against him. He’s really not a bad guy. He’s just…”
“Criminally insane?” Brian asked, finishing my sentence.
“He’s just Jack.”
That night Brian decided that it would be easier if he stayed another night at my place so we could just get up and go over to this guy’s house. “How do you know that he doesn’t sleep until three in the afternoon?” I asked, still unaware of the connection between Brian and this boy.
“James sleep until three p.m.? Especially on a Sunday? His grandmamma wouldn’t allow it. He has to go to church with her in the morning.” Brian assured me as we sat on my couch.
“This just doesn’t seem like a guy that I should be talking to about his involvement in a riot.”
“You’d be surprised.” Brian replied as he went to my records once again.
With that topic of conversation exhausted there was something that I needed to say to him. I had wanted to say it all day because the unspoken words had hung between us all day long. Bringing it up might piss him off and even if his temper remained in check, I might have looked like an ass in the end. It wouldn’t be the first time, I mused, as the first notes of Love Minus Zero came from my speakers. “I think we had a misunderstanding last night. I’m pretty sure that is what put you in such a bad mood earlier and I just want to…ya know…clear it up.” I got out, practically stumbling over my words.
“We didn’t have a misunderstanding last night.” Brian replied, turning to look at me as if I were crazy.
“Yes, we did. You see, you said something before I went to sleep last night and…”
“Oh, that? No, that wasn’t a misunderstanding. I told you I love you and you said you were going to bed. I understood that well enough. Anyone would have to be a fool not to.” He barked out like a petulant child.
Sighing audibly, I wondered why in the hell I chose to do this to myself. “See, that is the misunderstanding. I didn’t mean for you to take my reaction the way you did. I was stoned and I had been thinking and I guess I wasn’t in a state of mind to deal with what you said in the right way.”
“Oh, cut the bullshit, Elizabeth! What the hell is this? You are not talking to some stranger, ok? You are talking to me. Now quit it with this formal apology crap and be straight with me. You brought it up. I told you I love you. You aren’t stoned right now and you’ve apparently thought about this all day so now the question is do you love me back?” Brian’s tone held little authority compared with his eyes. They bore into me it seemed, daring me to lie to him.
“Brian, this is very difficult for me to…”
“Bullshit! You know how you feel. Do you love me?” He asked again with all the persistence of a child.
“I just don’t think…”
“Goddamn it, Lizzy, do you love me or don’t you? Just answer me!” There was a plea in his tone that almost left me bare.
“I don’t want to!” I shouted at him, swallowing a lump that was forming in my throat. What had I expected from the conversation? There had been only one place for it to go.
“That is not what I asked you.” His tone was soft but firm and his eyes were locked on mine. “How did it feel when I told you that I still love you? Can you answer that?”
If I wasn’t careful all resolve I had would be surrendered in order to take that doubt from his beautiful blue eyes. “It hit me like a ton of bricks, Bri. I couldn’t believe you said it. It’s not like you to go around making casual declarations of love.”
“Casual? You thought that was casual, huh? I’ve been looking for a way to say that all damned week!” He giggled softly and for a moment I felt the pressure taken off me. That moment was short lived. “Well, you answered that quickly enough. Now, do you still love me?”
Why was he doing this to me? “Of course I still love you, Brian, and I’ve had to fight myself every day to keep from giving into what I really want. But I cannot give in to you…not yet. I can’t go there until you are ready and I can look at you without fearing that you’re going to walk out the damned door!”
“If that is the case then I guess you’re right. We did have a major misunderstanding last night.” Brian replied simply with the most beautiful grin.