Albuquerque, New Mexico / Thursday February 15, 1979
The Taco Bell sat up on a hillside not far from the University of New Mexico. Jackson gauged the steepness of the hill and landed on indecision. Six weeks ago he would have popped the clutch, hit the hill hard and hoped all of his wheels came off the ground Smokey and the Bandit style when he cleared the top, landed, drifted and stopped before he hit the retaining wall. All he could see now was his car on its top, sliding back down the hill. He wasn’t alone. The lot was empty except for two Jeeps. The Taco Bell was in overflow, the street so jammed he had to park a block away.
He picked up his order, tried to shake off five weeks in the desert where he’d babbled to the wind before he’d moved up to horses and a big, solemn Navajo. Last night in the Motel 6 was the first time he’d seen televison in six weeks, understood why he hadn’t missed it. He stared at his enchirito, knew something needed to gel besides enchilada sauce and cheese. Quick. The hundred bucks Tony had given him wasn’t going to last long. He took a deep breath, let it go in a low, slow whoosh. He’d managed to re-acclimate to reality but his social skills were in tatters and there was no place else for him to sit. He could pace around rubbing shoulders and kicking feet saying “sorry…” while the plastic cover on his enchirito got steamier or drop into the one vacant chair in front of him, beside her. Long, straight brown hair. A lot of thin abalone, silver and turquoise bracelets and a big leather purse. And an enchirito. He dropped.
“No place else. Sorry.”
“You’re fine.” She said without looking up, checked, just to be sure. He smelled like soap, had on goofy moccasins and put out a spacey vibe, didn’t really look at her. She offered him a friendly on the cool side smile. “As long as you watch your elbows, Geronimo.”
“I do a better Tonto. Less pressure, you know?” He thumbed the lid off the enchirito and slid it under the bottom. “‘Yes, Kemosabe. Me go get horses, put out campfire’. No hero stuff required.”
She laughed. “Careful. This is Tonto Central. You must not be from —” She stopped, watched him dip his spork slowly into the enchirito, turn it in measured half-circles, each lower than the turn before until it was loaded to perfection, last turn in the cheesy sauce picking up an olive slice. She continued to watch, transfixed, as the spork traveled in slow motion to his mouth, none of it getting on the beard he needed to shape or get rid of.
“Had one of those.” His eyes and enigmatic smile were momentarily a thousand miles away, the spork suspended in mid air. “Been living in a hogan, doing some work for a Navajo guy. Coffee, fry bread and tamales. Eggs and beans once in a while. This is manna.”
“You seriously think God gave Moses enchiritos?”
His second perfectly loaded spork blew into his tray. She immediately reached out with a handful of paper napkins and wiped it down, caught the question in his eyebrows.
“Habit. Student teaching. Primary. They stuck me in kindergarten. None of them can eat without it ending in disaster.” She reached out for round two of the cleanup. “You’re not the usual muttering vision quest vagabond type we get around here. You flunk out, lose your compass and your razor at the same time?”
“I flunked advanced girlfriend. She went to England, I took a drive.” He rubbed the beard he’d forgotten about. “I was supposed to be in school a month ago.” He lifted the reloaded spork around her stewardship of his mess.
“Took a drive?”
“Looking for Los Angeles. I turned right at Albuquerque and got lost for a month, my survival cash got hijacked. Now I need to hang for awhile. Find a job, make some traveling money.”
“Where’re you staying?”
“I just got back a couple of days ago. I can keep doing the cheap motel till I get a job or run out of money. Then I’ll —”
She dropped a roll of papers on the table, slipped the green rubber band off and flattened them into a short stack of Xeroxed ads.
Private Patio Home – Near Campus
Rent Only – Bills Paid
Personal Hygiene a MUST
He tapped the address at the bottom like it meant something. “Nice idea, but I’m more U of nowhere headed for USC.”
“Yeah. But you’re clean and not too weird and we eat the same. People call me crazy but I accept things like you landing next to me as minor epiphanies.”
The spork stalled mid flight. “I get that.”
“Good. One other girl and a guy and no weirdness ‘cause nobody’s screwing anybody. There’s two guys, actually, but one of them owns the house and he’s never there.” She turned his way, her elbow on the table. “He works construction. Sometimes.” She made the universal for crazy finger rotating by her head move. “He wants to write acid head mysteries. Like Castaneda meets Miss Marple? We pay for his house, he eats ‘shrooms and disappears for a couple of weeks. There are mountains of notebooks in the garage.”
The spork stalled again, his head turned so he could see her. “You read any of it?”
“I tried. It reads like what I think happened to you when you turned right in Quirky the first time and missed USC.”
“Maybe it’s contagious. I’d feel better if it was.”
“Don’t get high on that feeling. It’s more like stupid. The best time to say ‘no’ isn’t the next time.” She stood. “If you’re following me I…We can go to the house and I don’t have to hang these posters.”
“Sure you don’t want to audition more weirdos?”
“Seen one, seen ‘em all, right?” She held out her hand. “Carmel. Or Mel. Or Lita. Don’t ever call me Karma. Education and Philosophy.”
“You have a handful, I have one.” He took her offered hand, light squeeze. “Jackson. Front or back, either way. Story if you want it.”
“Later.” She smiled, shook her hair and picked up a key ring that had at least fifteen keys and a long, fringe-y leather thing with turquoise and silver beads hanging from it. “Lucky for me today was one and done. Génene, the other girl? She has a test tomorrow. What do you know about transportation economics?”
“You’ll be an expert by this time tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Look at me. I student teach five-year-olds. Last week I learned all about container metrics and Inland Marine insurance and more other kinds of useless information than I thought existed. I can’t believe people get into doing shit like that for a living. What about you?”
“I’m a musician.”
“Yeah?” She raised an eyebrow, shrugged her purse up. “I really can’t believe people try to do that shit for a living.”
Jackson moved in, shook hands with the house and got parked on the sofa bed in the living room. The construction worker slash acid casualty mystery writer was on the way out, heard musician and hung around for Jackson to teach him the signature intro to “Light My Fire” on an old Lowrey home organ with pearlized plastic switches and a built in duck farts and click clacks drum machine. The process and patience netted Jackson a Lawrence Welk “Here’s a nice-a waltz” sweeping theater organ rendition of “Foxy Lady” and a sizable stack of unworn clothes, close to his size. Gifts, he learned, from several of Mystical Agatha Christie’s unpopular former girlfriends who all wanted him out of overalls. And to try shirts with sleeves. The girlfriends nor their plans had taken. Their style choices of wheat and chocolate brown doubleknit “jeans” and shiny nylon pimp shirts weren’t a hit with Jackson, either, but to avoid a “karmic shift from refused treasure offerings” he waited a couple of days after Mystical Agatha disappeared before he threw them in an unsupervised Goodwill donation bin.
Jackson found his feet going from desert to town and quickly discovered that That Girl reruns and daytime TV would send his mind straight back to mush. He moved to paging through Mystical Agatha’s notebooks packed with the adventures of a sexually androgynous witch who got high, fought mythical demons and the forces of evil across rivers of time and reincarnation karma debts looking for clues to murders in the here and now. Unfortunately every time it got interesting the pages would fill up with crooked arrows and crazy hieroglyphics and sentences full of words that were letters strung together. And some of it, when it made sense, was way too big a stretch. Because Jackson had been there, and Mystic Agatha’s acid casualty flying lizards and witchy sword fights were nothing compared to the cosmic debris field Jackson had stepped off into. It wasn’t tidy. Or simple. Or anything as child’s play as good and evil sword fighting across eons.
By day eight, in a town full of real Mexican food, but a long-standing hatred for legitimate restaurant gigs, he drove back to the Taco Bell on the hill and got a simple job. Where he deliberately manufactured screw up orders that he carefully wrapped, set aside and diverted to his car on their way to the dumpster and fed them to his roommates when he got home.
The house was truly collegiate communal, internally platonic, and laid back smooth. When Jackson wasn’t at work he polished the skills that lapsed during Deanna’s fadeout. Hair dryer holder, study helper, essay proof reader. All things that helped bring him back from the edge.
Most nights they’d sit in the living room on or around Jackson’s iron-bar-in-the-middle bed-couch, pass a long, thin leprechaun pipe while they studied and talked everything from psychology, ancient literature, economics, history, political science and lip service revolution with a soundtrack of mostly late Seventies ballad-slop rock. Weekends Carmel would grill chicken, hand it off and he’d make huge versions of Mom Jean’s chicken salad with the big green peppers that were everywhere and in everything. And on occasion he got to hang out, talk, maybe burn one with and be nice to what his otherwise intelligent female roommates thought passed for a decent guy to sleep with. Their equational process for arriving at those guys he would never understand.