Saturday, March 11, 2017

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

“Over the mountains, watching the watcher;
            Breaking the darkness, waking the grapevine…”
                                       - Pink Floyd

Looking past her toes to the shattered boulders several hundred feet below, Big-Legged Emma held out her arms as if she would lift off her perch and leap into the canyon.

On the middle, longest talon of the Claw, three rocks crooked over the edge of where the mountain had been cleaved deeply by water determined to go home. She turned her limbs to take in the sun’s rays, luxuriating her caramel skin in the warmth of summer light. Just beyond her, a middle-aged ponderosa pointed towards the falls that spread the mountain open like a wet labia, branches drooping towards the canyon floor as the tree gave itself to gravity.

Gooch watched, wondering where she was in her head, what effect she was feeling after Powerball kicked in and swept her through the dope’s peculiar portal to God knows where. When he’d last seen her, the real her, she had passed him a hit while they both still sat in the shadow of a large boulder that listed skyward, like the bow of a sinking ship. There, silent but for birds hidden in the pines, she passed the piece to him, exhaling her smoke through a burst of her characteristic tic of “Ha!” and her trilled laugh. “I’ll see you on the other side!”

He inhaled, grimacing at the slightly vegetal, dog-shit taste (but with a minty hashish undertone). When he exhaled, what footing he held in the world dislodged and spun off into overlapping folds of the universe, everything around him collapsing into sizzling, bombinating vibrations. The earth moved to envelope his being, his self, roots, rocks, mountains and trees engulfing him with a deep embrace, all of it devolving into a singular darkness that soon revealed lights alive and dancing. The pounding of his heart and the cold sweat trickling down his skin matched the rhythm of the turning of the World.

He swam in a sea of stars, twinkling points in all directions to an infinitude. Lights appeared and disappeared like fireflies, evading him if he approached as though each was sentient, conscious, intentional. Soon after appearing, each playful light created a ripple in space where windows to another side unraveled, spiraled outwards and then faded away, leaving just an evanescent memory of what they’d revealed.

Things inside some windows appeared abstract, incomprehensible, characters from millions of alien languages lacking context or reference or meaning; others showed familiar things, oxygen-breathing, more like the reality he’d left when he’d sparked up the “powerful magic” (as Indian Leo called it), things from terra firma, The World, things like trees, oceans, mountains, farms, people doing things, crossing the street, brushing their hair. In one window, he saw a desert sky at night and there was where he entered. 

He landed feet first in the midst of a courtyard of a classic Spanish villa, a square plaza of outbuildings and apartments fronted by an imposing three-story Grand House. To his right, a fountain stood tiered with marble clam shell bowls that decreased in size as they neared the top, where a Cupid danced and aimed his arrow at the sky. Wings of the estate hemmed everything in and the casitas were fronted by a porch shadowing spaces beneath the wooden-slatted eaves, windows shuttered like the closed eyelids of large owls. The only sound was the clattering echo of the fountain’s falling water and beneath his feet, porcelain tiles were slick with spray, grout lines green with moss. It was humid near the fountain and his skin grew damp, goosebumps appearing as the desert’s night air chilled serein.

Still as his surroundings, he took in the sight, amazed, awed, the clarity of the moment an instance of remarkable beauty. The villa’s stucco skin breathed from the life within. Whorls and ridges filigreed into an intricate network of pavonine patterns, pulsing with lines intersecting and interacting.  Above the walls, ribs of coral-colored tiles rippled under the sky, respiring essence and bits of things that were contained within, an inexorable scrambling of spirits and elementary particles.

The stars were infinite, tiny diamonds strewn across a black scrim, their light softened behind the fulsome glow of an impossibly large moon that loomed behind the Great House. Ancient-looking but well-kept, built in the Spanish gothic style, the house was a palace in the midst of a Krazy Kat landscape. All was dark but for pale light of the night sky and one window on the third floor, a lambent glow where he could see someone standing in the room behind the window. Taking tentative steps toward the house, fearless and curious, he peered upwards through squinted lids. With his approach, it became apparent that there were actually two people standing in the room, one close to the window, a shadow of another gesturing and pacing. Almost directly beneath the window, he heard feminine voices, a collegial conversation, friendly and joyous. Unable to catch what they were saying, He could tell that one of the speakers was elderly but still possessing a firm, forceful voice along with the cool precision of schooled diction. The other voice broke in, much younger, bouncy and ebullient, almost singing it seemed. And then, a blast of a jovial “Ha!”

He erupted with laughter, his eyes clouded with mirth tears, his “Buddha laugh,”  as Emma called it (although he was nothing like the fat little man in Chinese restaurants, begging for a good-luck belly rub with raised arms and palms flattened) a starburst in his gut that rocked his body with its seismic force.

“Who are you talking to, Baby Sister?” he called and was immediately lifted above the villa, spinning and spiraling upwards on a tourbillion of galactic fireworks. A hissing rushed through his ears, increasing in pitch and volume. Vision was reduced to a mix of hues and tones that resulted in a blast of pure light, photons stripped of all spectral definition. In an instant, the speeding, screaming cacophony ceased and he was returned back to the where the trip began.

Just beyond the edge of the forest, Emma stood entranced on the Claw, swaying slightly, singing with the coloratura of the canyon’s winds. As she had done so many times before out on the Claw – arms stretched wide and face tilted back to the sun – she embraced the world, granting open and free access to her soul and her infinite well of love.

Aftershocks still trembling through him, he reclined on pine needles upholstering a slope, just watching Emma, drinking in the fact that they had not gone far from where they had first smoked, musing on where Powerball would take them next.

Adieu, mon ami! Il est temps de volet! It’s time!” Her voice splashed through the pine needles like water shattering on a stone, droplets of her words collecting on his skin like the spray from the villa’s fountain.

He watched her body tilt toward the opposite canyon wall and then fall forward into the chasm and toward the rocks below.


“Oh no. Fuck no.”

Broke through.

“FUCK! Fuck no, Emma, Emma, NO!”

He’s just watched his best friend in life dive to her death.

“Fuck. No.”

He closed his eyes, picturing her body shredded by the shards of rock below, but he knew he had to look for her. The trembling terrain knocked him to a crawl, flat on his belly like a lizard, his legs worthless but for pushing in the dirt. He crept toward the edge, his fingers gripping ripples that pulsed atop the flat face of rock. The ground shifted chaotically in fractal patterns, the world around him churning and raging like a river, coordination and balance completely compromised. He peered over to see that the canyon had filled with a river of mirrors, millions of them of varying sizes and depths. Fearing the Medusa effect, he averted his gaze but was drawn back to the infinite reflections of himself that he’d already seen. In the canyon, every mirror caught his reflection and he felt himself caught up in the river, all of him captured in raths of silver glass.

“NO! This didn’t. Just. Happen. FUCK!”

His grief was immediate and confused. Powerball had fucked with his mind, there was no reason to think this was not just an ugly vision, something unspeakably terrible that the drug had planted in his mind. That he could speak of these things in his mind convinced him that certain things were as he’d seem them. Language was the only thing he had left that held some toehold on reality.

She had jumped.

“No. No. No. She’s not dead. She is. Fuck. She’s dead. She jumped. Oh, fuck no, this can’t be happening. No, no, Emma, sweetie, little sister, you didn’t just die. Don’t do this to me, Emma!”



His calls echoed through the canyon below.

The excruciating realization that she had actually jumped punctured Powerball’s blinding effects. Particles of emotion stuttered in from his amorphous core, like Morse code from another dimension, dots and dashes that only made sense after being scrawled out and syntactically assembled. Rolling on the Claw, he clutched his skull, trying to gather his thoughts into his hands. Frustrated, his hands empty and thoughtless, he began pounding a fist against the rock, raging against life, against circumstance, against the world, against himself, and against whatever gods were listening to his fury. “Fuck. Fuck. FUCK! Why did we come up here? What were we thinking? Oh God, Emma, baby, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

In fact, it had been her suggestion to stop at the Claw to smoke, instead of continuing on up the canyon to Trinidad Falls.

“If you say we can get lost on this stuff, that we wind up in weird places, we’re probably better off staying close to the trailhead,” she said after they’d arrived at the rock outcropping, matter of fact and practical as ever. Originally, according to the plan hatched over cocktails at the Ancient Mariner, the smoking place had been the pool beneath the falls, both of them agreeing that the spray, promiscuous with rainbows and chill, would provide an idyllic setting for the experience. His previous trip on Powerball had been indoors and while that  had been a monumental mindfuck, a total out-of-body experience and interdimensional excursion, he welcomed her suggestion to take it outside. 

Despite some misgivings, he was eager to experience it in the world he lived to live in, places where he tromped, camped, and shredded. Still recovering from the last time the weed (or whatever it was) had ground down his consciousness to the fine powder he snorted, He was somewhat reluctant to get high again when Emma approached him about it. It didn’t hurt that he was a few drinks into the night when she pulled him aside to talk about his massively psychedelic pot.

“Flynn told me the stuff is in-fucking-credible, said he’d never hallucinated like that,” her voice just loud enough to be heard over the band and bar noise. “And that boy knows his dope. I’m so down, bro, I can’t tell you. Smoke a little with me, amigo.”

He scanned the crowd - regulars, bar flies, a handful of tourists, a group down from Chi-Chi to see the band - hoping to hold their chatter inside a tight, binary bubble. Friends were dispersed throughout the place, bopping to the reggae/ska outfit onstage or standing around the pool table, any of them liable to pop in without warning and catch a whiff of what was up. He deflected Emma’s request. “Why don’t you see if these guys will let you do some songs with them? Their vocalist is shit. Two keys, that’s all he’s hit all night and I swear, both of them were flat. C’mon girl, go ask em.”

“These guys? They’re all right. They played closing day up on the mountain, that Jaegermeister bash. They’re called “Chits & Giggles” which is a really stupid name. I think they’re from Grand Junction. I also saw them at a show in Moab… you’re not getting out of this, dickhead! Tu baises avec moi! Connard! I wanna try Powerball, bro! You have the time. You have my boyfriend covering the brewery all weekend.”

“I don’t know if I have the time for that, though, and I kinda’ had plans for this weekend. That shit’s a real commitment, physically, mentally, psychologically, the hangover the whole next day. It drains you. If we smoke it, that’s really all we’re doing this weekend. Biking? Hiking? Boarding a glacier? Out, nadda.”

“Were you going out this weekend?”

“Crested Butte. That’s out.”

“I gotta work, Sunday.”

“Ack. You’re gonna be wiped out sis. Sucks to be you. The hangover is like, all your thoughts, all your capacity for thought, all your energy, everything’s been sucked out of you.”

“Eh, it’ll be slow. Slow weekend, everyone’s saving it up for the Fourth’s four-day. I wish I could pretend to be closed but if I don’t put our shit out on the sidewalk, busybody Pogoners rat me out to my mom. You should come down and hang! I’ll let you play your music all day… that’ll send em’ running.”

“Only if you close early so we can float past town a few times.” Just past the Summer’s Solstice, Arroyo Creek still ran cold from snow melt and provided a refreshing ride after a hot day of tending a town shop.

“You bring the beer.”


“Lip up, fatty, ah lip up, fatty, for the reggae,” she sang along with the band, tapping tips on the side of her pint. “So, I’ll pick you up, we’ll grab some brecky and head out?”


“Yer’ on!”

Emma arrived at dawn in her beaten and Bondoed Ford F-150, singing “ rainbow spirals round and round, it trembles and explodes...” along to her tape, watching Big Bro make his way through the hotel lobby. Nearly filling her side of the truck, making the space appear smaller than it really was, she cleared the passenger seat, adding to the debris that carpeted the floor, put her jean jacket atop the pile of clothes behind the seat. After tossing a day pack in the bed, Gooch got in. As always, the cab smelled of wet dog, stale beer, cold grease, pot resin, mildewed books, an aroma that hovered just below being offensive. Like everyone living in the mountains, her truck was a receptacle for some significant portion of her life, a trashbin of trivialities that also contained absolute necessities for life. Getting in, He watched her spark up a bowl, filling the cab with a mint scent of high-grade pot.

“Killah herb, Jerry and the boys, another day in Paradise!”

“I’m for the excluded middle. Then I’ll be fine.” He inhaled a hefty hit and passed her bowl back.

“Shaddup yuh, I know what I need to wake up to.” She slapped her rig into gear, and the truck leapt down the street.

Gooch reached into his wool-lined camo hoodie and pulled out a cassette, the label colored with highlighters. “Here, I taped this for you, Beck. The guy who did, ‘Loser’. “Odelay,” his latest. It’s wild, you’ll dig it.”

‘Loser’ is a classic. Ok. You say it’s good, we’ll listen to it on the way back but it’ll cost you breakfast.”

“Uh huh. Always costs me breakfast, even when I drive.”

The trip down Main Street took all of three minutes, yellow pedestrian lights blinking at no one, still dark store glass as blank as corpses’ eyes. Just past the elbow at the town clock - a three-faced rococo orb atop an iron spire, each face permanently set to 4:20 - a police cruiser watched from a corner partially obscured by the rear of St. Patrick’s Episcopal. Emma took a long draw and then exhaled, “Bad cop, no donut.”

“It’s cashed,” Gooch reported as Emma turned the truck towards the half-acre dirt parking lot of Uncle Sam’s Pancake House. He tapped out remains on the bottom of his boot then handed the pipe back to her. “Maybe something will grow from all the pot ash on your floor.”

The lot was dotted by trucks with horse trailers and hemmed in by a couple of semis parked along a chain-link backstop overgrown with morning glories and shaded with Russian olive bushes. A number of pickup trucks and sedans faced the place’s façade of glass, corrugated metal, and rough-hewn pine girders. Finding a spot furthest from the door, the two jumped out and walked past a handful of diners at window seats. The dining room was an open, square addition to a large A-frame that held the kitchen and the gift shop/waiting area/cashier’s stand. Once inside, the aroma of bacon, cooked potatoes, fried batter, coffee and cigarette smoke was like a welcoming glove that lovingly grabbed patrons up and put them into seats.

“So, you know how you get a song stuck in your head?” Gooch asked idly as they sauntered towards their usual booth, his smile lifted on puffy clouds of ganja. “The Germans call it an earwig.”

“Hey, Macarena!” she sang, equally stoned, her glassy eyes reflecting the light inside Uncle Sam’s.

“Do that to me again and you’re dead. I’ll slap you to death while that song screams in my head, driving my homicidal fury.”

“So, what’s the song?”

“”Hard Times”, er, “White House Blues” I mean. John Renbourn. I heard it the other day and I can’t stop listening to it in my head.”

“Don’t know it. It can’t be worse than, “Hey, Macarena! Ha!”

“You’re flirting with death, little sister.”  

They had slipped into Uncle Sam’s just before the 6 a.m. rush, the usual early-morning crowd scattered throughout tables: an Old Codgers Club permanently occupying stools at the bar and eternally grousing about “that communist” Clinton; Mitzi and Phil, the McPhee sisters sharing a plate of crepes before heading out for bird watching, and; Swede Johansson and his AA sponsee, the new science teacher at Pogo Springs High School (really, K-12), washing down short stacks and bacon with black coffee before opening their Early Bird meeting. Emma often said she adored the absolute authenticity of the place through the people it served, its proud hayseediness, its down-home haimish fare. What it was, she said, was that the place held no pretense to being anything other than itself, the Uncle Sam of the sign - a welcoming smile, work boots, suspenders and a star-spangled top hat.

Emma plopped onto the bench seat of a booth, a whoosh of air bursting from naugahyde patched with glue and duct tape. Taking the bench opposite her, he watched her color on the paper placemat, outside the lines (of course), over the word find and color-me cows, the connect-the-dots and CBI-level acrostics. He rolled his eyes at the skull with lightning bolt she was drawing, wondering how her immense intelligence could be so easily distracted by the parochialism of fandom.

“So… Powerball has now led us to Powerball, j’ai raison, n’est-ce pas?” her boarding school French a charming affectation for most but Gooch found it annoying and unnecessary. One language is sufficient for normal conversation he felt, thank you very much.

“Yeah, it’s been really fucking weird. Flynn know you’re smoking it today?”

“Nope. I haven’t seen him since before he went to work yesterday. He said we’d smoke some but we haven’t connected and, like you told me, it’s a real time commitment. And you got him working the brewery all weekend. Whatever, it’s my turn, y’know?”

“Last night you said he couldn’t really explain much about the high?”


Emma’s “Ha!” turned a few heads towards the booth, another affection of hers that Gooch grudgingly tolerated. She said it was a tic, something she couldn’t control or contain, that “Ha!” was her kiai preceding a verbal karate chop. She said she’d always added that force of breath and punctuation since as long as she could remember, “I peed in the potty! Ha!”

“If he could describe it in an equation, numbers and math, he’d be clearer. You know how he his. Words aren’t really his strong suit. All I got from him was that it was like nothing he’d ever done before.” She paused and looked down at the placemat, scribbling more lines with a crayon. “But I believed him, even though I was pissed - really, really pissed - because he was like five hours late when he finally showed up. But I could tell he was pretty ripped and when he started describing some of the hallucinations he’d had… Ha! What he said was too outrageous to be a lie!” 

Her fury with Flynn had less to do with being stood up (no matter how inconsiderate and irresponsible) than with the persistent doubts about him, the little bird that constantly sang outside her window, a song about something dark, full of pain and doubts, a warning to hold back something of herself.

“It was nuts, sis. Don’t be too hard on him,” he sneaked in, sensing her vibe. “Really, we weren’t expecting it to hit us like that and none of us were in a condition to go anywhere for about four hours. We just thought it would be a party bowl before we all went our separate ways.

“Four hours gone…”

“At least. Then it mellows but you don’t really come down until you go to sleep. And when you wake up, you’re disconnected, your brain is just on thrusters after running on the warp drive for years. It was like being on a lude the whole next day.”


“Uh, torporific!”

“Groovy. Nice neologism.”

Still untouched menus were scooped up by Grace, a waitress at Uncle Sam’s longer than anyone could remember, a fixture with the same fulgent fuzz that covered the animal heads poking through the restaurant’s pine panels. “I’m about to get hit, ya’ll,” sliding coffees and a tin creamer pitcher on the table. “But I’ll get you two set up before I’m swamped.”

As they sipped their coffees, simply folk filtered in, gathering in the gift shop; bland local couples, RVers, ranch hands, a six top of swingers staying at Trixie’s Pump-n-Camp and making a raucous noise of screeching laughter.

Barney and Betty Bender took the table just in front of the booth, both nodding to Gooch, then Emma, friendly in their fenced-neighbor sort of way. Betty’s Adidas workout suit and sneakers suggested that that she’d walked the creek with the town ladies who gathered each morning for a perambulating hotpot of gossip. Barney’s “She calls the shots but I own the gun” t-shirt arced over a bulbous pot belly, his last trimester before the massive coronary due date.

“You two goin’ fishin’?” Betty’s voice lilting with the trajectory of a lure on a line, cast for a potential juicy tidbit, her accent (a cowboy drawl clipped quick in the nostrils by thin, frigid air) baring her mountain roots.

“We’re hiking up to Trinidad Falls, maybe go for a dip,” Emma’s answer effervescent and sizzling with excitement. “Had to get this old man out and about.”

Wincing at Emma’s “old man” jibe, Gooch resented that she indeed thought him ancient; when he looked in the mirror, a 22-year-old was standing there. In the entirety of the time that he knew, life had been fun; even work was play. So when she became his best bud, after she’d turned 20, dropped out of college, and moved permanently to Pogo Springs, it was natural to feel that youth was permanently fixed in him, that time was meaningless. The light she brought made everything fresh, vibrant, prickly with energy, as if things sprouted anew whenever she was around, as if she offered up her eyes for him to see through; in her presence, everything was ageless and timeless. Since there was never a time he thought of himself as old. To hear her call him that felt as though a large tombstone had been dropped on him.

“Got elk up there, mmm,” Barney’s basso profundo grumbling from beneath his menu, eyes locked on his breakfast options. Removing his impeccably clean, absurdly large Stetson cowboy hat, he placed it ceremoniously on the table, filling the space where empty chairs provided a buffer between Benders and the two in the booth.

“Pool neath the falls’ll be nice for swimmin’, mmmmm,” humming into the menu, lingering luridly on his trailing ems.

“Walkin’ the river this morning?” Gooch asked, playing Betty’s game. As the owner of the town’s largest hotel (brochures alliteratively declared it the town’s “Showcase Centerpiece and Historical Hallmark”), he had learned to play nice with the gals who walked the creek every morning, every one of them involved in the incestuous orgy of the Chamber, Visitor’s Bureau, Downtown Business District Board, Rotarians, and whatever committees they decided needed to be seated. Not to put too fine a point on it, those women pretty much ran the town since Bunny, the mayor, figured the creek-walkers were doing just fine with everything. An old biker with a steel plate in his head, Bunny was not the person you talked to if you needed something from the town. Betty would get your sidewalk fixed, not Bunny.

“Oh, we surely did,” Betty bubbled, “I mean, I did. Dad just sat in the truck, talkin’ on his radio. We walked from here to Town Park and back. All our new age people was up to the park, the nicest bunch, they always have muffins to offer but I wouldn’t… you know, well, I’m a Christian. They were bathing crystals in the creek when we got there.”

“Baptizing rocks?” Gooch flashed a grin at Emma, knowing she’d appreciate the joke.

“Well, they said they were bathing them. Then, they anointed them with oils and leaves and things. They made quite a commotion during the anointing ceremony. Shouting prayers, hoopin’ n’ a-hollerin’. I like to never get to say anything while they was makin’ that noise. Emma, I didn’t see your mama down there… is she OK?”

“She’s fine,” biting her tongue, suppressing a laugh. “She’s down in Mexico with some of her friends from Denver. Who goes to Mexico in the summer?”

 “Betty? You serve on the Visitor’s Bureau…” Gooch redirected, wanting to get on without the Benders. “You ought to look into getting National Geographic out here to film that! People dancing around with crystals, jumping into the creek and chanting and whatnot. That could bring in a lot of tourists, don’tcha think?”

“Well, I’m not sure they’d be interested in that,” Betty’s eyes turned sideways and looked like two commas holding a pause within her head.

“Just tryna’ think big, Betty. Always lookin’ out for the town.”

“You lucky kids and your lottery money, you done enough, let me tell you. And we’re all mighty grateful. I know things have really picked up since… well, that brewery you put in at the hotel has been a really nice addition, here. Mr. Yamaguchi, you’re a real asset to this town, just like your daddy and momma was. And don’t forget your grampa and gramma. We’re all mighty grateful what you Jap-an-eese people done brought to this here lil’ town, you and your parents and your granddad and Oh-Me.” 

Gooch gulped on Betty’s attempt to sweeten her racism with sugar. “Aw, you’re too kind, Betty, thank you. OK, enjoy your breakfast, you two. Barney, if we see an elk up there, we’ll tell him to stumble your way in the fall.”

“Find one with lotsa of points on his rack, mmm…. Like big racks, mmmmm…”

Emma was holding herself in, preventing a full-bodied laugh from erupting. “Dude, I forgot to tell you… why my Mom went to Mexico,” fart noises from repressed guffaws. Lowering her face to the table, she sputtered out the rest, “She’s off on a dolphin-fucking excursion. I’m not kidding you! They’re all down there having sex with dolphins!”

Gooch grimaced, rolling his pupils towards the Benders with a wide, sweeping arc, bobbing his flat palm over the table top. “What the fuck?”

“They literally fuck dolphins, dude! Let dolphins fuck them, give em’ handjobs, suck their dolphin dicks, rub their dolphin titties. Part of their beliefs or whatever that says dolphins are highly evolved beings, Atlanteans or aliens or something. The dolphins swim right up to sex beach, where they all get their jollies, dolphins and my mom and her freaky new age pals. Every year, she and her friends charter a boat to this island where they have dolphin orgies. She asked if I wanted to do it but I draw the line at non-humans.”

“Really? Cos some of the guys I’ve seen you with have definitely blurred that line.”

“Fuck you, I’m no ho. Besides, all men are pigs and dogs so you have no point.”

“Aw, c’mon. Some of the guys I’ve seen you go home with…”

“Ha! If I need to get fucked in a bad way and I mix that with huge amounts of alcohol - which tends to happen when I really need to get fucked, excessive drinking - then yeah, I can say that my standards are pretty floor-level.”

“All men are pigs and dogs…”

“Except you and Flynn. And my dad. I’m still not sure about Flynn.”

“You guys have been together over a year!”

“Not quite ten months. You’d think by now I’d have my mind made up but there’s something about him… I just can’t put my finger on it.”

“He’s a good guy. He better be, I went into business with him. He hasn’t given me a reason not to trust him. My only complaint is I’m constantly picking up his slack at the brewery because he’s always off gallivanting with you. But I trust him, wholeheartedly.”

“And I’m not saying that I think he’d fuck you over, bro, I don’t think that at all. I think he’s all right that way. I’m just not sure how far I want to go with this, with him. You know what I mean? There’s just something… like a feeling that it’s not all there. And, it’s not like I’m going to break up with him over this… feeling that I can’t even grasp what it’s about… but I gotta tell you, I just know there’s something not right.”

Grace arrived with the bowls, tortilla basket and a fresh pot of coffee. “I’ll check those cups in a bit but you good for now?”

“We’re golden, darlin’,” Emma said, scooping up green gravy with a warm tortilla, her spoon coaxing chunks of pork and shredded poblano chilis into the flat bread’s curl.

Drenching his bowl with Tapatio, his voice dropped as he prepared her for the trip ahead. “Leo had dried some and invited us all down to try it out. Shit, we were halfway through a party bowl when it took effect, came on with a strong pot high and, about a minute later – boom. Powerball! We were fuuucked up. Didn’t know what the fuck. All of us lost. I mean, lost.”

Shoving massive amounts of Chile Verde into his mouth, Gooch appeared to search his brain for words, some way to express what had happened to him and the rest. “When it hit, it wasn’t like any other hallucinogen where you’re really high but you know that you’re high, you’re aware of yourself, the tripper who is tripping. Reality is experienced on a deeper level but it’s still reality that you’re in.” Pausing, he chewed up pan remainders as sauce dripped over his onion ring-sized lips and into his goatee. “With this shit, it makes your reality and you’re dropped in deep center of whatever reality was made for you. The universe spins and twists itself and suddenly, in those convolutions, you’re a whale fetus, in a whale womb, looking at the world in a completely different way.”

“And hopefully, that whale fetus isn’t getting boinked by one of my mom’s friends.”

He delayed his spit take by a second, roaring aloud when he could open his mouth. “You kill me, sistah… anyway, when we all found each other and came down enough so we could talk about what happened, the one thing we all agreed on was that we were completely outside of this reality, that whatever this reality is, it was no part of where we went, what we experienced. The most intense high any of us have ever had. We all agreed on that. And that’s in a room full of psychedelic rangers.”

“I’ve always said the best trips are like a super intense rollercoaster. You get up to the peak and you think you’re going to die, that you’re never coming back, and then whoosh,” her hand undulating like a belly dancer's gesture, “you’re having the ride of your life. Did you get any of that? I mean, was there ever a point where it totally scared the shit out of you?”

“No. As soon as it rolls over the pot high, it’s like well, this is where I’m at. You’re just there and any connection you had to this reality is gone. I became other things, organic and inorganic, and experienced their world through their eyes, experienced that suchness as it related to that world.”

“So you became like spirit animals? Familiars? Fetishes?”

“It’s impossible to explain. I don’t think it was like any of those. But as you know, I’m less spiritual about my dope than most people.”

“You’re less spiritual about everything,” she snorted, watching the breakfast rush in action, smiling at locals and tourists who caught her looking. The dining room was bustling, crowded, crackers everywhere, waitresses dressed in either red, white, or blue and working tables or the bar fronting the short-order kitchen. People waiting for a table milled idly in the lobby, spinning postcard racks, unfolding t-shirts, daring a spouse to hang this-here thing on that-there wall.

 “Does it change you at all?” she continued. ”Like how most psychedelics change you, you know? Afterwards, are you left with huge insights about the world, about your place in it? Did you come away with some huge life-changing realization?”

“I dunno.” his spoon clinking in the empty bowl as he collapsed into the booth. “Indian Leo said it was powerful medicine magic, his usual bruja-ha stuff, right? Said it gave you access to the other side or the in-between place or something. All I know is, if someone had been straight there, they might have seen me dry-humping the couch while I thought I was Charlie the Tuna or the Number 23. That’s all I can say about that, baby sister. I’m sorry.”

“Ha! Flynn’s like you,” her voice rose to emphasize her frustration. “Tight-lipped about it. Confused.”

 “I think we’re all still asking ourselves, me and Flynn and the Don and Leo, wondering if Powerball didn’t change reality itself. Or unsure if something didn’t come back with us, that reality hasn’t been tweaked in some way. Confusing, without a doubt. I feel ya. I just don’t have an answer for you as far as the high changes you.”

“I bet someone who never tripped, never experienced ego dissolution, I bet they’d say they changed, after they did it.”

“Maybe. You could be right. Make it an experiment. Your own little MK Ultra.”

“Torch an ounce in a New York City subway car, smoke everyone out, go all CIA on em and then herd em’ all into some room and ask if they were changed at all.” Emma was slurping in her breakfast, bright-eyed and energetic.

“Like when I shroomed for the first time, everything about me changed because I got in touch with something, something loving and in sync with the universe, the mystic. Into the Mystic, brah, overwhelmed by the energy of love, all the love in life mingled up like sweet berries in a pie. After that, I opened my mind more, quit fighting things that didn’t matter… really, life got easier. After the shrooms’ initial “what you think you are has no relation to reality” bit – the part that scares the shit out of everybody – that was the part that brought me love... comfort... let me know that it was okay to let go of my inner self, the selfish part, that ego thing that got hung up on drama and desires and petty-assed bullshit.”

Her gaze had drifted down to her bowl and spoon then shot across the room to catch a clutch of scrambling Cub Scouts raised the level of din in the dining room. “The part addicted to negative things. I realized life was too precious to waste on shit that interfered with the Soul of the World. Hell, I even stopped smoking cigs after that first trip. But the best part was that it let me focus on things that mattered: friends, family, you guys, snowboarding, the Dead, the breakfast we’re finishing, this town, just making the decision to be happy, always happy, even when shit goes down badly. I just left all my shit at the door, y’know? Let it all go, as best as I knew how.”

“Um, you still smoke cigarettes.”

“Only when I drink, ya dick. God, you can be such a turd.”

“With Powerball, I can’t say if there’s a change in me but I do feel like something was altered,” sotto voce, words hovering just above the table. “All of us who smoked, I think we all have a big question mark about what happened, we’re all suspended in disbelief.”

“Like how some people trip to get answers… it sounds like this stuff brings up questions.”

He nodded, indeed, “If there are any answers, I haven’t found them yet. But once I do, I bet they only say that beyond them, there’s a million more questions. That nothing was solved, that there’s an infinite number of possible solutions to any problem. Which is kinda’ like how the world works, anyway. So there’s no epiphany there. But something remains unfixed, dislodged. The Don said that he wondered if there are other universes where everything is like this but something’s slightly different. He said he wondered if he hadn’t returned to the universe where he started.”

“Wow, multiverses.” A cloud of doubt cast a shadow over her enthusiasm, blunted her glow. 

“That’s… intimidating, a little scary but also, kind of exciting. Anything else? Will I be psychologically damaged? Will I develop a melon-sized tumor?”

He locked his eyes on hers, their pupils a quartet of black holes dancing with a magnetic embrace. “It’s like nothing else I’ve ever tried. It doesn’t just fuck with you, it fucks with everything.”

“Flynn said he came down deep in the caves and only had his lighter to find his way back, that he could only hear you guys, the music and whatnot.”

“We had to turn on the lights for him, he went pretty far back there. The Don came down in the park bandshell where the usual bunch of people from the Mariner were smoking out. Afterwards, a buncha people said they saw The Don there, creeping around in the shadows but he ducked and hid when they called to him. The Don said that he could see them, sense them, but that he couldn’t reach them, that they were a level away from his dimension. He said that, The Don did. That they were a level away from his dimension. And Indian Leo… man, he said he was some Chinese woman at a banquet in Shanghai… and his usual Don Juan brujo babble but he did make us a nice breakfast the next morning.”

“Whoa, dude. I just considered this – is this a talisman to the other side? Oh, my mom would love that but you’d have to convince her to smoke first... which shouldn’t be too hard, frankly. She does a lot of Ayahuasca so it’s not like it’d be a huge stretch, y’know. Maybe she’d do it and become one of the cards in that tarot deck she designed and sells... The Fool…”

Her exclamation “Ha!” shot through the dining room like a pinball slapped hard off a flipper, dinging the attention of patrons, bounding off bumpers and posts. “Let’s get back into the mystic,” she commanded, stirring half-and-half into a refreshed cup. “I’m not convinced that you never had a spiritual experience when you shroomed. I mean, that’s just wrong. You’re like the only person I know who didn’t feel like they got in touch with the Godhead, the Creator, the sacred. Or something.”

“Well, that’s what happened. Or didn’t happen. Boomers don’t get me in touch with anything but cool visuals and some really deep thoughts.”

“Not you, big bro, no God for you. Did anything change for you?”

“Just that it made me think shrooms are a powerful psychological tool, that’s all. Heavy stuff, really heavy. And I get why people get spiritual on it, that they think they’re talking to God. Heavy… yeah.”

“Ahhh, yes, the Stoned Ape, the God is in the Mushroom. Entheogens, Terence McKenna. You know his stuff. First time I shroomed, my friend’s sister was visiting and she brought this huge sack of boomers. A bunch of us grabbed a handful, choked em’ down and tripped hard, cried, puked, saw God. Anyway, the sister was an anthropology major and was big into McKenna, told us she was doing an unofficial study, research. She brought a suitcase full of trip toys and had a video camera, handed out little tape recorders for everyone to talk into, share where they were at in their heads. That was so cool, dude, one of my all-time favorite experiences. It changed everything for me.”

“You walked with your god buddy or whatever? You became a believer?”

“Ha! I grew up Catholic, silly! I loved the Church! All that ritual and beauty, centuries of work done solely in the service of the Almighty. So much bigger than me, so much bigger than anything. Awesome. I mean, all that art, architecture, music, the perfect symbols for what it is. The beautiful, uplifting, transcendent. Passion for life, gratitude, love, LOVE! Ha! There’s no reason to do this whole trip if there’s no love in it, y’know?”

Emma’s big blue eyes reflected the bustle in Uncle Sam’s, small homunculi limned by her inner light. “And I’m always searching, refining my beliefs, finding the peace and love in my truth, a truth that’s always evolving… whether dosing at a Dead show and dancing my way to my spiritual peak or tripping with you today… wherever. In the Mariner or at the 3-D ranch, out in the woods, wherever there’s love, bro, it’s a power that guides us and leads us to something better.”

Gooch looked at his coffee, considered a refill, then pushed his cup to the edge of the table for one. “I get it, what you’re saying; I’m just not convinced it’s God or anything. Every time I’ve tripped, really, everything can be attributed to my own mind speaking to me, no matter how mysterious. Just a trick of consciousness, how particular chemicals trigger specific reactions in the brain, so-called God messages, shit like that. It’s curious, I grant you, but it’s ultimately explainable by neurobiology.”

“Really? Because what science there is on hallucinations doesn’t say anything about content, just processes. Because that content’s subjective and science doesn’t have the tools for quantifying that.” Closing her fists, she gave the table a quick thump. “It’s considered “noise” and handed over to the soft sciences. Anecdotal data, self-report measures, nothing the hard sciences seem interested in.”

She leaned in, lowering her voice, signaling her closed-fisted punch to the solar plexus of his argument. “You’re pinning your reductionist beliefs on skimpy evidence, brah. And you know that science and philosophy, they’re still clueless about what’s going on, as far as consciousness is concerned. You can look at graphs and MRIs and data sets all day and tell me where the brain is firing in response to certain stimuli but you have no idea about what tales those images tell. You don’t even know where to start. You know this, we read a lot of the same stuff, on the same newsgroups. Sci dot cognitive, alt dot drugs dot psychedelics, bionet neuroscience, et cetera. You’re in the threads, I see your sig file, your words."

With that, Emma was several steps ahead of Gooch. She had been his guide into the rabbit hole of the information age, sponsoring his netizenship on a counterfeit visa, his telnet connection via a student account on the School of Mines server. She’d tried to get him involved in FurryMUCK (a role-playing game that he found lurid and creepy) but it was in the twisted branches of Usenet where he got lost. In there he found an endless maze of threaded discussions, some leading nowhere, others breaking off into infinite subthreads for the finer details of the forgotten original topic. Sometimes, researchers reached across disciplines to ask interesting questions raised by the interactions of noise variables and sometimes, interesting answers resulted. Too often things just degraded into name-calling and accusations of pig fucking.

Usenet had been a daily read for her since high school; the day she showed Gooch where she spent her late nights was when their deeper friendship began, transcending skating and snowboarding for the pathways of the mind.

“I suppose you’re sparking up some nugget of folk psychology around which you’ve wound your own conception of consciousness?”

“You’re funny. You and your… mechanistic… materialistic… reductionistic… too-clever-by-a-syllogism pricks, your Churchlands and Richard Dawkinses. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, y’know?”

“Yeah, yeah. And, Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven, lil’ sis. Shakespeare is a fine appeal to authority but it only convinces me you’ve brushed up. Anyway, if consciousness isn’t neural activity, what then?”

“I never said consciousness wasn’t the result of brain states, dipshit. In fact, those states are responsible for what I’m talking about and your so-called eliminative materialists, the reductivists, they have no fucking clue about what happens after those neurons fire - “qualia” and other ten-cent terms that merely serve to muddy the waters so they can shrug their collective shoulders when asked about meaning, about the story.”

“Easy, little sister. OK, we can define consciousness but not explain it. At least beyond the theoretical.”

 “Maybe not.” Turning her cup between erect palms, she felt the coffee’s heat rising within her. “I think consciousness is a force. Like gravity or the strong and weak forces that bind subatomic particles. Ordered chaos, the constant interaction with quanta. Some people call it the soul or spirit but I’m thinking that it’s akin to the energies and forces that organize everything at the subatomic level. Science hasn’t located it, measured it but you know what? One hundred years ago, no one knew what the fuck a neutrino was either, much less quarks or tachyons or the rest. Dude, consider. There’s dark energy and dark matter but fuck me, no one’s ever seen or touched or even really measured it. Just math meant to tie everything together, explain inflation with ad hoc equations.”

Sighing, Emma leaned back and turned her face to the dining room, watching the Pogo Springs Baptist Bible Study group piling their Words and study guides on a tabletop backed by a large corner booth. “But that’s just my theory. My folk psychology. My intuition. And when we trip… well, that force or energy that self-organizes into thought – thoughts – gets granted access to worlds and universes that the everyday mind is shut out of except for like, yogis and enlightened beings and whatnot, shamans and shit.”

A shriek erupted from an eight-top of swingers who’d camped at Trixie’s and shamelessly groped one another. As both of them turned their heads towards the noise, Gooch couldn’t help but fall in love again, watching her watch with her forgiving and loving eyes.

Emma continued.  “Do I have an answer? I don’t think either of us do, at least as far as what consciousness is, beyond operational definitions. But I like my theory, about how it works and what it is.”

“If you’re willing to toss empiricism out the window along with all the bathwater and babies,” he sneered in a way that would have offended anyone else. “At least the mathematics for dark energy-slash-matter is sound and has the merit of explanatory value.” he balled up his fists then fanned his fingers out, a thing he did when he waited for his opponent’s next move (a habit he’d developed when his sister, Kris-Kris, whipped his ass in chess), wondering how Emma would respond to his logic. “So is this force, this energy, eternal? Like, was it there when the Big Bang occurred?”

“Dude, sometimes you can be dense. And a dick. It’s a force of process, emergence, organization.” Her thought stalled for a moment and she took a deep breath, partially to practice some patience but mostly to gather words for further explanation. “Did energy exist before the Big Bang? If it didn’t, what fueled the Big Bang? No one seems to know, right? Sure we can play that game. This force or energy that I’m saying consciousness is binds our thoughts, our mental states, and is shared by everything bro, everything. Just like everything shares all the particles and energies that we call totality, the universe. Everything participates because of it, everything has a vote in how the universe becomes whatever it’s going to become. Inorganic matter isn’t conscious but the forces, energies, particles, all that moving through things, packed with potential, effortless but with some level of intention, information, that’s the elemental constituencies of consciousness.”

Gooch had ripped open several sugar packets and dumped their contents, spreading the granules out on the table then drawing dots and lines in the mess with his finger. “So you’re saying that consciousness is a hitherto unidentified cosmic force, one that tells everything what to do?”

“What are subatomic particles but information? Information about particular physical states, about how those states interact with other particles and their states. Information that, science tells us, somehow transcends time and space, not constrained by the universal speed limit, 186,000 miles per second. So information already defies settled science. The possibilities… you grok, dude?”

Still way stoned, even after devouring a full bowl of chile verde and a handful of tortillas, Gooch was enjoying the sizzle and crackle of Emma’s incredible mind, her seemingly boundless font of knowledge, her vibrant intellect. “Yeah, I grok, baby sister. I get what you’re saying but I’m not positive I’m connecting the dots you’re throwing out. Microdots, I guess.”

“Like Jesus said, “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not... and, um… but I say unto you, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” I think that’s the gist, I can’t remember the whole thing but wow, dude, I loved that when I learned it in CCD. Say what you will about the man, he knew his shit. Unfortunately, his followers aren’t interested in his good shit, which is really too bad because we’d all be so much better off if they followed what he really said. Anyhoo, my conception of consciousness, it’s just about that information, expressed at various levels, down to subatomic particles and the forces that guide them, all tied in together and organized into understanding.”

“Therefore, eternal, you’re saying. Energy, matter, it can’t be destroyed, just changed.” Gooch was prepared to level her line of argument with his rabbit-punch of logic.

“That we know of, in our current conception of physics. Beside the point, bro. Say you fell into a black hole. Its gravity would shred you, turn you into a thin piece of spaghetti and keep ripping you apart, particle by particle, into the singularity, a place of infinite mass in an infinitely small space. The end, dude, you’re dead. But. The information contained in those particles, their individual states… that goes on, out into who the fuck knows where, other universes, other dimensions. The force of consciousness carries on. The soul or spirit or whatever.”

“I assume you won’t be trying out your black hole hypothesis any time soon,” hesmirked weakly, his look of incredulity. “But you also don’t have any evidence that would suggest why testing such a hypothesis would be a good idea.”

She leaned back, slathering the last tortilla with jelly. “Just strawberry and apple butter up in this place. Why don’t they have blackberry or something really delicious? Damn,” and she shoved half the round bread, folded into a triangle, into her mouth. “But what a way to go! A final run right into the center of a black hole! Whoo!”

 “Aldous Huxley did it right, I think. Injected with LSD, tripped on out of here while his wife read from The Tibetan Book of the Dead to him. I could do without the Buddhist stuff but I’d definitely go for the dose. Read TS Eliot, ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.’ Maybe listen to a mix tape as I tripped on out, “The End” by the Doors, “Death Disco” by PiL, some classical… not like, “Adagio for Strings” but maybe some Wagner.  Definitely Tom Waits, “Dirt in the Ground,” on the mix.”

Chewing on the last remnants of her jellied tortilla, Emma considered, brow furrowed, never a fan of death talk. “Lie down and die? Nah, not how I’d want to go, bro. I’d rather go off a cliff, watch myself heading towards the rock that’s going to take off my head, smash my skull like a melon. I want to be fully in this until I’m not, y’know? Like, ‘OK, it’s over,’ my world ending with a bang, no whimpering or sniveling or crying about it.”

He continued to play with the sugar he’d dumped out onto the table, drawing a logarithmic spiral that faded out with the dispersed crystals. “There’s a theory out there… I read it on one of the psychedelic newsgroups. The pineal gland floods the brain with a DMT analog at birth and at death, that they’re just examples of the pineal gland preparing the self, soul, consciousness, ego, whatever you want to call it, for all those journeys, here and the hereafter. So, if you believe that, Huxley just took it to another level. Not a bad way to go.”

She considered the last shreds of tortilla then snapped open another jelly packet and went about spreading processed red goop. “So here’s my question to you… why would the brain have evolved with that mechanism? Protocols that occur before the kill-switch engages? I mean, the opportunity to pass on that genetic advantage has passed. But it seems like all, or at least most, brains evolved that farewell film, our brief bio, “This Was Your Life,” the instantaneous remembrance of it all. The approach of beings past, the growing light, the floating above the scene and watching it all go down, flatlining and the furious effort to revive the corpse. I mean, what’s the purpose of all that? If it’s all just brain states and not information about particle states, energy, then why that, that soft parade of everything through darkness into light? Why do the credits roll at the end?”

She sparkled with confidence, glistening brightly in the early morning light that was breaking through Uncle Sam’s windows. Her glow reminded him of an angel etched into church glass, points of light radiating in a sparkling nimbus, an object of adoration and love. Primarily, he loved her because she was so smart, wicked smart, the smartest person he had ever known. While his sister was a mad genius (“Tetched special,” Gramps called Kris-Kris), she could not breeze through the world the way Emma did, could not travel certain paths with him as an enlightened companion, did not draw people to her with unassuming magnetism.

“... I had some dreams, there were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee,” her dulcet voice matching Carly’s as she sang along to the song playing on someone’s tableside jukebox. “You ready to get out of here?” she asked while tinkling her fingers at one of Billy’s boys, face red and snapping away when he saw she’d caught him staring. Timidly, he returned his gaze, hitching up eyebrows and the corners of a smile. Emma returned to watching the clouds in her coffee, satisfied that Gooch’s response would never come.

Gooch dropped a twenty on the table and picked up the ticket, leaving Emma to chat out a goodbye for the Benders. “Meet you at the door, baby girl.”

Patrons were three deep, waiting for the doddering relic at the register, Marilyn, to split checks, figure out change, recount bills, keep tabs straight, signifying to customers (but not Uncle Sam, almost as ancient as his cashier) that her addled brain had succumbed to plaques and tangles. Interwoven through the queue, people waiting for tables milled around with the friendly air of refugees gathered in an air raid shelter, biding their time by looking through the gift shop’s tchotchkes: Chinese-made souvenirs along with stacks of Pogo Springs postcards that featured scenes of Main street, mountains, forests, shark-sized trout, fur-bearing salmon, jackalopes, and various cartoons cards with crudely drawn mountain folk saying things Mormons or Mennonites might consider marginally off color.

Within that mass of down home Americana, Emma towered over everything. Having provided a quick but polite farewell to the Benders, she’d made her way to the gift shop, killing time handling kitsch while Gooch waited to pay.

A small, plastic outhouse contained a little boy who, when a quarter was inserted into a slot, slid out the crescent-mooned door with his tiny peepee in his hand to piss bourbon (or whatever filled the reservoir). Emma was fascinated by the concept, turning the vulgar toy in her hands. As she was about to return it to the shelf, a small but assured voice interrupted her amusement.

“You’re flying today, young lady,” not a question although Emma took it as such. An older black woman, birdlike and thin as a willow branch, sitting prim and erect on a seat between the machine that stamped pennies with a Pogo logo for fifty cents and bins of t-shirts emblazoned with the names of other places. African ebony, the old woman sat with a regal bearing, like the figure of a priestess carved from dark mahogany.

“No, ma’am,” Emma answered, perplexed, not quite sure what the woman was talking about and certain she’d never seen her before, thinking that maybe she could be with a church group staying in town.

“Sure you are!” the old woman continued, smiling, unwavering in her certitude. “You’re important! You’ll go somewhere few people go, that’s how important you are!”

“O… kay,” she replied, thinking, “Mmm-hmmm, this old bat is crazier than a rat in a coffee can.” She turned to see if Gooch was done and could rescue her.

“That’s right, someplace special and learn new things. And you’ll be fine, Emma!”

Shaken, shocked, Emma dropped the dispenser, shattering it on the floor. When she turned back to ask the woman how she knew her name, the old lady had disappeared, as though a spirit had been addressing her.

“...and, I’ll pay for that,” Gooch told Marilyn, flipping a couple more bills onto the counter.

“Aw, sweetie, don’t worry bout’ that old thing,” Marilyn replied in her gravelly, bourbon-and-Pall Mall voice. “That’s just Emma bein’ Emma.”

“Well, split it with Grace,” he said, not willing to let the breakage go unpaid for. “Have a couple of beers on me. Thanks, Marilyn.”

“Thank you, Mister Yamaguchi,” Marilyn said, shoving the twenties beneath the register. “And ya’ll have a wonderful day!”

Emma had returned to the dining room and Gooch had to grab her elbow to lead her out. “Let’s go,” he hissed, frustrated. “This place is a madhouse. Let’s hit the road.”

“Dude, did you see her? Did you hear that?” Emma was fidgety, amped, turning her head in all directions as she sought out the old woman, “That was fuckin’ insane, bro! She knew my name! She said I was going flying!”

“Well, you are if we ever get out the fuckin’ door. We’re going to need a plow to cut through these rednecks. Let’s go!”

“Man, I can’t believe you didn’t see her,” she almost shouted as she turned the key in the old Ford. “That was wild! A tiny, old black woman, really old… really black, dark-skinned. You didn’t see her? She was like the only black person in there! I mean, this is Pogo Springs, it’s not like D.C. or Detroit!”

“You’re black,” he murmured, Emma’s race almost never brought up between them.

“And white,” she shot back, babying the truck out of the parking lot and easing it the rest of the way down Main street. “Everyone seems to forget my whiteness, right? Except black folk. Whenever I get around them, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, that white girl,’ and I don’t fit in there, either.”

“Touché,” he answered, hoping the conversation would return to Emma’s apparition.

“Yeah, well, my race, my people, it doesn’t matter with Deadheads. Those are my people. There’s nowhere else in the world I feel the kind of unconditional love and acceptance as I do at a Dead show. My people. It doesn’t even matter if they’re not all that into the Dead. If they’re there, they’re part of it. Part of our family, our tribe, our love”

“That’s because they’re all trippin’ balls,” sneering, his overall disdain of the Dead and their fans no secret with Emma and her tribe.

Past the shadow of the highway overpass, Emma gunned the engine as soon as the truck took the turn that sent the frontage road ascending parallel to the main road’s on-ramp. One hand on the wheel, the other turning up the volume, she was singing along loudly, “... And when the day had ended, with rainbow colors blended, his mind remained unbended…”

Gooch turned a skeptical eye towards Emma then looked past her, through her window, to pasture land aglow with first light, golden grass hemmed in by the road and a ridge blanketed with pine, aspen, and oak. That land was where his grandfather had run cattle, a place where he'd played, rode his horse, hunted, laid down on winter wheat and imagined things in the clouds. Looking back to the road, he let his memories erase the reality of the land’s current disuse, where the grass was now given to barren patches dotted with prairie dog towns, stands of Canada thistle, rusting shells of dead machines, trailers slouched to the ground like crippled dinosaurs.

Emma’s brakes squealed where the frontage road met the highway. A semi blowing past as it sped out of the mountains towards the Huerfano basin, the rig unwinding after creeping down the serpentine road from Chi-Chi Pass. Tires spit gravel as she turned the truck to follow the semi for the five some miles where a forest service road would drop them at the trailhead for Trinity falls.

“Man, that totally tripped me out back there, that old woman. She knew me! Did you hear her?” Emma was shouting over the music, tapping her fingers in time.

“I didn’t see her but I heard you talking to someone, I dunno,” staring at the truck ahead. “Maybe something triggered a flashback, girl. You may need to tell your therapist about this.”

“Aw, c’mon bro, you don’t trust your baby sister?” she grinned then cranked the volume, just to annoy her non-Deadhead friend.

The state road where they turned doubled back towards the mountains, twisting through bare hills of pinon-spiked shale to where ponderosa forests draped themselves down a steep descent. About a quarter mile in, a jeep trail was blocked by a corrugated metal gate held with a loop of rusted barbed wire; past the gate, a rutted set of barren, parallel tracks almost straight to the wooded trailhead. There, blackberry brambles and crumbling shelves of black rock surrounded an area large enough for no more than three medium-sized vehicles. he jumped out to unlatch the gate, closing and re-latching it after she jerked her truck through.

“Abandon all hope,” he chuckled as he held the door with his elbow and rested a foot on the running board. Emma eased the truck up the path past deep divots and around bottom-scraping rocks, dropping gears into low for the final ascent into the trailhead’s primitive parking area.

“Let’s rock!” Emma roared, grabbing her canteen and daypack from the bed of the truck, slinging both over her broad shoulders. Gooch led the way up a trail slippery with loose gravel, held to the slope with bared roots that served as steps. Zig-zagging up the mountain side, the pathway was the best route up the incline but still demanded legs leaning in, bending, burning; the climb up to the north rim of Reyes canyon took about 20 minutes and all the breath a hiker had to give.

Neither spoke as they made the ascent, their thoughts succumbing to a type of mindfulness dictated by gulps of increasingly thin air. While either of them could have probably made the hike blindfolded, familiar as they were with the trail, both noted where the forest had rearranged itself or made additions: trees set at angles to mark the end of their lives, boulders moved with the force of snow or rain, piles of scat dumped unashamedly in the middle of the trail. It wasn’t until the path leveled out and the forest opened itself to the canyon’s rim that the trance was broken and thoughts returned to the business at hand - Powerball, psychedelic adventure, traversing the frontiers consciousness. The two walked fearlessly out to the tips of the Claw’s talons, peering over the edge, the toes of their shoes overhanging the rock beneath their feet.

“Big Bro. Let’s just smoke up here, I love this place. And, if what you’re saying it is how it is, we could get way lost up around the falls. At least here, we’re close to the exit, right? Whaddya think?”
“I think you’re ready to get high. Sure, let’s find a spot and do this.” Gooch turned his head and peered up where the canyon narrowed to a thin crack through the mountainside.

Silent and standing at the edge of their chosen talons of the Claw, both soaked in the vista and atmosphere, the echo of the distant falls delivered on an early-summer’s breeze with faint susurration. At almost eye-level, a pair of eagles balanced themselves on columns of air rooted in the creek on the canyon floor, wings tipping listlessly, effortlessly, each bird making languorous figure eights as they scanned the land beneath them. It was a testament to the wonder of evolution, eyes inconceivably keen such that they could hunt from so high, above waters mostly hidden by stands of aspen, willow, cottonwood, and cattails. The millions of years that honed that eyesight were briefly recorded in the striated lines striping the canyon walls, a thin strip among many more layers, a few pages in a massive book of the area’s geological history. From those pages, fossils often fell out of cliff faces and into piles at the edges of the canyon, many of which made their way onto shelves in the gift shops in town. Local legend claimed Loren Eisley spent some weeks combing Reyes canyon for fossils.

Their meditation over, the two walked back to the forest to a familiar spot under a boulder cleaved into halves, looking like a hoof of a giant, prehistoric ungulate. “Find your special spot, as Leo says,” Gooch sneered derisively as he usually did when referring to Indian Leo’s bric-a-brac native lore. Sitting on a tortoise shell of a rock, he reached into a side pocket of his daypack and pulled out an herb grinder, popping the top to reveal the small bud inside.

“Whoa, weird,” Emma gasped. The miniscule petals of the flower appeared sooty, such that the bud was almost black in color, prickled with bright red trichomes. “It looks like either the hottest pepper in the world or weed from hell.”

“Well, it’s not from hell but you might swear Satan had something to do with it after you smoke it,” he leered as he closed the cap on the grinder and began twisting the top. After several turns, he removed the cap and popped the ground bud into his palm, then grabbed his pipe and filled the bowl with the strange-looking weed. Graciously offering Emma first strike, she leaned into accept, raising and tipping pipe and lighter for the universal stoner’s gesture for “Cheers!” The Bic’s flame curled itself to the bowl and crackled. Almost as soon as she took the hit, a spasmodic cough sent an explosive cloud of blue smoke through the shade of the boulder.

“Holy shit,” she choked through a staccato hack, “that has got to be the worst tasting herb I’ve ever had… goddamnit, it better be good!” Passing the bowl to Gooch, she grimaced and gave a quick shudder.

“Yeah, it’s nasty as fuck but, in a few hits, you’ll forget all about the shit taste.” Gooch put the pipe to his lips and took several quick, measured pips to prevent a lung-shredding cough. Still, the smoke clawed its way up his windpipe with belligerence, tortured Kssk-kssk-kssks escaping his nose and throat. After letting loose what smoke remained, he passed the piece back to Emma with a demonic grin.

“I can feel the buzz, already,” she said, emulating Gooch’s cautious pull at the mouthpiece. “Pretty nice, really. Must be a creeper.”

“Oh, you’ll know when it hits. Rather, you won’t know, you’ll just be in it.”

“Whoa,” Emma said softly, before the final pass. “Fuckin’ A.”

Those were Emma’s final words to Gooch before telling him that it was time to fly and taking her leap into the canyon.

With infinite iterations of himself swept into the river of mirrors, he saw all of him tumbling back towards the trailhead. “Sweet baby sister,” he cried, “don’t die, don’t be dead, don’t fuckin’ leave me! Don’t,” he tripped on thoughts, words, all peeled deeply from an ancient iron bell within him, tolling with each tumble back to the truck. All around him the ground rippled, ripples becoming waves, whitecaps forming, foaming fingers gripping him and flipping him like a hapless swimmer overwhelmed by a riptide. Fighting to stay afloat in the storm-tossed sea of the world, he felt himself spiraling into an eddy, a vortex of dark space that sucked sky, trees, understory, and the entire world around him into a lightless black hole.

Surrounded by silence and absolute darkness, he shivered uncontrollably, feeling completely alone, existing only as a thought with no physical sensation, boundless and insubstantial. Shivers became vibrations multiplying through the dark space with increasing mass and volume. A buzzing began and he started to see again, lines culminating into a small point of light above him that grew to become another of the portals he’d seen when his trip first began.

The canyon floor was revealed there, alive and dynamic, ascendant to his place in the void, as though he was watching that world from below. Sheep moved slowly through an aspen grove and he could see their mouths pulling up grass with long, pink tongues, chewing slowly with intention; caddis flies floated listlessly above stands of willows gathered in elbows of the creek, tiny wings and bent pin bodies flitting towards the morning sun’s glare; trout fry swam against the stream’s current, their shiny backs reflecting against the shimmering creek face that obscured the sky above it; a gray bird swayed with the breeze on the branch of a Russian Olive bush, its mournful trill timorous, tremulous, tentative.

Darkness returned as a boulder passed over him, the watery sky above rushing from blue into black beneath the rock’s granite belly. Scuttling across the sandy bottom, brushing up bits of dead matter, he grabbed at debris with tiny claws, turning obsidian eyes to see if any contained splatter of Emma. His crawfish body continued twisting and turning along with the current, swept along by its rush, lobster glands seeking out the warmth of light, hoping to illuminate where his friend might have fallen.

“God, God, God, if she’s alive, I promise to believe in you. I’ll serve you. Please, please, make her alive, I’m praying now, praying to you. Now. Make her alive.” Against all principle, Gooch made his entreaty with a being he did not believe in, had refused to believe in for as long as he could remember, all for the sake of bringing back his dear Emma.

It was in the midst of that hallucinatory and emotional tempest that he heard a voice, a nearly imperceptible whisper spoken with the precise diction of an elderly elementary school teacher delivering directions for a standardized test.

“She’s not here. You need to look elsewhere, young man.”

Looking around, he saw no one and accepted the voice as just another feature of his trip. Until the voice spoke again.

“Go on now, you won’t find her here. You almost found her but she’s gone. I can’t help you, I can only help her and she’s not here for you.”

The whirl of the world stopped, slamming into him and nearly knocking his ass to the ground – his snowboarder instincts were all that kept him upright as he rooted himself where he stood. He considered what he’d just heard, the familiarity of a voice that was crocodiled, ridges and cracks where it had once run smooth.

“Who are you?” Gooch’s question hung in the void like a cartoon coyote who had run off solid ground but remained dangling in the air.

The world returned in motion, spinning, spiraling outwards around him, a thing of immense mass and gravity that could not be held or stopped. No longer a crawdad, searching for his love’s remains, but becoming who he had been before he’d been swept into the void, he watched his life being reassembled into something he could understand.

The keys were in the ignition. Reality kicked in again. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, what do I do? Where the fuck do I go? Oh, Emma….” He looked past the dashboard littered with bits of her life, unpaid tickets, temple bells, an empty cassette case, wool-lined gloves, Zig-Zag papers curled and yellowed from the sun, a warped copy of “Still Life With Woodpecker,” a red Marlboro box yawning cigarettes at the neck. Past wipers toothed with cracked rubber. Past the oxidation on the hood that spread from the center like a sunburst chrysanthemum. Past the low wall of shale that marked the end of the pullout where the truck was parked and into the pine needle pillows beneath the tall Ponderosas.

“Emma, where are you sweetie?”

Not knowing how he came to sit in behind the steering wheel, he considered driving into town for help but was too fucked up to walk much less commandeer Emma’s truck. The walk into the canyon where her body would be, 500 feet beneath the Claw and at least a 90-minute jog from the truck. The stream would need to be crossed at least a half dozen times. Paralyzed by indecision and the horror of her jump, he pounded the steering wheel with his palms, tears soaking his face, collecting like dew drops in the wiry strands of his beard. “What the fuck? What the fucking fuck? Goddammit Emma, Emma, Emma…”

Wanting little else than to lie down on the seat and cry himself into oblivion, he realized he had no more control over himself than he had over the way Powerball had shuffled the universe and dealt out random wild cards from its infinite deck. So maybe, he considered, she didn’t jump and was still wandering around the Claw, lost, searching him out. But the image of her stretching her arms wide and leaping was crystalline in its authenticity, more real than anything he’d experienced in this trip.

“Now go on. She’s not here,” the voice returned, stripping earthly context from reality. “Go look somewhere else.”

“...the other half found me stumbling around and drunk on burgundy wine,” the tape player shattered his thoughts as though someone had thrown a large rock through the windshield, the engine suddenly idling. Like it just happened on its own, there was no way he’d touched the key. Fumbling for the cassette deck’s knobs, he watched his hand disappear into the dash as though it lacked mass or substance, sensation even, an immaterial thing just inches from him. Outside the truck, the mountain and trees pivoted, the world turning on a spindle, the turnout giving way to the meadow and the rutted path back to the gate. Gooch watched the speedometer needle bounce back and forth, wind tumbling the dashboard trash and debris so that everything danced against the windshield, swirling in time to the music.

“I’ll get up and fly away….”

Horrified, Gooch knew he was tripping far too hard to drive but the world tumbled by like a long freight train, everything roaring and rumbling.

“I’ll get up and fly away…”

Before him, the gate exploded into shards of ripped metal with a deafening clash. The sound shaking the air, echoes rippling through the cab as the truck sped towards the forest service road. In the distance, stone slices of the earth stabbed the sky like the stiff fingers of gloves studded with pitched pine.

“Fly away….”

Emma in the air, arms open. The canyon waiting with an open maw, its mouth jagged with stones like the teeth of dinosaurs. Soaring out into the space beyond The Claw and then, falling. Gone. No more.

Crows gathered at the turn, waving him on, swooping down from telephone poles or shooting off from fence posts, to laugh at him and then spin away into vortices of black dots. Gripping the wheel, he tried stomping on the brake but experienced everything in the cab as a separate reality, one unresponsive to his physical appeals. With Forest Service road running out as it closed in on the highway, he considered his options: continue on and risk himself and others or jump out and let the truck find its own way home. Opting for the former, he pressed his shoulder against the door as he reached for the latch, fearing another encounter with an immovable object immutable to his force.

Immediately, he found himself standing on the side of the highway, the truck idling and listing slightly on the shoulder, the driver-side door flapping out like a steadying hand. The truck was pointed towards town, “She's got everything delightful, she's got everything I need, a breeze in the pines and the sun and bright moonlight,” poured out over the sputtering of the motor.

Looking towards the meadows and mountains past the other side of the highway, he hoped he’d find Emma swooping over the jagged horizon, flying as she’d said she would, soaring with a heart wide open.

“...sunshine daydream... walking in the tall trees… going where the wind goes... blooming like a red rose... sunshine daydream…”

Instead, mountains rolled like waves and trees pinwheeled themselves into the late-morning sky
There was no doubt in his mind that the truck and the trip were in control, that he’d land wherever the hallucinations would take him. Looking around one more time, as though the love of his life would shimmer up from the false ponds forming on the highway, he again felt his grief rising up like some convulsion of the earth, rock and magma and ash blasting forth to blacken the sky. Within that conflagration, he lost the thought of her, what she had meant to him, her delirious laugh when she spilled off her snowboard, whimsy and joi de vivre (as she’d say) as pure as fresh powder. Stinging tears, the burn of them blinding him as the truck continued on its way, carrying him along toward town, “...think this through with me, let me know your mind…”

“Wo, oh, what I want to know-oh, is are you kind,” he choked out, his voice trembling through a feeble smile, singing along to Emma’s bootleg without prejudice, beside himself. It was Emma’s tape, after all, something to hold on to like a flower from a burial bouquet, the lyrics scrawled large on the walls of his interior. Almost as long as he could remember, there was no escaping the Dead, their music and ethos deeply rooted in his being whether he wanted it or not - almost everyone he knew was either a full-fledged Deadhead or was into the scene. In that moment, as the music momentarily lifted the shroud of grief from his eyes, he had a flash of satori, saw what others got from the music. He’d given himself to ask for Emma back, why not make peace with the Dead? Lifted a little, he thought of the irony, Emma grateful, Emma dead. He almost laughed as he and the truck continued down the highway, headed back to town.

The trip continued as a gun shot-peppered green and white CDOT sign announced “Pogo Springs” with a right-pointing arrow. Just beyond, his grandfather’s old pasture land gently ascended into pines, now a playpen where Nazi skinheads pretended to be soldiers, goose-stepping and Sieg-heiling each other. As the truck took the turn, he looked for a moment at the garish sign that greeted everyone who stumbled into town, a cartoon Indian splashing into a pool and making a rainbow with, “Welcome to Magical Pogo Springs” awkwardly arced above the three feathers poking out of the cannonballers head.

Before him, the road and surrounding features took on the grainy look of an old art film, as though projected on the windshield, the sides of the truck as dark as a black box. “Love is love and not fade away…” roared through the cab as all light escaped beneath the shadow of the bridge, then returned with the blinding flash of overexposure. Uncle Sam’s and the rest of the town’s ramshackle structures emerged through the glare, like Eskimo ghosts on an ice floe. The scene was erratic, jostled, stores and houses coming into the frame then lost to the chaotic motion of a handheld camera while “Not Fade Away” segued into “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Sobbing, he gripped the steering wheel with force, hanging on to it as a life preserver more than to pilot anything. The camera panned and everything blurred, the truck turning up a steep side road next to the “Johnny Cash Wash & Dry” laundromat. Grainy black asphalt filled the screen, the world black and gray, pockmarked and scratched, bold Helvetica letters blaring the words “DEATH AWAITS YOU” that drifted up and away. As the truck stopped and “...not fade away...not fade away...not fade away…” filled the cab, “FIN” flashed on the screen.

The house lights went up. The film was over.

Pressing his head against the steering wheel, he sobbed, “Emma… Emma… Emma…” through clenched teeth and eyes shut tight, raging, wound up, trying to squeeze out the reality that confronted him through the bold hallucinations that held him captive.

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