Light, Time, and Gravity (VI)
When you hang in the high gloom, everything is illuminated from below.
Truth is just theory with a handgun.
Sometimes it’s the universe that shoots you. Sometimes it’s the theorist (or more embarrassing yet, a fucking disciple).
I had learned my lesson. By this time I was keeping two books, one to show my in-group authorities, the other to pursue my own crackpot inclinations. I had gradually adopted a thoroughly sociopathic stance toward my academic career, submitting everything to ad hoc analyses of cost and benefit. I read the ‘names’ I needed to read to play and win the game–I even pretended to believe. I jumped on the Frankfurt bandwagon, began smoking Adorno, Marcuse, and poor, plodding Habermas. I started trashing Derrida every chance I could: deconstruction, I began complaining, was nothing but negative dialectics starved into an empty formalism.
I scaled back my dissertation: instead of offering something new as my theoretical tertium quid, I decided to offer something old, or I should say, someone: Herman Melville. I adopted a kind of revenge motif: rather than use contemporary theory to interpret Melville, I would use Melville to interpret contemporary theory. Of course I never mentioned this inversion outright, figuring that my committee members would be impressed the degree to which they owned this observation…
“Simply brilliant,” one of them remarked.
“Thank you,” was my faux-surprised, aw-shucks reply. “But I’m not… quite… sure…”
“This… this… inversion of the interpretative relation between theory and narrativ–”
“Yes!” another chimed in. “I was thinking the same thing. It completely reverses the typical power relation: usually narrative occupies the object position… But what you’re do–”
“You mean subject position. Usually narrative occu–”
“No-no. That’s not what I mea–”
“Interesting implications for gender as well, I think, anyway.”
That pretty much sealed the deal, even though philosophically speaking, the project was a total mess. It was interesting enough, I suppose, to interpret Derrida’s metaphysics of presence as the white whale, or to use Bartleby to theorize the problematic relation between representation and repetition in Freud, but I could never shake the feeling of institutional coercion–even betrayal. Compared to my prior project, this was little more than a gimmick, a skate-board stunt. So of course they were falling over themselves to own it.
“All I’m trying to do,” I said, “is to place theoretical and narrative cognition on the same obstacle course, and see, not so much who wins the race–because I think they have different finish lines–but how they fare when confronted with similar obstructions.”
‘Cognitive’ was a word that I had begun using with more and more frequency over the preceding months. I had never forgotten that argument with the nihilist, even though I had yet to take any of his questions to heart. Instead, I did what most all of us do when we find our beliefs genuinely threatened: I reinterpreted the threat into something I could use to theoretically intimidate others. (I say genuinely threatened because of the well-known (in cognitive psychological circles, at least) phenomena of belief polarization).
‘Cognitive’ pricked quite a few ears, hearkening as it did to an alien and largely antagonistic theoretical tradition: the much-maligned and even more feared Analytic Philosophy. I may have looked like I belonged, but that word… All I need do is speak it, and a good number of my interlocutors would begin speaking in slow motion, parsing their replies with almost ludicrous care. Every one knows you need to be secretive around someone with secrets.
For all they knew, I could be a dreaded Quinean.
Harvest was harvest. Periodically the guys would joke about picking cancer, but no one took this seriously. They picked their leaves and smoked their cigarettes and ignored the long transformative chain between. The thing about vast industrial articulations is that they’re too big to be seen, and what can’t be seen can’t be blamed, let alone held accountable.
Shrug your shoulders. Light another smoke.
People live in Middle-earth, both in Tolkien’s and in Dawkin’s sense. Too big to see microbes, let alone sub-atomic particles. Too ephemeral to see evolution or plate tectonics. Too small to see climate, let alone crashing galaxies. Too long-lived to see quantum or relativistic effects. We dwell among fractions, which we confuse for whole numbers. Our history becomes the whole of history, the fossil record be damned. Our truth becomes the only truth, the nay-sayers be damned. Our awareness  becomes the whole of existence, the inconsistencies forgotten, or even worse, fetishized.
Psychology becomes cosmology. Magic crawls into the space between the leaf and the cigarette.
We call it God, not because we hate hanging in the dark, but because people fence our every other horizon. Why not the big one as well?
 It is the misapprehension called consciousness.
Dylan saw the crew in the morning, and then saw them again during clean-up at the end of the day, but disgust and exhaustion typically made these silent, staring-off-into-the-distance affairs. Lunch was his only window on what was happening in the fields. He found himself wary of Cutter, as though part of him understood the circumstantial nature of his friendships. He found himself curious as well: he had ascribed too many envied attributes to Cutter not to wonder how the man would fair in complicated social situations.
The shark-smiling man flourished–no surprise there. At lunch, Kyle would return with the pickup and the boat loaded with the others, skin and clothes blackened, looking for all the world like a band of Guatemalan insurgents. If the morning had been really wet, a couple of them would still be wearing their rain pants. All of them except Gilles sported grimy caps. They would all file into the bunkhouse, the long room on the side of the main barn where Jerry had installed all their beds. Some prior conversation would be rekindled the instant they pulled up to the table with their beers. No matter what the subject matter was, Cutter would always occupy one of the discussion’s poles, cracking jokes or firing questions. He had this way of orchestrating conversations so as to include those who might otherwise remain stranded at the perimeter.
Dylan’s fear was that he would be deemed “one of the girls” simply because he was stuck with them all day. That first lunch break he hunkered down alone on the sunny side of the kiln’s foundation, not wanting to hang with the chicks, and assuming he would be forgotten by the others. It’s actually an intoxicating feeling, the assumption of social exclusion–as opposed to the fact of it. Just you, the bugs, and the ticking silence of cooling machinery. Dylan appreciated solitude the way asthmatic runners appreciated breathers–as an honest reprieve from his aspirations. His legs kicked out, he sat, chewing on his peanut butter and banana sandwich, washing it down with a crisp can of Coke, gazing at things near and far. He soaked in his loneliness as if it were a tub of cool water.
Sure enough, Cutter appeared around the corner looking at him with pained mirth. “What the fuck are you doing?”
The man held out a one-grammer of oil between gum-stained fingers. “This is lunch, my friend. C’mon.”
And like that, Dylan became one of the druggie-drinking crew.
Perhaps this wasn’t so much of a shock, given that he was a ready-made confederate of Cutter’s, someone the man trusted to have in his corner. The surprise was the way Cutter went out of his way to carve out a place of privilege for Dylan.
All the man had to do was mention Missy, and the comments and questions came piling in. He became the excuse, the occasion. Of course, they would have had these conversations without him, but the fact that Dylan glimpsed Missy every time he grabbed another stick from the elevator leant their imaginings–how they would fuck her this way and that–a daring near-reality. The combination of Cutter, Missy, and his obvious wit instantly cemented his position as “one of us.”
After that first lunch he could count on smiles and jokes from almost everyone on the farm. The reasons mattered not at all.
Language is the most violent and miraculous form of memory. With each word our past is hacked into fragments, then welded into new forms, new angles, new lines on the Absolute.
With language we can take what happened to us and manufacture memories for the world.
Good and bad.
The ‘bunkhouse’ smelled of dust, wood, and ripe socks. It was a long low room attached to the equipment barn. After the last of the autumn chores were completed and winter began to close in, tobacco farmers would begin “stripping,” a process where they removed all the cured tobacco from the sticks, sifted through leaves according to varying grades of quality, then compressed the sorted product into bales that would then be brought to market for auction. The bunkhouse was simply the stripping room made habitable: three bunks set against opposing walls, a long counter with two hotplates, and a huge table set in the centre. Aside from the mat at the entrance, only a lime-green rug covered the bare cement floor. Tittie, hair-band, and gear-pig posters adorned the chip-board walls. Beaten suitcases and rucksacks had been heaped against the foot and head of the bunks. Everywhere you looked you saw empty beer bottles: lots of Canadian and Fifty, interspersed with the odd Labatt’s Crystal–the brand Buke was always pitching to the others. Since there was an even split between the Player’s Light and DuMaurier smokers, the ashtrays were always packed with white and orange filters.
With Dylan in tow, Cutter waltzed in while explaining the provenance of his one-grammer: in those days spinning stories about your drugs was the small-talk mode of choice. Only three of the others, Thierry, Kyle, and Long Tom, were already sitting, sucking on frosty bottles of beer. The others were still cleaning up. “Hey, boys,” Cutter said negligently as he pulled out a chair. “You remember Weirdsma here…”
As innocuous as this moment might seem, Dylan actually learned a lesson he would hold tight for the rest of his days: When it comes to people, act as if, and it will be.
The two Indians simply nodded, smiling. Thierry reached out to shake his hand, grinning at him the way you might grin at a stupid dog or a mental retard. “‘ello,” he said, his grip veiny and strong. At that moment Gilles strode from the small bathroom trailing a cloud of soap-smelling steam, drawing a comb through his wet hair.
“Whaddafuck, man. I need a toke.”
“You shower?” Cutter cried.
Thierry jerked his head up and down in a silent hee-hee. “Alweeez!”
“See?” Kyle said, a wary kind of humour on his face. “I told you he spoke English.”
Thierry turned to him. “Alweez!” he cried nodding. “Alweez showur, dat fucking guy.”
Gilles snapped something at him in French–there was something at once mercurial and effeminate about his temper. Thierry simply smiled at him like he was crazy, turned to the others and laughed. “Fucking crazeee! Dat guy…”
“Toke!” Gilles shouted, pulling a chair close to the table.
While they tried to figure out which of the empty beers was the bottle-toker, the screen-door swung wide and crashed behind them. Buke and Jerry sauntered in, jawing on about dump-trucks bigger than houses. Everyone at the table fell silent. Dylan saw Kyle glance at the one-grammar standing like a bullet on the table, then shoot Cutter a look of warning. Cutter simply grinned and shook his head.
“First toke for the boss man?” he called to Jerry over his shoulder.
Their talk took on that careful, boss-is-listening tone that Dylan would hear and use so often over the rest of his life. Jerry peppered them with several just-asking questions: Was the boat truck starting reliably, Kyle? Did Thierry understand that he needed to take at least three leaves, eh, Gilles? Twoi. Dylan, meanwhile, watched Cutter steer Jerry his bottle-toke. The glob he pulled was so big it almost put out his cigarette. He dipped the heater in the small hole at the bottom of the bottle, which almost instantly turned grey.
“That’ll be kife,” Dylan warned him in a murmur.
Cutter simply blinked at him in the course of saying, to no one in particular, “Looks like we’re kicking some ass in Los Angeles…”
This triggered the inevitable debate about whether this Olympics was more or less “real” because of the commie boycott.
Cutter nonchalantly handed a smiling, still standing Jerry the bottle in the midst of the controversy. The voices may have continued their previous trajectories, but for a split second, all eyes clicked to the big man. He had no choice but to inhale “with authority,” as the saying went. He sucked the Now white bottle clear with single quick breath, then began hacking like a drowning victim.
“Owich!” Cutter cried. “Sorry about that, Jerr.” He glanced at Dylan, wagged his eyes at heaven. The rest of the crew laughed in the tippytoe way of children laughing at an abusive father.
Cruelty flickered from voice to voice. Cruelty and celebration.
Jerry persisted for about a week before giving up. Conspicuous for being clean, he would stand with his beer rather than sit, glancing at his watch every-time he took a drink. After a half-an-hour would pass he would say something like, “Okay, boyzzz! We’re burning daylight, here…”
This was what was called ‘pulling a heavy,’ the phrase everyone used to denote the exercise of social authority–or pretty much any comment that popped the good times balloon. Given his sensibilities, Dylan found these moments almost unbearable, primarily because of the farcical way Jerry struggled to make his heavies sound light. His just-another-guy-joking tone. His bouncing yah-yah gaze.
The crew would drag their asses from the table… eventually. It was the “whatever” character of this ‘eventually’ that pinned and needled Dylan the most, the collective insinuation buried within it. There was no point to it, no relevant grievance real or imagined, since everyone, if asked, would agree that longer lunches made for longer days; they were paid by the kiln, after all. Sad fact is, we like punishing people between the seams of our daily routines. We pack far too much truth in those split-second lags.
Then, on their first working Sunday, after some five days of finishing later than 6PM, the resentment that had been brewing finally bubbled into some ‘friendly’ questions.
“Hey, Jerr,” Kyle asked, “how many leaves you put on a stick?”
“Depends-dependzzz,” the big man said smiling in his all-the-world-loves-me, rosy-lipped way.
“How often do you check?” Cutter asked, looking up as though trying to glimpse his bangs. His hair was kinked and short.
“They feel alright to me,” Dylan said, giving in to some reluctant instinct to defend his boss.
“Aw, it’s okay, boys.” Jerry said. “Things will pick up once everyone gets the hang of things.”
“Something’s fucked up…” Kyle again.
“How often you count?” Gilles said with a frown that seemed unique to his puffy handsome-face, a look that suggested unpleasant odors as much as disapproving thoughts. “Da leefs? You count dem much?”
“Not so long as Ballard’s running the show,” Jerry cackled. He was obviously uncomfortable Now.
“Something, man,” Kyle said with a strangely nervous roll of the eyes across Jerry and beyond. “This working into dark is fucked up… It’s not right.”
“You should crank that,” Jerry said, rolling his head to the tune warbling out of the radio: Van Halen’s “Teacher.”
No one moved.
Rachel and I met in a graduate seminar on Chaucer and post-structuralism during the third year of my PhD. Fucking Chaucer. Who would have known the pompous pilgrim had a thing for promiscuous signifiers?
After we slept together for the first time, Rachel told me that I had frightened her when she first noticed me. Apparently she had turned around to watch someone else responding to a question and caught me staring directly at her. Rather than break eye contact in embarrassment, however, I kept staring at her, with an almost psychotic intensity.
“I was looking over my shoulder all the way home!” she said in gushing confession. “I literally thought you were a psychopath or something… that you wanted to rape and murder me!”
I still have no idea what the hell she was talking about. Not the slightest recollection. But the fact that she believed it had happened and had let me into her pants anyway should have warned me away.
So we got married.
At the time, of course, we got married because we had finally found someone who ‘understood,’ who was compassionate and funny and brilliant and good-looking and whom we could talk-and-talk-and-talk to without ever running out of things to say. At the time we got married because it just made so much sense, splitting the costs, the chores, the friends–you name it. We got married because we were having fun and I was so fucking convincing, especially when I was dead wrong.
I had a theory for everything. Even then.
It was a small civil ceremony, the kind that seems surreal for being so bureaucratically aerodynamic. Everyone stood motionless, yet I felt like I was watching something about gliding thermals on IMAX.
Her mother flew in from Vancouver, where she was some kind of producer for the CBC. I remember we had this conversation at Swiss Chalet about why the Chinese could only develop technology so far before handing the baton to Europe. I realized then that she didn’t like me: apparently I was white trash–even though she had been the one angling at racial explanations for the Triumph of the West. She went straight back to the hotel afterward, begging jet-lag. Afterward Rachel told me they had been chased out of their old neighbourhood because of the influx of Hong Kong Chinese.
The following morning, the day of the ceremony, she finally came over to the apartment, a small, second-floor two-bedroom on Elias street. She looked brisk and smart, with the streamlined airs and attitudes you so often see on television. We took her to see the bedroom–a tense moment. “Yes, Margaret, this is where I feed it to your daughter… Right there. She likes to bite that corner of the pillow.”
Even though I never uttered a word of this, I’m quite certain this was what she heard.
All I said was, “Lot’s of light from the window…”
She stepped before the glowing rectangle, peering against the morning glare. Rachel and I joined her.
The house directly across from us was owned by this big-smiling, big-talking Jamaican that everyone called Smiles. He didn’t give a flying fuck who he rented rooms out to so long as he was paid: the place had become a Loadie Shelter as a result, a refuge from the cruelty and violence of a world that demanded sobriety, self-restraint, and a modicum of long-term strategic thinking. I didn’t mind it so much, but Rachel was out-and-out terrified of the place and its transient denizens.
At that instant, the three of us gazing down from our window, Smiles’s screen door exploded open on a lung-cracking “FUCK!” This shirtless red-haired guy staggered out onto the porch, teetered for a moment, then pulled out his dick and began pissing over the rail. He had his head craned around, chin on shoulder, and seemed to mumbling something to someone unseen. I remember that a bolt of sunlight managed to capture the disorderly arc of his piss, so that it glittered like magic before disappearing into the weedy shadows.
I almost laughed–I should have laughed.
Margaret simply turned away, acting for all the world as if the incident was apiece with everything else she had seen. “Romantic,” she said drily.
I already had a low opinion of Margaret, thanks to Rachel and all of her Mommy stories. I already knew that the ferocity of her judgements had everything to do with the ferocity of her appearance, that she was someone who was continually warring to be someone. Treat yourself with enough fascistic cruelty, and you can’t help but treat your loved ones the same. She possessed, I was later to find out, a veritable library of self-help books. The same way Christians use their self-abasement before God and Christ to leverage their comical self-righteousness, she used her ‘open-mindedness’ to New Age hacks to warrant her pompous insensitivity toward her daughter. Every time she mentioned the word ‘humility,’ I found myself hearing ‘humiliation.’
We hated each other instantly, it seemed. It was a visceral, atavistic recognition, as if the demons that possessed us had battled across the ages. Only years afterward would I realize the sordid truth: that we both possessed predatory, insecurity-fed personalities, and that Rachel was simply the last toy in the sandbox. It was a good old-fashioned competition of interests with nary a market to facilitate any equitable solution.
Someone was going to lose.
At some level I understood that war had been declared long before she had left Vancouver, that she was really just foraging for ammunition. She already knew that I was trash: all she needed was evidence.
This explains the stew of contradictory attitudes that accompanied our silent trundle down the stairs out to the sidewalk. Margaret cold and vindicated. Me bewildered. Rachel cold and inscrutable.
I found myself frowning at the rooming house as we crossed the street, wondering how I could suddenly feel ashamed of something I had told so many stories about–a house filled with all the characters I had been taught to cherish and celebrate from a safe distance. I remember thinking you had to dress losers in ink before you could think them beautiful. They horrify you in the nude, bring you face to face with all those aeons of social evolution, to the good ole days when thoughtless bigotry paid real reproductive dividends.
I was relegated to the back seat of Margaret’s rental. Just as I pulled open the door, I heard
“Fucking Weirdsma! Hee-heeee!”
All three of us turned to the rooming house, saw a figure lurch upright from the garden beneath the porch…
It was the redhead who had taken a piss not more than twenty minutes before.
“Nooo. Fucking. Waaaay, man!” he cried, speaking as if his vocal chords had a whammy-bar and speech were an instrument best played at the throaty edge of distortion. We stood dumbstruck. He crawled to his hands and knees, then staggered to his feet. He was sun-burned in that wincing, freckled way. His eyes were inflamed slits, his mouth mealy with a slurred grin. Grass cuttings adhered to his outline, and hooks of dirt blackened his jeans.
“Whaddafuck you sayinngg, man?”
He had that scrapper-scumbag build, lean and broad-shouldered: for Rachel and Margaret, I’m sure he looked like some kind of Viking nightmare.
But it was just Todd Stewart, this kid we used to tease in grade nine because of his name, only to cut him a berth once he proved himself a hardcore asskicker. He became a ‘buddy’ in the way of overlapping secondary school coalitions, a guy you never made plans with, but found yourself bumping into on a regular basis–and glad for it, simply because he was such a fucking dervish with his fists.
We always called him ‘Re-Todd,’ for obvious reasons. No one but no one fucked with you when Re-Todd was around. When he was 16, Dylan once watched him pound the shit out of this drunk behind Eddies, this old bar in St. Thomas. Dylan had gone home shaking, convinced he had witnessed a murder. The next morning he purchased his first newspaper, convinced he would find some salacious headline–RE-TODD MURDERS RETARD–and terrified he would be charged as an accessory, but there wasn’t so much as blip.
Todd was not to be trifled with, especially when he was blotto. Blowing him off was not an option. No one wants to get their ass kicked period, let alone by a Re-Todd.
So Dylan did the only thing he could. He stepped up to shake his hand, thumb-grip style. Todd was one of those guys who always liked to grab your hand high, so that you had no grip, while he could break your thumb if he wanted to. It was simply the headbanger version of those older guys who grabbed your fingers when shaking hands: the traditional way to make you feel effeminate.
I introduced him to Rachel and Margaret, then told him that I was about to get married, hoping to jar a little dignity loose in him. He kept shaking my thumb, saying “Cungratch, man! Cungratch! Fucking married! Whoa! Too fucking much! Are you fucking kidding me!”
As strange as this might sound, this was the first time I had seen anyone with a ring through their nipple. It looked particularly graphic with Todd simply because his nipples were so Hello-Kitty pink.
I finally managed to disengage my hand. He followed me to the car door. He made a cartoonhish oh-aren’t-we-high-and-mighty-face? at the girls as they hastily jumped in the front.
“You banging that,” he cried in a false whisper, laughing and grinning like he had just met the Prime Minister and farted while shaking his hand. “Fuck, Dylan! You did awwwllright, man!”
It would be hard to explain the feeling in my throat: the kind of torsion that only warring social facts can produce. These are the moments that make plain the looping lines that locate you in social space–and reveal your lack of substance.
“See ya around, Todd. Peace out, brother.”
“Oooooow! Cungratchululations…” An instant of thick-tongued rage, bent into a sneering grin. “Yeaaaah, Motherfucker!”
Shame, you see, is just one of those impossible-to-hide-things, like smoke or a pungent smell: even total drunks can sense it. Todd made as if to wave, but began playing air guitar as we floated, then whisked away. He never bothered shooting me the finger. He didn’t need to.
We had breakfast at Mickey D’s–no one had the wind for anything more sophisticated. I kept waiting for either woman to mention the incident directly. Neither did.
They spent the whole time talking about the importance of University.
“Ooh. That does sound interesting… What about you, Dylan?”
They’ve installed screens and VDPs in the classrooms, with jacks I can connect my computer to. I rarely use them. All I seem to do is talk anymore.
The sun shines through tall Edwardian windows, throwing three oblongs of sunlight across the rows. My students cluster in the far corners of the room to avoid them, but there’s always a stubborn few, young with beauty, beautiful with youth, sitting in the light. The sun enamels them, dims colour into shadow.
They squint at me, wondering why they should care.
Who is this salesman cum preacher? This gantry?
You need to buy this special, abrasive soap to clean up afterward. Sand-soap, they call it. And even then you can still see it, faint in the whorls of your skin. The residue.
Nothing stains quite so deeply, so stubbornly, as the fields.
Generally you worked rain or shine in tobacco–thunderstorms were the only exception, since lightening was a real danger. The first thunderstorm rolled in, conveniently enough, before they hit the fields, and more importantly, the day after payday.
Which meant that Long Tom had acid.
It’s hard to think of a drug more aptly named than acid, with the possible exception of crack.
The great and horrible thing about dropping acid is that the world always comes along for the ride. Sometimes it unfurls before you like an exquisite rug, allowing you see the beauty in the weave of inanities that comprise our lives. Sometimes you carry it on your back, and you have this sense that if you stand and shrug hard enough it will slip to your waist, become something you can climb out of like a wading pool. Sometimes it baits and dogs you, barks and snaps like a thing with a million vicious heads.
But mostly it follows you around like a portable cage.
Dylan liked to grab the bars and rattle.
You laugh a lot. You read minds  from faces. You can feel the neural circuits sizzle. And if the acid is good enough, you drink and drink to keep the beast down. Since it holds consciousness up by the scruff of the neck, you can punish yourself with quantities of booze and dope that would send you crashing to the mat otherwise .
Acid was to be respected.
Circumstances had to be controlled: if the world is going to get fried with you, you want to make sure you bring the right kind of world with you.
First and foremost, assholes had to be policed: Nothing was worse than finding yourself trapped with an asshole on acid. The problem with acid is that you end up thinking faster than you can think, which isn’t nearly as impossible as it sounds. Like dope, acid left a stone-cold sober version of you intact. No matter how mad the madness, there you would be, here, watching yourself race from moment to moment, too far after-the-fact to really get a handle on anything. This made any form of provocation dangerous in the extreme, because you tended to react with alarming speed. The sober part of you would watch with horror as your words and emotions–and sometimes even fists–sprinted far ahead.
Supplies needed to stockpiled: the only thing worse than dealing with an asshole, was running out of booze while on some particularly potent acid. “Blotter,” which was simply a small square of paper that had been soaked in LSD, was always a kind of gamble because you never knew exactly how much acid you were taking. Maybe the biker with the eye-dropper had a periodic tremor, or even worse, a diabolic sense of humour. With acid, quantity control was always as dicey an issue as quality control. You could take one hit and find yourself riding five. And when that happened, pray-pray-pray that you had enough beer or whiskey or what-have-you on hand to blanket the crashing edges.
Moods needed to be controlled: moods were contagion when people took acid. One person laughing meant everyone laughing. One person freaking meant everyone freaking. Dylan and his buddies had all dropped acid to celebrate New Years the prior winter, and even though everything had been carefully prepared, assholes avoided, supplies laid up, the night had nevertheless turned into a nightmare simply because of the way the mood of the group had reverberated and transformed. It started with a single negative vibe–a dude catching a buddy staring at his girlfriend’s ass–and the night ended shaking itself apart within a matter of a few hours.
Of course none of these rules were observed the day Dylan dropped Long Tom’s acid. “Orange Owl,” he called it, because it came in little orange squares of construction paper with a small cartoon owl printed on it. That day, and all the many days after that, it was acid au natural.
Let the brain cells fall where they may.
 It has been mistaken for a ‘mind.’
The world roars.
All the time, without pausing for breath or remorse. The world is a beast, and we are fleas trapped in its matted pelt. You understand this when you drop acid.
The world is a mouth and details are its teeth.
Acid lets you step out, glimpse the existential bandwidth of the life you lead. The signal, you realize, has more strength than your senses can swallow.
You hear the hiss and crackle of reality. Like a station that never quite comes in.
“I’m telling you, man, Indians are the niggers of Canada!”
“Oh yeah?” Cutter quipped. “Then why can’t you guys fucking run?”
Everyone laughed hard at that, but for some reason it still sounded straight. Dylan simply sat back, sucking it all in with pupils like watch-batteries.
“Hey,” Long Tom said. His voice was so much a surprise and so at odds with his appearance that it always prompted an involuntary exchange of glances. “What’s wrong with four niggers in a Cadillac going over a cliff?”
“Nice car?” Gilles ventured lamely–though his heavy accent made everything he said sound cute.
“A Cadillac seats five.”
Guffaws and several slugs of beer. There’s always this point of indecision, when waiting for acid to sink in, where the laughter’s brimming but not quite ready to spill. A good buzz required foreplay.
“Hey,” Buke called out from his bunk. “What does a squaw say when having sex?”
It was like someone had strung a clothesline through the room and hooked everyone’s nerves to it. Buke was already snorting in laughter. “‘Get off me pa! You’re crushing me smokes!’”
Cutter howled, but in a way that made it clear that it was Buke’s stupidity he found so funny, not the joke.
Long Tom casually stood up, walked toward where Buke was sitting.
Kyle continued as though none of it had happened. “You make jokes, but I’m serious. We’re oppressed, man!”
“Oppressed?” Cutter cried, holding up fingers to count. “You pay no taxes, you go to college for free, the government spends billions… I wish I was a nigger Indian!”
Buke was looking up at Long Tom. “Hey,” he was saying. “Tom. It was just a joke–”
Long Tom made as though to hit him, stomped his foot instead. He turned, laughing at the sight of Buke with his head ducked, his forearms bent into a cage about his face.
“He’s right, Chief,” Gilles said. “You Indians think you have it tough, eh? The French as much niggers as you. More.”
Kyle made a face while downing a slug of beer. “You stole our land, then the English stole yours. Boo-fucking-hoo. Get to the back of the line.”
Long Tom resumed his seat, smiling at everyone and nodding toward Buke. He had shown him, Now he wanted to show everyone else.
Cutter leaned forward, shuffling the cards. “But that’s the fucking point, isn’t it? Whine-whine-whine.” He wagged his eyes at heaven. “You guys lost, we won. Just fucking deal with it.”
“You fucking deal!” Gilles cried, obviously pleased with his mastery of English puns. “Then we’ll see who wins.” He turned to spout something in French to Thierry, whose eyes flickered between the two Indians before laughing.
Gilles, who had been driving BT’s the whole time, finally handed one to Dylan. Kyle, meanwhile, was watching Cutter more carefully than Dylan liked. “You probably think Reagan’s the best president we’ve ever had,” the pudgy radical said.
“Fucking A, I do.”
“I like him too,” Gilles said. “We should throw more our weight around, I think.”
“He’s a cowboy,” Kyle said, a psychedelic twinkle in his eye. “We Indians don’t like cowboys, eh, Tom?”
Tom’s smile had a kind of endearing menace to it, almost Sears Catalogue perfect, yet slippery, as though it could be as easily attached to a fatal stabbing as to a buddy’s joke. Nodding, he flicked the black silk of his hair over his shoulder. Everyone’s knees were pumping beneath the table Now, too quick for anything short of fast-motion photography. Their laughter had reached that tinderbox phase, where the sparks always seemed to swirl.
“Reagan isn’t our president,” Dylan coughed out.
“Are you playing?” Cutter demanded, holding a card out in a freeze-frame deal.
“No,” Dylan said, shaking his head in a cloud of smoke. He already knew these guys played deeper than he was willing to go.
“Then shut the fuck up,” he said, snorting and tossing cards–red Bicycles. Everyone glanced at Dylan and laughed, but in a manner far different than when they laughed at Buke. There was something almost affectionate about it, as though his youth was the one thing they could all agree on. Aside from sitting in Cutter’s shielding shadow, he was officially the “Kid.” You only went through the motions of giving the Kid a hard time–everyone knew that…
“What? You a fucking pussy or something, Pickle-boy?”
This from someone who also refused to play poker. At some level Dylan knew that Buke resented him because he thought Dylan should be the natural runt of the litter.
“At least a pussy’s useful!” Cutter cracked past his cigarette. Cutter never, not once, glanced at Buke while he was carving him, and this, for some arcane reason, made it all the more damning, looking at others while baiting someone.
Another, almost delirious spasm of laughter. Smiling, Dylan turned and shot Buke the finger. It was intense.
He didn’t really mean it though.
Let’s be clear as to what kind of people I’m talking about. Reading about them, you might be inclined to think they’re entertaining, interesting, maybe even cool. But if you were to meet any of them, any of them, I don’t care how much egalitarian rhetoric you throw at me, you would instantly judge them. If they accosted you, you would go tactically blank, maintain momentary eye contact, say something at once courteous and dismissive. You would, in other words, do everything you could to fall between the cracks of their attention. If you’re a homeowner, you would watch them, just to make sure, and if they have the temerity to soak in their surroundings–your neighbourhood–you would be convinced they were casing homes for robbery.
Of all the insidious flatteries that reading instills in people like you, few are more destructive than the illusion that you’re an open, accepting person. The illusion that you don’t judge.
These are the people who instantly instill feelings of moral superiority. But where others would simply call them lowlifes, scumbags, loadies, or whatever caste slang happens to be in fashion, you pretend to know them, to “sympathize” with their “plight,” even as you carefully follow their progress along the perimeter of your property lines. Why do you think they hate you so much?
And they do hate you.
This is what made things so difficult for Dylan, growing up as he did in their midst. Now and again they would catch a whiff of you in him. At that age, judging and shame exercised the same exhausted muscle in Dylan–his feelings of superiority were too brittle not to crumble whenever he clutched for them. There was no self-righteousness for them to see, though their was plenty of arrogance. And yet, many of those who took an instant dislike to him did so because they could see the self-righteousness to come. They could see the prejudicial buds that would bloom once he was replanted in university soil.
Because no one is more self-righteous than the educated. Thinking you know more is one thing. Knowing that you know more is a different animal entirely. Especially when you’re wrong.
How many times have you been embarrassed for the lone non-academic in academic company? How often have you secretly rolled your eyes at this or that family inanity at Christmas dinner? How many time have you uttered some version of the words, “They just don’t get it”?
I’m sure you have this rationalized somehow, that you have some meta-cognitive admission or apologia or shrug-of-the-shoulders.
Think about fundamentalist Christians, whom, I have no doubt, you think epitomize self-righteousness. What is it, in their minds, that makes them morally superior to you? A belief system. Nothing more, nothing less. Granted, the types of judgements they hang from that belief system are absurdly drastic, but the fact remains: beliefs are cheap. This is what makes them so evangelically optimistic: they understand that the line dividing you from them is tragically thin. All you gotta do is say, “Yes!” to Jesus, you’re in like Flynn.
Now what do you think makes you morally superior to Christian fundamentalists? (You can knock off the “But-I-don’t-feel-morally-superior-to-anyone,” bullshit, because I know you do. We’re judging machines.) Is it simply a matter of belief systems? Oh, no. Set this book down, walk to the nearest construction site, and begin explaining your belief system to the “guys.” Impossible, isn’t it? Your belief system is a hot-house flower, one requiring an extended period of specialized training to comprehend, let alone appreciate. In other words, it’s not simply a belief system that lies at the basis of your feelings of moral superiority, it’s also a prolonged period of institutionalization.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it? because there are real issues of inclination and native ability involved in the pursuit of an education like yours. It’s not simply what you believe that sets you apart, nor what you have undergone to wrest those beliefs out of the ignorant dark, but the grain of your character and your inborn intellectual abilities. It’s not just that everyone in the world is an “undergrad” to you. At least undergrads have bared their skin to the light of your learning, right down to bikini bottoms and Speedos. Everyone else, all the poor, slovenly masses, the “victims of corporate cretinization,” the ones who “don’t know better,” because they “never had the chance,” are actually made of lesser stuff, aren’t they? This is why you’re loathe to evangelize outside the classroom, why you think it’s largely a waste of time talking to the likes of them. This is why you aim all your gifts away from people in general, and seek out those you can congratulate as surrogates for yourself.
And you wonder why they hate you? The moral superiority of aristocracy has a stink all its own, and trust me, my friend, you reek of it.
Which is what makes the pedestrian character of your conceit so laughable. After all, what makes you feel morally superior are just all the things that are yours. All the ways you identify yourself as an exception, as somehow special…
Just like everyone else.
It’s only the intricacy and, dare I say it? the essentialism of your moral superiority that sets you apart. Admit it. You think you’re better to the pith.
(No! you say. Yes…)
So let’s be honest, here, as writer and reader.  These are the people that you look down on, that you loathe and ridicule in the hill-billy fringes of your own family. If you want to honestly read about then, imagine how your skin would crawl if you found yourself in their midst. Imagine the defensive train of condescending thoughts that would flit through you, the moments of self-reproach, the stillborn reminders to be open and egalitarian, poised on the brink of the inevitable condemnation to come. Imagine your fear, the unthought recognition that should things turn sour, nothing you could say or do would be of any use. Imagine the company of cruel, crude, and most importantly, impervious people.
Imagine being hated.
 It has been called ‘you’ and it has been called ‘I.’