I’ve never forgotten Rachel. In the fall of 1988, while beginning UCLA with a head full of Calculus, I paused to reminisce about the brunette I met in Gladstone, Australia in the last few months of 1984:
Who’s going to pay attention to your dreams?
Who’s going to plug their ears when you scream?
Who’s Going to Drive You Home Tonight?
Four years later it still hits me hard, piercing my skin and clawing at my heart. The effect is always the same, whether I’m flying 800 miles per hour over the Pacific Ocean, hurtling my VW Bug along the snowy Interstate 80 across the Sierra Nevada mountain range, covering the San Francisco 49ers vs the Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick Park, or dancing my mind to sleep on the crowded floor of a Californian nightclub.
Drive by The Cars is about the only thing that knocks me off schedule these days, jarring econometric formulae out of my mind. For three minutes and fifty seconds life no longer reduces to differential calculus. For three minutes and fifty seconds I question and doubt.
Is there more to life than sex and success?
For more than three minutes and fifty seconds my mind washes with memories of walking along the Gladstone wharf in small town tropical Australia in 1984 with her – Rachel – a phantom of delight.
Sweet sixteen and shy, she had black shoulder length hair, short on the sides and top a la Flashdance.
I walked past her every day at 5:18 PM, closing time. I smiled and joked. She’d look up at me and giggle. Then her mother would come by and pick up Rachel and her twin-sister LeeAnne and take them home.
I spent my days composing witty sayings to lay upon Rachel. Sometimes they jumbled but Rachel pretended not to notice. It took me several weeks to work up the courage to ask her out.
Then one Friday, knowing that my brother Paul would be away all weekend and that I’d have the car, I resolved to invite Rachel to dinner and dancing that evening. I shot out of work at 5:15 PM and rushed up the street to talk to her. When half-a-block away, however, I saw her mother was there early. I could only wave as Rachel rode away.
Once at home, I stormed through the phone book and found four families with Rachel’s last name. I called each in vain. My house was empty and this was one evening that I couldn’t spend alone. I showered, dressed and drove back to Gladstone, resolving to lose my troubles in the smoke and noise of the Shanghai disco. As I drove the radio played my song, drenching me in questions: Rachel, Rachel, who’s going to drive you home tonight?
I came into town with the irrational thought that I would see her tonight. The rational side of my brain, however, told me that I wouldn’t. She was too young to get into the Shanghai and I knew of nothing else in Gladstone that night to attract her.
I found the disco packed. I disappeared easily into the mass of moving bodies, emerging at last into a little corner overlooking the dance floor. I found a friend, Sue Scott, my brother’s new girlfriend. He had left her behind on his weekend jaunt to the Great Kepple Island resort.
“It’s a special trip just for the soccer team,” Paul told her. (He told me that taking Sue to Great Kepple Island would be like taking coal to Gladstone.) Sue said she understood but she didn’t.
We found a table and sat talking. She drank heavily and needed little stimulus to spill her pain. I sat there hour after hour listening to her problems and watching her face fade in and out of the smoke and flashing lights. When she finished it was my turn and she listened sympathetically. (It would be about the last time the two of us got on. She moved in with my brother a few weeks later. Each jealous for Paul’s attention, we hated each other.) By eleven PM we both felt miserable. Needing a break from the noise and gharish atmosphere, I walked out of the Shanghai and into the calm spring night.
I walked alone (a familiar feeling to me to this day) past my brother’s real estate office, past Rachel’s law office and all the way down Goondoon Street until businesses turned into homes. I circled back again, walking quickly to get Rachel off my mind. Then out of a coffee shop she came.
She walked fifty yards in front of me with a female friend. Rachel couldn’t see me in the darkness but I could see her silhoutted against streetlights. Oh, what was it you said, Mr Wordsworth:
A dancing shape, an image gay
To haunt, to startle, and waylay
With the phantom of delight just ahead of me, I could hardly breathe. I listened to her laugh with her friend. I could smell her perfume. That she was so sweet, so innocent and so right there, was so too much. I fled across the street and tried to walk away from her.
“Oh Luke.” I heard her cry my name. She smiled at me and beckoned. I crossed the street and walked to her; unable to breathe, unable to speak. Rachel introduced her friend but I could only nod. I fell in with them and we walked down the street, past the Shanghai and on to the Gladstone Harbor.
She’d seen a play in town and afterwards had paused for a chocolate milkshake at the coffee shop. Conversation came easily. Another of Rachel’s friends joined us and then we paired off.
I walked alone with Rachel on the wharf. I would have been glad to talk to her until morning but she needed to get home. “Who’s going to drive you home tonight?” I asked.
She laughed. She loved that song by The Cars too.
Rachel didn’t need to call her parents for I was going to drive her home tonight.
I made my way uncertainly along darkened streets, unused to driving on the left side of the road. The radio played Drive and I felt Fortune smiling on me. Rachel’s white teeth flashed smiles at me in the flickering light. We stopped outside her home and I turned to her and stammered “Would you like to come with me to a party hosted by Sue Scott tomorrow night?” She would. Before she left, she wrote her phone number on the only paper I had – a Spearmint gum wrapper (which I still cherish.)
I did not kiss or even hug her goodnight for I felt no need. The future promised complete satisfaction.
Future’s promise shattered. Rachel’s parents forced her to cancel the date because, I later realized, they confused the name of the host with another woman in town who had a bad reputation. The next weekend I couldn’t get hold of Rachel, and ended up asking out her twin sister LeeAnne – a vivacious personality in her own right. We spent an active evening together – eating, drinking and swimming. Around eleven PM while walking beside the harbor we met Rachel and her date. We all laughed and LeeAnne and I moved on. We spent the early morning on the Tannum Sands beach. I returned her home at sunrise.
I never got to go out with either of them again. They found other men.
Rebecca Hanzlick brightened my days of construction work during 1986-87, inspiring the following compositions:
Kinetics (ki-net’iks): The branch of physics dealing with the effect of forces in the production or modification of motion in bodies.
The sun was hot, the ocean cold, the sand gritty, and her body hard. She lay on her back, serene amidst the call of seagulls and the crash of surf, her blond hair flowing across the beach to the water. The sun hovered directly above her and her pale skin blushed under the intimacy of its gaze.
She slept through the afternoon, storing energy from the ultra-violet rays and tuning in to the cosmic force which crackled through her body. She didn’t move until the light was gone, obscured by the storm clouds racing overhead. It was the in-between time, no light but no dark, no sun but no moon, no peace but not yet, a storm.
She strolled under the swaying palm trees, the breeze ruffling the leaves, making them whisper and moan. We were alone on the beach when the storm hit. She looked out to sea. With her arms outstretched, she welcomed the tempest. Rain pelted down in hot sticky drops and the surf grew dark and angry, crashing to shore, splattering her in foam. She rocked on.
Standing on a sand dune, I watched under the eery moonlight her dance. She singed the sand, whirling liquid fire, violent kinetics, striking like lightning, writing in sharp white letters across the sky M-i-s-s B-e-x-x.
“Here you must choose,” said the guide. The boy and girl nodded and looked ahead. Their comfortable trail had fragmented into hundreds of different paths. Some turned to the right of the mountain and others to the left. One went straight up the mountain and others seemed to go nowhere at all. She liked one of those ones. In particular a gentle path that meandered through the chlorophyll, keeping far away from the mountain. The trail was well-worn and easy to the tread, going in no direction, dissolving in flowers.
He fastened on the trail up the mountain which disappeared into the clouds. That’s if you could call it a trail, for in many places it vanished and each traveler had to blaze his own way. The climb was steep and over jagged rocks covered with moss. Reliable holds were few for most gave way under pressure. Many travelers had fallen. Some got up and tried again. Others got up and took a different trail. Most never got up at all.
The climbers stood out as they clambered upward, and he liked that and the challenge the mountain presented. Few climbers made it as high as the clouds and none had emerged out of them into the sun again. Therefore the actual height of the summit was unknown because no one had ever made it to the peak. Some who had climbed very high and voluntarily come back down again, reported that the summit seemed to get higher the farther one climbed. The climbers usually worked alone, as opposed to the other travelers who strolled along side trails hand-in-hand. But he wasn’t worried and impatiently flexed his muscles for the struggle ahead. He had made his decision. The guide nodded and looked up with him at the mountain.
“The standing is slippery,” warned the guide, “and the regress is either a downfall or at least an eclipse.”
The boy nodded and pretended to understand. Shivering in the wind, he waited for her to make a decision. It seemed that she wasn’t coming along, or was he going away? It didn’t matter. There was no more time for thinking. He stepped out.
“Aren’t you afraid,” she called out to him as he moved away towards the mountain, “that there may be no one to catch you if you fall.”
He paused and looked back into blue eyes. Her gaze locked on to his and froze him. Neither moved. He dug his heels in as he felt her pulling him across time and space, the vision of the mountain disappearing into crystal-blue waters. But her eyes couldn’t hold him as they once did. He blinked and moved away.
She watched him go. Surveying the landscape, she didn’t like any of her options. But the wind pushed hard behind her, forcing a decision. Buffeted forward, she slipped onto a well-worn path and disappeared. The way was easy over leaves trodden black. As the trail wove back and forth, going nowhere, she hoped she’d emerge again at the beginning. Maybe she could choose again. The day was still young.
You must have seen her
Dancing in the sand
Through the fog of another sleepless night,
I see her beside me dancing in the sand.
Twisting, turning, leaping, and spinning,
Leaving her mark on the grains of time.
A crack of lighting pierces winter sky,
A burst of bright on a December morn.
Nature’s anger fails to disturb her, she
Glides over cold and jagged rock,
Floats over cruel and raging surf.
Foam-flecked waves crash to shore
Exploding in rage against the cliff,
Drenching her in diamond showers.
Wind whips back her blond hair
Brings a flush to her pale face.
Her lips caress a Mona Lisa,
Her eyes glint of steel, of
Surf roars in my ears
Sea stings my eyes.
I shout but the wind
Swallows my voice.
She can’t hear me,
She can’t see me.
Just a shape now,
Dancing o’er sea,
Flashes of Color
The old man grimaced into the wind. Bundled in blankets, he sat in his rocking chair on the porch watching the sun throw flares of red, pink and orange over the ocean. Thin strands of white hair blew back against his forehead as the wind picked up force, whistling across the sea, flecking waves, spraying sand, charging inland leaving scatterings of autumn leaves in its wake.
Half an hour ago, before the wind started blowing, the yard had been perfect. Every leaf, every blade of grass was in its place. Now, rocking in his chair, the old man watched his day’s work destroyed in a moment.
Strains of Handel’s Largo came from inside the house, waves of sound cascading over piles of books and old photos–photos of the old man with important people, photos of the old man doing important things, photos of the old man thinking important thoughts. There were photos everywhere. The old man dominated all of them, looking the same in different poses–tough, cool, and ambitious.
Outside the temperature dropped quickly, down five degrees in the last twenty minutes. Blankets were a puny defense against this wind. It pierced them and knifed through his thin body, convulsing him in bouts of coughing. Recovering, he wiped the blood off his lips and sat straight in his chair, all dignity.
Occasional flashes of color caught the old man’s eye in the fading light. Some of his azaleas were in bloom, a ragged bloom, a foretelling of a magnificent spring to come, should they survive winter. The color triggered something in his mind and the old man struggled with a memory–a memory of beauty dancing in the sand. For the last time the old man smiled, as she drifted away from him, dissolving in the waves and dying with the sun.
During my years in the construction business, I mixed with high-school dropouts, Vietnam veterans, alcoholics, drug addicts and men with big tattoos. Jesse had all these qualities. That man with the screaming eagle tattoo played a prominent part in my writing and speaking over the next few years.
I can see Jesse Going Bye-Bye
The teacher droned on. Would he ever quit? I shifted my attention from the blob at the front of the room and stared out a side window. My eyes lost focus in the spring sunshine and I imagined I could see Jesse.
Curly blond hair matted with sweat sat on top of his block head. He wore horn-rimmed glasses. Shirt off, his bronzed skin glowed in the sun. The outstretched talons of a screaming eagle tattoo reached across his back and dug into his broad shoulders. I laughed when I first saw the eagle, thinking I could hear it scream.
Jesse joined our landscaping crew at the bottom of his luck. He had earned eight dollars an hour with the paint crew but with us he’d make four.
I was Jesse’s foreman. Initially confused and uncomfortable with telling a man twenty years my senior what to do, I soon learned that when it came to digging a 20-foot ditch for PVC pipe, well, better he than I.
Jesse worked hard. Hunger does that to a man, and Jesse was very hungry. Our boss wouldn’t give him an advance to buy food. The boss had been ripped off too many times before. I, however, was young and naive. I lent Jesse $80.
I worked with Jesse for about a month and we had a lot of time to talk. Jesse said that he dropped out of high school to serve in ‘Nam. He didn’t like the war. The tight leathery skin on his face grew even more constricted when he talked about seeing his friends die.
Jesse had been a sniper and an excellent shot. He didn’t die. He wasn’t even physically hurt. War means kill or be killed, and Jesse killed.
“Several people,” Jesse said.
Jesse began drinking heavily in Vietnam and he took drugs. “Everyone did,” he said.
After the war he returned home to Pennsylvania. He bought a small farm, married, fathered two daughters, and worked as a pastry chef.
During the recession in the early 80s Jesse lost his job, then his farm and finally his wife in a divorce. Jesse moved to California – the land of opportunity.
Jesse worked construction and saved several hundred dollars which he sent to one of his daughters. “I thought I’d be OK,” said Jesse. “I had a good job.” Not for long, though. He moved on to another job as a painter. After several months, he lost that job also. He moved on to another one. Lost it and moved on.
In his latest job Jesse built fences around the Springview Apartments in Rocklin. Now he dug with us and lived in the woods.
“Woodstream?” I asked, referring to a moderately priced apartment complex in Rocklin.
“No,” said Jesse. “In the woods… In a tent across the railroad tracks from Pacific Street and just behind the Springview apartments.”
Ants had been a problem, said Jesse. They had gotten into his last loaf of bread. He’d eaten some of it but had had to throw most of it away. He had no money. Could I help him? I could.
For a man struggling to eat, Jesse smoked a lot. I never saw him when he wasn’t dragging on a cigarette. Often in the morning he looked bleary eyed and smelled of beer. At those times his shoulders hunched, and the eagle seemed to dig its claws deeper into his back. I learned later he was an alcoholic.
Despite his problems, Jesse worked hard. Looking out from his shiny blue Mercedes, a real estate titan was impressed. He asked me for an evaluation.
“Jesse is a top guy,” I said. “Salt of the earth. I recommend him highly.”
The rich man nodded and said he was going to hire Jesse.
“We’ll miss him,” I said.
We did miss Jesse, but not because he quit to take another job. He just didn’t show up for two days. The third day he did show up, reeking of alcohol. He wanted his check. He said his mother had died and he wanted to go back to Pennsylvania for the funeral.
“Not so fast,” I said. I took his check from the boss and drove Jesse to the bank. I cashed Jesse’s check for him and took out all he owed me. I then gave him the small amount left and he walked off.
The last I remember of Jesse was seeing the outlines of that eagle on his back. Its talons seemed to dig even more deeply than ever into his shoulders. I thought I could hear the eagle scream.
“You remember Jesse?” my boss asked me a couple of days later. “Yes,” I replied. “He’s in jail. Police got him for stealing a car. He tried to get back to Pennsylvania on the cheap.”
A commotion roused me from my reverie. Students leaving their desks headed out the door. Class over. I walked outside. The sun hit me in the eyes. I squinted and kept walking. My head filled with a picture of an eagle alighting on a man’s back and digging in its claws. I saw blood and I knew the eagle would never let go. I could hear it scream.
And the Greatest of These is Love
I jarred them out of their suburban complacency. Confused, edged forward on their seats, they listened to me berate them.
“That’s how you think of the homeless. As shit, as the excrement of society. If the homeless were human, we’d have obligations to them, wouldn’t we?
“I think that you’re more disturbed by my use of the S-word than by homelessness in America.
“I can still see Jesse walking into the hot afternoon, that screaming eagle digging into his back. So disfigured that he hardly looked human.
“He returned from fighting communism to get spat on. Talk about vicarious atonement. Talk about suffering for sins.
“Jesse suffered so that Americans could feel good about imposing their morality on ‘Nam. Talk about a suffering servant.
“I quote again from Isaiah. ‘He endured suffering and pain. No one would even look at him – we ignored him as if he were nothing. But he endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne. All the while we thought that his suffering was punishment sent by God. But because of our sins he was wounded.’
“Jesse was despised and rejected. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
“There are many Jesses out there. Many homeless men are Vietnam veterans. What have we done to help them?”
The blonde in the front row leaned forward. Her lips opened and she breathed rapidly. Her breasts trembled. I paused, stood on my tiptoes to look down her shirt, and then continued.
“Jesus said the poor would be with us always. I say that’s an excuse. Jesus was wrong. The poor do not have to be with us always. For the price of 20 Stealth bombers we could eliminate hunger in America. Let us build low-income housing, instead of MX missiles. Make homes not wars.
“But if you must make war, make war on poverty.
“What’s in it for you? How will it help you to reduce the number of homeless? What’s so wrong with a sink-or-swim society?
“This is what’s wrong. People who drown like Jesse, first thrash about in the water. They may take you down with them.
“It’s in our self-interest to love our homeless neighbors as ourselves.
“I close with a specific request.
“Tonight and every night, St. Vincents homeless shelter in downtown Sacramento needs volunteers. People to cook, to serve food, to arrange bedding, and perhaps most important of all, to listen. I know it’s in the downtown and I know it’s Catholic, but there are people out there tonight who need our help. I’m heading there right now. Will you join me?”
They would. They clapped loudly, took down the address I wrote on the board, shook my hand, climbed into their cars and drove away to do good. The blond lingered and I lingered with her. We decided against going to St. Vincents that night. Instead we went back to her place.