Rack and I never got together. Ever. He had a Volkswagen bus that smelled that oily heavenly smell of smoke and gasoline and some kind of vinyl---like dried old tires. That, to me, was the most comforting smell in the world. Maybe because when I was a baby, my mom would put me in the little well in the back of our maroon Volkswagen bug, bundle me up in warm blankets that my grandma had knitted for me and we would drive around New Jersey. Putt putt putt, and the smell of marijuana, and the big bubble of warm glass over the well in the back of the car, reflecting all the light and colors outside of the rear view window.
I don’t know.
But, Rack was much later –twenty years later-- and his Volkswagen bus, as much as it was the real thing was refurbished, shiny and clean. Still the molded curved metal bumper but the seats all recovered in the same kind of vinyl that over time would collect grease and dirt in the little veins that run through it. We never got together…
Or did we?
Now it seemed like maybe we did. Now that I was thinking about it, I remembered some awkward night in his van, maybe after a dead show.
Either way, that wasn’t what I remembered about Rack. I remembered talking to him on the phone. Almost every night for a year. And I remembered getting to know him and his sense of honor, and the gentleness about him. The way he saw the world.
I had actually started thinking about him –for some reason-- a couple of days before my college friend, Melissa had called me. I was driving my kids to school and I looked in the rearview mirror and caught my reflection. Is this how I really look? Old? I thought to myself. And then suddenly, the memory of Rack returned to me. The back of his VW bus. When the hell was that? That nagged at me, because maybe I had it wrong. But, it was a kind of smoke colored memory, hazy like the San Francisco Fog. And the fog hung on to me all day at work.
San Francisco. That’s right. A Jefferson Airplane show in San Francisco.
But was that Rack?
So, I started thinking about him, about getting to know him back then. In the very beginning, it was an opening up. Something so tender. It was hard to imagine now. He and I had talked on the phone back then—during that time-- and his voice was expanding, to be let into someone’s heart that way. You never have enough to say to each other. It just flows and flows and the liquid has a momentum. But now I believed. It could only go on for so long and then it runs out or it dries up. Just changes, really. Back then I didn’t know that.
But those phone calls almost every night for a year. Even now, that’s a long time. Rack’s voice was like a signature. And, Rack’s voice was so deep and a little, just a little gravely…I think he had asthma as a child, so it had that kind of breathless urgency. The way his “yeah, I know what you mean,” drawled and lingered like a country music star’s pleading.
These were the kinds of telephone conversations where I unconsciously picked at the wallpaper or chewed on a hangnail and listened and talked and then I realized it was maybe three hours or even more that we had been on the phone. And, it seemed like I just had gotten on the phone except for my neck was sore and I had a unbearable exhausted feeling, dry eyes and mouth. I would be tired from talking so long and so only the need for sleep necessitated hanging up. But otherwise it could have gone on like that forever.
Back then there was Rob too, my boyfriend at the time. Actually, we lived together. He didn’t give a shit. I had told that to Rack over and over for that whole year. “Rob’s right in the next room. He just did bong hits and is listening to The Wall. He doesn’t give a shit.”
“Let me talk to him.” Rack’s sense of honor. “Rob! Rack wants to talk to you.”
“Shit,” he would say and I was a kind of a smooth, slow, stoned “shiiit.” His eyes slit, but, even stoned, still Rob looked so cute. Light brown hair, messy. Jeans hanging just so that below his belly button showed, and I expected to see a shadow where his pants met his belly.
“What’s up Rack, dude?” he said into the phone, not phased, not unfriendly.
“Rack Dude” I mouthed into the air of our apartment. I wanted to get on the phone with Rack. Talk about philosophy and books. Talk about things that I don’t ever think of anymore. One thought running in to the next. One night he had read the entire story, “diary of a madman” to me over the phone. It took no effort what so ever to listen to the words as he read them smoothly over the phone. By the time he had finished it was two in the morning. We kept cracking up, “I am the kind of Spain!” It was hysterical. Maybe because we were so tired.
“Yeah, no.” Rob said and he smiled at me, lighting a match somehow with one hand, lighting a cigarette and inhaling, nodding his head as if Rack could see him.
I wanted the phone back. Instead of waiting, I went into the kitchen and made a Velveeta cheese sandwich
When I came back into the room, Rob reached for the sandwich. “No fucking way,” I whispered. “Please” he said holding his hand over the phone. He cradled the phone in between his shoulder and cheek and moved closer to me. He put his hands on my waist under my t-shirt. “Please’ he mouthed pleadingly. And, he looked so cute, his square jaw and tanned skin. “Half?” he pleaded again. I held the plate out in front of me and he kept his hands on my waist for a minute and then moved them over my belly before he reached for the plate. And, a warm feeling flushed over my body.
“Give me the phone.” I whispered.
“All right, all right. Hey Man, Maria wants to talk to you again. Yeah. All right, peace, man.”
I took the phone from him. It smelled like his Winston cigarette smoke. I wiped it on my shirt. Rob leaned over and kissed me. “That guy’s a pussy.” He said into my ear and sauntered back to his room. I wondered if Rack had heard him. I watched him lift the grilled cheese and take a bite, which crunched louder than I expected. The way he walked, it looked like he was wearing slippers, but he was barefooted. Just kind of sliding down the hall almost regal, munching on my sandwich.
“What did you say to him?” I asked Rack.
“I asked him if he cared if I talked to you for hours every night.”
“He doesn’t own me.”
“This isn’t a feminist inquisition.”
“Yeah it is,” I said back to him. I lit one of Rob’s Winston’s and said, “What were we talking about?”
“You said your dad liked Vonnegut.”
“Oh,” I said. ‘He likes all of it. He quotes it. I think its ok. I mean, actually, sort of stupid. You know what I liked? God bless you Mr. Rosewater. I thought it was so hysterical.”
“I haven’t read it.”
“It’s funny. There’s this millionaire guy who is crazy and a fanatic about the fire department—anyway, its funny. It’s all ironic and sarcastic. That is my dad.” “You know what I like?” I can hear him exhale into the phone and then take a sip of something.
“Are you drinking beer?”
“Yup.” There was a pause, another sip. “I like Brautigan a lot. Oh my God, I love Richard Brautigan.”
“I read Trout Fishing in America. I think it was kind of…um...” I wasn’t sure how to say that the book seemed like it was a bunch of little stories, but didn’t make up one plot. “I don’t know if I liked it as just a bunch of little stories all stuck in the same book. It doesn’t really seem like a novel.” ‘No I think its cool. It’s a different way of understanding a story. Like a prism. All those guys are like that: Hunter Thompson, Keroac. I mean that is the way they do it. They all had fucked up lives.” There was another long sip and then a pause where I could hear a match being struck and then a deep in hale. It was strange to know someone like that. Like a blind person knows someone. Just knowing the textures of a person though their voice. It is so intimate and I could recognize now what that time on the phone with Rack really meant.
“His mother sifted rat shit out of the flour to make watered down pancakes.”
“Who?” I asked. “That’s fucking disgusting.”
Rack laughed into the phone. “Brautigan. He grew up dirt poor-- But anyway, you were saying how your dad reads Vonnegut…but what were you saying about your mom. Before Rob got on the phone.”
I remembered wanting to tell him about my family and keep the conversation going. I think I also wanted to know about what he thought about Rob. Or what he thought about me. Instead, I told him about my crazy mother. “Yeah, So ok. So my dad reads Vonnegut, but then I think my mother gets jealous about it.” “Why?”
“I don’t know. She acts crazy. Anyway, I think in some way she tries to scare my dad because my mother said that if you read breakfast of champions it can make you go psychotic. That a lot of people have become schizophrenic by reading it. ” I inhaled on my cigarette and held it in. I leaned back against the wall and traced the baseboard with my sock.
“Really?” his throaty voice asked. “What the fuck? That’s totally fucking crazy. That is the craziest thing I have ever heard.” I blew the smoke out slowly, silently while I waited while he inhaled a drag and let it out. Finally he finished his thought “crazy but intriguing.”
“No. She’s really got problems. She has really bad anxiety and there are scenes in the book where like the ground sinks and becomes like quick sand and that’s what it feels lik---“ Just then Rob walked into the kitchen. He stood above me and motioned with his hands as if come on come on. And then his hands were under my t-shirt again and his palms felt soft and warm somehow and it started a yearning inside of me.
‘Are you there?” Rack asks.
“I got to go, Rob wants me to get off the phone.” I know its ok to say that because of Rack’s sense of honor.
“Oh yeah, of course. Good night.”
“Night” I said into the phone.
Not long after that we were at the concert and the air was so warm and the light was just heavenly. It’s the mushrooms and it was also the summer so the sky was a purplish pink and the grass looked Astroturf green. Rack was sitting next to Jasmine. That same night they first got together. She was pretty, tiny, if I remember correctly with long stringy brown hair and cute freckles on her little nose. I had my eyes closed for a minute as they brushed over the drums and played some kind of flute music. Really dreamy. The park was almost silent except for a rogue shout every now and again. When I opened my eyes again Rack was kissing Jasmine. I was so fucked up that I just stared at them and I saw their flesh kind of melt into each other. I had said, “Man you guys are one.” But, I don’t think anyone heard me.
When Jasmine looked up from within Rack’s arms, her eyes were far away and her pupils were like big Raggedy Anne buttons, she just nodded and took a hit off of a joint. Rack was sitting cross-legged next to her and he kept brushing her hair away from her face when it fell forward when she laughed at something he had said to her. He leaned into her and either whispered into her ear or kissed her softly on her cheek and stayed there for a moment.
That’s all I remembered about the Jefferson airplane concert. I remembered what was most important: that Jasmine and Rack got together and then Rob found me and he started kissing me and it was a kind of hallucinatory liquid flesh feeling just like I had seen with Rack and Jasmine’s kiss. And, I liked becoming fluid and having our selves mixing like that. In a second I was as flat as the blanket and I could feel the bumps of the earth and my flesh –like a thin rubber taking the shape of the most minute contours on the ground below me. And, was I having sex with Rob right there? I don’t know. I know that when I opened my eyes again it was dark and it was cooling off and there were mosquitoes everywhere and the music was still playing and it couldn’t have been that much longer and the flute was accompanied by a little squeaking instrument and it was methodic, it was the flute, I recognized it again. “Where’d Rack go?” I asked Rob. And he pointed out into the field—it was a field now where there had been an audience of thousands of people attending concert.
“Is it all over?”
I could see Rob was so fucked up, his head kind of nodded back and forth as if he were falling asleep but he was awake, sort of the little wet sits where his eyes were and his lashes all clumped together.
(We weren’t always fucked up. Just on weekends. And, not too often that fucked up. I don’t think.)
Then, it was later still. Darker still. I was wired, tired, but awake. Rob was asleep in the old dodge dart we had. Jasmine was wrapped in a dirty quilt and asleep on the blanket. I was walking over the lumps that were Jasmine and some bunches of clothes or something, I started walking towards the van.
“Whatcha doin?” I knew Rack’s voice in the darkness. It was that same mysterious voice on the other end of the phone line. In the darkness of my kitchen at three in the morning.
“What are you doin up?” I asked the darkness, still not locating his voice.
“Can’t sleep,” he said matter of factly. “Those mushrooms fucked me up.” He was under the covers with Jasmine. Had I been I having sex with Rob on the blanket? I squinted my eye and tried to squeeze out a memory. But, it was gone. “I wanted a smoke. I’m out.” The air was getting colder and my legs were freezing.
“Here, “he whispered, “don’t wake Jasmine.” He got up from under the quilt stood up. His jeans were hanging loose on his waist and he pulled a white t-shirt on. He leaned over to tuck the covers around Jasmine. The shirt hung loose and when he bent over, to fix the quilt, I could see his tanned back as the shirt rose up over his hips. I could feel warmth pouring through my chest, a burning, a melting. He looked handsome. At that moment, I knew exactly why Rob always said that Rack was a pussy. He was jealous of him. He was trying to make Rack something he wasn’t: weak, non-threatening. Rack was naturally sexy. And, in that moment I felt foolish for all those long conversations and taking for granted who he was and what he had to offer. How close we had been.
He kind of balanced on one foot and gently made it over the blankets, when he got near me he almost lost his balance again, He caught himself and somehow got his footing.” I’ll get you one of mine.”
“That’s where I was going.” I said. “You don’t have to get up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he whispered. It seemed like hooking up with Jasmine gave him a new kind of freedom and confidence. Not cocky. Just self-assured.
I felt a lot of things all at the same time: secretive this night time per chance rendezvous, mad, about Jasmine who somehow now had this position of higher importance with him; sisterly, we had grown so intimate through our conversations that we had earned each other’s trust without question. All of it kind of curdled in my stomach—it was really all of those things and the mushrooms, but it was all there.
“Come on” he whispered.
As soon as I opened the door to the van, the smell poured out of it. The oily gasoline smell and the cold air kind made the scent stronger. He climbed into the front seat of the van and I waited outside of the passenger’s door. “Come on in, its cold,” he said. And I heard that familiar voice; how was it that I had talked to him hours and hours on the phone? And –in that moment-- we were only this familiar? We should be like brother and sister or boyfriend and girlfriend but not like this: just my boyfriend’s friend. And at some point in the very near future, he would be known as “jasmine’s boyfriend.” And I guess I knew that would change things. I didn’t know how elastic male/female friendships were. Rob didn’t care. I think Rob liked it. Seeing me so close to someone else then having sex with me. A kind of crazy territorial act that turned Rob on.
“Shit,” Rack whispered and looked at me and smiled “how did it get so cold?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I was so fucked up before. I swear to fucking God, the sky was purple.”
“Yeah,” he said and the way he said it made it sound like something was stuck in his throat. “I don’t know how long I was asleep.”
He rifled around the dash and the floor feeling around in the dark for his cigarettes. “Maybe they’re in the back,” he said.
The back was empty except for a mattress and coolers and all kinds of clothes and things, but there were no seats back there. Indian batik tapestry hung from the ceiling and the place smelled like incense, patchouli, weed, cigarettes and the VW oily gas smell, which despite the frequency of contact with the other aromas, was still the dominant odor.
“Here,” I said, I lit my bic lighter and it made a little flame for us to see by It was enough to cause the cellophane on the cigarette pack to sparkle. There it was on the pillow of the mattress.
“Why are you guys sleeping out there?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “We passed out.” He handed me a cigarette and settled comfortably on to the mattress, back against the side of the van.” Did you end up reading Breakfast of Champions?” he asked. It caused a kind of quick burning, almost an electric shock to hear him mention something we had talked about on the phone—almost in secret. I took a drag and looked up at the fabric on the ceiling. I shook my head, “no.”
‘I did.” He said.
I looked at him closely. “You did?”
He nodded and smiled and it was a shy embarrassed smile and I don’t know why. What was there to be embarrassed about?
“I know your mother is fucked up, but the story does mess with your head.”
I smiled at him.
‘Or maybe I was just stoned and our conversation planted a seed.” He smiled shyly again, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either,” I said “I’m too afraid to read it.” And I realized that when I was talking there was condensation from my breath. “It really is cold”
He lowered his voice, got serious. “I really thought I would become psychotic.”
“Oh stop it,” I had said. “My mom is really is mentally ill. Sometimes she thinks that she has run someone over and she pulls over to a pay phone and calls the police and waits for them to meet us at an intersection.” I had tried to make a joke out of it, but I could see in Rack’s eyes that he felt really sorry for me. Really it wasn’t that painful. It was more funny than anything. “You don’t you do stuff like that do you?” I asked him.
“My mother committed suicide” he said matter of factly. Then he licked his lips and bit his bottom lip. His eyes looked gray almost and were still dilated form the mushrooms. His big eyes and the faint light that came into the bus, at first scared me.
“I really like talking to you,” he said. “I really like our conversations.”
“Me too.” I looked at him and put my hand on his arm, “I’m sorry about your mother.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It really sucks.” He lit another cigarette and stood up and opened one of the slide down windows. He sat back down. “Richard Brautigan killed himself too.”
“That’s sad too.” I said. “I didn’t know that. I thought he was some rich kid from a prep school, like Abbie Hoffman: a rich radical.”
Rack laughed and shook his head. “No. Brautigan had a really hard life.” He turned and looked at me. He sat down across from me again, but closer this time. “Hey did you know there’s a Brautigan library in Burlington Vermont?”
I shook my head. “Like in the abortion?”
“Yeah, it’s a kind of tribute to him.”
“That’s so cool.” I said. I slid down on the mattress and smashed my cigarette into the ashtray until it was out. “I’m so sleepy,” I said. I don’t know why, but I put my legs on his lap. I felt like I knew him that well. He put his hands on my calves and rubbed them gently. I started to doze off.
“Hey,” He whispered. “Can I lay down next to you?”
I opened my eyes and nodded slowly. I tried to act cool; like this was no big deal can I sit next to you? “Sure.”
He lay beside me on his side, put his hand under his head a watched me for a little while.” I know you are sleepy,” he said.
“No. I’m awake.”
“I just wanted to talk.”
‘Ok. You can talk to me. I’m listening.”
“I have a book of stories in the Brautigan library.”
“Really?” I said. “One that you wrote?”
He nodded his head and smiled shyly. “Its called ‘Candlelight Moon.”
“Wow,” I said, “I would like to read them.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “You’ll have to go to the Brautigan library. Its hand written. The only copy.” He took one long last drag and put his cigarette out in a beer bottle that was sitting next to the cooler.
He leaned into me and he put his lips against mine. It was unexpected. They were soft and warm, I could feel the ridges. At first I felt a warmth come over me, but it was an overwhelming undertow, a wave of love that was too much. He looked deeply at me and the passion stopped. I saw inside of his eyes all of his fear and sadness and it was a wave that was way too strong for me. Maybe because of my crazy mother. Maybe because of his crazy mother. It scared me.
“Can I kiss you again?” He asked.
“I don’t think so.” I whispered, “You are with Jasmine now.”
“No, I’m not” he said. And we both knew it was true. He was more with me than with Jasmine and I was more with him than Rob.
“Can I lay next to you then?”
He curled up next to me and his body seemed small. And for a minute or two I watched the shadows from the leaves on the tress outside of the bus. I listened to the silence and I wondered how horrible it must be to be so sad like Rack’s mother. Like Richard Brautigan.
Soon after, that time in my life moved on and time passed.
I don’t know how we stopped talking on the phone or what happened with him and Jasmine.
I didn’t hear about him for a long time and then my college friend Melissa married his brother, Sam. I didn’t go to the wedding because it was in Lake Tahoe and I was on the coast in New Jersey and honestly, I didn’t really like Melissa any more. Still, once she married Sam, she called me from time to time to fill me in, and I suppose, gather information about me. She was the link to some other place that I didn’t care about any more. She would fill me in on Rack and always made him sound like a weirdo. He had moved to the Cape and lived in an old great-aunt’s house. She said he just wrote stories and one time told me there was a girl named Jill who came to visit him on the Cape. He was using her for sex.
One other time I had heard his voice. Melissa had been in New York so she came to visit me in New Jersey. Sam was on the Cape with Rack. She called over to the beach house. We were on speaker and most of the conversation it was Sam on the other end. And, then I heard a voice, “hey who you talking to.” And I recognized it completely and for a moment I craved the dark kitchen in my old apartment. The smell of saturated weed and cigarette smoke. I wanted to be young with skinny legs and bulky sports socks. I wanted to trace the baseboard or the linoleum with my sock. I wanted to have that kind of intimacy again. But, it all goes away with responsibility and commitments. Who has time to talk on the phone for hours any more?
“Maria Elders is on the phone,” Melissa blurted.
‘Who?” Sam asked. They didn’t know my married (soon to be changed back) name.
“Maria Dupree” I said.
“Hey Maria,” It was Rack. “Good to hear your voice.”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. There were plenty of things I could have said. I was just divorced then. I could have said, “We should stay in touch. I should give you my number.” I could have gotten back in touch with him.
Then, Melissa called me again just the other night. “Has it been eight years since we talked?” I asked her. The kids were in bed. The house was quiet. “I can’t believe we haven’t spoken in so long.” I said to her.
“That’s is a long time when you are having babies.” She said and she sounded self-righteous. I had had babies in the last eight years too. But, then her voice changed. “Sam is having a really hard time.” She said softly. The phone grew quiet and I knew she was crying and trying to compose herself on the other end. Finally, she whispered, “and I don’t know what to do. I know that you knew his brother really well and I don’t know why but I thought you could help me…”
“Why? What kind of hard time?” I asked into the phone. Eight years. And, before that was probably another eight years. And, why did she think I was so close to Rack? That was twenty years ago.
“You knew Rack was sick?” she asked. “No,” I said.
“He was really sick. He died four months ago.”
I felt myself starting to cry. “What was—what did he have?”
“Non Hodgeson’s Lymphoma.” She said as if the word were in my vernacular. As if I said it all the time. NHL. As if I had been in that world of terminal illness with her. “He had it for a long time…at little over three years.”
Three years isn’t a long time, I thought. I had only hung out with Rack for a year after college. I had only spoken with him once in twenty years. Three years is nothing. Maybe when you are dying it’s a long time. And then I wished that I had called him and talked to him during those three years. That’s when I remembered his face so close to mine and his eyes scanning mine. And his voice.
“Oh.” I said, “I wish I had known. Did he stay at that house on Cape cod while he was sick?”
“No. He lived with his dad and step mom in Burlington.”
And that’s when I remembered his book in the Brautigan library. Candlelight Moon. And New Jersey isn’t that far from Vermont. And I felt the urge to put the kids in the car and drive over to the library. Knock on the door in the middle of the night. They would understand. After all, it was the Brautigan library. And, Rack would understand—he would like that ending. But then, I felt such a sadness and a darkness. And, I felt getting older was a betrayal.
“Sam kind of went crazy. You know what happened to their mother.” I had forgotten. But, then I remembered “didn’t she kill herself?”
“When they were little.” Melissa said. “And now I think Sam is depressed. He jumped out of a moving car when we went to the burial in Yarmouth. I was driving back from the cemetery and we turned around a corner. I was going slowly and he just opened the door and rolled out of the car. I couldn’t’ get him to get back in.” Melissa started crying. “I think he had a nervous breakdown.”
After I got off the phone with Melissa I went into my kids’ room and stood above them in the darkness. I bent over each one of them and held my ear close to their faces. I wanted to make sure that they were still breathing, like when they were newborns. Sidney had little silent breaths I could feel on my cheek. Pearl had her nasally, allergy snores. Tomorrow their dad would pick them up for three days and I felt almost a panic inside of me. I felt like that was a curse and that this fear was an intuition, portending doom. I was afraid I was going to lose them. Somehow they wouldn’t come back. I felt an emptiness come over me as I looked at their small bedroom; and at the light of the moon, almost like candle light. I started to cry because I have never loved anyone like I loved them.