“Do not take sides,” Tom advises his heartbroken wife. “I knew everything the adults were thinking,” he says, popping the trunk. “Children can feel hate, rooms, even houses away.”
“We want our home to be safe,” Tom says organizing his pack into their car.
“It’s hard,” Betty says, handing her belongings to Tom, who places her baggage close to his own.
“Peace always is,” he says, shutting the door.
After Gramps’ cremation, Tom left Southern Oregon for good. He returned a few years later to officiate Karl’s marriage to Edward’s sister, Maria—but hadn’t been back since. Weddings and funerals, he thinks, coasting down the north slope of the Siskiyou Summit.
“Emigrant Lake,” James announces the view like a shooting star—it’s gone that fast.
“We’re meeting at The Black Sheep,” Betty says. “Then, skating.”
“Have you watched the video I sent you?” Tom glances at his wife.
Betty smiles. “Right now,” she says.
“Remind me.” Tom admires his wife’s portrait while exiting the Interstate. “I want a few shots of the Wading Pool,” he says. “Something to contrast Edward’s point-of-view while offering a now-and-then perspective too.”
“Perfect.” Betty smiles, half listening.
Tom’s first time up the Sheep’s black on red paisley carpeted stairs, he was high. Or, as Edward liked to say, stoned immaculate. 22, 23,.. Tom remembers counting each step, putting his foot down just as Edward picked his up. Synchronicity, he’d thought as they crested the top.
“Dude,” Edward said, massaging his Achilles before fixing the flat-tire Tom had given him.
“Sorry,” Tom said, fixating on how perfectly Edward’s curls danced across his lambskin shoulders before tumbling over his peyote-stitched rosary.
Peaking around the corner of the backbar that night was like discovering an exotic <uncharted> world. Tonight, Tom thinks (seeing Karl’s back against the wall of fame, nearest the fireplace) we mourn a shared past.
“How was the drive?” Karl gets up from the table.
“Quick,” Betty says giving Maria a hug.
“She slept till Shasta.” Tom embraces Karl’s hand and Karl pulls him in.
“The girls are running late,” he says with a hug.
“You remember that jacket?” Tom squeezes back. “With the peyote-stitching.”
“And that white renaissance shirt,” Maria says. “He looked like Morrison.”
“Can I get you a drink?”
“Coffee.” Tom looks down on the waiter.
“John’s been here over a year. Isn’t that right?”
“Since last September,” the waiter says.
“Do you like the new owners?” Tom smiles.
“What do you have on tap?” Betty asks, looking toward the bar for clues.
“I like them,” John says. “They’ve been real involved. It’s good.” He turns toward Betty. “Susan wanted to do something else,” he says…
“Hey.” Karl grabs Tom’s attention. “Isn’t that Erin?” He points to a fading black and white photo nailed to the wall behind their chairs.
“Probably,” Maria says. “I think Sara’s up there too.” She sips at her Peppermint Patty like a kindergarden’r drinking hot chocolate on a cold Christmas Eve. “I was never in the right place at the right time,” she says, peering over the rim of her glasses before taking another hit off her drink.
Tom laughs. “Me either,” he says, taking a picture of their pictures. “Hey John,” Tom calls the waiter back. “Can you put some Bailey’s in my drink too? Please.”
“Uncle!” Two boys run past the bar. “Uncle,” they say again, grabbing hold of Karl’s waist. Tom backs away. He has a habit of overcompensating for his natural disdain by engaging children in activities he believes will make them better people.
Sara is a flight of stairs behind her boys. “We had to park up the hill,” she says. “By the rink.”
The hugs go round and round and just as Tom thinks the ride is over, Erin and her family show up.
“Your Mom isn’t coming?”
“Not up for it,” Maria says.
“The new owners,” Karl says as the boys move toward the sofa facing the fireplace and a large, flat-screen, television set, “are from the Silicon Valley.”
Tom laughs. “People have been migrating here for centuries,” he says. “It’s nothing new.”
“How long was the drive?” Erin’s husband, Victor, slides in for his hug. His teenager, Trai, stands off to one side and a bit behind his dad. Trai released his first album about the time Edward dropped Hope’s End. Erin sent Tom a copy of Subtly Serious Sometimes and since he only knew one person with a CD player, he listened to it with Trai’s uncle, Edward.
“What the fuck is this,” Edward said to the noise Trai calls—Rewind.
“Let’s play it backward…”
“Later.” Edward skips forward. “I heard this one’s good.”
Corinthian bells chime like a church organ as the sound of DEMONS rushes into the moment before the song explodes-
“My Dad,” Trai says. “What the F^ is wrong with him?”
Images of Menace tearing through her denim jeans (like Bruce Banner) swing through the songs chords like Spiderman.
“…wish I could just kill him. Strangle him. Beat him… Find a nice cliff and just start to lead him…”
Victor hasn’t been the same since, Tom thinks.
“We’re glad you made it,” Victor says, loosening his grip.
“Us too,” Tom says. His family aren’t huggers.
“So.” Victor backs off. “What’s Edward up to?”
“Yes.” Erin jumps in. “What was his name?”
“I know,” Sara says. “Is that you?” She points to the photo of Erin nailed to the wall.
“Oh my god,” she says. “And look, that one’s you and…”
“Andrew,” Karl says. “That was his name.”
“Yep,” Sara answers.
“Remember his waitresses?”
“He sure had a type,” Tom says looking at John. “You wouldn’t have made the cut.”
“Yeah. Your breasts aren’t perky enough.”
Everyone laughs again.
“Hey.” Tom grabs John’s attention, pulling him in close. “Did you know Susan wrote a novel?”
“Back in ’94. Yeah,” Tom says. “Edward helped her at Printfast.”
John pulls out his phone. “What’s it called?”
“Smashing Through the Looking-glass,” Tom says, watching John swipe a title search. “I looked already,” he says. “You’ll have to speak with her. I couldn’t find anything online…”
“Will you take our picture?” Peppermint Patty cuts through their conversation, handing John her phone.
“Let it go,” Tom says sinking into the Sheep’s comfy sofa. Sometimes Karl’s imagination outpaces his heart. “Do you think this is the same couch?” Tom asks, leaning into a pillow that reads, Jingle all the way.
Karl poker-faces the stoned fireplace.
“Probably not,” Tom agrees. “Do you remember the game he made us play called, Guess Who?”
“No,” Karl says, still looking above the mantel at the red and golden fanged sign that reads, Where You Belong!
“Yeah,” Tom says. “I forgot all about it too, but, after Charles Manson’s death went viral…”
“Prematurely,” Karl adds.
Tom laughs. “Yeah,” he says. “People were excited to define the many ways Charlie’d be spending eternity.”
“People,” Karl says, “got real fuck’d up ideas about hell.”
“Right,” Tom says. “Anyway,” he continues. “Edward brought the game out at a party. People guessed all sorts of spiritual leader types. Nobody guessed Charlie Manson…”
A thin quietness spread around the room as Karl and Tom peered into their separate but equal versions of the truth, listening to the new world flutter in around them.
“Fuck,” Karl says, scattering the butterflies. “How did he respond?”
“Told a dirty joke.” Tom leans forward on the couch. “Then,” he says, standing up. “While everyone was laughing, Edward took another swig and said, you know Manson tried to prevent the Tate—LaBianca murders.”
Karl’s heart skips a breath as his veins constrict, tightening his muscles.
“Supposedly,” Tom continues, having already gone too far. “Charlie pleaded against being paroled, warned the penitentiary that prison was his home. Saying, he wouldn’t know how to behave himself on the outside.”
Karl’s breathe breaches, then slows.
“Right,” Tom says, reaching for his phone. “Then he pulls up biography.com,” he says, showing Karl a probation report that labels Charlie, safe only under supervision.
“And they let this guy loose on the hippies?” Karl stands up.
“Four years prior, JFK was murdered two-hundred miles north from where the vice-president was born,” Tom says as Karl walks up beside him.
“LBJ.” Karl looks at Tom.
“Imagine,” Tom says, looking Karl in the eye. “Vietnam was hemorrhaging rivers of America’s youth.”
“So,” Karl says. “They cast Charlie onto the Spring of Love?”
“Our cities had been rioting,” Tom says, looking down on Ashland, Oregon’s Main St.
“And burning,” Karl says. “I remember, hundreds died. Thousands were injured.”
“I’d wager,” Tom says, backing up toward the fire. “If Trump were to be assassinated in Indianapolis, Pence would need his own Charles (Milles (No name) Maddox) Manson.”
Karl sits back down against the hearth. “Can I get another?” He lifts his near empty glass toward John who nods from across the room.
“Nothing for me,” Tom says.
“Did anyone understand what Edward was getting at?”
“No,” Tom says. “Someone Youtube’d Manson.” He pauses. “After that, all anyone heard was Edward defending the craziest fucking creep since Hitler!”
Karl shoots whats left of his drink.
“Right,” Tom says, a third time. “But, Edward wouldn’t stop. Said that Charlie’s behavior was a defense mechanism he’d learnt after being raped inside the Indiana Boys School at the age of 13—supposedly,” Tom adds, “at the fuck’n staff’s encouragement.”
Karl coughs. “Good stuff,” he says.
Tom laughs. “You know what killed Manson?” He pauses as if he’s asking Edward’s question.
“Old age.” Karl coughs again. “Prison food—maybe,” he says. “Rumor has it they force fed him his own shit.”
“Nope,” Tom says, shaking his head. “Heartbreak, that’s what Edward said. The Black Lives Matter Movement was too much for Charlie’s active imagination. He was watching his White Album prophecy come true, and it scared him to death.”
“Wholly shit.” Karl says and Tom sits down beside him.
“You listen to the Beatles,” he says. “What is Helter Skelter?”
Karl hands Tom his phone.
“A children’s slide?”
“Yeah,” Karl says. “Like at that place,” he pauses, “…across from the Sacramento Zoo.”
“Fairytale Town,” Tom says.
“Thanks.” Karl nods at the waiter.
“You’re welcome,” John says.
“Wait,” Tom calls the waiter back. “Have you ever read into music? Like,” he says struggling to explain himself. “Like, you hear a song and think it’s talking to you?”
“Sure,” John says turning.
“What I mean to say…” Tom pulls him back. “Have you ever thought that the music was telling you to do something, sub,” he stumbles on the word…
“Subliminally?” John checks the room.
“Exactly,” Tom says.
“No.” John shakes his head. “Well,” he says. “I suppose, if I’m listening to the media as a whole, and not just its pieces, I can hear some pretty crazy stuff—sometimes. But,” John goes on. “I also read into books.”
“Have you read Catcher in the Rye?”
“More importantly,” Tom says. “Have you ever thought about going Holden Caulfield?”
John laughs. “Bat shit crazy,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s the voices in my head, lyrics, twitter, or my president—Murder is murder.”
“Smart.” Tom laughs along with them. “Real fucking smart,” he says, again.
Ashland’s ice rink is similar to the one in downtown Modesto, but instead of the DoubleTree Hotel, it has a mountain for a backdrop. Tom skips skating choosing to stroll through Lithia Park instead. Karl is with him.
“Our project needs a name,” he says.
“We want a White City/Jacksonville feel to it,” Tom says. “How ‘bout Whiteville?”
“For now,” they both agree.
“We should cruise around and get some shots.”
“Do some site-scene’ng.” Karl nods.
James pulls off Wheeler Road and parks several empty spaces away from Edward’s family.
Jumping out, Tom slings his sons abandoned school-pack over his shoulders. He is in the market for a new one. Something with more support, he thinks, hoping that the few added ounces of a frame, might make a few extra pounds feel more like ounces. “Couldn’t remember how to get here,” he says walking up to Victor. “Trai.” Tom nods.
“Is the bathroom open?” Betty asks.
“Hope so,” Erin says, dressed in thick baggy sweats and a black skull cap.
“Looking good.” Tom laughs.
“Don’t remind me,” she says, swinging her hips and throwing her fists like she’s about to climb Philadelphia’s “Rocky Steps” to Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now. “Let’s move,” she says, taking point.
“I heard about your niece,” Maria says, trailing behind the pack alongside Betty and Tom. “How are you?”
“Fine,” Betty says, knowing it’s an acronym.
Tom doesn’t say anything. He wants to, but he doesn’t.
“What are you smiling about?”
“Nothing,” he says, slowing down, letting the girls drift through the dry grasses of the oak savanna, ahead of him. The Takelma people maintained these orchards for their acorns like Californians harvest almonds and Oregonians harvest pears. He doesn’t catch back up with the family until they break at about 1.5 miles into the < 2 mile, 800 foot climb. Erin is doing lunges. Victor is sitting beside her, on a stump. Maria, Betty and James are standing uphill, on the trail. Trai is switching his blade open and closing it again.
“Stop it,” his girlfriend says walking downhill, past Tom. Trai follows her.
“Tools and toys.” Tom maintains his pace. “Each began as the other,” he says.
Breaching the low clouds that have engulfed Titanakh’s plateau, Tom sloshes along the path alone, happy for having chosen his Vasque boots, over his shoes. He loves hiking in his Asics, but they absorb moisture like a damp sponge.
“Let’s hit REI,” Tom says as the pack catches up. “These are done.” He holds up his gloved hands. “The finger tips,” he says. “Completely worn through.”
Together they move toward the southern tip of the Lower Table Rock following Victor who follows his son, Trai, along the path less traveled.
“This looks good,” Victor says, stopping short of the cliff.
“Yes it does,” Tom agrees, walking past him, not slowing down. He can’t help it; he has to touch the edge. He has to feel the breeze that, like James and Trai, swirls in around him.
“Steady,” Victor calls from alongside the girls.
“Nice cliff.” James looks at Trai before taking hold of Tom’s backpack to unzip its largest pocket and pass out lunch. Normally it would be PB and Honey, but Trai is allergic—so its meat and tangerines instead.
“Peels go with the garbage,” James says, offering his sandwich bag as a container.
“Everyone should carry a condom.” Tom turns away from the precipice. “It isn’t God’s plan,” he says, slowing down his words, uncertain of where they are leading him… “to litter the earth. Even you…” He looks at Trai’s girlfriend. “Don’t expect anyone to do your thinking for you,” he says, checking Victor’s face for crossed lines. “Sometimes…” Tom looks behind him and peers into the misty void. “Kissing becomes touching and…” He pauses… “It’s intoxicating,” he says, looking at Trai before eyeing his girlfriend. “I’m speaking to both of you…”
Betty wraps her arm around Tom’s waist.
“People use heroine,” he says, applying the brakes. “Adam and Eve already proved that.”
Betty pulls him in close, putting his baggage beside her own.
“All I’m saying,” Tom says, feeling her heartbeat deepen his breath. “Is that, societies with access to clean water are better off than those without.” He smiles. “That’s it, nothing else…”
Edward’s pack is the only real family Tom has ever known. He’s witnessed them fight with baseball bats, forks and knives, seen them knocked down and dragged outside. Watched as they pretended each other didn’t exist. But still, Tom thinks, walking downhill alone, I’ve never seen their bond break. It’s like water in that way. If one member is in trouble, the others focus their thoughts into a darkness scattering light that rains down tenfold, flooding the world like cancer killing climate change.
My family, Tom thinks, is different…