I wouldn’t have been the first freshman to jump to his death from the newly minted East Towers at Penn State. Seventh floor, I was high enough up in the air. Splat. Not today. In the spring of 1971, I had to let go of the illusion of friends, family, country, and collegiate career, when everyone got up and left right after my father died.
Mom had bounced down to the booby hatch again, about two days after his funeral, sadly attended by only his ex-wife and three children. Meanwhile, back at Penn State, my girlfriend decided this would be a good time to start fucking my best friend, who lived down the hall from me. Despite all that, suicide is ultimately a violent narcissistic act about hurting others. I wasn’t mad at my dad. I’m sure he didn’t plan on dying of a sudden heart attack at 48. Mom? She had acute mental illness the last six years, and had been hospitalized for manic episodes at least once a year since I had turned twelve. Joyce, my girlfriend since I turned sixteen, who ran away to Penn State just to be with me, though she could have written her own ticket, with her brains and her parents’ money . . . hell no. Christ, it was the 70s, free love, baby. Love the one you’re with. And I was no fun. Jim? My best friend? How could he resist her—smart, funny, green eyes, freckles, and literally, 36-24-36.
I wasn’t nearly mad enough at anyone, especially me, to go suicidal on them. It was just enough to consider it, each and every damn day. You see, life is a choice, my choice, not anyone else’s choice. Only by considering my power to end it, with a leap to the courtyard below, or a handful of infirmary-prescribed seconal, could I find the real power I had in that choice …
Alright. I’ll live today. Dad’s dead. Mom’s nuts. Girlfriend’s fucking my best friend, and I’m flunking out. But I will not give my hillbilly roommate, Kyle, who’s majoring in Animal Husbandry, the satisfaction of saying to his hillbilly friends, Damn pot-smoking hippies. See what you get. Drugs will kill you.
No. You idiot sideways hillbilly fuck. Drugs saved my sorry life. And yours. Without them I would have killed you and then myself. And suddenly found an imaginative way to do it. PCP, animal tranquilizers, comes to mind.
So, I did what the infirmary doctor ordered. Why not get out of yourself. Maybe take a little trip over the weekend.
I dropped. Acid. Took it as it was originally prescribed … for depression.
Found a friend, i.e., someone who I got high with, and who assisted me in buying and selling my drugs—those rare times I had more drugs than I could safely consume. So, why not sell some of the drugs I had so I could buy other, better, different drugs?
Other, better, different drugs became my new motto after dear dad died. And wherever those drugs took me to, or whatever I needed to do to survive taking those drugs, or to obtain more drugs.
I dropped. Dosed. Tripped. And it wasn’t the first time. Although definitely the only time I traded seconal for acid. Wasn’t the most profound trip I had ever been on, before or since. My acid tripping friend was another Hillbilly from West Virginia. Except he liked to do drugs. He had bad teeth, from hillbilly dentists, and a cratered complexion, from a hillbilly diet—pheasant and Kool-aid. In spite of all that, he always looked like his thin, shiny, straight hair had just been washed. He would constantly run his dirty fingers through his hair, and pull it back from his face when we were high—which was all the time.
I do not recall attending any classes, Spring Term, 1971. And yet I maintained a 2.0 average. How did I do that? Behold the miracle of drugs, son.
Dad’s dead. Mom’s crazy. Girlfriend’s fucking your best friend. What are you going to do about it? Drugs. That’s what you’re going to do about it.
So, around the time we were peaking on this particular Window Pane, we wandered over to the Quad cafeteria. Not because we were hungry. Oh god no. We had found a way to mount our little consciousness boards, and surf the wave we were on … all the way into shore. It was safe to go out. Be around others. Observe their habits in their native habitat. This was a favorite pastime. I played the professorial cultural anthropologist, while he was my assistant.
“Ralph, what do we see over there?” I always called him, Ralph, when we were high … which was all the time. And I cannot remember his real name because of it. Oh well.
“We see a mating ritual, “ Ralph said.
“Exactly,” I concurred. “The male of the species, in his brightly flowing tie-dyed shirt, is flashing his white teeth, showing off his sturdy jawline …. good for tearing and masticating meat.”
“Strong neck. Good bone structure, “ Ralph added.
“He’s pimping out his gene pool, and releasing their pheromones.”
“Their what?” Ralph tried to keep a straight face and stay in character.
That West Virginie boy was the best goddam drug assistant an almost-suicidal-freshman could ever have. “They’re giving off their scent to each other, “ I explained to my dear, Ralph. “Primates always do this before mating as a sign … of their desire to … mate—“
“Must carry on the species, “ Ralph, who I suspected was still a virgin, but I never asked, suddenly charged in.
“Yes. Releasing their pheromones as their complex, coded DNA message to each other, describing the attributes of their gene pool.”
I actually had taken a course in Cultural Anthropology, and read, The Naked Ape. So, I was obviously well-versed in my part. Ralph , on the other hand, was just a naturally gifted actor when he was high—which was all the time. I fed him my lines like he was a starving lion at the zoo. That was all he needed for his part to unfold, and virtually write itself.
As we bantered on, tripping balls like no tomorrow, we didn’t notice how our observed, mating ritual couple’s conversation was heating up. Right about the time of our absolute peak, she rose up from their table, picked up her full glass of water—yes, cafeterias had water glasses made of glass, not plastic or paper way back then—and threw it with the arm of a major league pitcher.
As the glass shattered against the wall, at least thirty feet away, where thankfully, no one—especially our balls-out-tripping-asses—was sitting, every sound in the cafeteria stopped on the thinnest membrane … between worlds. Life before she rose up and threw her full water glass against the wall, and life there after. She simply stood there and watched, as we all stared with her, and observed the water bleed, like Salvador Dali’s clock, down the landscape of the institutional green wall, creating in its magical wake a primordial silence
I turned to Ralph. Since we were tripping our balls off, neither one of us could be sure if we had just seen what we thought we had seen. His pupils, like the giant black saucers of some alien insect, confirmed it. What had been seen cannot be unseen.
And as this deafening silence enveloped us all, and she continued to stand there admiring her work, I turned once more to my faithful assistant. “And so we arrive at the primordial silence of early man,” I said in a voice that sounded just like an educational film narrator.
Ralph couldn’t hold it in a second longer, and burst out laughing. Then I started howling.
Now all eyes were on us. Surely everyone now knew we were tripping, and would call the campus police. We ran for the exit, ran for our tripping lives, laughing so hard, we were double bonus pin balls bouncing off metal-framed chairs like 100 point bumpers, and Formica tables screaming a thousand each, all lit up like the Fourth of July, careening through the cafeteria in the most hysterical, tripping balls zigzag line you could ever imagine. Outside, we clutched our sides, and bent over with more aching laughter. We would have easily puked out laughter, if there was anything other than cheap cafeteria Cokes in our heaving stomachs.
As soon as we settled down some, we ran, half laughing, half stumbling along, over to his room at the older dorms. Ralph’s drugs saved my life. I began to slowly knit myself back together after that fateful day of, She Who Must Be Obeyed threw her water glass against the wall.
And everything that had mattered shattered. For good.
Much later, after midnight, and we had smoked enough bowls to stone an elephant, I wandered back to my dorm room. There was a pay phone in the hall. No personal phones of any kind, we left notes saying who had called on each other’s doors.
On my door there was a new note. I ripped it free of the push-pin. Unfolded it. “Death called.”Nice try. Yeah. Right. If I was still tripping balls, I might have gone off on a death trip. But I was coming down free and easy off that high Window Pane. Besides, I knew what it meant. My girlfriend, Joyce, though she came like an astronaut, was sometimes more than a little dry, and very tight. There was simply no such thing as lube back then, so, I just greased that big nasty pole with a couple fingers-full of Vaseline. I kept the jar handy, next to my bed, on account of the fact I was fucking her all the damn time.
And so she came by the nickname, “Death Valley,” also a tribute to a popular Western called, “Death Valley Days.”
“Death Valley” now shortened to, “Death,” I laughed to myself, shoving the note down into my dirty jeans’ pocket. Yup, in a way, tripping out on acid that whole Saturday, I felt like I had cheated death, and cheated on, “Death Valley.”
Kyle was sawing wood as I fell into my bed with my clothes on. I loved her madly, my little, “Death Valley.” Even though she was fucking my best friend, and her art teacher. No matter, I couldn’t quit her, my first true love. A plan rose out of the wreckage. I would move. Run far away. It was the only way to let go of her, my Dad, my wonderful, but crazy mom.
Move way out west. First in my family to live west of the Mississippi. That’s how I would get back at all of them for abandoning me. I’d leave them, geographically speaking, far, far behind.