It is, in some ways, a tribute to the wonderful, trippy novels of Richard Brautigan. In fact, Richard Brautigan’s ghost will appear in several chapters, including the chapter called “Ghosts of the University Part III” which has yet to be written. Here are the first 5000 words of the novel.
If the morning goes well, or if it doesn’t, I don’t give a shit. I’m going to write a few pages, stop, drink some coffee, and write a few more. You know the drill! It’s all or nothing. In for a penny, in for a pound, jump in both feet, full steam ahead! Its go west young man, go forth pioneers.
I was just thinking about a moment when I was in college. There were two girls dressed in slinky going-out dresses. The smaller of the two said, “let’s take him and rape him!” The other girl smiled broadly and introduced herself. “I’m Kim,” she said. “That’s Shelly”.
We went out that night, the three of us, but there was no rape. It was about drinking, and cavorting. It rained that night, and as we walked to the bar, we reenacted a scene from that old Gene Kelly movie, sans umbrella. I remember the trees with their shiny bark. I remember Kim’s hair soaked by the rain, face streaming with it, glistening, her tongue sticking out to catch a drop or two. Shelly didn’t like the rain. She cowered under her hat, complaining and threatening to ditch us.
When I think of Kim, I always see her like that, joyful in the night, dancing and smiling, and playful. A few years later, she was gone, genetic illness they said. I remember a letter I got from her brother saying simply “She’s gone. Breaks your heart.” And it did, my heart was broken.
I don’t know why I thought of Kim just then, now, at the beginning of a new novel. I say novel, but I use the word loosely. A novel is supposed to be fiction, it’s supposed to be entertaining. I can’t promise that what follows will be either. Then again it might.
I was seventeen years old when I met Kim and Shelly. I had arrived from Germany earlier that summer, and crashed on the sofa at a friend’s house for several weeks, as the dormitory wasn’t open. I found work on campus at the library stacking shelves in a new wing. It was dull, mindless work but it was in the library, which I love. It was a good first job.
When finally the dormitory did open, I moved in, and quickly discovered that most of my contemporaries were there more for the parties than the learning. I was quick to oblige. I’d never been off the straight and narrow when I was in high school. There was free beer everywhere, parties every day of the week.
I didn’t have the cache of weirdness that I’d developed in high school either, although that quickly changed. My kind of weirdness is not something easily hidden.
So the parties, the drugs, the women, I indulged them all, and for a brief time at least, I fit in, because everyone else, so drunk, drugged out, besotted with each other that they all seemed as weird as I was. Those first few weeks, at least, were heaven.
This book isn’t about college. I wanted to open the door though, because memory is a sort of time travel, and this book is about time travel. It’s also about the consequences of time travel.
I still have dreams about those early days. I’m wandering the streets of a strange city. Its not always Milwaukee, where I went to college, but there are always echoes of it.
I’m wandering because I can’t find my apartment. Later in the dream I usually realize that part of my problem is that I should be looking for my dorm room, that I don’t have an apartment.
I always feel a bit disconnected and lost, before finally discovering that I’m “home”. Now I have to tell you that I never know how I got home, and it’s never entirely comfortable. Usually, “home” is a large room. There are paper partitions dividing space up. I’m already thinking, in these dreams, that when the others move out, I’ll have the place to myself.
See? Now we’ve gone traveling in both time, and space.
That’s how time travel works.
You think something. You remember some time. Briefly, it’s just a memory. Still more briefly, you travel to that place, to that instant. Sometimes you wonder if it really happened, but the memory is so crystalline and so pure that it can’t be argued with.
If this book is about time travel, then it’s also about leaving the body.
I started to leave my body when I was in my mid twenties. You’ll see, its all going to be here, as I time travel. I’m sharing my adventures with you, as I promised. So, Mary, sit back and put your feet up. Close your eyes, and we’ll begin.
I was walking on the moon. It was bright that day, the sun in its fixed location, and the long, lingering shadows. There was a dog walking with me, and I thought its feet were magnets, because unlike me, he didn’t bounce around in the low gravity. I don’t know the dog’s name, but he was a reddish color, I think he was a golden retriever.
On the moon, I was looking for a four-leaf clover. I knew it had to be there somewhere, because I remembered it so clearly. And I was right. After walking for what seemed like days, I saw the clover in a crater, surrounded by nuns. I went over and picked it up. One of the nuns looked at me, as if offended that I might take possession thus, but I was steadfast. “It’s mine!” I said by way of explanation.
So I walked on, happily in possession of the four-leaf clover, which was now poked into my lapel.
I looked out towards the horizon, and thought that I might make it there before dark. “How can it get dark,” I wondered, “if the sun never moves?” And I looked up to verify that, in fact, during the many hours I’d been walking since finding the clover, it had not moved an inch. The day, it seemed, was endless.
The dog chuckled. “If you keep walking,”, he said, “You will eventually walk to the dark side, where you won’t see the sun anymore. Be careful! It’s cold over there. You didn’t bring a coat!”
So I continued walking. Soon, I was seeing my breath vaporized, as the light grew dimmer, and the atmosphere cooler. Finally, I reached a point where the light ceased. I could see a line on the ground. On one side of it there was light, on the other, total dark.
Total dark, that is, except for a very large, shiny lake, full of jumping trout.
I ran over to see it. The dog stayed at the line of delineation. He wouldn’t cross, being a native of Florida.
I asked the trout why they were jumping. I couldn’t see any insects there for them to eat. One of the smaller ones came over and sat down near me. “If a trout jumps high enough”, he said, “He becomes a star.” And as if to prove his point, he leapt up, and sure enough, he achieved escape velocity and zipped up into a space in a lovely new constellation.
I smiled to myself thinking, “The next time I come here, I’m going to be a trout so I can become a star!”
The dog just chuckled.
“You should never talk to your food.” He said.
“You talk to me.” I replied.
“You are not food yet,” He said.
The Sharp Lectern
That morning when I woke up, I went to Carberry’s and got a very good cup of coffee and a wonderful Cinnamon Swirl. Then I moseyed over to campus, where the students were gathering. I was daydreaming about the time that I first met Kim and Shelly. I saw their echo in a lot of the young students on the quad. One of them even had a cowboy hat on.
When I got to the lectern, my coffee fell out of my hands. The students laughed as I cursed it, and James, one of the stupider ones, immediately rushed out the door. I knew what he was up to. Getting me a fresh cup in hopes of ingratiating me so that he could mitigate his crappy grades. It wouldn’t work, of course, but I didn’t see any reason not to mislead him.
I looked around the classroom quickly. Everyone was there.
Then I cursed again. I had touched the edge of the lectern and cut my hand on the edge. “Damned sharp lectern.” I said.
I quickly found my Band-Aids, and put one on it. I had been cut before, so now I was always prepared.
Melissa asked me a question.
“What do you think the answer is?” I asked her, in my best Socratic voice.
“Quarks.” She said. “Pi-mesons.”
“Yes,” I replied. “That is correct.”
Mondays at the lectern are not my favorite days. It seems somehow that the lectern is sharper on Mondays than any other day of the week. On Mondays, I almost always seem to cut my hand.
The Secret Villa
After class, I almost always go to the secret Villa. I can’t tell you much about it, its secret. I can tell you that there is a wonderful network of vines that grow all over it, and that I the autumn when the grapes begin to ferment, you can find it by smell.
I go there to work on my manuscript, and to sing to the vines. The vines often tell me that my singing is exactly the kind of music that they like. If I sing to them every day, they tell me, then the wine that year will be perfect.
In the secret Villa, I like to talk to the dolphins too, but the vines get jealous, so I try to talk to the dolphins in a voice that sounds like vine singing. It usually works to multi-task like this.
The day that Melissa asked the question that she apparently already knew the answer to, I had gone to see whether the concubine was there. I liked the concubine. I think that the thing I liked the best about the concubine is that she never wore any clothing and yet somehow never really seemed to be naked. How is that possible?
I also like the concubine for other reasons.
One of them is that her hair matches the dog’s hair very exactly almost as if they had the same mother.
Perhaps they did.
They say that a concubine is born without virginity. Because of this, she can do anything that any other woman can do, but even the strictest churches cannot accuse her of sinning. It’s a wonderful thing, both for the concubine, and for me because it means that we can do a lot of good things.
That day I wasn’t there for good things.
That day I was there to ask her about Steve.
“You know that Steve is dead.” I said. “Yes,” She replied. “Do you know what he saw when he crossed over?”
“I don’t know what he saw,” She said. “But I heard what he said.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said ‘Wow – oh! Wow’,” She replied.
For the rest of the day, I was thinking about what Steve had said, wondering what it was that he saw which had prompted him to say it.
The concubine didn’t have anything to offer about that.
So we did the thing that concubines do so well, and then I went back to the lectern for my afternoon class.
The Dark Studio
I don’t know why it’s always dark in the studio. There are more than enough lights. There are big windows and there is daylight as long as the sun is up. But always, people are saying “Its too dark in here. I can’t see my paper.”
Sometimes I bring a box full of table lamps in to help out, but even with a table lamp, the students still say it. They still say I can’t see my paper.
Someday I am going to call Will in the Physical Plant and have him come over to look at the light situation. Not today. Today I can’t call Will, because he is not in town. Today, Will is out of town. We will have to work in the dark studio.
I wanted Bill to finish his small etching today. The small etching is a picture of a pumpkin dressed as a witch. Its not trite, he says, because its not Halloween, so instead of being trite, its some kind of cockamamie statement about the illusions of a holiday.
I want him to finish the etching, because I’m sick of seeing it. It’s a crappy etching. It has no sense of line or structure. His cockamamie statement about the illusions of a holiday doesn’t work for me.
When he asked me what I thought of it, I told him it was fine. I’m not allowed to tell him what I really think because, according to the college, he is a paying customer, and the customer is always right.
Bill smiled and said, “Now tell me what you really think.”
I replied, “If I tell you what I really think, I could get fired.”
Then I told the rest of the class about the best recipe for sugar lift ink, and what the best solution for ground their plate is.
A large crow hit the window just then. All the students jumped.
Susan said “Look Mr. Green! He just made a print!”
Since this was a class about printmaking, it was an excellent teaching moment.
The Dark Studio Part 2
I like to stay in the studio at night. When all the students are gone I can work on my own etchings and nobody comes in to interrupt me with stupid questions. The only students who come in at night are the ones who never ask stupid questions. I like it at night because when they ask me questions, they are always sharp questions and I can give sharp answers.
I was working on a picture of a lake and trout jumping when Ashley came in.
“Mr. Green, I have a question about sugar lift etchings.” She said.
“Okay.” I said.
“Is it better to use real cane sugar in the ink mixture, or is it better to use Caro syrup?”
“Both of them will work,” I told her. “But Caro syrup will mix better with the ink. Cane sugar – well, you have to heat the ink to get them to mix well, and eventually it will crystallize. So my preference is to use Caro syrup.”
She thought about this for a few moments before saying “That makes a lot of sense Mr. Green. “
I handed her the bottle of Caro syrup.
Later on, I went over to watch as she washed her grounded plate.
“Rub it gently with – wait – okay you cut your nails. Rub it gently with your finger.”
She did and she laughed lightly when the ground began to lift away from the plate over her ink lines. “It works!” She said.
Later I showed her how to dust the plate with resin to add an aquatint.
A long time ago, I knew Ashley’s mother. Her mother’s name was Kate, and I met her when I was a student. I had been drinking as I often did in those days. When I went up the steps in the dormitory, I slipped on a wet spot. I couldn’t recover my balance in time, so I fell and my arm went through the window at the top of the steps. Not thinking, I pulled it back and in doing so, managed to cut up my arm pretty good on the jagged edges.
There was a hospital directly across the street. I ran back down the steps and out the door.
I ran across the street.
The light was on over the door with the sign that said “emergency”.
I went inside. At the time, Ashley wasn’t born yet.
But her mother was.
There behind the desk was Ashley’s mother.
I walked up to the desk. I leaned forward. She was on the telephone.
I cleared my throat. She looked up and asked what the problem was. I held up my arm to show her, and a gush of blood shot up and hit her in the chest. There was a Pollock like slash of red painted on her white blouse. She looked shocked for a moment, then said “I’ll call you back later” to her boyfriend on the phone, then rushed over to take a look.
“I think it hit a vein!” she said. Then she made me sit down while she applied direct pressure.
She looked at my face.
“You are so calm,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied.
There wasn’t another chair nearby, so she sat down on my lap.
“Oh,” she said, when she realized that by sitting on my lap she had given me a strange incentive.
“Lets not waste that!” she said.
When she was done with the bandage, she took me by that hand and led me over behind the counter.
“I thought that was your boyfriend on the phone before,” I said as she lifted her skirt. “Be quiet! He was!” she said. After that all our talking was in a different language.
Ashley’s Mother’s Daughter
Ashley kissed me when she left later on.
“Do you want me to tell Mom that you’ll be home soon?” She asked.
“No Ashley – I’m going to work on this print some more. Tell her to come over if she wants to after work!”
Ashley smiled. She doesn’t look anything like her mom.
I smiled back at her and said “don’t forget to eat something.”
Late Night Painting
Painting late at night is like sleeping only better. I can sit at my easel, or my drawing table, or my computer, and the world around me is quite still. My body goes into hibernation, except of course for my hands, eyes and brain. Those things are involved in the painting process. Here in the studio, I never find it to be particularly dark, despite what the students say. At night, when nobody is here, when even Ashley has gone home, I can talk to myself and sing as I paint and there is nobody around to raise an eyebrow. If I am looking at a model, she should be sleeping. Its best when the model is asleep, because they can get self conscious.
So I hire students who need rest but also need money to sleep while I draw, photograph, paint or print them. When they are asleep for me, they never stir. I have that effect on sleeping people.
If I am around you when you fall asleep, you will sleep even more deeply than usual. If you dream, you will have very special dreams. Dreams are like that when you are with me.
Sometimes when I’m painting late at night I see the ghosts of the University. For example, one ghost of the University is a one time University president who died in bed with a student of a heart attack. He wasn’t in the bed of the student of a heart attack, he was dead, of a heart attack, in the bed of a student. And the student was not being taught by a heart attack either. No, the president of the University was dead because he had a heart attack while he was in bed with a student.
Another one of the ghosts of the University is a little grey man with a long beard. He tells me that he was working on a book, a very long book about little girls with penises who saved the world. Someday, he says, he would like me to look up his old landlord and ask her for the book. I don’t have the heart to tell him that his old landlord sold the book many many years ago to a collector of such things. There was a series of articles in the newspaper about it.
Another one of the ghosts of the University is a young woman, a writer, who committed suicide when her boyfriend left her for another basketball player. Go figure. I’d think they are both better off without each other, if he’s gay and she’s not. So once I asked her why she killed herself. She just looked around and said “It seemed like the thing to do.”
In University circles, she is revered like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Mazzy Star even wrote a song about her and in the recording the words are so muffled that you can’t understand a word she is singing. And the ghost writer’s poems were like that too – secret and mumbled and almost like talking to herself.
My least favorite one of the ghosts of the University is a small dog. I don’t know his name. So far I haven’t discovered one that he answers to. But I hate that small dog because he cries all night long when he’s around, and he scares my dog Mabel away. Then she comes back and gives me that oh I’m so guilty look. If I was ever attacked by a real powerful ghost, a poltergeist for example, Mabel would be no damn good. That is why I hate the ghost of the dog so much. Its not good for Mabel’s self image.
Today I went to Billy’s studio. He said there was something he wanted to discuss with me over coffee. If you know Billy then you know that this was meant literally. Billy didn’t mean he wanted to drink coffee with me and talk something over. What he meant was that he wanted me to climb up on the little wooden bridge he has set up in his studio. Under the bridge, he has ten fifty pound bags of unroasted coffee beans. When he says he wants to discuss something over coffee, he really means it.
Over coffee he asked me how I was.
Over coffee, I told him I was find.
Over coffee, he asked me if my daughter was doing okay.
Over coffee, I told him that she was fine. I also mentioned over coffee that she was becoming a very fine printmaker.
Over coffee, He said he was having problems with an image. Would I look it over and tell him what I thought.
Over coffee, I told him sure, as soon as we get down from here. I don’t want to talk about it over coffee.
So we got down.
Not over coffee, I looked at his picture.
Not over coffee, I said Well this simply looks like crap,
Not over coffee, Billy smiled and punched me in the nose.
Not over coffee, I hit him back.
Not over coffee, we had a fine little fist fight.
Not over coffee, when Billy had the fight knocked out of him he said
I really needed that, thank you.
Then we both stood up, shook hands and walked into his kitchen, where he put on a pot of coffee.
Over coffee really (talking it over while drinking coffee this time) we seriously discussed his picture which was, really, quite good. Over coffee really I told him I didn’t know what his problem was. Over coffee really, I said if any other artist had painted this picture, he or she would be proud. Over coffee really If any other artist had expressed this, they’d be rich and famous right now.
Over coffee really he said, But not me, because I don’t want to be rich and famous.
Over coffee really I told him I’d probably like to be famous even for a little while.
Over coffee really he said be careful what you wish for.
That afternoon I had a call from Melonie at the gallery.
She said that a man had come in with a million dollars in cash.
“He bought the painting!” she said.
“What painting?” I asked.
“You know what painting,” she said. “The fingernail moon and the pagan caboose painting.”
“Oh that one,” I said.
Then she told me that he also wanted my next four pictures and that he would give me one million dollars each for them.
“Okay,” I said.
So I went over to the gallery and I saw Melonie.
That afternoon, I didn’t become a millionaire, because Melonie as owner of the gallery keeps a twenty five percent cut of all my sales. She used to keep fifty percent, but then I wasn’t selling for very much so I never made enough to make even fifty percent worthwhile. I wondered wjhy this man had paid so much money. And why he was willing to pay so much more.
When I got to the gallery, Melonie was smiling and she had a big bottle of champagne there. She opened it when I came through the door. “Don’t worry, she said, “I charged the champagne to your account!” “I hope you didn’t buy and expensive one!” I said.
“It might take you a little while to get used to the idea that you are very rich!” she said. “But I bought the best I could find on such short notice.”
She was right. It was very good champagne, and the cheese was pretty good too.
Before I left, she gave me a briefcase, and she suggested that I should put it all in the bank. At first I thought that she meant I should go and put the briefcase in the bank, but when I thought about it that didn’t make any sense.
In fact, I thought that what she meant is that I should go to the bank and open some kind of account to put the money in. I don’t think it really mattered what I did with the briefcase. It was incidental.
In fact, the briefcase isn’t much use to me as an artist. I can’t really paint with a briefcase. I can’t really use it to bind a book because its not real leather. I suppose I could mount some feathers on it and use it as a pillow, but I’m not really sure if that is a good idea. I’m allergic to most feathers. I have to sleep on hypoallergenic pillows. Either that or ample female breasts.
Artists and Money
I think artists must like money. I don’t love it particularly, its usually nice to keep some around. So that day, I put a lot of the money in the bank. Then I took the rest, and I went over to Phil’s Old Bar, and I sat at the bar in Phil’s Old Bar and bought a round of drinks for everyone in the room. Then I sat there for awhile sipping my drink. Phil came over and said hey, you got enough for this?
I looked at him and I told him.
“Phil, “ I said, “Remember to painting of the fingernail moon and the pagan caboose?”
He didn’t remember it. Maybe I never showed it to him.
Well, I told him, I sold it today at Melonie’s gallery. For one million dollars.
He looked surprised.
“So you are a millionaire? “ He asked.
“Well not yet,” I said. “Melonie gets twenty five percent of every sale, so I won’t be a millionaire until the next sale. But he said that he wanted to by the next few paintings too, for a million a piece, so I guess I’ll be a millionaire soon.”
Then we both shut up for a long time. I drank a bit too much, then asked Phil what was I supposed to do with all that damned money.
“Buy a car!” he said. “Buy a German car! Buy a goddamned Porch!”
So we went out to the biggest car dealership in town.
Mr. Worthington came up and asked what we were doing.
I told him I wanted to buy a car.
“What kind of car are you looking for?” asked Mr. Worthington.
I looked at Phil.
Phil said “He wants to buy a frigging Porch!”
Mr. Worthington looked confused and said “Do you want to buy a car, or do you want to buy a Porch?”
Phil said “Both – the kind of car we want is a german car, a Porch.”
Then Mister Worthington laughed and said “Oh – I bet you mean a Porshe!”
Ring-ding! It was like a bell going off in Phil’s head. His eyes opened wide and he said, by god, my friend here wants to buy a Porsche!”
So Mr. Worthington showed me a few, and I liked the red one and bought it right there with cash. I also paid for some insurance and a rush job on the license plates. He said they’d be in the mail in a few days. I think I made him happy, and I was pretty happy about the car. It had a real good stereo. It had so many cupholders that I could, if my arms was long enough, have a drink in every seat in the car, a different drink, and with my long enough arms I could drink them all at different times on the same ride.
I dropped off Phil at the bar. Just before I drove away, he said “Well I guess we know what an artist does with money now don’t we?
And he was right.
When I Saw Ashely Tomorrow
When I saw Ashely tomorrow, she smiled when she came into the studio. What’s the red Porsche doing in your space?
I said I sold a picture.
She was about to yell at me about spending all the money in one place.
I said “don’t worry – there is plenty more in the bank, and plenty more where that came from. “
She was very happy for me, and she started to cry. “I always knew you’d be famous someday!”
Later on she came back to see me and she had the Milwaukee Sentinel.
“Look – you are in the paper!”
And she was right. There was a picture of me on the front page, riding my horse by Lake Michegan, and underneath it said “local artist latest trend!” Melonie had sent out a press release. Suddenly. All the other paintings in the gallery had been snatched up, and in less than a week, I went from having a pay by the hour walk to work job to being a multimillionaire, and having a big house, a private studio, and driving a big red Porsche around.
That is what it was like when I saw Ashley tomorrow.