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Finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, Fiction.
The morning was a fish in a net, glistening and wriggling at the dead black border of her consciousness, but she'd never caught a fish in a net or on a hook either, so she couldn't really say if or how or why. The morning was a fish in a net. That was what she told herself over and over, making a little chant of it-a mantra-as she decapitated weeds with the guillotine of her hoe, milked the slit-eyed goats and sat down to somebody's idea of porridge in the big drafty meeting room, where sixty shimmering communicants sucked at spoons and worked their jaws.
Outside was the California sun, making a statement in the dust and saying something like ten o'clock or ten-thirty to the outbuildings and the trees. There were voices all around her, laughter, morning pleasantries and animadversions, but she was floating still and just opened up a million-kilowatt smile and took her ceramic bowl with the nuts and seeds and raisins and the dollop of pasty oatmeal afloat in goat's milk and drifted through the door and out into the yard to perch on a stump and feel the hot dust invade the spaces between her toes. Eating wasn't a private act-nothing was private at Drop City-but there were no dorm mothers here, no social directors or parents or bosses, and for once she felt like doing her own thing. Grooving, right? Wasn't that what this was all about? The California sun on your face, no games, no plastic society-just freedom and like minds, brothers and sisters all?
Star-Paulette Regina Starr, her name and being shrunk down to four essential letters now-had been at Drop City for something like three weeks. Something like. In truth, she couldn't have said exactly how long she'd been sleeping on a particular mattress in a particular room with a careless warm slew of non-particular people, nor would she have cared to. She wasn't counting days or weeks or months-or even years. Or eons either. Big Bang. Who created the universe? God created the universe. The morning is a fish in a net. Wasn't it a Tuesday when they got here? Tuesday was music night, and today-today was Friday. She knew that much from the buzz around the stewpot in the kitchen-the weekend hippies were on their way, and the gawkers and gapers too-but time wasn't really one of her hangups, as she'd demonstrated for all and sundry by giving her Tissot watch with the gold-link wristband to an Indian kid in Taos, and he wasn't even staring at her or looking for a handout, just standing there at the bus stop with his hand clenched in his mother's. "Here," she said, "here," twisting it off her wrist, "you want this?" She'd never been west before, never seen anything like it, and there he was, black bangs shielding his black eyes, a little deep-dwelling Indian kid, and she had to give him something. The hills screamed with cactus. The fumes of the bus rode up her nose and made her eyes water.
She'd come west with a guy from home, Ronnie Sommers, who called himself Pan, and they'd had some adventures along the way, Star and Pan-like Lewis and Clark, only brighter around the edges. Ronnie stopped for anybody with long hair, and that was universally good, opening up a whole world of places to crash, free food, drugs. They spent one night in Arizona in a teepee with a guy all tanned and lean, his hair tied back under a snakeskin headband, cooking brown rice and cauliflower over an open fire and swallowing peyote buds he'd gathered himself in the blinding white hills. "Hunters and gatherers," he kept saying, "that's what we are," and every time he said it they all broke up, and then Ronnie rolled a joint and she felt so good she made it with both of them.
She was still chanting to herself, the leaves on the trees frying right before her eyes and the dollop of oatmeal staring up at her from the yellowish goat's milk like something that had come out of her own body, blown out, vomited out, naked and alive and burnished with its own fluids, when a shadow fell over her and there he was, Ronnie, hovering in the frame of her picture like a ghost image. "Hey," he said, squatting before her in his huaraches and cutoff jeans, "I missed you, where you been?" Then he was lifting her foot out of the dust, her right foot, the one with the fishhook-shaped scar sealed into the flesh as a memento of her childhood, and he kissed her there, the wet impress of his lips dully glistening in the featureless glare.
She stared at her own foot, at his hand and his long, gnawed fingers, at the silver and turquoise rings eating up the light. "Ringo-Pan," she said.
He laughed. His hair was getting long at the back of his neck, spilling like string over the spool of his head, and his beard was starting to cohere. But his face-his face was small and distant, receding like a balloon swept up into the sky.
"I was milking the goats," she said.
Two kids-little kids-blond, naked, dirty, appeared on the periphery, flopped down and started wrestling in the dirt. Somebody was banging a tambourine, and now a flute started up, skirling and stopping and lifting away like birdsong. "Good shit, huh?" he said.
Her smile came back, blissed-out, drenched with sun. Everything was alive everywhere. She could feel the earth spinning like a big ball beneath her feet. "Yeah," she said. "Oh, yeah. Definitely."
And then it was night. She'd come down gradually through the course of a long slow afternoon that stretched out and rolled over like a dog on a rug, and she'd worked in the kitchen with some of the others, chopping herbs, onions and tomatoes for the lentil soup and singing along to the Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. Somebody was passing a pipe and she took a hit or two from that, and she'd kept a fruit jar topped up with Spañada right next to her throughout the cooking and the washing up and the meal that went on like the Last Supper while a guy named Sky Dog or maybe it was Junior Sky Dog played acoustic guitar and sang verses he made up on the spot. The blond kids from the morning were there, naked still, lentil soup streaking their torsos like war paint, and there was a baby in a wicker papoose strapped to the back of a gaunt tall woman with eyes that were like two craters sunk into her head. People were everywhere, people she'd never seen before-the weekend hippies up from the city-and her brothers and sisters too. Smoke rose from joss sticks, from grass and hash threaded meticulously from hand to hand as if they were all collectively stitching a quilt in the air. A pair of rangy yellow dogs sniffed at people's feet and thrust their snouts in the bowls that lay scattered across the floor.
Star was perched up on a throne of old couch pillows in the corner, along with Ronnie and a new girl whose name she'd forgotten. She wasn't feeling anything but tired, and though the whole thing-the whole scene-was fantastic, like summer camp without the counselors, a party that never ends, she was thinking she'd had enough, thinking she might just slip off and find a place to crash and let the sleep wash over her like a dark tide of nothing. Ronnie's leg lay across her own, and she could just barely feel the new girl's hair on her shoulder like a sprinkle of salt or sugar. She closed her eyes, let herself drift. The music began to fade, water sucked down a drain, water that was rushing over her, a creek, a river, one pool spilling into the next...but then one of the kids let out a sudden sharp wail and she came back to the moment. The kid, the little boy with his bare abdomen and dangling parts and his missing front teeth that gave him the look of a half-formed little ghoul, slapped something out of his mother's hand-Reba, that was her name, or maybe it was Rena? He let out another shriek, high and mechanical, but that was the beginning and the end of it, because Reba just held a joint to his lips and then sank back into the pillows as if nothing had happened.
Nothing had. No one seemed to notice or care. Sky Dog had been joined by a second guitarist now, and they were working their way through the steady creeping changes of a slow blues. A topless woman no one had ever seen before got up and began to hump her hips and flap her enormous breasts to the beat; before long, a couple of the commune's more or less permanent members rose up from the floor to join her, swaying in place and snaking their arms like Hindu mystics.
"A tourist," Ronnie said, the syllables dry and hard on his tongue. "Weekend hippie." He was wearing a Kmart T-shirt Star had tie-dyed for him on their first day here, orange supernovae bursting out of deep pink and purple galaxies, and when he turned to the new girl the light behind him made his beard translucent. "You're no tourist," he said. "Right, Merry?"
Merry leaned back into the cradle of his arm. "I am not ever going back," she said, "I promise you that."
"Right," Ronnie said, "right, don't even think about it." Then he slipped his free arm around Star's shoulders and gave her a squeeze, and "Hey," he was saying, caught up in the slow-churning engine of the moment, "you want to maybe go down by the river and spread a blanket under the stars and make it-just the three of us, I mean? You feel like it?" His eyes were on the dancing woman, up one slope and down the other. "Would that be righteous, or what?"
And here was the truth: Star didn't feel like it. Nor, despite what she'd told herself, had she felt like it that night in the teepee either. It was Ronnie. Ronnie had talked her into undressing in front of the other guy-or no, he'd shamed her into it. "You don't want to be an uptight bourgeois cunt like your mother, do you?" he'd said, his voice a fierce rasp in her ear. "Or my mother, for shitsake? Come on, it's all right, it's just the human body, it's natural-I mean, what is this?"
The other guy, the teepee guy-she never knew his name-just watched her as if she were a movie he'd never seen before. He was sitting there yoga style, the very avatar of peace and love, but you could see he was all wound up inside. He was intense. Freakish, even. She could feel it, some sort of bad vibe emanating from him, but then she told herself she was just being paranoid because of the peyote. So she lay back, crossed her legs at the ankles and stared into the fire. No one said anything for the longest time. And when she looked up finally the teepee guy's eyes were so pale there were no irises to them, or hardly any, and Ronnie rolled a joint and helped her off with her blue denim shirt with all the signs of the zodiac she'd embroidered up and down the sleeves and across the shoulders, and he was in his shorts and the teepee guy-cat, teepee cat, because Ronnie was always correcting her, you don't call men guys you call them cats-was in some sort of loincloth, and she was naked to the waist. The firelight rode up the walls and the smoke found the hole at the top.
"Just like the Sioux camped on the banks of the Little Bighorn, right, man?" Ronnie said, passing the joint. And then time seemed to ripple a bit, everything sparking red and blue-green and gold, and Ronnie was on top of her and the teepee guy was watching and she didn't care, or she did, but it didn't matter. They made it on an Indian rug in the dirt with this cat watching, but it was Ronnie, and she fit the slope of his body, knew his shoulders and his tongue and the way he moved. Ronnie. Pan. From back home. But then he rolled off her and sat there a minute saying, "Man, wow, far out," breathing hard, sweat on his forehead and a tiny infinitesimal drop of it fixed like a jewel to the tip of his nose, and he made a gesture to the teepee cat and said, "Go ahead, brother, it's cool-"
Outside, at the main gate to the Drop City ranch, there was a plywood sign nailed clumsily to the wooden crossbars: no men, no women-only children. That was about it, she was thinking, nothing but children, Show and Tell, and show and show and show. Ronnie's arm was like a dead thing, like a two-ton weight, a felled tree crushing her from the neck down. The big topless woman danced. Got to keep movin', Junior Sky Dog was singing, movin' on down the line.
"So what do you say?" Ronnie wanted to know. His face was right there, inches from hers, the pale fur of his beard, the dangle of his hair. His eyes were fractured, little ceramic plates hammered into the sheen there and then smashed to fragments. She said nothing, so he turned to Merry, and Star watched the new girl's face.
Merry had her own version of the million-kilowatt smile, wide-mouthed and pretty, and she was all legs in a pale yellow miniskirt that looked as if it hadn't been washed in a month. She looked first to Ronnie, then stared right into Star's eyes before letting her gaze drift out across the room as if she were too stoned to care, but she did care, she did-Star could see it in the self-conscious way she ducked her head and tugged at the hem of her dress and the dark indelible line of dirt there where she'd tugged at it a thousand times before. "I don't know," she said, her voice nothing but air. And then she shrugged. "I guess."
The two blond kids were dancing now, the vacant-eyed boy of four or five and his little sister, watching their feet, no sense of rhythm, none at all, the boy's little wadded-up tube of a penis flapping like a metronome to another beat altogether. "Cool," Ronnie said. And then he turned to her, to Star, and said, "What about it, Star, what do you say?"
She said, "I don't think so. Not tonight. I'm feeling-I don't know, weird."
"Weird? What the fuck you talking about?" Ronnie's brow was crawling and his mouth had dropped down into a little pit of nothing-she knew the look. Though he hadn't moved a muscle, though for all the world he was the hippest coolest least-uptight flower-child cat in the universe, he was puffing himself up inside, full of rancor and Ronnie-bile. He got his own way. He always got his own way, whether it was a matter of who he was going to ball and when or what interstate they were going to take or where they were going to spend the night or even what sort of food they were going to eat. It didn't matter if they were passing through Buttwash, Texas, the Dexamil wearing off and eggs over easy the only thing she could think about to the point of obsession and maybe even hallucination, he wanted tacos, he wanted salsa and chiles and Tecate, and that's what they got.
"No, come on now, don't be a bummer, Paulette. You know what the Keristan Society says, right there in black and white in the Speeler? Huh? Don't you?"
She did. Because he quoted it to her every time he felt horny. Whoever they were, the Keristanians or Keristanters or whatever they wanted to call themselves, they preached Free Love without prejudice-that is, making it with anybody who asked, no matter their race or creed or color or whether they were fat and old or retarded or smelled like the underside of somebody's shoe. It was considered an act of hostility to say no to anybody who wanted to ball, whether you felt like it or not-it's seven A.M. and you're hungover and your hair looks like it's been grafted to your head, and some guy wants to ball? You ball him. Either that, or you're not into the scene because you're infected with all your bourgeois hangups just like your fucked-up parents and the rest of the straight world. That was what the Keristan Society had to say, but what she was thinking, or beginning to think, in the most rudimentary way, was that Free Love was just an invention of some cat with pimples and terminally bad hair and maybe crossed eyes who couldn't get laid any other way or under any other regime, and she wasn't having it, not tonight, not with Ronnie and what's her name.
"No, Ronnie," she said, lifting his arm off her shoulder and letting it drop like the deadweight it was, "n-o." She was on her feet now, looking down at him, at the tiny dollop of his face and the girl staring up at her with her smile fading like a brown-out. "I don't give a shit about the Keristan Society. I'm going to bed. And don't call me that."
He was hurt, put-upon, devastated, clinging to the girl-Merry, that was her name, Merry-as if she were a crate on the high seas and his ship had just gone down. "Call you what?"
Breasts flapping, the little penis swaying, people hammering tambourines against their palms and the smoke of grass and incense roiling up off the floor like fog. "Don't call me Paulette," she said, and then she was gone, bare feet picking their way through the sprawled hips and naked limbs of her brothers and her sisters.
—from Drop City: A Novel by T. C. Boyle, Copyright © 2003 by T. C. Boyle, Published by Viking Press, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.