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In a San Diego rest home in the 1970s, eighteen-year-old surfer-boy orderly, Edgar Donahoe, struggles along until the night he and his best friend become responsible for the disappearance of a fellow worker.
NILS SAAG LIVES ON CAVE STREET in the posh but crowded and sterile community of La Jolla in a quirky thirteen-level mansion of his genius architect father’s design. I park inconspicuously down the street Nils is sensitive about appearances and walk up the hill through the tall iron gate and to the giant, arched double front doors where I ring the bell. From his eagle’s-nest bedroom window thirty feet above, I can hear Neil Young raging through the screens. Hate was just a legend, and war was never known
I ring the bell again. At last a smooth, haughty face framed in long, glossy brown hair appears in the top window. It might be Neil Young himself. The face nods. The music goes off. In another minute the door opens.
Nils is twenty, a slender lad with quick-moving heavily browed eyes, shiny shoulder-length hair, and small delicate hands, the nails of which he manicures carefully but does not cut. He is wearing floral bell-bottoms, a stiff beige high-collared ecclesiastical frock, moccasins, and a neckful of Celtic charms. Between his feminine fingers smolders one of those clove cigarettes hand-rolled by orphans in Pakistan. “Hey, man,” he greets me indignantly. “You said two o’clock.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s after three.”
“Sorry. I lost track of the time.”
“Where you been?”
He grunts. “You look like a drowned rat. Come in.” He pecks at his cigarette. “Let’s go out to the garden.”
I follow him through the curious mansion with its odd wall angles, jutting indoor porches, Moorish arches, switchbacks of black-carpeted stairs, International House of Pancake sashes, and tiles of rose and bluebottle tinted glass. Chrome-framed prints of the revolutionary icons of our day glower down over us through their beards among the scent of carpet glue, beach breeze, burning clove, and a sweet fleshy odor like bing cherries and fried baloney. My stomach growls. Through the great west bay window hangs the burnished purple ocean with hard glimmers on it like dental mirrors and a group of islands in the offing that may well be Hawaii. Though I know he has parents because once I saw his mom, looking like a magazine cutout, rattling a sterling silver shaker at the wet bar in the piano room Nils seems to always be alone in this glamorously eccentric and colossally lonesome palace.
Nils demands a certain ritual from me. (He is lonely, doesn’t get out much, and I suppose he does this with all the people who come to do business with him.) We sit by the garden. I am required to call the high-quality LSD he sells “pure.” We must sit and talk like medicine men about Nietzsche, Nostradamus, or Kahlil Gibran. I must defer to his ideas. He will show me a catalog of organic toilets or geodesic outhouses and I will approve. Then he will make transported statements about dolphins or American Indians, and then at last he will guide me to his room at the very top of the mansion and give me the quantity of “pure” and I will be on my way.
We tour his organic garden, as tiered and complex as his house. He seems to forget he has shown it to me three times before. The carrots and other root crops sit on the lowest level below a family of caged peppers and seven varieties of onion. He shows me the orange, the tamarind, and the barren sweet lime tree, which clatters leaflessly in the sea breeze waiting for another season. He plucks an orange and gestures at me to sit down at a redwood table overlooking the carrots.
“Should we take a little bud?” he says, producing an ornate rosewood box.
“It’s purple Kenyan,” he says, fastidiously trimming with scissors a dark bud like a tiny evergreen, layering the tacky foliage into a briar pipe the ivory bowl of which is carved into the bust of what might be Leif Ericsson, Thor Heyerdahl, or possibly Fred MacMurray, and applying fire. The Kenyan tastes like maple syrup and a basement full of lepers in unlaundered bathrobes, and very quickly the sky is vibrating, the pressure has doubled behind my eardrums, the fruit trees are creaking conspiratorially, and my already handicapped IQ has plummeted forty-six points. I wish I were back on the ocean. Nils is nodding at me. He is one of those who nods almost constantly as if he knows and understands all and everything is cool, brother. I stare at the lacy waving tops of his organic carrots and watch the way the sun gleams from his perfectly center-parted Neil Young hair, which is so gleaming and clean-looking I think he is definitely using a conditioner.
“Pretty good bud, eh?” he says.
“I’ll say.” A fly lands on the back of my hand but I don’t have the energy or the organization to wave it off.
“So what if we’ve had other lives before,” Nils says, lifting his palms. “What good is it if we can’t remember them?”
“I couldn’t remember them anyway.”
“No, the answer is: because if you could remember them, then it would change the life you’re living now.”
“I think I see what you’re saying. One day you get to view all your lives like a rack of Halloween costumes that you can’t remember ever having worn ”
“Yeah,” he says, peeling his orange slowly with his long pointed fingernails. I remember reading something about Chinese aristocrats who grew long fingernails to demonstrate their independence from labor. “Kind of like that. Except you’ll remember them then. And all your lives on earth will be done. You want an orange?”
Though I’m actually starving and my mouth feels like one of Davy Crockett’s old coonskin caps, I don’t want to commit to anything that prolongs my stay. The barren sweet lime tree rattles its agreement in the breeze. I wonder what day it is. I feel flensed like a quivering block of Eskimo whale blubber. The sun is already beginning to set over the top of colorful Saag Mansion.
“No, thanks,” I say. “I’ll stop by Jack-in-the-Box or something on the way back.”
“Jack-in-the-Box!” he roars. “How can you eat that crap?”
“The Jumbo Jack is pretty good,” I reply weakly.
“It’s all shit,” he says. “Frozen dead animals from factories in Illinois. You ever seen the guys that drive those trucks? Zombies, man.”
I’ve seen those trucks. I could drive one of those Jack-in-the-Box Zombie Trucks. I could make three thousand bucks in one summer. I could live like a king in Australia. I scratch my mop of snaggled, salty hair. I should’ve at least brought a Coca-Cola with me, but he might not have let me in with it. Nils pops an organic orange segment into his mouth. A squirrel chatters at us from the top of the fence.
“Do you ever notice how closely the calls of the squirrel and the dolphin are?”
I take another toke from the pipe and tilt my ear. “Yeah, maybe,” I concede.
“Dolphins are more intelligent than people,” he says.
Certainly right now they are. I wonder why I smoke marijuana. It makes me so nervous and dumb, and now I have to drive fifteen miles home on the freeway with a bunch of lsd in my car
“So are pigs,” he adds.
I rub a knot on my forehead and try to figure out where it came from. “If a pig played checkers with a dolphin,” I propose, “who do you think would win?”
“Both of them are too intelligent to play checkers. Only humans are stupid enough to play checkers.”
“You’re right there,” I say, lighting a Marlboro. Nils glances at it with disdain. His argument is that if you smoke something nonorganic that isn’t rolled by lepers or orphans in Pakistan then it should get you high. My argument is that nicotine is a perfectly legitimate and natural euphoric it does get you high and it has the large advantage over purple Kenyan of not turning your skull into a bowl of butterscotch pudding. “I’ve never really liked checkers ” I say.
“Now, Nietzsche, you know what he said about checkers?”
“I don’t recall.”
“You don’t remember the quote from Zarathustra, ‘I teach you the superman’?”
“I never finished Zarathustra. Did I give it back to you?”
“Yes. You didn’t finish it?”
I blink my cherry eyeballs. “I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I read his biography, though.”
I doubt if Nils understands Nietzsche either, outside of a quote he read on the side of a box of chamomile tea.
“Nietzsche is aphoristic,” I say. “He has no methodology.”
“You don’t know anything about Nietzsche, man,” he retorts, handing me the pipe. “Nietzsche is a genius, man.”
I hold the pipe until it goes out and then I return it to him. I don’t tell him Nietzsche lived with his sister and spent his last years in an insane asylum trying to stuff an ice-cream cone into his right eye. I remember a quote, something like: “The thought of suicide is a great comfort ” Is this responsible philosophy? I want to say. Is this the fruit of a lifetime of love of knowledge? And who can abide any philosopher who opposes beer?
Nils dumps the spent contents into his garden, trims a fresh bud, and repacks the pipe. “It’s getting cool,” he says. “Global cooling,” he adds. “The ice caps are spreading. Another ice age is coming. The earth will be out of petroleum in twenty years. It’s the end of the reign of man. And good riddance, is all I have to say ” He lights the pipe and engorges his lungs, his cheeks caving in, his inflamed eyes assiduously focused on the combusting herb. Nils hacks and splutters for a while, blasting out long plumes of expensive African smoke. He offers me the pipe.
“No thanks,” I say. “I gotta get going pretty soon.”
“I don’t have much time for philosophy these days anyway,” he says. “I’m getting into Buddhism. It’s all an illusion,” he says, sweeping his arm across the sky.
“Then we don’t have to worry about the ice caps,” I say.
“Don’t you wonder about that, though?” he says. “Where you’ll go when you die?”
“I’m going back to the ocean,” I say. “What about you?”
“On,” he says, looking up fondly at the cloud-rippled sky.
“I’ve got to get going,” I say. “I have to see a girl.”
Certain words are teenage magic incantations. Ocean. Girl. Beer Keg. Neil Young Concert. Even possessive aristocrats like Nils have to let you go when you invoke one of them. “OK,” he says, reluctantly. “Let me just show you this organic toilet I’m going to order. If everyone in the United States had one of these ”
I hurdle down the left lane in my Rambler, top end seventy-five miles an hour, the door of my glove compartment rattling, paint chips flying off my hood. I am late. I seem always to be late these days. There are new freeways everywhere in preparation for the millions soon to arrive, but there are no rush hours in San Diego yet, except an occasional clog around Waring Road, which clears out pretty fast once you pass San Diego State University. I haven’t eaten anything all day except a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and an English muffin with peanut butter, and my blood cells are crying out for something rich like lamb chops, coconut cupcakes, and a quart or two of dark brown beer. The skin of my face is ceramically glazed from the stringent burn of sun and salt, and my eyes are piggy little blots of scarlet. I try to shake the fog of the purple Kenyan. I check the rearview mirror for cops. Maybe Pat will have a jar of vacuum-packed dry-roasted peanuts in her cupboard. Definitely we will have some beer and some “pure.” As I speed up and around and down the Fletcher Parkway exit I am pleased to see the left turn light on Baltimore Drive turn green like some kind of benevolent sorcery before my eyes.
Posted February 7, 2004
In God Clobbers Us All, Poe Ballantine writes with brilliant insight about how 18-year-old Edgar's perspective on life radically changes after witnessing his patients' dreadful episodes of body and mind failure. Live for today; tomorrow looks pretty grim. Surfing enthusiast Edgar succumbs to the lure of alcohol, drugs, and casual sex, a combination that leads to harrowing adventures. A serious story tempered by humor makes this book especially compelling. Ballantine's tongue-in-cheek reviews, written in the style of several famous authors of the past, showcase his special brand of humor and are worth the price of the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.