The Nirvana Blues
By John Nichols
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1981 John Treadwell Nichols
All rights reserved.
Six at the top means: One falls into the pit.
It was a springtime Saturday night in Chamisaville. The moon over the Pueblo's sacred peak, Hija Negrita, seemed as soft as the color of a newborn colt. Stars hovered like awed fireflies above the nervous little city. Honky-tonk music from dozens of funky bars danced among the valley's myriad security lamps forever frozen at the foot of the mysterious mesa wave that unfurled from the base of the Midnight Mountains and extended its graceful, sage-flecked spume westward to the Rio Grande Gorge. North of town, the brightly lit lime-green bubble over Tennis Heaven's indoor courts glowed silkily. Into the enchanted night faintly echoed a rhythmic thwock! caused by rackets leisurely pummeling high-altitude balls inside that rippling diaphanous gem. A tinkle of cocktail ice sounded at the nearby open-air restaurant. The sizzling odor of charcoal-broiled steaks wafted onto the mesa. Candlelight flickered; perfume pulsed; bare and milky white shoulders gleamed. The laughter of young, tanned, and healthy couples evoked reminiscences of a nostalgic yesteryear.
A small executive jet, its green and red lights blinking lazily, landed at the airport. Greyhounds streaked around the Pueblo track: the glare of stadium lights was softened by the appleblossom- and chamisa-scented air. Echoes from the loudspeaker carried west beyond the Ya-Ta-Hey Hotel (on the shores of man-made Bonatelli Lake): they could be faintly heard west of the North-South Highway at the renovated hot-baths complex, where late-night diners finished off their Alaskan crabs, and several bathers still cavorted in the steaming mineral pools so seductively illuminated by underwater bulbs. And strains of old-fashioned mood music issued from an orchestra plying the geriatric pilgrim crowd shuffling about the mahogany floors of the King Cole Executive Room of the Dynamite Shrine Dining Salon, above which a peculiarly insistent star twinkled like a gem born of some less than radiant, but still highly provocative, foam.
At first, that pearl-sized glow high above the hot springs seemed immobile. But then it moved, casually floating through the velvet obscurity, growing larger as it leisurely approached the earth a half-mile west of the Dynamite Shrine complex. A flying saucer? Chamisavillians certainly had a reputation for spotting all kinds of distinctive UFOs. Yet nobody down below remarked on this phenomenon. It shimmered, but not eerily; the thing seemed almost shy, unwilling to bask in splendor. Shape- and size-wise, as it neared the sagebrush plain, it seemed chrysalis oblong and enclosed, and twice as large as a birchbark canoe. The light emanating from its soft skin was dulcet, pussy-willow calm. It settled into pungent mauve vegetation and quivered relaxedly for a moment, then grew very still.
After a while, a human-shaped phantom seeped through the vehicle's wall, assembled its fluffy molecules into an even tighter form, and spent some minutes meticulously brushing off its toga.
An angel, by God! Complete with big wings and a real-life halo!
And in its hands? A piece of paper, upon which was written a single name:
On the plaza, when he descended from his dilapidated VW bus and headed for the Hanuman Follies Benefit Dance at the Cinema Bar above the Plaza movie theater, Joe Miniver — former ad copywriter and currently an "independent sanitation engineer" — was a nervous wreck. His life, his future, his well-being, perhaps even his freedom (and no doubt his sanity, not to mention his incipient stomach ulcer) were on the line.
Just that afternoon he had committed himself, on paper, and with three thousand dollars in earnest money, to purchasing the last piece of virgin land in Upper Ranchitos. Picturesque, relevant, and useful, the 1.7 acres included verdant pastures, two irrigation ditches, a host of cottonwoods and chinese elms, a few scraggly fruit trees, a tiny old adobe ruin (inhabited by Eloy Irribarren, a crippled octogenarian), and even a hand-dug well.
Naturally, it would cost Joe an arm and half a leg, if he managed to raise the balance due (in cash) by the scheduled closing ten days hence. Since Joe's Chamisaville arrival three years ago, land values in that part of the valley, only a mile west of the plaza, had zoomed from around four thousand to twenty thousand an acre.
"If only we had bought land and a house three years ago," Joe had recently moaned to his wife, Heidi.
"If only Santa Claus was Mongolian," she had replied, "reindeer would have it easy."
The problem, of course, was that Joe possessed not nearly enough bread to plunk down at the closing for this lovely parcel of vestigial greenery that had recently fallen, like a plump South American tapir, into the piranha-infested waters of Chamisaville's real-estate scene. And if he did not somehow accumulate the wherewithal by a week from this upcoming Monday, Joe would not only sacrifice the three-thousand-dollar holding fee, but he would no doubt suffer a breakdown watching as the other valley hustlers interested in this final piece of Chamisaville's agricultural heritage maneuvered for the right to rape it loyally.
Working against Joe from the start had been his lack of access to financial muscle. In his favor, however, was Eloy Irribarren's determination to sell to the Minivers if at all possible.
Naturally, Joe had a plan. Born out of desperation, it was a long shot that spotlighted his life savings of fifteen thousand dollars, featured a reprobate East Coast pal named Peter Roth (and five pounds of uncut cocaine) due in on tonight's 2:35 A.M. Trailways bus, involved two Chamisaville buddies — Tribby Gordon and Ralph Kapansky — who'd promised to help step on, and then unload, the shit, and was, of course, a highly illegal operation.
For many Americans of Joe's background, education, and aspirations, such a plan would have been a routine adventure. Joe, however, had never done anything illegal. On top of that, he was terrified of drugs, drug people, drug transactions, and drug culture. His wife enjoyed an occasional joint. And Joe had even toked up on occasion. But he absolutely prohibited Heidi from growing the stuff at home in clay pots on their window ledges. And he had always insisted that her household stash never exceed the quantities that could push a conviction out of the misdemeanor into the felony range.
Still, these days, how was a fellow to purchase some land for the benefit and heritage of his family, let alone build a comfortable house to go on it? Inflation of fifteen percent, and interest rates in double figures on home-loan mortgages that were nearly impossible to come by anyway in the tight money market, had made it all but impossible for folks in Joe and Heidi's middle-class income bracket to score a home through hard work and conscientious parsimony.
Never a whiz at figures, or at the economic legerdemain necessary to manipulate capitalism into a benevolent financial overextension guaranteeing all the amenities America had to offer, Joe had, for the past month, been boggled by the complexities involved in finagling for Eloy's pretty acreage. The old man himself had no desire to sell. Cantankerous, clever, and proud, he was an anachronism, a lost soul, the final human being of his race and cultural line afloat in the valley. During the last few years, as he stubbornly held out against the myriad interests grasping for his little piece of property, Eloy had become a legend in his own time:
Eloy Irribarren, irascible old coot and tenacious SOB — the Last Chicano.
Like a fanatical dervish, Eloy had begged, borrowed (and many said stolen) to save his place, pay for his dying wife Teresita's final illness, and hire lawyers to tangle with the banks, loan sharks, realtors, bill collectors, and other assorted thugs interested in his terrain. Only recently, a week after his wife's funeral, had it become clear to Eloy that the jig was up. He had signed too many promissories, itemized fees, and loan agreements to stall any further. The best he could hope for, once the vieja had been interred, was to avoid foreclosure by selling out quickly to someone who might treasure the land in its native state, simple and green and agricultural, the only monument to Eloy's life and beliefs, the only true reflection of his soul.
Joe had never really sorted out the complexities. He knew only that unless Eloy could sell high and fast, the land would be auctioned off among a variety of creditors maneuvering demoniacally to grab it whole, leaving Eloy broke and homeless into the bargain. Ideally, the old man hoped for a rich hippie who might care for the land while providing Eloy with enough cash to pay off his tangled web of debts and survive on until he died. Unfortunately, Eloy owed outright at least forty-five Gs. And he hoped for another twenty grand to see him through his final years. But few who might have had sympathy for his land could command that kind of cash. And cash was what Eloy needed fast, if he were to have even an outside shot at turning the place over to a caretaker with half a soul, instead of to the commercial institutions intent upon its instant pizzafication.
Joe had dreams of being that caretaker with a soul. Sometimes, thinking about owning that land, he had tingled with an excitement that left him almost faint. He had rich fantasies of going out and possessing the land. He would quarter it, walk all over it, smell it, touch the bark of his trees, ladle up a cup of water from his well, lie in the back field's brown grass soaking up the solar bennies refracting down through his own little patch of pristine atmosphere! At three o'clock in the morning after the closing he had plans to tackle Heidi in the exact center of the little back field beneath the pungent nighttime sparkle of high mesa stars and drill her like a mad wildcatter on the oil-rich flatlands of Odessa! Their precious land, their Future, their shot at a Real Start, their commitment to a Time, to a Place, and to a Way of Life. Roots! he would think, tickled crimson by the concept. At last they had decided on Roots!
Joe tried to calm his terror by gleefully flexing his biceps as he crossed the street, pretending to feel more athletic, young, and hopeful than he had in ages. Look at me, everybody: life is a bowl of cherries! He even imitated a prance like a high-energy syndicated stud on the old Kentucky Blue eager for action. After all, at thirty-eight he still weighed 170, same as in his college playing days in the late fifties and early sixties, when he had lettered in football, hockey, and track. Granted, a few infirmities had forged irritating toeholds: asthma, varicose veins, impacted wisdom teeth, arthritic knees (ruptured menisca, shorn ligaments), and a collapsing mitral valve which created a systolic click contributing to a fibrillation-prone ticker that often really kayoed him with frightening tachycardia attacks.
But tonight — ah, tonight he would be a pistol in search of a celebration to mark the beginning of Joe and Heidi Miniver's existence as real live grown-ups in the Actual World. After all, he had made the commitment, he had taken the risk to grab their future in the form of Eloy Irribarren's little piece of earthen nirvana. By this time next week, if nothing went wrong, they'd be close to sitting pretty. And the summer would lie before them like a wide, golden welcome mat, gleaming with promise. Badly in need of R&R from a collapsing marriage, Peter Roth had plans (once their dope deal had gone down) to stay on, drinking Wild Turkey bourbon, fly casting for trout, and helping to build the Minivers' spectacular adobe and beer-can solar-heated castle.
If everything went all right. ...
Joe had a spasm. Apprehension had him gasping faintly, but he couldn't remember if he had just taken an Aminodur for his asthma, or not. Terrified of ODing, he opted against a pill now. Other people popped pills like candy, they had no qualms about swallowing two Valiums, a Percodan, and a handful of aspirin, then tooting a couple of lines while downing a few drinks and smoking a pack of cigarettes. Then they popped a little Sominex to help them drift off. Joe, on the other hand, had never been able to take three aspirin for a bad headache, fearing the third pill might tip the scales, dumping him into insanity, or maybe death.
Back in the Manhattan sixties, Heidi had tried luring him up to Millbrook, where they could have dropped acid under controlled circumstances with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Joe had looked at her aghast until she quit asking. Why, his first joint had been a major, and almost fatal, experience! Eventually, of course, he had learned to smoke. But Heidi always scored the grass: Joe had never had a stomach for illegal machinations. If one undercover police agent and ten thousand junkie freaks pushing weed had been patrolling Saint Mark's Place looking to unload their wares, inevitably Joe would have propositioned the narc for a lid of Colombian two-toke. Hence, he was in the curious position, in modern America, of never having scored anything heavier than a bottle of five-hundred-milligram penicillin pills — for an abscessed tooth three years ago!
But tonight Peter Roth was arriving in town accompanied by five pounds of pure cocaine he had somehow materialized thanks to Joe's twelve thousand clams. And Joe's share of the potential loot, providing he did not die of some myocardial infarction triggered by his shot-nerves arrhythmia in the interim, would be close to $60,000 — the asking price of Eloy Irribarren's land!
Joe gulped, shivered, and inhaled deeply. Forging exuberance to prove he was not scared stiff, he took the stairs leading up to the bar two at a time, wanting to call out hysterically as he did so:
Look, Ma — no hands!
* * *
Behind a desk at the top of the stairs sat Nancy Ryan. She accepted Joe's five dollars and stamped his wrist with fluorescent ink. "Hi ho, Nancy," Joe piped a trifle too nonchalantly. "How they hangin'?" For over a year, now, he had harbored enough of a low-key secret letch for her to make him self-conscious in her presence.
"Hi ho yourself." Nancy gave him a lazy glance — she always seemed stoned — and smiled. Her teeth flashed ultra-white, and her eyes — her entire face — lit up as if by magic. Her black hair, cut short, shone iridescently — the metaphor that applied was "like raven feathers." Her glowing eyes were dark, large, hypnotizing. When happy, they conveyed an inordinate luster. A nose like any other nose, lips like any other lips, and a chin like any other chin completed her features. Yet the radiance that face could project had always intrigued Joe. If tired, or merely disinterested, Nancy lost it all, becoming just another everyday, middle-American once-upon-a-prom-girl in her mid-thirties. Joe had never understood how somebody so outwardly ordinary could be that provocative.
In response to Joe's somewhat manic grin, she added, "What kind of a canary did you just swallow?"
"Big one. Maybe —" Joe pantomimed patting a full belly. But the pat reminded his stomach that it was queasy. "I made an offer on that land today. If nothing goes wrong with the deal, I hope I can entice you and, if you're still on speaking terms, Randall over with all the beer you can drink to help us build the palatial manse this summer. Do leave Sasha at home, though."
Sasha was the nasty little monkey perched on Nancy's shoulder, no doubt an added tout for the Hanuman Follies. Whenever Joe's eight-year-old daughter, Heather, happened to be at Nancy's house playing with her son, Bradley, the monkey attacked her. Joe's eleven-year-old, Michael, had threatened to murder Sasha with his BB gun ever since the bald little gnome (Sasha) had pissed in some Kool-Aid Michael had been drinking, and then stolen his (Michael's) baseball mitt and hung it way out of reach in the highest branch of an enormous cottonwood tree, where it remained to this day, two and a half years later, a perpetual reminder of simian perfidy to Michael whenever he biked past the Ryan house in the Perry Kahn Subdivision #4.
Joe and Heidi had emphatically nixed their son's drastic solution to Sasha's delinquencies. After all, Nancy Ryan and Randall Tucker (from whom she had recently split) were members of the Simian Foundation, the group sponsoring this evening's shindig: that is, they worshiped a monkey god. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Nirvana Blues by John Nichols. Copyright © 1981 John Treadwell Nichols. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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