A story by Dan Wakefield
As he watched the number of shopping days till Christmas dwindle, Phil Potter found himself dreading the coming vacation that would interrupt his teaching duties at Gilpen Junior College for almost two full weeks. It was not just the fact that this would be the first Christmas after his divorce and therefore especially depressing that made him apprehensive. More than the holiday itself he feared the space of empty time, the days without classes or office hours, opening before him like a black and treacherous tunnel through which he must stumble in order to come to the beginning of another new year and the relieving resumption of duties.
On the last day of classes before the vacation break, his P.R. seminar turned into an impromptu party. The students had got together and bought him a fifth of Cutty Sark for a Christmas present, a gift that indicated their knowledge of the bottle he kept in the drawer of his office desk and also their evident appreciation of his class. Potter was moved, feeling like a premature version of Mr. Chips. He thanked the class, and, in the spirit of the occasion, proposed that instead of taking home his gift he share it with all of them right then and there. This daring proposal was greeted with cheers, and the peppy little Miss Patterson quickly brought back from the cafeteria a dozen styrofoam cups and two bags of Fritos.
It wfas a nice feeling. The pleasant anticipation of the students for the season almost upon them relieved Potter’s own apprehension, allowed him to share the warmth. They spoke of ski trips and parties, of going home to Schenectady or Cleveland, of hitchhiking to Florida. Halligan, the veteran who was waging a losing battle against his girlfriend’s marital offensive, admitted with a nervous grin that he was getting engaged over Christmas. There were hoots and cheers.
Ted Featherstone, an engaging young guy who had announced in the second session of the seminar that he was interested in public relations as it could be applied to selling things like peace and brotherhood, population control, and universal health care, had come to class dressed in his usual outfit of Levi’s and motorcycle boots, and was also carrying a large rucksack.
“Where you heading?” Potter asked him.
“Oh. This commune where some friends of mine live,”Featherstone replied.
Going there for Christmas?”
“For the Winter Solstice. That’s what they celebrate.”
“How do they celebrate it?” Foster B. Stevenson asked with an obvious edge of contempt. “Get stoned?”
Featherstone shrugged. “Some do, and some don’t. On the actual day of the Solstice, people from neighboring communes come over and they have a real feast.”
“What do they live on. Rich Daddy money?” Halligan asked.
“Nope. Some have jobs in a neighboring town. Their farm’s over in the western part of the state. It seems real remote, but there are towns around. Also, they raise their own vegetables, of course. And some are musicians; they bring in a lot of bread. Like the Sandman. You know, the guitarist? He signs all the profits of his albums over to the farm. If they can’t make a mortgage payment, he gets a gig.”
“What do the women do?” asked Myrna Seely, who was one of the few women’s movement activists at Gilpen.
“Everybody does their own thing,” Featherstone said.
“Yeh—and I bet I know what their own thing is—cooking and washing the goddamn dishes and all the rest of the menial stuff.”
Featherstone only smiled, refusing to be drawn into battle.
Myrna finished off her drink and left, and the room broke up into groups of twos and threes. Potter had more Scotch and questioned Featherstone further about the commune. Potter had never been able to imagine himself living communally, for he cherished his privacy as much as he despised his loneliness. But he had always had a fascination about such experiments, understanding as he did the need of people to huddle together, any way at all, for mutual warmth and sustenance. Featherstone spoke of his friends’ commune in glowing terms, and said they even had “this older guy” who lived there, who used to be an architect, as if this would make the whole thing seem more plausible to Potter. After a few more Scotches, Potter accepted an invitation to visit the commune that very weekend, along with anyone he wanted to bring. Featherstone drew him a map.
Potter tried to convey his enthusiasm about the commune visit to his girlfriend Marilyn that night, but she seemed reserved, suspicious. Besides, she had lined up another party for them to go to on Saturday.
“Jesus,” Potter said, “it’ll just be the same.”
“Well, what’ll the commune be?”
“Different,” he said.
“Well,” she said, “I guess that’s something.”
On the way to the commune, Potter and Marilyn stopped in at a supermarket to buy some supplies. It seemed only right that they get into the spirit of the thing by bringing food and drink to share. But once in the supermarket, Potter was confused about what would be appropriate. Marilyn picked out a big roast she thought would be nice.
“But what if they’re vegetarians?” Potter asked. “A lot of them are—I mean a lot of people who live on communes are. I don’t know if these people are, but they might be.”
“You should have asked.”
“Well, it’s too late now.”
They walked slowly up the aisles, staring vacantly at the bright rows of cans and bottles and jars, all of which seemed too fancy and commercialized to be suitable for a commune.
“If they’re vegetarians,” Marilyn said, “I guess we have to bring vegetables.”
“If they’re vegetarians, they probably grow their own. Besides, you can’t just take people a bushel of carrots.”
“Well, what the hell can you take?”
“There’s no need to get excited. Try to be cooperative.”
Marilyn closed her eyes and sighed.
“OK,” she said. “I’m trying. What about fish? Do fish count?”
“Hey, that’s great. I think you’re right. I think fish is all right.”
Potter purposefully pushed the empty cart to the fish section, and looked down at the selection, frowning.
“These are all frozen,” he said.
“What did you expect? This isn’t Fisherman’s Wharf.”
“Is it all right for them to be frozen?”
“What the hell do you mean is it ‘all right’?”
“I mean, doesn’t freezing them add some harmful chemicals or something that they couldn’t eat?”
“By God, if we can eat them, they can eat them.”
She started hurling packages of frozen haddock into the cart.
“That’s enough!” Potter said.
There were more than a dozen packages of the stuff.
“OK,” said Marilyn. “What else? What about bread?”
“They probably bake their own.”
“Maybe they don’t need anything.”
“Wine,” Potter said. “I’ll get some wine. They might just have dope. They don’t like hard liquor, but I think wine is OK.”
He bought a gallon of Tavola red table. It seemed very earthy to him, and he hoped it would be acceptable.
According to the map, the commune was a dilapidated small brown house with a garage whose roof was caving in. Potter was not so much surprised at the deteriorating nature of the place, if that was indeed the right place, as he was by its proximity to the world it was presumably trying to escape. It wasn’t far from the supermarket in town, and once here, you could see at least three neighboring farmhouses. Potter had imagined something hidden away, far from towns and main roads, far from anything.
It was the place, though.
A girl in a dirty blouse and torn jeans came to the door.
“Hi,” said Potter, with his best smile. “My name’s Potter.”
The girl only stared at him.
“Is Ted Featherstone here? He asked me to come.”
The girt turned in toward the room and yelled “Ted!” then walked away. Potter and Marilyn still stood outside, shivering. Featherstone appeared, a bit groggy and pulling a T-shirt over his head.
He looked at Potter blankly for a moment, then rubbed his eyes and said, “Oh—hey—yeh.”
“Well, I found it,” Potter said.
“This is my friend Marilyn.”
“Hey, yeh—c’m in.”
Potter handed Featherstone the supermarket bag filled with frozen haddock and the gallon of Tavola.
Featherstone looked inside the bag.
“Far out,” he said. “Listen, just sit down anywhere. I’ll get some glasses.”
Potter and Marilyn took off their coats, and looked around the room. There was one old chair with the stuffing coming out, but it was occupied by the sprawled body of a large, red-haired young man reading a comic book. There were pillows scattered over the bare floor and Potter and Marilyn each grabbed one and sat down. Featherstone came back with jelly glasses filled with wine. A girl walked in from the kitchen and climbed up a rickety ladder to what was evidently a sort of dormitory floor above, with bedrolls.
Featherstone lit up a joint.
“Wow,” he said. “You came.”
“Yeh, we really came,” said Potter.
He didn’t dare look at Marilyn. He was hoping things would pick up. Several other people passed in and out, glanced at them, and walked on, as if they had merely noticed a couple of spots on the floor.
“So this is it,” said Potter.
“Not everyone’s here right now—Roger, the older guy I was telling you about, had to make a run into town. He ought to be back.”
Potter inhaled furiously on the joint, wishing to hell it would stone him out of his skull, but it only led to a coughing fit, and he passed it to Marilyn, who puffed delicately, and drank more wine.
A tall, frail-looking guy with thick glasses came out of another room and Featherstone motioned him over. It was the Sandman himself, and, true to his image, he looked as if he was still half-asleep. When introduced to Potter and Marilyn, he nodded and yawned.
Roger, the older guy, came back from his run into town with a carton of Camels and some frozen orange juice. That made Potter feel better about the frozen fish. Frozen must be OK. For all Potter knew, frozen was beautiful.
The fish, however, were never mentioned again. Dinner was pumpkin-and-cucumber soup, and homemade dark bread. Four people, including the Sandman, sat at a round table. The others crouched or knelt on the floor.
“Let’s have some sounds, man,” the Sandman said, and the girl in the dirty peasant blouse put on a record. It was some kind of rock, and blared out any other possibility of sound, which was actually a relief to Potter, since the only other sounds were those of snoring and belching.
Roger, the older guy, nodded at Potter and Marilyn when introduced but didn’t look them in the eyes, as if he didn’t want anything to do with people who were vaguely his own age. Right after dinner the Sandman summoned Featherstone into the back bedroom, which it turned out the Sandman had all to himself. He seemed to have all the rights and privileges of leadership except that he lacked the title and pretended that he was just one of the others. Marilyn went back into the kitchen to ask if she could help with anything, but the dirty-bloused girl and a tall, rather pretty blond said no, they were going to leave the dishes till tomorrow.
The dirty-bloused girl deigned to come out and sit by Marilyn and Potter on the floor.
“How long have you been here?” Marilyn asked.
The girl shrugged.
“I wanted to go to South America, even found out about a job on a freighter, but they wouldn’t take me on, just because I was a chick.”
“That’s too bad,” Marilyn sympathized.
“You know it. I mean, it’s really a drag when a chick can’t ship on a freighter.”
“Damn right,” said Potter, shaking his head.
He and Marilyn had more wine.
Featherstone and the Sandman came out. Featherstone sat down by Marilyn, but the Sandman explained he had to get back in that room, there was a little problem.
“What’s wrong?” Potter asked.
“It’s Andy,”said the Sandman.
“Andy’s just been here a couple months,” Featherstone explained, “and he’s not used to it yet. He isn’t into anything yet, you know, like creative, so he just sits around and looks out the window.”
“What’s happened to him—or happening?” Marilyn asked.
The Sandman yawned, and scratched his head.
“He’s having what used to be called ‘a nervous breakdown.’ ”
“Oh,” said Marilyn.
“What’s it called now?” Potter asked.
The Sandman smiled.
“He’s freaking out.”
“That’s a shame,” Potter said.
Featherstone stood up, and said, “Listen, I ought to go back and rap with him, along with Sandman. Whenever you want to crash, there’s plenty of room up on the dorm floor. Take any bedroll. If it’s someone else’s, they’ll find another one.”
Featherstone and the Sandman disappeared.
“Listen,” Marilyn whispered, “let’s get the hell out of here.”
“What? Drive all the way back to Boston?”
“We can go to a motel.”
“Anywhere. There’s motels everywhere. Thank God.”
“You can’t just do that,” Potter said. “I mean, we can’t just leave.”
“The hell we can’t! You think any of these creeps would know the difference, or care less?”
“Well. I ought to tell Featherstone.”
“To hell with the little creep. He’s busy playing medicine man.”
“Well. Maybe you’re right.”
They snuck out quietly, jumped in the car, and gunned their way back to the highway, giggling and cursing. They found a Howard Johnson’s motel, checked into a room with a color TV, and ordered club sandwiches and beers from room service.
The next time Potter saw Featherstone he apologized for having left without saying good-bye, and Featherstone said he understood, it was nobody’s fault. In fact, he said, the Sandman had figured the whole thing out. The Sandman’s theory was that the bad vibes that led to both Potter’s departure and to Andy’s freaking out had been due to a full moon in Sagittarius. □