There are no potholes on Memory Lane. No ruts, no broken bottles, no dead squirrels, no speed traps, nothing but green trees and pretty flowers and a road bathed in sunlight. It’s a well-kept place, the past, for even the bad neighborhoods seem in retrospect to have had that little bit of charm which you’d somehow forgotten. School hallways, once the province of bully and beggar alike—“Can I hold a dollar? No? Then I’m gonna kill you”—, lose their grim associations; the headmaster’s office, redolent of pipe tobacco and reeking of punishment, now seems quaint and harmless. The gingerbread cottages of lost loves and broken hearts, the humble bungalows of misplaced affections, the hills and dales of jobs gracefully offered and just as easily taken away—once they’re behind you they lose their weight and value. They become picture postcards, tinted by loving hands, hidden in the back of a drawer, waiting to be rescued by nostalgia.
And so, when Nick once again said “Cincinnati,” Rob’s face brightened for the first time that evening. The memory of it took them both back to a time when the simple release of a new album—by Hendrix or Dylan, Beatles or Stones—would bear the weight of a presidential proclamation at a time of crisis and war. But Nick knew also that it carried them back to when life and its risks were not so much frightening as tantalizing; when the seductions of dodging the law and loitering in the lower depths carried its own kind of allure, and Desolation Row seemed a prime patch of real estate. Had Nick been compelled to reveal to a prospective employer exactly what he had done in his life, he knew that he would leave the questioner slackjawed and bugeyed, as though, instead of sitting across from Nick Copeland, advertising genius, he were in the presence of Hunter S. Thompson, madman and renegade.
“You know what I’m thinking?” Nick prompted.
“Remember what we did?”
“No, Rob,” Nick said calmly, “you say it.”
It’s not that the weekend had gone badly in Cincinnati. In fact, the whole deal had gone down almost suspiciously well, the kind of well that often stops going well and gets bad very quickly, before it turns dangerous, followed by tragic, with fatal fast on its heels. They hung around at Love’s, drinking one coffee after another, and becoming well-acquainted with the tiny bathroom over by the jukebox and the Lemon Pipers, who barely acknowledged their presence, though they, like everyone else, must have known what was coming down.
No sooner did they take a table when the waitress—cute, red-headed, single braid down the back and with lots of beads around her neck—came over and said, “You guys must be here for the big deal.”
Nick and Rob shared a look. “What are you talking about?” Nick said.
“They said a couple of guys from out of town were coming.” She shrugged and smiled prettily, from dimple to shining dimple. “Can only be you, right?’
“Sit down,” said Rob.
“I gotta work.”
“My Green Tambourine” was playing for the third time since they walked in. Nick looked over his shoulder at the band, already a blur on their fast ride down the ladder of oblivion.
“What deal, what guys, what do you know?”
She looked from Rob to Nick. “You’re scaring me.”
“Good,” said Rob, “because you may end up being the cause of a lot of unnecessary suffering if you keep talking like that.”
Nick sensed that in a moment she would start to cry. Even her lip began trembling. He put a hand on hers. “Hey. It’s all right, it’s okay, babe.”
“Okay,” she blubbed.
“No one’s going to get hurt. As long as no one says anything. All right?”
Nice and calm, nice and quiet. Good cop, bad cop.
“Because,” Nick went on, bringing his lips very close to her remarkably lovely ear, “if someone did, things could get very, very scary. Understood?”
A single tear rolled down her cheek. All she could do was nod. “Now can I go back to work?”
Rob shot him a look as if all of a sudden he’d found himself sitting across from a whole new Nick Copeland. She was heading back to the counter when Nick grabbed her arm, but gently. “One more thing. I think you’re very pretty.”
She smiled through her tears and went off to serve the Lemon Pipers’s bass-player a prune Danish.
“Whoa,” said Rob. “That was slick.”
“Had to be done.”
“You didn’t tell her what we’d do if she did talk.”
“I hadn’t thought that far ahead. But it won’t be pretty.”
Rob laughed. “You wouldn’t hurt a chick like that.”
“I’d just break her heart.” It was kind of fun living inside a B picture for a weekend.
He looked up to see someone hanging around outside the coffee-house. Long hair. Mustache and a little patch of goatee, like Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian of the Group. The guy had maybe ten years on them. He looked at his watch once, then again a second or two later. Then he took another look. He was like the lunatic who does the same thing over and over again, expecting something new. He was definitely a lousy advertisement for the stuff he was about to sell them.
Rob said, “Showtime, Nick. Man’s here.”
In fact they returned to college unmolested, unstopped and unbusted that night, a little dazzled by their luck, a little rattled from the bus ride, considering that all of Cincinnati knew why they’d been there. Over the succeeding three days they proceeded to process (meaning: pour small batches of seeds, stems and leaves into a hand-crank coffee-grinder and turn it into something that at least smelled illicit) before unloading six ounces, four dime- and seventeen nickel-bags of the lowest-grade marijuana ever harvested in any continent in the world. Fraternity boys with Chad Mitchell Trio records handed over their money; a couple of outriders in their social quarter, art majors and the sociology teacher who lived in a trailer out in the woods with one of his female students, happily made purchases. When people called grass “shit” because it was a handy euphemism, like “tea” and “boo” and “reefer,” this time the name seemed appropriate. Nobody seemed to care, though; like a placebo administered by a serious man in a white coat, it was assumed to be dynamite stuff, especially as one of its purveyors was now famous for having seen the Clear White Light, very much a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval; customers puffed away and seemed to get high as a kite. By the end of the week the show was over and the business had folded. There were no more buyers, no more happy repeat customers, no lines at the door. Even Stumper, whom they talked into buying a joint for two bucks, never returned for a taste of their brand of slumland euphoria.
The only problem was what was left over: three pounds of processed seeds, stems and leaves that smelled a lot better than it actually was. Had it been halfway decent they might have been looking at some serious money, but the best they could hope for was merely “smokeable,” as one tastes a nine-dollar Cabernet and sniffily calls it amusing. Certainly if you had enough of it—a couple of joints would do the trick—you’d feel high enough, though it was a lot better, Rob discovered, taken as a tea with lots of sugar; the experience left him lying unconscious on his dorm-room floor for the better part of eighteen hours in a puddle of what he was amazed to discover was his own sperm.
Rob and Nick and Jerry Bruno convened at the Hungry Steer up on the highway, where the sign outside displayed a horned bovine creature with Xs for eyes. As with the Mob, who tended to meet not in their hidden dens or distant hideaways, but in spaghetti joints in the Bronx or Little Italy, the Hungry Steer was both the most dangerous place they could be in and also the safest. The most dangerous, because local boys, turned mean from too much Coors and Robo, would cruise the place in their Trans Ams and Chevy pickups looking for girls to screw or hippies to kill, or sometimes both, and the safest because the place was always loaded with law. State troopers and officers from neighboring towns tended to be drawn there, more by the looks of the waitresses—girls in hot pants and tight sleeveless blouses and, what else, cowboy hats—than by the quality of the cuisine, though they did provide free coffee refills. So confident were these lawmen that people would be intimidated by uniform and firearm that for them it was a time of rest and recuperation, with a chance to set up a little nookie for later. So, surrounded by the heat, you could discuss a whole range of subjects, from dope to murder, and be assured that none of these men in uniform would ever suspect you of anything more than immoral thoughts and youthful indiscretions.
“What we do,” Jerry was saying—and his manner was always smooth as gravy—“is let me get it back to my neighborhood. I can shift the stuff in a week and at least get us our investment back.”
“Minus what?” Rob prodded.
When Jerry grinned he looked like he was forty-five years old, carried a .38 and called women dames. “I gotta give my people a little something for their time and effort, right? I mean, I don’t do that, I’m the one they come after one night.”
“We want profits, man,” Rob whined, and Jerry’s eyes signaled that a stranger had arrived. Rob looked up to find the waitress hovering in her white straw Stetson. “Hi,” he said. “I’ll have the cherry waffles. And coffee, please.”
“You want a side of sausage with that?”
“No thanks, just the waffles and the coffee’ll do me great. Oh and a glass of ice water, okay?”
Nick watched the waitress write it down. Her big blue eyes shifted to him. If he didn’t think about it too long he could easily find himself falling in love with this woman—barely even a woman, maybe no older than eighteen—whose name was unknown to him, and whom he’d seen for the first time only now. It happened, as it usually did with him back then, in a matter of five seconds: upon further reflection he saw the first time in bed, he saw the visit to her parents, he saw her in her wedding-gown, and then he saw himself living in a trailer park outside McKeesport for the rest of his natural life.
We’re all one, he continued to remind himself.
“Oh, I’ll have a Big Buffalo on—can you do it on rye?”
“What is that, whimsy?” said Rob, who was finding Nick more and more amusing.
“No, I’m serious.”
“So is that rye bread you mean?” she said, wondering what kind of human being Nick precisely was.
“Lightly toasted, okay? With a side of Russian. That’s ketchup and mayonnaise,” he added, making whipping motions with his hands. He didn’t realize exactly how stoned he was. Following his death and disappearance that famous Acid Friday, he had given up drugs cold—renouncing all illicit substances. There honestly seemed no point in going back: he’d seen it all. What else was left for him to see, to hear, to experience? It lasted the weekend before he fell into his old habits, a prodigal son returned to home and hearth and better living through chemistry.
“And how do you like your burger?”
Edible was already an old joke thereabouts. What Nick in his highness wondered was why something made out of cow was called a Big Buffalo. He wondered why they didn’t call a tuna sandwich a Monster Sperm Whale, and was about to ask when Jerry shot him a look. Clearly there were cops paying attention.
“Rare, please,” he said.
She raised one heavily-penciled eyebrow. People out here ate their meat gray.
“Not eating?” Rob said to Bruno.
He shook his head and lit a Pall Mall.
The reason why Jerry Bruno wasn’t eating was that, unlike Rob and Nick, he wasn’t stoned, and in fact never touched drugs, unless he was selling them. He looked at Nick and Rob in turn. “Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you guys are zonked out of your brains. This is business, so I expect you to be serious about it. And no goofing on the locals. You know what happened last time you did that.”
Someone had summoned a deputy sheriff, and it wasn’t pretty.
“So what do we do?” Rob said.
“I say we hang onto the stuff,” Nick suggested. “Wait till the opportunity comes.”
Jerry Bruno sniggered. “Opportunity. Yeah, right.”
“Listen, we put a lot of bread into this deal,” Nick said.
“Opportunity isn’t something you wait for,” Jerry said. “It’s something you make on your own.”
Rob dropped a quarter in the jukebox at the end of the table. He smiled in that way he always had when he’d smoked too much dope. Everything was fair game; everything a laugh. Life’s a cabaret, old chum.
“Jesus, man, what a lame-o you are, what am I doing here, anyway?” said Jerry, and Nick had to concur, Rob was a lame-o of the first order, considering that his hard-earned cash had just bought them Tommy James and the Shondells singing their old hit “Hanky Panky” at the little table jukebox.
“I’m just goofing. I know it’s a shitty song.”
“You could’ve chosen something we all like instead of something we’re all embarrassed to have at the table with us,” Jerry said, and he flipped violently through the selection cards, whackawhackawhack. “Look. Here’s the Doors. Here’s Marvin Gaye. Here’s Santana. Here’s the Who. Them we invite. Now what were your other two selections?”
“Look,” Rob said, “why don’t we just move tables.” He looked around. Already they’d begun to attract attention. Either it was the length of their hair or their East Coast accents, or the possibility, noted by others, that these boys might be on wacky-weed, but they were definitely being eyeballed.
“Can we get back to business, please?” Bruno said.
“I already told you,” Rob said. “I don’t like it. I’m not crazy about this getting into the hands of a third party.”
“You never said that,” said Jerry.
“I thought I had.”
“Look,” said Nick. “Let’s see what we can do with the stuff. Just…us. Keep it in the family. We’ve got a ton of this crap left. We’ll go into Pittsburgh and see if we can move it on the streets. Whatever happens, it’s still a three-way cut.”
“You’re going to stand around and sell to strangers,” Jerry said. “Like the Good Humor man sells Creamsicles.”
“That’s life, that’s what all the people say,” Sinatra began with fabulous bravado. “You’re riding high in April, shot down in May. But I know I’m gonna change that tune, when I’m back on top, back on top in June.”
“What is this?” Nick said. Rob just sat there, grinning and blushing.
Jerry looked like he was going to pull a stiletto on him. He shook his head slowly back and forth. “Jesus, man. I’m wondering how I got mixed up in this shit of yours. What’s your third song, something by Asshole and Garfunkel?”
“You got mixed up in this because there’s money in it,” Nick stated flatly and seriously, and he was right, it was the only reason why Jerry Bruno would have dipped his foot in the pond of the young and the drugged. “I mean, you have a better idea?”
What happened for the rest of that evening didn’t matter. He was here, now, in another time, another place, at another table. Older, wiser, more desperate, in a forgettable bar just off Eighth Avenue.
“Gentlemen,” the waitress said. “Get you another couple of those?”
Rob shrugged. “Why not. I have two half-furnished rooms on the Upper East Side and a roach problem. And no one waiting there for me.”
Nick said Sure and smiled at the waitress. When they were alone he leaned across the table. “Remember what we did with the stuff?”
“Wait a minute.” He looked at his watch. “You have a wife and kids. You’re going to come staggering in—”
“Everyone will be asleep. The kids have school and Joanne teaches children.”
“What, like big kids or infantile kids? I mean, what does she teach?”
“Preschoolers. You’ve never had any, obviously.”
“Janet couldn’t. I mean we went through the motions and all, but,” and he shrugged, “you know…”
“It’s a big deal having kids. When they’re small it’s gimme this, gimme that. Feed me, change me, play with me.”
“I’m not good at that stuff,” said Rob.
“They get older, they expect you to read their minds. You end up with a room full of scorn and tragically-bad second guesses.” He thought of Eric, who in his early days showed some real musical prowess. A framed photo of him with a stratospherically-rare, hence out-of-this-world expensive, Gibson Les Paul, shot at Manny’s on West 48th beneath the nervous gaze of the employees and Jeff Beck—somewhat older than when Nick last saw him when he played with a rail-thin Rod Stewart—who’d happened to wander in at the same time, held pride of place in what had once been known as the den and was now referred to as simply the basement. After Eric had displayed his licks, such as they were, Jeff was kind enough to nod and mumble, “Put your finger ‘ere, lad,” pointing to the note Eric had left out in his little Led Zeppelin display.
Now the kid couldn’t even find the notes for an E chord, showing all the outward signs of someone who did more than dabble in soft drugs. A years ago Nick had taken Eric and Jen aside and gave them a lecture about the evil of, as he called it, substances, but somehow it came off as unconvincing, as if Bogart had been called upon to do an anti-smoking commercial.
Rob said, “I’m still stuck in Cincinnati. Just remind me, okay? We scored the stuff, we took it back to Eden, we didn’t sell enough and then, what, a week, two, whatever, we did what, refresh my memory?”
Nick sat back and put his palms flat on the table. “We went to Pittsburgh.”
“Pittsburgh, right, right, right. I called that guy in Cincinnati—”
“Guy who sold us the stuff—”
“And he gave me the number of some other guy in Pittsburgh.”
All of this came back in stunning detail to Nick. Whoever said that if you remembered the Sixties you weren’t there was a liar; even Nick, who smoked or swallowed anything that wasn’t Superglued to the table, could return to those times with great and perfect clarity. Perhaps seeing the Light had also in some obscure way tightened the focus on his memory.
“Because we didn’t want Jerry to take it off our hands.”
“We took a chance—“
“And I think we did okay.”
Rob cast his mind back. “We met the guy at some bar, right?”
“Definitely black. Army surplus coat.”
“And a big afro,” said Nick. “With a comb stuck in it. And a veneer of paranoia a foot thick.”
“Sweating like he wanted to be anywhere but in his skin.”
“Remember the music? Sly and the Family Stone?”
Rob laughed. “Man, you have an amazing memory. And did we go outside with the guy or am I just imagining that?”
Nick could still see snowflakes as big as dollar bills falling from the sky, passing through the cool glow of the streetlights.
But now it was all coming back to Rob: “Right. He said he’d buy the stuff from us, but right now he was in some kind of trouble.”
“He was holding.”
Rob’s face glowed with the memory of it. “Because he was trying to sell some of his own stuff and was freaking out.”
Nick nodded. “He had an arrest record. He’d already been convicted on a possessions charge. Remember he told us that? He was going nuts. He was scared.”
Rob sat up. “He was supposed to sell it for some other dealer, right?”
“Something like that.”
“All this smack, speed, whatever it was. He knew it’d take longer, and he’d be holding for a few days, a week. If he’d got caught with the hard stuff he’d end up serving a mandatory sentence. He wanted a quick cash return, even if meant taking a big loss.”
“Huge loss. It was crazy, we couldn’t believe it, right? So he traded,” Nick said. “Because he could shift the pot in no time. Up at Carnegie, at Pitt—the stuff would have been gone in an hour, make some quick cash for him and he’d be home free. We gave him altogether maybe eight hundred bucks’ worth of pot. And we got what?”
Rob just looked at him. “I don’t know.” And then he started to laugh. “Know what else? We never told Jerry. He just wrote the whole thing off as a loss, remember? Thought we were a couple of losers.”
“Dude,” said Nick, “we still are,” and they both laughed. Nick sat back and enjoyed the moment. “Being young is vastly underrated, you know that?”
“It was fun, wasn’t it.”
“That guy could’ve burned us. Handed us nothing but Coffee-Mate or something. We never tested it, did we?”
Rob laughed a little. “We weren’t that crazy.”
“But his sweat was definitely real.”
“And where were we going to sell it? If it was the real thing, who was going to buy hard stuff like that? This was one very straight campus.”
“I mean, if we’d been at Berkeley or NYU, no problem, the shit would’ve been gone in an hour.”
Nick lowered his voice. “But—listen—what if the guy was genuine? What if he really was trying to put the hard stuff on us so he could sell the grass?” He leaned in to press his point.
“What are you saying?” Rob could hardly sit still. He was moving constantly on the seat, and finally Nick grabbed his wrist.
“Shhh-shhh… Listen to me.” He said it so quietly that his lips barely moved. “Remember what we did with it?”
“Why is it important?”
“Because you and I are both out of work. Because we have found ourselves in serious debt.” His voice was nothing but a hiss in a world of noise. A Knicks game played on the TV over the bar. Traffic slid by outside the window. Ice clinked in glasses against the fsst of beer-bottles popping open. “I just want you to clear your head and remember.”
The sun was setting over Buckeye Hall in a hazy winter sky, “Under My Thumb” did its sinister job from an open window in one of the dorms… Nick and Rob were walking across a campus dusted with day-old snow in the week before Thanksgiving… No one else was around. The sound of the wind… The cold against his face…
“I remember,” Rob said decisively. “We buried it. Because we couldn’t keep it in the dorm. Stuff like that, Class A substance, if that’s what it really was, would’ve earned us serious prison time. I remember we went into town and bought a couple of those things you put preserves in.”
“Mason jars,” Nick clarified.
“Filled to the top. That’s a lot of dope. You could bury a jar of pickles and they’d still be good when you turned seventy. As long as the thing was airtight. So chances are whatever’s in it is still good. It’s still got its…integrity,” and he rubbed his fingers together as though speaking of diamonds. “The question is,” and he leaned forward, “the real nub of the matter is, what was the stuff the guy gave us?”
“Speak hypothetically,” Nick suggested.
“Let’s assume this is heroin—”
“Why not cocaine?”
“In 1970? No one we knew used the stuff back then.”
“Okay, so for argument’s sake let’s call it,” and he lowered his voice even more, “smack.”
“If it’s quality stuff, which is not guaranteed by any means—a professional cuts this, puts it on the streets… Could be worth hundreds of thousands in this market, right?”
“I haven’t been following the narcotics trade,” Nick said quietly.
“It could even be a couple of million.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“Just lying there, waiting to be dug up.”
“Because we forgot about it.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Rob, barely containing himself.
“Remember where it was?”
“We’re talking thirty years ago, Nick.”
“Water under the bridge.”
“Yeah, well… You know what they say.”
“You got it.”
Nick smiled and lifted his drink. For a few golden minutes he’d forgotten about the fat hairy monkey called Debt that clung to his back, not to mention the parrot known as Failure perched on his shoulder and whispering sweet nothings in his ear.
“I gotta go,” he said. He looked at his watch. “The last train’s in thirty-five minutes. Otherwise I end up in a hotel that I can’t afford.”
He drained his glass and put down a couple of twenties. Rob, the cheapest man in the known universe who, even back in college after a meal at Mother Hubbard’s or the Waffle House, would announce that, whoops, he’d forgotten his wallet again, put down a ten and counted out three measly singles.
Rob gave Nick a hug at the doorway. “It’s been fun. We had great times back then, didn’t we.”
“We always gave it our best,” Nick said.
“So,” said Rob, and Nick looked his friend over one last time.
“You look all right, you know? Even if you are a lawyer.”
Rob threw a fake punch at him, and they sparred playfully for a few seconds until the barman suspected it might turn into a bloody brawl.
“Time to take it outside, fellas,” he called as he polished a glass.
“Call me,” Nick said. “Let’s have lunch one of these days.” He shrugged. “I don’t have anything else to do.” He took the initiative and stepped out into the brisk evening air. The wind had turned, and skimming the top off the Hudson the temperature dropped a few more degrees. Nick turned up the collar of his coat as he crossed Sixth Avenue, and it was only when he reached the sidewalk that he heard the sound of running feet. Two hands seized him from behind.
“I just remembered…” It was Rob, painfully out of breath, his face red in the buzzy glow of a Duane Reade. “I know,” he panted, “exactly where we buried the stuff.”
J.P. Smith was born in New York City and began his writing career in London, where he lived for several years and where his first novel, The Man from Marseille, was initially published. Following his return to the States in 1982, he published four further novels, Body and Soul, The Blue Hour, the Barnes & Noble Discover Title, The Discovery of Light, and Breathless, all of which are being reissued by Thomas & Mercer as ebooks and trade paperbacks later this month alongside his latest novel, Airtight. He currently lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
Photo by Miriam Berkley
Adapted from Airtight by J.P. Smith. Copyright © 2012 by J.P. Smith. With the permission of the publisher, Thomas and Mercer.