Writing fiction

The Sound Bite

Today is the 40th anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon. To mark that moment in time, I am re-posting my short story, The Sound Bite, which was published in woman’s corner magazine in 2006. With apologies to those of you who have seen this before…

The Sound Bite

I watched myself on TV today, stammering, the camera catching each bit of egg as it leaked from the corner of my mouth. In case you haven’t seen the clip yet, I was eating breakfast in Washington when a reporter approached the table. “Excuse me, Mr. Maxwell. In 1974, you lived at Yellow Springs.” I waited for his question. “How much did you know about the drug dealing?”

My handlers have prepared me for the question, my campaign may hinge on the answer, but how can I reduce the events of that extraordinary year to a sound bite?

It was May 1974, three months before Richard Nixon would resign in disgrace, but the outcome that spring was still very much in doubt and I was living, thumb outstretched, on the shoulder of Interstate 40.

In 1974, I lived out of my backpack and inside my head and, after a few weeks on the road, both were in need of light cleaning. Standing at the side of the road, baking in the Arizona sun, I rummaged through the backpack, dividing my estate into piles, measuring value by the simple equation of function divided by weight.

The pile of necessities grows quickly – my Svea camping stove, hatchet, flashlight, band-aids. I select the first item destined for disposal – Learn to Play Harmonica in a Week. I come across a deck of playing cards – count ‘em forty-seven and a joker – and start a third pile for maybes. My Swiss army knife and sleeping bag join the pile of necessities. Soggy matches and a badly scratched copy of the Workingman’s Dead join the maybes and, on the advice of my spiritual side (don’t be a slave to your possessions, it advises), the maybes soon join the garbage.

Having rearranged the pack to my satisfaction, I turn my attention to the mess that I carry around inside my head. I believe that the human body is an amazingly forgiving machine designed to run on grains and vegetables, but able to derive necessary and sufficient fuel from my diet of Twinkies and tequila. I believe that anarchy is a viable political system. I believe that God doesn’t mind when I pray to the Buddha.  

I barely have time to complete my spring cleaning when a truck pulls to a stop, some twenty feet up the road. Moving quickly, I throw my pack in the back, hop in front and once again I’m off, in a brilliant red pick-up truck, fire engine red, brand new, red inside too, an automatic Chevy truck. And I’m several miles down the road to new adventures before I realize that I left my pot at the side of Interstate 40.

The driver begins talking even as I climb into the truck. “I met her at the Fillmore… I was still in the Navy then… and didn’t like her kind, you know… hippies… but shit, if Nixon can go to China. Besides, she was hot. So we moved in together. Tough at first, getting used to her. She’d make me soyburgers with goat cheese, French fries with tahini.”

“After we hooked up, I went AWOL and Francesca… that’s her name… Francesca made me turn myself in. I was gonna get screwed. But Frannie told me they would understand. No way. I mean, what the hell does she know about the friggin’ Navy? But she told me not to worry and she said I should chant. Nam myo ho renge kyo. Chant and everything would be okay. And damned if she wasn’t right. They gave me a friggin’ discharge. Nam myo ho renge kyo. Who woulda believed it?  So I chant and I drink cough medicine to get high.”

It was true. His tongue was as red as his truck.

 “We joined a commune out here in the desert. Four months later we split up. We’re still at the commune, but not together. Anyway that was a long time ago. So where are you heading?”

“I was thi…” He barely waited for an answer.

“Whatever. Look, I’m exhausted. Wake me when we get to the Yellow Springs turn-off. You’re welcome to crash there for a couple of days. If you want any cough medicine…” and he pointed to the half empty case on the floor of the truck, “help yourself.”  Just before passing out, he also showed me the unopened Thermos of black coffee tucked under the seat.

So there I was, sitting behind the wheel of a brand new fire engine red Chevy pick-up, coffee in my right hand, cough syrup in my left, a speed freak passed out at my side, probably suffering from an overdose of cough syrup, Richard Nixon still the President and I left my pot at the side of the Interstate. It’s a good thing the road was straight.

When we arrived at Yellow Springs, I was reminded of the opening scene from the movie, “2001, A Space Odyssey.”   A dozen or so apes were dancing in a circle around a large black obelisk, jumping up and down, waving their arms, in a ritual of pre-historic consciousness-raising. I stood there, mouth and mind agape, trying to make sense of the sights, sounds and smells at Yellow Springs. The commune’s idea of religion, apparently, was for man to return to his primate roots and re-pattern ten million years of faulty evolution.  Or maybe not. Honestly I didn’t have a clue.

When one of the apes offered me a barbecued veggie burger, I understood what I had been observing. The simian ritual I had imagined was nothing more exotic than a Sunday barbeque.

That didn’t explain the outfits. The apes were pretty obviously men in monkey costumes. Of course, the same could be said of “2001.” The simian leader introduced himself as Monkey-in-the-Middle-of-the-Void, but most of the apes called him Stanley.

Stanley’s monkey religion was an attempt to find meaning in the changes that time had wrought on his life. If you could take a peek beneath his fake fur, you would find Stanley Nussbaum, urban guerilla. A minor celebrity among sixties radicals, missing since the explosion in Mexico City, Stanley Nussbaum’s campaign of civil disobedience was already fading from the pages of the daily papers and the synapses of the American conscience.

“You may remember, a few years ago, a minor explosion in Mexico City? On the run, I ducked into a community theater, looking for a place to hide. The only costumes I found in storage were a musketeer, a gorilla and a nun.  I chose the gorilla. Imagine if I had chosen differently, today I might be Sister-in-the-Middle-of-the-Void.”

“From beneath my fur,” Stanley continued, “I began to see things more clearly. I realized that there was a nation within the nation, a nation of walking wounded, kids who were disillusioned by Nixon’s America, but who were equally unable to deal with the alternatives. That’s when I began to hear about other gorillas popping up.”

“Not that everyone here at Yellow Springs wears a gorilla suit. Far from it. Yellow Springs is a haven for anyone who doesn’t fit into the middle-class American plan – radicals, potheads, runaways, orphans and waifs, the abused, the confused and the easily amused.”

As Stanley talked, a young ape female sat quietly at his side. Even covered in fur, I could tell she was pretty. “C’mon Stanley, don’t be so dramatic. Some of us are just here for the hot monkey love.” And she gave me a smile that went straight to my groin.

Stanley chuckled. “I’m sorry. I’m being rude.” He turned back and looked at me closely. “Max, right? Meet Francesca. Francesca…Max. And Max… don’t believe anything Francesca tells you.”

The Yellow Springs Monkey Farm was home for the burned out, dropped out, dried up and disillusioned, those who, having survived drugs and protest could not survive the cynicism of the Nixon presidency and had nothing left to do with their lives but hide out in the desert – some disguised as a gorilla, many more hiding in plain sight – and pass the day in purposeless activity. And they were all deeply, madly, unrequitedly, in love with Francesca.

I spent the summer of 1974 living at Yellow Springs Monkey Farm.  Nothing much happened that summer. Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, but I mean nothing much happened to me. I did my share of the chores and smoked my share of the weed. I joined the long line of men pining for Francesca’s attention, and went to bed each night, alone. I studied Stanley’s brand of Buddhism, and became a regular member of his prayer group.

“The essential challenge to the serious Buddhist,” according to Monkey, “is to achieve enlightenment, release from the cycle of death and rebirth. But for some Buddhists, the goal is not individual enlightenment, but universal enlightenment. These Buddhists believe that there are special individuals… bodhisattvas… who have achieved individual enlightenment, but who choose to remain in the world, helping the rest of us on the spiritual path.”  Stanley was on a roll.

“Gradually, more and more people will get the message (that there is no message).  Soon there will be more and more bodhisattvas wandering the earth, helping an ever smaller number who still haven’t figured it out. Eventually we all get there, but there has to be a moment when there’s just one unenlightened slob left, one guy who just doesn’t get it, one loser who is standing in the way of universal enlightenment. And that hold-out, he’s what I like to call the last bodhisattva, ‘cause after he gets it, there’s no one left to help.”

Stanley had been building to this point for months and as we listened, we patted ourselves on the back for we understood his lesson… that we were the bodhisattvas, small in number now, but growing every day, the spiritual leaders, at the head of the parade.

“Only sometimes I get to wondering…” we were startled, believing that Stanley had completed his lesson… “if we can really trust the bodhisattvas.”

He had scarcely gotten the final words out when pandemonium broke loose in the monkey house. Everyone had something to say; apes were jumping up and down, arms and opinions akimbo, and everyone chattering away all at one time. Gradually, out of the chaos, coherent thoughts began to emerge.

“I think the point is there’s good and evil in all of us,” opined an elder statesman in the group. I could distinguish the veterans from the newcomers at the Monkey Farm by the condition of their fur. The speaker’s fur was matted and threadbare, bald spots exposing the inner fabric of the costume. He was obviously an early convert to the way of the monkey.

“That’s bullshit and you know it,” rejoined a relative newcomer to the farm, resplendent in his thick, clean fur. “The retreat from absolute values is merely an excuse for evil.”

“He’s right.” Another threadbare veteran of the monkey wars joined the debate. “Sure, we’re each of us a mixture of good and evil, but the point is, there have to be standards. Otherwise we’re no better than animals” – an odd comment for a man dressed like a gorilla.

No monkey lacked for an opinion or the willingness to share it.  “I’m not sure it’s that easy. I read a poem recently… I forget who wrote it… anyway he compared the dharma to an onion. You peel away layers and keep peeling until you discover the nothingness at the center of the onion.”

“It was Snyder,” suggested another monkey, “and it was an avocado, not an onion. The dharma is like the pit of an avocado…hard, and just when you think you grasp it, it slips away.”

It was time for me to slip away. I listened to their arguments as long as I could, but there’s a reason why monkeys are under-represented on debate teams. True to their simian nature, rational disputation quickly gave way to rude gestures and even ruder noises. While Stanley and his monkey disciples argued about the hidden meaning in his ancient tale of good and evil (the secret is that there is no secret), I decided to get some air.

I struck out alone for the foothills that pushed up out of the earth just beyond the border of the Monkey Farm. It was barren country, dry and dusty and desolate. It seemed like hours that I wandered alone in the foothills.  I tried to meditate, but my thoughts kept turning to Francesca. I don’t know if it was the intensity of my thoughts that drew her out, but suddenly I spotted her coming over the rise. Francesca and I began walking, heading nowhere in particular, enjoying each other’s company.

Francesca never participated in Monkey’s prayer group.  If she had a spiritual side, she kept it well hidden under her sexy ape exterior.  “What brought you here?” she wondered aloud.

“Out here? You mean, here? Now?”

“You know,” she explained, “here, the Monkey Farm.”

Growing up, I had committed to memory every bad break and bum rap that life had dealt me, every misfortune and injustice. My reasons for leaving home, I knew to be unassailable. So I was surprised when I heard myself answer, “I don’t know… no reason really.”

We strolled quietly and watched the shadows melt to black on the hills. Under the cover of darkness, Francesca kissed me monkey-style. Turning her back toward me, Francesca asked for my help. My hands trembled as I fumbled with the zipper.   Francesca was even prettier than I imagined, her pale skin glistening in the moonlight. I made for us a bed of fake fur.

That night, surrounded by the ghosts of long-forgotten dreams, the future Mrs. Maxwell and I made love.

Was Stanley dealing drugs at Yellow Springs? Perhaps. But if he was, it was one of the least important activities that summer at the Monkey Farm. And me? I find it hard to believe that people really give a damn what I was doing back then. 1974 seems so long ago. Most people don’t remember what Nixon was doing then and he was doing stuff a lot worse than me. I didn’t subvert any governments, didn’t send any Americans off to die in Southeast Asia. All I did was get high and fall in love back at a time when both of those were relatively safe things to do.


5 thoughts on “The Sound Bite

  1. Yay! To mark this moment in time, I bought a backpack yesterday, so as to be ready incase I need to head for the hinterlands of, say, downtown New Brunswick, or somewhere in Pitkin County, CO.


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