AN IMPERFECT SEARCH FOR PURPOSE…
When you’re Alexander Poole, everyone’s your teacher: a skeevy stereo salesman, master of the bait and switch; a flaky folk singer and his dog that reads Tolkien; a drug dealer loan shark with a passion for trees; a ballsy townie chick who turns you on to Springsteen; your wiseass roommate whose favorite pastime is smoking your dope; even your one true love. Together they point you to paradise — Poole’s Paradise — but what will it cost to get in?
Set in 1974 — and drenched in bell-ringing seventies references — Poole’s Paradise is a truth-seeking mission on the order of Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although a lot shorter and a good deal easier to read.
CHAPTER ONE: THE LOW SPARK
I turned off the ceiling light and placed my trusty Koss Pro 4aa headphones over my ears. In an instant their thick foam cushions cancelled out the horrible gacky sounds of Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” coming from a stereo down the hall.
Disco, God help us. How fast did that catch on?
I lifted the smoked plastic lid of my manual play Pioneer turntable and carefully cued up Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” I cranked the volume on my Nikko 5050 receiver, lay back on my narrow bed and fired up a joint. Not for the first time – more like like every time – I tried to penetrate the lyrics of the song.
We were children once, playing with toys
and the thing that you’re hearing is only the sound
of the low spark of high heeled boys
What’s a high heeled boy anyway? What’s a low spark? A quiet revolution, maybe? Something that sneaks up on you and messes with you and you don’t even know. That’s what I need, I thought. I need to be lit by a low spark.
My roommate came in, Donny (occasional Donald, never Don) Dawkins. He turned on the light and stood over me wearing an expression of harsh disapproval. He was thickset: not fat, but chunky; what we used to call husky when I was a kid. A struggle of muttonchops framed his round face, along with an enormous Jewfro. He loved that big nimbus, thought it made him look cool beyond cool.
I thought it made him look like Angela Davis.
I lifted one ear cup and said, “What?”
He wagged his finger at me sternly. “Alexander Poole, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you are not to smoke marijuana in this room we share,” he paused, then added as I knew he would, “without sharing.” He plucked the remaining half a joint from my ashtray and lit it up, then went to my stereo. “What are we listening to? Wait, let me guess. Traffic?” He briskly unjacked my headphones and listened for a second to place the song. “I knew it. You are in such a rut. You’ve played this record every day since we got back to school. Let’s play some Led Zep.”
“And listen to Robert Plant screaming like he fell off a cliff? No, thank you.”
“Have it your way, but enough of this.” He lifted the turntable lid and pawed the tonearm off the LP.
“Hey, be careful with that.”
“Relax, Audio Joe, I know how to handle a record.” This he convincingly disproved by jamming the record into its sleeve and racking it among my LPs in some completely random place. He examined my albums with familiar disdain. “God, you have some lame taste.” I wasn’t insulted by this. That was just Dawk, how he was. He pulled out Countdown to Ecstasy and said with exaggerated relief, “Ah, Steely Dan, at last a band that doesn’t completely blow. You know they’re named after a dildo, right?”
“Which you only mention every time you say Steely Dan.”
“True. I beat a dead horse. By the way, speaking of dildos – ”
“Were we speaking of dildos?”
“Son, we don’t speak nearly enough about dildos. You know what I just figured out about them? What they represent?”
“No, tell me. What do dildos represent?”
“Horny women. For every dildo sold, there’s a woman out there somewhere who wants to have sex. All we have to do is find them and convince them we’re better than a dildo.”
“Son,” I told Donny, “you’re going to have some trouble with that.”
“I’m telling you, this is big news. All this time we’ve been thinking of banging as something we want to do but chicks don’t. The dildos tell us we’re wrong.”
“’The dildos tell us we’re wrong,’ I could see that on a tee shirt.”
“And it would totally sell. But the question is, what are we to do with this monumental news? I will tell you: We are to take it out, son. This information, we are to take it to the world. To, specifically, the Rat, where I’m told there’s a honking blues band playing right now.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was planning to study.”
“Oh, was that before or after you listened to Low Farts for the jillionth time?”
“Shut up,” I said. “What’s the band?”
“Coincidentally, they’re called the Dildos.”
We jabbered back and forth for a moment, but the conclusion was foregone. I grabbed a sweatshirt and headed out into the night. You do that sometimes, just be a cork bobbing on the Sea of Dawkins. Interesting things can happen. Drunk things at least.
The search for the low spark could wait.
The dorm we lived in, Ira Lemke Hall, had been co-ed for a couple of years now, and I’d already learned that it’s not the nudity parade you might think. You get to watch a girl brush her teeth, big deal. That said, as Dawk and I walked out, we both looked back, as we both naturally would, for the girl who lived in a certain single on the second floor had been known to entertain gentlemen with the shade not drawn.
“No Layla,” sighed Dawk.
“No Layla,” I agreed.
We had no idea what her real name was. To us she would always be Layla, a rare, exotic bird we could label but never hope to catch.
In the topography of Cort College, where outlying hills of the Connecticut Berkshires turned everything into a gully or ridge, it often seemed like every building on campus was uphill from everywhere, even coming back. In the case of the Rathskeller, or Rat, in the basement of the James Cort Union, or U, it was true. But the night had some bite to it and the uphill grind felt good.
The U was built into a hillside, and had the oddity of two ground-floor entrances, one on the west side, facing Memorial Plaza, and the other around back, two levels down. As we crossed the plaza we saw a scruffy dude standing there playing guitar and singing “Proud Mary.” He wore a beat leather cowboy hat, jeans and a pretty thin jacket. He played well enough and tried to put some soul into it, but you could tell he was mostly just cold. A German Shepherd lay at his feet, looking equally dolefully unwarm.
“Seen that guy before?” I asked Dawk after we passed.
“Weird he’s not playing for money.”
“Maybe it’s art.”
Dawk shrugged. “Cover art?”
We went inside, crossed to the back stairs, and dropped down to the Rat, near the back entrance. You always knew you were getting there before you got there, for the smell of stale beer and brutal cleanser never failed to greet you from below.
We got a pitcher and occupied a corner booth. This was the key to value at the Rat: think pitchers. The other key was Haffenreffer, the house beer and consistently cheaper than anything else. It tasted like pony sweat, but if you pounded it fast enough, eventually it would catch up to you.
I knew it had caught up to Dawk when he burst out of a contemplative silence with a loud, “Here’s one!”
“Here’s one what?”
“A thing. A thing I think I thought up. Listen,” he said intently, “boobytrap spelled backward is partyboob.”
“That is amazing,” I said. “I’m speechless at the amazingness of that.”
“As well you should be. Now you do one.”
“What? What are you talking about? I can’t just ‘do one.’ I’d have to be a freak like you.”
“As you like. But I don’t think the Beatles sat around all day saying, ‘Ooh, blimey, I can’t just do a bleedin’ song.’” He pouted out his lower lip. “’I don’t know ‘ow.’”
“Okay, first, that’s a terrible Liverpool accent. Never do that where people can hear.”
“You said first. What’s second?”
“What second? There’s no second. Shut up.”
I guess the ‘Reffer had caught up to me, too.
Dawkins sighed. “Still, though, that’d be cool.”
“To be the Beatles of something. You should do that.”
“Be the Beatles of something. You’d be good at it.” He waved vaguely at our empty pitcher. “Start with that. Be the Beatles of that.”
I picked up the pitcher and headed for the bar. It wasn’t a long trip, but long enough to think a few things through.
So how do you get to be the Beatles of something anyhow? Can you even think about it if you’re stuck up here in the Berkshires (or Buttshires or Berserkshires, as Cort kids call them)? So easy not to. When winter comes down, maybe all you want to do is stay in. Do your homework, play some cards, drink some, smoke some, go to classes, go to concerts, hang out. Next thing you know it’s summer and you have nothing to show for your year. Understimulated, that’s what I was. And I let myself get away with it.
This girl from Upper Volta changed all that. She was a counselor at my same summer camp, on exchange, and she flat couldn’t believe some of the classes I’d taken freshman year. “Sex in Cinema?” she asked, incredulous. In her country, the chance to sit down with a book, any book, in any sort of school setting, was almost unheard of. “And you waste on Sex in Cinema,” she said. “If were mine, this opportunity, I would not waste.”
Thank you, buzz kill.
I spent half the rest of the summer freaking out over My Wasted Life and the other half trying to get into the girl from Upper Volta’s shorts, with limited success. Back home in late August I stayed up late in my family’s copious New Jersey nest, mulling this very business. I wrote poetry into it: mawkish, self-conscious; it had to be destroyed, and it was. But she got under my skin, that girl. She made me want something to show for my time. She made me want the low spark.
Whatever the hell that was.
I climbed onto a stool and clacked my empty pitcher down on the bar. “I seek purpose,” I announced to the bartender with some ceremony. “But I’ll settle for a pitcher of beer.”
This earned a snerk from the girl sitting next to me. I turned to her and said, “What?”
“Nothing,” she said. “It was just funny.”
And that began Melanie, or Mel, which lasted a breathless three weeks, and then fell apart over this: Mel’s gonna be her own gal. That’s her rule, she’s decided, and no one’s moving her off it. Besides which, this bombshell – she’s pretty much sure she doesn’t like boys anymore.
The breakup happened in the dining hall, during dining. I was talking about the upcoming Mott The Hoople show, riffing on the strangeness of bands’ names. “Moby Grape. Vanilla Fudge. And what the hell’s a Hoople?”
She interrupted me abruptly, saying, “I’m not going to that show with you, Poole.”
“Why not? What are you, some kind of Hoople hater?”
“No; we won’t be dating by then.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m breaking up with you now.”
“It doesn’t make sense. We don’t make sense.” That sounded like something Mel would say. Because the thing about Mel was – the decidedly admirable thing – she was just so level-headed. The whole brief time we were together I couldn’t get over how together she was. She didn’t have to be entertained. She could hang out, just sit in a room and read or do sketches. She wasn’t wide-eyed. She was solid. And philosophical. But she hated distractions, and had determined that, nice as I was, that’s what I was. Consequently, we were ended. She figured it was better to tell me now before our Motts got all Hoopled. “Don’t take it too hard, Poole. Everything beautiful dies. We can still be friends.”
“Can we still fool around?”
“Oh, my God, are you really asking me that?”
“Well, why not? It’s been pretty great. At least I think it has.”
“Want me to sing your praises? I will.”
I thought about our lovemaking for a moment. In truth, Mel was the first regular partner I’d had, and compared to the harried fumbles that came before, well… “Well, for one thing, you’re very matter-of-fact.”
Mel cracked up laughing. “Oh, man, this is rich. Keep it up, bub, I’m going to enjoy being your ex.”
“Never mind, forget I brought it up.”
“No, no, go ahead. Sell me on matter-of-fact.”
“Well, you’re just…you’re not self-conscious, you know? You do what you want. You don’t play games. You make sex work.”
“Not like that. I mean function, work well. I’ve been with plenty of women who don’t.”
“Well, a few. Plus me, I don’t do sex well at all.”
“You’re getting the hang of it. You have a promising future.”
“Just not with you,” I said, hangdog.
“Well, there you go. I didn’t know that. I’ve never been broken up with before, not by someone I’m sleeping with. I don’t know the rules for exes. I do know what I want.”
“See you naked again.”
Melanie sighed. “Okay, Poole, here’s the real news.” That’s when she told me the thing about guys, about maybe being over them.
“How are you over guys?” I asked. Holy smoke, did I do that? Was I worse than a dildo?
“I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“I get it, I see. I have to tell you my dirty sexy secrets but you don’t have to share yours?”
Mel blinked. “No,” she said. “No, you’re right, that’s not fair. Okay, here’s the size of it. I always was a sexual girl. I wasn’t interested in boys, exactly, I just wanted my itch scratched. Boys were handy, boys were eager, and frankly the thought of girls never really crossed my mind. It wouldn’t, not where I grew up.” She paused for a moment, then went on. “So, I’ve been with boys. I’ve been with a couple of men. I didn’t like the men, they wanted to take control. The night you and I met, I made out with a girl for the first time.”
“At the Rat?”
“In the bathroom. In a stall. It was exciting. I wanted to go with her, but it seemed like such a radical change. I thought I’d give boys one last chance.”
“Which I blew.”
She took my hand. “You were fine. You’re a sweet dude, dude. You know how to be good to a person.”
“Great,” I said ruefully. “The man can show a lady a good time.”
“Not lady. Person. You’re good when you’re real, Alex. I think I would call it your strength.”
“So now what am I? Someone’s knight in shining armor?”
“No, man, someone’s lover. Real lover. You’ll find her. Just look for someone as real as you.”
“And I’m really looking forward to being your friend, but let’s not let the sex weird us out, huh? If we can do that, I think we’ll be okay.”
Just at that moment Dawkins blew in. He and Mel had become chums in these weeks. “What’s kickin’, kittens?” he asked.
“Melanie just told me she’s queer,” I said, then covered my mouth, mortified. “Was I not supposed to say that?”
“No, that’s you keeping it real,” said Mel. “And the technical term is lesbian, not queer.”
Dawkins nodded and said solemnly, “Like Alice B. Toklas.”
Mel slapped his head. “That’s all you’ve got? That’s the sum total of your knowledge on the subject of homosexuality? Dude, at least give me Stonewall.” She read his blank stare. “No? Okay, here’s your homework: Go read Alan Ginsburg and report back.”
“Hey, you’re not my teacher.”
“We’re all each other’s teachers, bub. Haven’t you figured that out?”