The Last Ride
The morning dawns clear and cool, the late summer heat wave broken by the night's thunderstorm. Although we didn't sleep for a much the night, I don’t feel tired and I want to get up and sit alone in the quiet morning. I slowly creep out of the sleeping bag so that I don’t wake Sam. I dress hurriedly in the cool air and then unzip the tent. There is a fine mist rising from the mountain we slept next to. It plays with the light so that the entire morning looks more like a painting than a reality. It is strangely quiet for a performer’s campground. No one is awake but me.
I like summer mornings. It is a time to think, to reflect. I came to the festival Friday night with a men's dance troupe. We danced on Friday and camped in the performer’s campground. We danced at the Saturday morning concert and then gave an afternoon workshop. Most of the guys left to catch a couple of home days before our gig in New York on Tuesday. I stayed. I like the music, especially that played here. It is music from the mountains and there is a special quality, an ageless echo, perhaps, when it is played in the shadow of this great mountain.
I came to the festival to perform Morris dance. I like coming. It’s a small festival so they don’t pay much but I lead workshops where lithe young women in calico dresses line up to be my partner. On the second day, one of them became my partner for the rest of the festival. She was a great dancer and an even better kisser. I taught her Morris dance, she taught me deeper arts. I think back over the weekend.
Saturday night there is a contra dance after the concert. I go. Morris is traditionally done by men. Dancing with men is strong, powerful. Dancing with women is sensual. I like both.
There are a lot of women asking me to dance. Perhaps they assume that my dancing ability extends beyond the ritual dances of the troupe to the figures of the contra. Perhaps they just like men that dance. But I have to ask no one. I am sought after. Men that dance, even these ancient dances, have groupies. They are different than rock groupies, smarter, deeper, I think; groupies in calico but I know that at least some of them would be willing to stay in my tent with me tonight.
Even though you have a partner in the contra dance, you progress along the lines and eventually get at least a turn with every woman dancing. One of the performers is dancing tonight. She was in the afternoon concert, playing claw hammer banjo and singing with a high, clear voice. She is a tall, yellow haired mountain beauty and, like me, she doesn’t have to ask for partners. I pass her in the line for several dances, but she is never my partner. I try, briefly, to remember her name; Samantha something I think.
The caller announces the last waltz and I look around, but a pretty dark haired woman asks me and I dance with her. I debate asking her back to my tent but decide against it. There was a time when I would have asked her, begged her, but now there have been too many pretty women, too many names forgotten, and I am tired of the empty feeling I have after these encounters.
We finish the dance and I am walking toward the exit when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn to see Samantha looking up at me, a quiet smile on her face. “You never asked me to dance,” she says. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to answer that. My face must betray my puzzlement because she laughs. It sounds like small bells. I smile and meet her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Coffee?” she asks. I nod and we walk toward the food area, looking for something still open. There is nothing.
“Closed,” I say.
“Never,” she says. Again I am puzzled. She walks around behind the stand with the sign that says, “The Bayou.”
A man is washing a large pot at the outdoor faucet. He looks and calls her by name. “Sam,” he says. They embrace.
“Joe, my friend wants some coffee,” Sam says.
“Oh, he do. Do your friend have a name?”
Sam turns to me and asks, “Do you have a name?” I tell her my name.
“Ok,” says Joe, “I’m gonna get your friend some coffee.”
“You might as well get me some as long as your there,” she says. Joe laughs, appreciatively. I have an idea they have done this many times at many festivals. Joe brings us two steaming cups of rich black coffee spiced with cinnamon and brandy. He isn’t selling this coffee at the festival. We sit at the small table in front of “The Bayou” for over two hours, talking. I am as clumsy with my words as usual but her laugh seems to be one of appreciation. I grow bolder and soon we are talking freely about any and all things. She shivers as the night cools. We get up to go. I like this woman. I like talking with her, knowing something about her. I liked that we didn’t march right off to bed. I am thinking that now it will be easier. I am thinking that I want this to be, just for once, easy and smooth, seamless in its simplicity. Instead, it has suddenly turned awkward, as usual.
Finally Sam takes my hand. “I want to sleep beside you,” she says. “But that’s all.” Would that be OK?”
I feel strangely relieved and I agree. We get to my tent and crawl in. I turn on the small light. She looks at my double sized sleeping bag and raises her eyebrows. “I’m a big guy,” I say. She dismisses the comment with small a noise she makes with her lips.
She pulls off her shirt and then her pants, leaving on a camisole and panties. She sees me looking at her and smiles, not turning away as our eyes meet. I join her in the bag and she snuggles into the crook of my arm and sighs. She smells faintly of honeysuckle. We sleep.
I sleep surprisingly long. When I wake, Sam is sitting around my stove and there is hot coffee. She looks great in calico and now in jeans but I also have the feeling she would look equally great in an elegant gown. He hair shimmers in the sun which has come over the top of the mountain. She studies me with her green eyes. “I have to play this afternoon,” she says.
“I’m all done,” I say.
A small sad look comes over her face. “When are you leaving?”
“I don’t have to be in New York til Wednesday.”
“Stay?” she asks.
I like being with Sam. It’s easy and fun. She is quick to laugh. She seems to take delight in the simplest things although she is anything but simple. We walk, we listen to music, but mostly we talk. I listen to her afternoon performance. Traditional Appalachian songs but with simple twists in phrase and rhythm that claim them as her own. We eat Cajun at “The Bayou” and Joe joins us. We go to the dance again. This time there are no lines of women waiting to dance with me, no lines of men waiting to dance with her. We dance. For all the talking we did today, now we do none. We dance, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling each other’s rhythms.
At the end of the dance she takes my hand and we walk back to my tent. We crawl inside and I turn on the light. Sam removes her shirt but this time, also her camisole. She is breath taking. She lets me look at her for a moment and then she takes off the rest of her clothes and slides into the sleeping bag. I take my own clothes off and join her. I reach for the light but her hand stops me. She leans to me and kisses me lightly on the lips. She smells musky, like damp rich earth. My head is spinning.
I wonder at people for whom sex is easy the first time. I know that is the way it should be because that is always how it is in the movies. But Sam’s body is new to me and mine to her and it is as awkward as all my first times. What is different is Sam. Her humor slides us past our awkwardness. Her gentleness guides us through our fear. Her strength excites me.
After we are done, she strokes my cheek. I start to say something but she puts her finger to my lips. Then she kisses me and hugs me.
I put on my pants to go out to pee. In the North there is a strange pulsing green light. I wonder at it for a moment but the night is cool and I have business. When I am walking back, I see it again. A fountain of green light climbs the sky from off the northern horizon. It’s the Aurora. When I get back to the tent, I unclip the four hooks that hold the fly over the tent and then climb in. Sam looks a me quizzically before I turn out the light. Then the green fountain rises again and she gasps.
We lie awake watching the growing light show. There are reds, now as well as greens. At some point Sam reaches out for me. We touch for a moment and she rolls on top of me. This time it is easier, almost effortless. We take turns on top, not because either of us has a particular preference but because we each want to give the other the chance to watch the light show as we move together. Although we probably adjust our rhythm to the pulsing of the light, I want to believe that there is some cosmic connection to the rhythm of our bodies and the rhythm of the northern lights. Aren’t they both spawned from the same magic? The lights crescendo in our final moment together and then fade as we fall exhausted into each other’s arms.
We both sleep late Monday. We are awakened by the music that swells in the camp as morning moves towards noon. We hear banjos, fiddles, and guitarist; performers warming up; performers jamming. It's a fine way to wake up. . This is the last day of the festival and Sam has to play once more. We decide to spend the night again, however, and leave Tuesday morning. We walk to “The Bayou” for some of Joe’s Cajun coffee and sweet cinnamon rolls. The day is hot. An oppressive heat has settled in the valley. Sam treats it the same way she does anything else, with laughter. The day passes in flashes of light and laughter. Since there is no dance, we retire early to my tent.
It’s too hot for the sleeping bag so I roll it up and we lie naked on our clothes. Just as we kiss I hear the distant rumbling of thunder. “I better put on the fly,” I say.
“No, please,” she says.
The storm comes in fast, sliding down the mountain as though it were on a sled in the deep snow. It's a different light show and more intense and it stirs a passion in us. Our lovemaking is not slow like last night but strong and deep. I smell Sam’s sweat, I lick it off her body. It is salty but also sweet. We join as the rain starts. We hear it in the trees but it isn’t penetrating their leafy canopy yet. Sam moves with me, fast and hard. I feel out of control. The lightning illuminates our bodies in an irregular strobe of sensual images. Each thunder clap is an explosion of ecstasy.
By the time we finish the rain is falling hard, streaming into the tent. We are soaked, our clothes are soaked. I can’t tell the difference between our sweat and the rain. Sam laughs. She leaps up and rushes outside the tent. Alarmed, I follow. She is dancing naked in the rain. I join her. I wonder briefly if passion is a rod for lightning but we are dancing and laughing so hard that I can’t stop to think about it.
As it cools us down, Sam begins to shiver. We put the fly on the tent, two naked people just doing a chore in the rain. We mop the tent floor with towels, throwing them out in the rain. Then we grab the sleeping bag and lay it out. She lights a small candle and we smuggle into the warmth of the bag. We wrap our arms around each other and her eyes ask me if I want her again but I'm happy to hold her and we sleep to the sound of the storm’s drums.
It’s now Tuesday morning and in the morning coolness I remember the past days. She goes west from here, to school in the West. I have a gig in New York.
Coming out of my reverie, I decide to walk to ‘The Bayou’. It’s not open this early, but I think I can talk Joe into give me two cups of his dark and spicy Cajun coffee. It wakes you in a pleasing way. I get two cups and take one back to Sam. She groans when I wake her, then smiles up at me when she sees the coffee. “A gentleman as well,” she says, appraisingly. She takes a sip of the coffee and stretches. She begins dressing in the sleeping bag, suddenly shy although there is no part of her I don’t now know.
I want to say something to her but we said it all last night. Do I remember her using the word love?
“Last night,” I begin and she looks at me raising her eyebrows in. She's wondering if I am about to say something stupid, something that asks for promises that neither of us can make. She's wondering whether I'll only try to extend this moment and in doing so, dilute it like sugar in fine coffee. I decide not to finish the sentence. I sip my coffee and look at her morning beauty. I wonder if it's possible to compress an entire relationship into three days.
She seems to realize how odd it is that she is trying to dress in the sleeping bag. She laughs and wiggles her beautiful body out. She finishes dressing. I watch. I watch her and she watches me watching her. I appreciate her beauty. She appreciates my appreciation. We don't talk; we just do the thing we’re doing. When she’s done, she sits up and runs a brush through her blond hair, then drinks more coffee.
She walks around the camp, picking up the towels from last night, wringing them out and folding them for me. When she's done she shrugs, walks over and kisses me on the mouth, turns and walks away. I have said nothing stupid, nothing to spoil this moment but I have the feeling it wouldn't have mattered if I had. Her grace and gentle humor would have covered it nicely, or maybe there are some moments that are so fine, so pure, that they are immune to any of my clumsiness.
Although we’ve promised to stay in touch, we are both already feeling the thousand mile divide looming before us. She says she’ll come to New York when she graduates. I say I’ll hitch out in the spring. I feel full and empty at the same time.
I will move on to deep meaningful relationships, full to overflowing with lives of joy and pain. I will take a partner to create three magical beings. I will wonder what it would have been to have something more with Sam. Would the magic have stayed strong? Would we have loved each other long and fine. I had many relationships that I describe in many ways but while they were all extraordinary in some way, none had the magic, the intensity, the synesthetic merging of all senses, the series of miracles that were with us on a very short journey. I will look for the magic for the rest of my life and wonder where it went. Perhaps it left with the ideals that died in the following years, when soldiers burned people in jungles, and shot students at universities; when a few years after we shut down a war, another seemed to just appear; when the beautiful green world we grew up n gradually turned gray with greed and other pollutions. I will mark this as the last time I made love before hearing of a new and fatal sexually transmitted disease. I wasn’t the cause of all our troubles, but it is on the time line of my life as the time when innocence began to die.
I fold my tent and stuff the sleeping bag still smelling of Sam into its sack. I load them both onto my pack and start around the campground asking for a ride into the city. Surprisingly, most of the performers are going west. A number of the remaining possibilities have full cars.
The crew from the “Elastic Circus” has a big yellow school bus. They are busy loading it with their large masks. I approach one of the women and ask if they are going to the city. “Do you need a ride?” she asks.
“OK, it would be good karma to give you a ride, I think. OK. But like, I’ll have to ask the others cause we’re a commune. We make all our decisions by consent.” She wanders into the bus. I see her talking to one of the men animatedly. Pretty soon they are arguing. It takes a long time and I am wondering if I really want to ride with them but I haven’t much choice now.
She comes out looking furious, but wipes the anger off her face when she sees me looking at her. The smile she puts on looks a lot like one of their masks. “Like, man,” she starts. “We can’t take you today.” I wonder about tomorrow. “We just can’t afford the bad vibes right now. The group is very sensitive now. We can’t use any darkness.” This takes me by surprise. In one of those “should’a said” spirals I will think of this while I am standing on the road, hitching to New York. I will come up with a lot of very clever replies. Now I just smile and say, “It’s all right.” I shoulder my bag and march out the dirt road to the highway. I sit down on the pack and stick my thumb out. A half hour later the yellow school bus comes out. I don’t drop my thumb. All the clowns and performers look out the window at me. Some jeer.
I pick up a ride with an Amway distributor. He is an all-star salesman and begins his pitch the moment I climb in the car. He talks non-stop for almost an hour and I am thinking that the Elastic Circus has nothing to complain about in the bad vibes department. By the time he drops me off at the turnpike entrance I am stupefied and have strangely have promised to get in touch with him so that I can distribute Amway products. I am thinking I will have to change my phone so that he can’t reach me. I am getting really paranoid pictures in my mind about being chased all over the country by Amway representatives. I am falling into a deep dread and forget all about putting my thumb out. It doesn’t matter. Weirdness is the day. A white van with “Dave’s Cleaning” stenciled on the side stops. A guy with long blond hair leans out and yells, “Come on.” I go.
The minute I step into the back, the driver, a tough looking guy with a dark mustache, guns the engine and we are moving. “Where to?” asks the blond.
“North,” I say. “New York.” I am sitting next to one of the largest fishing tackle boxes I have ever seen. There is no other fishing gear, however. On the other side of the box is an old man, late sixties at least. He is big, strong, was once very powerful. He nods to me but says nothing. I smile back at him.
“Open the box,” the blond says. I shrug, wondering what he wants with tackle in the van. I pop the catch and pull the lid. The top drawer swings out and it is packed with pills. There are little blue capsules, plain white tablets with the word “Sandoz” etched in them, and big black horse pills. “Take your pick,” he says. I can only stare in amazement.
He reaches back and pulls the drawer aside. In the box there a several clear plastic bags of grass, two bags of mushrooms, and one bag whose contents I can’t guess. The blond guy grabs a bag. He reaches under his seat and pulls out a long pipe. There are feathers and shells tied to it. He fills it and lights it, inhaling deeply. He passes it to the old man and then exhales. “We’ll smoke and there will be no lies between us.”
It seems like a line he uses. I presume it is an Indian saying. He turns to me and says, “We’ll smoke first, you can choose later.” The old man hands me the pipe. The blond makes introductions as I am inhaling. “I’m Dave. That’s Jug,” he says point a thumb at the driver. “This is Captain Trips,” pointing at the old man. I raise my eyebrows, still inhaling. “Yes,” he says, “the Captain Trips.” I choke and start a coughing fit. Dave reaches for the pipe. Captain Trips is eying me with interest, a slightly asymmetric smile on his face. His bald head seems to be expanding as I feel the grass kick in. The pipe goes around again. It is good stuff. I feel my spirit bumping against the top of my own skull, trying to get free.
After the pipe leaves the old man’s hands he begins to shake his head up and down vigorously. He stares at me for a moment as though trying to analyze something, my composition perhaps my spiritual makeup. Dave smiles and opens the tackle box again. “Let him choose for you,” he advises me. Before I have time to consider this, the old man pulls out the bag of mushrooms and the other bag I couldn’t identify. He reaches into the mushroom bag and pulls out a handful. He sorts them according to some criteria I can’t fathom. Then he reaches into the other bag and pulls out some of the contents. It looks like dried fruit and I wonder if he is going to mix it with the mushrooms to make them taste better. He does. He hands me a handful of organic things and gestures for me to chew them. I am wondering why he doesn’t talk. As if reading my mind Dave says, “He cannot lie if he doesn’t use words.” It makes sense and I am comfortable with it, with him.
I chew the materials. It is a bitter mixture. The mushrooms seem to be tasteless, the bitterness coming from the ‘dried fruit’. After a few minutes, the old man gestures for me to spit out the window. When I turn back Dave says, “The peyote will kick in first, then the psilocybin will mellow it out.
After a few minutes I begin to feel nauseous. “Breathe deeply,” Dave says. I do and soon the nausea passes, giving way to a felling of peace and well being. I look out the window and am surprised to see everything moving so slowly. I am deeply puzzled by this, wondering why Jug has slowed the car. I lean over his shoulder and look at the speedometer; seventy. “Wow,” I whisper.
Jug laughs. “That’s right,” he says his first words to me. I close my eyes, very interested in the images beginning to form there. When I open them again, we have left the Turnpike and are heading down a small two-lane road. I see waterfalls. We cross a bridge and pull off the road. Jug turns off the car and gets out. Dave follows and they come to my door, open it, and offer me a hand out. The old man is slow to get out. We all walk down to a large flat rock at the edge of the falls. We sit. I listen to the water. It is telling me water secrets, singing songs about the rain and the sea. After what seems like a long time, the old man come over to me and looks into my eyes. I hear him speak but he isn’t moving his lips.
“This is your path today,” his mind whispers to mine. He gets up and starts toward the car. Jug and Dave get up. Jug gives me a mock salute. Dave says, “Later man.” Then they are gone.
I listen to the water. I watch the golden leaves. My mind wanders. I doze. I dream of a life, once lived…
© Victor Young 2016