Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand
Just east of Worcester, the greenish paisley clouds morph into the faces of Washington, Lincoln, and a couple of their pals.
Every sound SOUNDS LOUDER: The wind whistling in through Odysseus’s vent windows. The hum of tires on the Mass Pike. The Hammond organ of Procol Harum splashing through the speakers.
Next to me, Robin draws her knees up under her chin and hugs them. Strands of her long hair vine away in the breeze. Robin is Botticelli’s Venus on a passenger seat, only with dark-brown hair and eyes. She is Juliet to my Romeo, Olive Oyl to my Popeye, Lady to my Tramp, the lady I love.
Alas, my heart is as heavy as an anvil. Tomorrow she will depart for the Canadian wilderness, vanishing from my life for two full months. Dreading the thought of this summer without her, I reach over, take her slim hand in mine, and squeeze.
Don’t go north, my love. There’s still time to change your mind. Surely you must feel the same?
But with businesslike deftness, Robin guides my hand back to Odysseus’s steering wheel and says, “Are you sure you can drive, Lucas?”
The question does not come unexpectedly out of yonder filigreed blue. An hour ago, back in Cambridge, we were loitering beside a brick wall on which was scrawled “Make Love Not War” and “Bring the Troops Home.” A barefoot, glassy-eyed freak with Jesus hair and beard wandered by. After clocking Odysseus, Robin, and me, he dug into his pocket and produced a wrinkled baggie filled with tiny orange barrel-shaped tabs. He then uttered those most magical of inducements: “Free, man.”
From the shape and color of the tabs I swiftly deduced that the offering was Orange Sunshine. Fabled West Coast acid, said to rival Owsley as the purest ever produced for mass consumption. Without a second thought, I plucked a barrel out of the baggie and swallowed.
Now, on the Mass Pike, as we poke along at Odysseus’s maximum velocity of fifty-eight mph, the industrial rhythm of the tires has a symphonic quality. In the cockpit, sonic tides ebb and flow — faint, louder, LOUD, less loud, faint. Out in the distance, the greenish cloud-faces of President Washington & Co. grin down from the heavens. Mount Rushmore, indeed!
In the meantime, I am tasked with reassuring my ladylove that even in my thoroughly dosed state I am capable of maintaining both altitude and a steady flight path. (I always meant to teach her to drive a stick, but like so many of my intentions, it was left unrealized.) “Have no fear, my daffodil, I am in complete control of the sit —” This would be the very moment a humongous eighteen-wheeler barrels past, intent on blowing us off the road. With a panicked gasp, Robin grabs my thigh and squeezes while I wrestle my boxy German tin can back into the lane.
The back of the 18-wheeler,
An elephant’s square gray rump,
Leaves us in
The New England dust.
Tock, tick. Robin hasn’t uttered a word in . . . five minutes? Ten? As Captain Lucas attempts to navigate his flimsy vessel homeward, stewed synapses sputter inside his skull, then spark with tiny twinkles of light. He imagines that if he’d taken the time to have a second thought back in Cambridge before dropping the Orange Sunshine, it might’ve gone something like this: It’s going to be a long enough drive home to Long Island without dramatically increasing the risk of taking an imaginary exit into the vast unknown.
Or into a ditch.
How long will the drive be? Hard to say. Acid time is spongy — not that Captain Lucas is complaining. The irreversibly toxic tick-tock from present to future is the enemy. In less than twenty-four hours, the love of his life decamps for the frozen tundra.
Odysseus oozes to a standstill. The thing that from a distance resembled a garden trellis stretching across the highway and draped with green vines and shimmering pink flowers is in reality a row of tollbooths.
Ah! Sweet relief! The trippy nervousness that usually accompanies any interaction with a Straight Person of Authority mellows when the toll collector appears to be not much older than me. Bushy sideburns. Dirty-blond hair creeping out from under his cap and down over the collar of his green uniform. Face made of pink doll plastic.
Our eyes meet, and the toll guy grins knowingly — as only someone intimately acquainted with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds would. “Outta sight, man. Wish I could be where you are right now.”
“Wish you could, too.” I offer him a handful of viscous coinage that has puddled together in my palm like lumpy silver mercury.
My plastic-faced comrade chuckles and plucks out what’s owed. “Peace, brother.”
“Hang loose, man.”
And away we —
“For God’s sake, Lucas! What if he was a cop?” Robin wigs out. Taken by surprise, I unintentionally wrench the wheel, making the microbus swerve violently. Tires screech as Odysseus rocks like a boat tossed on stormy seas.
I’ve just regained control of my trusty rusty ship when a voice from behind us mumbles, “Huh? Cop?” It’s Milton. I’ve forgotten that he’s sleeping on the mattress in the back. On our way home from a brief but torturous visit to Maine, we stopped in Cambridge to pick him up.
“It’s nothing, man. Go back to sleep,” I tell him. Meanwhile, Robin’s twisted around in her seat, hands locked into fists, peering out the back window as if expecting the entire Massachusetts Turnpike Tollbooth Cavalry to be thundering up behind us. In the past, my ladylove has, on occasion, been known to err on the acute side of uptight, but given my currently blitzed sensibilities, am I truly in a position to cast judgment?
“A tollbooth collector cop?” I whisper so as not to alarm Milton. “Is that really possible?”
“What do you think, Lucas?” Robin answers harshly. She swivels to face forward but angles the rearview mirror so she can continue to scrutinize the traffic behind us.
What do I think? I think butterflies were originally called flutterbys until someone with dyslexia got involved. But what if she’s right? Said toll collector’s skin did look plastic. Is he, at this very moment, issuing an all-points bulletin? Attention, units! Be on lookout for suspected dope fiend. Glassy-eyed. Straight brown hair past shoulders. Last seen headed west on Mass Pike in brightly painted psychedelic microbus!
We’d be hard to miss.
Arms crossed tightly, Robin peers into the rearview mirror for a convoy of flashing cherry tops. This is bad. What if I’ve done something that will jeopardize her future? Idiot. Idiot. IDIOT! Unlike me, her life has direction, purpose, a goal. She starts at Middlebury in the fall, plans to major in environmental studies and international relations. I’ve never heard of either, but they sound important.
If you look at your surroundings,
Is that environmental studies?
If you have cousins in France,
Are they international relations?
“See anything?” I ask.
No answer. My queen is royally ticked.
Moron. Moron. MORON! You only have a few hours left with her, and look what you’ve done. What if she’s right and we get pulled over? What if they ask me to walk in a straight line? Even worse, what if they ask me to think in a straight line?
Time to engage in emergency fence mending: “I . . . I love you so much. And I know I’m not always right about things, but . . . he really didn’t strike me as a cop, babe.”
Robin’s eyes leave the rearview mirror. Her face softens. She sighs with exasperation. “Oh, Lucas, like you could really tell anything right now.”