July 07, 2008

All Those Things That Don't Change, Come What May

By Johnny Hughes © 2008

Jake inherited the Magic House when his drinking Uncle tried to empty a rabbit out of a long irrigation pipe and the pipe hit a high-line wire. The 1940s furniture clashed with Jake's beatnik, coffee-house conversational monologues sanctioned only by the weekend wannabe artists, singers, writers, and actors from the college that came to his regular parties, called Jake Parties.

Stilt Momma took me to one of Jake's scratchy–jazz-records-spilled-red-wine-bullfight-poster-smoky rent parties. Pseudo intellectual was the pose du jour. Over one hundred optimistic souls, mildly costumed, loved each other there every weekend of 1964 and 1965. Faded blue work-shirt was already the uniform of the day for this flock of alleged nonconformists. Magic House and the parties were Jake's life and livelihood.

Jake would meander regally to small groups of impressionable college kids, pontificating and pretending to speak knowingly. His weapon of choice was the caustic, shocking insult, a brief cryptic challenge. It was Jake's gig. He was the only legend in town that year. I thought he was a con, and sometimes cruel to his drunken guests/suckers.

It was cheaper to go to the strip for your own booze and hide it somewhere in the spacious Magic House than to be badgered by Jake to chip in for his profitable trips to the strip or later to buy beer outright from him. My first night there, two gorgeous, ironed-blond haired bookends were glued to Jake reading aloud from Kerouac's On the Road.

For them, being hustled by, buying wine from, and ultimately being Jake's temporary girlfriend would be the adventure story to take back to Dallas.

"I have a right to tall women," he gloated. Jake was five-eight, not good looking, with this bramble patch of thick, black curly hair which he conditioned and fussed over to get the exact, unkempt look. His flashing, chocolate eyes stayed hidden by his signature shades day and night until he needed to remove them dramatically for effect. His wispy and uncooperative goatee betrayed him.

The Magic House was Jake's rice bowl. Revenue trickled in from love offerings, a volunteer cover charge, bootlegging, and the sale of you-cook-your-own hamburgers and pork chop sandwiches. At two bucks, I'd buy one right now. The place always smelled of the variegated stale of red wine, tobacco, and pork chops. Usually, Jake had compelling reasons not to actually cook or clean or hold a job over three weeks or a fiancée over a semester.

Some of Jake's stories originated with trips to Selma, Denver, Mexico City, North Beach, and Venice. He did the Beatnik grand tour before he was self-incarcerated in the never ending party of Magic House. For some, graduation was delayed. For others, the dream of graduating was partied away. I feared I'd miss some folk singers or some heartbroken Freshman girl rejected by rush or some radical politico with news of the outside world. Magic House was my flame. I was the moth, returning, returning.

Karen began to pretend to love me during the third verse of a group sing-a-long of "Four Strong Winds" and I really believed her. Under the year 'round Christmas tree lights and the spell of the song, "twelve voices glued us together," Karen later said. I cooked her a pork chop sandwich. The black leotards, oversized men's dress shirt, dishwater ponytail, and copy of Kahil Gibran made Karen seem ordinary that year. She was a skilled romantic with little notes, poems, morning toothpaste kisses, worn pink wool pajamas, and small shoplifted gifts. We'd have romantic dinners at fancy restaurants, dressed to the nines, and walk the check. She'd pout and cry and leave and I'd go after her and keep going. Her elitist belief in Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy somehow justified her life of petty crime.

Her notes, presents, day and night phone calls, and obsessive, controlling jealousy convinced me of the ocean floor depths of our love. Stalking wasn't known then. Karen climbed a winter-brittle elm tree to the second floor window of my alley pad to leave a lime on my pillow. Jake's unvarnished warnings all slid past me. She secretly tape recorded my drunken benedictions.

Three months into it, Karen quit me in a Furr's supermarket produce section. We were shopping for French bread, noodles, garlic, and tomatoes.

"I don't like you or Jake or your so-called friends," she said.

A history major with a long slide rule on his belt observed all this and drove me back to Magic House. He baked the garlic bread, drank half a gallon of red wine, and left a new, tan corduroy coat with leather elbow patches. Jake claimed it, as he often did with lost articles.

When the mean blood-alcohol level of the Magic House was precisely right, Jake led a group sing-a-long to the Beatles’ first album and everyone knew every word. He was shaking his own mop top and dancing on the couch. I had thought Karen and I were engaged. No one saw me cry.

Sororities warned penitents about Jake and Magic House and his well-intentioned but ephemeral engagements to a parade of young women, dissimilar in appearance and background but remarkably alike in their intense need to prove their intellectual worth and unbridled devotion to the dawning of the counterculture. Jake's future bride of the semester always had a car to loan, but Magic House was hard on monogamy.

My last semester, I was so broke that I had to move into Magic House. My clothes always smelled of cigs and pork chops. After a few weeks, Jake wanted me to go with him in Karen's car to steal food from deep freezers in richie neighborhoods. Sometimes, he stole beer or whiskey which was amply stored in a dry town. I wouldn't go but knew Jake and Karen were an item. I baked one of the stolen, frozen cherry pies the next morning and moved out before Jake woke up.

A couple of years later, on my way home from Viet Nam, I ran into a guy from the debate team in the Los Angeles Airport. He said the Magic House, and the parties, and Jake were still the same. On the airplane, a reed-thin, textbook salesman, who smelled of Old Spice, provided his opinion of the manhunt for James Earl. "He'd been to New Orleans just like Jack Ruby and Oswald. Probably been to Cuba too." he said.

The flat, flat land of home and the checkerboard fields glided by outside the window. While filling out the papers for a rental car at the Lubbock Airport, I began to have jagged, second thoughts about a reunion with Jake. The kitchen door of Magic House was open when I arrived. The walls had the same tired, printed slogans I had seen in magazines, "Hell no, we won't go." The college-bar smell welcomed me. From the next room, I could hear Jake reading aloud from Kerouac's On the Road. A youngish female voice said, "Wow."

I retreated, silently.

The End

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom.

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