Two from the memoir Shader
out next month from 99: The Press
Notes on the Ben Franklin Bridge
My LSD debut was an overplanned group affair. Twenty of us on the east side of Point Street planned to drop at the same time. We lined up several trip-friendly activities: places to visit, people to visit, music to play, things to freak out over. It began in Derek’s room, where we listened to a carefully curated mix of mellow songs. We cut up a blotter that had rows of Bart Simpson holding a slingshot straight ahead.
Derek held up a CD of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms.
“This disc is DDD,” he explained, worshipfully. “Digitally recorded, digitally mixed, and digitally pressed. It’s never touched a tape before hitting our ears.”
He passed the jewel box around, pointing to the letters on the tray card. We then listened to “So Far Away” in silence, which was borderline torture. But rules were rules: everyone got to pick a song, which the rest of us would have to listen without saying anything.
“Do you feel it yet?” Beverly, a painting major with white-blonde hair and blue strands, whispered to me.
“I think the stereo just made streaks,” I said.
Beverly twirled the braided ponytail that sprouted out of her forehead. “It’s the volume knob. It does keep spinning, doesn’t it?”
She took my hand as her selection, Gary Numan’s “Remember I Was Vapour,” started. The synthesizer went in and out of my head. The drum machine matched my heartbeat. We held each other’s hands and drank iced water. There’s nothing here but us, Gary Numan sang. All of us saw streaks by the end of that song.
We grabbed 40s out of the fridge. Derek led us outside.
“Where are we going?” I asked nobody in particular. Beverly kept holding my hand. There’s always a den mother in LSD groups, and in my experience it’s usually a Goth girl.
“Just follow me,” Derek said. He led ten of us over to the Walt Whitman Center a block away. Next to an empty fountain were symbols engraved in the metal tiles.
“Take a look,” Derek said. His grin widened.
I squatted down and swept some moss away. “Oh shit!” I said. “Those are swastikas!” I traced them with my hand and looked up to him, like I was Charlton Heston discovering a half-buried Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes. “Why the fuck are they here!?”
We skateboarded in one of General Electric’s abandoned parking lots along the waterfront. The Ben Franklin Bridge’s blue light waved up and down the puddles. On our side of the Delaware, piles of industrial garbage rose up from the ground like pyramids. As trucks barreled over from Philadelphia, the suspension cables plucked notes like some giant harp.
Holly was a punk rock girl from Moorestown who wore sundresses and purple Doc Marten boots. Crazy and beautiful, Holly had a rock promoter boyfriend, Barry, whom we all believed killed someone. A couple weeks earlier, Holly and I had hooked up. I was on the rebound: a Rosemont College philosophy student had just dumped me. I didn't invite Holly to the LSD party. She got mad.
That night, Holly sat on my front step with Beverly and
Nadine. I tried to scramble past them to get up to my room.
Holly cut me off. “Hey Dan,” she said. “Aren’t you going to talk to me? Who do you think I am, your little arty whore?”
“Uh, I dunno,” I said. I pictured Barry on his motorcycle, like Randall “Tex” Cobb in Raising Arizona, riding up the street to take me to some fiery underworld. “I’m not sure if I am speaking English right now.”
Holly looked at me and growled. My brain hummed. In one of the most ungentlemanly acts I had ever committed in my life up until that point, I ran up to my room and locked the door.
The last thing you need when you’re tripping on acid is to be alone. I went back outside. A tugboat on the Delaware sounded its horn. I ducked.
Then I looked up.
There were lasers shooting across the sky.
I looked down. Then up.
There were lasers shooting across the sky. Up again.
There were still fucking lasers fucking shooting across the fucking sky.
It would be another twenty years before I found out that night was when the City of Philadelphia tested its Fourth of July laser show by shooting them across the Delaware into Camden. Holly now works as a gardener in Utah. Beverly runs an animal shelter. Everyone does adult things. Camden is still Camden. Little kids still light drums full of garbage on fire. While I lived there I never felt more paranoid and alive.
Notes on the Pennsauken Ping-Pong Story
Scot said we needed to go to Arlene’s family’s house in Pennsauken. “So go,” I said.
“You need to come along,” he said.
We were shooting hoops. Scot parked his car behind the back- board, rolled down the windows, and played British New Wave.
“She needs to get clothes from her parents’ place. I feel un- comfortable going with her alone.”
Arlene and Scot had been dating six months, an eternity. How could he be uncomfortable?
· · ·
I had about five inches on Scot—point guard to my forward—so in theory, I should have been able to snuff Scot’s shots and beat him 11-to-nothing. But Scot beat me every time. Scot asked personal or philosophical questions as we played. Just as he was about to take a jump shot, he’d ask me some deep question, some epistemological inquiry, and just as I would think up an answer, he would loft a shot over my head. Swish.
“I’m not sure I really want to go to college, not yet at least,” Scot said, idly dribbling around the perimeter. “I’m not sure the American education system is for me. What do you think?”
I stop in my tracks. Maybe I don’t need to go to college. Scot took the shot. Swish.
· · ·
It’s difficult to describe Pennsauken to those who have never experienced Pennsauken. A stand-up comedian once said Pennsauken was the Native American word for “industrial park.” Pennsauken is several towns in one: a goulash of upper-crust Cherry Hill and lower-crust Camden, and the glorious Pennsauken Mart, where you could buy military supplies, pose for a gang portrait, and eat the finest soft pretzels known to mankind, all under the same roof.
Arlene lived with her sister in an apartment complex in
Pennsauken. The arrangement was strange. Why didn’t she just live with her parents?
· · ·
We pulled up to a split-level house. Arlene let us in. No one else was home. She went upstairs with empty bags to collect her clothes, and we sat down in the living room. The walls were filled with crucifixes and Mother Mary paintings; each piece of furniture was protected with clear plastic covers. I sat on a squeaky couch and Scot sat on a squeaky chair.
Scot stood up. “Let me show you something.”
We walked down to the basement. It was finished with wood paneling from ceiling to floor and a tan rug that smelled like Lysol. He pointed to a couple holes in the wall.
“See these?” he whispered. “They’re bullet holes.”
He went back up the stairs to make sure Arlene couldn’t hear us.
· · ·
Six months ago, Arlene’s parents were about to get a divorce. Her mom wanted it but not her dad. One night her dad came home, all crazy, shouting. They argued. They argued some more. He tied up Arlene and her sister in the kitchen and dragged her mom into the basement.
He shot her in the chest and killed her. After it sunk in what he’d done, and he heard his daughters screaming, he tried to shoot himself in the head, but missed. Then he ate handfuls of rat poison and tried to saw off his leg. Arlene and her sister untied themselves and ran out of the house. By the time the cops came, both parents were dead. Blood covered the basement floor.
· · ·
As Scot told this story, my mind went into a fog. We stood there not talking for a while.
“Hey, check this shit out,” Scot said. He pointed to the cen- ter of the room: it was a ping-pong table. “This is a professional- grade net.”
Scot slid his hands over the table, then handed me a racquet.
“Let’s volley for serve.”
· · ·
“I really care about Arlene,” Scot said, taking a backhand shot. “But do you think it should matter that our interests are compatible? I mean, she has Taylor Dayne cassettes, for Christ’s sake.”
I realized Scot was doing the asking-important-questions- while-playing-sports tactic. He returned with a wicked topspin. I missed.
Arlene called down for us, and we sat back down on the squeaky furniture, a little ashamed.
· · ·
In my journal for this day, I wrote coping mechanism?
My number one fear was that I would hit a ping-pong ball through a bullet hole, and it would cross over to the other side. We would then have to stop playing and deal with our idle minds.
DANIEL NESTER is the author of How to Be Inappropriate, described as "a deeply funny collection of booger-flecked nonfiction" in Time Out New York. Nester's first two books, God Save My Queen: A Tribute and God Save My Queen II: The Show Must Go On, are collections on his obsession with the rock band Queen. A third, The History of My World Tonight (BlazeVOX, 2006), is a collection of pretty good poems. He is also editor of The Incredible Sestina Anthology. His writing has appeared in such places as The New York Times, The Morning News, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and the Poetry Foundation website, and anthologized in such collections as Lost and Found, The Best American Poetry, The Best Creative Nonfiction, Third Rail: The Poetry of Rock and Roll, and Now Write! Nonfiction. Currently, he is an associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., where he teaches writing.