We All Had Magic Powers Once
One of us, I guess it must have been Anton, was going to spend the entire summer in bare feet. We had the obvious objections—How will you get service? What about tetanus? But we wanted him to do it, really. We would all be listening to music on his couch and he would lift up his soles to show us the jet black pads, like he’d just dipped them in ink. He would leave footprints on the white linoleum floor of his mother’s kitchen.
“You’re like a cartoon,” we said.
And he said, “Why?”
And it was, “because they always leave footprints, even when walking on something it should be impossible to leave footprints on.” Like Elmer Fudd walking along a tiled floor, following the black blots left by Daffy Duck on the smooth surface. Or Goofy learning to dance, following the black cutouts of feet that he’d pasted to the floor. That one was better. I think it was Melanie who thought of that.
And so we’d try to dance along to Anton’s footprints. Following half of Imogene’s trip to the fridge and the left side of my trip to the microwave, you could almost foxtrot. But that only lasted a few days, as long as it took for his feet to turn every inch of the floor black. Anton’s mother was never home, so she never even noticed. But he only had to take one step past the threshold at my house before my grandmother chased him back out with a broom. The rest of the summer he had to climb a topiary bush to get into my bedroom window, and sneak back out the way he’d come. He would jump straight from the window seat to the bed and sit on the mattress while we all listened to records, read poetry, smoked pot.
It wasn’t until September that, on the way up the bush, he was caught in a rainstorm. Slipping and sliding up the slender branches of the spherical bush, it took him fifteen minutes to get inside. When he did, he stood in the center of the room, dripping wet. His black feet, unwashed for four months, bled out onto the white carpet. We watched, transfixed, as he slowly dyed the carpet black.
Imogene was going to learn to meditate, and Melanie decided to fast. There was plenty of Buddhism to go around, but we didn’t have the knack for it.
I tried to meditate too, in the sitting room at the back of the house I lived in with my grandparents, saying the “Ohm” on a couch painted with purple flowers that were long faded. Just as I thought that maybe, yes, I had cleared my mind, my grandfather walked into the room.
“What are you doing,” he asked. And I shrugged. I sat at the kitchen table with him. He turned on the radio and gave me a cookie.
“I’m fasting,” I told him.
He seemed confused. “Your grandmother just baked it.”
“Just one,” I said. I ate five.
Three days into her fast, Melanie had a vision while meditating.
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” one of us said. “I think you’re supposed to clear your mind. Not have visions.”
But Melanie was excited. She began painting it for us onto pieces of cardboard she’d salvaged from cereal boxes, spreading out her acrylics and hundreds of brushes across her bedspread, staining the sheets. They were beautiful, the paintings: colors swirling like tie-dye, and there were animals moving through it, and flowers, and breasts, and somehow, we thought, she had painted what it felt like to sigh. They put us at ease.
“They make me want to go to sleep,” we told her. It was a compliment.
Melanie gave one to each of us, and we hung them in our bedrooms. If we looked at them long enough, we thought, maybe we would have the visions, too. Maybe we would know what it was like. She didn’t keep one for herself. She didn’t need to. She remembered.
Imogene had a Ouija board, and we would use it to speak to the dead. We would sit in a circle, cross-legged, knees touching, hands overlapping on the little plastic stylus. Anton would light candles and incense.
Once, we spoke to a boy named Ricky who had been murdered in a house down the street. He asked us if candy still tasted sweet, if grass beneath bare feet still made souls swell. He told us we could find a box buried in his back yard beneath a swing set. It had a kazoo inside, a toy plane, a letter to himself in the year 2011.
“Isn’t it terrible,” someone said, maybe Melanie, “that Ricky will never read that letter?”
We looked for the box, for the house, but they didn’t seem to exist. We couldn’t find the red gables and green door that Ricky described. Still, we couldn’t stop thinking about all the times we might have walked by the house, and all the times that maybe, out a little too late at night, we’d thought we heard screaming coming from inside.
We spoke with Jack Kerouac, John Lennon, and Allen Ginsberg. Jack was very quiet. But Allen said they were all watching us.
“Counting—ON—U—” he had said.
John Lennon just cracked jokes.
“What is your favorite food?” Melanie asked him.
He said, “Yoko.”
But Ginsberg wasn’t fooling around. He told us to stay together. He told us about poetry. He said it was important for us to pass the test. “RS TEST,” he said. We didn’t know what it meant.
“Anton, are you moving it?” Carmine asked.
“No, I’m not moving it,” Anton said.
None of us were moving it. It was real.
“Hang on,” I said. “I’m going to get my journal, and my camera.” My house was only a couple blocks away. I stumbled down the road barefoot, reciting the “Footnote to Howl,” in my head as far as I could remember it. Holy, holy, holy. The street was dark and quiet. It was just after a summer rain, and I could see ghosts in the mist rising off the streets.
I was back in five minutes, panting, camera and notebook in hand. I’d run the last half a block. Out of fear? Exhilaration? But when I walked in, only Anton was left.
“Oh, they left,” he said. “Curfew.” We spent a few hours watching TV, and I went home.
The next day I was talking to Imogene. She said, “You know Anton was moving it, right? He told me.”
“Oh,” I said. And it was true. I asked him about it later.
“You didn’t believe in any of that shit, did you?”
I said, “No,” sheepishly. But I had. I’d believed every word. And some nights, even now, I still do. I will close my eyes against the darkness, hoping to make it darker still. And I will ask what I should do. I will wait for voices. What should I be doing. What should I do.
Imogene and I would stay up all night talking on the phone. I would read her poems that I had typed out on an old electric typewriter. Poems about her, or the electric summer sky, or about God, or not about God. But mostly about her. She would talk to me about Sylvia Plath. We would try to be so quiet, but sometimes one of us would laugh, and we’d have to cup our hands over the receiver and spend a tense minute in silence to see if her parents or my grandparents had heard. Sometimes, we would talk on the computer instead.
She said to me, “You sound different on here. You don’t sound like you.”
And she was right. Typing, I was always more hesitant. Less spontaneous. I would rewrite every sentence three times before finally hitting Return. But I didn’t know what to tell her. What, after all, did she expect from me? “I don’t know how to type the way I talk,” I wrote.
“Well, learn,” she said.
It was kind of a sin with all of us: to hesitate, to act contrary to what you felt in your deepest, truest self. That was what our parents did. Not what Jack had done. After all, the Buddha had said that lying was the worst of all sins.
One night she threatened to swallow pills, told me she had taken them, and then hung up. I called the police. When they got to her dad’s house I guess all they found was a confused family blinking at the sirens in their pajamas. She was in her pajamas too. I can see it now. Like she was one of them. We didn’t talk for a few weeks after that.
“Why did you believe me?” she asked later. “You had to know I’d never do it.”
“Yeah,” I said. But I wasn’t so sure. Was it that she said she was doing it, and hadn’t? Or was it that she was going to do it, but just hadn’t done it yet?
When we saw each after that, it was always different. I would try to kiss her, but it never worked. On the football field behind the school at sunset, but someone came up. In the neighbor’s pool that we would always sneak into, but she stopped me. On the golf course in the middle of the night, but the sprinklers came on.
She started dating some guy, Louis. And we were angry because he wasn’t one of us, sure. But I was angry for myself. Angrier than all of them. Because he wasn’t me.
Later, towards the end of the summer, she wanted to meet me. To talk. I told her I would, to wait under the street light on the corner. But I left her there to pace alone in the halo. With dawn approaching, I heard pebbles tapping at the glass of my window.
Every time it would rain (and it rained a lot) Carmine would dance in it. He would let his long black hair out of the rubber band and it would whip around his face while he spun around shirtless in the storm. Carmine was a little fat, and smelled a little from not showering much, but when he would do that, all of us thought he was beautiful, the girls and the boys.
He would try to convince us to dance in it with him. And we would. For a minute, or for two. But then we would begin to get cold, and we would go inside and wrap ourselves in one of Melanie’s long beach towels with Donald Duck on it. Then we would stand way upstairs on the balcony to Melanie’s parents’ apartment and watch him.
Sometimes he would find things to dance with him. Once it was a broken TV from the dumpster. Once, the fallen branch of a pine tree.
“Fuck all of you guys,” he would say inevitably, when no one would dance with him. We were too repressed, he said. And why didn’t we, I wonder. Wasn’t he right, after all? It would have been such a small thing, to dance with him.
We tried to get him to come inside, to watch TV, but he was done, he said.
So he walked home, which was more than a mile, and although the rain had begun to let up when he started, by the time he had rounded the corner it was pouring, pounding, splashing.
Supposedly he got picked up in a tan Buick by some woman. “Need a lift?” she had said to him as she leaned over the passenger seat to open the door, her breasts hanging down and dripping with rainwater, the fabric sticking to her skin. All of this, according to Carmine.
We didn’t see him for a week after that, and he insisted it was all because of his sexual escapades.
“We are going to get married some day,” he said. “Her name is Eliza.”
We didn’t really believe him. But how could you really be sure? I told you how beautiful he looked in the rain.
We wrote so much poetry. We read some too. But mostly, we wrote it.
It was Imogene, really, who could write it. The rest of us did. But she really could, you know? Most of us would try to write like Bukowski, or like Allen Ginsberg. But she wrote like herself.
I wrote this poem about waking up late, the sunlight burning my face through the slits in the blinds. Whiskey shots by myself at dawn. (I’d stolen the whiskey from Anton’s mother’s dresser drawer. Later, he was grounded for it).
Imogene wrote one about flesh, about feeling her makeup rubbing off on a whiskered cheek, about feeling someone else’s makeup smearing on her thighs. We didn’t know whose cheek it was—none of us had any whiskers. We didn’t know whose makeup it was—no one that we knew wore any, except for her.
Bethul wrote so many, all about flowers, wanting to eat flowers, make love in the flowers, make love with the flowers, turn into one of the flowers.
Melanie wrote them all for Imogene, and Imogene pretended like she didn’t get it.
“This is beautiful,” she would say. “And so ambiguous…”
Imogene wrote about things we didn’t know that we understood until we read about them. She was reading Keats, and she was reading haiku from “the masters,” and she was reading things we had never heard of.
“You are power,
you are what grows from fallow fields,”
That was something she wrote, one of the lines I remember still.
In the fall, Imogene tried to kill herself, but for real. She locked herself in the bathroom at her father’s house and ran razor blades up her arms. I went to see her at the hospital. When I think of it now, it seems like it was right before Christmas. But it couldn’t have been. All I know is that when I went to see her, either we hadn’t spoken in months, or it felt like it. And the cold. I remember it being so cold.
“Have you been writing any poems?” I asked. I didn’t know what else to say.
And she didn’t shake her head, didn’t smile, and didn’t frown, but she was smoking a cigarette, so maybe it wasn’t at the hospital, but at her mother’s apartment, and her hand was shaking, and she said, “Who cares about any of that?”
She had burned them.
Everyone fucked everyone else, or at least we got close. It was supposed to be like free love, like we’d read about in books. Stuck at their dealer’s apartment for the night because no one could find the car keys, Anton fucked Melanie by black light while Carmine slept fitfully on the rug. Melanie gave Carmine a hand job in the faculty bathroom at school. Bethul said to Melanie, “I want to eat you, all of you, even your hair,” and then spent an hour eating her out under the stars on the back deck of Bethul’s parents’ house. Bethul didn’t fuck anyone else for years, but never fucked Melanie again either. She was in love.
Anton and Carmine gave each other drunken blow jobs on the Fourth of July, but apparently neither of them finished, and they didn’t “try any butt stuff.” I fucked Melanie, but let’s face it, we all did. Anton never fucked Imogene. I would have killed him. Imogene and I fucked, but only once. And we didn’t fuck, anyway, really. We were making love.
Imogene ate Melanie out while listening to Zeppelin at a sleep over while we all slept in the next room. Apparently Melanie never returned the favor, and they were both drunk, so it “didn’t count.” But still, I couldn’t forgive her. Melanie. But I suppose I couldn’t forgive Imogene either. I never did.
And no, I never fucked Anton, but one night on his sofa I kissed him softly on the lips, and he kissed me back, and his tongue was sticky and his whiskers scratched my face, but he tasted delicious. And we didn’t kiss again, but we spent the night wrapped around each other. When I woke up, I sobbed gently into his shoulder until he work up.
And Anton fucked Bethul, and Bethul fucked Carmine, and Carmine fucked Melanie too. At least that’s what Carmine said, but Melanie never owned up to it.
In the middle of the summer I wasn’t speaking to Imogene, and I wasn’t speaking to Melanie, and I was listening to Radiohead constantly.
I would wake up late. One in the afternoon, and before long two, and then three.
Anton would wiggle his way through the open window to find me still in bed, naked, drenched in sweat. He would sit on the edge of the bed, throw me a shirt from off of the floor, and ask me how I was doing.
I was doing fine, I told him.
He would make me eat lunch. Bean burritos at Taco Bell, or McDonald’s double cheeseburgers. I would eat with him in the car in a parking space overlooking the freeway. He would play Pink Floyd, or if I had remembered to bring the CD, he’d play more Radiohead.
One day, on the way back to the car, a huge rainstorm began. Anton didn’t want to drive in it, so we ate in the car, the engine turned off, the wipers still, rain pouring down all the windows like a waterfall.
At home, I would have trouble sleeping. I would lie in bed with the lights off, the ceiling fan vibrating violently in place, and if I closed my eyes I would see visions.
Moving at the speed of sound through black streets without the aid of flight or wheels. Sharp teeth would devour mountains. The sun was a buzz saw set aflame. Penises the size of skyscrapers sprouting from the ground in the red of the night. It was always red. Night, day, dawn, dusk. Red, like everything was bleeding. I would wake up sometimes at dinner time, and feel like I hadn’t been gone for more than a moment, but also like I had been gone forever.
I would wake up to the pounding of bass. For a few months, I was afraid of the dark.
I transcribed them all in red ink in this giant black sketchbook. Even though I still have it, I’ve never read it since. Sometimes I will see it there on the bookcase, gathering dust on the bottom shelf, and I will just stare at it. Wondering what it says.
Carmine was going to find a place outside where we could all hang out. It was a good idea, he said, because we could commune with nature and get in touch with what was important. Whatever that was.
But it was also hard, because living in the suburbs you only get the smallest pieces of nature. Beyond the next tree there was always a street, or a house, or a mall, or a sewer drain. The field in the park was no good, because you couldn’t smoke pot there during the day. Behind the elementary school was no good either, because the cops were always passing by. And that wasn’t nature, anyway.
He was running out of time. Because soon it was going to get cold.
He would give little updates, always suggesting new places. A small meadow he’d found in the woods behind the reservoir. A patch of mud covered in crickets by the river. We’d follow him through the woods, and he would promise us something. But Melanie would always complain that her foot hurt. Or Anton would complain that his foot did. Or I would complain that I was hot.
He couldn’t convince Imogene to come. We didn’t realize it yet, but she was pretty much already gone by that point.
It was almost done being August when he finally found it.
“You need to bring your swimming trunks,” he said to me. And I did. And Anton did too. But he and I were the only ones who would go. Melanie had community service. And Carmine was trying to avoid Bethul, who insisted that she loved him all of sudden. And Imogene was on vacation with her family. Or so she’d said.
“I don’t want her to come anyway,” I’d said to Carmine. He hadn’t said anything, only nodded, as if waiting for me to say something else.
So we walked down to the river, which was a mile from my house, just the three of us. We swam against the current, out to where it got deep and you could feel fish nibbling at your legs.
“Just a little farther,” Carmine said. But my legs hurt. And Anton’s breathing was labored. I had to pull him the last little bit.
Stepping finally onto a dirt path, I looked around. At the beginning of the summer, Imogene and I had gone swimming near this spot. (It was near the golf course). We had said we were going to undo our baptisms, and so we dunked each other under the water.
After, we’d found a small island with a rope swing in the middle of the river, and that’s where we’d made love. Or I had, at least. For me it was love. I’d told her, “I love you.”
And she had said, “I don’t know if I can love anybody. I love everything. I love it all too much.” And at the time, it had seemed beautiful to me. I had written it down, turned it into a poem. But thinking about it again, with her gone, the sun beginning to set, the branches of the trees hanging low over the river, I knew it hadn’t meant anything. None of it did.
And that’s the place that Carmine had found. The three of us sat in the center of the island, near a few rocks in a small patch of grass overlooking the river. Anton had brought pot, but his plastic bag had leaked, and it was ruined. The sun was already setting. The days were getting shorter.
We couldn’t think of a single thing to talk about.
There were drugs, but it wasn’t about that. It was about something else. Melanie said we could see higher planes of consciousness.
“What you are seeing is real,” she said to me after we ate a bag of magic mushrooms by the lake and watched the fireworks over the tops of the trees on the Fourth of July.
What I was seeing was real. Do I still believe this? I can’t tell you how it looked. I would, but can’t. I can’t even imagine what I might have seen.
“You know,” she said, “when I’m with you guys, I feel like I can do anything.”
Imogene was there too, but she left after Melanie tried to kiss her. She just walked off into the woods. I didn’t know where she went, but just about the only thing that direction was the interstate. And the QuikTrip. Melanie lay on the blanket next to me drinking wild apple-flavored Boone’s Farm out of the bottle. I drank it, too, even though I couldn’t stand the sweetness. We talked about books. But even when we were talking about books, that’s not what we were really talking about. We were talking about her. About Imogene. We always were.
“I just reread Walden,” she said. “I think it would really help you to read that right now.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“There is this part at the end, and it’s really about being in a rut. Moving on to the next thing. He says that he left the woods for the same reason that he found it,” she said.
“Right,” I said, and I took such a long pull from the bottle that I began to breathe it in. I began to cough. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep breathing it, to fill my lungs with the sweetness. Melanie patted me on the back. She threw the bottle into the woods. She put her head on my shoulder. She began to cry.
She was so in love with Imogene, she said, and I said, “Who isn’t?” and then she reached her hand down my pants. I stopped her, but not immediately. I was beginning to come down. The fireworks long over, the sky looked too blue for how late at night it was. (Had there been fireworks? I was so sure at first, that there had, but the timing seems wrong. Why were we already falling apart? Those things shouldn’t have happened yet, already, at the start of July, only a few weeks into the summer. What happened to all of us, all of us together, shaping the universe with our thoughts?)
I pushed Melanie off of me, and she started kissing my neck.
“But I love you, too,” she said.
“Make up your mind,” I told her.
She said, “I don’t want to. That’s the last thing I want to have to do.”
Melanie was going to tattoo herself. She was an artist, so she wasn’t worried about it. She had done all of the research. Needles, any kind really. Hold the tips inside a flame to sterilize. You could use a lighter, a candle. She was just going to use a match. Prick yourself in the right pattern, tiny dots of blood all close together, and rub ink against the wound.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” she said, and she showed us a picture she had found in a book of Hanuman, one of the Gods from the Hindu Vedas who took the form of a monkey. His head, adorned with a golden crown. His hands, holding a scepter. His face, pointed upwards at the sun.
“He wanted to catch the sun, so he jumped into the sky,” she said.
“Did he catch it?” one of us asked.
She hadn’t gotten to that part yet, but she had a stencil she had made out of an Algebra flash card, and she was going to do it on the bottom of her foot so her mother would never see.
We all sat there with her, by candlelight, drinking Amaretto we had stolen from underneath the sink. Whispering. Her mother slept in the bedroom.
We were supposed to keep any blood from dripping onto the carpet. We had towels.
When it came time, it hurt too much. Melanie called out on the first prick, and bit her tongue to keep from crying. We all waited for one hushed moment, to be sure her mother hadn’t heard.
“Do you still want to do it?” one of us asked.
“No,” she said. “You do it.”
And we did. One of us, but I’m not sure who, operated the needle. We held her down. We stroked her hair. We dried her tears. We kissed her on the top of her head and we whispered to her in her ears. But none of us were artists, so we didn’t do Hanuman. We did a little outline of a water droplet. It was lopsided, the size of a dime on her heel.
“It’s beautiful,” she had said.
Within a month, it had begun to fade. By the end of the summer, it was gone completely. It had rubbed off, all of the skin, layer by layer. From too much walking.