Devil’s Backbone

By Roberto Loiederman

[Editor’s note: This story picks up a few weeks after the events in Loiederman’s story “Stir Me Gently, but All the Way to the Bottom,” which appeared in the summer issue of the SFWP Quarterly.]

 

The first week Frank moved into the Alamo Square apartment, which we called Cave Seven, he left an open suitcase with his dirty underwear at the top of the stairs, so it was the first thing you saw when you came in. The filthy clothing was aimed squarely at me: See? I’m willing to show my metaphorical asshole, while you’re hiding yours.

Frank’s lessons were like that: oblique. First, he did one thing, then he did something else, then he asked a question or two—he asked a lot of questions—and it was up to you to realize these apparently separate elements were related and figure it out for yourself.

The lesson would be something like: There’s no such thing as altruism, we’re all out for ourselves. Or: Everything we do, everything, is a desperate plea for others to like us. Or: All literature, no matter what else it appears to be, is personal autobiography. Frank, whose self-exploration never took a break, said he suffered from the “paralysis of analysis.”

Frank was six-foot-one, stooped, acne scars, lanky brown hair, and he always wore a stained black suit, a once-white shirt and a ratty tie, which was usually askew—giving him the look of a cut-rate William Burroughs, or an undertaker on a particularly bad day. I was repulsed by his acrid smell, but I recognized he was a genius, maybe the only genius I’ve ever been close to.

Frank was like no one else, and it was hard, when you spent time with him, not to become like him. That’s the way it is when you’re young and trying to figure out who you are: you glom onto someone who long ago decided on a persona, and you copy his moves and tics. For example: Frank always kept a small notebook in his pocket that he scribbled his thoughts in, so I started doing the same, and I still do, all these years later.

I’d met him when we were both grad students in English at San Francisco State. I was impressed because he’d written a short story—“Devil’s Backbone”—which he sold to a big national magazine, I forget which one.

The story was about a prepubescent kid called Frankie who goes out to hike with someone who’s bullied him and who continues to tease him mercilessly all day. They explore a dangerous hollow that locals call Devil’s Backbone. The bully falls and is trapped in a gorge: broken leg, unable to get out. The bully screams with pain and desperation, pleads with Frankie to get him out.

Frankie says he’ll run for help, but as he goes, his steps slow down, down, down to a crawl as he replays in his mind how he’s been tormented by the kid at the bottom of the gorge. Instead of going for help, Frankie goes home and has a perfectly unremarkable conversation with his mother: “How was your day, didja have fun?” “Yup.” Frankie casually enjoys his milk and cookies.

It was a creepy, brilliantly-written story and I asked Frank if part of the meaning was that Frankie had some “devil dust” rub off on him when he was at Devil’s Backbone, and that was the reason he was willing—even eager—to let the bully perish in the gorge.

Frank answered with a question: “You think you don’t have any devil dust inside you?”

*

One night at Cave Seven Frank pulled out a couple of capsules of acid from his pocket and handed me one. I brushed off sand and tiny threads that had stuck to the capsule while in his pocket, then closed my eyes and swallowed it.

I’d done so much LSD that even before taking it, as it neared my tongue, I felt chills. After dropping the acid, we smoked a joint as a way of easing into the trip, then lapsed into buzzed silence. Within an hour, the acid kicked in. Frank paced while I stared at our broken TV—the tubes and screen were painted with tiny dots. Suddenly, Frank punctured the silence:

“I… I feel trapped. By corners. A fascist plot. Aimed at getting us to feel the world as straight lines… 90-degree angles. Real world isn’t like this. Not at all. I want to go out. Out there.”

I shook my head: “Bad idea.”

“We stay here, we know what’s gonna happen. These walls… they’ll define the limit of our horizon. But once we leave the house, we don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”

After a while, Frank finally convinced me to go across the street at least, to Alamo Square.

It was a foggy night, and dark. The lights in the park were diffused, eerie. A few drifters were there, teeny-boppers who’d recently arrived and were looking for a place to crash for the night.

It took Frank and me a very long time, maybe an hour, to go through the two-block square park. At one point we stopped and sat on the grass. I needed to smell the earth so I lay down prone, sticking my nose into the ground. The smell was comforting.

Smell of earth. Feels good. Always felt good, to all people, anywhere. Like cold water on a hot day. Warm water to bathe in. Pleasant odors. Being touched gently. Being held. Nose into the earth. Brown-nose. I’m a brown-nose. Musty. Musky. Dusky.

Frank and I crawled slowly on all-fours, smelling the grass, snorting, then stood up slowly, unwinding ourselves, bipeds again. He pointed west, away from Cave Seven. I shook my head no. He went on ahead, alone. I soon caught up.

We’re wind-chimes, we humans, subject to outside forces, like the wind, but producing our own sounds. Our own music. Merging with everything. Merging and dissolving. Here and gone.

The incessant buzz-buzz-buzz inside my head went on and on.

By the time we got to Haight and Ashbury, we were at the highest point of the trip. The absolute peak. I walked slowly, aware of my heartbeat and nervous system.

Walking: how can my body do this? How can it keep pushing me forward? Blood and bone and flesh. What are we? Meat-bags, moving around with ideas, images, going through our heads.  

Maybe this time I’ve done it: gone off the edge, off the ledge, into deep water. Into the maelstrom. Maelstrom. Mail. Strom.

We kept on going, very slow motion, down Haight. Everywhere an aura, a glow. We walked slowly, legs going up and coming down, the fog hazing the street lamps, making it look like 19th-century London.

It feels like… it feels like Jack the Ripper: strange goings-on. Odd. Two hookers. Straight out of Jack the Ripper’s London. Heavily and clumsily rouged and lipsticked, short dresses with sexy leggings, low-cut blouses. One with square shoulders, dark hair, the other blonde and slight. Talking with three men: one huge, the other two smaller, wirier. Pimps? Johns?

Frank and I crossed the street to avoid them… when I heard someone call out my name. I froze. Frank also froze. I turned, came closer, and realized who the dark-haired woman was.

“Joan?” I hardly recognized her.

When I’d met Joan, weeks earlier, she wore jeans, loose work-shirt, used no make-up. She was quiet, even-tempered, with the affectless tone of a stoic pioneer woman. She and I had gone together to a peyote ritual in Santa Fe and faced the incertitude of a week’s travel as if we were a couple: ate meals, made love. And she’d helped me navigate the turmoil of an intense peyote trip. We’d come back from New Mexico a week earlier and had then gone our separate ways.

Now Joan was on Haight Street, looking like the Whore of Babylon.

I struggled to talk. My mouth felt as if it had cotton in it, as if the sounds, those I could manage, echoed from some deep grotto. I whispered to Frank: “Joan… it’s Joan… I know her…”

Frank nodded slowly. He knew her too. “Joan,” Frank repeated softly. “Right. Joan.”

Even if we hadn’t been tripping, it would have been hard to grasp what was going on: two women in whore-like get-up—one of whom we knew—involved in some sort of negotiation with three men. Joan left these men, came close, touched my arm. Using a librarian-like, explanatory tone, she said to the men: “This is my boyfriend.”

The other woman hooked her arm into Frank’s. “And this is my boyfriend,” she said.

“Aw, man, that’s bullshit! That’s pure bullshit!” This from one of the smaller dudes. He had a high, sharp voice that sliced through the street fog.

The other small dude chimed in. “You was gonna come with us, you was all ready to come with us, you said you was gonna come with us, then these dudes show up, and suddenly you ain’t comin’ with us no more! What the fuck is that about?”

The large man gestured to the smaller men to cool it. “My pals here, they’re a little, a little perturbed, you know, but their point is right, you know?” This man, clearly the honcho, was not only large, he was wide as well, but his voice and manner were reasonable. He was black, while one of the smaller dudes was a snaggle-toothed white guy with long, dirty blond hair, and the other small dude was an olive-skinned Latino. All three spoke the same way, same tone, same slang, the two smaller dudes having adopted the big guy’s language and rhythm.

I leaned over and whispered to Joan, as close to her ear as my lips could get: “We’re tripping. We’re… we can’t… you know… I mean, if it… you know…”

Her self-assurance was a bit shaken, but still present. “I can deal with it,” Joan said.

What was the “it” she could deal with? Why did she look that way? What the hell was going on here? Had she been working as a hooker? If not, then what was she doing?

I tried to see this as if it were a movie that didn’t involve me. Would that work if it came to a fight? Was this a violent vortex which would drag us all into it? A maelstrom?

As cars passed on Haight, their headlights sent shadows across the scene. I felt stomach cramps. I was rigid with fright, unable to talk, yet somehow still felt the event as something that had no direct connection to me: a stage-play or puppet show.

What’s the cost of this show? My mind? My soul? My future?

Pointing to Frank and me, Joan said to the three dudes, “Rose and I are going with them.”

“No, no, no, man, it don’t work that way,” the big dude said.

The two smaller guys shook their heads with indignation: that night’s sex party had already been decided… until Frank and I showed up.

Apparently, Joan felt a responsibility to explain to these dudes that it wasn’t a racial thing, or—just as bad—a class thing. She didn’t want them to think that her world—which was also my world—excluded them. Joan kept going back and forth between Frank and me on one side, and the three dudes who were twenty feet away but inching closer.

“Look, he’s my boyfriend, I went to Santa Fe with him, so I’m going with them.”

Some part of me must have been afraid, but I couldn’t move. I was frozen to that spot. So Frank and I stayed there. Unmoving. Joan went back and forth, first to us, then to the dudes, back to us, then back to them. Negotiation and mollification. She seemed calm, but Rose was shaking with fright, eyes darting.

At one point, when Joan was trying to soothe the three dudes so they’d permit her and Rose to come with us, Rose took off her shoes and ran.

Run for your life. Run as if the rest of your life depends on it. Which it does.

Rose turned a corner and disappeared. The big dude whispered something to the small Latino dude, who took off. Where? What for? To chase Rose?

So now there were five of us.

The big dude came closer to Frank and me, but not in a menacing way. “Hey, fellas, the name’s Al.” He stuck out his hand for shaking. I shook it limply. Arm at the end of my shoulder socket, hand at the end of my arm. Do they belong to me? I let him shake my hand.

“Hey,” Al said, “you guys are so-o-o fucked up. Whatcha into? Smack? Coke? No, no, wait a minute, I got it: you guys are on acid, right? Or mushrooms or some shit like that, right?” I just stared but Frank nodded very slowly.

“Shee-it, man, you guys are really twisted. You couldn’t do nothin’ with no chick tonight anyways, right? So you might as well just back off and go.” He said this with a smile. “I mean why should we get into some bullshit over a bitch, right? We’re dudes, right? We know what we want. Bitches, man, they don’t have a fuckin’ clue. Look at this bitch, man. I mean, she fine an’ all, I ain’t sayin’ that, she a fine bitch, but she playin’ us, you know? I mean what she want is for us to start slicin’ each other up and we ain’t gonna do that, right? I mean, if it wasn’t for bitches, there wouldn’t be no hassle, it’s the bitches that create the hassle, right?”

Al paused, then spoke man-to-man, without any overt malice. “I mean, you two just go, get the fuck outta here, there won’t be no trouble, know what I mean?”

Men fighting over Joan, over who has the right to fuck her. Is this what she’d hoped for when she left her apartment? Something primitive in this, a fight to the death over a woman, possession of her body, something primal. Like the smell of earth or the comfort of cold water on a hot day…

Meanwhile, as a group, like a school of fish, we kept moving slowly, away from where we were until we turned a corner, going south on Belvedere, headed toward Waller.

It was a bad idea to leave Haight. On Belvedere it was dark, no cars at all.

At the corner of Waller and Belvedere, there was the Digger store. A sign in the window read: Take what you need, leave what you want, don’t empty out the store. Another sign: Tomorrow has been canceled due to lack of interest. Another: Free means free, mother fucker. We kept on moving south on Belvedere until we were halfway toward Frederick.

“Look,” Joan said to all of us. “Let’s all be reasonable, okay?” She turned to the big dude. I want to go with him.” She pointed to me. “He really is my boyfriend, so if we all just—”

Joan was interrupted by a screeching car that pulled into a driveway, blocking our path. The car was driven by the small Latino dude who’d left a few minutes earlier. The big dude now grabbed Joan, opened the back door and tried to push her in. The other small dude, the blond surfer boy, pulled out a switchblade, flicked it open and pointed it at us. “Stay back!”

It wasn’t necessary. Frank and I were silent statues, planted in place. Just breathing. And the struggle to breathe was all I was able to manage.

Joan resisted being pushed, but Al—the big dude—used his weight to get her into the back seat and make sure she stayed there. The smaller dudes hemmed Joan inside so she couldn’t get out. Al faced us. He too now had a knife in his hand.

“Just walk away, okay? Just walk… the fuck… away. Okay?”

Frank and I stood there. Al, who must have realized we were no threat, quickly got into the driver’s seat. Joan was squeezed into the back seat with the two smaller dudes on either side.

Joan looked at me: Terror? Pleading? Too foggy to tell. Too foggy in my mind.

The car screeched and was gone. Disappeared quickly, going through a stop sign.

What kind of car? Not sure. Should have paid attention. But how can I…?

How can I do that when there’s no me and no mind? No one home.

For a long time, there was silence. I don’t know how long it was before Frank and I faced one another. It felt like hours, centuries, millennia of silence and shock.

“Let’s… go home,” Frank said, finally.

“Call police.”

Frank shook his head slowly. “They’re gonna bust us, you know. How are we going to deal with cops now? They’ll know we’re tripping. They’ll bust us.”

“Call police.”

“Okay, look, wait, let’s walk home, meanwhile we can try to figure out what just happened.”

“We know what happened. Call police.”

“Wasn’t she all set to go with them before we showed up?” Frank said.

Yes, it certainly looked that way.

“What the big guy said was right,” Frank said. “Women play us. They got us by the balls. Make us slaves to their pussies and we go along with it ‘cause we’re weak. You know?”

I know. I know. I know.

“Look, she was looking for danger. Looking to get hurt. Whatever happens to her, it’s not our fault. She’s gone beyond good and evil.”

Beyond good and evil? What’s he talking about? What does that even mean? How can he frame ideas and sentences while all I do is sputter like Tarzan?

“Call cops!”

I don’t know how my legs did it, but I ran to a phone booth near the corner. Frank ran after me. I grabbed the phone and looked for coins, then remembered I didn’t need any to dial zero. By this time, Frank and I were tussling for the phone.

“Stop this! Stop it,” Frank yelled. “I don’t wanna end up in jail tonight!”

“What about Joan?”

“Whatever happens with her is going to happen no matter what we do! The cops aren’t going to find her. No way. If we call, all it’s going to do is get us into trouble.”

“And if she gets raped? Or hurt? Or killed?”

“Not our problem!”

“Yes, it is!”

Frank calmed down. “You know damn well we couldn’t have done anything.”

I slumped down in the phone booth and the phone dangled down next to me, hitting my shoulder. I buried my head in my hands.

How have we gotten here, to this place?

“Come on, let’s go, let’s get back home.”

Frank reached out a hand. I waved it off and got up on my own. We left the phone booth, not having called for help. Not having at least tried.

Jesus, how could we have done that? How could we have done nothing?

There were long, long silences on the slow walk home. Frank talked once in a while:

“What choice did we have?”

“Wasn’t she all set to go with those guys?”

“We were just protecting ourselves, right?”

“What if we’d never gone by that street?”

Every time Frank said something, I nodded dumbly, my eyes half-closed. His “questions” had answers built into the way he framed them.

He’s probably right, but it feels grotesque. It feels wrong.

If only I could relive it. But I can’t. What happened is now part of me, forever.

By the time we got back to Cave Seven, it was just before dawn. We went to the back bedroom, which faced east. It was crystal clear in the pre-dawn light and we saw all the way to Mount Diablo. Then the sun crept up, over the crest of the mountain. The sun’s rays were clean and sharp, giving shape and outline to the tiny dust particles floating in air. I gasped.

So much beauty. What a world!

*

Roberto Loiederman has been a merchant seaman, TV scriptwriter, kibbutz cook, English teacher, and journalist. He’s had more than one hundred articles published in PenthouseLos Angeles TimesWashington PostBaltimore SunServing House JournalFifth Wednesday Journal, and other publications. He is co-author (with Richard Linnett) of The Eagle Mutiny(Naval Institute Press, 2001), a nonfiction account of the only armed shipboard mutiny on a U.S. vessel in modern times.

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