Butler knelt by the beaker while the white flakes drifted down, chanting “every one a $20 bill.” There didn’t seem to me to be as many as there were supposed to be, a light snow at the bottom of whatever toxic liquid was in the beaker. But he was the Chem Major, not me.
And the sooner we finished the final sacrament the sooner we could pack up the Frankenstein glassware and pour the leftover poisons down the sink and get out of there.
I did feel bad about leaving my parents’ property steeped with the cat-pee smell of speed cookery. Even asked Butler to help me wipe the walls down, but he had to tend to the product. We bagged it, still wet and yellower than I’d expected, more like a paste than powder. He double- and triple-bagged it, put it inside his Clark Kent sportcoat and headed back to Berkeley.
When I stepped off that creaking porch for the last time my knees were gelid with relief. Unbelievably, we’d gotten away with it. A week of the vilest stench seeping out of that leaky old frame house, while Benecia cop cars cruised past every hour, and nobody’d kicked the door down. It was enough to ruin your faith in law enforcement.
I could kick back now. That was our deal: I’d do the cooking and provide the kitchen; he’d sell what we’d made. That wasn’t going to be a problem. Butler had connections. He liked to talk about them, in fact. His story always had the same theme: everybody except Butler was an idiot. His favorite story about how cool and discreet he was, and how loud and stupid everybody else was, was about Butler riding a Muni bus in SF while the singer for Animal Things bragged loudly to his friends in the back about the speed lab the band had in their warehouse. The one Butler was running.
The only time Butler ever conceded he might not be superb at anything was when he had to apply to Pharmacy School. He asked me to write his letters of interest, vaguely implying that mere clerkish words were beneath him. Of course those letters of interest would have given Balzac writer’s block, they were such typically foul, dishonest auditions for grad school. You were supposed to sell yourself to an admissions committee while maintaining your dignity, coyly implying that you were the next big thing while maintaining a chuckly modest tone. I’d had to do one myself to get into the Ph.D. program so I knew all about it. And in a sense, testing a young candidate’s ability to flatter, flirt and lie on paper probably was a good way of culling grad school applicants.
And it was time for me to get back to my day job, my deep cover as a budding professor, teaching the Aristotelean enthymeme to Berkeley’s first-year pre-laws. We’d scheduled the speed lab session for winter break, and spring semester was beginning. I had to break in a new TA, a little old man with a beard, twice my age. His name was Henry Wolff and he was the special pet of the mean old drunk who ran the department that year, Jeanette Robinson.
Henry was trouble, that was very clear. But it meant very little compared to the fact that Heidi was now laughing her laugh two doors down from my office, in the TA room. She smoked those Canadian Export A’s. They’re rare now, but occasionally I stumble into that smell and want to die and kill all over again.
I was sitting in my office, stunned, inhaling second-hand Export A smoke and wondering for about the three billionth time how it was possible that Heidi could, apparently, love me for a while and then, apparently, not love me any more when Professor Robinson politely but firmly knocked on my office door to present me with her aged pet Henry Wolff, a head shorter than she was. She entrusted him to my care while I did my usual nodding and simpering even as my body devoted itself wholly to mammal grief, to picking up the high notes of that laugh and the waft of those cigarettes fresh from Heidi’s lungs.
Henry was a nut – from the second that his protectress left the office he started yammering at me, a lot of nonsense about art and Paris, a sure sign of nuttery. But that didn’t especially bother me.
TAs came in only a few varieties anyway: nuts, dullards, careerists—and of course all the possible combination of those three types. All sorts of half-jackal half-poodle combos bouncing around those hallways, and nuts were as common as underbred shortlegged black lab mixes.
There shouldn’t have been any problem. I was to shepherd this aged nut through his first semester as TA. I’d done it many times before, and who cared anyway? Compared to Heidi laughing away approximately twenty feet down the hall. I hadn’t spoken to her in eight months. My last message was dictated by Paul, who suggested an old favorite of his for those times when you had to draw the line:
“You’re right, I’m wrong, have a nice day.”
It seemed like a good idea when I wrote that on her last furious note and even added a smiley face. But it worked too well. Eight months now of silence, and no more Paul to offer advice and moral support. Paul had fled down to Orange County when I let his girlfriend jump me in her filthy apartment, too scared to refuse her and make her upset.
A clean sweep, then. Decks all cleared away. Hence the decision to become a bad person, hence Butler and the lab. It wouldn’t matter once we were rich and evil. We’d be in perfect tune with the world, naturals.
But Henry turned out to be more than your average insane TA. He wouldn’t shut up. He’d been in Paris for 20 years, which was stupid, and he wanted to talk about it. He was a writer. He’d starved for it. Yeah, yeah, yeah…he was fifty or something. And five-four at the most–and those two characteristics instantly excluded him from consideration. But he kept trying to bond, while I leaned toward those bitter unbearable evidences of Heidi, in the TA office, kittycorner across the hall. Henry was babbling something about, “The funny thing is you can actually get fat from a diet of just potatoes, a lot of my artist friends found that out….”
I didn’t care about Henry or even believe in Paris or potatoes, that was some old painting by the guy without the ear; I just wanted to flee the proximity of Heidi, and what made me saddest was the certainty that Heidi wasn’t doing it on purpose. As if. She’d moved on long ago. A friend told me that she and her fat ugly hippie fop friend Charles Aitel would share a joint and choke up doing impressions of me as “ye constante lover,” mooning and pining away for her. Apparently they called me “Buddha” because I’d shaved my head in grief. “Buddha ye Constant Lover.” When a friend of mine told me about these little yuk sessions, I suggested to him that maybe Charles would understand my pain better if I broke every bone in his face, and it must’ve got back to him because my friend said they’d stopped doing that routine. Around him anyway.
As soon as Henry paused for breath I made some excuse, fled and walked down to Bongoburgers to see if Butler had sold any of the product. It was about the only area in which there was still any hope of success, anything besides lies and humiliation. Or so I thought. The door was open at Bongoburgers, as it always was, and I went straight up. Butler had the place to himself; Terry was still at work in SF, selling stocks for his dad (indicted by the SEC a few years later). It was me and Butler alone across the formica table, Paul’s old chess set scattered against the wall, the map of the universe full of dart holes.
Butler wasn’t as happy as he should’ve been. He wasn’t bragging and that was a bad sign. He finally spat it out: “Those stupid fucking headbangers, you know how they are….” Which I didn’t–so he explained, careful as always: “You know, hardcore meth heads, all they want is Crystal to bang their stupid heads with…they don’t even appreciate it when you give them Benzedrine—I mean Benzedrine has been shown in clinical studies, it gives you, improves your IQ 20 points and Crystal just 10!”
That was his big selling point, and I’d heard it maybe a dozen times before, but the thing was it couldn’t actually be used to sell our Benzedrine because we were trying to pass it off as Meth. I said, “So…do they…I mean do they not like it, do they realize it’s not Meth?”
Butler shrugged, irked. “They think it’s Meth, they just think it’s bad Meth. Not heavy enough for them. Fucking idiots.”
I knew the idiots in question. I knew exactly who Butler was trying to sell to, though he’d been careful not to tell me. He was always very cautious, believed in making random U-turns when driving, never giving people his real name, and lying to stay in practice.
But I knew because Sheila’s brother Bruno was one of these people, and he’d mentioned Butler. Bruno was an anarchist or some nonsense like that. Also short, and a hippie. From Orinda; anarchists are always rich and short. He and his quasi-wife and their loud buddy John Simpson and some guy calling himself Vinnie (later it turned out his real name was Charles) lived in a gigantic trashed warehouse in West Oakland, with a room wallpapered in egg cartons so bands could play there. They chained and padlocked all the doors shut against their neighbors, the black people they were theoretically in solidarity with, and snuffled down the old staircases to the lower rooms where they snorted up amazing quantities of speed. Selling speed to them was like opening a liquor store in Moscow or a gas station next to a Hummer dealer; you couldn’t lose. If they didn’t want it….
That was as far as I let such disloyal thoughts go. Loyalty, that was the big thing. There was going to be honor among thieves, if nowhere else. Everybody was a bad person, therefore there is honor among thieves. Not the soundest foundation for an ethical system, but then, as Berdyayev said, Western ethics can be paraphrased, “Man is descended from the apes, therefore let us love one another,” which isn’t that great either. If I’d had to grade that as the thesis-statement of one of my first-year papers, it would have flunked. We had very strict guidelines for those thesis statements.
They had to be perfect Aristotelean enthymemes, in a single sentence…and they were not to be revealed until the last line of the essay.
That was what drove my crazy little TA Henry Wolff round the bend once and for all. He was willing to sit through my classes and do a little office-hours coaching, though it was clear he’d left his brain back in Paris and was totally non compos. But when one of the students came to me saying, “Henry told me I should put the thesis statement at the beginning of the essay, not the end,” we were screwed. That was the whole gimmick of the Rhetoric Department: thesis statement at the end!
Made no sense, of course. Eventually we had to change it; too many profs in other departments telling their students, “And don’t write one of those stupid Rhetoric essays where you don’t know the point till you get to the end!”
So Henry the nut was right, and I was wrong. I went to him and taxed him with his heresy, and in his quiet fierce nut voice he said, “Oh no, that’s, that’s, no, that’s not right, at the end, no, no, I, no, I can’t do that.”
So I went to Brandt, the spoiled old dribbler who was in charge of the writing program, and he told me it was a shame no one would stand up for their beliefs, and bad TAs like Henry just got passed through with good evaluations, and if he were me, what he would do would be to report Henry, get him fired.
And I nodded and went back to Bongoburgers to see if Butler had sold any product, but he wasn’t around. Terry was there, eating a Blondie’s pizza, and said Butler was never home lately, and was “actually kind of a weird guy.”
Next morning I went to see Professor Richardson to request a new TA who’d put the thesis statement at the end. I wasn’t paying much attention to what I was doing; what I usually did on entering that corridor was to look for any sign that Heidi was around. If she was, I felt terrible. If she wasn’t, I felt terrible. I was half listening for her laugh, sniffing for any sign of that Export A smoke even while I was going through the motions of telling Professor Richardson that Henry was a heretic who had to go.
She screamed at me: “I will not have a man of Henry’s quality railroaded out of the department by the hostility of one or two men!”
There was a stress on the word ‘men’, which confused me at the time. I’d never even thought of Brandt, the old eunuch, as a man. It slowly and painfully dawned on me, as I groveled and shuffled out of her office, that I had been used again. And by Brandt, a man barely sentient enough to drive a car. Cat’s paw to a dotard; that’s a painful job.
Heidi’s hippie asshole friend Aitel’s office was across the hall from Professor Richardson’s too. The head-smashing smell of Export A’s was clouding around it, indicating that Heidi had slipped in some time during my little interview. Then she gave one of those laughs from inside Aitel’s little hippie lair with its Tibetan wall hangings and incense burners. Every time I saw Aitel or heard his whiney little voice I wanted to go back in time and join Franco’s forces. I needed to get out of the whole academic business and become a full-time Tony Montana; that was obvious. And while I was getting my head kicked in at the Rhetoric department, it was very possible that my hard-working partner Butler had already sold huge quantities of our product. Like that phrase from the mass that I’d recited about a million times, never believing it till now: “As we wait in joyful hope.”
I found Terry alone at Bongoburgers, holding up a bill with big holes cut in it. “Hey John!” he said, laughing his familiar incomprehension laugh. “Look what that weird guy Butler did!” We went into Butler’s room and found it completely empty. Cleaned out. The bills were phone bills; instead of just dumping the bills in a trash can on the street like a normal person trying to hide his tracks, Butler had taken a razor blade and carefully cut out of each page every number he’d called. And vanished. With the product, and the glassware I’d fronted the money for.
I told Terry, “Weird!” – officially Butler and I hardly knew each other and no one had any idea about our little business venture. Then I went home and lay in bed and clenched my teeth for about twenty minutes and then moaned quietly for another twenty or thirty minutes and then started screaming, making all the noises I’d been saving up since seeing Heidi come out of the breakfast place with the deadhead dishwasher and Paul’s face after Marian told him what I’d done and my parents when they first smelled the cat piss smell of the house in Benecia where we’d cooked the product and Brandt’s senile grin as he advocated doing the principled thing and the smell of the Export A’s from the TA room.
The noises were no problem because my building had been converted to an SSI hotel, the only way the landlord could make money under Berkeley’s rent control laws. Screaming was the normal soundtrack of that building. The guy in the apartment next to me had some kind of social phobia. If you passed him on the stairs he froze like a possum, rocking back and forth and humming to himself until you were out of sight. The SSI casualty downstairs from me once took up the drums, choosing 2 am as his preferred practice time. Besides, the traffic diverters invented by the clever professors hired by the city of Berkeley directed all the traffic in town right past my window, so between the shrieks and gibbers and motorcycles and VWs—VWs are the loudest, actually, you wouldn’t think so–with all that background noise, you could shriek as long as you wanted.
And from those hours of shrieking and contemplation came a vision, my new purpose in life. I would make a little compartment in the black raincoat I wore everywhere, and in that compartment I’d put a length of good steel pipe, maybe a foot or so, because—I had it all worked out—a knife or a gun would imply premeditation but a pipe, you could say you picked it up from the gutter on an impulse, like say you ran into Butler just by accident and he laughed at you and you just grabbed the first thing, this pipe, and beat. His. Fucking. Skull. To. Pulp.
Oh yes indeed. Everything was finally clear.
By John Dolan
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