Two months later, Chet had a car of his own. It wasn’t much of a car, but it got him off base and out to see his new friends at the house in Medicine Park. A two-foot by four-foot wooden sign in the front yard read THE SHIRE. J.R.R. Tolkein’s trilogy was huge, back then. Chet never asked who had put the sign up, whose inspiration it had been. He could tell it had been up for a couple years.
Chet knocked on the door and he was welcomed in by a chorus of voices. The battered Volkswagon van that had first transported him to this clan of happy hippies was in the driveway, along with three other cars. He walked in and went directly to the refrigerator, pulled out a glass jar, and tipped it over, dropping a snowstorm of blotter acid into the palm of his hand. He quickly admired the artwork: each tablet featured a blue cartoon imitation of Mr. Natural, an “underground comic” creation. He picked one, dropped it in his mouth and reverently poured the rest back into the jar. The party was on.
The van’s driver, a heavy, six-footer named Tiny, came out in the kitchen and bent to whisper in Chet’s ear. “We’re playing Magic Theater, today.”
Chet smiled as if he knew what Tiny was talking about. “Okay if I have a Pepsi?” he asked.
“Help yourself,” said Tiny, sweeping his long hair to the sides of his face with both hands. He pushed it back past his shoulders and then placed his eyes over his hands. He stood there, absent, and Chet squeezed past him and into the living room.
All the curtains, smoke-stained and brown, were pulled closed. Incense was burning and heavy smoke rolled up from two corners of the room. Chet sat down in a wildly flower-patterned overstuffed chair and put his can of pop on a wooden coaster next to an ash tray.
“Mind if I crack a window a little bit?” he asked.
Savas, one of his Army friends, was sitting next to him. He smiled a huge joker’s smile and waved his head from side to side.
Gage, the other soldier in the bunch, stumbled on words and giggled, “We’re playing Magic Theater.” He covered his mouth and shook his head. He turned back to stare at the soundless television.
There were three others in that dark room. They began laughing. Looking at each other and laughing. Loud. The laughing stopped in barks and coughs of embarrassed over-involvement.
Above the door leading upstairs, above the door leading back to the bedrooms, and, just past my head, the front door, there were signs written on big sheets of white poster paper. These signs had carefully printed words on them, words six inches high.
Printed carefully on the door leading upstairs, was the word, “TIGER”. The one leading to the bedroom read, “LADY”. The sign over the front door read, “FOR MADMEN ONLY”.
Chet lit up a cigarette. He figured he’d catch up.
Twenty minutes later, the music on the stereo began sounding blurry, like the needle had turned to wool. Chet didn’t know what song was playing or who the band was. Time stopped.
The motion-picture smoothness of Chet’s normal world-experience was shattered like a mirror thrown from a tenth-story window, replaced with snapshots of vision and sounds like rolling thunder. He could see the northern lights. The front door of the house opened and he stepped out into an infinitely larger world.
He found himself behind the steering wheel of his car. The five-year-old Rambler Ambassador was littered with his friends, Savas, Arturo, Gage, and Merrill. He watched his unfeeling hands fumble with the car keys and bounce them against the ignition-switch. He looked in the rearview mirror and the power lines draped high above the street caught on fire. The flames shot noiselessly to the sky like rolling draperies of blue electricity. The heat from those flames caused the mirror to wilt and then to melt, dripping down onto the dashboard and the gear shifter on the floor below.
Now, Savas was in the driver’s seat and Chet was riding shotgun. Gage tapped him on the shoulder and then handed him a joint. The car bounced down the highway, heading towards Mount Scott. He took a hit and his mind left his body, floating careless in the winding, twisting smoke. It was sweetly electric. He felt at home. Home at last.
Scenes rolled past the car like old canvas movie backdrops. There was music playing on the radio but he couldn’t recognize the song. He wondered if they’d passed the mountain and he wondered what time it was. Then, he was afraid he’d left something behind, and then he was quiet again, lost in a dream. The vehicle floated on down the road. It turned and began to climb Mount Scott.
Rattlesnakes slept on the edges of the asphalt, soaking up the lingering heat. It had been a sunny day, but now it was twilight and the temperature changes fast in the desert. Even faster on a desert mountain. The two-tone junker dropped off the end odf the asphalt drive and plowed its way through gravel. The springs under the car were probably original with the car. It rode like a boat. There were grating sounds as it reached the summit. Then silence. The boys got organized, buttoned their pipes and hash into their field jackets and they piled out of the car. It was another perfect Oklahoma night.
If you’ve never seen the stars from the top of a mountain, in the middle of a desert, you’ve never seen the stars.
Things kept changing. That wind pounded against the car. It shook itself like a wet dog. He pointed at it and laughed. None of his friends noticed him. They were moving ahead, hunched against the wind, tripping. He followed them. As he walked, he could feel a bubble of ether escaping from the base of his skull, hissing across his neck, rising up, finally forming an encasement over his entire body. He reached out and touched it. It was cold. Then it exploded in a soundless explosion and he tripped over a granite boulder. He stopped to rub his knee.
The sun had gone down and a few stars were beginning to show. Just a few yards ahead of him, they danced gracefully over unseen cracks in the broken rock. Unsure of the footing, he dropped to his hands and crouched, darting catlike behind them. The hallucinations were making walking difficult. He finally caught up with his friends as they were sitting down on the edge of a cliff. Savas set up a battery-powered record player. LET IT BLEED by the Rolling Stones began to play. The music echoed and rolled over the top of Mount Scott. Chet steadied himself with one hand on a giant boulder and slid down to take a seat on the cold, living, stone. The scene in front of him, the stark desert landscape, and the rock he was sitting on, swelled and shrank with every breath he took. After a minute, though, he began to settle in to the hush of becoming.
The lights of the city, miles away and far below, twinkled. Headlight beams from the few cars traveling the desert highway shone bright as airport runway lights. Crystaline shapes as delicate as frost floated everywhere. He was talking to Arturo and Arturo was talking to him – but he didn’t know what either of them was saying. Arturo turned back into Savas. Their voices echoed, spinning in the wind. The city lights glowed like the inside of a volcano.
For a moment, he felt panic and thought everyone in the city could see him. Then, the lights ran together and fused. He knew that he was in that light and he was that light and everyone he would ever meet was the light. And everything he had ever done and would ever do was the light.
Receptor was born.
That night, Chester Willis stopped being himself. Something changed. He went inside himself. He felt like he was falling and falling and he held tight to the solid rock because his thoughts were coming so fast he couldn’t sort them out. They pounded on him like waves pounding against a stone wall. He was afraid he would lose his grip on the rock and be pulled away. Then he was back in control of his thoughts and then he was sitting and watching again. He looked around. The reality of the high mountain desert slaughtered him.
He couldn’t stop it and he couldn’t slow it down: this awareness of being alive and real and flesh and blood. In that moment, during that transpiring split-second, he was blindingly aware of everything, everywhere, from the beginning of time until the end of the world. It hit him like a freight train. He forced his eyes to close and he could still see it coming. All of it. Coming in waves. He felt the tingling contact of things he couldn’t name or understand that kept pouring over him, pounding him, taking his breath away. What did they mean? He wanted it to stop because he couldn’t breathe. But he didn’t want it to stop because those things without names were , somehow, feeding him.
He watched them and they watched him, these remarkable patterns in the air, these geometric shapes, all colors, that covered everything up until they broke, scattering on the ground like panes of stained glass. Always breaking down. Always changing. He felt like laughing. He felt like crying. He became neon. He became ozone.
Freezing laser beams shot from the crown of his head into space. These lights reached the North Star and a slice of his brain rode on that light like it was an escalator. He saw his body, light-years below, inanimate, slumped down like so much clay. He didn’t want to return to it, to its heaviness, to its obscene common reality, but he couldn’t stop. His awareness was now forcing its way back inside his body.
He didn’t remember getting back to the barracks the next morning.