We are still in shock several weeks after the fire renders us homeless and philosophical. We rent a pale green board and batten townhouse, half of a freestanding adjoining pair, built on a small patch of real estate between Highway One and the frontage road that curves under the freeway to Rio Del Mar beach.
Our new neighbor in the duplex is skinny and alone, a catlike woman in her thirties. Michelle comes off both cheerful and pathetic. We understand. Right away we learn that she has lost various jobs, several homes, and all of her children. Having tumbled down the steep dark stairs of the apartment last month, she’s still wearing a back brace when she introduces herself. She needs a lot of Secanol, and buys LSD with her welfare check. The County has assigned her a shrink.
Michelle tells us stories about the many times she should have died. Terrible accidents, violent attacks, rare operations with bizarre complications. She says she actually looks forward to death in a way. She is in so much pain. Everything seems hopeless, unfixable. She shrugs and guesses death will be her release from suffering. If only people will stop trying to rescue her.
Sam and I try to keep the conversation upbeat. We give her practical advice we learned from growing up in Oklahoma, in the heart land. We notice a lot of people are running around Santa Cruz with their minds blown and their hearts open. They eat mushrooms and see God, hike up mountains and hear choirs of angels. They apparently experience de-molecularization in primeval redwood forests. And when they reconstitute, they jog and roll down ancient paths made by souls drawn to the sea. They bury each other in the sand, daringly close to the crashing surf.
People here want to rescue everybody, whether anybody wants to be rescued or not.
The Moody Blues make music to accompany the revelations people are having in Santa Cruz in 1969. They are wildly popular among those on astral journeys to other dimensions. Many people tell stories of profound visions initiated by their music. We are All One. There is No Other. There is Only Love. We are each a little detail of the Big Story. A grain of sand on the beach of God’s Navel.
This seems to be the message compelling our neighbor in the twin apartment. The Moody Blues provide harmonic empathy. Life and Death. What difference Does It Make? All is Love. All is Well. Michelle figures the vehicle that drives her aching soul is a lemon. Hard knocks, bad luck, treacherous twists, and scary dreams, these are her everyday reality. Why not leave this vehicle by the side of the road, and head on without it?
What she reads in The Tibetan Book of the Dead gives her vivid details of the journey without a body. And it is inviting. She hears Brave Helios beckon her one morning down at the beach. She holds a stone to her forehead and lifts her face to the full sun. She looks directly at the light and sees a fiery spectacle everywhere from then on.
We jog behind our galloping dog along the seagull tracks till he spots her, a sitting statue, and veers inland. He steps on her towel and shakes saltwater and sand from his long fur. She barely stirs. He raises his leg and dowses her back. We have to help her walk back up the path from the beach to the apartment building, then up the narrow carpeted stairway to her living room, which overlooks the freeway, just like ours.
I go over later to check on her, and find her front door ajar at ground level. I climb the stairs and see her lying limp on the couch, smoking a Marlborough. Sand falls from the cuffs of her shorts and settles in dunes on the cheap carpet. The hood of her sweatshirt suggests a friendly ghost. Shades cover her pale eyes, and she asks me to sit with her while she dies.
“Just keep me company until I go, so I’ll know no one is going to call an ambulance. I can’t go back to the hospital. They’ll pump my stomach till my throat hurts so bad I can’t swallow. They don’t care.”
“Do you want me to call your doctor?”
Now there are little girl tears in her eyes.
“No, don’t call him. He’ll be pissed.”
She shakes her head and looks away.
“No, he won’t, Michelle. Why would he be mad? He’ll know what to do. He’ll take care of you.”
“No, you don’t understand.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“He told me not to take any more acid. He said if I did, he can’t help me. He won’t talk to me any more.”
“When did you take acid?” I’m getting prickles on my forearms.
“Right before you got here. I took it all.”
“You took all what? ”
“All the LSD. All the Secanol. I took it all.”
I look around the room. Every available surface is cluttered with dirty cups and glasses, plates, silverware, fast food bags, ashtrays, shoes, towels, clothes, books and papers. Under the coffee table I spot an amber pill bottle on its side, empty. I feel her clammy forehead and hold her wrist to check her pulse. I don’t have the attention for it. I can’t find it and I can’t wait for it.
“I’m going home to talk to Sam. We’re going to call the doctor and get you some help.”
I cover her with a beach towel and turn to go.
“I’m going to call the doctor, and then I’ll come back and sit with you.”
Can I get in trouble if she dies? I fly down the stairs, wedge a rock in the doorjamb, and fly up my stairs on the other side of the wall. I explain the situation to Sam, who nods and dials the psychiatrist’s emergency number.
No music. Nothing prerecorded to encourage you not to kill yourself. Just silence. After a very long ten seconds, he hangs up and dials again.
I look at the wall and wonder if Michelle is still breathing over there in the parallel apartment.
“Don’t Put Me On Hold!”
Sam speaks each word clearly, as if to a deaf person:
“My neighbor, Michelle Carter, is a patient of his. We think she is going to kill herself.”
Sam tilts the receiver so we can both hear.
“Has she threatened to kill herself within the last twenty-four hours?”
“Yes,” Sam reports, ” we think she has taken an overdose of Secanol and LSD.”
“How many has she taken?”
“We don’t know. The bottles are empty, and she is incoherent. Should we call an ambulance?”
“I can’t advise you. What is your telephone number? I’ll page the Doctor and leave him a message. He should call you back within thirty minutes.”
Sam gives her the number and hangs up. We sit on the floor and watch a sunbeam spread a warm yellow blanket on the carpet. The apartment is unfurnished, so we have space to stretch out and roll around. We have placed several cardboard boxes artfully against one wall. Instant tables for the knickknacks people accumulate immediately after surviving a fire that destroyed everything they ever owned. This room is in stark contrast to the one on the other side of the wall, where a woman is lying there with lots of things around her, trying to die.
Sam picks up the phone before it finishes its first ring. He turns his back to me. He describes and explains and answers questions.
“Okay. I see. I understand. Is there anything else we should do? Okay. Thank you.”
He puts the phone quietly back in its cradle and shudders.
“What? What are we supposed to do?”
“She’s done this before.”
“Lots of times, apparently.”
“The doctor doesn’t think she’s going to die. He said if we’re concerned, to call an ambulance and have her taken to the hospital. Someone usually does. She’s a regular at the emergency room.”
“Maybe I should talk to him. I’m the one who saw her like that.”
Sam shook his head.
“He said not to call him again. He released her as his patient. He was only willing to see her if she stopped taking acid. She made her choice.”
“Oh my God.”
“Well, I told her I’d come back. I’ve got to go over there. I can’t just leave her alone. She’s in bad shape.”
“I’ll wait for you here.”
Okay, Okay, grab some smokes and be a good neighbor.
Adrenaline still pumping, I arrive at the top of her stairs with no effort. She is still lying on her back, staring straight up. A long cylinder of ash clings to the filter of her cigarette, wedged between two fingers. Her arm gestures slightly toward the ashtray on the coffee table.
I take it and tap it out for her. Her eyelids flutter behind the dark glasses and she asks me if I will help her.
“What do you want me to do?” Besides smother you with a pillow.
“I want to hear The Moody Blues.”
Her head twitches to indicate a pile of vinyl albums on the floor. Beside them is a cheap plastic turntable with batteries.
“Our Children’s Children’s Children. They’re so high.”
I find the album and put it on the turntable. I balance the needle on the first track. The sound is rough and scratchy, but recognizable. Hers eyes roll back out of sight and she smiles.
I light a cigarette and sit up very straight, cross-legged on the carpet. I listen and I watch smoke lift up and swirl and disperse. It seems to disappear, but I know it is not gone. I can still smell it. It is somewhere. I want to be somewhere, too.
The Moody Blues begin to slur their words. The music slows, the voices droop. The song is distorted, fading, dying. Michelle is distorted, fading, dying.
“Do you want me to turn it off before I go? The batteries are almost gone.”
She smiles dreamily at the ceiling again.
“No, they’re singing that way for me. They understand.”
“Okay, I’m going back over to my place now. I’ll check on you tomorrow.”
“I won’t be here tomorrow.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?’
“Okay, I’m going now.”
“One more favor?’
“Lock the door on your way out.”
“Good night, Michelle. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I tiptoe down the stairs. Why? So I won’t disturb her? I turn the lock, so once I close the door, I won’t be able to get back in. No one will, unless she gets up and opens it herself. Now I go and curl up into a tiny ball on a borrowed mattress next to my husband. I sob until I fall asleep.
We drink coffee the next morning and take the dog for a run on the beach. We don’t talk about Michelle. We get back to the apartment feeling guilty and scared. But we don’t mention it.
At eleven o’clock, there is a knock on the door.
We give each other a loyal hug and creep down the stairs together. The sheriff? Ambulance driver? Someone from her family?
“Can you give me a ride up to the shopping center? I need to get my prescription filled.”
It is Michelle. She is alive. She has dyed her hair orange and curled it. She wears makeup and a jaunty toga. Roman sandals crisscross her legs to the knee. It is a new day.
Sam tells her to get in the car and wait for him. He gathers his keys and wallet and gives me a look that says, “last time, never again.”
I nod my head slowly, then we both hear her call,
“And after the pharmacy, I need some new batteries!”
Back in Ted’s tower thirty years later, I am beached on the couch, lost in leather, engulfed by the Moody Blues in the highest fidelity available. I watch Ted and my big brother, eyes glazed, grinning at their own flashbacks.
“Is this bitchin’ or what?”
I nod and let the music drown me out.