I would’ve been spared memories of Strauss if it weren’t for a case of cabin fever. After days of April rain, the clouds parted, and I felt the urge to venture out to the Studio City Farmer’s Market. Traffic cones blocked off a side-street, and shoppers navigated booths sporting baskets of strawberries and grapes; apples and oranges by the bushel; nuts, roasted, glazed and dipped in chocolate; piles of vegetables sorted into every shade of yellow and green; great sheaves of flowers; miniature palms, rootballs bursting from burlap; strings of fresh garlic and piles of herbs; tables littered with homemade candles and dog treats; plastic tubs of wheatgrass and jars of vegan fudge. The newly washed air had lured young parents pushing strollers; dapper elderly couples pulling metal carts; hipsters in their little hats and oversized sunglasses; even anti-social weirdos like me. At one end the reek of a petting zoo overpowered the fragrance of flowers and produce, and the kiddies shrieked on a carousel yards from Ventura Boulevard exhaust.
Having penetrated to the center of this mess and already regretting it, I was comparing two tomatoes when a nearby laugh sparked a glimmer of memory. I turned and locked eyes with Strauss’s old flame, who I hadn’t seen in, what, seven, eight years. Since soon after college anyway. My eyes twitched, maybe hers did, too, but the opportunity to pretend we were strangers slipped away, and she stepped over from the banana display.
“Max?” She cocked her head to one side.
I dropped the tomatoes against their buds.
“Wow! Hi Julie.”
What a coincidence, what are you doing here, you look good…
She did look good and had recently returned to town after cutting her teeth in New York. She introduced me to Pablo, a tall dark type draped over her shoulders. I mentioned the writing—no, nothing yet, working for a production company in the meantime. She asked for the company name, and I said, sure, send over a headshot. We exchanged news on common acquaintances, but I sensed in her distraction that she was, like me, thinking of Strauss. I suppose to spare Pablo’s feelings she didn’t mention him, and I sure wasn’t. Guilt crept in as I realized how long my old roommate had been absent from my thoughts. Now I could see him hanging out between us, a bit to the side, looking reproachful. Her eyes flicked over there, too, and when there was nothing more to say neither of us was reluctant to move on.
Cured of the impulse to be around other humans, I wandered back to my building, pausing by the flood control channel (“river” to Angelenos) to watch storm runoff tumble to the sea.
Strauss and I leaned against the thick roots of a eucalyptus at the edge of the world at the end of time, a carpeted wasteland spread out before us, and the lacerating sun beating down. We were probably the last inhabitants in the area, and as far as I was concerned he wasn’t really there. I avoided glancing at him—to catch his eye might be fatal, or maybe I wouldn’t be able to pull away. Distant figures traveled across the grass, but I knew they were figments of the haze. There had been others with us, but they had dropped away. All that mattered existed here, as the dying star leached the last moisture from my decaying body. An ant climbed onto my hand, and I followed its journey to the other side, was its journey, and felt another piece of me crumble away when it disappeared into the grass.
Sometime before my thoughts had been caught up with these gossamer tendrils connecting everything around us, from the tree branches to the receding roofline of the dorm, to the clouds above and a distant passenger jet. I had felt that if I moved I’d snap the bonds and cause the jet to plummet and the buildings to collapse. In my stillness the life around me died away, the grass withered, and my body melted into the cowardly, arrogant shit I’d been masking for so many years, and then I realized Strauss no longer sat next to me; instead it was Randall Morris, the fat kid from seventh grade with a penchant for crying, resonating with resentment. And then he became whats-her-name, the girl from tenth who I toyed with, my mind always on an unattainable blonde. Then I floated above my body as it oozed into the earth, where my atoms were obliterated in great spasms by fat burrowing worms.
Eventually I had felt myself reforming, chiseled and somehow cleansed. Without looking, I knew it was Strauss again, and here we sat.
“Sup,” came a muffled Voice. The silhouette of a visitor from another dimension had appeared, a skateboard floating up to his waiting hand. Strauss stiffened. Then the speaker shifted to the shade, his features softened into place, and I remembered him as a dude named Cedric.
“Oh. Hey, what up, Ced,” my voice scratched. I coughed and felt my tonsils do the Cha-cha-cha.
He spit something onto the pavement and a puff of dust rose into the air and dispersed as I watched.
Yes, there had been a game.
“Uh, yup. Yeah. I mean, I guess so. We just kind of left, I think.”
“Mm.” He flopped down against the tree, and Strauss shuddered. Cedric ignored him. My eyes traveled up Cedric’s arm as he yanked at his sleeve. His eyes were unfocused, and he rubbed at the marks in the crook of his elbow. He slipped on his shades and opened a thick, grungy paperback. I returned to witnessing the world dropping away beyond the edges of existence and wondered if I’d ever be normal again.
Sometime earlier, Strauss had loped across the field like some top-heavy alien, huge shaggy head with grinning eyes and elastic lips teetering atop his skinny frame. The ball swung towards me and ricocheted back to him like a yo-yo. The mushrooms we’d forced down in the dining hall at breakfast were clearly kicking in.
I skimmed along the grass, and my foot swung at the black and white pentagonal bug that was hightailing away from everyone. I landed a sideways smack against its rear, and it scuttled out-of-bounds. Strauss and I pirouetted around each other. The bug was joined by more of its kind, and the other grinning players chased them toward the goals. Shroom soccer involves multiple balls, which appear from every which way as the game wears on. Players’ faces twitched, all dancing caterpillars and sparkling saucer eyes, and at our feet the grass twisted and snatched at ankles. In no time dust caked my tongue, and I stumbled to the sideline where the two lovelies Sloan and Julie lounged by the grub. Julie was still Strauss’s on-again, off-again, but Sloan was currently unattached. They were flat on their backs, laughing and pointing at something. Clearly still in the giggly phase.
This game is not about the final score. No timekeeping either. Not sure a match has ever reached a conclusion in the traditional soccer sense. More about pumping the toxins along and getting everyone outside, so you don’t get trapped in your room as the trip creeps in and your brain loses or ignores the ability to distinguish between the important and the insignificant. When everything in your vicinity becomes equally fascinating it can be hard to break inertia.
The snacks loomed towards me, each richly tangible in its own uniqueness yet integral to the whole—like a Cezanne still life, my art history mind noted before the idea dropped out the back of my head. Paper plates stacked with dining hall fruits; saturated bottles of Gatorade; a quivering bag of Chips Ahoy. The shouts of the soccer players drifted back to me as I struggled with a tangerine. My hands didn’t work right, fumbling in slow motion against the rind’s texture. Got a chunk off and bit into the thing. Juice dribbled down my face, gleefully free-diving to the ground. I half-watched my friends chase each other around, as they whispered to each other and pointed at me. Suddenly a cigarette thrust itself into my field of vision. It ended in Sloan’s hand, her drooping eyes focused on my chin.
“Oh, thanks.” The stick vibrated and oozed as I secured it between my fingers.
“You gonna get back out there, Max,” Julie asked, materializing on my other side.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I guess…”
I pulled hard on the cigarette, distracted by the sizzling tip.
“Gotta finish this orange…”
The pulpy mess clung to my fingers, and I gazed at it slack-jawed. The girls stared with appalled expressions.
“Woah, whoa!” came a call, and with a thump-thump-thunk, one of the beetle balls scampered up to us.
“Ack!” Julie shrieked and executed a backwards somersault out of nowhere to escape.
“That’s you, Max,” Strauss called, and I massacred the ball, sending it to the other side of town, or, as it turned out, dribbling a few paces. The guys careened towards us, grins flailing.
“Aah,” I yelled, and pounced on the bug again as more dribblers zipped by from separate directions.
Then, after a rapid exchange of glances, Strauss and I and the girls were running away from the field. Small campuses are great for wild tripping—no cars required, and your bed, your friends, and entertainment all close by. Easy to come together, easy to get away.
Later, Cedric put down his book.
“What’s with him?”
I blinked, and my focus returned to the present. The quad had flattened and dimmed. I rubbed my eyes. My hands worked again, and some students playing volleyball no longer seemed like an alien race. The sun was just the sun, and the Earth had put itself together again. Snatches of profundity from a short time earlier now sounded hollow and trite.
I shrugged and glanced at Strauss, who stared at the ground, beads of sweat percolating on his forehead.
“Whaddya think? He wigged out.”
I nudged Strauss.
“Hey String Cheese, it wearing off for you, too?
He flinched, but after a moment he managed a tiny nod.
Living with Strauss could be challenging. Mostly because the guy never slept. Not that I was early-to-bed. Up till midnight all week, much later on the weekends. Eventually, though, groaning with pizza or cheese fries, I’d stumble from the party in his room (he had the bigger one; I was next to the bathroom we shared with a neighboring suite) and collapse into a dreamless pothead slumber. Often I’d be pulled awake by a guffaw from the next room, or he’d “tiptoe” through my room to use the can, always failing to negotiate the darkness without bumping into my crap. You’d think he would sleep in, but invariably he was up before me. I’d blink at him and scratch my ass on the way out to catch the last ten minutes of breakfast.
“What the fuck, man, don’t you ever sleep?”
“Don’t need much.”
One night when I returned extremely late, or early, after ineptly pursuing some hottie, I crept towards the doorway between our separate spaces. A moan rose from his bed before I got two steps. I froze, afraid he and Julie were on-again. He was tossing and muttering. He sounded younger, less sarcastic, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark I realized he was talking in his sleep.
“I know…I know,” he said softly, but then louder. “I tried. I TRIED, DAD…”
I shivered. Strauss’s dad was an asshole—I knew that much. Some DC bigwig Strauss insulted out of the side of his mouth, in a completely different voice than this one.
“STOP. I’ll do it…”
He started to thrash. I unlocked my legs and crossed the threshold, closing the door just as his bed creaked violently. I heard his shade snap open. As I lowered myself into bed dawn crept into the sky outside. In a minute a lighter flicked and muffled bongwater rumbled through the wall.
Eventually I realized he napped in the afternoon when I was out. One day near the end of the semester as we traded shots he mentioned his nightmares and looked at me searchingly. I didn’t let on what I’d heard, and in the spring I went abroad, and we never lived with each other again.
That soccer match was the last time I tripped hard. Didn’t need to scrape my psyche raw anymore. You gain some insight, but it’s like blasting a mountaintop apart in order to expose a handful of gems. Strauss stayed away from head trips after that, too. He told me later that he’d thought he was dying, and that when Cedric showed up he was convinced it was the executioner. I feared I’d never be normal again, but Strauss had thought he would have his head chopped off.
After the trip wore off, though, and he found Ced was just Ced, he was so grateful he kind of glommed onto the guy. They started shooting up together. Guess Strauss just wanted to float on a cushion of contentment. That’s what you get with smack for a few hours the first couple of times. By the third day you don’t see the point in being straight, and if you can get your hands on a dose, you’re hooked. Most need supreme will power and strong family support to get clean. Cedric had both; after he bottomed out he graduated from another school. Now he makes bank as some sort of engineer.
I saw Strauss some after we left school, at the house I was sharing in Hollywood. My housemates and I worked as production assistants on crappy movies and music videos, partying hard between gigs, and Strauss stopped by from time to time, heading straight for the bathroom—“Shooting up in here!”. Julie had moved on, and he was working in the mailroom of Elektra Records, living with some speed freaks in a dark apartment in a shady neighborhood. Eventually he lost the job, and even the tweakers got sick of him.
Months later he followed a girl down to Rio, and before we knew it he had overdosed on bad junk in a motel. The news smothered another night of Hollywood depravity. For some reason I always imagined a ceiling fan sifting the muggy air over his undiscovered body, the cacophony of the street carrying on as he finally slept.
I can’t really follow what Sloan is saying, despite seeing letters and words tumble from her mouth and knock around before turning to dust.
“We’re all just floating on this big…”
‘We’re’ bumps into ‘all’, then breaks in half and skids against ‘just’ and I miss what we’re just.
She laughs and I see ‘ha ha ha’ dribble out and explode, littering the grass with sparkling confetti. She waves her hands in the air, and the word ‘hands’ bounces out. I’m not sure if she said it, or I thought it. Is there any difference? Is she saying what I’m thinking? Fuck. Get out of my head, girl. Did I just say that? She looks startled but recovers, seemingly unable to stop talking.
“I mean, what does it all mean?” ‘Mean’ echoes out and liquefies in the grass.
“This is crazy. We’re just like, like pieces of this whole big mash of a…a…AMAZING-ness. Right?” ‘RIGHT-RIght-right’ bouncing to the ground.
Julie is silently giggling, then trying to talk, stretching her lips this way and that. She shrugs and pantomimes laughter again, as her buddy continues to vomit nonsense.
“You know you’re saying what you’re saying?” I spit out in a rush, and Sloan falters.
“I’m saying,” she goes, “I’m saying? I…I forget what I’m saying.”
“It’s right there!” I unsuccessfully point out the words in the grass before they vanish.
She blinks and starts up again. I shake my head and realize Strauss is missing. I catch sight of his sandals just outside some bushes.
No answer, so I creak to my feet on wobbly muscles. Manage to duck under the trees, as branches reach around and pat my back. Leaves all around are vibrating and fluttering. Strauss kneels in a little depression, swaying side to side and moaning. There’s something odd about it. Oh. He’s taken off all his clothes.
“Crap, dude, you, uh, you alright? Where’s your,” I say, trying to focus over the chatter of the branches and the chomping of the multicolored centipedes.
He looks at me through the corner of his eye. His face is streaked with grime and he’s scrabbling in the leaves with the end of his shirt as if trying to wipe something away. I reach out but stop short of his shoulder, my hand bumping some sort of barrier, feeling the heat rise from his skin. His moaning turns to gibberish, a fetid stink rises from the earth, and nausea starts to overpower my throat. He beats me to it, and spews greenish slime in the dirt. Somehow this makes me feel better. With difficulty I collect his clothes, mostly puke-free, and help him dress. Everything’s inside out and there’s no chance I’ll get it right, but finally I get him mostly covered and succeed in grabbing his shoulder.
“Come on, come on…”
We rise to a crouch, and crawl out of the hollow.
The girls have disappeared. I lead him to a drinking fountain and somehow manipulate the controls, splashing water on him as he continues to blather nonsense. I take a long drink, most of which gets past my tongue and down my throat.
We reach a sunny part of the quad, and I prop him against one of the friendlier giant trees that march along the edge of the grass, drooping their lazy branches towards the ground.
And that’s where Ced found us, beached on the edge of a blistering land at the end of time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Maui Holcomb lives and writes in beautiful Burbank, California, where he toils in the lower echelons of the film industry attempting to make movies sound good. Previously published in titles such as Stirring, The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, The Santa Fe Writer’s Project, and Stepping Stones, he spends his free time cleaning up after his wife and two daughters.