In the Red Lion Bookstore, “Helter Skelter”1 from the Beatles’ White Album plays on the stereo. The Red Lion always has wonderful music. I dance past tables with rare, expensive books on display to the poetry section against the back wall. I want to find the poem by William Butler Yeats that says “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” I peer at the rows of books. Wilde, Wordsworth, Yeats—Yes! Here it is. I pull the red paperback off the shelf, then sit on the floor and leaf through it until I find the poem, “The Second Coming.” I cross my legs, lean back against the bookshelf, and read.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”2
This is the one. I lumber to my feet. The bottoms of my jeans have come out of my black leather boot tops and I bend down and stuff them back in. I carry the Yeats book to the counter. The clerk, his brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, is reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. The frames of his thick black glasses have slid down his nose and he pushes them back up. I fish a five-dollar bill out of my pocket and lay it on the counter with the Yeats book. He gives me change and slips the book into a paper bag. He slides it across the counter and goes back to Heinlein.
“Thanks,” I say. I’m about to leave when I see Velvet’s shaggy black mohair sweater over by the table with the big art books. She knitted that sweater herself, bit by bit, the year we were roommates. I’d know it anywhere. I take the paper bag with my new book and cross the dark red carpet to find her leafing through a volume of Salvador Dali’s paintings. Velvet has been coming back again and again since the book first appeared on the table. It’s an oversized, very expensive edition; no one can afford to buy it.
I peer over her shoulder. The page is turned to “The Persistence of Memory” with its melting clocks. “That bank burning was as surreal as anything in the Dali Book,” I say.
Velvet runs her fingertips lightly over the page. “I wonder what he would think if he were here.” She turns toward me and lifts her hand to her cheek. Her eyes are dreamy and unfocused.
I shrug. “I’ll bet he’d love it. Life is so ordinary most of the time. If he’d been here that night, he wouldn’t have needed to distort it with his imagination.”
Velvet closes the Dali book, giving it a long, yearning glance as if it were a lover, or chocolate, before she turns away. We amble to the door of the bookstore, past the display rack with Rod McKuen’s poetry books, embarrassing wallows in cheesy sentimentality. The books have brilliant hued, glossy covers—Listen to the Warm, Stanyon Street, Lonesome Cities… All best sellers. “Listen to the Warm” is lettered in purple and magenta over bright orange and yellow splotches; it reminds me of the equally cheesy “Light My Fire” poster in all the guys’ apartments.
Velvet jabs my bag with her index finger. “What have you got there? Is it Listen to the Warm?” She grins, eyes full of mischief. The Beatles have moved on to “Savoy Truffle;” they’re singing about sweet, sticky desserts.
“Yeah, right! No, it’s Yeats,” I laugh and stuff the bag into the big pocket on the inside of my gray-green fatigue jacket that I got at the army surplus store for fifty cents.
“Ah. No gooey Pablum for Kate.” She shakes her head and purses her lips like a finicky baby.
“I do like the more meaty stuff,” I agree as I pull the door open, but a throbbing roar, so loud it’s like a blow, swallows my words and drowns out the Beatles. “What the hell?” I yell, but I can’t even hear my own voice.
Three helicopters circle overhead like gargantuan waterbugs. It’s cloudy, and the dull-gray sky makes them even more menacing. The propeller blades make an ear-splitting whap-whap-whap sound, and a distorted, mechanized voice repeats the same message over and over again. “The governor of the State of California has declared a State of Extreme Emergency. Effective immediately, a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew will be strictly enforced. All roads will be closed. No one will be allowed in or out.” I cross my arms over my chest, army jacket hugged tight around me. What in the world? 6 p.m.? What time is it now? I’m not wearing my watch. All I know is that it’s late afternoon.
Oh no—This is Friday! Joel is coming tonight!
Velvet has her hands over her ears, eyes wide. Her short purple corduroy skirt flaps around her black tights as we run back inside the Red Lion. “Helicopters are outside! Big, hideous ones!” Velvet waves her arms in a circle, like a propeller. All the customers jerk their heads up and the clerk stands behind the counter with his mouth hanging open.
Everyone freezes for a couple of seconds, then they all surge toward the door like stampeding buffalo, including the clerk. Velvet and I jump out of their way. The door swings open and lets in a blast of helicopter din and distorted words before it closes.
I lean my back against the wall to the left of the door and slide down until I sit on the floor, legs out in front of me. The Beatles have come to the last song on the album, “Good night, sleep tight.” Their soft voices are like a caress. I slump forward. A sudden scratchiness rises up in my throat and I swallow hard. Oh, to be tucked safe into bed… But I have to leave. Velvet is over by the window, peering out. I get to my feet. My army jacket has slipped and I shrug my shoulders back into it.
“I gotta split,” I say. “Have to tell Joel he can’t come tonight. I was counting the days—what a fucking drag!” I grab the door handle.
“Just be careful,” Velvet says.
The roar of the helicopters throbs in my bones. I hold my hands tight over my ears, but that doesn’t help; even the ground vibrates. My fast walk turns into a run. I sprint like a rabbit fleeing a wildfire, my own heartbeat pounding in time with the underground throbbing. My breath comes in gasps as I push for more speed. The whole world is coming apart, just like in the Yeats poem! I’m halfway down Sabado Tarde Street when the choppers wheel in unison and head back toward Santa Barbara.
In my own place, I sit on the edge of my bed, yank off my boots, and shrug out of my jacket. It slides off the bed onto the floor. I’d better wait and catch my breath before I call Joel’s house. He won’t be home; I’ll be talking to his parents. I need to be careful. I have to sound like a calm, responsible person, not some hysterical nut case. The last thing I want is for them to start ragging on him about me. I’ve never met them but I know they must have a low opinion of me. They probably think it’s my fault he flunked out. I lean down, pull the paper bag out of my jacket pocket, and take out my new book. I stretch out on the blue India print bedspread and turn on my side. I leaf through the poems, but the words swim on the pages in meaningless patterns; no way can I concentrate right now. I’d better get that call over with. I swing my legs to the floor and sit up. I pick up the army jacket and hang it over the back of the wooden desk chair. See? I’m a responsible person.
I pad into the kitchen, get a glass from the cupboard, and fill it from the sink faucet. I sip while I eye the phone on the counter. The water is cool on my throat and I gulp the rest; I’m thirsty after running all the way home. I set the glass in the sink. Okay. I take a deep breath and dial Joel’s number.
His mom picks up the phone. “Oh, he’s not home,” she says when I ask for Joel. I picture Joel’s mom to be an older, dried-up version of him in a cashmere sweater and pearls. Regal. Not motherly at all.
I twist the cord around my finger. “Could you please give him a message at work?” I imagine her swatting the air with her free hand, wishing she could swat me out of her son’s life.
But her voice is warm. Friendly. “Of course.” Now I don’t know what to picture.
I sink down into a chair. “Thanks,” I say. “Please tell him to call me before he leaves.”
“I will. And you be careful!” she warns me. “The governor was on TV. He called the UCSB students cowardly little bums and was talking about martial law. What a schmuck—he’s calling in the National Guard!”
“What? Really? Oh, no!” I cross my legs and tug on the phone cord. Martial law? I stare at the window. The sun is setting; soon it will be dark outside. I don’t see any troops out there.
“You take care now,” Joel’s mom says. “Just lay low. Call us if you need any help.”
“Uh… Everything’s pretty quiet right now. But thanks so much.” I stare at the phone receiver after she clicks off. What the fuck? After a moment, I get up and place the receiver back in its cradle. I wipe my sweaty forehead with my sleeve.
The door bursts open and June drags her bicycle into the living room. She has a grim look on her face. “Did you hear? We’re going to be on lock-down at 6. It’s like Attica or something.” She pushes the bike over the dingy carpet into her bedroom and leans it against the wall.
“Yeah—those choppers going ‘Extreme emergency’ were like something in a war movie—it felt like we were in Vietnam.” I sit on the couch and cross my arms. I hug myself tight—just thinking about the helicopters gives me a cold feeling.
The first military jeeps arrive a little after 6. They cruise up and down the streets with bullhorns. “Clear the streets! This area is under Curfew!” June and I peek out from behind the kitchen window curtains as the jeeps barrel down Sabado Tarde. A sheriff’s pickup truck with what looks like a machine gun mounted in the back speeds by. There’s a loud pop and a cloud of teargas billows up on our front lawn. Black-and-white patrol cars, black California Highway Patrol vehicles, and the National Guard all cruise past our house. More pops shatter the air; it’s impossible to tell where they’re coming from.
I move away from the glass and walk toward the living room. “We’d better stay away from the windows. What if some of those shots are bullets?”
June peers out one last time before she lets go of the curtain and turns away. “You’re right,” she says. “They’ve gone crazy out there. It’d be just like them to glimpse movement and shoot us.”
The burning, peppery smell of teargas seeps in underneath the door and I run to the bathroom, my hand over my nose and mouth. I turn the water on, dampen washcloths to hold over our faces and grab a towel. I bring it all into the living room, hand a washcloth to June, and wad up the towel in front of the door to keep any more teargas from coming in. Why hasn’t Joel called?