• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 8. Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style

    By Peter Wild

    Peter Wild’s story is named for a Sonic Youth song, but its action takes place on New Year’s Eve, 1968—or does it? In a bravura performance, Wild begins with a moment of horrible decision, and then reaches in every possible direction to find reason where none was present. It’s a lesson in the versatility of fiction—and its power to measure the costs of human choice.

    Any external or social action, unless it’s based on expanded consciousness, is robot behavior.
    —Tim Leary

    It takes five seconds, brothers and sisters.

    One . . .

    Alfie Vedder became untethered shortly after stepping out of the Highland-green Ford Mustang parked askance, motor running, on Warren and Forest.

    Two . . .

    He looked up once at the nearest street light, which wasn’t a street light any more given that it’d been smashed out in the riots, and he shook his head, even as he fumbled in his pocket for the Zippo.

    Three . . .

    He retrieved the bottle from the interior of the car, his partner Tuck saying Getonwithit from the shadows on the driver’s side, sparked up the lighter and lit the rag shoved like a gag in the bottle’s neck.

    Four . . .

    Rag lit, he stepped and he jogged and he stepped and he jogged and he grunted and he hurled the flaming bottle across the street, a glorious clumsy parabola that he didn’t stay to watch, too busy was he climbing back into the Mustang, sense drowned out in the engine roar.

    Five . . .

    The bottle struck the window of the Detroit office of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, bottle and window shattering as one, the petrol igniting with the whoomph of a shaggy, jowly dog, the office lit, momentarily, as if it was daytime, only for the sudden lick and tickle of flame to dispel any such misconception.

    Four . . .

    He steps and he jogs, his head and his shoulders moving backwards even as he jerks forwards, building momentum, ready to throw but not yet, one more step and one more jog and still one more step and still one more jog—but then, there he was, left behind like a shoe sucked up in the mud, his socked foot still moving forward even as he remained behind.

    And there he stood, if he could be said to stand, rooted in the middle of Warren and Forest, untethered in the heart of Detroit, sometime approximately tennish, on this, the 31st of December in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and sixty-eight.

    He was aware of himself, splinters of himself, moving off in different directions as if it was he who had suddenly shattered and not the window. Where once there had been a single Highland-green Ford Mustang, there were now two: one leaving north and one reversing south, both departing, albeit one into the future and one into the past.

    His future self, his future self and Tuck, his partner of thirteen years, were on their way to the Grande Ballroom, on the corner of Boulevard and Joy, the intention being to plant evidence in the car of John Sinclair, poet, firebrand and MC5 manager, to implicate him in the firing of the office on Warren and Forest, the idea being that if Sinclair were seen as someone who was looking to create dissent from within, if Sinclair was discredited, all the better for the forces of law and order, dissenting voice that Sinclair was, thorn in their side. The MC5 were playing the Grande Ballroom that evening and Sinclair was bound to be there. Sinclair and all his White Panther cronies, all the radicals, all the Motherfuckers, all the Weathermen, all the students, all the hippies and the deadbeats and the bikers and the losers, they would all be there, in the Grande Ballroom when they took Sinclair down. The plan was to plant incriminating evidence in his car and then, as soon as that was done, take him down, through fair means or foul, whatever it took. So they were driving, his future self and Tuck, and Tuck was talking about how he planned to ask Josie, his girlfriend of eight years, to marry him, how he was going to go ask his future father-in-law for her hand at the weekend, on Sunday, he had it all planned out, what he was going to say, how the old man would take it, everything. The old man was a cancerous bastard, so Tuck said, but it didn’t hurt to do things right, now, did it? You did things right, you set yourself in good stead for the future. That was how he saw it. His future self didn’t speak, felt nauseous, kept repeating, in his mind, what he’d done, firebombing the Detroit office of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam; was surprised by himself, because he’d done much worse in his time, much worse, but for some reason he was troubled, felt like there was a line and he’d just stepped over it. He was over the line now and, as they moved farther and farther away from Warren and Forest so he, the future self, drew farther and farther away from the line and thereby farther and farther into uncharted, uncomfortable territory.

    His previous, historical self grew happier the farther the car receded from Warren and Forest. Could be his previous self wasn’t looking forward to firebombing the Detroit office of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The greater the distance between where he was and Warren and Forest, the greater the weight that appeared to lift off the shoulders of his previous self. Back at the field office on Michigan Avenue, the two of them zipped through a briefing, just the two of them at first but then they were joined by various members of the team, other agents and operatives, the head of their team, briefly, in and out, flitting like a summer fly, the group of them immersed in various slides and files and tape recordings running backwards through a history of supposed insurrection, from the obvious solution through a counter-intuitive list of the various challenges and obstacles they all faced, as a team, as a department, as a function of the United States federal government. Earlier and still earlier, he was eating a PB&J at his desk, transcribing surveillance tapes wearing the cushiony cans, catching up with Sinclair’s movements for the previous week, and not just Sinclair, Kramer and Tyner too. Sinclair, Kramer and Tyner and all their little girlfriends and all their White Panther cronies, they were all being watched and followed and photographed and recorded and spied on and discussed, at the most senior levels, in intimate detail. He was sitting there, his previous self, at his desk in the office where everyone was dressed like it was 1955 despite the fact that out there, in the street that he could glimpse from the window beside his desk, it was 1968. The thirteen-year lag between where he sat and where he could see, the lag he spent much of his life considering when he wasn’t considering right and wrong, right and wrong occupying him both in the office and at home, when he got home, which wasn’t often, hiked out on jobs until late most evenings, relaxing in bars as much as he ever could relax, sleeping in his car when he could sleep or on Tuck’s couch, avoiding his narrow kitchenette when he could, denying the life he spent there, the loneliness, the silly mistakes.

    Three . . .

    The future self arrived, parking on Boulevard, shuffling along Joy past the line of black-and-whites, the Detroit police out in force, so many penguins huffing and chuckling, bristling as they went by, the two of them, his future self and Tuck, wanting to lay in and start something but knowing they couldn’t, wanting to lay everything from Belle Isle through to the riots at their door, at the door of the FBI, but not one of them having the guts to say anything. Russ Gibb, the proprietor of the Grande Ballroom, was poised in the doorway talking to the doorman, poised like he’d been waiting for them in his Harold Lloyd rims and his ridiculous pith helmet. Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen, Gibb said, stepping towards them, arms outstretched like a confused dancer. Gentlemen. His shaken future self replied, stately, said, Mr. Gibb, as if that was enough. Will you be partaking of our entertainment this evening? Gibb asked them. A look flashed between Vedder and Tuck. Something along the lines of: Reconnoiter now, plant evidence later. Tuck nodded and wondered aloud if the Ballroom was busy. Gibb clapped his hands like a sugared-up child and cooed, said, Oh yes oh yes oh yes, very definitely, very definitely. Very busy indeed. At which point Tuck and his future self pushed by, Gibb raising his voice a notch to ensure they heard: You’ve missed the Psychedelic Stooges, I’m afraid, but you’re still in plenty of time for the main attraction . . .

    Jolted from wakefulness to sleep, plunging into gunpowder dreams, gunpowder dreams haunted by the face of Viola Liuzza and the voice of Hoover saying, THE PURPOSE OF COUNTERINTELLIGENCE IS DISRUPTION; IT IS IMMATERIAL WHETHER FACTS EXIST TO SUBSTANTIATE CHARGES. His historical self grew lighter the greater the distance between the different versions of himself but still heaviness persisted. The gunpowder dreams offered a nightly record: a day here spent retrieving libel about the Republic of New Africa, a day there spent dismantling forged correspondence from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Campaign; his mouth enlarged, warm and wet against a telephone receiver, sucking back whispered treachery from the ears of parents and landlords, strong-arming police so they wouldn’t perjure themselves against dissidents, destroying fabricated evidence, confirming activists in their actions, repealing every push and shove, yanking words off arrest sheets, freeing people from the grinding machine of law, driving them away and plunging them, often violently, into the melee of protest; disorganizing younger operatives, masterminding plots to dissipate infiltration in the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers; stirring up peace and social order, making sure activists were free to speak their minds, deleting hours of tape, blanking hundreds of pages of transcribed conversation, so many photographs dissolving, images whitening out in the darkroom glare. For days and weeks and months he rarely set foot in his home, putting in the hours to dilute the government’s case, listening excitedly through crackles and whispers for the report of revolution, for the threat and the promise, for the date and the time. But doubting. All the while doubting. Maintaining a strong front through all the hours of daylight, through all the hours of wakefulness and then sleeping and dreaming gunpowder dreams.

    Inside the ballroom, tugging, someone tugging at his hand, stopping, easing him around, a grinning girl, couldn’t be more than eighteen, looked like she’d fallen off the cover to In Watermelon Sugar. He who has no faith, she said, eyes afire and hands raised as if offering invisible fruit, and no wisdom and whose soul is in doubt—is lost. His future self blinked slowly like a cow. He noticed the music blaring, some furious, honking harmonica goose. A Jagger-not-Jagger singing, FROM YOUR SWIMMING POOL TO YOUR BIG CAR TO THAT SENSELESS BOMB SHELTER IN YOUR BACKYARD. For neither this world, the girl continued, nor the world to come nor joy is ever for the man who doubts. He almost but not quite placed his face in her upturned palms. Her expression mutated like candle-flame: her smile fading and sparking, her eyes flaring, malevolent, beatific, thrilling, her bright white teeth shining in the dark. The music changed—a voice, THE UNIVERSE IS PERMEATED WITH THE ODOUR OF KEROSENE, a scream, a crunching, crunching guitar riff that sounded like some kid seesawing abuse at his mother. Kill therefore, she spoke over the noise with a clarity that was angelic, kill with the sword of wisdom the doubt born of ignorance that lies in thy heart. He wanted to speak but the words died in his throat. The girl saw, both the effort and the failure, and placed her hands gently against his cheeks, intent, a mother searching her child’s face for the bee-sting left in the skin. He who has faith has wisdom, she said, who lives in selfharmony, whose faith is in life; and he who finds wisdom soon finds the peace supreme. He dry swallowed again, and then again. The peace supreme. That was what he wanted. Had the song changed? I REALLY DON’T KNOW WHEN OR WHERE TO GO. I CAN’T SEE A THING TILL YOU OPEN MY EYES. I CAN’T SEE A THING TILL YOU OPEN MY EYES. I CAN’T SEE A THING TILL YOU OPEN MY EYES. The girl raised her bare arms in the air, her eyes and her smile pure rapture. Be one in self-harmony, she yelled, and arise, great warrior, arise! . . .

    The process by which his historical self grew lighter and more carefree continued, through 1966 and into 1965. He was involved with the campaign to save Viola Liuzza. There were things being said, information that was being released to the press, about how Viola was a member of the Communist Party of America, about how Viola enjoyed sexual relations with African-American men despite the fact that she was married and a mother. She was a civil rights activist. That was the story. All these other things were lies and it was his job to go out into the world and scoop them up, that was his job, to scoop up all the lies. There he was talking on the telephone, scooping all the words up. There he was typing, snick-snick-snick, removing ink from letters and stories and memos that were not distributed or stored on file. He sucked them all up until there was nothing left, until Viola was just an activist who was killed by Klansmen in Wayne State. In the weeks following all his hard work dismantling the smear campaign, he was discouraged because it turned out that one of the men who had shot Viola Liuzza as she drove local marchers home in her 1963 Oldsmobile, one of the Klansmen who put a bullet in her head, worked for the FBI. One of his own men had let him down. It was terrible. But then Viola wasn’t dead anymore. She was just one of many people horrified by images of the aborted march on Edmund Pettus Bridge, one of a vocal minority, but then she wasn’t even that. She disappeared from his radar and he felt much better, was much happier in his work, was exonerated, felt like, as the days and the nights drew in on themselves and the winter of 1965 gave way to the autumn of 1964, happier. Happier than he’d ever been. Working alongside cryptographers as part of the VENONA decrypts, infiltrating the CPUSA, working for the good of the country against those no-good commie bastards, a hero, he was a hero again, he wasn’t contaminated, life was good, he worked the side of right, was a good man, had a wife, had a future, spent evenings talking about children, worked but kept work and home life separate, had a home life, was happy, was a good man, was a good, happy man . . .

    Two . . .

    His future self was anxiously scanning the crowd for Tuck, they’d got split up, the two of them, somehow, and so he was looking, roaming, another Jagger-not-Jagger singing about THE BANKS OF THE RIVER CHARLES, AW THAT’S WHAT’S HAPPENIN’ BABY, OH THAT’S WHERE YOU’LL FIND ME, ALONG WITH THE LOVERS, THE FUGGERS AND THIEVES, AW BUT THEY’RE COOL PEOPLE. There were gangs and clusters and cliques amid the milling patchouli throng. Young girls with ironed hair in patchwork dresses with bare legs and bare feet and beads. Hairy Raskolnikoffs with open shirts and velvet jackets and flowers. Guys in leather with greasy hair and tattoos stalking women with snake-eyes and snake-lips and snake-hips. Groovy, freakish could-be boys, could-be girls in gold and silver shirts and trousers dancing, spinning with their hands outstretched like fluttering fanatic butterflies. The light show on the stage was becoming frantic, gulls swooping, missiles flying, freaks and pigs clashing in the streets, flowering tapestries of intersecting purple and red diamonds, red and white circles and oily blobs of yellow and orange, cosmic light beams lurching drunkenly over the faces of those near by, transforming stupid, vacant-looking hippy kids into phantoms and specters and hobgoblins, the Grande Ballroom a shabby haunted house, host to the end of the world. Vedder thought he saw silver-bearded John Sinclair pointing at him over the heads of the crowd, laughing like a demented iron fox from the future. He saw Tuck the instant the music cut, over by the fire exit, waylaid by Panthers. A short guy in a leather jacket with wild hair and sunglasses, arms outstretched like a lay preacher, advanced on the stage, the crowd roaring, a short history of white noise, people clapping, clapping, clapping. BROTHERS AND SISTERS!!! he yelled. BROTHERS AND SISTERS! I WANT TO SEE YOU, SEE YOUR HANDS OUT THERE, WANT TO SEE YOU, SEE YOUR HANDS. Tuck was trying to assert some control over the situation, had his badge out, but the Panthers, one of the Panthers at least, slapped at his hand and the badge disappeared. I WANT EVERYONE TO KICK UP SOME NOISE! I WANT TO HEAR SOME REVOLUTION OUT THERE, BROTHERS. I WANT TO HAVE A LITTLE REVOLUTION! Vedder stood there, watching Tuck as the crowd roared and jeered, shouting and screaming. BROTHERS AND SISTERS! THE TIME HAS COME FOR EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU TO DECIDE WHETHER YOU ARE GOING TO BE THE PROBLEM OR WHETHER YOU ARE GOING TO BE THE SOLUTION. Thasss right, someone close by hissed. YOU MUST CHOOSE, BROTHERS, YOU MUST CHOOSE! Vedder could feel it, what the man on the stage was saying, could feel it in his own heart and in his own chest. Arise, great warrior, arise! IT TAKES FIVE SECONDS, he yelled. FIVE SECONDS OF DECISION! FIVE SECONDS TO REALISE YOUR PURPOSE HERE ON THE PLANET. Tuck was wheeling about, same time as he scanned the crowd, wanting Vedder to emerge out of the dark like the goddamned cavalry or something only he had no intention of saving the day. He was watching. He was listening. He was feeling it, man. IT’S TIME TO MOVE. IT’S TIME TO GET DOWN WITH IT. BROTHERS, IT’S TIME TO TESTIFY. Someone almost standing on his shoulder yelled, Oh yeah! Oh yeah! THE DAY IS GOING TO COME WHEN WE ARE ALL GOING TO HAVE TO TESTIFY. More people were yelling now. Yeah! Oh yeah! I KNOW I’M READY TO TESTIFY AND I WANT TO KNOW ARE YOU READY TO TESTIFY? THE GOLDEN ARMS OF ZENTA ARE GOING TO REACH DOWN—he jabbed a finger into the crowd, pointed right at Vedder, it seemed—AMONG EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU AND YOU’LL HAVE TO GET DOWN AND TESTIFY THEN! Vedder was shivering. Rooted to the spot. ARE YOU READY? Vedder nodded. Ignoring Tuck. Tuck a million miles away from where he was. Tuck lost. Tuck gone for ever. People mounted the stage, men in shiny silver jackets with big hair strapping instruments to themselves like explosives. I OFFER TO YOU RIGHT NOW! A TESTIMONIAL!!! THE MC5!!!

    Centered on Warren and Forest, his arrested self felt the heat, the heat of the crowd and the heat of the historical self burning with righteousness and devotion even as the petrol bomb struck and restruck the Detroit office of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, fire and flame, the whoomph over and over again, his historical self burning brighter and still brighter as his future self stood transfixed, pending, on the edge, MC5 erupting, JUNG-JUNG-JUNG-JUNG, their noise and volume like fifty electrical storms, his future self charred and burned as if sheet lightning were intersecting him at fifty different points on his body simultaneously. JUNG-JUNG-JUNG-JUNG. Within their deep infinity he saw in-gathered and bound by love in one volume the scattered leaves of all the universe. The light of a thousand suns suddenly arose in the sky. JUNG-JUNG-JUNG-JUNG. MY LOVE IS LIKE A RAMBLING RO-OSE. JUNG-JUNG-JUNG-JUNG. His historical self obliterating even as his future self exploded, divided and dividing, taking all the paths not taken, plunging headlong into the future even as MC5 THE MORE YOU FEEL IT THE MORE IT GROWS JUNG-JUNG-JUNG-JUNGED. His future self disgraced before the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI. His future self disgraced before the Church Committee. His future self up to his eyes in the Keith case. And all the radicalism for nothing. No civil war. No end to the war. Not for years. War and strife and civil unrest for years, for decades, but stripped of all of its effectiveness. No winners. No believers. Just war and his part in it. RAMBLIN’ ROSE. RAMBLIN ROSE. I’M GONNA PUT YOU DOWN. JUNG-JUNG-A-JUNG, JUNG-JUNG-A-JUNG, JUNG-JUNG-A-JUNG. The petrol bomb striking the window, blooming and flowering, blooming and flowering, even as the light show behind the band bloomed and flowered, even as the noise shook his bones, scouring him, carving him hollow even as the historical self black to calmed, the exploding exploding exploding exploding like spiders across the stars—

    One . . .

    And then, suddenly, it was so simple. Everything was laid out before him, everything that was and everything that would be. He saw it all, he held all within him and he was, momentarily, everything. An offer was made, an offer he wanted no part of, and his refusal canceled all that had been, nullified the diffusion, restored him once more—but he was changed and, rather than complete the arc and throw the petrol bomb at the Detroit office of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam, he stopped, paused, turned about and returned to the car, Tuck instantly crazy, asking him whattthehellyou—even as the rag’s flame caught the bottle and the Highland-green Ford Mustang split like a cheap joke cigar.

    From the collection Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth. Copyright © 2009 by Peter Wild. All Rights Reserved.

    Click Here for More Noise!



    Our Friends

  • They Come in Collections, Too

    New and Impending from Harper Perennial: