Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Gentle on My Mind by Matt Ward
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A private detective hits the road to track down a pair of fleeing lovers in this modern noir from screenwriter Matt Ward.

Gentle on My Mind

Phoenix, Arizona, 1970

I feigned interest as the rich man elaborated on the particulars of his daughter's (alleged) disappearance, wishing we could just skip to the part where he'd pour me another goddamn Cutty Sark.  I could hear his wife crying upstairs and envied the tranquilizer that was surely in her immediate future.  Librium with a Cutty chaser sounded like just the ticket for this sort of a morning.  My name's Rollie Thorpe, by the way.  I'm a private detective.  

 "She got into Yale," Herbert Baines was saying, "But I said 'Like hell you're going to marry some Yankee snob.  You can meet a better class of man at Arizona State!'"  He rapped his knuckles on the desk between us for emphasis.  "And you can believe that was the end of that."  Except it wasn't.  It always amuses me, the way that people don't so much recount a story as act it out according to their own emotional biases.  What do they want you to do, applaud?  In point of fact, shortly following the "that was that" conversation, Zoe Baines, debutante and belle of the Phoenix country club set, had taken up with a tea-smoking ranch hand whose interests ran to motorcycles and misdemeanors.  You won't be surprised to learn the family Baines soon had to take trip down to Mexico to visit a certain kind of hospital that handles a certain kind of trouble.

But the girl's escapades didn't stop, resulting in her father's decision to remove her, before she'd even started, from Arizona State's Class of '74, and place her instead in another sort of institution entirely. Although in truth it wasn't so much a full-fledged nut-house as a rest home for the wayward rich, with the occasional lunatic thrown in for color.  At any rate, it was from this facility that Zoe Baines had "disappeared" late the evening previous.  Hence my visit.  You have to ask yourself at this point, was Yale really so bad?  

But Baines had finally finished talking and had another question on his mind; to wit, could I find his daughter?  I considered the problem, then asked, "How about another drink?"

Baines gave me the stink-eye.  I get this a lot.  In fairness, I look pretty much like what I am: an ex-NYPD detective who wakes up with the shakes.  And a certain class of people never in their wildest imaginings think they're going to find themselves sitting in their studies, revealing the most embarrassing details of their private lives to the likes of me.  We private investigators must be sensitive to that and conduct ourselves accordingly, which I absolutely used to.  He didn't take me up on that drink.

"They said you were the best at this sort of thing, the fellows down at the club," he said.  "Shows what they know.  Good day, Mr. Thorpe."  He starts to get up, to see me out, to show me that he didn't get to be the fellow with the big desk by taking guff from his inferiors. 

And here's the part where I'm sick.  Here's the part where I ignore the fact that this man, regardless of his disposition and character, has a missing daughter and is therefore allowed to be a little testy with a half-drunk private dick.  Here's the part where I show the rich prick what's what and who's who.

"Let me tell you what I know, Mr. Baines," I said.  I paused until he grudgingly sat back down in his leather chair.  "I know that boy your daughter was involved with, Zane Truett, was employed as an orderly at Fair Oaks for the past three months.  In fact, he often worked on your daughter's floor."

The color drained from his face, and yes, I admit, I'm petty enough to have taken a certain smug pleasure in that.  I had him now, the pompous galoot, in his stupid string-tie.  No one back East would be caught dead in something like that.   Who the fuck did he think he was, Gary Cooper? 

 "What?"  Baines whispered, genuinely stunned.  They always are.  "I wasn't told--"

"Let me finish," I said, holding up my hand.  "I know that Truett failed to show up for his shift this morning.  I know that Mr. Truett drives an Indian motorcycle, and that a young man matching his description was seen refueling his motorcycle at an Esso station on the outskirts of town.  Accompanied by a young woman who, needless to say, matched your daughter's expression.  I know they were heading west.  That's what I know."  

I'd contacted some pals of mine on the Phoenix PD before coming over. I've got a buddy who works security at Barnes' country club.  I'd talked to the nurses on staff at the loony bin where he'd stashed his daughter, all before returning his phone call.  By the time I did, I had a more complete picture of the case at hand than even the police could offer.  I do this every time, and no client has ever questioned my fees.  

"Now how about that drink?" I said.

I had reason to believe our young lovebirds were headed to Las Vegas.  Granted, that reason was the testimony of a paranoid schizophrenic who lived in the same ward as Barnes' daughter, but that was reason enough for me.  This poor kid's particular delusion was that the CIA was transmitting instructions to her doctors through the fillings in their teeth.  They would be talking to her, telling her that if she took her medicine she'd feel better, but underneath their voices, she heard tiny, tinny voices telling the doctors the real score.  Which, minus the little voices, of course, is pretty much the way I hear people when they talk, too: the words, and somewhere way down beneath them, the truth.  In case you're curious, her take on the real score was that the CIA was telling the doctors she'd never get better, that the medicine would just make her too docile and dopey to hurt anybody or escape, which was (again, minus the little voices) dead on the money. 

Besides, it's been my experience that in at least half of these sorts of cases, the fugitive lovers head straight to Vegas to elope.  I knew all the managers at all the wedding chapels, and had called ahead with descriptions of the actors involved and a promise of the usual gratuity.  Why these kids were always in such a hurry to get married was beyond me.  Hell, they can screw whoever they want now.  Who needs the headache?  Well, that's people for you; always running like hell straight at all the things they swore they'd never do.  Anyway, the gooney bird told me that when they weren't gassing at each other about Nature and Freedom, Zoe and the orderly sometimes whispered about how they were going to run off to Vegas together, so that's where I was headed.  But first I had to make a pit stop.  I pulled the Impala into the driveway.

My housekeeper, Essie, wanted to know how many days to tell my wife I'd be gone. 

 "Case like this, it's hard to say," I told her.  "At least a week."  I went into the front closet and returned with my golf clubs.  "You'll tell her good-bye for me, won't you, Essie?  I tried not to wake her, going in there to get my clothes, " I said, lifting my suitcase, in case it was somehow unclear that's where my clothes went.

Essie nodded sympathetically.  "I'll surely do that, Mr. Thorpe.  Poor thing's having another one of her headaches."  

I nodded too, my face approximating concern.  It was a little show we did, my wife, Essie and I, a one-act play we put on for each other several times a week.   I started for the door.  

"Don't you want to say good-bye to your daughter?" Essie said, in that tone that told me I was a rotten son of a bitch if I didn't.  "She's just out playing in the yard.  I'll go and fetch her."

I managed a tight smile, a constipated Nixon rictus grin.  "Sure," I said, taking a little nip from my flask as Essie headed for the door.

A minute later, Margie appeared, with Skipper trotting in after her.  I tensed as she hugged me too hard, like she always did.  She smelled a little.  "Skippie almost caught a squirrel!" she shouted in my ear.

"Good thing he didn't," I said, gently prying her off me.  "Now, listen to Daddy, sweetheart.  I'm going to be gone for awhile, and I may not be back the next time you come home to visit.  So I want you to be a good girl and mind Essie.  Can you do that for Daddy, sweetheart?"

"Yes, Daddy," she said.  She looked up at me, guileless as the dog, and not much smarter.  Her mouth hung open, little gobs of spit gathered at the corners.  Twenty-five years old.  Good Christ.   What had I done to deserve this?  Plenty, is the answer.  I'd done plenty to deserve this.  

Later that evening, Essie would drive my daughter back to the institution where she lived during the week.  Essie told me Margie always cried during the drive, until Essie distracted her with a song.  But the place wasn't so bad, and Margie seemed happy there. 

"I love you, Daddy," she said, and hugged me again.  Over her shoulder, I looked down at Skipper, who looked up at me, tail wagging.

"Sit, boy," I mouthed, and Skipper, God love him, sat.  Skipper, the only one in the house who really ever understood a fucking word I said.

I checked into my usual room at the Sands, and the first call I made was to Amber.  That wasn't her real name of course.  I knew her name and her rap sheet, too, thanks to my pals on the Vegas PD, but none of that mattered too much.  If she wanted to be called Amber, instead of Patti Ann Muntz, from Winona, Minnesota, then that was just fine with me.

"Guess who's in town," I said into the hotel phone.

"Well, well," she said, and gave me that husky laugh.  "My favorite patient."

"Yeah," I said, "And I'm feeling real sick."

"Sounds like you need the Nurse," she said.

Just hearing her say it, just talking that way with a woman, it was like being on R&R all over again.  Suddenly you're not slogging through the mud with fifty pounds of gear on your back; you're just a young fellow who's alive and in one piece on the streets of Honolulu with a spring in his step and lead in his pencil.

"I do, baby, I do," I whispered.

"I'll make a house call around 10," she said.

I hung up the phone, changed into my golf outfit and hit the links for a quick nine holes before the sun went down.

We were out on the eighth hole at the National, myself and three Jap businessmen in town for a convention.  Can you believe it?   Three of Tojo's finest, decked out like fucking Sam Sneed.  We bombed them back to the stone age, and not thirty years later, here they were, conquering the mainland, giggling like geishas behind their golf gloves.  Makes you wonder why we bothered.  Of course, they were very respectful, very polite to Number One GI-san.  But still, it was the principle of the thing. 

One of them, Kenji was his name, was actually quite the duffer.  He whacked the ball miles down the fairway with a brand-new Ping driver.  For the eighth time, that touched off a whole flurry of complimentary Jap talk. I tell you, the last time I heard three fellows nattering on like that in Japanese, I tossed a grenade in their machine gun nest, and that's the God's truth.  

Then it was my turn to tee off.  Now, I'll grant you, I'd had a few beers, which was probably unwise on such a hot day.  My swing was off a little; maybe the smoke from my stogie was stinging my eyes a little. Who knows?  At any rate, the ball sliced to the right and into a sand-trap.  More chuckles from the peanut gallery.  That was it.  I suddenly had this mental image of myself, stogie still clenched in my teeth, mowing them down with a short burst of submachine gun fire, like Robert Mitchum in Gung Ho!   

"I do something funny?" I said, turning on them, driver loose in my hands. The three of them exchanged looks.  Kenji took point. 

"We, ah, no mean to insurt," he said, working his way carefully through the English words.  "We are sympathetic to your probrem."

"Oh?  And what "probrem" is that?"

Another fellow, Hiro, chimed in. "Ball no go where you want.  Very flustlating.  Gorf is game of inches."

"You're right, Hiro," I said.  "You are absolutely right about that.  Gorf is indeed a game of inches.  And you fellas got one up on me with those fancy clubs of yours.  Say, Kenji, can I see that driver?"  

I watched Kenji consider the wisdom of handing over his prized driver to a possibly unbalanced American; not only was the Ping expensive, it was also, in every sense of the word, a club.  But hand it over he did, even bowing a little as he presented it to me, like it was a goddamn samurai sword and I was MacArthur.  

I weighed the two clubs in my hands, pacing around the tee.  Kenji's felt so light and pliant, it must've been made of aluminum or some other magical alloy the Japanese have developed to shame us in golf. 

"No wonder you're playing so well," I said, holding up my club.   Compared to his, my old wooden job looked like something you might see Calvin Coolidge holding in an old Life Magazine.  "This thing belongs in a museum."  

I tossed it aside. The Japs chuckled nervously.  Kenji forced a smile. 

 "Prease," he said pointing at his club.  "Take."  

Can you imagine?  Offering me his brand-new driver, swallowing his pride, which is a big deal for these fellows, to show an American lunatic respect on his home turf.  I saw it all.  But I couldn't stop myself now.  

"Sure, sure, I'll take it.  Thanks," I said.  "And then I'll do this with it."

I brought his club hard down onto my raised knee.  Had it been my wooden driver, it would've broken clean in half with a satisfying crack.  Being that it was made of aluminum, it was like smashing my knee with a hammer, albeit a small one, like a doctor might use to test your reflexes.  I collapsed to the green, clutching my knee, the grass suddenly tickling the back of my neck.  Before I could stop them, tears shot out of my eyes, because arguably I didn't already look like a complete goddamn spectacle, rolling around on the ground in my stupid plaid trousers.  I smacked Kenji's bent club against the ground five times to beat the pain out of my leg.  No luck. 

A crowd had gathered on the fairway.  I could see two fellows from Security gunning a golf cart toward us.  

"Lorrie," Kenji began calmly, mispronouncing my name. I forgot I'd told it to him, back at the clubhouse when we were still just a couple of pals pretending we hadn't fought a war against each other.  "Why you do this?  Is everything OK?"

No goddamn Nip was going to pity me, not on American soil. I used his ruined club to get up onto my good knee.   "Oh yeah," I said.  And then I hurled the driver like a boomerang into a water hazard, where it landed with a little splash and sank.   "Number One GI-San is A-OK."

Kenji scowled, and I knew I'd finally gotten what I wanted.  I'd finally pushed him too far.  "You very lude man," he growled.  Whether he meant "rude" or "lewd" didn't really matter.  He was right either way.  He took a couple short steps toward me, lifted his leg and - my hand to God -- literally yelled, "Hi-YAA!" right before he kicked me in the face.  

The painkiller the Nurse put on my tongue a half an hour before had kicked in and the hotel room felt like it was packed in cotton balls.  When I'd opened the door, she'd opened her overcoat to show me the sexy nurse outfit, and then saw my banged-up face and her smile fell.  "Jesus Christ," she'd said, "you didn't tell me you needed an actual nurse."  Lucky for me, she'd had just the thing.  She'd taken one too, and we lay side by side on the bed on top of the sheets.  

 "We could make snow angels," The Nurse said, sliding our hands up and down on the comforter.

"I've got a better idea," I said, putting her hand on my prick.  She reached into my boxers and stroked it for a little while, and then said, "Sorry, but it seems the patient is resting."  

'I know," I said, "But leave your hand there anyway."  We usually had a lot of laughs, and sometimes a maudlin drunken talk.  Now it was like we were on a giant ice-flow in the Arctic Ocean, warm together looking up at the frozen sky.  She'd slipped out of her go-go boots, revealing the scars on her calf she'd gotten as a girl, when she was bitten by the neighbors' dog.  Saber, was its name.  You had to wonder, where were the parents? Where was the dog's owner?  Where is anyone ever when it really counts?  But we were past all that, cocooned in forgiving snow.  We were Eskimos with seventeen different words for truth.

"I want to talk to you sincerely, Amber," I said to her.

"Oh brother," she chuckled softly.  "Here it comes."

"No, no, I mean it.  I think we understand each other pretty well."

"You want to talk about your family?  Is that where you're going?  We can do that.  How's your daughter, Rollie?"

"Still retarded, thanks for asking.  Still a mongoloid."

"I bet she's a very loving girl."

"I'll bet she is too."

"How's your brother?" I asked her.

"Still in prison," she said, smiling at our strange, dreamy banter.  "Thanks for asking."  Then she said she'd been thinking about trying LSD, that she could get us some if I wanted.

"No, thanks," I said, "I've got plenty of things in my life to make me crazy as it is."

"They say it shows you how connected you are to the rest of the universe, that you're not alone," she whispered this part sleepily, but kept right on talking.  "It changes you, like on a cellular level.  Doesn't that sound far out?"

"I don't think we're all alone," I said.  "We've got our guilt to keep us company."

"You can have it," said Amber.

"I'd rather have you," I said.  I'd finally worked back around to what I wanted to say.   "What if you and me were to run away together?"

 "I think I gave my patient a little too much medication," she said, starting to sit up.

"No, no," I whispered, pulling her gently back down onto the bed, onto the ice-flow.  "I really think maybe we could have a future together."

She chuckled again.  She usually had this full-throated, head-back guffaw that was frankly a little uncouth, but maybe that's why I liked it.  Whore or no, she was alive and maybe because of her occupation, life often struck her funny.  This time her laugh was a little soft, rueful.  The opioids no doubt played a role.

"Why are you laughing?" I said.

"Because it's funny to me that you think either one of us has a future."

I turned to her and saw that her eyes were glistening. Underneath all that mirth and toughness, she really did have what I suppose you'd call soulful eyes.   She wiped at them, and shook her head a little, willing herself back into the room.

"Well," she said, "You're not paying me to sleep.  Tell you what, why don't I slide down here and have a talk with our patient.  See if I can revive him."

"Don't worry about me, sweetheart.  I have a feeling you'd be at it awhile."

"Just relax," she said.

As she went about her ministrations, I closed my eyes and drifted.  A few moments later, the phone rang, startling us both.  I had a pretty good idea that I should pick it up and receive whatever information the caller wanted to impart, as it was apt to be time-sensitive and highly pertinent to the case I was ostensibly pursuing.  But for the moment, what little I was feeling didn't hurt and that was all I could ask for.  Without opening my eyes, I reached over and disconnected the cord.  The ringing blessedly stopped and the two of us floated off into the icy sea.

In the morning, the Nurse was gone, the pain was back and there was a note under the door that one of my wedding chapel contacts had left with the switchboard.  A subsequent phone call revealed that that as of the previous night, Miss Zoe Baines was now Mrs. Zane Truett, Minister Brad Epperly presiding.  This was typically the sort of thing my clients paid a premium to prevent. 

"Any idea where they might have been headed?" I asked, rubbing my aching face.

"Shooot," said Epperly, in his idiotic Texas drawl. "Way those two were dressed, there was only one place they could be going."

"California?" I said.

"Bingo," he said.  What kind of dip-shit says "Bingo?"  I told him the check was in the mail.  

I felt scraped-out and sad from the pills, so I went down to the diner and ordered steak and eggs and watched the blood seep across the white plate.  I'd had them in my grasp and now the trail was cold again.  But it wasn't even that I was losing my edge; it was that I was spilling out over the sides.  Getting my face kicked in by an understandably irate Japanese businessman, trying to convince a prostitute to elope with me: these are the kinds of strange, desperate acts committed by the people I get paid to follow or find.  I sift through the wreckage of these acts, and like a trail they lead me to their perpetrator, who is typically holed up in some sad motel room, clutching a bottle or a gun or both.  I didn't particularly care for the destination where that particular train of thought was heading, so I gulped the last of my coffee and paid the check.  

I gassed up and headed for the interstate without much of a plan.  Near the westbound on-ramp, I saw a hapless-looking long-haired kid with his thumb out and, frankly grasping at straws, pulled over and let him in.  He tossed his rucksack in the back, and took off his absurd felt hat, from which sprouted, I kid you not, some kind of feather.  Christ almighty.  And people wonder why we're losing in Vietnam.  

"Thanks for the ride, man."

I gassed it down the road, watching the town disappear behind us, the houses thinning out and giving over to cacti and tumbleweeds.

"No problem," I said.  "Where to?"

 "LA, man," he said.  These kids, always with the "man."  It's because they want to stay children forever.  

"Smoke?" I said, offering him the pack.

"Thanks, man," he said, lighting up.

It was quiet for a moment as we both puffed on our cigarettes.  Glenn Campbell's Gentle On My Mind was playing on the radio, just starting to get fuzzy.  In case you're unfamiliar with the song, it's about a drifter who appears to be engaged in bigamy.  Bing Crosby it's not.  But nevertheless, it's catchy, and as I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, I noticed the hippie was bobbing his head to the beat.

"I dig this song, man," he said.  

"Me, too," I lied, because now he'd ruined it for me forever.  "So what's in LA?  Girl?"

"Yeah, man," getting relaxed and expansive, really making himself at home on my leather seat, "Lotsa girls.  And the beach, the mountains…the whole trip, y'know?"

"I do," I said, exhaling out the window, keeping it casual.  "So it's a pretty… happening scene there in LA, huh?"

He looked at me a little wryly, the square trying to make with the hep slang.

"Yeah, it would be fair to say it's a pretty happening scene."

"Not San Fran, Berkeley?"

"Nah, that whole scene got like, ruined, man.  Infiltrated by narcs."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Really?  'Cause you look kinda like a narc yourself."

"You're a sharp kid.  I like that.  I proudly served the New York City Police Department for twenty-five years.  What do you think about that?"

"Heavy, man."

"It was."

I could tell he was inclined to hold my previous career against me, but his freeloading instinct prevailed. "So, like, what do you do now?"  He asked.

 "I'm retired.  I drive around, see the sights, play a little golf.  Pretty square.  So tell me, where in LA should I avoid if I don't want to be bothered by you long-haired freaks?  No offense," I said with a chuckle.

The kid laughed too.  "Well, Hollywood's pretty far out.  Venice Beach is real happening…"

"I'll steer clear."

The kid laughed again in his stupid, high-pitched titter.

"And you should definitely steer clear of Malibu.  Topanga Canyon, man.  That's where it's all happening.  Communes and stuff.  It's a really beautiful scene."

"Beautiful," despite the fact that Charlie Manson's outfit had until recently been using said Canyon as their base for their satanic orgies.  When this generation takes the wheel, there's no hope, absolutely none, for our nation.  Be that as it may, I'd gotten what I needed.  The girl in the loony bin said Zoe and Zane were always talking about nature and all that.  It was a reach, but it was as good a place as any to start.  I pulled the car over to the side of the highway.

"What are you doing?"  the kid said, puzzled. 

"This is your stop," I said.


"Go on, you heard me.  Get out before I throw you out."

"What am I supposed to do now?"  he piped.

"How should I know?  Hike back to town.  Flag down another car.  Improvise.  Show some initiative for once in your life."

The kid shook his head, like I'd confirmed everything he'd always heard about The Man. And our inter-generational be-in had been going so well.

"Hey man," he said, clambering out, "Fuck you."

"No, man," I said, "fuck you."  And with that, I hit the gas and the kid disappeared in a cloud of dust behind me.  

In California, even the payphones have a view.  I'd told Herbert Baines I'd be in touch in two days and I was staring out at the ocean when he picked up.  The beach was pretty, certainly nicer to look at than anything in the greater Phoenix area.  But I'd stormed prettier ones, seen men die upon them in packs, in clumps.  Sometimes I could swear that I'm still on one of those beaches, Jap bullets kicking up sand in my face, men screaming all around me, and everything  that's happened since is all just a dream.  

"Mr. Baines," I said, "It's Rollie Thorpe."

"Yes," he said.  "What is it?"  

A man you've charged with finding your daughter calls you and that's your opener.  Unbelievable, this guy.  I told him I was in California, that I was pursuing some promising leads.  Truth be told, the real purpose of the call was to buy myself a couple extra days. I'd been cruising the winding canyon road from top to bottom for a full day without a glimpse of the Indian motorcycle.  There were dozens of VW microbuses whose long-haired drivers sole job in life seemed to be hanging out naked by the creek.  There were some Woodies with surfboards on racks; some Harley-Davidsons; old beater cars painted with all manner of colorful and disturbing slogans, but no Indian bike.  Strangely though, I wasn't worried.  I knew I was close.  After all the years I've been in this game, I have a nose for it.  Sometimes I think fear has a scent, and if you've been around it long enough, you can smell it on the wind. At the risk of immodesty, this is probably my gift in life.  Soon enough, I'd track them to some sad, hippie hovel, and in a dreary and pathetic scene, pack the weeping Zoe into the Impala and squire her back to her heartless idiot of an old man. 

 But my client was less sanguine.  Did I have any leads at all, anything to show for the last three days?  I could've told him that his daughter was now Mrs. Zane Truett, and that would've changed his tone a bit, but I figured I'd let the daughter break the happy news in person.  It's none of my business, really.  So I told him I had no concrete leads, but not to worry, I had a feeling I'd find her in another day or so.

"A feeling," he said derisively.  "I'm not paying your for feelings, dammit."  

I knew Baines inherited his money, and that without his Daddy, he'd probably be an assistant manager at a sporting goods store somewhere.  I knew he remained Stateside the entire duration of the war.  But there he was in Phoenix, pounding a big oak desk, demanding that when I find the man who "did this" to his daughter, I "teach him a lesson."  By which he meant, take the kid out into the hills somewhere and kick the shit out of him.  That's the kind of lesson someone should've taught you years ago, Herbert Baines, so you wouldn't be carrying on like this, a little king in cowboy boots.  I knew eighteen-year-old boys who were ten times the man you'll ever be, Herbert Baines.  I saw their guts flung up into the palm trees like confetti on the island of Peleliu.  I led any number of them to their deaths.  And the part of it all that makes me sick is that they died for the likes of you. 

Of course I didn't say any of that. The customer is, as they say, always right.  And if it weren't for Baines and his country-club pals needing dirty laundry stuffed out of sight, I couldn't pay for my wife's nervous pills, my retard daughter's institutional expenses, my dog's Milk Bones.  Not one of those fellows could have held a candle to me in my prime, but there it is: the rich men pull the strings and the rest of us dance.  Don't take me for any pinko, but that's the goddamn hell of this world, if you ask me. I assured him I would be in touch with a firm lead soon and hung up the phone.  

When I saw the black-and-white tucked up a small road a little ways up from the beach, I put the plan together.  I turned around and headed back out to PCH, found a liquor store and bought a cold six-pack of Olympia.  Then I drove back up to where the patrolmen were hiding out, trying to keep an eye for the next Charlie Manson.  

I pulled in facing them, with ample room to approach so they could take my measure, got out my wallet with the old NYPD badge still inside, took the brown bag with the six-pack and climbed out.  

"Afternoon, officers," I called out.  "Have a moment for a fellow copper?"

The two LAPD officers, Griggs and O'Shea if you're interested, sipped their beers as I laid out the particulars of the case.  They kept tabs on all of the comings and goings here in the Land Of Aquarius.  "Fucking hippies," spat O'Shea, the younger one.  "I'd like to bust every one of their goddamn America-hating heads open."  Apparently, he was still wound a little tight from Vietnam, which I could "relate to," as the longhairs like to say.  

But I was in luck: they had indeed seen a couple matching Zane and Zoe's descriptions riding what was very probably an Indian bike.  "Go up the road two miles, you'll see a turn-out with a hand-painted sign nailed to an oak tree that says "Solstice Ranch."  I thanked them and promised to buy them a round at the Dune Room when they were off-shift.  "And put a steak on that face," Griggs called after me as I drove away.  

I drove past the turn-out and saw the sign the cops had described.  A long gravel driveway bent around some trees, behind which I could just glimpse an old farmhouse streaked with fantastical colors.  A couple of indistinct, tie-dyed figures moved in and out of view.  I saw a narrow road cut into the hillside behind the ranch.  From there, I could get a proper look and find out for sure if that bike was there.

I parked on the road above the ranch.  It was hardly wider than my car.  I rolled down the window to have a look with the binoculars.  The salty smell of the ocean hit me, the scent of wild anise, too.  The only sounds were the wind rustling the high grass and the faint, faint roar of the ocean.  I had to hand it to these hippies; if ever there were a place to indulge in improbable utopian fantasies, this was it.  I shielded the binocs with my hand as best I could to minimize the glare, in case someone were to be looking out for such things.  The little spread suddenly came into view.  There was a large garden patch, a pen for animals, a strange house shaped like a dome and for some goddamned reason, a teepee.  Skinny, long-haired figures moved about, one plucking at a banjo.  

And there, not ten feet from the Indian bike leaned against the barn wall, coming out of the farm house with a bowl of fruit in her hands, was Zoe Baines.  

My peeping was disturbed by the tinkling of bells.  From the hillside above me came a herd of goats, being driven by a long-faced, goateed kid who looked like he might turn into his one of his flock by the light of the full moon.  I stashed the field glasses and waited for Pan the Goat Boy to cross the road.  As his flock started down the hill, he turned and faced me, leaning on his ridiculous staff.  A "crook," I believe it's called.

"We're not doing anything wrong, you know," he called to me.

"Beg pardon?" I said, turning, doing a frankly poor job of conveying obliviousness.

"I saw your binoculars," he said.  "Obviously you're spying on us.  So what are you, a narc?  A fed?"

"Not me," I said.  "I'm a bird-watcher."

"You mean, a girl watcher," he smirked, "Trying to see if all those stories you've read in Time Magazine about lascivious hippie girls walking around nude are true, is that it?  You a perv?"

"You got me all wrong, kid.  Like I said, I'm just looking for finches and what-not."


"OK, then, I'm looking for the perfect spot to kill myself.  A nice high rock to fling myself off of.  How's that sit with you?"

He made a face.  Honestly, I was a little puzzled where that one came from myself.  

"Go fuck yourself, Pig," he said, following his herd down the hill, planning to warn the rest of the gypsy camp, no doubt.  "Just fuck off and leave us alone, why don't you?"

Time to hustle now.  Time to shag ass.  I hopped in the car and threw it in reverse.  

I blocked the driveway with the Impala, just as Zane and Zoe gunned into view on the Indian bike.  I hopped out.  

"Game's up, Zoe," I said.  "Time to come home."

"Motherfucker," she said, sagging against her boyfriend's back.  Zane still had a little pluck in him.  His long hair whipped around as he looked this way and that, trying to find an angle.  If he got onto that road, he'd make me chase him all over the Southwest like goddamn Geronimo.  I could see it in his eyes.  So that was a point in his favor .

"Is she under arrest for something?"  he said.

"Nope," I said.  "But you will be.  Abetting the escape of a mental patient is a crime.  And the local authorities know all about it.  If I were you, I'd start running."

"It's not fair!" Zoe cried. "It's not fair!"

Behind him some of the other hippies in their carnival getups approached, faces arranged in expressions of beatific concern.   Pan the Goat Boy pointed his crook at me accusingly.  Can you imagine the disappointment of being that boy's father?

"She's not crazy, man," Zane said.  "She doesn't deserve to be in that place.  It's just her Dad trying to control her."  

"But he can't anymore," Zoe said, building to a big declaration. 

"Because you're married, right?" I said, cutting her off.  "Yeah, I know all about it.  But it doesn't matter anyway.  Here's the situation, Zoe.  Either you come along peacefully with me, or the LAPD's gonna arrest your husband here.  And if you try to run with him, they'll arrest you too.  In which case, acting as your father's agent, I'll pay the bail and you'll be remanded to my custody, and then you'll come back with me.  But either way, you are coming back to Phoenix."

I've dealt with situations similar to this one dozens of times and knew that it was reaching its inevitable climax.  I lit a cigarette and waited for Zoe to give in and get in the car.  Tears welled up in her eyes as she started to get off the bike.  Zane struggled with her, but she waved him off, saying, "I can't let them do that to you.  I can't."  We'd all feel grubby for having been a part of this, but it was what money -- which is really the same thing as fate, when you think about it -- had decided was going to happen, so there we were.  

A bearded guy wearing some kind of robe interposed himself between the fugitives and myself.

"Hi there," he said.

"Sir, I'm gonna have to ask you to step aside," I said.  I needed a clear view of Zane and Zoe in case they made a run for it.  

"My name's Merlin," said the fellow.

"No, it's not," I said. "Now step aside.  Zoe, come along now.  Let's get this over with."

"I think we should all just take a breath and talk this over for a minute," said Merlin.  Then, lowering his voice, he said,  "We got lotsa things that might interest you here." His eyes flicked over to a couple half naked coeds sitting on a hay bale.  They both glared back at me with the defiance of seasoned Bowery street-walkers.  A literal roll in the hay would be nothing to these chippies. "The point is," he continued, "whatever you require to leave our friends in peace, we can probably make happen."

I nearly laughed in his face.  The idea that there could possibly be anyone or anything I wanted in that ragged, half-built camp was ridiculous.  I looked at Zane and Zoe, holding each other like Adam and Eve after they'd been kicked out of the garden.  Did they love each other?  In a reckless, juvenile way that would probably end badly for them and worse for the child who would just have to appear on the scene to complicate matters; yes.  I believed they did love each other.  But what did it matter?  I'd found them; I'd won.   It was over.  It was just a matter of time before Zoe was in the car, the car was on the road, the road took us home and home plopped me down on the couch to watch football before silent dinners with my silent wife and then sent me to bed drunk, until it was time to get up, to do it all over again, forever and ever, Amen.

"Anything I want?" I said.

We were down on the beach when the acid really kicked in.  Zane and Zoe had long since gunned it north on PCH and out of the picture forever. This is embarrassing to talk about, frankly.  I watched my hands grow bigger and smaller.  Lifeguard towers came to life and marched to and fro.  It's possible that I flapped my arms and cawed like a seagull.  Worse, Merlin and his band of followers stood around me, flapping their arms, making seagull noises, too.  "You're part of our flock now, man," Merlin said.  

But here's the part that's relevant.  At some point, I wandered down into the ocean, barely noticing my soaked trousers, my waterlogged Florsheims.  I saw faces in the foam, young as they ran past my feet, old as they retreated.  "All are one," they whispered to me, rushing in.  "All are one," they whispered, going out.  As I stared into the setting sun, I saw the face of my daughter.  She was beautiful to me now; a pure distillation of that beautiful light I saw exploding from inside of everything around me - the seagulls, the distant dolphins, these ridiculous, angelic children I found myself among.  All this time, I'd treated her like a punishment for my sins, and all this time, she'd loved me anyway.  I didn't deserve it, but there it was: the gift of pure love hiding in plain sight my whole life!   Behind me, Merlin was dribbling water on the foreheads of some of the kids, saying, "I baptize you.  You are reborn."  And so I was.  In that shimmering path of late afternoon California sunlight, stoned out of my gourd on LSD at age fifty-two, I wept and laughed and was made new.  Such wonders!

The Nurse had it wrong.  Acid does not in fact transform you on a cellular level.  Or if it did, I had been reassembled in a remarkable facsimile of my old self.   So I knew I'd have to act fast.  I went into the phone booth on PCH and dialed the number.

The switchboard gal told me that it was unusual for a guest at the facility to receive phone calls at that hour, but she put me through anyway.  My daughter's voice was heavy with sleep when she came on the line.

"Hi Daddy," she said.  "Why are you calling me?  You never call me.  Are you and Mommy OK?"

"We're fine, sweetheart," I said. I took a breath, and then probably for the first time in her adult life, I told her that I loved her.  It almost made me laugh the way, she took this in stride, as though I told her this every day.  Of course I loved her.  In a bizarre switcharoo, my retarded daughter was getting impatient for me to get to the point.  

I told her that the next Saturday, I'd pick her up and we'd go for an ice cream cone.  "Chocolate," I said, "with sprinkles on top."  Was I really crying as I said those words?  I can assure you that I have never before or since choked up at the word "sprinkles."  It's a ridiculous word that grown men shouldn't be made to say at all.  The truth is, I don't even like them.  But I vaguely remembered that as a little girl my daughter did, and somehow the image of us just walking down the street, eating ice cream cones with sprinkles on top brought tears to my eyes.  Such wonders.  Such wonders of God.  

About the Author

If you're here at the end of this very long short story, author Matt Ward thanks you for your patience. Matt works as a writer in Los Angeles, with television credits including In Plain Sight and My Name Is Earl. He's grateful to be on the pages of Popcorn Fiction a second time. For the record, he does not advocate the use of LSD as a solution to your life's problems.