The Light Years

After his parents pushed him out of their home, a teenager descended into the drug-fueled counterculture of the 1970s American West.

Chris Rush | The Light Years | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | April 2019 | 33 minutes (6,653 words)

 

Fate is a crazy bird, swooping down from heaven.

I’m in a helicopter — it’s inconceivably loud. Out the porthole, I see a blue bay and a tiny island. It’s Alcatraz, but I don’t know that. I barely know where I am. Across from me sits an angelic blonde woman, her lavender gown falling to the floor. On her lap rests a black attaché case and a Bible. She keeps smiling at me.

Why am I so afraid?

That morning, I’d left my mom crying at Newark Airport and flown to San Francisco alone. Bounding across the terminal, I boarded a helicopter for Sausalito. At any moment, my new life is scheduled to begin. I feel like I’m falling in space.

Vinnie and Donna are on the tarmac, waiting to catch me, crazy-waving as the copter touches down. In tears I run to my sister, throw my arms around her.

Then the lavender angel taps me on the shoulder.

“Don’t you remember me, Chris? I couldn’t speak to you while we were flying — all that noise.”

I recognize her now. It’s Lu’s wife, Jingle. She kisses me on the cheek.

“I can’t believe you guys were on the same flight!” Donna embraces her.

“It’s a sign,” Jingle says. “Arranged On High.”

She disappears into the crowd with her attaché case and Holy Bible.

It’s June 1972. I’m sixteen.

* * *

As Vinnie drove toward home, I took in California — giant oaks lolling across the hills, like umbrellas in the sun. The heat was fierce, the air soft, the smell of the ocean riding on the breeze.

Jingle’s attaché, I learned, was full of LSD, fresh from a lab in San Francisco. Donna knew this because she’d be flying it back east. “A quick eighty thousand hits to Boston. Piece of cake.”

“But can you do it — like that?” I pointed toward her bulging stomach.

“With the baby?”

Vinnie said, “Dude, it’s the best disguise ever!”

I kept staring at the mound inside my sister’s peasant dress, big as a planet. She was almost seven months pregnant. What a lucky kid, I thought — to have such a great mother. Donna turned toward me in the backseat and showed me the bag of asparagus she’d bought for dinner. “Look how purple it is! Everything in California is so psychedelic!” Donna’s smile was a ray gun of love. I felt safe. I trusted her.

I trusted her asparagus.

* * *

Our rental at the back of a tiny woodsy valley, a rambling maze of add-on rooms, homemade furniture, and junk.

“Wow,” I said. “You’ve got a lot of stuff.”

“Oh, most of it’s not ours.” Donna explained that the people they’d rented from had gone off on some adventure. “They just left everything where it was.”

“We didn’t need to buy anything,” Vinnie said proudly.

My room was downstairs, and dark — the lair of the owners’ teenaged son. I could smell him faintly in the blankets as I drifted off to sleep — the smell of pine and sweat. I slept well, that first night. No nightmares for once.

The next morning, Donna and I sat on a deck overlooking the friendly umbrella oaks. We drank lemonade and talked. The sun was already hot and Donna took off her top. Her breasts were huge. I was not yet comfortable seeing my sister naked — and pregnant.

She asked me how everyone was.

“Oh, fine,” I said, trying not to look at her. “Danny just got his first crew cut. He looks like Mr. Magoo. And Michael and Steve are on the same soccer team — rah.”

“And Mom and Dad—are they still on the same team?”

I shrugged. “Did Mom tell you about the tape?”

“What tape?”

I felt hurt — knowing Mom had, of course, said nothing, wanting to protect Dad more than me. I wondered what she’d told Donna about my coming out here to live.

When my sister asked again what I was referring to, I said, “Oh, it’s not important.” She already knew enough: that there was trouble between me and Dad. She didn’t need the ugly details. I knew that Donna was like Mom; she didn’t like to talk about anything sad.

It was okay. Sitting there, among those trees, drinking lemonade, I thought to myself: California is the opposite of New Jersey. I knew that Donna understood this, too. When I glanced at her breasts, I burst out laughing.

She laughed, too. “So, Mr. Vegetarian, what do you like to eat?”

I told her I really liked bee pollen.

“Well, we can’t afford that.”

“Isn’t Mom sending you money to let me stay here?”

“Twenty-five dollars a month. Do you believe it? We’ll get some avocados.”

Vinnie came outside to stretch. He was naked, too. “We should go soon,” he said. “Lu wants to see Chris.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re part of the team, man.”

When Donna said “I guess we better get dressed, honey,” I was relieved.

* * *

The house of Lu was just up the street. To get there we walked up 237 steps (I counted). It looked like a witch’s cottage. On a hillside, beneath a stand of thousand-year-old redwoods, the house stood in perpetual shadow — a shadow that smelled of mushrooms and chimney smoke.

Jingle answered the door in calico and clogs. She hugged my sister. “Darling girl, blessed with child! Come in. Come in. Vinnie and Chris!” Kisses were distributed. “Companions in Christ! You must rest after that terrible climb. In, in you go!”

Jingle guided Donna across the threshold as if my sister were crippled. In the living room Lu, the real cripple, was sitting with clients. He looked deeply drugged — though he was instantly up on his crutches.

“Chris, you’re here! Come on — join the family! Sit down. Get high!”

I was embarrassed by how nice he and Jingle were, but managed a shy smile.

I’d forgotten how tiny and strange Lu was. Legs shriveled, black hair to his waist, head too big. He was dressed in white, gauzy and celestial, with beaded moccasins and a silver cross around his neck — the cross more pirate than Pope. He turned to the men in the living room and introduced Donna and Vinnie as his dearest friends. “Christopher, too.”

Lu was in command of my brain now, and I surrendered.

I barely knew Lu. I knew that he was Valentine’s business partner and blood brother; that together they ran a smuggling network that delivered pot and acid across America. I also knew that Valentine was back in New Jersey, running the East Coast business from some blanket on a beach.

As everyone chatted in the dark house, I was unsure what to do or say.

I looked at Lu’s cross and took my own crucifix out of my shirt. Jingle noticed and winked.

Lu’s guests were Bob and Toby. In boots and buckles and a blousy shirt, Bob looked like Wild Bill Hickok. Toby, in braids and brocade, resembled a girly Genghis Khan. The room’s décor was calm and conventional: a large couch, a teak coffee table, a clock ticking on the mantelpiece. It could have been my parents’ house but for the small castle of black hash stacked on the floor. Lu filled his calabash. He said to Bob and Toby, “Let’s continue with Afghanistan.”

Obviously, Bob and Toby were dealers, sampling the goods. When the pipe came to me, I crossed my legs and inhaled slowly, attempting to appear professional. I knew immediately it was the strongest hash I’d ever smoked. Soon, the flames in the fireplace flickered like goldfish in an aquarium.

Lu was in command of my brain now, and I surrendered.

Donna had explained to me that the whole country was getting high on Lu and Valentine’s dope. Marin was now the center of their West Coast operation. By fate, I had joined the business.

Wild Bill Hickok pulled out a knife. “We’ll need a sample for our people.”

“Take whatever you need, brother.”

A fat slab was cut in two: black on the outside, green on the inside. The larger half went into the man’s saddlebag.

Donna said, “Oooh, that smells so good — like Christmas!”

I relaxed. I watched the fire and spaced out, knowing my father could never find me, here among the pirates.

* * *

As Donna and Vinnie’s oversized foster child, I was privy to every aspect of their naked, sunny life. I adapted quickly, though it took me a few days to finally strip. After breakfast, we all smoked reefer, and in the afternoon, hashish. Donna made us fruit salad, guacamole, jars of sun tea.

We only had six albums and Vinnie played them over and over. The Allman Brothers, Dan Hicks, two Grateful Deads, Cat Stevens, and a solo Mama Cass.

I thought Tea for the Tillerman was secretly sad, especially when Cat Stevens and my sister sang at the same time: But tell me, where do the children play?

Donna, seeing the tears in my eyes, said, “What’s wrong, baby?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just happy.”

It was summer, and I felt safe in our tiny world, the same songs repeated day after day like prayers. I rarely thought about home or high school.

When the music faded, I’d listen to the afternoon breeze, to the wind chimes clattering like signals from space. I drew pictures, cheated at solitaire (as taught by Mom), and picked flowers in the yard. And when, in the glorious California heat, I closed my eyes, I slept deeply, without dreams. Nothing could disturb me.

I could forget.

Donna and Vinnie were my family now.

In our little house, we rested, waiting for the baby.

* * *

I t amazes me to think that, at that time, Vinnie was only twenty- one, a child. In my mind, I see a bearded man, dancing with my sister in the living room, or swinging naked in the hammock, ticking off baby names. “. . . Abe. Acre. Acorn. How about Acorn, Donna? Is Acorn a good name?”

“Acorn?”

“Yeah.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Could go either way.”

And when we got bored, we simply followed the trail of smoke leading up the hill. At Lu and Jingle’s house, someone was always getting stoned. The youngest person there, I mostly remained quiet, listening politely to the adults. Conversation centered on one of three things: drugs, Jesus, or music. Jingle often called us to prayer, directing her special gaze toward me as she said, Help us, guide us.

Conversation centered on one of three things: drugs, Jesus, or music.

As prayer drifted into work, Donna would often confer with Lu about plane tickets for her next run. Sometimes, I’d help Vinnie bag up buds or spoon LSD powder into capsules.

And sometimes, I’d snoop around the house. As a team member, I was allowed to wander wherever I wanted. “Take a nap on the big bed,” Jingle would say. “I put lavender oil on the pillows.”

One day, in the laundry room, I found a Pyrex beaker full of black fuzz, growing like the Blob — very mad scientist. I asked Lu what it was.

“The lab gave it to me. Psilocybin spores.” We looked down together into the beaker. “They’re alive,” he said reverently. “We haven’t figured out the dosage yet. Wanna try it?”

I carried the beaker into the kitchen. Everyone looked at the fuzz, and then Jingle handed Lu a spoon. He dipped it into the beaker and scooped up a lump of black goo covered in white hairs. “Open up,” he said to me.

I took it in with a grimace — though really it wasn’t so bad.

Within five minutes, my mind had disintegrated.

I ran outside, into the redwoods, and collapsed. For several hours, I was gone, my mind traveling to places my body could never follow. Endlessly odd things passed by: the orchid homunculus, his stained-glass wings, his various trumpets . . .

Stumbling back inside, I had sticks in my hair. Lu saw me and laughed.

“So, how was it, cowboy?”

“It was blue and violet. It had a definite sound . . . it still sort of does.”

“So, it was good?”

I nodded, then asked for more.

Donna said, “Not until you’ve eaten dinner. Go wash your hands.”

After brown rice and seaweed, Lu fed me another spoon of slime for dessert.

Soon, the elves returned, with their trumpeting trumpets — and a net of stars.

* * *

When we drove to Point Reyes, to see the ocean, I was dazzled. California was the end of America, where the continent slipped under the sea. One could go no farther. It was the place to collect one’s dreams and make something of them.

The fantasy of Haight-Ashbury had collapsed into violence. But across the bay, in Marin, there was peace. People were getting back to nature. It was a good scene. At Lu’s, I met yogis and junkies, trust-funders and bigamists. Rock stars lurked like lemurs in the trees.

And Lu sold to every one of them.

One evening, he had to deliver product to a nightclub and asked if I wanted to join him. I looked over at Donna, who said, “Yes, but wear shoes, in case there’s broken glass.”

Donna and Vinnie had Lamaze class and couldn’t come.

Lu and I went off in his VW bug. He drove surprisingly well, shifting with his crutches while nursing a joint. Of course, he had no license.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


At the club in San Rafael, the doorman waved us right in, the midget and the tall kid who looked eleven. Lu knew everyone. When he walked toward the green room, the bouncer stepped aside. I stayed behind Lu as he entered the backstage area and began to chat with some old guy. I could see some people in the corner passing around an oxygen mask and taking turns huffing something from a big blue tank. When I turned to ask Lu what they were doing, he was already gone. I stood against the wall, watching people laugh and drool and wobble away from the tank.

The dude next to me said, “Go ahead, man. It’s laughing gas.”

His eyes sparkled under a mop of brown hair. It was Jorma, the guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane. Before I could say one freaked-out word, he snagged some chick in a tube top and started making out. Over at the tank, some woman had the mask and wouldn’t let go. When a man finally yanked the mask away, she collapsed onto the floor. A bouncer dragged her to a couch.

Since the mask was free, I went over for a turn. I put it on and turned the tank’s valve. The gas tasted sweet, like snow, like winter.

And then I couldn’t feel my face.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. From far away, I heard a voice: Who the hell are you? It was a very interesting question.

Some guy pulled the mask from my face. “Get the fuck out of here, kid. Now!

The bouncer pushed me out the door.

Lu eventually found me, handed me a doob. When the band came on, I danced like I’d only ever danced alone in my room. Wild dancing for the whole world to see.

The next morning, I started yapping about the club — announced that I had done laughing gas with Jorma. I didn’t mention the un- conscious woman, slobbering on the floor.

Vinnie frowned. “Nitrous oxide is not a sacrament.”

He looked toward Donna for support. She frowned, too. “Chris, I’m really disappointed you would even think of taking an anesthetic to get high. Do you think that’s something God wants?”

“It’s just laughing gas. Jorma was doing it.”

“Oh, so Jorma is God?”

Hell, yes! I wanted to scream.

“Chris, you’re my responsibility now. And I have to ask you to respect the rules of this house.”

“Amen,” said Vinnie.

Donna lit a joint.

* * *

Often in Lu’s there’d be a large wooden crucifix. Holding it up for all to see, he would touch the nearly nude figure of Christ and then yank His head. At that, the front of the crucifix would slide off, revealing a hidden compartment.

Inside was what Lu called the Glory.

It was his own personal stash of pills and pot — the best of the best.

I loved Lu’s crucifix. It was macabre — the hollow cross had once held unguents for the dead. I knew this because a very similar cross hung in my parents’ bedroom — containing candles and vials of oil and holy water, to be used in the ritual of extreme unction, or last rites. As a child, whenever my mother would catch me playing with the equipment, she would say, “Are you dying? If you’re not dying, then put that stuff away.”

On Sunday mornings, Lu would drop acid and go to eleven o’clock mass with Jingle.

Seeing Lu’s cross always made me think of my parents — that they were still alive, but that one day they would die. I wondered if that would make life better or worse. The question baffled me.

Like my father, Lu was a devout Catholic. The stash-cross was not meant as sacrilege. Though his drugs were of no use to the dead, he saw them, as Valentine did, as something holy. Listening to Lu, I sensed he was the true believer, while Valentine was more of a divine salesman.

On Sunday mornings, Lu would drop acid and go to eleven o’clock mass with Jingle. He told me that he often had visions of Jesus. After church, Jingle would make a big salad and say, “He’s in the room right now. Chris, can you feel Him?

My answer was always yes.

I believed everything. Believing made me happy.

* * *

Every week or two, my sister would leave on a run.

For Donna, smuggling was a performance. Her Barbizon training came in handy. She dressed as if she were preparing for a Good Housekeeping photo shoot. Wearing her Sunday best, she was the young mother, flying home to visit the folks. Seeing her in ribbons and bows, I’d gasp. She was so convincing in Mormon drag.

This was the early seventies, before the era of X-ray machines and increased security, when massive amounts of dope moved through the airports. The cops were clueless, harassing hippie types, while clean-cut drug runners walked on by.

A seasoned professional, Donna required a new ensemble for each run. Since money was tight, she and I would hit the thrift stores of Marin County, searching for something special, something that whispered, Utah. At the racks, I might shun a dung-colored maternity skirt, but not my sister — she saw the possibilities. Add low pumps, ruffled blouse, and plastic purse, and suddenly Donna was someone else. It was magic. Back at home, chemicals were applied: hair spray, makeup, perfume.

Time was obliterated. Donna looked and smelled like 1954.

In the morning, a taxi would take Donna away, with someone else’s baggage, in someone else’s clothes. Donna liked to begin her performance right away, starting with the driver. When asked if she was married, she’d answer, My husband is fighting in Vietnam.

I tried not to worry. Donna told me that people were kind to her when she traveled; someone always offered help. No one ever thought of hash or cash as they dragged her bags across the airport. They thought of a pregnant girl on the verge of widowhood.

Maybe she enjoyed being someone else for a few days, someone she might have been had she finished college, never met Vinnie or Valentine.

Of course, it wasn’t just a game. Despite the fun of dressing up, Donna took her job seriously. She knew, as we all did, that a drug runner could get busted or even killed. But she refused to be negative. “God will protect me and my baby.”

While she was gone, the house was quiet. Vinnie drank beers and moped. He hated to cook, and we ate a lot of sandwiches. Sometimes I wondered why Donna had to do what she did, why Vinnie wasn’t the one doing it — or at least doing some kind of job so that my pregnant sister could stay at home.

But that seemed a small-minded question, and so I kept my mouth shut. I knew that Vinnie loved my sister, and that he was as concerned as I was.

I’d heard Lu tell Donna, “Make sure you smile a lot. And if any- one asks why your bags are so heavy, say it’s books — that you’re in school.” He also gave my sister a special phone number to memorize should anything go wrong.

In some city, in some hotel room, my sister would sit on the edge of a big bed, waiting for the phone to ring. People would come by for her suitcases — men from Lu’s crew — and then, if everything went well, they’d return a few hours later with a pile of cash. She trained herself to stay calm until everything was completed. When I asked her what she did, she said she watched TV or washed her undies in the sink.

In the morning, she’d tape the money to her body, get dressed, and fly home.

When she walked in the door, I would nearly cry with relief. She’d kiss me, then hand Vinnie the envelope with her pay before going into the bedroom to change her clothes.

Vinnie would carefully count out the money. The first time he did it, I was stunned. After flying home with fifty grand, Donna’s pay was only three hundred dollars.

Both she and Vinnie thought it was generous.

* * *

Often, while my sister was away, I’d visit Jingle: simple and righteous in purple-tint granny glasses and pioneer frock. I loved going up the hill to see her, but I wonder now what she must have thought of me — this jittery, clod-hopping boy. If I knocked over my juice, which I often did, she’d stare at me, slowly saying, What were you thinking, Chris? Was it a sinful thought? Yes, I thought so. Come on, let’s say a quick prayer . . .

After a little Jesus-mumble, she’d pour me another glass.

Secretly, I adored her — her hymns, her prayers, her praise. I felt protected by her steadiness. We all did, I think. Strangely, Jingle never took drugs, though she believed in their power to transform. Jingle was already transformed. Donna told me she’d once been a Seventh- Day Adventist, but left the church to marry Lu. Her love for him was fierce. I could feel it like a flame.

I knew that this was not the kind of love Donna and Vinnie shared, which seemed both respectful and bland. Lu and Jingle’s love was more like my parents’ — wild, weird, fanatical. But, unlike my parents, Lu and Jingle had no children yet —which seemed to intensify the drama. Once, when Lu came home from a particularly dangerous mission, I watched Jingle fall to her knees and hug her husband’s withered legs.

* * *

Drugs and love and business.

I spent hours at Lu and Jingle’s, learning about life.

Clients dropped by constantly, a joint endlessly circling the room — a joint I was now deputized to roll. I was the mascot, I suppose — the smooth-faced kid who made the madness seem sweet. The dealers were often fearlessly costumed, some arriving in robes and turbans, some in overalls and ten pounds of turquoise. The mystic espionage drew me in. Often I braided my hair and rolled it into a fuzzy crown. From the sidelines, I watched, carefully studying how all manner of product was measured and sold.

But I never saw the money. The cash was always offstage. As with sex, there was a mysterious silence surrounding the subject of money. The real deal always took place in another room, the curtains drawn, the door locked tight.

I wondered if they were ashamed.

No, I would understand later, when I’d become a dealer myself. The truth was that the money was dangerous, much more dangerous than the product. People were killed for cash, not so much for a bag of LSD.

Lu was a sly businessman.

He made it all seem like a party: free drugs, free food, beautiful home, beautiful wife. Everyone said, He’s a good-karma dealer. The scene was, in some ways, similar to life at my father’s table: clients sucking down his scotch, everyone talking at once.

And, like my father’s, Lu’s income was a mystery. At the moment of payment, Lu would drift to a back room with a client, just as Jingle brought out hot kelp nuggets for the rest of us.

No one ever thought of hash or cash as they dragged her bags across the airport. They thought of a pregnant girl on the verge of widowhood.

The phone rang often. Sometimes it was Valentine calling about business. As Lu’s partner, he was handling distribution of loads back east. I missed him, and always hoped he’d say: How’s Chris doing? Put him on the phone! Of course, that never happened.

Anyway, Lu didn’t like the phone. He was always worried his lines might be tapped and made somewhat batty attempts to speak in code. This never seemed terribly effective.

So . . . Tyrone liked the squash . . . No, not the pumpkin pie, the squash, like last time . . . Listen to me, remember the squash in the teepee, with Buffalo and the Jew?

In Marin County that summer, while listening to men in Halloween costumes talking gibberish, it was impossible to remember that drugs were illegal. Lu and his clients went boldly about their business, grinning like clowns, while Jingle sang hymns.

What I didn’t realize was that these clowns — Lu and Valentine included — were becoming multimillionaires, while I packed product for free.

After the dealers were gone, Lu would shut down, go silent. I’d see him in his chair, feet not touching the floor, face in pain. “His afflictions are terrible,” Jingle would tell me, cleaning his crutches with a cloth. I would think of the brace on my father’s leg. But what was a drunken car wreck compared to the curse of polio?

Sometimes Lu would mumble the rosary like an old man, alone in church. He seemed to bore inside himself and disappear into sadness. Of course, I believed in Lu’s sadness, as I could not believe in my father’s.

And Lu was always gentle. He never leapt at his loved ones like an animal. Instead, he’d rise slowly from his chair, grimacing in pain — and to whomever was in the room he’d say, “Onward.”

* * *

Like my sister, I was expected to help the cause and pitch in.

One afternoon, Lu took me into the back room and pointed at five or six cardboard boxes. Told me to open them up. Inside were a couple of hundred pounds of hash. Lu said it all had to be unwrapped, taken out of muslin, properly weighed, and placed in Ziploc bags. I asked him where it was from.

“Kabul. Hidden in VWs, shipped by boat.”

“By who?”

“The Brotherhood.”

From conversations with Valentine, I knew that Lu was talking about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the international drug-smuggling syndicate. I adored their name, and began to imagine my own glamorous future.

I was happy to work for hours, putting hash on a triple-beam scale and recording the weight in a tiny notebook. I studied each black block, inhaling its delicious scent, trying to figure out how on earth it was made. Some of the bigger slabs were stamped in gold rectangles — tribal symbols, with swords and stars. Somewhere in the Hindu Kush, an Afghani boy had prepared this hash for sale, much as I was doing. I imagined he and I were brothers of eternal love, helping the world get high.

There was no moral confusion. I never doubted our right to get stoned and sell drugs.

At sixteen, I completely believed in the power of dope. While my brothers were in New Jersey eating candy and watching television (things forbidden in Donna’s and Jingle’s homes), I was eating acid three or four times a week, watching my own visions — and watching those visions blur into the visions of my companions. There was no candy, no television show that could ever compete with what these chemicals could do.

* * *

Sometimes in my room at Donna and Vinnie’s, I drew for hours, and in my fantastic landscapes I often added a new figure. There, on the roiling hills, under the sea-creature skies, stood a boy — only a tiny speck, but if you looked closely you could see that he was smiling.

It was me.

If Jingle was out, sometimes I would help Lu get undressed for his afternoon nap. I’d seen my mother undress my father when he was drunk — but it was nothing like that. There was no drama between Lu and me. Only simple kindness.

At sixteen, I completely believed in the power of dope.

Lu told me about the illness he had as a very young child, and how he’d spent his entire life on crutches. In his bedroom, I would help him take off his white jeans. His legs were no wider than his wrists and would flop about meaninglessly.

Once in bed, he’d say, “Thanks, Chris, wanna smoke a J?”

I always said yes, and often in the middle of our reverie, Lu would look me in the eye and ask me how I was. This question, I could see, was real — he really wanted to know — and it would thrill my heart.

“There’s no shame in being sad,” he said.

“I’m not sad,” I said. “I’m just wondering about things.”

Once I asked him, “What’s the greatest trip of all?”

“The greatest trip,” he said, “is this, right here — life.”

I smiled. “Then what about the greatest drug?”

“Acid, of course. My acid. But it’s pointless, really, unless you take enough. It takes around ten hits to really break through.”

“Break through what?”

“The ego, into the light.”

“What light?”

“Inside the buzz is the white light. And inside the light is the void.”

Lu was already falling asleep.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “you’ll find it. You’re a good kid.”

* * *

Jingle instructed me, too. Sometimes, when I brought a book to her house — Cat’s Cradle or Naked Lunch — she’d put it away and say, That’s not what you need. She would sit with me and tell me about the Bible — about the Bible and UFOs.

“Have you seen the ships?” she asked me. When I told her I hadn’t, she said she felt that I would, at some point. She sensed that I was open to them, to what she called angelic energies.

I asked her if she’d seen flying saucers, and she said, “Yes, I’ve seen the lights.”

“What do they want from us?”

She told me that was the wrong question. “What do we want?” she said. “What do we need?”

‘The greatest trip,’ he said, ‘is this, right here — life.’

I nodded, knowing the answer had something to do with love, which according to Jingle was the mystery of the blood, the reason we were born. She was not soft about these things; there was a righteous severity to her sermons.

Whenever she said Love is the law, there were swords in her eyes.

Of course, conversations about UFOs and angels could easily shift to forbidden foods or footwear, especially if I was wearing my sneakers.

“What did I tell you, Chris? Rubber cuts off the Earth’s emanations. Sneakers can cause serious illness. Take them off right now.”

I did so, gladly — happy to be a part of the bubble-world of Lu and Jingle, Donna and Vinnie. Barefoot, by the mescaline fireplace, I forgot to be afraid.

I forgot my mother, my father, my own dreams — whatever they were.

No one asked me, What do you want to be when you grow up?

The future was irrelevant, we were living in the now, moved to tears by sunsets, hashish, and the miracle of asparagus.

* * *

Often, in the supermarket, my sister would be moved to tears by the price of asparagus. Several times that summer, I watched her break down and sob at the checkout line when she found out she didn’t have enough for our groceries.

Her payments from Lu, combined with the twenty-five bucks Mom sent every month for me, were not quite enough to keep us going in semi-chic Marin. The rental house was overpriced. It was a hot summer and the baby needed AC. “I can’t believe this electricity bill!” Donna would say, just like my mother. Vinnie still wasn’t working — only odd jobs for Lu, for which he was paid with product.

Donna wanted nothing more than to get away from my parents. She was against conformity and materialism. But now she had a baby on the way, and for the first time, I saw the worry in her eyes.

* * *

We made the best of it. It was too hot to eat much — and who needed new clothes when it was a hundred degrees?

Vinnie told me, “Clothing is a lie.”

Donna said, “Use coconut oil, you’ll get a beautiful tan.”

In our backyard, past the flaming dahlias, I was encouraged to bake my nude and skinny body. The California sun darkened my flesh and turned my blond hair white as it had been when I was little; it was now so long Jingle started to call it “the waterfall.”

I was proud of my tan, my flowing white waterfall.

The problem was my penis. Lying naked in the sun gave me an incredible boner. Embarrassed, I’d flip onto my stomach, which only made matters worse. Pressing against the towel, I’d imagine what men did with women, and what guys could do with guys. Somehow I’d always end up thinking about the surfer at Point Reyes, who I’d watched undress. Over and over, I replayed that moment, his clothes falling off in an endless loop.

Then, half-crazy, I’d take the coconut oil to my room.

* * *

While my hormones raged, so did my sister’s. Her moods became unpredictable, and she looked increasingly uncomfortable as she waited for the baby to arrive. I brought her iced tea and fanned her. I felt sorry for her. Pregnancy seemed an outlandish punishment for just having sex.

Several times a day, Donna wept spontaneously. Vinnie, confused, thought Donna was mad at him, thus leading to many arguments — in which Donna genuinely became mad at him. I’d walk to Lu’s to escape the shouting and pouting, trying not to think how much D and V were like my parents.

Of course, my mother had always done pregnancy in comfort and style.

On the August day my brother Danny was born, an ambulance had come to take Mom to the hospital. It all happened in the middle of a cocktail party by the pool, hundreds of people, drinking and dancing. Mom looked terrific — I remember perfectly. She had a huge head of teased hair and a strand of amber around her neck. A black silk maternity tunic, with mustard-yellow toreador pants. Her feet were sublimely wrapped in soleless sandals — a fan of fake jewels from her ankles to her toes.

With medics on each arm, she was escorted to the ambulance through the crowd. Coolly, she waved from the stretcher as the attendants slid her into the wagon. As the door shut, I saw her toes, lacquer red against the white sheets.

The sirens wailed like a baby.

In no time, Mom had had her seventh child, alone in a hospital, while Dad partied on.

Vinnie, of course, planned to stay right by Donna’s side when the baby came. “Yes, I will,” he would say to my sister’s belly, blowing reefer smoke into her navel.

* * *

“We’re poor, but pure,” Donna liked to say — though the words started to feel a bit rehearsed. In addition to having no television, we had no phone. And since Lu was always waiting for a call, he didn’t like us to use his. Every couple of weeks, Vinnie would drive Donna and me to a gas station to call Mom. We called collect, of course. It was my job to talk to the operator, and I always noted how Mom hesitated — just a second — before accepting the charges.

When she asked how I was, I was always quick, giving her back the stage after a sentence or two. “What about you, Mom?”

“Well!” — and here the torrent would begin: golf, Bermuda, Dad’s new building, my brother’s summer camp. “We’re doing well — much better,” she said. “The charges against your father have been dropped. Finally some peace in this house!”

The secret message was always: It’s best you stay away.

It made me angry how much I missed her.

“Oh, and did I tell you Steven’s dating the daughter of a doctor? Do you remember Dr. —”

I had a sudden urge to cut her off — something I never did. I needed to announce my own happiness — the happiness of being far away from her.

“Marin County is so great!” I said. “Everyone is so nice to me. And we have these great parties on the beach!”

It was a total lie. The beaches in Marin were fog-bound and freezing.

As I hesitated, Mom burst in on my breathlessness. “You’re not out there to have fun, buster. You’re out there to finish school. Have you enrolled yet? I’m not sending checks so that you can have parties on the beach. Let me talk to your sister.”

I forgot my mother, my father, my own dreams — whatever they were.

Sitting in the car with Vinnie, I watched Donna stand in the hot sun, at the edge of the highway, talking to our mother. She looked increasingly unwell. I saw her gesturing with her hands. Eventually, Vinnie honked the horn.

When Donna got in the car, she was crying.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

She dried her eyes. “I’ve made a decision: no more runs.”

“Why not?” asked Vinnie.

“I’m scared. Look at me!” she said, pointing to her stomach. “I’m getting close. What if I went into labor with a hundred pounds of hash in my suitcase?”

Vinnie didn’t look happy.

“I’ll talk to Lu,” she said. And then a miracle — she smiled. “I have faith.”

When she looked at me, I believed her.

“You’ll be an uncle, Chris. And you’ll go to high school in September.”

Though nervous about returning to school, I was also excited. When we’d visited Tamalpais High in Mill Valley on registration day, I’d seen beautiful kids everywhere, hopping out of Mercedeses like baby rock stars. My waterfall would fit right in.

* * *

A week or so later, I was showered and ready for my first day. I put on a simple white T-shirt and ponytailed my white hair with three purple rubber bands. Donna came into the bedroom and told me I looked amazing.

And then Vinnie came in and said the same thing.

They were both smiling too much; I was suspicious.

“What?” I said.

Vinnie said, “You don’t really want to go to school with all those rich fucks — do you?”

I looked at Donna for clarification.

She sat on my bed. “We talked to Lu and he offered us another job, watching a stash house of his. He said we could stay there, rent free.”

“That’s great,” I said.

Donna nodded, and then added: “It’s in Tucson.”

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was twenty minutes away from be- coming a real California kid.

“All we have to do is babysit bales of pot,” Donna said. “It’ll be easy and—”

“And beautiful,” Vinnie added. “We’ll have our little Acorn in the desert.”

“We’re not naming her that,” Donna snapped.

She took a deep breath and attempted a smile. “What do you think, Chris?”

I felt my heart fluttering. I didn’t really want to move again.

“Maybe I could stay here, though,” I said. “With Lu and Jingle.”

Silence. Donna turned away.

Vinnie finally said, “We need the checks, Chris. We need you with us.”

My sister looked so tired. What could I say?

I swallowed, tried to find my voice. I took my sister’s hand. “I just want to be with you guys. Wherever you are.”

A wave of melancholy swept through the room. We all felt it.

In my mind, I saw all those pretty long-haired boys walking away.

California slipped into the sea.

***

Chris Rush is an award-winning artist and designer whose work is held in various museum collections. The Light Years is his first book.

Excerpted from The Light Years: A Memoir by Chris Rush. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Chris Rush. All rights reserved.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath