As I smoked another cigarette, leaning over the porch and watching the passersby, it struck me that Carl and Eddy would not be returning to hear my thoughts. So it goes, I was drunk and ready to be drunker. I went in for another beer and bumped into Ojas, who was visibly more intoxicated than thirty minutes previously.
“Johnny-fucking-BOY!” he exulted, crushing a beer can underneath his foot and wildly flapping his tongue in the air, spraying globs of saliva on the bushy blonde hair of a blissfully unaware girl standing nearby. “Jesus Christ man it’s good to see you!”
“I know! It’s been forever, man!”
“Let’s head to the roof-deck and enjoy one of these… Ciggy with a view, ey? Hehehe!” He pulled out a pack of Camels and shot me a coy grin with raised eyebrows, as if daring me to turn down his generous offer. How could I say no?
On our way there, we paused at the entryway to the attic-room. Our momentum was slowed before a dense crowd. In the preceding hour, a small business operation had sprung up in the little room.
“Ohooiiii!” squealed Ojas delightedly, flopping his tongue. “Welcome to the drug den, Johnny-boy!”
“Who’s running this shop?” I asked.
“Mitch, Mindy and Zane Zinser,” said Ojas. “They arrived early to set it all up.”
“They were able to preselect a room?” I asked.
“I know, man, I know,” he said with a sympathetic nod. “It’s bullshit, especially since these attic-rooms are dope as fuck. But they talked to Shelly a week ago and agreed to pay a little extra for a room near the roof. They wanted a space to sell their drugs in peace. It’s crazy though, everyone from campus is gonna know they’re here, and they’ve got mad inventory, man. I’m talking every goodie under the sun: cocaine, molly, LSD, Adderall, even fucking Peyote – everything man, you name it. I already stocked up back on campus. We gonna get our Hunter S. Thompson on soon, brother! Ohooii! Hehehe!” he squealed with delight, performing a little jig.
Ojas then inched close to me and whispered in my ear like a paranoid tyrant fearful of upsetting his starving tenants: “And take a look brother. You see the unwashed plebs amongst us?”
I took a deep breath and carefully surveyed the array of interchangeable visages before my line of sight: jagged yellow teeth, gnarled strands of unwashed hair, mysterious bruises and scratches, spectral complexions drained of blood – above all, that inimitable face of contented, zonked mindlessness. They had all joined our madhouse to get their fix, drawn to our drug den like leeches to blood.
“Who the hell are these people?” I whispered back, equally wary of being overhead.
“Locals man, fucking locals. You know how Mitch and Mindy are from San Diego? They invited all their scrubby high school friends to buy their shit.”
I looked around and spotted Mindy’s thin frame sitting on the edge of a bed, using a credit card to chop up and meticulously arrange lines of white power on the screen of an iPad. Mitch, gangly and long-necked like an ostrich, looked around frantically, gauging the crowd’s interest in his sister’s latest concoction. Mitch and Mindy were twins, both with jet black hair and prominent chins. They were former athletes, recruited to our school for Track and Field, but they quit after freshman year to focus on ‘other pursuits.’ They hailed from a middle-class background, and knew a good business opportunity when they saw one.
“All right everyone, listen up,” Mitch bellowed. “Raise your hand if you’re tryna go in on this next round.”
A slew of hands shot up. Mitch craned his ostrich neck to take count. One of the hands belonged to Boris. His green-grey slits were antsy and determined: Nothing would stop him from getting his fix. The kid sniffed out substances like a hound dog.
“Dude, look at Zane,” Ojas whispered.
I noticed a pencil thin man sitting cross-legged in the corner of the room, marked by his usual air of apathy and vacancy of thought. Zane Zinser always gave me the spooks. He was an addict who hung around Mitch and Mindy to help with business and get good prices. His facial expression only ever communicated two sentiments: perfect neutrality, and perfect neutrality with a hint of disdain. If you told Zane a plague had wiped out all of Asia, his eyebrows would raise a millimeter and he’d take another bong rip.
The steps leading onto the roof-deck were on the room’s far side, so Ojas and I nudged our way through the crowd of hungry leeches. The stench of sweaty human flesh gave way to fresh gusts of seaside air as we emerged onto the roof.
“Hey, Ojas, I have question,” I said as we leaned over the balcony, looking out onto the ocean.
“Is your friend Amir around? How’s he doing?”
“Oh my God, poor Amir, I didn’t tell you yet!” he exclaimed, shaking his head despondently. Then Ojas saw my grin. He was drunk as hell, but somehow realized I had set a trap for him. There was no way he’d remember a second of this interaction, but in that moment he could detect a farce.
“Oh fuck you, Johnny boy! I can’t help it man,” he bemoaned with his spiritual grin, forgetful of whatever it was that I had been giving him shit for. We smoked our cigarettes and nudged our way through the drug den, returning to the porch where a girl named Nellie was establishing herself as the life of the party. Nellie was that ‘free spirit,’ ‘gung-ho activist,’ ‘the world is unjust and I’m not gonna let you forget,’ type of college student. She grew up on a farm in God knows where Montana, and was home-schooled from a young age. Naturally, A People’s History was her bible. She had this beautiful auburn hair and hooped nose ring that gave boys (and plenty of girls) the shivers. On this occasion, she stood atop a wicker chair, delivering a spontaneous oration on the depravity of modern society (or some such theme).
Just as Nellie’s speech was reaching its conclusion, she became distracted by a peculiar sight on the boardwalk: a grizzled man in a wife-beater with tattooed arms and a handlebar mustache. A monstrous, ten-foot-long snake was draped around his shoulders.
“Snake Man!” Nellie cried, jabbing her index finger in his direction. “Get up here and show us your beautiful creature!”
The local man pointed at himself confusedly. He and his serpent were unaccustomed to being invited onto the porches of beachfront properties.
“Yes, you! C’mon now, don’t be shy!” we all cried.
Snake Man grinned stupidly and offered a thumbs up. He gave his creature a reassuring kiss and teetered up the windy little staircase that connected our porch to the boardwalk.
“You want a drink, Snake Man?” asked Nellie as Eddy swung open the gate at the top of our windy staircase, bowing dramatically and laughing in spite of himself, amused that a man of his intellectual caliber and Parisian provenance was now serving as a doorman for – of all fucking people – fucking Snake Man.
“Yeshhh pleaseeee, anything’ll do with me,” grunted Snake Man in his gruff beachbum dialect, licking his lips excitedly. “Now, who wants to hold Kitty?”
Nellie climbed down from her speaking platform, allowing Snake Man to transfer Kitty onto her shoulders. Ojas and I stayed at a safe distance, enjoying more cigarettes and sipping on beers we’d found on a table. Someone handed a mixed drink to Snake Man. He finished it in two gulps. People gathered around Nellie to take photos of her with Kitty. Boris had descended from the drug den, ready for his next thrill. He positioned himself a few inches from Kitty and puckered his lips; the serpent flicked out its slithery forked tongue. The two were an inch away from kissing.
“How old will Kitty live to be?” someone asked.
“Oh hell,” started Snake Man thoughtfully, “Kitty’s only a coupla years old. I’d reckon another 20 years – at least.”
“Is Kitty done growing?” I asked.
“No, Sir, but-if-ya ask me, that’s a wrong question. No creature’s ever done growin’ – not really. Me and Kitty here, well, I reckon we gonna grow together for a while yet.”
I nodded and sipped on my beer, appreciating Snake Man’s eccentric folk wisdom, wondering if he was a veritable serpent whisperer. Everything was fine and dandy until Snake Man conceived the idea that a romantic attraction existed between him and Nellie. General consensus quickly marshaled him and Kitty away, back down to the boardwalk from where they came. Snake Man waved goodbye to us, satisfied with the free alcohol and unexpected experience.
“Excuse me, everyone,” cried Shelly. She and Philippa were trying to get the crowd’s attention, but nobody could hear over the screeching music. Philippa was Shelly’s friend and fellow organizer. Whereas Shelly was a social charmer, Philippa was forceful and direct in her management style. She was a real politico who had interned in D.C. and would work on The Hill after graduating. I never knew why she stayed at the duplex. After all, she knew it would be a madhouse. I suspected it had to do with the prospect of a great organizational challenge – useful experience, in other words.
Since nobody was paying even the slightest attention to Shelly’s meek requests, Philippa took charge. She went into the living room, turned off the music, and mounted the chair that Nellie had been declaiming from.
“Listen up,” Philippa shouted, “Myself, Shelly, and other fatigued guests want to eat and relax. We’re shutting down the porch and having quiet time until later tonight.”
A chorus of groans rang out. Shelly had retreated halfway inside the sliding glass doors with an embarrassed expression.
“However,” Philippa continued, visibly annoyed, “if you must keep drinking, you can scurry along the boardwalk a few blocks north. The Waco Crew also has a beachfront house and they’re partying as I speak. That’s right, this very second,” she said patronizingly, looking down upon the excited faces of people she appeared to detest. “So, you can either come inside and relax – if you are paying rent that is – or you can move the fuck on.”
Philippa’s commandment was also communicated to the drug den. Mitch, Mindy, and Zane had shepherded their leeches downstairs and were funneling them onto the porch with warm assurances that business would reopen when the sun went down. Ojas and I followed the descending crowd onto the boardwalk. We lit more cigarettes and watched the furtive leeches scatter in all directions, some in packs, others alone.
In due time, I would come to understand that of the innumerable throngs rampaging through our house at any given moment, a sizable share were opportunistic acquaintances, audacious underclassmen,friends from out of town, kids from other schools, scrubby locals who knew Mitch and Mandy from high school, random beachbums whose antennae sensed a good rager. All of them were lured to our madhouse by folktales of drug-induced euphoria.
“C’mon, crazy people, let’s crash the Waco Crew party!” roared Nellie as she marched northward, ushering our crowd with her auburn hair blowing in the wind. She plowed right through a conservative looking family, whose parents were so horrified by the sight of our rampaging, inebriated mob, they practically threw their three children onto the beach over the concrete barrier.
The Waco Crew was a group of quintessentially popular kids: athletes, quick-witted bros, and a cadre of twenty women. Ojas and I dawdled behind with our cigarettes, trailing Nellie’s small army of followers. Before long, we heard the thump-thumping of electronic music. From the second-story balcony of a sleek looking apartment, I saw the profile of a familiar face: Viraj, my freshman roommate and proud Waco Crew member.
“Lads,” Viraj yelled down with his international accent, “Go round the side and up the stairs.”
We followed his directions and found ourselves in one of those “ohhhhhhh boyyyyy” type of parties. Ojas dashed away gleefully, his tongue flopping manically. I stood dazzled in the doorway. Unlike the narrow living rooms and stained carpets of our duplex, this apartment had a wide-open living room with tall ceilings, big windows, and a maple hardwood floor that shuddered beneath the electronic thump-thumping and angry humans flailing limbs like encaged animals. In our madness, we were actively dismissive of consequences and fully conscious of death. If Philippa had woke from her nap and saw on her iPhone a CNN notification of an impending meteor strike, she would scurry along the boardwalk and burst inside to turn off the Waco Crew’s music and shout at us about the apocalypse, only to find herself politely marshaled downstairs and thrown onto the boardwalk – back from where she came – in order for the electronic thump-thumping and angry limb-flailing to recommence, but only after we had shared a sinister laugh, for we had known for years about Armageddon’s imminence, and besides, even if we hadn’t, nothing could change the fact that fear found no place amidst the sunsetting luminescence streaming through huge windowpanes and imbuing our makeshift dance floor with an angelic but nostalgic joy, probably the zenith of all human spirit during those otherwise forgotten moments.