At the Chateau Marmont, Bungalow 5

By John McNally


(John Belushi, 1949-1982)


Do you remember, Judy?  I hitchhiked all the way from Chicago to Champaign to see you, and you drove me to Rantoul, into the country, and then you led me by the hand to a field full of acres of pot.  Acres.  I said how it was like Dorothy walking into that field of poppies, and how totally strange was that, anyway: a little girl…a field of poppies…a witch peering into a crystal ball.  It’s fucked-up, you had said and laughed.  We stuffed eight pillowcases full because eight was all you had, and then we spent all night in your apartment, sitting on the floor and smoking from a batch you and your girlfriends had harvested the month before.  “Rantoul Rag,” we called it because it made us more dizzy than stoned.  Remember?  I must have smoked half a pillowcase worth that night trying to get a buzz on, but the buzz never came.  Instead, the room circled around me, slow at first, then faster and faster.  I felt sick.  I felt like puking my guts out.  I had to shut my eyes.  What happened next is something I don’t expect anyone to believe, but I saw my future, Judy.  Honest to Christ, I did.  It came toward me in waves, scene after scene.  A bee the size of a man.  Fat samurais.  A blind bluesman who may not have been blind at all.  There was a castle, too, not far from an ocean, and everyone was waiting for me to come outside.  Reporters, fans, even the police.  How had this happened to me, the son of Albanian immigrants, a high school jock, a boy from Wheaton, Illinois?  I had become someone important, someone other people actually waited to see, but what had I become?  Some kind of prince?  A king?  I was staying inside a castle, Judy.  I saw the future that night, and I wanted to tell you all about it, but you were lying there curled up, your head sinking deeper and deeper into one of the pot-stuffed pillows.  Your eyes were closed, your mouth was open just a bit, and you were drooling.  My face was only inches from your face, and I was staring intently at you.  And then I got worried, Judy.  I was sure you’d stopped breathing.  I couldn’t see your chest rising.  I couldn’t hear any sounds coming from your mouth.  Please, God, I thought.  Help her hold on.  It didn’t seem possible: my life without you.  Was this the price I would have to pay, sacrificing you for the spoils of my future?  Was this a choice I would have to make?  The harder my heart beat, the faster blood coursed through me.  My pulse hammered inside my ears.  Judy, I whined.  Judy, wake up.  And you know what I did next?  You really want to know?  I picked up the one-hitter and lit it.  I sucked in as hard as I could, and when I finally opened my mouth, the air around me filled with smoke, so much smoke that I couldn’t see you or the room or even my hand that held the pipe.  It was as though I existed now only inside my head, as if I were nothing more than thoughts floating through dense clouds.

The smoke is only now starting to clear, and it isn’t you who’s lying curled up and not breathing; it’s me.  I’m here on the castle grounds – Bungalow 5, to be precise – and there’s more than just blood in my veins, it’s a lethal dose of what might finally drag me kicking out of this world, away from you, and into the next.  The past is like the tip of a scraped match: bright at first but already starting to die until all that’s left is a sad little twist of smoke.  I’m so sorry, Judy.  If you were here with me, I’d tell you how sorry I really am, but no one’s here. It’s just me, babe, me and the sound of my own breath and my too-weak heart trying to keep the soul from shedding away.  Remember that night, the two of us wading through acres of pot?  Remember?  A miracle, one of us had said.  And then later at your apartment, when I didn’t think you were breathing, after I had smoked some more dope, remember how I started crying?  I was high on Rantoul Rag and crying my eyes out.  I finally stumbled up and found a pocket mirror in the bathroom and held it up to your nose, and when the glass frosted over, I knew I hadn’t lost you, I knew you were still with me.  I rested my head next to yours on the same crisp pillow and shut my eyes, and then you draped your arm over me and pulled me toward you, as if holding on for dear life.  I was a lucky man, Judy.  The luckiest.  Have I ever told you that?


John McNally is the author of three novels: After the Workshop, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card; and two story collections, Troublemakers (winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and the Nebraska Book Award) and Ghosts of Chicago (a Chicagoland Indie Bestseller and voted one of the top twenty fiction books of 2008 by readers of The Believer).  He is also the author of two nonfiction books: The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist and the forthcoming Vivid and Continuous: Essays on the Craft of Fiction, both published the University of Iowa Press.

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