The “experience” was presented in a high-rise office tower in Los Angeles, one of the new conversions since the real estate market crashed. Except for an old desk and vintage dial phone, the reception area looked like the waiting room of any modern law office. A hipster with a goatee and shabby turtleneck sweater sat at the desk. He was smoking a Kool from an ivory cigarette holder.
“Be right with you, man,” he said.
I took a seat and looked around. A poster was tacked to the wall, advertising Lenny Bruce: ONE NIGHT ONLY! The glass partition of the conference room had been painted over in flat black paint; there was a roll of canvas with brushes, oil paint, and a rusty can of turpentine tied up in a bundle.
The hipster was talking to a client. “Yes, I know. Sometimes the actors forget themselves. They’ve been out of work too long. The next installment? Don’t know. Are you on our mailing list?”
“Is this BeatWorld?” I asked.
“You’re early,” said the hipster.
“Did you get my questionnaire?”
He looked at me, raising a finger. “Gimme a minute to noddle it. I see you got credentials. Grew up in Venice Beach in the ‘70s. Your daddy was an abstract expressionist…friends with everyone. Looks like you are a member of the Lucky Sperm Club.”
“That’s right, I guess.”
“Authentic,” he said. “Not many of you left.” He snuffed out his cigarette in a heavy glass ashtray. “I’m Roger.”
“Jeb,” I said. “I came to immerse, full VR immersion.”
Roger smiled. “We don’t have immersion tanks, brother. This is the real world. Nothing virtual…nothing augmented. Not yet, at least. You didn’t fill out sexual preference. Bi?”
“Metro,” I said.
“I’ll make a note. Our guests form attachments. You know you look like your daddy. How many days will you be joining us?”
I was about to answer when a beautiful girl entered the room. She was tall with long, straight, black hair, tights, and a black leotard. “Are you Jeb?” she asked.
After sixth grade, I didn’t go to school. I was a fast reader and a fast runner, just like my dad. He said I didn’t have to go unless I really wanted to, but since I was smart I needed to read and “focus on the audio.” That was the expression Dad used for thinking. I also had to turn in book reports, which would be read by Dad and literate visitors like Burroughs and Ginsberg.
In Venice Beach, I was the first one up in the morning, and my job was to pick up the beer cans and empty wine bottles. After that, I would meet my friends and hang out at Muscle Beach. I had adult friends like Jack LaLanne, who told me he was the only man in the world who could swim a mile shackled and handcuffed, pulling thirteen boats, and finish off with one thousand push-ups. Jack used to say: “Jeb, learn to swim. If there is anything I can teach a boy, it’s learning to swim like a champion.”
One day, I was reading in my bedroom when I heard a knock. It was Sherry, who wanted to use the shower. She was a few years older than I and the youngest of the models. She was nude, but her body was painted like a harlequin, with stenciled stockings and a matching stenciled top.
“Are you Bugger’s boy?” she asked.
“I’m Jeb,” I said.
“Can I use the shower, Jeb?”
“Sure, but it doesn’t have a head. It’s just a pipe.”
“Is the water hot?”
She looked at me. “How old are you, Jeb?”
“Thirteen,” I said.
She covered herself with one hand. “Do you like Charlie Parker?”
“He’s so cool,” she said.
“Cool sax,” I said.
“Is that what you like?”
She was flirting with me. “Watch out in the shower,” I said. “The floor is slippery.”
“Are you crazy like your father?”
“Not yet, I guess.”
It was on my third trip to New Guinea that I met Walter Heady. He was an English doctor, a lanky, bearded man who looked like a nineteenth-century explorer. We traveled in Heady’s Land Rover to where the Highland Trail began and continued on foot to an old vine bridge. The bridge had badly deteriorated, but we crossed it, watching out for broken vines as we picked our way across.
On the way back, we encountered painted warriors in cassowary wigs, fighting with bows and arrows. It was a battle between quarreling clans. We rolled up the windows and watched as stray arrows tapped against the glass. Heady said we had nothing to fear because the arrows weren’t deadly unless aimed at us point-blank. Suddenly, a warrior jumped up on the hood and looked at us hard through the windshield. He drew back to shoot — then laughed like it was the best joke in the world. He was a student from the Missionary School who had come to fight for the weekend. “It is their version of American football,” Heady said offhandedly.
We continued in the Land Rover, shifting into four-wheel drive when the road was muddy or covered over by a landslide. Heady told me about his work. He said he had been treating a boy for schizophrenia in a village that was close to the highway but for some reason had had very little contact with the outside world.
“Does schizophrenia run in families?” I asked.
“Sometimes it does,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it, Jeb.”
He knew about my father. I worried because many things about me were like him. LIFE magazine ran a story and photo spread about Dad with the caption: “Bugger is an abstract artist and leader of the pack.” Dad sits bare-chested, tanned, and relaxed. He holds court, cross-legged, on a low mattress where three young models join him. There is a bottle of Chianti wrapped in a straw basket, an open can of beans, a record player with a stack of 78 RPMs, and rat poison on the kitchen counter. I remember the details vividly.
“The village where I work is just a few miles away, and there is a beautiful lake. Do you feel like one more local attraction?”
I quickly agreed. It had rained hard and cleared. The mountains were an iridescent blue, that intense color reserved for butterflies, and I felt exhilarated to be hiking again. Before long, we came to the lake. “Do you know the story?” asked Heady.
“Tell me,” I laughed.
“A crocodile, it seems, crawled all the way from the coast. It must have taken weeks. It was a big salty that lost a fight with another crocodile. Apparently, it survives by eating pigs and unfortunate children who wander by. It lives in this lake.”
“Has anyone seen it?”
“No one I’ve met.”
“Do you believe it?”
“Not really. The children love telling stories.”
Suddenly I had an idea: “How far is it to the other side of the lake?”
“A half-mile at least,” Heady said.
“Are you a good swimmer?”
From Mendi, I called Rudi Caesar, who said my artifacts were at the customs warehouse in Moresby. The story was they were ready to ship, but the National Museum wanted photographs of the collection. I called the museum director and learned Rudi hadn’t applied for an export permit. I flew back to Madang but Rudi wouldn’t see me. I went to his house several times when his car was in the driveway, but he wouldn’t answer the door. One day, I knocked and his wife, a young Chinese-Malaysian woman, answered. I told her my story, and she asked if I wanted a beer. When she came back with my drink, she had changed into a translucent silk dress and was wearing a plastic flower in her hair.
“Do you know anything about my husband?” she asked. “He’s a crook. He’s not going to ship your artifacts.” She showed me a room where the masks I purchased were still hanging on the wall.
“You’re a beautiful young man,” she said. “Let me see those hands.”
We were halfway across the lake when we started to slow down. We had both been swimming at a fast crawl with our faces in the water, making time on a single breath. We ran out of air at the same time. I asked Heady if he was scared. “A bit,” he said. The thought ran through my mind that the crocodile would only take one of us. Would it be the strongest swimmer or the weakest? I imagined how it would bite my leg and drown me with a death roll. If it happened now, one of us would be swimming alone to the other side.
Dad had a two-tone, pink-and-white 1956 Cadillac that he liked to race blindfolded on the freeway while his friends told him which way to steer. The day before my fourteenth birthday, Dad said: “Jump in. You’re driving us to Big Sur!” I drove north on the 101 and stepped on it all the way to Santa Barbara. The Cadillac was solid on the open road, but I had trouble on the hairpin turns, climbing the long grade to Big Sur. Dad gave me a swig from his flask to calm my nerves. I drove slamming the brakes and downshifting the automatic transmission. Dad laughed. “You’re going to kill us, son.”
When we got to Nepenthe, Dad grabbed my arm and hollered Stop! I pulled into the parking lot, fishtailing in the gravel. “Get out! Get out!” he shouted, pointing to the full moon. The biggest moon I had ever seen hovered above the bay, and I could hear the rumble of stones being dragged up with the tide. Suddenly, Dad remembered he needed to make a phone call.
“I’ll be right back!” He was gone for a long time and came back running so fast, he skidded in the gravel to slow down. His eyes were blazing. “We’re going to a party at Henry Miller’s house!”
Henry was home but nobody could find him. I struck up a conversation with a girl who was a few years older than I. She had soft blue eyes and tattoos of L‑O‑V‑E and B‑E‑E‑R over her knuckles. We laughed about the tattoos. I told her I came with my dad.
“I know,” she said.
“Do you know my dad?”
Dad came over and didn’t waste any time. About ten minutes later they went into the bathroom to make out. I was thirsty, so I headed to the kitchen to grab a beer. I noticed books stacked up on the kitchen counter with lots of bookmarks in each book. I was wondering what Henry Miller found so interesting when a biker walked in and told me to get him a beer.
“Where the fuck is she?” he demanded.
“My ol’ lady.”
“What does she look like?”
“She looks young. Black hair. Tattoos on her knuckles. If she’s with another dude, I’m going to kill them both.” He left out the kitchen door just as Dad and the girl were coming out of the bathroom.
I said: “Dad, that biker wants to kill you.”
Dad said: “Don’t worry, he can’t catch me. I’m too fast. Tell her how fast I am, son.”
I sat by the fire in a hut with village boys who were painted with clay and soot. Heady was asleep in the Land Rover. An older boy played on a lizard-skin drum. It was very smoky and I coughed. They offered me water and a piece of roasted pig. I ate every bite and thanked them more than once. It seemed they wanted me to be like them. One of the boys poured oil from a hollow bamboo and smeared it on my chest. Next, he powdered the oil with soot, which made me cough again. They said they were going to talk to their ancestors tonight. Who did I want to talk to?
“I want to talk to my dad. Tok Papa!” I said in pidgin.
“Tok Papa,” he repeated gravely.
One of the boys blew on a bamboo flute, first a high note, then a long, low one. “Tok Papa,” I said.
We sang and chanted. The hours went by and the fire grew low. I was about to get up to leave when I heard something outside the hut. It sounded like my dad’s voice. My heart started beating faster. I felt the hut shake; the rattan walls seemed to go soft and wavy. “Play the flute!” I shouted. “Play it! Play it!”
Through the door of the hut, a young man suddenly appeared, blood running down his arms, his T-shirt soaked with blood. The boys cheered when he turned around to show his open wounds. He had been initiated that day. His back had been mutilated by a shaman who sliced him with bamboo strips and forced charcoal under his skin. I counted sixty-four ridges on his back — twelve on each arm. The boys called it puk-puk skin.
“I think we lost him, Dad.”
“I’m no coward,” Dad said.
“Nobody says you are,” I said. “Please, Dad, don’t fight him. You’re a lover, not a fighter.”
“Who said I was going to fight him? I’m going to race him!” he laughed.
When we got to the other side of the lake, the villagers ran out, cheering. The young children touched us and jumped away like we were hot wires. Next came the older boys, who pushed the children back. Old women and girls peered out from the longhouse. “Puk-puk,” they shouted. “Puk-puk,” miming the jaws of the crocodile. “Sing-sing,” said the headman. “Sing-sing!” shouted the clan.
Heady explained they wanted to roast a pig in our honor. “We are the first to swim in the lake. We’re heroes, Jeb!”
“Why did you fight him, Dad?” I asked, speaking into the fire.
A young boy tried to repeat my words, getting the English wrong but the intonation right. Another boy tried to play the intonation on his flute.
“Why did you fight him, Dad?”
The Spirit House started to shake again. I heard a deep voice and a strange buzzing from outside the hut. As the buzzing grew louder, I closed my eyes to concentrate on the voice.
“Dad? Are you here? Dad?”
The voice laughed.
“Hello, Dad. The village boys said you need smoke for the magic to work. I’ve been burning eucalyptus and had to open the flue in this fireplace because we were getting smoked out. Did you hear my flute? It’s the one I brought back from the Sepik. Shall we have a little fireside chat? Are you listening, Dad? Everyone says I’m like you. I look like you and talk like you. I’m an artist and I’m finally selling my work. I know you’re angry. We had the most wonderful life together and then I lost you. But I tried to avenge you! In New Guinea, they hack murderers to death with machetes. Talk to me, Dad. I thought he had been dead for years. Later, I found out he was living in Oregon. I drove up and went to his house with a gun. Bumblebee was there and invited me in. We sat on the couch, and she saw how I was trembling. She said: ‘Don’t worry, it’s over. Big Ed died in a fight at a bar in Portland.’ I didn’t believe her. She left and came back with a clipping from the Oregonian. It described how he was killed in a knife fight.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I let you down. But I have something to tell you. I met Roger and a group of actors and artists who are recreating the Beat Era in their studio. We’ve been rehearsing, and now they want me to play one of the characters in a virtual-reality series. Can you guess who I am going to play? You! That’s right. They want to do our story…and I would play you! I’ll be a little older, of course, but they say I look young for my age. I will be wearing makeup. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. It will be our story with a young actor playing me as a boy. It will be our life with all of your friends: Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Huncke the Junkie! And all the crazy times! They want to recreate it all…right up to that terrible night. What do you think?”
“Any luck?” asked the long-haired girl sitting beside me in a leotard.
“He says he wants me to do it,” I said.
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash