“Wrong!” Alice flings the newspaper onto the coffee table. Leaning forward, she fixes her eyes on her husband in the easy chair opposite hers. Engrossed in the paperback copy of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom that arrived earlier from Amazon.com, his round John Lennon reading glasses give him an owlish look that she finds appealing.
Dan looks up from his book. He has never been able to predict what Alice is going to say, but after forty years of marriage, he can predict the emotional outburst he’ll endure if he ignores her. Whenever an insight, however random, pops into her head, she needs to talk. Annoying as the interruptions can be, he has to admit she makes him think.
“Listen to this. The clue was ‘Go with the flow,’ and the answer turned out to be ‘conform.’ My God! If you can’t trust the New York Times crossword to get meanings right, who can you?” Alice shakes her head. “Ken Kesey must be spinning in his grave.”
Alice recalls the time in 1971 when she and her childhood friend, Nancy, stayed up all night in their shared San Francisco State dorm room to read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, an assignment for their American history class the next day. Giddy from sleep deprivation and huge quantities of potato chips and Pepsi, they periodically suspended reading, assumed the full lotus position, and chanted the text’s mantra—Go with the flow. Go with the Flow. Go with the Flow—for as long as they could before exploding into gales of laughter.
Thus energized, Alice was able to slog through the 400-plus page book and bring an unorthodox, if bleary-eyed, perspective to the academic discussion of it. Afterward, it seemed meaningful that she had studied Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in such an altered state: an example of synchronicity, perhaps, not conformity.
“I don’t know.” Dan’s measured voice breaks her reverie. “It could mean to conform, like being carried along in a current. Anyway, what’s the big deal? It’s just a crossword clue.”
What is the big deal? It isn’t that Alice ever considered Kesey a guru. She’s not sure she’d even heard of him when she passed the acid test with psychedelic colors one balmy San Jose night in the summer of 1968, just before she and Nancy started their junior year of high school. The girls waited until Nancy’s mother was safely asleep to swallow the pills and sneak outside to run through Nancy’s quiet middle-class neighborhood of Mid-Century Modern Eichler tract homes.
People back then either loved or hated Eichlers. Passions went beyond architectural taste to affinity or skepticism toward the developer’s utopian vision: to build planned communities that afforded average families the casual, elegant lifestyle of California’s elite. Cutting-edge design—open floor plans, atria, skylights, walls of glass, unpainted wood and stone—blurred the divide between family life and nature. Flat, opaque front exteriors, with no view in or out, secluded residents from the sprawling sameness of the surrounding post-World War II tract housing that had supplanted the orchards of what is now Silicon Valley. The streets of Nancy’s Eichler tract, with names that all began with “fair,” were deserted.
As Alice and Nancy set off on their psychedelic adventure, Alice felt simultaneously serene and hyper-alert in the dreamlike surroundings. Fairlawn Avenue’s alternating patches of mown grass, driveways, and ornamental plants fronting the houses created the impression of an enclosed monastery garden. The minimalist facades, topped with flat roofs floating above a muted glow from clerestory windows, placed the imaginary abbey in a futuristic fantasy realm, say Orbit City, home of The Jetsons. Unlike simulations of LSD trips Alice had seen, the landscape didn’t melt, or phantoms appear. The effect was much subtler: a heightened awareness that stripped away the layers of experience that normally buffered and ordered her perceptions, restoring the immediacy of her earliest sensory memories.
Still tripping after midnight, Alice crossed a side lawn to a narrow flower bed bordering a corner house. As she stooped to inspect a moonlit fuchsia blossom, an incandescent globe drew her gaze to one of the characteristic Eichler floor-to-ceiling windows. Behind the sheer curtain inside, she spotted a man. He was dressed in beige polyester slacks, a short-sleeved undershirt, and was old enough to be her father. She might not have noticed him at all but for his motion. Swaying to and fro, he shifted smoothly from one bare foot to the other, his slim silhouette like a winter poplar buffeted in the wind of the electric fan beside him. As he danced, beads of perspiration on his receding hairline sparkled under the ceiling light. A white handkerchief, the kind men used to tuck in the breast pockets of their gray flannel suits, rippled from his hand.
Entranced by the incongruity of the dancer and the dance, Alice edged so close that her cheek almost touched the window glass. Suddenly sensing the intrusion, the man spun and lunged toward her. Alice would never forget how she felt as she bolted—a wild filly galloping away with her mane of brown hair flowing behind.
The girls spent the rest of the trip in Nancy’s bedroom listening to Quicksilver Messenger’s “Dino’s Song” over and over, manually replacing the needle at the start of the LP track every three minutes. Well, I don’t ever want to spoil your party, babe, or tell you where to go or what to do. The joy of the music engulfed Alice. Oh no! All I ever wanted to do was know you, maybe hope you could know me too. The lyrics seem sophomoric now, but at the time the whole episode was exhilarating, like an E ticket at Disneyland.
Even so, Alice has always scoffed at alpha males like Kesey, Timothy Leary, and later, Steve Jobs, when she heard them wax on about the transcendental nature of their acid trips. She suspects she started out light-years ahead of them in the realm of spirituality. Just being a woman brings an intuitive knowledge of the sacred feminine. It comes with the hardware. Anyway, she never needed hallucinogens to raise her consciousness. Still, it rankles that an iconic catchphrase from her youth, a generational tenet that brings up vivid memories she cherishes, has been subverted.
“Want to know what the big deal is, dear?” Using her best middle school teacher’s intonation, Alice projects her voice at Dan. “Language and metaphor are important. They shape how we approach the world. ‘Go with the flow’ is about relishing life wherever it leads, about being present, taking risks, letting go, and having fun. It was never about conformity. Never.” She takes a breath as tears well in her deep hazel eyes.
“Please tell me you’re not going to cry.” Dan struggles to quash the displeasure in his voice. “It’s a crossword puzzle clue, for pity’s sake.” Though he doesn’t look away, Alice sees him finger the glossy cover of the economics classic on his lap, as if it were in Braille, and he might be able to read it that way.
“Never mind. You’re right.” Alice tries to sound breezy, but the agitation in her fingers as she rakes them through her ropy salt-and-pepper hair tugs at Dan.
“Geez, Alice, get a grip. We’re so lucky.” He reaches over and touches her hand. “What could be better than finally having the time to do what you want?” Dan’s eyes stray back to the volume in his lap.
“Yeah, right, ‘just go with the flow,’” Alice mumbles, but Dan, already back in his inner world, does not hear.
Alice stands still, imperceptibly flexing her core, as she watches her 17-year-old cat arrange herself on Dan's lap. The white noise of Zenia's purr, clearly audible from across the room, soothes her. She has to hand it to the cat. Though Zenia no longer dares the acrobatics of youth—scaling the kitchen cabinet to feast on cobwebs or vaulting across the dining table to snatch a chicken wing mid-air from Alice’s hand—she still has a great motor. Seemingly unconcerned with past or future and attended by the rhythmic strokes of Dan's hand, Zenia wears the expression of a sated lioness.
Pivoting away, Alice opens the wood-framed glass door and steps out onto the redwood deck. Cantilevered to the back of the house over the steep hillside, it provides a bird's‑eye view of the wooded canyon, with a broad vista of the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate. The scent of bay laurel wafts up Alice’s nose as she scans the horizon. On a clear day, she can see the Farallon Islands twenty-eight miles into the Pacific, but today the spires of the city stand in charcoal gray relief against a hazy fogbank low on the coast. To the north, the sleeping lady of Mount Tamalpais stretches out, with the silhouetted line of eucalyptus atop the canyon wall crocheting an afghan tossed across her pillow. The stillness of the air bodes a warm evening.
Distracted by a cacophony of high-pitched chirping, Alice shifts her gaze to the mixed flock of chickadees, juncos, and titmice in the live oak abutting the house. The little birds flurry from perch to perch, unheeded by a squirrel that has suspended itself from the eaves of her neighbor’s house onto a hanging birdfeeder and is wolfing down their seed. Oblivious to their plight, a lone hummingbird piccolos its claim to the red flowers of a potted succulent, then zooms in to sip the nectar.
Alice recalls a day thirty-five years ago when she and Dan rescued a hummingbird that had somehow slipped through a slender opening in the window at the back of the garage. Apparently exhausted, it allowed Dan to scoop it up in his cupped hands while Alice pushed back the slider for its release. It had lain so still, Dan feared they were too late. But when he extended his arms through the window, the .2-ounce bird rose from his open palms and hovered face-to-face with him for several seconds before darting away.
The next spring, on the first day warm enough to sit on the deck and celebrate the afternoon sun over a glass of chilled white wine, a new ritual began. As Alice clinked her glass against Dan's, she was startled by a hummingbird shooting straight up fifty feet, then just as quickly descending in a kamikaze dive toward Dan. Before she could react, the bird swung slightly forward and stopped short, hanging upright about two feet above Dan's head. With its gorget and crown shimmering crimson, the delicate creature belted out a coloratura tribute that, in fifteen seconds, wholly refuted the catechism Alice had memorized as a child on the unique divinity of the human soul.
Alice and Dan shared their belief that the displaying hummingbird was the same one they had rescued weeks before. A repeat performance the following spring reinforced their conviction. When the annual rite over Dan's head went on for years, even as Dan and Alice’s son crawled, toddled, and ran on the deck, they began to entertain the possibility that the original bird had passed down the legend of the rescue to its progeny, who carried on the tradition.
Do all legends die? Alice stares back through the glass at Dan reading his book. She opens the door to let Zenia out. They sit for a spell, woman and cat, alone in the company of the hummingbird feeding at the blossoms several feet away.
Alice turns on the dishwasher, then pulls the bottle of pinot grigio from the refrigerator and pours herself a second glass. As the slosh of the rinse cycle kicks in, she drags her dining chair out of the direct rays of the late summer sun setting into the Pacific and sits down. The gusts of air in her face from the rotating electric floor fan feel good, but only temporarily assuage the ennui that has been descending on her all day. The staccato pulse of Dan’s electric water flosser beckons her back to the rumination that has occupied her since morning.
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. She begins the old prayer in her head, a new trick she’s found to silence her morbid thoughts. Actually, not a prayer, but a mantra, her secret Hari Krishna. But she is hot and tired.
Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, she hesitates. Oh, JESUS. Her mind flips to Gabe, her only son. She devoted years to him, guiding him to be strong, independent, kind, and curious. She always told herself that who he became was secondary. Just being a mother would be worth it to her. She only wanted for her son to find himself. At 28, he did, in New Zealand. The year after he moved, he married a New Zealander. They’ve built a happy life together, and now they have a child. Alice has friends with lost children in their thirties who still live at home. She chastises herself. She should be grateful.
Still, their monthly Skype calls depress her. As her granddaughter races about the room, Gabe shouts, “Show Nana and Papa how you can jump off the couch.”
“Good job!” they all cry when the cherubic little girl on the screen lands with a thump. While she scrambles back onto the couch to take another leap, Alice makes futile attempts at adult conversation until, finally, naptime is announced. Then they all say good-bye, blowing extravagant kisses across the world. It is a far cry from how Alice imagined herself as a grandmother, reading Gabe’s carefully preserved classic children’s books to a loving child curled in her lap. She doesn’t worry about the girl, but she feels adrift.
Holy Mary, mother of . . . enough—the prayer or mantra is hopeless. She casts her eyes outside. The sun has dropped below the horizon, but it’s still light enough to catch a raven dance.
Alice doesn’t remember ever seeing a raven before the “unkindness” (the collective noun for a flock) arrived in the canyon a few years back. Within hours, guttural cries filled the sky as the mythical birds of bad omen taunted and chased one another with the oblivious exuberance of adolescents just let out of school. In the afternoons, dozens gathered in the western view. Swirling in a crowd, they took turns one-upping and showing off their daredevil aerobatics—somersaults, dives, and tumbles, occasionally flying upside down. A Google search informed Alice that, while ravens are the most intelligent of birds and mate for life, they do so only after spending two to four years in the avian equivalent of a nomadic youth gang. Alice was relieved when, three weeks later, they flew away.
The second raven-coming was less intrusive. A kinder unkindness, Alice observed. When the juveniles cleared out, several mated pairs stayed on to homestead the canyon. Since then, Alice and Dan watch the birds with fascination and increasing admiration, especially for their joyous dance. Though Alice knows that this evening, stinking hot and months past nesting season, is not the best venue, she hopes that even a pas de deux by an elderly raven couple might lift her spirits.
“What’s up?” Dan squints through the window.
“I thought I saw some ravens dancing. Just a pair. But it’s too late now, I guess . . . too dark.”
“Oh, well. Next time. Hey, how about some TV? I found a new series. It’s called Fortitude, about some murders in a remote Arctic town. Rotten Tomatoes gave it 87%. It’s in English. No subtitles. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe just some music.”
“Alright. So, what would you like to hear?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You choose.”
Dan rolls his eyes, then fiddles with his smartphone to turn on Spotify.
As the haunting melody of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” unwinds, Alice shuts her eyes and begins to sway. Slowly, her habitual stiffness gives way to fluid motion. One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small. Alice mouths the familiar lyrics and loses herself in a pseudo-Hindu god hippie freestyle dance from her youth. With her Eileen Fisher handkerchief linen tunic billowing in the breeze from the fan, she imagines herself on the grassy field of the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds where she danced to the Airplane 50 years ago.
A brush against her arm brings Alice to. She opens her eyes to face Dan, who, to her surprise, is dancing too. For several verses they ebb and flow, not touching, but playing off one another’s cues. She spins away and closes her eyes until she feels Dan sweep past her. They dance together again. It reminds Alice of their first hike up the switchback trail to the top of Yosemite Falls: the heat, Dan’s push to keep on, the view and cool mist at the top.
Alice and Dan collapse into their respective easy chairs. “Whew! So, what do you want to do now?” Dan inquires. “More music?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Alice laughs. “Fortitude. You’ve put me in the mood for some Arctic murders.”
Alice glances over at Zenia, snoring in the cat bed in the corner. Fortitude, she thinks. That’s just what I need. Suddenly happy, she takes a deep breath.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The places, animal behaviors, songs, books, and TV series described in this story are real. The characters and events are fictional.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jane Bell Goldstein has held a variety jobs during her life: salesperson, tour guide, accountant, middle school teacher, and half a dozen positions during her 19 years with the Internal Revenue Service, all of which might fall under the general description of spirit guide to taxpayers through the fathomless bureaucracy. Since her retirement in 2010, she has pursued interests in writing, bird-watching, genealogy, history and most recently website design, as chief architect of the Vistas & Byways website. Jane is a graduate of San Francisco State University (BA History, 1974). She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren. She lives with her husband, Mark, in the Oakland hills.