It was a routine morning in the spring of my senior year at Vestal High School, 1997. I woke to the unfailing alarm of my father’s whisper-shout: “Hey bud, time to rise and shine. Up and at ‘em!” (My groggy inner retort: I guess I’ll rise, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna fucking shine.) I got ready and made my way downstairs to the kitchen, where he slurped cereal just loud enough to prickle the heightened teenage version of my irritability.
I left for school, for some reason ahead of schedule, arriving early in my 1990 Jeep Grand Wagoneer that I called Sanford. To my mother’s bewilderment, when I was a toddler, my favorite television program had not been Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers, but Sanford and Son. Apparently I would laugh and laugh at Red Foxx, and garble-sing the theme song melody throughout the house.
When I was twelve I’d discovered the raw staccato blues of John Lee Hooker. This tore my entire world and conception of time-space wide open. The seemingly effortless ease with which he modulated his vocal delivery between the conversational, observational, and confessional—over a brokedown paroxysmic guitar-and-foot-tap rhythm—became the standard of expression to which I strove. By the time I’d begun high school, I’d struck up my first band with friends, a sloppy blues crew we called Porch Dogs. We performed at school functions and graduation parties. Out of all this grew my love of soul, funk, blues, r & b, jazz, hip-hop and almost every conceivable form of music whose genesis can be traced to Black Culture, and continues today infinitely, gyroscopically.
The halls at school were empty and I had plenty of time before homeroom would begin. I made a trip to the restroom. To my surprise, there was my close friend and bandmate Pete Ruttle, with a furtive, mischievous gleam in his eye. He opened his palm toward me.
“Wanna drop acid?”
I had never tried LSD. Intellectually I knew that doing so for the first time in this setting, before a full day of school, was a terrible idea. But I hadn’t a clue how horrific a decision it would turn out to be. My experiences with altering substances were limited to that point. I’d been drunk only a handful of times. Pete had only recently introduced me to pot, prior to a rehearsal which had devolved into me doing some bastardized version of tai chi in a comical rediscovery of my limbs.
I was in a “fuck it” mood that morning. I also didn’t want Pete to endure the trip alone. Further rationalizing that, “It’s just a tiny corrugated piece of paper,” I said yes. With a fateful shrug, we turned on tuned in and dropped out. We agreed to check-in throughout the day, then went our separate ways. Neither of us had any idea what was in store.
* * *
I made it through homeroom without incident, then through first and second period without feeling anything too noticeable besides a slight upward whoosh in the gut. I wondered whether this was what I’d heard the burners around the smoking section refer to as “bunk acid.”
Then it was time for Economics class with Mrs. Hoover. My good pal Popcorn Paul and I had arranged, at the beginning of the year, to have our lockers next to each other. We always walked to Economics together, often talking about our common love, the Boston Celtics, on the way.
On this day, the athletic, 6’ 5” Popcorn was outfitted in drag: curly auburn wig, halter dress boasting her temporary prosthetic bust, a tawdry helping of mascara, eyeshadow, and blush. Then there were the high heels, and full accessories, including a glittering necklace above her plunging neckline that refracted an obtrusive fluorescent light from above. It was in this moment that the acid kicked in.
My whole perception suddenly warped in phantasmagoric dissolution. It felt like I was being clutched at the base of the skull by a fuzzy hand, psychically twisted open into another realm through some dark, scary portal. Suddenly the hallways felt unprecedentedly congested, and my torso felt weighted like someone had thrown a dental x-ray vest over my shoulders.
I’ll never forget when the reality of what day this was swiveled around to club me in the forebrain: our school had an annual fundraising custom, grotesquely called The Senior Slave Auction. Each year, to raise money for prom, members of the senior class would auction themselves off to underclassmen. Then, at a designated later date, the “slave masters” could make their seniors do outrageous things for one full day of school, often involving uncharacteristic attire and strange deeds. And this was that day.
I had always hated this day, this concept. It was supposed to be fun and light-hearted. This was 1997 in upstate New York: a grim indication of how stunted and clueless the white-dominated region was, even then. To this day I am angry about it, but ultimately unsurprised that no one organized a protest against it. For a decade that was supposed to be the new, progressive decade, the 90s were woefully complacent and passive-aggressive.
“Hi, John!” Popcorn Paul exclaimed in coquettish exaggeration, with a double eyebrow raise. I shuddered, never having seen or imagined him in this fashion.
He chuckled at my incredulity, then asked “Didja watch the C’s last night?”
Not only had I watched the game, but I’d taped it on VHS, per my obsession in those days. And yet, I couldn’t find anything worthwhile to say about their matchup with the Clippers. Fuck. Can (s)he tell I’m fucked up? How am I going to get through this class, much less the entire day? What about the remainder of my senior year? Was this going to last forever?
We made it to Economics, where people laughed at Paul and the others in the class who’d been “purchased.” Mrs. Hoover had an enormous rump, which was an ongoing topic of discussion between Popcorn and me; such were our teen fascinations at the time. It achieved bulbous perpendicularity to the rest of her body. I knew I would lose it if I made eye contact with Paul, who was wont to glance at her backside when she turned around, then look at me with performative lust. As class wore on, I could feel him looking over at me. I finally acknowledged him. He flashed me the funniest look of hyperbolic pseudo-longing while adjusting his left breast. I had to excuse myself to the restroom. I never returned to class.
* * *
Next period was Algebra with Mr. N, whose biggest virtue was class participation. Uh-oh. Luckily, dear friend Mike Esposito was in the class and on my quiz team. On this day, he led us to multiple root beer barrel hard candy rewards. When class ended I heard Mr. Nardocci call after me:
“Hey John, mind hanging back for a minute?”
Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck, I thought. A one-on-one meeting? Could he tell?
“John, I just wanted to check-in with you. I’ve noticed,” he began as a thick, ticklish runnel of sweat glided down my brow, “that your work has been slipping lately. You’ve failed to turn in several assignments in the past couple of months.” He fixed his penetrating Italian eyes on me.
“Uh… yeah I’ve just been… busy getting ready for college I guess,” was all I could muster. I employed the excuse of having to run to Photography class, which I thought would be a comparative breeze. I needed to descend two floors to the school’s basement, where the art department was.
But before I made it there in my harried ampheteminic rush, I ran almost directly into the object of all my romantic energies, Melissa. I did the most intense double-take of my life. Evidently she’d participated in the auction too, and this was even more of a shock than Popcorn Paul’s getup. She’d been bought by a group of underclass horn balls. They had her decked out in a skin-tight leather halter-top that exposed her midriff, with matching low-cut leather pants. She had heavy goth makeup on and brandished a braided bullwhip.
Melissa had been my hopeless crush since sophomore year. Her entire family were devout Baptists, deeply involved in the church. I think her father was a minister. She was viewed by others at school as an untouchable paragon of sexual puritanism. I was in such a state of disbelief that I forgot about class, and wondered whether I was experiencing an hallucination.
“Hiiiii John,” Melissa drawled with wildly uncharacteristic sultriness before cracking the long, menacing whip in my direction as though she’d been working as a dominatrix for years. I rubbed my sweat-stung eyes as hard as I could while confusing pulsations started thumping in my groin.
She couldn’t keep a straight face, almost immediately letting out her signature rippling, arpeggiated laugh. This brought me back to reality. It was her. I hadn’t totally lost my grip. Ashamed of my arousal, I awkwardly stammered out a terse greeting and dashed away in the opposite direction.
Finally arriving at Photography, I was relieved to find there was no formal instruction happening, and the class was busy processing film. At first it was soothing in there, without the harsh overhead lighting. But after the first few minutes, I felt paranoid and claustrophobic. Eavesdropping on a conversation between two classmates, I misheard one of them ask in a macabre tone, “How would you describe the insides of your eyelids?” I don’t think that is what she actually said, or maybe it was. Regardless, that string of words would be on loop in my brain for the remainder of the day.
* * *
I had the next two periods free. Once the—hallelujah—bell rang, I got out of the darkroom as fast as I could and booked down the hall to the basement exit. The fresh air was a godsend. I took giant sips of it while doubled-over.
I found Pete in the gymnasium, where a throng of students were assembled for another fundraising function. He’d been roped into spinning and selling cotton candy for Student Government! I’ll never forget the cartoonish look he gave me when he caught my eye. Drenched in sweat and wearing a makeshift headband of not-so-absorbent tissue paper, he widened his eyes and pushed his cheeks out like Dizzy Gillespie, then flapped his lips in dramatic exasperation. This brought me out of my anxiety. I let out a much-needed laugh.
“How would you characterize the insides of your eyelids, bud?” I asked.
“Oof, it’s a goblin carnival in there!” he excitably replied. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Once we got to Sanford, Pete immediately pulled a joint from out of his cigarette pack and lighted it as we motored toward Route 26. We lamented our lack of consideration in our psychedelic morning choice: how had we picked the worst possible day to take LSD, in school? And by the way, how did Pete think it was a good idea for me to try if for the first time in this setting? He apologized, but more than made up for it by making me laugh. While in Part in Government (P.I.G.) class, his teacher had caught him zoning out, and repeated the question Pete had missed. He said that his auditory cortex had registered it in slow motion: “What’s… the… matter… Pete? Didn’t… get… your… V-8… todaaaaaay??” At this, Pete had shuddered and rearranged his face.
As he was doing the voice of the teacher, and I was laughing hysterically, out of nowhere, we felt a booming crash into Sanford’s rear right door. I lost control of the wheel momentarily, narrowly avoiding the roadside ditch as I slammed on the brakes.
“What the fuck! Holy shit!” we both exclaimed. I hadn’t seen what happened, what had hit us. No other vehicle was visible. We both were shaken, but neither of us injured.
“I think that deer just committed suicide,” Pete suggested. I didn’t find this funny. All sorts of haunting philosophical notions permeated my mind. I had killed another living creature. Or, at least maimed one.
“Let’s go back and look for it,” I said, openly freaked out.
But after walking up and down the road for almost an hour, there was no sign of the deer. It must have hobbled off into the field. I wanted to cry. I hadn’t seen anything coming. I had been too busy laughing and considering the insides of my eyelids.
Then there was the damage to the car, a huge ruminant dent in its side, most of the paneling stripped off. How was I going to break this to my parents, while coming down from acid? Pete had last period free, but I was supposed to be back for AP Psychology. There was no way. I decided to go hang out in the Ruttle basement to figure out my next steps, and give the acid more time to wear off.
We played a little music and when I started to feel slightly less overwhelmed by the situation, I bade farewell to Pete and set out for home. When I got to our street, I couldn’t pull into the driveway, realizing I wasn’t ready to confront my parents about what had happened. I parked Sanford up the road a little, and walked the rest of the way.
I prayed as I turned the knob that my mother would not be in the kitchen, and that I could slip upstairs to my room. But of course, there she was, already preparing dinner.
“What’s wrong honey? You look exhausted.”
“I uh, I’m really not feeling good Mom, I need to go lie down.”
“Ohhh, I’m sorry. Long day at school?” She embraced me as only a mother can, feeling my forehead. “Yeah, you feel warm. Go lie down, I’ll call you for dinner. I love you, Tikki Tikki Tembo, my first and most honorable son.”
I wanted to cry-puke.
At last I was in my bedroom, letting all of my body weight, psychic weight, emotional weight, marred spiritual weight, and the day’s uncanny weight release into my ever-loving mattress. I wanted to sleep but it was not possible. My mind raced, closing in on itself to a degree that made me believe I would be permanently altered, trapped forever in this new gruesome terrorscape. I put on the most soothing music I could find, Mississippi John Hurt. I closed my eyes and a lurid highlight reel of the day’s events taunted me from within. Was I dying?
The words “How would you characterize the insides of your eyelids” bannered across my shut lids, until a voice like a guided missile broke through and ushered me back to a different reality. It was my mother’s voice striking me dead center, not calling me for dinner, but shouting in such a tone that I knew she’d found Sanford.
Lord, please take me now.
John C. Fitzsimmons was born on the second day of 1979 and grew up in south central New York state. He attended Ithaca College before relocating to Seattle, WA in 2000. He has contributed to The Free Witch Quarterly, From Whatnot to Where I Belong, Picaroon Poetry, and Neither Here Nor There, a book about the band The Melvins. He is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, and has served on four issues of Lunch Ticket.