My favorite album of all time is Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. It’s very title fascinated me even before I’d heard it, the same way that the titles The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind or The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadeth fascinated me before I’d actually read them — if I couldn’t understand the title how heavy must the actual thing be? They all proved to be heavy enough, almost too heavy for me to carry. I understand the titles now though. If I’ve ever had any astral weeks of my own they started that day, back then in September, 1975.
Even though it was the same dumb convocation ceremony we’d all been to multiple times, the administration in its wisdom had designated it as a required assembly, meaning it had to do with athletics or some other form of social coercion and couldn’t be missed, as opposed to the designated not required assembly, usually drama, music or some form of the arts, which anybody could cut. Everyone in the school was supposed to be crowd into the auditorium, but since there wasn’t time to take attendance, and not enough room anyway, there was no way they could prove you weren’t there — maybe you were under a bench or up in the projection booth. They only way they could bust you is if they caught you somewhere else.
Rather predictably, the gym teachers, lacking the conversational skills, perhaps, to feel comfortable in the apparently spirited dialogue cum flirtation going on among the other teachers up on the stage, would bug out to ride herd and patrol the grounds. I think that like us they just wanted to be outside too, and Mr. Roccardo showed rare sympathy that day — I swear he had to have seen us as we sat goggle eyed in the car, choking down our smoke, trying not to laugh, Heather, of course, already starting to giggle. But for once they were no consequences for our little illicit pleasures, not even one of those delayed reaction retributions from the Dean.
It all seemed to promise a better Pittsburgh Prep than I’d known before — since school hadn’t been in session very long things still managed to seem exciting, full of possibilities. Here I was in a car of what I thought were the coolest kids in the school smoking a doob and listening to Derek and the Dominoes on WDVE. It seemed that this, my senior year, I was going to be firmly attached to Miller’s exotic little patch of the stoner garden. Miller had the distinction of now being the only thing cooler then a senior — a fifth year senior, having so spectacularly blown his finals in a welter of fine acid last spring that they’d had no choice but to repeat him at the last minute. The other fifth year seniors were a breed apart, athletic ringers, graduated athletes from various public schools, still trying to get the grades for college.
We had the windows cracked for ventilation, but it was already too cold to open them any farther without starting the engine and blasting the heater. The radio, on the other hand, could be played without even having the keys to the car, which, along with the fact that he usually left it unlocked, was the reason we had chosen to gather here in Jerry Page’s VW squareback even though Jerry wasn’t presently at hand.
There was that first numb silence after all the hubbub of getting high. With the usual ceremony the first joint had gone around, lit by Heather with the big Zippo as it dangled from Miller’s lips, then back to her, then Tommy, then George then me, as, at the same time Miller had Heather light another one and passed it in a different direction, both joints, naturally, arriving to me at the same time to much stoned merriment.
Now the laughter had died down, turned ironic even with George’s flat ha ha, and we were all just sitting there looking out the window, the head rush over, the dreamy lethargy begun.
"And where is Miss Nancy, Killer? We’re going to have to have to put somebody in the trunk if she shows up…" said Tommy, hunched over, hands under his armpits, the collar of his blazer up.
"There won’t be any weed left either with some guys hogging two joints." Heather said, and I delicately scratched my nose with my middle finger.
"Don’t freak about Nancy," Miller said dismissively. So it was true — the two of them were breaking up. as Miller. Nancy had lasted longer than any of his many other girlfriends, but now she’s was evidently history too. This summer there had been rumors of him for the first time cheating on her, enough of them to have some basis in truth. But I also knew that Nancy was deeply involved in Miller’s little businesses, his "importing" of rare reptiles and, increasingly, drugs. She’d streamlined the operation, made it actually businesslike, and brought in Tommy to help deal — how was that going to change? "She’s the one that’s freaking’. She’s all into training and shit like that now. She’s probably up there on that stage giving a speech about how she’s gonna keek a touchdown at the Olympics. With her cunt."
"Shut up," said Heather.
"Now, why do I see that girl every time I’m high?" George said.
"Could it be because you’re always high?"
I looked over and there was Virginia, walking at the edge of the lot, her head down. George had once written a cryptic prose poem about seeing Virginia lean out of all the windows of the library at the same time while he was on an acid trip.
"Well, lookee thar," Miller said.
"Where the hell is she going?" Heather said, squinting as she drew on the joint.
"I’m telling you, Clueless, man." Millers cop style sunglasses glinted in front of me as he turned around in his seat. "You ought to jump on that Virginia. She’s liberated now."
"Yeah, right, Killer," I said, but as usual he’d put his finger on what I’d really wanted. Brad had graduated and, with his usual imagination, chosen to go to Penn State College in State College, PA, generally accepted as too far away for fidelity. Virginia had broken up with him in the same place they’d gotten together, at the shore in South Jersey, where a lot of Pittsburgians, including the O’Sheas, the Bellmers and the Millers went to get to the ocean for the summer. She’s made veiled references to it in the few letters she’d sent that summer, part of her "thinking alot" and "trying to be independent." I wish now that when I’d replied so pathetically promptly I’d asked her what she was thinking about, but, as usual I was too busy going on about what I was thinking about.
When she came back in September, tan as an Indian, there seemed to be a new looseness about her. She refuse to do the expected and select an alpha male and rejoin the jock pack, but rather became more the Virginia I knew in private, spontaneous, cynical and sharp. She even seemed to be coming over a bit onto the side of the subversive, cutting this assembly for instance, something I’d never known her to do before, especially since her father was one of the teachers up on the stage.
We all waited for Miller to tap on the horn or bellow some obnoxiously explicit suggestion, as he would for any other female on the planet (including — no — especially his mother), but he just watched her, puffing on the joint he’d snatched from me, continuing sotto voice. "I’m serious, Chuck, that there’s prime."
I tried to at least look relaxed, but I knew I couldn’t. For the first time ever I felt the dope take over, to grab an idea, an image, and take over. My nerves felt as tightly stretched as cat gut on a violin, making them seem to be, as Coleridge said, a fitter instrument for the expression of my immortal soul. Where was Virginia going, I wondered, as she stepped through the opening in the bushes, starting slightly as the morning’s rain shook off the branches.
"Come on, come on down Sweet Virginia," Keith crooned. "Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes."
"Oh, will you shut up," Heather said taking the joint from Miller. "Fucking Miss Virginia jock lover. You’ve got to be high."
"Got to be," Miller said.
"Got to be," George repeated.
Then there was that diesel throb and the sympathetic clatter of our windows as the buses from the junior school rumbled up the hill. I watched the kids get off at the top, emerging hand in hand, sing songing some rhyme I only half remembered , so curious and hopeful.
"Isn’t it funny," I said. "I mean all these innocent little children coming home from school and we’re sitting here getting fucked up and being rude and shit."
"Hilarious," George said.
" We were them, man, and some day, like tomorrow, they’ll be us."
"They be us," Tommy said, taking a long drink of the plastic quart of Dr. Pepper we’d found in the car.
"Gross, Tommy," Heather said, trying to pull back his arm. "Who knows what Jerry Page has in his car! I mean he might piss in there or something."
"He did?" George took it instead. "Goody!"
The slapstick only made me feel it more, the dopey guilt and paranoia, the suffocating contraction from the back of the bus to this close, smoky car, and I felt like throwing up.
"Man, I got to get some fucking air." For maximum effect I tried to say man and fucking at least once in every sentence while I was around the Millers. "See you guys later."
George: "Got to."
Tommy: "Got to be."
Heather (raising her fist): "Fucking air, man."
Miller: "Tell her the Killer says hello."
Despite its reputation as an industrial city you can get into some deep woods around Pittsburgh. There are still a few patches of the old forest, the one that’s been around since before the Indians, back when a squirrel could walk across the state without ever touching the ground. In places like Frick Park, where a bunch of us once got lost at the chess club picnic, or here in Fox Chapel, next to the Golf Course and Field Club, it was thick enough that you could walk for an hour before suddenly coming out onto a busy city street or railroad track and finely cleared gradient clear cut through the middle of it.
"Walking the tracks" was popular campus euphemism for all kinds of proscribed behaviors, usually involving following them until you were too wasted to walk any more and then sitting on them and getting wasted some more — sometimes without the wasting and sometimes without the walking. There was even a well worn mattress and sleeping bags that could be dragged out at romantic moments.
There was actually a train for the tracks, one a day at 5:07 AM, but despite all the talk of laying our heads on the railroad tracks and easing our worried minds, it had never run into anything worse than a beer can. The only real victim of walking the tracks was a fifth year senior who’d chugged too much peppermint schnapps and passed out way down the line, and he’d only lost a couple of fingers to frostbite. He became a punter.
George was always paranoid about the train, certain it was rushing up behind us, even at midnight, but the one late night it did appear, slow and bright, he’d climbed onto the side and disappeared for a couple of days into adventures he would only darkly hint about.
But I wasn’t tracking the railroad that day. I knew where Virginia must be, and I even knew myself to be following her, but still I took my time, crossing the gradient and taking my usual route along what we called the deerpath, up where the cross-country skiers liked to go. Even before I’d become a stoner I’d liked walking in these woods, like the rare chance to be alone, to be surrounded by living things I didn’t think were staring at me. I didn’t have to search for her — I knew if she’d gone this way I’d see her — there was no other way down from the old cemetery.
It had rained a little that morning, but the sun was coming down hard now, a vaporous haze rising from the damp vegetation as the fat squirrels raced beneath, a little desperation to their activities — there were already a few leaves on the ground.
The path snaked in and out of open meadows, past the beat up old school bench — had she seen the CL+VB I’d painstakingly excavated one wasted night? — and I wandered up, stopping to look at the prismatic beads of rain on the spider web or the odd collection of butts and bottle caps in the mud by the bench, my nerves stretching again, hypersensitive with dope and the knowledge that I’d meet Virginia soon.
I came out of the woods, into one of the clearings at the foot of the hill, and half blinded by the sudden sunlight, had almost run into her. She’d been kneeling, and as she stood quickly the lapfull of flowers she’d picked fell to her feet. She looked at me and smiled, then bent again, lifting the long hem of her dark blue jumper, making a little pouch for the flowers.
"Sorry, I didn’t see you for a second there. I didn’t mean to –" What were all these flowers; violets, anemones, jack-in-the pulpits, sweet williams, trilliums, mountain laurel. "Here let me help you. I didn’t mean to scare you or anything." I got down to her level as she straightened, still holding the hem, not at all self conscious about showing a long stretch of her leg, still tan from the shore.
"I wasn’t scared." She warded my fistful of crumpled flowers away. "Thanks, but don’t. These are more than enough. I got a little…" I dropped everything but a spray of Queen Anne’s lace and turned to her. "I just got a little carried away."
"No, no, they’re fantastic." The surprise of meeting her like that had prevented me from becoming self-conscious until that very moment, finally realizing I was standing in front of her, tongue tied, still more than a little bit stoned. "I, uh, thought I’d, that you’d be walking up here. I-uh-we were listening to the radio, you know, in Jerry Page’s 411, and…"
"Were you?" She seemed a little dazed too, with her lap full of flowers, still smiling.
"Do you want me…" She turned now, and I saw her brown hair, lightened by the sun as her skin had been darkened., loosely tied with a multicolored ribbon at her neck. "Would you mind some company?"
"Company?" She stopped to let me in front of her. "You know the way?"
"Oh, sure, hell yes." We were close now, a faint fork in the deer path led to a hole in the stone wall at the south corner of the old cemetery. "I’ve been up there lots of times."
She followed, ducking through the branches, steadying herself on my hand as she balanced on the fence, still cradling the flowers. "You have?"
"Yeah, it’s a pretty cool place to hang out." We stood at the weedy edge, looking down the hill at the headstones.
I realized I’d said something stupid, and an unusual sense of decorum let me stay behind as she went to the grave. I knew where that was too, had visited it occasionally myself, thinking, as Virginia was now, of the woman who had been, then, inevitably, of her daughter as she picked out flowers from her jumper, tendrils of her loosely tied hair blowing up beside her face, of the woman she was going to be, the woman she was already becoming. When she came back she was crying and I hugged her and eventually we kissed.
That was the beginning of my Astral Weeks. We all should have a moment — like Terry Bradshaw wishing he was back in the superbowl, behind in the fourth quarter, eighty yards to go, his boys around him and all his time outs left — should at least know the moment in the past that we’d choose to return to if we got the chance, and for me, that was it. I have to say, however, that Virginia wouldn’t remember it at all like that, and wouldn’t revisit those weeks if she could. We went out for almost a month, even made love a few times, once in the back of that 411 (she’d admit that, but not that she enjoyed it). It all ended, of course, at Miller’s Halloween party and the accident, after which Miller and Virginia went public with their relationship.
They didn’t end up having too many weeks themselves either — the cave-in changed the direction of everything. Miller was finally irrevocably thrown out of school, despite his big buck, alumni parent. He didn’t care, he was already making more than the headmaster and told him so as they parted. He started out in an apartment in Shady Side, but then more or less moved to LA, although he was still a fairly frequent visitor to his father’s house, where Heather and Tommy continued a semi-subdued stoner salon.
Virginia ended any association with them or anything else unconventional (except, at her father’s urging ERINYS), acquiring the escort services of Recks, Brad’s replacement on the line. They never even pretended to be more than convenient — she’d still see Brad on vacation and even went with him to the prom. Maybe Virginia broke Reck’s heart too — he’s never married and is said to be no stranger to Pittsburgh’s handful of gay bars, but despite all the fag comments he used to make back then, I think his die was already cast.
I recovered from the car wreck while everyone paid attention to the cave -in. The whole thing drew me a little away from the Stoners, half because what had happened at the cave and half because they hadn’t asked me to be a part of it. For a while the discovery that I really didn’t want to die made me unusually optimistic and a little bit easier to live with. I was momentarily able to appreciate things as they were, to forget about our Astral Weeks, and resume a barbed friendship with her. I even acquired the first in a series of undistinguished (if not indistinguishable) girl friend, united by our common desire to be going out with someone else.
It was hubris — I brought my ticket from prom committee member Virginia as a demonstration of my new reasonableness. Of course I didn’t prove anything to her — I’d forgotten that she really wasn’t that interested in me, but it made me suddenly aware that we were going to graduate and very possibly I might never see her again. I knew then that I could never let that happen, hastening, no doubt, the inevitability that it would.