Excerpts from David Myles Robinson’s new novel Words Kill

            I’d done acid a couple of times since moving north, and both times had been fairly innocuous in terms of the trip. The first time had been with James and another friend of his from the dorm in Berkeley. We’d sat around, listened to the Doors and Big Brother and the Holding Company and, once we knew we were on the back end of the trip, ventured out onto Telegraph Avenue to find food.

            The second time was at a John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers concert at the Fillmore. I fell in love with the blues harp that night. I’d gone with Grease and Jocko, but I met a girl wearing a Mexican peasant blouse over a suede miniskirt and calf-high leather boots, who was clearly digging the music as much as I was. The smell of patchouli oil wafted from her lithe body.

I had gotten laid for the first time three weeks after moving to San Francisco. A girl I’d known in high school was on her way to a hippie commune in Oregon and asked if she could crash at my place for the night. I don’t remember how she’d found me or even thought of me. I’d noticed her in school, but she ran with a different crowd and it had never occurred to me to ask her out. But that night in the Haight, she told me she’d thought I was cool because I hung out with “the Black kids.” We smoked some dope with Tara and Grease and, when it was time for bed, she undressed and climbed into my bed without saying anything. The sex seemed mechanical to me, but then, what did I know? I came fast, probably too fast, but she didn’t seem to mind. I don’t think she had an orgasm. She probably just wanted a place to crash.

The chick I’d picked up at the Fillmore suggested going to her place, which was close by, and although we’d hardly said a word to each other, we were undressed and in bed within moments of entering her apartment. She announced that she preferred to be on top. I shrugged my assent. So she climbed over me and lowered herself onto me and then, as I later described it to James, “went absolutely fucking wild.” It was like a bucking bronco ride. Her frenetic pace and her intermittent yelps of pleasure had me so distracted I lasted far longer than I thought I would, given my limited experience. But it was obviously memorable; ever since that night, whenever I smelled patchouli oil, I thought of that wild ride.

            As was not uncommon in those days, our night of stoned sex was the one and only time we ever saw each other.

            Tara wasn’t home when I got home from work the next day. I was ready to do some tripping. There was a note on the dining table, next to the two tabs of acid: “Be back soon. Start without me if you want.”

            My jeans were dirty from the bike shop, so I went to my room and changed into white Navy surplus bell bottoms. I replaced my work shirt with a sweater I’d bought at a thrift shop. I pulled my brown hair into a ponytail and secured it with a rubber band. Then I went back into the living room and slipped the acid tabs into my side pocket. I’d just tossed Tara’s note into the trash when there was a knock at the door. The door swung open before I could answer it.

            A girl who looked to be nineteen or twenty stuck her head in. “Can I come in?”

            I nodded, then waved her in. “Sure. What’s happening?”

            She walked into the apartment and closed the door behind her. She was about five-foot-seven with a slim build and medium-length brown hair. Pretty, but not beautiful. Her eyes were dark green. She was wearing men’s army surplus khaki pants and a tight-fitting white T-shirt, which showed off her braless breasts. She looked around.

            “You the only one here?” she asked. Her voice was husky, sexy.

            “Yeah. Why? You looking for someone?”

            There was a slight shift in her body, as if she allowed herself to relax. She looked at me for the first time. “I’m Gloria, your neighbor. Sorry to barge in like this, but my old man and I are having a fight, and I need to get out of the apartment before he does something stupid.” She looked around again. “Mind if I crash here for a while until things calm down?”

            I shrugged. “Help yourself. I’m Russ. I think there’s a beer or two in the fridge.” I motioned with my head toward the TV. “The TV works, but you may have to mess with the rabbit ears a bit to get a clear picture. I’m about to head out.”

            Gloria lowered herself onto the couch. “There’s three of you living here, right?”

            “Four,” I said, slipping on my coat. “I’m heading out to meet Tara. The other two are guys, Grease and Jocko.”

            Gloria cocked her head and smiled for the first time. She was prettier when she smiled. She had a beauty mark on her left chin. “Grease and Jocko?”

            “Don’t ask,” I said with a laugh. “They’re nice enough guys. Stay as long as you like.”

            I heard Gloria thank me as I walked out of the apartment and I raised my hand in acknowledgement. Once in the hall, after closing the door to the apartment, I pulled one of the tabs of acid out of my pocket and put it on my tongue. I paused at the door to Gloria’s apartment, but heard nothing. Then I continued downstairs.

            I walked out of the building and crossed the street to the sunny side when four cop cars screeched to a stop in front of my building. They were immediately followed by two unmarked cars. I stopped walking and stared back at the building and wondered what the hell was going down. A couple of city cops began setting up perimeter blockades. Four men emerged from the unmarked cars. All four had windbreaker style jackets with FBI stenciled in yellow on the back.

            A crowd was gathering, and it was up to the SFPD cops to keep people under control and away from the building.

            “The fuck’s going on?” I turned my head to see Scatman standing beside me.

            “Fuck if I know,” I said.

            Moments later, the FBI, followed by a SWAT team, stormed the building, guns drawn. I heard muffled yelling and then a large bang, like a concussion grenade. Shots were fired. I couldn’t tell where in the building the action was happening.

            It was over as quickly as it had started. Things went quiet. Walkie-talkies squawked. The cops on the street visibly relaxed. I hadn’t noticed the two ambulances parked on Haight, but now I watched as men in white coats wheeled three stretchers into the building.

            A couple of neighbors tried to ask the cops what was going on, but they were brusquely rebuffed. I began to feel the effects of the acid. The lights of the emergency vehicles had become unreasonably entertaining. I jumped when I felt a hand on my arm. It was Tara.

            “Shit, man, you’re fucking tripping already?” she said. “This has got to be weird. You know what the fuck’s going on?”

            I grinned. “You said to start. And no, I don’t know what’s going on. We must have been living next to some criminals or something.” I handed her the remaining tab of acid. “Let’s head to the park. This shit’s getting too trippy for me.”

            We walked the length of Haight, nodding to acquaintances, rebuffing attempts to sell us drugs. I noticed that people I didn’t know were smiling and nodding at me.

            “Why are all these people smiling at me?” I asked Tara.

            “Because you’ve got a stupid shit-eating grin on your face,” she said. “They think you’re smiling at them.”

            “Nice people,” I said.

            “Hey, man, wanna buy some Michoacán?” A guy with long, greasy hair, wearing a grimy raincoat and blue jeans, stuck his face in front of mine. He sounded like Cheech. Or, I wondered, was it Chong? I laughed aloud, and the guy’s face transformed into an ugly sneer. I backed away and Tara pulled at my coat sleeve.

            I began singing the Doors’ lyrics, “People are strange, when you’re a stranger. People look ugly when you’re alone.”

            Tara glanced back at the drug dealer and pulled at me again. “Well, you’re not alone, cocksucker. C’mon.”

            I waved at my boss, Marcel, who was standing on the sidewalk in front of his shop on Stanton. He waved back. I leaned into Tara and said in my best French accent, “Did you know that ze Motobecane is ze best bike in ze world?”

            Tara laughed. “With that fucking accent, I can’t tell if you’re trying to sell me a fucking bike or coming on to me.”

            I continued to hear sirens. I thought maybe they were the ambulances leaving from our building, heading to UCSF Medical Center.

            Perhaps reading my thoughts, Tara said, “Jocko and Grease weren’t home when the motherfucking pigs came, were they?”

            We crossed into the relative calm of Golden Gate Park. I shook my head. “Nah. But some chick name Gloria came over from next door just before I left. She said her old man was pissed, and she wanted to hide out in our place for a while. I said sure.”

            “So, you just left this fucking stranger in our apartment?”

            “Well, yeah,” I shrugged. “What, you afraid she’ll steal your jewelry?” I thought what I’d said was hilarious and began laughing.

            Tara stopped walking. I stopped laughing. I had taken a few steps before I realized she wasn’t beside me anymore. I turned back. She was looking up into the sky, which was a pastel blue, dotted with fast-moving clouds.

            “You hear that?” she asked.

            I cocked my head. The trees around me seemed to be spinning on their axes. “What?” I heard only the cars behind me on Stanton.

            Tara said nothing for a moment. Then, just as she was about to speak, I heard a helicopter. The sound of its rotors grew loud as it swooped down low and followed Haight Street up from where we’d come. I flashed on a mental image of television coverage of the Vietnam War. Choppers, always choppers. Then I flashed on the body bags being wheeled out of our apartment building. One of them suddenly unzipped from the inside and the head of Mark Maverick popped out. There was a hole where his left eye had been, and he had a grotesque grin on his face.

            I cried out, but Tara pulled me into a hug and the image disappeared. The helicopter sounds faded away. When she saw I was all right, Tara released me from her hug and I turned away, embarrassed. We walked on, saying nothing.

            We came to a small glen where a group of five men, three Blacks and two whites, were playing bongos and other drums. About a dozen hippies were twirling and dancing to the beat, which was intensely beautiful. Tara started dancing with the others. I stood and stared. I felt each beat deep in my body. It was primal and, in an odd way, cleansing, as if each drumbeat were overpowering all the bad shit within me—fear, horror, guilt—shit I knew was there but wasn’t ready to deal with. I smiled a huge smile and looked up at the sky and the fast-moving clouds and let myself sway to the primitive beat.

            Sometime later—it could have been seconds, it could have been minutes—Tara had her arm locked in mine and we were walking again, moving further into the park.

            “You don’t think that chick might have been a part of whoever the cops were looking for, do you?” I asked after a while.

            “Why would you think that? Did she look like a fucking terrorist or something?” Tara asked.

            I shook my head. “No. No reason. She seemed nice. I’d just never seen her before, and it seems kind of coincidental that she came to our pad just before the raid.”

            A couple of young guys who were obviously impervious to the cold played Frisbee in a grassy area near the walking path. They were both shirtless. Their long hair flew wildly as they ran for each catch. We stopped and watched them for a few minutes. They were good. There were catches between the legs, throws from around the back, and one great maneuver when one guy dove for the Frisbee and did a neat tuck and roll when he hit the ground.

            “Well,” Tara said. “I hope the fuckers didn’t fuck up our apartment looking for that chick.”

Excerpt two:

            The night of October 16, 1968, was like so many other nights. Until it wasn’t.

Mark came home from the studio complaining that he’d had to stand in a crowd on the hot set and pretend to talk to a man standing next to him over the course of twenty-something takes. According to Mark, the man had horrible halitosis. From the moment Mark walked through the front door, I braced myself for a long and ugly night. He was already drunk, and he headed for the small bar in the dining room.

The arguing began in the early evening.

The beating began shortly before dinnertime.

We three kids were in the bedroom Leo and I shared. We all heard our mom cry out and moan as the slaps and punches connected. Leo was drawing and humming quietly to himself.

As had become the norm, once the beating finally stopped, Mom retreated from the master bedroom to the small guest room. I gave up pretending to read when I heard her padding down the hall, whimpering. I gave Jennie, who was thirteen, a hug. “Wipe your tears and put away your magazines,” I said. “It’ll soon be time for dinner.”

            After Jennie left for her own room, I said through a clenched jaw, “Someone should kill that motherfucker.” I didn’t expect an answer from Leo. He’d grown angry and even more sullen over the past months.

I left Leo in the room and headed for the kitchen. The ranch-style house was quiet. I heard the sound of the shower from the master bedroom as I passed. I heard nothing from the guest room. I put the pan of lasagna, which Mom had prepared earlier, in the oven.

A few minutes later, I was surprised when Mark walked out of the master bedroom, rolling up the sleeves of his starched white dress shirt. His blue jeans were pressed and creased, and his cowboy boots were clean and shiny. His hair was still wet.

            Mark did not have his overnight bag in hand. I knew the brown, fake-leather bag was always packed with a spare Dopp kit, underwear, and shirt. I’d looked inside it one day when no one was home. Mark kept it on the floor of their master closet. It was his custom to leave with it after a night of drinking and beating. He’d go to the YMCA, for two or sometimes three nights, and then come home sober and outwardly contrite. He would apologize with profound sincerity and promise he was going to change and it would never happen again.

Even at seventeen, I understood Mom’s self-esteem was so low that she could not conceive of raising three kids without a man in the house, and on a drugstore clerk’s salary. So she would let herself believe Mark’s pathetic promises and let him come back, and everyone would hold their collective breath waiting for the next horrible night.

Footsteps sounded behind me as I bent over to open the oven to check on the lasagna. I smelled my stepfather before I saw him. The man wore far too much cologne—Brut. I assumed it was to hide his perpetual smell of alcohol. I straightened, turned, and was still surprised to see him without his overnight bag. I said nothing.

            “Set a spot for me at the table,” Mark said. “I’ll eat with you kids tonight.”

            I stared at him for a long beat, still surprised that the motherfucker hadn’t slinked out of the house as per usual. Then I finally nodded. “Yes, Sir.” 

            Mark moved from the kitchen to the living room and turned on the news. The lead story was about the Mexico City Olympics where gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium and raised their gloved fists during the national anthem, in protest against racial violence in America. I heard Mark snort in obvious disapproval and then mumble some comment.

            When the lasagna was cooked and the table was set, I went to the bedroom and told Leo that dinner was ready and Mark was going to eat with us. Leo didn’t respond. Then I stuck my head in Jennie’s room and told her the same. When I returned to the dining room, Mark was already seated across from my usual place. I’d set a place for Mom but didn’t expect her to join us. The television news droned on in the next room as I plated the lasagna and placed dishes in front of Mark and at the places where Leo, Jennie, and I would sit. Then I sat down.

            Back when Mark was first pretending to be a caring stepfather, he’d insisted that the family say grace before each meal. Like most everything else, somewhere along the line that requirement had been forgotten. Tonight, Mark began eating before everyone was seated. I watched as he shoveled lasagna into his mouth, trying to control my hatred. It probably takes a lot of energy to beat a small, helpless woman, I thought.

A string of cheese hung from Mark’s bottom lip to his chin, which he seemed unaware of. I was disinclined to point it out. I liked seeing him diminished, stupid. Despite the strong smell of Brut, I detected the underlying odor of bourbon emanating from his pores, which the shower had opened.

            Jennie entered the dining room and took her seat without speaking. She stared at her plate as she ate. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Every so often, her green eyes flicked up to look at Mark, then back to her plate.

I was about to rise to go get Leo when he emerged from the hall. He appeared to have something in his hand, but from my angle I couldn’t tell what it was. I took my first forkful of lasagna and began to chew when Leo caught my eye again. He wasn’t walking around the table to his usual place next to me. Instead, he was approaching Mark’s back.

            Without the slightest hesitation, Leo lifted his arm and shot Mark Maverick in the back of his head. There was a flash of surprise on Mark’s face as it erupted in blood. Slowly his head dropped forward into his plate of lasagna. I felt spray hit my face, and when I wiped my forehead, my hand came away red. In my shock I wondered whether it was blood or brain matter or lasagna. I think I uttered some guttural sound before I jumped to my feet and ran to the kitchen. All I could think of at that moment was to get whatever it was off my face.

            Jennie’s screaming brought me back to some semblance of reality. I quickly wiped my face and returned to the dining room. I put my arms around Jennie as she shrieked. After long moments I told her to go to Mom and not let her come out of her room. Hesitantly, Jennie nodded and began to rise. But she was too late. I turned to see Mom standing in the doorframe of the room, staring at the slumped-over body of her second husband. I gave Jennie a push and she immediately understood what she was supposed to do. She ran to Mom, who had not uttered a word, and gently guided her back to the guest room.

            I turned my attention back to the table. Leo had taken his seat and was eating his lasagna. The gun was lying on the table. Leo must have taken it from the drawer of Mark’s nightstand. I forced myself to look at Mark, but I didn’t have to look long to know for certain the man was dead.

            Leo looked up at me and smiled. It was a weird, crazed, almost happy smile. There was still food in his mouth when he said, “I figure I won’t get another home-cooked meal for a while.”

David Myles Robinson’s Words Kill can be ordered here.