DISCLAIMER: The last hippie, the stairway prof, the Alien/donut episode, and EWF are based in reality. You reason out what isn’t. C’mon…
“Do you remember?
The 21st night of September?
Love was changing the minds of pretenders
While chasing the clouds away…”
Tune was actually released the 21st day of November, 1978 – Earth, Wind, and Fire were ruled by market rather than (as one might suspect) natural forces. But what’s a couple of months when you’re young, and when, soon, you’d be earwigging it every time society was taking a sunny day off and the only thing weighing on you was trying to reason out the chorus.
“Our hearts were ringing
In the key that our souls were singing
As we danced in the night, remember
How the stars stole the night away, oh yeah!”
Hey, hey, hey
Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember?
Ba-dee-ya, dancing in September
Ba-dee-ya, never was a cloudy day…”
It took guitarist Al McKay, vocalist Maurice White, and songwriter Allee Willis a month to write September. Willis begged White to rewrite the refrain -- "I just said, 'What the fuck does 'ba-dee-ya' mean?' And he essentially said, 'Who the fuck cares?’ I myself spent 30 years rock-jocking “on and on” senselessly in the car, the office elevator, mowing the lawn. Guess I shoulda watched more MTV, or VHS, but being an idiot reporter, I couldn’t swing second-tier cable ‘til the Soviets brought down the wall and Neil Patrick Harris was in his second year of residency and I sold my soul for unexpired food and a new car. This was 1979, and my parents had only popped for basic the year before.
“This is your coming of age story?”
“Naw, not really. I don’t think I actually came of age until the 31st night of December. Of 1983, no,’84. I had a New Year’s date with one of the typesetters at the paper, even though I could tell something was off even before Christmas. Turns out she’d been doing the newsprint salesman, who was almost twice her age and 12 years older than me at the time, and he’d dumped her Christmas Eve. I wound up counseling her ‘til about 2 a.m. – her folks probably thought I had a happier New Year’s than the reality. ‘Bout a week later, I go in to write up a high-school game and find her grinding the assistant circulation director against the time clock. Boy, if that doesn’t make you come pretty quickly of age. But that is a story for another day, though I guess that was kinda the entire story. No, I’m just setting the scene.”
This was the 31st day of May, 1979, and my heart was ringing only because me and my GPA had weathered the spring semester intact, and my mother had begun to forgive me for dropping accounting for journalism.
Soul wasn’t singing quite yet: My academic standing wasn’t the only thing that had remained intact, and despite a full-court press for most of the semester, the seemingly wavering sophomore of my dreams had returned to her native rural Indiana habitat, where the strong and lettered mysteriously prevailed over the sweet and puppyish.
So as it happened, I was free that Thursday night, if not for dancing, at least for a night of cosmic terror at the Plaza North cinema. Barney Miller and Rockford were in reruns, and my older sister had given this Alien flick solid reviews as well as supplying a few graphic spoilers that had me cruising the nearly deserted Indiana State campus in my rotten-egg ’72 Corolla for stragglers with an indomitable spirit and the finances to leap at my free doorman’s passes.
After three circuits, I snared Bobbi Lynn Green near Dreiser Hall. The last of the hippies: Wild in a deer unaware of the headlights sorta way, weird in a way that might suggest an inroad for the sweet or puppyish, and exotic to the average hometown Midwest college nerd, that last quite possibly because she smelled like the shop on the periphery of respectable Wabash Avenue that sold vinyl and incense and curious accoutrement.
And because Bobbi Lynn was the simple boy’s contradiction. She was enchanting like a concussed cartoon bunny in a sack dress and sandals, but when I audited Dr. Burnaby’s creative writing course on the Quad the previous summer, I quickly discovered Bobbi Lynn aspired toward a very spirited form of erotic and frenzied autobiography and, apparently, had a wardrobe allowance only for sack dresses and sandals. It’s tough to parse first-person subjective from third-person omniscient under such circumstances, but Moonchild de Sade pretty much scared the puppy shit out of me, making her the ideal no-risk platonic companion for an evening of rampaging xenomorphs.
At Bobbi Lynn’s direction, we detoured to the Dunkin’ on Third. I could almost hear sitar riffs as the commando Earth Mother passed through a gauntlet of doormen, concessionaires, and ticket-rippers with a verboten dozen whole wheat and frosted cake donuts. As I clenched in my seat, hands hovering between face and screen, I realized the whole thing was just a Magical Mushroom Hunt to Bobbi Lynn.
“Oh, wowwww,” I heard her murmur as John Hurt disrupted captain’s table with a thoracic Caesarian. I uncovered my eyes to find Bobbi Lynn lotused into her seat, eyes wide in wonder as Baby Xeno scuttled across the galley and into the ship’s stygian bowels. She munched contentedly on her hippie-style old-fashioned, a ruby sprinkle trapped in the corner of her lip. I selected a chocolate and buckled in.
Despite nursing a bolus of dough and sugar as we filed out into the warm spring night, I proposed après-film pizza. Though where I was bloated and Bobbi Lynn buoyed by the glucose and adrenalin, she declined.
“I think I left my bag at Professor Burnaby’s office,” she announced casually, stuffing her refuse in a barrel like a good Earth mama. “You wanna drop me at Dreiser?”
I shrugged -- by now, Dad was probably asleep in his lounger, Killer tucked under one arm, as WTWO’s Johnny Palmer obliviously delivered the day’s doings. Mom’d quit waiting up after I traded my morning route for a cheap blue blazer and midnight reconnaissance at the Denny’s across the four-lane.
It might have seemed unlikely Pete Burnaby would be on campus at nearly ten on a Thursday night a week after the hordes had dispersed. But the one time I’d come calling at his miniscule faculty office off Dreiser Hall’s Northwest stairwell, I caught a glimpse of an ill-made cot before he grabbed his leather jacket and ushered me to a common area where he could let me down gently but unequivocally.
I’d taken his writing course as a freshman elective, then audited the aforementioned outdoor “workshop” where Bobbi Lynn’s unfettered charms held sway. When I showed last fall at Pete’s sabbatical writing forum at a grungy downtown hoagie den, he’d suggested that until I was committed to taking my art seriously, there was little use breaking bread with the subs-and-subtext set. Discovering my “mentor” was bunking in a windowless closet somewhat eased the pain of being branded derivative and clichéd. When the ache subsided, I got to mulling over the clichéd and derivative reasons the thirty-something longhair might call the English Department staircase home, and now I began to ponder just what Bobbi Lynn’s “bag” really was. Metaphorically -- I figured I might as well put two wasted semesters of similes and syllepses to use.
Dreiser Hall was on Sixth, off the Quad. The block was dark and largely desolate -- only a few lights glowed in the windows of the expansive building.
“That was such a trip!” Bobbi Lynn breathed as the Corolla’s door groaned open in hellish torment.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “I think maybe I should go in with you.”
Feminism was then in its full bloom, if my masculinity wasn’t, but Bobbi Lynn neither took umbrage nor lapsed into spasms of hilarity. “Yeah, man, yeah – come on up! I bet Pete would loove to see you again. You should tell him about your latest work!”
I hadn’t penciled further humiliation into my pre-summer sabbatical, but, hey, is it not all but grist for the mill? Against my fervent hopes, Dreiser was still open, and Bobbi Lynn plunged into the darkness with me close behind. I followed her slappy footfalls up two flights, and as I reached the landing and Prof. Burnaby’s cave, she was pounding on the solid wood door midway beneath his gilded name and wrenching at the tarnished brass knob.
“Hey, dude!” she called. Light was seeping from under the door, and a radio was playing. September, which seemed a little prosaic for ISU’s top Ginsberg/Kerouac groupie. I absently tied to decode the chorus as a hippie chick played Big Bad Wolf. On and on? Party on? Would I be pissed one day.
“Maybe he just dozed off,” I suggested, turning the knob back and forth and yanking to no avail.
“I think he’s got diabetes or some kinda thing! Mike, dude, we gotta do something! He could be dying!! Can you maybe kick it down or something?”
Absurdly, for some reason, I flashed back to the cheap, nearly pre-splintered wood model planes my folks used to get me in lieu of the big kit with all the snap-off bells and whistles. Wondered if there were any possibility the architects of this fine institution might have sourced fine balsa wood in tribute to my hometown boy Theodore Dreiser’s commentary on a fragile American dream. The last dregs of my masculinity were crusting over as a raspy voice called from the next flight up.
“What’re you two doin’?” A blocky guy in green twill scrambled down. “Fools were supposed to lock up! You come to see Dr. Burnaby?”
“I think he’s in trouble!” Bobbi Lynn wailed.” Don’t mention auras, please, I willed. “I can sense it.”
“You got a key, right?” I intervened. The custodian – Hobart, as stitched on his work shirt -- shrugged, fingering the clattering ring on his belt.
“Burnaby got the only one. These guys are real big on their privacy and all that shit, and I think his wife kicked him out. I ain’t no Holiday Inn room maid, so no skin off my nose. But, shit, all I need is some prof OD-ing on my shift. Get back, kid.”
Hobart lifted a leg higher than I might have expected and launched a reinforced heel at a point just to the left of the softball-sized knob. I heard a squeal and a snap, and the door shot inward, bouncing off Burnaby’s oversized desk and nearly concussing the janitor. He caught it with his foot, and Bobbi Lynn rushed though the gap.
Professor Pete’s body was sprawled across his surprisingly tidy cot on his back, his eyes glazed and his skin a shade neither CoverGirl nor probably Sherwin-Williams sold. A worn loafer had fallen onto the floor, its sole dotted with what might have been particolored paint specks. The other was wedged against his desk -- you know, more phone booth than supply closet, really. Otherwise, no blood or any indication of violence.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” the custodian muttered, placing a couple fingers to the side of Burnaby’s bearded neck and jerking back. “You two get outside – buddy, take her outside, OK? I’m gonna call the police.”
I tugged a dazed Bobbi Lynn into the stairwell, realizing for the first time she was still hauling her box of leftover donuts around. The night guy haggled on Burnaby’s desk phone, and Earth, Wind, and Fire segued poorly into Elton John.
“I was justified when I was five
Raising Cain, I spit in your eye
Times are changing, now the poor get fat
But the fever's gonna catch you when the bitch gets back, oh oh oh…”
I took a draw on my Thai tea and eyed the final shumai, which by rights was hers. “Sometimes, the Rock Gods are with you, even if you’re a hopeless hometown goody-two-shoes geek. Sir Elton, there’s a guy who could enunciate. I eat meat on a Friday, that's alright/I even like steak on a Saturday night/I can bitch the best at your social do's/I get high in the evening sniffing pots of glue, ooh, ooh, ooh…”
“Sense memory,” she suggested. “Ironic, considering inhalant abuse can royally screw up your nasal passages and sensory reflexes. Bobbi Lynn may no longer have been able to distinguish the model cement you associated with your childhood, and as for Hobart, well, he was surrounded by solvents and cleaners and pesticides most all the time, so not really surprising there, either. A little surprised, perhaps, that you made the association.”
I bristled amiably. “I was a geek and a goodie two-shoes, but I’d come of age in the era of psychedelic rock and The Mod Squad and Ironside. Inhalants were the meth of the ‘70s, except nobody was checking ID or unlocking a case for model cement or paint thinner. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the first second-grader to take a bonus whiff of airplane glue or marker.
“So that got me to the solution to our locked room puzzle, or at least to the fact that our locked room had been staged. The killer had simply glued the lock plate or jamb so Burnaby would appear to have OD’ed or suicided in his locked office after the door was forced. Then fled the scene, only to run into – pardon me, get accosted by -- some cheerful moron who could witness her innocence and, in retrospect, overly dramatized alarm at Burnaby’s death.”
“Not so moronic, to have worked that out. Or the donuts, for that matter.”
“Well, I didn’t question why Bobbi Lynn’s donuts had sprinkles in the theater that weren’t there when I ordered ‘em at the Dunkin’. Especially on the whole-wheat donuts she’d insisted on. Had she brought her own sprinkles? But why, when Bobbi Lynn had no idea she’d be grabbing donuts and a movie with me that evening? She carried her own toppings just in case an errant cruller or soft-serve fell into her lap?”
“Depakote,” my friend murmured, flicking a gain of jasmine rice from her scrubs front. “Mood stabilizer, these days mainly for bipolar mania, though they originally prescribed it for epilepsy. I haven’t run across it too much, but it’s like a horse pill. But it also comes in sprinkle form for kids with bipolar issues or epileptic risks – you can put ‘em in ice cream, yogurt, pudding, whatever.”
“I actually never heard of it,” I admitted. “But back in the day, you had to be discreet with your drugs. Colorful little cartoon ‘stamps’ coated in LSD for leisure-time licking. Hash brownies. Why not sprinkles? Little buzz with your Baskin-Robbins or high times at the Krispy Kreme? I was so, um, absorbed with the movie that I didn’t catch her micro-dosing her donuts. And so distracted by the late Pete Burnaby that I nearly forgot she’d tossed her Dunkin’ box. Even tripping her ass off, Bobbi Lynn was clever enough to grab the box she’d accidentally left in Burnaby’s office earlier that day. The one he’d liberally treated himself to while she was in class or whatever. Always wondered if it was an accident, or Bobbi Lynn had purposely avenged herself on a campus predator or bored lover. At the time, I was just grateful your grandfather told me to go home, he’d make sure Bobbi Lynn got a ride.”
Janine Compton then grinned slyly, and reached into her backpack. “Grandpa Hobart could smell bullshit a mile away, or maybe even spotted your hippie chick walking off with her ‘stash.’ She was apparently so stoned when the cops showed up she forgot to object when they searched her ‘donuts.’ ” The nursing student slid a battered, half-sprung spiral notebook across the table as I scribbled 18 percent onto the Taste of Rangsit receipt. I’d forgotten about my college journal a day or two after I fled Terre Haute for my first newspaper gig.
“Grandpa found dozens of these things in desk drawers, lockers, on the Quad,” Janine had told me as the owner left to craft our pad thai and green curry. “Said he liked to read other people’s dreams and delusions, and when he died a few years back, I made it kinda my hobby to relocate them. Your diary or whatever was in your old desk at the Statesman, and when I realized you were a Terre Haute boy who’d wound up here in Millington, I knew I had to deliver it myself. Grandpa said you were probably a good writer, just you needed to write what you knew.”
“Well, what I knew at the time wouldn’t have filled a haiku,” I’d conceded. “Or maybe so I’d thought.”
“Got you something else,” Janine now added. She pushed a yellowed, cheaply assembled, Courier-texted journal from the gaping pack. It had a green matte cover and a fresh pink Sticky Note about mid-point. “Found this in a bookstore in Champaign a few weeks back, thought you might like it.”
Erato, the calligraphy on the journal read. Volume the Third, Fall 1978. I flipped through – timeless verse whose time had never come. Per Janine’s marker, Peter Burnaby’s contribution was on page 28, and I read first stifling a chuckle, then glancing up a bit flushed at the janitor’s granddaughter. I was transported back to the Summer of ’78, when love was changing the minds of pretenders, ponderous adolescents exchanged puerile prose, and the aura of sex and drugs and rock and roll mingled with the scent of a freshly manicured quad. And I understood a little more.
“Derivative and clichéd,” I suggested. “And he didn’t even bother to re-conjugate the anatomical details.”
Janine lifted her teacup. “Ba-dee-ya,” she toasted.