by Susan Dyment
“Hey, look at that guy. I bet he’s got something.” Susan watched the black ’39 Buick cruise down Central Street past the library, past Yachipucci’s Drug, and over the bridge into West Franklin. “Let’s catch him!”
The crew of straggly teenagers piled into the old Ford Fairlane parked near the benches which served as their hang-out place and pulled a quick U-turn to follow the bearded stranger. Joe, thin and long haired, drove. Susan, outfitted in white silk and sandals, strained from her front seat to see the shiny black car in the distance. Paul, Gail and Ted, all shaggy, blue jeaned, and excited, filled the back seat and offered encouragement to Joe in his efforts to catch their man. They knew a dealer when they saw one. This guy could have no other business in Franklin. Nobody in town had a beard, never mind an old Buick. He had to be the real thing.
“He better not turn up Cheeny Hill or we’ll lose him.” Susan worried. “Can’t you get around that truck?”
“Cool it.” Joe ordered. “I’ll get him. Look, there’s the car. He’s going into Tessier’s Store.” Joe smoothly brought the Ford in for a landing just in front of the old Buick near the dingy store which shared its name with Coca-Cola in peeling letters.
Gail was first out, moving agilely in spite of her voluminous front which spilled out of the Mexican vest she wore over her torn jeans. Ted, though right behind, knew enough to glance down the street to make sure the coast was clear. He didn’t want any cops checking out this scene. His dad, that bourgeois pig, owned the town’s bank and already gave enough grief over the long hair. He didn’t need to get busted, too. Paul moved fast. He was blond and graceful.
“Let’s look causal when he comes out,” Joe advised. “Susan can do the talking. It’s better to have a girl do it.” The group clustered about a half a block from the store awaiting what they knew would be a sure score. “If he’s not carrying now, I bet he can turn us on to someone. I’m sick of going clear down to Boston every time I want some more dope.”
In less than a minute the man came out of the store. Instead of elbowing Susan forward to do the talking, they all stared. Not only did the stranger have a beard and long hair but he was dressed all in white with a string of brown beads hanging around his neck. “I thought I was the only guy in Franklin who ever wore beads,” Joe whispered. “Go do your thing, Susan.”
Susan was taken aback. Suddenly her brassy manner was hushed and unsure, “Is this guy for real?” she wondered to herself. “He’s even got a sheet or something wrapped around his waist. Maybe he’s a foreigner.” A glance over her shoulder at her friends leaning against the telephone pole and examining the cracks in the sidewalk told her she had to pull this off. “Who the hell cares what this guy thinks,” she reasoned. “The worst that can happen is that he’ll say no. He can’t be a narc. I don’t have to worry about getting busted.”
With unexpected sweetness she smiled as she neared the stranger and asked, “Hey, you got any speed?” That wasn’t what she had planned to say. They were looking for acid today. With weather like this everyone wanted to trip. She was supposed to make some small talk first, not just blurt it out. The pause that followed her botched request seemed long. Susan’s eyes met the stranger’s and were unwillingly stopped from their nervous travels.
Twinkling with good humor and smoothed by caring, “Don’t you know that’s not good for you?” came the reply.
Susan’s forehead wrinkled. For the first time in her action-packed adolescence she actually wondered about whether or not it might be unhealthy to take drugs. A shake of her head to free her eyes from the tangled hair which cobwebbed over them forced her out of the unfamiliar reverie. Without hurry she gave the stranger a thorough looking over. She had all the time in the world. He was standing right there, totally available, totally unguarded. Traffic ambled by at its usual West Franklin pace; Joe, a perpetual leaner and goal sticker, dragged on his Marlboro; a pigeon with a gleaming neck sauntered by on its concrete boulevard. She saw the patterns carved on each of the beads around the stranger’s neck; she saw the rows and rows of fine stitching on the placket of the white full shirt which hung to his knees; she marveled at the detail of the knotted cotton which served as buttons. But always the eyes were there foremost. She had hours it seemed to look at all the detail of his sandals, of his cleverly wrapped skirt-pants, and still shuttle her glances slowly, unselfconsciously, back to his eyes. His only movement was the slow massage of a small circle of beads he held in his left hand. In his right arm he cradled a brown bag with a half-gallon of milk and a jar of Skippy peanut butter visible through the uncrumpled end.
“What the hell’s going on?” Susan wondered. Suddenly the internal alarms were going off. “I’m standing here in front of Tessier’s gawking at this weirdo! I’ve got to split.” Still she stood and looked and smiled. Then the stranger’s smile grew wider and he asked, “How may I serve you?”
This completely disarmed Susan. “What the heck does that mean?” she wondered to herself. “I already told him what I wanted. If he doesn’t have any dope, I’m getting out of here.” Paul was suddenly at her side, a welcome break in the silence.
“Hi. Nice day, isn’t it.” Paul could talk to a post.
“It certainly is a wonderful day. I’m going back to my dad’s to help pick raspberries for jam. I had to get the peanut butter to go with it.” This comment from the strange stranger really unglued Susan.
“Where do you live?” Leave it to Paul.
“I’ve got a place over on Webster Lake. My name is Ram Dass. Would you like to sample some jam too? Drop in sometime. It’s the second left on Lake Shore Drive.” The smile was still there, the voice calm and friendly, the feel genuine. Ram Dass touched Susan’s silk-encased arm and moved without seeming to move to the Buick, waved to the incredulous teenagers and drove off toward the lake.
Paul, the bouncy poodle, gushed, “He’s neat. When are we going over? What did he say to you? Did you get a lead?”
“Shut up,” was all Susan said.
Two days later Susan’s mind was still pulling her back to Ram Dass’ eyes. The debate went on. “Why should I go eat his raspberry jam? If he had any stuff, he wouldn’t be so concerned with my goddamn health. Why bother?” Still, at the benches across from the library there were only two topics of conversation—plots for a drug run to Boston and plans to check out the stranger with the peanut butter.
Everyone finally agreed that there was no action at the benches and it would be cooler at the lake so they loaded into the Ford to look up Ram Dass. “What kind of name do you think that is?” wondered Gail. “He didn’t really look like a foreigner if you took away the clothes and the hair.”
“He’s got to be an outta stater though.” Ted remarked. ”There’s a lot of summer people on that side of the lake. He’s probably from Massachusetts.”
Susan sat silently in the shot-gun seat. Joe’s chick always got the front. No one minded. The five had made it through high school together and had reunited after dropping out of different colleges. They knew one another and tolerated—even reveled in—each other’s oddities. Susan could be a bitch. Gail was short; Paul poor; Joe slow, but he had a car. And Ted nervous about this old man. They played together, fought, and loved each other. Now they were off on another hair-brained adventure. “Raspberry jam,” Susan shook her head.
“Turn here!” said Paul, almost drooling down the back of Joe’s neck.
“Sit down, you jerk, I can read,” replied Joe, meaning no harm.
Across from the well-manicured private beach the long driveway curved out of sight escorted on either side by its dual picket fences. Carefully pruned shrubberies softened the transition between the New Hampshire forests and the expanses of lawns and the tennis court.
“Outta space!” Gail whistled. “I’ve been in Franklin almost twenty years and I wouldn’t have believed a place like this existed. Look! There’s the goddamn raspberry patch!”
To their right, enclosed in custom screen walls and roofed with cheese cloth netting, was a large area of carefully pruned raspberries. Waving and beaming to the Ford was Ram Dass smack in the midst of the prickers looking like Gabriel in striking white. Nearby, standing a full foot shorter than the bearded angel, was portly white-haired man intent of picking and not even glancing up to see who had arrived.
“We should’ve gone swimming.” Susan said slumping lower in the front seat.
“Come on!” Paul was barely able to contain himself. His switch was turned off when he got closer to Ram Dass who had left through the screen door and was approaching the motley trio.
Susan, still in the car, could see Paul change gears and remarked to Joe, who was getting in the last few hits of his cigarette, “This is too much. If that dope slows down for anyone, you know there’s something going on. Let’s move it.”
Joe and Susan were soon beside the others and walking slowly up the wide sloping lawn. They walked right past the large white house which was flanked by huge maples. Ram Dass walked with grace and surety, all the while fingering the same beads he had held at Tessier’s Store and smiling over his shoulder at the now-quiet teenagers. They found themselves at a small yellow outbuilding. Board shutters held up by long sticks like Susan had last seen at 4-H camp when she was twelve revealed screens and no glass. “Maybe we’ll have a few words from the counselor before vespers,” was Susan’s internal sarcasm. Not much ever measured up to her expectations so she knew in advance to be cynical. Still, she noticed new feelings edging their way forward.
“Now this weirdo is Mr. Hospitality,” Susan thought as Ram Dass took special pains to seat each of his guests comfortably on cushions and low couches which edged the large one-room cabin. He asked each name, was gracious and warm in his greeting—even touching a shoulder, patting a cheek—and then sat cross-legged on a mat, smiling like he was stoned out of his tree. Susan, always the scrooge, pulled her eyes away from the beatific grin to check out just what this freak had gotten her into. Fullness and order, dark red, browns and incense greeted her senses. Wood and strange oriental posters, bamboo, pillows upon pillows, off-white cottons, curled photographs of guys sitting cross-legged, a typewriter on a low stool, a statue of a naked dancer with a lot of arms. “For Christ sake, this isn’t even American,’ she thought. “He’s sure got them sucked in,” She looked at Paul, Gail, Ted and Joe as they just at gazing silently at Ram Dass, waiting, unhurried. “This is the longest Paul every kept his mouth shut.”
“How many I serve you?” Ram Dass’s question broke the silence and brought an under-the-breath curse to Susan’s mind.
“Why the hell does he have to ask that again? Does he think we’re invalids? Maybe he thinks we’re here for tea. Why are we here? This is not what I had in mind. He must live here. You’d think that mansion down here would have enough room in it for him. I wonder if that old geezer was his father. Somebody’s got to be really rich. And this is just a summer place? Maybe Ram Dass likes the breeze up here. It is nice.” Susan’s crust was melting just a bit. She was suddenly aware that her thoughts were racing a mile a minute. “What’s going on? It feels like I got ants in my head instead of my pants. Look at that guy. He hasn’t budged an inch since he sat down and he’s still playing with those beads.”
Just as she focused on the beads, Ram Dass respectfully laid them aside and reached over to pick up a long-necked, round-bellied musical instrument which he began plucking to produce a mournful, enchanting drone. “This takes the cake.” Susan shook her head but she couldn’t prevent a smile from creeping onto her purposefully tough face.
“Listen, listen, listen to my heart song,” Ram Dass began the chorus. It was repeated over, and over and over. The drone began to mesmerize the little room. Gail was the first to join in. The other soon got it and began the refrain. Even Susan, after the first ten minutes of repetition, found her usually reluctant voice joined with the others. The riot of thoughts which had felt like ants scampering through her mind seemed to disappear. There was only the heart song. Over and over and over. Joe was sitting up almost straight, no cigarette; Paul oddly more like a stately lion than a clipped poodle; Gail beaming, her full, beautiful voice dancing around the drone; Ted calmly rooted to the cushion.
The music stopped. It had faded out—maybe after an hour. Maybe it was only minutes. Ram Dass picked up the circle of beads, stood, and invited everyone to come to the door. His gracefully extended arm and open palm left no room for conversation. As they retreated down the lawn upon lawn and neared the car, Ram Dass gestured to the raspberry patch, now empty of pickers. “You’ll have to come back for that jam I promised. My father and I are making another batch this afternoon and I still have that jar of Skippy.” The twinkle in his eye provided the end and the beginning.