Cheryl looked somewhat warily across the big mahogany table at Derrin. She noticed the two red roses from the garden. Beatrice had put them on the table, in a narrow glass vase, that morning just before she left the commune for good. She thought her wariness might be due to an astrological change: Mars had just entered her Libra quadrant. Or maybe it was caused by the fact that she and Derrin were alone together and she wasn’t accustomed to it. He seemed larger that morning. In reality, he was not big, but he was not small either. He was just over six feet and he weighed about 165 pounds. Cheryl was athletic and in fact had been a sprinter herself, in high school, but she was slightly built and weighed less than 120 pounds. She was 5 feet 6. Her breasts were not small or large. The nipples weren’t inverted, too large, or remarkable in any way. Everything about her spoke of the combination of health and statistically average features which is almost universally called beauty: her eyes were neither too wide apart nor too close together, her nose was not too long and not too short, her ears were of an average size, her jaw was neither receding nor prognathous. In short, her looks were perfectly proportioned and everyone thought of her as very pretty.
Derrin said, “Brad is not open with us. He is holding so much back from us that I can’t think of him as a real member of the commune.” He looked into Cheryl’s eyes for guidance but there was none. He said, “I mean this commune is my life. I’ve been dreaming and thinking of forming a commune for almost five years.”
“That’s really admirable.” She looked up at him with the same false, almost saccharine smile she had shown Warren and she wasn’t happy that he didn’t see through it.
He said, “At first, I thought Brad would be an ideal member of the commune, but now, I think of him almost as a spy. I’m sorry.” The truth was that Derrin had wanted Brad to be a member of the commune because he knew that Brad had more than a 1,000 dollars in his checking account and therefore would be able to pay his share of the almost 800 dollars monthly-rent. He hadn’t told Brad or anyone else that Cheryl had agreed to stay in the commune only on the condition that she pay no rent. She said that was the only way she could “dedicate herself to the commune.”
Cheryl was silent and looked into the place that was her fascination and bewitchment with Brad. She said, “Yes. He is very strange. I don’t know what he wants. I can’t figure him out.”
Derrin said, “I think he just wants to sleep with a lot of girls. But the real problem, for us, is that he isn’t open with us. Openness is the first commandment of commune life. You have to share everything.” He paused and looked into her eyes, earnestly. “You are one of the most open people I’ve ever met, in fact.”
“Well, I’m not always open about everything.” She remembered how she had already fucked the commune itself and had felt its essence rattle about the empty spaces of her womb. There was no way that Derrin would ever know about that. He just wasn’t that kind of guy.
“I can’t believe that. You’ve never withheld information about yourself. Your past. Your dreams.” Just then the jackhammer started up again on the concrete sidewalk.
Derrin said, “When is that thing going to stop?” He got up and shut the front door with a loud bang.
Cheryl said, “He said, today is the last day. They’re getting rid of that piece of concrete on the side of the house. They said it wouldn’t take more than an hour or two to finish it.”
“I hope so.” Derrin brushed non-existent lint from his shirt to regain his composure.
She asked, “Haven’t you ever done anything on impulse, something that you never imaged yourself doing or even being capable of doing. You just did it, but you would never share it with anyone?”
He smiled a prurient smile. “We don’t need to know everything. We’ve all got imaginations. Everyone does the same things, experiments in the same ways.” His smile became indulgent.
She said, “Sometimes, the stars are in the right quadrants, the music is just right and then you do something. I don’t know, like rob a bank. Maybe even kill someone.” She rolled her eyes provocatively.
He said, in his earnest, almost religious voice, “Cheryl. That’s not like you. If you’ve killed someone, it isn’t something that you can withhold. Even murder will out.”
She had the impish look on her face that charmed him so much. She knew that, at bottom, it was Derrin who just wanted to fuck a lot of girls and that it was the real reason he had wanted to start the commune and that he would never tell her that or even admit it to himself. She started to say something but was silent.
He brushed back his incongruent, beach-boy blond hair from his forehead, “I’ve told you of my track career at Lowell High School. I was the third fastest sprinter in LA. All the others were black. They called me the great white hope.”
She smiled suddenly and almost laughed.
“Well, track was a very big thing back then. In a way, I’m proud of it, but I’m also proud that I was able to walk away from it. I agree with you that there are things you don’t talk about, but it doesn’t mean you bury them completely.”
She looked into his eyes for guidance.
He said, “Would you like to be an essential part of all of this?” He raised his arm and his outstretched hand moved in an arc, palm upwards, across the living room to the secondhand couch and stopped at the five-dollar, black-and-white television set.
Her eyes didn’t leave his. She said, “Yes.”
“I need a partner.”
Cheryl knew that Brad was a lost cause. She said again, simply, “Yes.”
He nodded towards his room.
Derrin’s bedroom was originally a glassed-in porch that jutted out like a peninsula from the main living room into the garden. It was a rectangular extension of the house that was connected only by a very short, unusually angled hallway that led to the living room. Two of its walls were paneled glass that gave onto the garden and the other two walls jutted out from the main structure of the house forming a completely separate structure that was tied onto its corner. His bed was a king-sized mattress on the floor surrounded with Japanese screens on three sides. The largest wall was covered with photographs of communes that he had visited and corresponded with and there were artistic representations and photographs of historical communes.
Cheryl thought, “I’ve fucked the commune, I guess I might as well start fucking the people.”
Just then, Jasmine knocked on the door, opened it and walked in holding her little black bag and waving her free hand in the air. “Hi there. I’m Jasmine.” She was wearing a flower dress that exposed her bare thighs and whose buttons strained to hold back ample breasts which seemed to have a wish to live without sartorial constraint. She was only 17 and it was easy to see. She was about twenty pounds overweight but it was feminine fat that collected in her hips and breasts and was not unpleasant to look at. Her black hair was stringy and fell onto her shoulders in a lusterless pile of turned up ends. Her face was very white and there were faint traces of blotches on her forehead that she had covered with makeup. She was extremely limber and her hands and fingers moved as if there were no bones in them.
Derrin rose from the table, stretched out his hand and said, “Hello.” They shook hands formally. The two women shook hands rather limply and awkwardly as they surreptitiously studied each other’s clothes, figures and facial features. Jasmine was about four inches taller than Cheryl and at least forty pounds heavier. She admitted to herself that Cheryl was much prettier than she was but observed that that her profile wasn’t remarkable.
He said, “So you want to move into a commune?” They sat down at the table and Jasmine rested the little black bag in front of her on the table, clutching it near like a football. “The great concern for all of us is, of course, that you are too young.”
Her face dropped and she looked at the floor, disappointed. “I thought we talked about that on the phone.” Her long, straight, black hair brushed against her shoulders as she looked up with a reassuring smile and her breasts moved forward optimistically.
Cheryl asked, rhetorically, just for the record, as it were, “How old are you?”
Jasmine crossed her naked thighs defensively. “I’m 17.” She looked at Derrin questioningly.
Derrin said, “We talked about this on the phone. Jasmine is going to be a full-time student at The College of Marin this fall.
Cheryl asked, “You’re from Oakland. I thought you had to attend the community college where you live?”
“No. You can get around it. My father doesn’t want me to go there. I have an aunt who lives in Marin County.” Jasmine waved her hand evasively.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Jasmine said, “The atmosphere is…. Well, it’s the headquarters for the Black Panther Party. Huey Newton went there.”
Derrin jumped to her defense, “It’s over-crowded and the campus is ugly. There are 5,000 students crammed into a few city blocks of asphalt and concrete. It’s an old adult school that was converted into a junior college by tearing down a couple of city blocks of houses and putting portable buildings on the land. It’s an urban planner’s nightmare.”
Jasmine held her purse tightly against her stomach. She said, “The College of Marin campus is so pretty. I fell in love with it at first sight.” She asked, “Where’s the other guy? What’s his name?”
Derrin said, “Brad. He said he would be late. He is finishing a job in Oakland. It depends on the traffic.”
“I’m very mature for my age.”
The jackhammer started in again.
There was an awkward silence while the jackhammer continued its deafening chatter. When it stopped, it seemed, for once, that Derrin didn’t know what to say.
Jasmine changed the subject. “What’s Brad like?”
Cheryl said, “He’s 25. He doesn’t like to talk a lot about his past. But his mother is very religious.” Cheryl looked at Derrin who didn’t meet her eyes. “They don’t talk to each other very much because he doesn’t believe in religion.”
Derrin said, “He’s got a master’s degree in mathematics and he is very intellectual. His room is filled with books. He’s reading Kierkegaard and Dostoievsky and a lot of other heavy dudes.”
“Maybe he can help me with my algebra. I’m weak in math. Is he shy around girls?”
Derrin said, “Quite the contrary. He relates to women well.”
Cheryl said, “But he is hard to get close to.”
Derrin said, rather paternalistically, “Back to you young lady. Why do you want to live in a commune?”
The truth was that The College of Marin was right across the street and Derrin had only asked for 75-dollars-a-month rent. Brad and Derrin had argued about it and Brad accused Derrin of being crazy for renting a room for so little. 150 dollars a month was far more reasonable. It was the second serious argument that Derrin and Brad had already had. The first was about the 1,000 dollar loan that Derrin had asked for to rebuild an Aston Martin. It was after Derrin had grabbed Brad’s checkbook from his hand and looked at the balance.
It seemed pretty obvious to Cheryl that Jasmine wanted to live in the commune for the low rent and the easy walk to the College and, maybe, for curiosity. When neither Jasmine nor Cheryl was looking, Derrin took a good look at Jasmine’s body. He said, “Well, Cheryl, what do you think?”
Cheryl looked perplexed, as if she were trying hard to think. After a respectable pause she looked at Jasmine, curiously. Jasmine looked away with a quizzical look and hummed to herself, confidently: she had caught Derrin’s appreciative look out of the corner of her eye and knew that he had voted her in, so to speak.
“Sure.” Cheryl said after a long silence. She too had seen the look in Derrin’s eye. “It’s all right with me.”
“Then it depends on Brad.” Derrin said.
Suddenly, a horrible, witch-like expression took possession of Cheryl’s face. She looked towards the floor, stamped her feet and screeched, “Rrryyaaa!!”
Zeta scampered up the stairs to the safety of Brad’s room.
Brad arrived about two hours later. Jasmine was upstairs arranging her things in Cheryl’s room. It was agreed that she would share the king-sized bed with Cheryl. Brad sat at the table and watched her come down the stairs. The stairs were very steep and he saw her black panties and firm thighs before her torso and head came into view. He looked away demurely and then when her head became visible and when his angle of vision placed her black panties into their normal position under her short skirt, he smiled and said, “I’m Brad.” When she reached the living room he stretched out his hand and she held it for a moment. Brad was ashamed that all he could think of was a “quick piece of ass” and he reasoned that he should get out of the place quickly, that he was not good for the commune and it was not good for him.
They were alone in the huge living room. She excused herself and went to her car to get some things. When she was outside and out of hearing range Derrin said, from the shadows of his room, “I saw that look on your face Bradford.” He stuck his head into the living room and grinned at Brad with an accusing, lascivious leer.
“What look? What are you talking about?”
Derrin said, in a low, intimate tone, “What do you think I mean?” Brad blinked. Derrin walked into the living room and asked, “Is she right for the commune?”
“How should I know? I’ve barely talked to the girl.” Brad knew that Cheryl planned to move into Derrin’s room and that in Derrin’s mind he and Jasmine were logical bed companions. But he also knew that Jasmine was an empty-headed 17 year old.
Brad asked, “Can you judge someone by one sentence?”
“You tell me, you’re the philosopher.”
“Probably. But I would be more comfortable with five or six.”
Jasmine returned from the car with a handful of clothes and went upstairs with them. Brad and Derrin studied the floor with their eyes until her legs disappeared from view. When she came down again, they all sat down together at the table.
She batted her eyes not too unintelligently. She said, “Hi Brad. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“I hope it wasn’t all bad.”
“It was all good.”
He thought of Beatrice and was happy that she had decided to leave. He glanced down at Jasmine’s bare legs discretely and Derrin wrote something in his notebook. From the beginning, Derrin kept a notebook in which he jotted notes for a future book on communes or, he said, possibly for a Ph.D. thesis.
Jasmine asked, “Do you think you would have time to help me with algebra this semester?”
“Of course. No problem.”
Derrin cleared his throat.
Brad asked, “Which bedroom will she have?”
“She’s going to move into Cheryl’s room with her. She’s agreed that the bed is big enough to share.”
Brad was surprised. He thought that Cheryl had already agreed to move in with Derrin. Brad had no objections to Jasmine but he knew that he was expected to think about it seriously so he tried to look pensive. He looked to the Leader for guidance.
Derrin said, “It looks to me that Brad has no objections.”
“That’s right. I think Jasmine will be a real asset to the commune.” He wondered if she was insulted or flattered by the double entendre. It wasn’t intentional.
Brad was relieved that the “interview” was over. He asked, “And what about Rod Green?”
“He’s coming to dinner tonight. Everyone will be here. In fact, you’ll be glad to know that Raney will be coming.”
Brad brightened up. “I haven’t seen her for more than a week.”
“She’s coming with Philip Levy. You’ve met him.”
He said, “Yes.” He thought to himself: “That pampered, rich asshole with a 5,000-dollar-a-month allowance. Sure, I’ve met him.” Philip Levy was an acquaintance of Joyce and Joyce had introduced them. Joyce was Dr. Orenstein’s niece and Brad’s close friend since infancy. Brad said, “Well, at least he’s Jewish.”
Jasmine made a face. She had taken one of the cushions from the couch and was sitting on it, doing Yoga.
Derrin arched his eyebrows and smiled, “I beg your pardon?”
Brad said, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I was thinking of Raney’ mother. She would approve.” He changed the subject, “Who else will be coming?”
“Just us. Jasmine and Cheryl and you and me, uh.. And Rod Green, and Raney and Philip. That’s seven people.”
Brad asked Jasmine, “Can I help you undress?” He colored and she smiled. He said, “Sorry. I mean, can I help you unpack?”
She said to Derrin, “You didn’t tell me he was so funny. No thanks, I’ve got everything under control.” She was proud of her profile and she was sitting so that it faced the two men sitting at the long dining room table. Very slowly, she stretched her leg straight out in front of her and lifted it to a 45 degree angle with the floor. Then she bent forward and touched her knee to her forehead.
Brad said, “Fascinating. You did that without any effort.” Derrin turned his head and watched, silently. She moved the other leg to the same position and effortlessly wrapped her legs behind her neck.
Derrin said, “Don’t hurt yourself, Jasmine.”
She smiled again. She was completely relaxed and there was no sign of tension or strain in her face. She said, from her position on the cushion, “You can call me Jas. All my friends call me Jas.” She sprung from the cushion like a jumping jack coming out of its box and strode to her jacket which was hanging on the back of a chair. She pulled out a pack of Winston cigarettes from one of the pockets and took out a cigarette. She held it out, “Care for a cigarette?”
Derrin looked at her disapprovingly and Brad declined. She started for the stairs. She said, “Well, I’d better finish putting things away.”
Brad said, “Let me know when you want help with your algebra.”
After she disappeared up the stairs, Derrin looked at Brad with a hint of malice, got up from the big mahogany table where Beatrice’s faded roses sagged a little in the glass vase, and went to his room.
They all cooked dinner together. They used every dish in the cupboard and still didn’t have enough dishes.
Derrin and Brad went for a walk before Raney, Philip and Rod Green arrived. They walked down Main Street towards the campus of The College of Marin and Derrin explained that Rod Green didn’t talk much and that he was a pothead. He was a ladies’ man and spent most of his time in the pads of various women. But he had a great job at the SF airport and he was loaded with savings from his job. He had agreed to pay 150 dollars rent plus utilities to rent the smallest of the four upstairs bedrooms. “So,” he said, “we are lucky. He will rarely be here and he will pay steady rent.” It seemed obvious to Brad that Rod Green was just paying for the privilege of having another place to crash in a house full of attractive young women. He multiplied four people by 150 dollar rent, (he didn’t know that Cheryl wasn’t paying rent) added Jasmine’s 75 dollars and came up with only 675 dollars. He said, “We need another 125 dollars a month.”
Derrin said, “We’ve got another bedroom to rent.”
“Until then we’ve got to come up with 125 dollars a month.” The real figure was 225 dollars a month.
Derrin said, “We might have to take jobs for a while.”
“Jobs?” Brad didn’t want to work and had enough money so that he didn’t have to work. He didn’t want Derrin to know how much money he had, but he said, “I’ve got enough money in the bank so that I don’t have to work for a couple of months. At least.” He was referring to the 1,000 dollars that Derrin knew about. They sat down on a wooden bench in front of The College of Marin Theater. Brad noticed that Hamlet was being presented by the college drama department.
“Then you can pay your part of the extra 150 dollars a month out of that.”
Brad smiled to himself at the way Derrin manipulated people as if he were a used car salesman with three hungry kids and an angry wife at home.
Derrin said, “We can make 50 dollars a car by driving rental cars from San Francisco back to Seattle and hitching back to the Bay Area. With you and me and Jasmine and Cheryl, that’s 200 dollars. If we do that a couple of times, we can pay the extra rent for three months. Anyway, I don’t think we’ll have much trouble renting the other room. At least for 100 dollars a month.”
“What about Cheryl and Jasmine? Will they go for it?”
“I’ve already asked Cheryl and she agreed. I’m sure we can convince Jasmine. We can do it on a weekend.”
“Sounds OK to me. Fine.” Brad reasoned that he could take a cab to the Seattle airport and fly back to San Francisco without their knowledge.
They started back to the commune. They crossed Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and turned onto Main Street. As they walked up the hill, a red 1968 Corvette came into view, parked in front of the commune and they knew that Philip and Raney had arrived.
When they entered the large living room, Philip and Raney were sitting on the secondhand couch watching the CBS nightly news on the black-and-white television set that Brad had picked up for 5 dollars. Walter Cronkite’s nasal voice was reciting the latest numbers of dead from the Tet Offensive.
Philip was wearing a Rolex watch, Bally shoes, Levis, a white beret and white turtleneck sweater. Raney was sitting by his side with a teethy smile, wearing jeans, a tie-dye tee shirt and sandals. She had placed a small, long-stemmed white flower in her hair. Raney recognized Brad with a toss of her curly brown hair that said, “God life is odd, isn’t it?” She acknowledged Derrin with “Hi Derrin, how are you?” Philip’s smiling eyes took in the situation. He nodded to Derrin, acknowledged Brad and went back to watching Cronkite.
Derrin said, “Well, I haven’t seen either one of you for far too long. Especially you Philip. It’s an honor to see you.”
Brad cringed. Philip acknowledged the compliment by looking up from the television for a moment. Brad went into the kitchen. Jasmine was tending the stew. He asked, “Where’s your boyfriend, Jasmine?”
“Mark. Oh, he’s not coming.” She looked up brightly.
Brad asked, “Why not?”
“We broke up a long time ago. He only agreed to help me move today. He has a truck. We broke up ages ago.”
Brad thought, “It would be a nice way to get even with Raney. I could take Jasmine up to her room right now. It looks like she’s ready. Raney is such a bitch, showing up with this Philip creep after she and I spent a week in and out of her stinky bed on Telegraph Hill.” He said to Jasmine, almost offhanded, “Oh. I thought you were still seeing each other?”
“No. It’s been a long time since we were together. Let’s see.” She closed her eyes and did some mental counting. “It’s been almost three months.”
“How long were you together?”
“About two years.”
“So you knew him in high school.”
She blinked and looked straight into his eyes, “Only during my senior year.”
Brad suddenly felt like a man who was falling off the wagon. He pushed away his lascivious, vengeful thoughts as if he were an alcoholic and they were a half-quart of cold ale. He reached out and squeezed her ample shoulder, “Thanks for helping with dinner, Jas. We really haven’t figured out how to do this. Dinner, I mean.”
Jasmine asked, “No one wants to cook? I love cooking.”
“Actually, no. It’s the dishes part that’s the problem. No one wants to do the dishes. Hell, everyone wants to cook.”
The front door opened again and, from the kitchen, Brad and Jasmine heard Rod Green being introduced. Brad went out to meet him for the first time.
Rod wore granny glasses, he was about six feet tall and slender but not skinny. He wore jeans and cowboy boots and his thick brown hair was straight and long and fell onto his shoulders in a bowl cut. When he smiled it was with his eyes that crinkled at the corners causing his sharp nose to tilt upwards and point forward. When he was sufficiently amused, his mouth moved downward and his lips spread to reveal vulpine teeth. When Brad entered the room, he showed his teeth.
It was about 7 p.m. and twilight was filling the clear, blue sky. The living room was filled with dark shadows and Cheryl lit several large candles that were placed around the 25-foot table. They sat down, bunched together at the front of the table with Derrin at his usual position at the head. Cheryl sat at his left and Jasmine at his right. Raney and Philip sat to the left of Jasmine. Brad sat at opposite next to Rod.
They pronounced the stew excellent. It was full of pieces of steak, marinated for hours, carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, garlic croutons, bits of cheese and fresh herbs from Derrin’s garden.
They ate with gusto and there was a great deal of conversation between Derrin and the women. Raney made it apparent that she didn’t want to talk to Brad. Philip answered Derrin’s questions perfunctorily and smiled enigmatically across the table at Brad and Rod Green. Occasionally he whispered something in Raney’s ear. Brad took revenge by thinking that Philip was the kind of man who owes everything to his position in life and nothing to his personality. Rod was silent unless spoken to and Brad got tired of asking him questions. Rod and Jasmine began flirting heavily and Brad was relieved. Both Jasmine and Cheryl attended to the Leader as if he were a king: they brought his pipe, ashtray and Indian leaves to the table, filled his dish with a second helping of stew, kept his teacup full, took his empty dishes into the kitchen and brought him his Indian moccasins after dinner.
When everyone had finished eating, Rod Green passed around a joint and the table fell into a meditative silence. After a very painful half-hour, Brad felt like going for a drive but it was his turn to do the dishes. Every dish in the cupboard was used. He broke a long silence, “Any volunteers for doing dishes?”
Jasmine looked at him with a vacant smile and then her eyes met Rod Green’s. “I cooked,” she said.
Cheryl said, “I cooked and I did the dishes last night.”
Brad said, “Every dish in the house needs to be washed.”
Derrin said, with a slightly playful tone, “It’s your job Brad.” Then he said, petulantly, “I’ve been slaving away all week in the garden. I thought we had agreed that you would do the dishes?”
Brad said, “Agreed?” Everyone was looking at him. He didn’t remember agreeing that his job would be to do the dishes. He tried not to sound too irritated, “There isn’t one clean dish in the cupboard.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Philip smiled and whispered something to Raney who laughed loudly.
Brad looked out of the corner of his eye at Rod Green.
Derrin said, “Brad, we can’t make our guests do the dishes.”
Jasmine said, “I cooked.”
Cheryl said, “So did I.”
Brad thought, “Fuck all of you. All right, I’ll do the goddamned dishes. But this is the last time.” He said, “OK. But you’ve got to bring your own dishes into the kitchen.” He got up from the table and went to the kitchen. They followed him into the kitchen with their dishes and stacked them onto the counter. There was a pile of dishes about a foot high covering four feet of the tile counter next to the sink. The dirty dishes were the result of three days of cooking and food was caked dry on some of the dishes.
Cheryl smiled to herself. She was delighted that Brad, who thought he was so much smarter and better than everyone else, had been trapped into doing the dishes. She was also delighted that he was too dense to see Raney’ machinations. It seemed obvious to her that Raney was testing Brad and trying to make him jealous of Philip Levy.
It took Brad more than two hours to do the dishes and he vowed he would never do them again.