Harlan's Blues

     One strange chick I remember from somewhere, wearing a simple skirt
with pockets, her hands in there, short haircut, slouched, talking to
     Everything is going to the beat - It's the Beat generation, it's bčat,
it's the beat to keep, it's the beat of the heart, it's being beat and down 
in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the
slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat, and servants spinning pottery to a 

- Jack Kerouac
Desolation Angels

He meets her at the wedding at Larkspur Estates. She's a friend of a cousin of the bride, or a cousin of a friend, he's never sure which. He's there with the woman he loves - who, naturally, is there with someone else.

He notices Tracy for the first time during the reception, giving a second glance because of the Army boots. She's the only person in the room wearing Army boots. Under an ankle-length dress, sheathlike, flower-print, plain but not unpretty, black toes bulge like a clown nose at a catechism.

Through surging sea of humanity Harlan takes note: rosewood hair tied back in one unfrumpy bun, skinny legs, great smile, small breasts, line of tiny rings marching up one earlobe, flashing in chandelier-light as she laughs. The earrings are a little much, but the boots are the giveaway. She doesn't belong here, in this wealthy world, among tuxedos and tweed suits and Texas debutantes in pastel-pink ensembles. She doesn't belong here any more than he does.

Then the crowd closes over her like the ocean - a vast multitude of drips - and Harlan sardonic returns to the important task of being miserable. Drink in hand, distracted grin on face, he watches Audrey, the woman whose words light his way, as she glows in the attentive gaze of "someone else." Someone else, always someone else. Absorbed in the other man's attention, she is hardly aware Harlan is there.

A long time ago, last week, he was in love with her. And then she managed to remove the last good thing about his life by telling him she was in love...with "someone else." The fellow now before her.

He seems a nice enough chap, and Harlan in his pain and anguish was able to bow out graciously; and Harlan in his pain and anguish still does not realize the measure of his manhood revealed thereby. Walking away from her was an act of emotional courage few could have accomplished with such aplomb. But Harlan doesn't have a high opinion of himself lately, so thinks he was simply a putz.

He wonders why he isn't feeling more pain.

He thinks it's the drink, but it isn't...

It's the beat.

From the moment he first glimpsed the House, barely an hour ago on the edge of twilight, he could hear the faint pulselike beat of the stereo like jungle drums in the distance. At first he thought it an approaching helicopter; but it was simply Hammer, he of the former M.C., or some other architect of double-decibel boogie. The walls and wind leeched away words and music, disguising the hot pop rock dance tune, leaving only a low base beat he could practically feel in his shoes.

Inside, the music subsided to polite silence for vow and ceremony, but soon resumed as folding chairs were set aside for reception. It only increased in volume as the vast central room filled with friends and sudden new family.

"Time to throw the garter!" someone shouts. The crowd begins to accumulate at the far end of the room. Harlan abruptly seeks an exit. He needs air, needs darkness, needs to think. And the House...

He needs to look at the House.


Harlan secretly hopes the architect of modern American marriage custom is burning in some private reception-room of Hell, forced for eternity to dodge sizzling garters and flaming bouquets tossed by the lonely and broken-hearted. Seems only fair.

But his ire eases as he steps out into the open air. Crickets chirp a cacaphony of simple sex that makes mock of the elaborate affair inside. The roar of the stereo system dwindles to a distant beat. And Harlan looks with wonder on the House once more.

He mentally doffs his hat to the designers. When he heard the words "Larkspur Estates," he imagined a cookie-cutter community of identical houses, like Night of the Living Fifties; or, at best, a private boat club. Instead, it is a tree-lined mansion on a plot of lakefront property that would make Jay Gatsby jealous. The architecture is odd, somehow organic, as if the House was grown instead of built. Walls and walkways are paved with rock, making the House more rustic than rigid, more country than club. Columns of dark wood lining the doorway look like they were cut from this very spot.

Parked cars line rolling lawns for a hundred yards across a vast clearing. The place is as much a park as anything, and the winding drive gives trees right-of-way. As he looks down the long driveway he thinks of something, an old Tolkien quote, words of hobbit wisdom: about how even your front walk is a road, and the road leads ever onward, so you never know when you might be beginning an epic journey.

Finally free of the madness that has been his life for the past few months, he remembers how much he loves the open country. Fresh air; friendly faces; cricket noises; a conscious calm; big country houses spread out contentedly like a cat on a bedspread. And he understands.

Harlan (our hero) no longers thinks of Tolkien, but of another writer, Jack Kerouac. He is halfway through Jack's classic On the Road, nourished by its nurturing prose, like a dying plant repotted in rich new soil. For the last week, those beat meditations on the American road, so simple and complex and impossibly pure, have seemed the only thing between him and a nice long razorblade bath.

But now he understands...only an hour away from home, and he is already on the road. His problems seem to diminish, even the one waiting back insinde, and he remembers the whole world is not an office. Not yet, anyway. The American fifties were not so long ago, after all, and Jack's Road seems close; in a way, he is standing on it right now. Just like Tolkien said.

He smiles up at the House again: big but not brooding, like God's country cottage. Beautiful. A place of quiet dignity amid the green riot of nature, the perfect place for a marriage of spirits. He thinks he knows now why Kerouac writes the way he does, cramming every word possible into description, because there's never enough; there are never enough words to describe the beauty of a place like this.

It is beautiful...but not cheap. Harlan knows he will never be able to afford a membership to Larkspur Estates in his lifetime...even if he does find another job.


Harlan has the blues.

But blues gave birth to jazz, which in turn birthed the Beats. The sound of a mournful heart can be beautiful. Billie Holliday's man ain't faithful, so she sings…and grants us all a boon. Harlan hasn't a set of pipes, but he has something else, equally powerful, he's not truly aware of...yet.

Harlem sages call it soul.

Twilight has become a cool, beautiful spring night, and half-drunk on Kerouac he wanders all the way around the House, inside and out, weaving past tuxedo'd guests and garden statues, grooving on the place. Stone paradise.

Behind the House he can see motorboats slicing the lake below, a series of stone patios and paths leading down to dockside, and smaller buildings hidden here and there among trees on the slope. Again he is in awe, amazed that someone so rich could have such taste. He follows the path down to water's edge and looks out across the lake.

The soon-to-be-ex-computer programmer stares at fractured facets of full moon burning on the water. He watches for a long time, until a wave of unreality washes over him. The rest of the world melts away down the edges of his vision, leaving only the rhythmic motion of liquid moonlight and the distant sound of the beat. The beat, the beat.... Rippled water flashes mirrored signals like Morse code directly into his brain.

This rushing sense of reality lost is all too familiar to trippy hippy Ace (who coincidentally is tripping at the same time, 550 miles away, under a twilight not yet turned to night). But Harlan, who has never taken acid, feels like he's been hit by a truck driver. His eye fixated on coruscating moonlit ripples, he rocks back on his heels, he actually reels, feeling the rough rock wall on his back and the palms of his hands.

The night's perfect sphere is smeared like impressionist paint across the water, but no less beautiful or true. He feels an overpowering joy at the sight of it. He inhales deeply, the air like ambrosia, and his chest shivers with visionary tics. He feels joy at simply being here, right here, right now, to see it; for the experience truly would not have existed without him here at this moment, and it had to be him, and only him, because no one else would have seen it, felt it, the same way.

The moon burns on the water, flame from a different fire.

Suddenly Harlan is the only One who exists, and Now is the only moment that matters, now, right now, with nothing but rock rough under his fingertips and moonlit water burning in his brain like liquid fire.

Then Harlan heartsick does something strange and beautiful.

The word is poeticize. (Never heard it before? Sad world.)

Harlan poeticizes.

bright burning eye of sky
seeing all night tries to hide
embracing with Dianic gaze
the dark heart of the world
sex and solitary madness
I cannot take a breath
to see what your eye reflects.

Someone is approaching. The vision falters. Harlan hasn't Ace's expertise at maintaining altered states in the face of straights. Someday that will all change; but for now, he turns shining eyes away from the water. The garter has been thrown. He heads back toward the House for punch and cookies.

The children are frolicking on the lawn, running in circles, trying to get away from each other, trying to get closer. Much like games they will play in adulthood, Harlan muses. The boy is shouting, chanting, "Maya, Maya, Maya!" Harlan marks Maya, a beautiful little girl with a laughing face and eyes like new pennies. He suspects she'll be breaking hearts (like the one in him) around the turn of the century or so.


Arc-lamps burn like prison searchlights from an open patio. Harlan climbs wide stone stairs to mingle once more. After a pause by the hors d'oeuvre table, he decides to remain on the patio, out in the open, the better to see moonlight singing on the waves.

And it is here, munching a branch of broccoli, he hears someone say, "Did Jack Kerouac really write a book called Desolation Angels? How perfect, what a perfect title for him."

Coincidence is connection revealed, and sometimes it's so obvious you just can't ignore it. Harlan turns around. It's the woman in the Army boots, her bronze hair no longer up, now burning down her back to vanish in shadow. A champagne glass rests in her slender fingers, and the casual cant of her slim hips is somehow graceful...but then there's those boots. Oh boy.

Harlan is too close to be inconspicuous this time. She marks his interest, meets his eyes. "Hi," she says, without a hint of territorialism or mistrust.

All unprepared, Harlan falls back on Mark Twain's advice: When in doubt, tell the truth. "Hi, sorry, didn't mean to intrude, I just heard you talking about Kerouac..."

"Yes, the Beat poet? A beautiful man. Have you read The Subterraneans?"

"Uh, no, I just...I just started On the Road." Her eyes are bright, startling, penetrating. Harlan forgets the word for their color.

"Really? First time?"

"Yeah, a friend recommended I read about something besides writing code."

"Oh, I envy you...I remember the first time I read it. It was like waking up. Isn't it wonderful?"

"Yes, my God, what an incredible writer.... I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt y'all's conversation." The woman she was talking with, in a suit as pink as a powder puff, looks a little put out.

"Oh, it's no problem...what's your name?"

He tells her.

"You're joking."

He shakes his head. "My father had a sense of humor. Just don't call me 'Harley.'"

"Your name is really Harlan Davidson."

"Trust me, I've heard every joke about it you can think of. The funniest part is, my dad is a Presbytarian lay minister. Quiet, peace-loving - about as far from a biker as you can get. He actually named me after some writer."


He shrugs. "Don't remember. Don't care, really. By third grade I didn't want to hear anything more about my name than I had to."

"You should find out who," she says. "It's important to know who you're connected to."

Hazel, he remembers. That's the word for what her eyes are.


Powder Puff soon drifts away into the crowd, and neither Harlan nor Tracy seem to miss her. Tracy has an easy laugh and a delicate Spanish accent that drives him right up the wall. (Accents were ever his weakness.) Within half an hour, he would follow her anywhere.

But she isn't going anywhere. She has no car.

"No car? But you said you travel a lot."

"That's right. I find ways to get around. You know, like Jack."

Harlan nods. He had a feeling, a sense of the presence of another beat soul, a highway wanderer who would feel perfectly at home between those pages. In fact, he just now notices, Larkspur reminds him a lot of that big old house in Denver.

"Do you smoke pot?" Tracy says suddenly.

"Uhhhh...sure," Harlan is only mildly surprised. He sees no reason to be cautious.

"Would you like to smoke a joint?" So polite, as if she were asking, Would you like more champagne?


"Well, not here, but I'm sure on an estate this size...-"

"I know just the place," Harlan says. "I discovered it when I was exploring earlier."


In shadows they stand, passing the cigarette back and forth between them, clouds of smoke billowing up harmlessly into tree branches spotted with spring buds. The party is up the hill and way the hell away, but the moonlit lake is comfortably close. Harlan is surprised he can still hear the beat from here.

He inhales with a hiss and hands her the joint. She grasps it between thumb and middle finger, an experienced smoker's hold. He notes her nails, short and unpolished. "So you are a programmer?" she says.

"Yeah, for the moment anyway, how'd you know?"

"You said something about writing code.... What do you mean, 'for the moment'?"

"I work for a company...a small company, but a pretty good company. So good, in fact, we were kicking our competition's ass. So our chief competitor responded in the American spirit of fair play and free enterprise. They bought us out."

She doesn't quite follow what he's saying, but she can tell it's important. "And this means you are losing your job?"

"Not just my job...the whole company, a hundred people, out of work. But that's not the worst of it. They didn't just let us go...they decided to use us up first. See, they bought all our product too, our software, but can't use it until it's rewritten for their system. So they offered us a fat bonus to stick around for six months and do the work. It's too good to pass up, even though what I'm basically doing is putting myself out of a job."

"And you are bitter."

"I am very bitter." He sucks in smoke, offers her the resinated roach.

"I'm stoned, thank you." She continues to listen with real interest.

"I never realized what cocksuckers the corporate suits were before. I just did my job and figured they'd do theirs. I forgot that their job is making money, and that's far more important than any of the people they've been working with for the past three years.

"The thing is, they just don't care. I'm young and single, and I'm still going to be scrambling...but half the people I work with are women, single mothers, and the assholes sent them packing too, just to pad their asses with an extra dollar. And people wonder why the country is such a mess. Sometimes I just -..." He pauses, exhales, shakes his head, scuffs the roach out against the tree. "Jesus, I'm sorry. You lanced a boil, can you tell?"

"I was thinking something similar. Harlan, why don't you just quit?"

"I need the money. I don't get the bonus unless I stay the full six months. It's like a carrot on a stick."

"But it's all such a waste. Nothing good comes of your work now. And you're losing yourself, working against yourself."

"Don't think I haven't thought about it. I think about it every day." He has other thoughts too, crazy shit, terrible things he would never tell anyone, let alone a woman he just met. That's another reason he hates what is happening: it is revealing the shadowy stuff inside him, things about himself he'd have liked never to know. "I'd like to. Believe me, I'd love to. But I just can't. It's like a sickness."

"This is interesting," Tracy says. "You're really opening up to someone you just met a little while ago."

"Yeah, well, I was trying not to think about that, because I knew I 'd just fuck it up. Anyway, we met at a wedding, so as far as we know, we could be related now."

"Oh, we are." Before he can ask what she means, she says, "Why are you afraid you'll fuck it up?"

"It just seems easy to talk to you this way, as if I'd known you for years. It feels...natural, and not much comes to me naturally these days. I know if I start thinking about what an attractive woman you are, I'll blow it somehow."

She smiles at the compliment. "My friend, if it is truly natural, you can't fuck it up."

Harlan's not sure he agrees with that - he's pretty sure he can fuck up most anything - but her quiet certainty is something else. "Y'know something? I get the feeling you are very, very wise."

"I don't know if that's true, but if it is it must come from experience. I've been on the road since I was eight years old."

"Eight? Were you a runaway or something?"

"No, not at all, I traveled with my mother and sister mostly until a few years ago. Then I got involved with the Dead."

"The dead?"

"The Grateful Dead. Do you know what a 'Deadhead' is?"

"I think so. Like a Rastafarian hairstyle, something like that?"

"You're thinking of dreadlocks. Deadheads are people who follow the Grateful Dead around from concert to concert -"

"Oh yeah, of course, now I remember, I read about them in Rolling Stone. Do you do that?"

"Yes, in fact I was going to ask you -"

"Are they any good?"


"The Grateful Dead."

"Well yes, of course, obviously they must be or there wouldn't be thousands of people following them around wherever they go. Although I don't really go in to the concerts anymore, myself. I generally stay in the parking lot, selling jewelry and hemp clothes..."

She goes on, but Harlan isn't listening. His quiet Beat consciousness is stirring once more, awakened by images of a little girl eight years old and on the road; of pot-smoking hippies traveling the highways in beat-up VW buses like something out of a bad show about the sixties. Kerouacian consciousness recognizes a kindred spirit when it meets one. Suddenly the idea is irresistible. He hears his heart speak again:

There's the Real World, and There's the Real World.
1) In the Real World, you owe everyone for everything, even the things you didn't do, and if you try to get by without paying, to make your own rules, they will
make you pay, better believe it, boy. 2) In the Real World, pain, heartache, misery and death are among the few guarantees, and if you get a shot at real happiness, take it, boy, take it, 'cos tomorrow we'll all be dust, and their petty rules won't mean shit then. If they can't handle that, that's their problem.
Which World would you choose?

He wonders why he isn't feeling more pain...and now he thinks he knows. His heartache doth not fall from love, for it's not really love he is feeling. It's just Harlan, in love with being in love, in love with being in pain. He needs to feel pain to feel real. And the moment he realizes it, the ache simply...ceases. He no longer needs it. He knows what is real...the beat, the one he's been hearing all along, the one he thought was coming from the stereo.

It's not.

It's the beat of his heart.


Tracy is a gleam of hazel in the light of distant arc-lamps, the flame of her hair all but extinguished by shadows. In 24 hours she will be laughing and chasing a cockroach across the floor of a cheap hotel, a cockroach he will catch in a paper napkin. Minutes later, they will be locked in a hot couplet of sex fit to make the crickets jealous. But at the moment, he realizes she just asked him a question.

"I'm sorry, I have no idea what you were saying." When in doubt....

"I was wondering if you are heading back to the city after the wedding. I need a ride north, but if you can take me as far as I-35, I can hitch from there."

Harlan is thinking of Tolkien, and Kerouac, each singing in their own way about the same Road. It is the Road that starts at your front step and continues on around the world, smooth and gray as a pencilled line. The Road that rolls into Larkspur Estates is the same Road Jack wandered in worn beat heels, catching rides on flatbed trucks, grooving with sage hoboes and hermit monks. All this time, all these pages, he has been imagining Jack's Road as if it were Middle Earth, an unreachable land of fantasy - when it has never been farther than his own car.

Suddenly Harlan sees an image of himself, as from a great distance, sees he is nothing more than one of the interminable American wage-slaves and desk-jockeys who dream of watching the Road roll on, mile after linčd mile - but stay in chains because they have bought and sold a bogus American Dream.

In short, he has a Beat epiphany, his third of the evening, and that's enough for even him to get the message. The image of this incredible woman, hitchhiking at night on a dirty and dangerous highway, simply cinches it.

They return to the amazing House.

Taking once last glance at the woman he loved, he asks the valet for his car. He gives an exorbitant tip, just because he's never done valet parking before, and may never do it again. Tracy gets into the car with him, and instead of heading east into the city, they turn north onto the highway and just keep going...

Into the Real World.

angelheaded hipsters and visionary tics
(c) 1997 Alan Rankin