Boy, You're Gonna Carry That Weight
By Ken Samuels
Hippie Boy. Spring, 1971
K is a hippie boy. His hair reaches to his shoulders. He has a leather vest, owns Beatle records, has met the Manson Family, and almost went to Woodstock. All before the age of seven. He's a stone hippie, and he loves it.
He lives in Oakland. He's just gotten off the road after three years—living in a camper, in various apartments and tents, and sometimes on site at the Renaissance Faire. His mother, Jude, has been successfully baking and selling various kinds of breads and desserts at the fair. She has done so well that she has opened a bakery with her old man Gary.
The business is called Mrs. Troll's, and is gaining in popularity. Maybe wholesome, groovy hippie food can achieve success in the straight world.
One problem, though. Jude and Gary aren't getting along. The stress of all those years on the road, self-enforced hippie poverty, and trying to raise K and his little sister A, have taken their toll.
Just as K is finishing up first grade, Jude and Gary break up. K wakes up one morning and Gary's gone. In his place is a strange guy named Buck. They'd first met him a couple of years earlier when he worked the booth next to them at a Ren Faire in Southern California.
Do K and A have a say in this matter? No.
Family? What's a Family? Summer, 1971
Buck, without anyone asking, decides that he is A and K's new daddy. He's a pretty peculiar guy. He drives around in a decomissioned WWII-era US Army truck that he bought from a Hollywood movie lot. Inside the back of the truck are his half-completed, semi-abstract paintings and all sorts of other junk that he has accumulated in his twenty-six years. Now he has a new old lady and her two bewildered kids to add to his collection.
After Gary leaves the Oakland flat, Jude and Buck soon follow suit. Whether it's because they aren't making rent, bad memories, or the lease is up, K never knows. With nowhere else to go, Jude, Buck, A and K move into the upstairs office of the bakery. Gary, alarmed at Jude and Buck's erratic business practices—shipments not made, bills not paid—pulls out of the partnership, and it's not long before Mrs. Troll's goes under. The death of another hippie dream.
The offices of the bakery are not the comfiest place to live. The quarters are cramped, and beyond a bathroom sink, there are no bathing facilities. Is it days, weeks, or months that the four of them live there? It seems like forever to K. He is miserable. He is regressing. He cries easily, and, embarrassingly, wets his pants quite often. Jude, whose own moods are increasingly erratic, berates K for his problems. K feels half in and out of the world, like his comic book hero, Deadman, the murdered tightrope walker who stalks the earth in search of justice. Deadman feels the pain of life but is trapped in lifelessness. K can dig that, and as best he can observes himself from a distance.
At the end of summer '71, Jude, Buck, A, and K abandon the bakery for another Renaissance Faire. A freaky friend from the sixties named John Balloon reappears with a nineteen-year-old girl in tow. One day, tripping on acid, John Balloon puts K on his shoulders and walks around the fairgrounds blessing all creatures and things. Another day, John's girlfriend drops acid and starts to freak out in the back of the Mrs. Troll's booth. Jude tries to calm her down by saying, “It's okay, we're all a family.”
The girl responds, “Family? What's a family?”
For K, the Renaissance Faire magic is gone. He is tired of living in the dirt. The weather is hot. Dust chokes the air. The sweet smell of hay—scattered about to keep the dust down—makes him sick, especially when they wet the ground in the evenings.
To cope with the daily anxieties, K starts sniffing snuff. A neighboring booth is selling tins of it, and K becomes a regular customer. If there's one thing he's learned about the Faire, there's always a morally shaky adult around who's willing to give a kid a hit of wine or a joint, so it's not hard for K to con someone into selling him the snuff and showing him how to use it (Crook your thumb, which makes a hollow in your wrist. Pour some snuff into the hollow and snort. Sneeze. Repeat as necessary). K gets hooked on the act of sneezing and its brief euphoric aftereffect. It's the best feeling he's had in a long time.
As the Faire draws to a close, K gets a severe case of poison oak. It covers much of his lower torso. He can barely walk by the time they pack up their stuff to go back to the city.
K Kills an African Violet. Autumn, 1971
When Jude, Buck, A, K get back to Oakland, they rent a few rooms in a large house near Lake Merritt. Various other people live there as well, including another hippie family: Rachel, Johanes, and Nanu, a girl about the same age as A and K. Most of the people are nice, but as they encourage their friends and new acquaintances (drug buddies) to use it as a crash pad, some sketchy characters roam the halls. One of the residents, Henry, a paranoid guy from New York, sleeps with a hammer under his pillow, which, considering the drop-in company, doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Lice and chicken pox outbreaks occur during the four months Jude, Buck, A, and K live there.
K attends a new school, Lakeview Elementary, for second grade. Although his teacher, Miss Wu, is no frightening crone like his first grade teacher, Mrs. Lattendorf, she only keeps him moderately interested in school. The best part of the day is when he gets home to watch Channel Two's line up of cartoons and sitcoms, such as Gilligan's Island, Mayberry RFD, and Please Don't Eat the Daisies. These innocuous comedies are some relief from the tension of the house. Jude, however, doesn't agree. She feels that K is watching far too much TV. She limits him to a half-hour per day, which is maybe one lousy episode of Gilligan's Island. K is outraged. To get revenge he executes her African Violets by squirting them with hairspray—an act that he almost instantly regrets.
K Loses His Head. May-June, 1972
Like a farm kid who is pulled out of school for seasonal work, K leaves the second grade a couple of weeks early in order to hit the summer fair circuit. Tent living again.
Another Renaissance Faire, followed by an 1890s-themed fair in Byron. It's the last fair that Mrs. Troll will do. Jude hates hot weather. She complains bitterly about the dust and lack of shower facilities. Increasingly, she and Buck fight.
K agrees with Jude about the heat and dust, and adds to himself, Don't forget about the bugs. One night, a giant beetle climbs up the side of their tent, its shadow illuminated to monstrous proportions by the light of the kerosene lantern. K is freaked out for the rest of the night, screaming everytime he feels another imaginary bug crawl across his skin.
Despite the heat, daylight brings some entertainment for K. He faithfully attends the twice-daily variety performance of comedy, music and magic that is held in the center of the fairgrounds. The magic act is K's favorite. It's run like a medicine show, the mustachioed magician performing several illusions, then hawking tall, cylindrical candles designed to resemble bottles of curative potion.
The magician concludes his act by “chopping off” an audience member's head in a guillotine, then magically restoring it. K patiently sits through many performances, knows it by heart, before the magician chooses him for the decapitation.
“You! Young man! You seem to have a good head on your shoulders!”
The audience chuckles. K's heart beats hard as he wishes he could duck away, but it's too late for that now.
K climbs up to the stage, too rattled to look at the crowd. The magician smells of sweat and mustache wax.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the magician yells into K's ear. “As I have unerringly observed, this boy has a good head on his shoulders. Firmly attached.”
He gently rotates K's head to demonstrate. The crowd titters. K feels the magician's breath riffling the back of his hair.
“I will now sever this boy's head and then restore it, using the secret arts of magic that I learned will stranded in the fierce wilds of Kashmir!”
He puts a black hood over K's head and whispers to him, “Just relax. We're gonna fool ‘em.”
K is thrilled that he is the magician's accomplice in this hoodwink, even if it is a shared communal joke. K kneels, the magician puts K's head in the guillotine, fastens it in the slot, pulls the cord that releases the “blade,” and yells, “Ladies! Avert your eyes!”
K, just a little bit scared, feels nothing when the blade falls and “severs” his head. The magician puts his hand on K's head, pretending to catch it before it falls in the basket below.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this boy is headless! Oh the woe his mother and father must feel! How will they feed and clothe this headless child?”
The crowd laughs.
“I am not a harsh man. I am a man of magic and healing. I will now restore this boy's head to its rightful owner by saying a few words that were taught to me by an ancient Kashmiri wiseman who speaks a dialect of Ancient High Kashmiri known only to him. I will repeat this word three times. No more, no less. Too few times and his head will be backward; too many times and he will have two heads.”
The crowd laughs again.The magician pauses for dramatic emphasis. K supresses an excited giggle.
“Ookakapoo! Ookakapoo! Ookakapoo!”
The magician pulls K to his feet, removes the hood with a flourish to reveal K blinking in the afternoon light. Cue applause.
K almost wishes his head had been cut off, flying away from heat, dust and confusion into the atmosphere, a new kind of wandering hero— “Headman,” perhaps—searching for a body that is not pulled along in Jude and Buck's erratic wake.