This is the story of Harold Rothman’s first trip.
“How ya doing, Rothman?” his boisterous neighbor Preczenski asked.
Harold, perplexed, sitting on the edge of his dormitory bed, said nothing. Preczenski laughed. He had come to expect the unexpected from the Long Island longhair. Fortunately, he was in a suffer-fools-gladly sort of mood.
“How ya doing, Rothman?” Preczinski repeated, sitting down on the bed opposite and crossing his legs. Ray Finkelstein, Harold’s friend from down the hall, the same one who had given Harold some Dexidrine to help him cram for his Psych 101 prelim the next day, went to put on some Cream.
Still no response from Harold. Preczenski flashed Finkelstein a concerned look. Finkelstein shrugged his shoulders, feigning ignorance.
He leaned forward and peered at Preczenski. That was Preczenski, wasn’t it? Those were certainly Preczenski’s eyes. Sounded like Preczenski. Same tattered Plymouth sweatshirt, same smelly ankle-high Keds.
Jack Bruce began his familiar dirge.
“In a white room…” Eric Clapton’s guitar-warped air raid siren sang out. Something squeaked — Preczenski’s sneakers pressing on the tired linoleum floor. Duly playing his role as psychedelic guinea pig, Harold laughed softly. No, he said to himself, no, this can’t be happening.
Yes, replied a voice from an unseen source. It is.
“Rothman, how ya doing?!” asked Preczeski for the third time.
“I’m fine,” Harold lied. “I’m fine.”
“In a white room…”
Harold looked at Preczeski again, hard. “That is you, Preczenski?” he asked. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” replied Preczeski, annoyed now.
“Then why,” Harold calmly inquired, “do you look like King Kong?”
“IN A WHITE ROOM…”
It was true: from the neck up, Preczenski had become history’s most famous monkey. Harold recognized him from the movie. He knew those nostrils anywhere. And if he looked closer — yes, yes, he could see little airplanes circling Preczenski-Kong’s head. The biplanes were firing now. Harold began to panic. He caught himself, rewound his inner cineaste to the start of that day’s tape. Okay, roll ‘em!
First frame: a squirrel, a dead squirrel. Yes, he remembered now. When he woke up that morning, there had been a dead squirrel lying in the street on University Avenue. He’d decided to write a poem about it:
“On Seeing a Dead Squirrel Lying in the Middle of University Avenue”
It was just a morning like any other
Kids were hungry
Time to get the nuts
(Plastic Man approaching in slick car)
Now you’re just a dead squirrel
Getting smaller every time the light changes
Yes, Harold remembered now. One of his best works. Couldn’t wait to read it in poetry class. But first, yes, there was that psych prelim. Couldn’t stand psych.
Yes, yes, Harold remembered, fast-forwarding the tape — yes, cameraman, let’s bring it in close – he was at the library talking to Finkelstein in the bathroom, and Finkelstein said he had just the solution: speed. He had some great speed.
Dimly, he could hear Preczenski-Kong’s voice. Planes were still circling his hairy head. Otherwise, same Preczenski. Definitely.
“Are you okay, Rothman?”
No, he was not okay, definitely not okay. After all, Harold Rothman was tripping.
Harold continued to rewind the tape. Stop, stop — right there. Yes, he remembered now: dropping that speed at the library; Finkelstein saying everything would be okay.
(Of course, it wasn’t Dex, but Harold, still a touch naive about things hallucinogenic, didn’t pick up on this.)
Wait, wait, could that be it — the speed? Yes, yes, must be the speed. But why did Preczenski look like King Kong? Maybe I am just losing my mind, Harold told himself. Or, this is heavy Dex!
Preczenski, who was strictly a beer and whisky man himself and had never encountered someone under the influence of hallucinogens (voluntary or not), was now alarmed.
“IN A WHITE ROOM…”
Harold could hear the whir of a helicopter now, an echo from the nightly news. President Johnson was saying something about the bombing. Harold remembered the guy who’d given him a ride a few days before. The vet. Just back from ‘Nam, he was. Hated the place. But he was no peacenik, no, no, no. “Man, we could turn that country into a highway if we wanted…” Yes, sir! Could you please drop me off here?
Preczenski was shaking Harold now.
“Precenski, Preczenski,” Harold gasped, cracking up, “what do gorillas use to brush their teeth?”
So went Harold’s first trip. Something to write the folks about! Yes, if only the Rothmans could see their son now!
And now everything began to move in slow motion, at least from Rothman’s POV. And now he was getting up. And now he was running around the Slope screaming at the top of his lungs, “Fifty-four forty or fight!” And now Finkelstein, who was beginning to get alarmed himself at his sadistic little experiment, was trying to catch up. And now Harold was sitting in the middle of Central Avenue, grooving on the headlights of the slick car coming down the road. The headlights seemed to be floating. But they weren’t floating: the were coming straight for him. Blotto, oblivious, Harold continued to stare.
And at the last moment, Finkelstein pulled Harold out of the way.
And so it went.
Needless to say, Harold did not take the psych prelim. In fact, at the very moment said test was being administered in Sprinkle Hall, Rothman was doing cartwheels down the corridor of Dorm 4. And then he crashed…
The next morning, it all came back to him as he looked out the window and saw the dead squirrel, getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And Rothman remembered sitting in the middle of the street with the car bearing down on him. Yes, yes — satori! — the squirrel had been an omen.
That squirrel down there, getting smaller every time the light changed, was really supposed to be me!
“In a white room…”