for Gen Tsaconas

To see what is right, and not do it, is want of courage, or of principle.

— Confucius

I live beachside in San Diego, California, in a small ground-floor studio with a fold-out couch, a burned-out RCA color television, an eight-by-four kitchen stocked with miniature appliances, and my Toulouse-Lautrec lithos tacked to the walls. I have surrounded myself with philosophical texts — Critique of Pure Reason, The World as Will and Idea, The Republic (both translations) — even though I have no idea what Kant, Schopenhauer, Plato, and the rest are talking about. Eight years ago, in high school, I wrote an ending to an unfinished novel by Mark Twain called Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians, and my instructor, Mrs. Ramsey, was so impressed that she thought I should make an appearance on television and claim to be Twain’s ghost. Her praise was enough to hatch the notion that I am a writer, but so far I have not been able to duplicate that early success. In the interim I work as a prep cook at a famous bayside resort and jazz club. (I’ve never seen so many roaches in a kitchen; now and then you’ll catch them carrying off whole hams.) This is my sixteenth job in the last eight years.

I love living at the beach. My rent is double the monthly mortgage on my parents’ four-bedroom house fifteen miles inland, but they don’t have a billion acres of sparkling green sea for a front yard. I swim out to the buoy every few days, ride the wild surf, dig for clams in the late summer, read the New Yorker on the sea wall, and take long, late-night Pacific Ocean walks. You can really think down along the cool, misty shore: hands in your pockets, moon shivering, bonfires crackling, glistening green-black waves smoothing themselves rhythmically upon the footprinted sand — drunk girl with no bra tripping over a piece of driftwood and clanging unceremoniously into a trash can, someone smashing a beer bottle on the boardwalk.

I also love the sanctuary of my dinky beach pad: listening to baseball games on the radio; sitting with a mug of tea and brandy at my midget kitchen table (with its view of the corner pay phone); reading Nicomachean Ethics (can anyone tell me what Aristotle is talking about?); crafting my latest novel (I’m already on chapter one!); or writing long letters to my girlfriend in Barcelona, who’s busy sleeping her way across Spain. I can’t wait for her to come home so we can . . . what? “I’m so happy you said we could see other people,” she told me before she left. Did I say that?

On Mission Beach there’s always a party with clanking bottles and tittering girls, even in the winter. The rich students from San Diego State University rent apartments here. The couple upstairs fucking sounds like the call of friendly raccoons. Ted and Darlene from Iowa are on their honeymoon, skipping hand in hand, a bit crocked, their flip-flops clapping on the asphalt. (“Why don’t we move here, darling? San Diego is so beautiful.”) The cadaver-faced, belly-scarred welfare mother stops by in the evenings to sit cross-legged on my floor, smoke her Slims, and wait for me to make my move. A couple of marines with a six-pack show up and want to drink with me, as if I were some prop in a California fairy tale. Perfect strangers knock on my door at all hours and ask if I know where the party is, or whether I have change for the pay phone. (Did you do this back in Illinois — knock on people’s doors and ask them for change?)

My old friends from way back, the ones who’d never visit me if I lived inland, pull up in front of my apartment and unload the deck chairs and the cooler; the blanket and the umbrella; the frisbee, the surfboards, and the tape deck. My place is Margaritaville with free parking. Always we drink, smoke, or snort something. They stay late and leave me half baked and all alone in the tingling night, listening to the rodent-squeak of mattress springs upstairs.

My party pad was supposed to be a writer’s studio, but I don’t seem to be getting much of that done these days. I tell myself I haven’t yet begun. I’m only twenty-five years old. Most authors do their best work between the ages of thirty-two and thirty-six. These are the indispensable “lost years,” I tell myself. I am being shaped by experience. I am Dylan Thomas at the urinal, John Steinbeck drunk on cheap Chianti, Jack London swacked on horseback, Richard Brautigan descending well liquored into the high tide of tie-dyed San Franciscans, absinthe-addled Verlaine with his derringer waiting for Rimbaud to come home. I believe I am dissolute because I am an artist and the pain of Truth is too difficult to bear sober. Greatness is in me like peanuts in a PayDay bar. Earnestly and glowingly inebriated at two o’clock in the morning, I tell anyone who will listen that I am going to win the Nobel prize in literature one day. All I need is something to write about.


Once a month or so my younger sister, Lou Anna, drifts through with one of her pretty girlfriends. (My girlfriend in Spain is one of them.) Lou Anna’s always coming back from a party, or going to a party, or on her way to score some dope. She is one of my closest friends, even though I made her childhood hell by teasing her relentlessly. In the darkness, when our parents were out, I would turn up Their Satanic Majesties Request (“It’s so very lonely, / you’re two thousand light-years from home”) until she begged me to stop. I single-handedly converted her to vegetarianism by my ruthless descriptions of what meat really was. I exacerbated her awkwardness, her lack of confidence, her social ineptitude. In turn she was devoted to me. She trusted me, idolized me. I was a blackguard and a scallywag, yet she never once tattled on me for all my numerous crimes.

Today she rumbles up on her Honda 250 with her buddy Cecilia, who rides a Kawasaki 350 Bighorn. Both Lou Anna and Cecilia wear tight black T-shirts with feminist slogans. Both are swaggering, busty girls with mascara-charred eyes, famished cheeks, and center-parted brown hair. They might be twins, though Cecilia has wider and more-ambiguous sexual tastes. She also has more drug experience; Lou Anna and I draw the line at needles.

Lou Anna grabs herself a beer, sits down in front of my burned-out television set, and shakes out her long hair. I’m surprised by how inebriated my sister is at 4 P.M. In place of that once-earnest face is only the blur of vacancy. Cecilia’s pretty far gone herself. I tell them in the tone of the hip older brother (while getting Cecilia a beer) that they should not be drinking and driving, especially small motorcycles on the interstate. They laugh as if death is a joke.

One way to get a bearing on your bohemian lifestyle is to jot down snatches of conversation as you go: “Blrrf. . . . Naw, come on. . . . Oh, man, you broke it. No, I think it’s OK. You got any glue? [Giggling.] . . . He’s a what? . . . I ain’t going into the water nude. . . . So she says to me — wait a minute, I forgot.”

Laughter and more laughter. And the sun goes down. And all the while it eats at me, because what my sister has become is mostly my fault.

In the beginning I thought I was doing her a favor. She was a bookish, overweight child disabled by shyness, with anachronistic silver-sequined spectacles. Her dream was to help starving people in Africa. She was an ace at her studies and innocent as a lamb, even though we lived on Freak Street (for years no one bothered to wash off the spray paint that covered the original name on the sign), our block infested with drugs and vampires.

The process of corruption is gradual. At fourteen you see Vanishing Point, in which the ex-cop hero swallows a handful of amphetamines and achieves suicidal glory. You read an article in Time about the medicinal benefits of marijuana. You learn that one of your favorite writers did his best work under the influence. You fancy a girl who has already gone to the other side and stares at you with smoldering eyes as you pass, unable to speak to her. You want to be a part of something big and glamorous for a change. At fifteen you start smoking and drinking, alone at home while your parents are at work. You sit naked in a beanbag chair with an erection and a glass of your father’s cheap vodka and a hand-rolled cigarette. Once you know how to smoke tobacco, pot comes naturally, and now you have something to say to the girl with the smoldering eyes. The broken homes are dark inside and smell of grape jelly and kerosene, but they are full of giddy cheer and a Lord of the Flies abandon that makes you feel as if you just might stay there until you’re twenty-nine. When you find something that good, you simply must share it with the ones you love.

When Lou Anna was thirteen and I was seventeen, I started letting her light my cigarettes. Within a year I’d taught her how to smoke a joint. Not long after that, I was buying kilos of marijuana and selling ounce bags (“lids,” we called them) for ten dollars apiece out of my bedroom. Lou Anna would load her purse up with lids and sell them at school. She usually sold out in the first hour. My mother eventually shut me down (“Who are all these strange people coming to your room and staying for only a few minutes?”), but if she was so intent on preventing the corruption of her children, she should have moved us to a desert island without any television reception about four years earlier.

At fifteen my sister went on an overnight beach excursion with a “church camp.” The church representatives provided cases of beer and let the boys and girls sleep together. (There were a lot of embarrassingly hip adults at that time. Nobody who’d seen Easy Rider or read Soul on Ice wanted to be “square.”) My sister was smoking pot on the beach with some of the other church campers when the police came along and demanded to know where they’d gotten the drugs. The kids wouldn’t tell, so they were all arrested. Confused parents were contacted. The charges were eventually dropped.

Lou Anna was so bright that school was simply a formality for her. She passed the GED test at the beginning of tenth grade. This did the same thing for her that Mrs. Ramsey’s declaring me the ghost of Mark Twain had done for me: it gave her the illusion that she’d actually achieved something. I was long out of the house by then, and our parents both worked, so Lou Anna was on her own among the vampires who made out in cars filled with the goat-rank aroma of sweet oblivion. Lou Anna tried community college twice before she was seventeen — she thought she might get her pilot’s license — but there were too many distractions, and on Freak Street you didn’t need a license to fly.

It wasn’t long before Lou Anna ran into serious trouble with her drinking. I don’t know the cause of alcoholism. Maybe it’s spawned by a rogue gene or a faulty relationship with a parent. Maybe it is beryllium, dopamine, Satan, or a blessing in disguise. I’ve heard the idea promoted that alcoholism is an allergy, though it seems to me that it’s the antidote to a different allergy, an allergy to people. This is as close as I can get to an explanation for my, my sister’s, and our father’s lust for liquid liberation. All of us began drinking at a young age out of social discomfort. All of us had big, romantic dreams. None of us liked ourselves much. We preferred the personality we could pour from a bottle.

Our father knew he had a drinking problem, and he quit many times. We loved him when he was sober: a gentle, generous, highly moral man. But he couldn’t stand the daylight, the pressure and grind of teaching junior high (he considered himself little more than a baby sitter), the bleakness of being someone he did not hold in high regard. He used the vernacular of the day — “uptight” — to describe his constant discomfort, and pretty soon we’d hear that ice hitting the glass, and our hearts would sink. He simply saw no other relief, and, as with most alcoholics, each time he made his escape, it was a little more like death, which I think was fine with him.

It must have pained him to see his daughter on the same road so early on. She was very much like him: so raw and uncomfortable in her own skin that a nightly descent into the jingling armor of alcohol felt like the only solution. Our mother, the last sane person left in the house, was doubly alarmed at Lou Anna’s swift decline and leaped in to save what she could. Threats and lectures were replaced by curfews and restrictions. Tying her up in the basement might’ve worked better, if we’d had one. When our parents finally grounded her for a month, Lou Anna responded by running away from home. She was so wild that even I ceased to have an influence on her. She’d disappear for weeks, living with friends who usually had little concern for her welfare. She’d pick up jobs as needed: delivery driver, ice-cream scooper. A few times she returned home, but it never worked out. She was particularly at odds with our father, with whom she had so much in common. Our parents had no way to control their daughter outside of calling the police.

To everyone’s relief our gifted renegade, now eighteen, moved far north to the mountains of Calaveras County, where she joined the California Conservation Corps. She became an expert with a chain saw and an accomplished skier, obtained a commercial driver’s license, and learned how to drive a bus and a backhoe. She fought fires, cut timber, plowed snow, built roads, and saved idiot campers from black bears and locked outhouses. But her new mountain friends were even more-enthusiastic revelers than her old flatland pals. (Have you ever played that game where you use shots of Jack Daniel’s for checkers, and every time you get jumped, you have to toss back the shot? Neither have I.) My once hefty, timid nerd of a sister with the funny specs was doing Jack London better than I ever could.

Lou Anna got a seasonal job as a ranger at Big Trees State Park, where she continued her rollicking, libertine ways — until she got busted again. She was nineteen now, and there was no leniency from the state this time. In California possession of marijuana in excess of four ounces was interpreted as intent to sell: a felony. She did five days in jail, had to pay a steep fine, and was sentenced to five years’ probation and court-mandated Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Now, about two years later, my AA-dropout sister is asleep on my fold-out couch with her hair fallen over her face, skin so pale she looks dead. I sit at my table with a cup of instant coffee and a headache like a knife between my eyes. The novel is piled neatly to my left, untouched for weeks. As Lou Anna stirs, I get a chilling glimpse of the wastrel I am destined to become.

“Wake up, sleepyhead,” I say. “Don’t you have to work today?”

Lou Anna peels open one eye to the pain of sunshine. I am happy to see my real sister, the gentle, generous, moral girl who would never dream of calling you a name or slugging you in the stomach; the one who laughs too loud and would give anything to know why she is destroying herself. She sits up, coughs, fidgets, and rubs an eye with a fist. “Where’d Ceece go?”

“Took off last night. You don’t remember?”

“Was she all right?”

“If she lost it on the freeway, I doubt she felt any pain.”

She squints at the diamond scatter of sun in the window. A figure walks past outside. I wait for the knock on the door, the request for change. Lou Anna’s mouth looks dry, and her lips stick together as she speaks. “You got to work today?” she asks.

“Off,” I say. “I’m going to quit pretty soon.” I describe the angry speed freak in the pantry; the belligerent ex-marine breakfast cook; the talentless, walleyed, MSG-slinging Korean dwarf chef; the Mexican dishwashers who laugh at all the drug-crazed gringos. Nothing but distress in that place, because in a fully developed capitalist society there is something wrong with you if you are not rich, famous, an artist, or on television.

Lou Anna groans and rubs her head. “You got any aspirin?”

I retrieve a pair for her. She picks up Critique of Pure Reason and thumbs through it. Lou Anna would probably be at Princeton or working for Dow Chemical by now if I hadn’t gotten ahold of her. She could understand all this ancient philosophy I immerse myself in, but she doesn’t care a whit about categorical imperatives or the principle of sufficient reason. Why bother? What’s it done for anyone? What’s it done for me?

I start to clean up the place, dumping beer cans and ashtrays and beer cans that have become ashtrays. I had a chance to sleep with Cecilia last night, and I’m glad I didn’t. I open a window and say out of the blue: “Why don’t we get out of here, go back to school?”

“School? Where would we go?”

“Humboldt State U.,” I say. “I’ve already dropped out there once. I know the ropes.”

She stares at me, waiting for the punch line.

“We’ve got to quit drinking,” I say. “We’ve got to get out of this miserable place. Do you think anyone will really miss us?”

A smile darts across her face.

“We can help each other out,” I add.

She laughs for a while at that — her corrupter proposing to become her savior. Then she lights up a cigarette, takes a deep drag, looks distastefully at the exhaled smoke, and says, “When do we start?”


In 1981 Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, is a forgotten academic outpost. The closest big city is San Francisco, nearly three hundred miles south. The football team is wonderfully inept. There are no fraternities or sororities. It is a small school with undemanding entrance requirements, probably because there are few jobs in this part of the world. Most of the service positions in town are staffed by forestry majors, the chief product of HSU. Maybe three in a hundred of them will actually find jobs in forests, even though the college itself sits in the middle of one. The students here are hairier than their metropolitan counterparts to the south and more inhibited as a rule. They slouch about in camouflage and military greens and Birkenstocks and wool berets and pretend not to need each other.

Arcata is one of the last few hippie enclaves on earth: It is a nuclear-free zone. It has an exemplary water-treatment plant, a wildlife refuge, and a co-op the size of a supermarket selling duck eggs, bulgur wheat, kefir, and organic produce. Arcata is also a major producer of California’s unofficial number-one cash crop. The wet, cool climate, dense forests, and sparse population lend themselves to the mass cultivation of some of the most expensive high-grade cannabis on the planet.

It rains a lot in the rain forest, and there isn’t much to do here except bicycle down to the store for munchies. An unusually high number of bars surround the downtown plaza, at the center of which stands a statue of President Bill McKinley, who was assassinated in his second term by an anarchist. It’s fair to ask why two youngsters fleeing drugs and alcohol are headed for a hippie haven renowned for its drug production and high saloon-per-capita ratio. Our answer is that we don’t plan to go out much. We’re confident in our resolve. And no matter where you travel, there will always be temptation. You can’t live in a vacuum, you know.

It’s almost summer when we arrive in Arcata. The town is nearly empty, and we race to get an apartment and find work before the other students return from Los Angeles — get a little jump on the game, get our heads on straight, build some momentum, get it right this time. The exhilaration of starting over is almost as good as getting high.

On the second day we find a two-bedroom unfurnished apartment overlooking Route 101. We have enough money to put down first and last months’ rent, pay the security deposit, and buy a little food, a kitchen table (which I carry home and up the stairs on my back), and some chairs from Goodwill. That’s all for now. No couch, lamps, dressers, or beds. We have our own bedrooms, where we sleep on the floor in nests of blankets. I have brought all the cooking equipment we need and a radio. My sister is still a vegetarian. In a show of solidarity I declare myself a vegetarian too.

We begin the hoop-jumping at the university across the highway: meetings with counselors; retrieval of transcripts from schools we’ve dropped out of; aptitude and placement tests. Lou Anna is uneasy. For her, alcohol is the key to love, laughter, friendship, and every other Dale Carnegie principle — until you wake up one morning face down in a cow pie. When she’s not drinking, the world is dreary; the gulfs expand; her palms itch; she’s restless and doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror. Sober she’s easily intimidated or knocked off course, poorly equipped to face her multitude of unreasonable fears. She wants to go to community college first, she says, to get her feet wet. I tell her she’s smarter than most of the kids up on the knoll. This is not Brown University, dear. They’re mostly escape artists here, dope smokers and ecoradicals who play dress-up and fear humanity. We’re going to blend right in.

We are a pair of misfits, unwilling to make friends for fear they may open the door upon the unholy precipice. In the evenings, while waiting for our new lives to start, we play Scrabble. (She wins.) We listen to classical music and Salvation Army dramas on the radio. We read books and talk in our new humble, sober voices. We cut each other’s hair and do each other’s laundry. We pick wild blackberries along the road. We buy twenty-five-pound bags of pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and brown rice. We are like some incestuous Mennonite couple who eat only brown eggs, homemade yogurt, and hand-kneaded bread. Our bare apartment, with its white curtains shut tight, feels like a monastery.

Within two weeks we’re both employed: Lou Anna as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant in a drab mini-mall two miles away; I as a laborer digging out the foundation of a burned-out restaurant downtown. My boss, David, delivers annoying daily announcements: “Guess what [shit detail] we’re going to do today?” But he amuses me, because for once in my life I have a real future shining over my dead-end head. David tells me, as if granting a reward for my devotion to his cause, that once his restaurant is restored, I will be the first cook he hires. Meanwhile I spend most of my time shirtless on my belly under the shell of the blackened restaurant, scooping mud into a wagon with a folding GI shovel. What a great novel this will make, I think as I walk home as black as a coal miner.

My sister works evenings and comes home every night shining with grease. The tips aren’t great, but she still outearns me. There’s more lard than beans in their refried beans, she says, and the owner is an idiot. (Isn’t that always the case?) She’s discouraged by the long haul ahead of us. Her stability is more fragile than mine, perhaps because she was introduced to the dropout life at a younger age. She misses her friends. I make cups of strong cinnamon tea and remind her of the shattered husks of our chrysalises. No one said that adulthood would be easy. All right, a few did, but most of them are in rehab now.

Because of our different shifts, I don’t see Lou Anna as much as I’d like to. When I do, I give her pep talks, remarking on all she’s accomplished: How about those SATs? Much higher than mine. Half of these kids up here want to be forest rangers, and she’s already been one. She’s read three thousand books. And now that she’s sober, it won’t be long before she gets her pilot’s license.

At the restaurant a peculiar customer has taken an interest in Lou Anna. He asked her out once, and after she said no, he began to wait for her after work. She thinks he has even followed her home. Her old drunk self would’ve knocked him down and told him she already had an asshole in her pants. But without her whiskey muscles, she’s unable to confront him. Each night that she works, I walk the two miles to the restaurant through the fog and rain to meet her after her shift. And though I can never catch the creep, it feels good walking in the dark along the windy road through the redwood forest among the blackberry brambles, going somewhere for a change, having someone to look out for. When Lou Anna sees me crossing the near-empty parking lot, she breaks into a big smile.

“How about giving me a ride home,” I say.

She fires up her motorcycle, I climb aboard, and back through the dark tunnels of blackberries we go.


When school starts, Lou Anna and I are ready. The simplicity and clean lines of our sober, vegetarian lives are so invigorating it’s almost too much to bear. My sister has decided to become an environmental engineer. I am going to become a writer, even though I don’t yet see how school will help me do this. Most who get writing degrees stay in school indefinitely, because they can’t survive otherwise. I have started smoking again: just two cigarettes a day, Pall Malls, unfiltered. In a show of solidarity Lou Anna starts smoking again too, also just two a day. Tobacco is sacred in some societies. Sharpens the mind. We keep the pack in the refrigerator. We keep each other in check.

With similarly shaky reasoning we make a batch of blackberry wine. (It’s natural and free.) The rule is we can each drink only one cup a night. I’ve read that those who have strong inclinations toward alcohol abuse — especially social alcoholics with inchoate personalities, like my sister and me — are sometimes better off with one or two modest measures of alcohol at a specified time of day than with an impossible-to-face abstinence. Our own father, who tried for thirty years to commit suicide with booze, now successfully confines himself to two glasses of red wine every evening after five.

Lou Anna and I manage to keep our promises to each other: two cigarettes, one glass of wine. I think my sister is content, even excited, to be in school. She’s a scientist at heart; this is her milieu. I see her gaining confidence daily. Every time I undertake formal advanced education, however, alarms attached to my nausea center begin going off. The first alarm sounds when I enter into a complicated, long-term financial agreement, which gives me the feeling I’ll soon have to get married and settle down and find a job that I hate. The second alarm comes when I see the weary, cranky resignation of those professors who long ago entered college hoping to become artists. A third alarm is triggered by the drab, glue-smelling textbooks that cost sixty dollars apiece and can’t be resold for a dollar after you’ve dropped the class. The other students worry me, too, with how long they wear their sideburns and how often they use the phrase “totally intense.”

But forget all that. I’ve come here to learn to write. Someone up on that knoll must be able to teach me. These professors are published writers. They have to know more about literature and its construction than I do. They’ve parsed and analyzed composition for years. (Too bad literature isn’t a science.) They teach it, for Christ’s sake. So why is their work so passive and dull?

Before long I’ve gravitated away from the assigned reading and back toward my own interests: Aldous Huxley and Nathanael West, Charles Baudelaire and W. Somerset Maugham. My head tingles with possibilities. I feel aswarm with purpose and potential. I read Ezra Pound’s Cantos, which are much like my philosophy books in their recondite and incoherent constructions. The renegade line breaks come not from structural experimentation, it seems, but from a frenetic impatience with the carriage return. Pound’s jagged, paranoid, scintillating misconception of the world (he was an anti-Semite who sided with Mussolini) is the raving of a man who’s climbed too high up the walnut tree. But energy, even paranoid-nut-tree energy, I realize, might be the key to the whole business. There is energy in anger, death, sacrifice, risk, heartbreak, madness, poverty, evil, destruction, and the pursuit of truth. There is not much energy in imitation, conformity, fear, worry, pretending, hiding, dressing up, or playing it safe. Security gives off the same scent as decay. The professors up on the hill might know all about art, but art is not knowledge: if anything, the two are in opposition.


Despite the evening Pall Malls and the occasional cup of blackberry grog, I’ve never been in better shape. Hard physical labor, spare surroundings, forest air, varied reading of my own selection, bulgur wheat, and the intellectual discipline of the college curriculum all add up to purpose, the fine wine of the electric mind. Still I find myself going against the grain, not following class assignments, disliking the authors all the other students swoon over (Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey). I didn’t come here to pay homage to literature; I came here to learn how to produce it — and to get away from the speed freak in the pantry, the belligerent ex-marine, the walleyed MSG-slinging Korean dwarf, and the Mexican dishwashers who laugh at the drug-crazed gringos. But to get away and stay away, you have to submit to the institution. You must scramble for power and security, which are inimical to free and direct expression. The college is a state-run business, after all. The cage door is about to clank shut, and I can see myself caught inside, bearded and cranky, with term papers falling out of my briefcase and a rip in the roof of my convertible MG.

I remember now why I quit before. The five things you need to write well are talent, heart, life experience, persistence, and luck, and the university can’t give you one of them. And if I stayed in school what would I write about? What would the other students’ beloved Kerouac have written if he’d spent his youth hiding out in college: My Trip to the Water Fountain? If I stay in school, I’ll have to drink to get through, and drinking does nothing but hold me in solution while the world passes me by. A writer owes his readers and himself the truth, and if you spend forty years sloshed to the gills, how can you possibly know what the truth is?

It’s difficult to face the idea of quitting school again so soon, especially with my sister depending on me. Perhaps I can somehow split myself in two, into a real and an artificial soul, and lead a double life, only half sold out. But can a good writer be honest only when it’s convenient? How have I fooled myself so effortlessly once again? Why do I escape into these hollows I know are haunted?

Our upstairs neighbor Mike has been smiling at Lou Anna lately. She smiles back. He’s a skinny, cheerful Irish kid with protruding ears, a fighter’s bent nose, and a headful of cowlicks. He’s also bright, a chemistry major. One day he catches us next to the zucchini at the co-op. “You guys play pinochle?” he asks.

Coincidentally, we do, I reply.

“You keep yourselves pretty shut up,” he says, switching his tongue to the other cheek.

My sister smiles.

“We don’t mean to be unfriendly,” I explain, feeling like a preacher with his hot young daughter talking to the local pool hustler.

“How about a game at my place?” he says. “Friday night?”

Lou Anna glances at me shyly. It’s plain that she likes this young man. And who am I to prevent a twenty-two-year-old woman from having what she wants? We have been too isolated. You can’t live in a vacuum. One night of cards won’t open the door on the unholy precipice. We’ve got our plans, our investment, our foundation, our resolve.

Mike lives on the third floor with his roommate, Wayne, a botany major. On Friday we discover that their apartment has a fully stocked, mirrored bar. Empty liquor bottles are arranged like trophies all about the room. Mike and Wayne are already half in the bag. I don’t know why this should catch me by surprise, but it does. Mike pours us each a drink and insists that we partake: “Hey, I’m a chem major. I know what I’m doing here.” He has a certain rugged, carefree charm. My sister and I look at each other and shrug. I am about four years away from a disciplined life; she has eight hellish years to go. We take the glasses from Mike. It’s been a pretty good run, the best one yet.