The Psychedelic Basement by Mark Tulin

Mitchell skips school to visit his friend's blacklist hippie den; by Mark Tulin.

Shawn and I were walking to school Friday morning. Shawn was wearing bell bottoms with moccasins and a loose fitting white button-down collar shirt. I wore dark Levi jeans with chukka boots and a tan v-neck sweater over a white undershirt.

"Dude," Shawn said, "do you want to cut school?" He always referred to me as dude. "Why don't you come over my house and we can chill?" he said.

He didn't have to coax me very much

"I fixed up my basement, dude. I want you to tell me what you think."

"Groovy," I replied, not worrying about whether my mother would find out. My father always said, "What they don't know, won't hurt them." I gave my mother no indication that I smoked pot or took off from school on occasion. It was our last year of high school and we felt entitled to skip a day or two.

We walked to his brick split level on Friendship Street. He had the keys to his basement door and we strolled past the Maytag washer and dryer in the hallway until we came to his basement.

He switched on the light.

"Awesome," I said, "it's totally cool!"

He had painted his entire basement black, including the ceiling. He put a strobe switch under the light bulb and the light seemed to flicker to the beat of the music and made his Jimi Hendrix and Moody Blues posters have a phosphorescent glow. The rock stars on the wall appeared to come alive.

"My mom is working late," Shawn said. "Fishman might stop over later."

Fishman was our friend from our high school fraternity, Zeta Rho. He had a pizza delivery job on Castor Avenue as part of a work study program at school. He used to play football for Northeast but got kicked off the team for coming to practice drunk on numerous occasions.

I took a seat on the sofa while Shawn placed the vinyl on the turntable, "Nights in White Satin," one of my favorite songs.

It was a song that I understood intuitively but I didn't have the words to explain. Every time I heard it, I felt I was being carried away to a distant place where time froze and where stoners got laid by sexy Goddesses.

Shawn had a different interpretation. He thought of a girl named Cindy Waller, a stereotypical flower-child with long hair who often sunbathed on the big sprawling lawn in front of our high school. Shawn had the hots for her but she never gave him the time of day. He sent her notes in English class, stuck letters in her locker and got her friends to talk to her but she just ignored him. She was an aloof butterfly who looked like Goldie Hawn.

"Unrequited love," Shawn said, "that's what that song is about."

I didn't really care what the song was about. All I knew was that it made me relax and feel like I was floating on air.

Shawn lit a stick of incense that smelled like a cacophony of hippie smells.

"You don't mind," Shawn said, "I've been meaning to try this shit forever but I never got the opportunity."

The incense smelled like a head shop on South Street. It had a funky odor that you would smell at a Cream concert.

"Its patchouli," Shawn said. But I didn't know patchouli from "blazing hemp" or any of the other shit that they sell on South Street. I just knew that it smelled of bare feet, tie-dye shirts and frilly suede jackets.

The light kept flickering. Another song I dug blasted from Shawn's thirty-inch speakers, the best stereo system I've ever heard, with an amazing pair of woofers and tweeters. It made the Grateful Dead's "Franklin Tower" seem like it was playing live, right here in the basement with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.

The Dead reminded me of the summer when Shawn and I were down the shore in Atlantic City. There was this strung out guy who jumped out a restaurant window, apparently he was tripping on LSD or mushrooms. He jumped through the glass and ended up in the middle of Baltic Avenue with his skin shredded. Blood kept pouring out of him as lay in the intersection stopping traffic and causing a big fuss.

The cops came to the scene right away. The guy sees the cops, jumps up and runs away from them in a zig zag. You really can't outrun the cops when your mind is exploding on mushrooms or when blood is gushing out of you like a geyser.

"I sure feel like a joint right now," Shawn said, laying on the other couch with his hands running through his thick curly locks.

"Me three," I said, meaning "too."

I really didn't care if I had a joint or not. Being in Shawn's basement was the most relaxing thing I could think of doing. Pot would have made the experience better, but I also would have gotten paranoid, thinking about the cops busting in the house at any second or Shawn's mother coming downstairs and screaming at us.

The song "Down by the River" by Neil Young finished and Shawn quickly put a new record on the turntable. He had great taste in music and he always let you know about it.

"I bet you never heard of this band," he said proudly, and played a cut from the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

He had an older brother named Marshall who was going to Penn that probably turned him on to new music even though Shawn said that he discovered the music by himself.

Time seemed to pass quickly. It was already four o'clock and we were still sitting on the sofa listening to music and thinking about random shit.

"People are Strange" by the Doors made me think of my father who lived in Hazleton. After school lets out for the summer I'll be with him. I'll spend a couple months working at his produce store, hanging out with kids I've known from the summers that I spent there. I'll ride my dirt bike in the splintered sunlight of the woods and race up and down the winding country roads of Cunningham Valley.

I look at Shawn on the couch across from me. He's looking up at the strobe light and running his fingers into his thick curly hair. His dad left him when he was six. He didn't like to talk about his father, referring to him as an asshole. The way his mom put it, his dad ran off with another woman. He's living with her somewhere in Oregon. He didn't even tell Shawn he was leaving, just sent a post card a few months later saying that he's okay and that he's enjoying life again.

My father left my mom but he told me first. He had a talk with me on the front steps of our duplex. "It's the best thing for you," he said, "since your mother and I are always fighting. It's not good for children to be in the middle of that."

I was only eight and I cried. I was very angry at him at first. But after I had some time to get used to it, I realized that my house was a lot quieter without Dad.

There was a knock and rattle on the screen door at the back of the house. I felt paranoid like I had been smoking grass. The patchouli incense, coupled with the psychedelic basement made me dizzy with fear.

"Oh, shit. It's only Fishman," I sighed.

Fishman came in wearing baggy carpenter pants and an old Northeast High football jersey with a pizza box in his right hand. He always wore a shitty grin like he was up to no good.

Of course he was stoned, talking really loud about some customer who was an idiot. In the box he had a whole cheesecake that he swiped from the refrigerator at work. I liked Fishman for the most part, but he was a troublemaker.

Give him an audience and he'll start some drama, like that day we visited a fraternity house in Delaware. He had too much vodka to drink. All of a sudden he's tearing up the place, bouncing off furniture, knocking things over, breaking pictures - totally out of control. So whenever I'm around him I get anxious, thinking that he'll do something crazy.

"I got three mega joints in my pocket," he said proudly. "Hoberman turned me on." Hoberman was his co-worker at the pizza joint who also was a dope dealer on the side.

Shawn took the first drag and then passed it around. Every time I looked at the strobe light, the room spun. Fishman wouldn't stop talking. Some people talk a lot when they're high, I just laugh. I laugh not knowing what I'm laughing about because everything seems funny in the moment. Even the cheesecake staring at me on the floor seemed hilarious.

I took a piece and stuck it in my mouth. I held onto it with all my fingers and didn't use a fork or a plate. I just lay on the sofa, taking a bite and then resting the cheesecake on my chest, taking a drag of grass, laughing hysterically and handing the joint to Shawn. I don't even remember how many slices of cheesecake I ate but I know that it was really dry and hard to get down. And I was too stoned to get up to get a glass of water.

Then after one big bite, I couldn't get it down. I couldn't spit it out or dislodge it no matter how hard I tried to swallow or cough.

Shawn asked, "Everything all right dude?"

Fishman kept talking, oblivious to my struggle with the cheesecake. He began to jump on the sofa like it was a trampoline, annoying the hell out of Shawn.

"Dude, stop it!" Shawn kept yelling but to no avail. At this point, Fishman was going psycho.

I couldn't get any air into my lungs. I took short, raspy inhales. It was stuck in my throat like wet immovable cement.

"Are you all right, dude?" Shawn asked again, seeing me in even more distress as he munched on a piece of cheesecake.

Shawn couldn't ignore Fishman any longer. He stopped being concerned about my well-being and he attempted to pull Fishman off the sofa. Just what Fishman wanted, a confrontation. The two went at it.

By then I panicked, got up from sofa, thinking that if I stayed on the couch any longer, I would have suffocated.

Still gasping for air like a cat with a big hairball, I made my way to the basement door.

Once outside, I inhaled the fresh air and looked up at the yellow sun. I told myself to calm down and breathe through my nose. After a few more hard gulps, I was able to swallow the stuck cheese cake and resume normal breathing. I sat down under an elm tree in Shawn's backyard trying to get my heart to stop thumping in my chest.

I could have died in my friend's basement, I thought. What's worse, I could have been laying dead by the basement door and my two friends would have been still fighting or passing around the joint with no inclination to check on their good friend.

I imagined that Shawn would eventually come outside and find a slab of cold rigor mortis by the door, probably after he finished the joints. "Holy crap! Mitchell is dead," he would say. "My mother'll have a fit that I didn't go to school."

Fishman would most likely still be ramped up. He'd probably make some sick joke about my demise and ignore my corpse completely, go back inside the house for something to eat. "There's nothing we can do about it, dude," he'd say. "He's totally wasted."

I didn't bother to go back in the basement. My look into the future pissed me off enough to ditch them.

I walked home slowly, still feeling the pressure of the afternoon on my mind, still feeling a residual high and hearing the lyrics of "Knights in White Satin" play in my head. I think I figured out what the song meant on my way home but I soon forgot it once I snuck past my mother who was watching the Match Game on TV.

I collapsed on my bed and passed out.

My mother never suspected a thing.


  1. A good antidote to residual nostalgia, I imagine! A well-realised scenario of teenage angst and risk-taking. Thanks,

  2. i really like the characters, a coming of age story. well put together and totally credible.
    Mike McC

  3. The songs-- fun! I can hear "Knights in White Satin" still. The idea of him choking with that music playing is simultaneously awful and artful. What a unique aha! moment for a character.

  4. Ah, the good old daze. Well, maybe not so much. A very well-told and believable story.