There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then. We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine. We were nineteen. We were bad. We struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything. At night, we went up to Greasy Lake.
Through the center of town, up the strip, past the housing developments and shopping malls: that was the way out to Greasy Lake. The Indians had called it Wakan, a reference to the clarity of its waters. Now it was fetid and murky, the mud banks glittering with broken glass and strewn with beer cans and the charred remains of bonfires. There was a single ravaged island a hundred yards from shore. We went up to the lake because everyone went there, because we wanted to snuff the scent of possibility on the breeze, watch a girl take off her clothes and plunge into the festering murk, drink beer, smoke pot, howl at the stars…This was nature.
It was early June, the third night of summer vacation. The first two nights we’d been out [driving around] till dawn, looking for something we never found.
There was no reasoning with this bad greasy character—clearly he was a man of action.
A single second, big as a zeppelin, floated by. We were standing over him in a circle, gritting our teeth, jerking our necks. No one said anything. Already [I was] envisioning the headlines, the pitted faces of the police inquisitors, the gleam of handcuffs, clank of bars, the big black shadows rising from the back of the cell.
We were bad characters, and we were scared and hot and three steps over the line—anything could have happened.
In one of those nasty little epiphanies for which we are prepared by films and TV and childhood visits to the funeral home, I understood what it was that bobbed there so inadmissibly in the dark [water.] Understood, and stumbled back in horror and revulsion, my mind yanked in six different directions (I was nineteen, a mere child, an infant, and here in the space of five minutes I’d struck down one greasy character and blundered into the waterlogged carcass of a second), thinking, The keys, the keys, why did I have to go and lose the keys?
“Hey, you guys look like some pretty bad characters—been fightin’, huh?”