I'd taken some courses in computer programming in college and now I had a full-fledged job, suit and tie and all. I wasn't that crazy about the routine, and I was lonely living by myself up in Hartford, Connecticut. One week my company sent me to New York to attend a conference, and I took the subway to Phil and Wendy's place. I seemed to have caught them at the peak of some cycle of wackiness that night. Perhaps they were ready to unleash tons of wild craziness on anyone who walked through the door of their apartment just then, or maybe it was something about me, but they were a riot that night. First they assaulted me with two misshapen brown glass vases and insisted I tell them which was better. The one I chose turned out to be the one Wendy had made, and my decision seemed to have great meaning for both of them. Phil screamed and cursed and stomped, and Wendy smirked bitterly as if I'd just proven her entire conception of the universe to be essentially correct, and his completely false.
They tore some leaves off the scraggly marijuana plants in their windowsill and dried them in the oven. Wendy took out a gigantic wok and spent the next hour tossing in fresh tomatoes, soaked lentils, brown rice, green peppers, red peppers, onions, tofu, bean sprouts and cheddar cheese. The concoction that resulted from this was one of the greatest things I ever tasted in my life. We smoked the homegrown at the table while we ate, passing the bong around like a bottle of ketchup. Phil started flinging food with his fork because he was still mad that I'd chosen Wendy's vase over his, and Wendy responded by dousing him with an entire gallon container of orange soda. They fell in a pile on the floor, covered with food and drink, laughing and trying to pin each other down.
They were hilarious -- could they really be living like this every night? After dinner we smoked more pot and danced to a Dylan album, Desire, in our bare feet with the lights out. I found myself suddenly yearning to quit my job and move in with them, because they were clearly having more fun with their lives than I was with mine. My career, my apartment in Hartford ... it all seemed faraway and phony from the vantage point of Wendy and Phil's place in Brooklyn. I was living a life of socially approved self-oppression. I looked at Phil and envied him. He had no money and no car, but he was living an authentic life. And he had Wendy. I remembered making fun of Phil the first time he called himself a Deadhead; now I looked at him and realized I suddenly believed it. He was a Deadhead, and I was living the life of a stuffed shirt, working for my paycheck in a sterile cubicle in Hartford. Somewhere somehow I'd taken a wrong turn. "Wait," I suddenly said, turning the record player down. "I just realized something. Each person takes only one road."
"Huh?" Phil said.
"In life," I said. "Each person can only take one road. You go on your way in life thinking you can change your path anytime, but you can't. You choose a road and it becomes you and you're stuck with it."
Phil and Wendy stared at me. Wendy said, "Yeah, you're right," and Phil nodded in agreement. Wendy believed my statement called for her to take Dylan off the turntable and play Ripple from American Beauty. We danced and smoked some more and by the end of the evening Phil had discovered a revolutionary method of expanding human consciousness by lying on his back, closing one eye and looking through the bottom of a drinking glass with the other. He told Wendy to try it and it blew her mind too, and then I tried it. Through the bottom of the glass I saw that Phil and Wendy had tiny faces, that the ceiling was on the floor and the walls were curved, that the doors were round, that my hand was bigger than I wanted it to be. Suddenly Wendy and Phil freaked me out by rushing at the glass quickly so their faces bloomed like giant Thanksgiving Parade balloons, and then I was rolling on the floor laughing so hard my stomach hurt. Finally Phil and Wendy fell asleep in each other's arms on the living room couch that was supposed to be my bed. I slept in an armchair, not wanting to wake them up.
The next day Phil and I went to a diner for lunch, and he surprised me by telling me that he and Wendy were not meant to be. Before he'd met her, he told me, she'd been madly in love with an older guy named Rainbow who owned a bicycle shop near Tompkins Square. Phil told me with downcast eyes that Rainbow had come back for Wendy a few months ago, and Wendy had not been able to resist his call. She'd been sleeping with both of them since then. She'd told Phil that her love for him was true and that she didn't want to lose him, but her greater love was for Rainbow, and that was going to be her choice. They had already broken up, and the only reason Phil was still there was that he hadn't put together enough money yet to leave.
"Wendy didn't even want me to tell you," Phil said. "She wanted us to just pretend for you." He started to say something else and bit his lip and started to cry.
"It's all right," I said.
He sat there in the booth crying over his french fries. I was surprised that he didn't mind crying in front of me. Maybe it was because in Wendy's circle of friends guys weren't as hung up on hiding their feelings. But I don't think that's what it was -- I think it was because we'd been college freshmen together and knew each other so well it didn't matter if I saw him cry.
I was stunned about Phil and Wendy. The happy hysteria of the past night, I realized, must have been the release of weeks of tension snapping like a metal spring upon my arrival. I wasn't sure what to say to Phil. I noticed the diagram of the Tao he had patched onto the sleeve of his blue denim jacket. White yin and black yang shared a circle together, but in the center of black yang was a seed of white yin and in the center of white yin was a seed of black yang. Each seed eventually expands so that white becomes black and black becomes white, but at the moment this happens there will already be a new seed of black in the white and of white in the black. Phil had transformed from a small-town jock into a Brooklyn Deadhead, and only now after so many years had I begun to see that this was the real him, that with Wendy he was truly great and real and natural in ways he'd never been before. And at the very moment that I realized his transformation was genuine, the seed of the next destruction was already visible.
A few years later, the phone rang on a Sunday morning and my 4-year-old daughter Eliza picked it up. She asked who it was and held the receiver out to me with the same intensely suspicious look she always got when she didn't know a person who called. "Hello?" I said.
It was Eddie Rothstein. "Hey," he said. "I just got off the phone with Phil Peverill's parents. He died in a car accident last night."
"What? Phil?" My wife and daughter, frightened by my tone, stopped what they were doing to look at me. I waved them away.
"Yeah," Eddie said. "It was a drunk driver in another car. Phil wasn't even drinking, he was just driving home from work in one of his father's vans. Some guy crossed lanes and smashed into him. Do you believe this shit?"
"Where did this happen?" I said. I hadn't even kept track of where Phil had been living.
"Up where he used to live, up in Johnson's Ford. He's been working for his father there. I'm going up tomorrow for the funeral. Do you wanna come?"
I didn't go to the funeral because I couldn't easily arrange a day off from work on such short notice. Eddie told me about it after he returned. It was a depressing funeral. Phil had had no wife or girlfriend when he died. He'd recently begun working for his father after losing a job with the county government. There weren't many people at the church, Eddie said, just family and neighbors and a few guys Phil had worked with.
That summer I drove up to Lake George with my wife and daughter, and I saw on the map that Johnson's Ford was about a hundred miles away. I took a trip there by myself one day while Maggie stayed with Eliza by the lake. I started to get an eerie feeling as I passed a sign with the name of the town on a long single-lane county road surrounded by woods and grassy farms. I reached a small Main Street with a couple of diners, a chinese restaurant, a pizzeria, a drugstore and two movie theaters. Past Main Street there was a small red-brick school and a pleasant green park where kids played on monkey bars and swing sets. Away from the center of town, a large brightly-lit Blockbuster Video and a McDonald's ruined the quiet small-town appeal of the area and made it all seem sadly mundane.
I looked at a gas station map and found the street where Phil's family lived. At his address I found a small red-tiled house with an above-ground swimming pool in the backyard. A well-used pickup truck painted with the words PEVERILL OIL HEATING and a phone number was in the driveway. An older man who must have been Phil's father was mowing the lawn. He was a stocky man with fuzzy white hair and a tired face. He had no shirt on and his curly chest-hairs were white. He looked in my direction -- I had a foot on the brake in the middle of the quiet street -- and I stepped on the gas and drove away.
I tried to imagine growing up in the house I had just seen. I tried to plant myself in the flower-curtained living room and see it, as Phil must have seen it, as the center of the universe. It was where he had started from and where he went back to. College must have seemed no more than an adolescent diversion for him. Memories of Wendy and Brooklyn must have glimmered like phosphorescent flashes in the sky when he thought of them. But how could Phil not be alive here, in his house, in his town? This was where he belonged. This was where he had lived.