The Asp met the hippies around one in the morning in a 24-hour diner between Idaho Falls and Jackson, Wyoming. Someone had poured dozens of quarters into the juke box and set the machine to play Blondie's "Heart of Glass" repeatedly; the waitress could not figure out how to reset the machine, and the manager had gone home for the evening. The clouds throbbed in the sky above the small, mostly closed shopping center; rain came down in heavy, stinging sheets, then relented to a deceptive drizzle, then returned to dense, splashing sheets. Blondie sang about emotional fragility, her words liquidy, indistinguishable squeaks, the accompanying electrical music shimmering, seeming too perfect for the subject of the song.
There were six hippies, all of whom shared each other's clothes, had greasy, stringy hair, and wore similar tattooes of roses, peace symbols, and mythical creatures. None of them wore a watch. One of the three hippy girls, Tina, had a half-completed marijuana tattoo; she explained that the artist had passed out when he was half finished, then overdosed and died.
Ed, the youngest hippy, was a fourteen year old boy who never spoke, and spent their several hours in the diner staring alternately at the Asp and out the window at the rain.
Jenny, perhaps the oldest of the hippies, was in her late twenties. She wore wire-rimmed, chipped glasses and spoke constantly about the corruption of human institutions, making the same points over and over about how stocks make the commodities they represent meaningless, so that the real objects made people think of paper certificates and raw cash value, rather than the other way around; about how the gas stations wouldn't give the hippies free fill-ups because they were instructed not to by the I.R.S.; and about how doctors were all murderers, trying to slowly turn all human beings into computerized mannequins who would ultimately be programmed to serve a militaristic, globally powerful doctor-race.
One of the hippies, Eric, had an acoustic guitar with no strings. He pretended to play it, wobbling his body rhythmically, singing out the imagined notes with his voice. Whenever a new customer walked into the diner, he called out, "Hey, you got any spare guitar strings on ya? Okay, just checking." Then he'd chuckle for a moment, look down, then turn sadly to his companions, who encouraged him to keep trying.
He said that the last time he was actually able to play his guitar was four months ago. He had tried to play the strings with his teeth like Jimi Hendrix, but ended up severing them and badly cutting his tongue. The Asp noticed that there were bite-marks on the maple neck of the guitar, as well as on the body, nowhere near where the strings would be located if they did exist.
Monkey, who said her "establishment name" was Monika, wore her hair in four frayed tails, each dyed a different color, and tapped her nails against her front teeth "so that I don't bite 'em."
The Asp asked the hippies where they were going, and they explained that they used to follow the Grateful Dead on tour, but once Jerry Garcia died and the band folded, they had no one to follow, and nowhere to go, so they just retraced the last twenty stops of the Grateful Dead's final tour, over and over, placing flowers for the Dead at the concert locations where they had once partied, and worshipped, and harmonized with other Dead Heads. The hippies talked about how difficult it was to go to any major city, how intolerable all the noise and traffic was, how violent all the images of corporate greed seemed to them.
"We're all from different cities, you know," Monkey said, "so any time we go to a big city, we have to watch out for parents; we all have to keep really low profile, which is sorta hard since we know they're lookin' for us. And then there are all the bad memories."
The hippies said that they were not alone; there were other hippy groups following the deceased band. On one occasion their group got into an impassioned dispute over some lost bootleg tapes; one of the hippies in the other group accused them of stealing the tapes, and a fight broke out. Tina had to get stitches on her face and her wrist after one of the other hippies attacked her with a broken rootbeer bottle.
The death of Jerry Garcia had a decimating, almost lethally sobering effect on many hippies; a powerful blow, it knocked the last breath of the sixties out of them. Jerry and his band were the final shield against disillusionment and "selling out." Jenny claimed that now many hippies and former Dead Heads were turning into death rockers.
"Not us, man. We think he'll come back. See, people don't die. That's a fuckin' myth. Souls keep goin', like us. Okay, maybe people die, but their spirits keep travelling. And after a while they come back. We'll be there, you know? When it happens."
She said that Jerry would come back as himself in fleeting visions, ghost-like, singing or playing guitar on piers, in parks, maybe smoking something other-worldly.
"Pot from heaven, man, you know? Like... what God smokes."
Billy, the oldest guy, didn't believe her at all. He claimed that Jerry would be reincarnated as a girl with green eyes and red hair. She'd start painting her nails different colors and braiding her hair almost at birth. If they came across any babies like that, Billy had a test he would perform on her to make sure she was Jerry. He'd get Eric, who by that time would have guitar strings, to strum the first few bars of "Wharf Rat" or "Shakedown Street," and the girl would reflexively sing out the words, even if no one had ever taught her them. That would prove she was the reincarnated Jerry.
"So what happens then?" The Asp inquired, "Once you figure out that she's Jerry? I mean, what if her parents are, like, cops?"
"Then we got no choice," Billy said, "We'd have to kidnap her to make sure she was brought up right."
They would reintroduce Jerry to drugs, he explained, and replay all of his old songs for him. They teach the baby Jerry about what he meant to the world; how important he had been as a spiritual leader.
"Would you dress her up as a man, and paste a fake beard on her? Get her a sex-change?"
Billy didn't reply to that. He turned to the window and stared at the rain. After a few seconds he wondered aloud how long it would continue.
"Hey, is this the Dead?" Tina asked suddenly. "On the juke box?"
They all listened. Tina stared at her partial marijuana tattoo, as if watching it move.
"Nah, man," Eric said, "I think it's still Blondie. It's a pretty long song, though. I think they got that from the Dead."
"You know, Tina?" The Asp said, "With your pot tattoo half-finished like that, it looks a lot like poison oak."
"Really? That what poison oak looks like?"
"I'll watch out for it."
"It's on your body," Billy said, "So you're already immune."
Billy told the Asp about how a few months ago they decided to quit drugs to make themselves more physically pure, "Sort of like an experiment." Instead of buying drugs, they spent their last money on heaps of fireworks. Their Volkswagen van was nearly filled with fireworks, and they set off lavish, stunning fireworks displays at campsites, at roadstops, even in the parking lots of "cool" merchants. Eventually the fireworks became so boring that Monkey and Jenny would fall asleep watching them, and Ed began trying to make bombs out of them. The fireworks had a strange effect on him; he once tried to blow up their van with one of his faulty bombs, so the other hippies had to keep Ed tied up for about a week. They punished him for his violent impulse by making him eat hamburgers and hotdogs, and making him read the T.V. Guide.
The hippies had worried about their fireworks getting out of control and setting off a dangerous blaze, or somehow detonating in their van, so they bought six fire extinguishers. When the fireworks finally ran out, they really had no use for the fire extinguishers, so they used them like fireworks.
"Heh. Waterworks," Monkey quipped.
They set the extinguishers upright and clamped the pins down, so that the cannisters spurted long, foamy sprays into the air. Monkey and Ed had a fire extinguisher fight, chasing each other around, spraying each other with chemical froth. When Ed's ran out he became moody, and beat it repeatedly against a fire hydrant, while Monkey continued spraying him with her larger extinguisher, laughing and scolding him for being the loser.
The Asp asked the hippies what Jerry Garcia looked like, and they were stunned; they could not believe that he had never seen Jerry before.
"So, like, you never saw a Dead show?" Monkey asked, incredulous.
"Well, I don't know for sure. Did they ever open for the Beastie Boys?"
The hippies showed the Asp pictures of Jerry, and watched his eyes light up with recognition.
"Wait, man," the Asp said urgently, "I think I saw that dude!"
"When?" Jenny asked.
"Just, like, four days ago. At a place in Oregon."
The hippies pressed the Asp for details. He said he had gone into a bead shop looking for lapis stones. After leaving the store he saw "Jerry" in an alley beside the building, leaning against the wall on one hand, peeing.
"Are you sure it was him?" Jenny asked. She wanted to know what he was dressed like, and the Asp said he was wearing lots of pins with witty political messages, torn-up jeans, an intricately knit sweater, and a flower-shaped earring. He was coughing while he peed; his eyes were red, his face puffy.
"Wow," Monkey said, "That's totally trippy. That sounds just like him!"
"Did you try to talk to him or anything?" Jenny wondered.
"Well," the Asp said, "Actually, yes. See, I pulled out this knife," with that, the Asp removed a long, steel, folding knife from his jacket pocket, and held it up for the hippies. "I held the blade real close to his beard, and told him to give me his fuckin' money or I'd cut him a new mouth."
The Asp smiled, his eyes gleaming coldly. He looked at the horrified faces of the hippies. Ed turned away, and stared out the window at the rain. The Asp chuckled. "I guess that might've improved his singing, huh?"
For a moment everyone was quiet. Monkey climbed past Jenny and rushed into the Ladies' room. Eric strummed his imaginary strings noiselessly, not making sounds with his mouth.
"He had like ninety dollars on him," the Asp said, smiling lavishly. "Rich motherfucker."
Glancing around at the defeated expressions of the hippies, the Asp cackled. "I think he was really drunk or something. After I took his wallet I pushed him over and he couldn't get up!"
"Let's go," Billy said, and the hippies rose from the table.
"I'll get Monkey," Tina said, entering the Ladies' room after her.
For a moment Ed sat at the table alone with the Asp. The Asp nodded.
"See that rain?" Ed was already looking at the window. "It'll never stop, Ed. And it'll never make the world clean."
Ed frowned, his jaw tight, then stood up. Stepping away from the table, he glanced down at the Asp. His eyes were wet.