After the kids are asleep, Hiram throws a few more sticks onto the fire, a signal to the adults that there’s still fun ahead. Then stepping back into the darkness, he finds his duffel bag and slips the Ziplock bag from his shaving kit, holding it in the beam of his flashlight for a moment. After visiting the planning department in downtown Oakland, a few days before leaving on the trip, Hiram stopped to eat a deli sandwich in the park at Lake Merritt. Someone stood in the sunlight over him. “Want some grass?” If he had looked up to see a hippie or Black Panther or any of the other types he pictures when he thinks of the word “pusher,” Hiram would have given the guy a fast brush-off. But this was a woman, who, in her rich proportions, her freckles, the softness with which she flicked back strands of copper hair, and especially the mirth behind her eyes, could have passed for Laura in her twenties. Except for the unshaved ankles showing beneath her red cotton skirt and the illegal offer that hung in the air, there was nothing at all about her to suggest the lavish indecency of the counterculture.
“How much?” Hiram asked. The answer meant nothing to him, since he had no concept of potency or market value. And when he found himself handing over a ten-dollar bill for this little sandwich bag of dried herbs, he wondered if he’d been taken for the novice that he was. But now, sauntering back to the campfire with the bag in his fist, ten bucks seems like a bargain.
He isn’t disappointed. “Hiram!” Sibyl gasps. “Where did you get that?”
Laura laughs in surprise.
Leif nods, lips pursed, as if this is exactly what he expected. “You have rolling papers?” he asks.
Hiram shakes his head, remembering. “I brought my pipe.” He gets up again to find the meerschaum he used for only six pretentious weeks in college before giving up tobacco and tucking the pipe away in a dresser drawer. It is, as Leif explains from knowledge acquired at parties during graduate school days, too big for the job. But by thrusting a burning stick into the bowl and then sucking furiously on the mouthpiece, Hiram proves he can get a reasonable lung of smoke. “Try it,” he sputters, eyes watering. He hands the stick and the pipe over to Leif.
Leif, nonchalant, takes a long slow drag and wordlessly passes the implements on to Laura. It’s not the first time for her, either, having attended some of the same University of Chicago parties. She has to light the stick again in the campfire and gets as much wood as pot in her first puff.
Then it’s Sibyl’s turn. She grimaces for a moment — exactly the same expression she had on the hike up when the trail disappeared in a mud puddle — but without complaining she mimics the others’ gestures. She coughs raggedly behind her hand, and for a moment Hiram has an impulse to apologize for putting her through all this. Then she hands the pipe and stick back to him, and he takes another puff.
The pipe makes its circuit, gets a refill, carries on. Leif tells about a grad student party that involved two bongs and a hookah and ended up on the roof of married student housing. “Everyone took turns reading passages from Winnie the Pooh. We all thought it was the most profound thing we’d ever heard.”
Sibyl titters. “I don’t feel anything,” she says. “Do you?”
Hiram’s throat burns. He shakes his head.
Across the campfire, Laura’s got a blissful smile, and Leif looks sublimely pleased. Hiram feels a gush of warmth toward them. You can share almost anything with friends like these.
“Half the people went home with someone other than the person they came with,” Leif says. “Even some of the married couples.”
“To do what?” Sibyl asks. “Play Pooh sticks?”
“Married couples?” Hiram repeats.
“To have some honey,” says Leif.
Giggles bubble out of Laura. “Not Leif and I, though.”
Hiram looks for her eyes in the orange light. “Why not?”
Laura turns to Leif. “Why not?”
Leif takes the pipe from Hiram and draws thoughtfully. Everyone waits for him to release — ten seconds, twenty, almost a minute. Then he blows a thick, narrow stream toward the fire. “Never found the right couple.”
“Describe them,” Hiram says. “The right couple.”
“Discreet,” says Leif. “And…”
“Sexy,” says Laura.
“Honest,” Leif says. “More than anything.”
Laura offers the pipe to Sibyl, but she passes it on to Hiram and asks, “Why honest more than anything?”
“What about you guys,” Laura says. “Have you ever?”
“Not so far,” says Hiram.
“Not so far?!” Sibyl shakes her head.
“Meaning,” says Leif, “that you would?”