Northern Lights

Getting to Blake’s place early enough in the morning to let his bulldog Renault out for a walk was just about impossible. Like: it didn’t matter how early. So it became part of my daily routine to unlock the back door, enter the kitchen, then have him waddle over from his bed to sit a couple feet behind his pile of shit. He always managed to piss on his newspaper, but didn’t even bother to miss for No. 2. He’d just look up at me, then down at the shit next to the stove, or over by the dishwasher or wherever he fancied a shit, then back at me as if to say, “I am shocked–SHOCKED–to find that shitting is going on in here.”
I’d clean it up, then let him follow me out to the garbage can behind the garage, wondering whether I was training him to take vengeance shits in Blake’s kitchen. Or was he already trained to just shit in the kitchen? So much was so hard to say about Blake’s Incongruity.
The fishes got fed, too, and I had harvested all three of the pot plants in the shed over the last week and today was the day I had to figure out how to get it up to my room. It was triple-bagged in a black 30-gallon Hefty garbage bag, but still smelled a little dank–which was a good bad problem to have, but that’s not a package you just walk with through the living room and past Sam on your way up to your room.
I would have to figure that out later. First: I had to finish Kiley’s mix-tape.
The mix-tape was called “L:60” — an hour of love — and I didn’t really consider the fact that she had so far only smiled at me and called me cute on the phone and ridden bikes to get ice cream with me once after Zen when I called it that. Are you allowed to be in love that quickly? To say so? Honestly? I was too obsessed to care.
Blake had a sweet sound system, all jacked in for recording songs from albums to tapes. Nice EQ. Double-deck cassette. Perfect. But I had barely gotten my notebook out when I realized I brought too many records over and worse: the wrong ones. What I wanted to turn Jake or Andy onto wasn’t going to turn on Kiley, right? Or maybe it would? “Color Me Impressed” is a fucking amazing song, but not how you start a two-person Hootenanny.
It wasn’t all bad: I recorded some Siouxsie and Cocteau Twins and New Order… but what the day really called for was a Northern Lights run.
Northern Lights. Mecca. Same diff. Same purpose for the journey. There were other amazing record stores around—Oar Folk, Electric Fetus, Positively 4th Street down at the U—but crossing Hennepin at 7th, with First Avenue on the horizon, and walking into two stories of records and posters was a weekly journey to the jungle of the real. Monitors playing music videos you never saw on MTV, Mountain Dew cans stacked on ledges like a Warhol installation. If I lived, daily, as a tourist in my own home, alien to my own skin, then just starting my crawl through the shop by flipping through A: ABC, Accelerators, Acid Casualties, Adicts, Adverts, A Flock of Seagulls, Afrika Korps, Agent Orange… was like taking the first steps of putting on a custom-tailored self.
As the record pile grew, I felt my world growing. Carrying The Cure’s The Top, The Smiths’ The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain, The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, Siouxsie & the Banshees Hyaena, a 12” of New Order’s Temptation, The dB’s Like This upstairs to check out the video library to see if they had El Topo in or had lowered the deposit price on Great Rock-n-Roll Swindle was the essential sweat of becoming who I was.
Making a mix-tape is the act of sharing it. At least: the right part of it. Isn’t that what we do when we fall in love? Tell a story, but only a certain kind of story, on the way—or maybe in the desperate hope—of becoming a person about whom many of the old stories then become about another person? The person we were before love changed us? Why introduce a person who no longer exists, a person who disappears in the very act of your telling the story?
That’s a lie.
But… dreams are lies. Love is a lie: it is the belief that you can ever trust another person with the care of your soul.
But can’t that happen?
Only if lies can become truths.
That sounds like a dangerous game.
Like love…
And so I spun myself in circles while I spun a story that sped reel-to-reel in six inches of plastic. Back-and-forth, trying to convince Kiley that I was capable of love—trying to convince myself to dare it.
The Cure Hanging Gardens | Love: A compact fantastic with fate
Cocteau Twins Sugar Hiccup | We shiver & shake in surprise
Siouxsie & the Banshees Spellbound | And even as love’s fear chills
Echo & the Bunnymen Silver | We walk the water of our dreams
New Order Temptation | Love: An escape into undeserved hope
Siouxsie & the Banshees She’s a Carnival | And danger’s kisses
Cocteau Twins Treasure Hiding | Grasping fear, hand-in-hand
Echo & the Bunnymen Rescue | Start with a confession, then add
The Cure The Caterpillar | the chance that you will delight me dead
New Order Blue Monday | or you will just grow cold and walk away?
Art of Noise Moments in Love | Let’s spark that dream fever anyway
It was almost 2 in the morning before I finished L:60. I had been cramped in the half-lotus position or leaning over the coffee table writing in my best micro-handwriting on-and-off all day. I needed to get out on a ride.
I slipped the cassette, for which I had created a card-cover consisting of a maze depicting Kiley in one corner, myself in another corner, and L:60 in the center, in my cargo shorts, gave Renault a good-night treat, locked up Blake’s house—and hit the road.
Some nights I just wandered, not caring where I was going, but I knew exactly where I was going tonight: Kiley’s house. Her number was listed, under her dad’s name, and she lived on West Lake of the Isles Drive. I had ridden by after work earlier in the week, but didn’t dare stop, since it seemed…weird. Like: our place was the Zen Center. And even though I would see her there again in two days, I just, well: she had to hear the tape before I saw her at meditation. She had to come there more—maybe not any specific thing, but just more her, for more me.
All the lights were off in their house, as well as in their neighbors houses when I laid my bike down in the grass in front of her house. There were two sets of steps up to her front door: one for a hill rising from the lake and another to the house. Kiley’s was one of the least fancy houses on the lake—but it may as well have been the White House compared to my mom’s house. As I reached up to open the mailbox flap near the front door, I was terrified that I would set off alarms and get arrested. I let the tape drop into the mail slot and walked as fast as I could without looking suspicious to my bike. It was all terribly suspicious, of course, and desperate and all of it in love.
My heart beat an impossible rhythm on the ride home and my mind raced with the thrill of Kiley’s discovery.
Kiley, it turns out, was not thrilled by the mixtape. She didn’t even listen to it, she said, did not even open it, she said when she called the next morning:
“Don’t you think it’s kind of skeevy to stalk someone and send them a love letter on magnetic tape when you’re not even supposed to know where they live?”
“You were listed. You gave me your—”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re supposed to meet at the Zen Center.”
‘Skeevy’ hurt. But “supposed” still meant: she was telling her own story about us, and that meant an ‘us’ … and I was fucking it up.
“I ruined the story didn’t I?”
She let a small “Ha!” and said, “You did!” I could hear her smiling on the phone. Still: skeevy.
“Can I still come to the Zen Center tomorrow? I mean: are you still going to come? Can I?”
“Of course. It’s just… you can’t ever do that, OK?! It’s like… how can you send someone a mixtape when you haven’t even kissed them yet? That’s so… backwards.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you this until later, Kiley — but I am kind of backwards.”
“I guess: you’re doing Zen, right? But please tell me you’re not really skeevy?”
“Let me check the skeevometer,” I said, pausing, humming, “Says here ‘99.8% skeeve free,’ must have been some trace radicals of skeeve running loose last night.”
“You are cute…,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When we met at the Zen Center the first thing she did was hand me back L:60. That hurt a little, and she had that “I’m teaching you a lesson, even though I still like you” look all before meditation. Afterwards, she surprised me by asking,
“Do you want to come to my house—for real? So you can know where I live without being a creep?”
We rode up Calhoun Parkway and I tried to just change the subject completely, the cassette throbbing with shame in my pocket.
“I’ll see you at the race on Thursday night?”
“Are you really going to race?” she asked.
“I don’t know how I’ll do—but yeah, it’s my first Black Dog.”
“I’m excited,” she said, then offered: “Can I give you a ride to the race? We have a bike mount on the Volvo.”
“I think my buddies, Jake and Andy, are going to give me a ride. They want to laugh at me when I come in last.”
“You won’t come in last.”
“I might, actually,” I said, “it might just be totally beyond my league.”
She let that hang in the air and I thought, “Right. Oops,” to myself as we rolled over the bridge and hung the right to her house.
We walked our bikes up to the house steps and she made me wait until she came back with a big bottle that looked like beer, and two plastic cups of ice.
“Do you like Vernor’s? My mom’s from Michigan—we love this stuff.”
It was ginger ale that tasted like ginger instead of sugar. It was good, like: Proximity good. We sat on the front steps looking out at Lake of the Isles and talked about Zen and our dumb jobs (she was working as an assistant at a day camp) and I could feel the cassette tape hanging by my side pocket the entire time.
The sun was just behind us to the West, and still high, and the beauty of the lake set a scene I would have inhabited forever: but it was time to get back to Renault and his walk on Minnehaha and then to my room and to… not being next to Kiley. I ached to so much as think “goodbye.”
We stood up together and as I stepped to leave Kiley asked, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
I felt so stupid: what was I forgetting… The mix-tape? She wanted me to non-creepily give her L:60! I fumbled for the cassette in my cargo pocket and she said,
“Something about lips.”
My head swam and I wanted to lean forward but my body didn’t let me and I got so lightheaded I fell backwards and over the railing and into the bushes in front of her house.
They were very nice bushes—soft, even—and when I crawled out of them I just had a few green marks on my R.E.M. t-shirt.
“Do you want me to come down there?” asked Kiley, laughing.
“No. I’m good. I mean, I can walk up stairs.”
“Are you sure?”
I was sure and I walked up the stairs and I put one hand on the railing and one hand on the side of her waist and leaned forward and felt the slight cold of her nose and could taste her breath as I turned my head to kiss her lips.
Our eyes opened at the same time and we smiled and the universe clanged with a monk’s bell: it was time to rise.
Kiley pulled me forward, face right against hers, then reached into the cargo pocket of my shorts as she beamed:
“Now give me this tape: I want to hear L:60. Let’s see what kind of love story you can tell.”




When the Bell Rings
“The world extends in all directions,” said Ummon. “Why, then, do you dress in your finest robes when the bell rings?”

— from Charles Waters’ translation, Lotus in Ashes: Koans from the Mumonkan and Hekiganroku





This is the seventh section of Zen Arcade, a novel by Joel Turnipseed. We will be publishing a new section every other Sunday until Summer 2015. Read them here or get an email notification when the new section is available.

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