I lay in the grass near that greenhouse—aware of the dream, always aware. My eyes were closed. The breeze was easy. I heard voices in the distance and zeroed in on River’s. He was mumbling something about his hair. It was getting too long. I took a deep breath and began rolling down a hill, like I was twelve and on fire, twelve and murdering time.
“Jules?” A voice echoed. “What is she—”
I hit the floor with a thud.
Gasping and groaning about, I blinked open, confused out of my mind. Jerry sat crisscross beside me, a bowl of cereal in his lap. And then I remembered where I was.
“Well hello,” he simpered, spooning Cheerios into his mouth. “I would have caught you, had I not been eating.”
Journey played in the background, and I rubbed my eyes, blinking about the room. River sat in a lawn chair in the middle of the kitchen with his eyes squeezed shut.
“Just do it. Just fuckin’ do it,” he breathed out. Sean grinned, holding scissors to his long locks.
“What time is it?” I yawned, rubbing a soon to be bruised elbow.
“Time for you to get a watch,” Jerry snickered.
“Jerry, go home.” I stood, grabbing the bowl from his hands.
“Oh, you know you like having me around.” He grabbed at my ankles, and I yelped.
“Hey! Settle your asses down, I’m trying to concentrate,” Sean bellowed over Steve Perry’s voice. Jerry bit back a grin, jumping to his feet.
I laughed to myself, facing the wall behind me, spooning soggy cereal into my mouth. That wall was covered in photos and print. I was trying to piece together the first issue of The Sound—something that wasn’t supposed to amount to anything more than a punkzine for the Pacific Northwest. Later, I’d hail Cameron Crowe for this. He would be responsible for nearly half of what the world perceived of this city. I was twenty-two and didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but he had a vision, one he would hold me responsible for. The Sound would be monumental in the telling of all of our stories. “Everyone likes you, Jules,” Eddie had said. “We trust you… could you imagine?”
I touched a photo of Running Knees, and then a photo of Alice—Sean was pretending to scratch his eyes out while Layne screamed in his ear. He had electric hands, that Sean Kinney. I’d been intimidated when I first met him, because he comes off a bit standoffish until you make him laugh. But his hands, Jesus, I was obsessed with them.
I glanced to the side, as wispy blond hair caught my eye. “Which cover are we on?”
“Well, which one would you like to be on, Jerry?” I could smell the tea tree oil on his fingertips, strong and invading. Inhale.
“Well, all of them, of course.” He smiled, crossing his arms as he leaned against the wall.
“Mhmm.” I nodded, moving photos around. He took the bowl from my hand and downed the leftover milk.
“Or we could work together,” he began. “J & J Inc. Double J. Jerry and Jules—sounds like ice cream, actually. We could make ice cream together.” He cocked his head, the hint of a smirk pulling at the corner of his lips. “Do you like ice cream, Jules?”
He was the first of the band that I’d met. I’d met them all on several different occasions before I ever met Layne—he was the elusive one, you couldn’t really touch Layne Staley. But Jerry, he was six-foot-something with a killer smile. And he was the cheekiest bastard I knew.
My eyes fluttered and I tried not to laugh. “Double J?”
“Catchy, right?” He scratched at his stubble.
“I’ll tell you what—”
“If this one even happens, then we’ll put Alice on the second issue.”
Jerry pressed his lips together and then let out a heavy sigh. “Deal.” He leaned off the wall. “We could have had something real special, Jules.”
“I’ll regret it always.” I smiled, glancing back at him—and until the end of time, Jerry Cantrell singing the chorus of Journey’s “Faithfully,” as he walked away, would be something I wanted the world over to see. Highway run.
River stood, shook out his hair, and pulled his shirt up and over his head. He dragged the lawn chair across the room and whispered something in Jerry’s ear. “Fuck off.” Jerry laughed, flicking dirty sink water in his face. Sean chugged the rest of his beer and belched out half of the alphabet.
The extra testosterone in the house knocked me off kilter. River was one of the only guys with an actual home, so Jerry and Sean would be here until Alice went on tour. It was so transient. They had all made it to the point that they were making more than enough money to have their own places, but no one was home long enough to want to do anything about it. Tyler and Keanu shared a duplex somewhere in the city, but God only knows where Eric lived. Everyone else was in and out of Cornell’s or Crowe’s, slowly but surely getting places of their own.
“If you guys are leaving next month,” River mumbled, lighting a cigarette, “how are you going to fit in time for the zine?”
“Just come find us. Wherever the hell we are,” Sean added before disappearing out the backdoor. River grabbed two beers from the fridge and disappeared with him.
“What do I do next?” Jerry whipped around, dazed and confused. He’d tossed on the pink apron River bought me for Valentine’s Day one year. Subtle.
“Ask River,” I threw over my shoulder, shuffling through magazines; through stories, through countless possibilities.
“Ask Jules!” River yelled back.
I tossed the pile to the table, giving in. “Did you finish steaming the chamomile and sage?”
“Yes.” He nodded proudly.
“Okay, now add the castile soap and jojoba oil. I’ll show you how to do the rest.”
“Castle and jojo. Got it.” He nodded, turning his back to me. “What’s the chamomile for?”
“Blond hair.” I leaned against the fridge, watching him.
“And the sage?”
“Oh. That’s real thoughtful,” he honeyed. I nibbled at my lip, wondering if that was sincere or not.
On a sixteen-inch television that sat muted below the spice cabinet, Eddie and Keanu were perched up on a fence during a summer’s day at West Coast Anthem. They looked heavenly, boiling heat and all.
Jerry hummed, stirring his herbal concoction over the stove. He liked the way River’s hair smelt. He wanted in on the secret. I was the secret, my recipe.
I poured myself a glass of sweet tea and turned the dial on the small television up until Eddie’s voice drifted throughout room. “Running Knees didn’t need Lollapalooza to jack them off. They did it on their own.”
“Jacked ourselves off.” Keanu reiterated with a nod.
“Yeah.” Eddie nodded. “I mean they’re the only band in Seattle that’s had this rapid—just skyrocketed. Them and Nirvana.”
“You guys all friends then?” MTV guy asked. “Or is it just some huge front?”
Eddie and Keanu exchanged an absurd glance. Keanu brushed his hair out of his face and confessed, “To be honest, I fucking hate this guy. Can I say fucking on MTV? Fucking.”
“No, but you can say—”
“Penis!” Stone shouted, nudging his way in between the two. Eddie shot him the dirtiest look and shoved him off the fence.
“He’s fine.” Eddie brushed it off, looking on as the camera zoomed in on his face.
“You’re okay,” Keanu spoke toward the ground. “You’re alright, Stoney. Just stay there. Don’t do that. Don’t try to get up.”
“You know, um, Seattle’s a good place to come from,” Eddie went on. “We’re all very supportive of each other. I’m proud of every one of these guys, and it feels good because I know they’re all proud of me, too.”
“Yeah,” Keanu agreed. “Yeah we all feel that way. We’re all just making music we like and that we hope our friends will like. That’s really the only reason to do this. It’s a bonus when other people decide to like it, too.”
“It’s time, guys.” MTV guy interrupted. Eddie’s eyes brightened, happy it was over.
“Oh, it’s time! Alright, well, I’m Keanu Reeves of Running Knees.”
“And today, I am River Phoenix, Tyler Harvey, and Eric Kelly of Running Knees, and this is the premiere of our new video—”
“Stone!” They said in unison, followed by Keanu being pushed off the fence. Eddie smiled, the camera catching him walk away before it cut to the video.
Dirt was being released next month. It would be one of my favorite albums in the world. But would also prove to be one of the truest recordings of dark, dark times.
We sat in an empty playground after midnight, Jerry and me. Through the cold night air, cigarette smoke poured from his mouth. I was nursing a bottle of Tennessee Honey whiskey with a pack of River’s Marlboro Reds tucked into my bra. Chris and River brought cans of spray paint and had left us to vandalize the Emerald city. The four of us had fled the house, we couldn’t take anymore of Sean and Eric’s drumming.
“Smoke?” Jerry held his pack out to me, going in for another.
I nodded and took one. “Thank you.”
“It looks like a full moon,” he said, lighting my cigarette. “Wait. How drunk are you?”
I breathed in, coughing as I started laughing. “No,” I choked out. I looked up to the moon, my throat tingling.
“Um, ma’am.” Jerry’s southern twang kicked in. “Smoking this cigarette could be hazardous to your well-being, so I’ll smoke it for you.”
I took a deep drag before he plucked it from my lips and slipped it into his. He cupped his hand around the flame, lighting the other one in his mouth. I grabbed the bottle of whiskey and took another swig. He just smiled and shook his head.
Not too far from us, spray cans hissed and River’s giggles were swallowed by Chris’ roaring laughter.
Jerry let a moment pass, and then grabbed his guitar from the grass. He glanced at me, squinting as he took an impressively long drag from the cigarettes and handed them to me. “Don’t kill yourself,” he said softly.
I felt light-headed, breathing in the fumes. He told me he’d written a song that took a lot out of him. A song he wrote for Andy Wood. “I miss him like crazy,” he said. “He reminds me of him, you know… River, I mean,” he whispered, strumming.
That was how I first heard “Would?” and “Rooster,” too. It was like an acoustic lullaby in the cold of the night. It was also the first time Jerry shed some of that tough exterior of his. “Rooster” was, what I found to be, one of the only ways to get through to the purest form of him. “My dad… I’m working on forgiveness. It’s about him.”
“And for him?” I asked carefully.
He opened his mouth, but hesitated. I saw a ghosted smile that touched only his lips, the kind of smile from which one ponders—with longing, resentment, and pride—something obtained by sacrifice; his eyes were on mine, but the years fell away from them, reaching into the past. “Yes,” he answered, looking away.
When I was younger, Camelot fascinated me. Not King Arthur’s Camelot, but Kennedy’s Camelot. It was a period of hope; a very important period in history, when people thought it would only get better. And because of this, John F. Kennedy’s legacy would be preserved, a legacy that many after would try and emulate. But there would never be the magic of another Camelot, of another poetically driven politician. After President Kennedy was assassinated, Jacqueline Kennedy told the world: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment known as Camelot…”
I think of that quote when I think of this period of time. Not because it was a golden age or they were men that should be idealized—though in some ways it was, and they were… but there would also be so much tragedy; death and destruction that would touch the best of them.
“Grunge” may have been a label hung over their heads because of where they came from and how they looked, but it was honest. It was the most stripped down—just purest thing in music. There was no way you could listen to Chris and Kurt, Eddie and River, Layne and Jerry without feeling something.
The two returned, their spray cans rattling. I smiled. Chris took a long pull from the whiskey bottle and spun around in circles, his dark curls disappearing into the dark sky. Gentle giant.
Jerry played something fast, and River banged a heavy branch against a metal slide. Over and over again.
“Louder!” Chris yelled. “LOUDER,” he thundered, his arms outspread. He wanted more; more volume, more thrashing, more rawness.
SEATTLE’S BREWING UP SOMETHING FIERCE—that was the last thing I remember from that night. In big, bright yellow letters, Chris’ painted words adorned the side of a downtown pub.
It was such a hot summer, but only before the sunset. Most of the time I just walked around in River’s faded blue cut-offs and halter-tops that showed off too much of my Idaho-shaped scar, but I didn’t care. I had a string of raw crystals around my neck, and dark henna crawling up my leg.
I sat crisscross, under a tree with Kim, Tyler, Ben, and Eric. They were smoking some sweet Mary Jane, and usually I never really partook, but the day was beautiful, my people were beautiful.
“I’m in love with Mary Jane. She’s my main thing,” Kim crooned. “She makes me feel alright. She makes my heart sing,” all four sang.
Keanu and Mike walked out, hands filled with cases of beer and homemade moonshine. The evil grins on their faces said it all. Oh, I could feel it coming in the air that night.
We were like a music video for a Creedence Clearwater Revival song, circa 1970. Naked feet ran through un-mowed grass and a cheap sprinkler system. Chris and Jeff walked around with their wet shirts wrapped around their heads, keeping cool, showing off their chests—the northwest way for northwest babes. Layne ran around in pale pink shorts with a laughing Demri draped over his shoulder.
“They look so blissful,” I thought aloud.
“That’s just the dopamine,” Tyler said, coming up beside me. “It’s a pleasure chemical, it releases bliss.”
With my left hand shielding my eyes from the sun, I looked up at him and said, “I actually think it’s called love.”
“Oh, hush, Ty. You believe in love.” His hair was a wet mess of dark curls, and I bumped his hip with mine. He smiled.
“Well, it really just comes down to certain triggers. She loves that his eyes are blue, he loves that hers are brown; she loves his scent, he loves her taste. Things like that. Dopamine and norepinephrine set off all that euphoria, and you call it love.”
“WHAT?” Matt threw his hands to his head, overwhelmed by his words. He pulled him down into a headlock and dragged him back to Kim’s circle of Mary Jane.
Keanu and Mike sat under the shade, backs pressed against the exterior of an old shed. Mike gave me a swallow of his moonshine, laughing when I almost tripped over my own feet. I snapped a photo of that laugh, and then a photo of the both of them. They were buzzed and happy, but played it serious and cool. “Rockstars.” I rolled my eyes.
“You’re looking real good today, Jules.” The familiar tone of his voice took me back to when I was sixteen and had just discovered David Gilmour, sixteen and just discovered how senior boys worked on Saturday nights.
I blinked through it all, wiping my face clean of any indication.
Mike Starr had beautiful brown eyes, the greatest hair around, and a tongue almost as lethal as Keanu’s. And they were cut from the same cloth. With minimal effort, Keanu had slept his way through Seattle, and probably half of the groupies register by now. Young drunken women would bombard me with crazy eyes. “Tell Keanu I hate him,” they’d say, they’d slur. “Tell him to meet me after the show, okay?”
I laughed, crouching down in front of him. “Oh, Mike.” I shook my head.
“Oh, buddy, that’s a good way to get yourself on River’s shit list.” Keanu pat him on the shoulder, chugging down the rest of his beer. “Well, shit, at least you tried.”
Mike grinned like he was the stupidest man alive, raising his hands in defense. “Can’t blame me for trying.”
I squealed as someone’s arm circled my waist and pulled me up and away. He grasped hold of my hand and tugged me toward him, his bare chest bathing in the light—our northwest way. Jerry had a body made of golden honey. I don’t know how he did it, but he glistened always. It must have been the cowboy in him.
He emptied his beer bottle and tossed it aside, feeling the music. His left hand was on the small of my back, his right hand in mine as his feet shuffled too quickly and we swayed and cavorted around to the sound of Van Morrison’s voice, spilling into fits of laughter whenever we tripped over each other.
“Well hello.” I laughed, the song dying down.
He smiled, before sticking his tongue out as he looked over my shoulder. I turned to see Layne sitting in the grass, ignoring Jerry. His eyes watched us, but he didn’t look aware of it. Then he glanced up at me, but Demri rested her chin on his shoulder and within seconds he was lost to everything but her.
Eddie walked out of the house, two bottles of red wine in hand. Stone and McCready shuffled out moments later, cackling back and forth. The gang was complete.
“An eye for an eye,” Keanu said. “Simple as that.”
“You don’t really believe that,” Demri spoke up, her brown eyes attentive.
Keanu nodded eagerly, biting into his burger.
“I do,” Jerry voiced. “You can’t just let people walk all over you. If someone fucks with me, I’m gonna fuck them back.”
“Touché,” Keanu chimed, clinking Sean’s fork against his glass.
Settled in some tall grass and wildflowers, the guys had thrown together three tables to fit all eighteen of us. Eighteen. I sat at the head of the table, and Chris “King of Seattle” Cornell sat at the other end. I sat quietly, every now and then, looking up to catch him making funny faces my way.
“I believe in karma,” I said simply.
“Karma has a way of balancing the scales,” Eddie added, clearing his throat.
I blinked up to him and he just stared at his plate, his fingers on the flute of his wine glass. He wore white, and around his neck, a shark’s tooth and my turquoise on a string.
I folded my arms across the eyelet tablecloth, watching conversation disperse. I’d lost all my energy for the day; I’d dropped it several feet away, where Jerry led our dance. And my mind was so far gone, but I wasn’t oblivious. Sean and Layne, Jerry and Mike, they were going through a lot. The heaviness of their energy was draining. I’d never seen so many demons hovering over such young men. I saw the same thing when I looked at McCready, too. It reminded me of that childhood nightmare—the horned devil and the Sabbath of witches—but then again, I was twenty-two and had never touched that kind of darkness.
“Jules, you alright? Jules?”
I blinked myself out of the daze. Eric’s hand waved airily in my face.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied.
“It’s the greenhouse.” River stood up, walking around the table.
“What greenhouse?” Layne looked to me expectantly, his blue eyes curious.
“She doesn’t know.”
I sat back in my chair, listening to the conversation get picked apart. Eddie watched me for a moment, and Demri did, too.
“I think it’s time for a baptism.” River’s hands rested on my shoulders.
“Oh, hell yeah!” Keanu exclaimed.
“River, no,” I whispered. But he took my hand and we all set off for the water anyway.
The sun would set soon, but the air was still warm. We hiked through the trees, a worn dirt path leading us through the forested depth. A cool breeze chased my hair, sending a shiver down my spine.
After several moments, we came upon a stretch of uninhabited land where the dark water resided. I wandered toward the edge of the lake. I couldn’t see in, and that put the fear of God in me.
The guys talked amongst themselves behind me, and I unbuttoned my cutoffs, breathing anxiously.
“What is this going to do for you?” Warm shadows. It was sweet of him, to look so concerned. He tucked a long curl behind his ear, looking out on to the lake.
“Nothing, really.” I said slowly.
He didn’t understand.
“I used to be terrified of dark waters. It’s a trick—”
“Temporary placebo?” He nodded, not really a question.
“Yeah.” I stepped out of the shorts, and Eddie kept my balance, taking them from my hands.
River waded into the water, and held his hand out. “You ready?” He smiled.
I nodded, taking a deep breath.
Eddie leaned down and whispered what I thought was a poem, “Turn a corner, catch your breath, they’re watchful gods.” He pointed up at the trees, shearing into the sky, towering over us, like watchful gods.
River took my hand and pulled me into the darkness. I winced, moving through the water with eyes closed until I felt him peel my clingy hands off his biceps.
“Chris, stand right there.” River pointed to the edge.
“Okay. Why am I standing here?”
“Because you look like Jesus. Come hither, everyone.” River drew them all close, close enough to feel their fire.
He held one of my hands under the water, his voice rambling breathlessly some prayer he was so obviously making up on the spot.
“…Then Led Zeppelin sang unto them, Rock and Roll, so we could be baptized in the name of freedom—”
“Yeah!” They hollered.
“Save this delicate flower from pain, suffering, and… insomnia, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Punk. Amen.”
“Amen!” They all shouted. I swallowed a smile, hearing Jerry howl.
I took a deep breath, crossing my heart, and River dunked me into the water. The chill struck me and I opened my eyes, seeing him through the deep blue glimmer.
“You’re okay,” I heard him say. “I still feel the music in you.”
And then I came up. Inhale.
“My child,” he rejoiced. “You’ve just been saved. Again.”
I turned, hearing the splashing and crashing of bodies against water. They all rushed in, yelling into the approaching night, cursing the darkness away. We all bathed in that temporary hope—an inkling of our future.
I wanted nothing more, just this. Just this.