Greg Leichner is a loner carpenter, a vagabond living in Seattle, Montana, New Mexico and Nashville. He won the First Annual (1995) Rocky Mountain Artists/Eccentric Book Competition for his 15-postcard series “Citizens For A Poodle-Free Montana.”
The Starkey Effect
Three months MIA, Starkey dropped by the house looking more ragged than usual. He wore a knitted tam, gray sweatpants, and a poncho he’d made by cutting a hole in the middle of a brown Army blanket.
“I just drove in from Great Falls,” he said.
His eyes glowed with a guru-like fever, a calm, direct current. I could see that in this moment he needed safe haven, if only for a few hours. I invited him inside.
His intensity bugged me.
I respected his very public lurch for salvation.
I didn’t want him to get too close.
I offered him a beer and we sat at the kitchen table.
Starkey was a seeker. He knew how to put his ass on the line, and each time he experimented with his life, his quest advanced one more step.
“I’ve been living with a psychologist named Kathy,” he said. He tore a chunk from the loaf of sourdough and inhaled its warmth and aroma. “At first we slept naked together, with a lot of conversation and humor and affection, but without the sex. It took two weeks to gain her trust. Finally she agreed to create the necessary paperwork and have me committed to Warm Springs State Hospital. I agreed to become her case study, to the daily taped interviews. Just like this, at the kitchen table.” He took a long drag from his beer bottle. “My plan didn’t fly. Sex entered the picture and suddenly Kathy and I didn’t hit it off. Great Falls turned out to be a heavy masturbation trip.”
Starkey had a new plan to up the intensity.
“This New Year’s Eve,” he said, “I’m going to play Russian roulette. One spin of the chamber, one pull on the trigger.”
“Soon you will be awash in heightened awareness.”
He grinned. “Exactly.”
The next morning, Starkey drove his van—his ashram—to the KOA campground west of Missoula. On day four, the van died in its sleep at campsite #17. Starkey borrowed five hundred dollars from his mother in Pennsylvania and bought a black VW beetle in decent condition.
He worked as a dishwasher. He signed up for a dance class, contact improvisation. He modeled nude for the University of Montana art department. He offered massages to a number of female artists and slept with two of them.
Starkey had trained as a masseur so that he might knead a woman’s flesh without having to go through regular channels. His primal trauma was the immense sexual power that women had over him. It was the source of his spiritual energy.
One night Starkey had an epiphany and the next afternoon he was driving toward San Francisco in the VW bug. He believed “the California coast was the place to be for one who was interested in sexual and spiritual advancement.” With my permission, he transferred ownership of the van to me.
Two weeks later, the postman delivered Starkey’s scrawled postcard: “Sell the van. Send me the money, minus your cut. Russian roulette is on hold. I am going to India, to Poona, to see Rajneesh. I’ve eaten nothing for four days but raw potatoes.”
I have stolen one of your moves. I am posing nude twice a week for the university art department. Your friend Anne says hi.
Twenty bucks enclosed. You’ll pay me back when I sell the van.
If you continue with your current diet, we’ll have to change your name to Starchy.
I invited Anne to a party, invitation only. Eric Redley’s Blue Mountain Express Body Language Seminar. I’d met Eric through Starkey. He was a soft-spoken, wild-eyed mischief-maker with a degree in psychology.
Anne and I were the last of four couples to arrive at the funky dwelling up Blue Mountain Road. The place was nestled under massive pines. We walked up two steps to the deck and entered through the bi-fold doors of a king-size school bus. The bus was at the center of four cabin-like appendages. The roof had been cut off the bus and a second story added. Eric had built it himself from salvaged materials.
Inside, he decorated with exotic rugs and runners, oddball ceramic items, a dentist’s chair, rusty machine parts, vintage magazines, a framed 8×10 glossy of the Cisco Kid, Duncan Renaldo.
No overhead lighting. Corners and niches and doorways were lit in whorehouse red by table lamps and sconces.
At Eric’s request, Anne and I put on gray cotton hoods with eyeholes and a mouth hole. He led us to a private alcove. Anne and I sat down in straight-backed wooden chairs facing each other.
“No talking,” said Eric. “You are in a rowboat. You both have your hands on the oars. You are in a state of bliss. Suddenly the boat capsizes. One of you saves the other.”
He left us alone. It was my third date with Anne. I saw the sigh in her eyes. We both figured this exercise was going to suck. We slipped into character, however half-assed, and played out our roles for the required ten minutes.
We held hands. We looked at each other with love in our eyes. The boat capsized. We struggled on the surface of rough waters. I was thankful Anne chose not to politicize the moment. She allowed me to rescue her and get her safely to shore. She hugged me and it felt just right. I gave her a tender kiss and she smiled.
The hooded females rotated to the next hooded male.
B arrived and curtsied. Her hood was black. I liked her eyes. Eric gave us our instructions and left the room.
We straddled the wooden bench. B sat behind me, reached around and played my body like a guitar. She fretted my left palm. With her right thumb and fingers she lightly strummed my sternum and sang, “All my bags are packed and I’m ready to go…”
I sat behind B and played her body as if she were a cello. I used a yardstick for a bow and slid it back and forth across her thighs. I reached around her torso and with my left hand I pressed the frets, her ribcage. I hummed a slow-motion version of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Her body relaxed. She was almost asleep. I resisted my desire to kiss her on the neck.
C and I took turns at a game called The Blind Leading the Blind. Eric said, “You alternate. She makes two moves, he makes two moves, back and forth for ten minutes.” Eric turned our hoods halfway around.
C led me through the room and down four steps.
I led C down the aisle of the school bus and out the bi-fold door.
We stopped at the deck’s rail. C politely pulled her hand from mine. We stood motionless until our time was up.
I sat on a stool and stared at an autographed 8×10 glossy of Shari Lewis and her ovine puppet, Lamb Chop. D massaged my naked shoulders. She tried to get into it, but she wasn’t all there. Eric, the silent observer, stood behind her.
Eric adjusted the dentist’s chair and it became a massage table. He pinched a bit of D’s sweater and gave two tugs. D pulled off her sweater and lay face down on the table.
Eric unhooked her bra and said to me, “Your turn. All touch must be delivered in good faith.”
D had a beautiful back. With my fingertips I caressed the skin above the waistline of her jeans. I tested her muscle tone by sliding my thumb slowly down the valley of her spine. I massaged her back. She was an athlete. I came close to her breasts. I barely crossed the line.
Eric said, “Time.”
D sat up, fastened her bra and put on her sweater. She flashed me an inscrutable look, a nanosecond of flame. She left the room and didn’t look back.
“She likes you,” Eric said to me. “She is the reason I invited you to this party.”
My final encounter was with Anne. Eric led us to his bedroom. I was to act like an impotent man who has found the woman he loves. Anne was to act like a libertine who has found the man she loves. We were to make the best of the situation. Eric left us.
Anne and I stood face to face.
It took a few minutes of silence and meditation.
It was Anne who found the way. She stepped back, pulled down her jeans and panties, turned and bent over the mattress.
“If you can’t get it up,” she whispered, “that’s okay, honey.”
I’m off Elm Street, out of Missoula, and into a 12×12 cabin on the clear cold Blackfoot River near Bonner, Montana.
This morning at the river I filled a black five-gallon jerry can and set it in the sun. I walked up the path and out to the middle of the swinging bridge. Downstream, wild ducks submerged and surfaced. A kingfisher hit the water, then shot skyward to a cottonwood branch. Needle-beaked killdeer rode herd on babies squeaking from atop rounded stones on the bank. An otter with a black tuft at the tip of its tail slid into the Blackfoot, then out quickly. I looked straight down at the current through the holes in the metal catwalk. The effect was that of riding backward on an overhead crane.
I spent yesterday hauling boxes across the swinging bridge. Today in Missoula I bought a used refrigerator. With a hand truck I pushed it across the eighty-foot span, no problem. When the truck’s wheels dropped down a step to the dirt path, the strap gave way and my 1959 Westinghouse tumbled down the embankment and onto the volleyball court.
I broke a sweat getting the refrigerator back onto the hand truck and wheeling it across the meadow and through the cabin door. I plugged it in and the motor came to life. A durable relic, a sign of grace.
Anne arrived and we went fly-fishing. That evening we stood outside, naked on a slice of plywood. I lifted the jerry can and poured us a hot shower.
We ate fresh trout cooked in butter and onions, garden salad, and ice-cold beer. No timepiece, no television, no phone. Wild roses, blue lupine, devil’s paintbrush like blood stains beneath the white tips of bear grass.