Tap, tap, tap. As I sat in my car, anxious and waiting to play my role as rat, she knocked on the window. A total stranger in unadorned blueish gray and yellow tie-dye over faded jeans, she wore her brown hair long over a squared-off face blurred by rain beading on the glass. She held something in her hand and waved it at me. I would’ve thought her a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness if not for the swirls of color.
July 17, 1994. RFK Stadium, where the Washington Redskins played. It was the second night of shows by The Grateful Dead, and I felt as out of place as I had for two nights in jail. I’d been busted with three ounces of weed in my trunk, stuffed in a duffle under a week’s worth of my dumbass brother’s clothes. He came to town for a visit, and I picked him up at the airport only minutes before blue lights blazed in my rearview mirror. My tags had expired, the cop said. So, I guess my dumbass brother had a dumbass brother, too.
The cop also said he smelled marijuana—a lie—and demanded to search the vehicle. I didn’t argue because I didn’t know. It took him no effort. He unzipped the duffel, stuck his hand in as if retrieving a ring lost in the sing, and found enough weed for a distribution charge—federal because it happened in D.C.
Ned, my brother, tried to get me off the hook. He admitted the dope belonged to him. He swore I had no idea. Still, it was my Cavalier. The officer and his partner carted me off to the pokey, too. I spent the night there—processed, stripped, searched, and deloused. I slept on a hard mat on the floor of an overcrowded cell.
The next morning when I went for my first appearance before the magistrate, a scrawny fed pulled me into a conference room before I’d so much as met with a lawyer. The man’s hair looked like it had been cut by garden shears, and he smelled of Brut-33, a cheap stink I associated with old men. His gray suit bore white hairs from a cat or dog. He looked clownish and out of place in the cold world of a criminal court. The guy sat across from me and read from my file: “Chancellor, Arnold. Age twenty-four. College degree. Decent job at ReachTech as a … computer programmer?”
“Game design,” I said. “Well, I don’t design them. I do the ads. I’m in marketing.”
“Looks like no priors.”
“Not even a speeding ticket.”
“No,” I said again.
“That’s a lot of pot you had there.”
He chuckled. “Relax,” he said. “We know it’s not yours. But, now you’re in the system. It won’t just go away.”
“Shit,” I sighed.
“Unless….” There was the set-up. He called it a deal, but it seemed more like extortion.
That was the year feds all over the country were sending informants into venues hosting Grateful Dead concerts, hoping to catch folks selling LSD. Acid still freaked out the average American, and what was more associated with it than music of The Dead? The FBI tried to bust dealers at every show. I can’t imagine how many concert tickets the federal government paid for that year, but at least two of them were mine.
I rolled down my window, and the girl leaned in. One hand shielded the top of her head from the rain. The other waved colorful bumper stickers with lightning skulls and dancing bears on them. “Hi,” she said. “I’m following the Dead this summer, and I have to sell these bumper stickers to pay my way.”
I didn’t want a bumper sticker. Hell, I didn’t even like the Dead. The band’s music had the same effect on me as a dripping faucet late at night when I wanted to sleep. “Thanks,” I said, “but I’m….”
“Five bucks each. You look like you need one. It’ll let everybody know you’re a part of the scene.”
“I’m….” I stopped and thought about it. Maybe a bumper sticker would help me. I hadn’t had any luck so far, despite the swirling chaos of orange and red the feds gave me to wear. The shirt left me feeling ridiculous. I’d never buy a tee like that. The feds did even faded it and beat it up a little—all part of the illusion. I wondered whether they’d reimburse me for the cost of a bumper sticker or if I should just take it out of my drug-buy cash. “Okay, sure,” I said, reaching into my pocket for some loose dollar bills.
The rain picked up. All day, the sky alternated between sunshine and sudden downpours. Standing in it, the girl fidgeted as if trying to dance between the raindrops. Her hair and clothes were wet. Her cheeks dripped as if with tears. It wouldn’t be long before she looked as if she’d just stepped out of the shower.
Not thinking, I asked, “You want to get out of the rain for a bit?”
She didn’t think about it, either. Nor did she answer. She rushed around the front of my car, her feet dragging as if she wore skis. I unlocked the door, and took the passenger’s seat. “Thanks,” she said. “I love rain, but all my dry clothes are in a locker at the bus station.”
“No problem. If I had a towel, I’d offer it to you.”
She smiled at me as if she wore rainbows inside. It was a pretty smile, making her face seem less tiny and stone-like. “You’re sweet,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m Anna.”
“Arnie,” I told her, shaking. Her fingers were so small and fragile that I thought they might break apart like porcelain.
“Well, Arnie, thanks. I appreciate this. Not a lot of folks are so considerate. They used to be, from what my dad told me about these shows twenty years ago, but today…?” She shrugged. “Anyway, I owe you one.”
I turned on the ignition and opened the vents to let in some air and help her dry off. The radio came on, too, blaring music from a cassette tape I’d left in the deck. It was Beck’s Mellow Gold album, right at the point Beck started cussing about the truck driver who lived downstairs.
“That’s not Jerry,” Anna said.
“Sorry.” I thought my cover was blown.
“It’s cool. I dig Beck. Wouldn’t follow him around the country, but you know….”
“Good music is good music.”
“Good music is God music,” she replied.
Good save, I thought.
I tried to talk my way out of it. I hemmed and hawed and asked the agent, “If you know I’m innocent, why should I do this? I’m not the right person. I don’t know how to buy dope.”
“Not even weed?” he asked. By now, he’d identified himself as Special Agent Dalton.
“No.” I paused, reading paragraphs of disbelief hand-written on the pages of his eyes. “I mean, okay, sure, I’ve smoked a joint a couple times…”
He wrote that down on a yellow legal pad.
“…but I’ve never bought any.”
“Where’d you get it, then?”
“I’m not telling you that.”
“We have to start somewhere.”
I didn’t want to, but found myself saying, “Old girlfriends. I’m not giving you their names.”
He placed his pen on top of the legal pad, then leaned forward, intense and menacing. “Listen, Son. For this to work, we have to believe you’re willing to try, and for that to happen, you have to realize how much trouble we’ll make for you if you don’t play along. You with me so far?”
“I want you to understand this. I want you to take it to heart.”
I nodded again.
“We can go forward with these charges. You get that, right?”
“No. Yes. I mean, maybe….”
“Once we do that, you might get yourself a good lawyer, and a jury might believe the weed wasn’t yours. Your brother will have to testify to that, which his good lawyer will advise him against. So, you might not get out of the trap. Either way, your life won’t be the same. You think ReachTech’s the kind of place that wants a suspected drug dealer on its marketing team? I wouldn’t bet on it. I’m betting on you, though. I think you’d like to put all this behind you.”
I nodded, feeling drunk and no longer present. The walls of the room were eggshell and dull, but they blurred into the emptiness and blackness of space.
“So,” Dalton continued, “help me trust you. When I ask a question, you answer. I’ll even make it easier. Tell me the name of one ex-girlfriend who bought you dope. Will we go after her? Not likely. Can I promise you that? No. That’s where we stand, you and I.”
I kept nodding as if my neck might release its catch and allow my head to roll itself away.
“One name. Who is she?”
I could do it, I thought. I had to have at least one ex I could burn in a pinch. Everybody does. That’s the nature of breakups: some of them are bad. Which one would it be? Carla, the shooter girl at Jeramiah’s Tavern, who dumped me six months ago for another woman? Zelda, my previous one true love, who joked about everything and knew how to make me laugh, even while we were splitting up our goods? Lorraine, ten years older than me, who was the secretary at a law firm that represented my brother once? No, not her. We never smoked a joint together. Then there was my college girlfriend, Lucy. Man, she squeezed all the life out of me for a while. She stopped showing me any affection, ran around with other guys, cursed my mother loudly in the background while Mom and I talked long-distance on the phone. Right before she gave me the brush-off, she swiped about half my CDs and sold them or traded them for harder drugs than I ever tried. What a wreck. I thought she was the be-all/end-all, the whole shebang, but she turned out to be more of a dust mote in the eye. Smiling at Dalton, I said, “Lucy.”
“Good. That’s good. Lucy what?”
“See, I knew you could do it. I had faith in you.”
“Sure,” I said. “Best of luck finding anything on her. I haven’t seen her since my junior year at Potomac State. She might be on the moon by now. Hell, she might already be in jail.”
The rain lessened as quickly as it came. Anna had been in the car only a few minutes before sunlight tore through smoke-gray clouds and steam misted off the pavement. She craned her neck, twisting and looking out the windshield. Then she stared through her window, followed by mine, leaning toward me as she did in a way that felt as if she were about to kiss me. When I flinched, she apologized and settled in her seat.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Oh. Right weather for it.”
“I know. Wouldn’t it be perfect?”
I didn’t reply, instead glancing out my window and pretending to search the sky.
“I saw one in Columbus once, right before a show. I was blitzed, though, so I’m not sure if it was real or in my head. Whatever it was, I felt its light for the rest of the day. I burned with light. I overflowed with it. I wish I could’ve seen myself glow. Amazing.” I loved her enthusiasm—how she spoke with such warmth, and how she pronounced the last word ‘mazing without the uh. She sounded like a kid on her birthday, dazzled by the possibility of presents.
“So, uhm,” I said, “Columbus—is that where you’re from?”
“Kansas City,” she said. “I live there most the year, waitressing wherever I can get on. But I travel all over the place when I’m doing the summer tours.”
“Oh,” I said, just to say something. “I’m from Baltimore … originally.”
“Are you following the tour?”
I shook my head. “I live here now. I work for a company that makes computer games. I’m in marketing.”
“Cool. Like Super Mario and stuff?”
“Nothing that huge. Biggest character I’ve worked with was Malcom the Mule.”
“Not familiar to me.”
“He does judo battles with stallions.”
She giggled as if I’d tickled her with a feather.
“No kidding, right? Can you believe the stuff people come up with?”
“Sure,” she told me. “What’s the point of having an imagination if you don’t set it free?”
Saturday, before the first show, the other agents taped a microphone to my bare chest. It was about the size of a grasshopper, with a wire running down and around me to the transmitter box in the waistband of my jeans. When I slipped on the flimsy tie-dye they gave me, a bulge showed on my chest that swore I was either a narc or I had a third nipple like a witch. The feds seemed more concerned about me scaring off drug dealers than that I might suffer the torments of the Inquisition, so they stripped me down again and moved the microphone lower, where the tee shirt seemed baggiest on me. Part of the mic poked into my bellybutton, and I felt like I’d been violated.
Special Agent Dalton stood off to one side, alternately nodding and shaking his head. “Hurry it up, boys. He needs time to get to the show before Traffic.”
“This is D.C.,” I said. “There’ll always be traffic.”
He stepped forward and raised his hand as if to slap me, but he was laughing as he did it. “Don’t be a wiseass,” he said. “The band Traffic. The opening act.”
“Never heard of them.”
“Not surprised. You’re not part of that culture.”
“So, why am I doing this? Why didn’t you get my brother? He can interact with these people. He’s been busted before.”
“That’s why,” Dalton explained. “Folks like your brother, folks who’ve been in jail or the penitentiary—they develop a sort of ethics that they live by. It includes not snitching, even to save their asses. In a way, it’s self-preservation. Folks like that never know when they might get themselves locked up again, and other than being a pedophile, the worst reputation you can have on the inside is that you’re a snitch. Might lead someone like your brother to a lot of pain.”
“What about me? I don’t like pain either.”
“Listen, wiseass, you’re doing this or you’ll learn what pain on the inside really is. That’s all there is to it. You’re going to that show, and you’re going to try as hard as you can to buy drugs. LSD mainly, but anything will do. Then, we’ll bust the guys discreetly once you’re out of the area. Simple. I doubt any of the cases will go to trial, but if one does, we’ll bring you back to testify. At that point, you’re officially a snitch. No two ways about it.”
“Shit,” I said.
“No shit,” he replied. “It won’t come back to haunt you like it would your brother, though.”
“Because you’re not a moron.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Just don’t ever get arrested again.”
“Looks like it’ll be a beautiful day after all,” Anna said. “I guess I should get back to selling these.” She lifted the thick stack of bumper stickers she’d been resting on her thigh. “Have to make money,” she said, “for food and bus fare to the next show.” She explained that she met up with a guy in every city who sold her fifty bumper stickers for fifty bucks. He made them himself, she thought, so he sold them cheaply. She turned around and sold them for five dollars each. The two hundred dollars she made as a profit covered her travel expenses. It wasn’t enough for tickets, but she said she usually found someone with an extra, or at least someone who could show her the best way to sneak into a venue. “A couple times, I couldn’t make it in and had to listen from the parking lot, but that was groovy, too. There were a bunch of us, and we just sat in a big circle and got high.”
I flinched. Shit, I thought, snapping back to reality. I turned away and stared out my window, pretending to search for her rainbow.
“Could still hear the music.”
“Something to tell your grandkids,” I said, not sure what else to add.
“One time, there was a big drum circle, and this guy brought an acoustic guitar, and everybody jammed along with the music. That was special. Hey, do you have a sheet of paper, or a napkin, or anything like that?”
“Yeah, in the….” I turned toward her and froze. She’d pulled out a sandwich baggie about a finger deep with pot.
“Where?” Anna glanced at me, then the glovebox, then back at me. “In there?”
I shook my head frantically. My neck must have looked ready to break.
“Just wanted to pay you back for your kindness,” she said. “Are you okay?”
I put a finger to my lips, shushing her.
“What is it? Is something wrong?” She didn’t understand the gesture.
Without thinking about it or considering the consequences, I pointed at my belly where the microphone was taped. Only the briefest bump could be seen. So, I cupped a hand around my ear to let her know people were listening.
Anna caught on. She mouthed the words, You’re an informant?
I mouthed back, Not by choice.
She leaned in to whisper in my ear. As she did, her lip brushed my earlobe, riffling my back with shivers. As quietly as she could, she said, “Please don’t bust me.”
Special Agent Dalton thought it would be more realistic if I drove myself. He ordered my car released from the impound lot, handed me a wad of cash for drug buys—I had to sign for it—and sent me on my way.
That was the summer of the World Cup in cities across the U.S. Some of the matches were played at RFK, and as I drove through town, across bridges, and over the Interstate on- and off-ramps, I saw brown metal signs everywhere. They had swirling orbs of soccer balls painted on them, along with the words ‘RFK Stadium’ and ‘World Cup,’ plus directional arrows, creating a breadcrumb trail to the venue. Those must have cost a fortune.
I let my mind wander as I drove, considering anything at all aside from what I had to do. I thought about the weird variety of music on the radio these days, whereas before it was grunge, and before that, hair metal. I wondered if President Clinton would give a saxophone concert on-camera from the Oval Office. I contemplated the Capitals hockey team, which I hoped would have a good year. My brother was also a Capitals fan. I thought about him, too, which led me back to my situation. The tape on my belly itched. The microphone tickled. The tie-dye blinded me whenever I glanced down.
Better off in jail, I thought, but before I could consider how stupid that sounded, I arrived.
I reached across her lap for the glovebox. My forearm brushed against bare skin where a hole had been ripped in the knee of her jeans. She startled, and I said, “Sorry.” Opening the glovebox, I reached in and came back with a thin reporter’s notebook, spiral-bound at the top. We used those in the marketing department for jotting down ideas. A white Bic pen with blue lid was latched onto the metal wiring.
“Oh,” she sighed.
I nodded, sitting up straight. I opened to a blank page and wrote, I don’t want to bust anybody. They’re forcing me. Then I handed the notebook to her.
She wrote, What are you after?
LSD, I wrote, followed by, Not you, tapping my pen on the page several times for emphasis. I added the obvious: They’re listening.
She rolled up the baggie and stuffed it into one of her black Doc Martens. Then, she took the pen and notebook from me again, looked out her window as she considered what to write. When she decided, she scribbled something, tore out the page, and handed that to me. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but it wasn’t this: What can I do to help?
My seat that first night was in the mezzanine, all the way at the other end of the field from the stage. While the feds were happy to buy concert tickets, none were willing to camp out for good tickets.
I arrived early and stayed in my car, watching colorful characters interact in the parking lot. They traded shady handshakes, bounced around from the trunk of one car to another, tapped their hands on big brown drums. I didn’t talk to any of them.
After a while, I headed inside, found my spot, and sat there alone for an hour before Traffic took the stage. My section was almost empty, so I stared out over bright waves of young people down on the field in the festival-seating area. They danced with no music or played hacky sack in circles. Some had guitars, and there were more hand drums. From my distance, I heard faint percussion, but not the chords from what I figured to be two dozen versions of “Uncle John’s Band.” Most of the guys wore their hair long like a lion’s mane. The girls were pretty and plain, almost universally skinny. Everyone was younger than I’d imagined. I think Dalton expected me to bust a bunch of aging hippies who didn’t understand that the sixties were gone. Instead, most of the Deadheads were college-aged and playing at sixties subculture. They were here to dress up, get high, fit in, and have fun. So many Frisbee discs flew through the air that it looked like a scene from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. And the dancing—there was so much dancing.
Part of me wanted to be down there dancing with them. The rest preferred to stay in my seat, voiceless and trembling, to do nothing, speak to no one, suffer through this concert like a prison sentence, then go home and rebuild my life. Mostly, that’s what I did. From my vantage, I saw lots of folks passing joints or sharing the drug-deal handshake, but all were down on the field. I couldn’t have approached them if I wanted to.
The Grateful Dead took the stage for the band’s first set at eight o’clock. By then, the stadium was full and dark. I saw a blur of people like the background in a sports photo. My mezzanine section filled up by half, and I figured most of the ticket holders were down on the field where the party was. I doubted I’d get the chance to make a buy.
There was one guy, though—my age, maybe younger, but shorter and with extended, ape-like arms. He wore jeans so old that more of his legs showed than denim, and a tee so faded that color swirls had merged into a fog of yellowish gray like the moon’s halo on a cloudy night. The guy came dancing down the stairs to the concrete barrier at the edge of the mezzanine. He placed a pen and moleskin notebook there, then backed off and resumed his dance. As the band played, he stopped long enough to write down the titles of songs as he heard them, before resuming his gyrations without noticing the rest of us nearby as if he were alone in his bedroom, worrying about nothing but music and the movements of his body.
I watched him for an hour as he enjoyed himself. Sorry, buddy, I thought. It has to be you. When he stopped to write down one of the song titles, I reached out and tapped him on the leg before he could disappear into himself again. “What was the name of that one?” I asked.
He gave me a look that swore I was an idiot. He said something, but the band had begun to play the next tune, so I couldn’t hear him.
“What?” I shouted.
He leaned down and yelled back, “Ramble On Rose!”
“Thanks!” He started to back away, but I waved him toward me again. When he leaned down, I shouted, “You got any acid?”
He snapped to attention, stared meanly into my eyes, then took several steps backward up the stairs and began to dance again as far as he could make it from the likes of me.
After the show, a different fed met me outside the stadium. “At least you tried,” he said. “We didn’t think you were going to. It’s a start. Still, tomorrow you’ll have to do better.”
“What if I don’t get anybody?” I asked.
“Dalton made a deal with you. As long as you put in a reasonable effort, he’ll live up to his end of it. But, Mr. Chancellor, you can’t just sit in your chair all night.”
Were they watching, too? I wondered.
“Get out and mingle. Move around. Talk to people. Find a friend who can point out the dealers. That’s how it works.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
“You better. We’ll be listening to every word you say.”
Anna and I came up with a plan by passing notes while talking about rainbows and bumper stickers. When we figured it out, we entered the stadium and walked around the concourse on different levels. We searched for faces familiar to her. She spoke their names loud enough for the microphone to pick them up, despite the noise around us. Then, she introduced me to her fellow travelers. While I asked if they had any LSD, she stood at my side, holding a piece of paper on which I’d written, Forced to wear a wire! Play along! Say, “Sorry, I don’t do that sort of thing!” Every so often, I stopped to rewrite the note, changing the response phrase so it didn’t start to sound monotonous to the eavesdropping feds. “Can’t help you,” I wrote at one point. Another time, it was, “That’s just not cool.” Once, I scribbled, “Man, I wish I did.”
The Deadheads seemed nice about it. None blew my cover. Not one cussed me or refused to play the game. Most of them smiled. A few nodded their thanks for the warning. One older guy hugged me and said, “Nice to see you,” as if we were friends.
Anna giggled and skipped at my side, enjoying herself. She was like an animated character on a children’s show, except with pot.
I felt happy with her there. We locked arms, or sometimes she pulled herself close by grabbing my waist. She convinced me to dance with her during one of the songs and, although we were still in the middle of the concourse, it never occurred to me to worry about how awkward I was or that all eyes might be watching, judging, seeing me as a clown. It was like we were lovers, and this was the most exciting date I’d ever had.
We left during the encore while Jerry sang, “Standing on the Moon.” Anna headed for the parking lot, after swearing she could find my car. She’d be there when I was finished, she said.
The thought of it made me smile as I went off to where Dalton and the other feds were waiting to get their wire back.
I found Dalton standing beside a white van, smoking and looking too much like a spy in a Cold-War movie. He dropped his cigarette as I approached. He stepped on it and ground it into the concrete. He didn’t seem angry, but I prepared myself to be chewed out. “Mr. Chancellor,” he said, followed by a grin and the words, “hell of a job.” Hard to tell if he intended sarcasm.
“I didn’t catch anybody,” I replied.
Two other agents came out of the van and felt me up, one removing the microphone, the other stripping the transmitter from my back.
I groaned as hairs were ripped from my skin.
Agent Dalton said, “You did all I expected of you.”
“Even though I didn’t bust anybody or buy any dope?”
“It was a complete failure,” he said. “It was all a shot in the dark, though. None of us figured you’d get it right.”
“Then why’d you have me do it?”
“Because we could,” he said. “Now, if you don’t get your ass out of here, we’ll send you back to try again. Maybe you could sneak up on somebody in the john.”
I froze. How could I do it without Anna there beside me? Oh, God.
“I mean it. Go home. Fuck off, already.”
“I’m … free?” I muttered.
“Far as I’m concerned, you’re in the clear.”
“I didn’t catch anybody,” I said again, too nervous to get the hint and go.
“Mr. Chancellor, did you think we ran this whole operation just for you? We had twenty other people in there. We made a dozen busts. I call that a success.” He paused, half-winking. “And you were a part of it. You should be proud.”
I wasn’t. I felt sort of slimy and indecent as if I’d emerged from a peepshow booth, my identity concealed beneath a trench coat and fedora. “What about my brother?” I said.
“Well, he’ll have to face the dope charge, but I’ll make sure Judge Hanratty lowers his bond to something reasonable so you can take him home in a couple days. I’ll put in a good word for him, too, so he’s offered a fair deal. When it comes, make sure he takes it.”
I didn’t find Anna waiting for me at the car.
By now, Deadheads were storming the parking lot. Brake lights came to life everywhere from cars of people wanting but unable to get on the road.
I sat in my Cavalier, laid my head back on the rest, and exhaled. What a night, I thought. What an adventure. I brought tension and anxiety into it, but left both somewhere inside the stadium—lost, unclaimed, forgotten. Anna’s presence had silenced all the noise in my head, replacing it with melodies.
Now, her absence didn’t worry me. I guessed she’d found some friends or finally taken the opportunity to slip off and smoke a joint. But I figured she’d come back.
So, I stayed.
The parking lot emptied. The flashes of sweat-soaked tie-dyes dimmed to darkness and the yellow haze from arc lamps overhead.
Still, I lingered.
It was after two in the morning before I admitted that what I’d come to think of as a date had ended without even a good-night kiss.
I wanted to see her again, to hug her and compare notes on the day we spent together, but I only knew her first name, and I couldn’t call up directory assistance for Kansas City and ask for Anna. If I had any chance to find her, I would have to buy a ticket to another Dead show, arrive early, and watch for her selling bumper stickers in the parking lot. The following year, when the Dead’s summer tour started, I considered going. I thought about travelling to Pittsburgh or Baltimore for a concert, despite the fact that I wasn’t a fan of the music. I didn’t go through with it, for whatever reason, and by August, Jerry Garcia was dead.
Ace Boggess is author of five books of poetry—Misadventure, I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So, Ultra Deep Field, The Prisoners, and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled—and the novels States of Mercy and A Song Without a Melody. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Mid-American Review, Rattle, River Styx, and many other journals. He received a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia. His sixth collection, Escape Envy, is forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press in 2021.