The Searcher

“I’ve been on Driveabout,” was Jeffrey’s way of explaining his reappearance in our lives that summer. “And I have Good News.” It was 1975 and I was fourteen, bored and wanting to get out of town. We lived on North Main Street in East Hampton, in a large house wedged between two gas stations, and we watched the Volkswagen bump up the pitted driveway, wondering what called him to stop here, after so many years. He hugged my parents, shook hands with my brother. He put his hands on my shoulders and said, “You’ve grown up” in a way that resonated to the very core of my adolescent heart. We were hungry, having postponed lunch for Jeffrey’s arrival, and now we sat at the outdoor table that my parents had set with wine, cheese, and fruit. Jeffrey refused the wine and observed our gluttony as we stuffed ourselves. He managed a few crackers. “I now eat for sustenance, not pleasure,” he explained. “You said on the phone you were going on a trip,” my father said through a mouthful of baguette. “Where are you planning on going?” “On a trip longer than anyone will know.” We waited for the next line. “I’m called Seymour now,” he said, “as in See more, See less. Get it?” “Is this like that pyramid thing?” my father asked. At one time Jeffrey had proselytized, to my father’s amusement, that pyramids would sharpen pencils. But now he waved away the pyramid thing. “After all of my striving, I have finally found a Process of self-examination that will propel me toward the perfect plane.” He was shedding his human desires, he said, much as a caterpillar sheds its skin on the way to becoming a butterfly. There were two enlightened beings walking the earth, who had returned from Nirvana to help us achieve this metamorphosis. Nirvana was a space ship lodged behind Venus. They called themselves Bo and Peep. “You know, like little Bo Peep, the shepherd?” “Bo and Peep,” my father repeated. It was his job to help spread the word before the world came to an end, which was going to occur any minute now. I thought Jeffrey/Seymour was quite brave, talking like this to my father, the unforgiving atheist. He had put his hands on my shoulders and said “You’ve grown up.” Somewhere between that gesture and the end of lunch he had become mine. I wanted to ride with him. I wanted to get out of town. He stayed for several days, not in the guest room, where my mother had re-made the bed with her antique butterfly quilt, but in a pup-tent in the back yard. Sleeping outside was part of his new ascetic lifestyle. I would peer out the living room window in the morning and watch as he emerged from the wobbly tent, his sandy hair uncombed, and my heart jumped even as I moved back so that he wouldn’t see me watching. Very quickly I constructed an elaborate dream where Jeffrey/Seymour would insist that I leave with him to spread the Word. We would live on rice and sleep together in that tent. Was celibacy part of the shedding of human desire? I could barely think that far ahead. “This is the silliest I’ve ever seen him,” my father said. “I think he’s completely and utterly lost his mind this time.” Jeffrey’s religious excursions had no staying power, according to him. When he got bored, Jeffrey would simply move on to another cult. “I really want to find out about the Process,” I piously told Jeffrey/Seymour. “I really want to learn about it. Do you think I could go around the country like you do?” With you, I meant. A polite man, he didn’t ruin the idea immediately. He gave me a flier to read and suggested something closer to home. Would I help him distribute fliers around town? That was what Bo and Peep needed. Sure I would! It was not until I was in front of the IGA that I understood what I was doing. I had thought that Jeffrey/Seymour would be there with me, but instead he dropped me off, leaving me alone with my pile of badly-printed fliers. I mumbled at people, “Excuse me, would you like one of these pamphlets?” Luckily the corner by the IGA was crowded with weekenders getting their lunches, instead of locals who might recognize me. Some took the literature out of curiosity. One gentleman asked if I danced at airports. I saw to my relief that the pile was diminishing. But then Mrs. Schultz the English teacher appeared, heading for me with a look of unpleasant curiosity. She was elderly, sharp-tongued, intimidating: the worst person to discover me engaged in this activity. I looked at the sidewalk as she took one of the fliers between her thumb and forefinger. The fuzzy butterfly on the front page was blurred from the cheap ink and my sweat. “I’m disappointed in you,” she said. I scuttled into the IGA and left the fliers in the cookie aisle, next to an open pack of Oreos. I grabbed a handful for consolation. That night it was time to alert the Enlightened Ones that we were in contact and on the job. The best place for this, Seymour decided, was the Napeague stretch. My brother and his girlfriend drove us there. Seymour and I rode in back, and the proximity of his warm, denim-covered leg to mine in the intimate car-darkness made me wish the ride would go on forever. Seymour carried a large flashlight. Did he know where Bo and Peep were? I asked him. “This isn’t for The Two. This is for the Enlightened Ones, who are behind Venus in the space ship,” he reminded me. I could hear giggling from the front seat. Seymour didn’t mind; he accepted derision with royal nonchalance. It was dusk when we arrived, the perfect time to see Venus (and signal the people living behind it). My brother and his girlfriend disappeared, exploring some other part of the sands. We found the dune Seymour had been looking for—one of the highest—and sat at the top with the dried grasses stirring in the night breeze. In the fading blue of the western sky Venus shone brightly. Seymour clicked his flashlight at the planet. “What are you saying to them?” I asked. “Nothing specific. Just letting them know we’re here, and that we know they are there.” “Can they really see us?” “Why not?” he said. But a flashlight couldn’t do that! I could only believe in the possibility of what he was saying by ignoring everything I had ever been taught, and I wanted to, I truly wanted to accept the colorful entertainment of the fantastic over the prosaic logic of my utter boredom. But I could not do it, and this knowledge was hideously depressing, as we sat together on that dune taking in the salt air and signaling Venus with his flashlight. I was not going to escape with him. He would leave and I was still stuck in town. Mosquitoes zeroed in, as if sensing my sudden vulnerability. He left the next day, pulling up his tent and accepting an A&P shopping bag filled with sandwiches and iced tea. He was continuing his Driveabout, going back across country to continue the message before the world re-shaped itself, as it had been doing periodically since its inception. We watched him back down the driveway. “Jeffrey, Jeffrey, Jeffrey,” my father said. We heard no more of him after that. He receded into a dream at the back of my mind, and then I forgot him and, as the years went by, forgot about that summer except as an occasional memory of the seventies and the weird things people could be caught up in then. In 1997, much of the human world concentrated its attention on comet Hale-Bopp and its spectacular trek across the star-laden sky. My husband and I took turns peering at this phenomenon through a telescope we had set up at our house on Three Mile Harbor Road. The next morning we learned that 39 people in California had committed suicide along with their leader Marshall Applewhite, formerly known as Bo. Heaven’s Gate still believed in spaceships, but now they decided the craft was hiding behind Hale-Bopp rather than Venus. When they were found lying neatly in their beds after ingesting vodka, cyanide and pineapple, each member was carrying $5.75—the cost of interplanetary tolls. The group had taken out Alien Abduction insurance. They thought of everything. I asked Dad, “You don’t think Jeffrey was still involved in that, do you?” “Good god, no. He’s silly, but he always takes care of himself.” Nevertheless I looked at the list of names. I was surprised to see someone from Sag Harbor, but no Jeffrey. When I told Dad he said, “I knew he wasn’t that damned dumb,” while smiling with what might almost be called relief.