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Today's Story by Michael Shorb

“If’ you’da killed the dude you’d know who he was. So there you go.”

Ghost Dances

You took the acid too soon. The thought, half chiding and half Emergency Room neon flashing, crawled down the walls of Mark’s brain as he looked out the bus window. Better to just pretend nothing was going on. Yeah, right, a mocking voice echoed from the cranial plains where the first lightning of creation forked from Cerulean Blue voids into ponds of primeval movement. Easy to say if your face wasn’t changing its molecular structure so fast that anyone glancing in your direction would jump up like a character in an animated cartoon, with his hair shooting straight up like a gusher from an oil well and yell, ‘what the hell’s wrong with that guy? Why’s his face flowing like a trout stream? Driver, what kind of bus is this, anyway?’

Finally, Market Street. He stepped into Saturday night like a mariner bracing himself against a gale force wind filled with tiny luminescent green and blue mermaids. You could have waited. You could have taken half. But no, you had to gulp the whole pumpkin seed tablet, you had to be riding on a bus when it began exploding inside your mind.

At last, he entered Fillmore West Auditorium, and allowed the molten tendrils of rock and roll to pull him along until he slipped into the comforting, heavily-stoned ambience of the ballroom. The pungent sweetness of hash and grass billowed through the air, clouded and perfumed the spinning diamond geometries of shape and color that charged the air with electricity. On the walls, the familiar kaleidoscope of cellular movement oozed, mixed with random snapshots from the carnival of human history.

He relaxed, let his individual stoniness flow into the great tribal stoniness. He began to dance, oblivious as Dionysus. Far away, the nagging voices of paranoia and dread were drowning in a tide of illuminated manuscripts. This was not the age of verbalization. Forget plays. Good God, what had he ever been thinking? This was The Play. A thousand Hamlets with happy endings took place in the blink of an eye. Oedipus tried to blind himself again and again, only to have small brightly-colored birds flash from his eyes.

This epiphany came in the middle of the final set from Jefferson Airplane, after Grace Slick and Marty Balin sang their hits. The musicians launched a wall of brightly weeping and exulting guitar music. The stage was crowded with wraithlike young men with waist-length hair bent in expressionless concentration as they labored at the strings of their guitars. It nearly knocked him down. No, no, the metaphor was all wrong. It wasn’t the Bear Flag Revolt wrought by the aggressive sons of America. Not those heirs of the original Conquistadors, their skins warmed by animal pelts and flushed with whiskey, their veins fed by the mythic fires of Prometheus and Caesar. No this was something else. Some achingly beautiful and futile thing, warmed by the last flare of tribalism as a snowy Rockies peak turns blood red in the last sinking flash of the sun.

This was the Ghost Dances. It seemed so obvious now as the dancers melted into a single tribal and salmon flashing river-borne spasm. This wasn’t the dance of conquerors. It wasn’t the bold railroad-seeding stride of the Baron Bunyans of progress. This was the collective wail of the lost, the dream-spattered, those that had been dealt out and crossed off and bullet-riddled and left for dead in the breathing snow like Big Foot’s tribe at Wounded Knee Creek. It wasn’t Buffalo Bill riding grandly into London on a box car filled with tinned meat and stage props and white lies. This was Arapaho George bolting from the circle of red and yellow lights and bounding into the dark high desert hills like a wounded bear.

In the cruelest of paradoxes, the Fillmore closed at two in the morning, the music ceased and the doors jammed open, and a bleary battalion of stoned souls stumbled out onto the ambiguous pavements of Market Street. He managed to function sufficiently to get aboard the Muni and sat looking past his reflection into the ambient dark as the bus made its way up the hill, ambling and lurching in a westerly direction. Distracted, he rode to the end of the line and slipped into the edge of the park, reveling in the motion of tree branches, the August moonlight, the energy pulsing from the distant furnaces of the stars.

He was making his way back down Haight Street, toward the hill at Belvedere when a police car drove past. He felt a tingling prickle of uncertainty and fear as the car slowed to a stop and backed up, angling to the curb. Relax, he chided himself, they’re just sizing you up. You’re not the worst specimen they’ve seen at whatever the hell time it was Sunday morning on Haight Street. Put on the friendly vibe. They’ll check your ID and let you go is all, relax.

“Morning there, got an ID on you?”

“Certainly, officer, anything wrong?” Damn that sounded good, he congratulated himself, good solid middle-class tone of concern.

“Routine. Just wondered what a man was doing walking down this street at three in the morning is all,” he spoke calmly and precisely.

“Oh, yeah, I was at the concert tonight. Jefferson Airplane? Got out late.”

“Fella could get pretty high at a thing like that,” the cop observed ominously, handing Mark’s license to his partner inside the car, who bent over a small microphone and spoke quietly into a radio.

“Sure, I guess so, but I don’t go in for that sort of stuff. I just like the music,” he tried to sound matter-of-fact and casual.

“Let’s cut the bullshit,” the cop snapped imperiously. “You got any warrants on you? Just get into town out of jail somewhere, or what?”

“Warrants? Oh, hell no! I’m just a guy coming back from a rock concert.”

The cop gave him a searching look, then seemed to relax and become more congenial. “Right. OK then. Just stand over against the car there for a search, please. If you’re clean, you’ll be on your way.”

He felt the hard hands patting up his thighs, against his pockets, up along his ribs. Thank God I don’t have any joints on me.

“OK, just stand there for a minute.”

“Yes, sir.”

The cop bent over the open car window and said something to his partner, who glanced at Mark, and nodded with a smirk. That smirk was his ticket, he thought. He’d passed muster as just another stoned asshole on Haight Street. They were about to let him go.

Just then the radio began to crackle, and the cop at the wheel bent over the microphone. After a minute, and an unsmiling remark to his partner, the cop at the wheel opened the door and stepped around behind the car. The other cop approached him with a cold expression. Mark saw that his hands were bringing up the handcuffs he had unfastened from his wide black belt.

“Thought you said you were clean,” the cop said, anger tinting his voice.

“Well I am.”

“Don’t like it when a guy tries to fuck with us,” said the other cop, a slightly built man with dark Italian features.

“Man on the horn says you’re wanted for murder in Sacramento, asshole, that ring a bell?”

“No. It’s a mistake. Never even been to Sacramento,” he heard his voice stammer as the first cop cuffed his wrists.

“Well we’ll just see about this, bend your head,” the second cop commanded, pushing him into the back seat.

They drove a short distance to the Park Station, and took Mark inside. Several cops lounging around the front desk looked up with interest.

“So, this is the asshole wanted on that shooting in Sacramento?”

“Yeah, claims its a mistake, of course.”

“Sure, maybe he’s just been shootin’ so much dope it slipped his mind.”

“What’s left of it.”

Several of the cops laughed at the witticism as they took the cuffs off, made him empty his pockets, and filled out some paperwork.


“Mark McManus. Look, this is a mistake, I must look like someone.”

“Yeah, you like shit is what you look like,” it was the first cop, whose voice was harsh with animosity now. “How the fuck old are you?”

Mark told him.

“How’d you manage to get that fucked up in so short a time?”

“What you do for a living?” asked the cop at the desk.

“I’m uh . . . just graduated . . . writer,” he stammered.

“Graduated, huh? What’s your major if you graduated?”

“Drama,” the words scalded his throat on their way out of his mouth.

“Drama is it?” snorted the first cop.

“He’ll find it pretty dramatic when he gets to San Quentin.”

“Take him back and lock him up,” ordered the cop at the desk.

Once in the cell, Mark sat upright in the Lotus position and closed his eyes. After the shock and confusion of the last hour, a supremely comforting flood of sparkling white light swirled just beneath his eyelids, wiping everything away. He wanted to weep at the sudden infusion of spirit and strength.

They confused him with someone was all. But tomorrow, today, was Sunday. No offices open. Not a good sign. He drifted into a reverie of smoke and sleep, imagining, out of the blue, his old character in the play or novel or whatever the hell it was supposed to be, that he had never gotten around to actually writing. Sleeping Rabbit.

Sleeping Rabbit, the Sioux brave, won his name because despite his affable appearance, he was cunning and thoughtful. He saw the trains puffing and rattling across the prairie, and realized their import more acutely than most. Realized the death these trains bore with them. Realized the huge metal trickster would destroy their myths and legends; bear, coyote, fox, and all the rest were headed for the dust-bin. Best of all, he figured out how to derail the hated iron messengers by taking apart the hard shining road they rolled on.

Sleeping Rabbit and a pair of companions, Tall Bull and Man-Who-Stands-Under-The-Trees, were captured by soldiers after raiding a train.

Sleeping Rabbit killed a red-faced Irish fireman with his hatchet; took coffee, gunpowder, flour, and salt from the boxcars. He and the others tied brightly colored strips of ribbon to the tails of their horses, and rode away across the prairie. They were captured and taken by train to the humid dungeons at Fort Marion in Florida. The very same prison where Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache were sent after their last futile attempt at survival.

I’ll get back to it, if they could survive, I can survive, Mark thought. The door opened. He realized with a start that dawn was streaming through bars of the high window and that he was still sitting on the cement floor of the holding cell.

“They’re here to take you downtown, to Bryant Street.”


He was supposed to get a phone call, he recalled. Who the hell was there to call? Better just ride it out. See how long it took them to find out that he wasn’t a murderer from Sacramento. Fingerprints, he thought, suddenly brightening, fingerprints would do it.

*  *  *

They drove in silence to the Hall of Justice, a  large grey edifice on Bryant Street, that held the courts and the jail. They paraded him through the corridors to the fingerprinting station. Rode in an elevator to the seventh floor lockup. He entered the wide main cell, which had a dozen beds against the walls of either side. Only then, upon realizing that other prisoners were looking up, curious to see the new prisoner, did he become tense with dread again. Nothing happened though. He simply found an empty bed and slept. He was jarred from sleep by a black prisoner with a wide scar ploughing from his nose halfway across his cheekbone.

“Dinner time, brother, better get you somethin’ to eat. Long time to breakfast.”

“Thanks, man,” he sat up and rubbed his eyes. “I been out of it. It’s dinner time?”

“Shit’s up on the table. What you trippin’ on, anyway?”

While they were eating, Mark told the story of his arrest to five of his cell-mates; three black men, a tattooed Hell’s Angel, with a scraggly red beard, and a thin man with wire-rimmed glasses. “I still don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”

“Murder suspect from Sacramento,” cackled one of the black guys. “Must’ve thought you looked like that mother fucker Reagan.”

“That’s the shits,” a wiry, intense black guy with thick eyebrows and a nervous, agitated manner laughed, “gettin’ busted when you’re high is the shits.”

“Yeah,” the man who had wakened him, whose name was Gene, observed, “what it boils down to is the pigs can bust you any time, make up any old shit.”

“That’s the truth,” the tattooed biker rumbled, pushing away his tray of half-eaten food. “You get used to that shit. They just pop you, figure there’s a warrant out on you some damn place. Happens every fuckin’ time I come down here.”

“Where you from?” asked Mark.

“North. Angels got a place up in the Trinity Alps.”

“Sounds great.”

“Beats this shit. Cities are fucked,” he scraped the bench away from the table as he rose, “nothing in cities but trouble.”

“That’s the truth,” the bespectacled man spoke up fawningly in a nasally, earnest voice. “I come out here from Chicago. Even worse there. Heard of Mayor Daly?”


“He just gives the pigs a standard order. Pick up a hippie, black guy, biker, anyone you don’t like the looks of, and just beat the shit out of him. No questions asked.”

“Same shit here,” the intense black guy nodded his head vigorously, “like the TAC Squad? Those mother fuckers workin’ for Alioto? I seen ‘em just walk down Haight Street bustin’ up every poor fool what couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. They figure a nigger or a hippie ain’t gonna do shit about it, you dig? I mean like what you gonna do, dude? How you gonna prove you didn’t off the dude they talkin’ ‘bout?”

“Yeah,” the biker said over his shoulder as he lumbered back to his bed to stretch out. “You could use yourself a lawyer. Only guy ever gets a break is the one’s got a nasty little mosquito of a lawyer who knows all the tricks.”

“You’ll be all right,” the man from Chicago leaned across the table toward Mark, adopting a conspiratorial manner, “they gotta have something, fingerprints or whatever, to nail you on a murder charge.”

“Took my prints this morning,” Mark informed them, “I thought that’d settle it for sure.”

“They be religious, the pigs,” drawled the third black man, speaking for the first time in a low whisper, “they don’t be doin’ nothin’ on a Sunday.”

Everyone laughed at the observation. “That’s right, brother, ain’t nothin’ to do but wait. They most likely put you in front of the judge tomorrow,” observed Gene.

The next morning began with a blaring wake-up call pouring from the loud speakers. A cop with a protruding belly, and a voice nearly metallic in its harshness boomed at them.

“C’mon you candy asses, time to shower up. You wanna look nice for the judge, don’t ya? There’s gonna be human beings watching you, let’s move it!”

Mark found himself lagging behind the others as they marched down grey corridors dimly lit by the morning sun. The cop approached him menacingly.

“You want I should work you over with a rubber hose, asshole? Looking for a little beauty treatment?”

Good God, he meant it. This guy didn’t know the difference between his own life and a cop in a bad southern chain-gang movie.

“No sir, sorry,” Mark stumbled to catch up with the others, rounding a corner into a scene from some Stalinist Gulag. All the prisoners stripped naked and were herded into a large cell area with shower fixtures jutting from high on the wall and three large floor drains on the sloping floor.

“Clean yourselves up, no pissing on the floor there, you assholes call us the pigs, huh?” the cop yelled, randomly tossing in half a dozen square white soap bars. “Don’t forget to wash behind your ears, boys.”

Later, Mark and a small group of prisoners huddled together in a small holding area adjacent to the court room. “I don’t believe this shit,” he said vacantly.

“Don’t let ‘em fuck with you, brother,” Gene spoke kindly, punching him lightly on the shoulder. “You’ll be home and doin’ your old lady tonight. You didn’t off that dude, did you?”

Mark considered the absurdity of the question, and began to laugh. “You know, I don’t even know who it was I was supposed to have killed.”

“If’ you’da killed the dude you’d know who he was,” Gene grinned expansively, “so there you go.”

“McManus.” The bailiff appeared at the door, and Mark struggled awkwardly to his feet. Inside the court room, he focused his full attention on the empty judge’s bench, which reminded him of a minister’s pulpit. A half dozen lawyers were standing in a group behind the wooden barrier to the right of the vacant jury box.

One of the lawyers approached him, shook his hand quickly, introduced himself as Ray Nottington, public defender, and asked him what his plea was.

Mark stared at the man, stunned. “My plea? It’s a mistake. All they told me was I was supposed to have murdered some guy in Sacramento. I’ve never even been to Sacramento. Can you explain that to them?”

The man regarded him shrewdly for a brief moment. “Well, you sound sincere. Maybe you’re right, these things happen. So you are not David Robert Elmore?”


“OK, no sweat, we’ll go with that, then, not guilty.”

The judge, portly and grey-haired in his robes, entered.

“In the matter of the People versus David Robert Elmore, also known as Mark McManus, murder in the second degree, how do you plead?” the judge directed the  question to him.

“Excuse me, your Honor, a mistake has been made. My client is not David Robert Elmore, but an innocent third party named Mark McManus.”

“Not guilty plea is entered,” the judge stated matter-of-factly. “Now, sir,” he addressed the prosecutor who had stepped forward with a long sheet of paper in his hand, “will you proceed?”

“In view of the claim as to the existence of an alleged third party in this proceeding, your honor, and before adumbrating to the court the violent nature of this crime, apparently a dispute among drug dealers culminating with multiple stab wounds, the people would request a side bar.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Ray Nottington said soothingly from the corner of his mouth as he walked over to the judge’s bench and conferred for a brief, smoothly intense minute, after which he returned, gliding, it seemed to Mark, across the polished wooden floor.

The prosecutor spoke. “Your honor, the people have a firm description, based on previous incarceration records, of the aforesaid David Robert Elmore.

Though the latter matches in rough appearance the suspect before us, he does have one dramatically prominent characteristic.”

“And that is?” asked the judge, impatiently.

“To be specific, your honor, said David Elmore is in possession of a large black panther tattoo which covers the entire length of his right forearm. If the suspect would oblige the court by rolling up the sleeve of his right arm, a positive identification should be forthcoming.”

“Mr. Nottington, if you could so instruct your client?”

“Yes, your honor. Show them your right forearm, and you’d better damn well not have a panther tattoo on it.”

Straining to keep from screaming, and half expecting to see a black, curling panther tail as he began rolling up his sleeve, Mark stepped forward and stuck out the suspect limb. Everyone in the court room, their curiosity duly aroused by now, stared at Mark’s pantherless right forearm, which he displayed with a sweeping flourish for all to see. After a moment, the voice of the prosecuting attorney broke the silence.

“Your honor, the People are satisfied that the wrong man is being held, and that the suspect in this Court is not, in fact, David Robert Elmore.”

“Your honor, we call for the immediate dismissal of all charges relating to this apparent case of mistaken identity,” said Ray Nottington, barely restraining a smirk as he peered across the aisle at his frequent adversary, who studiously examined a thread that was coming out of a button on his suit jacket.

“The defendant is dismissed, with the apologies of the Court,” said the judge. “There will be a thirty minute recess at this time.”

“If I were you,” advised Ray Nottington, leading him toward the waiting bailiff, “I’d consider filing a false arrest charge against the bastards.”

“I don’t know if I can relate to this any more,” Mark replied woodenly.

“Right, I can understand, on the other hand, that you might want to just forget the whole thing, chalk it up as a bad experience and leave it at that.”

“Thanks for your advice,” Mark shook the lawyer’s hand vigorously.

“Hey, no problem, just doing my job,” Ray Nottington assured him.

At last it was over. The blank-faced bailiff, however, led him back to the elevator and turned him over to the custody of a deputy, who brought him back up to the City Jail, and deposited back inside the main holding cell a second time.

“Wait a minute, the judge said to release me. I’m not David Robert Elmore. I don’t have a panther tattoo on my arm, it’s a mistake.”

The cop looked at him coldly. “You’ll be notified of disposition.”

Now a real sense of panic set in. He was pacing back and forth in a near panic when Gene and the biker and the black man with the deep whispering voice were brought back in.

“No panther tattoo, huh dude?” the biker gave his arm a friendly punch as he walked past him.

“What’re these pigs doing to you, brother? You don’t look so good,” Gene’s voice was soothing and concerned.

Mark explained the situation.

“Don’t let ‘em fuck with your mind,” said the man with the soothing voice. “They’re just fuckin’ with you is all. Can’t keep you now. Judge be the boss around here.”

Finally, after what seemed like hour, the cell door clanked open.

“McManus,” the pot-bellied cop in charge of the showers barked, “looks like you lucked out this time, asshole, you’re out of here.”

*   *  *

A rich yellow late afternoon sunlight embraced Mark as he descended the steps of the Hall of Justice. His mind churned up thoughts. Fat pig probably figures he’ll get another crack at me. I don’t think so. Christ, was I on my way to a concert? Coming back from one?

Standing at the curb, waiting for a light to change, he felt chilled and exhausted. All that stuff about the ghost dance? Real as this sidewalk. He looked back at the lumbering grey bulk of the building behind him. Might as well be Fort Apache. A factory for the processing of what the old pot-bellied cop with the rubber hose called ‘assholes’ into captured pacing beasts. Well, no more casual ‘acid trips,’ no more living life as an observer. No more co-opting other people’s metaphors. Everything, from this next step forward, was illuminated in laughter.


Michael Shorb’s work reflects an abiding interest in environmental issues, history, and the lyrical form, as well as a strong focus on material that reflects the dazzling Hydra of the ‘real world.’ His poems have appeared in over 100 magazines and anthologies, including The Nation, The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Queen’s Quarterly, Poetry Salzburg Review, Commonweal, Rattle, Urthona, and European Judaism.


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