ON A THURSDAY, AS RUSH-HOUR TRAFFIC BEGAN to weave and hook, Ukiah Morrison found a patch of downtown grass, stripped to his tie-dye lime-green thong-style underwear and plopped himself onto his belly. He lay there, half-naked, a citizen of the town of Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville had recently become America’s new freak capital. The place overflowed with hippies, neohippies, punks, witches, pagans, the homeless and lost, the homeless and found, fairies, dykes, braggarts, dreadlocked bliss ninnies, thieves, crystal worshippers, free-Leonard Peltiers, free-Mumias, potheads, anarchists, performance artists and so on. They’d converged on Asheville. More arrived daily. They came for the majestic, electrifying charge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, for the kick-ass bud of the region (so well reviewed in High Times) and for the peace, love and understanding that ought to be concomitant. But mostly, they said, they came to this place for reasons yet to be discovered.
Morrison took a swig of water and pulled down his underpants, freeing his buttocks to the sun.
Some giggling girls in a Ford yelled, “What’s the goal?”
Morrison waved. “To be happy. Good goal, huh?”
His full legal name was Ukiah Sativa Morrison, though it used to be Ronald Abraham Matthews. He had long dark hair parted in the center, a handsome soul patch, the torso of a body-builder and the bowed legs of a grass-hopper who’d been carrying too much weight. He was twenty-six. He’d arrived in Asheville two and a half years earlier, from a crappy Florida town, and since then had been a baker, a waiter, a male stripper, a nude model for local painters, a bartender, a personal trainer and a laze-about who occasionally lived in his car. During the greatest bull market in history, he earned less than $15,000 a year. He’d been twice married, was once in the Army and once a jail guard. He would gladly see his mother dead. He smoked lots of weed and swallowed many wrinkled mushrooms. He often made a pesk of himself at Asheville City Council meetings — and most recently had compounded that peskiness by running for a seat on the Asheville City Council, which so stirred up the state of local politics that everyone in town soon knew who he was, and most of the Establishment wished he would just dry up and blow away, like a tumbling tumbleweed.
In truth, he was the freakiest freak in the whole freaking town, and this was quite an achievement, and he had been happier only once in his life, and that was when his daughter, Angel, was still alive.
Taking a deep breath, he scratched himself.
“I love this town,” he said. “It’s a great town for me to be in. It’s extremely perfect. It rocks. It’s just the place. I don’t know how anybody could not fall in love with it. Heaven. I may go away, but I’ll probably never leave. So I try to get involved in everything, just because I expect this is my future.”
His cell phone rang. ” ‘Lo?”
It was his lawyer, George Oliver. He told Morrison to swing by the office at 8:30 Monday morning. ” ‘Kay.”
Afterward, Morrison frowned and stretched out again, staring at the traffic that curled by him down the hill, past the Buncombe County courthouse and City Hall and toward the tunnel leading to Asheville’s suburbs. Across the street, metal scaffolding rose up one side of the Asheville police station. Four construction workers were taking a break. They fanned out at the stoplight in their dusty hard hats and smelly T-shirts, and when the light turned they bulled forward over four lanes onto Morrison’s triangle of grass.
Morrison didn’t lift his head. He liked the view where it was, the passing cars, the occasional friendly horn honk, the clarifying green smell of the grass beneath his nose, the pleasant remains of a good buzz, heaven.
One of the construction workers puffed up his muscles and squared his jaw, his face turning scarlet. “You can do whatever the police will let you do, but I tell you this,” he said at last. “If my kids and their mother come down the road and see your naked ass laying out, I’m going to stomp the shit out of you the very next day. You can take it to the bank. You can believe it or not. But that’s a fact. You follow me?”
Morrison didn’t say anything.
“I don’t give a fuck what rights you think you got,” the construction worker went on, “but you don’t need to lay out naked in public.”
the contrary, Morrison thought, that’s just what the public needs, men, women and children, all of them — a good rattling of their chains and fetters, set them free.
He wasn’t like them, he didn’t think. He was already free. He could do whatever he wanted: smoke pot on a bench at the Radisson in the middle of a police convention or do this striptease in the park. He thought of it as teaching by example. He was a kind of teacher. He was doing the community good. How could anyone fail to see that? Nor did he think that he was on a collision course with anything but increasing and everlasting freedom to be himself in the most perfect town in the entire country.
“I’ll stomp the shit out of you,” the construction worker repeated before leaving, “the very next day.”
And then the freakiest freak shut his eyes, more or less pretending he had not heard a word.
IN THE LATE 1800S, if you suffered from tuberculosis, from fever, weakness, loss of appetite, cough, sputum, phthisis, bronchitis or catarrh, and you wanted to live, you went to Asheville. TB was the Number One killer in the nation. Asheville was the Number One cure. It was a place of hospitals and sanitariums, and from all over the country it attracted the very rich (most notably the Vanderbilts), as well as the suffering poor. And what these outsiders came for was the air. It was the air, rising pure and crisp and fragrant from the great welcoming cleft of the French Broad River, that patched you up and sent you on your way. “Asheville air affects me like champagne — it goes to my head,” babbled one visitor of old. “I’m apt to do things for which I will be sorry in the grim dawn of New York.”
A century later it’s still the air that draws outsiders to Asheville or, rather, what’s in the air: the feeling that somehow, here, everything might turn out OK. It doesn’t matter that the Rev. Billy Graham maintains a major training facility six miles east of Asheville; or that the Southern Baptists are a militant force in town, especially with regard to pagans and porn; or that the cops have started hassling the homeless kids at the main downtown hangout, Pack Square, for breaking the curfew laws, letting their dogs crap willy-nilly and washing out their armpits in the lavatories of the finer restaurants nearby. The feeling is still that life may have sucked up until now, but in Asheville it will pan out. The lingering scent of incense and innocence on the skirts of the pretty young hippie girls kicking along Lexington Avenue is the lingering scent of hope. There’s the sense here, too, among the kids, that pretty much anything goes. If you want to be a radical fairy, that’s fine; if you also want to paint yourself from head to toe with mud and call yourself one of the Mud People, that’s even better. If you’re homeless and want to camp in any of the half-dozen makeshift camps pitched in the woods down Broadway past the interstate, you’re welcome to it, though of course the police will occasionally hose you out like you were no better than head lice.
Sipping coffee at Beanstreets, snacking on pizza at the Mellow Mushroom, Dumpster-diving for dinner, standing in the middle of an intersection eating jelly pastries out of a plastic container and offering some to passing strangers (“Hey, how are you? Hungry? Try it. Fantastic stuff!”), the kids arriving in Asheville don’t have too much of a quarrel with anyone, except maybe the cops. And they aren’t too bad, either, for cops.
“It’s the best town ever,” said Myah Hubbell, a high school dropout who wears her hair twisted up into horn shapes. “It’s really, really creative. Everybody’s really enthusiastic about expressing themselves. It’s just amazing.”
“You’re supposed to graduate high school, go to college, get a job, work until you’re sixty, retire, buy an RV and die,” said pigtailed Aaron Funk, leader of a local performance-art troupe. “We aren’t on that plan.”
“I am a queer man, and this is the most beautiful place in the country for who I am,” said a radical fairy named Joel.
“The second I got here, I picked up on something,” said Ukiah Sativa Morrison. “It was immediately apparent. There were all these people in the downtown streets being cool. Every-body being cool. Just walk up to a stranger, smile, hug, eat lunch, ‘What you doing later?,’ smoke some pot. There’s that wavelength, that connection. One night during open mike at Beanstreets, I got up: ‘I just want to talk to everybody: I love you people. You’re really cool.’ “
At the time of his Beanstreets soliloquy, Morrison seemed like just another dude passing through. But he didn’t leave, he stayed, and he wasn’t just another dude. After settling in, he began showing up at Asheville City Council meetings regularly and speaking out on such issues as typically concern a pot-smoking, male-stripper-type guy. He got to meet and know the people who ran the town. One day, while talking about his fledgling male-stripper business to Asheville city attorney Bob Oast — private parties only, $300 a show, using the stage name MoJo Risin’ — Morrison learned that in North Carolina it is legal to expose one’s buttocks in public. Shortly thereafter, on Easter Sunday, he showed up downtown, near Pack Square, and stripped to his bikini underwear for the first time. Dressed like that, he sometimes picked up litter or handed flowers to tourists. Other times, he arrived with his body painted with advertisements for his business. The city toyed with the idea of busting him on an illegal-sign beef but could not find any existing laws that applied. Asheville would have to put up with Morrison, and maybe put up with him for a long time, for it looked like he was in town to stay.
FROM PACK SQUARE IN THE middle of town, Morrison was walking down Lexington toward the Mystic Coffee place at the bottom of the hill, passing kids who every day, all day long, took the same walk from Pack to Lexington, down Lexington, back up to Pack, trudging along, maybe dropping into one of the hippie shops or pausing in front of an antiques shop long enough to start flipping out the owners. He wore his customary tiedye T-shirt, his Oakley shades, his baggy jeans. As usual, he was stoned. He opened the door to the Mystic and loped toward the back through a haze of clove-cigarette smoke. A kid on a couch called, “Hey, Ukiah, man, how’s the election going?”
Morrison blinked in the middle of the room. A soft blond girl named Heather was filing away on the kid’s fingernails. The kid’s knees were bouncing up and down, a riot of motion, but the rest of him was zonked and wiped out, like the rest of most everybody else in the place.
“No, man,” said Morrison, “that already happened. I already lost the primary.”
“Oh. Sorry, dude.”
Morrison shrugged. He’d got 249 votes, finished next to last in a field of eighteen. Not a bad haul, he thought, and pretty outstanding for a freak who didn’t spend more on his campaign than the five-dollar filing fee. But it would have been better if, two weeks before the vote, the cops hadn’t shown up at his friend Eve’s and hauled him downtown to place him under arrest. It was around 10:30 A.M., and somebody had apparently tipped off Wlos-13, a local TV station, because its camera was waiting for his arrival.
What viewers saw on the midday news was candidate Morrison, his face cut up and bandaged, and his right eye a swollen purple and green blob of gore. He was in handcuffs. He felt sure that the spectacle cost him votes.
“Yeah, well.” Morrison shrugged again and smiled his shy, appealing smile.
Heather said she would have voted for him if only she had remembered to vote. “You know where the kids are coming from,” she said. “You’re naked. And you can totally talk to the naked guy.”
Morrison tipped his head and said, “Be well,” which is how he always left it with people. “Be well.” He got something to drink and went back up Lexington, past Pack Square, with its shimmering reflecting pool and its needle-nosed granite monument, and down the hill on Biltmore toward the Blue Moon Bakery, where he used to work. He eased along. His voice was soft and lilting, in a Southern-cracker sort of way.
He had run a remarkably honest and forthright campaign, he said. Primarily, he had championed two issues. He wanted to see adult businesses get more of a fair shake in town, but mostly he wanted the city of Asheville to legalize pot. He had a vision of what this could mean. “Just think about it,” he said. “If you corner the market in the city limits and make it so you can buy pot here, everybody’s going to show up, drop off their money and leave — but not before paying a $3.50 tax on every single gram sold, and that tax is going to stay at the municipal level. You sell a lot of fucking grams, y’all going to make a lot of fucking money.”
He paused at a red light, then crossed over onto Pack Square and nodded at the big blinking neon sign that advertises the science center inside the Pack Place building. Walking underneath it, he said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to be trying to lure people to take their eyes off the road right in the center of town. Somebody once threw a rock in it. I was glad for that. Very glad.” Had he been elected, that sign is something he probably would have dealt with. He would also have tried to help out the elevator operators inside City Hall. “Thing is, they’re not allowed to wear pants. Have to wear a skirt. Well, you walk in, they’re sitting, waiting to take somebody up, and you see right up their damn dresses. That’s wrong. It makes them uncomfortable. But nothing they can do about it. It’s the policy.” And then he’d probably try to legislate against the kind of lady he once saw driving, holding a cell phone and feeding her baby, all at the same time.
“I hate that,” he said, strolling through his town.
“Anyway,” he went on, “there’s a lot of shit I pay attention to. I think. I remember. I worry about the condition society is in. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, that’s why I know so much. Certain things are not right. And I’m here trying to change a little bit of that.”
ON BILTMORE, MORRISON EYE-balled a chick in a halter top. “Now, a lot of people think if you’re good looking, you just automatically get laid, but I’m not getting it,” the former City Council candidate said after a bit. “Pussy. Ain’t got no pussy in five months. And it was five months before that, too. And then a year before that, too. I’m picky. I’m not overly picky. Just the ones I come across that I’m not so picky about are as picky as I am. It’s a problem. Am I going to lower my standards? Fuck that.”
At the bakery he went in back, where a couple of workers wished him well on his campaign, and he had to tell them he’d already lost, and they said they were sorry, and he shrugged. He talked about his arrest. He said it was part of a conspiracy by the Asheville Establishment.
One of the bakery girls said she’d seen Morrison on TV, looking all swollen-faced and raggedy.
Morrison said that how he looked that day when he was arrested had nothing to do with the arrest or the reason for the arrest. He looked that way because this redneck girl he knew from a titty bar told her redneck boyfriend that Morrison was just the kind of guy she would like to fuck. So one night, while Morrison was floating around the street, tripping on mushrooms, stoned on pot and chatting into his cell phone, the redneck guy and a pal stomped the shit out of him. Morrison hugged him and tried to smoke him down. He said, “Dude, chill. Smoke this, feel the love.” But even then, the dude kept on beating the shit out of him.
Thus, how he looked at the time of his arrest.
Now his arrest, he went on, that only had to do with a fight he got into at the restaurant where he worked.
“Oh, yeah,” the bakery girl said. “Yeah, so what went down at the Mellow Mushroom? The way I heard it, you just jumped these two people and pounded them. I could not believe that. What happened?”
“Yeah, so what happened?” said a flour-dusted guy who came over. “Like, we just thought that what you did was every waiter’s dream. Kick the shit out of some customer.”
“No,” said Morrison, drawing out the word. “I wanted to talk to them about being rude and swearing at my manager in front of a full house. Outside, the girl comes at me from across the street, screaming, arms flailing, cursing and crying, and I just threw my shit down. I’m like, ‘I’m going to have to fight a girl. She’s coming at me strong.’ Then I saw her boyfriend right behind her. Well, if I hit her, he’s going to hit me, so I’m not going to do that. Chilled out. They talked to the owner, then to another guy from the restaurant. The guy looks like he’s going to hit this other guy. I tell the owner, ‘I think I know what to do.’ I went over and stood next to the dude, and, pop, I knocked him in the side of the neck with my forearm, soft tissue on soft tissue, a low-impact hit on a pressure point. Fell like a sack of potatoes up against a tree. Slid down.”
“Then a month later, they put charges on me.”
Morrison shook his head, like he couldn’t believe the nerve of the couple; but he could also see how the warrant for his arrest had been twisted into a tool in a bigger game, a political game, in which the Establishment had it in for him in a big way.
He walked to a window that looked over a little park known locally as the Block. He pointed out some crack-heads, complained about the twenty-four-hour-a-day crack dealing that goes on there and recalled the time he saw a guy twitching on the grass, four crack dealers eating sandwiches nearby. Someone called an ambulance for the twitcher, and good citizen Morrison called the cops on the dealers.
“The cops,” he said, “were not wanting to hassle with it. Just let them dealers go. That’s fucking sick, man.”
If elected to City Council, he’d have gotten right on both the lazy-cop situation and the crack problem in Crack Alley. He’d lived on the street and knew things from a street level. The other candidates might have a lot to say about the lack of affordable housing in Asheville, issues dealing with annexation and taxation, and the expansionary ambitions of the Trinity Baptist Church, but it was probably only Morrison who could say he’d ever called the cops on the local crack dealers (“I call the cops probably more than anybody around. A lot of shit goes down they need to be aware of”) or thought about the plight of the city’s skirt-wearing elevator operators. Not a day went by he wasn’t standing on some Asheville street corner, North Lexington and Walnut, Broadway and Patton, Biltmore and Eagle, North Spruce and College, or coming out of some dark alley, thinking, remembering and worrying. And he knew a few other things, too. One, if something needed fixing, there was only one way to fix it, his way. Two, there was only one person qualified to do the fixing, him.
But it was also clear to Morrison that the city did not want him in charge of anything and that it had gone far out of its way to make this known. It pissed him off, but it also hardened his resolve. “This town has a lot for me, I have a lot for this town, and I still think I’m the best man for the position,” he said. “When the time is right, I’m going to try again.”
As he told a reporter around the time of his defeat, “I’ve got nothing to do for the next eighty years but fight the Man.”
HIS MOM, WHO ANSWERED TO the name Cherokee, handed him a half tab of speed. “Take it.”
“What is it?”
Morrison did. He was twelve and had already begun smoking dope with his mother.
His mother was often high or drunk. It was thought she sometimes carried a gun. She spent time in mental institutions. She tried to commit suicide. She was arrested on felony-assault charges for purposely running down a neighbor lady in her car.
In Ohio, when Morrison was three, Cuyahoga County Child Services cleared his mother of physical-abuse charges, though not the man she lived with. According to an official report, “he bound [Morrison] with thick construction tape and [left] him in his bed.” Morrison himself recalled being wrapped in duct tape, naked, his knees bent back like he was praying, and being hung up in a closet; sometimes the hook would rip through the tape and he would fall to his knees, landing on birdseed that the guy had spread on the floor. According to the report, the mother knew this kind of thing was going on.
By August 1978, mother and son had moved to West Virginia, where, the report went on, the mother was “observed beating her son … with a stool or small piece of furniture… . Following this, [she] was observed beating [Morrison] in the back yard. This beating was effected with a board having a nail in the end.”
Morrison can remember his mother whipping him 100 times with a metal spatula because he wouldn’t give her his paper-route money so she could go drink. He can tell about the time one of his mother’s boyfriends slapped him repeatedly in the mouth, saying, “If you pass out, I will kill you.” He didn’t think he would live to become an adult. “One time I was washing dishes the way my mother had taught me, where you wash the chunks off in the dirty water and rinse the dish off in the same water. This guy saw it, takes me by the neck off the stool I’m on, slings me across the room into the refrigerator.”
Occasionally the state took him away from his mother and placed him in a foster home. But the state always returned him to her care.
“My mother is a psycho,” he said, “and my father is the state.” And he didn’t think he would ever be free or live freely, much less become a symbol of freedom, as well as a figure of some notoriety, fame and controversy, in a quaint little city of 67,000 souls in western North Carolina. Such a thing was, in fact, a mind-blowing miracle. He loved it and thrived on it, people knowing him and talking about him. “Ukiah? That dude would be totally perfect in office.” “The naked guy running for city council, I really appreciate how he challenges the mores of the city.” “He’s got enough ideas in his head to make a difference.” “His ideas are cool, but he’s all about the shock value.” “Ukiah? He would have done better with a shirt and tie.” “Ukiah, man, his gig was the G-string. He’s the opposite of shirt and tie. No way that’s what he’s about.”
He could pull out his cell phone, call Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick’s office, and Mayor Sitnick would take his call. “Hey, how you doing?” Morrison would say. “Myself, very, very, very well…. I was hoping to come by and say hi…. You available now? Excellent! Be by in a little while…. Be well.”
The mayor had longish, frizzy gray hair and looked like a nice family-therapist type of person. She said she’d heard that Morrison had been in a couple of fights. She pursed her lips. “I was sorry to hear that. I hope you’re healing. So you think you’ll run again for office, Ukiah?”
“Yeah. And push more buttons.”
“Push the buttons. I push buttons, too, but it’s different.”
“I think a lot of people were actually surprised by my grasp on things, like, ‘I can’t actually believe he’s got some sense in him.’ “
“Well, do you all in all feel it was worthwhile?”
“I do, because of the attention I got, and the marijuana issue was raised again and again and again.”
“Well, I support your right to pursue that line of political path, but I think you would have gained greater credibility if your campaign had been more conventional.”
Morrison didn’t argue. Outside he said, “I’m not conventional. And that’s the thing. I have problems with the conventions.” Stepping off the curb, he said, “I’ve gone through some hard times. They’re like, ‘Oh, you lost an election.’ I’m like, ‘How about losing a daughter and, consequently, your concept of reality?’ ” He looked away and kept walking.
THE FREAKS GATHERED ON THE wall at Pack Square, in the shadow of the vast and awful Merrill Lynch building. Sometimes, like today, the city allowed them to set up sound systems. A girl gripped the microphone and spoke her poetry (“Come on down/Bite the bullet/Stick your nose up my ass/Kiss my gaping pores/Be my Valentine”); the radical fairies pranced around in full fairy-costume dress, grabbing their kernels and in general putting on a good display; some kids from the Surreal Sirkus performance-art group slithered and intertwined; and the freaks on the wall sat there, well pleased.
Across the street, under the neon sign near Pack Place, a baby-boomer couple from Montgomery, Alabama, took snapshots and said, “The mayor of our town would have them all behind bars.” Snap. “We don’t want them to think we’re gawking at them, but we are.” And, strangely enough, they too seemed well pleased.
Many of the freaks on the wall walked into town from the camps in the woods beyond the interstate. They had names like Storm, Kevin, Aric, Jody and Happy, and came mostly from Florida but also from places like San Diego and Iowa City. Some of them said they were part of the great big Rainbow Tribe hippie community and spouted sayings like, “Man, I can’t stand plastic people living in a plastic world.” A few of them, including Happy, who wore colorful patchwork-quilt corduroy pants and was also known as Papa Bear because of his age, forty-six, and Jody, a slight seventeen-year-old with dreadlocks, thought the world was about to end in a paroxysm of floods, earthquakes and biological warfare. To them, Asheville seemed like a pretty good place in which to experience that.
“I feel a joy about it,” Jody said. “It’s something that needs to happen. I feel joy and anticipation and hope, like, ‘Yes! To be living to see that go down!’ “
A CAR PULLED UP, AND HAPPY shuffled out of the Merrill Lynch shadow and hung his head in the car window. He returned to the wall with a couple of Xanax. He shared his score with Jody. Then he rummaged through a paper bag on the grass next to him, not his bag, someone’s bag, and came up with a phenobarbital tab. He passed it to Jody, who slurped it down, not even knowing what the drug does. “Guess I’ll find out,” Jody said, “waiting for the end of the world.”
MORRISON WASN’T WORRIED about the end of the world. He was worried about the nuts and bolts of the here and now. In the evening, he returned to City Hall for the weekly City Council meeting. A prune of a lady spoke about the evils of pornography, and everyone in the room seemed to agree with her views. Morrison stomped out. “What I’d like: to finance a big campaign and fucking smoke everyone. Can’t do whatever the fuck I want until I get in there. I mean, how many people from my generation did you see there? Motherfuckers don’t come down here, see the shit that’s being pulled. Fuck. I can’t believe they had that shit.”
Morrison then went to Eve’s, on Cumberland near the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. It was a little attic pad, and he lived there in a room hardly the size of a closet. He packed a bowl and lit it up, going back to thinking about his mom. “Why I haven’t killed her and why I don’t kill her is, I like being able to show people that you can go through what I’ve gone through and make something of yourself and accomplish good and be respected. My past could be used as an excuse to do some stupid shit. But I say to myself, ‘Use it as an excuse to do something really brave and encouraging to others.’ I know I’m going about that the least desirable way as far as most people go, but that’s just the way I do things. The things I do are very extreme.” He took two hits and sagged back in the chair. “I bring out the most in people,” he said. “Whatever the most may be.”
HE WAS HAPPY TO HAVE A ROOM to stay in at Eve’s. Before Eve’s he lived out of his falling-apart, rusting-through 1980 Datsun, which cost him $100 and had 202,000 miles on it. Places where he parked his car to sleep included a University of North Carolina/Asheville parking lot, the lot at the Radisson Hotel, various alleys, a strip mall, the parking lot on Central Avenue belonging to the Westall, Gray & Connolly law firm, and the lot belonging to Pierre’s Hair Design on South Liberty. He also parked and slept inside a U-store facility on Leicester Highway, where he fixed his unit up with a hot plate and a stereo. Kicked out of there, he moved to another storage unit, which is now filled with the sum total of his possessions: a Winslow Homer print (“something I stole from somebody”), a Frampton Comes Alive! album, a couple of rubbers, silverware, a pistol (“It’s broke”), soup in cans, a corrections-officer CLASS 894/PRIDE ON THE INSIDE T-shirt, a trial-size bottle of Pantene shampoo, batteries, cornmeal and lots of other crap shoved in there.
Eve’s was better. At Eve’s he had a fridge for his milk and a place to store his Ovaltine. Eve’s smelled of incense and Eve’s own good, starchy cooking. Eve herself was a big-boned twenty-eight-year-old with henna-streaked black hair and a broad, luminous smile. What she was into was tie-dyeing. She worked at the Mellow Mushroom, same as Morrison, and was on the register when the two customers came up and started cursing and yelling and looking like they were going to start throwing punches. She was grateful that someone had stepped in to protect her.
It was Morrison’s twenty-seventh birthday today, and she baked him pork chops for supper, which were delicious.
“Happy birthday, Ukiah. I’m glad you were born.”
“Wow,” said Morrison. “Wow, thank you,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever said that to me.”
Eve smiled her broad, luminous smile.
THE DAY AFTER MORRISON turned seventeen, he high-tailed it out of the life into which nobody was glad he’d been born and joined the U.S. Army. He became a communications specialist (“31 Charlie, a rat-rig operator”), went to Korea and became the base lifeguard instructor and pool manager. After the Army, he tried to start a gym in Richmond Hill, Georgia, near Fort Stewart; but he ended up becoming a corrections officer at the Nassau County Jail in Florida. He went by the book and was tough. “I would search them. I’d grab motherfuckers’ balls. They’d riot when I came on the floor after a while. An inmate can hear it when you pull the safety off. Click. The shotgun had buckshot in it, but I’d go out to my truck and get a deer slug. That’ll kill you. I would have done it. They knew.”
Morrison was now sitting at the bar in the Mellow Mushroom, occasionally making eyes at the girl who tended the bar, Katy. “Oh, goddamn, she makes me weak,” he said. “But she’s got hangups. A boyfriend. They just don’t give that shit up. They got their own reasons. She thinks I’m just a horny puppy. That’s all. Just a puppy.”
He took a sip of water.
“Hey,” he said, “you probably haven’t heard about this. I’ve got a Prince Albert in my dick. Uh-huh. A bar coming up through the urethra, as well as the reverse Albert, which has the bar going through the meaty head part.” He clapped and chuckled and talked about how after he got the piercing, the scab would break and spurt blood everywhere. After one such episode, he gave the bloody sheets to a witch friend of his (along with a spider that had bitten him and a pair of shorts that had received a wet dream). He said he loved his Prince Albert and had taken to calling his private parts King Ukiah.
The former Asheville City Council candidate was free and freaky, all right, and if you gave him the room to run, he would run.
He’d changed his name to Ukiah Sativa Morrison because the name Ron Matthews wasn’t “near as dramatic as I’ve lived or plan to live.”
He was bisexual but had slept with only nine women altogether and two men.
One of his favorite sayings was, “I don’t mind being a hypocrite, I just want to bring a little flair to it.” He was hairless. He shaved himself every place hair could grow on a body but his scalp. He was “opposed to” ‘ body hair, both the smell of it and the feel of it. He even shaved himself while in the Army. “They didn’t give a fuck, though they did sit and stare.” He endorsed the Mach3 razor and Skintimate moisturizing shaving cream, and, sure, he sometimes shaved himself in the showers at the Asheville Ymca, where he worked out. He said it took him about an hour. If you wanted to watch him shave his scrotum, that’d be fine with him, and he’d be happy to show you how to pull the skin tight so you don’t nick yourself. He also took care with his legs. “I baby them.”
On his chest was a tattoo of a scorpion and, over that, a lyric from a Doors song: My Wild Love went Riding.
After losing the election, he couldn’t walk down the street without getting offers. “Smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke with me, smoke now, smoke this bowl with me,” his public said.
He’d had a vasectomy. He got it after Angel was born. “I was hung up on Angel. I didn’t want any children other than her. I didn’t want anything more, had no desire for anything else, other than her.”
HE’D GOTTEN MARRIED TWICE, first to Dawn, who left him for another woman, and then to Donna, with whom he simply could not get along. It was from his union with Dawn that Angel came, and it was with Morrison whom Angel stayed after the split: “It was clear that I was the mother.”
Morrison and Angel lived with a middle-aged couple — the couple he considers his real mother and father — in a trailer in Callahan, outside Jacksonville, Florida.
One day, Morrison laid Angel down for a nap. “I laid her down for a nap. My mother and father were in their chairs, watching TV. Angel and me were getting so much closer, and I was really getting into it. So I put myself down for a nap with her, because usually she’s just begging to have fun, all the shit I miss now. She got to sleep, and I got close to her, so when she got up, I’d get up, and we’d be together again.
“She got up before me. She goes to the bathroom to pee, and I heard her come back into the room. She turns the light on. She went and grabbed her bathing suit. I wanted to sleep some more.
“I saw her getting in her suit and assumed she was going swimming with my mom, which they did all the time.
“She was two and a half.
“It started raining. It occurred to me that I’d left my dad’s truck window open. I kind of bolted, because I know how he gets. I come back in. Shut the door. I’m looking. I look at my dad. Still asleep. As I’m standing there, I look. My dad’s there. But my mom’s not there. I look around. I don’t hear anything. I don’t see anything.
“I start thinking, ‘Where’s Angel?’
“I check the kitchen, bathroom, my room again, my mom’s room and bathroom, and come back out.
“I’m remembering her getting her bathing suit. I’m thinking I didn’t hear anything out there. If my mom’s in the pool with her, I would have heard them.
“I walked over to where I could see outside, and it was a sliding glass door, and it was kind of dirty and foggy. I opened the door. I was still having a hard time seeing. I didn’t want to believe what I saw, because we had float things that we threw in there all the time, too.
“Nothing I could do about it. It was my own fault.
“July 15th, 1995.
“I’d been a lifeguard ever since I was a kid, and she’s the first one I never saved. My own.”
FOR TWO YEARS HE WAS PARALYZED. Then he visited Asheville for the first time, and in October 1997 he left Florida for good. Angel was with him. His ex-wife had wanted to bury her in Callahan, opposite a Winn-Dixie grocery store. Morrison was appalled. “No, you’re not,” he said. “You’re not going to disgrace my daughter that way.”
So he got her ashes and brought them with him to Asheville. Ashe. Ville. He went to Pack Square and distributed them right there in the middle of town.
“When I came here,” he said, “I found everything, and everything began changing for me. Pack Square is where I felt, for the first time since Angel’s death, that I had something to live for. I felt concern and compassion here. This is where I found it. This is where it happened for me. This is where I began.”
BACK AT EVE’S, EVE’S CAT, MAGGIE, crouched in a window, looking out at the darkness. “Nervous?” Morrison said, stroking it. “Something not looking right?” Then squalls came in the night, and by Monday morning the streets of Asheville were shiny and wet.
“What am I evolving to?” Morrison said on the way to see George Oliver, his lawyer. “There ain’t no telling. I want to be everything that everybody else wants to be, basically. I want to be a parent. But I also want to be a leader. I want to be great. I want to be on the City Council.”
Late in the day it was still raining. Inside the courthouse, the judge dispensed with a little moonshine matter — “Is it good stuff, heh, heh, heh?” he wanted to know — then got around to the Morrison case. The assistant district attorney handling the matter, a fierce little biscuit named Kate Dreher, read off the charges — misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury and misdemeanor assault on a female — and asked for Morrison’s plea, and soon Morrison was on the stand.
“Were you certified by the state of Florida as a law-enforcement officer?” asked Dreher.
“Why did you leave?”
“I was fired.”
Why were you fired?”
“I’m not certain.”
“What was the allegation that led to your firing?”
“They can fire you without giving you a reason.”
“But they gave you a reason, Mr. Morrison. I’m asking you to tell the court what it was.”
“Do you know what that reason was? Because I don’t.”
“May I ask that the court direct the witness to answer the question?”
“I don’t have the answer,” Morrison said.
“If a police officer hit you in the carotid artery in the neck the way you hit [the male victim], you would sue him into the next solar system,” Dreher said.
“Objection, your honor!”
Leaving the stand, Morrison sat next to Eve and winked. He was optimistic. In his summation, Oliver told the court that Morrison’s jostling of the girl, the so-called assault on a female, was inadvertent and that the assault on the boy was justified based on what Morrison thought he was about to do. He’d struck the boy in the defense of others. Morrison had sized up the situation and acted accordingly. You couldn’t fault him for that.
The judge chuckled. “The man admitted he hit the man hard enough to knock him out. Why wouldn’t that constitute assault? He said he anticipated that [the male victim] was going to hit one of his people. He’s not allowed to do that. I find him guilty of assault on both charges.”
Morrison was floored. Outside in the rain with Eve and George Oliver, he balled his fists. “You can’t tell me I’m not being fucking set up,” he shouted at his attorney, “Fuck. I’ve been railroaded.”
“And Ron Moore, the DA, is down there when it all came down, kind of lurking in the shadows,” said Oliver. “And you gotta wonder why Kate Dreher was down there. She does murders, sex crimes, big things, not this misdemeanor stuff.”
“Oh, fucking all. I’m going to appeal.”
“What a bunch of shit that was,” said Oliver. “But I wouldn’t be representing you properly if I didn’t tell you this: You got a suspended sentence, unsupervised probation, a $150 fine and $86 in court costs, and that’s it. Now you got misdemeanor assaults, but they’re still assaults. And that doesn’t look good.”
Rain pelted the sidewalk.
“Fuck. Fuck. Shit. And all for shit I’d do again right now, same fucking thing. I’m not sorry I hit him, Why beat around the bush? I fucking nailed him. Now almost every aspect of the city is trying to beat me up for standing up for what I believe in. Every step of the way. Every one of them.”
What a lot of people in the city of Asheville sometimes wanted to know is why, why would a pot-smoking, scrotum-shaving, thong-in-public-wearing, superfreaky dude like Morrison ever want to run for higher office? What possessed him? Why put himself in harm’s way? Did he really think the Establishment would let him have a shot, ever?
“I was really happy to see you come up to the counter and help me,” Eve said.
“I’d consider myself the biggest chump if I didn’t protect other people, if I let the people drown that I see sucking water,” Morrison said, “I had the best of intent. That’s all I ever had.”
Later on, Morrison decided not to contest the court’s decision. He figured he got the shaft once, he’d likely just get it again. He didn’t know what he was going to do about the future, or whether he would run for City Council again. It seemed doubtful. And suddenly it seemed like Asheville wasn’t such a great little city to live in after all. Maybe it wasn’t the great new freak capital, full of hope and possibility. Maybe it was just a place. Maybe he would leave for a while and come back later, when the dust had settled and the air had cleared and he missed Angel so much that he could not stay away.