These Good Days
By Terry DeHart
When I went downtown to sign up to be a human guinea pig, I had no idea what I was getting into. It’s the kind of thing that would make a psychic want to find a psychiatrist, really, but love crept up and bit me on the ass while I was standing in line to apply for a drug experiment being conducted by a big pharmaceutical company.
The young woman who caught my attention was wearing a dangerously short skirt. She was standing in the line next to me, and she turned when I tried to sneak a look at her legs.
“My name’s Roxy McGee,” she told me, even though I hadn’t asked.
“That’s nice,” I said, “very nice.” I was looking at her legs openly then, helplessly, and she smiled. I can’t say that her smile caused the sun to burst through the clouds or make people start to sing Hollywood show tunes but that’s what it felt like, for me.
She asked my name and one thing led to another and she told me that Elvis Presley lived in a trailer park in Troutdale, and that she only partied on the weekends, really. Her voice was sarcastic and smart, not naïve in the least, and I liked it very much. I worked up the courage to ask her where she lived, and she told me that her neighborhood was very dangerous, and so she carried a loaded snub-nosed .38 in her purse. I found that attractive. She also told me that she had an old Jeep, and sometimes she drove up into the hills past where the logging roads petered out, just to escape Portland. I said I hoped I’d see her again and she said she’d like that, very much. I asked here for her phone number, but she wouldn’t give it to me.
“Next time,” she said. She winked and patted me on the ass. I blushed and got a good head start on a hard-on and then the line moved and I was next.
I was still blushing when the drug company’s psychiatrist accepted me as a candidate for the experiment. I was to be given large doses of a new drug designed to make entrepreneurs out of risk-averse people, stand-up comics out of wilting violets, optimists out of pessimists, shit like that. The experiment had a code name, like a military operation. It was called “Operation Carpe Diem”. I hesitated, but then I signed the “contract to waive legal damages in the event of unforeseen side-effects or persistent state of delusion.”
My name is Dale Douglas; I’m 25 years old and I’m fairly well educated and mostly unemployed––"Redundant", as the English would say, or "At Liberty", which is how the old vaudevillians would describe it.
I’ve been looking for meaningful work ever since my commencement day in Corvallis, when the temporary Oregon sun warmed my cap and gown and I almost believed the people who spoke from podiums.
I’ve been At Liberty for eighteen months, now, not counting my tours of duty at Burger Barn, Payless Auto Parts, and Bud’s Wash-a-Rama Car Wash. I don’t have any connections with the Portland Powers That Be, and so my business degree isn’t worth the faux parchment it’s laser-printed on.
The sky is overcast for nine months of the year. The network TV news anchors say that Portland has the highest unemployment rate of any city in the country, but somehow that information isn’t reported in the local news. I stay in a small house that once also contained my mother and my father. It’s been two years since they fled this scene, separately, for more solar-intensive climes. I’m staying because I think there’s something waiting here for me––something hidden in plain sight that, once I find it, will add some light to my days of minimum-wage work and dark ever-rain.
When I have too many beers at night, I have a recurring dream. I go to a magic place outside of town. I move from the dark chaos of Portland--low clouds and streetlights-glowing-at-noon and tires hissing on wet asphalt. I'm snug in the interior of my trusty Chevelle; the defroster blows its hot breath and I go to a more truthful place--up to the mountains where winter is not so similar to spring or autumn––away from advertising and failed landscaping to a place where I could die of exposure, if I wasn't careful.
"Now Leaving Portland," the sign says, and I tell myself I won’t be back. I head for the truth of cold and the reflected light of snow. The road is wet at first, but as I climb, the moisture dries, evaporated by mountain winds, and soon I’m driving on clean snow. The tires make a happy, squeaking sound as they pack the snow into ice. The old-growth firs are huge and at peace.
In this dream, I own a plot of land on a hillside in the Cascade Mountains. I've had an old mobile home dragged up there. I have a refrigerator with its shelves spaced widely to accept 40-ounce beer bottles, and there's also a television with a tall aerial to pick up Barnaby Jones and Cannon and all the other Quinn Martin Production re-runs from Portland.
I order my supplies from a mail order company, and every year I shoot a trophy bull elk from my front door. I don’t go down to Portland except to meet women or to hire a taxidermist.
In the dream, this suits me just fine, but when I wake up I still have faith that things in Portland are about to change. I expect to see Roxy again, and soon.
On Saturday I hang out at my friend’s house and drink forties of Schlitz Malt Liquor. My friend, Gary Fogg, can afford to buy entire cases of beer now that his business is booming. He’s the proud owner of Rainy Day Security, Inc., and he’s responsible for installing wrought iron bars and high tech security systems at the homes of the Portland well-to-do.
Outside, it’s raining as usual and the firs sigh in the breeze. Lowered Honda Civics with exhaust tips the size of howitzers drive slowly up and down the street. I’m certain that their unkempt occupants are looking for something to steal. But Gary’s house is a showcase of his work––it has more security devices than Fort Knox, and the thieves don’t usually give it a second look.
But it bothers me that the vultures are there at all and I ask Gary why he doesn’t call the cops or even go outside and pop off a few rounds of 9-millimeter. Disperse the forces of evil. Gary hands me another forty and smiles.
“What, are you crazy, dude? Those assholes are great for business. Two-legged advertisements for high-end security systems.”
I say, “Maybe you should give them your business cards--let the scumbags leave them inside the houses they break into.”
Gary gets a thoughtful look on his face. The last time I saw him get that look, he came up with his current business plan. He leaves town briefly after that, and sends me postcards from San Quentin and Pelican Bay.
And then, just as I’m ready to load up the Chevelle and go in search of a life, everything changes. The Carpe Diem drug is starting to kick in.
Wide-awake on a Friday night, I dial Gary's number: The Party Hotline. Gary isn’t home, but there’s a recording on his answering machine that tells me to go to 23rd and Lombard and look for the parking problems associated with a successful bash. If that doesn't pan out, for a good time, go to 118th between Holgate and Powell.
The first place is good. There are lots of happy, buzzed people and they have a barber chair in the living room for a type of drink I’m fond of: upside-down kamikazes. I sit on the barber chair and women pour drinks straight from bottles into my open mouth. My eyes water and there’s laughter and dirty, loud music. I see a familiar pair of legs across the crowded room. Suddenly, for the time being, life is sweet. Roxy is there. I’m not myself, thanks to the drug, and I manage to make a date with her. We dance and she looks deeply into my eyes as if she’s trying to predict the future.
Roxy picks me up in her Jeep. It’s an old, hot-rodded ‘47 Willys that’s painted flat black. She tells me that she doesn't let just anybody ride with her. I smile and feel as if I’ve just hit a lottery jackpot.
The Jeep has a big Chevy V-8 and Roxy doesn’t spare the whip. She heads for the boondocks and the mud tires make a wailing sound as she takes us up past 90 miles-per. Then she takes us off-pavement and I’m happy to get away from civilization, such as it is. Roxy turns up a logging road and drives fast around blind corners--hubs locked into four-wheel-drive and bouncing over ruts, slipping through the mud and climbing. Always climbing. Like pilots say: there's safety in altitude.
Roxy tells me that the pharmaceutical company turned her down when she applied for the Carpe Diem experiment. They hinted that she had too much zest for life to meet their needs.
“I made the cut,” I say.
“Congratulations,” she says, and I think she means it.
Roxy drives fast and she turns to smile at me on the straightaways. She runs hard at the hills and corners. The engine pulls strongly and I can smell the hot oil in the crankcase and the mud that splashes onto the exhaust. When the Jeep gets sideways, Roxy hits the gas. All four tires spin like crazy and if the Jeep went off the road we’d die, and that's the damned fun of it.
We stop at a clear-cut and we kiss in the cold, mountain air. Roxy pulls away.
“Studying theology is like zipping open a body bag,” she says. I’m getting used to the idea that she says things like that, right out of the blue, so I feel I have to rise to the occasion.
“Yes, my dear, but the body bag is empty,” I say, raising my eyebrows. I’m looking into Roxy’s green eyes when I say it, and they seem to be pulling my heart from my chest. We make out for awhile longer and Roxy pulls away again.
She tells me that her dad is a fundamentalist preacher and that her mother is practically invisible. I tell her that my parents are ex-hippies, and proud of it for some sick reason. It’s amazing that me and Roxy have anything at all to talk about, but I start to believe that Roxy is a comrade, a friend, a safe port in the storm.
* * *
I get a day job working at Quicky Lube, the hot engine oil running down my arms at $6.75-per-hour. The unemployment rate is at a 10-year low. I commute in the rain, already looking forward to my lunch break, which I take in a lounge with my peers. In the lounge, we grease monkeys don’t say much. Later, when we get a big Cadillac or Suburban up on the lift, we say that we’re “in the gravy.”
In the evening, I scrub my hands with Lava soap and a bristle brush and then I go to my new night job. On the workroom floor I move quickly, collating a slick, many-paged advertisement for Nike shoes--bright reams of motivational ad copy and glossy photographs of unnaturally fit middle-aged men and women deep in the throes of athletic ecstasy. Stacks of the separate parts of the ad are set around the perimeter of a long table and me and the other employees each take a copy from one stack, and the next, and so on, until we make one complete rotation of the table, at which point we slip our completed packages into pre-addressed envelopes.
Around and around we all go, like veteran zoo animals. Outside, the rain pelts against the steel loading doors. On the radio, Bob Dylan swears he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. I work with my head down, circling, not talking, and I go around again and again, but the Carpe Diem drug lets me stop thinking and just work, and work hard. After work, I try to believe that things are looking up.
I have another date with Roxy, and another, and then I spend every non-working hour with her. In the early mornings I stand next to her at the bathroom sink and brush my teeth. I watch her in the warped old mirror, loving the small gap between her front teeth, fascinated by the way her nightgown moves so smoothly across her hips.
She’s taken a job working the perfume counter at Nordstrom’s. When her shift is over, she smells like an indecisive supermodel. One morning, she looks at me in the bathroom mirror and asks me, straight out, if I want her to move in with me. Her eyes are green fire. I feel the heat of the bathroom lights on my forehead. I get the sensation that I’m standing before a throng of reporters with lights and cameras and microphones jutting out to record my answer.
“Yes,” I say, “I do.”
We play a game together. Every Friday, we go out in search of interesting things. We wear loose-fitting clothing and we wander the aisles of the malls, thrift stores, supermarkets and we do some shoplifting. We use the things we collect as props, to fantasize about what we would do if we were different people. One week, I supply the props, and the next week, Roxy brings them home--so there’s a dialogue of sorts, because of what each of us chooses to be. Our sex life is a blur of color and sighs and expensive fragrances, but we can barely pay our bills with minimum wage.
Even so, I look forward to our Friday nights.
One Friday, I bring home a paper bag that contains cigars from a mall tobacconist and bowler hats and red suspenders from Goodwill and a bottle of 12-year-old scotch. We are Old Boys, that night, from the infamous Old Boy Network. We get crocked. Smashed. Tight. We smoke big, banker’s cigars and we both wear fancy trousers held up by newly shoplifted red suspenders. Roxy sits on my lap while I read aloud from the latest issue of The Wall Street Journal. It’s a bull market. Everything's going up, up, up. We both become sexually aroused.
“Pardon me, my dear, but could you...” And we do--on the carpet, every-which-way, listening to Mozart and wearing our bowler hats at jaunty angles.
When it’s Roxy’s turn, she decides that we will be German nudists. We are buck naked, by decree. I take out the garbage that way, walking with mock Teutonic severity so that Roxy laughs when my male parts swing to and fro. Later, Roxy goes to get the mail. She walks in a twittering manner, shaking her ass, which is quite beautiful, and putting her hands on her hips. She bats her eyelashes and pretends to be a lusty Fraulein. After dinner, a fine microwave wiener schnitzel with cabbage and a nice six-pack of beer, we watch “The Fall of Berlin” on PBS. When it’s over, we sit close, stunned by the slaughter, until Roxy says that she wants to do the horizontal polka, and I say ja, ja, ja, baby, and so we do––with beery breath and much semi-guilty grunting.
Our workdays are long. There’s more engine oil and the gritty suds of Lava soap and then I'm off to stuff more junk mail envelopes for Nike, Inc. Roxy has a second job, word processing for the Norm Thompson mail-order catalog on their swing shift. She starts to wear her eyeglasses all the time, and she looks tired.
I earn some money, actually I pawn my father’s old console stereo, and that weekend we live the good life. We are leading edge Baby Boomers. I buy a fake cellular phone and rent a Lincoln Town Car and I take Roxy driving in the ritzy Portland West Hills. She marvels at the success of the landscaping, while I pretend to talk on the phone. I steer the Lincoln with one hand as we glide past the large, gated mansions. I pretend to be the master of thousands of minimum-wage workers, and I dictate commands: “Cut-to-the-quick. Downsize. Get lean and mean. Prepare my big-ass yacht for departure.”
I tailgate lesser vehicles on the winding roads and I refuse to yield to the large Mercedes and BMWs that tailgate us. When we're stuck in traffic, Roxy grabs the fake cellular phone and shouts a stream of obscenities into it. The windows are open and she throws the fake phone out the window in front of dozens of real Baby Boomers. Just for an instant they appear to be envious, but then they see that we aren't the genuine article and they give us surly looks.
When the Lincoln gets low on gas, we drive into Portland, proper. I find a good parking spot--the mayor’s reserved space in front of City Hall. It’s time to begin negotiations. We negotiate from our respective strengths--I go down on her and she returns the favor. It’s a mutually profitable venture. A win-win situation. A done deal.
* * *
In spite of our jobs, our money problems grow worse. I pawn more items: My father’s accordion, the microwave, a couple of old guns I found in a neighbor’s unlocked garage. And then the proverbial chestnut drops. A condom breaks. Just the one time, unprotected. Little Miss Sure Shot and her hero, Deadeye Dick. No fertility rituals. No gods invoked. Roxy is pregnant.
On the Friday after we score an A+ on the pregnancy test, we go out into the world to find things for the kid that will reflect all of the fantasies we’ve shared: A tiny bowler hat, a Wall Street Journal, itsy-bitsy lederhosen, a nudist magazine, a newborn-sized tie-dyed t-shirt, a toy phone and keys to a Lincoln Town Car. Roxy insists that I include a ski mask, and latex gloves. I don’t argue. I use the stuff to make a colorful mobile, suspended by fishing line from strips of chrome trim I pulled from abandoned automobiles. I hang the mobile above the second-hand crib that squats in the living room of the house like a small, wooden prison cell.
We're married by a Justice of the Peace before the pregnancy becomes obvious. Gary comes back from San Quentin and throws us a party. I’m disappointed that Gary is on the wagon, and that all he's supplied for our drinking pleasure is bottled water from California. He charges us two bucks a bottle.
He does, however, hire a stripper to come out of a plywood cake. The stripper has enormously muscled buttocks so that from behind, she looks exactly like Tonya Harding, the disgraced Portland figure skater. She’s a big hit.
All my friends are there--the party crowd and Team Quickie-Lube and even some of the successful guys I knew in high school, guys who now wear sweaters and talk about mutual funds. Although it isn’t customary, my friends give me these swell gifts: A large box of heavy-duty condoms, three hot stock tips, a pair of rubber gloves, earplugs, a roll of duct tape, and a bus ticket to Drain, Oregon.
The party is a gas, after all.
But the good times don’t last. The nursery is painted and well stocked with second-hand toys. We have a footlocker filled with tiny socks and hats and sweaters waiting to add color to our new life, but the baby doesn't make it out into the world. She doesn’t quite know how to put herself together. She has spina bifida. Labor is induced at the end of the first trimester. The girl never had a chance.
Roxy stays in bed for three weeks. She loses her jobs. I have to work 18-hour days for what seems like the rest of my life to pay for the medical expenses because we don’t have health insurance. We’re six months into the nine-month rainy season. There's no color in all the world.
In February, my boss asks me to watch his house while he goes to Mardi Gras to inspect breasts through the bottom of a highball glass. The dude inherited 18 Quicky Lube franchises, so his house is amazing. He has an Olympic-sized swimming pool and I ask Roxy if she wants to hang out around the pool and sip margaritas like a kept woman. I promise to be the horny pool cleaner. I take off my shirt and flex my muscles. I show off the gold chains I found in my boss’ bedroom. I crank up the boss’ “Miami Vice Hits” CD. I open the curtains and let her see the rare, rainless day. She almost buys the act.
She tries to smile and we go outside, but we get shitfaced on the margaritas. There are three lounge chairs on the pool deck and when we surrender to the forces of tequila and gravity, we leave one chair between us. The boss’ audiophile sound system blasts out 80s hits, but we fall asleep before we can play the game.
* * *
We make it through to spring. We stay together even though we can’t ignore the tiny corpse that sleeps between us. Roxy stumbles through the house like a crack zombie, but she tells me that she’s fine. I know that I have to do something else, something daring, if I expect her to stay. I’m still pharmaceutically optimistic and my love for her is doubly strong because it also contains a heavy charge of tamped-down grief. We cling to each other, but our faith in traditional methods of self-actualization is growing faint. We begin to think outside the box. We begin to consider an object-oriented approach to our situation.
We’re idiots, maybe, but we live in a place where it’s darkly overcast for 250 days a year. We could decompose into the mud if we stayed careful and still.
We run completely out of money. We’ve sold or pawned everything of value, including Roxy’s Jeep. We’re in danger of losing the house. It’s nearly time. I know this, because the next Friday Roxy wants me to be a cat burglar. A second-story man. She’ll be the getaway driver. She’s not smiling, but we make love for the first time in almost forever. We’re very quiet, as if we’re making love in the bedroom of a house we’ve just broken into.
I accept the black jumpsuit she gives me, and the rubber-soled shoes and the climbing gloves and the ski mask. I keep taking the Carpe Diem drug, but I quit my shitty jobs and sleep during the day, so I can go out and seize the night.
The rain stops for real in July and we're OK, really. On the weekends I sit with Roxy on the porch. I smoke cigars and stare into the temporarily blue sky. Gary visits us every Sunday. I give him envelopes of cash, and he gives me envelopes that contain schematics of security systems – the systems that his competitors have installed. He knows people who know people, and he tells me that the Portland business community is incestuous as hell, as if I didn’t know that. His information is always correct.
Roxy tells me to get her a guitar, and I also pick up a nice harmonica during one of our nightly missions. As far as I know, we’re doing fine. These good days, we play our improvised music and wait for the night to come. We don’t say much of anything because we’re in tune now, telepathic about the things that matter, and our songs need no lyrics. Roxy drives the Chevelle while I break into Portland area McMansions and fill our bags with riches. Our Friday nights are very serious because we’ve learned to take what we need, and a damned sight more, and we’re all through with the idea that we can live the lives allotted to us and still become anything our hearts might desire.
by John Slavens
Red lips peeled back to admit the widest of smiles. Background consists of a pasture, dry browns and yellows tilted by the wind. Strands of hair have escaped the back-hanging braid. Her skin is velvety brown, her eyes slanted like a lioness. In her eyes, the deepest of pits. A distant, twisted desire.
I wake. It’s Friday, mid-afternoon. The pulse running through my veins is a mutant rodent working its way through tunnels of warm lard. Christ, I hate Fridays. So worn out from the rest of the week; the gigging, those long hours that have driven their blade into my gut and ripped throatward. The erupting baby from Eraserhead is better off than me on Friday mornings. The truth as I know it, the fact that no one seems capable of accepting: lodged deep between the lines of Shelly’s poetry, waltzing amidst John Lydon’s insatiable boredom, pumping from Kosinski’s Jewish heart, spicing Ellison’s disgust and Bukowski’s vomit-pools – the truth is that which is intertwined with everything else, and only a breath’s rigidity is its form; the truth is a ghost that kills those who advance toward it. You can pass right through it and never even know it’s there. Wanting it so badly is what’s gotten me this far, halfway there, royally fucked.
Something in my psyche won’t allow these bed covers to be pulled over my head. I look around. On my bedroom wall hangs a framed visage of Shiva and Parvati joined up the middle. Together they are known as Ardhanarishwar. Shiva’s right half is tinted blue, poisoned by the river, and Parvati’s left half is pale under the moon that crotches on the mountain peak behind. This, to the girl that left me a year ago, is a symbol of unity, completeness. It’s one of the last remnants of hers still in my possession. My sights shift and the reprint of Brueghel’s “Triumph of the Dead” fills my filmy vision. This haunted landscape is tacked to the ceiling over my bed. The dead are kicking ass, taking over an entire town. Focusing on a fleeing woman, I find myself humming a Twisted Sister tune. This woman I’m watching, she’s being chased by a rapist skeleton, she’s being pulled from her normal every day reality into a maddened whirl of pure horror. We’re not gonna take it, she whispers to me. Oh, you’ll take it, I whisper back.
A warm bottle of pale ale sits at the edge of my sight. I take it to my mouth, spilling the liquid into my stale hole, letting it pool there, letting the sting work its way past the bile.
I throw on some clothes at quarter to nine and walk around the corner to the diner for a round of coffee, a slice of chocolate custard pie and a few smokes. I live South of Mission, and it’s tough to find a place that will serve my prefered breakfast this early. Every other food joint around is Mexican, and they don’t open till the afternoon. This diner has a stink to it that I’ve grown intimate with; it stirs me, excites. The grease-streaked walls reflect the morning sun as I drip into wakefulness.
With my tank filled, I walk out to find Mandell standing at the corner. He tells me I’m late. Reaching in my coat for a smoke I make no reply, simply stare him down. He’s a man I feel thrilled to participate with, to observe his reaction to something I say or a gesture I make. Clean to the quick, he is. I’ve no idea where the fine clothes and perfume come from. He does nothing all day, just as I do, and he’s never mentioned an inheritance or a trust-fund locked away in some vault. His suit is cut and fitted, his shoes soft leather with silver tips. In his hand is a five-inch blade. He’s picking at his teeth with the tip of the blade. His perfect teeth. Not a drop of sweat on his smooth skin. It’s 72 degrees and rising, and my pits are soaked, my face glowing. A fine powder covers Mandell’s exposed skin and he smells of rosemary, most probably oil hand-combed through his long, unruly hair. His eyes are shaped like a china doll, the pupils unnoticed with the huge black irises.
I smell smoke before I realize he’s lit my cigarette with his gold lighter. “Straighten your back,” he tells me. “You’re slouching again.” He tucks the blade into his shirt, the blade’s handle threaded with a leather thong that hangs around his neck. I follow Mandell through a couple side streets. We end up in a misshapen stairwell at the bottom is a lift. Looks like a death trap, but what doesn’t these days. Going down in the lift, Mandell breaks the silence. “Respect everything you see. Make one wrong move and that just might be enough to encourage one of the Fortunate to ram your skull into a brick wall. Just be calm. Might be frightening at first, so hold tight your instinctual reaction.” That’s one of the things that draws me to Mandell. He talks like a highbrow librarian.
The lift grate clangs shut and we’re jerking down into the depths. It hits bottom and Mandell sparks up his lighter, pulling apart the dank gloom. He tugs the grate open and steps into the bricked corridor. The air is thick and wet. A furnace throbs. My lungs fill up slow. Stinks like mold and Chinese food. This is gagging fodder.
Fear is a warning. So I’m warned all right. Just as Mandell walks around a corner his lighter goes out. I’m turning and fumbling for a wall, an escape hatch, anything. I need to find that lift, I need the bitter air up above. The gold lighter’s flame is in front of me now. Mandell is smiling, a lit cigarette hanging from his lips, and he says, “I won’t leave you, my sweet.” He turns, his spine playing with the humor in his brain, and walks down the corridor. I follow him.
We’d talked about this adventure yesterday at a coffee house; a small table littered with empty double Americano mugs. “So, tell me,” he’d said. “If you could be anything at all, just what is it you’d become?” “Is this a riddle?” Me; sugar-highed, caffeine-buzzed, dirty-skinned. I continued as Mandell ordered more coffee from a passing waitress. “I don’t know. It’s all superficial, man.” “Anything you want to be. No boundaries.” Took me a few minutes as I gave it some serious thought. “I wanna be Christ. A new Messiah. Virgin’s chance in hell for that, eh?” Then he’d looked at me, confidence beaming from his eyes, and he’d said, “I have some people I want you to meet.” Then he told me about the Bearclaw Club.
We’re standing before a huge door within an ancient stone archway. Mandell turns to me, the gold lighter bellowing an inch high flame between our noses. He says, “Do not freak on me.”
He raps his fist on the door. A series of single knocks followed by a double and then three triples. He clicks his lighter shut as the door inches open, the warm glow of hearth fire spills out into the damp hall. In the doorway stands the outline of a woman, her features black in shadow, her hair a mottled mess. She motions us in and closes the door. As she turns toward the firelight I first notice she is nice looking with a smile that gives me welcome: secondly I notice her head hair isn’t hair at all, but rather an assortment of limp black snakes. She shoves the few hanging in her eyes to the side and looks me over. I can’t react in a physical way. I shove my hands in my pocket and grab my balls. She’s moving toward me, so I squeeze my balls, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I see the transplant failed once again, Dedrea,” says Mandell, standing behind me, warming his hands by the fire.
“Who’s this delightful human, Mandell?” Her long nailed fingers hold both my arms tightly. “Oh, but isn’t it a fine thing.”
“He’s a seeker. Perhaps a new entrant.”
She wears a flimsy flannel, buttoned at the navel, her breasts nearly spilling out as she bends forward to kiss my cheeks. No, she doesn’t kiss my flesh; she’s sniffing at me, checking to see if the meatloaf from last week has spoiled. Her breath is sweet and alluring, but I’m watching the dead snakes, thinking, “What in the fuck is up with this shit?” The snakes brush my skin. She clamps my face with her hands, staring into my eyes. Seeing her cold blue eyes now, my gaze angled away from the snakes, I see an insatiable desire there, a drawing of my thoughts, a sucking of my fantasies; she tugs at my threads. She kisses me full on the mouth, her tongue licking my lips, my teeth. She backs away but holds me firm, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” From the back of her head a single snake pokes its snout into view and sneaks a look at me, its tongue slicing through the dank air.
From behind me Mandell exclaims, “One lives! It appears not all is lost.”
Dedrea drops her hands to her sides and moves past me to wrap her arms around Mandell, speaking softly, “Yeah,” her voice sooths me despite the one live snake, it’s gaze riveted on me. I’m gripped by an overwhelming desire to squish it’s head. “The poor soul will have to die once the rest are severed.” The snake is looking at me, begging for help.
“Yes,” whispers Mandell. “But, the prospects, my dear. It’s miraculous.” He looks over Dedrea’s shoulder, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and tells me, “You’re not turned to stone. Come and I’ll show you around. Or would you rather turn back?”
The filtered sunlight, the bitter air and elbow-thrusting crowds? The wandering, the anger. The Truth?
“No,” I say, prying my fingers from my ball sack. “I’ll stay. Give me the tour.”
Dedrea claps her hands together, smiling. “Mind if I come along?”
“Not at all,” Mandell takes her hand and now I can see the scar tissue where her fingers had been replaced with long talons, sharp and deadly. “I’m sure your insights will enlighten us both.”
From a side doorway I hear a commotion of clothing and the slapping of bare feet on stone. “Dedrea!” someone yells. Mandell immediately steps up close to me, bringing Dedrea along with him. We stand facing the doorway. I look around the room; might be something in here I can use as a weapon. This seems to be a simple entryway, a greeting parlor. No seats, no tapestries or paintings hanging on the walls. Just the massive fireplace that faces the main doorway. To either side of the fireplace are low doors. The shout had come from one of these doors, and from it erupts a towering, young man dressed in unsoiled white robes, long hair and trimmed beard, eyes of fire and hatred. He’s furious as he advances on us, eyeing me for a split second, then confronting Dedrea, spitting, “Dedrea, you left the burner on again. You common cunt! We can’t have this habitual mindlessness day after day. A fire breaks out down here and we’re all toast! What do you have to say for yourself?”
Dedrea turns to me, her talons reaching across Mandell to rest on my arm. “You’ll have to excuse, Robin. He doesn’t hold me in the highest regard. He knows I leave the stove on so by chance he might brush against it and catch that pretty dress of his on fire.”
Robin takes her gently by the shoulders and leads her away from us. I’m getting the idea that this place, this community, is one of those touchy-feely gatherings. Robin’s saying,
“I spoke rashly. Please, go and finish the cooking.”
“Yes, sah.” Dedrea waves to me, blows a kiss to Mandell. “Guess I’ll skip the tour, boys. Have fun.” She disappears through the door Robin came in through. I can hear her mumble, “Finish the cooking. Clean the bedding. Wash down the walls, Dedrea.” A whisper echoes in these dank halls.
Robin turns to Mandell, speaking bellowy, like clouds and creeks, a complete tonal switch from his complaints earlier. “Mandell, how fare thee.” And right away I’m thinking, Oh give me a break.
“Fairly well,” Mandell chirps.
“You stay away too long. I see you’ve brought someone down with you.” He turns to me now. I’m hoping he doesn’t want a hug. “She’s lax, you know,” he tells me. “We all need to discipline ourselves, but she lacks the strength to do so. Pardon my outburst earlier. So, what is it you’ve decided to become?” His approach is solicitous, in no way threatening, and I’m opening my mouth to answer when Mandell moves up between us, taking my hand and entwining his fingers with mine.
“He’s a seeker for the moment,” Mandell says. “No foul play, Robin. You know it’s corrupt to ask such questions.”
Robin, his eyes boring into mine, like maybe he’s trying to suck my bankcard password from my brain, backs toward the doorway. He says, “Of course. I’ve become rash and unruly in one sitting. Forgive me.” Finally he breaks his stare and glances at Mandell, repeating, “Forgive me. I’ll just go check up on Dedrea.”
“She needs no checking up on,” Mandell says, but Robin’s bare feet have pattered on down the hall. Releasing my hand, Mandell pulls me around by my elbow, looking me in the eye, saying, “Never tell anyone your intentions. Do you understand?”
“I told you what I want to become,” I was referring to my confession about wanting to become some sort of new messiah. “Besides, he seemed all right once he –“
“You can tell me,” Mandell says. “I’m your friend. But, Robin – Imagine, if you will, the New Messiah announcing himself to the Second Coming of Christ. Bit of tension in the air, don’t you think? I don’t like tension. Let’s keep things nice and calm through your first introductions, okay?”
Fear is a warning. “Second Coming?” I whisper. “Oh, christ, that is twisted.”
We tour further into the Bearclaw Club. Mandell glances about, worrying over something. He scrutinizes each dark corner we pass, and there’s quite a few. It grows cold after leaving the warmth of the fire. With the chill comes a dread that creeps from my scalp to my toes, reverberating in my belly. I’m following Mandell through a dizzying array of doorways and corridors ribbed with leaky water pipes. This cellar may have been storage for a ground floor business at one time. I can’t recall what sits above this place. Aching for the stinging sun on my hands and face I tug on Mandell’s sleeve.
“Where are we?” I ask. “What is this place?”
He peers into a side hallway lit by red candles. The candles have been placed haphazard on the floor, their flames guttering with some unfelt force. This particular corridor smells pretty bad. Can’t tag the stench other than “pretty bad”. And, wouldn’t you just know it, this is where Mandell leads me. We’re walking down the hall as he whispers, “This is a place we have taken. A place we can become what we want.” He slows his gait, nothing left to say, and glances over his shoulder at me, appraising my reaction to his words.
“If I’m getting fucked here, Mandell, I’ll make sure you get fucked too.”
He stops abruptly, staying me with his hand on my chest. Stretched between the wall and the ceiling, a web shakes with urging of its architect. The plump spider clings to the center of the web. Mandell squares his stance and blocks me from moving forward. He plucks the spider from its web, trapping it in his closed fist.
Hey, Mandell,” I ask. “What is it you want to become?”
He steps forward and I follow him down the candle-lit corridor. He says, “I’m a courier. I make this whole operation run smooth. Without me, they’d all perish.”
That makes sense. Not likely the Medusa girl would be going up into town for groceries any time soon.
Mandell steps up to wooden side door, nearly unnoticeable even in the candlelight. He pushes it open and disappears inside. The room is dark, but with the light from the corridor I can see it is empty but for a long wooden workbench littered with jars and books. Mandell gently releases the spider onto the workbench, then he quickly backs away. I can sense stiffness in his movement. His lips are firm. Uncharacteristic. I’m thinking he’s afraid of this room for some reason. I ask him, “Waz with the spider?” He sees the spider jump to the floor and skitter toward him and nearly falls over backward exiting the room. He’s got the door handle in his grasp, and I’m turning to run the fuck away when I feel a cold shadow and hear someone shout, “What the fuck, Mandell?”
Behind me, a dozen or so feet down the corridor, stands a woman. I can see it’s a female even though the candles are throwing some crazy shadows my way. I try and relax, try and act like I hadn’t just nearly shit my pants. I glance at Mandell. He seems split between incredibility and embarrassment, and he’s stammering, “Terral. I thought you succeeded.”
The lady walks towards us. An absolutely elegant walk, she has. She wears bracelets that jingle as she moves. Her shirt is torn, barely covering her broad shoulders and teardrop breasts. She is surprisingly fast, standing before me before I’m ready for it. Her lips are painted thick with red paste, but the rest of her face is hidden in shadow. Her shoulder length hair covers most of her face anyway, and she doesn’t seem in a hurry to ear-tuck it aside. I’m cleaning my teeth with my tongue when she says to Mandell, “Tell me what you’re talking about. You got some sort of fantastical weave flapping around in that head of yours, Mandell.” She’s got her arms crossed. Her boot tips are touching Mandell’s designer shoe tips.
“We shouldn’t speak of such things in the presence of this gentleman,” Mandell takes my hand and holds it affectionately. I’ll have to talk about this holding-hand thing with him later. I’m peeling his hand off mine as he says, “He’s young and scared.”
She glances at me indifferently; takes her a second to look me up and down before her gaze locks back on Mandell. She says, “Fuck the rules. Tell me why you were in my room.”
Mandell shakily grabs the door’s latch and pulls it shut. “Forgive me. Thought I was doing a good deed placing your disembodied spirit in a safe place.”
“Disembodied spirit,” she’s spitting mad now. “Mandell, don’t you dare fuck with –“
I step between them, hoping I might distract her, and wanting to get a better look at her face. The candlelight is throwing shadows over her features. I can’t see her clearly. “How’s it going? I’m Corey,” I say, angling this way and that, trying to get a good look. “I’m new here. Getting the tour.”
She pushes me aside. “Mandell, never intercede. That’s the only rule between you and I. You don’t run my errands. I don’t kiss your ass. You don’t go in my room. You understand?”
Mandell takes out his cigarettes and lights one, mumbling, “Sure. Of course.”
Terral pushes past Mandell and opens the door. As she looks things over I watch the spider scuttle over Mandell’s shoe. Mandell steps on it once it’s reached the dirt and twists some death into the poor little insect. Terral takes one large step into the room, turns and says, “Don’t you have someplace else to be?” She’s looking right at me. I’d come up with a snappy response if not for the candlelight shining full against her burn-scarred features. She slams the door sans my witty comeback, and I’m staring at the spot her face had been.
“There’s more in that room than willingly meets the eye,” Mandell whispers. “She’s advanced in her art, and –“
From behind the closed door Terral shouts, “I can fucking hear you. Moron!”
I can blink now. I can turn my neck. I look over at Mandell. He must be able to make out my empathetic grimace. He nods, yes, it is horrible, or something close to that. I still hear her venom-laced question in my mind. Jesus Christ, she’s right. I do have some place to be. “Mandell, shit. I’m supposed to be at sound check.”
“Sound check. I thought you canceled so you could –“
“I can’t cancel,” I tell him as I look around, trying to remember the way out of this maze. “S’how I pay my rent, buy my food. It’s my job, man. Shit, I’m late!” Mandell is all put off by my sudden switch of priorities. “Will you come by tonight? See the show?”
“I’ve little time to waste on such trivialities,” he lets me know, sucking hard on his cigarette. “Piss your time away with that band, Corey. Piss it away. Where are you playing?”
“Houdini’s Escape. It’s on Parish and –“
“I know where it is,” he waves his hands about as he he’s ridding the air of bad mojo. “Putting that aside, above all else, keep in mind that you’ve an appointment tomorrow afternoon with Hanabus.”
“Who the fuck is –“
“He’s the big man on campus, Corey. He leads us, finances our endeavors. I’ve arranged for you to meet him tomorrow. We’ll meet outside the café around two. Do not forget.”
I swear to him I won’t let him down, and then I push him along, away from Terral’s door, away from the candlelit hall, in the direction I’m guessing the lift might lay. After a few minutes we’re back in the rusty elevator heading up. After meeting Terral, and seeing how she treated Mandell, I see him in a new light. As the lift shakes its way streetward, I ask him, “You’re the recruiter for this place, aren’t you?” I’m surprised to find myself agitated. I feel like Mandell has tricked me somehow. Like I’m just another weak link in the Bearclaw Club’s food chain.
“No, Corey. You’re not just meat to me.” The roar of traffic gets closer. I can hear shouts of pedestrians and car horns. “Think about what you’re going to do. Make sure you want to do it. I’ll see you at Houdini’s.” He pulls back the grate and tells me to scoot. I pull the sinewy city scent into my lungs and back step into the concrete stairway that leads to reality. I tell him, “You fuck me and I’ll –“ but the grate slaps shut and the lift lowers before I can finish, and I’m feeling myself up for my pack of cigarettes, needing something to block the stench of this horrid town.
I jog home as best I can with a cigarette stuck between my lips, jump on my Yamaha 650, and jet on over to Houdini’s Escape. Inside the club the stage is up full. Ted, the sound guy, is nearly shitting himself with worry. He wants to know where the fuck I’ve been. There’s no one in here except Ted and the bar tender. “Just a second, Ted,” and I walk on over to the bar. Ray, the bar tender, gives me a Budweiser. He’s got the second one ready for me just as I’m guzzling the last of the first. “Thanks, Ray. Weird day, man. I needed that.”
“We open in fifteen,” Ray says. “Get the noise over with. And you better have a bigger crowd this time, Corwin.”
“Yeah. Got you covered, man.” I whip around and drink my way over to the stage. This is a small club. They pull all the tables out when we show up to play, so there’s not much to trip over as I make my way. Ted’s yelling at me to check mic 1. I’m on it, up on stage, speaking into the electronics, blinded by the spotlight. “Hey, Ted. Your mom ever tell you you could be anything you wanted to be? You know, like when you were a kid. Ted?” He’s out there somewhere. I can’t see the soundboard in back of the club due to the light in my eyes, but I can hear him messing with the levels of the mic. “Hey, Ted.”
He tells me to check mic 2.
The guys had been at Houdini’s earlier, but they left when I didn’t show on time. They finally wandered back in, burritos in hand, right before Ted opened for business. We had time for one song, Ted all pissed off as he hurried the sound check process, before Ted told us it sounded good and to “for fuck’s sake shut down.” We had two hours before our show began, so the band sat down at the bar to have “a few” and go over the set list.
I let the two guitarists hash it out. Ramirez, our drummer, is knocking back a bottle of spring water, his eye on the big screen behind the bar. The Mariners, 35-10, are putting some hurt to the Texas Rangers. I corral Ram’s attention by asking him he thinks Sasuki can keep his 46 game hitting streak alive. Then I ask him, “Did your mom ever tell you you could be anything you want to be?” I need an answer to this question. It’s bugging the shit outta me.
Ram wipes down the bar in front of him with a napkin. “You know what? I’m pretty sure she did.”
I want to know he thinks of this clouded misconception. How does he deal living each day not quite reaching his preset desires and goals? To never set up camp in that ideal environment he’s drawn up for himself? What goes through his mind when the realization that preferred states are only met through debauchery and ravenous alterings of the mind with poisons either natural or synthetic?
Ram sits there, his spine bent over the bar, sucking down another mouthful of spring water. He glances at the screen, Seattle 7 Texas 2 bottom of the 6th, then turns to me and asks, “What’s beating around in your skull, Corey?”
I lean back, trying to straighten my own spine, knowing I’m folding in on myself, wanting strength like an electrical shock to hit me just about now. “Well,” I try to translate my inquiries into verbal waves, “doesn’t it make you angry? Doesn’t it make you want to pull out your veins and paint the wall with your own blood?” That’s what happens when I talk. I try to communicate. It always comes out wrong.
Ram shakes his head and turns his attention back to the big screen where millionaires try to hit a little white ball with a big stick.
My mother told me that if I tried hard enough and believed in myself I could be whatever I want when I grow up. She told me this a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. The problem with me joining up with the Bearclaw Club, is that, in doing so, I’m kicking myself in the ass, disproving my mother’s theory, and I’m withdrawing from the race I so thought myself capable of placing if not winning.
I hear Terral’s words in my head. She’s placed them there from eternal playback. Don’t you have someplace else to be? I’m wondering if I do have anyplace else to be.
Somebody sits on the stool next to me. I wouldn’t think this remarkable, but the presence of this person is causing quite a stir in Houdini’s. My neighbor’s hand brushes my arm. She hands me a twenty, and she whispers in my ear, “Order me a whiskey. A double. Make these people stop staring.”
I glance down the bar, taking in the gawking looks, noting their faces. I take her twenty, add my own twenty and tell Ray, the bar tender, to line up beers along the bar. I tell him to make it an export for Ramirez. Then I tell him to pour a double whiskey for Terral. She has edge over on her stool, as close to me as she can get. I like that. I take a deep breath and turn to face her.
Terral got all dressed up to come to Houdini’s. Her ripped shirt has been replaced with a satin job, shiny, no holes. Her hair looks freshly cleaned, a lot of it covers her burn scares. She’s put powder on, not too much, so her face doesn’t shine. I can see her crystal blue eyes clearly now, they harbor her expression; she doesn’t much like being here. I’m wondering if her ears survived whatever accident befell her. When she leans in close to me I smell citrus.
“I came to warn you about Bearclaw,” she says. It’s tough watching her talk. Her lips are painted the same deep red as before, but now I notice the lack of movement there; it’s like watching a person talk beneath a Halloween mask. She takes the whiskey Ray brings her and drinks it down. This gives me a moment to close my eyes and get my shit together. I finish my Budweiser and gesture for more drinks. Ray tears his sideshow stare from Terral and wanders off. Everybody else along the bar seems to have gone back to whatever they were doing before Terral arrived. The crisis is over for now.
“We’re good people,” she continues. “Ideal holds reign in those cellar dwellings. It’s all positive, Corey. We don’t push our ideas on each other. A nihilistic society more like. Contradiction, sure, but that’s as close as I can get. We’re not a cult. Bearclaw is not an escape.”
“How did you know I’d be here?”
She pats her lips with a napkin. Doesn’t seem she can close them all the way. “You guys were talking outside my door, remember? I told you I could hear. I had to come. Tell you how serious this is. This is not something to mess around with. Bearclaw is run by a disciplined doctrine, Corey.”
“You’re the star pupil, right?”
“I’m one of the advanced, but I’m not dealing with anything unchartered. I delve into practices of ancient Celtic and Druid histories, while my companions are mostly dealing in ideas far fetched and non-worldly.”
I take a sip from my beer, trying to act calm. I just know she’s not supposed to be here, not allowed to council the newbies. She’s just about ready to tell me something taboo. She doesn’t believe in holding the doctrines of Bearclaw sacred, plus she’s knocking back whiskeys like a sailor. So, I decide to go out on a limb.
“What is it you’re becoming?” I ask her.
She messes with the top button of her blouse, then she tells me, “I’m a shape shifter. I thought you’d guessed that from Mandell’s little episode outside my room.”
I’m shaking my head. I hadn’t guessed, but I also hadn’t wanted to know she was as crazy as the rest of them.
“No matter,” she says. “We all become what we seek to become sooner or later, Corey. That’s how serious it is. It works. Hanabus leads us, keeps us separated when we need privacy, brings us together when we need support. There’s vibrations in Bearclaw, a determined positive attitude that lifts us all off the dirt when we think we can’t go on. We all believe in each other, and that’s why we succeed. It’s all very –“
“Miraculous, eh?” I’m downing the rest of my, what is it, fifth beer of the evening? Ramirez is looking at me funny. I elbow him, then gesture to Ray for more drinks. She knows I’m not ready for whatever goes on down there in the cellars of Bearclaw. Maybe that’s why she showed up. Not to warn me, but to try and keep me out. Keep the fly out of the soup. By the time I’ve wrestled a cigarette from my pack she halfway through her fresh whiskey. I light up and suck in some good smoke. How big of a fool would I be to walk away from this Bearclaw thing? Or, vise versa. “You’re talking miracles, Terral. I stopped going to church when my mom stopped dragging me there.”
“Hanabus will help you believe,” she tells me.
Oh, I beat he will. Brainwash me. Drug me. Patty Hearst me. “I’m beating this isn’t too pliable. I’m beating you’re not even supposed to be talking to me.”
“There’s a certain degree of secrecy to maintain. There are restrictions, especially if it turns bad. If you freak out, we have the option of keeping our dealings private. You’ve got to decide to do this, and you’ve got to stick with it once you do. Like I said, it’s serious.”
“Who else is there? Tell me that. I gotta weigh this thing in my head.”
I know if it weren’t for all the whiskey she wouldn’t dare tell me. “I can’t tell you that,” she says. She’s fingering the false wood grain on the bar. “Well,” her head swings my way, “I can tell you about Hanabus.”
“But, you’ve already –“
“He thinks he’s Dionysus.”
“You mean he’s become the guy? A Greek god, right? Or he thinks he’s the guy.”
“Not sure. There was no Bearclaw when he began becoming. He’s self-taught. Ha. I’m just not sure. He takes a lot of mushrooms. Throws one hell of a party.”
“I thought Dionwhatever was into wine. God of Wine or something like that.”
“Nope. Blame the Pope. Or someone else.” Yeah. She’s drunk. “Dionysus is God of hallucinogenics and freewill. Kind of like Tim Leary, you know?”
“Tell me about a few others,” I nearly put on puppy dog eyes for this, but I figure Terral wouldn’t suck up to that. So I just lay it out flat and easy. “Please, Terral.”
She’s not going to leak. She asks, “What the name of your little music happening here, Corey?”
“The band is called Lemmings’ Way.”
“You mean like the rodent?”
“Yeah. Those little guys know the way out.”
“You think humans should herd themselves into the sea?” Her eyes are shining. She’s having a good time with this. When tell she’s nailed it on the head she begins to giggle, and it’s painful to watch. Her lips don’t seem to want to move that way. She goes back to sipping at her whiskey. Trying to get us back on track I forge ahead with, “This Hanabus guy. I mean, right there, a mythological cross dresser in a dictator role. Is this something I should be getting myself into?”
Ram leans over my shoulder and tells me the show is about to begin. I tell him to hold on two fucking seconds.
“Real?” Terral says. “Jesus is a mythological stereotype. People believe he was real, and he is in their minds. It’s all about what you believe. This has nothing to do with reality. We had one guy, he wanted to become a minotaur. Our surgeons replaced his lower body with the entrails, hind end and legs of a bull. He actually lived for two hours after the operation. He was conscious and he could move around. No shit. He died an extremely happy man.”
Now this was more like it. “You can be anything you want to be. I drink down some beer, wondering if I should even consider taking any of this bullshit she’s throwing as truth.
“We had another man,” she goes on, “who became the Sandman. He went around with vials of finely ground stone, a secret recipe he’d concocted in the Bearclaw lab. He eventually got busted for B and E or something.” She’s watching me watch her. I think she can tell my attention is peaked. She wipes her stiff lips with a napkin. “You do believe me, don’t you? I don’t want to waste my breath here, Corey.”
“It’s all fantastic,” I tell her. “Tell me more, please.” Ram is leaving the bar. I glance over my shoulder at him and nod. “Be right there.”
“We’ve a vampire in our ranks named Hector. He is a vampire, but only because we encourage him. Dedrea, our medusa, is advancing in her goal. She –“
“I met Dedrea,”
“We have a necromancer who’s proved himself time and again. Talking with dead he has come up with some pretty accurate predictions. His latest has to do with the bonding of a certain man and woman.”
Whoa. “Maybe you and me?”
She finishes her current whiskey. Looks like she’s trying to smile, hard to tell, but her eyes twinkle with delight. Ted pokes his head between Terral and I, startling the shit out of me. He says, “You’re on, rock star.” He wanders off to the soundboard in back of the club.
“Well?” I prod Terral.
“The smile is gone. “Not you and me. That’s for sure.” Her head lowers and she tracing the wood grain with her finger. A sour note has been hit. “Not with my looks,” she adds.
I peel myself from the bar. “I gotta play. Stick around, okay? You might like the show.”
She’s nodding, head down, her hand waving at me, dismissing me. I stumble over to the stage, but before I climb up onto it, I pause in the shadow of a speaker cab. I pull out the picture of the girl that inspires me. She used to come and watch us play. We used to be in love. I use this image to input the anger that helps me through the set. Without the anger I’m nothing up there in the spotlight. The snapshot holds some sort of magic. It draws me in till I’m practically standing right in front of her. Her red lips peeled back to admit the widest of smiles. Behind her lies a pasture, dry browns and yellows tilted with the wind, lined up with the few strands of hair that have escaped her braid. Her skin is a velvety brown, her eyes slanted like a lioness. In her eyes, the deepest of pits. A distant, twisted desire. Looking at this I can feel the helpless wail of anger rise in my throat.
Mandell has found me here. He’s standing beside me with a beer in one hand. He hands it to me. What the hell. I take the beer and drink down half as I shove the snapshot back into my pocket.
“So,” he says. “Do you have it all figured out?”
“No,” I tell him. “Mulling it over slow. If I meet you, I meet you.”
“Terral’s here. I saw you with her.” He’s switching his weight from Italian shoe to Italian shoe.
“Yeah. She came to check it out.”
“Could be she feels something for you, Corey.”
“She has little patience for worldly distractions, what with the pain the world has seen fit to bestow upon her. It’s not likely she’s here to check it out, as you put it. Hanabus does not like the looks of this.”
“Hanabus,” I hiss. This cult leader is starting to piss me off, and I haven’t even met the slime ball yet. “How does he know –“
“How do the dead know to close their eyes, darling?”
“God damn it, Mandell.” I climb up on the stage, leaving Bearclaw and all its shit below.
The band is playing the fifth song in the set list. The words I’m singing: Corporate meeting same time next week. Media dipshits make a media leak.” The sweat is dripping off my body. I’m swimming in an alcoholic/melodic wonderland. I watch the crowd, which is quite a bit larger than our usual dotting of hard-core fans, and I see Terral through a smoky haze. She’s sitting at the bar right where I left her. She’s talking with Mandell. They seem to be getting along all right. The bulk of the horde in front of me is swaying with our thumping grinder. “Fighting over who’s gonna get drugs off the street! Fighting over one little grain of wheat!” I need a full gospel choir behind me, the raspy vox of Dylan in my ear. I need to be released.
Through sweat-stinging eyes, I gaze at a shadowy figure outlined by the beer-garden doorway in the back of the club. Her hair is braided, her brown eyes tilted like a lioness. The face is pale, the skin tight as if death has advanced. I’ve totally forgotten my words. I’ve fucked the bass line in the ass. The band is in an uproar, yelling at me to get my shit together. The notes fall from my mind. I just stand in the spotlight, staring at this ghost from my past. It’s her standing in the back, and she’s staring right back at me. I watch as Mandell steps up to her side, and she nods at him. Jesus Christ! They know each other. They step out through the beer-garden door. She’s gone.
Somebody wearing a guitar slams into me. I’m thrown off kilter and I fall into the drums, landing beside my bass cabinet. The song is over. The band is covering up my slipup by launching into another song, a song sung by someone else. I pluck out the notes as I sit on the stage. I keep my eyes closed, blocking out any other crazy visuals that might blow my mind.
That was Her, wasn’t it?
Terral’s there to collect me after the show. I’d made it through the last set without totally freaking out. Ted will pack up my stuff like he always does. We made good money tonight, no one’s complaining. My fuck up seems to have been forgotten, if not forgiven.
Terral and I are outside. She’s positioning herself behind me on the tiny seat as she says, “Let’s go get another drink.” She’s the raspy booze voice going on. I dig it. “I don’t out often. I don’t want to go home just yet.”
“Mandell left with someone earlier,” I kick the bike on.
“Yeah,” she’s right up close to my ear, her arms wrapped around me. “He’s that way.”
“Don’t know who that was, do you?”
“What?” The bike’s loud. “Let’s just go, Corey.”
I shut down the engine. “Listen,” I turn as best I can with her nestled up so close to me. “I need to know who Mandell left with tonight.”
She’s trying to smile again. I wish she’d stop that. “Jealous, are we?”
“No.” I turn back around. Some things will take getting used to. I hate to say it, but looking at Terral is one of those things. “I think I know her.”
Silence. I hear a drunk down a side street yelling up at a window. Finally, Terral says, “I know where they’re going.” Her chin is resting on my shoulder. I can smell whiskey. This all adds up, somehow, to a warning. “They’re going to the same place I was going to take you. There’s a party for you tonight, Corey. Seems events are quickening their pace.”
I twist around. I am most certainly not ready for a meeting with Hanabus. “What the hell are talking about?”
She looks sheepish now, something in her eyes. She looks, for the first time, like a child caught doing something bad. “It’s Bearclaw common consensus that I’ve complicated matters by coming here tonight. Hanabus wants to meet you now. She’s there, too. Some Irish joint South of Mission.”
“Just tell me how to get there.” I kick the bike back on and roar on outta there.
I pull my back tire up against the curb in front of the bar. Terral’s standing on the sidewalk, slump shouldered, miming guilt. Red and blue neon strobe against her tight burn scars. I recognize this bar now. This is the establishment that rests atop the Bearclaw Club.
As I wander through the crowd inside, I’m looking expectantly for Her. It’s dim, the air thick with smoke and body stink. The place is alive with shouts and rowdy behavior. Somebody just punched in a Bad Brains song on the jukebox. We’ve arrived during Last Call. Everybody is scrambling for the bartenders attention. Tough to see; everything’s tinted in neon, the brightest light source in here. I see nothing Irish about the place besides the dank mood and the real wood tables and bar. Terral leads me to a corner table in back. As we near it I see Mandell seated next to fat man in a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt. As he tilts his pudgy face up to acknowledge me I remember that scene in Seven, the one about gluttony. This cat is fat. Lips like sausage smile at me, his hand jets out to take mine, his wrist glittering with silver and glossy beads. Mandell says, “Corwin, I’d very much like you to meet Hanabus. Hanabus, Corwin.” Mandell is sipping at something pink. I take the hand offered. Hanabus delivers a vise grip and pulls me into the booth. Terral slides in after me. I can smell the fat man; cotton candy and strawberry oil. I’m feeling trapped.
“What a delight it is to finally meet you,” Hanabus trills. He puts his arm around me. It weighs a fucking ton. “Sorry to pull you in on such short notice. This whole process requires impeccable timing. Due to our lovely shape shifter,” he reaches across and strokes Terral’s ruined face, “we had to put a bit of a rush on things. Hope you’ll forgive. One of my clients, shall we say, got wind of you and demanded we proceed with the operation.”
“Where is she?” I can’t look anyone in the face right now. I can’t trust anyone. I am being fucked. I just know it. “I want to see her.”
Hanabus tugs at a passing waitress’s skirt, shouting in falsetto, “Drinks for my friends, my dear! I’ll have red wine, an import for the gentleman,” he gestures at Mandell.” By the smell of her the lady will be having whiskey!” Does he have to shout right in my ear? “And a ginger and bourbon, please, dear miss!”
He’s a mind reader as well. Ginger and bourbon used to be my favorite cocktail. I stopped drinking them a year ago, when she’d split.
“And for you, Corwin?” Hanabus asks. “Tell the lady what you’d like. On me.”
“What?” She must be here. He ordered that drink for her. “Where is she?!”
He seems confused by my outburst. He shoes the waitress away, then he turns to me. “Who, Corwin?”
“Christ sake, stop calling me Corwin! And you damn well know who!”
Terral snakes her hand to my thigh and squeezes, putting her stiff lips to my ear. “Corey, you calm yourself down.”
“Listen,” Hanabus demands our attention. The outer crowd noise lessens, but that could just be the fury clogging up my ears. “My client is in a very delicate state. She needs our help, people. You, Corwin, are directly involved. Your cool must be maintained, my boy.”
“What the hell’s going on?” I keep a soft edge to my voice. “I’m at a delicate stage, too. If she is here, I want to see her alone. Not in the company of you three and not in this fucking bar.”
Hanabus pulls a cell phone from his hip pocket and speed dials a number. He’s humming some tune I can’t make out, probably some Barry Manilow number, his eyes turned to the ceiling, his fingers tapping out some crazy three-four on the table.
“Listen, fat man!” I spit at him. He hushes me with a finger to his sausage lips. He whispers a one liner into the phone, then his brow furrows for one split second. After one more snippet of dialogue Hanabus tongues the phone off, pockets it, and then tells us, “She won’t be joining us. Seems she’s had her way with the henna bath. All is ready.
Corwin,” Hanabus has a weary look in his eyes as he turns my way. “From here on out you must deal with the dice as they lie.” Whatever the fuck that means. The waitress brings our drinks. I grab the ginger and bourbon and sip from it. “Here’s the deal,” Hanabus continues. “She’s been prepping for months; meditating fire pujas to Kali darshans in her sleep from Shiva etc. etc. She’s cleansed. She’s dyed.”
“Wait,” Mandell suctions the import bottle from his lips. “She’s dead?”
“She’s ready, Corey,” Hanabus ignores Mandell. “This directly involves you. That’s why you’re here. We had advance warning from a competent source.”
“Your necromancer,” I say.
Hanabus pierces Terral with a cold stare. “Terral talks too much. She can over-stuff the envelope at times.” Terral is quiet. She keeps her hand on my thigh as a comforting gesture. “As I was saying,” Hanabus continues, “we knew you’d show. Foretold, it was, my boy.”
“I’m afraid,” Mandell says, gazing at what must be a pale me, “I don’t follow any of this. You’re acquainted with the woman I met at Houdini’s?” He seems sincere, but I can’t look in his eyes, I just stare into the golden cocktail in front of me. “She’s been with a long time. I can’t remember her not being with us.”
“She’s like that,” I let him know.
“Corey, I swear,” Mandell leans toward me, “I have no part in this. We met at Houdini’s, her and I, so she could OK you as a participant. I know not what you’re participating in. I swear it. I didn’t know you knew her.”
Hanabus chuckles. “You brought Corwin to us, Mandell. What do you mean you had nothing to do with this?” He pauses, rotating his gaze to each of us in turn. “We all dance the dance, people. We’re gears in a glittering clockwork. Now,” he closes his eyes as if this whole ordeal has wearied him, “finish your drink, Corwin. We’ve work to do.”
“He hasn’t given his authorization to –“ Terral begins. Hanabus tumbles from his restful state, slamming his palms on the tabletop, shouting, “Quite right, dear lady! I’d nearly forgot. A matter of business must be settled, Corwin.” His face inches up close to mine. “Will you join with us? Do you want what we have to offer, Corwin?”
I feel Terral’s hand tighten on my thigh. Mandell tosses the gold lighter at me, saying, “You better light up one more time, darling.” He glances at Mandell. He’s shaking his head, and Terral’s lips are right up against my ear. I convulse a bit, shaking these predators from me, nearly tumbling Terral from the booth. The dice have been thrown and I’m sick of these freaks fucking with my head. She’s down in those chambers below. Somewhere down below, waiting for me. I look to those wine-flooded eyes of Hanabus and tell him, “Yes. I choose to join Bearclaw. The sooner the better.”
“Fine,” Hanabus sits back, the triumphant, the relieved. “Shall we head downstairs?”
We go down into the corridors via the lift. I suppose there is a back or side entrance somewhere, but Hanabus most probably has dictates of privacy, keeping alternate ins and outs secret from me for fear of the Hero escaping with the girl. Dedrea opens the door for us, gifting me with a leech-like kiss on the lips. Writhing atop her head is a fresh batch of healthy vipers. I gently push her away.
Hanabus leads us through dark hallways. We pass through a makeshift kitchen area and a room full of vanilla scented candles. In this room I spot a cradle in the corner. A babe watches me with eyes too aged for its cherubic face. Hanabus opens a door and we enter a room filled with shiny objects; metal tables, basins, nozzles, needles, knives. Everything looks clean under the one electric light I’ve seen in this cellar. This room is equipped for surgery, if that’s what you can call the twisted practice that no doubt goes on here. In the center of the room is a woman, electric light spotlighting her naked body. She’s laid out on one of the metal tables. Her skin is emerald blue, nothing like the color of death. Her chest rises, falls. Her lioness eyes are closed, Her features peaceful. Her hair is longer than in the picture, one plump braid hanging off the edge of the table. I’ve moved to her side, awestruck by how her beauty stuns me. The picture in my pocket is one year old, and this, what rests on the table in front of me, is the product of growth in truth, in fullness. I knew I’d missed Her, but now the weight of that void, Her absence, is as a kingdom of sorrow atop my frail soul.
I hear Mandell query, “What the fuck is this, Hanabus? What’s going on?” He’s apparently cracked, his gentlemanly demeanor lost to him. I hear Hanabus tell Terral to wash up. I hear Terral tell him she’ll have no part in this “fucked up bullshit.”
“Oh,” Hanabus sounds merry, “you most certainly will, dead dear lady! We are all a part of this. We are keeping the dream alive here, people. Sweat and blood will be spilt.”
Mandell continues here his frenzied break down. “Corey. Corey.” He’s tugging at my sleeve, but I can’t tear my gaze from her wondrous visage. “You don’t know what sort of animals we can turn into, Corey. You do not know to what extremes these sick imperatives Hanabus holds so important can go. Our semblance of anger and discontent has rotted out our insides, man!”
Hanabus wanders to the other side of the table. He’s wiping his hands, steaming with fire-warmed water, with a towel. He pulls a pair of powdered plastic gloves onto his oversized hands. “Keeping the dream alive,” he’s staring at Her, too. “I want nothing but to make the dream become reality.” He messes with a trayful of sharp instruments by his side, getting things in order.
“Hanabus,” I’m a bit out of sorts, feeling decidedly mickey’d. “You’re drunk. Maybe you should sober up before putting the knife to Her.”
“I am merely primed, my boy,” he says, looking up at me. “Ever try cutting into a person when you’re sober?” He’s giggling. “I’ve a congregation to shape and mold here, Corwin. Imagine the pressure. I am doing the best I can.” He turns his gaze back to Her. “I am doing the damnedest I can, boy.”
Terral leads me to a table against the wall. She’s chanting, “This was your decision. Nothing I can do. This was your decision.” She’s leading me along, and I begin to freak.
“What’s the deal?” Terral won’t look at me. “You can’t cut me, too.” Somebody’s turning the surreal knob way past Something You Don’t See Every Day. “Wait a minute.”
“You’re a part of this, Corey,” Hanabus sounds like he’s had to say this many times before. I’m looking around for cue cards. I need someone to tell me what to say. All’s I can come up with is, “Fuck you, buddy.”
“Cooperate,” Hanabus says. “This night we mount an impossible dream, Corwin. Tonight we ride.”
I tear away from Terral, find Mandell cowering in a corner, grab his shoulders and plead, “Help me get out of here, man. You can help me. This is twisted.” He won’t look at me. This all started with touchy-feely wussy feel-good bullshit, now no one looks at me. Mandell snatches a cigarette from his jacket and I watch his gold lighter flare up, watch the tobacco die. He inhales deeply, saying, “I didn’t know you knew her.”
“What the fuck does that matter?” I scream at him.
Hanabus has Mandell by the collar. He’s manhandling out the doorway. “Buffoon,” Hanabus shouts. “No smoking in here! Out!” Hanabus shoves Mandell into the outer chamber, closes and latches the door. Mandell pounds on that door, screaming for me to “don’t let that fat fuck touch you!” I see his smoldering cigarette on the tile at my feet. I am just about to pick it up and give it a good suck when Hanabus steps on it, grinding it to shreds beneath his shoe.
Terral has slipped a needle into my arm. The electric light dims and the floor tiles start to swim. I float over to the empty metal table. Everything turns sideways. Terral’s beside me, hair tied back, her monster mask gleaming at me. She tells me, “Don’t worry. Hanabus is an excellent surgeon.”
“And Terral,” this was Hanabus, “is a shape changer beyond all advanced skill, her talent not exclusive to her own body. She will help you make the change. Have faith.”
Fuck all. To all a good night. My body moves up next to Hers. As my lids shutter I gaze upon Her beauty. If only her eyes would open. Ask not what you can. The metal in the room shines now. The metal has taken the light. I feel the gold lighter in my palm, trapped in my death grip, where Mandell forced it on me before he’d been kicked out. She’s got one of those little bunny noses. You know?
We wake together, Her and I, if only for a second, perhaps longer; the slight stirring of the senses that occurs upon waking. We suck in air as if our breath had been held. Two hearts in one chest. They do not beat as one, slightly off, a cunt hair off. Her lips feel wet, but they’re my lips. My hand trembles, touches our belly, reaches for Her hand. I give her the gold gift. I finger our hair from our face. I crack open my eye. I try to see. Try to look, to gaze. Hazy. I can feel her heart quicken with mine. Some human, beloved human, holds a mirror up in front of us. We look upon ourselves. She is blue, isn’t She? Yes, She says. You’re blue, honey cakes? Well… She begins. I am pale. As always. You never did like the sun. The stitch work that bind our halves is nearly imperceptible, bravo. Nice work. I think She’s giggling. We’ve become. We hear a human sobbing. We hear a human shouting. In the reflection I look into her eye. We smile. We woke together, Her and I, if only for a second, perhaps longer.
###As The Flavor Runs Out
By Benjamin Chadwick
He studies the Bazooka jar longer than society would call normal, in his thirty-third year. Inside, a pile of rock-hard bubblegum slabs, individually sheathed in red and blue wax paper. Still only five cents apiece. They've waited untouched at this Amoco for decades, surviving a million families in the interstate wasteland, kids begging Mothers for change to blow on petrified pink; —no, she said, always no It'll rot your teeth and it'll rot your brain. Now his hand dives in, grabs a fistful, drops twenty-four on the instant-lotto countertop. It's his decision, as an adult. Off he goes smiling, breathing the earthy fumes of gasoline before climbing into his Lexus.
Bazooka Shaking fingers strip one down as the car climbs the on-ramp. Three parallel ridges. A faintly sexual pink. The wrapper floats against the windshield, buffeted airborne by the heater. An advertisement beneath the cartoon: Amazing Binoculars; send $4.95 and 38 comics. He’d done so in 1985... The sun is melting on distant western mountains. He roots through his gum-choked pocket and floors the accelerator.
One cannot chew Bazooka immediately; one must first soften it or risk shattering teeth, mandible, skull. His tongue roams the arid surface; flavor floods his mouth, wholesome, then nostril-widening, buzzing, cloying, excessive. It burns the gateway to his throat, but then, at last, salivary saturation– his eyes blissfully swirling, the gum and spit in equilibrium. Shamefully, he proceeds to chew. His molars fold the gum into a torpedo; he tosses it from left side to right. As he pops a second slab, he unwraps a third, steering with his knees.
He tosses the gum to and fro, trying to work left-jaw equally with right– though one side is always favored subconsciously to the point of pain, and he slips another gum slab into his mouth with his right hand. Now things really get rolling, as trapped flavor crystals are set loose, free to meet up with family and have little barbecue picnics in his tastebuds. They join together and party, sharing buckets of fried chicken and lemonade at an outdoor table, dancing in the muggy summer heat to Springsteen or Squeeze and whatever else is on the radio. There's this wet rhythm behind the music, like New Wave synth-pop, bookachik, bookachik, bookachik. His older brother suggests they go down by the river. Grabbing his swirling rubber beach ball and a bucketful of sandcastle toys, they journey from the picnic table to the water’s edge, where roots snake and slither in the shadows of a thick oak tree overlooking riverwater the color of apple juice. He swings from a rope and splashes into the cold water, cuts his toe on a mussel shell. He slaps water onto the shore but his brother refuses to join the swimming, instead tossing stones at his head.
The sky goes gray and overcast as the beach ball floats out to sea, too distant to rescue. Soaked and slimy he grabs his other toys and his brother drives him homeward, stopping to pick up the fat girl from down the street. Bookachik, bookachik, from the car radio. Now, on the back porch, he's the watchman with Amazing Binoculars, drinking river-colored apple juice from a Hardee’s Jedi glass. Mission: protect the tree-fort. No parents may ascend. In a half hour his brother and the girl will come down and relieve him of duty, so they say.
Nothing’s happening. Bored, he signals with his walkie-talkie ($8.95 and 64 comics). “Come in, Agent Orange.” Static. He goes AWOL at the sound of thunder, retreating to his bedroom. His joints are stiff anyway, the bookachik flagging. Through gauze curtains the cloudy white goes gray; a tabby flaps its tail on the bed. Wrapping himself in a cozy down comforter, he shoves the binocular lenses flat against the window.
Dim light in the tree-fort, an orange pinpoint glow that brightens and fades... His loins tingle. Rain on the roofslats adds snares to the soundtrack. His jaw still pumps, mechanically. Around him, a landscape of He-Men, giant G.I. Joe hand-me-downs, even a topless stolen Barbie, frozen in mid-play amid mountains of clothing. And a stash of unopened Bazooka... He can't bear the thought of more gum, his jaw's so very tired...
And yet the act has become a compulsion...
The rain's falling so hard it seems water's leaping upwards from ground toward sky. Bookachik, bookachik. He's on his thirteenth slab and his expanding cheeks feel like frozen meat. Again he spots the glow in the tree-fort. “Come in, Agent Orange,” he says into the walkie-talkie.
At last, brother’s giggly response: “that you, Agent B-Joe? Where's my security fringe?”
“C’mon Charlie, it's raining...”
“I don't give a rat's fuck about it raining...” and a slew of laughter from him and her.
The girl's laugh is a low, dimwitted muh-huh.
“Yeah, do your brother a favor,” her voice says, “make sure no one comes up ”
“I'll make it worth your while. You can take her for a spin when I'm done.”
“You are such a jerk ”
“I'll watch from my window, okay?”
“Good plan, Agent. You better not look inside.”
He waves his flashlight– $3.95, 40 comics, batteries not included. Sadly, there’s too much rain for the light to reach the fort. But then brother dangles something white outside the opening. It's a brassiere The girl's bare arm stretches out after it, searching aimlessly into space like a cartoon paw. Finding nothing, she reaches farther, making another desperate grab as brother teases her more and finally, she puts her body out; pointy breasts dangle freely and rainwater splashes and drips off her nipples– awestruck, the jaw stops chewing– but brother holds that brassiere out just a teensy bit further; she goes for it, leaning precariously, too far, she slips, oh god, she falls fifteen feet, smacks her face into a root, transparent blood-rain on her forehead, twisted, a laugh still on her lips but she's not moving, and brother, peering down with pink eyes, orange glow tumbling from his mouth, pulls back inside, his voice on the walkie-talkie crying “call 911... No, don't, oh shit, oh shit... You saw nothing ”
He defies Mother’s questions but somehow she knows. Paramedics haul the girl to an ambulance. The gum has lost its flavor. He hugs his Mother’s legs, tears flying from his eyes. She'll ground Agent Orange for months but she's furious with the watchman, too.
—You are pathetic. Never, ever, EVER try to hide things from me.
Gum wrapped on tongue, he blows, inflating twenty bars or more; he's lost count, suffocating, breathless. The Bazooka bubble fills the car and bursts and he gasps. He's swimming in exploded chunks of goo that wrap him warm and wet in his wool coat, binding him tight.
—I’m ashamed of you.
He’s ashamed of himself. No matter how hard he struggles, he’ll never earn her love; he's stuck out here on the highway, drifting slowly forward, rumbling on the shoulder, grinding to a halt, parted too early from a world of nickel candy. Night has fallen; the clouds above are pink. Cars rush by outside.
By Steve Hansen
Margeaux stood in the laundry room holding a sock. It was Damien’s, her youngest son’s, and it didn’t have a partner. She gave the neatly folded clothes a dirty look, hoping this might shame the abandoned sock’s counterpart into crawling out from whatever shirt or pair of pants it was holed up in. She knew chaos was inevitable, but why oh why couldn’t she find some semblance of order while folding her family’s clothes?
"Honey?" her husband called to her as he tromped down the stairs wearing his fuzzy Taz slippers and pink Barney the Dinosaur robe. "Did you scramble the eggs?"
"Dudley," she said, stepping from the laundry room into the kitchen, holding up the matchless sock. "It’s happened again."
Dudley stopped at the bottom of the stairs and stared at her. "What’s a sock got to do with breakfast?"
Margeaux stomped back into the laundry room, got on her hands and knees and stuck her head inside the dryer. The variegated dryer’s walls were clean. If only this was an oven and I could turn on the gas, she thought. She extracted her head from the portal. I put the socks in the washer last night, she said to herself. Then, before I went to bed, I took them out. I was very careful not to drop any, and made sure they all had mates before dropping them in the dryer. She clenched her teeth. So where the hell is Damien’s sock! Things don’t just disappear … do they?
As she stood there on all fours she imagined someone looking at her from above. What would Dudley say? Probably moo, or he’d make some hurtful comment in the guise of a joke. Her hips had drifted apart like Europe and Africa; her breasts sagged. Society deemed her shape slightly less than fat, and she lacked the will to exhaust and starve herself back into the bikini-ready babe glamorized in all the most fashionable women’s magazines. So, as she thought everyone else did, she imagined herself as slightly less than appealing.
"I broke the yolk," whimpered Dudley, pathetically standing over the rangetop.
"Well you are scrambling them are you not?" said Margeaux, who by now was inured to her husband’s stupidity.
"Oh," said Dudley. "Yes, that’s right."
Margeaux got to her feet, clutching Damien’s tiny sock, wondering what she should do with it now that it was only half of a pair. Light oozed through the Venetian blinds that covered the sliding glass door leading onto the backyard. The morning’s slow, deliberate, low-key conquest of the night threw her into a dismal trance. It’s hopeless, she thought. Her inability to find her son’s sock was a bad omen: the foreboding harbinger of another dismal day. She hung her head and walked into the kitchen.
Dudley hovered over the smoking range waving his spatula and wiping his brow, a disembodied culinary hobgoblin in the strange, stippled light.
"They’re burning!" he yelled as a wall of black smoke billowed up between himself and Margeaux.
To Margeaux the wall of smoke was a gateway into an alternate universe where, once she stepped through, the sock would be, waiting, freshly laundered and downy soft. It would smile a sly sock smile and greet her with the verve of a Parisian waiter. "I am here mon cherie, ha ha ha! But of course. Tout le monde savoir!"
The electronic caterwaul of the smoke alarm shocked Margeaux back to the real world of burnt eggs and Barney the Dinosaur. She dropped the sock and went to save breakfast. Dudley cleared out and went to stand beneath the smoke alarm. He scratched his chin and squinted. "Shut up!" he screamed at the wailing machine.
"Mother?" screamed Sheila from the top of the stairs. "Mother!"
Margeaux glanced up at her daughter, pivoted and flipped the burnt eggs in the garbage disposal side of her double sink. "What’s the matter dear?" she screamed through the din of the alarm. Having done her motherly best to acknowledge her upset daughter, she continued her emergency breakfast’s diversionary tactic. Slooshing the burnt eggs down the drain with the retractable sprayer, she sidestepped to the refrigerator, jerked it open and snagged the milk. Like a ballerina she pirouetted to the rangetop and gentled the fry pan onto the cold burner whilst placing the milk lightly on the drainboard, at the same time discriminatingly selecting eggs from the carton Dudley had left open on the counter. She dripped in milk as she cracked them expertly one handed into the pan. After six eggs she transferred the pan to the flame and mixed it all up into a yellow slurry with the black spatula she had pulled from the drawer.
"Mother!" screamed Sheila again, stomping her foot on the floor. "I demand to know what’s happening!"
"Your father’s cooking breakfast!" screamed Margeaux.
The shrillness of the alarm bore into Margeaux’s quiet-morning sensibilities like an apple corer, yet she didn’t lose control. The eggs were congealing; Dudley had figured out he needed to actually manipulate the alarm in order that he might be able to somehow shut it off. Instead of pushing the blue button, however, he tried pummeling it with his fists. Things will get better, Margeaux assured herself as she stirred the clumping eggs.
"It’s not fair!" screamed Sheila, repeating her magnificently indignant foot stomp from the top of the stairs.
Margeaux looked up at her daughter and tried to understand, but the blurt of the alarm killed all articulation. She could, however, read body language. Poor, maltreated child that you are, thought Margeaux. My heart is bleeding. Margeaux just then spied T.T., Sheila’s twin brother, sneaking up behind her. He held his arms tight against his body like a tyrannosaurus rex and he wore a big grin that divided his face. Owing to the alarm’s negation of all sound but itself, and Sheila’s blinding rage, it was a perfect opportunity for an ambush. In her mind Margeaux saw Sheila’s body cartwheeling down the stairs like a rag doll leaking stuffing.
"Watch out, Sheila!" Margeaux brought herself to scream above the aural torture of the alarm. She jabbed her finger at her daughter. "T.T.!"
As if sensing his moment had almost passed, T.T. sprang. Sheila, with much martial combat with her twin brother under her belt, spun with elbows flying, catching unlucky T.T. across the chops. Spittle and a trace of blood chunked out of his mouth, and he fell sideways into the dark green wall-papered wall. Sheila - never being one to only adequately defend herself - moved in and kicked T.T. in the ribs where Capt. America’s spandex-covered head was rendered on his pajamas. T.T. rolled into a ball and howled.
"Chaos," thought Margeaux with grim submission.
Dudley - having no success pounding the plastic alarm into retirement - scrambled over to the sliding glass door, pulled up the blinds and slid the door open. The smoke siphoned outside and the alarm stopped almost immediately. "I did it!" he shouted, looking at his wife and thrusting his arms into the air, oblivious his daughter was pummeling his eldest son not thirty feet from where he stood. "I fixed it!"
T.T. had managed to rise to his knees, but Sheila’s foot crashed into his side and he was sent sprawling back against the wall, gasping and gurgling like a slow drain.
A cold wind blew in from outside, wrapping the cord of the Venetian Blinds around her husband’s ankle. She was about to say something to him, but tended to the eggs instead. Dudley strode forward proudly unaware. The cord tightened and caught his leg, sending him face-first into the white linoleum. The blinds-rod and all - ripped out of the wall and landed squarely across his ass, pointing East and West while Dudley himself pointed North and South: a compass with an anus for an axis.
"Oh dear," said Margeaux, clapping her hand across her mouth.
Dudley reached back and pushed the blinds off his ass and slowly rose. He stumbled around for a while afterward as if he’d just come from the Tea Cups at Disney Land.
"Are you OK daddy?" said Sheila, forgetting to kick T.T.
"I’ll get you back!" whined T.T., punching his distracted sister’s soft underbelly.
Sheila gasped, turned red and unsheathed her claws. T.T. laughed and scurried down the hall, just out of the reach of his determined sister.
"Did you see that wrap around my ankle?" asked Dudley.
"Don’t you think I would have said something if I had," replied Margeaux.
"I hope you didn’t put too much starch in my collar last night," said Dudley, abandoning his inquiry and walking into the laundry room, emerging with a freshly ironed white cotton shirt. "If it’s too stiff I get a rash on my Adam’s Apple." He pecked her on the cheek and went upstairs to get dressed.
The sliding glass door was open.
I married a moron, thought Margeaux as snowflakes wafted in like ashes.
"Mommy," squeaked her 5 year-old son, Damien.
"Damien!" she said, startled by her little boy’s sudden appearance.
"Why is the door open, mommy?"
She smiled back and said nothing.
Damien tilted his head to one side and looked around her. Margeaux watched with admiration as he marched over to the sliding glass door and, with a mighty grunt, closed it. His black hair was a tribute to electricity. His bulbous red nose and perpetually rosy cheeks landed him the part of the drunken father in his kindergarten classed interpretive production of Eugene O’Neill’s play "Long Days Journey Into Night." At first the idea of the production had disturbed Margeaux; this play dealt with mature subjects one didn’t often expose to kindergarteners. But it was one of those progressive type Montessori schools and she couldn’t deny the fact that little Damien had played the part phenomenally well. His squealing drunken fits of rage and death-defying self-recriminations had stole the show.
Damien kicked the Venetian blinds as he walked back to his mother, and said, "It’s OK now, mommy."
Margeaux scooped Damien up in her arms. He arched his back and smiled.
"Mom," he said, his hair standing in static-charged patches all over his head, "if you’re not going to kiss me, let me down."
Margeaux laughed at the nonchalance of her 5 year-old son and decided that, maybe, all was not lost afterall.
She scoured the blackened rangetop with a new SOS pad, served her family fluffy, yellow scrambled eggs, made pastrami on rye sandwiches and stuffed them in brown paper bags with celery and cornbread for her children’s lunches. She poured milk and juice and listened as her husband rambled on about the GNP, the DOW and the Federal Exchange something or other.
"Stocks are bullish," he stated around a mouthful of egg. "Morton says we should advise our low volume clients to sell." He blushed and thrust his fork into the air. "But I say ‘Hold the course,’ the economy is in an upsurge that has yet to reach its peak!"
"That’s wonderful, dear," said Margeaux as she circled the table gathering dishes and silverware.
The twins ate their sugar-coated rice puffs and plotted ways to get back at each other. Damien, though, actually seemed to listen and, still more amazingly, understand.
"But what about interest rates, daddy," said Damien.
"Interest rates schmimfus rates," retorted Dudley to his curious son.
"But daddy," he persisted, licking his milk moustache, "what if the bottom falls out?"
"It’s all about vision, boy," said Dudley. "You’ve either got it or you don’t."
"Did you try and cook the eggs this morning, daddy?" asked Damien.
Dudley choked on the prune juice he was drinking and burped up some egg, which he discreetly reinvested. Margeaux giggled as she filled up the sink in preparation for the dishes.
"Stop it, you jerk!" yelled Sheila, slapping T.T.’s hand away from her cereal bowl. "Dad, he’s bothering me."
"I am not," protested T.T., his squeaky voice very much like a threatened chipmunk’s. He glared at his sister. "Sheila Sheila Bobelia Bonanafanna Momilia Fee Fie Fomelia . . . Sheila!"
"Shut up, you stupid jerk!" shouted Sheila, leaning over to claw T.T.’s arm.
T.T.’s eyes grew round as silver dollars and he tore away from Sheila’s grasp with an anguished cry of pain.
"Stop it this instant!" yelled Dudley. "Or you can both go to your rooms."
The twins looked at each other and laughed. "You think I’m bluffing?" said Dudley, sounding as if he were asking himself that question.
"Honey," said Margeaux as she washed the dishes, even though she had a dishwasher, "it’s a school day."
"Yes," said Dudley. "That’s right." He smiled at the twins, whose cheeks were puffed out with held in mirth. "Well then," he said curtly, "be off with you before you’re both truant."
The kitchen filled with laughter, even Dudley’s. He was not so dumb as to miss the humor his absent mindedness had caused. Margeaux shook her head. You big dummy, she said to herself not without some affection for her business-minded-but-otherwise-befuddled husband. She glanced over her shoulder as she dried a plate. Dudley and the children were howling. The kids get a bang out of him at least, she thought. As she turned back to the sink her gaze swept across the family room and the greensward blue couch they had picked up at a yard sale a few years back in Kentucky. The sight of the behemoth monstrosity killed her every time her eyes fell upon it. To be literal, she didn’t actually die and her eyes never fell on the couch, but it slayed her sense of fashion and simple good taste whenever she saw it, not to mention that black plastic Goliath Dudley insisted on making the centerpiece of their family room. Margeaux secretly theorized Dudley’s fixation with the immense television set was an unconscious attempt to make up for other more personal inadequacies he suffered. Margeaux often felt the only reason her family tolerated her was the fact the couch and the TV still couldn’t cook or clean. Once she had cleared the table after dinner each night she was obsolete until the next morning.
"Say," said Margeaux, taking advantage of the general good humor now prevalent in the room. "Why don’t we get rid of that ugly couch?"
"What?" said Dudley, his laughter abruptly coming to a halt.
"You know I hate that thing," continued Margeaux. "It looks like something you should breed horses on."
Dudley’s chair grated across the linoleum as he pushed it back from the table and stood erect. "I’m late for work." He put his newspaper under his arm and strode up to his wife. "Have a good day at school, children."
"Have a good day at the office, father," said Damien, smiling clumsily with his mouth full of cereal.
Dudley pecked Margeaux on the cheek with the hard crease of his lips. "Goodbye dear," he said tersely, then leaned over and whispered, "Goddamnit, you know I love that couch."
"Goodbye dear," sad Margeaux. The hand holding the plate she was drying trembled as her brain commanded her too break the plate over her hubbie’s pointed head. "I love you, too, honey." The thought of the children and their welfare stopped her from doing Dudley any violence. They must have a good family life and a happy home.
It had said in the manual that the back seat rolled out if you pressed down on the spring-loaded lever sticking up from the floor at the base of the steel stanchions, but Margeaux knew it was a lie. She had tried to disconnect the back seat to her mini van last week in order to load some boxes of clothes she had intended to drop at the homeless shelter. No matter how many times she read the manual or how hard she hammered her fists on that black metal lever, the seat did not budge. The boxes of old clothes still sitting stacked in her garage reminded her of something she’d once heard about good intentions and the road to hell. Now, as T.T. strained forward against his seatbelt to grab a handful of Sheila’s hair, the inevitable happened. Just as he was about to give the hair a good yank a comic boinging sound heralded the imminent unmooring of the mini van’s back seat. T.T. yelped in horror as he plunged face first into the bristly-black, synthetic pile that carpeted the mini van’s floor. Margeaux slammed on the brakes; she laid down a patch of rubber a good 10 feet long. Damien and Sheila jerked against their seatbelts like skydivers being caught by their parachutes, but T.T. squirted out of his shoulder harness and seatbelt as his seat slammed into the two captain’s chairs directly in front of it. He slid on his face down the van’s center aisle, crunching to a stop with his head crammed into the heating vent. Angry commuters blared their horns behind them.
"What’s wrong?!" screamed Margeaux, as yet unaware the top half of her son was wedged beneath the dashboard.
Sheila and Damien were still catching their breath and could say nothing.
"Jesus Christ!" exclaimed Margeaux as she peered down at her son’s bicycling legs.
"T.T.’s seat fell over, mommy," said Damien.
"Turn off the heater," came T.T.’s muffled voice of desperation. "My face is burning! Waaaaaa!"
Margeaux put the van in park, pried her foot off the break and took off her seatbelt. Sheila was either laughing or crying, Margeaux couldn’t tell which. Damien sat serenely assessing the situation with a raised eyebrow expression.
"It’ll be OK," he said to Margeaux.
Margeaux exhaled and got out of her seat, being careful not to step on T.T. Then she took a half step backward into the aisle, grabbed T.T.’s ankles and pulled. He came out screaming. She thought it was a good sign when he sprang immediately to his feet: no paralysis. His face, however was rubbed raw.
"Are you OK?!" shouted Sheila.
T.T. wrinkled his nose and made as if to hit Sheila, but pulled back his punch and balled like a colicky baby.
Sheila let her guard down -- having raised her arms to ward off his aborted attack - and smiled. "You look like a freak."
"Mom!" T.T. wailed.
Margeaux looked at her son and tried to feel a sense of motherly compassion or, at least, some degree of consumer outrage. But all she felt at that moment was a mystifying sense of bewilderment, as if she were an amnesiac with a strong case of déjà vu.
"Freakshow T.T.," taunted Sheila.
"Shut up!" cried T.T., threatening her with his fist again.
The cacophony of horns made Margeaux aware of the line of cars behind her. Some were pulling onto the shoulder and passing on the right. All manner of gestures were directed at the mini van by the passing drivers. Margeaux watched them with a blank expression. The disconnected back seat - a bench that ran the width of the mini van - was wedged between the back of the van and the two captain’s chairs her other two children occupied. If her son hadn’t been flung forward, the weight of the bench would have snapped his legs like twigs. Margeaux looked in the rearview mirror as she put her hand on the shifter. "Everyone’s in such a tizzy," she mused as she watched the man behind the mini van banging his head on his steering wheel.
"Sit up here with momma," she said to her sniveling son, gently pushing him into the passenger seat. "You’ll be alright once you get to school."
T.T. whimpered and touched his fingertips to his inflamed face.
"Oh my God mother!" said Sheila like a drama student. "The whole entire seat just broke off."
"I know that!" snapped Margeaux staring, with the aid of the rearview, at the stranger that puberty had just kidnapped from her. "Do you think I don’t know that?"
"Whatever, mother," said Sheila, sniffing loudly and turning away to stare out the window.
"Maybe we can sue GM now," said T.T., turning thoughtfully to his mother. A painful looking smile stretched across his crimson cheeks, replacing the pained grimace that had been there since the incident. "We could get lots of money." He curled up in his seat and peals of shrill, high-decibel laughter caromed through the confined space of the mini van.
Margeaux turned into the junior high parking lot. The sideways force of the turn dislodged the bench and it battered up against the left tire well. Children in the process of becoming juvenile delinquents spilled from yellow buses in all manner of dress: short skirts with bustier tops, baggy jeans and torn jean jackets, brightly colored t-shirts with corporate team logos emblazoned across their fronts. It was 25 degrees for God sake, thought Margeaux. Does the word chillblanes mean anything to them? The threat of hypothermia was nothing when put up against the necessity of teen fashion. Margeaux wondered about the big picture as she watched this motley bunch of so-called students trailing through the courtyard into the old red brick school building; the philosophy of progress only made sense to her in reverse. Everything had been so much nicer when she was a child. Hadn’t it? And now this generation. Everything seemed degenerate. She could not make sense of their talk. It was rad for good and sucks for bad, unless they were going retro which meant, of course, that bad was good. You know what I’m saying? She could not make sense of them. She had not yet succumbed to her daughter’s rants. She would not allow her to wear those awful midriff-exposing halters or get her eyelids pierced. She didn’t care if she was dissing her daughter, whatever the hell that meant. T.T. was still a year or two from the whole change, he was still something of a momma’s boy. Sweet Christ, she thought, what a holy terror he will turn out to be. A blast of cold air made her catch her breath. Sheila jumped out the sliding door she’d just opened and didn’t say goodbye.
"Have a good day you two," said Margeaux as T.T. opened his door. Sheila slammed the side door. The mini van bobbed on it’s shock absorbers.
T.T. turned to Margeaux before he got out. His eyes were spinning wildly in his head. "Are we gonna sue or what?"
Margeaux stared at him and smiled. She wasn’t sad because her prepubescent son was already such an energetic participant of their litigation-gone-crazy culture; she was sad because she was a part of it herself. To her mind, her son’s manic call to file a suit sounded like the sensible imperative. They had a lawyer, she thought. Why not? She wouldn’t have to say anything to anyone about last week and her unsuccessful wrestling match with that self same seat that had jettisoned her son into the duct work underneath the dash. Somewhere in the back of her mind she realized she was responsible for the accident her son had been lucky to come out of with only a scraped up face. And, she realized, it didn’t matter. All is well that ends well sprang to mind, and the old cliché became canon law. Her moral compass caved in to her economic gauge. She was as programmed as the rest of them. She wanted money and lots of it. There was no agonizing over this decision; the yes or no contingencies didn’t have to travel through miles of branching synapses or serpentine bulbs of ganglia; it was as easy as setting toggles on a machine.
"I’ll talk to our lawyer," said Margeaux to her expectant son.
"Goody!" exclaimed T.T., the rest of his face turning red as his raw nose and cheeks. Then, he turned down his face toward the ground and his eyes darted from side to side. He licked his thin, chapped lips, hooked his thumbs through the belt loops of his jeans and said, "That’s rad," as if he really didn’t give a damn. Panic flooded Margeaux’s stomach as he slammed the door. Was it time for him to turn on her, too, as her once sweet daughter had long ago?
"Mommy?" said Damien as they drove slowly through the parking lot.
"Yes, Damien?" answered Margeaux, still pondering the fact it was almost time to mourn her lost T.T.
"You’re coming to the ‘Extravaganza’ today aren’t you?"
"Extravaganza?" she said absently. "What extravaganza would you be speaking of dear?"
"You promised," he exclaimed.
This mild outburst from her usually sedate son jolted her memory. Yes, she remembered Damien mentioning something a long time ago about some kind of school assembly going by the title of "Extravaganza." At that time she had asked Damien what it was all about, and all he would tell her was that, since December had so many different religious holidays, the teachers had decided to have one big assembly that would encompass everything and everyone, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Pagan or Atheist or Agnostic. Thus was born the title "Extravaganza" meaning a little bit of something for everybody. It had all sounded very silly to Margeaux and she had quickly forgotten about it since Damien had not brought it up again. The fact that he had included pagans in his litany of religious persuasions gave her cause to think again that, maybe, this school was a bit too progressive. She caught herself. I should say digressive. She wondered why all the new-agers relied so heavily on ancient traditions they’d resurrected from the dead. It made no sense to call them new age. They were old age. And what was that part about atheism and agnosticism? What of God and country, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Cold War? What glues society together now that all the old adhesives are gone? Her notion that she was living in a degenerate society was gaining momentum. She jerked to a stop at the intersection to the main road. Her driving had been made negligent by her daydreaming and the dislodged bench banged against the two captain’s chairs amidships of the mini van. The concussion reminded her of her impending meeting with their lawyer. She threw back her head and laughed a sick laugh. The realization of her hypocrisy made her want to scream. In college she had taken a course in medieval literature and vaguely recalled that avarice was one of the Seven Deadly Sins. She realized she’d hit on at least one of the glues she had been so righteously searching after. Her personal affirmation of the values that drove the society she claimed also to loath made her into something like a liar who promises to tell the truth.
"I told you it was today," said Damien. "You go see the stupid lawyer later."
"Calm down," said Margeaux, still laughing slightly. "I promised I’d go, didn’t I?"
On Halloween the school had sponsored a costume parade that snaked through every room with lines of made-up students and some teachers. They’d christened this celebration "The Ancient March of Sanheim." For Thanksgiving they’d put on a one-act play called "Turkeyrama." The plays main character was a 3rd-grader in a turkey costume spouting French enlightenment philosophy while children dressed as pilgrims wandered around the stage -- holding brooms and curtain rods that were supposed to symbolize blunderbusses - chanting, "Thou. Turkey. Thee must die!" When the turkey had finished Rousseau and was getting started on Des Cartes the pilgrims encircled him and shot the poor thing dead. And now, this polyglot celebration meant to please all colors and creeds was being held on the shortest day of the year. Margeaux winced. She wondered if the fact that it was Winter Solstice had any bearing on "Extravaganza." Visions of black-robed druids, arcane rituals and Stone Henge came to mind as she remembered the day’s ancient ties to the pagan world. She wondered amusedly if this assembly would involve human sacrifice, and if they would all be encouraged to cannibalize the body.
"Mommy," said Damien, his voice back to its Vienna Boy’s Choir innocence, "you’re coming aren’t you?"
"Dear," she said, braking at the corner for the parka-wearing retiree holding a ping pong paddle stop sign and wearing a plastic, day-glo orange hunter’s vest. "I wouldn’t miss it for the world."
"Yay!" he cheered as he boosted himself in his seat onto his knees and waved at the colored bundles of snow-suited, snot-nosed children crossing the street under the protective vigilance of the old guard. "It’s gonna be fun!"
"I’ll bet," said Margeaux, thinking back on the outrageousness of previous school functions. "Just what is this assembly going to be all about?" The guard limped out of the way and flipped his STOP sign to GO. As she turned into the parking lot her curiosity prompted her to pry a little more. "’Extravaganza’ is so broad a term. I wasn’t expected to bring a dish was I? It’s not a potluck, is it? Is their singing, dancing, acting, or what?"
Damien giggled like a finger-poked doughboy. "I can’t tell you," he said, moving his head from side to side with each singsong syllable. "It’s a surprise."
"Oh I hate surprises," said Margeaux, hitting the steering wheel with her palm. Suddenly, she was concerned about her indifference to her son’s accident. The guilt she felt doubled once she realized for again the accident was no accident.
"T.T. deserved it," said Damien matter-of-factly as he unbuckled his seatbelt. "His karma stinks."
Margeaux snapped her head around and stared at her son. What business did a 5 year-old have knowing about karma. She was a bit unclear on the subject herself. "What do you know about karma?" she said flabbergasted. Such a blunt, intuitive statement coming from the mouth of one so young didn’t seem to fit.
Damien smiled and shrugged his narrow shoulders.
Good, she thought. It must have been something he heard on the TV he thought sounded cool or rad or-- She thrust open her door and jumped out of the warm van into the freezing cold, wishing she could preserve her little boy, keep him safe and sound and free of all that adolescent nonsense that would one day warp his mind and make him speak a different language.
Following her through the driver’s side door, Damien nuzzled his woolen-mittened hand into hers.
She looked down and smiled and squeezed his hand. Snowflakes melted on his upturned face; their unique crystalline patterns -- like tiny spider webs --were translucent as glass on his ruddy skin a second before they coalesced into water drops and rolled down his cheeks. There was still time before the dreaded hormonal upheaval turned him against her, she reassured herself as they crossed the parking lot hand in hand, being extra careful not to slip on any unseen, treacherous patches of ice. They went in the east entrance toward the auditorium.
"C’mon," said Damien. Towing Margeaux down a darkened hallway. "Everyone’s in the gym already!" He released her hand and ran down the hall. Margeaux watched her little spike-headed son disappear in the gloom. Something in her peripheral vision made her spin around and stare at the principal’s office window. The curtains had just been drawn and they waved back and forth. It was probably a trick of the light, but she was sure she had just had an encounter of the Elvis kind. The hair, the sequined jump suit and the fat had all registered on the fringes of her vision.
"Mommy," squeaked Damien’s voice, his body lost in the shadows at the end of the hall.
She giggled and dismissed her Elvis sighting as a product of her anxiety and followed her son’s voice into the building. It struck Margeaux as odd that all the lights were off. The farther in they went, the darker it became. It was like walking into a cave. She reached the end of the hall and blinked, trying to adjust her vision.
"Mommy, let’s go!" said Damien, pulling her in the auditorium through a wooden door that had its window taped over with black construction paper. The two doors on the other side of the auditorium had been taped with black paper also. Since they were all glass but for the steel frames, some outside light seeped through and around the paper blockade. It was still very dark though, and Margeaux managed to step on someone’s foot as she and Damien searched for a spot. Damien found a vacancy ten or eleven rows back from the stage. There were no chairs, and Margeaux cursed the anonymous idiot who expected her to stand for this mysterious shindig. Damien was running in place beside Margeaux. His sneakers pitterpatted like soft rain on the auditorium’s tiled floor. His breath came in short, excited gasps. A dull murmur of conversation filled the murky auditorium. Margeaux tried t eavesdrop, but the voices wove together like mist. So, instead, she obsessed about the sock. Where was the other half of the pair? She was sure she’d find it and that one day the fractured couple would be reunited. You’re so pathetic, she chided herself.
"Mommy!" squealed Damien, jabbing his index finger into her thigh. "It’s about too start."
The canister lights ringing the perimeter of the stage flashed on. A man of rolling contours ran onto the stage, and he was wearing a white sequined jump suit! It looked as if he had a beaver pelt on his head and two black brillo pads stuck on each side of his face. He sprinted onstage swinging a microphone above head like a bolo. An overhead spotlight captured him. It was Principal Gauguin alright, doing his best to be Elvis Presley. Going to one knee, he struck that classic Elvis pose: head down, arms raised, hands giving the "hang loose" sign. It was eerily quiet as spotlights scoured the stage. A secondary curtain whisked open behind the made-up principal. A guitar slinging Mr. Snipely, the school counselor, was revealed flanking the principal on his right. Mr. Snipely was dressed in bell bottom jeans, a blue Air Force jacket with golden shoulder boards and a floppy Paddington Bear hat.. Behind and to the left was the school nurse, Ms. Doherty. She sat behind a set of drum with her arms crossed, a drum stick clutched in each fist like antennae for her bosoms. She was dressed in the familiar white gown and cap she always was wearing. To the right of Dr. Gauguin stood the senior member of the staff, Mrs. Grimbaugh, grappling with an immense stand-up bass. She was dressed in an orange jump suit like the kind worn by criminals awaiting trial in the county jail. A Lakeside County Police Department motorcycle helmet she’d allocated from her husband covered her blue hair.
Margeaux was intrigued to know what would happen next.
The giant stacks of speakers bookending the stage boomed out the unmistakable first notes of Jailhouse Rock.
DA DA . . . bump bump.
Principal Gauguin jumped in the air and did a passable flying roundhouse karate kick. Damien squealed with delight and poked Margeaux’s thigh as if he were speed dialing a telephone number on it. But Margeaux didn’t even feel it; she was too busy trying to figure out what the hell was going on onstage. All these supposedly mature grownups, she thought with wonder, made up like kids on Halloween. Was this some kind of joke? The lights from the stage spilled out into the crowd. Margeaux looked to either side of her and saw the same perplexed expressions on the faces of her fellow adults.
DA DA . . . bump bump.
Margeaux turned back to the spectacle onstage.
"They once threw a party in the county jail!" wailed the scratchy, recorded voice of the real Elvis Presley as Principal Gauguin moved his lips over the black foam bulb of the microphone. Mr. Snipely was windmilling his guitar wildly, hopelessly out of kilter with the guitar on the record. Nurse Doherty did not move, but sat immobile behind her drums with her arms crossed as they had been when the curtain dropped. Mrs. Grimbaugh pranced around in back of her bass like a prison escapee trying to avoid getting shot. It was all badly choreographed and out of sync, yet compelling. The sheer audacity of these people to step so far out of their prescribed roles discomforted Margeaux, and also made her jealous.
"You shoulda heard those knocked out jailbirds sing! Let’s rock. Everybody let’s rock-"
(Principal Guaguin’s jumping and hip grinding finally was too much for the spirit gum attaching his wig. It sprang off his bald head and flipped end over end like a flying squirrel shotgunned in flight between trees)
"Everybody in the whole cell block, was dancing to the jailhouse rock."
Margeaux wasn’t sure how to properly react. Should she lead her son out by the hand and leave this amateurish display? Should she stay and watch? Should she laugh at its absurdity or glower with stern disapprobation? Se kneaded her lips and didn’t move, paralyzed by indecision. Damien had wandered into the aisle and was doing a dance resembling the Twist and the Mashed Potato. Margeaux watched in amazement as the aisle quickly filled up with kids and their parents. Somehow it didn’t fit, but somehow in some other somehow, it did. Margeaux flexed her knees and clenched her fists. It was as if someone else were moving her. She was doing that fist twirling dance that had made her feel so good in high school.
Mr. Snipely duck walked all over the stage, his guitar slung low over his thighs. Mrs. Grimbaugh twirled the bass and jumped around behind it like a frantic tomato. Principal Gauguin acted out his wild machinations more like a speed freak punk rocker than the king of rock and roll. The only non-participant in the general mayhem was nurse Doherty. She persisted to do nothing but sit with her arms folded across her chest.
When the music ended, the crowd cheered.
The tired band of teachers staggered around dripping sweat onto the stage, wiping their faces and bowing to the fanfare. The PA clicked. Principal Gauguin blew into his microphone, which promptly screamed feedback. Margeaux covered her ears with her palms as the auditorium was ripped in half by the electronic equivalent of fingernails being raked across a chalkboard. Nurse Doherty shot up from her stool, obviously indignant at having been a part of this outrage. She pointed at Principal Gauguin and her mouth opened and closed in ugly trapezoids, then she kicked her bass drum onto its side and marched offstage. Meanwhile, Mr. Snipely went over to the drum kit and --wielding his guitar like a battle ax - demolished what was left. Seemingly dissatisfied, he raised his guitar over his head and brought it crashing down onto the stage. The neck splintered and the only things that kept it connected to the body were the strings. Principal Gauguin walked over tentatively and shoved the live microphone into Mr. Snipely’s face.
"It’s rock and roll, brother," yelled the wound-up teacher, holding his fractured guitar above his head with one hand. "And it ain’t ever going to die!" The severed steel strings keeping the broken guitar together glistened like strings of saliva in the stage lights. "Yeah!" He slammed the guitar to the ground as if he were laying down the gauntlet to an opponent, then he stalked offstage.
Margeaux felt as if she were in the middle of one of those rock concerts Sheila was always begging her to let her go to. As God is my witness, said Margeaux to herself, she’ll never go to one of those things as long as I’m her mother. Then she wondered where her son had gone. She scanned the aisle for him, squinting through the shadows. She stepped forward, working her way toward the front of the stage where a concentrated knot of children were still bouncing around like little electrons in an unstable atom. Wading in among them, she zeroed in on her little bundle of energy.
"I find that after so many years of listening to Beethoven and Bach," said Mrs. Grimbaugh, pronouncing the last part of Bach as if she were hacking up some phlegm, "that Presley - if its historic perspective is adumbrated - is quite liberating."
"Yow!" exclaimed the good principal as he wiped sweat from off his pock-marked nose. "great insight." He looked used up. His head glistened; one of his brillo pad sideburns was gone and the other hung off his jaw like a lopsided goatee; giant shock waves of sweat were expanding their grey circles all over his jump suit, threatening to annihilate every last spot of dry polyester.
As Mrs. Grimbaugh walked offstage, Principal Gauguin eyed the rowdies up front. Everything went dark. Margeaux lost sight of her son. Grunting, gasping children continued to slam into her hips. She stopped trying to battle through the shallow stormy sea of her son’s schoolmates and waited for her eyes to readjust.
"Hey. You kids up front," Principal Gauguin’s amplified voice boomed. "Settle down!"
A spotlight shone down on the erstwhile Elvis in Elvis’s standard kneeling hang loose pose. A second after the light hit him, the principal jumped to his feet and shot his left arm out to the side so that all the leather thongs dangling from the arm of his jump suit cracked like whips. He reached inside his jump suit and pulled out his microphone. With a quivering top lip, he said, "Thank you . . . Thankyouverymuch."
The light afforded Margeaux a chance to reclaim Damien from the pit he had thrown himself into. She zeroed in on his sizzling hair, rushed forward and pulled him out from among the compacted bodies who were standing together now in a tight nucleus.
Uncocking his hips and forgoing his Elvis voice, Principal Gauguin stood straight and tall. "Welcome!" he exclaimed to the crowd, raising one arm into the air as if he were a student eager to share an answer with his class. "Welcome all of you."
Damien tried to pull away from his mother’s grasp, but she wouldn’t let him go. She leaned over and picked him up and cradled him in her arms. He squirmed and twisted, but she held him tight against her chest. Where is my baby boy? she thought as he kneed her in the ribs and screamed in her ear.
Principal Gauguin wiggled the fingers of his upraised arm and arched his back. "Welcome to Extravaganza," he said with the unctious elocution of Ricardo Montalban welcoming his guests to Fantasy Island.
"Mommy!" squealed Damien as he was being carried farther from the stage. "I’ve got to get down!"
"I will not have you acting like some thirteen year-old," she hissed, aware she and her son were causing a spectacle of their own. "Do you hear me?"
Although she thought it was a scene they were causing, it really wasn’t raising an eyebrow. Margeaux’s abduction of her kicking, screaming child was hohummed by the people in favor of the maniac onstage.
"What is this guy doing up here onstage dressed like Elvis?" said Principal Gauguin as he held the foam tip of the microphone against his bottom lip and patted his bald head.
"I gotta pee," whined Damien.
Margeaux thought of being drenched by urine then having to go home in the freezing cold.
"Well!" shouted the principal. "We thought we’d try something a little different." He punched the air with his microphone and threw back his head. "This year we took it to the children!"
A high-pitched whoop resounded through the auditorium as the entire student body cheered.
"We, the administration of this school, realized we’d been getting a little too, well, highbrow with these assemblies. Who can forget "Turkeyrama" for God sakes."
The auditorium murmured with laughter.
"We took it back to the kids," he said, and spun around so the cord wrapped once around him. "You know that feeling you have as a kid that everything is beautiful and as it should be? - that innocence that leaves us when we all start growing up?" He pirouetted the opposite way and untangled himself from the microphone cord. "We thought we’d take a cue from nature and turn things on their head." He ran two steps and did a roundoff cartwheel.
The crowd cheered. The adults combined baritone counterbalanced the children’s alto. Margeaux, against her better judgment, had let Damien go to the bathroom, and now she found herself sticking her fingers in her mouth and wolf whistling for Principal Gauguin.
"In winter our world is on its head," continued the acrobatic Principal Gauguin. "It’s cold and dark and death seems nearer to us in these desolate months than during any other time of the year."
A hush fell over the auditorium. Building slowly into a chorus, a multitude of boos and cat calls bombarded the stage. The principal held his microphone to the side and appeared to be laughing. Margeaux bit her nails. The mention of the D word had reminded her she needed to pick up some hair color at the supermarket. She twisted a loop of color treated hair around her index finger and wondered what was taking Damien so long in the bathroom.
"Hold on now!" shouted the newly amplified principal. "Don’t misunderstand me!" He fell to one knee and thrust his free hand into the air making the "hang loose" sign. "Please baby, don’t be cruel," he said, reverting back to his Elvis voice.
Many boos turned to laughs. Principal Gauguin paced the stage. He looked over the audience with his brow set in a grim expression and thrust the mike back to his mouth. "Ladies and gentleman, can you deny that in the wintertime things are harsh?"
The auditorium was still.
"No you can’t!" Principal Gauguin continued. "Here in Minnesota the winters are a living hell. If you go outside your eyelids freeze shut and your hands go numb, even if you’re just making a trip to the mailbox!"
Margeaux wrung her hands. Where was Damien?!
"But to these kids it’s no different than any other time of year," said the principal. "They simply trade in their bare feet for boots; their shorts and t-shirts for snowsuits; and their mud pies for snowballs!"
He flailed the air with his fists. Margeaux bit her lip and wondered if the man was having a breakdown. It was painful to watch, and she glanced to the side. Her eyes met the eyes of a man she’d seen at PTA. His blunt stare frazzled her. She smiled nervously and looked away. What was his name? She couldn’t remember his name.
"Yeah," ranted Principal Gauguin. He gathered up some slack in his microphone cord and threw the microphone itself out over the heads of the first few rows, then, with a flick of his wrist, snapped it back and snatched it out of the air. "This time we took it to the children. We asked your kids what they wanted to do for this assembly and they told us that we should have some fun!"
Margeaux’s mind was on fire. A man was ogling her. Was his name Peter? The corners of her mouth turned up into a smile totally of their own free will. Could there still be some appeal left in this body after thirty-two years and three children? She wondered. Could the cow her husband and society perceived her as be transformed into a prized exotic in the eyes of a stranger? Now, she’d forgotten to let her son’s absence concern her. She stole a glance at her admirer. He was looking at the stage. He had an handsome profile: just the hint of a double chin, straight nose, styled hair.
"A kindergaterner, no less, came up with the idea of a faculty variety show: and I’ve always dreamed of being Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, baby!" He jumped into the air and came down in a half split position. A loud rip accompanied this action, and the principal’s face must’ve been beet red. He tried to raise himself from the splits. "Umph. My pants and my legs are conspiring against me. I seem to be stuck." After a few moments of grunting he stopped trying to slide his legs back together and simply fell back onto his butt, then gathered his legs beneath him and pushed himself back to his feet. "No matter, ladies and gentleman, how we try to deny it, time exacts its wages."
The rabble was beside itself. No one was listening. Margeaux herself was in another world, too wrapped up in her own intrigue to care about what was going on onstage. How many years has it been since I’ve been openly admired by a stranger?
"So in this upsidedown time of year," boomed Principal Gauguin over the mob laughter, "this winter season of darkness and chill, the children will teach us to see as they do; as we all did when time was slower and there was no tomorrow; a time when we were all unconscious of the future and unburdened by the past."
The lights went off and the stage went black. Margeaux found herself using the darkness to edge closer to Peter (Was that his name), wondering if she weren’t being just a bit silly. She had a husband and a family. She had a life. Didn’t she? She stopped creeping forward and admonished herself for being such a fool.
The lights came back on. The crowd went, "OOOhhhhhh." Margeaux glanced at the stage and was dumbstruck. Damien was there, naked. His hair was so charged it crackled as he padded across the stage toward the crazy Principal Gauguin.
"Throw away all your judgments," thundered Principal Gauguin as he waited for the little boy to reach him center stage. "This boy is a prodigy. During the course of this quarter, he taught me many things I had forgotten."
The crowd began to buzz. Oh God, thought Margeaux. I was only joking about the human sacrifice. But this maniac is going to pull a knife from his jump suit and cut my baby’s throat!
"Like forbearance!" emphasized Principal Gauguin.
But for many, this immodest show of nudity, even by one so young, was an irremediable breach of contract. And they left, dragging their children behind them. Others, like Margeaux, were too shocked to move. They had all been taught to expect the unexpected from this school, but this?
Principal Gaugiun passed the microphone to Damien once the little boy had reached him, and, for the first time showing the affects of his ambitious performance, slumped his shoulders and walked off stage. Damien waited for the principal to disappear, then pivoted full front toward the audience. His penis budded from his body like the tiny bulb of a pink carnation. As the crowd gasped, he raised his hands in the air and smiled. Five seconds passed in silence, and he brought the microphone to his mouth.
"Naked we come into the world!" he squealed, his high voice strangely commanding. "Naked we leave it!" He thrust his arms into the air like a champion boxer and screamed loud so all could easily hear his unamplified voice. "And inbetween . . . Extravaganza!"
This proclamation was at first met with dead silence, and then - as if the ocean had exploded through the shore - deep belly laughs erupted from the guts of the adults. It was all too deliciously absurd. Who was this little boy pontificating on the subjects of life and death? Margeaux found herself giggling. My son, she thought. My precious little D man. And though it seemed strange to her, she was proud. Her little boy had the balls to bare it all and not be daunted. She looked around her. There was a note of desperation in the way the adults were contriving their mirth. It was so transparent, this arrhythmic guffawing of her peers. What really was so damn funny? She wrinkled her nose and watched her son set the microphone down softly and walk off stage, seemingly unperturbed at the reaction his performance had elicited from the crowd.
The merriment was pushed forward, even after the boy was gone and the stage had reverted back to darkness. Gradually, these absences subdued the crowd, and their throat warbles left the auditorium through the small cracks between door and jamb; filtered up into the air vents hidden high overhead in the auditorium’s superstructure; escaped to the outside world by flaws and inconsistencies in the structure’s integrity, until all that was left were a few self conscious chuckles.
Light returned to the stage. A single spotlight captured the form of an old man Margeaux recognized as one of the school’s janitors. She often saw him during PTA meetings pushing his cart of brooms, mops and cleaning supplies through the halls. He always wore his grey uniform shirt rolled up at the sleeves. His tawny skin was pulled tight over his forearms, exposing a tangled course of veins. His shirts were always neatly pressed, leaving Margeaux to wonder if he ironed them himself. Today he was wearing his normal grey uniform pants, a black belt and the aforementioned shirt with its sleeves rolled up. A microphone stand had been shuttled on stage between acts. The custodian cupped a thick book in his large hands. It was minus a front and back cover and appeared to be a ragged collection of unbound sheets held together only by the old man’s care.
"I’m going to read a bit of Thomas Wolfe to you," he said, his voice cracked and diminished. "To you people the passage will seem depressing," he continued, an apologetic smile stretching his wrinkled face smooth. "But, but to me, it is a passage that exudes great joy."
Margeaux craned her neck to see. She was too far away to read the name sewn onto the man’s uniform, but she knew it had to be something heroic like Abraham or Arthur. Like her, this man was ignored by those he saved. She and he were keepers of a sacred trust; champions of order in a world that tended toward chaos; their respective institutions’ last defense against decay and filth and rot.
"Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year," he said, speaking with a solemn clarity that gilded each word, "something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: ‘To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth-
‘Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which the conscience of the world is tending - a wind is rising, and the rivers flow.’"
The book flapped shut, he bowed his head and he pressed it between his hands in an attitude of prayer. Then he looked up and gazed out over the audience. Margeaux could hear herself breathe.
"I can’t see you," said the janitor, shielding his eyes with his forearm as if he were looking into the sun. "I know you’re there, though." He pursed his pale lips, and tapped the microphone. "I heard you laughing at the little fella." He shook his head and laughed. "I heard you." His steel-toed boots clicked across the stage like heartbeats: heel-toe heel-toe, ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum. No one spoke. No one moved, as his footsteps slowly died away.
Margeaux bowed her head and closed her eyes. And inbetween . . . Extravaganza. She felt like crying, but nothing came. A hand fit itself into hers and she opened her eyes. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew he was smiling back at her.
"Surprised?" he whispered.
She leaned over and picked up her son. He was getting heavier. He didn’t fight her this time. He buried his face in her neck and hugged her.
But is it any surprise that that child-like wonder gives way to indifference? she silently protested as she buried her face in Damien’s shoulder. Do we pass it on to them? she mused, thinking specifically of the children -- this world-weary bitterness that makes us hollow.
"OK," said Damien, raising his hands over his head and stretching in her arms. "You can let me go now, mommy."
She hesitated. She so wanted to hold onto him longer … but no. Her arms were already shaking from fatigue and she knew it was impossible. She kissed his forehead, leaned over and set him down.
The spotlights dimmed as the band leader and the chorus teacher came on stage. Damien walked from his mother and took the hand of a little girl, taller than he, wearing an ankle-length dress and rubber-toed high-top sneakers. The pair on stage had seated themselves behind their instruments. The band leader pulled his bow across his cello. Margeaux couldn’t tell what color the little girls dress or sneakers were. In the dim auditorium all colors had turned to grey. The chorus teacher’s piano mingled with the sad resonance of the cello like raindrops falling from a darkening sky. The two children held each other and turned in choppy circles. Margeaux glanced to where the man had been watching her. He was gone, and she wondered if he’d really been watching her at all, or if it was just something she had wanted to believe. She turned back just in time to see Damien step on the little girl’s toe. She smiled. You can only hold on for so long, she told herself, and part of her disengaged. Whether we accept it or not, what must leave us goes. She closed her eyes and touched her cheek. In the end, she thought, what is left needs to matter.
Dudley turned into the driveway and lay his head on the steering wheel. The sun was down and it was almost dark. Rush hour traffic had crawled, but that was nothing. The DOW had plunged 200 points. He didn’t panic. He had watched his stocks plummet, and did nothing. It’s only on paper, he’d told his investors. Don’t panic, he had said. His bullheaded belief that he was never wrong had cost him dearly. His investors had panicked, and sold their shares at a heavy loss. By the end of the day, Dudley had cost his firm a tidy $50 million. He lifted his head off the steering wheel and moaned like a man lost in the desert who knows he is lost. He wanted to spread out on his couch with the remote control in his hand and die.
The twins shivered on the porch. He was about to open the garage when he saw them huddled in the shadows of the Doric columns that fronted the house.
"What are you doing?" he said, yelling over the top of his car.
They didn’t answer, but started screaming and hitting each other. Dudley ran across the yard to stop them.
"No she’s not!" yelled Sheila as Dudley pulled her off her brother.
"Yes she is," T.T. shouted back.
"What’s going on," said Dudley, shaking them by the hoods of their coats. "I’m in no mood!"
The twins glared at each other across their father’s waist. Dudley shook them by their hoods again and said, "I’m in no goddamn mood!"
"Mom’s gone crazy," mumbled T.T., bowing his head.
"No she’s not!" cried Sheila. She stepped to the side of Dudley and kicked T.T. in the shin.
"She’s crazy!" screamed T.T., kicking his leg out toward Sheila in an unsuccessful attempt to get her back.
"Shut up," shouted Sheila.
"Stop it!" shouted Dudley, "What do you mean!" He shook them by their hoods. "What’s going on?"
"Mom," said T.T., then giggled inexplicably. "Hee hee. She’s. Hee hee hee--
"Shut up!" shouted Sheila.
"Speak up boy," said Dudley, picking him up by his hood.
"Shut up," Sheila said.
"She’s . . . hee hee hee."
"What," said Dudley, clenching his teeth so that they felt as if they would disintegrate. "What!"
"She’s naked!" screamed T.T.
She was naked. She was naked, and she was raking Dudley’s couch. Damien skipped around the couch naked, too, but for one sock and his blue Batman cape.
"What in God’s name!" screamed Dudley, sinking to his knees after he walked into the family room. The twins hung back in the kitchen, afraid and totally unaware their mother was only coming to her senses.
Margeaux kicked some loose stuffing off the couch onto the beige carpet.
"There were some patches of dead grass right along in here," she said. She raised the rake high over her head and brought it down with a whoosh, burying the rigid steel tines deep into the couch's last untouched cushion.
"M-M-M-Margeaux," stammered Dudley. "Do you realize what kind of day I've had?"
Margeaux looked up at him and smiled and jerked the rake, splitting the cushion open with a loud rip.
"Weeeeee!" cried Damien, dancing around the couch like a faerie around a sacrificial bonfire.
"Margeaux Margeaux Margeaux," Dudley chanted, as he pounded his forehead with both his fists. "Please stop, Margeaux. Please. Please. Please. Darling. Please."
Margeaux exhaled, and raised the rake high above her head.
"Hey!" shouted Dudley.
"Hey," said Margeaux as she swung the rake with all her strength, and made mulch of the last cushion. "Hay, hay, hay, hay, hay, hay, hay!"
"Goddamn you!" cried Dudley, falling face down with his nose pressed against the carpet. "I loved you," he whispered to the ground. He pushed himself onto his elbows and looked at his naked, rake-wielding wife and the tattered remnants of his favorite refuge: the couch. "I loved you!"