WOLFGANG FISCHER was out there. Out there in every respect, and not just the hills.
He was over the hill at the time this story begins, in that he was sixty-four–a year for every square on a chessboard–and Wolfgang Fischer had seen his share of squares.
In childhood he had been a prodigy as much as his namesakes. For the sake of convenience I will call him Fischer. (If this reduction of his name gives you the feeling that he was not all there, so be it. Even now I am not all here. I may seem to you now like a character in this story, but I am not. I wasn’t there at all. I only tell you what I know.)
It was a remarkable coincidence that even his name was an amalgam of two such famous prodigies–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Bobby Fischer being at the top of the list—and although Fischer himself said he did not believe in coincidences, generally the truth does run a good bit stranger than fiction. Certainly Fischer had a genius for music, and just as much of a genius for chess. But the truth is, I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what Fischer’s actual genius was.
That he may have never found his calling should come as no surprise. He believed in phones—and just about every other popular modern gadget—even less than he believed in coincidences. Which is to say well into the negatives. Even more of no surprise, he never found his field. Every bit of property he owned was covered with trees.
One thing in which Fischer absolutely believed was simultaneity. Awareness of multiple conditions coexisting everywhere at all times was part of what made Fischer Fischer. That there is no black and white was more and less certain seemed to him a cosmic truth. Life and death were shades of gray–without gray matter nothing would be understood–and Fischer was as gray as it got.
He was a recluse–and not only because he was a wreck and he was loose. An atheist with Messianic implications, he often felt persecuted for not believing in either the corporations of religion or the religion of corporations. He was an old testament to the freethinking, freewheeling 60s in his sixties, and the main way he dealt with his lack of conformity was being absolutely certain not to bury himself in his work. He preferred to stay on top of it. But I hesitate to say exactly what his work was. These things get judged. It may have been he was a toy maker. Certainly he looked liked Father Christmas. And he had the presence for it. Long-limbed and towering, with his great bearded, gaunt, Northman’s visage, he could easily have passed for Odin. Or Howard Hughes. Or King Lear. Or Zarathustra.
Smoked salmon was his favorite dish. To make ends meet, Fischer sometimes sold, but never smoked it. That was the job of Cody and Heidi. He shared a parcel of land with them. Cody and Heidi shared joint custody of their eighteen year-old daughter, by name Brandi, who played video games, drove a red Lamborghini in and out of the hills and watched TV religiously. Cody and Heidi were divorced, but lived in the same house. He was forty-two. Smoked, but never sold. Heidi was thirty-eight and liked guns. She handled Fischer’s salmon sales.
Everything was going along swimmingly until Fischer had his accident. Really it should never have happened. Just one of those freak things. He was riding his bike around between the trees downhill, going a little too fast, and not wearing any shoes. Next thing he knew, Fischer took a spill and wound up wounded. After that, he couldn’t get around so well anymore. Right away his property started to look like shit. And some thought it was just a coincidence, but the whole damn area went to hell in a hand basket.
“Can someone please tell me what I’m doing here?” Heidi saw Sorel in the eggs aisle.
At the end of the eggs aisle the big guts were crossing by, pregnant with death and fear of life in bright blue and bright orange cammo clothes purchased cheaply there at LowCost. It had been a while since Heidi had seen Sorel, but unfortunately bumping into her at the store provided neither the time nor space necessary to catch up.
“Whatever it is, I’m guessing you’re going to have to break a few eggs.”
Some women came up behind Sorel and expostulated. All four had known each other for years. The conversation in which these two new women were engaged carried on unabated.
“That’s exactly it,” said Thea Lienz. “Women’s liberation plus objectification of women by the corporate media equals self-objectification being called ‘liberation.’ It’s ridiculous. I see girls with their asses hanging out of their pants, showing off neon thongs and tramp stamp tattoos, totally convinced they’re coming from a place of individual strength while they’re getting used by the patriarchal system in ways they never dreamed.”
“Go Thea,” said Sorel. “You tell it.”
Thea’s friend Sitar spoke up. “Well now that gets me thinking how conquered people become bullies. They begin identifying with their own oppressors, or at least oppression in general, as a mechanism of self-defense, too late, in order to make sense of whatever happened. I mean, just think about poverty and patriotism.”
“And of course the markets are youth-driven,” Thea Lienz added, “because it’s so much easier to take a young person’s money and harder to influence people after they have experience.”
“Oh but don’t you know?” Heidi’s dead-pan would’ve thrown a different crowd. “You’re just jealous. You have to act like such an uptight bitch because I’m so young and so you’re just so jealous.”
“LowCost shoppers,” the in-store system brightly announced interrupting a soothing sort of music no one shopping seemed to notice, “look for the GreenLight and find Extra Value savings. You can always go to where the savings are…at LowCost! Thanks for shoppin’ with us!”
Sorel understood that Heidi was echoing what she’d heard from Brandi at some point. “I mean, we know what the problems are.” She was about to say something on living an uncluttered life, and the disturbing shift in valuing that seminal ideal there in the Bargerville area over time. (As a reflexologist she was in touch with the sole of Humbaba. Her card said under her name “Life force is the Qi.”) But at that moment, Sorel’s attention was caught when she saw beyond, standing in an aisle intersection, a woman appearing at first glance like a mutual friend of Heidi’s and hers named Moon, whom Sorel alone secretly knew to be pregnant. It was a situation Sorel disliked, having to hide the information from her closer friend Heidi, and her heart leaped in the split second she for no reason thought that it was Moon up ahead. Surely Moon would unburden her of the secret by going ahead and telling Heidi in the eggs aisle. But it wasn’t Moon. And in fact the young woman did not even look a thing like her.
Heidi and both of the other women turned to look as well. All saw as the young woman waited for a big gut to waddle glumly by, then stood at a spot in the aisle where she paused, looked up at one of the in-store cameras, looked away, took a deep breath, and suddenly quivering with a helpless expression, crumbled backward and down so that she collapsed on her side without cracking her head on the smooth hard tile.
Immediately someone screamed. But before anyone could do anything, a man suddenly appeared with the look of a cop and the manner of a priest. It was Roy Jorgens, Bargerville LowCost store manager. A crowd gathered round as he held the woman in his arms, her auburn hair full of lustrous bounce and shine draped over the store manager’s protectively cradling arm, as his mouth neared hers, his moist lips parting….
“And the manager of the store breathed life into the customer,” the local news said that night. “Talk about great savings!”
Heidi flipped off the tube. “Those idiots!”
Cody ambled into the kitchen. He was wearing his usual bathrobe, looking by the shady aura of his bearing and meticulous trim of facial hair like a warlock in Birkenstocks. It was 6:44 pm, Saturday, September 22, the first day of fall. Cody had spent a good portion of the day meditating cross-legged in the middle of his waterbed, which was itself centered between four lava lamps, each aligned with the points of the compass. The blue lava lamp, representing water and winter, was positioned north; opposite it, the red lamp stood for fire and summer; to the east, purple for air and spring (it was either that or orange, but the base on the orange lamp somehow didn’t match the others); and on the west, green for earth and fall. This was the position which Cody had faced off and on for several hours over the course of the day, focusing his energy on a peaceful, bountiful season.
With the lights out and the lamps on, a relaxed mind perceived simple beauty in the gently flowing wax. Heated by the bulb inside the base beneath the glass teardrop lamp on top, the melting wax in the water slowly rose from the bottom, reached the cooler water at the top, and subsequently tumbled back down, to repeat the process. Rising and falling, but never leaving—the lava lamp formed a replica of the planet’s own energy flow—each ever-shifting formation completely unique, yet always in motion, part of a whole out of which it comes and to which it returns, never to be seen again.
“Who’s an idiot?” he said.
Heidi resisted temptation. When they were together she would have said something smartass automatically. But out of love? Now she wondered.
“Oh, just something on the news.”
“What was it?”
He was doing it again.
As an acupuncturist, and an electrician, Heidi understood energy flow blockage. She tried to change to another channel, but the flat way she spoke betrayed the depth of her interest. “Nothing. What have you been doing?”
“What was it in the news?”
“No. Drop it.”
“Come on, I’m just curious. What’s the big secret?”
Now here came along Brandi, with the suddenly deadened look on her face that said she realized she had just stepped into the two of them going at it again.
“What big secret?” she said.
Heidi’s sigh of exasperation morphed into a rising growl. “No big secret! I saw someone at LowCost this afternoon do a thing where she, I don’t know, it looked like she scoped out a spot she wanted in front of the cameras, and then did a really terrible fake faint, like a swoon—”
“A swoon?” Brandi interrupted.
“A swoon. And then that goofball manager they have there now—what’s his name?—well anyway—Roy Jorgens! So Roy Jorgens, he’s there in about two seconds, and he actually puts his mouth on her—”
“—and this is supposed to be like, what, artificial respiration? So she ‘comes to,’ and I swear, they must’ve put some ringers there to start clapping, because they kept at it till a few other people started clapping. Oh, it was so was idiotic. And now the local news is covering it like it was a fucking miracle.”
“Well I can tell you why they’re playing up the religion angle,” Cody chimed in.
Heidi looked over. “Oh please tell me why. Even though you weren’t even there and I was talking to Brandi.”
“It’s because religion is a commodity. And why wouldn’t you tell me?”
Brandi grabbed a set of keys from the counter. “You guys can argue by yourselves. I’ll be back tomorrow night.”
They both asked where she was going. She told them up to Carata.
Brandi had taken the fall off, her first fall after high school, in order to more greatly facilitate her own enterprise, with assurances to her parents (her mother, anyway) that she would only be saving up for college, which she would start attending in the spring term. Or maybe next fall at the latest.
“So are you going to be staying with your friend?”
“Yes, Mom.” Brandi put some eye-rolling in her tone on purpose as a joke. Kind of.
“And I have her number?”
“Well it’s the first I’ve heard of this.” Cody’s numb look swung around the room.
“Have fun. Give me a call if you need anything. Or if you don’t.”
Brandi picked up a large duffle from the floor at the end of the island counter.
“Love you,” Heidi said.
“Love you Mom, love you Dad.”
“I love you, sweetheart. You’re not finding a place tonight or tomorrow, are you?”
“She’s just getting the lay of the land.”
“I was talking to her.”
“Relax, Dad. I’m not moving out anytime soon.”
Cody grabbed some snacks and shuffled back to his room—the one he’d built ten years before and rented now for basically nothing (sometimes less than that) because times were tough, Heidi was nice, their bedrooms were on the opposite side of the house and once in a while he was useful. He shut the door to his room, feeling like a little boy, conscious that the motions of his body not reflect that feeling as he set down his goodies, turned on the music that happened to be ready—a Bach harpsichord minuet—stretched out on his waterbed like Vishnu floating on a bed of lotus, and closed his eyes, immobilized with every distinct prickling note, each feeling like a long thin needle jammed into his skin, leaving him jabbed and bristling like an acupunctured voodoo doll, while Heidi headed off to the busted generator out back she was going to need to fire up soon, but so far just couldn’t get to work.
It took Brandi the twenty winding road minutes from out in the hills near Hawthorn back down into Radley to unwind from her parents, and by then the highway was only a mile and half away, putting her in radio reception.
“Turn it down!” was the first thing she heard, and she knew immediately what it was before the third word was even said. The high school had been required to gather outside and look up into the camera shouting the line in unison for the commercial. She was one of the students. In the TV ad she was in front, second from the left. That was eight months ago, now. Yesterday and forever ago, already.
“Don’t get high,” the announcer said. “Turn it down!” This followed with voice-over from another authoritative male semblance informing, “This message brought to you by the good folks at Regal Lager. Drink Regal Lager, Arbora’s Best Beer!”
Beer. With the party next Friday, Brandi was going to have to get her mom or her dad or someone to pick up a keg soon.
Like her bright red Lamborghini smoothly powering through the curves, Mist River meandered in a northerly flow below to her left, while the rolling golden hills above bore the gnarled forms of oaks, intricate and bent like giant patches of rotten broccoli.
Who had she not heard from yet? Staci was coming, Autumn would be there. Maybe Phoebe. No loss if Phoebe didn’t come. The last time Brandi saw her, which was at Mark’s playing ping-pong, Phoebe criticized her mom’s friend and Autumn’s mom, Sorel, for wearing tank tops without shaving. “I hope all my mom’s friends at least bother to shave their armpits!” she brayed, and Brandi had had to mask the resentment she felt for being on the receiving end of this insult-by-proxy.
Ordinarily anyone driving from Hawthorn up to Egeria would be looking at an hour and a half. Brandi managed to shave off a good fifteen minutes, passing an ad on a billboard ten minutes shy of the county’s biggest city that read
Looking for Answers?
Find THEM ALL
at THE MALL!
A lot of her mom’s friends didn’t even wear bras. And look what happened to them. Folded down, straight down like dog teats. She herself was thinking about getting a boob job. Just a little enhancement. From B cup to maybe a C. What her parents didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Everybody was doing it. It’s not like she didn’t have her own money. Not to mention the little fact that it was her body. Still, she wasn’t sure. But there was no point talking about it with them. It’s not like she could even tell her dad about the exotic dancer she was getting for the party. Actually, her dancer wouldn’t be showing up until ten anyway, and her dad would just be holed up in his cave anyway, as always.
This thought occurred as she came up on Thrusters on the outskirts of town. On the opposite side of the narrowing highway, towering pulp mill smoke stacks, eerily lit, spumed waste into the darkening sky. It had been only a few days earlier that she reserved her dancer by phone, and now driving past the building (she’d never really noticed it before), Brandi was incredibly glad not to have had to set foot inside. No, she didn’t need to go see Flo in the flesh after all.
She did need to see India. They had met at a party over the summer at Autumn’s, and hit it off well enough that she thought about potentially setting India up as her university-area distributor. The poor yield for the last couple of years on the outdoor crop—poorest she’d ever seen—demanded extra high sales of the indoor. And even that yield had been taking a beating. With scarcity rose demand. Yes, the price was right for the right clientele, but the whole economy was suffering. No one could afford to get busted anymore.
True, India was only sixteen, but she was a really smart, responsible sixteen, and able to live on her own. She wouldn’t have to do much, and she could put by a lot of money in a short time. Sometime in the evening, Brandi would give India the pitch. It was something she’d never done before, and she got a bit of a thrill considering it.
She was leaving Egeria now, the wide sweep of mudflats preceding Humbaba Bay wafting sufficiently to ensure her window be up, just as some crappy car was edging up on her left. “Fuck you, asshole,” she said. “Don’t even try to box me in!” This she said aloud, firm and determined, as the rear end of a semi up ahead grew steadily larger.
The crappy car speeded up. They were doing 66 in a 55.
70. 71. 72.
At 75 miles per hour in the span of a few seconds, Brandi’s Lamborghini slipped in front of the crapmobile. It had gone needlessly fast in the attempt to pass, as if to provoke a reaction from the better car. The guy driving behind was honking his horn and flipping Brandi off. “Fuck you, bitch!” Brandi said, examining the rear-view mirror intently as she jabbed her middle finger up where he’d have to see it. She kept him boxed-in behind her with the semi on the right for a bit, to teach a good lesson, before jetting ahead, still flipping the asshole the bird and keeping her eyes peeled for cop hiding spots. The turnoff was only a half a mile off.
“Fuck you, bitch,” she pronounced with a triumphant note of finality as she took the exit into Carata, having won, and promptly never thought about the incident ever again.
Hell in a hand basket. Brandi had not grown up seeing her parents drive like that. Nor had she actually grown up. She did not consider her actions in the slightest and took not a particle of responsibility for them. It was just the new norm.
Nor was it beyond the pale for a sixteen year-old girl to be living on her own. India’s being bright enough to test out of school early coincided perfectly with her dad Brad’s inability to support himself, much less her as well. The school didn’t have any funding, and was turning into a dump anyway. Her mom she hadn’t seen since she was three.
Soon after arriving, Brandi got India to accompany her to the Carata LowCost to pick up dinner. India wanted to go to the Co-op, but Brandi said she couldn’t stand how all the cashiers smell like Nag Champa incense. “Reminds me too much of my dad.”
“At least you have a dad.”
“Your dad isn’t dead, is he?”
“No. He’s not dead.” India’s leaden voice betrayed her disappointment in her dad, Brad. Ten years ago he had been working at a coffee house comedy club in Radley. That wasn’t far removed from her own duties in the ticket booth and behind the concessions counter at Carata Theater. Now he was sitting in a tree. To save it. That was his career. Had been for the last four months. Right around the time he changed his name to Bard. She didn’t dare tell Brandi the truth.
They had paused at the magazines, taking in the covers and flipping through a few before picking up some chicken orange at the deli and a couple of salads in plastic containers that they smashed loudly in the waste basket back at India’s laughing about boys they’d seen and what pathetic idiots they all were, and as the hour grew late they switched to the subject of housing, which was ostensibly the reason for Brandi’s visit. It didn’t take long for India to feel pressured. Her natural inclination was to resist being pushed. The way Brandi was acting, she reminded India of her brother.
Ten minutes after she had that thought, who should come up rapping at her door but Kyle. This she discovered with the flinging wide of the door, without having bothered to ascertain the identity of the late-hour visitor.
“These apartment doors need to come with little spy-holes so you can see who’s out there,” he said.
“You came over at eleven o’clock to criticize my door?” India fell back to the sofa and pulled a pillow to her middle.
“I saw your lights on.” Kyle’s somewhat unintentionally visceral reaction on seeing Brandi as he came in provoked a curled lip and half-lidded eyes from her. They had been watching TV. After a pregnant pause, Brandi said in a low swift tone to India that she was going outside on the balcony for a break, which was understood as the best way to get her overly-protective brother’s visit over with as soon as possible. “Come on out when you’re done,” Brandi said, but before she could slide the glass door shut, Kyle shot out, “She’s too young. So are you.”
The door thumped shut.
“Thanks a lot for coming over and insulting my friends.”
“I wanted to tell you that I’m moving down tomorrow.”
Kyle had been working weekends at the recycling plant outside Radley off and on for a few months. At twenty-two, he had an A.A. degree from College of Egeria and a year and a half of experience with some less-than-thrilling jobs. Moving the ninety minutes south from Carata back to the area where he spent most of his youth would put him in reach of other opportunities, though. The kind Brandi looked down on as shit work, no doubt. It was important to him that his sister not feel abandoned. Yet again. He wanted her to know that he was still watching out for her.
“I’m glad you’re excited about your job,” she said.
“I wish you’d let me know before you go signing any leases. I know you’re pretty jazzed about maybe moving in somewhere together.”
“Actually, she’s thinking about buying one of those old Victorians up for sale on the hill. We’d be sharing a whole huge house together and she’d be renting a room to only me.”
“Buying? How much on the rent?”
“How should I know? She hasn’t even decided if she wants to yet.”
“That’s what you’re doing tomorrow?”
“Duh.” She saw the hurt look flash across his face. “Sorry.”
“All right.” Kyle started jingling his keys. “Well, I better scoot.”
“Call me with your new phone number.”
“I will. And India, I mean it about that stuff. You’re too young. You are.”
“What’s old enough? Eighteen?”
“Twenty-one. Same as drinking.”
“At eighteen you’re old enough to get drafted.”
“But not old enough to drink a draft beer, that’s right.”
India closed her eyes and shook her head. “I swear, I probably wouldn’t even want to, but now I’m tempted just because of everything you say.”
“Well, don’t do that.”
She opened the door. He stepped out. “Good night, Kyle,” she said, and shut it.
The gray sluggish vapor hanging over Mist River Monday morning seemed to muffle the slam of Kyle’s car door. It was a day and half later, and there had been time to let the dust settle. Ablaze with new life in his old haunts, Kyle’s spirits ran high on a morning jog, puffing along a trail that wound among the grim, limb-strewn giants. Rust duff littered the gray cradle of the winding trail, periodically interrupted by oddly bulging roots rising out of and probing back down into the ground.
So close, yet so far away, the redwoods all this time. Rolling patches of sorrel, brightest of greens caught in slanting rays of sun, bore muted purple undersides and crisp stems tart to the taste. Along the sides of the trees, insular strips of redwood bark rose like the deep-grooved corduroy of the gods, twisting gently around, hundreds of feet high in interwoven braids, whole trees resembling giant straightened torcs, the twisted strands of which mated earth with sky.
Kyle stood on a stump at a switchback in the trail which zig-zagged up the hill and looked out over a hushed green gulley, fern-lush hillsides somehow hinting and suggestive.
Awk, awk. Some ravens carried on their business. Further off, small-sounding birds communicated in quick, twittering chirps. Great reddish drapes of poison oak clung at redwood bases, groping tendrils climbing, winding ever higher, in some cases even strangling the tree to death. On closer inspection, Kyle noticed these cases were in fact unnaturally many. Trash, too, appeared in view only a few feet away. A bunch of empty beer cans and the torn cardboard they came from. Kyle hopped back down onto the trail, watching out for tick brush, mindful of Lyme disease.
That was when he got to thinking about his dad, living alone in a tree. A one-man Swiss family. A tree man, a holy man. What a load of crap. His dad had gotten a little press now, and the attention this brought Kyle irked him because most of it was positive and he felt obligated to play along out of politeness when actually, yes, Kyle absolutely supported forest preservation, just not with his dad sitting in a tree. “Bard.” Total steaming load.
All those people who thought it was so great, courageous even, they weren’t there with Kyle growing up. They weren’t there for all the failed dreams crashing down around. The daily verbal diarrhea. It was easier for his dad to think of himself as a martyred warrior for something else than it was for him to face the battles of his own life. These days he videotaped himself—posturing, self-absorbed—not because he felt more real in a tree, but because he couldn’t feel real unless he was on TV. He showed some of it to Kyle one time. They had some snacks right there, made a little picnic out of it. For half an hour Kyle got to watch his dad acting like a cross between Travis Bickle and Euell Gibbons.
But Bard had taken to affecting a soothing voice of peace. All told, big picture, he had in fact overcome quite a good bit of his assholeness, old Bard did. Kyle had to give his dad credit for that. At least if only for trying. But that soothing peace voice of his had a nasty way of cracking, giving way to furious spumes of frustration before returning to the soft mask that passed for love.
Kyle passed some mushrooms along the brushy slope that ran along the trail. In the moist dark duff beneath hanging huckleberry boughs, weird mushrooms of sickly hues grew. Some of a warped waxy yellow rose doubled over, exposing slit undersides like dirty brown gills. Deadly red buttons also dotted the moss. Around the bend, a Rubik’s cube lay busted in bits. Kyle thought of a guy he knew at College of Egeria who was always trying to copy the secret of the sterile moves from a solution manual.
Kyle’s mind wandering in the forest of his past impelled him to Madrani early that afternoon. A fog hung over the river and threaded through the mountains gray against the green. He thought about the last time he’d been to Madrani. It had to be at least four years. He graduated from the high school there in town when he was seventeen and moved up north that fall. Then his dad moved to Radley, and he remembered only one time coming into town when he needed to gas up. Four years ago. The rest of the time, when he had to come down, he just stayed on the highway and avoided the Avenue.
Madrani Market looked a little different. Not much. He grabbed a few things, thinking about that weird old Mrs. Hutle as he eyed through the window his old high school across the street.
A guy in line in front of him was talking to the cashier—she was about Kyle’s age, kind of hot—and his first take was that the guy was something of a loud asshole. Gradually the guy edged off to the side, still blabbing while the cashier rang up Kyle’s stuff.
The guy, Kyle noticed, was kind of sticking around. At first he figured it was to talk to the cashier. Then he realized the guy was looking at him.
“Hey,” the guy finally said, “is your name Kyle?”
“Yeah,” he answered vaguely, accepting his change from the cashier as he turned. “Do I know you?”
“Used to. I’m Rick Ruesh. We used to hang out around here back in sixth and seventh grade. You would’ve known me as Ricky back then.”
“Ricky—that’s right! Hey, how are you?”
“I’m good. Man, you’ve changed.”
“So have you. Wow. Good to see you.”
Each had become in the other’s eyes as unmemorable as the town itself to a tourist. Kyle, who had felt old at the time he used to mess with Ricky in the woods, had reached the limit of that feeling and only recently began again to feel young. This, ultimately, was what prompted his move back. It was for him an oddly daring thing to do.
After a few minutes bullshitting outside with Rick, Kyle went back in and picked up some beer. His treat. Then he drove the two of them down to the bottom of the hill outside the north end of town and they cracked a couple open on the trail.
Rick explained how when he was thirteen his dad got a job down south. His parents split up just before he graduated. Trying to finish up high school while having to live with his dad got to be so bad he quit, and never did get his diploma. He followed his mom back to Bargerville and lived with her for a couple of years. Kyle was up north by then going to College of Egeria.
After Rick drained his beer, he underhanded it like a softball pitcher, sending it whistling over the quiet tangle of fallen trees and duff-blanketed debris into a clump of fern. Kyle still had half his brew and planned from the get-go to pack the empty back.
“Hey look!” Rick brightened up. “That old rope swing tree. Remember when—holy shit, there’s a fuckin’ rope on it, man!”
The rope swing tree was an old madrone arching like a crooked finger from the side of a leafy hill. If the tree wasn’t dead it was dying. Over the years it had taken a beating. Still, it hadn’t fallen over yet, just sank progressively lower. Someone had put a rope on it not too long ago. The branch hadn’t grown around the rope where it was tied on at all. Rick tried his weight on it, hanging onto the stick at the bottom, prepared to land on his feet in case it snapped as he went creaking out, low whoops coming from him making hollow echoes through the sheltering shadows.
“Hey,” he called out, legs sprinting in the air ten feet over the ground, “so what the fuck is it you do now, anyway?”
“I’ve been working for awhile now sort of out of Radley Recycling. There’s a guy there who lines me up with people who have property, mostly, and want old metal removed to get it off their hands and recycled and to help the wildlife not get torn up on it. A lot of barbed wire. Plus I fix the fencing as much as they want. I get these little maps they draw up and I go around on a four-wheeler—”
“Shit, man! You get paid to fart around on a four-wheeler? Fuckin’ sign me on, man. Shit, you should come over to my trailer tonight.”
“Well actually I haven’t really even finished unpacking. I only just moved down yesterday.”
“You said you’d been doing that four-wheeler shit for awhile.”
“Well I have, sort of part-time. I used to have to commute. It sucked. That’s why I moved down.”
“And now you’re a full-time four-wheeler farter-arounder? Fuckin’ sign me on.”
Kyle took a swig. “So you don’t do anything, or you’re looking for work, or what?”
Rick gave him a look, hanging. “Who says I don’t do anything? Fuck you! I work my ass off!” He swung up onto the hill, face flushed from the exertion of hanging on at arm’s length so long. He came up beside Kyle, who had walked to the base of the madrone by this time, held the stick on the rope before him and said, “Let’s see you do it.”
“No, I’m good.”
“Come on, fuckin’ go for it, man. Let’s just see you do it.”
“I said I don’t want to.”
Rick looked at Kyle as though he were trying to think of something to say.
“So you’re what, too fuckin’ mature?” he finally said. “Too much of a fuckin’ college-boy now, is that it? You think I’m down here all the time swingin’ like a kid all day? I’ve haven’t even seen this swing in about seven hundred fuckin’ years, man, seriously.”
“All right, all right, all right, gimme the rope.”
“You sure you want to do this?”
“Give me the goddam rope.”
“Hey, no skin off my back.” Rick handed Kyle the rope. Kyle grabbed onto the stick with both hands at arm’s length, gave a tug for no good reason, having already seen it work, then softly launched himself over the stick-thick duff far enough below to potentially cause serious bodily harm if he fell. Conceivably death.
In twisting as he reached the limit of the arc, he saw Rick crack the cap off a beer left in the pack and flick the cap with a snap of the fingers behind an ear, flashing a great big shit-eating grin. The cap hovered through the air like a mini UFO for an incredible distance until it hit a redwood, where it stayed stuck in the soft bark. This Kyle saw at the apex of his arc. Leaving the swing fluttering behind him, he unloaded an informal negative sanction against Rick’s littering in the form of a sarcastic remark.
“Wow, that’s some really terrific trick you got there.”
“Seen a guy from Norway do that one. He could send one damn-near across the football field. Sideways, of course.”
“Norway. It’s like the capital of Asia or somethin’.”
Kyle didn’t bother trying to explain that Norway was not the capital of Asia. Spying a rock, he tried to hit a burl high up a redwood which bulged out looking like a huge, grotesque face. Rick had a go as well, but neither could hit it. Right about the time Kyle realized he might not want to throw out his arm, he recognized where they had wandered.
“The car graveyard,” he called back to Rick, who was still searching around for the perfect rock.
Remains of old cars spilled down a hill in an overgrown and slightly surreal heap. Some of them must have dated back to the 1930s. Suddenly Kyle remembered seriously wanting to make an actual working robot out of the varied wreckage. Musing on this, happy with the feeling of tapping into a part of his life seemingly long-forgotten, he imagined skeletal drivers behind the surreal wheels, and noticed that, incredibly, there was still some glass to crack with a stick or a well-whipped rock. They were behind the old gas station now. It had long ago turned into a duplex, and Kyle had no wish for the further destruction of the junk on general principle, much less alerting the town of their shenanigans with a gawdawful racket.
The pit had been their fort, a sort of home base for them which Kyle had found when he was ten. Standing now over the edge and looking down inside, it was hard to believe they had spent the night in there once with some friends. What seemed big then looked small now. Years of duff piled high inside, the edges sloped and worn away. Rick jumped down in.
“Holy shit! The pit! Right fuckin’ on! Beer me, bro.”
Kyle finished his first, tossed Rick a third and cracked a second for himself. At Rick’s rate, he didn’t count on having to carry the last one back to the car full.
“Seriously, buddy,” Rick warmheartedly assured after they shot another ten minutes of shit, “you come over to my place tonight and I’ll give you a welcome home feast, man.”
Kyle was actually touched. He felt a closeness—or the desire for it—on returning to the area and looked forward to enjoying people’s company. There wasn’t really that much left for him to do before work on Wednesday anyway, and he would have all day tomorrow to do whatever.
“Sure, man,” he said nodding. “Wow, that would be great. I appreciate that.”
“Hey, you got it. I mean, you’re like family, you know? Like the long-lost brother I never even had. Straight up, man, you ever need any help, let’s just say I fuckin’ know some people.”
Rick gave Kyle his address outside the south end of Madrani, hurled his empty with a full motion of his body that sent him staggering down onto the duff and simultaneously emitted an enormous belch that seemed reversed from its course through his lower intestines. But he popped back up quite quickly, holding out a hand as Kyle leaned down, grabbing onto the one low branch near the pit for support. “Fuckin’ do it, baby!” Rick said as Kyle pulled him upwards at the wrist. With Rick’s feet scrambling unnecessarily at the sloped edge for purchase, Kyle assured him, “You’re up, Rick.”
But once he was pulled out of the hole, Kyle noticed an odd look seemed fixed on Rick’s face. Without a word of explanation, suddenly sullen, Rick weaved his way up the hill past the car graveyard, pausing only to grab a big rock and bash out a driver’s side window vent on the nearest car (which took a few tries), then continued on up to the back of the duplex area until he was lost from sight, and Kyle could no longer hear the messy crashing of his passage through the brush.
Figuring all of this was a bit of a put-on largely attributable to a few quick brews, Kyle walked the way back to his car somewhat perplexed, but glad to spend a little bit time in the woods of Madrani again alone.
The look in the man’s eyes standing in the head shop said, “Hi, I’m Neal, and I’m a narc.” The head shop was Holy Smokes, and it was set up in Bargerville a little over eight years earlier, not long after the strange destructive incident in town so many of its citizens would like to have forgotten. But the evidence was clear. They were all stoned. Had been then, still were now. That’s why it was up to Neal. Neal would weed them out. Weed them out of sight.
This was Neal’s mission. A higher power commanded him. Habitually he rolled on the balls of his feet, vigilant, always vigilant, swinging the keys which he kept on a long white string all the way around his outstretched index finger one way, tightly, and then swinging the keys on the long white string all the way, tightly, around in the other. It was an open secret that Neal was a narc. An open secret to everyone but Neal.
Just look at them walking, he thought, staring out the window of the customerless store into the busy, busy afternoon street. Look at them walking. In their clothes. With their hair. Goddam scum.
And oh but what Neal wouldn’t do—how he’d like to—oh ho ho, don’t get him started. If it was up to Neal the Narc, he’d be lighting them, torching them up right on the street, right in broad daylight. All of them. On fire. Oh, how he would dearly love for that to be. Those freaks. Just jam the gun right through the side of the head completely. Then pull the trigger.
The door banged shut. It was a customer.
Neal snapped out of his reverie. “Right on dude groovy,” he said. “Lay it on me my man if you need anything.”
Clenching his keys tightly, Neal slid behind the counter. This could be it, as he well knew. Oh, too well. The very bong sale that could bring the entire area crashing down. He himself had nothing left. It’d be worth his sacrificing himself to see everyone dying in flames—a-haaa!
The customer touched something.
Neal’s heart began to race. His hand eased under a shelf, dancing lightly, so soundless, on the butt and trigger of the clean powerful pistol resting on its side, pointing at the customer.
“How much for the dream-catchers?”
“Right on dude it should say at the bottom—is there anything else sort of groovy I might…be able to…interest you in?”
Oh I bet you are, Neal thought. Just looking for a bullet right in your face. One little pull of this trigger and down you go. No more. Bye-bye. Dead, you fuck. I murdered you.
“Okay, far out, lay it on me if you need anything.”
A minute later the customer left.
Neal quickly slipped from behind the counter and nosed up to the window.
Chickenshit, Neal thought. That’s right, you walk away, but don’t you think I don’t see you. Don’t you think for one second.
There was more than one out there, standing by a car parked in one of the spaces out front. They were looking at him. He quickly inspected the window. Yes, everything appeared to be in proper order with the window. Very good. He moved on, sliding slowly back to the counter where they couldn’t see him.
Very interesting. But why were they looking at him? What did they want? Were they onto him? What were they doing? Was the customer actually not a customer, but actually only pretending to be one, secretly, in order to check up on him? Were they all from…the department? They did not look pleased. Maybe he should’ve been more aggressive.
Oh shit they were coming back. There were two of them now. Quick, quick, he had to act cool.
“Dig it you’re back that’s far out,” he said as the first customer came in now with a second. “We’ve got the really primo good stuff here. Tie-dye shirts are really groovy.”
The second customer inspected one of the dream-catchers, muttered something to the first, and took the dream-catcher over to the counter.
“Dig it,” Neal said, “that’s a really right on one. Will there be…anything else?”
“Just the dream-catcher.”
“Oh. I can dig that. That’ll be six dollars.”
“Great,” the second customer said, placing the money on the counter. “I thought that was a nine. Thank you.”
“Yeah, all right.” Neal took the money. Underneath a five and a one there was a piece of paper folded over which he opened as he watched the customers leave the store. The message printed in small font read
Recipient has passed Level Four examination.
Recipient may resume preparedness for Code Requirements.
At the bottom of the message were the words
Your Bargerville LowCost Proud Supporter of Turn it Down
Shrimp Sale .99c/lb
Always Believe in LowCost
Memorizing the information of the message which he had received, Neal quickly wadded up the note, inconspicuously shoved it into his mouth and calmly chewed.
Kyle went ahead and did his shopping at LowCost in Bargerville almost against his will. In Carata he shopped at the Co-op. Here he didn’t know what was where anymore, and out of grim convenience went with the chain. Right about the time he was unpacking, the idea of dining out with his old seventh grade buddy in his trailer had lost a good bit of its luster. But, he had said he would.
In the twelve minutes it took to drive from Radley back to Madrani, the sun had slipped behind the mountains and cast an orange glow against the growing shadows. Leaving the highway to cross Madrani Bridge over Mist River, Kyle took the Avenue to (here he had to reverse the directions) the second left hand dirt road from the south end of town after the big pullout.
When he turned in, the gnarled branches hung so thickly overhead they formed a tunnel-like canopy along a narrow grade up that eventually leveled out before hitting a hairpin turn. An abundance of brush lined the dimly-lit road terminating some fifty yards down at a small weed-choked pullout and a roughly oval-shaped trailer peeling plastic that had once been red but had long ago faded to a pale kidney.
As soon as he stepped out of his car, immediately unsure, an oddly mottled dog came rushing over in a vicious blur growling so savagely Kyle was certain he would have to fend the thing off before he could even get back in, but the loud report of a gun caused the dog to veer suddenly away, ears back, tail firmly tucked.
“Butcher! Shut the fuck up!” A hand with a gun was sticking out of a tiny window in the trailer. “You Rick’s friend?” a voice yelled out.
“Yeah,” Kyle called. “He said for me to come over.” This he hoped was the right thing to say.
The gun hand hesitated. Then waved him in. “All right. Come on. Butcher you back off! Butcher back! Come on around the side. He won’t hurt ya.”
Reluctant but strangely compelled, Kyle proceeded forward.
A couple of broken lawn chairs adorned the unwhipped weeds. Some warped corrugated metal, cinder blocks and cracked white plastic tubing, too. Beer cans galore. Soiled cloth strewn in a bit of brush. The door at the side of the trailer swung open. There appeared in the aperture the bulbous body and spidery limbs of a tottering fat guy in cruddy underwear. His bleary haggard face evinced sudden pain, ashen visage creasing into a pattern of fleshy lines worn through long habit into deep grooves which added to the man’s generally infirm and prematurely aged condition. He sank backward onto a small couch with a well-worn pillow on one side. A radio was on.
“You’re listening to the King—King KANG!—Arbora, Newbook, Glynville—”
“I’m Big Bill,” the aged man managed, wheezing like a teapot as he turned the radio off. The bathrobe he pulled over his lap mercifully covered the stained, ill-fitting shorts which went so well with his matching dingy white tank top, but served little purpose in hiding a paunch so ponderous it might have been a conjoined twin. “Go ahead and shut that door, would ya?” he wheezed. “Butcher ain’t allowed in here no more.”
The place stank of stale smoke and more. Big Bill lit a cigarette. Kyle played the sport and went ahead and shut the door, noticing as he did the big flag filling the wall space to his left opposite the couch. The red of the flag had turned pink in a permanent patch from the sun, and the white had turned a uniform yellow. Underneath the flag was a tiny TV, like a headstone in a pile of empty beer cans and cigarette butts.
“Rick ain’t here. He’s usually down at that old rope swing in the forest. When he’s not on active duty.”
“He’s in the military?”
“Sure, you could say that. Check this out.” Handing Kyle butt-first the pistol he had fired, he praised its qualities and offered a price. Kyle politely declined. Big Bill went about praising its qualities some more. When Kyle could get a word in through the constant wheezing stream he said, “Well I really better get going.”
“Hey, you got any money?”
“No, I really don’t.” He patted his pockets. “Sorry.”
“Well I ain’t lookin’ for no fuckin’ handouts.” Here his face seized suddenly up. Big Bill seemed frozen in pain. Lower back, evidently. After a few moments Kyle felt he should say something.
“You okay there?” He gave it another moment. Big Bill’s tortured grimace faded.
“Before you go, look at this,” he croaked. The guy was a mess. The place was a dump. Somehow though, Kyle got the impression the guy used to be a lot more normal and kind of hid inside his own slobby aura like it was an invisible emergency backup trailer. “Take a look at this.”
Big Bill presented Kyle with a velvet-lined case containing a shining silver gun.
“Ain’t she a beauty? This one I hate to lose.”
“Ain’t she a beauty? This one I hate to lose.”
“Why do you have to?”
“Shit man, it’s hot.”
“Well then I don’t want it.”
“Well then you don’t get it. Them handles are solid silver. That gun right there’s worth more than the fuckin’ Shire.”
Suddenly Butcher started barking.
“Shit!” Big Bill croaked, smoke in his eyes as he hurriedly closed the case with the silver gun and hid it. “See who that is.”
Through a hole in the eclectic array of crap, Kyle spied a smudged window. A cloud of dust billowed behind a junker bearing down. A horn honked twice.
“Oh okay, shit, it’s just fuckin’ Justine.”
“Well, tell Rick I came by.”
“Hold on. Hand me that socket wrench set right there.”
Kyle surveyed the junk scattered around.
“Just right there. I’m fuckin’ lookin’ right at it. It’s right there.”
There it was all right, blended indistinguishably into the junk like a little sea creature in a coral reef. Kyle went ahead and grabbed it and handed it over just as the rickety door to the tiny trailer sprang open, and in streamed Justine—not exactly dishy—with a glum four-member brood of children in attendance, each bearing disparate items—pottery, some nice platters, a bowling trophy cup. As these things were all paraded past, filling space in the trailer where there was none, effectively unconcerned by and oblivious to the presence of an outsider, Kyle held his curiosity in check, springing nimbly out as the last solemn urchin traipsed in.
The brown station wagon with the panels peeling off was parked close behind him. It took about a seventy-five point turn for Kyle to get out of there, with Butcher barking under the driver’s side window the whole time, muffled mutterings sounding like “dumbfuck” and “fuckin’ dumbass” spilling from the trailer with occasional brays of laughter—one in particular when Kyle thought he heard a sharp metallic pinging sound. When he finally got back to his place, his suspicion was confirmed. He had lost a hubcap, probably as he was pulling out of the ditch. But when he went back to get it the next day, there was no sign of it, and the trailer was gone.
Cody needed to get out more. He knew that. Had for a long time and didn’t need to be reminded one bit. Some sunlight managing to make it through the clouds felt good on his face as he shut the door, and the cool musty tinge to the air smelled like fall. “Jerry!” he called out. “Jerry, come!”
Jerry Garcia scrambled around the side of the house in sloppy bounds, but slowed up on seeing Cody in the wetsuit. Cody was wearing his hiking boots, too, and had the backpack slipped on with a towel, goggles, snorkel-like tubing and some goodies inside.
“It’s all right boy,” he said. “You ready to go to the cauldron?” Jerry Garcia wiggled. “Let’s go.”
The cauldron was what Cody and Heidi called (before Brandi was even born) a natural depression formed under a waterfall in the creek running through their property a short hike away. They used to go down there to achieve inspiration, among other things. But for all the time he spent trying now, Cody couldn’t remember the last time he really felt inspired.
Conceivably the amicable divorce wasn’t such a great idea. Nine years now. Half of Brandi’s life. He’d gone over so many times his and Heidi’s history. The death of them affected everything he saw. Rotting trees toppled on the property, porous innards torn by claws and snuffling snouts in search of bugs, had dropped like executed lovers. He would not have been surprised to find he suffered from sort of clinical depression. Doctors and drug companies like to make money. Not that anyone gave a shit. Everyone else was too hung up on not knowing they were clinically depressed as well.
Passing through a gulley, a noise in the tall dry grass on an embankment above caused Cody to stop. It suddenly sounded quiet when his rubbery wetsuit wasn’t in motion. Something big in the grass was moving—sure enough, one of his neighbor’s cows got through the fence again.
Cody was about to push some boundaries of his own. Time to break on through. He never did this kind of shit anymore. This was where it was at.
In fact, it was. Although you wouldn’t know from a distance. So wrapped up in his thoughts was Cody, he almost went right past the cauldron.
The creek was way down, but a little trickle left fed a pool below, sheltered by the boulders of a small ravine and overarching branches of oak and madrone above. Cody carefully picked his way among rocks and roots until he reached the cauldron bubbling below.
He sat down on a rock at the cauldron’s edge, taking what he needed from his pack and setting the rest off to the side. The hiking boots were old. They could get wet. The water was cold. A month ago he would have smothered in the wetsuit. Today it felt nice.
One end of the four-foot length of half-inch diameter flexible tubing he securely wedged at the edge of the cauldron among some rocks; the other end he had fitted with a snorkel mouthpiece. Goggles on, he leaned back, keeping his legs bent at the knees on either side of what looked like a raised mound of rock, when actually the water had worn away the channels in which his legs rested. His dunked-back body gently bobbed as he listened to the dark mystery of the trickle feeding the cauldron at the other edge.
Eyes closed, Cody relaxed, concentrating on his breathing. Deep breath in; hold; deep breath out.
I need to get laid, Cody thought.
Yeah, that’s it. I better think about something else. Cold shower, cold shower—fuck, I’m in a cold shower right now. Bath anyway. Rube a doob tube. Tanks for the memories. What’s the name of that one? Altered States. Who was it starred in that one? John Hurt. Was it John Hurt? No, not John. William. John Williams? No, William Hurt. Hurt so good. No, no, get that out—Something in the way she moves, Something in the way—
Jerry Garcia was barking. Cody pulled his head out.
“Jerry, shut up! Quiet, boy!”
He went back down.
I’m goin’ in, he thought.
I can’t stop thinking about Gloria Swanson. I know that sounds crazy but every time I watch “Sunset Boulevard” I fall in love with her all over again. She’s so incredibly beautiful. God, so incredibly hot I can’t believe it. That mouth. So beautiful, absolutely unique. Confident, yet vulnerable. An animal sneer with classical perfection. Those eyes. The way she moves her body, so expressive. Her face. God, I wish we were together. Why can’t I have Gloria Swanson? Intelligent, and funny and needing my attention. If only we could ardently desire each other. I would do anything to tango with her right on her oh-so freshly waxed floor. She was ahead of her time. She would have probably been in her early fifties. But she was so youthful, so full of life. I just look at her and I love her. Holy shit! What the fuck was that?
Something had suddenly hit the rock between his legs with incredible force. Big chunks of crumbling rock barely missed his head from a good seven or eight feet up at the top of the waterfall. Cody pulled himself out of the cauldron, Jerry Garcia’s uncharacteristically shrill barks filling the air. But Cody didn’t notice. He was looking at the marks in the mud on either side of where his legs had been. All the thoughts on human evolution being linked with early ancestors stumbling on naturally mind-altering substances and the subsequent awareness of higher beings shining in the sky descending down among them and shaping human development were never netted from the stream. It was hard to tell. There wasn’t that much mud. The bed of the creek was mostly rock. But the prints were wide and deep, and looked like whatever it was had claws. Not like a bear or a cougar. More like those of a lizard. Like a really big iguana.
Whatever it was, it damn sure wasn’t Jerry Garcia, Cody thought, taking into conscious consideration now the frantic barking of the dog further down the creek and ten feet up along the embankment. Apparently, whatever it was had gone around the bend.
“Jerry Garcia!” Cody called. A rustling sound around the bend, as of rocks rolling and tumbling about due to something large scrambling around down there, coincided with increased fervor from the dog.
Instinctively Cody determined not to bother with his things. Instead he grabbed a fist-sized rock, and quietly as possible, slipped back up the slope out of the ravine. Only when he was up in the high grass with his rock-fist cocked back, ready to throw, did he call again, “Come on Jerry, let’s go!”
But Jerry Garcia wasn’t having any of it. He barked along the embankment until he was lost from view.
Cody froze mid-step. He almost followed after, then turned around decisively and ran back to the house to get a gun. Clomping nightmarishly slow uphill in the heavy suit with hiking boots, he regretted not having gotten out more often.
Several times he heard what he thought were sounds of being stalked by something big in the brush, but he made it back to the house with a racing heart, rushed inside, grabbed a gun, raced back out and saw Jerry Garcia coming up the hill. Not, Cody thought, with his customary bound. And when he went back later that afternoon with a rifle to get his things, he found the neighbor’s cow. What was left.
Most of it had been devoured....
DRIFTING ROOM After an alien abduction accidentally lands Sam Hain in a parallel universe version of his redwood county home, his only hope of getting back is finding the pale little almond-eyed being with the bulbous head who accidentally landed with him and fled into the forest, while, unknown to Sam, it’s his own blood coming into contact with the biosphere that’s causing the bugs to grow so big. CODY AND HEIDI When aging genius Wolfgang Fischer wounds his foot, the entire redwood land suffers blight. Crops don’t grow right, people act dehumanized, and corporatization ensues as Southern Humbaba County comes under attack by the National Armed Resistance to Growers in this Hippie Grail myth. REDWOODLAND Joe Longhair’s stories give the inspiration for Redwoodland, the world’s largest amusement park and forest preserve of the future. When he finally takes two tickets, Joe finds juicy romance where visitors pass by train through real redwoods, and danger beyond his wildest dreams among the talking burls, automated Bigfeet, and animatronic Hippies.