He had to admit, the guy was likable enough. And it wasn’t exactly off-putting that a widely respected musician who had earned a deal of wealth and knew how to live well should want to play show-and-tell with Beau, when he must have given the same tour for a whole lot of other people, too. Peers. People with connections. People important to him in his career. What could Beau do? Nothing. And still this guy took the time.
“Omar,” said Beau, “I really appreciate your taking the time to show me around.”
“I want you to be comfortable here.”
“No, I really mean it, man. You’re all right. I can see how it must be hard to be so well off when it comes to meeting people, because you never know if it’s you they like, or you they like using.”
“Beau, you have no idea.”
“But then, here you go ahead and treat me like a friend, first time we ever even meet. So, kudos, that’s all.” He took a swig.
“Ready for another brew?”
“Well listen, Beau, I hear you. And thanks. What line of work you in?”
“I work for an Indian tribe on a salmon restoration project.”
“That sounds fascinating, man. Tell me about that. What sort of stuff do you do?”
“Well, all sorts. If I’m scheduled to stay at a site by a weir on a river, or maybe at a juvenile acclimation facility, then I stay for several days, living there in the woods in a trailer recording stuff in logs and keeping up any machinery needing to run. Or I might not be on-site, but help maintain the needs of whoever is, bringing out water in a huge vat and draining that into a tank. I might put on a wetsuit and be required to snorkel down the river and look for any salmon beds, or salmon, with a partner out of the water helping out and writing down the count. Or we might catch the spawning salmon at a trap in the river and have to euthanize some. That’s a controversial process.”
“Yeah. Sorry, I didn’t mean to ramble on so long.”
“You’re interested in your work. That’s what it’s all about, man. Listen, I’m gonna go get those brews, bro. Take a swim in the pool if you want. Towels are down there. The water’s nice and warm.”
“Wow. I think I might take you up on that.”
“I wish you would. Put it to some use, I just had it cleaned for today and nobody’s used it yet. I want to hear more about the salmon, but first I gotta get those beers.”
Having had the tour herself before, Liliana had stepped away (to “use the little girls’ room”), but now Beau could see her not far away, by herself, and the thought occurred to him that a nice dip in the pool might really be in order. Beau went over to her.
“What are you looking at?” he said.
“A section of roof.”
She looked at him. “Is there something you needed?”
He looked back. “Ah, no, not really. I was trying to be friendly was all.”
“Oh. All right.”
“All right then, what’s with the roof?”
“What’s with the roof? You said that’s what you were looking at before.”
“Before you showed up.”
“You know, you’re the one who came looking for me. What happened to hands on the leg?”
“It was one hand, not hands.”
“Goddamit, you’ve been coming on to me all day!”
“Excuse me, I don’t care to be yelled at right now, thank you.”
She started off, but he grabbed her arm.
“Let go of me.”
“Wait a second.”
She tore free. He let her go and watched her head back to the main house encountering Omar in passing as he returned with two brews carrying a quizzical expression on his face.
“What’s her problem?” he said sitting down.
Beau shrugged. “I really haven’t the foggiest. She said she was looking at that circular section of roof capping your castle. I like those wooden shingles, by the way. Anyway, she was staring at it. I thought there might be something to talk about. So I asked her what was up with that and she freaked out.”
“You asked her what was up with the roof? That’s good. I can tell you what’s up with that. It used to be the top of the cultural center. But around the same time I bought Rasta Pasta, I also snapped up the cultural center building, and it needed a lot of work. So now we’re putting up a whole new building.”
Actually the Regal Lager wasn’t half bad. He’d always heard people joke how crappy it was. Now he got to thinking how it kind of grew on you, and almost mentioned this to Omar as a compliment before catching himself. He didn’t want to be rude. Instead he said, “What exactly do they do at the cultural center?”
“Fuck if I know. It won’t be that anymore. I liked the old peak, though. Goes good there.”
From rooftops they jumped to solar panels, from solar panels to sundry other alternative energy forms, until, during a momentary lull, Beau blurted, “Diane Lane!”
“Sorry about that. It just occurred to me, someone I saw. I knew she looked like somebody.”
“Okay, all right. I guess that happens. Where was this now?”
“Out in the woods off the Avenue, near Madrani.”
“Earlier this evening. A pack of women on ATVs.”
“A pack of them, huh? What were they doing?”
“Oh, hell. I don’t know. Burning bras, I guess.”
“I should probably get back inside and see what’s going on. By the way, there’s a hot tub over there, too.”
“Hot tub, eh? Hmm, sounds goods. But you know, it’s been a long day. I probably better see about hitting it.”
“You’re taking off?”
“I probably better.”
“You didn’t drive, did you?”
“That’s right. Shit.” Beau drained his brew and ripped a burp. “Goddam, I better go find her.”
“You think she’s in a mood to help you out?”
“She’s in a mood, all right.”
“Listen, I think you both ought to stay the night.”
“Stay the night?”
“Sure, why not? We’re going to do a late dinner before the convention. Is there somewhere you have to be right now?”
“Yeah, there is,” Beau affirmed. “Right here. Actually right there, in that hot tub.”
“Good man, Beau.”
* * *
Beau sank deep in the percolating bubbles. The turn of the knob on the wall had dimmed the flambeaux in their sconces, and the stars above the structureless tub streamed like bullet holes shot in a dark shack on a bright day.
The hot tub, he realized. It was speeding up the alcohol in his system. A fine mist hung over the bubbling surface, vapors of steam rising as well, perpetually undulating up, so that the night sky and all the cosmos beyond seemed to issue from the cauldron in which Beau cooked, naked, cock pleasantly bobbing. What a day. Holy shit. What a goddam day.
His mind wandered back over the tour Omar just gave. Standing on the squares of the giant chessboard patio. Liliana on the other side. The scale model of Humbaba in the rec room. It was weird beyond reckoning that he should be in two different rec rooms in the span of one day. He tried his best not to remind himself that he had seen a dead body. Eased back in the agitated water, he could not help but relive being shot at.
“This is the room that the main house is built entirely around,” Omar had said when they reached a natural cave in the hillside left completely intact. There was no door, only an open room off a long hallway. Had the hallway not been there, from a distance it might have looked like a large mural of a small cave, the tan sandy walls of which were as barren as they were nondescript. “That’s really far out,” Beau had said. “What made you build your house around this?”
“You know Beau, there are some strange things in this world.”
“You mean like your scale model of the county?”
“Ha! Yes, there’s always that. A toast: To the rec room!”
“To the rec room!”
He could still see Liliana, back at the Madrani Motel, when holding each other’s hands on the old sofa by the coffee table with the Reader’s Digest compilations on it was pure magic.
The tub was exceptionally hot. Beau brushed the sweat from his face, and closed his eyes as he thought of the stars shining like flambeaux. Dark Ages. Middle Ages. There was no escape. Everywhere he looked, Beau was Middle-Aged.
When he was eight he had to help his sister with the paper route. If he listened, he could hear the sound of the papers being folded
(Look, I’ll show you again, you have to do it like this)
still smell the fresh ink and see it stain the hands. Early on Saturday mornings, their mother would sit in the living room, for moral support, and to remind him when his sister had to clip the metal band on a bundle not to get too close, for fear of losing an eye when the freed band whipped back.
If I stay here like this with my eyes closed, I just might not get up. I could so fall asleep right now. Must get up. On the count of three. One…two….
Beau opened his eyes and saw Liliana. She stood for a moment on the far side of the tub, then quietly slipped off all of her clothes and got in.
“Beau here works for an Indian tribe.”
The peroxide cadaver sneered. “Doing what?” This was not a question put to him.
Beau cracked the second big Dungeness claw. He had been giving her the benefit of the doubt a lot. The other two as well. They were from out of the area, and lacking a mall enveloping them, had no idea what to do. These were people who came from privilege, and in seeing from Beau no possibility of him either aiding them or harming, they seemed to feel free to shit in his presence. With great nonchalance, he enumerated numerous duties, all the while chewing crab and cracking claw, perfectly aware that his tone clearly said: “And sure enough none of you scummy little privileged punks could handle the same to save your worthless lives.”
The other cadaver’s cavernous mouth puckered like a giant asshole, as her face produced a practiced wince to evince predictable disdain.
“I’ve heard about these sorts of things,” she said. “The power company funds the project at x cost for x years, and I’m not going to say they intentionally sabotage the project x number of ways, but I mean, my god, what more do those people want?”
“Oh I see,” the peroxide cadaver nodded. “Then when the project’s over, the company points to the results that they paid for, so they can finally go back to making the real profit again.” This observation she punctuated with narrowed eyes and a smirking sip.
Now the guy with custard hair joined in. Turning toward Beau he said, “And how much do you make?” Beau thought the clipped tone with which he asked this made him sound like a total priss, his mouth stretched tight in the practiced smirk, custard head jiggling atop a concentrated posture.
“I don’t know,” said Beau. “They pretty much just pay me in crappy hair dye.”
Under the table, Liliana put a hand on Beau’s leg. “Would you crack my claws, please? I can’t seem to do this.”
Omar raised his glass. “A toast: To cracking open the infinite and pouring forth its abundance!”
This, thought Beau, was something of an odd toast to make. It did, however, provide some sort of placating effect on the others at the table. Handing Liliana her plate back with the crab claws cracked, he grabbed his glass and said he had a toast of his own to make. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-lookin’ corpse.”
The cadavers shook their heads with half-lidded eyes and worked their faces into sneers.
“I think I’ve heard that somewhere before,” said Omar, nodding with thought as he seemed to search through his mind. “James Dean, right?”
“If you say so. I heard it somewhere.”
“Oh my god!” The guy with the custard hair looked like his dearest enemy had just publicly fallen down and accidentally vomited all over himself. “Where did you hear that one, from all the little fishies you feed?”
At this rebuke from one of their own, the cadavers expressed unmitigated joy on cue, swaying in their chairs like plastic palm trees in a hurricane, caked-on makeup cracking.
Beau had encountered this sort of thing before. Like the time when he was in grade school, and he’d had to face every other kid in class but one, his pal, who had laughed at another kid the day before and made the kid cry, and because Beau hadn’t been there that day, the blame from the specific incident of the crying mutated into misdirected hostility toward him in general, because he had been the friend of the kid who laughed when someone else threw up, and he wasn’t there to defend himself, and so was made a scapegoat, and though on the next day when he did return his pal had crumbled under the sanctioned barrage, a solemn smirking event planned to take place after the lunchtime recess, which literally every single person in class knew about but Beau, and per the teacher’s instructions maintained silence right up to the moment when everyone got to vent their encouraged pent-up hate, Beau, however, did not crumble, but defended himself against every claim, and though the teacher, middle-aged, told Beau he would have his turn to defend himself after it was all over, Beau didn’t let that happen, and had to go and ruin the whole thing.
Like the time when he was twenty-five, leaving early in the morning on the way from Carata down to a construction job in Radley, and before he could even reach the overpass to merge with the highway, someone gunned a car from behind and whipped in front of Beau just barely in time to take the exit into town, someone who thought, “Here it is early in the morning, I’m in a moving steel cage, I bet there will be no repercussions at all if I initiate asininity,” but Beau had to go and ruin everything, without the slightest hesitation taking that exit, too, following the car all through town, until the driver finally stopped, and Beau got out and gave him what for right in the face with his fist through the open window, saying, “You ever cut me off like that again, I’ll fucking kill you,” while the driver whined, “Get off of me, get off of me,” till Beau let him go, considering justice met, and continued on down to work.
Nothing had changed. The cadavers with their gaping mouths—“Little fishies, here little fishies!”—uproariously tittering, feeling safe to be awful together, reveling as though they’d all taken some magical exit, and left Beau trapped in traffic, the hateful exhalation passing for their laughter like a corpse giving birth to a child.
* * *
“This is something from Caliphornia.” Caliphornia was Omar’s upcoming compilation, and the something from it was an instrumental song.
The suede bean bag Beau sat down in seemed to sink forever. Everybody’s eyes were closed but Beau’s, this much he could see even with the lights down low. So much so, the cadavers’ plastic lips looked a little less like inner tubes dipped in red latex and stitched to their skin. The bird-like bones of their meatless bodies twitched like the strings which Omar’s fingers plucked, and their friend with the custard hair (who turned out to be an investment banker—Beau never did find out what, if anything, the other two did) stood rooted to the Afghan, dreamily wetting the ends of his fingertips and swiping the air, as though he were tasting the musical notes which issued from Omar’s guitar and filled the cathedral-like high-ceilinged room with lofty vaulting arches reminiscent of Piranesi, while Liliana, perfectly composed, sat on the couch like some inscrutable monument to the fashion industry.
Beau’s vision penetrated through the cadavers and their friend to the days of their youth, for he saw that their viciousness stemmed from insecurity, and their insecurity grew from childhood. There was nothing he could say that they would understand. They were broken, desensitized through heavy scarring. A music review in The Freethinker, the paper out of Bargerville, lay where it was thrown down on a redwood burl table. All three had offered the requisite gift of derision, lambasting the reviewer for not supporting Omar’s music. Privately, Beau found the review entertaining, informative and supported with detail, whereas the lockstep lackey’s sneers were informative of nothing, supported with no detail at all, and were only marginally entertaining to Beau as examples of hypocrisy. As critics of the writing, they were unaware of the irony, the baroque display of their pretention a dense and twisted outgrowth. Some people were twigs, Beau mused, and some were burls, but all were part of the same thing. It was hypocrisy he hated, not hypocrites.
“I call that one ‘Tree-Spirit,’” said Omar, when his hypnotic tune had ended.
“Why do you call it ‘Tree-Spirit?’” asked Beau.
The groan from the guy with the custard hair, sudden and unsurprising to Beau, shifted from misery to vehemence just as quickly as Omar put a stop to it by raising a hand and drawing him over. Beau couldn’t catch what Omar said, but whatever it was, the custard guy bore the expression of a teenage boy who’d been rebuked, and he quietly stomped off to a corner to lick his wounds.
Omar returned his attention to Beau. “You’re the only one who’s asked me that about this song yet, Beau. I appreciate that. And I’ll tell you, I really don’t know. I was out in the woods. Around here, of course. And I got this feeling. You know? And then I started to listen. Like, really listen. Then I started to hear, the music, you know? There’s no telling when or where inspiration will strike. You have to be open, and listen. I try, anyway. I suppose this song came to me from the consciousness of the trees. That’s why I call it ‘Tree-Spirit.’ I thought you might be someone open to that sort of thing.”
“I don’t know anything about tree-spirits.”
“Well Beau, you know, you can find all sorts of books written on the subject. Most books you find will take it from a folklore perspective, or a mythological perspective, and they break it down into parts they can understand in terms of what they think they already know, into the context of the disciplines of which they are the disciples, see? But what if it turns out there’s more to the story than what they think they know so far shows? You don’t think we’re the only life in the universe, do you?”
Beau shook his head. “Far from it.”
“Well there you go.”
Now Beau closed his eyes. “Wild with roots,” he said, slowly savoring every syllable, “a Gorgon head: my young eyes cogwheeled at the tangled waist-high mass riverbar trucked, and my squat mallet sent thick flakes like flack off my checkerboarded chest, hints of burl beneath the busted rock stuck in the dirty redwood, till the giant’s clubbed wart clean of stone gave a milled slab set rickety on two paint-thick sawhorses, wobbling in the pull of the screaming grinder’s wire bristles spitting back the loose punk wood. Renegade spiders ran, nooks invaded by the violent metal wand, and brushed sawdust left the surface clear for belt sanding before subjection to the stages of the orbital. When the meaty red cross-section doused gleamed, and the scrubbed rings’ fluctuating bands rippled, torched edges blackened shone silver where the blue acetylene tip had spread, and set on the knotted legs of a less charred base, the finished tabletop took center stage in the showroom for your more and less impressed tourists, whilst in the side yard my grimed thumb spun a bowl.”
All was quiet. During the course of this unannounced recitation he had kept his eyes shut. To what extent the lackeys evinced kneejerk derision, Beau never saw, but he did hear Omar say, in the direction of Liliana, “I had no idea we had an artist in out midst.”
Beau ignored this. “Holy crap,” he said, trying to get up with the help of a mushroom coffee table under an elbow. “I think I’m about to explode.” Half a brew still in hand, he tottered off to the nearest of the bathrooms, savoring the feeling of whipping out his artistry as with bowed back he let loose like a fantastic downspout even as he drained the Regal Lager. He’d turned the tables on them. Turned the tables good and proper. This he thought as he chucked the empty in the trash. There a box, he could not help but notice, lay in the trash as well. A little white box, with easily recognizable packaging. Raisex. Even Omar had a bottle.
Beau took a peek. In the medicine cabinet there was a bottle. The directions, right there on the side, said to take two. So he did. Then he went back out and sat down.
Omar was demonstrating how to play guitar. On the one hand, it made Beau feel sick to see the cadavers and the custard guy smiling their wretched suck up smiles. No doubt having criticized him behind his back. Still, he could almost feel sympathy for their having suffered whatever had made them act the way they did toward him. They could not have heard him say so without assuming he was as disingenuous as they themselves would be. So he kept it to himself, and about ten minutes of that seemed like an hour. At least Beau wasn’t tired. Indeed, he seemed to have caught a second wind.
Liliana, on the couch a few feet over, noticed Beau looking at her. Unspoken communication occurred. Garbled, at first. It wasn’t clear whether Beau had a problem with his neck, or was on the verge perhaps of passing out. When he got up, though, she understood. A moment later, she followed.
“Hey,” he hissed, when they met around a corner, “I took a couple Raisex! Come on, let’s go!”
It had been soft as a banana slug before. But not anymore.
They ducked into a guest room. A toast to Omar’s guest room! Beau thought as he half-playfully threw Liliana on the bed, finding himself somewhat thrown at the surreal sight of the yielding surface before realizing it was a waterbed. And now came the moment of truth. Lying on top of her, somewhere deep down he knew: If he hadn’t had all the Regal Lager, he never would’ve taken the Raisex, and if he hadn’t taken the Raisex, he wouldn’t be on top of her at all.
“Oh my god,” she said. “What’s happening to you?”
Beau looked at his arms. His clothes were not removed, but he had turned back his sleeves half an hour earlier, and now saw that his skin was changing colors. Pale green to salmon red. Flailing on top of Liliana only compounded his labored breathing, but bent as Beau was on achieving his goal, his rapidly worsening condition precluded fruition. Beau rolled off of her and thrashed about, groaning, the image of Fred Sanford gripping his chest pronouncing, “It’s the big one!” assailing his consciousness.
In a haze he barely registered Liliana hurriedly composing herself. Where was she going? Was she going to tell the others about the body in the woods? But then he looked again and she was back, with Omar now.
From far away: “What happened?”
“He said he took two Raisex.”
“Oh, fuck! It’s not pot! This shit’s hardcore! You have to do Raisex just right, and even then you can go into convulsions! Fuck! He can’t die here! Beau, can you hear me?”
They were calling his name.
“Beau?” Omar’s voice.
The ground was hard. It took him a while to realize where he was. Beau’s throat was dry. A fact which the scratchiness of his voice betrayed. “What am I doing in the cave room?”
“You ran in here.”
“I remember being in the bedroom.”
“You ran out of there. Do you remember taking any Raisex?”
“Yeah. I took a couple of yours. I can’t believe I did that.”
“The main thing is, you’re still alive. You ran around like a madman. Funny how you came to the cave, though. I told you there were some strange things in this world.”
Beau sat up and rubbed his temples. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the reason why I keep this cave. It’s because I found something in it. You want to know what I found? Right about where you’re sitting? A rock. A big, weird-looking rock. Looked to me like it might be a meteorite. About the size of a human head, actually, grayish, almost metallic, and with smooth scallop-shaped indentations.”
“My head’s killing me.”
“I had that rock a long time before I found out what it was. And that was only by accident. But that’s not important now. The main thing is, I did find out. You agreed with me earlier that we can’t be the only life in the universe. And we’re not. As you say, far from it.”
By now Beau had buttoned his stolen band room pants, though whether he’d held them up when running like a madman with a hand or with his hard-on he had no way of knowing. From somewhere in the winding corridors, the sound of a guitar reached his ears.
“What would you say, Beau, if I told you we were visited a long time ago?”
“I’d say you ripped off ‘2001.’”
“That’s good, Beau. But it doesn’t matter what you say, because we were. I don’t know about any monoliths. What they left was an accident. You remember we were talking about tree-spirits before? Well, what happened was, these things from far away escaped from the visitors. Once that happened, forget it. There was no way to round them all up. Whatever it took to do that, the visitors didn’t have the time, or maybe the means, or maybe the inclination. They might have even thought it was a good thing. A sort of happy accident. Time passed on, and now here we are. I guarantee things around the world like the one I found here have been affecting the course of events for longer than we’ve even been around as a species.”
Beau shook his head as he rubbed his eyes and yawned. “I’m sorry. I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you do, Beau. You just can’t handle it.”
Suddenly the music stopped. “That’s not the end of ‘8-Track Mind.’ I think our guest of honor has arrived.”
“What did you just say?”
“The guest of honor.”
“No, the song.”
“‘8-Track Mind.’ It’s one of my new ones on Caliphornia.”
“You wrote it?”
“Of course I wrote it. I write all my music.”
“I thought that was Shreveport Stevie’s song.”