“I hope you don’t mind that I’m holding you hostage.” Liliana’s voice carried through from the open doorway of the guest room to the spacious living area where Beau now stood before a plate glass window taking in the magnificent hillside view of green bucolic splendor which Laibrook so richly afforded. Apparently, they were the only ones home.
“Not at all. My pleasure.”
“Not at all your pleasure?”
“No, two separate things—”
She was fixing an earring on as she left the room, mischievous grin evident that she had been joking and that he didn’t get it. A phone was ringing which she ignored.
“Want me to pick it up?” asked Beau.
“No thanks,” she called from the kitchen, “I’ll just let the machine.”
A man’s voice said to leave him a message. Beau had a hard time matching up the voice with his memory of her little brother.
“This is Omar,” came the voice of the caller after the beep. “We’re having our Gothic Convention tonight. Come on out anytime. I’m counting on you. Your brother told me you would be in town. So you have him to tha-ank. Seriously though, come on out anytime. Bring yourself. Bring a friend. Plenty for all. Very casual. All right.” The machine cut off.
“Who’s Omar?” Beau realized this may have sounded too demanding. He hadn’t meant it to sound at all possessive and it probably did.
“We don’t need to go out there.”
“About a half hour’s drive into the mountains.”
“What’s out there?”
“Omar has a castle?”
“Why is Omar rich?”
“He plays guitar. And teaches it. People say he’s really great, Beau.”
“Really?” Beau was fairly stunned.
“But we don’t have to go out there.”
“I don’t mind going. I just find it amazing that there’s some great guitarist named Omar who has a castle out here and this is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“You said you haven’t lived out here for years.”
“Yeah, well, in my heart I never left.”
“Well I’m not making it up.”
“I’m not saying you are a liar this time.”
“Are we having a fight?”
Beau looked at Liliana. Even hurt she was pert. “No,” he said. “No fight. And if you want to go, I’d like to as well. Gothic Convention, huh? Does that mean like a costume party?”
“You heard. He said casual.”
“Sounds like he’s pretty interested in you.”
“Well I’m only interested in you.”
She was in front of him now, fingers laced behind his neck. He had his head bent down. “Yes,” she said. “Really.”
Right then and there. He was sorely tempted to suggest this. But, it was ten in the morning at a strange house. Beau thought about that, looking at the doorway to the guest room and smelling Liliana’s long dark hair. Actually, how strange a place could it be? Her brother’s house, just right there locally. If they did it now, that would establish a precedent for later. If they didn’t, that might set the wrong precedent for the rest of the day. And night.
Better wait till evening, he thought as she pulled away. Apparently she had sensed what was going through his mind. In which case she now definitely understood that he didn’t want the wrong precedent set.
“Mind if I make a phone call?” he said. “I never should have told Leif I’d call him between five and six. I don’t want to have to feel guilty when I remember later on that I forgot.”
Smiling, Liliana gestured toward the phone and politely seemed to need to vacate the room.
It occurred to Beau that bothering Leif to tell him that he wouldn’t be getting a call later because he, Beau, was going to a party at a castle with that beautiful woman he saw, so pert, so remarkably young-looking for her age, might not be all that kosher. He would need to discreetly let Leif understand something unusually amazing was happening for him, and in a way that didn’t sound more like bragging than necessary. But Leif didn’t pick up, and when Beau heard the answering machine start to kick in on the other side, he almost hung up automatically. He didn’t want to be caught on some strange people’s answering machine. Rather by chance he stayed on long enough to hear Leif’s voice, providing verification of the number and whose house it was, adding, “If this message is for Leif, I will be out of the house for most of the day, probably making trellises.”
Making trellises. That was code. Beau knew what it meant. It meant Leif would be heading back up north to Manuel’s, and didn’t want Pam to know in case she called. Which she should have no reason to. Beau understood. Leif wasn’t taking any chances. In fact, an afternoon at Manuel’s sounded like a good idea right there. Yet as he turned with the intention of finding Liliana and suggesting a trip north for the afternoon, Beau saw a strange-looking woman standing in the hall.
Something was off. Was this woman drunk? Stiffly she raised an arm, looking pretty hot, he had to admit, in a slutty little mini. Face zombie-slack. Yet whether the finger pointed in accusation, recognition, supplication, or because she just wanted him to pull it, Beau never did determine.
“I see you’ve met Shelley.” The man stepping briskly across the glossy hardwood looked familiar to Beau only through the framed photos of himself with various other people he had seen placed around the room. The tight synthetic shirt he wore looking like something on a European cyclist had no give. It was the kind of shirt nobody could bunch up. Not ever. “Shell, run along now. Hustle. Go into the master bedroom and wait for me.” He turned to Beau and stuck out his hand.
They shook. Beau watched amazed as the zombie-woman did as she was bid. “Hey, how’s it going, Terry?” he said. “Beautiful place here.”
“It’s Terrence, actually. Yeah, beautiful. You could say that. Beau, right? You’re still around here, huh?”
Liliana appeared. “Terrence, you remember Beau, don’t you?”
“From the family vacations we took in that little town. Sure.”
“Beau lives out of the area now, and happens to be visiting his parents. He’s taking me to Omar’s.”
“No, tonight. You must have already gotten your invitation.”
“Yes, that’s right. We’ll be there tonight.” He went toward the hallway as he spoke, into the darkness of which the zombie-woman had disappeared.
“Then we’ll see you tonight at Omar’s.”
“You really think he should do that? Does he know what he’s getting into? Don’t go, Beau. You don’t want to do that.”
Liliana shook her head disapprovingly and made a pish-posh motion with her hand dismissive of her brother.
“What does he mean?” Beau asked when Terrence had disappeared. “That Omar likes you?”
“No, don’t listen to him. Let’s go somewhere. Did you make your call?”
“He didn’t pick up. Hey, I was thinking we could go up north for the afternoon. If you like, I’ll drive.”
“You want to drive my Karmann Ghia?”
“Oh no, I mean I’ll drive my car, if you can get us back to town.”
“Do you need to see your parents before you go?”
“They’re not even there right now. They’ll be getting back tomorrow from their own trip. We had a slight miscommunication in the planning.”
“Well why don’t you drive mine then? Would you please? I’d like to see the area, and I can’t do it as well when I’m driving. Pretty please?”
Beau didn’t like to drive other people’s cars, on general principle, but he had to relent. Liliana giggled and tossed him the jingling keys. It was incredible. If Beau didn’t know it, he never would have believed she was older than her brother.
The midnight blue Karmann Ghia threaded through the redwoods. It was 10:41, Beau noticed, looking at his watch for no particular reason, having taken the turnoff from the highway back onto the Avenue for the very specific reason that he spotted a cop camped out across the bridge, all ready to make quota.
“Fuzz thwarted,” he announced. A quarter mile down the road, where the sign proclaims Avenue of the Giants, they got stuck behind a van.
“Looks like that one in ‘Up in Smoke,’” said Liliana.
Beau didn’t register his surprise at her referencing Cheech and Chong, saying merely, “Oh yeah.” An old bumper sticker, he noticed, had defiantly resisted being torn, so that S. OUT OF HUMB was all that remained. Suddenly he realized they hadn’t seen hardly any sketchy people at all. Certainly not in Laibrook, boasting the pastoral tranquility of golf. None on the north end of Bargerville thumbing, either. Not a single soul in a boofy knit hat with a hungry-looking dog held perhaps with a piece of rope, not a one in genii pants and weird scraggly beard. No body odor emanating from any shirtless sorts hitching rides on strange journeys next to piles of poorly packed stuff, skin of the thin limbs browned and burned and Biblical.
Taking the turn some miles later down to the bridge which they would cross before merging back on the highway, Beau looked for the old organic market, a Hippie store his parents patronized years ago for the fresh produce. It looked like something more or less was still there, but having to drive kept him from clearly seeing.
What he did see were people parked at the bottom of the hill, milling around on the bridge. Beau slowed down to a snail’s crawl.
“It’s like trying to drive at Fisherman’s Warf,” Liliana observed.
Beau had never seen so many people on Madrani Bridge in his life. “Hey, that guy right there,” he said, pointing, “I know him from way back. We were in school together.”
The slower they went and closer they got, the more faces from the past Beau recognized on the bridge. Down below, Mist River flowed, and the different colors on the wide swath of rocky sandbar sloping to greater deposits of the gray pebbly sand indicated the swelling levels of the river’s rhythms, filling up in the winter and receding in the summer, yet in the faces of the people he saw on the bridge few of the physical traces of time stood out passing by.
Merging with the highway alongside the river, Beau was glad to split the scene. He passed one turnoff to a town with a liquor store where he’d worked, years and years ago, and another where he’d also worked at a mill. If he thought about it, the distinctive muffled sound inside the cooler at the store, machinery droning up close, bottles in crates clinking at the touch, loose stacks of six-packs always in danger of falling, sour smells of previous spills, were memories all readily at hand. He could hear the buzzing grind of a machine at the mill called the Ripper, into the multiple blades of which one guy pushed a piece of lumber, another guy standing with his back to the pusher a few feet away receiving the jittery strips slowly worked through, the trick being to grab them at the right time in the right way, because failure to do so meant a funny rattling sound coming from the blades for a moment prior to a strip of wood suddenly shooting backward, zipping like an arrow hard enough to stick in a sheet of plywood, if it didn’t stick in the operator easily enough first. In the days Beau worked those jobs, he and Liliana were already history. How he had longed for those letters from her, with what eager anticipation did his trembling fingers remove the scented contents, pages penned by her sacred hand. And with what speed did he pour through the pages past the hum-drum itinerary, looking for and often finding the fluttery mush he so ardently craved. So many years had passed. So many lives already lived.
Wide fronds of tall palm trees waved languidly in the breeze. They stood outside the big Victorian house with its three palms in an area where maple predominated. Spotless pickup trucks parked with tires on the sidewalk looked like stretching ballerinas. This was precisely at noon, and the bell of the great clock in the tower of the university could be heard, resounding throughout the off-campus vicinity.
“Oh shit,” Beau thought, crossing the street when Liliana took his hand. To her he gave a casual smile, as though they were some sort of couple, and comfortable together. “Sounds like they’re in the pool,” he said aloud, catching a high-pitched bray of laughter preceding a sloppy splash. The lull in the music facilitating the observation ceased when somebody cranked up the Rolling Stones.
Everywhere you looked, people were milling. Young people, primarily. A few less so. All busy partying. A sense of dream-like privilege oozed from the great Victorian college party walls. Throughout a sizable portion of the house, upstairs and down, the walls were tiled with redwood shingle. Little brass lamps curved out along the narrow winding halls. It was no place to get separated, but even though they tried to keep their fingers touching over the young heads of the people who endlessly streamed between, they had to let go, and Beau looked back for Liliana as he kept moving forward, until somebody offered him a beer, which he took with a grateful nod and a gracious word right on over to the pool table, where he stood around and watched for awhile before catching sight of a dude of his peripheral acquaintance and inquired if he knew where Manuel was.
The guy, now clearly seen to be completely sloshed, regarded Beau with the dull blank eyes of an inbred hog. Beau knew the score. Probably this guy was stumbling around at noon on faraway legs rising and falling like teetering stacks of ill-trained circus animals because he was in college and somebody threw a kegger, so naturally somebody else had to bring in a bottle of Tequila, and would have wanted to show that off, and someone else would have said, “T’ kill ya! T’ kill ya!” in the knowing way that urges, so now this poor sap tottered around with a clammy pale green pallor mere minutes, maybe seconds, from going totally projectile. Beau would have to get his information quickly.
“Upstairs,” the guy managed, nearly falling over as he pointed. A couple of younger kids, who didn’t look to Beau like they could even be in college, were following the guy around like two vultures who couldn’t wait to see something juicy. “First door,” he added, gasping like a winded moose.
The crowd had thinned. Two past visits told Beau some of the flow likely siphoned down to the basement and the rest went outside. On neither occasion, however, had he seen Manuel’s room. When he knocked on the door, the guy who answered let Beau in as though Manuel were somewhere inside.
Suddenly, the thought assailed him: She wouldn’t take off without him, would she? Surely she wouldn’t do such a thing. It really was too early to drink. Basically the bottle in his hand was only for show.
“Look at this,” said the guy who let him in, indicating a painting on an easel. “What do you see?”
On the canvas a freshly painted smiling man missing an arm sat on the root of a tree filled with green foliage, and a stump indicated where a large branch was missing. Resting on the foot of the man sat a small TV set with one antenna broken off. Inside the TV was an image of the tree, but now with its limb restored; and the man, frowning, and with both of his arms intact, held on his foot the TV with two intact antennae. Any further images in the TV within the TV were too small to see.
Well, what the hell. Beau went ahead and took a couple of pulls off the noon brew, wondering if this guy, who set about articulating many of the more fascinating aspects of the piece (without waiting to hear the opinion he had invited) might not think that Beau was the dad of someone there. Or maybe a really hip prof on some kind of super groovy far out trip.
“Want to see something else?” the guy said.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m actually just looking for Manuel.”
“Hold on, this’ll only take a second.”
Beau realized now he never should have trusted that drunk. The guy who was not Manuel produced a box with a cellophane window, in which could be seen a pirate action figure. “Never been opened,” he said. “Take a close look.”
Beau took another pull and peered in close. He could see his reflection in the cellophane. But when he concentrated on what was inside, he realized. Beau showed this by looking at the guy, and then back at the doll again.
“Wow,” he said. “Looks exactly like you.”
“I know,” the guy said proudly. “He’s my Mannikin.”
“My Mannikin. My tiny version of myself. My soul. My mom got him for me just before I was born, but put the box on the top shelf of her closet and forgot. I don’t know why she did that. She must have been going through her second childhood or something. Then after she died a couple years ago, we went through her things and found this. And he looks just like me.”
Beau took another pull, nodding.
“Do me a favor? Never open this box. The day this box gets opened is the day my pirate soul gets released. And then, watch it. Better yet, forget about it. Don’t ever open the box, okay?”
“You got it. You know where Manuel’s room is?”
“Downstairs. In the hall right underneath. Last door on the left.”
“Right on. Nice picture.”
“Hey, are you somebody’s dad here, or what?”
Outside the room, bodies were bouncing down the hall. To step into that river of innocence would mean certain death. What a way to go, trampled under a tide of people for whom the problems of life remained not remotely an issue. Until they stepped away. Then the grandpa with the malaria and the aunt with the impending foreclosure on top of the bad case of the clap would creep right back, as would once more the cold hard reality concerning lack of cash. For now, for them, everything was riding on borrowed time and money, slim hopes and dicey dreams in the face of certain debt.
Then, down the hall, for a brief moment, he saw her. Beau called out Liliana’s name. She had a beer in her hand. Who gave her that? he wondered. But the next moment she was lost from sight, and Beau heard instead someone calling his own name from somewhere down the hall. It was Leif, waving Beau over with a grin.
The door was shut. The dry ice was going. A rock tumbler churning away gave off a grinding drone. As the fog from the dry ice coalesced, the overhead lights gradually dimmed. Everybody comfortable, nobody moved. This helped let the dry ice develop into a wispy opaqueness concealing the bean bags and the throw pillows on which the three present sat cross-legged and calm, silent entities in a timeless land of cloud.
“Look at me and Pam,” said Leif. They had been talking awhile. Manuel, remote control to the overhead lights at hand, had his eyes closed meditating. “You should cut loose while you can. Tell Liliana that you’re married. She’ll understand, I’m sure. You still haven’t actually cheated.”
Judging by Manuel’s breathing patterns, he was returning from his meditative journey. Manuel had changed his major eight times. He was definitely over thirty. Still in college. As a direct result of having sat in so many classes for so many years, Manuel was considered by many to be the smartest human being who ever lived. People had arguments about this.
“I tell ya, the guy’s been exposed to so much knowledge, he’s just gotta be the smartest human being who ever lived.”
Now his eyes were open. Calmly, he smiled. The harmonic modulations of his voice traveled across the mist.
“So,” he said, “according to Fraser, animism leads to polytheism, which of course means that polytheism leads to monotheism. By logical extension, monotheism therefore leads to atheism, and atheism must lead back around to animism. This is the cycle of regeneration and decay. The many boundless opportunities of youth decay over time until one is stuck in the rut of the same old routine. This is the funneling function of fascist age. The wide rings of animism inexorably narrow and diminish until the emptied cosmic bowl fills back up again.”
Something loud hit the door. Sounds of grab ass in the hall. This interruption proved more than Manuel could take.
“FUCKIN’ ASSHOLES! I PAY RENT AROUND HERE!”
It had to be hard having so much knowledge, stuck in the world of humans.
Manuel turned off the tumbler. Leif closed up his pack.
“You’re right,” said Beau. “I should tell her. She’ll understand.”
“She’ll probably be flattered.”
“You guys taking off?”
“Thanks for taking care of that for me,” said Leif. “On such short notice.”
“My pleasure, my pleasure. Enjoy it. So what are you dudes up to now?”
“I think we were thinking about getting some lunch.” Leif looked over at Beau and got a face that meant shrugged shoulders.
“Lunch? Where at?”
“We hadn’t really decided. Maybe pick up something from Das Bagels, I guess.”
“Das Bagels, eh?”
“Did you want to come?”
“Nah. Nah, I shouldn’t. Thanks anyway. I really should stick with these rocks today and see how they turn out.”
When they stepped out of the room, careful to close it for Manuel before anyone could spill inside, Leif told Beau he could get a ride back with him, and Beau agreed this was the best thing to do.
“But I can’t just leave her without telling.”
“Well, we have to find her.”
So off they went looking for Liliana, Leif being exceptionally careful with his backpack that it never leave his hands, and also that it not get crushed. Beau couldn’t help thinking if he’d had any idea there would be so many kids, he never would have shown up.
They went out to the barbeque and didn’t see her there. Some rookie had burned the wings. Beau didn’t count that much of a loss, having always thought that chicken wings were a total waste of time, being mostly skin and bone. It was another one of the world’s great rip-offs, fooling people into believing it was such a great treat smearing sugary crud around their lips.
One kid’s cheeks looked as though rouge had actually been applied, though Beau knew this was no rouge. Mere baby cheeks, flushed with the blush of alcohol, and perhaps a little barbeque sauce. His polo shirt was crisp and smooth, and would have smelled of fabric softener, were it not for the abundance of men’s perfume slathered on his person, a distinction he may have thought connoted superiority over all the environmentalists, as though he were preppie, as though he were yuppie, as though the theater which he mimicked ensured him safe passage into the land of a million jillion dollars, and happiness ever after. This one busied himself expounding on plagiarizing techniques.
“I just got through turning in a paper on all the sun gods and shit with the birthday right after the winter solstice or whatever. Something about how there’s these three stars pointing at this one really serious one or something, and how it looks like you can’t see it for three days, and then it comes back up, and how that got stories written about it to try to explain shit and everything. Fuck man, I get great grades and I never write a word.”
“Your parents gonna give you another new truck this year?”
“Yeah, but I have to go down for the holidays and pick it up.”
Beau couldn’t stand anymore. It was time to go. Suddenly, Liliana showed up.
“Young lady!” Beau expostulated. “Where have you been?”
Liliana’s response was to snuggle up and apologize, every aspect of her considerably attractive being conveying pert submission. The commercial sprang in Beau’s mind of the woman privately noticing with great dismay that her husband never has a second cup of the kind of coffee they drink at home.
By the time all three had broken free and gotten into the street (the time was now 2:15), Liliana pulling Beau’s arm around her and snuggling close as they walked to the cars, Beau remembered he had something to say to her per that regard. But he didn’t. After depositing her in the passenger seat, he stepped aside with Leif, and assured him he would tell her when he had dropped himself off back in Madrani.
“She’s had a few. I don’t want her driving. Especially not upset.”
“Okay, Beau. It’s none of my business. Whatever you think is best. I’m sure I could be projecting a lot of my own anxieties on you from my own situation.”
“I’m glad we talked about it, though. I definitely will tell her. Hey, if you’re going back to Madrani, I’ll call you up when I get in.”
“I still need to stop off at Das Bagels to stock up for the next few days.”
“All right. We’ll reconvene when we get in town.”
AVENUE OF THE GIANTS