Beau hardly noticed the traffic through Egeria. The whole sweeping crescent curve of the bay heading south from Carata had seemed dream-like in a weird ruddy glow under low clouds, the pungent air smelling of eucalyptus from the long line of trees midway around the bay. Half his life ago Beau had lived in Egeria. At a couple of different places, a couple of different times, working a couple of different jobs. All within a span of a few years, that span seeming a lifetime vastly removed from the ancient memories of childhood proper, and only a handful of years before.
Looking at the loveliness next to him, Beau felt like a spider with a fly in its web.
The Karmann Ghia jiggled his tits. Hers he took as a matter of course. But with him the bony hands of time were clawing his manly pecs into two sad little frowny mouths right at the areola. As seen standing sideways nude, Beau’s gut, when allowed to fully relax, expanding forward, and down, pulled his ape-like body into a great big teardrop of shame, a shame shaped by pants, and the need for the flesh to spill over the pants—again, those bastard bony claws of time.
Liliana put a hand on his leg. It was hard to hear her over the engine and the wind.
“Irish sea beasts won’t suck it?” he said, raising his voice, somewhat perplexed.
She shook her head, clearing her hair from her mouth with a finger. “No, I said I wish these seats weren’t bucket.”
“Oh,” Beau nodded. “Me too. Hey, is your gas gauge fucked up or what?”
Liliana leaned over. “Goddam! I forgot. It got under half a tank. This car is restored, but the float in the tank still needs some work.”
“We just had half a tank.” The needle was bobbing a hair off of empty.
“How far do you think till the next gas station?”
“A good ways. I’m not sure. Miles anyway.”
“Over there!” Liliana pointed out a greasy-looking farm-type place right off the highway. “Look, there’s some man over there on a tractor. Pull off. They’ll have a few gallons of gas here. These places always do, just to run their own machines.”
Beau had no argument. He didn’t relish the idea of impinging on someone like this, but Liliana certainly seemed decidedly urgent. Besides, what else could they do?
“However much they want for it,” she seemed to say as much to herself as to Beau. “We’ll just get it and go.”
“How much you need? Couple gallons’ll get you to Riverdell.” The farmer hefted a five-gallon can. “Oh yeah, that’s got a good four in it.”
“Fantastic,” said Beau, producing a twenty.
“Keep it. That’s way too much.”
“No, really. Please.”
“Don’t need it. That can of gas has been sitting there forever. It’s still good, though. Don’t worry.”
“I really need you to take this twenty.” Beau knew he had to be careful what he said. The farmer looked like he did a lot of backhoe work—as the backhoe. He also had a house a little ways away with a bathroom that Liliana was using, and this factored into Beau’s figuring as well.
“All right,” the farmer relented, looking toward the house and taking the twenty, “tell you what. Come with me.”
Beau followed the farmer into the barn, surprised to see groovy things displayed on the walls inside—album jackets of the Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa and Blues for Allah, a couple of surfboards in a corner. A sound system somewhere within was playing a song off The Band’s first album, “Across the Great Divide.” Beau and the farmer were not gone long, but when they stepped back through the hanging beads, as though from within a cave behind a waterfall, it was with a new pair of shades for Beau, polarized now, and exquisitely clear.
“For me,” said the farmer, “it’s all about ‘The Last Waltz.’ Right from the start, when they hit ‘Don’t Do It’—which is actually at the end of the concert, you know, but Scorsese put it at the start of the film, wisely—it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Levon Helm and Keith Moon, my two favorite drummers. And of course Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.”
“What about John Bonham?”
“Bingo. You read my thoughts right there. You know who else? Charlie Watts. You can’t do better than Charlie Watts.”
“Don’t forget Ringo. I’ve always liked Ringo. Ringo’s cool.”
The farmer nodded in strict agreement. “That’s a fact. I don’t have one negative thing to say about Ringo and I don’t like people who do. It’s not like I’m going to punch anybody in the face for it. That’s the exact opposite of what the man’s always been about. ‘Don’t Pass Me By?’ ‘Flying?’ The man’s a Beatle.”
“He wrote ‘Flying?’ I thought that was George.”
“It was. They all wrote that one.”
“I’ve always liked ‘Good Night.’”
After Beau found the gas cap and managed to empty the can without either scratching the paint on the car or leaving any drippage, he noticed how the house, being situated down a subtle grade among some trees, was actually lost from view to the road. In all his years growing up in the county and well into adulthood, he’d passed the place by burning the miles coming and going without ever the slightest clue to the neat little house on the side of the hill, so green by the trickling brooklets which fed the threading river.
Liliana came up from the house bearing a grocery sack in her arms.
“Did you get some of that pie?” the farmer asked, hefting a bag of fertilizer over a wheelbarrow and slitting it with a pocket knife. The contents spilled like the entrails of a gutted beast.
“Your wife is so nice. I tried to stop her.”
“Pumpkin or pecan?”
“I think it’s pumpkin,” she said, looking into the bag, then corrected herself. “No, wait. It’s both.”
“Good,” said the farmer, returning the knife to his pocket. “I was gonna say.”
Beau thanked the farmer profusely one last time before driving off. He was tempted to see if Liliana might not be up to taking the wheel, but then he saw the farmer carting away the fertilizer and decided he better drive, if only to avoid the visual association in his mind.
After filling up in Riverdell, a cosmic battle raged in Beau that may as well have played on the giant screen of the sky. At the station Liliana had gotten out and stretched. As the cost of pumping ticked away at its alarming rate, images of what could be assailed his mind. It was all he could do not to turn off at the entrance to the Avenue on the highway. Somewhere along its moody seclusion they could pull into a pullout. And dip into the pie. There was pumpkin to start forkin’. She had an hourglass figure, and the sands of time were nowhere near running out.
The thing of it was, the whole situation had been entirely thrust upon him. He thought about this as he passed by the turnoff
(Ah say Ah say turnoff, that is)
(Thank you Foghorn Leghorn, you old cock)
and reminded himself how he never had gone looking for any of this. Never even asked for it at all. How completely powerless was he as a person to let this woman he used to (let’s face it) barely know—as a kid, no less—stalk him, hold him hostage, and jeopardize the strength of his marriage? Wasn’t he vital enough to recognize and accept his vitality without having to check and see if it was still there?
Even as he thought these things (admitting, too, the fact that they probably would be better off doing it in the road than in the tick-thick, poison oak-filled woods, with the sticks and the twigs and the bits), on another level he was talking animatedly with Liliana about he had no idea what. Body odor, he reminded himself. Moistnessess, stains. Sexually transmitted diseases. And even though they weren’t on the Avenue proper, the Scenic Alternate old road, still the battle raged spectacularly over the trees looming close to the winding road.
Beau took the exit off the highway at Darrow’s Bend. Only a few miles to Madrani, now. It was time for him to make things clear.
“Hey,” he said, breaking what he thought was an uncomfortable silence, “I had a really great time. This was fun. Who knows? Maybe again sometime.”
Dammit! That wasn’t right.
“I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
“Nothing. I’m just saying I had fun. Didn’t you?”
“Of course I’m having fun. I’m with you.”
“That’s nice.” Beau looked at his watch: 3:19. “The thing of it is, Liliana,” he said, “I’m already…having…plans—what I mean is, I have to drop myself off in Madrani and say so long. I’m sorry. I just…can’t.”
Her expression remained as unbroken as an action figure’s cellophane window as she said, “Come on, you’re joking, right?”
“I’m not kidding. I’m sorry, but I’m not kidding.”
She had her torso turned, facing him in a manner which he found uncommonly distracting. “I think I understand,” she said. “You know, I wouldn’t blame you for saying you were divorced if you weren’t. I would feel…flattered. I want you to know that seeing you again after all these years, I could have been really disappointed. But I wasn’t. And I’m not. I think you’re amazing.” She touched his arm. “I would never bother you. I would never do anything to hurt you. But tonight, if only this once, if you want me, I’m all yours.”
The redwoods flanking the winding road provided unique acoustics to the Karmann Ghia’s engine slowing into and powering out of the curves.
“All right,” he said. “You talked me into it. We’ll just continue on through town. I’m excited to go to this Gothic Convention. Let’s stop at the market first, though. I want to pick up some beer and get some snacks. Maybe a bottle of wine, too.”
Liliana reached over and put a hand on his thigh as they drove up into town, so that Beau had a hard time indeed, and had to wait after stopping at Madrani Market for a solid couple of minutes before he could get out of the car, and when he did they went in together.
They examined a cooler and a couple of shelves, together like a real couple, he holding a basket and she hanging onto his arm. At the counter by the door, Beau set down the basket and asked the cashier for the key to the rest room. She reached under the counter and presented him with a large metal triple spiral from which the key depended on a chain. “In the back,” she said. “On the right.” Liliana spun a squeaky postcard rack as Beau went to the back of the store.
When he turned the corner, he saw behind the restroom an exit door propped open with a cinder block. There wasn’t a moment to waste. Leaving the key on the restroom handle, Beau slipped out the exit, and hustled toward the refuge of the redwoods beckoning beyond.
Beau blundered blindly, eventually sitting down in a secluded spot on a huckleberry hillside where he could watch the river.
He had been on this hillside before. It was when he was in the sixth grade. The other kid who waited at the same bus stop said if they ran across town over to the junior high to catch the bus there, they could get a hot cinnamon roll. But the bus was already taking off while they were running across the football field. They tried to run back to the correct bus stop, but gave up when they saw it was hopeless and instead crept down to the forest on a trail behind the store, pretty sure that no one had seen them. The plan had become to simply play hooky. When it got to be around three, they would hike back up, hide somewhere until they saw the bus pass by, then go home as though they had been to school. What they hadn’t reckoned on was losing all track of time.
Looking at his watch, Beau saw it was a few minutes past four. He was hungry, needed a toilet, had to remember to call Leif before five, and would have liked to avoid the long hike through the woods in order to reach the dirt road below his folks’ house, but didn’t want Liliana to see him walking through town. He decided to take a peek from a distance to see if her car was still at the store. If not, he could hoof it up through. But what if she drove past? That could easily happen. Well then, he decided, he would simply have to say, “Yes, I ditched you.” But hey. At least he wasn’t a cheater.
On the verge of getting up, pausing only to work the circulation back into his feet, Beau froze at the sound of voices coming from somewhere alarmingly close.
Any words in the woods heard unexpectedly so close would have prompted Beau to pause, just to protect his own privacy. The ones he did hear though were said with a peculiar coldness that made his neck hair stand on end.
“She had it comin’.”
Beau peered through a tangle of branches. In the direction of the voice, appearing much closer than he thought at first, he could see two things clearly through two apertures in the brush available to his view with minimal movement. One was a shoe. The other, an arm. Dark-complected. The shoe moved. The arm didn’t.
“She was practically beggin’ for it, man,” the cold dead voice went on. “Geez, did you see the way she was dressed? Them panties? She was beggin’ for it.”
A second voice, less dead than the first. “Reckon you give it to her, too.”
“You reckon fuckin’ right. Shit, man. They’re all beggin’ for it. You see, you can’t go lettin’ them go walkin’ all over you, or really, you wanna know what? They’ll take the whole goddam mile. A man makes damn sure a woman knows who’s in charge.”
“Where you gonna bury that girl’s body?”
“Shit man, anywhere. Take a fuckin’ look around, pick a goddam spot.”
“Fuck, man. Over there’s nice.”
The two began digging at the soft ground with sticks.
“Shit, man,” said the first. “The ground gets fuckin’ hard.”
“What about under this log?” said the second. “See how it’s all soft? We could dig down a little ways, then fit the hole of the hollow trunk there over her, pack in the rest of the loose shit around the edges, maybe put a couple rocks here and there. Whaddaya think?”
“Fuckin’ shit, Chuck, good man. Fuckin’ stuff the body in the trunk. Yeah, that’s good thinkin’.”
The two proceeded to scrape.
“I’ll tell you somethin’,” said the first after a minute of that, leaning on his grave-digging stick. “You know why you gotta show a woman you’re in charge? It’s because, deep down, or actually, right under the surface or whatever, there are no bosses, only bootlicks. I seen it on a bumper sticker. It’s true. There are no bosses, only bootlicks. You get it?”
“Yeah. It’s sayin’ there’s no bosses. Just bootlicks.”
“Look, clown. You get to the diggin’, and I’ll get to the tellin’, all right? Now, what it means is—and come on, move your lazy ass and dig or we’re never gettin’ outta here alive, man. Shit. What it means is, we’re all part of the same thing. I mean, if the chain of command goes right on up to the President, and the President needs you to vote, or whatever, and so has to act all nice to you, just beggin’ for it, see, then that means nobody’s in charge. Or else everybody’s in charge. Same difference. Employers need employees, or they got nothin’. And they need customers, or they got nothin’. So, no bosses. But there are bootlicks. Some dumb assholes just love to play the suck up game. And they’re the reason everything’s set up against guys like me and you. Hey, are you done there, or what?”
The soliloquy stopped at the sound of a snapped stick. Both looked back. With the one scraping and the other talking, neither had heard Beau coming up softly behind them. In one of his hands he held a large rock.
“This ain’t what it looks like, mister.” The first speaker had his hands up with his digging stick leaning in the hollow of his shoulder. Six-foot, overweight, forty-ish. The other, maybe ten years younger, a hair shorter, trim build, gripped his stick firmly and seemed to be checking with the other for some sign of what to do. “We found her in the river already drowned. I swear to you on my skin as a white man, we were just gonna leave her here safe from predators to go get help.”
The naked body of a girl lay off to the side. Probably Hispanic. Maybe eleven or twelve. The rock in Beau’s hand, big and smooth, rose and fell with the force of his respiration. It was as though he were impelled against his will. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He had to see. His hand had seemed to pick up the rock all by itself. At first it was just in case. But the closer he got, the higher the hand with the rock rose. What resulted occurred without thought. Without hesitation. Like squashing a poisonous spider.
Beau waded in, and the rock connected heavily on the side of the first one’s head. No sooner had the body toppled than the rock left Beau’s hand and struck the other full in the chest. To Beau it was almost like being an impartial observer. The first one’s eyes were closed and he lay quite still. Blood ran from the swollen mess on the side of his head. The second one’s eyes were wide open. His wind appeared knocked out. His sternum might have been cracked.
Beau stood dazed, not even conscious of wondering what to do. His entire consciousness was a white bed sheet suddenly snapped outward, which very gently descended. This process of righting himself was nowhere near complete when the gunshot rang. Beau felt the displacement of the air near his ear as the bullet hit a tree behind him.
The skinny one of the two, whom Beau had heard the other call Chuck, had wormed his way over on his back to a jacket on a log nearby, taking one of his trembling hands away from the middle of his chest long enough to grab a gun from one of the pockets and quaveringly point it Beau’s way.
Again it went off, innocuous as a firecracker, but now Beau was moving. There was nowhere to go but the river, straight ahead, only a few yards away. For the three longest seconds of Beau’s life he was sure he would be shot, and he wondered running if the one with the gun had succumbed to the force of the blow from the rock more fully, or whether he feared drawing unwanted attention to himself and his friend with the body of the girl, or whether he was simply taking his time on a clean shot, but then Beau was in the river, its bracing chill nightmarishly slow, nightmarishly shallow, and he knew at any moment he would see the gun being pointed at him, and feel as it fired, but he managed to round a bend, and as the slithering caress of the current picked up, he took advantage of the deepening center, keeping his eyes on the bank for any sign of movement, until he felt he had slipped safely enough away to make toward the rocky bank around another bend and scramble back into the forest . . .