There appeared at some little distance among the fern and redwood a figure decked in a large wide-brimmed hat and a brown and green serape, who, in spying Beau, approached with a genuinely wary eye but exaggerated quizzical expression which he dropped when stopping a few feet away with a hand held out, palm up, and saying with a straight face, “Spare a few bucks for a cup of coffee?”
Bedraggled, weary, sopping wet, Beau was still too deep in shock to see that the guy was kidding. In spite of his troubles, he reached back and produced his dripping wallet.
“I think I’ve got some ones in here.”
“Couldn’t they be dry? Hey bud, it’s okay, thanks, I was only joking. What the hell happened to you? Are you all right?”
“You in some kind of trouble? I thought I heard gunshots up river.”
“I saw something, yes. I am. I was. Those shots were fired at me.”
“Someone tried to shoot you? Why? Who’s trying to shoot you?”
“I don’t know who it is. Some crazy asshole with a gun. I thought he was going to kill me.”
The man in the serape paused, as though he were weighing what to do. Then he said, “I have a safe place we can go right nearby here. I don’t see any gun on you. Are you carrying one?”
“All right. I can see you need some help. There’s been a lot of people going missing lately. Some right here in the forest. I’ve got a safe place you can hole up if you think you need it.”
“I think I need it.”
“Come on. I’ll show you my tree house.”
Woody lived in the woods. He had been…in the shit. And now knew not to trust the government. Did he know about the Congressional Military Industrial Complex? Yes. Big-time. These things Beau learned climbing a redwood, largely by use of some rungs nailed into the side of the tree a good eighty of the perhaps two hundred feet up. The chatter didn’t start until they reached the branches, and even with a little cover, Woody kept the chatter low, but Beau got the feeling this was intended to distract him from looking down and getting scared, which was entirely true. Woody said so when they reached the safety of the snarl of shoots up top.
Here thick branches running laterally bore robust clusters which, when penetrated, revealed ladder rungs descending into the hollow tube of the living tree.
“I can’t believe I climbed all the way up here,” Beau said, trying to wipe from his eyes the invisible little redwood bits that drifted down from Woody. “I haven’t climbed a redwood in a lot of years. I’ve never even been this high up in one.”
“I’m so used to it, it didn’t occur to me that you might not be able to till we got about halfway up.” From within his serape Woody produced a Mag-Lite with a piece of cord attached; when he clicked it on and wore it like a necklace, the downward-pointing light sufficiently illuminated the wooden rungs leading into the spiraling and gradually widening interior. “There’s an emergency exit at the bottom that I keep barricaded. I’ve never needed to use it. Plus up top I stash a roll of heavy waterproof canvas I use as a cap over the entrance. How you doing up there? Can you see well enough?”
“Oh yeah. This is no problem. How long did it take you to put these rungs in?”
“I banged it out in a couple days. I wasn’t in any hurry. Hung ropes from the top and rappelled my way down.”
When they reached the bottom, Woody turned on some lamps, revealing the spacious interior of the chamber and a plethora of camping supplies. “There’s the emergency exit,” he said, moving the beam of the Mag-Lite over to a natural cleft. A dark tarp covered the aperture. “I plugged it up a few weeks after I found it. I was just hiking around. Then I really got into this tree. It got to where I was spending so much time in here, I started bringing in some of my stuff. First I’d stay for days, then I’d stay for weeks. Now it’s months at a time. Anyway, I’ve got a clean towel you can use”—he produced one from a duffle—“and a clean change of clothes if you want. There’s at least one pair of pants in here with old paint stains and a bunch of shirts I was going to cut into rags, but I can spare some old clothes. You don’t even have to bring them back.”
“Wow. Thanks. I don’t know what to say.”
“You did. Hungry? I’ve got gorp, jerky, cashews—never eschew a cashew—carob, crackers, cheese, gorp—wait, I already said that—grapes, bagels—here, do a bagel.”
“Thanks. Say, what happens if you have to take a leak or a dump? You don’t have to climb all the way out, do you?”
“You don’t want to know. You don’t have to go, do you?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Beau checked his watch. At first he was surprised to see it wasn’t even four-thirty yet. Then he noticed the sweep hand wasn’t moving and realized his non-waterproof watch had stopped. Time itself had seemed to stop. It was hard to imagine the world was still happening outside.
A sound within the giant redwood moved about the chamber, a low haunting echo of the long weird creaks and stretching moans of the living timber, irregularities to the twisting interior of the tube accentuating odd acoustics, like being in the belly of a groaning whale.
The thought hammered in Beau’s mind: He faced them when he should have run, he ran from her when he should have faced.
“Here,” said Woody, handing Beau a thermos cup, “drink this tea, it’ll do you good.”
“Thanks.” The tea was luke warm. Beau drained it at a gulp and started drying off. “You said something before about people going missing.”
“That’s right. Too many. Crazy Marty, Sedona Sanchez, Mama Odessa, Shreveport Stevie. More than that. These are people I know. People I’ve been friends with for ages. Just disappeared.”
“All at once?”
“No. Practically, though.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I have no idea. Nothing good. Someone’s doing something. And I mean these people were creators, every one of them a musician. Shreveport Stevie was all excited about a song he’d written, ‘8-Track Mind.’ Then, poof, gone. Man, we’re losing our artists. When you start losing your artists, you start losing your culture.”
Hearing all of this was a big relief to Beau. None of it matched with what he thought he had seen. And now he began to wonder if he had really seen what he thought he saw in the first place.
First of all, what if she wasn’t as young as he looked? The same could be said for Liliana. And what if she was merely asleep? What if both of those guys knew he was there and were merely pulling his leg? After all, that was what Woody had done. What if he had misheard them, as he had misheard Liliana in the car? What if some skinny-dipper drowned, and those two really were trying to protect the body before going for help? Beau wondered now if he had killed an innocent man. The other guy could hardly be blamed for defending himself. A jury might even call it heroic.
On the other hand, if he saw what he thought he saw at the time, then he would have to report it. Indeed, this was what he had to do, but he would have to do it anonymously. For all he knew, there lay in the woods the body of a guy who had suffered a head wound, and another who succumbed from a blow to the chest.
Beau finished wringing out his shirt and stared into space. “Goddam,” he said after a while. “I can’t believe I was just getting shot at.”
Reclined against a rolled-up sleeping bag on a wool blanket spread out over the hard ground, Woody hung his hat on a nail, picked up a guitar and regarded Beau’s reverie with an open face as he began to lightly strum. “I wondered when you were going to get around to that. Are you an artist? Maybe you saw the killer, if there is one.”
“You never know. I don’t think I’m too much of an artist, though.”
“What are you?”
“Well, I’m a person who doesn’t live around here anymore. I used to. I grew up here. Hey, that’s nice playing, but don’t you think that might be calling attention?”
“No, don’t worry. You could be standing right outside the barricade and barely hear it. And why would you be standing there when it’s all a bunch of brush anyway? I’ve never once seen anybody hiking over here. You saw. There’s no trail. I could probably scream at the top of my lungs and nobody would hear. Even without the cap on top. That barricade’s got a mattress in it stuffed tight.”
From a half-filled duffle Woody had indicated with a nod, Beau pawed through some old clothes inside. The first thing he did was use two t-shirts to dab each item in his wallet dry.
Hanging out with Woody reminded him of sharing a room with his brother growing up. His brother used to play pinball like Tommy. Beau would watch him rack points and free games in the rec room, eating snacks and spitting chew-juice. Now their old room stood out in his mind. His brother leaning back with a dip in his lip and reading a Conan book on one side, Beau with a disgusting chunk of chaw in his cheek like an idiot reading a Tarzan on the other. It was his brother, Beau never forgot, who came up with the idea of serial killer trading cards long before that actually happened.
The rags spread out before him reminded Beau of the time he and his brother had stuffed some of their old clothes with piles of wadded newspaper and made a life size dummy, affixing shoes and gloves as realistically as possible, and adding a head consisting of tightly taped newspaper slugged repeatedly into proper shape, then fitted with a modified pillow case and blessed with a Magic Marker face. Once it had eyes, the paper man came alive. Beau had suggested they throw the paper man off the bridge, to see what that would look like, but his older brother was afraid the old man who lived near the bridge would see and call the cops. So they drove one night down the Avenue instead, and Beau got out of the car with the paper man while his brother headed down, turned around, and came back at cruising speed in his gas-guzzling Gran Torino, that Beau might chuck the paper man by neck and ass into the path of the oncoming car.
The light of the lamps, requiring winding, had dimmed drastically down. Beau presented Woody with some freshly dried cash, which Woody, playing a song he learned from listening to the Gipsy Kings, “A Mi Manera,” politely refused without breaking rhythm, merely by closing his eyes to it and shaking his head no. Beau left it on a backpack anyway, having selected from the duffle a paint-stained pair of pants, a t-shirt and some socks. Used underwear he decided to do without.
When he finished the song (still lightly strumming in the gathering dark), Woody told Beau he should really keep his money. “Stash your cash. I had an extra good year a couple back. So I’m all set for a while.”
Beau ignored, though. “Thanks for the clothes, and the grub, and the music, and sharing your place here.”
“Hey, it’s the planet’s, not mine. But you’re welcome.”
“I probably better take off.” Beau didn’t bother explaining to Woody that he needed to go report the body anonymously. He didn’t want to make Woody a potential accessory to murder. Also he needed to call Leif and get back on some regular clothes. For those things he was definitely going back to his folks’ house. The problem was, he wasn’t sure exactly how to get back to the Avenue. Woody seemed to read his thoughts.
“Sucks to go crashing around through the brush when somebody’s trying to kill you. You can stay overnight if you need.”
“That’s okay.” The darkness of the chamber at the base of the ancient tree felt like limitless space. A strong wind blowing across the top of the redwood whistled like breath blown into a giant empty bottle of beer. “Thanks, though.”
“Well then, I can tell you the easiest way back.” Woody put down his guitar and cranked the lamps back to full. When the power was restored, Beau looked up and saw, hanging from some fishing line nailed to an outcropping overhead, of all things, mistletoe.
A shining golden bough.
Gargantua, as Woody called his tree house, did not perceptibly sway when viewed from ground level. But climbing up inside, Beau definitely felt it. More than once he thought for sure that he would lose his grip, or that a rung would break, or that the entire tree was going to fall. By the time he got to the top and looked over the side, Beau was so startled to see his view move due to the slight swaying of the tree, he felt as if he might actually faint.
In a state of shock, managing the upward and easier half of the climb outside was one thing; descending now—in a wind, mind—was quite another.
“Don’t look down,” Woody said, climbing up, as though in a race against time to bring Beau down safely. But once Beau managed to get a leg over the top, he was basically home free as long as he went slow and gripped the brittle branches with the downward sweep right tight to the tree, which he did, pleased to see that Woody had followed him down to see him off.
Dusk-lit fibrous redwood residue sifted down to the rust duff of the forest floor from the friction of the soul-grip. “Hey man,” Woody said, “it’s been real.”
“Your hospitality is the stuff of legend, sir. I salute you. Now then, I’m thinking probably the best way back to the Avenue is…hmm….”
“See that big tree? Go up there to that one and you can see the creek. Just follow that back up the hill. It shouldn’t take you too long.”
“Fantastic. Well, time to hit it. Adios.”
They bumped fists, Beau trying to ignore the ill fit of the clothes, the musty smell which they exuded and the itchy feeling against his skin resulting from not having properly bathed after the soaking in the river and subsequent climb. He had nearly made it to the tree when suddenly he whipped around, madly patting pockets for his wallet. “Shit! I forgot my wet clothes. At least I have my wallet. Shit! Well, keep ‘em.”
“I wondered when you were going to notice. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have let you take off. I tossed them from the top. They’re in a bundle right there.”
Beau looked where Woody indicated. “Oh, fuckin’-a, right on.” So then he went back and got his clothes, all dirty from the fall, and finally took off after that, waving back at Woody one last time, kind of ticked at the whole exit deal being dragged out so long, thinking, “Shit and fuck, now I know how that youth group felt.”
Far enough away that he felt comfortable talking out loud to himself, Beau never expected the words which assailed his ears:
“Hey, how’s the weather down there?”
Scanning backward and upward, Beau spotted Woody over halfway up Gargantua, waving at him from the branches. “I wondered when you’d notice. You talk to yourself too, huh?”
An exaggerated shrug from Beau.
“Birds of a feather I guess,” Woody called. “You take care now. So long, bud.”
Beau turned back, saying, “So long. Goodbye.”
Rounding a bend in the creek bed, he thought for sure he got away, although he didn’t dare chance talking to himself yet. And a good thing too, because Woody had gotten still higher quite quickly, and could now see, over the rise, the creek bed again, for a good bit, up which Beau started running when he looked back and saw.
“Hey!” he heard Woody holler. “You all right?”
“I’m fine!” Beau yelled, not stopping at all, not even when he reached the Avenue, nor for another hundred yards after that.
Beau got off the road when he heard a car coming. There was no way he was letting anybody see him wandering around like a stupid ass in the ill-fitting rags of some guy in a tree. Hustling through the light undergrowth with decaying old branches sticking up on the ground cracking and snapping underfoot, Beau hid behind a redwood till the car passed and he realized: the last thing he needed was calling attention to himself anywhere remotely in the vicinity.
“What’s this you say, officer? Dead bodies? Why yes, I do remember seeing a man of that description….”
No thanks. Time to stay away from the roads. He wondered what time it really was. Just like that time with the kid in sixth grade playing hooky. Except now there was at least one dead body and a guy with a gun. Beau still couldn’t get his mind wrapped around that first part especially.
From a spot on the hillside overlooking the Avenue Beau saw where he had crossed in his rags moments before, realizing it was also the same exact place where he had thrown the paper man, and for a split second Beau felt like his youthful self had thrown his older self by neck and ass across the Avenue and up into the forest.
Then once again the quality of quiet overtook the woods, the Doppler effect of occasional cars bump-bumping the gold fractured glint of center line reflectors insulated from Beau’s ears by the green sea of trees. A curious cross between the lull of relaxation and heightened alert to aspects of expectation pervaded as Beau’s wondering mind wandered through the forest of the past peopled with the visions of his youth, and his shadow swam over the rocks of a dry creek bed parallel below, till topping a rise he came to a place where a new road was being cut into the hillside and heavy machinery lay in disarray looking like giant kids’ toys left out where churned earth loosed ghosts. From somewhere not far away, the sounds of approaching ATVs grew.
The whole area seemed somehow preternaturally clean. It was strange to see a perfect little park-like glade so far from the Avenue, bearing no signs of the State, and looking like a painting from Salvator Rosa. Not wanting to be seen, Beau took the closest refuge—a tall, hollow stump. He climbed up and hid inside, peeking through a thin cleft in the direction of the advancing noise.
The droning grind of ten ATVs soon filled the arena area, buzzing like an unimaginably huge hive of insects, all the more monstrous to Beau simply by going unseen, initially. But when the reverberating tremors passed and parked some little distance away, there lay in view a strange scene to Beau’s spying eye behind a mossy hole.
Ten women cut the engines and stood around chatting. Occasional laughs went echoing up.
“Who the hell are these people?” Beau thought, feeling immediately trapped in the stump and yet unable to stop looking at them, because, why should he? To a man these were all good-looking women, and Beau was the man.
Of the ten Beau thought he recognized three—but not for who they were. It was only that one looked like Joan Cusack, the other Maureen McCormick, and the third one he couldn’t quite place. Someone called the fake McCormick Audrey; the first one’s name, Wanda, was revealed by the questions put to her from those wanting to know further of the order they were in. This had Beau stumped. Gradually he realized they weren’t talking about sects. Their order had nothing to do with sects at all.
It was indeed a strange thing to see. Nobody seemed to need to issue any orders, but they all moved toward the very stump in which Beau huddled. Touch-and-go then, whether he would have to climb up, clamber down and run. Instead he stayed, and witnessed the women forming a ring at about fifteen feet from the stump all the way around it.
Wanda, who seemed to Beau to be some sort of event organizer, dropped the banter-demeanor and took on a more purposeful air.
“We join at the final moments of dusk for this invocation to the earth, in the spirit of balance, in the spirit of harmony, that this crisis which has come to us and taken our friends will depart in the wake of this spell of united creative energy.
“I guess I’ll start us off, and we can keep it moving to the left, clockwise.”
Then one-by-one, like candles on a giant cake slowly getting lit, the women recited the lines of their creation. In turn. Aloud. All of this was pretty creepy to Beau. He hated public speaking.
“When the wind blows in a thunderstorm,” Wanda pointedly intoned, “the leaves whipped in the trees sound like waves crashing on the ocean. Raindrops hit like sad insistent fingertips. Finally the land is somewhat free. Peering eyes of ugly faces hide, huddling forms hurry, crouching below the meager bits they hold, twitching to their holes, in hate of wet and dark, and the noises of the sky all falling down upon them.”
Beau very nearly clapped. But the hole in the side of the stump allowed him a view of the next speaker, a trim brunette with elfin features and a tiny tank top.
“Oppenheimer quoting The Bhagavad Gita: A big white black-eyed goat sprang from the center of the circle. The power of stillness pervaded. The rearing goat hung, swelling self-lit in devastating silence. We did not know what we had done. Then the cloven hooves crashed upon the rock—‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’”
As with Wanda, on finishing, the speaker remained in a fixed position, standing still, looking forward. The next two speakers, however, Beau could not see; yet another hole on the side of the stump seemed a promising orifice to investigate, provided he crawl on all fours across the hard-packed dirt with deliberation sufficient to retain his anonymity.
“I may not seem partial,” the third woman in low timbre enunciated, “to the things which ye so desperately clings, but one thing’s fer sartin, I’m…gonna…kill ye—gonna ram m’ blade clean through to the hilt, good, solid an’ strong in ye—again an’ again—an’ again an’ again an’ again—I’m gonna cut yer bleedin’ gut wide open—stick yer neck—cut, here—here here here here here—slash yer skull, an’ rip out yer ‘eart, an’ yer liver—gonna drive m’ big shiny knife wamwam quick like so in yer sockets, an’ slop up an’ down amid yer mushy gore, aye, an’ stomp ye to the pave—when the killin’-time’s come.”
At this point Beau had crawled over halfway across as slowly as he could, but when the protective cover of the woman’s speech ceased, he had to hold an awkward position, as though he were playing Twister, until the fourth woman spoke.
“Cemetery candy: Mud’s tongue licks skulls clean of meat. The grave mouth sucks till bone is gone. Death smears the pit’s lips. Spoiled dirt smiles fat, finding fun in funeral.”
The fifth kept up momentum.
“When the night cycle reaches zenith, flowering begins! The key to flowering induction is a healthy growing environment of uninterrupted darkness! Height, branching, maturity, all are maximized in the greenhouse underground! Uninterrupted darkness! Kill the males, keep the females!”
As did the sixth.
“If I could awake on the skin of a bear whose cave I took, and run as the sun rose over a mountain to a river that made me shiver alive, to a green field that rolled on the other side, where on the edge of a wood stood a stag eating grass, till creeping and leaping alight on its back with a wrench of the rack that made the neck crack—without a living soul to see—I would be the better for it, and commemorate the occasion with a poem no one would read.”
And the seventh:
“Slumbering delighted, the world-dreamer drifts alone, partially submerged, partially afloat, upon a lake of lotus without limit, above and below a pillared heaven. The sun grows. The whole world withers. Wind spins into cyclone, and cyclone into fire. The spider re-spools its web.”
By this time, Beau had found a good hole. For, more than one hole lay in that old stump; and while it may not have been the hole-iest of natural chalices, Beau managed to luck into a sweet one without being seen and get a good peep through—this time, at none other than Dream Maureen, the fake McCormick, who spoke with an earnest glow in her voice which very nearly sounded obscene.
“Today we go to woo the wood, saw in the copse a corpse, rush the brush, usher a gusher, create a sacrifice. This redwood dissolution, dissipation, desolation, rings fertile rot. Down to earth bark screams, back to duff the compost turf. There on the mulch sprouts bloom, ray and clay rejuvenate, regenerate, reanimate, spermatize resplendent unstopped, and this is how a god gets chopped!”
Night had fallen. High above, the black outlines of the treetops were offset by the blue of the new evening sky. Now came the ninth.
“In the ultimate poem first and final, letters combine to align in arrangement which reads not just left to right, but up and down and back and forth in every possible language, all making sense, all making beauty, no space omitted, it all interacts, inside-out, diagonal, form and content match, and the letters take shapes which in turn comment, missing nothing, texture, color, senses over senses, and the poem becomes thought, and the thought becomes matter, and we walk in the poem, and we breathe in the poem and our hearts beat the poem and beyond all language the poem explodes.”
Then came the final speaker of the ten, a woman with a Scottish accent who sounded in the darkness much older than any of the women had looked.
“Hieing to the wombed hill mid yip and yirr of Baalists beery, we woozy skirmishers wambled past the whippoorwill and gave a girn to gimcrack, bedaubed in wizardry and woodcraft, riled rimers, with pyretic vim, barmy each pant and peck we salivating songsters, scragging victuals along the junket, raw wood thrush and song sparrow our stark beefsteak. Rooty wolfberry sopped the Bacchic balladry, blackish the scape, our mockery beneath Varuna, till to indigenous ziggurats we did sorn the shadow lords, a measly chiliad of bubbling keeves ripe for us to batten.”
He kept expecting to see a light go on. None did. Still the voices in the blackness spoke, and in the brief moment of happy chatting which he heard, Beau discerned an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the proceedings from what seemed to be all the participants.
“I do believe the spell went well,” Wanda’s voice rose in the darkness. “Congratulations to all those in this healing circle whose contribution unites the creative energy essential to this ancient knowledge and us all.”
Now Beau heard other voices in the night, latecomers come newly, and, by the sound of it, consorts. Yet still, not a scrap of light. Sufficient ruckus ensued which let Beau carefully stand, feel around and climb up the side of the stump, clinging at the top and peering over. He could hear the voices of the women and the others merrily merging and moving en masse into the forest, yet without the aid of so much as a single flashlight.
When he was sure that everyone had gone, Beau climbed down and made his way as quickly and quietly as he could back to the heavy machinery where the new road was being cut. He found it shining slightly in the dark, and followed the road till it turned to pave and took him down to the eastern edge of Madrani, a hillside thick with redwoods and dotted with a handful of houses.
A dog behind a fence barked. Beau’s tired feet slapped asphalt with sharp echoes, like a basketball bounced on an empty court. He still had to make his call, and still had to change his clothes. But the call wouldn’t be anonymous if it came from home. The closest pay phone was at the junior high down the street, and Beau was beginning to formulate what exactly he would say, when the sound of an approaching car sent him instinctively scurrying over toward and crouching down behind a muddy pickup parked in front of a house where all the lights were off. It was starting to freak him out now, hiding so many times. And this time he didn’t even have to. All he really risked was getting caught being guilty of poor fashion sense. Then the car turned the corner, entering the glare of the streetlight, and Beau recognized the driver as Chuck, the one with the gun down by the river.
Fucking fuck, he thought. I was sure I cracked that sternum. The first thing Beau did was look around for another rock. Then the car passed by, not having far to go before turning out of sight, and when it did Beau dashed down the street to the junior high school on the corner barely in time to hunker down behind some shrubs as the same car roared back down the same stretch, screeched around the corner and burned off.
Now Beau saw that the old pay phone had been removed. All that remained were four holes on a wall where bolts had been, still visible under multiple layers of paint. Bleary with overuse, Beau tossed himself down on the ground against the corner of a building in the shadows, noticing now a light on in one of the rooms. The window was open, pushed the few inches outward allowed before meeting the length of angle iron welded in place to keep kids from pushing the window wider and slipping in and out at will. Sounds of conversation drifted, which Beau could not help but hear.
“…and again, scientific studies show belief works best, on the human mind, for our purposes, when the personified product character, or logo, which we’ll be using, is depicted from long ago, somewhere else. This is because, as the research indicates, it is much more difficult to make the audience being targeted accept the supernatural powers of the character in the marketing campaign as actual fact, that literally happened, when that same audience could, in theory, merely look around and see that none of the amazing special effects of the story ever happen here and now in real life. However, paradoxically, if we set our personified product characters in ancient times, and distant places, we also remove the applicability, and the immediacy, necessary to the crowd of which it is our aim to control. This is the problem we face. Now then, any ideas?”
A group of county advertisers conducted a meeting in a room at the junior high. Two of the nine present had gone through school in Humbaba, and one of them had done so right there in Madrani at the junior high, and across the football field at the high school as well.
“How about a product character that shows everyone around him smiling, and accepting his supernatural powers? That would show they don’t hold his superiority against him. They admire him, want to be like him, and liked by him.”
“Go on. Why?”
“Because. He’s popular. He’s young, he’s fresh, he’s hip, he’s pushing product. It’s harder to get money from people when they have more experience. We can add in any image we want around the central image of him being in charge, supernatural and well liked. He’s got his pals, and they’re all just hanging around at the mall.”
“We know he’s young. I’m seeing white male here.”
“I agree with that.”
“And what about his enemies?”
“They’re jealous. They’re bitter and resentful of his supernatural success.”
“Well they’re just so darn unhappy—outright dangerous, really—because of not hanging at the mall. There’s a barrier….”
“Yes, go on….”
“A barrier, wall, some sort of fence, something that divides, and the enemies of the central image, jealous of the lifestyle of the central image, aren’t willing to work hard enough to earn the privilege…of being…nearer to him…so they’re off on the fringe, on the outside looking in. Very jealous. Very dangerous. Certainly no one you would want to allow into your home!”
“All right. I think we’re onto something. ‘Hanging at the Mall.’ My god. I love it. And I see by the clock we’re out of time. Okay people, we’ll pick this up next week and see if we can’t really make some magic happen.”
Sounds of scooting chairs reached Beau’s ears, chit-chat of participants released.
Dammit, he thought, seeing that most of the cars in the cul-de-sac were facing him, and realizing he would have to scoot on around to the back of the building sometime between everyone leaving the room and the lights of the cars coming on.
“Beau? Beau Black?”
Beau looked up. Some guy was in the window, with his hand on the latch set to pull it in shut. Beau couldn’t place him at first. Then it dawned.
“Andy Slater, hey, how’s it going?”
“It’s going great. How about you? What’s going on? Who else is over there?”
“Where?” Beau looked around. “It’s only me.”
“At the reunion. Over at the high school. Shit man, you guys already break out the shots?”
Beau stood up, acutely conscious now of his awkward appearance and ill-fitting clothes. “Oh, these? Shit, I’ve been partying all day. It’s a long story.”
Ad-man Andy’s bright eyes widened. “Wow,” he said. “Hang on, wait for me. I’ve got a bunch of booze. We’ll do some fuckin’ shots, man.”
“Just hang on.”
There was no point turning down the shot. After all, he’d been shot at. Beau figured what the hell. Once for rice wine’s sake. One for the old times road.
From a car in the cul-de-sac Andy pulled a bottle of booze and a shot glass and walked, tie precisely loosened, with Beau over to the junior high field overlooking the high school where they kicked it by the backstop, Andy talking a good bit about the purchase of his car and adding a story about the smooth way it handled before suddenly asking what it was that Beau now did.
“Oh, shit, man,” Beau said taking a slug, “investment banking. What the hell do you think?”
“Financial wizard, huh? I thought about getting in that game, but I guess you could say I did pretty well for myself. Best goddam sales in the regional sector.” That last he slipped in like a royal flush right before tossing back a shot.
Beau was thinking about how he hadn’t seen that other guy in the car with Chuck, the one he clocked with the rock. If the one was feeling well enough to drive, might not the other be up and around, too? Surely if his pal was dead, this guy wouldn’t be tooling around town, would he? Unless, of course, he was looking for Beau….
Even as these thoughts raced through his mind, Beau declined a second shot for himself and watched, amiably listening, as Andy hit his third, going off on a litany of successful advertising contracts before screwing the cap back on affirming he was “really going to enjoy sticking it to all those dirty goddam shits.” When Beau deflected an attempt to compare incomes, compare them like report cards, Andy launched into how, really, he never did even feel challenged by the educational system anyway, but remember the time so-and-so was going with so-and-so? and everybody wanted to know if he and so-and-so went all the way? so so-and-so told so-and-so they never did, but actually….
Looking back on it, Beau couldn’t remember a time when he and Andy Slater had ever hung out. In fact, now that he thought about it, nobody ever hung out with Andy. He was Dirtbag Andy. That was what everybody called him.
Poor old Dirtbag, Beau thought. Look at him there, wounded, drunk, bragging about regional sector sales. Somewhere down deep in that abused pile of aged flesh there’s a child screaming for help.
Andy eased an elbow Beau’s way. “Hey, you seen Rachel?”
“Man, is she fuckin’ stacked. Yeah, I know. Everybody wants to see us get back together and everything, I guess. Fuck it, man. I heard she’s married now anyway.”
A reunion contingent came over from the high school as Beau tried to get away. “Hey, Slater!” one of them called. “Who’s that with you?”
Andy immediately seemed more sober and was able to quickly relay to the four-man squad crossing the field that Beau here was in the investment banking game now.
“Oh really?” said another. “So am I. What do you think of the Hartley-Kester merger?”
Intent as he was in negotiating the hillside from the junior high field down to the high school track without busting his ass in the dark, Beau hadn’t seen which one of the four had asked, nor, for that matter, had he even determined just who the four were. “Who the fuck is that?” he said.
“Listen to this guy—‘Who the fuck is that’—who do you know who was least likely to ever get in the game?—and do so damn well! It’s me, Donny!”
“Holy shit! Who else you got there?”
“Hey, Beau. Al. Long time no see. You remember Earl and Nate.”
“What the hell happened to your clothes?” That was either Earl or Nate.
“Long goddam story. Started early.”
“Shit man, you guys doin’ shots?”
“Fuckin’ go for it, man,” Andy said, handing over the bottle with the shot glass on top.
“Hey, if that’s what we’re doin’. I will if you guys will. You guys wanna do that?”
“Whaddaya say there, Beau?” Andy looked fixedly at him as best he could.
“I gotta go.”
“You takin’ off?”
“Just over to my folks’ place here in town so I can change my clothes.”
“You’re comin’ back though, right?”
“Oh, most definitely.”
“Well then fuck yeah, I’ll drink to that. You gonna do one more shot with me man, or what?”
“I’ll see you in a few.”
“Fuckin’ get back here.”
Beau headed off.
“Fuckin’ get back here, man!”
Beau stopped and turned around. In his wrong-sized clothing he felt nightmarishly awkward and had no wish to facilitate Dirtbag Andy Slater feeling like a grownup play-acting important, the neurotic alcoholic. But on the other hand, he didn’t have to take one ounce of shit from the likes of him ever. Beau started toward him.
“What did you just say to me? ‘Fuckin’ get back here?’ Come here.”
“Hey, ease off, man, settle down! I didn’t mean nothin’ by it! Shit man, don’t go ballistic!”
Beau turned around and headed back off, conscious of being watched. He could hear the music now, coming from the gym—Aerosmith’s “Make It”—and it almost started to put him in a good mood, but he exited the gates from the field anyway and headed out onto the road which ran parallel with the high school toward Madrani Market. The store was still open. Beau recognized Leif’s car parked out front, and thought he saw Leif standing in line inside, talking to some people, of whom Beau assumed at least one was probably attending the reunion, but then he looked back over toward the school and saw Leif walking up to the gym. Beau called out and waved him over. Having conferred, they concurred. They would need to take the situation to the nearest rooftop.
A severed pig’s head had once adorned the halls. As did coil after coil of razor wire deftly clipped and left stretched to maximum negative effect for the janitor to discover as an added surprise to the toilet paper confetti littering the trees. It had been surreal to see, that morning long ago. Kids clutching packs open-mouthed and aghast knew true wonder and honest awe, dazzled by the evidence of the night’s pranks. Refutation of authority duly noted. Those who benefited stood nothing to lose. Indeed, the children whose deadening daily grind had so satisfyingly suffered disruption doubly won when the spoiled white brats who ruined the long-standing Senior Prank Day tradition for all got their little asses caught. Then they were merely kids again, and there wasn’t any smart-talk when they had to file off for their caning, or whatever other ugly and embarrassing humiliation had to come down. Crapping late at night on a disliked teacher’s desk might’ve gotten a laugh, but it was a shitty thing to do, and when the kid who crapped got caught, that was the second time the true beneficiaries won.
Ghosts of that time drifted below Beau and Leif on the roof. There where the rooftop pipes vented continuous billowing issue, the saturnalia of the reunion increasingly promised promiscuous intercourse among the feasting revelers in the mad pursuit of pleasure. It was the end of the agricultural season. Evidence of the outbursts of the pent-up forces of human nature, bound to abound with harvest at hand, appeared in pockets of vignettes on the tableau below. Shadows hinted of gropers humping. Gym doors thrown open spilled Cheap Trick out freely, flooding the town with “Dream Police” like the Hoover Dam before Superman could turn time backward.
“When did you find out about the reunion?” asked Beau. “Nobody told me a goddam thing.”
“Yes they did. Remember we talked about it on the phone about five or six months ago? How they were going to move it from summer to now?”
“Oh that’s right. Okay, I remember that bit now, but shit, that was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, but that severed pig’s head seems just like yesterday. I forgot it was today, too.”
“A little ESP there, man. I can still see the shaving cream left on the snout.”
For a simple quiet moment time hung suspended: There was Andy Slater down below, red-cheeked, puffy, glazed eyes glinting with dim monotonous desire to claw back at life; there Nadia Onek and Harmony Singer, erstwhile trophies both, each seeking to feel more credible than the other in the role through the judicious use of increasingly strident laughter more vicious than vivacious, and the bending forward of the shoulders that produces the illusion of cleavage. Nothing had changed. The redwoods still stood. And a gentle groove could be detected, threading an invisible path over the grove, tracing the flight of the deer that leap and winding through the forest all the way to the ocean, where down an iridescent stretch of perpetual blue curling tube the lifeforce surfs.
Suddenly there she was, Rachel Sandesky and her bounteous chest.
“Holy shit,” murmured Beau. “Dirtbag Andy wasn’t kidding.”
Leif waved over a couple of old friends, who followed his advice on the best way up, where the ramp to the tennis courts met with a low section of roof. They appeared on the geometric horizon and chatted with Leif near the vents for a spell while Beau turned his attention to Rachel and saw that she had spotted him.
“Beau Black, is that you?”
“How did you get up there?”
“At the corner by the tennis courts.”
“Oh, show me,” she said, hustling over, and Beau stepped down to help her up. She was so sweet to pretend to be dumb. From a rectangular pocket Beau showed her carefully how to use pipes and outcroppings as stairs and provided her with a gentlemanly hand. When they had reached the top of the wing on which she had seen him, she wanted to stop for a proper hug. Beau warned her that he needed to take a shower and get a change of clothes. Whereupon Rachel took him by the hand, wagged a raised finger in a gesture which said, “Not to worry, I know exactly what to do,” and pulled him further along the roof than he had been, to where it met with the corner of another, slightly higher, and in this manner they trod the rooftops like sets of giant steps, Rachel pausing now and again to ask whether someone she saw below was really who she thought, even sharing anecdotes concerning those in question, and being sure to crouch down with Beau behind a large exhaust vent whenever it seemed they might be discovered, until at last she’d led them to a window at a corner in the shadows out of view. Here the angle iron was loose, and the window, Beau found, lacked a lock.
Rachel’s excited face smiled inches from Beau’s own. “The showers are inside,” she whispered, for no particular reason, it seemed, other than to be close. Her breath smelled minty. Beau held the window up for her, and looked around before climbing in.
In a dim swath of light he saw a telephone on a table. Beau picked it up and got a dial tone. “I have to make a quick important call,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, still whispering. “I’ll be right back. I think I know where I can get you some clothes.” Then she slipped out through a door into a hall, and before he could talk himself out of it, Beau made the call.
“Hello, operator? Listen, I’m making an anonymous emergency call. I found a body in the woods in Madrani below the market, near the river. I don’t know anything about it except I saw the body of a girl down there. Please send someone.” He nearly hung up, but paused to ask, “Do you understand?”
“City and state,” the operator said.
“I’m making an anonymous emergency call. Did you hear anything I said?”
“City and state, please sir.”
“You don’t understand. Listen to me, I found a body, in Madrani, below, in the woods below Madrani Market, near the river. Do you understand? Please send the police to go investigate the body.”
“Do you wish to make a local call?”
“No! I want you to tell the police about the body below Madrani Market.”
“You wish to report a robbery?”
“No! A body! Send the police!”
Beau hung up just before Rachel came in carrying some clothes.
“Got these from the band room,” she said, holding first a white button-down and then some dark slacks up against him. “I think they’ll fit.” The slacks she held for a while, and when with her right hand holding the hem at the proper position near his ankle, her left hand holding up the waist band accidentally bumped him a couple of times, neither said anything.
Suddenly the phone rang.
Rachel, still on her knees, was so startled, she accidentally bumped her face against Beau, who quickly reached over and unplugged the phone. He gave her a hand up. She thanked him, and keeping his hand in hers led him out the door, down the hall, and around two more corners to the showers.
“I’ll just…wait right here,” she whispered, standing in a locker stall, which still smelled of its strange stale corn chips smell and Brut.
Beau went over to another stall, taking off his shirt, thinking how good a hot shower was going to feel, and how he couldn’t wait to dig into some grub. His wallet he kept in the back pants pocket as always, but his wet wad of clothes rolled up was, presumably, still by the junior high field backstop. He would have to go back and get his things in the morning.
Leaving the clothes he had worn arranged neatly on the little bench in the narrow stall—down every one of which he’d had in his day a locker at some point—he walked to the showers with the soft slap of his feet on the tile echoing in a weird and lonely way that reminded him of Keir Dullea’s clinking utensils toward the end of “2001.” And then he was showering, happy to see soap, yet a little worried, though he went ahead and used it. And when he had bathed, facing the stream (finding, again, similarities between that and the stream sequence which Dullea’s Dave undergoes prior to the echoing part) and felt as much as heard, reverberating through the halls, Stevie Wonder singing about smoking cigarettes and writing something nasty on the wall, there suddenly appeared before him Rachel Sandesky in all her glory. She approached. They touched.
An entire wall of the shower room toppled over with a soundless crash, and the actual, real Stevie Wonder appeared on the other side singing. People from the past Beau both knew and never met turned, greeting, through the school, down the town, right on out and into the redwoods, where Bollywood goddesses danced synchronized on the hillside, bearing supple cinnamon midriffs, gossamer orange, fuchsia, yellow and magenta shimmering in time all along the Avenue, and all kinds of people from all kinds of places sat and stood in apertures of redwoods, like the living souls of the trees, nodding and smiling with knowing looks, waving in the breeze, and overhead, overlaps of scintillating fireworks widened and rained, but all the high-steppin’ in the redwoods where the colors crisp as chutney splashed came crashing to a horrid halt at the end of the song with seven simple whispered words:
“So, I hear you’re an investment banker.”
From a hundred and thirty to zero in two seconds flat. Immediately perceiving, Rachel said, “Don’t worry, I’m in the pharmaceutical business now. I work for Raisex.”
Raisex, the latest and greatest in erectile dysfunction technology. Raisex, the wonderful solution with bizarre side-effects—generating business in turn for the companies that make the medicines that relieve the side-effects. Some of which with side-effects all their own.
Raisex, the corporate-owned company whose campaigns of misinformation against its only competition, the natural world, included writing and purchasing laws intended to separate people from the natural world, and prevent people from choosing to freely avail themselves of it, in order to force people to instead purchase their own manufactured and patented inferior imitation, which causes harmful side-effects.
Raisex, the erectile dysfunction pharmaceutical industry leader today, and for the benefit of its own select interests, major political force of tomorrow.
With entrenched industry comes the corruption of the machine which supplants humanity. All the wrong things happened with cheating and lies because the honest solution produced less coin. Bone-deep, Beau knew, and he just couldn’t go through the motions.
They put on their clothes in separate stalls. Beau knew she still didn’t know he wasn’t an investment banker. “Thanks for the stolen band room clothes,” he said on the way out to reunite with the reunion.
“Anytime,” she replied with an airy patience which seemed intended to convey the significance of a double-entendre. “By the way”—here she caught Beau by the elbow, staying their emergence—“is there anything you could maybe tell me about the Hartley-Kester merger?”
It was a fortuitous inquiry, for in the time it took to submit to a guided grope, Beau seeming hesitant to part with such valuable information so wantonly, he peered around the corner in the event that anyone should come, and saw on the other side of the gym two cops in the doorway. Not much older than the college kids in Carata.
The call. The operator had probably gotten his call precisely fucked up enough to be responsible for this.
Beau took Rachel by the hand. “Listen, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about that, but not here. Can I trust you?”
“Yes, of course!”
“Then come with me,” he said, leading her all the way back past the showers to the room with the window by which they had entered. The last thing he needed was Rachel blabbing to the cops anything to do with him at all. Beau shut the door, and almost locked it, but headed for the window instead, emphatically pronouncing before he crawled out, “Hartley-Kester’s for shit,” and adding with an airy patience hinting of a double-entendre he was certain neither Rachel nor her chest would ever understand, “some things just aren’t meant to be.”
Crossing quickly by way of the roof to the back of the gym, Beau climbed down and left through the gates to the track and field for the second time that night, being sure to stay out of the line of sight to the gym.
Heading toward home he heard a car behind him and happened to turn around and look. In the glare of the streetlight down by the high school he saw that same car, the one with Chuck inside, coming up the hill. Beau didn’t think that Chuck had seen him, but knew in a moment he would. There was nothing to hide behind. And if he started running he would call attention to himself like a frightened rabbit.
Suddenly a convertible appeared at his side. Liliana looked smart in a sleek black dress which could have doubled for a negligee.
“Hey there, handsome. You look like the kind of guy who’s dressed to escort a gal to an evening at a castle.”
Beau hopped in and the Karmann Ghia sped away.