“I'll think about it,” she said.
It was eleven o'clock. That Phil had managed to extract from Consuelo the assertion that she would consider leaving with him to stay at his place in Carata for a few days could have been seen as so great a feat as to suffice as an end in itself. But Phil wasn't having any of that. Prudence dictated he allowed the idea of her staying with him, and all its incumbent images, to gel for awhile. No point pushing it. We're not even out yet, he thought. Now they had been over two hours inside. The batteries in the Walkman died sometime around 10:30.
Sitting down on the hard floor for too long sent Phil’s legs to sleep, and when he stood up, the returning flow felt like needles stabbing so badly, with the prickles and tickles, he flailed around howling, “Oh, oh! Oh!Ohohoh....” A few minutes later, they could hear the sound of the rocks being moved; the hatch opened up, and the wind screamed in.
“Hey man,” the guy with the gun yelled down into the room, “didn't I tell you not to make any trouble?”
“Make any trouble?” Phil was incredulous. “We've been down here for two hours. What the hell trouble have we made? We've been patiently waiting for you.”
“Look man, I'm the one with a gun.” The guy all but sneered this with half-lidded eyes and shaking his head with his hands on his hips.
“Yeah,” Phil said, with a firmness now in his tone evident of squaring off. His hands shot out and grabbed two plants. “So why don't you go and shoot?”
The guy in the hatch gasped. “What are you doing?”
“You won't shoot me.”
“Stop it. Let go of those plants.”
“You know the mess it would make.”
“Let them go!”
“You'd lose plants just from soil damage alone. A bunch of my blood in there would really fuck that soil up. Even just falling over, I'd be sure to take a few plants with me, maybe even take a whole table. Is that what you want? You want me to dump this whole goddam table? Is that what you fucking want?”
“No! No, don't! Please don't.”
“All right now, climb down in.”
The closed hatch abruptly cut the screaming wind, followed by a sudden clunking clatter. Climbing down the ladder, the guy had dropped the gun.
Phil stood looking at it for a second, then rushed over and picked it up just as the guy dropped down. Consuelo moved quickly to get behind Phil. Curiously the guy without a gun did not seem as concerned with this reversal of fortune as Phil rather expected. He seemed to be more concerned for his plants, and inspected them from where he stood like a teacher on a field trip getting a head count of all the kids. Phil looked at the gun in his hand.
“Hey,” he said, reading the inscription on the side. “This thing’s a Sears Repeater BB pistol.”
“I don’t have any partners to call, either,” the guy confessed. “I wanted to intimidate you into silence. I had to really know you wouldn't say anything, or come back. Fuck, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well. Why did it have to take so long? I had to be somewhere at nine.”
“Fuck man, I'm sorry. I really am. I came out on my dirt bike which I stash up behind this cave, and I seen you two come bookin’ up here just when I was about to climb down. And shit, I had to wait. And wait, and wait, and wait, for you all with all the stuff you were saying. You know? That was fuckin’ hard. But yeah, I was all set to come back down like as if I'd gotten through calling up my partners and all that, and I was gonna let you go, but I went ahead and burned one, and shit, I guess I got totally roasted. When I just now woke up it sounded like you were yelling. But this Indica my friend gave me, it knocks me out like a light. Usually all I smoke’s sativa.”
* * *
The wind whipped in the blackness of the overcast night.
Feelings thrashing, Phil took Consuelo's hands in his and by the light of the grow-room hatch looked her in the eye and said, “I know we've known each other only four hours, but it feels like forever. That didn't come out right. You know what I mean. What I'm trying to say, what we talked about before, coming away with me, I can't wait. We can go in the morning, early. Call in sick. Say an emergency came up.”
“I won't work at the hotel forever, that's for sure.”
“You could look for something in Carata. We could look together.”
“I can't leave my family.”
“Well we don't have to find you a job right away. Call in sick on Monday and I'll bring you back Tuesday or Wednesday. You won't have to pay for a thing. We can go to the beach, we could drive down to Fernden and spend an afternoon. I'll take you down the Avenue of the Giants. We'll check out the redwoods.”
“It sounds nice.”
“How early can I pick you up in the morning?”
“I would have to meet you somewhere else.”
“How about here? How would you get here?”
“I could ride my moped and leave it down at the Quonset hut. I just don't know if I want to, though. I mean, I want to. I do. But, I don't know how well my family would take it.”
“I know. I know how old I am. What if I meet you here at nine and tell you then if I've decided I'll go—can we do that?”
“Nine o'clock tomorrow morning? Here?”
“All right. I'll be here.”
He felt as though in parting a gesture of intimacy would not be out of order, but the grow-room guy poked his head up out of the hatch and said he was sorry but had to ask if they couldn't speed it up. “Either that or let me shut the hatch,” he said. “This lets stand in and I really don't like drawing the attention to my spot here, you know?”
“Yeah, that's right,” Phil said. “I did notice that. She and I are planning on meeting here early in the morning though, and then that’s it.”
“Not inside the room? No fuckin’ way, man. It'll be locked, anyway.”
“No, I mean this cave. We don't know anything about any hatch.”
“What do you mean? You were just—oh, I see. Well hey, as a little parting gift for your being so cool and all about the whole situation, here's that fuckin’ Indica my friend gave me. Yours. Free.” He handed over a baggie.
“Wow, dude. What can I say? Thanks.”
“No prob. Oh, and here.” He handed him another baggie. “This here’s my indoor sativa. This is what I usually smoke. You've got some pre-rolls in both bags. But that purple’s gonna knock your fuckin’ dick in the dirt, right there.”
“Whoa, right on. Double thanks.”
“Hey, I don't suppose she's got a twin?”
Phil took Consuelo back in Rozinante, the fair princess to her people, with the plan that he would drop her off at the overpass, out of view of the Gypsy trailer court across the street from the hotel where Phil would need to pick up the box of DVDs with all haste before heading over to his appointed destination. It was Saturday night. Dinah Zauber said the people at the other end were some kind of frat boys. Chances were they'd still be up, although he supposed most of them would be away on summer vacation. Less people would mean less going on, and he could therefore find a lights out situation showing up late that would prove very embarrassing. But he thought his chances were good.
“Quarter to midnight,” he said as they drove, “this is it—the peak of light in the year.”
“It's dark out.”
“I know. But what I mean is, now the sunlight gradually declines for the year, until the winter solstice, marking the sun’s return, and here I am, so happy with you.” It took her hand, to gently hold it, but she took his in both of hers and held it to her face. She looked at him for a long time, perhaps a quarter-mile, and then she returned her eyes on the road, but kept his hand in both of hers, and he returned to trying to sell her on the idea of coming away with him.
Then they were at the overpass. She had her door open, but before getting out she leaned on a knee and gave Phil a kiss, whisper-quick, yet full of passion and promise. Time floated at different speed as he crossed the street in Rozinante, got the box of DVDs, and took the highway to his exit a ten-minute drive away.
Now with the window down, careening across the desert highway rife with strange buffeting gusts, the genie in the bottle of his privately expressive self burst, and he sang out his elation freely, “Holy fuckin’ shit! This has got to be the greatest day of my life! Can you believe it? She is so goddam gorgeous! Gor-gor-gorgeous! Don't screw this up! Note to self: do not screw this up. But how could I? What is there to screw up? She said she would. We're going. Would she have kissed me if we weren't? I really have found my soulmate. It's absolutely bizarre. But then, if you think about it, the whole thing seems fated, as though we were somehow preordained to meet here tonight. I've never met anyone like her. Goddam she’s so fuckin’ awesome. I am the luckiest man alive. Mmm, she's good! I can not wait.
“And dude you faced down a goddam gun! Can you believe that? Contemplate that, man. Fucking faced down a goddam gun. Well, I mean, I thought it was a gun at the time. That’s for sure. But I never did feel the fear. I don't know how I didn't. I guess just being with Consuelo.
“Consuelo. Oh, Consuelo. I will be so good to you. This is a new beginning for me. I can actually feel myself becoming a new person. We're going to go canoeing. I am transforming into a guy with a hot girlfriend who canoes. And why is that something that should be so far beyond my grasp? Have I not been patient? Sure it's a little fast, a tad on the speedy tonight. Yeah, sure, I get that. But haven't I paid my dues? I'm twenty-nine, so what's so sudden? Maybe it won't even work out. All right, granted. But realistically, how can you not? I will be so good to you. Oh, Consuelo, I will never do you wrong. Goddam she's hot!”
For no particular reason, Neil Young’s “Welfare Mothers” leapt up in Phil's mind—“Welfare mothers make better lovers! DEE VORR CEE!”—and he screamed what lines he could remember repeatedly for miles keeping an eye out for his exit, but it was all he could do to keep his mind on the road.
“Look at this shitty old Pinto,” Royal casually sneered behind the wheel of the big white rig powering by. Jordan in the passenger seat ignored, remaining twisted around to keep his uncle in sight. Generally even out of uniform Leslie Lash retained a level of copness. Pristine hair, particularly upright bearing, clean, perma-pressed clothing. But not now. Now Lash was lashing around. Pooro, sitting on the right hand side of the cab’s back seat remained as inscrutable as Queequeg, while Lash lashed himself into a frenzy, wide-eyed and sweating, looking like a crazy-eyed Ralph Steadman sketch. Four minutes to midnight and a mile to the exit, Royal kept an eye on the Pinto behind him, it being the only other car on the road, and dutifully alerted everyone when the Pinto took the exit, too.
“Fucker’s following me,” Royal said.
“Bullshit. Just drive.”
“No, this guy’s following.”
“California plate. That's Humbaba I bet, right there. Yep. He must've staked out the highway and waited for us when we didn't show at nine.”
“How? I passed him.”
“Maybe he's heading on out here now again. Car’s a piece of shit, though. I guarantee you he’s from Carata.”
“I'm the one who told you he was even following us. I knew it.”
* * *
The frat house below the bluffs and the otherworldly desert glinting moonlight in growing rents of roiling clouds reminded Phil of “Forbidden Planet.” He showed up feeling like the robot that comes out to meet Leslie Nielsen, except that he had to roll his window up to keep from choking on the dust the white rig kicked up on the long dirt road heading off the highway toward the bluffs. For the moment, the wind had settled down. Phil pulled into a wide driveway and parked near the white rig.
The air of uncertainty he conveyed was intentional. “I'm looking for Jordan?” Phil had no idea why he had to shift his tone to an interrogative and immediately regretted that he did. It seemed to him the only time he considered the importance of making a good impression was just after he had made a bad one.
“Yeah, that's me. Dinah sent you?”
“All right, come on back. This here's Royal.”
Royal went ahead and said, “What’s up?” But he didn't have to. He made that clear with his body language.
Phil gave a quick nod and said, “What's goin’ on?”
“That's Pooro,” said Jordan, pointing and letting the mask speak for itself. “And that's Uncle Leslie. He's a little out of it tonight. So how did you manage to catch us?”
“I'm sorry I'm late.” Suddenly it occurred to Phil that he hadn't thought at all about how he would explain being three hours late beyond simply telling the truth. With as few specifics as possible.
“Dinah said I was supposed to meet you here at nine.”
“Like I said, my uncle's a little out of it tonight. We had to go downtown and get him. You wouldn't believe it. He was wandering around in a weird little outfit—I mean, I don't even know how to describe it. Like a little dress, I guess. Like Romans and shit. Lucky for him I had some spare sweats and a shirt for him.”
“I noticed he was wearing those sandals,” said Phil. “Sounds like that thing he had on might have been a tunic.”
“Yeah! Tunic, exactly. Well anyway, here we are. All right, that’s fantastic. And I have everything in order for you to take back. Well, before we conduct the exchange, why don't you come on in, get a beer. We've got a barbecue going on the patio.”
“Great, thanks.” Phil couldn’t believe how great everything was turning out. “Hey,” he said, turning to Leslie Lash, who was staggering in with a hand on Royal's shoulder, “that's funny your name being Leslie. I was just thinking about Leslie Nielsen. You ever see ‘Forbidden Planet?’”
Phil took the silence for interest.
“I think the best part about that movie is the music. I also like the way some of the early scenes look—which reminds me of around here, actually. It's supposed to be a sort of version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, ‘Forbidden Planet’ is. My favorite Leslie Nielsen movie, though, would have to be ‘Creepshow.’ He’s in the ‘Something to Tide You Over’ story. ‘I can hold my breath... a looong time!’ I love it. You ever see ‘Creepshow?’”
By now they were all on the patio. He’d paused in his opening remarks to indicate thanks for a beer from the cooler with a slick wink—something else Phil never did, and immediately regretted. But no one seemed to have heard him. He looked at Leslie Lash while tipping up his brew, and noticed that in his weird, whirlpool-eyed Ralph Steadman way, this Leslie guy was looking at him. Studying him. Trying to…remember. Phil, too, knew he had seen this guy before. He decided to let it go. He knew that it would come to him.
“Hey,” he said, “who's up for some weed?”
Jordan and Royal, thinking Phil wanted to conduct the exchange of the flatscreen TV in their possession for the box of DVDs in his, retired themselves indoors, politely motioning for Pooro to follow.
Of the frattie hangers-on that lingered till midnight, only one was unconscious, and he was upstairs. All seven others were outside drinking, talking about how they should have fucked Natalia, and bemoaning the fact she had her ride pick her up right after Pooro left. Cesar and Sampedro still grinned in the living room, getting rowdy with beers and a remote control, watching the compilation disc of Pooro’s many spectacular and one-sided fights. Three or four fratties had gone ahead with the patio pour. There was a mix-up regarding the amount of water to use in making the cement. The pour that filled the form for the new patio was a bit too wet. Also, most of the barbecued chicken got burned. Off at a patio table alone, Phil produced the baggie with the purple from the grow-room guy from which he pulled a pre-rolled joint. Now in the night sky the tower could be seen blocking out the stars.
Jordan, Royal and Pooro stood over a large flatscreen.
“Pooro,” Jordan said, “go out to that guy’s Pinto, would you? There will be a big box in back with a bunch of shrink-wrapped boxes of DVDs inside. Go and get that, OK? We'll put the flatscreen back in the box and have that for you here to put in the guy’s car after you bring the DVD box in, okay? All right.”
Pooro went on out. When he left, Jordan and Royal looked at each other and shook their heads.
On the back patio, Phil was just lighting up.
Leslie Lash stared at Phil in a sightless manner from the bottom of a swirling stupor no cop drug training could ever describe. One moment he was deep into the bugs crawling and flying around in the huge alien world of their tiny little insect lives, and that moment, due to a trick caused by the toxin forced to course through his manipulated and beleaguered system, might seem to last for twenty minutes, ugly thoughts racing across his mind like ancient and many-legged insects and giant hairy ham-like bacteria, or might seem to last for an hour, and suddenly there he was again, recalling images from his childhood and dreams he never could otherwise have known that he forgot and seeing that redwoods guy from the checkpoint. A Philistine. Humbaba.
“Hey there you,” Officer Lash slobbered in a daze, his dozen or so index fingers waving. “I know you.”
“Who? “Phil said, exhaling with the proffered joint. “Me?”
The off-duty cop ignored the torch as he rose to his feet green in the face, wild-eyed, sweating, and reached for his gun. He did not seem to notice that although his gun was in his holster, his holster was not at his side, nor did he notice the gun he held trained from a swaying crouch on Phil was imaginary.
“You freeze,” he said. “I know what you are. Don't you dare move.”
* * *
The Pinto’s back hatch opened without a key. The back seat was folded down, Pooro saw, making plenty of room for the big box inside, and easily enough, he thought, for the flatscreen as well. By the light from the house falling into the car, he could not help but see books spread around in the back. Some food, too, and a newspaper.
It was a copy of The Freethinker newspaper. He had heard them say the guy was from Humbaba. Reaching in, he grabbed it, flipped through. It had been twenty years since he last saw Humbaba. Turning the paper around, Pooro looked at the back. There was a picture of a face at the top of a column, a movie review. The face of the movie reviewer was in the picture. Pooro recognized the face. It was the guy on the patio whose Pinto it was and whose paper he was holding. The column had a byline.
The byline included the reviewer's last name.
* * *
Imaginary pistol emptied, the wigged-out off-duty cop charged.
“Holy shit!” Phil shouted as he bobbled the joint on remembering now where he'd seen this Leslie guy before. But little was the chance for Phil to express his inner feelings in the manner of finding himself on the informal with Leslie when the intoxicated officer slogged himself free of the muck in his mental mire long enough to lunge himself bodily at Phil, flattening him backwards utterly befuddled. Phil couldn't tell if he was being arrested and feared resisting, but found himself unable to do anything else. This proved ineffectual against the drug-addled whacked-out cop writhing and screeching for backup as he maneuvered Phil into a full Nelson and began working his head toward his chest.
“Hey! Fuckin’ shit!” Phil grunted through his teeth.
“Back off!” Lash screamed, staring into space with swirling eyes. “I said no! I said no! You’ll never take me alive! I'll kill you, pothead! Die, pothead, die!”
Phil thought he was a goner. Had his life flashed before his eyes? He couldn't exactly say. But he damn sure thought he was a goner. He thought that was it. It was over. A maniac cop was breaking his neck. The pressure exerted was incredible, but greater still was the weird feeling of human contact literally trying to kill him. Helplessly he thrashed, and felt a terrible moment of certainty that he was in fact experiencing his last moments of life, as certain as a diver with no tank and empty lungs two hundred feet down in the ocean.
But his neck was not snapped. For some reason, the crazy cop let him go. Phil staggered to his feet with his neck still bent painfully down and turned to see the guy with the painted-on mask holding the cop up by the head. The screams coming from Lash drew the fratties like a pack of bloodhounds too late to do anything but watch as Pooro took on a shaking fit with Lash’s head in his hands, just shook and shook, and as he shook alternately mustered and howled his ardent desire of the man whose head was in his hands to stop making him angry, to stop it, to stop it, because he was trying, he was trying to control it but it was very very hard and so he wanted him to stop it.
Pooro swung Lash bodily from the hips, accompanied by a loud sound that might have been the horrid cracking of Lash’s neck. He flung the body onto the sloppy patio pour, eighteen inches deep. Lash landed on the surface with a flat wet smack; water pooled around as gradually the goop absorbed.
Now Pooro danced a dance of death. Less in self-defense and more in retribution did Norman Stein go hornpiping through the piglings, a result, and not a cause.
Then the spinning wind did witness Pooro run amok, devilishly grinning in his painted-on mask and foiling fratties with a length of re-bar. He had become a living Frazetta. Flipping up a pallet under stacked bags of concrete mix, he chucked it at a couple guys, only to run up and hit them with the busted pieces and confidently flash a dashing grin while he made them scream some more.
Jordan he shoved in the barbecue, and jammed the lid down on him several times; when the frattie sprang out, his skin was black and he was smoking.
Royal he punched through the plate glass window next to the giant flatscreen where Cesar and Sampedro were getting rowdy with beer and emulating parts from the compilation disc of Pooro’s many one-sided and spectacular fights. Through the giant cracked screen of the broken window Pooro stepped into the room. The flatscreen intended to go into the Pinto lay busted like a giant eggshell on the floor beneath a lamp Royal knocked over.
Phil walked through the open back door adjacent to the smashed window. In the broken TV intended for him to transport back to Dinah Zauber, stuffed among gutted motherboard remnants, were a whole bunch of little white packets.
“Meth,” Cesar said.
“Meth?” said Phil, bewildered, wincing, and rubbing his neck. “Holy shit.” Suddenly the site of the TV busted open called to Phil's mind lines from Hermann Hesse’s Demian: “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world.”
But the two lines completing the quote which follow, Phil forgot: “The bird flies to God,” and, “that God's name is Abraxas...”