THE pasture, just before dawn, saw the first impatient kids already out barefoot in the dew, field dogs thinking about rabbits, house dogs more with running on their minds, cats in off of their night shifts edging, arching and flattening to fit inside the shadows they found. The woodland creatures, predators and prey, while not exactly gazing Bambilike at the intrusions, did remain as aware as they would have to be, moment to moment, that there were sure a lot of Traverses and Beckers in the close neighborhood.
Some had chosen to sleep inside their recreational vehicles, others lay out on mattresses in the beds of pickup trucks, a few had packed on further into the woods, and many had pitched tents in the meadows. Presently, as the light came up and birds started in, clock-radio alarms began to kick on in a thickening radio fugue of rock and roll till dawn, Bible interpretation, telephone voices still plaining about yesterday's news. Behind the mountains that climbed from here inland, morning-glory-blue light grew in the sky. Soon toasters and toaster ovens, wood fires, RV kitchen microwaves, gong-size skillets over propane flames, all working on bacon, links, eggs, flapjacks, waffles, hash browns, French toast, and hush puppies, were sending out branching invisible fractals of smell, reaching all over the place, fat smoke, charring spices, toasted bread, just-made coffee. People who'd slept overnight in the woods began to wander in. Blue jays appeared on foraging patrols, shrieking, bullying, scavenging, seagulls of the redwoods. Radio weather reports called for a real scorcher, even down in Vineland after the fog burned off. Younger cousins looked at the sky and into one another's backpacks. Fishermen set off along the creek bed to see what might be up and feeding, and golfers tried to scheme ways to slip off for a quick eighteen holes down at Las Sombras, a genuine links beside the fog-hung coast of Vineland. The marathon crazy eights game in a battered but shined-up Becker Airstream proceeded ageless as generation begetting generation, like a pot-au-feu of nickels, dimes, chips, greenbacks, and nuggets that might have been simmering continuously here since the times of the Little Gold Rush. Elsewhere in camp there were other games, poker, pinochle, dominoes, dice but it was the Octomaniacs, as they thought of themselves, who as a crowd carried a more coherent look, as if they ought to be wearing matching T-shirts, while among the assortment of semi-strangers in and out of the other games, talent and judgment might vary by orders of magnitude, causing delays, astonishment, and episodes of consanguineous disbobulation.
Some were waking up hungry, bottomless-pit, how-e-it's-not-on-the-table-yet style, while others had only to think of a frying egg to feel nauseated till noon. Some needed to take in columns of print from morning papers that weren't there, others coffee from any container that didn't leak, at least not too fast. Many who woke with eye more than stomach hunger stayed as long as they could in sleeping bags or back in camper shells with portable TV sets bootlegged onto the cable out on the highway by ingenious pole-climbing teenagers. Somewhere beyond earshot was the wash of morning traffic down along the freeway they'd e in on, as the workweek began to roll to another finale, though everybody here had taken off early, sometimes weeks early. While some of the bigger kids were dollying in different-sized refrigerators and tunning electric lines back to the nearest outlets, luckier ones got drafted to ride on up into Thanatoid Village to help pack in last-minute supplies as well as have a look at what there might be in the way of mall thrills among this munity of the insomniac unavenged.
In fact, out of a long memory of strange dawns, this morning in the Shade CreekThanatoid Village area would stand forth as an exception. Not only had the entire population actually slept the night before, but they were also now wakening, in reply to a piping, chiming music, synchronized, ing out of wristwatches, timers, and personal puters, engraved long ago, as if for this moment, on sound chips dumped once in an obscure skirmish of the silicon market wars, expedited in fact by Takeshi Fumimota, as part of a settlement with the ever-questionable trading pany of Tokkata & Fuji, all playing together now, and in four-part harmony, the opening of J. S. Bach's "Wachet Auf." And not the usual electronic stuff this had soul, a quantity these troubled folks could recognize. They blinked, they began to turn, their eyes, often for the first time, sought contact with the eyes of other Thanatoids. This was unprecedented. This was like a class-action lawsuit suddenly resolved after generations in the courts. Who remembered? Say, who didn't? What was a Thanatoid, at the end of the long dread day, but memory? So, to one of the best tunes ever to e out of Europe, even with its timing adapted to the rigors of a disco percussion track able to make the bluest Thanatoid believe, however briefly, in resurrection, they woke, the Thanatoids woke.
This time what went rolling out, whistling in the dark valleys, chasing the squall lines, impinging upon the sensors of more than one kind of life in the countryside below, wasn't just the usual "Call of the Thanatoids" this was long, desolate howling, repeated over and over, impossible for Takeshi and DL, even in their high-tech aerie down south, to ignore. They found Radio Thanatoid on the peculiar band between 6200 and 7000 kilohertz and tuned it in for Prairie, who after a while shook her head sadly. "What are you gonna do about this?"
"We have to respond," DL said. "Question is, do you want to e with us."
Well, Prairie wasn't having much luck here in L.A., though she had managed to hook up again with her old friend Ch, whose grandfolks Dotty and Wade went back into ancient Hollywood history with her own grandparents. But Sasha was out of town, had been since Prairie'd started calling, and according to her message on the answering machine, there was most likely a wiretap on the line too.
Among the first mall rats into Fox Hills, aboriginal as well to the Sherman Oaks Galleria, Prairie and Ch had been known to hitchhike for days to get to malls that often turned out to be only folkloric, false cities of gold. But that was cool, because they got to be together. This time they'd arranged to meet in lower Hollywood at the new Noir Center, loosely based on crime movies from around World War II and after, designed to suggest the famous ironwork of the Bradbury Building downtown, where a few of them had been shot. This was yuppification run to some pitch so desperate that Prairie at least had to hope the whole process was reaching the end of its cycle. She happened to like those old weird-necktie movies in black and white, her grandfolks had worked on some of them, and she personally resented this increasingly dumb attempt to cash in on the pseudoromantic mystique of those particular olden days in this town, having heard enough stories from Hub and Sasha, and Dotty and Wade, to know better than most how corrupted everything had really been from top to bottom, as if the town had been a toxic dump for everything those handsome pictures had left out. Noir Center here had an upscale mineral-water boutique called Bubble Indemnity, plus The Lounge Good Buy patio furniture outlet, The Mall Tease Flacon, which sold perfume and cosmetics, and a New York-style deli, The Lady 'n' the Lox. Security police wore brown shiny uniform suits with pointed lapels and snap-brim fedoras and did everything by video camera and puter, a far cry from the malls Prairie'd grown up with, when security was not so mean and lean and went in more for normal polyester Safariland uniforms, where the fountains were real and the plants nonplastic and you could always find somebody your age working in the food courts and willing to swap a cheeseburger for a pair of earrings, and there even used to be ice rinks, back when insurance was affordable, she could remember days with Ch, in those older malls, where all they did for hours was watch kids skate. Weird music on the speakers, an echo off the ice. Most of these skaters were girls, some of them wearing incredibly expensive outfits and skates. They swooped, turned, leapt to the beat of canned TV-theme arrangements, booming in the chill, the ice glimmering, the light above the ice green and gray, with white standing columns of condensation. Ch nodding toward one of them once, "Check this out." She was about their age, pale, slender and serious, her hair tied back with a ribbon, wearing a short white satin number and white kid skates. "Is that white kid," Ch wondered, "or white kid?" All eyes and legs, like a fawn, she had for a while been flirting, skating up to Prairie and Ch, then turning, flipping her tiny skirt up over her ass and gliding away, elegant little nose in the air.
"Yep," Prairie muttered, "perfect, ain't she?"
"Makes you kinda want to mess her up a little, don't it?"
"Ch, you're rilly evil?" It didn't help that inside, Prairie liked to imagine herself as just such a figure of luck and grace, no matter what hair, zit, or weight problems might be accumulating in the nonfantasy world. On the Tube she saw them all the time, these junior-high gymnasts in leotards, teenagers in sits, girls in mercials learning from their moms about how to cook and dress and deal with their dads, all these remote and well-off little cookies going "Mm! this rilly is good!" or the ever-reliable "Thanks, Mom," Prairie feeling each time this mixture of annoyance and familiarity, knowing like exiled royalty that that's who she was supposed to be, could even turn herself into through some piece of negligible magic she must've known once but in the difficult years marooned down on this out-of-the-way planet had e to have trouble remembering anymore. When she told Ch about it, as she told her everything, her friend's eyebrows went up in concern.
"Best forget it, Prair. All looks better 'n it is. Ain't one of these li'l spoiled brats'd even make it through one night at Juvenile Hall."
"Just it," Prairie had pointed out, "nobody'll ever send her to no Juvenile Hall, she's gonna live her whole life on the outside."
"A girl can have fantasies, can't she?"
"Ooo-wee! No-o-o mercy!" This was their star-and-sidekick routine, going back to when they were little, playing Bionic, Police, or Wonder Woman. A teacher had told Prairie's class once to write a paragraph on what sports figure they wished they could be. Most girls said something like Chris Evert. Prairie said Brent Musberger. Each time they got together, it suited her to be the one to frame and ment on Ch's roughhouse engagements with the world, though more than once she'd been called on for muscle, notably during the Great South Coast Plaza Eyeshadow Raid, still being talked about in tones of wounded bewilderment at security seminars nationwide, in which two dozen girls, in black T-shirts and jeans, carrying empty backpacks and riding on roller skates, perfectly acquainted with every inch of the terrain, had e precision whirring and ticking into the giant Plaza just before closing time and departed only moments later with the packs stuffed full of eyeshadows, mascaras, lipsticks, earrings, barrettes, bracelets, pantyhose, and fashion shades, all of which they had turned immediately for cash from an older person named Otis, with a panel truck headed for a swap meet far away. In the lucid high density of action, Prairie saw her friend about to be cornered, between a mall cop and a kid in a plastic smock, hardly older than they were, bought into it young, hollering as if it were his own stuff with the cop, clear as a movie close-up, unsnapping his holster, oo-oo, look out "Ch!" Kicking up as much speed as she could, she went zooming in, screaming herself semidemented, paralyzing the pursuit long enough to sail alongside Ch, take her by the wrist, twirl her till they were aimed the right direction, and get rolling with her the hell on out of there. It felt like being bionically speeded up, like Jaime Sommers, barreling through a field of slo-mo opposition, while all through this the background shopping music continued, perky and up-tempo, originally rock and roll but here reformatted into unthreatening wimped-out effluent, tranquilizing onlookers into thinking the juvenile snatch-and-grab mission couldn't have been what it looked like, so it must be all right to return to closing time, what a relief. The tune ing out of the speakers as the girls all dispersed into the evening happened to be a sprightly oboe-and-string rendition of Chuck Berry's "Maybel-lene."
Whenever Ch and Prairie met, it was by way of zigzag and trick routes, almost like they were having an affair, slipping away from PO's or caseworkers, or only steps ahead of the bright attentions of Child Protective Services, not to mention, these days, the FBI. Ch arrived at Noir Center all out of breath, dressed in leather, denim, metal, and calico, with a bazooka rocket bag slung over one wide precise shoulder and her hair today Tenaxed up into this amazing feathery crest, in a blond shade soured to citric.
"You're all gussied up, girl."
"All for you, my little Prairie Flower."
Prairie went shivering in with her hands under her friend's arm, while around them, in the uniform mercial twilight, plastic flowed, ones and zeros seethed, legends of agoramania continued. They stopped at a House of Cones, where they eyeballed each other, politely but without mercy, for changes in fat distribution while sucking, with more and less metaphoric attention, on the ice cream in their cones. Back when they were girls, all it ever took was eye contact to topple them into laughter that might go on all day. But Ch's much-valued smiles today were only tight quick Polaroids of themselves.
It was her mom's boyfriend again. "At least you have the whole set, you're not a semiperson," Prairie used to mumble.
"A mom who watches MTV all day and her boyfriend who transforms into Asshole of the Universe anytime he gets to see a inch of teen skin, family of the year for sure, you want it, I can fix you up with Lucky, no prob, just remember to wear somethin' short." And that was back when he was only harassing her, before they'd started **ing. Which when her mom found out about it she never brought up to Lucky's face, turning on Ch instead and blaming her for everything. "Callin' me all this **, sayin' she wished she never had me . . . ," keenly watching to see how it went over, but Prairie was all sympathy and calming touch. For years they'd had this ongoing seminar on the topic of Moms, a category to which Ch's mother, Dwayna, was not much credit. The tension in the house would rise to an explosive level, with Ch ing on to Lucky, whom she couldn't stand, right in front of her mom just to piss her off, then the uproar would go on all night, with Ch stomping out each time swearing that was it, staying on the loose for weeks, turning for money to more and more desperate ** and the pany of some odd young gentlemen, some with runny noses, some with money in their hand, some fresh from the schoolyard and some that played in a band, often in situations hazardous to her health, till the only choice left her was to get popped so Dwayna would e down again and get her out, which she didn't have to but always did. Hugs and tears at the sergeant's desk, cries of "My baby" and "I love you, Mom," Ch would go home, Lucky would leer hello, and the whole cycle would start over, her rap sheet each time picking up new pages.
"Sure is a good thing you're beautiful," Prairie, the adoring sidekick, mooned.
"Remember that time over at my grandma Dotty's, we must've been six or something . . . one of those rainy Sundays with a major Monday in' up I remember I looked over at you during a mercial, thinking I've known her forever."
"Six? Took you that long to figure it out."
They sauntered along panionably as New Age mindbarf came dribbling out of the PA system. "Moms are a mixed blessing," Ch announced.
"Rilly. But try having that part of your life missing."
"You'd love it in the joint, Prair, 'cz that's exactly what the girls are into, 's that hookin' up together in threes, one's the Mommy, one's the Daddy, and one's the little child hard, soft, and helpless. I figure, what's the difference, bein' in a family out here, or being in the joint? Is why I've got this need to escape all the time, especially now. . . . You remember Lucky's collection of Elvis decanters, 'member his favorite, with the sour mash in it, that he only brought out for Super Bowl and his birthday? sort of full-color metalflake glaze on it?"
"Don't tell me "
"Put it this way that old Patsy Cline song 'I Fall to Pieces'? Well, the King just covered it."
"You told me he used to take it to bed with him, like a stuffed toy."
"It was a close call, you could see he was torn between ing after me and tryin' to save that bourbon last I saw as I was running out he was down tryin' to suck what he could up off of the floor, had to keep spittin' out little slivers of Elvis's head but he looked up at me, and his face was just full of murder, you know that look?"
Prairie realized she didn't. . . and then, with a stab of sadness, that Ch did. "So what the **," Ch asked softly, "am I supposed to do ? I keep getting these business offers from gentlemen in mega-stretch limos, and some of 'm I think seriously about."
The girls had moved along to Macy's, where Ch, smooth and sweatless, was working through the lingerie department with fingers spider-light while Prairie fronted, blocking her from what store cameras they'd managed to locate, keeping up a dizzy teen monologue, boys, recording stars, girlfriends, girl enemies, grabbing items at random, holding them up going "What do you think?" getting salespeople involved in long exchanges about discontinued styles as Ch blithely went on filching and stashing everything in her size that was black or red or both, so invisibly that not even Prairie after all these years could ever see the exact instant of the crime. Meantime, with a special tool swiped from another store, Ch was deftly unclipping the little plastic alarm devices on the garments and hiding them deep in the other merchandise all at a fairly easy what Brent Musberger might've called level of play, a routine long perfected and usually just for getting warmed up with. But today, instead, they felt already nostalgic, shivery with autumnal chances for separate ways, so that each came to be performing for the other, as a kind of farewell gift, two grizzled pros, one last caper for old times' sake before moving on. .
Soon as she was old enough to see out the windshield, Ch had learned to drive, didn't give a ** really about ever being street-legal, not even if she lived to be that old, which it was part of her bad young image to doubt. Times she liked to flirt, times she was out to hurt, it depended. On the freeway she liked to cruise at around 80, weaving and tailgating to maintain her speed. "We are children of the freeway," she sang, fingertips on the wheel, boot on the gas,
We are daughters of the road,
And we've got some miles to cover,
'Fore we've finally shot our load
If you see us in your mirror,
Better clear a couple lanes,
'Cause we're daughters of the freeway,
And speedin's in our veins. .
None of the cars she drove were hers, but usually hustled off boys she knew, or sometimes borrowed via slim jim and hot-wire from strangers. When she couldn't get her hands on a car, she'd hitch a ride and try to talk the driver into letting her take the wheel. She could get anywhere in Southern California as fast as wheels could move. Sasha called her the Red Car, after the old interurban trolley system.
When they got someplace secure which turned out to be the apartment of Ch's friend Fleur, east of La Brea and down in the flats Ch shook from the rocket bag and from under her shirt this amazing fluffed volume of underwear.
"What, no aqua?" Prairie said.
"Aqua's what the> give their wives, honey," Ch told her. "Black and red," twirling from a short-nailed finger a pair of lace bikinis in that bination, "is what they like to see on a bad girl."
"Night and blood," amplified Fleur, who'd recently begun working as a professional out of her apartment and was trying to talk Ch into joining the string she was on, "it's like they 's programmed for it or somethin' oh, hey, nice, Ch, do you mind?"
" 'Course not," Ch in the middle of sliding into a short see-through number herself.
Prairie watched them playing centerfold and thought, strangely, of Zoyd, her dad, and how much he would have enjoyed the display. "Not exactly a innocent teen fashion message here," she mented.
"It never has worked on Ch," said Fleur. "Put her in anything pink or white," fingerslash across her throat, "her street plausibility's all shot to hell."
"While on the other hand you, my dear," Ch flinging at Prairie something almost weightless in those colors, "belong inside this item, stolen expressly for you." Which turned out to be an intricate silk teddy full of lace, ribbons, ruffles, bows, which it took awhile for Prairie, blushing and protesting, to be persuaded to try on. Whenever Ch got this way with her, courtly, using her eyelashes, it put her into this weird warm daze for minutes at a time. This one lasted till she'd resumed her street uniform, sweatshirt, jeans, and running shoes, and was standing outside on the steps, gazing up at Ch framed in the doorway, twilight ing down in a great blurred stain, and hard lemon light in the room behind her . Prairie felt like it was steps of a boat landing and that one of them was setting off on a dangerous cruise across darkened seas, and that it could be a long time, this time, till they saw each other again.
"Hope you find your mom," pretending it was coke that was making her sniffle. "Do somethin' about your hair."
Prairie got back to Takeshi's office and found the place in upheaval. They'd just got back from what was left of Ditzah Pisk's house. Ditzah's anxiety about the safety of the 24fps archives had turned out to be prophetic after all. Both DL and Takeshi had sensed exits away that something was up, when they came upon a loose formation of midsize, neutral-colored, dingless and clean Chevs, each with exactly four Anglo males of like description inside, and little octagoned E's, for "Exempt," on their license plates. Ascending into Ditzah's neighborhood, they began to hear hill-warped traffic on the scanner, up around Justice Department frequencies. Before long there was a police roadblock, so Takeshi parked farther downhill while DL switched herself on Inpo mode and disappeared into the landscape. Inside the perimeter she met, ing the other way, a Youth Authority bus with bars on the windows, the kind that usually carried brushcutting crews or fire-camp swampers, jammed with restless, sweating Juvenile Hall badasses all whooping and hollering like a school team bus after a victory. She smelled something like burning plastic but not quite, stronger, more bitter as she drew close, and smoke from burning gasoline.
It could have been handled with far fewer personnel, but somebody DL could guess who had determined to give the neighbors a show. In front of Ditzah's garage, on the cement, conical black heaps smoked, glowed, flared here and there into visible fire. Metal reels and plastic cores were scattered all over, and besides all the unspooled film burning there was a lot of paper, typed pages mostly, any scraps that temporarily escaped, spinning in eddies from the updraft, sent back into the flames by a sweeping crew. None of those observing the fire seemed to be civilians the neighbors must have all been scared indoors. She noticed that the windows of the house had all been broken, the car trashed, trees in the yard taken down with chain saws and youthful muscle she assumed it was the juvies in the buses who'd done all the physical work.
"How about Ditzah?"
"Still with her friends, hiding out. She's OK, but she's scared."
Well so was Prairie. She had no choice but to stick with these two, and was only marginally reassured by the $135,000 manufacturer's suggested retail price of the ride they took to Vineland, the ultimate four-wheeling rig, a Lamborghini LM002, with a V-12 engine that put out 450 horsepower, custom armed, wired and dialed to the hubcaps. It was like being taken off in a UFO. "Sometimes," she'd told Ch, "when I get very weird, I go into this alternate-universe idea, and wonder if there isn't a parallel world where she decided to have the abortion, get rid of me, and what's really happening is is that I'm looking for her so I can haunt her like a ghost." The closer they got to Shade Creek, the more intense this feeling grew. The speakers were all one cross-spectrum massive chord of discontent and longing by the time they reached the WPA bridge and began to thread the plex obstacle course into town.
Takeshi and DL had long been set up in a restored Vicky dating from Little Gold Rush days, when it had been an inn and brothel. They found a crowd of Thanatoids on the porch when they got there, and an atmosphere of civic crisis. CAMP search-and-destroy missions by now were ing over on a daily schedule. Brock Vond and his army, bivouacked down by the Vineland airport, had begun sending long-range patrols up Seventh River and out into some of the creek valleys, including Shade Creek. And now there was a full-size movie crew up here, based out of Vineland but apt to show up just about anyplace, prominent among whom, and already generating notable Thanatoid distress, was this clearly insane Mexican DEA guy, not only dropping but also picking up, dribbling, and scoring three-pointers with the name of Frenesi Gates.
"See?" DL nudged Prairie, whose mouth was ajar and abdomen tingling with fear, "what'd we tell you?"
They'd only missed Hector by about twenty minutes he was headed for the Vineland nightlife, looking to see who else he could inveigle into his project, driving a muscular '62 Bonneville he'd borrowed, or, OK, mandeered, from his brother-in-law Felipe in South Pasadena. In the back seat, on loud and bright, was a portable Tube, which Hector had angled the rearview mirror at so he could see, for the highway was a lonely place, and a man needed pany. He'd stolen the set the last time he'd broken out of the Tubaldetox, this time, he swore, for good. Scientists. What did any of them know? The theory, when Hector was first admitted, had been homeopathic put him on a retinal diet of scientifically calculated short video clips of what in full dosage would, according to theory, have destroyed his sanity, thus summoning and rallying his mind's own natural defenses. But because of his dangerous demeanor, which the doctors only found out later was his everyday personality, they rushed him into therapy without the full set of workups, and misjudged his dosage. Who could have foreseen that Hector would have such an abnormally sensitive mentality that scarcely an hour of low-toxicity programming a day would be more than enough to jolt it into a desperate craving for more? He crept out of his ward at night to lurk anywhere Tubes might be glowing, to bathe in rays, lap and suck at the flow of image, more out of control than ever before in his life, arranging clandestine meets in the shadows of secluded gazebos and window reveals with dishonest Tubaldetox attendants who would produce from beneath their browns tiny illicit LCD units smuggled from the outside, which they charged exorbitant rent for and came at dawn to take back. After lights out, all the detoxees who could afford to would settle down beneath their blankets with prime-time through-the-air programming, all networks plus the four L.A. independents. By the time Hector ran out of money, the homeopaths were in disgrace and young Doc Deeply, at the head of his phalanx of New Agers all armored in the invincible smugness of their own persuasion, had beamed into power, proclaiming a new policy of letting everybody watch as much as they wanted of whatever they felt like seeing, the aim being Transcendence Through Saturation. For a few weeks, it was like a mob storming a palace. Schedules were abolished, the cafeteria stayed open around the clock, inmates who had OD'd wandered everywhere like zombies in the movies, humming theme songs from favorite shows, doing imitations of TV greats, some of them quite obscure indeed, getting into violent disputes over television trivia. "Amazing," Dennis Deeply was surprised to find himself thinking out loud, "the place is like a nuthouse."
After a lifetime of kicking other people around, Hector was suddenly here put down among the administered, judged as impaired, sick, and so, somehow, expendable. Time was he'd have blown people away for frustrating him less than this. What was happening to him? He had to believe that he was different, even as months began to creep by that his release really was in the pipeline, that he really wouldn't be inside for the rest of his life, here along these ever-lengthening, newly branching corridors, with progressively obsolete wall maps of the traffic system posted beneath lights he knew, though staff never admitted it, were being replaced each time with lower-wattage bulbs. As his program went on and his need for video images only deepened, he gathered a charge of anxiety that one day, as he looked in the mirror, discharged in a timeless crystalline episode in which both man and image understood that the only thing in the pipeline anymore was Hector heading straight down it with only the one, call it less than one, degree of freedom, and no way to get out. But headed where? What kind of "outside world" could they be rehabilitating him for? "You'll like it, Hector," they kept assuring him, even when he didn't ask. Every evening before they got to sit down and eat supper, everybody, holding their mess trays, had to sing the house hymn.
Oh the Tube!
It's poi-soning your brain!
Oh, yes. . . .
It's dri-ving you, insane!
It's shoot-ing rays, at you,
Over ev'ry-thing ya do,
It sees you in your bedroom,
And on th' toi-let too!
Yoo Hoo! The
It knows, your ev'ry thought,
Hey, Boob, you thought you would-
T'n get caught
While you were sittin' there, starin' at "The
Big fat puter jus'
Had you for lunch, now Th'
It's plugged right in, to you!
All he had for hope how he fingered it, obsessively, like a Miraculous Medal was a typed copy, signed by Hector, Ernie Triggerman, and his partner, Sid Liftoff, of an agreement on this movie deal, or, as Ernie liked to say, film project, now stained with coffee and burger grease and withered from handling. Despite his personal savagery, which no one at the 'Tox chose to acknowledge, let alone touch, Hector in these show-biz matters registered as fatally innocent, just a guy from the wrong side of the box office, offering Ernie and Sid and their friends a million cues he wasn't even aware of, terms used wrong, references uncaught, details of haircut or necktie that condemned him irrevocably to viewer, that is, brain-defective, status. Could he, with all the Tube he did, even help himself? Sitting in those breezy, easygoing offices up in Laurel Canyon with the hanging plants and palm-filtered light, everybody smiling, long-legged little bizcochos in leather miniskirts ing in and out with coffee and beers and joints that they lit for you, and coke that they held the spoon for you and **? was he supposed to sit there like some Florsheim-shoed street narc, taking names down in a daybook? Why not join in the fun?
The deal was that Sid Liftoff in his vintage T-Bird had been stopped one recent night on Sunset out west of Doheny, where the cops lurk up the canyon roads waiting to swoop down on targets selected from all the promising machinery exceeding the posted limits below, only to be found, aha! with a lizard-skin etui stuffed with nasal goods under the seat on the passenger side, which to this day he swore had been planted there, probably by an agent of one of his ex-wives. Lawyers arranged for Sid to work off the beef with munity service, namely by using his great talents and influence to make an antidrug movie, preferably full-length and for theatrical release. Hector, then attached to the Regional Intelligence Unit of the DEA office in Los Angeles, was assigned as liaison, though RIU work was understood to be punishment for 1811's with dappled histories, and this Hollywood posting, Hector was required to appreciate, was a favor, to be returned one of these nights and in a manner unspecified.
But soon enough, Hector's thoughts grew vertiginous, and he began to believe he'd been duked in to some deal, less and less willing to say when, or whether, he acted at the behest of DEA and when not, and neither Ernie nor Sid could quite decide how to ask. "The **er," Sid told Ernie, at poolside, in confidence, "wants to be the Popeye Doyle of the eighties. Not just the movie, but Hector II, then the network series."
"Who, Hector? Nah, just a kid at the video arcade." They discussed the degree of Hector's purity, as then defined in the business, and ended up making a small wager, dinner at Ma Mai-son. Ernie lost. Sid started with the duck-liver pt.
What Hector thought was his edge came about courtesy of an old colleague in the arts of foot-assisted entry, Roy Ibble, now a GS-16 with a yen for regional directorship, who called in from Las Vegas with word that Frenesi and Flash had shown up in town. Without even thinking about it Hector obtained a confiscated Toronado and went ripping all night across the Mojave toward the heavenly city, denial of desert, realm of excess. In the movie it would be a Ferrari, and Hector would be wearing a carefully distressed Nino Cerruti suit and some hyper-cherry A.T.M. Stacey Adams zapos. Liftoff and Triggerman would see to that. Yeah, those guys would get him just about anything these days. He cackled out loud. These days it was Hector who wasn't answering no phone calls, se.
For according to a rumor sweeping the film munity, a federal grand jury was convening to inquire into drug abuse in the picture business. A sudden monster surge of toilet flushing threatened water pressure in the city mains, and a great bloom of cold air spread over Hollywood as others ran to open their refrigerator doors more or less all at once, producing this gigantic fog bank in which traffic feared even to creep and pedestrians went walking into the sides of various buildings. Hector assumed parallels were being drawn to back in '51, when HUAC came to town, and the years of blacklist and the long games of spiritual Monopoly that had followed. Did he give a **? Communists then, dopers now, tomorrow, who knew, maybe the faggots, so what, it was all the same beef, wasn't it? Anybody looking like a normal American but living a secret life was always good for a pop if times got slow easy and cost-effective, that was simple Law Enforcement 101. But why right now? What did it have to do with Brock Vond running around Vineland like he was? and all these other weird vibrations in the air lately, like even some non-born-agains showing up at work with these little crosses, these red Christer pins, in their lapels, and long lines of civilians at the gun shops too, and the pawnshops, and all the military traffic on the freeways, more than Hector could ever remember, headlights on in the daytime, troops in full battle gear, and that queer moment the other night around 3:00 or 4:00 A.M., right in the middle of watching Sean Connery in The G. Gordon Liddy Story, when he saw the screen go blank, bright and prickly, and then heard voices hard, flat, echoing.
"But we don't actually have the orders yet," somebody said.
"It's only a detail," the other voice with a familiar weary edge, a service voice, "just like getting a search warrant." Onto the screen came some Anglo in fatigues, about Hector's age, sitting at a desk against a pale green wall under fluorescent light. He kept looking over to the side, off-camera.
"My name is what should I say, just name and rank?"
"No names," the other advised.
The man was handed two pieces of paper clipped together, and he read it to the camera. "As manding officer of state defense forces in this sector, pursuant to the President's NSDD #52 of 6 April 1984 as amended, I am authorized what?" He started up, sat back down, went in some agitation for the desk drawer, which stuck, or had been locked. Which is when the movie came back on, and continued with no further military interruptions.
There was a weirdness here that Hector recognized, like right before a big drug bust, yes, but even more like the weeks running up to the Bay of Pigs in '61. Was Reagan about to invade Nicaragua at last, getting the home front all nailed down, ready to process folks by the tens of thousands into detention, arm local "Defense Forces," fire everybody in the Army and then deputize them in order to get around the Posse Comitatus Act? Copies of these contingency plans had been circulating all summer, it wasn't much of a secret. Hector knew the classic chill, the extra receptors up and humming, gathering in the signs, channels suddenly shutting down, traffic scrambled and jammed, phone trouble, faces in lobbies warning you that you don't know them. Could it be that some silly-ass national-emergency exercise was finally ing true? As if the Tube were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, "From now on, I'm watching you."
He deliberately dragged his feet on it but at last did Ernie and Sid the favor of taking a meeting. He found the mood in Holmby Hills a little more depressed than the last time he'd been up, the play areas empty of starlets now, the pool gathering leaves and algae, an autumnal string quartet on the audio instead of the usual K-tel party albums, and the only recreational drug inside the property line a case of Bud Light, which was disappearing fast, often without Ernie or Sid even waiting for it to get cold in the tiny patio fridge. Both men were nervous wrecks, covered with a sweat-like film of desperation to ingratiate themselves with the antidrug-hysteria leadership, suddenly perceived as the cutting edge of hip. Sid Liftoff, having owed much of his matey and vivacious public image to chemical intervention, often on an hourly basis, now, absent a host of illicit molecules in his blood, was changing, like Larry Talbot, into the wild animal at the base of his character, solitary, misanthropic, more than ready to lift his throat in desolate, transpersonal cry. Ernie, meanwhile, sat in a glazed silence that would have suggested his return, in this time of crisis, to his childhood religion, Soto Zen, except for the way he was unable to keep from handling his nose, with agitated fussing movements, as if trying to primp it into shape like a hairdo.
The pair, trembling and tense, had been exchanging remarks as Hector approached, calling, "Hi, guys," his shoes flashing in the sun. Sid took a very professional beat and a half before leaping up violently, knocking over his custom deck chair, running to Hector, falling on his knees, and crying, "Fifty percent of producer's net! That's out of our own profits, isn't that right, Ernie?"
"Uh-huh," Ernie on some dreamy internal delay, through which Sid continued, " 'Course you appreciate that won't happen till we get to the break-even point "
"Do me a favor," Hector struggling to get loose of the importunate Sid, dragging him a step at a time toward the pool, "and please, mis cortinas, man take that producer's net, use it to chase butterflies, around the grounds, of whatever institution deals with people who think I'm about to settle, for anythn short of gross participation here, me entiendes o te digo?"
Sid went flat on his face and burst into tears, kicking his feet up and down. "Hector! Amigo!" further blowing it by most injudiciously reaching for Hector's shoes, whose finish the world knew, or ought to know, that Hector had long entertained homicide among his options in defending. But now he skipped backward, reminding himself the man was distraught, mumbling courteously, "Sid, you might want to, ahm, you know, check yourself out. . "
Sid fell silent and presently got to his feet, wiping his nose on his forearm, rearranging his hair and neck vertebrae. "You're right of course, frightfully immature of me Hector, I do apologize for my outburst and also for my shortings as a host. . . please, here, a Bud Light? Not exactly bien fra, but the warmer temperature brings out more of the flavor, don't you think."
Graciously nodding, taking a beer, "Is that I would rather not hear no more about some 'break-even,' please, save that for Saturday morning, with the Smurfs and the Care Bears and them, OK?"
The two movie guys cried in unison, "Maybe a rolling gross?"
"La, la, la-lalla la," Hector pointedly singing the Smurf theme at them, "La, la-lalla laahh___"
"Just tell us then," Sid pleaded. "Anything!"
How he had dreamed of this moment. He knew his mustache was perfect, he could feel where every hair was. "OK, a million in front, plus half of the gross receipts after gross equals 2.71828 times the negative cost."
Sid's tan faded to a kind of fragile bisque. "Strange multiple," he choked.
"Sounds real natural to me," Ernie twisting his nose back and forth. They screamed and yelled for the rest of the day till they had a document they could all live with, though Hector much more fortably than the others, even imposing upon the project his own idea of a zippy working title, "Drugs Sacrament of the Sixties, Evil of the Eighties." The story hit the trades just about the time the grand-jury scare was cresting, so it got banner treatment and even a ten-second mention on "Entertainment Tonight" no doubt about it, Ernie and Sid, first out of the chute into the antidrug arena, were making the town look good. Day after day skywriters billowed BLESS YOU ERNIE AND SID and DRUG FREE AMERICA in red, white, and blue over Sherman Oaks, though soon guerrilla elements were launching skyrockets charged to explode in the shape of a letter s and aimed at the space right after the word DRUG, changing the message some. Ernie and Sid found themselves allowed back into places like the Polo Lounge, where right after Sid's bust he'd been if not 86'd, then at least, say, 43 'd. And then Reagan's people got wind of it and the two started hearing their names in campaign speeches. "Well all I can say iss ," with the practiced shy head-toss of an eternal colt, "if theere'd been moore Sid Liftoffs and Ernie Triggermans in Hollywood, when I worked theere we might not've had . soo minny cahmmunists in the unionss . . . and my jahb might've been a lot eassier . ," twinkle. Die-hard industry lefties wrote in to publications to denounce Sid and Ernie as finks, Nazi collaborators, and neo-McCarthyite stooges, all of which was true but wouldn't deflect them an inch from making the picture, which they must have thought, dope-clouded fools, would purchase them immunity from the long era of darkness they saw lying just ahead. The town attended, now wistful, now cruelly amused, depending how hysterical the news was that day, to the boys out running point for the rest of them. Go, fellas, go.
Above-the-line checks started clearing the bank, motel rooms were booked, weather maps consulted, and crews assembled, and nobody had the least idea of what the movie, in fact, was supposed to be. Sid and Ernie, by now both deeply afraid of Hector, dared not ask, stuck with only vague assurances that the star element would be Frenesi Gates. Frenesi, working in Las Vegas one on and one off at a minor establishment on the wrong side of the Interstate, Chuck's Superslab of Love Motor Inn and Casino, cocktail-waitressing, had no inkling of the madness developing in her name till Hector showed up in town. Just before he called, she saw from the corner of her eye the snarled telephone lead, all by itself, like a snake in its sleep, give a slow loose shiver.
By the time they got there neither could remember why they'd picked the Club La Habanera, deep within a thousand-room resort-casino much too close to the airport, designed after the legendary gambler's paradise of pre-Castro Havana, where the smoke of genuine Vuelta Abajo filler and the fumes of Santiago rum, smuggled past the long embargo, mingled with a couple dozen brands of perfume, the band wore arm ruffles, and the sequined vocalist sang,
Mention . . . [rattle of bongos] to me, [picking up slow tropical beat]
And I won't need a replay,
My evening, is yours. . . .
Yes that's all, it takes,
Would it be so ter-reeb-lay,
To dare hope for more?
Could you at last be, the one?
Out of so many mil-lyun,
If you [bongo rattle, as above] would say, "Es po-ho-seeb-lay,"
While that old Mar Carib' lay
'Neath the moonlight above,
It's love . . . [fill phrase such as B-C-E-C-B flat]
It's love . . . [etc., board-fading]
Deeply tanned customers in dimly white tropical suits, with straw hats on the back of their heads, danced lewdly with hot-eyed packages in spike heels and tight bright flowered dresses, while beyond the seething blur of flame and parrot colors, sinister creatures, wrapped objects of unusual shape passing among them, bargained in the shadows. They were all yuppies on a theme tour, from places like Torrance and Reseda.
She recognized Hector right away, even after all the years, but the sight didn't raise her spirits. He looked like ** run-down, congested in every system of circulation, appearing to her as at the edge of a circle of light, out of the frozen dark of years in service, of making deals and breaking them, betrayed himself, tortured, torturing back . . . long-term ravages . . . He ought to've broken by now what kept him going? Somebody he loved, some drug habit, simple stubborn denial? She breathed his tobacco aura, withstood his crooked jovial born-to-lose laugh. So this was who he'd bee who, at least through her lack of surprise or any but reflex sorrow, she, down at her own modest level, must have bee as well.
Just to get it done, she asked, "Is this official? Do you have any backup from DEA or Justice on any of this, or are you working some private angle?"
Hector began to pop and roll his eyes, as if working up to a full-scale freakout. Back at the Tubaldetox he'd had women talking to him like this all the time, another reason to escape, obliged never to scream back at them, as this earned him demerits that would even further postpone his release date. How he would have preferred violent body contact, shock, the recoil of a weapon, some scream of aggro, some chance just to drum his heels on something, but his options these days didn't even include teethgrinding. Once suave and master of himself, the fed was now having some trouble "trying," as Marty Robbins once put it in a different context, "to stay in the saddle."
Frenesi felt a little anxious for him. "Hector, you ever just think about beaming up, getting yourself out of this?"
"Not till I've got you and Brock Vond in a two-shot, smiling."
"Oh dear. No Hector, it isn't 'This Is Your Life' here, in fact it could turn out the opposite . . Don't you know anymore what Brock is? Those quacks at the Tubaldetox have got you so Tubed out you can't even think straight."
"Listen to me!" screaming through his lower teeth like a lounge ic doing Kirk Douglas. She foresaw his attempt to grab her by the lapels and slipped in ahead of his, yes definitely looser reflexes, on her feet, turned and planted, telling herself I'm ready. Here she was with a homicidal narc having a midlife breakdown, without, fool, having remembered to bring anything tonight more threatening than a purse-size can of hair spray. But Hector, exhausted, folded back into the rattan chair, squeaking and creaking.
"You're an honest soldier, Frenesi, and we been out on so many of the same type calls over the years. . . ." Here came some sentimental pitch, delivered deadpan cop solidarity, his problems with racism in the Agency, her 59 on the male dollar, maybe a little "Hill Street Blues" thrown in, plus who knew what other licks from all that Tube, though she thought she recognized Raymond Burr's "Robert Ironside" character and a little of "The Captain" from "Mod Squad." It was disheartening to see how much he depended on these Tubal fantasies about his profession, relentlessly pushing their propaganda message of cops-are-only-human-got-to-do-their-job, turning agents of government repression into sympathetic heroes. Nobody thought it was peculiar anymore, no more than the routine violations of constitutional rights these characters performed week after week, now absorbed into the vernacular of American expectations. Cop shows were in a genre right-wing weekly TV Guide called Crime Drama, and numbered among their zealous fans working cops like Hector who should have known better. And now he was asking her to direct, maybe write, basically yet another one? Her life "underground," with a heavy antidrug spiel. Wonderful.
"Your story could be an example to others," Hector was purring, trying for a Latin Heartthrob effect, "an inspiration."
"Get them off drugs, right? Hector, Hector. I grew up hearing too much of this all the time, one movie pitch after another, my mother was a reader, then a story editor, even a writer, at first I thought they were all real, all I had to do was wait a little and I'd get to see every one of them on a screen someday." Sasha had finally wised her up, likening it to one sperm cell out of millions reaching and fertilizing an egg, a parison by then that Frenesi could relate to, though she felt the same shock and depression as when she'd found out that babies e not from Heaven but from Earth. Things now, for a moment, went likewise a little hollow. She'd brought to this rendezvous some wispy 2 or 3 percent hope that Hector might not be crazy. Though he and Brock both nominally worked for the Meese Police, just handicapping personalities, playing percentages, she'd have been willing to bet on some support from the DEA man but now, outside again after all these years, back with the rest of the American Vulnerability, she could see, desolate, how anytime soon, in the cold presence of trouble already on the tracks, better she keep her change in her mitten than molest herself calling Hector for any help. He reminded her of herself when she was in 24fps, inside some wraparound fantasy that she was offering her sacrifice at the altar of Art, and worse, believing that Art gave a ** here was Hector with so many of the same delusions, just as hopelessly insulated, giving up what seemed already too much for something just as cheesy and worthless.
He was nodding his head now, with a faraway look, as the Local 369 folks played "A Salute to Ricky Ricardo," a medley of tunes actually sung by Desi Arnaz on the "I Love Lucy" show, including "Babalu," "Acapulco," "Cuba," and "We're Having a Baby (My Baby and Me)," from the episode in which first mention is made of what turns out to be Little Ricky, a character in whom Hector took unusual interest. "Yes and a hell of a li'l percussionist, on top of everythn else. Just like his dad."
Frenesi peered. Something was up. His eyes had this moist gleam, growing brighter by the moment. Then she tumbled. "Oh no. We all settled that years ago, don't be doin' this to me now."
"Come on, open up them world-class ears, don't be tell' me you're not itchn to hear certain pieces of news."
"Warnin' you Hector, don't get me pissed."
But he had advanced across the tabletop, like a tile in a game, a Polaroid, mostly green and blue, North Coast colors, of a girl wearing jeans and a Pendleton shirt in a Black Watch plaid, sitting on a weathered wood porch beside a large dog with its tongue out. There was no sun, but both were squinting. "You **er," said Frenesi.
"Zoyd took this one. You can tell from the weird angle. See the dog? name's Desmond Brock chased him away. The house there? took Zoyd years to build, Brock came took that away under civil RICO, and they're probably never gonna live there again. The deal we all thought we had, the deal we honored all these years, is now all blown to ** because of Mad Dog Vond, you listenn to me?"
"No, asshole, I'm tryin' to look at my daughter's face. That all right?" She glared at him. "If you're so worried about the breakdown of your private little boys-only arrangement, bring it up with Reagan next time you see him, he's the one took the money away."
"Correct. But did you know he took it away from Brock too? Imagine how pissed off he must feel! Yeah, PREP, the camp, ev-erythn, they did a study, found out since about '81 kids were n in all on their own askn about careers, no need for no separate facility anymore, so Brock's budget lines all went to the big Intimus shredder in the sky, those ol' barracks are filln up now with Vietnamese, Salvadorans, all kinds of refugees, hard to say how they even found the place. . . ."
"Hector " shaking her head, unable to stop looking at the Polaroid.
He beamed her a tight teary smile. "She wants to see you."
She took a breath and enunciated carefully. "Look, I've seen some no-class behavior go on trying to get a picture made, and considering your life history, usin' somebody's kid on them ain't even a misdemeanor, but remember to put in your report that subject took deep exception to Agent Zuiga's spiritual molestation of her child."
Hector frowned, trying to figure that out. "This ain't on the books that what you think? Naw families belong together, is all. Just 'cause I couldn't save my own marriage don't mean I can't try to help, does it?" Under the influence of, by then, quarts of a house specialty known as Battista's Revenge, Hector went off mooning about his ex-wife Debbi, who during the divorce proceedings, on the advice of some drug-taking longhair crank attorney, had named the television set, a 19-inch French Provincial floor model, as corespondent, arguing that the Tube was a member of the household, enjoying its own space, fed out of the house budget with all the electricity it needed, addressed and indeed chatted with at length by other family members, certainly as able to steal affection as any cheap floozy Hector might have met on the job. As long as she'd happened, moreover, to've destroyed this particular set with a frozen pot roast right in the middle of a "Green Acres" rerun that Hector had especially looked forward to viewing, possibly thereby rendering moot her suit, he decided in the heat of his own emotions to make a citizen's arrest, charging Debbi with Tubal homicide, since she'd already admitted it was human. In the movie of his life story, with Marie Osmond as Debbi and no one but Ricardo Montalban as Hector, it would be one of those epic courtroom battles over deep philosophical issues. Is the Tube human? Semihuman? Well, uh, how human's that, so forth. Are TV sets brought alive by broadcast signals, like the clay bodies of men and women animated by the spirit of God's love? There'd be this parade of expert witnesses, professors, rabbis, scientists, with Eddie Albert in an Emmy-nominated cameo as the Pope. All just dreams of what might have been in non-Tubal "reality," both actions were thrown out as frivolous, and they got a simple no-fault divorce, on the condition that Hector immediately enter a Tubal Detoxification program.
"As kindly as I can," since no one else was telling him, "between the television set and those New Age psychobabblers back at your Detox, I fear that very little, beyond the minimum needed for basic tasks, remains of your brain."
"OK. Swell. You don't care about your kid, or the War on Drugs, I can even buy that, but I can't believe you'd just walk away from a chance to get back into film again."
"Oh, 'film,' well, 'film,' I thought you said Triggerman and Liftoff, I hope you aren't mistaking what they do for 'film,' or even a class act."
"Look, with or without you, this will, git made. The money is mitted, the papers are signed, all except for the director's agreement, and that's you if you want. Shootn starts next week, soon as I leave here that's where I'm headed."
He wanted her to ask where. "Where?"
"Hector, it's probably old news to you, but since I went under I've been all across the USA, Waco, Fort Smith, Muskogee too, rode up and down every Interstate in the land, some don't even have numbers, sweated my ass off in Corpus Christi, froze it in Rock Springs and **ing Butte, honored my side of it, always went where I got sent, and not once, that was the deal, never did I have to go anywhere near Vineland. It suited Brock's control-freak desires to keep me away from my child, and bein' a hard case and cold bitch, why, it suited me too."
They were both just about crying, Hector more with frustration than anything. "Is what I been tryn to tell you," in his forced, whispered grunt, "is that there is no deal anymore. OK? Brock has taken over the airport in Vineland with a whole **n army unit, and he seems to be waitn for somethn. Now what do you suppose that could be? Some think it's the dope crops, 'cause he is coordinating with CAMP and their vigilantes. Some think it's more romantic than that."
"This the way it is in your movie script, Hector?"
"Frenesi, there's no more reason for you to stay away anymore see your kid again if you want, the game was called off. Come on back to Vineland, think how long it's been, all your mom's side of the family, gonna be up at those campgrounds on Seventh River "
She drilled him with the double blues. "Who the ** are you, trackin' the ings and goings of my family?"
He shrugged, with a look that if they'd been talking about virginity she would have called a leer. "Is it Brock? Are you afraid of him?"
"You know Clara Peller, the lady in the burger mercial gon 'Where's the-beef? Where's the-beef?' well that's exactly my problem with you and Brock. How bad could it be? How personal? His dick was too short?"
She guffawed quietly. "Inquisitive tonight. Are you saying you really think Brock and I should find a qualified third party, sit down, talk things out, share our feelings?"
"There you go!"
" 'Mad Dog Vond'?"
Hector allowed his face to flush and widen in a smile, angled his hand at the band. "Caramba! don't this stuff just get my blood throbbn to that beat! How about yourself, Mrs. Fletcher?"
"Do me the honor?" It was a subset of northernized Perez Prado charts, mambos, cha-chas, steps she hadn't done since she was a girl. Despite his attempt to convey seedy decrepitude, she discovered grace, muscles, and that rhythm in his shoes. Hector was interested to find himself with a hardon, not for Frenesi who was here, but for Debbi who wasn't, that girl in the Mormon makeup who'd always held the pink slip to his heart, and the memory of the last time they'd danced together, to the radio, in the kitchen, with the lights off, and the night of love and sex strangely as always intermingled. In other embedded rooms the croupiers called, the winners shrieked and the drunks cackled, plastic foliage the size and weight of motel curtains rippled slowly, just below the human threshold for seeing it, arching high against the room lights, throwing lobed and sawtoothed shadows, while a thousand strangers were taken on into a continuing education in the ways of the House, and in general what would be expected of them, along with the usual statistics and psych courses, and Frenesi and Hector had somehow danced out into all the deep pile and sparkle of it, like a ritzy parable of the world, leaving the picture of Prairie face up on the table, she and Desmond, both squinting upward at nothing, at high risk for hostile magic against the image, the two most likely means in here being fire and ice, but there the Polaroid lay, safe, till it was rescued by a Las Vegas showgirl with a hard glaze but a liquid center whom Prairie reminded of a younger sister, and who returned it to Frenesi when she came around the next day, her heart pounding, her skin aching for it still to be there, to find it again and claim it.
Just before they left for the airport, step-lively time once again, Justin took her aside. "Is something after us, Mom?" According to his dreams, a nightly news service, the thing pursuing was big and invisible. Would she even let on that she knew about it? "Don't worry," she told him, "it doesn't eat kids," but didn't sound that sure. They had both been acting weirder than Justin had ever seen them, flaring up at each other and at him, drinking and smoking too much, appearing and disappearing on no schedule he knew of. The smartest kid Justin ever met, back in kindergarten, had told him to pretend his parents were characters in a television sit. "Pretend there's a frame around 'em like the Tube, pretend they're a show you're watching. You can go into it if you want, or you can just watch, and not go into it." The advice came especially in handy when they got to McCarran International and found some service workers out on strike, and a picket line. "Uh-oh," said Frenesi. Uh-oh, went Justin to himself. His mom didn't cross picket lines she told him someday he'd understand.
"Darlin'," Flash advised her, "these folks don't fly the airplane, all's they take care of's the maintenance in the terminal, so just don't use the toilet or nothin', OK?"
"Can't use the toilet?" Justin said.
"Fletcher, we can get on the bus, take the plane from someplace else?"
"Sweetheart they took the bags already."
"No you go in and get 'em back."
His head and neck suddenly forward at an angle she'd learned to connect with meanness on down, "Telling me to do what, now?" his tone and volume enough to bring some pickets out of the line to have a listen, along with a few passengers from the waiting area who were forsaking the daytime dramas on their coin-operated TV sets for this free episode. "You know what it is, it's your **in' family, tryin' to keep 'at old union-kid cherry for your daddy."
"Don't you bring Hub into this, mother**er, not that she would have noticed if you did "
"Nothing," Flash bellowed, "about her, all right? Bitch?"
Frenesi smiled, inhaling through her nose. "Tell you what," in a strenuously perky voice, "I'll cross your picket line if you'll go and get **ed up your ass, OK? 'N' then we can talk about busted cherries unless o' course there's something you haven't told me"
Finally a picket coordinator came over. "We took a vote," she told Frenesi. "Just this once, it's OK, you can go on through."
"Was it close?"
"Unanimous. You a good child. Enjoy your flight."
Justin made a point of sitting between them. He already had the bowl haircut, and it had been a short step for him to learn to get in there and push them apart like Moe separating Larry and Curly, going, "Spread out, spread out!" But by the time they'd reached cruising altitude, the quarrel seemed to've been left below. Instead, too late, they'd begun to wonder why, with Brock's people bivouacked at Vineland International, they were flying in, beyond the fact that Hector had sprung for the tickets, having left them at the Regional Office with Roy Ibble, one of Flash's old handlers. "Only message was he'd see you all in Vineland," Roy said, passing Flash a funny look along with the envelope.
"That's it, Roy? Nothin' you might want to tell me, just as a human being? Nothin' for that brave little guy who once gave you the most important telephone number of your life, maybe turned your whole career around?"
"I'm as nostalgic as the next fella, Flash, I could go moanin' over those Nixon Years forever, but most of you old-timers, I hate to say it, you've been bumped off the puter to make way for the next generation, all 'em deeply personal li'l ones and zeros got changed to somebody else's, less electricity than you think, put it across your dick on a good night chances are you wouldn't even feel it."
Flash understood that Roy's career had included duties such as this, and even still might, but true to his motto, "Whine or Lose," he started in, in an all but unendurable singsong, "Well, Special Agent Ibble, maybe you've been off the street too long, maybe you never knew what it is to have your woman and your little boy out there at the mercy of any numb-nose Class IV offender with a buck knife from a swap meet who thinks his story's sad enough, after all these years walkin' point for you, so you could git home on weekends, so you could drive 'at **in' BMDubya, so's your wife, Mrs. Ibble, could keep fartin' on silk 'at's right, Roy m'man, don't you give me that irate-husband look, I can read the married-man blues right on your face, so save it, 'cause I'm the victim here, while your happy household continyas to waller in bliss, mine's as helpless as worms out on the hardpan, waitin' for that first chicken 'th enough dumb luck to find its way home to roost, and damn 'at irritates the hell outa me, Roy?"
Roy, in some strange paralysis of will, had slowly been rolling away in his office chair and was now cowering against his credenza, chin trembling. "Please, no more! I'll tell you what I know. . . ." He even showed Flash the teletype of the burn notice out on him and Frenesi. Nobody, Roy confessed, knew what Brock Vond was up to, beyond some connection with Reagan's so-called readiness exercise, code-named REX 84 or maybe it was just the election year getting to everybody. "For the moment," said Special Agent Ibble, "let's say you never came in here, and furthermore," impulsively rolling back to punch some phone buttons, "Hello Irma my darling, can you give me the spot figure on the imprest money right now? . . . Couple K, old twenties? OK, tens . . . mm, me too bye."
"Roy, I'm overe, you shouldn't've."
"After a certain basketball game tonight, I may wish I hadn't."
"What, you you guys gamble, w-with federal funds? Holy cow, maybe there is a budget squeeze around here!"
"We're nobody's protg this administration, State Department hates our ass, NSC thinks we're scum, if Customs don't steal it out from under us, Justice and FBI try to either run it or ** it up, and frankly," lowering his voice, "notice how cheap coke has been since '81? However in the world do you account for that?"
"Roy! Is you're sayin' the President himself is duked into some deal? Quit foolin'! Next you'll be tellin' me George Bush."
Roy kept a prop Bible on his desk, useful when he needed to get along with the born-agains in the Agency. He opened it and pretended to read. "Harken unto me, read thou my lips, for verily I say that wheresoever the CIA putteth in its meathooks upon the world, there also are to be found those substances which God may have created but the U.S. Code hath decided to control. Get me? Now old Bush used to be head of CIA, so you figure it out."
Irma showed up with the money, which Flash pretended to count. "And now what was this for again?"
"For staying so cute all these years," Irma blowing a kiss as she departed.
"She said that, I didn't," Roy added.
"What happens when we get in to VLX?" Frenesi wanted to know. Flash was curious himself. From the first he'd had his ideas about why Brock was out like this, just as he'd always known, since the days at PREP when he'd worshipped her from afar as Brock Vond's Woman, unattainable, that if it ever came to saving her, finally winning her love, it would have to mean facing Brock and taking her away from him. This long progress of postings into what she called Midol America because it always felt like her period, the air-conditioner throbbing, the rare moments of breeze in over the wrecking yards and oil-well pumps, cottonwoods in hazy distance, backyards facing the Santa Fe tracks, had never taken her outside Brock's long-distance possession marriage and Justin and the years had brought her no closer to Flash. They had both been content to leave it that way, to go along in a government-defined history without consequences, never imagining it could end, turn out to be only another Reaganite dream on the cheap, some snoozy fantasy about kindly character actors in FBI suits staked out all night long watching over every poor scraggly sheep in the herd it was their job to run, the destined losers whose only redemption would have to e through their usefulness to the State law-enforcement apparatus, which was calling itself "America," although somebody must have known better.
VLX stood south of town in a broad valley just inland from the Seventh River floodplain. Wild hares lived in the grass between the runways, and cows browsed and seagulls scavenged at the far edges. The approach brought the plane lapsing in industrious wheeze across 101, but something about the light, as angles flattened out and the atmosphere thickened, wasn't right glare, location, something. Rumors filtered back from the cabin that the air controllers down there sounded like they used to in Vietnam, none of the usual civilians were on the job, and there was heavy traffic on all the military frequencies. They crossed the little harbor and a first evening sprinkling of lights, the steeples, antennas, and power lines, across the freeway and darkening marsh to merge unfelt with solid ground again, and that was how Flash first came, and Frenesi returned, to Vineland.
The airport had been turned into a staging area, with military vehicles everywhere. Each deplaning passenger was being stopped, briefly questioned while an operator at the keyboard entered names and numbers, and then either waved on through or sent to a bullpen area to wait.
"Think that **in' Hector set us up?" it had occurred to Flash.
"Maybe not. Check this out." There he was, and a full film crew too, lights, a Panaflex, and some hand-held Arris. He sauntered on up to Flash, Frenesi, and Justin and escorted them out of line and through the terminal, ignoring stenciled directions taped to doors and columns, waving his badge and a newly acquired business smile at any security they met, and soon had them all checked in at the Vineland Palace, courtesy of Triglyph Productions, Inc., for the duration of the shoot. Frenesi just kept shaking her head. "That Hector. He's like me when I was twenty, maybe even more of an ingenue than that, he really believes he's immune. That Panaflex is his shield. He's bought in. He's another Sid Liftoff already." It wasn't till room service showed up with the cheeseburgers and fries and hot fudge sundaes and carafes of Hefty Burgundy that she began to admit maybe Hector hadn't been bull**ting and maybe there really was a picture. "Don't worry about him, Mom," Justin told her, "he's the real thing, all right."
"How do you know that?"
"Can tell by the way he watches television." The two of them had gone off to watch Twi-Nite Theatre, which tonight featured John Ritter in The Bryant Gumbel Story, and soon they were deep into a discussion of Tubal nuances that could have gone on all night, but Hector had to run up to the Cucumber Lounge to catch Biliy Barf and the Vomitones, who might, if they'd work cheap enough, do some of the music for the movie. He didn't get to the Cuke quite in time to miss Ralph Wayvone, Jr., in a glossy green suit accented with sequins, who was cracking jokes into the mike to warm this crowd, who in Ralph's opinion needed it, up.
Things work out funny sometimes. His father had sent him up here to Vineland as punishment for a string of venial business errors. But he'd never wanted the Wayvone empire, he wanted to be a edian, and it turned out that the Cucumber Lounge provided him with just what he'd always dreamed of, a workshop for getting his stand-up routines together. "So the other day I'm eating my wife's pussy, she says " he waited for a reaction but heard only the air-conditioning and some glassware. "Eating pussy, wow, you know? It's just like the Mafia. . . . Yeah one slip of the tongue, you're in deep **!" A couple of teenage boys barked nervously, and Van Meter, tending bar, tried to help out. Nothing worked. Ralph Jr. grew desperate, driven at length to self-inflicted anti-Italian jokes. Finally, having squeezed the crowd for as much rejection as he thought he could handle, he used the unspeakably derogatory "How to Get an Italian Woman Pregnant" for his big punch line, smiled, sweating, and blew kisses as if he'd received an ovation. "Thank you all, thank you, a-a-a-nd now" a drum-roll from Isaiah Two Four "those maestros of the metallic, direct from a gig at a nudist golf course, where they barely escaped with their balls, yes let's hear a big Cucumber Lounge wele, for Billy Barf! . . . and the Vomitones!"
Having learned its audience by now, the band started right off with Billy's own "I'm a Cop," a three-note blues
Fuck you, mister,
Fuck your sister,
Fuck your brother,
Fuck your mother,
Fuck your pop
Hey! I'm a cop!
Yeah, ** you, yuppie,
Fuck your puppy,
Fuck your baby,
Fuck your lady,
Yes I can,
Hey! I'm the Man!
The crowd, reacting to this as if it were gospel singing, hollered back, clapping and footstomping, "How true!" and "I can relate to that, rilly!"
Zoyd, beard gone and hair shorter, lurking around the back of the room disguised as the Marquis de Sod's idea of an ordinary Joe, including the loan of a necktie from the Marquis's own unfailingly hideous collection, was a little sensitive at the moment on the subject of police, so all he did was nod along with the bass line. Under terms of a new Comprehensive Forfeiture Act that Reagan was about to sign into law any minute now, the government had filed an action in civil court against Zoyd's house and land. He'd been up there a few times just to have a look, getting close enough to hear the sound of his own television set from inside his house. Federal Dobermans, shortly after whose mealtimes Zoyd had soon learned to arrive, lay behind new chain-link boundaries, blood dreams for the moment less urgent. According to the latest rumor, Zoyd's own dog, Desmond, who'd taken off at the first signs of invasion, had been spotted out by Shade Creek, having lately joined up with a pack of dispossessed pot-planters' dogs from Trinity County who were haunting the local pastures and not above ganging innocent cows at their grazing, an offense that could carry a penalty of death by deer rifle. More for Zoyd to be anxious about.
Leaving only a couple of marshals to guard the house, most of Brock's troops had departed after terrorizing the neighborhood for weeks, running up and down the dirt lanes in formation chanting "War-on-drugs! War-on-drugs!" strip-searching folks in public, killing dogs, rabbits, cats, and chickens, pouring herbicide down wells that couldn't remotely be used to irrigate dope crops, and acting, indeed, as several neighbors observed, as if they had invaded some helpless land far away, instead of a short plane ride from San Francisco.
Starting with a small used trailer shaped like a canned ham and a drilled well that he'd had to find a pump for, working by himself or with friends, using lumber found washed up on the beaches, scavenged off the docks, brought home from old barns he helped take down, Zoyd had kept adding on over the years a room for Prairie, a kitchen, a bathroom, a tree house built among four redwoods that grew down the hill, set level with the loft in the house and connected to it by a rope bridge. A lot of it was nowhere near up to code, especially the plumbing, a sure cause of indigestion, running to many different sizes of pipe, including the prehistoric -inch, and requiring transition fittings and adapter pieces that could take whole days at swap meets or even at the great Crescent City Dump to find. While he lived in the house, he'd thought of it, when he did, as a set of problems waiting to get serious enough to claim his time. But now it was like a living thing he loved, whose safety he feared for. He'd begun to have terrifying dreams in which he would e around a curve in the road and find the place in flames, too late to save, the smell of more than wood destroyed and sent forever to ash, to the blackness behind the flames. . . .
When the set ended, Zoyd headed outdoors with Isaiah Two Four, Van Meter ducking out from under the bar to join them. They went out in back to Van Meter's place and stood on the porch smoking, with the usual full-scale kvetchathon proceeding spiritedly inside. "Briefly," Zoyd addressed the high-rise drummer, "Van Meter has some folks lined up, now what we need is something they can express themselves with, preferably with a full-automatic option."
"There's this bunch of little Finnish knockoffs of a AK that shoot .22's I know I can get a price on, but somebody'll have to do the kit conversions besides going down to Contra Costa and pickin' 'm up. . . ."
"The Sisters have their headquarters in Walnut Creek," Van Meter twinkled, "so no prob." He referred to the Harleyite Order, a male motorcycle club who for tax purposes had been reconstituted as a group of nuns. Van Meter had run across them in the course of his quest after the transcendent, and been immediately surprised and impressed by the spirituality they all seemed to radiate. Taking as their text the well-known graffito "If they won't let Harleys into Heaven, we'll ride them straight to Hell," the Sisters pursued lives of exceptional, though antinomian, purity. They went on as before with all the drug and alcohol abuse, violence symbolic and real, sexual practices upon which Mrs. Grundy has been known to frown, and an unqualified hatred of authority at all levels, but with every act now transfigured, the vital difference being Jesus, the First Biker, according to Sister Vince, the Order's theologian.
"You might say, no bikes back then," wimple askew, passing Van Meter a bottle of supermarket tequila he'd been using to chase some barbiturate capsules, "but hey how'd he get around out in the desert? Why do you think they call it Motocross, dude?" and so forth, till drowsiness overtook his thoughts. Van Meter still kept in touch, was happy to fix them up with Zoyd and his scheme, though doubts lingered.
"Sure this is the best way, now, to go about it, Z Dub? All's they have to do's kill you to solve their problem, and this could be makin' it easier."
"Why I thought I'd bring some backup. . . you saying they might not want to do it now?"
"The Sisters? they don't give a **. Their club tattoo says 'Full of Grace.' They believe whatever they do, it's cool with Jesus, including armed insurrection against the government, which, I'm no lawyer, but I think is the technical name for this."
"I'll ask Elmhurst." Zoyd's lawyer, who'd inherited his father's practice and role as North Coast attorney for the damned, had taken Zoyd's case without asking for a fee, prophetically fearing that this civil RICO weapon would be the prosecutorial wave of the future and figuring that he might as well get educated now. It had still been an effort for Zoyd to go in and see him. According to Vato Gomez, one of the heavy-dutiest of Mexican curses goes, "May your life be full of lawyers." Zoyd had e to consider the "legal system" a swamp, where a man had to be high-flotation indeed not to be sucked down forever into its snake-infested stench. Elmhurst cheerfully admitted that this was the case. "Am I plaining? Do plumbers plain about **?" Not only did he look like something shoplifted from a toy department, but his tone of voice likewise suggested Saturday morning more than prime time. Zoyd observed the furry hand emerging from the lawyer's tweed sleeve, resting on a shaggy winter-cowhide briefcase covered with straps and buckles, bought years ago on layaway at some Berkeley leather store. Even the twinkle in this small-sized and potentially crazy attorney's eye was furry.
"You, uh, look eager," Zoyd remarked. "Done many of these?"
"The law's brand-new, the intentions behind it are as old as power. I specialize in abuses of power, I'm good, I'm fast, I enjoy it."
"My dentist talks like that. This will be fun." Resisting the impulse to stroke Elmhurst's head, Zoyd tried to smile.
The burden of proof, Elmhurst explained, would be reversed here to get his property back, Zoyd would first have to prove his innocence.
"What about 'innocent till proven guilty'?"
"That was another planet, think they used to call it America, long time ago, before the gutting of the Fourth Amendment. You were automatically guilty the minute they found that marijuana growing on your land."
"Wait I wasn't growin' nothin'."
"They say you were. Duly sworn officers of the law, wearing uniforms, packing guns, bound to uphold the Constitution, you think men like that would lie?"
"Glad you're not charging any money for this. How can we win?"
"Get lucky with the right judge."
"Sounds like Vegas."
The lawyer shrugged. "That's because life is Vegas."
"Oboy," Zoyd groaned, "I've got worse trouble here than I've ever had, and I'm hearing 'Life is Vegas'?"
Elmhurst's eyes moistened, and his lips began to tremble. "Y-You mean life isn't Vegas?"
Making his way back into the Cuke, Zoyd ran smack into Hector, who ID'd him immediately, so much for disguises, and was so eager to announce "I just saw yer ol' lady, man!" that he missed his mouth with the cigar he was holding, nearly singeing the beard of a logger next to him, which could easily have meant a major detour off his freeway of life. "A-And accordn to my Thanatoid sources, your kid otta be in Shade Creek about now."
"All I need's my mother-in-law," Zoyd bantering, still not absorbing the facts he was hearing.
"Now you mention it " To the great delight of Sid Liftoff, who'd known her since their days as regulars at Musso and Frank's, and a senior gaffer who'd worked with Hub, Sasha had e wheeling into the valet parking at the Vineland Palace in a Cadillac the size of a Winnebago and painted some vivid fingernail-polish color, alighting and sweeping into the lobby a step and a half ahead of her panion, Derek, considerably younger and paler, with a buzz cut that nearly matched the car, an English accent, and a guitar case he was never seen to open, picked up on the highway between here and the Grand Canyon, where she'd parted from her current romantic interest, Tex Wiener, after an epic screaming exchange right at the edge, and on impulse decided to attend that year's Traverse-Becker get-together up in Vineland, leaving Tex on foot among the still-bouncing echoes of their encounter, which had brought tourist helicopters nudging in for a closer look, distracted ordinarily surefooted mules on the trail below into quick shuffle-ball-changes along the rim of Eternity, proceeded through a sunset that was the closest we get to seeing God's own jaundiced and bloodshot eyeball, looking back at us without much enthusiasm, then on into the night arena of a parking lot so dangerously tilted that even with your hand brake set and your wheels chocked, your short could still end up a mile straight down, its trade-in value seriously diminished. She'd been fooled, once again, by the uniform, a bright silver custom jumpsuit with racing stripes, flames, and a shoulder patch discreetly reading "Tex Wiener Ecole de Pilotage."
And perhaps about to be by Derek, a terminal sobriety case who favored leather, metal, Nazoid regalia, and the attitude that went with them, whose longest sentence was "Weww it's oow rubbish, i'n' i' ?" The perversity of the attraction made Sasha stretch and shiver, so she had little else on her mind as they went wandering into the Vineland Palace's Bigfoot Room, where she and her daughter, Frenesi, as guests at the same hotel often do, came face-to-face.
Though Ernie and Sid had done their best in advance to cushion the shock, it was still an instant off the scale, from which neither woman would return to the world she had left. Sasha looked younger than either could remember, and Frenesi glowed like a cheap woodstove. They sat in a Naugahyde booth beside a wall covered in red-and-gold-flocked wallpaper, so unwilling to break eye contact, as if one of them might disappear, that Derek, made weird by such intensity, withdrew to the solitude of the men's toilet and was never heard from again. "Did they scream?" Hector tried to debrief Sid, "cry, hug? C'mon, Sid."
Sid grinned with movie avuncularity. "They danced."
"Yeah, they jitterbugged," said Ernie.
"The piano player knew a lot of old swing tunes. 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams,' 'In the Mood,' 'Moonlight Serenade.'. . ."
"Huh," said Hector, "Too bad we can't use it. But screamn, and confrontations, is much better, actresses love that **."
"You're right, Hector," Sid and Ernie replied, in harmony.
Early in the morning Sasha dreamed that Frenesi, perhaps under a sorcerer's spell, was living in a melon patch, as a melon, a smooth golden ellipsoid, on which images of her eyes, dimly, could just be made out. At a certain time each month, just at the full moon, she would be able, by the terms of the spell, to open her eyes and see the moon, the light, the world . . . but each time, in some unexplained despair, would only cast her gaze down and to the side, away, and close her eyes again, and for another cycle she could not be rescued. Her only hope was for Sasha to find her at the exact moment she opened her eyes, and kiss her, and so, after a wait in the fragrant moonlight, it came about, a long, passionate kiss of freedom, a grandmother on her knees in a melon patch, kissing a young pale melon, under a golden pregnant lollapalooza of a moon.
Prairie, meanwhile, was wandering around gaga. The easiest way for her to see her mother at last would be to show up at the Traverse-Becker reunion. Just be there. "But I don't know if I want to anymore," she told DL.
"Know the feeling," DL confessed. They were all sitting in the booth at the Zero Inn that had been DL and Takeshi's Amen Corner ever since the early days of their practice here. There had been redecorating since, and outside talent was getting booked in with some regularity these days, tonight's being a band up from the East Bay called Holocaust Pixels, on a return visit, actually, being chartbusters around Shade Creek with their recent "Like a Meat Loaf." As if doing a mike check, the bass player leaned in and sang,
Like a meat loaf. .
[The accordion player joined him ]
Like a meat loaf. . . .
[Then the electric violinist, making it three-part harmony,]
Like a meat loaf for, your, lunch. . . .
As they hovered on the about-to-be-resolved seventh, the place erupted in cheers and tabletop-beerglass percussion, and then the accordionist took the vocal.
Like a meat loaf in, a lunch-box,
Like monkeys in, a grave,
We went among the Vietnamese,
Some souls for to save. . . .
Them souls did some scufflin',
Uh them uh monkeys, did too,
'Twas your bleedin' feedin' time, at the zoo.
Clapping and stomping, these Thanatoids tonight were acting rowdier than DL or Takeshi had ever seen them. Were changes in the wind, or was it only a measure of their long corruption by the down-country world, by way of television? The melody was rooted in Appalachia, in a tradition of hymn and testimony, and the beat was almost well, lively.
So we took in, the Mar-ble Moun-tain,
And the Perfume River too, Sometimes, we found, a bunch of them,
Sometimes, we missed a few,
And most times, the things, we seen, we didt-
'N want to see much more than once,
Like the graveyard full of meat loaf,
And monkeys for your lunch
Like a meat loaf,
Like a meat loaf,
Like a meat loaf for, your, lunch. . . .
Well we followed our dicks [applause] just a couple o'
Down the trail, by the bor-derline,
Somebody said, it was 'sixty-eight,
Others said 'sixty-nine [cheering],
But sometimes it felt like neither one, and other
Times it felt like both,
With a grave-box for your lunch meat,
Full of good ol' monkey loaf.
Ortho Bob stopped by with Weed Atman, both of them acting chirpy for the first time DL could remember. Prairie felt embarrassed, like she ought to be apologizing for her mom or something.
"Well I was almost you," Weed informed her.
"Oh, I'm sure." But Weed explained about the after-death state, the Bardo, with its time limits for finding a new body to be born into seeking out men and women in the act of sex, looking for a just-fertilized egg, slipping to and fro with needful dim others in a space like a bleak smoke-tarnished district of sex shows and porno theaters, looking for the magical exact film frame through which the dispossessed soul might reenter the world.
"Made the basic error," Weed confessed, "too much still on my mind, couldn't find 'em, time ran out. So I'm here instead."
"You knew about me?"
"Thought this might be her strange idea of making it right. A life for a life, zero out the account."
"So if I'm not you, who am I?"
"Makes you think," Takeshi nodded, "doesn't it?"
"What are you gonna do to my mom?" Prairie wanted to know.
Here he was, after all, even in the peculiar formal getup, bordering on the semigross, that he was wearing, still a cell of memory, of refusal to forgive, sailing like a conscious virus through the population, seeking her out.
But Weed only shrugged. "The condition I'm in? not much. As a Thanatoid one's reduced to hanging around monitoring the situation, trying to nudge if you don't think it's moving along fast enough but basically helpless and, if you give in to it, depressed, too."
"But if I am the payback? If your account is zeroed out at last?"
"It'd depend a lot on who you've turned out to be, and the karmic chits you've been accumulating."
"Easier since Takeshi puterized. Still a danger of collapsing into a single issue, turning into your case, obsessed with those who've wronged you, with their continuing exemption from punishment. . . . Sometimes I lose it, sure, go out in the night, malevolent, mean, and I find your mom and mess with her. She cries, she gets into fights with her husband. So what, I figure, it isn't even the interest on what she owes me. But lately I've just been letting her be figuring, maybe forget, but never forgive.
"I dream Thanatoids dream, though not always when we think we do I'm inside a moving train that exists someplace whether I dream it or not, because I keep going back to it, joining it on its journey. . . . I'm conscious, laid out horizontal on some bed of ice, attended by two panions who keep trying, one stop after another, to find a local coroner willing to perform an autopsy on me and reveal to the world at last my murder, my murderers. I can never make out the faces of these other two, though they e in to sit with me now and then. It's always cold, always night, if there is a daytime maybe I sleep through it, I don't know. Out riding on steel too many years, every jurisdiction we e rolling into well notified in advance, each time men in hats, carrying weapons, standing on the platform, waving us on, who only want to swear they never saw us. In the face of this, the devotion of my two remembrancers, town to town, year after year, is extraordinary. They live on club-car coffee, cigarettes, and snack food, play a lot of bid whist, and argue like theologians over Brock's motives in wanting me, you'd have to say, iced. 'It was all for love,' says one, and 'Bull**,' the other replies, 'it was political.' 'A rebel cop, with his own deeply personal agenda.' 'Only following the orders of a repressive regime based on death.' So forth I hear them late in the rhythmic dark hours, the last of my honor guard, faithful to the last depot, the last turndown."
Well, "Sounds like DL and Takeshi," to Prairie.
"Sometimes I think it could be my parents . . . still there, you know, looking out for me, kept going by this belief they always had in some 'higher justice,' they called it. Their pockets are empty by now, the wind whistles through, their own night rolls on, but they're both as sure as a fixed address, someplace safe and free, that this'll all e out right someday."
"That case, shouldn't somebody be goin' after that Rex guy, the one who did it?"
"Rex, why? He's only the ceremonial trigger-finger, just a stooge, same as Frenesi. Used to think I was climbing, step by step, right ? toward a resolution first Rex, above him your mother, then Brock Vond, then but that's when it begins to go dark, and that door at the top I thought I saw isn't there anymore, because the light behind it just went off too."
He looked so forlorn that by reflex she took his hand. He flinched at her touch, and she was surprised not at the coldness of the hand but at how light it was, nearly weightless. "Would you mind if I came and visited, now and then, you know, at night?"
"I'll keep an eye out for you." In fact they were soon to bee an item around Shade Creek, out to all hours among the milling sleepless of the town, along the smoky indoor promenades lit by shadow-patched fluorescent bulbs, across covered bridges lined with shops and stalls, beneath the many clockfaces beaming from overhead, past Thanatoid dogs lounging in groups, who had learned how to give up wagging their tails and now gestured meaningfully with them instead. Weed would stuff himself with bucket after bucket of popcorn, Prairie would show him secrets of pa-chinko, seldom if ever would either talk about Frenesi, whom Prairie had managed at last to meet. Unable after all to stay away from the Traverse-Becker wingding, in the course of saying hello again to faces she hadn't seen for a year, she got roped into the traditional nonstop crazy eights game, whose stakes were as low as the atmosphere was meanspirited. Distantly related sleazoids and the occasional megacreep drew from the bottom of the stock, stole from the kitty, signaled confederates in belching and farting codes, and tried to mark decks with nosepickings, their own and others'. So far the two big winners were Prairie and her uncle Pinky, looking sinister in a shapeless Ban-Lon leisure suit that might once long ago have been a brighter shade of pea-green. When Sasha came around to put her head in the Airstream, he was out of diamonds and Prairie was playing them, forcing him to draw. In some doubt as well were the whereabouts of the Mother of Doom, as the spade queen was known in the Octomaniac munity. Uncle Pinky thought it was in the stock, but Prairie thought her cousin Jade had it.
"Dimple check!" her grandmother called. Prairie had to ask her to wait until the Mother situation had been resolved, finally risking an eight and calling spades, whereupon at last She emerged, looking mean as ever and obliging Uncle P. to draw five more cards, which, valiantly though he played on, proved to be one card too many.
Outside the trailer with Sasha was a woman about forty, who had been a girl in a movie, and behind its cameras and lights, heavier than Prairie expected, sun damage in her face here and there, hair much shorter and to the cognizant eye drastically in need of styling mousse, though how Prairie could bring the subject up wasn't clear to her.
Sasha, still giddy with her own daughter's return, tried to clown them through it. "Commere lemme check those dimples, yes there, they are, and let yer grand, -ma check, for lint, she's just, the cute, -est lit- tie thing!" returning her relentlessly to babyhood, squeezing her cheeks together and her mouth up into a circle, pushing one way then the other.
"Hnof ikh, Angh-ah!"
"My own adorable grandchild," slinging the girl's head gently away at last. "I want you to sing the 'Gilligan's Island' theme for your mother," she manded.
"First time she ever noticed the Tube, remember, Frenesi? A tiny thing, less than four months old 'Gilligan's Island' was on, Prairie, and your eyes may've been a little unfocused yet, but you sat there, so serious, and watched the whole thing "
"Stop, I-don't-want-to-hear-this "
" after that, whenever the show came on, you'd smile and gurgle and rock back and forth, so cute, like you wanted to climb inside the television set, and right onto that Island "
"Please" She looked to Frenesi for help, but her mother looked as bewildered as she felt.
"You could sing the lyrics before you were three, all of 'em! in this little babbling voice, with little gestures, the lightning bolt 'Boom!' you'd go 'If not for the courage of the fearless crew,' swinging those chubby fists back and forth, modulating each time around, just like a little lounge vocalist."
"All right all right!" cried Prairie. "I'll sing it." She looked around. "Does it have to be out in public like this?"
"It's OK," said Frenesi, "I think it's her way of trying to help." She grabbed Sasha, pretending to shake her back to sanity.
"Rilly. Sorry, Grandma." The girl followed them to a beer and soda cooler beneath an oak tree, where they would sit and hang out for hours, spinning and catching strands of memory, perilously reconnecting as all around them the profusion of aunts, uncles, cousins, and cousins' kids and so on, themselves each with a story weirder than the last, creatively improved over the years, came and went, waving corncobs in the air, dribbling soda on their shirts, swaying or dancing to the music of Billy Barf and the Vomitones, while the fragrance of barbecue smoke came drifting down from the pits where Traverse and Becker men stood in a line, a dozen of them, in matching white chef's hats, behind fires smoking with dripped fat, tending great cuts of beef executed by assault rifle and chain-sawed on the spot in some raid off a steep pasture between here and Montana, beside some moonless dirt road, dressed out, wrapped, ready for the fire. A squad of kids stood by with squirt bottles full of secret marinades and sauces, which they shot from time to time as the meat went turning, and the magical coatings clung, flowed, fell, smoked, rose, seared. Soon Traverses and Beckers were filling up the benches at the long redwood tables, as the potato salad and bean casseroles and fried chicken started to appear, along with pasta dishes and grilled tofu contributed by younger elements, and the eating, which would continue into the night, got under way with some earnestness. It was the heart of this gathering meant to honor the bond between Eula Becker and Jess Traverse, that lay beneath, defined, and made sense of them all, distributed from Marin to Seattle, Coos Bay to downtown Butte, choker setters and choppers, dynamiters of fish, shingle weavers and street-corner spellbinders, old and beaten at, young and brand-new, they all kept an eye on the head of the table, where Jess and Eula sat together, each year smaller and more transparent, waiting for Jess's annual reading of a passage from Emerson he'd found and memorized years ago, quoted in a jailhouse copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. Frail as the fog of Vineland, in his carrying, pure voice, Jess reminded them, " 'Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil.' " He had a way of delivering it that always got them going, and Eula wouldn't take her eyes off him. "And if you don't believe Ralph Waldo Emerson," added Jess, "ask Crocker 'Bud' Scantling," the head of the Lumber Association whose life of impunity for arranging to drop the tree on Jess had ended abruptly down on 101 not far from here when he'd driven his week-old BMW into an oning chip truck at a bined speed of about 150. It'd been a few years now, but Jess still found it entertaining.
As night fell, Hub Gates, who'd brought all his arc lights up here with him along with his old partners Ace and Dmitri, lit up a couple for the kids. He was between jobs but had a gig up in Beaverton, Oregon, in a week. Somehow he'd managed to keep his little business, Lux Unlimited, profitable enough that he ate every day, though where he slept wasn't always up to code. Enough people still responded to the mystery of a powerful beam of light, miles in the distance. He showed his newly met grandson, Justin, how to rock the carbons to get the best beam, and how to keep them trimmed, till Frenesi came by and Justin remembered it was almost prime time.
"Hey there, Young Gaffer."
"Hi, Pop." She had dreamed about him the night before, rolling, clanking away from her down a straight old macadam road, out in the country, fields and hills in metallic cloudlight toward the end of the day, aware of exactly how many hours and minutes to dark, how many foot-candles left in the sky, bringing behind him like ducklings a line of lamps, generators, and beam projectors each on its little trailer rig, heading for his next job, the next carnival or auto lot, still wanting nothing but the deadly amps transmogrified to light, the great white-hot death-cold spill and flood and thrust, wherever he had to go, on whatever terms he had to take, to get to keep doing it. She called after him, but he wouldn't turn, only went on at the same laden crawl, answering but denying her his face, "Take care, Young Gaffer. Take care of your dead, or they'll take care of you."
Hurt, furious, she yelled back, "Yeah, or maybe they're just too busy being dead." And though she couldn't see it, she could feel the emptiness that came into his face then, and that was when she woke
Justin found his father and Zoyd in the back of a pickup, watching "Say, Jim," a half-hour sit based on "Star Trek," in which all the actors were black except for the Communications Officer, a freckled white redhead named Lieutenant O'Hara. Whenever Spock came on the bridge, everybody made Vulcan hand salutes and went around high-threeing. About the time the show ended, Prairie came by, Zoyd and Flash went off looking for beer, and she and Justin settled down, semi-brother and sister, in front of the Eight O'Clock Movie, Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story. It was mostly Pee-wee talking in a foreign accent, or sitting around in front of some pieces of paper with some weird-looking marker pen, and the kids' attention kept wandering to each other. "There's the Movie at Nine," Justin said, looking in the listings, "Magnificent Disaster, TV movie about the '83-'84 NBA playoffs wasn't that just back in the summer? Pretty quick movie."
"They've been getting quicker over the years, from what I remember," Prairie said.
"Hey, Prairie, would you like to baby-sit me sometime?!"
She gave him a look. "Some baby. Maybe I'll have to kid-sit you."
"Involves some tickling," Prairie already headed for her new brother's armpits and flanks, and Justin squirming even before they touched.
Out under yellow bulbs at a long weathered table, Zoyd found himself trying to help Flash with the shock of meeting so many in-laws in one place, both men from time to time looking around fearfully, like unarmed visitors in a jungle clearing, as out beyond this particular patch of light Traverses and Beckers went practicing on scales, working on engines, debating, talking back to the Tube, sending up gusts of laughter like ritual smoke cast to an unappeasable wind. A Traverse grandmother somewhere was warning children against the October blackberries of this coast, "They belong to the Devil, any that you eat are his property, and he don't like blackberry thieves he'll e after ya" Even skeptical adolescents weaved in her voice's spell. "When you see those unhappy souls out by the roadside, back up the lanes, in the ruins of the old farms, wherever the briars grow thick, harvesting berries out in the clouds and rain of October, why just drive by, and don't look back, because you'll know where they've e from, and who their labor belongs to, and where they'll have to go back to at the close of day." And other grandfolks could be heard arguing the perennial question of whether the United States still lingered in a prefascist twilight, or whether that darkness had fallen long stupefied years ago, and the light they thought they saw was ing only from millions of Tubes all showing the same bright-colored shadows. One by one, as other voices joined in, the names began some shouted, some acpanied by spit, the old reliable names good for hours of contention, stomach distress, and insomnia Hitler, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover, Mafia, CIA, Reagan, Kissinger, that collection of names and their tragic interweaving that stood not constellated above in any nightwide remotenesses of light, but below, diminished to the last unfaceable American secret, to be pressed, each time deeper, again and again beneath the meanest of random soles, one blackly fermenting leaf on the forest floor that nobody wanted to turn over, because of all that lived, virulent, waiting, just beneath.
"Political family," Zoyd remarked, "for sure."
Flash, listening with his face held against changes of expression, nodded, hazarded, "Yep sounds just like her, don't it?"
They were learning already how to talk about Sasha, and Brock Vond, and even Hector, but neither had any idea how or even if they should be talking, much less blurting anything, about Frenesi. It didn't help that Zoyd saw Flash as a charming psychopath pretending to be sane but given away by nuances the length and placement of sideburns on the maul-shaped head, a black country Latino accent straight from the joint, a tattoo on his arm of a crossed M16 and AK-47 with the legend "Brothers In Death." But Flash also had the sound of a man with Frenesi on the brain crazy to hold long beery seminars on the subject, once begun maybe impossible to stop . . . for some curious short pause, it seemed like they'd exchanged lives, and it was Flash who'd lost her long ago but couldn't forget her, and Zoyd who'd been soldiering along the decade and more, maybe by her side, both would be quick to plain, but never really with her. Zoyd, seeing the need behind the desperado lamps, knew he'd have to be the forter in this, with the years of her absence to insulate and protect him after all, whereas this unfortunate 'sucker was right down helpless in the middle of it. So, "I was only a opening act," he reminded Flash, "don't go thinkin' like we ever got to know each other or nothin'."
"Just so you're not avoiding her on account of me, 's all," Flash earnestly cranking up the baby blues.
"Oh. Well. Now, see, 's a matter of fact "
But Isaiah Two Four came by with the latest update on his assault-rifle deal, unrecoverably in the act of falling through, and probably just as well, given the attitude prevailing among the Harleyites since their appearance last week on the Donahue show. Suddenly, with development deals for movies and miniseries, plus T-shirts, collector dolls, lunch boxes, and so forth, the membership had to a nun all been finding themselves too big and busy for anything as small-time as helping Zoyd get his place back anymore.
"Whole problem 'th you folks's generation," Isaiah opined, "nothing personal, is you believed in your Revolution, put your lives right out there for it but you sure didn't understand much about the Tube. Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like th' Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars it was way too cheap"
"Well I hope you're wrong," Zoyd breezed on, " 'cause plan B was to try and get my case on '60 Minutes,' or one of them."
"Soon as they find out about Holytail," Isaiah said, "you start even looking like a drug figure, there goes your case in court."
"Sounds like my lawyer." Elmhurst had strongly urged Zoyd to stay out of Holytail for the duration of this season's CAMP raids against the harvests. Each day now saw new columns of fragrant smoke ascending somewhere above the green Vineland hills to smudge the sky, and on each News at Six Sheriff Willis Chunko gleefully slashing into yet another patch of mature plants with his celebrated gold-handled chain saw, vowing to extinguish the feared herb from the soil of Vineland, as Skip Tromblay and the news team squirmed and cooed. No time for Zoyd to be anywhere near Holytail, much less helping truck out lawn and leaf bags full of newly picked sinsemilla buds or plants hastily pulled up whole, often in midnight games of hide-and-seek with deputies in ruggedized Dodge cruisers propelled by monster Mopars dialed and eager for the chase, rumbling in wet roostertails of dirt and stone chips up and down the old logging roads and over the wood and cable bridges between Holytail and the freeway but it had been his j ob for the past couple of weeks nonetheless, trying, like everybody else, to get as much of the crop as possible out before Willis's big barbecue, too little time remaining on the clock, but wordlessly all agreeing ** the clock, ** it, play to the end.
Out on those runs, speeding after moonset through the smell of the redwoods, with all the lights out, trying to sense among the different patches of darkness where the curves were, and what gear to be in for grades that were nearly impossible to see, bouncing along in a vintage Power Wagon, Zoyd from among somebody's collection of beat-up old 8-tracks usually found himself listening to the Eagles' Greatest Hits, in particular "Take It to the Limit," basically his whole story these days, singing mournfully along, though obliged from time to time to interrupt himself as some new set of headlights appeared "OK Zoyd, back on defense " half hoping for a run-in with Brock, knowing by now it was never going to happen in any frontal way, attempting to get back his own small piece of Vineland, but out here at the periphery, in motion, out on one of the roads that had taken him away from his home, and that must lead back
But every other night lately he was visited by the dream of the burning house. Each time it became clearer to him that his house, after twelve years together from scratch, was asking him to torch it, as the only way left to release it from its captivity. Having glided out to visit between trunks of the trees, the dogs sensing him, getting up to prowl anxiously below, Zoyd would soundlessly enter and haunt, finding nothing inside anymore of himself or Prairie, only stripped and vacuumed spaces, public or hired security shift after shift, and the dogs who came and scratched at the sills just around sunrise.
"You know," Flash suggested, "easiest thing might just be to go find the son of a bitch and cancel his series for him, ever think about that?"
An intriguing suggestion that they were just about to get into when Prairie came by from hustling Justin into his sleeping bag, carrying her own, on the way out to the woods to be alone for a while. "Feeling totally familied out," she told Zoyd, "nothin' personal, o' course." She had a long look at him, and after having just spent hours with Frenesi's face, found it easier now to make out, past the quaquaversal beard and smudged eyeglass lenses, as clearly as she ever would in Zoyd her own not-yet-e-to-terms-with face. A day would e when she'd ask, "Didn't you ever worry that you might not be my father? That maybe it was Weed, or Brock?" This time, in his arms.
"Nope. What I was more afraid of was, 's 'at I might belong to Brock."
Now all he dared was, "How's your mother?"
"Well, I think I make her nervous," Prairie said. "She's lookin' for anger, but she's not gettin' it from me."
"She makin' you nervous?"
"Oh . it's like meeting a celebrity. I'm OK, rilly. And I can see why you guys married her."
"Why?" asked Zoyd and Flash, quickly and together.
"You're adults, you're supposed to know."
"Give us a hint?" Zoyd pleaded. But she was already on her way, on into the trees till she reached a piece of the woods that she'd never seen, a small clearing inside a grove of Sitka spruce and alder, where she spread her bag and, enjoying the solitude, must've drifted off to sleep. The beat of helicopter blades directly overhead woke her. As she stared, down out of it, hooked by harness and cable to the mother ship above, came Brock Vond, who looked just like he had on film. For about a week Brock, whom his colleagues were calling "Death From Slightly Above," had been out traveling in a tight formation of three dead-black Huey slicks, up and down the terrain of Vineland nap-of-the-earth style, liable to pop up suddenly over a peaceful ridgeline or e screaming down the road after an innocent motorist, inside one meter of the exhaust pipe, Brock, in flak jacket and Vietnam boots, posing in the gun door with a flamethrower on his hip, as steep hillsides, thick with redwoods, the somber evergreen punctuated with bright flares of autumn yellow, went wheeling by just below, as the rotor blades tore ragged the tall columns of fog that rose from the valleys.
But at the moment here, Brock was linked by remote control to the motor of the Huey's hoist, able to lower himself to within centimeters of the girl's terrified body, where she could stare into the dim face, backlit by the helicopter lights. The original plan, as he'd recapped for Roscoe, who'd frankly had more recaps on this than Mark C. Bloome, had been to go in, cross-plot the subject, e down vertical, grab her, and winch back up and out "The key is rapture. Into the sky, and the world knows her no more."
Roscoe in his time had done a heckuva lot worse than abduct kids. He imagined himself grown oversize, beastlike, scuffling along beside a more human-faced Brock Vond. "Her tits, Master "
"Nice firm adolescent tits, Roscoe, tits like juicy apples."
She lay paralyzed in her childhood sleeping bag with the duck decoys on the lining and saw that even in the shadows his skin glowed unusually white. For a second it seemed he might hold her in some serpent hypnosis. But she came fully awake and yelled in his face, "Get the ** out of here!"
"Hello, Prairie. You know who I am, don't you?"
She pretended to find something in the bag. "This is a buck knife. If you don't "
"But Prairie, I'm your father. Not Wheeler me. Your real Dad."
Nothing that hadn't occurred to her before still, for half a second, she began to go hollow, before remembering who she was. "But you can't be my father, Mr. Vond," she objected, "my blood is type A. Yours is Preparation H."
By the time Brock figured out the plex insult, he was also feeling mixed signals through the cable that held him. Suddenly, some white male far away must have wakened from a dream, and just like that, the clambake was over. The message had just been relayed by radio from field headquarters down at the Vineland airport. Reagan had officially ended the "exercise" known as REX 84, and what had lain silent, undocumented, forever deniable, embedded inside. The convoys were to pack up and return to their motor pools, the mobile prosecution teams to disband, all the TDY's in the task forces to return to their regular mands, including Brock, his authorizations withdrawn, now being winched back up, protesting all the way, bearings and brake pads loudly shrieking, trying to use his remote but overridden by Roscoe at the main controls.
They fought about it through the flight back down to VLX, Roscoe, the career counselor, pointing out the virtues of obedience and patience, and Brock screaming, "Asshole, they're all together, one surgical strike, we can't just let them get away. . . ." He seemed to calm down after landing, but hung around his mand helicopter awhile, suddenly produced a service revolver, got in the pilot's seat, and prepared to ascend.
"OK, have it your way, Brock," Roscoe hollered as the Huey started to rise, too loud for Brock to hear anymore, "but I can't guarantee you Ed Meese is gonna like it!" but by then he was gone, following his penis what else could it be? into the night clouds over Vineland.
As, meanwhile, gently, the trees around her, the spruces tall and massive, the alders slenderer, quicker, began, in a stirring of breeze, to dance together, a sight she'd grown up with out her old bedroom window, these particular partners, Prairie was joined in the clearing by a young man so blond and by the standards of her generation foxy-looking that at first she suspected UFO involvement. He had heard the bladebeats and her shouting, and was carrying by its neck an old acoustic guitar with Cyrillic stenciling on it, as if he'd been prepared to use it as a weapon. His name was Alexei, and he was on liberty from a Russian fishing boat that had had to put into Vineland for some emergency repairs to its generator. "You're defecting?" Prairie asked.
He laughed. "Looking for American rock and roll. You know Billy Barf and Vomitones?" Did she. "Very famous in Soviet Union. You know '83 Garage Tapes?"
"Yeah, they put 'em in a big peanut-butter jar, sealed and waterproofed it, dropped it off the Old Thumb jetty into the ocean, you mean "
"Got much airplay in Vladivostok. I learn all solos of Billy, Meathook too. Bolsboi metallisti. Can you take me where they are? I would like to sit in."
The Movie at Nine, more than the usual basketball epic, was a story of transcendent courage on the part of the gallant but doomed L.A. Lakers, as they struggled under hellish and subhuman conditions at Boston Garden against an unscrupulous foe, hostile referees, and fans whose behavior might have shamed their mothers had their mothers not been right there, screaming epithets, ruining Laker free throws, sloshing beer on their children in moments of high emotion, already. To be fair, the producers had tried their best to make the Celtics look good. Besides Sidney Poitier as K. C. Jones, there was Paul McCartney, in his first acting role, as Kevin McHale, with Sean Penn as Larry Bird. On the Laker side were Lou Gossett, Jr., as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Douglas as Pat Riley, and Jack Nicholson as himself. Vato and Blood, who were watching this down at the garage in Vineland, being both passionate Laker fans, had to find something else to bicker about. "Say Blood," Blood remarked, aggressively, "some righteous-looking shades Jack's wearing tonight."
Vato snorted. "You wear them for workn on mufflers, Vato, lookit 'em, they ain' even big enough to cover his eyeballs."
"What's that you're wearing on your own face, Blood? What do you use them for, messin' with Contras? Whoo!" both of them distracted for a minute as Lou Gossett, Jr., appeared to execute a perfect skyhook.
It was a slow night, no calls all through the picture, by the harrowing conclusion of which Vato and Blood had used up a box of Man-Size Kleenexes between them. Close to midnight they got a phone call. Vato took it and hung up blinking and shaking his head. "You know who it was, don't you."
"If it's more heartbreak, Blood, don't tell me."
"It's Brock Vond, man. In person. His Huey's on the hillside, his ride is in the creek."
"Time to lock and load, Blood."
"Let's hit it, Vato."
Brock had been vague over the phone about how he'd started off in a helicopter and ended up in a car. He hadn't been aware of any transition. But it had been an unusual sort of car, almost without pression, unable to get over any but the easiest grades until at last it slowed to a halt and would start no more. And there was the telephone beside the road, and the lighted sign said DO IT, so he had picked up, and there was Vato at the other end. He felt in some way detached, unable to focus or, oddly, to remember much before he found himself at the wheel of the failing, unfamiliar car, whose battery now finally went dead as the headlamps dimmed weakly into darkness.
At last he saw the lights in the distance, like running lights of a ship out on the sea . . . there was nothing else in the landscape by now Brock could scarcely see the road. The F350, El Mil Amoves, came nearer and louder, and finally stopped for him.
"Hop in, Blood."
"What about the car?"
Brock looked around but couldn't see the car anywhere. He climbed in next to Blood and they started off along the nearly lightless road. Soon the surface changed to dirt, and trees began to press in on either side. As he drove, Vato told an old Yurok story about a man from Turip, about five miles up the Klamath from the sea, who lost the young woman he loved and pursued her into the country of death. When he found the boat of Illa'a, the one who ferried the dead across the last river, he pulled it out of the water and smashed out the bottom with a stone. And for ten years no one in the world died, because there was no boat to take them across.
"Did he get her back?" Brock wanted to know. No, uh-uh. But he returned to his life in Turip, where everyone thought he'd died, and became famous, and told his story many times. He was always careful to warn against the Ghosts' Trail leading to Tsorrek, the land of death, traveled by so many that it was already chest-deep. Once down under the earth, there would be no way to return. As he stared out the window, Brock realized that around them all this time had been rising a wall of earth each side of the narrowing road, in which tree roots twisted overhead now, and mud, once glistening, had grown darker, till only its smell was present. And soon, ahead, came the sound of the river, echoing, harsh, ceaseless, and beyond it the drumming, the voices, not chanting together but remembering, speculating, arguing, telling tales, uttering curses, singing songs, all the things voices do, but without ever allowing the briefest breath of silence. All these voices, forever.
Across the river Brock could see lights, layer after layer, crookedly ascending, thickly crowded dwellings, heaped one on the other. In the smoking torch- and firelight he saw people dancing. An old woman and an old man approached. The man carried objects in his hands that Brock couldn't make out clearly. Then he began to notice, all around in the gloom, bones, human bones, skulls and skeletons. "What is it?" he asked. "Please."
"They'll take out your bones," Vato explained. "The bones have to stay on this side. The rest of you goes over. You look a lot different, and you move funny for a while, but they say you'll adjust. Give these third-worlders a chance, you know, they can be a lotta fun."
"So long, Brock," said Blood.
The word was out immediately on the Thanatoid grapevine, causing Takeshi and DL to be summoned back from a midnight raid on a local egg ranch, where Takeshi had been planning to steal a sackful of chicken feed for the high-productivity amphetamines it contained, since, with his intake a little higher than usual this week, he'd run out of shabu once again suddenly his pager went off and two thousand chickens started to squawk and carry on, bell and siren alarms kicked in, and the two culprits had to run for it. Back at the Zero Inn, they found a party going on, a lot of gloating, Weed drinking mango daiquiris and trying on different kinds of hats, Ortho Bob sitting in with the band and also singing, though nothing slower tonight than "Your Cheatin' Heart."
Takeshi and DL, crankless, took a turn around the dance floor. "The kid you miss her, I bet!"
"Readin' my mind, T'kesh."
"Why don't you go on up there and visit! Ten-minute drive!"
"Yeah try fifteen years."
"No more Brock, ne? Good opportunity!"
Had it only been, as she'd begun to fear, that many years of what the Buddha calls "passion, enmity, folly"? Suppose that she'd been meant, all the time, to be paying attention to something else entirely? Two or three years ago, in Trans-Am mode, out following an intricate Thanatoid trail from one oilpatch bank account to another, on impulse they'd made a loop through East Texas and into Houston to visit her mother, Norleen, who took DL aside first chance they got and, pretending to help load the dishwasher, started raving about Takeshi, his looks, charm, and sophistication. "It's that glamour job you always wanted," so unironic that DL was surprised to feel a little wave of tenderness.
"But Mama," gently, "there is a good chance he's crazy. I know he's got all kinds of people after him, and some others he won't even tell me about. For years now, I've been his acplice in I don't know what you'd call it, a life of international crime? . . ."
"The Lord gives us these difficulties to be overe, Darryl Louise, it's just called gettin' on with your life. Why, anyone at all can see how he needs you, and adores you, and my gracious he looks just like a Jap Robert Redford! I think the one that's crazy's you."
DL couldn't quite bring herself, then or later, to tell her mother, who did keep asking, any of the details of how they'd met no Japanese whorehouses or Vibrating Palms nor of his resurrection by Puncutron Machine, nor their yearly visits back to the Retreat of the Kunoichi Attentives to be checked out and to roll over the partnership agreement none of that. She understood that if she ever started to tell the tale, why sooner or later the matter of the no-sex clause would emerge and Norleen's kindly dreaming be perhaps fatally contradicted, only earning DL her mother's contempt. Why get into it? But that turned out to be the year she and Takeshi finally renegotiated the no-sex clause, and DL found out what she'd been missing those other years. "Whoo-ee!" is how she expressed it.
"Oriental love magic!" Takeshi wiggling his eyeglasses, which he had not removed, at her languidly, "right?"
Hmm, not exactly, but intense enough to make her curious. "Takeshi, I didn't know you felt like this. I didn't know I felt like this. What's going on?" Even after the clause change, it had taken them days' travel, back on I-40 again, to get around to this, and if she hadn't been so off-balance she probably wouldn't be asking. They were in a penthouse suite high over Amarillo, up in the eternal wind, with the sun just set into otherworld transparencies of yellow and ultraviolet, and other neon-sign colors ing on below across the boundless twilit high plain, and she was watching him now with newly cleansed attention, her light-bearing hair, against the simplicity out the window, a fractal halo of plications that might go on forever . . . one of those moments men are always being urged to respond to with care and sensitivity.
But Takeshi was cackling, "You should have been there the first time, Toots you wouldn't have to ask!" Far from ever being offended, Takeshi continued to find it amusing that she'd been so focused on murdering Brock that night in Tokyo that she'd pletely missed the sex part. And according to Sister Rochelle, that Brock obsession, appearing like a cop cruiser in the dark sooner or later down every roadway her life took, had also been afflicting DL's spirit, acting as a major obstacle, this time around, to fulfilling her true karmic project.
"Which is?" DL had had the boldness to inquire.
"Oh, the usual journey from point A to point B. But what if this disagreeable little gent was never any destination at all, only the means of transport, maybe only some ticket, one the conductor even forgot to punch?" Another koan to drive DL crazier, just what she needed.
As for Takeshi, the Head Ninjette had managed to corner him while he was on the Puncutron Machine, all hooked up with no escape, and while an inkjet printer moved along the meridians of his naked skin, laying down trigger-point labels in different colors, adding reference numbers and Chinese ideograms, and a Senior Ninjette Puncutech stood by with an ivory fescue, noting and menting to a small bevy of teen novices, all in white gi with trainee armbands, Sister Rochelle, as so often in the past, now socked Takeshi with another of her allegories, this time about Hell. "When the Earth was still a paradise, long long ago, two great empires, Hell and Heaven, battled for its possession. Hell won, and Heaven withdrew to an appropriate distance. Soon citizens of the Lower Realm were flocking up to visit Occupied Earth on group excursion fares, swarming in their asbestos touring cars and RV's all over the landscape, looking for cheap-labor bargains in the shops, taking pictures of each other in a blue and green ambience that didn't register on any film you could buy down in Hell till the novelty wore off, and the visitors began to realize that Earth was just like home, same traffic conditions, unpleasant food, deteriorating environment, and so forth. Why leave home only to find a second-rate version of what they were trying to escape? So the tourist business began to dwindle, and then the Empire was calling back first its administrators and soon even its troops, as if drawing inward, closer to its own chthonian fires. After a while, the tunnel entrances began to grow over, blur, and disappear behind poison oak and berry bushes, get covered by landslides, silted up in floods, till only a few lone individuals children, neighborhood idiots now and then would stumble on one, out in a deserted place, but dare inside only as far as the first turnings and loss of outdoor light. And then all the gateways to Hell were finally lost to sight, surviving only in local tales handed down the generations, sad recitals that asked why the visitors never came anymore, and if they would again, stories as congested and dark as UFO stories are ethereal and luminous. And always shamefaced, with an air not of UFO elation but of guilt, at having somehow not been good enough for them, the folks who lived in Hell. So, over time, Hell became a storied place of sin and penitence, and we forgot that its original promise was never punishment but reunion, with the true, long-forgotten metropolis of Earth Unredeemed."
That was the story, and nearly all she'd cared to send them back out with at the end of that visit the year the no-sex clause didn't get rolled over, the first year, as black conifers rose behind them into the cloud cover and gone, that it didn't feel like a descent not really a blessing, though you could tell that the Head Ninjette was interested at least in a scientific way in whether the Baby Eros, that tricky little pud-puller, would give or take away an edge regarding the unrelenting forces that leaned ever after the partners into Time's wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators who'd once boarded Takeshi's airplane in the sky, the ones who'd had the Chipco lab stomped on, who despite every Karmic Adjustment resource brought to bear so far had simply persisted, stone-humorless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain or acmodate, following through pools of night where nothing else moved wrongs forgotten by all but the direly possessed, continuing as a body to refuse to be bought off for any but the full price, which they had never named. But at least on the night Brock Vond was taken across the river, the night of no white diamonds or even chicken crank, the foreign magician and his blond tomato assistant, out stealing a couple of innocent hours away from the harsh demands of their Act, with its imitations of defiance, nightly and matinees, of gravity and death, only found themselves slowed to a paranoid dancers' embrace at the unquiet center of the roadhouse party crowd, with scarcely a Toid here in fact even noticing them, so many kept pouring in, so much was going on. Radio Thanatoid arrived with a remote crew to beam and bounce the proceedings out to the other pockets of Thanatoia here and there in the country of the living, "Direct, though not necessarily live," as the announcer put it. A tour bus, perhaps only lost in the night, swept in with a wake of diesel exhaust and waited idling for its passengers, some of whom would discover that they were already Thanatoids without knowing it, and decide not to reboard after all. There were free though small-sized eats for everyone, such as mini-enchiladas and shrimp teriyaki, and well drinks at happy-hour prices. And the band, Holocaust Pixels, found a groove, or attractor, that would've been good for the entire trans-night crossing and beyond, even if Billy Barf and the Vomitones hadn't shown up later to sit in, bringing with them Alexei, who turned out to be a Russian Johnny B. Goode, able even unamplified to outwail both bands at once. Prairie would hear about this the next day, having seen Alexei only as far as the Vomitone van, when she'd regretfully peeled away to return, terrified but obliged, to the clearing where she'd had her visit from Brock Vond. He had left too suddenly. There should have been more. She lay in her sleeping bag, trembling, face up, with the alder and the Sitka spruce still dancing in the wind, and the stars thickening overhead. "You can e back," she whispered, waves of cold sweeping over her, trying to gaze steadily into a night that now at any turn could prove unfaceable. "It's OK, rilly. Come on, e in. I don't care. Take me anyplace you want." But suspecting already that he was no longer available, that the midnight summoning would go safely unanswered, even if she couldn't let go. The small meadow shimmered in the starlight, and her promises grew more extravagant as she drifted into the lucid thin layer of waking dreaming, her flirting more obvious then she'd wake, alert to some step in the woods, some brief bloom of light in the sky, back and forth for a while between Brock
fantasies and the silent darkened silver images all around her, before settling down into sleep, sleeping then unvisited till around dawn, with fog still in the hollows, deer and cows grazing together in the meadow, sun blinding in the cobwebs on the wet grass, a redtail hawk in an updraft soaring above the ridgeline, Sunday morning about to unfold, when Prairie woke to a warm and persistent tongue all over her face. It was Desmond, none other, the spit and image of his grandmother Chloe, roughened by the miles, face full of blue-jay feathers, smiling out of his eyes, wagging his tail, thinking he must be home.