Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Streak - 59

In the dugout Kyle and Evan conversed in the conventional, sideways manner. Tersely. Never looking.

"Tell you what I can visualize," Kyle said.

"V for victory," Evan mumbled wearily.

"I can visualize myself between the legs of that chick."

"Like what. Like in the manner of a cheerleader? Carrying her on your shoulders?"

"You know full well what I mean."

"Coupla cheerleaders in high school. Doing a little cheer? Go team, go?"

"I'm talking about givin' it to her, my brother."

"Rah, rah, rah? Blah, blah, blah?"

"Giving to her that thing she wants," Kyle insisted, annoyed.

"Give me an F!"

"Fuck you."

"You really think you can nail her?"

"Done deal."

"You already fucked her?!"

"I winked at her."

"You winked at her."

A foul ball struck by Sugar Carrol skittered towards them and clanged off an aluminum rail.

"In the clubhouse."

"As she was giving us her fucking pep talk you winked at her?"

"No, no. When the other fuckin' guy was talking."

"Spiritual pursuits guy?"

"Yeah."

"What'd she do?"

"She smiled. I'm telling you, bro."

They sat in unnerved silence for a while.

"I bet you can't fuck her before we win a game," said Evan.

"You're on."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Last Thing I Heard Her Say

At last, we were happy. We were in Mexico on our first vacation in years – what seemed like years. My wife was pregnant with our first child and the sun was shining. We were swimming off a quiet section of beach near our hotel, buoyant in the warm and salty water. Not a worry in the world. In the distance a parasailer floated serenely above the sea, a dark speck in the bright blue sky.

I swam a little farther out. I wanted to get to where my feet no longer touched the ground.

"Be careful!" my wife shouted playfully.

"I will!"

I floated on my back awhile, watching gulls fly by, spitting out the water when waves broke over my face.

"Where are you?" I heard her say.

I got up, treading water again, and waved at her. She waved back. I turned around. A ship – an oil tanker, maybe – traced the faint horizon. I swam out a little more.

"Don't go too far now!"

"I won't, honey!"

I swam a few more yards and then some more. And though I felt as though I shouldn't, a few more after that. I should turn around right now, I thought. And yet I didn't.

The beach was hundreds of feet away now. I rested for a minute in the isolating quiet of a strange, new space. A border realm. When the waves permitted, I could still see my wife. She faced me from afar. She was so beautiful.

"Come back!" she yelled.

I don't know why, but I swam out a little more.

"Come back, baby! Come back!"

I looked over my shoulder and saw her swimming after me. I continued. I don't know why I did. Honest to God I don't. But I did. Before long I was out of reach of all but her cries. As they grew more urgent, they grew less distinct. I heard please. Please! I think I heard I love you.

The very last thing I heard her say broke my heart so.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

8/4/76

Jim picked me up in his rusty blue Duster at a little past three, then picked up Rick, then Rick's girl Jenny. We were between junior and senior year at Neptune High School in Neptune City, New Jersey. It was Wednesday, August 4th, 1976.

Jim wore no shirt as usual, gold chains bouncing on his collarbone as he braked. At a light, he reached into the pocket of his jeans and withdrew a crumpled plastic baggie. He tossed it at me and it floated as it flew.

"Take one and pass it on."

The engine idled rough. Jim had to step on it a couple times. You could feel the vibrations all around you.

"Hell, take two. I'll take two."

I unfolded the package and opened it to find a little square of black paper perforated into nine subsquares, each bearing the image of a gold pyramid with an eye inside. The light turned green.

"Awesome," I declared.

"It's the Eye of Horus, man," said Jim.

"The eye of whores?"

"Horus. Horus."

"The fuck is that?"

"I don't know man. It's the Egyptian God of LSD."

Without hesitation I tore off a corner square and placed it on my tongue. For a moment it tasted a little metallic. Then it tasted like paper. I wondered how anything so small could possibly have any effect on anything or anyone.

I turned around and stuck my tongue out for Rick and Jenny, showing off the dissolving hit for good measure. Rick gazed back sternly and made grabby motions with his outstretched hand.

"Gimme," he said.

"Eye of the Horus," I stated, and tossed him the baggie.

As I stared out at the sun-soaked trees and grass along the Garden State Parkway I swallowed hard. There. Now it has begun.



There was a disordered pile on my side, ankle-deep, the characteristic refuse of car life: Styrofoam coffee cups, empty Marlboro reds, a yawning Big Mac box, pull tabs and cans, napkins, stir sticks and spent Heinz packets with ketchup coagulated along their lacerations. Rick's collection of 8-track tapes was carelessly intermingled with the trash. I nudged and burrowed until the soles of my shoes made contact with the floor.

"Grab a tape," Jim said.

I examined the choices. Pictures at an Exhibition, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. There Goes Rhymin' Simon, Paul Simon. Keep the Faith, Black Oak Arkansas. I dug deeper.

"How is this?" I asked, holding up the new Led Zeppelin, Presence. The cover depicted a wholesome family of four in their Sunday best, seated around a white-clothed table upon which rested a highly sinister, abstract object. They contemplated it cheerily.

"I dunno. It's OK. I–"

"Sucks!" yelled Rick from the back.

I looked at the cover more closely. Outside the window behind the family, pleasure boats bobbed in a marina. The title of the first song was "Achilles Last Stand."

"I haven't heard it all yet," Jim confessed.

"Fuckin' sucks," Rick repeated.

"Good. Fuck you. We're listening to it," I declared.

I popped it into Jim's player and pushed play. A creeping guitar figure arose and wound sinuously from the speakers. It was a weary little melody. It sounded like it had been playing for a thousand years and we'd just now intruded upon it. Suddenly a dark beat cracked, charging and throbbing like a pitiless storm. The drums were thunder. The guitars were lightning and rain. Floating above it all was a baleful, moaning song.

I looked out again at the mid-Jersey landscape. Macedonia. Leafy industrial parks by the side of the highway. Billboards for cigarettes and cars. Pontiac Bicentennial Sale-abration. Everything suspended in honey.

Rick tapped me on the shoulder and passed me a balloon filled with nitrous oxide. I emptied my lungs and placed it to my lips, inhaled deeply, and held my breath. Everything inside and outside of my mind fell away like water down a drain. I was in a small, bare room with a solitary light. A room without a door. I was on my hands and knees and gazing at the floor. I was higher than I'd ever been before. I turned to my right to see the window roller knob and for a moment I saw it for what it really was: not a window roller knob. Everything was transparent, porous. Purple petals of guitar and liquid bass. Ah, ah-ah-ah, ah, ah-ah-ah went the song. I realized I was sweating when I felt the vent wind cool on my face and that's when I stopped being high. I handed the rest of the balloon to Rick.



Jim had the acid. Rick had the beer. And I had the pot. Jenny just sat back there with her hands clasped between her thighs. Silent. Rick had just hooked up with her this summer. The Good Girl. Studious and proper. She was hot, though. Straight blond hair. She wore a chaste collared shirt under a flower-embroidered sleeveless sweater, but new and dangerous curves strained the seams of her pale pink bell bottoms. I imagined that her prim demeanor belied a ferocious sensuality. I fantasized that I'd get her high later and, at the peak of the bacchanal, sneak her off to some corner of the field to fuck her under the moon.

We were about halfway to Jersey City. I rolled a joint and passed it 'round.

"I'm not high enough," I declared.

"Take more acid," Jim replied matter-of-fact. Almost sharply. A command. He reached again into his pocket and gave me the baggie. He never took his eyes off the road.

I pulled out the blotter. An L-shaped, four-square strip remained. Jim had taken two; the rest of us had each taken one.

"Yes sir," I replied, tearing off another square and popping it in my mouth.

"I'm telling you, it'll sneak up on ya."

"What?"

"You're higher than you think."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Shit's serious."

I turned around.

"Are you guys high?"

Rick stared back at me mutely, bearing an expression of vague alarm. His pupils were the size of dimes. Suddenly, Jenny erupted in laughter. She covered her howling mouth with the back of her hand. She looked out the window. She leaned over with a spasm and appeared to drool between her knees.

"Oh my God," she exclaimed breathlessly. "Oh my God. Oh my God."

Rick turned his eerie gaze to her then back to me. I turned around again. Robert Plant sang:

Nobody's fault but mine
It's nobody's fault but mine
Try to save my soul tonight
Oh, it's nobody's fault but mine

Jim was smiling. "How 'bout now?"

"What now?"

"Are you high now?"

And the moment I thought about it I realized it was true.




Laughter is mechanical. It's like an engine. It takes a spark to start but then it goes all by itself.

I had an idea. It was a funny idea. And so it made me laugh – in sputtering starts at first. But soon I was laughing hard, my chest and shoulders heaving. A tear ran down my cheek.

You get a funny idea, you laugh.

What was my idea? My idea was this: I should open the door right now and get out of the car. That'd be funny. It'd even be funnier if I said goodbye to everyone first.

Just imagine. Seventy miles an hour on the Garden State Parkway. Everybody sitting where they sit. Lost in their petty little worlds. Thinking of this or that. Sex. Drugs. Food. Music. I'd break the silence with a jovial salutation: Alright guys, I gotta go! Bye! Then I'd open the door, wind rushing in like crazy. Step out of the car like it was nothing. Disappear into a speck in the rear-view.

There's a lot of different things I could say before I go. Hey! Take it easy guys. I'll see you later. Or: OK everybody, I'm gonna split. All equally funny. I was laughing like hell.

Why was it funny? 'Cause we were in a car. The dashboard and the ceiling and the seats. When you're in a car, you ain't goin' nowhere.

It was funny because of the way Jim gripped the wheel. A little tensely, knuckles white. A little seriously. Driving is serious, man.

I stilled my hysteria long enough to speak.

"Driving is serious, man."

"What?" Jim said, his voice dissolving into an airy chuckle. He looked at me with a bemused but affirming smile. And then he looked back at the road.

I flicked the chrome door handle a couple times. Flick. Flick. God it would be funny. Goodbye!



We stopped at a 7-Eleven in Perth Amboy before getting on the Jersey Pike. I was really high now. Trying to keep it together. Trying to let it go.

It was hot outside but not too hot. The hazy realm of summer doldrums. No shoes, no shirt, no service, said the door. When I pulled at the handle it opened quickly, like some spirit inside was eager to escape. Immediately I was enveloped in a blast of frigid air that bore the sickly odor, at once acrid and sweet, of coffee gently burning in its pot, hot dogs rolling on their rollers, the Slurpee machine, stacks of papers and a hundred thousand candies, gums and snacks. An eerie hum played over the cold.

I examined the front page of The New York Times. Each headline exquisitely banal. "Senate Overrides Veto on Coal Fees." They seemed like subtle, clever parodies of headlines. Mockeries of reality. "Italians Wrangle Over Poison Issue." Some bore the haunting ring of something long-ago forgotten. "U.S., West Germany Reach Tank Accord." Every element within them – every name, noun, verb and number – struck me as obvious. Predictable. "Grenade Kills Four in Burma." Of course grenade. Of course kills four. Of course in Burma. "Teen-age Kansas Girl is Missing After Her Father is Found Slain." Might they have been written before the fact? Maybe nothing really happens if it isn't a headline in The Times. Maybe nothing really happens at all.

Jim walked in, bare feet slapping the linoleum.

"I'm gettin' a Slurpee," he declared.

"Fuck yeah. Me too."

"Out!" shouted the man behind the counter.

We turned to face him.

"Out! Out! Now!" he repeated, red-faced, pointing to the door.

Waves of crimson panic pulsed through my brain.

Jim did a squinting double take. "What the f–"

"Shirt! Shoes! Out! Out! Out!"

"The fuck is he saying?" Jim asked me pleadingly, a sheen of sweat on his brow.

"Out! Now! Out! Now! Shirt!" the man insisted.

I understood.

"Jim," I began, as calmly as I could. "You're not wearing a shirt. Nor are you wearing any shoes."

"Oh, Jesus fucking Christ. Jesus. Christ. Fucking scared me half to death."

The man, silent now, stood like a statue, arm outstretched.

"Get me a Slurpee and a pack of reds," Jim told me.

"What flavor?"

"Blue," he replied as he walked back out, holding up his middle finger all the way. Not once even looking at the man.



I returned to the car and handed Jim his Slurpee and cigarettes. Rick and Jenny were still fucking around inside the store.

"What kind did you get?" he asked.

"Coke and cherry. Mix."

"Was he a prick about it?"

"About what?"

"About mixing the flavors."

"Nah. He was normal. He was normal about it."

"Fuckin' prick." Jim slurped loudly from his.

"He was humming a song."

"He was humming a song? What song?"

"Late December back in '63."

I drew a copious mouthful of dark-pink goop with my straw. First there was a shock of sweetness. And then I perceived strange and complicated molecules, concocted in flasks and beakers, tripping across my tongue. Fruit tastes. Lime and cherry. But the tastes were two-dimensional, transparent. Abstract. It occurred to me that they weren't the tastes of fruits so much as the tastes of the names of fruits. The taste of the word lime. Thin, flat, pale, cold. The word cherry. Florid. Freighted. Rich. I also tasted metal for some reason. Lots of metal.

"Song fucking sucks my balls," Jim remarked.

Suddenly a spike shot up out of my heart and traversed through the center of my fevered brain. Cold. Sharp. Merciless. It was the distillation of every truth in the universe penetrating once and for all my cluttered and benighted mind.

"Ahhhhh! Ahhh! Ahhh!" I moaned, rocking back and forth in my seat. "Aaaaahhh!"

"Brain freeze!" Jim declared cheerily.



When we got to JC we sat in traffic on Route 440 for about half an hour. Finally we pulled into the looping driveway around Roosevelt Stadium, ringed with parking lots. We drove a full counterclockwise lap, slowly, taking the measure of the place. Along the sidewalks, and spilling out into our path, were boisterous streams of people: Some freaks, tie-dyed and bandanna'd; some kids like us. Some older people. Many of the guys were shirtless. Practically every single man and woman wore blue jeans.

The stadium itself was a forbidding monstrosity, a hulking and ominous presence, somber in the summer light. It looked like a prison or some Soviet ministry.

"That place freaks me out," said Rick.

"Yeah," I agreed. "Don't tell me we have to go inside of that thing."

"Ooh!" Jenny exclaimed. "I don't want to go inside!"

"There doesn't even seem to be a door," Rick noted, his voice full of dread.

"We are going inside," Jim stated. "Everyone is going inside."

The right front wheel ran over a beer bottle, crushing it with a muffled pop. A man in overalls and a green tie-dyed shirt turned toward us.

"Fuck you!" he exclaimed.

I leaned my head out the window and stared dully at him. He punctuated his insult with a defiant nod.

"Wow," said Jim.

We parked deep in one of the lots, beside a red-and-white VW bus. As soon as I got out a man in the driver's seat passed a burning pipe to me through his window. I took a big hit and held it as a spark ascended from the bowl into the sky. My lungs convulsed against the hot, raw smoke.

"What's your name, man?" he asked.

I exhaled a glorious, sweet white plume. "Alex."

"Cool, cool. I'm Doug. This is Magic Girl," he said, indicating a drowsy blonde in the passenger seat. "Cerberus is sleeping."

I peered into the back of the bus to find a German shepherd coiled on a dirty mattress, sheets and crocheted blankets in a tangle. It smelled of sweat, dog and patchouli.

Doug and Magic Girl got out and said hello to everybody else. He wore a poncho and a floppy leather hat; she wore a peasant dress with little red flowers. We passed the pipe around.

"We were in Hartford the other day. We been on the road all summer," said Doug.

"This is the last show," said Magic Girl.

"Then where you gonna go?" asked Jim.

"Anywhere but home, man," said Doug.

"Anywhere but home," Magic Girl repeated.

Cylinders of purple light extended above their heads.

"Why you called that?" Rick asked Magic Girl.

"'Cause she can tell your future," Doug said. Magic Girl was silent.

"Tell it then."

"OK. You," she said, pointing at me. "You're afraid."

"Me?"

"You're afraid something's gonna happen tonight."

"Happen? Like what?"

"Like something." She shrugged. "Anything."

"Something bad?"

"Good-bad doesn't matter, man. You just need to let it happen."

Doug nodded in assent as he relit the bowl and took a hit. "Don't recoil from experience, man," he said, holding his breath. Little wisps of smoke emerged with every word.

"It's all there is," continued Magic Girl. "Whatever's gonna happen, you need to let it."

I felt like my entire body was vibrating.

"I don't think I'm afraid," I protested.

"That's because you are," she said.



There were two worlds within the stadium. A world of light and life in the center. There the eternally young and beautiful basked in the golden sun. On folding chairs and blankets. Playing cards. Smoking pot. Stretching languorously.

Encircling this world was a world of shadow and death. The covered grandstands, cold concrete and steel. They were occupied by a desultory patchwork of clannish groups. There were even outliers among these outcasts, sitting way far up where it was darkest. Someone let out a fearsome hoot and a bottle arced high, end-over-end, and exploded in a splatter of shards and foam at the opening of the tunnel from which we had emerged.

We walked the littered path that formed the border. Jim and Jenny in front, Rick and I each carrying a handle of the cooler. We were scouting a location on the grass. To the left of the stage, where the stadium opened to the east, twin rectangular forms shimmered in the distance. Someone else shouted from the stands. Pure abstract shape. Identical. The objects seemed to oscillate in and out of existence. The breeze picked up a bit, kicking up a little dust. In the haze they were barely distinguishable from the sky. Only their outlines, tinged with gold, rippling like the sun upon the sea, were seen. I heard a woman laugh. Though I knew what they were, they appeared to be a phantasm. Their presence was exceedingly tenuous. They did not seem to be a part of this world.

A Frisbee glided across the foreground to break my reverie. The clock on the scoreboard was stuck on six to nine.

"Wait!" said Jim.

We stopped behind him.

"Check that out!" he exclaimed, his voice nearly trembling with wonder.

He was pointing at an object in his path. Rick and I put the cooler down and we all approached to have a closer look. It was a tube of something. Toothpaste. It was a tube of Aqua-fresh toothpaste. Brand new, apparently. Pristinely resting on the dirt and full to bursting. We scrutinized it with some awe.

Passersby walked around us at first. Then a few stopped too, to look at the thing that we were looking at.

Jim got down on his knee. He touched the cap first, with the tip of his index finger. Then he knelt on both knees to get a little closer. He ran his finger along the cool, white, unblemished surface of the metal skin.

"Wow," he whispered.

"It's beautiful!" Jenny asserted. She sounded like maybe she was about to cry.

We all knelt down now, forming a circle around the toothpaste. The crowd around us grew, peering over our shoulders. We admired in silence the very slight italic slant of the navy-blue lettering: Aqua-fresh. The toothbrush flat on its back below it, bearing a sleek dollop of blue-white-blue-white-blue striped paste.

After a time, Jim took his jackknife from his pocket and opened up the blade. Jenny let out a worried moan. Jim looked at her and then at each of us, his knife poised over the turgid belly of the tube. I nodded slightly, as though to give our assent. He punctured it up near the neck, working the tip in with a little twist. Then he drew an incision down across the letters, almost all the way to the tapered end. He withdrew for a moment to observe his work.

The opening act had just begun. It was the Marshall Tucker Band. They played a song called "Can't You See."

I'm gonna take a freight train down at the station, Lord
I don't care where it goes
Gonna climb a mountain, the highest mountain, Lord
And gonna jump off, ain't nobody gonna know

A thin band of white toothpaste had emerged from the slit. Jim leaned in again and made a careful vertical incision bisecting the original one just past the capital A. Then he made a similar one at the other end, between the H and the bristles of the brush. He made a third between these two, between the F and the R in "fresh." He paused again and we stared in wonder at the tube, which now began to ooze blue-white goo from its wounds.

Can't you see, oh, can't you see,
What that woman, Lord
She been doin' to me

Jim looked at us again, his expression conveying utmost solemnity and seriousness of purpose. Jenny stifled a sob.

"Do it!" she cried.

Jim carefully peeled back the middle segments of the tube, and then the four corners, to reveal a mass of sticky, viscous material in four perfectly symmetrical bands of alternating white and blue. We gasped. It was beautiful. It was horrifying. The crowd around us whooped and cheered. He wiped off his knife on the knee of his jeans.

"Touch it!" someone shouted.

"Yeah, touch it!" someone else repeated.

"Touch it! Touch it! Touch it!" the crowd began to chant.

Jim dipped his finger into the splayed-open tube and examined the dab left on its tip. Then he put it in his mouth. We awaited his reaction, expecting some revelation perhaps.

"Minty," he declared with a frown.

Then he dipped two fingers in the blue and brought his hand up to his face. He hesitated a beat then painted the tip of his nose. Then he took some white and painted stripes on his cheeks, his forehead. It was twilight now. He looked up and we studied him, the first initiate to a new religion. We understood that we were all to paint our faces.



We glommed a patch of lawn somehow, maybe fifty feet from the stage, and huddled around the cooler. I looked back at the stands. The sun had set behind them; its last rays shone through the gaps that ran along the very top, making silhouettes of the most remote.

"Hey man, be cool," the man to the right of me said in a terse and demanding tone.

"I'm cool."

"You're in our space, man."

I made myself small as his girl stretched back out the corners of their blanket. Someone else nearby had planted a Confederate flag.

We drank cold cans of Ballantine Ale. I squeezed a dent into the middle of mine. Like I always do. I took rapid sips, sucking the beer through clenched teeth. It, too, tasted of metal. Was I able to taste the can? I looked down at it and noticed the logo: three interlocking rings.

"What do the rings mean?" I asked.

"Deaf, dumb and blind," said Jim.

I looked to the others for an alternative answer. Jenny shrugged. Rick was sitting cross-legged and fiddling with the grass.

"How's it going, Rick?"

Just then the band came on. Most of the crowd stood up so we did, too. As I examined the stage I discovered that each of the drummers' bass drums was painted with an Eye of Horus.

"Jim, look at the bass drums," I said.

"Well I'll be damned."

"Are you sacred? I'm a little sacred."

"What do you mean, sacred?" Jim inquired.

"Did I say sacred? I mean scared. Scared."

I looked at him pleadingly. He appeared to be formulating an answer when he suddenly spat out a sudsy mouthful of beer and leaned over, clutching his knees and howling with laughter.

The band began to play. It was a lazy, lilting country song:

When they come to take you down
When they bring that wagon round
When they come to call on you
And drag your poor body down



I turned around to check on Rick. He was sitting down again, a forlorn, huddled figure in a forest of swaying blue jeans. He opened his mouth at me.

"Aaaah!"

There appeared to be some feathery material on his tongue. I leaned towards him.

"What is that, man?"

"Aaaaaaaah!"

"What's that in your mouth, man?"

Rick promptly fell onto his back and spouted out a flurry of grass. It landed on his face and neck in damp clumps. Jenny knelt down beside him and began to rub his chest.

"Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!" went Rick.

I elbowed Jim's arm and indicated Rick with a nod.

"He's high as hell," I said.

"Good. He's alright."

"You think he'll be OK?"

"He's got Jenny."

Rick tore off his T-shirt, got on his belly, and began writhing against the ground. At first I thought this was some extreme dance, but his gyrations did not appear to conform to the music. Now he drew his pants down to his knees.

"No, Rick, no, Rick, no!" Jenny shouted.

He spread his arms, gripped tufts of grass in each hand, and began humping furiously. The crowd had opened up a bit to give him space. Some looked on with vague curiosity as his pale ass throbbed in the fading light.

"What are you doing, sweetie? What are you doing, honey?" Jenny asked.

"I wanna... aaahhh!"

"You wanna what? You wanna what?"

"I wanna fuck the Earth! I wanna fuck the Earth!"

Jenny grabbed the waist of Rick's jeans and pulled them up as best she could. After a time he rolled over on his back and lay prone, defeated, one arm extended and one across his chest.

"It's OK baby, it's OK sweetie, I know, I know," said Jenny.

"Do you know!?" he wailed.

"I know. I know."

She lifted his head onto her lap and caressed his brow. His wide eyes appeared to be fixed on something far away.



It was not a band that I was very familiar with. Their iconography was in favor among a certain element at school. It was creepy, that's for sure. The type of shit that Mom and Dad do not want you scrawling all over your three-ring binder. But it wasn't ghoulish; it had a sort of jaunty, old-fashioned prettiness, a lot of it. Skulls and lightning and roses and ravens. It seemed like it had been stolen from some mythical frontier in a lost decade of the American past. What was most disturbing – and therefore most exciting – about it was its whimsy. There lurked a devilish joke behind it all. Death. Ha!

Based on these factors I had imagined – and hoped – that this band would tear my heart out with their electric guitars. Pound my spleen with drums. Make good on their morbid promise. But everything about them – the way they looked, the way they acted, the way they sounded – defied my expectations. They dressed like normal. They didn't particularly acknowledge the crowd. Their music was faint and faraway. The harder I struggled to focus on it the more it deflected my attention. They played a song – something about rowing – and I swear I forgot each note the moment the next one passed into my ears. It only left me with a feeling. A feeling about nothing.



Now it was night. I shook my head to paint the sky with zigzag moon-streaks. Across the water the antenna was aglow and poking at the darkness, sending "The Bionic Woman" into hundreds of thousands of cozy homes. The punchcard pattern of lit-up windows below it had to be some kind of code. I thought I might just break it if I really let go. Really let go now.

Lord, you can see that it's true, sang the band.

I tried to make myself innocent. I tried to make myself worthy of the truth. I remembered what Magic Girl said before. Was something happening now? Surely something was happening. Something.

The bass player was out of tune and he tried to fix it in the middle of the song, playing a note again and again as he adjusted. He made it sharp before he made it right, and he played three slow, sharp notes in a row that sounded like the moaning of some beast from another universe. I was staring at the towers at the time. Ohhhw, ohhhw, ohhhw. Everything – all I thought I knew and trusted – disappeared – not from sight but from being  – and I hung in the void, alight with terror. Ohhhw, ohhhw, ohhhw

For a moment I saw it. The thing without a name.

The song ended. A pop went off and bright-red, incandescent trails arced across the sky.

I felt some kind of warm fluid flowing over the corner of my mouth. Blood? Was I bleeding? I touched it and examined my fingers. No. I was crying.

"Hey!"

I turned around to find Rick leaning weirdly towards me and Jim.

"Hey! Hey!"

"Hey what, man?" said Jim.

"Hey!"

"Hey man, what. What's up?"

"Jenny," Rick replied. More fireworks popped and cracked behind us.

"What about her, man?"

"She's gone."

"What do you mean, gone?"

"Gone can't find her, man."



Rick was in a state of great agitation.

"Where'd she go?" Jim asked.

"She told me she was coming back!" he cried.

I told Jim I'd sit with Rick while he looked for Jenny. I opened the cooler, got two beers, and handed one to Rick.

Up onstage the song went like this:

Well I ain't often right but I've never been wrong
It seldom turns out the way it does in the song

"We'll find her, man," I said.

He was weeping. "You sure, man?"

"Of course, man."

He gulped his beer and shook his head.

"What if something happens to her?" he moaned.

"Nothing's going to happen to her," I answered reflexively. I felt a stabbing certainty deep in my heart that something was going to happen to her. And to us, too. Something big. There seemed to be no truer truth.

Jim came back.

"I dunno, man. Can't find her," he declared.

"Where did you look?!" Rick howled.

"I looked around. Jesus."

"We have to find her!"

"Let's stay here for a little while in case she comes back," I said. "Then we'll go find her."

The band took a set break. The stage lights went down and an old black-and-white film was projected onto a screen behind the drums. The title came up: the Three Stooges in "Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb." The crowd cheered lustily as the doughy men barked, whimpered and jabbed at each other. I felt a second darkness encroaching upon the night. So this is it? I wondered. This is what it comes to? I hung my head and muttered a grim, despairing prayer. We were doomed. That much was clear.

I looked up, expecting to see my anguish mirrored in Rick's face. Instead he gazed blankly at the screen. Movie light flickered faintly on his mentholated warpaint. He took a sip of beer. Moe hit Curly with a hammer and he laughed.



Jenny had not returned. I turned to Jim.

"We should go or something."

Rick was mesmerized by the set-break show. A W. C. Fields short played now. The ornery man's tiny eyes peered out at us from his pale, bulbous face and a ludicrous top hat teetered on the edge of his head. I couldn't bear to look.

"Rick," I said.

No response.

"Rick!"

"Huh?"

"Dontcha wanna go find Jenny?"

"Jenny," he repeated airily, his eyes gravitating back to the screen.

"Let's just go," Jim said to me.

"Yeah, let's go. Let's get up and go."

Jim and I stood up.

"Rick, up. Up, man. Up," said Jim.

Very slowly, without losing sight of the movie, Rick uncrossed his legs and got up.

"What about the fucking beers?" I asked.

"Drink 'em," said Jim. "Chug 'em."

There were nine beers left. We started drinking as fast as we could. Onstage the movie ended and the lights came on. There appeared a man holding the hand of a tuxedo-clad chimp. He introduced him as Mr. Jiggs. There was a pitiable crackle of applause. Mr. Jiggs scampered around on roller skates, knocking heedlessly into mic stands and monitors.

I hiccuped and opened up another can. "This is pretty weird," I said.

Mr. Jiggs lit a cigarette. Some in the crowd laughed. Others booed. He blew smoke into his master's face. Then he got on a little motorcycle and rode around in circles. A venomous roar erupted from the audience. Finally Mr. Jiggs mixed himself a martini and gulped it down at once.

"Get out! Go home!" someone shouted. Man and chimp were rained on by glow sticks and change.

"They hate the chimp," Rick said hollowly. "They really hate him."

"Ready to go?" said Jim. "Let's go."

We took our last beers with us and headed out the back of the field.



Behind us the animal act exited the stage in ignominy. The trainer hung his head, his face twisted into a quivering grimace. Mr. Jiggs seemed fine.

"Why did the chimp wear a tuxedo?" asked Jim.

"I give up. Why?"

"It's no joke."

The band was playing again. We crossed the encircling path, past barefoot figures swaying in the moonlight. Somewhere a man howled incessantly, incoherently, in proximate rhythm to the music. Before we knew it we fell back through the tunnel. In the halls below the grandstands green cinder block walls and the gray floor glowed pale and sickly under fluorescent light. Along the walls were scattered circles of cross-legged pot smokers. There was a concession window with an elderly black woman in a hairnet and red uniform. She stood with her chin on her fist, elbow on the counter, gazing at the opposite wall. Hot dogs cost seventy-five cents.

We gravitated toward the ladies' room. A weary hippie in a flowing granny dress appeared to be standing guard at the door.

"We're looking for our friend," Jim said. "She might be in there."

The woman contemplated us with a frown.

"What does she look like, your friend?"

"Blonde. Normal-looking." Jim turned to Rick for elaboration.

"Pink pants," Rick said. "Toothpaste on her face."

"Like the three of you," the woman remarked pensively. "I don't know that I've seen her but we may be able to help you."

"We?" I asked.

"Which one among you is most pure?"

We looked uneasily at one another.

She nodded sharply to Rick. "You!"

Startled, Rick pointed at himself and did a double take.

"You're to enter the circle. When the high priestess asks you how you enter, tell her that it's in the light and the love of the Goddess."

"In the what of the what?"

"In the light and the love of the Goddess. Then tell her you're looking for your friend."

"What's going to happen to me?" Rick asked with a trace of alarm.

"You'll receive a blessing."

She opened the door for Rick. Inside we could see five women huddled in the middle of the room. Around them four candles burned, one on the counter by the sink and the others on the floor. One of the women held a small, very sharp dagger. They chanted:

As above, so below, by our will, by our will
As above, so below, by our will
Isis, Astarte and Diana
Hekate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna

Rick walked in slowly and the woman let the door close after him.

She smiled at us. "He's only going to be a minute."

We sat down against the wall. Jim lit up a cigarette and I rolled a joint.

"Didja see that knife?" asked Jim.

"Yeah. What are they gonna do to him with it?"

Jim exhaled a plume of smoke. "Prolly fuck around with his dick."

"Cut up his dick?"

"Cut it up a little. Drink the blood."

"Drain blood from his cock into a little dish? A ceremonial dish?"

"And pass it 'round and sip from it. Yeah."

"Won't they fuck him first? Worship it before they fuck it up?"

"Maybe. Yeah."

We sat numbly for a while, sipping the last of our beers. In the distance we heard a song:

Tell you where the four winds sleep
Four lean hounds the lighthouse keep
Wildflower seed in the sand and wind
May the four winds blow you home again



After a time Rick emerged, none the worse as far as we could tell. He did look a little spooked. Jim and I stood up and I handed Rick the joint.

"What happened in there?" I asked.

Rick took a deep hit. "They gave me a feather," he croaked, holding his smoke.

"They gave you a what?" asked Jim.

Rick opened his fist to reveal a small, white feather, damp with sweat.

"What's it for?" I asked.

"Luck on my journey they said."

"Did they fuck you?" Jim interjected.

"What journey?" I asked. "You're not going anywhere."

Rick shrugged and stuck the feather in his pocket.

"Better not fucking lose that," I said.

"They didn't do nothin' to your cock?" Jim persisted.

"What happens if I lose it?"

"I dunno. Something bad? You should know. You're the one that was blessed."

Rick looked down the front of his pants to assess whether the feather would be secure.

"I can't believe they didn't do nothin' to your cock in there."

"They're not that type o' witch," Rick protested.

We stood and smoked in silence, listening to the band. They sang:

The wheel is turning and you can't slow down
You can't let go and you can't hold on
You can't go back and you can't stand still
If the thunder don't get you then the lightning will

A wild-eyed man without a shirt insinuated himself into our circle.

"What it is, what it is, fellas! Can you lay some of that fine-smelling shit on me?" He was hopping a little, foot-to-foot.

Jim passed him the joint.

"Cool, cool, cool, much appreciated, much appreciated!" He took a hit and passed it to me.

"What are you guys doin', man? Fucking enjoying the show?"

"Yeah. Actually we're looking for someone right now," said Jim.

"Cool, cool, cool. Who? Who?"

"His girlfriend," Jim replied, indicating Rick with his elbow.

"Yeah? What she look like?"

"Pink pants. Blond hair–"

"NO FUCKING WAY!" the man shouted abruptly. "Blond chick? Young chick?"

We nodded.

"Holy FUCKING SHIT, man! She DISAPPEARED!"

We stared at him, perplexed.

"Yeah," Rick said. "That's what we're saying, man, she dis–"

"No, no, no, no, no! Dig it, man: she DISAPPEARED!" He was clutching his head now. "I fuckin' saw it happen, man! So far out!"

"What did you see, man?" asked Rick.

"Check it out, check it out, check it out: I was up there, dancing, you know?" He nodded in the direction of the field. "And there's this chick just like you describe, fine chick, blond chick. Dancing. Pink pants."

"Yeah?"

"The band was jammin', man, it was so intense. And suddenly, I swear to God, a, like, bolt of pure fuckin' energy came out of Jerry's guitar and fuckin' zapped the chick!"

"Pure energy?" I said.

"And she fuckin' disappeared, man!"

"Disappeared?" asked Jim.

"I mean like she was there and then she was not there, man! Fuckin' blew my mind!"

He shook his head and smiled, his whole body swaying now. He took another hit of our joint.

"Uh, we gotta go look for her now," said Jim.

"I told you she disappeared," the man said emphatically. He looked at us sharply. Sternly, even.

Outside, the band sang:

If I had my way
If I had my way
If I had my way
I would tear this whole building down

"She'll turn up," I offered.

"Dude, turn up. Forget it. She turned out."

"We'll find her."

"Dude, she's gone, man. There's nothing to find."

"Yeah. We're gonna go looking anyway, man. Thanks."

"Good fuckin' luck, man. You're lookin' for nothing."



We began to wander back to the tunnel. A man caught up with us.

"Hey guys, guys, guys. Wait up," he said.

We stopped and turned.

"Don't listen to Billy. He's a fuckin' tweaker."

"Yeah, thanks. We figured," I said.

"He's a good guy and all, you know. He just gets–"

"Yeah. S'OK."

"Listen, I think I saw that chick though. For real."

"Where?" Rick asked hopefully.

"She was with a couple dudes. She was headed up above," he said, gesturing with his thumb.

"Into the stands?" I asked.

The man nodded solemnly.

"When did you see her?" asked Rick.

"First set. End of the first set."

"Cool, man," I said. "Thanks."

We emerged from the bowels and turned around. You couldn't see much up there. But you could sense a roiling presence. The shadows teemed with fitful souls. In the farthest corner of the darkness there burned a fire.

I looked back at the stage. The drummers played alone now. Sinister tattoos blurred into cacophony and started up again. The Eyes of Horus peered urgently into mine as cymbals whispered warnings only I could hear.

"Let's head up," said Jim.

We climbed the concrete steps, scanning each row. A group of drunks stood unsteadily on their seats, shouting simpleminded chants: Hoh-oh! Hoh-oh! Hoh-oh! Hoh-oh! Hoh! Hoh! Hoh! Hoh! A man drank from a gallon jug of wine, letting it spill down his chin and the front of his shirt. His girl vomited copiously beside him; her pink puke flowed across the aisle and dribbled down the steps. On the other side a woman, lost in ecstasy, bounced on her lover's lap. Clouds of smoke drifted over it all.

No sign of Jenny.



As we ascended, the band began a malevolent vamp. It had an urgent, martial quality. March music for the armies of the damned. I thought everybody was gonna die.

"Saint Stephen!" someone shouted.

We took a left and walked along the landing between the upper and lower stands. Far off in the distance was Manhattan, dense and bewildering in its cloak of lights.

"I'm worried," I remarked.

"What about?" said Jim.

"How much more time do we have? As a race on earth."

"Twenty-five years. Thirty, tops."

We found some empty seats up near the top and sat down for a spell. The music quieted and distended and finally disintegrated into burbles and pops. Hums and silence. Purple and green spots appeared before me, trembling and dissolving and shifting into whimsical configurations.

"What if it's all true?" asked Rick to nobody.

I eyed him with some concern.

"What if what's all true?"

"What if it's all true?"

I wasn't sure what to say. He seemed fairly serene. I ventured a reply.

"I guess maybe it is."

He plunged his face into his hands and began to howl.

"I can't take it! I can't take it! I'm not gonna be able to take it!"

I grabbed his shoulder. Jim leaned in, observing quietly.

"It's gonna be fine, man," I said. "It's gonna be fine."

The last row was occupied by a shadow rhythm section, freaks on tambourines and bongos. One of them saw us and stopped. He wore only cutoff jeans and the Cat in the Hat's red-and-white striped stovepipe hat. It tilted and swayed as he clambered over the seats to join us.

"What's going on with your friend?" he asked. He had a bony chest, long stringy hair and a beard.

"He's having a bad trip," I said.

We all looked for a moment at Rick. He'd lifted his head and now gazed out to sea. His mouth hung slightly open.

"We're looking for his girlfriend," added Jim. "We lost her somewhere. She lost us."

"Lemme talk to him," the man said. He climbed into the empty seat to our left.

"Here man, hold this," he said, handing his drum to Rick. It was one of those hourglass-shaped drums with bands that stretch from top to bottom. Rick took it and beheld it with a vaguely pained expression.

"You wanna find your girl?"

Rick nodded.

"You can't just expect her to come back, you know. She's not gonna just come back."

Rick blinked and nodded again. What the man said did not appear to surprise him.

"You have to make her come back. You know that, right?"

Rick mouthed the words "I know."

"Play the drum."

Rick placed it under his left arm. He smacked the membrane with the flat of his other hand and squeezed the strings against his ribs with a spasm. The drum made a sound:

Ohhw!

And with it something shot through my mind. I understood exactly what the drum was saying.

"Play it again."

Ohhhw! Ohhhw! Ohhhw!

"She'll come back if you make her come back. Play the drum."

Ohhhw! Ohhhw! Ohhhw! Ohhhw! Ohhhw!

Onstage the music resumed its previous, ominous cadence. Rick played in time to it.

Oh-ohw-ohw, oh-ohw-ohw, oh-ohw-ohw, oh-ohw-ohw

The other drummers had gathered behind us. They handed tambourines to me and Jim and we all began to play. The band sang a chorus:

Coming, coming, coming around
Coming around, coming around, in a circle

Rick played with mad abandon, his drum shouting and pleading over the din. Every jangling impact of my hand on the tambourine electrified me. Like I was beating myself out of my own head. I thought I could let go now, if I wanted. I wanted. Don't think. Don't want. I banged the tambourine and then I didn't think.

At the peak of our frenzy it felt like something was moving. Shifting under and around us. Then someone near us screamed and it was over. The charging music melted into a ballad; we slowed and quieted, too. Everything had changed.

"She's back now," the man announced cheerily.

"Really?" asked Rick.

"You brought her back."

"Where?"

The man just laughed. We thanked him, handed back our instruments and descended to the field. Practically everyone was standing now. The stage lights edged each silhouetted head in gold. We found our original spot, marked by the abandoned cooler. Rick stood on it and looked around.

"Where is she?" he said, climbing down. "She's supposed to be back."

"She is back," I insisted. At that moment I honestly believed that any expression – or mere apprehension – of doubt might impede the delicate, mystical process of her bodily return.

"She's back, Rick," Jim echoed wearily, peering at the crowd around us. "She's back."

The band sang:

Don't lend your hand to raise no flag
Atop no ship of fools

We dutifully took turns standing on the cooler and scanning the field. Nothing.

I looked back at the stands. I wondered what it was I'd felt up there. What I thought I'd felt. I thought it was something. An indication that something had fallen into place. That Jenny was back. That we had brought her back, in fact. Was I so easily seduced by superstition? What an idiot I am, I thought. Just another link in the chain of suckers who'd sooner trust a vision than a sight. I felt a flash of shame.

In my sorrow and confusion I considered whether Tweaker Billy might've been right. Something must be right. I found myself trying to calculate the odds that Jenny had been a shared hallucination all along. Every time I drew her face in my mind's eye it turned into another face. She deflected conjuring. She did not seem to be a part of this world.

The pattern of lit-up windows on the towers had grown sparser over time. Now the code it sent into the dark was stark and bleak, a curt summary of the truth. I struggled to understand it. I begged to know. Only to know.

And then I had a dark epiphany. There is no Jenny. Now that was just a plain fact, there. I permitted myself some grim satisfaction for conceding to cold reality. There is no Jenny.

The band played a rousing finale and then an encore. After it was all over we sat for a long while, the crowd dispersing around us.

"We can't just stay here," Jim said finally. "We have to go."

"We can't go home without her!" cried Rick.

"We'll call the cops, man. Report her missing. We gotta get to a pay phone though. We gotta go."

We got up and walked slowly across the trash-strewn field. We stood by the path a little longer, looking left and right. When an acceptable period seemed to have elapsed, Jim turned to lead us out the tunnel. We walked in silence across the ring road and through the parking lot. People were still drinking, smoking, playing music out the backs of their vans.

When we neared Jim's car we found a dark form curled up on the hood.

"Jenny!" Rick shouted.

She sat up groggily and squinted at us.

"Where were you?" he asked.

"I dunno," she said. "I couldn't find you guys."

"Couldn't find us?" Jim said. "We couldn't find you!"

"Are you OK? What happened to you?" asked Rick.

"I'm fine, Rick. I was fine. Fine."

"What the fuck do you mean, you were fucking fine?" asked Jim.

"I mean fine. I was fine. Jesus."

"All this time. You were fine."

"What, are you guys my dad now or something?"

"Well, where did you go?"

"I dunno. I went to the bathroom. Then I couldn't find you in the crowd. I couldn't see shit."

"What did you do?" asked Rick.

"I listened to the music. I danced. Hung out with some people. Met some people."

"Met some people?"

"I had fun! Jesus Christ."

We all got in the car and rode in silence. A little after we got back on the Jersey Pike I heard a snore. I turned around to find Rick and Jenny asleep, leaning on each other's shoulders.

"I really thought something was going to happen tonight," I said to Jim.

He shrugged.

"But nothing happened," I continued. "Did something happen?"

He lit a cigarette. "Nothing happened, man," he said, taking a drag. "What was supposed to happen?"

"I mean, something. Something was supposed to happen. Don't you think? Felt like that type of night."

Jim didn't answer.

I had a funny sensation on my face. Rubbery and numb. I felt around my cheek and was startled to find a smooth patch of second skin stretched thinly over the first. It cracked and peeled off in flakes. I rubbed a pinch of it into dust and sprinkled it over the trash around my feet.

Jim looked at me. Then he turned and looked back at the road.

I absently put my finger to my tongue.

Minty.


Grateful Dead lyrics quoted with permission from Ice Nine Publishing.