Wednesday, February 10, 2010

8/4/76 - 18 and End

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:


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."


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 chill 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.