Once, if you had driven north on Highway 101 from San Francisco past its outlying bedroom communities and vineyards and hippie enclaves, beyond blighted motels and one-pump gas station towns, over a road at times so winding and mountain-clinging that a moment's distraction could steer you off a cliff and into freefall, you would have reached Eureka, the coastal seat of Humboldt County in northern California. It was a city whose forty thousand inhabitants faced the Pacific Ocean on one side and all of America on the other. It sat between the deeps.
You might then have forgotten about it if you were continuing on to the cities of consequence, to Portland or Seattle. Or to the windswept streets and unspoiled air of Canada. Or to the North Pole. You might have been scaling the planet and in no mood for its way stations.
But if you had stayed in Eureka, you would have discovered a weathered city with an almost granular fog and a high cloud cover, with temperatures rarely dipping below forty-five or climbing above seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit, where tourists wondered how they'd slipped out of the California Dream. You would have wondered this, too, if you had compared the steely sky and faded architecture of Eureka with the sun and oceanfront villas of that dream. You would have thought that something was wrong.
The thing about dreams, though, is that they're products of the imagination, and the imagination, like all engines of terror and transcendence, can do anything.
On an afternoon in late November, the last of the school buses pulled away and fourth-grade teacher Elaine Perry realized that she hadn't asked any of her students to clean the chalkboard erasers. She stood by the tetherball pole and kicked a wood chip that sliced cleanly through the air and came to rest on the edge of the playing field where earlier that day a third grader had broken his leg. Children led dangerous, thrill-seeking lives. Spidering over jungle gyms, roof climbing, bike racing, contact sports. They chose the reckless and perilous, gravitated toward jeopardy and disaster. Adulthood is all about repressing that instinct, Elaine thought as she stared at Muir Elementary School's main building, and learning to desire the predictable and unthreatening. Principal Giaccone's office window was open. She hated cleaning the erasers and had been pleasantly surprised to learn when she began teaching in September that her students loved it. Giaccone had stopped by her classroom on the first day of school with a waxy red apple. "The forbidden fruit," he'd said, presenting it to her. "Only if it's from a certain tree in Eden," she'd said, holding it up and reading its small white sticker: "This one comes from Washington." Giaccone smiled and said he hoped her students appreciated what a clever teacher they were getting, that his own fourth-grade teacher, Miss Costigan, in addition to being the only centenarian in his hometown, had been a yearlong lesson in crotchetiness. Elaine caught the emphasis he gave to crotch and thought, These silly flirtations. I can't have an administrative fling. They go so badly. I could lose my job. He could lose his. Not to mention our respective families, my kids and hus "Call me if you need anything," Giaccone said. "There should be a bullhorn in the supply closet."
Elaine, wife and mother of two, from the town of Red Bluff seventy miles away, graduate of Humboldt State University, hair straightener, I Ching dabbler, and mystery novel consumer, did her job very well. In addition to teaching twenty-three fourth graders, she supervised the chess club, directed the school production of South Pacific, and ran the Gifted & Talented program. Her husband, Greg, was having an affair with a nurse named Marlene who worked at the hospital where he was an orthopedist. Elaine sometimes left her car beside the grove of old-growth redwoods that bordered the Muir Elementary parking lot and walked home past ranch-style houses painted the primary colors red, blue, yellow in rigid, unbroken order. She sang "A Cock-Eyed Optimist" and tried to mean it. In July her father had been discovered to have a meningioma, a tumor growing out of the thin membrane covering his brain called the meninx, for which he underwent an unsuccessful surgery and was currently in radiation therapy and taking a battery of antiseizure medications that often made him forget what he was doing. When Muir experienced budgetary cutbacks "those pricks in Sacramento," Giaccone had fumed in a moment of faculty meeting impropriety Elaine learned that there might be layoffs of the last-hired-first-fired variety. Her husband grew lazy in his excuses for arriving home past midnight "Honey, Steve might need me for an assist on a motorcycle wreck that just came in, some kid whose femur is sticking out of his kneecap. Don't wait up. Love you" which gave her the opportunity to single-handedly feed, wash, encourage, and console their two children through their five- and nine-year-old growing pains. She ordered an awesome nine-inch dildo from a mail order company in San Francisco called Good Vibrations. South Pacific was a disaster. Two children, siblings who played the French murderer and Bloody Mary with amazing vivacity, were yanked out of school midway through rehearsals by their mother, then seeking a divorce from their father, and the rest of the cast seemed hopelessly far away from memorizing their lines much less developing the wherewithal to sing in public in time for the mid-December opening night. She found blood in her stool and was told by a gynecologist that she had an iron deficiency and needed to rest more during menstruation. But she never slept beyond four hours a night these days, reading macabre tales of murder and insurance fraud until her husband came home, at which time she'd feign sleep until his loathsome, sexually sated snore started up, and then she'd rise, fix herself a bologna sandwich, and resume reading in the TV den.
As she was clapping erasers outside, Principal Giaccone poked his head through the window and called down to her, "Elaine! Oh, Miss Perry! Could I see you for a minute?" And she entered the building and climbed the stairs to the first floor and knocked formally on his door and sat in front of him and listened to his spiel about financial constraints and the necessity of letting some top quality people go, and how he'd hate to have to do that to her, but how he might have to unless, well, unless they came to an agreement. Giaccone stared at a blank computer in front of him. Things have been building toward this, he said, concentrating on the empty screen and then turning to smile complicitly at her. His secretary had gone home and there was nobody else who could hear this stab at sexual coercion. This grossest form of blackmail.
"Are you saying," began Elaine, sliding her gaze from Giaccone to a picture of him in a lineup shaking the governor's hand, "that the only way I can keep my job is if I fuck you?"
Giaccone exhaled loudly he'd been holding his breath "God no," he lied. "What gave you that? It's just there are these extenuating circumstances, and certain difficult decisions have to be made "
But Elaine was already standing up and straightening her skirt before reaching for the zipper along the side. "If that's all it takes," she said, pulling down her underwear.
Giaccone got up and stepped forward as though to intervene or help. "Don't be that way," he said. "I just thought you and I had this thing."
Elaine unbuttoned her blouse and untucked Giaccone's shirt. "We do. Lift up your arms."
"Look, you're doing this out of anger or something. There's nothing erotic about this."
"Of course there is. This is exactly how it works. Step out of your boxers. And take off your watch. Men should never wear a watch when they have sex. It's too tempting for women to look at." Elaine grabbed a tissue from the desk and used it to pull out her tampon, which she dropped in the wastebasket.
"Come on," said Giaccone, staring with embarrassment at the wastebasket. "I didn't know."
"Now you do. Is this how you normally respond to naked women?" Elaine had Giaccone's flaccid penis in her hand. Massaging it just below its head and then, as it grew and stiffened, stroking it up and down.
"Oh, yeah," said Giaccone, coughing the words.
"Yeah. This is what it's all about, isn't it?"
When Giaccone reached out to hold Elaine's waist she caught his hand and pushed him back onto the desk, and as he got bigger she climbed up and sat on him and enfolded him.
"Oh, Jesus!" Giaccone cried out, stretching his hands over his head, pushing documents and the phone off the desk, writhing like a merman caught in a fishing net.
"You can't bring him into it," Elaine murmured. "He's got nothing to do with it."
When it was over she dressed while he lay staring at the ceiling.
"That was " he said. "You hate me, don't you?"
Elaine opened the door and said, "I don't hate anybody," closing it behind her. Down the hall she passed a wan twenty-something boy with thin blue hair wearing headphones and pushing a mop over scarred linoleum. He smiled at her and she smiled back, unable to gauge the innocence of the transaction, unable to gauge the innocence of anything. Outside, music was playing and she began to sing loudly, "I hear the human race/ Is falling on its face/ And hasn't very far to go,/ But ev'ry whippoorwill/ Is selling me a bill/ And telling me it just ain't so!"
"It just ain't so," she repeated to the trees and the cars and the houses and herself. "It could be awful and degrading and it could be a conspiracy of evil, but...but..." She let her voice fade to nothing and walked along as though carried by the wind, and when she remembered to look up through the breaks in the canopy of trees, the sky was a bright canary yellow.
Ten days later, at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Street, where Highway 101 hit the middle of its Eureka crawl, the night lights went off at the Pantry. It was seven thirty in the morning, and Silas Carlton had been drinking coffee and eating a Hungry Man Special for half an hour. He'd bought a Eureka Times-Standard on his way to the diner and read about the timber industry's response to recent environmental activism. Both the article and the response were badly constructed; key elements of each contained errors.
Silas raised his coffee cup in salute to Teri as she walked by with orange-and-black-lidded coffeepots. He forgot which color meant decaffeinated and which meant regular, a distinction he'd known all his life. Like the names of friends and relatives that now escaped his immediate recall. Once familiar objects that had become strange. Orange meant something.
"Silas," said Teri, pausing in her white sneakers and shadowy stockings, "I do declare I've never seen you ask for a third cup."
"So you've turned into Scarlett O'Hara?" he said.
Teri smiled and refilled his cup and returned to the kitchen. The Times-Standard weighed in at twenty-four pages depressingly small for the county's largest newspaper. Silas read an article congratulating four county natives for running the Boston Marathon, although none had placed even in the top one thousand; an editorial explaining why the paper would discontinue its Public Safety Log, listing significant arrests (no longer had the space); and an Associated Press article about America's zany love of meatless hot dogs. He skimmed local sports stories that had larger headlines than bodies, wedding announcements and syndicated comic strips and a company-profile "Who's Who."
He read more carefully when he got to the obituaries. These he appreciated. These were a chance for Silas, age seventy-five, to see what others were dying of and how and when and where. The details of death were increasingly interesting to him, and not just because it was less "later when I'm old" and more "any day now," but because they seemed to come in two extreme varieties: the mundane and the horrific. Either "peacefully asleep in the arms of her husband of sixty years" or "shot in the head by a carjacker at the corner of H Street and Buhne," provoking a "she was a fine lady" or "what the hell is wrong with this world?" Silas wondered how frequently there was a correlation between one's death and one's life, whether the old woman's peaceful stroke ended a life of bone-deep righteousness or fantastic dissipation. And the carjack victim: choir boy or Hell's Angel? Did karma play any part in our end? Was poetic justice mere poetry?
Silas's life hadn't been exemplary by certain standards, yet neither had it been unforgivable. There were things of which he was proud: raising his former wife's diabetic son when she died and the boy's father looked to be a slipshod guardian; refusing Shell Oil's filthy lucre in exchange for his approval of their offshore oil drilling plan near Samoa; walking two miles in the middle of the night to a suicidal friend's house and convincing her that depression, like happiness, was only temporary. As there was behavior of which he was ashamed: sleeping with his best friends' wives (three best friends, five wives); knocking out a guy's front teeth over a disputed game of pool; lying (to everyone, all the time, with and without reason). Silas wondered how, if at all, these things would affect his death.
He was a retired bike shop owner and former city councilman and often lonely. His outspoken criticisms of Eureka's budgetary priorities and the state of America's forests, which for many years had identified him in the community as someone who thought about big issues, now made him a curmudgeon.
He was tall and skinny and had bad posture from years of hunching over desks and trying not to be conspicuous around shorter people. Thick white hair shocked out of his head like a woodpecker's, giving his bony features an avian quality. He wore sturdy black-framed glasses and black turtleneck sweaters like some funky old beatnik Rip Van Winkling in the twenty-first century doing his best Samuel Beckett impression and staring down the combined forces of illness, fatigue, and moral collapse. Yet nobody noticed him these days as he walked around Old Town and sat in coffee shops and listened and tried to eke out a meaning to his days. He blended into the background as someone you'd seen a thousand times but could never place from where. The social life now open to him centered on his niece Rebecca's family he'd once been close to his great-nieces Lillith and Maria and chance encounters with people old enough to remember him. Very few occasions for him to forget names, altogether too few.
His death would make these people sad, and the other obituary readers out there would take note of it perhaps like him they would speculate on its justice and it would bring his family together for a day or two of discussing him fondly and resolving that life goes on. Silas's sound and fury would be like the other sounds and furies that had signified nothing. He would disappear.
He looked across the diner at two mustachioed truck drivers noted the grossly obtruding bellies over scrawny legs and the padded nylon vests and the feet that knew how to maintain 65 mph for several uninterrupted weeks who hit each other lightly on the shoulder with the backs of their hands to emphasize a point or command a laugh-along. Touching someone makes them your friend. Silas recognized one of the men and miraculously remembered his name, Shannon Koslowski, whose father, Pete, had led the move to price-fix dairy products in the area thirty years earlier. Pete died two weeks ago. Aneurysm. Making an omelet.
Glancing down at the paper, Silas noticed a small box beneath the obituaries that said "MISSING: Leon Meed, of 427 Neeland Dr. Last seen on December 1. Age 54, medium height, curly brown hair. Any information, please call 555/2471."
I'd rather go missing than die, Silas thought to himself. When you're missing you still have a chance.
Later that morning at McDonald's, Silas's great-niece Lillith Fielding stood in front of an enormous griddle range with her manager, Ron. Heightened-senses Ron who saw everything and forbade he was honor-bound not to allow sloppiness and unprofessionalism. She sniffled and he wordlessly, reproachfully gave her a tissue. Her starched uniform rubbed against her armpits the blisters were a matter of time and patience and her face was breaking out despite her abstinence from eating at work. As though mere proximity to grease could ruin one's complexion. She'd been on shift for five hours with only a single fifteen-minute break spent alone because no one else was on her schedule. In the women's bathroom she'd filed her nails and written a limerick about the weediness of Ron, brushed her shoulder-length brown hair and separated it into two pigtails, and translated the amount of her first paycheck into Wiccan supplies it would buy. Then the break was over.
"What's wrong with this picture?" Ron asked, not looking at her, having eyes only for the range, where three small beef patties curled up slightly around their edges. It was hot in the cooking area and the milkshake machine behind them ground its way through a hundred pounds of frozen soybean crystals and strawberry extract in a successful cold fusion. Everything was equally delicious and nauseating.
"I don't know," said Lillith.
"And you've had how many training days so far?"
"Four. But I wasn't hired as a cook. I'm supposed to take drive-thru orders and then start at the cash register. Ambrose said those were going to be my only two shifts."
"Ambrose is the assistant manager. I'm the general manager, and I thought I made it clear to you that we're a team. If Latifa, say, has a problem and needs to leave the range then it becomes everyone's responsibility to watch over her section while she's gone. If I ever see you ignoring a problem because it's not in your so-called section, I'll deal with the result and you won't like that deal."
Lillith looked at the little concave burgers, at the staid runnels of grease scraped to the range's corners, at the forearm-length spatula upside down beside three salt canisters. "Is the problem that the burgers are overcooked and should have been taken off sooner?"
"The problem," Ron said, reaching across Lillith to grab a roll of paper towels, "is that this paper product was only a foot from the range, posing a fire hazard. It could have burned the restaurant down. Then how would you have felt about not taking responsibility for it?"
Ron motioned for Latifa, who'd been standing back during this interrogation, to return to the range, and walked away before Lillith could answer, leaving her alone with the feeling that she was a professional failure, and that she'd been cruelly bullied, and that she wasn't observant enough, and that Ron was an idiot, and that she might lose her job, and that she hated her job and wanted to quit. But her feelings, she knew, were beside the point. This was about power and as in everything there were haves and have-nots.
Arriving home at the end of her shift, Lillith took off her colorful logoed baseball hat one of the many things she hated about her job crammed it into her bag, checked the mail, and unlocked the front door. Her one piece of mail was a flyer about an upcoming Wiccan festival in southern Oregon. Banana-grab and plop on the couch ouch, who left a hairbrush here? and TV-on and a few impromptu stomach crunches. It was important always to work on your abdominal muscles. She felt fat and the flesh folding over when she did a sit-up proved it. Maybe Sam had called. She rooted under the couch for the phone where she preemptively hid it so that her little sister wouldn't be able to hide it from her and listened to the voice messages. Her mom's gynecologist dyke and dad's "squash buddy" and a weird high-pitched voice addressing itself to the head of the household and her ancient uncle Silas and that was it. No Sam. Fine. Maybe she didn't like Sam as much as she thought she did. He was short. Dwarfish. She'd have to buy flat-heeled shoes to go out with him and put up with his Napoleon complex and probably never get to be on top. Why bother?
The next day Silas Carlton carefully lowered himself down the foldout steps of Eureka Transit's number 9 bus at the South Jetty stop, where he stood between a peeling green bench and a former public bathroom in order to button up his barn jacket with cold, recalcitrant fingers. The bus groaned away and a bubbly blue car floated soundlessly into a parking spot to his left. He had particular difficulty with the top button.
Elaine Perry stepped out of the blue car and locked her door and a minute later was walking beside Silas, whom she didn't know, up the oversoft sand dune that led to the beach. They avoided eye contact and altered their speed in a vain effort to establish distance between them, like two pedestrians approaching each other on an empty sidewalk who feint right and left in unison, seeming destined to collide until the final second when, greatly relieved, they pass without incident.
Once in sight of the water and at last a few steps away from Silas, Elaine removed her shoes, rolled up her chinos, and went to the shore's edge. Silas stopped at the charred remains of an old bonfire and, responding to the strong easterly wind, hugged himself in a straitjacket pose and considered what a mistake it had been to make so many bus transfers (three!) just to reach this desolate stretch of ocean. Elaine stooped to pick up bits of shell and polished agates, looking for colors and shapes not already represented in her collection at home. Silas took out his bus timetable, which rattled angrily in the wind, and saw that there wouldn't be a pickup for forty-seven minutes. In the distance a dune buggy roared; if either of them had squinted in its direction they would have seen it spin around and around, the driver having the time of his life.
It had been years since Silas was last at the beach, back when he'd still had a driver's license and could chauffeur himself. It was a sorrowful thing to be dependent on public transportation in California. As it was to be old in America. He glanced around to find shelter from the insistent wind, but there was nothing other than the parking lot's restroom, an abandoned lean-to with survivalist weeds pushing through the cracks in its door, so he took refuge in a fantasy of being seated at home, with a bowl of microwaved walnuts and hot cider.
Elaine stuffed an arrowhead-shaped rock into her pocket. She had come home at lunchtime the day before and found her husband, Greg, performing cunnilingus on a big red-headed woman whom she at first assumed was his hospital affair, Marlene, but who turned out to be someone else entirely. Greg arched up his back and turned to her, his hands still gripping the woman's knees, an expression on his face like why-do-I-have-all-the-bad-luck? Elaine went to her desk and hunted around until she found their marriage certificate, lit it on fire, and dropped it onto the floor next to Greg's underwear. Just the week before, her friend Rebecca had discovered that her husband was a deviant Internet porn troll. Why were people so disappointing? Why did you get so enamored of them and then learn once it's too late to leave without serious psychological and emotional damage that they're selfish and hurtful and better at deceit than anything else? Greg sprang into action when the flame had eaten half the certificate by using his discarded undershirt to smother it. "Elaine," he said, his eyes smarting from the smoke, "it's not what you think." "Who's thinking?" she asked with a fairly insane serenity. "Who can think at a time like this?" Pivoting around, she left the bedroom and didn't come back until that evening, by which time Greg had cleared out an overnight bag of clothes and supplies and gone to stay at his friend Steve's, or so he claimed in a scrawled, self-abasing note.
The ocean was a puce green that produced violent eight-foot swirling white waves a hundred feet out from shore and small clear waves closer in that broke and spread like liquid glass over the hard-packed sand. Elaine kicked the water and sent up tiny sprays in front of her. Sand crabs burrowed into frothing holes. Seaweed eyelashes were splayed in midblink all around.
Silas, not gaining much traction in his daydream of warm nuts and hot drinks, opened his eyes when he heard the loud cries of either a man or sea lion coming from the water. He saw what appeared to be an arm rise out beyond the waves and then walked as quickly as his knees allowed toward Elaine, who stood by the shore surveying the horizon on tiptoes.
"Is that a person?" he asked.
"I think so," said Elaine, just as the cries ceased. They scanned the water where the arm had been, but where there was nothing now but the ocean's tumult.
Ten seconds went by.
"Where'd he go?" Elaine asked.
"I don't know."
"The undertow at this beach is I'll call an ambulance."
"Wait, do you hear that?"
They listened and looked and there was the man again, calling out like he'd never stopped, "Hellllyelllp!"
"I'm going in," Elaine said, handing her phone to Silas. "Here, call 911."
Holding the tiny plastic device high and at arm's length to study its miniature number pad, Silas dialed and then spoke their imprecise location on the South Jetty as Elaine waded into the water and made slow, determined progress against the direction of the tide. The man crying for help was clearly visible now, a head and bit of shoulder being lifted up by the waves and ground into the egg-white surf. Elaine inched closer to him with effort. The man's voice sounded gargled and desperate; Elaine was practically swimming in place. And then, as suddenly as he'd stopped before, the man went silent and was no longer visible. Elaine kept valiantly swimming. A minute passed. Two. Three.
"I don't see him!" Silas called out hoarsely.
Elaine turned her head and was instantly pushed back toward the shore. "What?"
"He may have gone under!"
"Did you call the ambulance?"
"It's freezing in here; I'm starting to go numb!"
"You should come back. It's dangerous out there!"
"His body could be floating around! I could drag him in!"
"That's too risky! You could get hypothermia!"
"I've had that before!"
"I've had that before!"
By the time Elaine reached the shore she was panting and coughing and purplish with cold. An ambulance dopplered into the parking lot beyond the dunes. Silas and Elaine went to meet it and explain that a man had drowned, that they hadn't seen him go out in the water, but that there he'd met his end. Elaine insisted that Silas sit with her in her car with the heat on full blast until the police arrived to take their statements. They didn't know who the victim was. A man. Impossible to speculate on his age, build, or ethnicity. Elaine, Silas, the police, and the ambulance workers all talked on the beach with one eye on the water to see if the body would wash up. Didn't. Nothing. Sleeping with the fishes. Elaine felt ill, as though she were still out among the waves, rising and falling, searching the water to see what? What had she hoped to find that wouldn't frighten her beyond comprehension? Eventually nothing more could be said or done.
It never snowed in Eureka. Too close to sea level it was sea level so when Eve Sieber woke up to see her car covered in snow she told herself she was still dreaming. Which wasn't true. When you're awake you know it, and you only say you're still dreaming in order to make a rhetorical point about the strangeness you're witnessing. Fine, so she was awake, but the snow was nevertheless unusual. Must have been the New Weather. The snows of Kilimanjaro were melting, the polar ice mass was decreasing, the average temperature of southern California had risen two degrees over the last twenty years. Why not snow in Eureka? Why not tempests and tsunamis and terrorific tornadoes? This was a meteorological paradigm shift, and Eve was ready for it.
In the small aqua-tinted kitchen her caffetiere melded together tap water and coarsely ground Peruvian Blend coffee. A city-owned truck cruised slowly past her building as two men shoveled salt directly onto the snow-laden street. Shouldn't they have plowed the street first? Eve stared at the caffetiere and touched the side of its glass briefly hot as a fire poker, not that she'd know from personal experience and then stumbled into the bathroom. Diarrhea was a horrible feeling. She'd gained a pound by the time she was done on the toilet, mysteriously. Is the scale broken? She took a shower and stroked her sore nipples Ryan had really gone infantile on her last night, nursing on her breasts with the suction vehemence of a cartoon baby One-Tooth, then insisting she tie knots in a handkerchief and stick it up his ass during sex with the instruction to pull it out when he came and shaved her legs. She was as into experimentation as the next girl hadn't the handkerchief been her suggestion? but she had to worry now about them getting to a stage where normal sex the old boy/girl in-out would no longer appeal to her or Ryan. She loved him, or thought she did, which could be the same thing, but their tastes were doomed to become so extreme that eventually death would be their only unexplored sexual aide, and with mutual asphyxiation already behind them last week, silk stockings, bed knobs and broomsticks death might not be so far away. Think of what she'd leave behind: her shitty job at Bonanza 88 selling key rings and discount chocolate bars to large, prematurely aged women and their hordes of children. So many kids and such harried women and such sad interest in cheap imitation-brand clothing, not bought for durability or style but for sheer economy. The women didn't smile, and they were always alone with their kids. If a man was present, some errant father hauled in by the alimony police, he was so obviously just-released from a halfway house, detoxed and pathetically unable to focus on any object long enough to pick it up, that Eve had to think, Why do they take these losers back? This woman here at the register is grim and overworked and I'd hate to be her, but can it possibly be better when that brandied moron is around? Yet Eve knew that the only thing separating her from these women was ten years. Or five. She was twenty-three and still childless and not unattractive with soft blue eyes and clean high cheekbones, she had, for Eureka, an almost otherworldly beauty but she'd gotten to the point where she didn't lie to herself anymore and imagine a glorious future of fame and financial sanguinity. That wasn't in the cards. Her pair of deuces was the janitor at Muir Elementary School, whose junk habit was quickly getting beyond anyone's control, and whose celebrated love technique was turning into the kind of thing Houdini would have done if he were irreparably stoned and scatological. So much for the promise of youth. So, so much.
Eve put on a torn zip-up ski suit and a pair of moon boots God, she looked weird and kicked some clothes and magazines into a corner of the cramped living room. Then she left her two-story apartment building, a gray stucco edifice sandwiched on both sides by single-family homes, and walked to Sequoia Park, where the redwoods were impassively flecked with snow. The old stalwarts, never fazed, never in the least betraying anxiety, not even when the deafening chainsaw buzz finished and they were given a colossal nudge in one direction and fell, fell, were felled. She ripped off a piece of bark and brandished it like a sword, making Zorro curlicues in the air, stabbing at invisible enemies, sidestepping their retaliatory jabs. Touché! She won, for now, her imaginary battle.
Later that evening, in Old Town Eureka, at the Fricatash Club, Eve sat with an energy drink and a carton of cigarettes given to her by Ryan for safekeeping while he visited a self-taught chemist who was said to be doing exciting new things with crystal meth. Eve had come straight from work and so wore a pink short-sleeved shirt with her name stitched over her left breast in a luxurious cursive and the Bonanza 88 logo patched over her right breast. It was hot in the Fricatash and she worried that the black hair dye she'd accidentally gotten on her scalp earlier that morning would smudge down her forehead, half hidden by bangs, when she danced. And had she scrubbed the bathroom sink thoroughly enough that the dye wouldn't permanently stain it? The show tonight, consisting of four moon-faced bands, was to raise money for the skate park that the City of Eureka had just decided not to build. Eve loved one of the bands, Derivative, and got increasingly excited sitting there with her medicinally caffeinated drink and two hundred cigarettes. Would they be fined by their landlord for the sink's later cleaning or replacement? Did she even need to ask?
"Eve, you have all those cigarettes." Skeletor plopped down at her table like a kid late for dinner. He was lanky, he was all lank. Arms and legs like a stick figure's. Pure bone. Bony knees and elbows and shoulders. Big green eyes like they'd glow in the dark. A rictus for a mouth. You saw his jaw move independently of his skull. The guy was a walking X ray. "Since when can you afford a whole carton?"
"Since when can he afford?"
"Yeah," Eve said with mock curiosity, "I wonder how much he paid for them."
"You mean with or without tax." Skeletor gave a total-gum smile and you swore his skin was going to peel away. "I'd kill for a smoke right now."
"I can't break the packing seal. Wait'll Ryan gets here."
A concealed-disappointment: "Okay."
"When's Derivative playing?"
"Could you be less specific, please?"
"Later or maybe earlier."
"And to think I used to tell people you weren't retarded."
"You're developing the potential to be a real bitch."
"I thought I was a cunt already. You said so last week."
"Whatever. Let's play dominoes."
"They put away the set."
"But it's not eight yet."
"Yeah, well, go tell it on the mountain."
Skeletor leaned back on the park bench that the Fricatash supplied instead of chairs at its tables and surveyed the crowd of sixty Crayola-headed Eureka cool kids of death. No music played and so they stumbled around on their own, borrowing money from each other. The ones not too stoned to converse conversed; the others made sounds in code, using the same low register "ahhhh" to mean I'm-hungry and isn't-she-hot and I've-gotta-sit-down-for-a-minute and when's-this-gonna-start and I-read-the-news-today-oh-boy. It was the one-note language of infants that some hidden recess of the brain could translate, a sound to represent everything and nothing.
The Fricatash bar was doing brisk coffee business, as this was a northern California establishment catering to minors. The management, a middle-aged Bengali man named Ravi, expected to be visited by the cops at least twice over the course of the evening and hassled and warned about slackening his vigilance against any on-site drinking by his patrons. Nobody was getting away with anything so don't get any ideas.
Through the crowd stumbled Ryan in his bomber jacket emblazoned on the back with a child's iron-on koala bear patch. He squeezed in on the bench between Eve and Skeletor and promptly started laughing, hardy har har at first and then the Crack-Up, body spasming around while he bent forward and muffled his screams in his arm, his long periwinkle-blue hair hanging over the edge of the table like a waterfall. Eve and Skeletor scooted away from him.
"Hey, man." Skeletor placed a hand on Ryan's shaking shoulder like a priest consoling a distraught parishioner. "Can I bum a pack of cigarettes?"
But Ryan could only give little tug boat toots and shudder. His brain was being tossed around on a trampoline, and when Eve looked at him she saw five hours into the future when he would be jerking through his nightly pantomime of sleep, in a constant cold sweat despite the seventy-degree room temperature. Eve would sleep fitfully for as long as possible, but eventually, at four or five in the morning, scared of the thought of having to get up and go to work at eleven, she'd take one of the prescription sleeping pills they bought from her aunt, and his twitching would get less noticeable, and she'd sink far from the material world until the alarm clock ripped her back into it.
"Tonight, ladies and germs, we have a very big shoe for you," said a young man with slicked-back hair doing a kind of Catskills Lodge emcee voice, an Ed Sullivan redux. He wore a pea-green thrift store suit that was too tight around the chest and high around the ankles, a Frankenstein fit that he exaggerated by holding his breath and pulling up on his belt. "I see lots of beautiful people and know you're going to have a beautiful time. So beautiful I can't stand it. So sunset beautiful I have a beehive in my belly." He dropped the microphone to his side. Someone from the audience told him he was beautiful. "Could we have a rilly big round of applause for..." he let the words hang in the air, "for..." his eyebrows went up searchingly, "you're all so beautiful," and now there was a hush and someone threw a water bottle at him that barely missed, "I love the nightlife baby," as the spotlight moved up and back, "people, come closer, I won't bite and neither will," to an assembled four-person band, "the Sloe Eyes!"
When the Sloe Eyes ended their set and left, Eve saw the guitarist for Derivative attach his guitar to an amp at the back of the Fricatash stage while the singer breaststroked in place. She got up from the table and pushed past Ryan, who had stopped laughing and now sat with his shoulders slumped forward on the bench like a boxer after losing a fight.
Eve squirmed through people and made a clearing for herself near the stage, where she waited patiently for the band to begin. Refused a swig from a bottle of soda that had been emptied and filled with gin. Just said no to drugs. Had a brief exchange with her coworker Vikram, there because he'd heard a woman he liked was coming, though she was nowhere to be seen and he was too tired to be bouncing around with kids half his age. Adjusted her bra strap that had somehow gotten flipped over.
Derivative began with its dolphin song, choruses of eeek-yiiiiik, and Eve was put in a bad mood because how can anyone honestly like to listen to such annoying piercing shit? It was the band being perverse and frustrating their fans' expectations, which Eve admired in theory but hated in practice. She wanted them to frustrate the fans who expected something out of the ordinary like the dolphin song, not her expectation of their brilliant fifty-second threnodies.
The next song was a coy little number about a boy and a girl playing at being animals. And it got graphic real quick. "My birdie flies into your nest oh whoa oh." Eve loved this song and forgot all about Ryan's death on the installment plan. And the probability of Bonanza 88 going out of business. She was lost on a planet of sound and saw no reason to try to find her way back. "Try my acorn try my acorn I've hidden it just for you."
Eve stepped backward and forward in time to the music. She jostled bodies and felt around for floor openings in which to put her feet and soon realized that her shirt was clinging wet in back. Nobody should have had time to sweat that badly, so she turned around to see who was responsible for her wetness and saw an old guy, in his fifties at least, dripping in an open-collared shirt. Hair pasted to the side of his head. People had moved away from him, presumably because he'd also gotten them wet, so he was surrounded by a ring of clear space. Eve couldn't place where she'd seen him before, certainly not at the Fricatash. The man had no business being there. Not that Eve was ageist. Far from. She just didn't think it was right for soaking wet old guys to thrust themselves into the middle of young people's fun.
The song ended and the bassist drank an iced coffee and the drummer buried his head in his hands. Eve glanced in Ryan's direction, saw Skeletor edge a pack of cigarettes out of the carton. A girl she recognized from McDonald's stepped into her line of sight. Facing forward she saw the old wet guy now directly in front of her, almost stepping on her toes.
"Excuse me," she said.
The man stepped aside and said, "Could you tell me where we are?" His voice was soft and respectful, not belligerent like the bums his age who'd given up on the niceties and now were just complete assholes. He even looked a little melancholy, appropriate for someone who'd been around a long time.
"The Fricatash. Why are you wet?"
"Is it still December fourth?"
"No," she laughed, "it's the tenth," although once she said it she was unsure. Something was she'd seen this man before.
"What time is it?"
"I don't know, nine. Were you just swimming?"
"No. Did you see how I got here? Did someone bring me?"
"Oh hey!" she exclaimed. "You're the guy who's missing!"
"I'm Leon Meed," he said. "I've gone missing? You've heard this?"
"It was on the news and "
Eve was pushed forward by a wave of people moving in to hear Derivative's next song, a gospel number, and in the resulting visual stutter she lost sight of Leon. People in the audience swayed and stomped and did little gyrations. They raised and lowered their hands like revivalists to these frail white boys, to the basso profundo "Our time it gets no righter/ Our load it gets no lighter/ Take me Lord to where the light shines brighter." And everyone humming the way you do when you can't contain the beck and call of whatever It is to you.
She looked everywhere and despite the density of people making escape impossible, Leon was gone. Her back was dry. There was nothing to say but amen.
At four thirty A.M., Silas Carlton stopped telling himself that he was asleep. His daily confession. He got out of bed and went to the bathroom and sponge-bathed his face and arms before padding into the living room, where he turned on the television with the hope of finding a local news story about the drowned man at the South Jetty. There was nothing on but a documentary about leukemia that spotlighted three American casualties of the war between good and bad white blood cells: a man, woman, and child whose stoicism never faltered on camera. Silas ate the remains of a ham sandwich he'd left on the coffee table the night before, fell asleep at a quarter past six, and, upon reawakening in an upright position on the recliner, patted his chest for his glasses that had slipped off. Failing to locate them, he muted the TV and stared at his fading reflection in the living-room window. Outside was a pallid gray dawn. He'd never before seen an accidental fatality such as had happened at the beach, someone overpowered by the forces of nature. Despite the frequency with which floods and earthquakes and erupting volcanoes and hurricanes took lives, he'd never
Suddenly, in the window, instead of his dying reflection Silas saw another man's face. He rubbed his eyes with one hand and resumed searching for his glasses with the other. The man must have been a visitor at last someone dropping by to check on him but Silas couldn't see his features distinctly, could only generally make out curly hair and a brown shirt or coat. Pointing toward the front door, he said loudly, "It's open! Come in!" The man didn't move. "It's open!"
Silas found his glasses, wedged between the bottom pillow and armrest, and put them on, though because of the poor lighting outside he still couldn't recognize the man. Was it Beto the Argentinian stopping by to see if he'd like to fly his remote control airplane with him? Or one of his neighbors hoping to borrow a bicycle pump? Silas didn't understand why the man wasn't going to the front door, so he moved to get up and let him in, at which point the man disappeared. Silas was halfway out of his chair when he found himself looking through the window at nothing but a lava rock garden, mulberry bushes, mini lawn, street, parked cars, other houses, and wrought-iron sky. No man. He didn't rush to conclusions, for he was perhaps hypnagogic, his sleepy eyes playing tricks on him. He sat back down to consider things and adjust his glasses as though they were a radio dial that, properly modified, would clearly broadcast what had been garbled.
He waited and waited and sensed nothing but static.
Copyright © 2005 by Josh Emmons