When I lost Edward and Sonjee, it was like losing parents, and brothers and sisters. It was like losing an entire family in two odd, mismatched but somehow perfectly matched people. It was a tearing loss. For a long time, though I joined groups and lived with them, I was cold inside, and afraid -- not only of the intelligent buildings and of the group will I could feel all around me in the cities, but of the forces that had taken Edward away, hidden him, displaced him, eaten him. I thought about them often, at night mostly. And something else: I continued to tell the story of them. Sometimes not for months, but then I would see someone at a show, and something about them would trigger it, I would touch their shoulder and tell it to the end. I couldn't help but tell it; for whatever reason, they couldn't help but listen. In a way it was like having Edward and Sonjee still with me.
I traveled in a roundabout way, over the space of years, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, because someone told me that life had gone most completely indoors there. This person said that there were Skyway tunnels which connected all of the major buildings. The same warm air passed through stores and elevated tunnels and office buildings. It was possible to live one's life, year-round, feeling only air that had been conditioned, stroked by a machine. The outside was simply something to view, like a painting which changed every minute, every hour.
And so -- in the way that timid people go to slasher movies, to be scared out of themselves and in the hope that once out of themselves they can see that there is nothing to fear -- I went to Minneapolis. My last group went on to New Mexico without me, following the heat, the march of the sun from east to west. They were like a pride of giraffes, that last group: six people all over six feet, men and women, most of them very tan and blonde, strong and straight, the pretty brown and cream colors of giraffes bisected by tie-dyed shorts and shirts. They were fine people, but their group image depended very much on a common look. I was three or four inches too short, really. My body's color scheme was too dark. They were just as glad to see me split off. I didn't take offense: in the morality of their aesthetics, I came carrying original sins, of shortness, of bluntness and darkness.
We had a relatively brief farewell on the banks of Lake of the Isles. I remember dogs and frisbees passing over and around the seven of us. That is my last memory of them, playing lazily in the sun like giraffes on the veldt. We cooked beautifully marbled steaks because two of them were from very rich families. And even as I was sawing off the crisp fat and forking the good meat into my mouth I could see that they had already forgotten me. Although they liked me and liked occasionally to hear me tell my story -- like a favorite episode of a favorite television program -- there had never really been anything powerful there.
But once they drove away, I was immediately sick inside with loneliness. Being a part of a group is a need for me. Without one, in a large city, buildings leaning over me, I feel vulnerable to my sensitivities. Certain fears -- the Cyclops eye of a security camera, huge sequenced waves of pedestrians at exactly five o'clock, the endless city construction and yellow, chewing heavy machines -- press in on me more closely, importunately. I began that same afternoon to sweep the city slowly from side to side, walking the outdoor malls and the bigger streets, Lake Street, Nicollet, looking always but carefully.
It took two days before I found the new group, the way you track a beehive in a forest. The same logic rules the group and the hive: the members always return, their lines of return can be tracked. It was Saturday afternoon and I was in the bus station when I saw him, this Viking deadhead, saw his colors. I was fading in and out of sleep on a hard wooden bench when I saw him pass. He could have been one of the giraffe people, he was that tall, that blond, walking head up on those stained bus station floors, long arms swinging. I caught his shirt flashing red and green spider webs between lockers.
Then I followed him through all of the arteries of lower Minneapolis: I watched him piss from an iron bridge forty feet down into the Mississippi, piping lyrics over the filmy water, on into downtown, until he found his people and I saw all of them begin to dance there beneath a Skyway tunnel. The elevated tunnel was mirrored. It cut out a black chunk of the city-scape and replaced it with the white clouds and blue sky behind you.
And finally I found a small window in the Northern States Power building, across the street from them. The NSP building was an older, unawakened pile of dull ocher brick which had no cameras, no breath. It didn't frighten me in the least. I could sit at a second-story window within it, on a bench with a puffed vinyl cushion, and watch them move in the outdoor mall below me. No one bothered me as I sat, day after day, no one seemed to know I was there. A dead building.
I watched them for twelve days, learning and making sure. I was as careful as it's possible to be. To be taken in is not an easy thing, not a light thing. It's a gamble of a group life. There will be a felt sense of uneasiness that connects a group, like the invisible skin of surface tension. So often you will feel yourself suddenly, like an irritating grain of sand, being rolled out and away by the integrity and the resistance of a soap bubble wall.
There was a time, a long time ago: at the Headlands Preserve north of San Francisco, a knot of four deadheads lifting their feet to music in the sand before the ocean, their colored shirts puddled near a cooler from which they drew beer after beer. I waited on a cliff until their bootlegged concert cycled out of a troubled, introspective interval, back to a fresh melodic line.
I came down from the rocks and talked with them, danced with them, went through the ritual questions concerning shows, how many, where, when, how deeply moved. We all smiled and searched the looks on one another's faces. We walked around the black side of a hugely dimpled cliff and smoked together in that shade, within sight of a whale that had beached with its spine severed by a propeller. The smell from it was staggering, putrid. Two young men, two women, and myself, and over the course of several hours it became understood that they would carry me with them in their reconditioned VW bus to the town at which the Dead were next to play. The owner of the bus stood on the whale at the fat, high part of the day, flexed his biceps and screamed until his foot sank through the tough, hanging skin.
Our conversation began to bud off in jokes turning upon jokes from hours before; our laughter became more and more an indication of cohesion and the fanning open of a past history. I began to feel a part of them, almost viscerally. I liked them. The sun became late afternoon, and the pool of bright shirts by the cooler was drained. I lagged behind to take a bight from the spine of the whale, which I intended to dry by hanging it from the outside rear hatch of the bus and turn to a pipe after sanding and drilling its sides.
While I was sawing the ligament that held that chalky bone with a pocket knife, feeling the thick whale oil coat and penetrate the skin of my palms, I looked up to see the bus shovel sand behind its wheels and list quickly out of the rough parking area at the top of the bluff. It was soon past the first line of pines.
The whole passage of the bus in my raised line of vision was the flight of a heavy animal, sand under weighted hooves, the steering column crying in the turn for fear of me. It was like seeing a water bison spooked by a single sick wild dog.
I climbed and stood in the tracks they had made, felt the heat there and saw it happen: they had returned to the bus and felt the sameness in the smell of its insides, pulled on clean shirts and tasted the security in their own grouping as they spilled sand from their shoes. Who was the person on the beach, white beside the falling carcass of the whale? They had begun to resonate among themselves, a word of trepidation, a glance to the sand, a shared, guilty suspicion. It was an emotion crystallizing from hesitations and the fading sun of the day.
They ran not because of me, necessarily, not any aspect of me, but at the insistence of the integrity of their own group body. The concerts which I had seen had not been the same as the concerts which they had seen, although we had crossed paths through the tours of several states. The order of my shows was a different ancestry. We carried different set-lists. I was not really of them, and they ran from me as quickly as they would have closed with and assimilated me in infinitesimally altered circumstances.
Again, I didn't resent the flight. Dead groups are not democracies; they are single communal organisms whose peacefulness is matched only by the violence of their instinct for survival. They survive peacefully in large cities by sensing, communicating, fleeing.
There is almost always a queen, almost always a young matriarch. I have seen thousands of all-male groups and sat through tremendous Friday shows with them, bartered, laughed with them, but they are not permanent. They will disintegrate before the next show in the next state. I have seen rogue groups with men and women, but in which the women were quiet seconds, beading bracelets, poking woks. These mixes are darker and louder presences in the parking lots outside the shows. A bit longer lasting, and they can love you. But again there is a rush to expire in such a group, a wasting of energy that will take the men in four weeks or six back to jobs as bar bouncers and carpenter's assistants and lifeguards.
In Minneapolis I was looking for an annual group: one that lasts out a dormant winter, when the Dead remain West and play outdoors by the San Francisco Bay, one that remains together and viable in all seasons. One with the feel of the seed about it, that may migrate together to distant shows. There are women, not always pretty, who catalyze this sort of cohesion. Not always showpieces. Sometimes half of a couple, sometimes not. I see again a woman of twenty-six in San Diego, a huge woman with young-looking fat, perfectly smooth, stuffed into a truck bed with four others, feeding them out mushrooms in the drifting rain as though to baby birds. Nothing around them and the truck for miles but sand and foxtail scrub, sullen tan canyons. I remember a girl of nineteen in Austin, Texas, whose will murmured through her small group like electrical current passing through quartz crystal, as direct as that, as radio-perfect.
There is a finality and a peace in these women, in the warmth of them. Her voice can soothe managers of restaurants. She veers off into the vendors at concerts and the group eddies about for a moment, a confusion of trial movements, until she returns. Men at shows often give her things for free, miracles, not usually to come on, but in something of the way tithes are tendered. She will find you and kneel over you when you have taken too much and you are sobbing in a field somewhere outside Omaha, Nebraska, stones and hard dirt clots at your back. She will stay with you until the confusion and the nausea fade. Buried much deeper in them also, taped in somewhere at the cell level, is a clean, insectile fury bypassing reason in defense of the others. She will cause the group to abide, no matter what. To be taken in and loved as a part of such a group is a consciousness of life and of perpetuity, and that quality is the lift in the music of the Dead as well.
This group which danced beneath the Minneapolis Skyways I watched for a cautious twelve days. Eight of them below me, dancing in the sun each day. Except for small errands, I watched them faithfully. Religiously. They were very happy in the sun. They gathered like honey bees, hanging and wheeling fatly over a shock of blossoms. Gathering around a boom-box from which Dead music flowered. And like bees they told one another stories in dance. Their hands would make a map, an inner city map almost more vibrant and important vertically than horizontally. The level was vastly important. I came to learn the legend of those hypothetical maps, by watching, by feeling my way into them. And then a multi-leveled door on their world opened up to me. Where there was food. Where there were police. Where there were places to dance, to buy organic products.
I learned, hour after hour, their behavior, their folkways. These particular deadheads hugged with each return. They hugged in the forgiven, public manner of wartime greetings. The startling colors of their shirts and dyed harem pants mingled and adhered in the concrete summer humidity. They did things in ways that other deadheads did them, but with differences. They hugged but they rarely kissed: it was too watchful in the pedestrian mall. They could be seen by thousands of people in the surrounding office buildings. Even from where I sat I could feel that massive compound eye. I imagined that kissing in private was important to them. Sacred.
They seemed always aware of themselves as watched things. When they smoked marijuana they swallowed the smoke, until it left their mouths as only a prudent etching of breath. They traded the joint in a small, rehearsed cupping motion, hands for an instant the mirrored fish of the Yin and the Yang.
I watched them every day until dark, watched them fade in large, widening circles away. Sometimes I would see them passing in a ragged line of color through the tinted Skyway overpass a level above my window. They were always tired by the sun, tired by laughing. Slapping hands once slowly and weakly over their heads. Until their circle was empty and their space outside the buildings existed again unclaimed, and they were gone. Like bees gone in hive.
What I learned about them I learned from a great distance, reading lips and allowing body language to seep into me as emotion. These deadheads were powerful and confusing. Both qualities radiated from them. There was a feeling like penny-bright innocence and first love in their relations with one another. Once you began to differentiate between them, they struck the eye in discrete sub-groupings. Sub-ties, almost as strong as their ties to the group, sisters, brothers, lovers.
Eric and Marc were the tallest, matched like Viking bookends. They would occasionally juggle or kick a small foot-sac between them, popping it with a snap of the bare toe far above their blond heads, drawing it back to center with a violent outstretching of a leg behind them, a foot or so from a passing man in a suit. In their game-violence, there was youth and vast strength and instability. They wiped their sweat with bandanas and then pitched the limp cloths like baseballs back into the shade. They danced strenuously, with a martial precision. Again, something Nordic in the way they would grip one another's biceps after a separation.
Marc and Lauren were the closest to public lovers, the two always lost in the vast, unexplored worlds of each other. Their affection was big-screen: they loved to run at one another, Marc hurdling the side of a box holding a birch tree, and crash together, to turn and fall to the white concrete, patting one another's faces. They were always touching. At a secret angle, Lauren would put her hand full of rings at the center of Marc's naked back and move it down and across to rest upon the cotton covering his outer thigh. He would touch the white dome of her breast with a thumbnail. They would feed pieces of popsicle into one another's mouths. I imagined that they longed to kiss with their cold, colored mouths.
One afternoon Marc took Lauren's purple lipstick and wrote Marc + Lauren = 4Ever on one of the windows of the Food Court. He wrote it in big letters and in mirror-reverse, for the benefit of the people eating inside, but they simply continued chewing and swallowing, the dull, silent mass of them behind the glass.
The two remaining boys shared something between them, I could see that even from my window. One skinny and orange-haired, unexceptional and quiet, named either Tom or Tim, the vowel wouldn't firm up in my vision. The other was Lane, huskier, shorter, almost fat and the loudest of them all, the hardest to contain. They had a sense of themselves apart from the group, even while inside of it. The two of them shared looks while other people were talking. Lane might pretend to vomit if it were something he didn't want to hear. And his face would be innocent -- like a pudgy cherub -- by the time the speaker turned, suspicious.
Both Lane and Tom fit into the group, but oddly and almost in spite of themselves. Their tie-dyes looked awkward in the way they hung, like standard uniforms on an odd-sized draftee. But they had a way of giggling together that I liked. They filled the time of the day with alert, almost studious conversation which would suddenly ripple with childish laughter. They danced only in parody of dance, showing one another new awkward moves of their limbs and then doubling over in helpless laughter.
But there is always a queen. And for nine days, all the time fighting some obscure and nagging doubt, for those nine days I thought that there were two in this group. Sisters, I knew from their bones: Sarah, whose straight black hair dropped near the gathered waist of her peasant skirt; and Margery, whose name caused the rest of the group to make a labored sign of the cross with their mouths each time that they called out to her. They were both black-haired and big-shouldered. Their hair surrounding their dark lashes surrounding their blacker eyes were vanishing, concentric rings.
I thought that there were two because there was a visible intelligence to Sarah's movements through the group and through the day. She seemed, at first, to be the one prodding them toward food at mid-day, working out change from her long skirt pockets into the two or three outstretched hands. At first, she seemed to be the one to sense the occasional percolation of city dangers: an unwashed man with no colors nearing the group, shouting; a policeman turning a head in a squad car two blocks down Nicollet Mall.
And her sister Margery, silent, troubled, obviously took her cues from Sarah, watched her with a trusting countenance. She would move to help Sarah touch up the lines of the group. Margery too seemed in control, except for those times, once every day or two, when she would sink to the concrete in the shadow of a tree-in-a-box and nod over her knees, seeming to pray, seeming to cry. It was a ritual with her, as though she had somehow been filled with sadness that had to be let out slowly in tears. It came and went like a rain shower each time. She seemed to feel all the pain for all of them.
None of the others in the group were overly mindful of Margery when she cried like that. They might occasionally touch her head in passing. Her hands would clench the tye-died fabric of her skirt and knead it in rhythm as she rocked. She would stand again in twenty or thirty minutes and rub the skin below her puffy eyes with her fingertips, check Sarah with a glance, sign to her that it was alright. Margery seemed always to have shadows beneath her eyes.
And I would have gone down to them then, let them see my colors from a distance, but for some lingering, nagging doubt. There was one of them I couldn't quite place, fit neatly into the picture I'd formed of their group.
She was a small girl who sat mostly in the shade outside the Food Court. It was sometimes possible to overlook her for hours, there in the shadows. No older than fifteen, a silent, moody girl with earrings that were shaped like antlers hanging from her miniature shell ears. And the oval of her white face was as thinly boned as a moth. There was some lingering opacity to her role.
She had seemed for nine days a girl accepted by a group older and more experienced. She sat silently and talked in small sentences, danced only when the music became fully celebratory. Often sullen, looking up at the sun almost angrily. Impatiently pulling on and awkwardly lacing up the leather thongs of her Greek-style sandals. Her legs were slightly too short, too thin for the sandals, so that she gave the air of a game of dress-up. Eric could provoke her to laughter, but only by gathering her up and threatening to toss her into the flow of people entering the Food Court or through a mirrored window.
Sarah would sit by her and talk dreamily, tilt her shoulder down to nudge the smaller shoulder beside her, and I would think: a baby-sitter drawing out her charge. Ella would answer Sarah desultorily, pitching a rock at a fly on the curb, but there was an intensity in Sarah's eyes on her small, coral lips which disturbed the impression I had formed. Sarah watched the younger girl with a keen, deferent attention. A submission, faint and imperceptible as pheromone. She would dress Ella's hair, Sarah sitting tall and dark behind, her rolling shoulders and arms seeming to flare out like third and fourth arms from the small body before her. And Ella accepted it as her due.
One of the afternoons when they sat grooming in this way, I recognized their drifting music as a bootleg tape of a Saturday show I had seen in Buffalo in 1982, some fingerprint-anomaly in the order of the songs and in the voice of the bass guitar. And the sun and Sarah's braiding hands closed in my vision like a palimpsest over the hands of a Buffalo woman who that day in 1982 had cut my hair for a kiss while I sat on the hood of her car. I fell into the memory: my brown hair falling like I Ching to the shining blue paint, wind touching my scalp for the first time in years, excitement in the Buffalo woman's fingers at the chance to cut such prodigal hair.
For a moment I couldn't tell the difference between the two days, then and now. But the sun moved and Eric hit the eject button, as large as the head of a pin to my distant eye, and the Buffalo woman faded -- along with the soft, baking smell of her bosom as she stood close to trim a temple -- off the plains of my memory.
Once I looked with extreme care, I saw several things: that Sarah and Margery were Ella's older sisters, the band across the eyes was the same, though Ella's light hair and small bones had come down through the other side of the parental fork; and it was Ella who was signing group need to Sarah, who would in turn sign to Margery, who would then help Sarah to move the others out of their late-afternoon torpor. It all originated with Ella, all direction, and then passed outward in small secret signs. There was a deceptive strength in those glances and gestures, a true familiarity and a hidden expertise.
Once I saw it, it was impossible to avoid seeing it. It was camouflage, city camouflage, a piece of shag bark suddenly realizing itself into the wings and horned antennae of a disturbed cecropia moth. It was Hide the Queen.
The last thing -- the most sobering thing -- that I knew about the Skyway group was that they never left the Skyways, except to dance. They lived inside the tunnels. For days I watched them return in late afternoon to those carpeted tunnels, waited to see them pass over Nicollet Mall, colored anomalies behind the filtered glass. And then I ran to all of the street exits nearby, I stood on rooftops where I could watch three or four exits at once.
There are nine apartment complexes connected by Skyway to downtown Minneapolis centers and complexes. I watched those nine tinted tunnels over days, by turn, and didn't see them. Sometimes on a bus bench for two or three hours, looking straight up, as groups of people grew around me, were reaped by buses. Sometimes eating pulpy hamburgers that cost only change. The group lived somewhere else inside, somewhere unofficial. They had built a nest in some duct, gnawed into the metal somewhere like carpenter bees.
I continued to imagine them: music playing softly, softly during the night. Ella raising up blind in the night and checking their warm sleeping bodies with instinct hands, for life, for order and regularity, lying back down, never having woken.
My last three nights sleeping under the iron bridge from which Eric had pissed and sung over the Mississippi, I ate my last mushroom caps. Three over-large buttons given to me as a parting gift by the giraffe-people. The caps were light in my palm. Their tough, mottled brown skins were like styrofoam in my fingers, and they had the faint, sick smell that stays in your nostrils, rises up and nauseates you when a hidden shred of the flesh works out from behind a tooth hours later.
I swallowed one each night, drinking on my hands and knees from the Mississippi. I was eating so little those last days that they would reach me as fast as alcohol: my teeth suddenly mismatched, lightly grinding, a trial balloon of color ascending the horizon of my vision.
I would scrape together a fire under the bridge with a cut-out can shielding it, and I would look at the light contained there. Lying there, I would think of things, relive a show. The music would pour into my mind, louder and stronger as I let the memories coalesce. I might go over my memories of a certain group I'd been a part of, from the time I met them until the moment we separated. The images would spool into my mind like a home movie, but never grainy, always clear and sharp enough to hurt me at the end, at the parting. I would cherish all of the members silently, one by one. And I would pray -- in my own way, with remembered music and hope, and without gods -- for the three people who had meant the most to me in all of the tours of all of the states: Edward, Sonjee, and my friend Vector, the most vulnerable of the three, most in need of prayer.
But the good feelings would always disintegrate after an hour or so. The apartment complexes across the river would cease to seem stylish with their hundreds of lights. Instead, they would become hive-like, almost threatening in the masses of coordinated life they represented. Cars pulled in and out of them all night. Lights flickered purposefully. And alone by the fire, with nothing but a blanket and a short expanse of dark water between me and them, I would find myself imagining the lives of those people, the dimly perceived order, the illusion of autonomy.
I would see again the numbers of people divided into small rooms, in buildings turned inward and given over to the nurturing of those inside them. Urgent nests, whose inhabitants shared a blindness to the distance between the beginning of any process and its end. They touched glowing screens and things were accomplished, somewhere by someone. Those shining apartment complexes gave off something cold-feeling, uncaring, mandibular.
I was unable to help myself. My mind would leap ahead in fear. I would feel the avidity of the compound mass of them, those people, at work heartless in their forward, scratching movement. At play tranquil, passive, given over to watching, soothed by a blue light as though by the systematic and drowsy fanning of wings in a hive. All of them warmed to sleep by that light. All of them kept healthy through exercise designed to preserve their bodies in a limited environment, to tell a story of space and movement to muscles with a limited use.
I could not only see but feel them, the masses of them fitted in, like larvae tended in birth cells. Or moving though columns and corridors blindly like wasps, cramping themselves through the close halls of a paper nest.
I would imagine this in the fire by the Mississippi, while red and purple and green washed like dye over the rocks, then turned back to simple river water. Rolled up tight in my blanket, I would hear police helicopters passing stumblingly overhead, or a stained bird rustling up under the bridge, losing itself in the dark struts. Its sharp feet would echo in there.
As often as not I would vomit a rainbow into the same spot at the river's edge from which I had drunk hours before, the mushrooms a sour, fungus smell in the thick liquid. Sometimes I would see Sonjee's face as she told me how she had vomited on the Pyramids, how she was sure she had ruined her karma for ever and for always. I would miss Edward, his gruff, friendly silence. Wet, oily gravel pressed against my flattened palms. Only the moon still clean over the dirty, slow-moving water. It hung over everything in a very clean and hopeful way, always, so that looking up was a last resort.
No matter how those complexes pressed at me, the clean moon watched over me. It never deserted me, even retching at the water's edge, sickened again by the smoke and campfire smell in my shirt, sick with the need to be taken in.