Vector leaned his face down into my dream of Edward; pieces of Edward were being pulled from his heavy body. His body was little more than a stripped carcass in the scrub. The pieces were being wheeled off into desert sky by vultures that squabbled and called to one another even as he hung from their vanishing beaks. Ants passed in long, serpentine lines over the parts left in the foxtails.
I woke, and finally made out Vector's brown tie-dyed shirt, brown the color of wet earth. He was shaking my shoulder. I was still in the deck chair, there was only faint, new daylight around the ship. The cars I could see stretching away over the railing seemed unnaturally stark and detailed. And filling in spaces everywhere were bedrolls and sleeping bags cinched at their tops, heads of hair topping them like cornsilk.
He was smiling over me, the worry line still there between his eyebrows, but his round face broken in a pleased look. He turned to Clifford, who was filling a blue ceramic mug with water from the dispenser, and pointed at me. ``I haven't seen him in four months and he wants to know what time it is. You believe that? I'm glad to see you too, Story.'' He kissed the top of my head. ``Happy reunion to you too.''
Clifford nodded once. ``It's five-forty,'' he said sullenly, looking at Vector, who thanked him for the time. He waved a hand at us, climbed down the side of the ship with the mug of water. I could tell by the way he handled it, by the vague sense of offering, that it was for Lu.
Vector watched him go, turned back to me, talking softer. ``He's a real charmer. I think I woke him up, climbing up on the ship. I saw you in that chair and I started to come up the ropes, and he was out of that cab like a doberman.''
He sat down in tailor-seat next to me, white socks on feet in thick-soled sandals. ``Sorry,'' he started, pointing out over the railing, ``I waited by this sign over in my section, pretty big one, but this morning I went out for a good look around, and I saw this, and I said, now that's fucking tall.''
``Nope,'' he said and sat back on his hands. ``Got here too late. I made the last four hundred miles with no stops. I bought a ticket from a scalper on that Chisolm trail out there from the highway to the parking lot, from this guy that came running out of the bushes. Hundred and seventy-five bucks it cost me,'' he whispered loudly, shaking his head. ``That's crazy. I was nuts to pay it.'' He noticed a spot on his shirt, dark like spilled ketchup, and he looked at it disgustedly. He was a neat person. ``I had a hotdog,'' he said.
Everything was in the singular, and I knew that his group hadn't come with him, but it was worse with him to assume. He would rather tell it as though it was a surprise for us both. So I threw off the blanket, stood up and stretched, asked him, ``Did your people make it back here with you? Those Denver people?''
``Yes and no,'' he replied, face turning down. The worry line deepened, and he took on the brooding, troll's expression I always put on his face in my memory. But he continued evenly: ``Yes, they're here somewhere. I think. And no, they're not with me. I know that for sure at least. And no, I don't want to tell you about it right here and now. Later. You can ask me later about it.''
He brightened a little, looking at the way my own face had soured. He ruffled my hair and said, ``It's not a death in the family, Story. I'm still kicking. It wasn't such a big deal. It was bound to happen.''
``Me too,'' I said, getting up and shuffling to the dispenser, filling my mouth with bottled water, swishing it through my mouth, swallowing. I looked off the side of the ship idly, for a tree somewhere, forgetting where I was.
He pretended to be surprised too. He understood very well how people became sickened with me, demanded to know who I was, or shied away from me, as fully as he understood that they would refuse him, after a biding time. He had seen it happen to me at shows, that reaction that was little different from the reaction he himself would provoke with a pattern of sores.
We didn't ever admit the cold regularity of that rejection to one another; we treated each instance as an exception to a better rule. It was something we had between us. It was tacit, reassuring. So he asked me with surprise in his voice, ``What happened? I thought you had plans all made. That guy was growing mushrooms to sell here and everything, you said in Minneapolis.''
``I know. We did have plans. We all stayed at your house,'' I said, and then stopped, unsure of how to go on. Vector was looking at me intently, waiting. I cleared my throat, pushing down the anger and the fear I could feel unraveling. Softly I said, ``We had a breach of trust. But I'll tell you later. Walk over to the bathrooms with me, I want to stick my head under the cold water.''
He stood up, didn't press it any further. We always had something to tell one another later. I grabbed the ropes, their fibers rough in my hands, swung my leg over the side. Vector waited until I was on the blacktop to take the rigging in his own hands. He looked shorter, bulkier as I watched him descend.
We walked for about ten minutes, moving through light numbers of people this early, waiting only very briefly to pass through key junctures of rows. In one particular place, a group of six large men had picked up their small cars and moved them so close that their side mirrors entwined, allowing any number of people to pass at the same time through the new community space on either side of that conglomerate. Only one or two fires were lit; deadheads were cooking pots of oatmeal, or boiling kettles of dye, thrusting in white shirts bound tightly with twine.
There were rest rooms at five or six locations outside the amphitheater. Vector steered me to the closest of the buildings. The bathrooms were squat long structures with smooth tiled sides; there seemed to be no part of the building or its interior which could not be hosed off and disinfected. Inside were long, vanishing rows of porcelain bowls, pink liquid soap in suspension over them. These were faced by rows of stainless steel bowls ringed with ebony. Thin metal walls sat between them, closing off each on four sides. Vector seemed entirely pleased. He had ordinarily an aversion for the bathrooms of shows, but here there were sanitary paper covers for the seats, which pulled out from a stainless steel box as easily and as simply as facial tissues. The floor was spotless as small men passed in and out of the long tiled room constantly, mopping and washing ceaselessly, laying down invisible layers of disinfectant. Vents breathed new air above us. I put my head down into one of the porcelain sinks, felt the coldness of it against my scalp, pushed the hot water control.
Vector and I sat on a redwood bench in a teardrop of grass outside the bathroom. Vector told me unmistakably that he wanted to talk about his group by asking me, somewhat reluctantly, ``So you want to hear about how that group bit the dust?''
I said that I did, and as he paused to begin I could see that this time had been somehow different, graver. His hands fiddled with one another senselessly. He seemed not to want to look at me as he talked.
He began, ``They were alright about it, you know, my various problems. I told you that in Minnesota. They weren't super comfortable with it, but they were still OK about it. I was straight with them about everything, and they didn't mind, and we just had a little different ways than we had when I very first met them. We didn't, you know, we weren't real touchy, but I could tell that they wanted me with them.'' He searched for the word. ``They just got real vigilant.''
He stopped talking. The bench we were sitting on was a long lattice of stained planks and a man of about forty-five with his wife had dropped onto the other side of it, a little tired and disconcerted already, a map of the lot in their hands. Vector lowered his voice, leaned closer to me.
``I could tell that,'' he repeated, ``and everything was alright with all of us. But one day after I started that job up north, I started to feel, like, I don't know, I started to feel a sort of a hotness down there, in my balls. Like you feel in your body when you're getting a cold, except only right there. Somewhere back inside, I can't really explain where, I couldn't even to the doctor. It just felt like there was something flat out wrong.''
He looked out at the lot, he was embarrassed even with me. ``I went to the clinic and they ran all the tests, blood, urine, everything. And the doctor told me that nothing was wrong, I mean other than what was already wrong. The hotness was psychosomatic. I felt better when I went home, but it was still there. Like a fever.''
``Did you get a second opinion?'' I asked, again a question I knew the answer to, but one I had to place and maintain in the conversation; the assumption of the possibility of error was another tacit understanding.
Vector began to pull up blades of grass from the small circle of it around our bench, tearing the little spears lengthwise, into minute shavings whose juice stained his fingers a watercolor green. ``Oh yes,'' he said sweetly, ``I got to know all the clinics up there, believe me. There was one about sixteen miles from the other one, in this other little town. I went there a few days later, same thing, except this time it was a woman doctor and she said that it might be something that they couldn't trace in the blood or the urine at this stage. Come back if anything major happens.
``So I waited, and it went away, that hotness that wasn't centered in anything. I remember one day I felt it was gone, and I was fucking ecstatic for the whole rest of the night. And then a few days later I just started to feel, feel kind of there, I started to feel like there wasn't any sensitivity there at all. Something wrong. And I went back to both clinics again, and they told me the same things, one said it was in my head, the other said it might be in my head, it might be some early stage of something, something they couldn't detect.''
The people on the bench with us got up and dusted themselves off. They seemed uncomfortable with Vector's whispering, with the way he had closed us off from them by turning his body on the bench to face me. They satisfied their curiosity piecemeal, in a system of many quick glances, before turning away. I saw them walk back off the drop of grass into the lot, the man shielding his eyes from the sun, hunting their car which would be unexceptional, indistinguishable from the cars set together like fish scales in front of him.
``Yes, exactly, that's her,'' he said, his face brightening involuntarily, and I felt that I could reconstruct the rest of the story. He was telling it more earnestly now, reliving it. ``Well, she was that way. She wasn't shy about touching me the way she would touch anyone else. We'd do backrubs or something, and it would always work out that she would rub my back. Not coincidence, just this understanding we all had. She was the only one who didn't mind, or maybe she was just trying to react against something she did feel, or mind. I don't know. You never know that.
``But I never rubbed her back, or anybody's,'' Vector said. He laughed suddenly at nothing, although nothing was funny. ``I never rubbed anybody's fucking back. But that was OK until, like I say, I started to feel this kind of, like I was impotent. Like I couldn't do it anymore, couldn't even feel it anymore. It felt like that fever thing had ruined something. So one night we were at this camp site in Northern Minnesota, it was only like a mile from the place where they were putting up this building I was wiring. I was paying for the damn campsite.''
He stopped again, and looked at me and smiled, shaking his head. He slapped my knee, as though in high good humor. ``I was paying for the fucking campsite, every week going down to the little fart at the main cabin and giving him cash up front. We'd sit around the fire at night, and play tapes and dance, barbecue chicken and stuff. This one night we were all drinking red wine. This guy Jason had gone into town and brought like five bottles back. And at one point Susan was rubbing my back, and when I felt like she wanted to stop, you know that feeling when someone who's rubbing your back wants to stop, but they're trying to make it a good backrub? That's usually when I would thank her, but that night I started to rub her back. I was rubbing her back, Story, that's it. And after a while, she like reached back and patted my head kind of.
``And I wasn't thinking, I just, I just felt like I didn't want her to move away. I put my arms around her for a second. And I kissed her neck, she had on a green Danskin that didn't cover her shoulders or her neck and I kissed her neck. And that was it, that was all. Nothing that all the rest of them didn't do all the time. Nothing dangerous. I had my hands on her shoulders. Big fucking deal.''
I continued to watch his face, saw by the tightening of the skin near his eyes that he was close to crying. He was aware of the stares of the men standing in line to enter the bathroom. He turned away from them, toward the lot. He had on brand new sneakers I noticed, foolishly expensive ones. I could see that after the Minnesota job was over he had gone into an exclusive mall with money that he had never wanted for himself. He had bought a number of random products out of a sense of hurt, and guilt, and anger.
``So Susan's boyfriend beat the shit out of me after the rest of them were asleep,'' Vector said calmly, ``he called me over to this clearing further down the trail to talk. And then he really just beat the living shit out of me. He kept saying if I had given her anything he would come back and kill me. And, you know, he just wasn't that way, Story. He was a pretty decent, pretty gentle guy, I never even saw him get angry other than that. It wasn't totally him. We had understandings worked out, and I broke one, man, I knew I was doing it when I did it. The whole time he was holding me down on the ground, and taking punches at my ribs, he was afraid I was going to bleed on him. Didn't even go near my head. Body punches, through my clothes. He'd punch me, and then look at his fist, see if there was anything on it.''
``They just all left in the morning,'' he answered, shrugging, spitting on the ground, webbing the grass with it. ``I thought he had broken something, it really hurt somewhere in there when I breathed. So I went into that second clinic and got that same woman doctor. She came around the corner and gave me this look like, you pathetic little fuck. She couldn't believe that I wasn't there for something contagious. I told her indirectly it was. That seemed to put her on surer ground.''
I sat silently, thinking about that campsite, that wine and those people, not looking at Vector's face. I pretended to concentrate on a balding man wheeling a tall unicycle between the narrow confines of the rows. The people that Vector was telling me about were most probably parked within a mile or two of where we were sitting, out of the whole country, all of the states.
``Susan left a little note,'' Vector added, ``she said her boyfriend was sorry that he overreacted, and she thought he acted like an asshole, but I had to understand that he was working through his problems, and they both felt like they should go, and the rest were going with them. Better for everyone. You know that far-far-better-thing-stupid-ass bullshit trip.''
We sat for a few more minutes, both of us ignoring the tears which hung in his eyes but refused to fall, talking about it. He had a clean red bandana and after a few minutes he went to the chrome neck of the water fountain by the wall of the bathroom and wet it, rubbed it over his face. He combed his hair down with a small black unbreakable comb, and then sat down again. His face looked entirely pink and clean under the wet bangs.
``You know, the funny thing, Story, is that I did want to sleep with her. I would have too, in spite of everything, if she would have. I was telling myself that it was alright.'' He looked into my eyes. ``It was just -- I don't know. It just seemed like I had to know, you know, if I could do it or not. Be with somebody. And have it be OK. I just felt like I had to know. Still do maybe.'' Tape players and radios were waking up all over the lot, and I heard a bootleg from Tucson eight or nine years before, a show during which a teenager was supposed to have run onto the stage and wrapped her arms around the younger of the singers. She had made it past all of the arms of all of the guards, and he had sung the rest of the song to her, handed her back to the upstretched hands of the audience, and those hands passed her back in a wave gently to her seat.
We got up finally, and Vector pulled his foot-sac from his pocket. We began to pass it between us, easy clean kicks, nothing flashy, just holding it in the air for as long as we could without dropping it. Simple exercise, booting the colored leather bag back and forth, back and forth. Sea birds tilted over the lot.
I bought us lunch after a few hours had gone by. A guy who joined our game told me about a vegetarian kitchen in the same section as the bathroom, one which accepted credit cards. He made a map of it in the air for me. He assured Vector it was clean. We left him the foot-sac, told him we would be back in an hour or so.
Vector began to insist on paying as we walked. He was still burdened with the money he had made in Minnesota, all of it in cash, under the table; but it was something I wanted to do, to pay him back for the use of his house.
Also, I think, I wanted to pay because I could pay. I was troubled in a dim way by the thought of the card expiring soon. I had had it for so long, it had never been refused. I had always drawn from it in small, needful sips, except for Ella's purchase of the white van, never wanting to probe it, to test its limits. I had no idea how much money it would tell someone's register to allow me; thousands of phones had sent inquiries over years, lights had always flashed green. Voices had always given true confirmation numbers. Dimly, I could feel its coming invalidity as the lessening of a burden. It would drop away from me.
``Two plates,'' he said lazily, and ran the credit card on a hand-held track, tossed the set of receipts at me, which I signed. He threw their copy into a box at his feet which had once held spinach and radishes.
Vector and I ate with our plates on our knees, in the sun, between the matched bumpers of two Japanese mid-size sedans. I told Vector about the van that Ella had bought, and about the motel we had cleaned and lived in for those months in Taos. How we had come to his house. I told him about the car that had dropped from the highway toward me as I sat in that pie restaurant, how I had known that Ella had arranged for it to be there. The injury in that exposure. I told him about the number on the poster and how I did not feel that I could ever trust her again.
Although I did not voice it, I felt myself wondering if Ella had not done what she had done through some feeling of retribution for the way that Sarah and I had hurt her in Minneapolis. I was ashamed to think it, I knew her better than that, but the idea stayed. I related the facts of the cookie factory.
As I told the last of it, Vector was watching me with a strange, hesitant look. He was rounding off his spoonfuls of vegetables against the side of his plate carefully, before placing them in his mouth. His cropped hair made his eyes stand out larger, they seemed accusing.
He waited until he had eaten his last bit of stir-fry. It took him three equal, middle-sized bites and then his plate was almost entirely clean. He placed the spoon against the edge of the plate, leaned back on his hands. Sitting on the new blacktop, I could smell the scent of it slightly stronger around me. It sat on my palate, and I took a drink of my soda, trying to wash it out with carbonation and caramel.
He stole a careful look at me, still churning the ice. ``I mean,'' he was being careful with his words, ``Story, come on. You can't really blame her for thinking that. She shouldn't have called anybody no matter who it was without asking you, I totally agree with you on that. That's over the line. But you can't blame her for thinking that that woman might be your mother, you know.''
My heart was moving faster, I could feel my breath come shorter. I looked at him and couldn't believe that he was saying these things to me. I said, ``It's not a question of blame, Vector, whoever that woman is looking for is not me, and it was cruel to send her to some pie store to be disappointed by someone who resembles a dark Xerox that was copied too often. And it was a betrayal.''
``Story,'' Vector said softly, ``nobody is trying to say that anything is your fault. You got done like I got done, and for the same bullshit reason too, that it was for your own good. But I'm just saying,'' he paused for a moment, ``that I've wondered myself where you're from, if you've got any family. All you know is Dead shows. Don't you feel curious about it? What if that woman from up north could tell you something? At least if you talked to her, you'd know for sure you're not her son, which would narrow it down at least a little.''
He said, ``Story, I'm not some jerk you can walk away from. I didn't mean anything, and you know it. Now just sit down and let's digest. It's not healthy to walk in the sun right after you eat. Come on. Come on, man, let's just sit and finish our lunch and watch the fools pass.''
I sat down. Vector stacked our plates, stacked our tall wax cups after consolidating the ice and the thin brown water. He set them beside his leg so that he wouldn't forget to take them to a garbage can when we left.
``It doesn't matter in the slightest, Vector,'' I told him. ``Anything I can't remember, a last name, a story involving a set of people in a house somewhere to call on holidays and say that I love. It doesn't matter any more than the names of the people who gave you what you've got. What do those names have to do with anything? It's the same thing.''
He stood up, took the plates and the cups in his hands. He looked out over the cars, then put the plates and cups back down and retied the drawstring on his brown sweat pants, rearranged his T-shirt over them.
``You want to know the difference, Story?'' he asked as he picked up the trash for the second time. ``The salient little difference is that what I've got no one can help me get rid of, whether I cooperate or not. That's the difference. Now what do you say we go back, we've been gone almost an hour.''
By the time we got back to the grass circle in front of the bathrooms, we had apologized to one another. The guy we had lent the foot-sac to was not there, the circle was empty. The bathroom lines were still long, awkward. Vector and I simply assumed that the person with the foot-sac had stepped away for a second. We waited for a half an hour before we began to search the area around the bench, asking people sitting there if they had seen him put it somewhere for us. We described the color of his tie-dye.
It was after three o'clock when I saw the word from a round, flat hill of the parking lot away. The rest of the words were hidden. The white bus was parked in a depression of the lot with over a hundred of its exact size, these surrounded by larger vans built to carry twenty, and flanked on all sides by Winnebagos and TrailMasters and SiouxCraft mobile trailers. I stopped Vector, and he looked down at my arm on his, followed my pointing finger.
I felt for the car behind me, hoisted myself up on the hood of it. Vector scooted up beside me. I could see Sarah stationed on the blacktop out by the back hatch, hawking bracelets, her muscled arms brilliant with them; I could see the interest that the crowd flowing by took in her, she drew some of them in inevitably, like the small pull of a rock standing in a stream. Margery was there as well, but half obscured by the shadow of the van. She seemed to have a small box in her lap, and once when Sarah made a little sale, I saw money change hands and end in that box.
I made out Ella dimly, a slim neck and head in the passenger seat, watching something through the front window. I searched the crowd before the bus, and saw Eric almost a row away, talking quietly with an older man in wildly patched jeans and a frock coat, who managed nevertheless to stand like a businessman.
``But you want to sit and look for a while,'' Vector said, not unkindly, not without understanding. ``That's cool,'' he said, sliding down to the blacktop, his new, new sneakers very white against it. ``Just don't move from here. I'll come back in an hour or two, see if I can spot my guys.''
He hesitated. ``Nope, probably not,'' he said. He checked the nearest sign for the number and letter of the section, put it away in his mind. ``Although I would like to talk to Susan. I'd like to keep in touch with her. In case that guy never does work his problems out. They never seem to, those psychopathic guys with the sweet girlfriends.''
I told him to watch for Edward's limousine. I began to describe it, but Vector shied a hand at me. ``Story, save it. I've heard you describe it about a hundred times. Now, remember, don't move. Don't lose me.'' I reassured him again that I wouldn't, and he moved into the shifting crowd, becoming shorter, his clothing browner by comparison with the norm as he did so.
I don't know exactly how long he was gone; everyone had their digital watches set on countdown function. They answered a request for the time with the numbers of hours and minutes and seconds until the new year. Everyone had a digital watch on one arm, a mint green bracelet on the other, the two linked in some essential way. Because of that, I think, that reversion to a subtraction of time rather than an addition, everyone was in an increasing hurry. The savor of the average show was lost in anticipation. There was a palpable sense of time as fleeting. People crawled surreptitiously up the trunks of cars, and down over their hoods rather than wait to pass through a row, their movements as alert, as covert as squirrels.
As I watched the van, I noticed Tom sitting sulkily by the rear tire, oblivious to the music around him. He seemed sunk in black thoughts. I saw Lane stoop at one point beside him, try to cheer him up. Ella was the cause of it, I was sure: Lane's jesting seemed to take her as its butt.
Once Ella came out herself and sat by him. She took his hand and I had the impression that she was going through a long, complex explanation which she had been through with him several times before. He yanked his hand back. He turned his shoulder on her. She stood, smoothed out her dress. Then, before leaving, she leaned down to say something conciliatory. As her mouth was forming the words, he snapped at her, and she snapped back more ferociously. I watched it all from the distance, like when I first found them in Minneapolis. Tom moved further into himself, closer to the dusty black wheel of the bus. Ella left him there and moved out to speak with Eric, in her hand a small half-finished bouquet.
I watched their afternoon pass. They danced beside the bus, with Tom gone inside it, and Lane sitting conspicuously on the hood in a sympathy protest. Lauren danced, but listlessly for her: Marc had not made it to the shows, or if he had, he hadn't found her. She scanned the crowd as she moved, and once she climbed to the top of the bus, amazingly graceful and lithe in her long cotton skirt, clutching it in her hands like a tomboy. She stood on the top of the bus, paced that little widow's walk.
There was a family parked across from where I sat, a young couple sewing belts and their three black-haired children, and I had just asked them the time when Vector appeared a row or so away. One of the children held up a digital wrist watch, very proud of that accessory. It read 28: 51: 04, and by the time Vector reached me it had descended to 28: 50: 12. I think that had I wanted to, the boy would have let me watch his outstretched arm until all the numbers were at rest.
The sun had gone down, and the lights trained on the amphitheater were lit. I felt excited about seeing the show in a way I hadn't for many years, butterflies even. The night air began to smell heavy with woodsmoke, the scent of charcoal. I heard the strange sound of a yelling match in the cars off to the left of me, the stranger abrupt silences and scattered shouts of a fistfight. The couple across from me looked up from their belts, until it was clear that the fight had been broken up, and then they went back to beading and calling their children.
``Why? Because I'm afraid of how good my life might get if she decided she wanted to do even more for my own good. Everybody in her section would probably want to pitch in. And the last thing I need,'' he added, ``is an orgy of things for my own good. My life's too full as it is. We're late. Let's just go to the show.''
We began to wind through the rows. The people were moving in heavy, slow processions toward the amphitheater. The area in front of the circular white wall became black at its base with figures waiting in line for admittance. Dead music, a studio version of a familiar melody, was already playing from the vast speakers hung on that wall. We walked closer and closer toward it through the lot, for fifteen minutes or more, finally passing through the corporate and sponsor parking, and we saw that here the rows were wider, at least six inches on all sides of those boxes painted on the blacktop. The cars sat luxuriously in those spaces.
Again, there were long lines of people searching for tickets. Crying, stretching out their hands. Trying to make eye contact, to follow you as you shuffled forward toward the doors. They had come over the walls. Some of them had snuck into the lot from the surrounding hills. Now they held out their hands to me.
When Vector and I reached the place where the crowd parted, we saw why we had been held up. There was a sequence of booths with attendants clipping on green bracelets for those who did not have them. They worked with a small, chrome punch of sorts, fastening them on wrist after wrist. And they explained to us as we passed that we could have information coded onto the zebra stripe on our wrist if we wished. If we had children we could code onto their bands their name, age, weight, telephone number, address. We could put down next of kin. Any allergies, or physical requirements, medications could be coded; there was a list of what they would code next to each of the attendants.
There was a large room at the end of the line of doors where they would run the bracelet under a scanner and select from a computer the desired information, pass a light wand over the bracelet to write or read information. It also allowed them to tell whether one's ticket was a one, two, or three-day ticket, whether it had been used and how many times. The band became valid in place of the ticket, superseded it.
A man put a strip of the plastic around my arm. It was cool on my skin. I had expected, watching those lines pass holding out their arms, to be frightened as they attached mine. But the man servicing my line was paunchy, comforting. And the sky was open over my head, there was still the strong sea air. He punched my band, and I turned the zebra stripe around without thinking so that it was hidden by my wrist, walked into one of the smaller, thinner lines. It warmed to my body temperature almost immediately.
He walked away, and I waited for him with my back against that white concrete wall that was over one hundred feet high. I couldn't blame him. It wasn't his choice: his fears for his health were reflexive, painful. He could be so easily seduced by promises of safety.
People passed in front of me without ceasing, thousands in the passing of a few seconds. Their numbers began to dwindle, and I suddenly heard the crowd inside come to its feet, and the first, trembling airs of that night's show. I shifted on my feet, twisted my arm band like a little boy, standing and waiting, fidgeting, hearing the music.
Finally, Vector came running down the ceilingless corridor with the last of the latecomers. He was smiling, invigorated by the music. ``Run man!'' Vector was laughing at me, yelling at me as he came. ``Can't you hear? The show's starting, it's about to start! Fucking run!''
I fell into step beside him. ``You're done?'' I yelled over to him as we ran. The noise around us was deafening, although most of it was buffered by the thick shell of concrete. He nodded, his shorn scalp bobbing. He was relieved, I could tell.
We came down into them from above. We were handed down a small path by men with thin headsets, lights in their hands. I saw them in their yellow jackets at one hundred doors, all of them attentive, seemingly oblivious to the music. They passed us down into numbers too large to comprehend in a single view. I found myself looking instead to small groupings at my lower right and lower left. Counting a hundred in a drop, in a glance.
There were heads and hands below and before us for hundreds of yards, not enough room to dance anything other than shortened, slower movements, which transmitted themselves through the standing bodies in long waves, the movement of meadow grass and wheat under wind. In greater numbers and colors than I could understand they stood and moved. Only at the very farthest reaches of them could I perceive the fencing which grew up as the concrete wall ran down to earth near the stage. That elaborate fencing ran into the dark as far as I could see; bare, tangled as leafless trees. It seemed to run on both sides to the sea. I saw security lights strung on it and mingling with stars over the black water.
The stage ahead of me came up out of those numbers gathered in front of it. It was elevated on a structure of naked, crossed piping. It seemed to be hanging in the black of the sky, almost too bright to look at. And the music reached all of us, stronger and more profound in its bass and top range than any other sound system I had ever heard. The dropping of a pick on the boards came through to the rearmost rows, that error faithfully reproduced. I could just see a small figure in blue jeans who must have been the younger singer, leaning over a microphone stand which seemed no larger than a needle. Vector held his hand up and back to me and I clasped it as we descended. He was picking out a path in the dark for us while I watched the small white glow ahead of me, the way it brought out the movements of the heads and hands directly before it.
There were points of changing color elsewhere. As entrancing as that small faraway ball of light were fat monitors hung from thin scaffolds throughout the amphitheater. My eye turned to them, one by one, to the one closest us.
It showed the Dead standing and playing. The image changed to a red Utah sky and a summer show that the Dead had played there. I saw Vector's head rise up involuntarily, hold. Then my eye went to the other monitors, stretched out in sequence. I couldn't stop myself from checking the syncopation of the various movements on their screens. They were beautiful to look at. Their colors were sweet, their changes of angle and perspective important, and the gathered crowd watched them as they danced.
He was there, in plain sight, the older one who had died. Just as Margery had said he would be, that prediction that she had been so timid in making. They had put together hour after hour of concert footage taken while he was young; after he had grown heavy but while he played still with energy and lucidity; and his last show, they showed his fat fingers working, laboring.
The monitors would turn from their transmission of this stage -- where the younger voice now played beside a substitute in the dead one's place -- to other images of other stages where both voices were still alive, still locked in a harmony passing time, where they sang together into one bulbous microphone.
There was no barrier to those hanging screens. I saw Scotland and the older of the two laughing hysterically at his bearded self, holding a hand up toward the lens, caught by a small video camera in a gift of Highland dress. We were in rooms with him, hotel rooms and the houses of families. We walked with him in the outdoors. I saw him singing as strongly and as compellingly as life.
There was something purely fecund in that imaging. We were almost all of us too far from the stage to distinguish any but the largest movement there, but the views of the stage which the monitors showed were perspicacious, discerning, generous in their detail. I saw the face of the younger voice of the Dead closer than I had ever seen it before. I saw sweat stand on the stubble of beard at his lip and fall under a pass of his large, red-haired hand. I saw him smile with nice teeth.
Below those larger, more profuse monitors were smaller, tighter blooms. They were blooms in the hands of deadheads: hand-held cameras lifted above the heads of the crowd. In the back of each camera was a view finder, a square of color as perfect in detail as a miniature portrait, and as infinite in possibility as the hanging monitors which they were capturing and adding to their own inner compositions.
People called his name, the dead one. They shouted out names of his songs. I grew confused, standing behind Vector, unable to dance and watching the colors from the monitor above touch his still face. I began to lose a sense of when I had been where. Where the man had died, where I had been when he died. Which bootlegs of which other shows I had been playing during the concert I could see on the monitor. I had seen none of the perspectives which the monitors showed, though I remembered other, less dramatic things.
The banks of lights near the distant stage would suddenly reverse outward, illuminate a part of the crowd directly under them, and we would see those people on the monitors, reaching and moving more frantically under that light. We would see their new agitation, and that light would pass at some secondary strength into our monitors. That image brightened the place where we were as well, and we would move more quickly, excitedly as well. Any light on any part of the crowd was multiplied times over and divided out in this way.
I felt a tearing across my memories of dates and shows, a pitching forward of those facts. I could not, after hours of watching, be sure of the way in which I had passed my life. The death of the older voice became obscured, inseparable from images of his life and passage through civic complexes and the floorplans of hotels. My sense of the shows inside myself lessened.
I took the arm of the man next to me suddenly in my hands. I could feel his warm flesh in his tie-dyed sleeve. I wanted to ask him something but when he turned to me I could think only of the civil question, the time. I saw the distaste on his unshaven face, but he turned the small readout of his watch to me, and it withered as I looked at it from 25: 46: 31 to 25: 46: 26.
I stumbled out some thanks, and he turned away from me, his chin rising slowly until his head was again canted all the way back, watching. I was emptied out. I tried to remember a box of bootleg tapes, all dated, all labeled, bought by Rebecca and James, that archive.
In the very midst of this sense of thinning, my blood, my self, they showed the footage of the Egypt shows years before. I saw the bandstand before the Great Pyramid, and I strained to see the monitor better, I shoved my way through the crowd until I was looking straight up into it. I pushed close enough so that the picture threatened to atomize into a haze of colored dots. It showed the older and the younger voices of the Dead on a pockmarked shelf of stone, in the triangular shadow of the rising monument. The camera played briefly over a cordoned area which must have been the spot where Sonjee had been sick, and I searched the small faces I could see for hers, before, during, or after that awful moment.
I looked through years for her as easily as searching the faces on a train platform. I began to look for Edward as well, his stiff carriage in some stray shot, but I remembered that he had not met Sonjee at that point, he was not traveling in season with the Dead in that year. I strained to see her but abruptly the monitor turned to Connecticut, and a long guitar solo by the dead voice there, and I couldn't help but feel that even as it revived him, the monitor was leaving Sonjee frozen and nauseous, entombed somewhere in the raw footage of Egypt.
I left Vector with his face upturned. I whispered softly that I would meet him back at the ship. He nodded, glanced at the lighted stage so far away, turned back to the monitor, his pupils making small lateral movements.
The overhead lights had been dimmed in the lot. I stopped at the first campfire I came to, walking into the orange light of the circle without the proper hesitation, without any of the right signals. There were three men and two women, just kids really. I had no idea which of them would decide if I could stay. All I could think of was the string of images the monitors had insisted I believe.
I opened my mouth, shut it. They watched me silently. Two of them drew together, one of them encircled the other with an arm, and still no meaning started up in my mind. They seemed opaque in a way that deadheads had never seemed to me. I began to tell them the story, but I began at the wrong point, had to start over again with my fever, tell them when I had seen those warring hood ornaments. Which night of which show. I felt so tired as I talked to them.
The young man who stayed seemed not to understand the life of the Forum, the hive intelligence served by its working lungs and bowels and eyes, but he listened politely. He had glasses and seal-brown hair and he watched me talk as though I were the strangest thing he had ever seen. People began to filter by from the show, talking as though there had been no death, as though both of the singers had performed, about the parts of the shows they had seen on the monitors. I tried to drown them out by talking louder over them, as drunks will do. I lost my place that way. I began again. The young man prompted me once when I misplaced a name.
When I had finished, he sat for a moment, thinking and polishing his glasses. And then he stood up and went to the windshield of a small Chevette in the neighboring spot. He lifted the Chevette's wiper blade, took out a white sheet, brought it back to me. He made a strange shuffling noise as he walked: I looked down and saw that he had bedroom slippers on, half red stocking, half brown plastic sole. He handed me the paper, and it was the poster that Ella had thought was me, that La Mirada number below a sooty likeness.
The young man in the slippers folded his arms, scrutinized me. ``The same place everybody got one, dude. This guy was distributing them. He came by this afternoon, Julie wouldn't let him put one on her car.''
And it was true. Nearly every car I could see when I stood had a square of white face down beneath its wiper, those squares stretched down and away like the broken white line of a highway until I lost sight of them, over the blacktopped hills on all sides. I looked at the picture again, trying in a theoretical way to see my face there.
``A guy about forty with a beard? Skinny?'' I asked. I thought that what Eric had told him in Minnesota had probably brought the man to the coast. I wondered how much he was paid by that La Mirada woman to carry those posters with him as he traveled.
The young man rolled down the sleeves of his sweatshirt and shivered, still watching me through his glasses humorlessly, wonderingly. ``No, not at all. He was about late fifties, early sixties, overweight. Blue jacket. Bad temper. He almost got in a fight with Julie. He was totally red in the face. Totally, I mean.''
I stood up on my toes, I began to turn in all directions. It had to be Edward. The papers were on all the windshields I could see, in all directions from where I stood. There was no trail to follow to him, I could not hope to backtrack to his starting point. I wondered how much of the lot he could have covered.
He shook his head again, looked at me again as though I were a marvel. He could only have been nineteen, or twenty. He tapped the paper in my hand with his index finger, and I saw that the word contact and a number and a letter had been written next to the word Reward on the poster, originally in some color of ink but now blurred black Xeroxed lines. I had seen the poster so often that I had not really read the new copy in my hand. A number, a letter.