Chapter Eleven

The Millennium Shows by Philip E. Baruth, San Francisco

I had to stop and lean on a car halfway there. I put my hands on my thighs, bent over them, pulling in air. People were asleep all around me, radiating out from their dying fires like spokes. Mouths opened, eyes closed, motionless bodies all through the lot as I ran. Almost no music playing. There were faint helicopter sounds, and their long lights probing the scrub hills several miles away.

I walked and ran for thirty-five minutes before I saw the square back of the used limousine, halfway up a long, graded incline. I fell against it harder than I expected, my legs light with fatigue, and I saw Edward sit up awkwardly in the rear compartment, his gray fringe of hair, a baggy flannel shirt open at the chest and wrists, a stretched white undershirt beneath. He brought his thick face to the window, fogging it in the sea air of that night. Both of us unbelieving, on our respective sides. I knocked softly on the glass.

It was a quiet reunion. He made me some tea. He bent down in the dark and pulled a short-legged grill from beneath the limousine. He had learned some things, following the Dead. A bag of charcoal, a can of starter with loud sides also stored under the parked car. The rear compartment had been systematized as well. He took a mug and a stiff, new teabag from pigeonholes in a lacquered wooden cupboard that he had mounted there.

I sat and watched him put the cup of tea together. He squatted over the fire with a magazine, fanning it. And when it was bright he snapped a thin metal grill in place and covered it with a small backpacker's tea kettle. We waited on the water. What had been upset in my mind returned to place. I had everything back. His scratched quartz watch told me the time, the real time, without any ceremony.

I sat on the hood of the limousine and said nothing, just watched him stand over the unboiling kettle, watching it, arms crossed over his stomach. The miniature fire lit him up in the dark. He yawned, heavy chin bunching beneath his fist. I yawned after him.

It was chamomile tea, like drinking flowers. We talked in low, tired tones, skirting certain subjects. I did not mention Providence or Sonjee, his reason for following the Dead these last years, for going to such lengths to find me. Both of us left that name unspoken. We looked into the fire as a means of eliding those things, brought our eyes back up when the talk had reached the other side of those issues. He had been in Minneapolis. He had installed piping and toilets and shower cabinets for deadheads he met in various lots of various concerts, had for a while almost been able to cease drawing from his retirement fund, lived by barter. Those side jobs had become important to him, I could see. Fitting and sawing pipe, balancing pressures against certain fittings. Threading, counter-threading. It was important to have his hand on a wrench, to work the rolled muscle still there beneath the fat which had come to his upper body.

Yet there was no less contempt for deadheads in his voice than when I had known him. He had hated their crowded houses: their unclean kitchens, stained cutting boards and dried broccoli flowers underfoot. Those deadheads had not melted him with their payments of homemade curries and meatpies, of knitted sweaters and socks, of tune-ups for the limousine, or the tall amethyst crystal in a sleeve of yarn which hung now from the rearview mirror.

He asked me quietly, tentatively about myself, a deep sip from his own mug hiding the lower half of his face. He asked me and it was all there, fanned out and whole in my mind. I told him which shows I had seen, how I had gotten to each, who I had lived with. He did not seem to be listening, he seemed preoccupied as I told him about the nest hidden up in the Skyways. His hands were tight around his mug. I continued to talk about the death of that older voice of the Dead, and how it had hurt us as a group, how Ella had brought us out of that, but as I related it I could feel Edward's disdain for it. When I had finished, he threw the dregs of his tea on the fire, made it spit.

He drew his flannel shirt together and fixed his attention on the buttons, fastening them with elaborate precision. I knew that he must want so badly to ask about Sonjee, if I had seen her, but I thought that he might be afraid that I would know nothing or that I would know for certain that she was not at the shows, that she was married, had children. He seemed almost to be angry that I would not bring it up; his few words were clipped, his back was stiff as he shoveled ashes from a small copper bucket onto the fire. I felt for him, but I could not bring up her name, I couldn't be sure that it wouldn't hurt him in some way.

It was understood between us that I was welcome in the limousine. I would be willing to bet that I was the only person other than himself to sleep in it since I had last seen him in Providence. He would have sealed it off from the bazaars which were put together and taken apart around him.

Edward lay on the crushed velvet cushions where he and Sonjee had slept. I lay down in the empty well where the wet-bar had once stood, found that Edward had tacked down a remnant of mismatched shag in it. He tossed me one of the two pillows he had at the top of his bed, and I caught it clumsily in the dark.

We could hear light voices occasionally, at intervals a scream, lapsing into music. I whispered good night to him, and he let out a long sigh of air. He told me to sleep well. I heard him stir after a moment, come up in his bed almost as an afterthought, lock the two doors he had had open. Sealing the limousine around us.

Edward was talking to someone outside. It was morning, my back stiff from lying in the well. I could hear his low voice, flat, declarative, and all around it a higher, confused tone which argued, seemed even to plead with him about some point. I pulled on my shorts and sneakers. I cracked the seal of the limousine door and felt hotter air outside: it could only be nine or ten o'clock and the temperature was already somewhere in the high seventies. Edward was facing a man of some six and a half feet tall, brown hair in a shapeless matt, a dirty black tie-dye, a braided leather belt with a long chain leading to his wallet. He had one of the posters in his hand, he was slapping it as he talked to Edward. I stood by the side of the car. ``Don't tell me!'' the man said loudly, ``don't tell me, man!'' Edward's face had set into impassivity, anger laid somewhere behind it.

Finally, the man ripped the poster into two big pieces and shook them out of his hands. He walked away with long, indignant strides, holding his head up and looking back, muttering, his face working in profanity.

Edward returned to the grill, poked the coals underneath with a blackened dowel rod. He sat on a small campstool; I sat on the blacktop opposite him. Edward looked at me and grinned slightly. His face was redder than I remembered, a greater devastation among the blood vessels beneath his skin. He chuckled, almost without any sense of pleasure in it. ``He thought he was you, that guy did.''

I blinked. ``He thought he was me?''

``He came up and told me that he was the guy on the poster,'' Edward said, twirling the dowel in his fingers. ``He wanted to turn himself in for the reward.''

I looked back down the row the man had taken. ``Maybe it was him,'' I offered.

Edward looked at me with that same smiling absence of humor. ``He's a kook. He's the third guy that's showed up. One other guy last night said he was you too. One guy wanted to turn in his brother, said he'd show me where he was at. At least this guy looked a little like you. A little taller and kookier, I guess.''

``One of them might have been the person, Edward. You should have checked. Because it's not me on that poster, you know that.''

He rapped the dowel lightly on the grill, scattering the ashes from it, and setting up a small ringing sound. His voice was closer now to actual amusement. ``Don't try your B.S. on me, kid. You don't answer a letter with somebody else's name on it. Come on. You don't answer the phone when it's for someone else. Unless you're a kook. Come on, you're sitting here, you came. You saw your picture and you came.''

``I knew you were looking for me, Edward,'' I said carefully. ``I knew it was you putting them out, it wasn't the poster. I would have come with any picture on it. I would have come with your picture on it, or his,'' I said, waving my hand at the row the tall man had taken.

``Sure,'' Edward said, picking with the stick at something dull melted onto the grill. ``alright. Whatever you say. Alright, alright.''

``I wasn't answering that poster, I was answering you,'' I continued.

``Then I guess I wanted some other guy.''

``No you didn't. That picture was the only way you had to reach me.''

``You're being thick, kid. Listen to me, I was looking for the person in that picture. That's why I put the goddamn things out. Period.''

``I know you were looking for me,'' I said simply.

``However you want to put it,'' he answered me after a pause, moving his head slowly up and down. He had turned inward again, watching the low fire burn, the heat from it rising in visible waves into the already warm air. I had the same feeling that I had had the night before, that he wanted to ask me something, about Sonjee. He was mulling something over as he sat, I could feel the sense of a question in the purse of his lips, the taut way he held his frame on the stool.

I wanted to tell him about the night before, and the monitors which had flowered into so many places and times, and had twined them all together in some new arrangement which absented Sonjee, which belittled her place in it all. I put my hand to the pouch beneath my shirt, to hold it. It collapsed softly in my hand. I could feel that it was empty. I yanked it out and looked inside. There was nothing.

Edward watched my mouth open, watched me look about my feet, at the space beneath his campstool. I went to the limousine and crawled through it on my knees, found it hotter inside than when I had woken. I could hear my breath as I turned the blanket I had used, shot the pillow aside. I pulled at the shag carpet in the well, looked underneath it, tried to press it back into position quickly with the heels of my hands. It sat awkwardly now. ``Edward!'' I called out to him.


``Did you see my card, my credit card?''

``Yeah,'' he yelled.

I came out of the limousine, stood looking at him. My heart was fluttering. ``Where is it?'' I asked. People were passing in broken lines all around us.

He looked at me quietly, and for a moment I could have sworn that he was daring me somehow, as he said it. ``I threw it on the fire,'' he said. The end of the dowel in his hand was glowing, a pale orange at the end of the stick, and he was melting strange little impressions in the blacktop. I could see plastic melted on those bars, now that I looked, traces in a rectangular pattern on the grill. I could see a gold letter S which had been protected by the tiny width of one cross-bar.

``It was laying on the carpet this morning when I got up, and I saw that it expired today,'' Edward explained, looking up from the dowel game. His voice was quiet and calm. He looked at me the way he had looked at the tall man who had come with the poster in his hand. ``I thought it was trash. Sorry.''

``It was good until tonight.''

``Oh,'' Edward said, sinking the smoking tip of the stick again. ``I thought that you didn't need it. My mistake. But there's food here for today.''

``It's alright,'' I mumbled. The melting blacktop was rancid in my nostrils, and I went back into the limousine, sat in the confusion of blankets as he began to police the area in a way he had of ending a morning. It was gone, after so many years. I had thought, at the very least, that I would have a chance to say goodbye to it.

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