Chapter Two

The Millennium Shows by Philip E. Baruth, San Francisco

The traffic woke me near six; a change in the sound above me from unpatterned to patterned, fuller, throatier. I heard the rush full above me, vibrating without any interruption into the old metal of the bridge, flaking it apart into the water forty feet below. The slow water oscillated with the force, pretty to watch.

I had washed my clothes the night before, with crumbling hand soap taken from the bathroom of a Shell station near the bridge, and I pulled them still damp from a large rock and put them on. They irritated my skin as I walked, they pinched, but it couldn't have mattered less: I felt like shouting, and laughing, singing. Somehow I could tell that I would be taken in. I felt the story bubbling inside of me.

I climbed up the embankment to the top of the bridge, and stood at the rail and let the air rushing off the traffic dry my clothes. I could see only heads through the windows, dark heads at that speed, traveling in the midst of a wind that dried my shirt and my paint-stained shorts in minutes. Horns sounded at the sight of me, some close, some far, unevenly spaced, the tone unmistakable. They were afraid that I might fall into their midst. Or jump. Pre-emptive warnings. They were defensive of the integrity of the lanes through which they passed. I waved at them.

All the while the wind from their cars passed through my clothes and dried them perfectly. When I walked away from the bridge, I did so without looking back at the endless duplication of cars. They might as well have been a machine installed to dry the clothes of those who bathe in the river.

I was too happy to worry about them.

The red, orange, and blue juggling balls were falling into Eric's hands. I turned onto Nicollet from Fourth Street, and the mirrored Skyway was like a long, rectangular television screen showing the brightest, clearest picture of the white clouds and blue sky behind me. Clouds whiter than the flash of a camera, sky bluer than the spots immediately following. The office buildings rising in front of me had their mid-sections cut out by its mirrored windows, had them replaced with strips of horizon, and birds over thin church spires. Below the cloud illusion, Eric closed his hands around one ball and then another, putting each back into the air over Marc. It was disorienting to me to walk on their level, to be their height.

I saw Lauren and Lane and Margery dancing in the sun beside the largest of the trees-in-a-box. I waved a short wave as I came in near them, I smiled.

``How's it going,'' I said to all of them. ``Beautiful day.''

Quicker than I had thought seeing it from overhead, Sarah came out from the shadow of the food court, stepping quietly on ballet slippers out into the light: Margery stopped dancing with a look at Sarah, who in turn shot a glance back into the shadows she had left. Ella, who I could feel but not see, watched me narrowly through Sarah watching me through Margery. The three sisters were wired-in together: triple-play speed and sureness.

Marc and Eric, distracted just enough by the slackening of the dance, sprayed the balls into the early morning crowd. Eric ran to recover them.

I picked up a ball that had rolled near me, tossed it underhand to Marc. He nodded and tossed the ball awkwardly in his hand, waiting for Eric to come back to the circle. His eyebrows were straw-colored, lighter than his tan face.

``Sorry about that,'' I said, pointing to the ball. ``I broke your concentration.''

``No, man,'' Marc said, shaking his head. He looked at my shirt, and I could see that the colors were enough in and of themselves to make him relax a little. ``We do that every once in a while to keep the suits back. Get the balls whipping and just let `em go.'' His eyes were still on Eric mostly. You could see that he was someone who had to wait for cues. ``You gotta be unpredictable,'' he added.

``Good move.'' I smiled. ``They'll run you over otherwise. You'll get zoned. They'll build a salad bar, or a health club or a bunch of condominiums on any spot you're not using.''

``Or a theme park.'' Marc spat on the concrete.

``Lord, yes,'' I said. ``And you will live the theme. You will wake up and find hundreds of people lined up outside your window, waiting to ride your life.''

``Goddamn right,'' he said, bouncing the ball.

I waved my hand at the business people we could see through the windows of the Food Court. They looked out the windows at us and through us, unseeing, chewing pizza and salad. Even the women wore ties. ``There will be signs saying how tall they have to be to ride your life. People will climb onto you, and you will go through your day with all of them riding on your back, screaming, holding up their arms every time you go over a bump.''

``And every time you whip your head around and look back,'' Marc added slyly, ``there won't be anybody there.''

``Just the smell of money and cotton candy and Italian suits,'' I said.

He laughed a little, adjusted the strap of his T-shirt. He was still a little tense. Only the music continued unaffected, a show which I had missed but which I knew from stories I had heard of it, and from bootleg tapes of it that other people had played for me. A 1991 show in Colorado, so hot that they used water cannons over the crowd, multitudes of people tearing open their shirts to be hit.

Eric came back with the other balls. He was even taller than Marc and broader, more muscular. ``What's your name, dude?'' he asked. He squinted at the sun.

``Story,'' I answered.

``Story,'' he repeated, probing a little. ``Like storyteller. Like storytime.''


``Like,'' he thought for a minute, ``like the Story of Christmas.'' He and Marc began to pass the balls again, slowly, easily.


``Like tell me a story, Mommy.''


Eric started to elongate the passes, reaching further for the balls, his arms spreading outward with each throw. They worked up the speed quickly, tanned limbs stretching. It was a show of strength and coordination. They wanted me to see what they were capable of, singly and together. ``Like the Story of O, like Once Upon a Story. Story of a Teenage Runaway,'' Eric continued.

``Exactly,'' I said. ``You got it.''

He addressed Marc, irony edging his voice, but an irony meant more in humor than in threat. ``Well, that's a wild name, for certain. Story. Wild, wild name.''

``You're right,'' Marc chimed in, ``a wild name for a child.'' There was a pause in which neither spoke. The balls reversed through the air, red and blue and orange, like thoughts passing back and forth between them, impressions and evaluations, decisions. I watched them silently. Their hands worked up finally to the highest speed, a binary, open-closed flashing of palms, as if they were signaling to one another. The sun was brilliant overhead, and they were impressive to watch. I couldn't help but smile, standing there.

Then suddenly, like a solution had been reached, Eric relented: ``I'm Eric.''

``Marc,'' Marc said to me, following Eric's cue.

I paused, looking at them. ``Wow,'' I said finally, shaking my head. They both turned slightly from the colored balls passing between them. They half-looked at me, inquisitively. ``Wow what?'' Eric said.

``Wow,'' I repeated. ``Wild names. Where'd you get names like that? I can almost believe Eric. Eric is just barely possible. But Marc? That's really strange. Like Mark of the Beast. Or Mark of Zorro. Strange name for a child.''

They smiled, gave each other a look: we deserved that. They went back to their passes, and I knew that everything would be alright. My name is always the first hurdle. People have to be able to believe it, rest comfortably with it. If they can't -- if they can't go beyond the need to know a last name or a belief that there is another, truer name -- then we go our separate ways. It happens more often than not, but with this group I wasn't worried. I still had the feeling of coming acceptance, half a physical sensation and half a hunch, like prophecy.

Lauren was kneeling by the tape player, sifting through tapes. Up close I could see that her nose was bent slightly, that it had been broken at one point. I knew from watching them that she was the one who kept the tapes ordered. She was the one that cared about the history. She was the archivist.

``This is a great show,'' I said. ``It was Colorado, I think. By the mountains.''

She brushed her blonde hair away from her eyes, hair the color of Marc's eyebrows. ``August, 1991,'' she said, shooting a look at Sarah.

``It was hot that day, I heard. I heard it was so hot that they shot water cannons at the crowd, and people were passing out and being carried to a big open-air hospital under a tent. I heard it was like 122 degrees in the sun.''

Lauren nodded. ``Somebody told me that they were shooting the water cannon in time to the music,'' she said. ``They syncopated it.''

``I heard they put food coloring in the water, Easter-egg dye. This friend of mine said they were firing big streams of dye out over the crowd. Big fountains of color, raining down.''

``I don't think so,'' she said, snorting a little, shaking her head. You could tell that the turn in her nose bothered her; she held her face to one side when she spoke to you, offered you a profile. ``I never heard that. Ever,'' she added.

``The dyes were semi-permanent, and people stayed red and blue and green, they stayed all mottled that way for weeks.'' She was smiling openly now, and I smiled back. They were nice, the people of this group, truly nice, all of them. Even their defenses had a nice feel. The collective air of them began to seep slowly into me. ``It all wore away except for colored rings around their eyes. So they call those people the raccoon people now. You see them hitch-hiking out west sometimes, or leaned over a stream, washing shiny things in the water. They get into your food when you're camping, unless you string it up in a tree.''

``What's your name, again?'' she asked politely.


She nodded briefly, went back to ordering the cassettes. ``I believe it,'' she said. ``I definitely believe that.''

I danced with the others without waiting for an invitation, because there is never any restriction against dancing to the Dead. But they danced with their eyes closed at first, because of my presence, keeping me at a distance in that way. All of them but Ella eventually joined in at the show's truly sunny moment, four or five minutes of high, open guitar finding its way above an irresistible harmony. I saw Tom's red head up in the Skyway, and in another minute he was turning with us on the concrete, smiling, eyes closed. It was a beautiful piece of music. Just before it ended, Margery sat down slowly in the redwood chips around the base of the tree, and slowly, as though wanting to resist before company but unable, began to hold herself and nod, seeming to pray. She hugged her knees. I could see tears passing her closed lids and catching sun on her face, tears enclosing miniature Skyways.

I was careful not to stare at her, to continue to speak with the others, courtesies. But I could feel her there.

Finally, Ella moved out of the shade. She stood and reached down to work a sandal strap with her finger, soothing the white skin it had pinched, watching me. She looked to Sarah and back to me, then purposefully away from all of us, out at the windows of the office buildings. I knew that she could see all of me in the reflective windows there, that she was inspecting me.

I felt a strange modesty, and then it passed.

Tom put in another tape, and I took that second's rest to do what I had felt that I needed to do for thirteen days. I walked over to Margery, who continued to cry quietly, and I held my hand out gingerly for a moment before placing it gently on the crown of her head. I kneeled on the concrete beside her. She was a larger woman than I had thought, almost my size. She had her face hidden in her hands, and I saw the odd rings lined on her fingers. Eric tensed, bringing the balls down to his side, and I felt the uneasy movement of the others around me. In the silence, I heard the blind shoes of passing pedestrians.

I asked quietly, ``Are you alright?''

Her eyelashes were crushed and matted. The eyes were slightly swollen, veined. Her part ran like a wax-white river through the black hair beneath my fingers. The words came slowly: ``No. Yes.'' Then: ``Not right now.''

In the mat of her dark hair beneath my hand, I could feel the sense of sadness that would come to her unexpectedly as she stood or sat or danced. It was an ineffable sadness. It was somehow funereal, shot through with a bitter, acid grief. I had a brief black impression of an expansive outdoor gathering, larger than any I had ever seen, the high night shell of an amphitheater ballooning out and filled with music that was become a dirge, and a press of bodies that was overpowering. All of those people shuffling and calling, missing an important part. I felt in my hand on her unwashed hair the music of the Dead, but altered, lacking in some pure essence, and painful in that lack. A coming sadness. Margery felt it somehow, this prophetic sadness, felt it for all of us.

And I felt an instant kinship with her. She sensed things through the music, she knew things though the medium of the music, and she had no more explanation for it than I had. She couldn't say what made her cry.

``I'm sorry,'' she said softly, looking up at me.

``For what?'' I whispered. I could feel the others watching us, still tensed.

``For crying. I don't even know you.'' She wiped at her eyes, laughing through the last of it, at herself.

I took my hand away, but continued to kneel by her. I could tell she was still resting, that she wouldn't be able to get up for a minute. I sat down on the concrete next to the tree-in-a-box, making it clear to her that I was willing to wait with her for as long as she wanted. ``Of course you do,'' I whispered back.

It was Sarah who asked me, a half an hour or so later, if I had a place to stay. I told her no, that I had been sleeping under a bridge, waiting for the Dead to come to town next week. I could see by her look that it was hard for her to imagine, the fragmentation of sleeping alone under a bridge. She held a handful of her long hair and combed her fingers through it as we talked, thinking.

``Wait a second,'' she said, and got up to make her way over toward Ella, who sat on a spread cloth, not appearing to watch me, poking a straw around in a cup of ice and wearing the face of a timid and bored young girl. Sarah began to talk earnestly to her. Ella's face showed nothing, nothing negative, nothing positive.

While I waited for her to come back, Lane and Tom came over to me. They looked like children almost, Tom with his red hair and glasses and pointy ears, and Lane just overweight enough to make the sleeves and stomach of his tie-dyed shirt bulge. Lane was rubbing his hands together excitedly. ``Your name is Story? Is that right? Have I got it right?''

``Yes. Story. And it's my real name. Honest.''

Lane nodded, Tom nodded, they nodded to each other wisely, tolerantly. Then Lane continued, smiling, ``But why I mean. Because you tell stories? You're a storyteller?'' He made a spinning motion with his hand. ``What's the deal?''

``I tell a story,'' I said.

He looked in my eyes, his thick brows knitted together, and I saw that he was not so nonsensical as I had thought him from above. He had a cannier, more discerning air. His face was heavy but intelligent, relieved by a lightness in the shape of his mouth, the changeability of his expression.

``The same one over and over,'' he guessed, smiling and revolving a finger in a short, slow circle next to his temple. He turned his head a touch, including Tom in the joke. Tom slapped him on the arm, but couldn't help laughing anyway.

I had to smile back. ``Yes, the same one. Over and over and over.''

``Must be a drag,'' Tom said, his voice mock-sympathetic. ``A large drag.''

``Not really. Most people have just the one. Listen some time.''

Lane considered me gravely, then pulled a pack of Wrigley's Spearmint Gum from his shorts pocket. ``Would you care for a stick of gum?'' he asked. I took one, Tom took one. We all three unwrapped the pieces, looking at one another, started chewing. There was a meditative silence.

Lane nodded, shook a finger at Tom a little didactically. ``Actually, Tom, he's got a point. Take my father for instance. He seems on the surface to have many stories. There is the story of The War, and there is the story of The Depression. The story of he and my mother Suffering as Poor Young People. And, of course, the later story of My Disappointing Him. But when you really examine them, they're really the exact same story.''

``Just different accents,'' I continued, chewing.

``Different accents, but all the same desperate cry for help,'' Tom added.

``Exactly,'' I said.

The three of us were nodding at each other, in high good fellowship. I could tell that humor was the most important facet to the world for them. They prized laughter. They would find a way to love a serial killer who was underneath it all a good sport, who enjoyed a good joke every once in a while.

``How's your gum,'' Lane asked courteously.

``Good,'' I said.

He chewed a minute more. ``That's good,'' he answered.

It was Ella, not really as though she wanted to, but as though she were enacting a group feeling she didn't share, who stood to brush off her skirt and nodded her small head once and made it alright for Sarah to pass and whisper to Eric. Ella made it alright for Eric, before he tossed me the balls, to select a tape of a concert from far, far back in the late seventies, one unmistakable in its optimism and energy. A smiling of the Dead, Sonjee would have said. It was Ella who made it alright for him then, as the juggling balls began to fall and rise in vibrant ellipses between us, to invite me to stay with them.

``Why don't you crash with us,'' he said simply.

``That would be nice.''

We took the hours of that bright Minneapolis afternoon by turns into our hands, passed them, never dropping them.

A little before six, Sarah and Margery began gathering us all in. When we had balled the blanket, and collected the tapes, I followed them to the Skyway, an entryway of double glass doors. Eric pulled one open, and five men spilled out quickly, talking so fast that they seemed to be using a shorthand language, and I smelled the sharp smell of conditioned air. For an instant, the door was less a door to a building than a vacuole entry to a living thing, and that impression of sentience began almost to sicken me. I pulled back, sat on the edge of a tree-in-a-box. It was a birch, the white bark broken and curled. I ran my finger into a curl of it and snapped it off, put it into the pocket of my shorts.

Margery knew I think, in the same dim way that I had seen the shapes of her sadness, what stopped me, and she took my hand off the tree and held it in hers. The others had no way of knowing. I guess they thought I was having second thoughts about staying with them, or that I was sick.

Margery tried to cheer me up. ``Story, it's going to be dark in a few minutes. Don't worry. It's easy in there. We have a lot of fun.''

I realized that my body had been tensed to the point of nausea only by feeling the long muscles across my stomach begin to relax, and my sense of them turn to fatigue. I can't explain the feeling to you: it was as though they were asking me to walk through the vessels and arteries of some living thing, something blind to those masses moving in sequence inside of it. And those masses blind to the living thing around them, encompassing them.

``Come on in, Story,'' she whispered to me.

Her eyes were still red from crying. I watched the tiny pink balls of muscle at their corners, saw them telegraph the heavier movements of her black eyes. The thought came to me that every eye I had ever seen had just such a membranous nerve packet, somehow exposed and invisible in that corner. Margery pulled me standing.

I couldn't do it, even though it was what I had come there to do. I was panting for breath a little. Tom and Lane walked in and out of the door several times, throwing their arms out and laughing, making a show of the health and ease of it.

``Story,'' Lane called. ``Look! Check it out, it's nothing. Kids do this.''

``You're going to love it,'' Tom called.

Finally, Ella began to fidget, and Sarah came and took my other hand. She and Margery began to tug me toward the door. Lane swept his hand out in front of me like a coachman. And they led me inside.

We were in a carpeted hall, silent. The carpet was extremely thin, red, tough underfoot. The only sound was our sneakers drumming a light bass against that elevated floor. The last sun through the tinted windows was powerfully warm, and it made me aware of the breath of air conditioning passing through the tunnel in a current some feet over my head. Outside the windows I could make out scuttling shapes in parallel Skyways, I could see into third story windows of office buildings.

The light was bright, indirect, feverish in some way. Men and women passed us in blue suits, brown suits, had recourse to watches, never ceasing in conversation, in the passage of information between themselves. Their shoulders tailored almost to right-angles, shoes pointed, watches, stout cases, heavy rings: a composition of thorns, marking the integrity of the body. They moved past us with only token curiosity. Eric walked point. As he walked he danced, drawing space for us. He made wide, swinging movements of his arms. We followed him, voices sounding softly over the sound of the air ducts. Marc jumped periodically, his overlarge basketball shoes drawn up behind him, to touch the delicate metal louvers baffling the florescent tubes in the ceiling.

The brightly colored line of us passing through the Skyway was like the turning and flashing of a Chinese dragon.

At intervals, the tunnel melded with shops or a department store, and we passed through white, white cosmetic departments tended by women with porcelain faces. They would cast a glance over us, offer perfume, which only Lauren would accept, pushing back her bracelets and the cotton sleeves of her dress to receive it on her thin forearms.

The floors turned solid, and our feet made no more sound. There was too much to see. Too much sought your eye. Departments with twenty television screens playing, and strong, discordant music. Thin models walking the floor, needing to be noticed. Luggage, leather. Tobacco, the leaf smell of the shop reaching down the tunnel. Marc shook hands with a thin man behind the tobacco counter, hidden by boxed Havannas. The man called out to the rest of the group, and they waved to him. He looked at me, smiling, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to smile back at him.

It was a strange environment, the soft, low chant of the air system and the glass walls separating us from the gathering darkness. Cars below us, mute. Airplanes that were moving constellations in the dark, tracing invisible maps above us. People passing, eddying past us with a shade of confusion. We came out in the Food Court and walked along a gallery overlooking pavilions of people eating an early dinner, at tables dotting the floor in symmetrical patterns. We passed through a cheese store shaped like a huge cask, filled with cheddar, Swiss, brie, and fitted with Skyway tunnels at both ends; a bank of offices, glass doors and discreet furniture. Neon directions visible up high in a square corner, universal symbols, figures with no faces.

We opened a door to another Skyway and I heard the labial seal of changing air. It was a true cross between a shopping mall and a space station: tunnels and stores, and man-made light and created air.

When we had been walking for ten minutes or more, Ella moved up from walking with Tom, slowly, avoiding people passing, until she was at my side. She walked silently for a moment, and I compared her to my imaginings, in which she had tended the sleeping bodies of her group. Her colored sleeves all but swallowed the smallness of her hands. Her hair was light brown, so fine and cut so close to her head that the delicacy of her skull was made something to stare at, to wonder over. Her arms and shoulders too struck me as small, intricate, ingenious.

Her shoulder blades pointed lightly at the cotton back of her dress. Her mouth was just too wide for the neatness of her face; the lips, which might have signaled a disposition to laugh in another person, escaped slightly the thin lines which would have matched her bones. There were hollows at her temples, small, deep dimples at her chin and the corners of her mouth. She spoke softly enough so that only the two of us could hear. She had a false diamond set in the center of a fingernail.

``What's your real name?'' she asked, her high voice filtering out any sense of question. It was clear she expected an answer. ``Your real-life name.''

``Story,'' I said.

She laughed a short, clipped laugh, and then asked the same question as though I had never answered. I gave her the same answer, trying myself to keep the intonation the same as it had been the first time, both of us eliding the fact of the other's


She picked with her fingernail at a green wristlet braided onto her wrist, nodded her head. The diamond picked up the bright tunnel light.

``Why won't you tell me your real name, Story?'' she asked again.

``How old are you?'' I asked back.

``What does that matter?''

``It matters as much,'' I answered. Ella looked to the carpet, to her sandaled feet passing over its designless weave. There was an imperiousness to her that existed in spite of her small body disappearing in overlarge clothes, in spite of overlarge, children's eyes.

She gave a small frown. ``Sorry to pry,'' she said, a little grudgingly.

``You weren't. You were being careful. I was prying.''

``Yes, you were.'' She walked in silence beside me. A moment later she quickly took me by the arm, pulled me in suddenly to avoid a cross-current of businessmen pushing through the tunnel, late for the same late meeting in an office somewhere. She moved over slightly as she pulled me in, keeping the same measured distance between us. She let go of my arm, looking down the Skyway, not seeming to have noticed the movement of her hand, her arm, her body.

``We don't go in together,'' she said, now looking behind us at an overweight security guard stuck up on a stool beside a men's clothing story. Lauren and Marc and Sarah took a side stair, moving down toward street level.

Ella followed them for an instant with her eyes, and I tried but could not see the pink muscles in the corners. They seemed all brown iris. You would have thought, to see her direct them all, that she was in her forties. She was so sure.

``We come at the room from three different ways, two or three of us from each,'' she said. Her hand began to position things for me in the air, and I had a sense of the room as an undescribed absence at their center. She was watching me form the map in my head: ``There's an elevator, a staircase, there's an upper and a lower wheel chair ramp.''

I saw, as we came to the juncture where the metal frame joined the next building, that the building was much older. The Skyway ran into the wood and chalky brick side of it awkwardly, as mismatched as an escalator set into a mountain.

``One emergency door,'' Ella continued, her voice quiet, exact. ``You can't use it to come in and out, it will sound an alarm.''

I saw that we had come to a dead building, one which had no true part in the gnosis of the pedestrian tunnel system. It was the end of the Skyway access. The Lumber Exchange Building: I could see the name reversed on a frosted door pane three stories below. We reached a staircase of iron steps. The lifts of them were tiring after the fluidity of ramps. Everything was quiet and old here.

Lane and Margery and Tom didn't take the steps, but continued down the hall toward a small, poorly illuminated sign that could barely say Exit. Tom's orange hair disappeared last in the bad light. Eric and Ella and I climbed slowly four flights of the iron stairs, and I felt my body relax completely at the isolated, disparate messages in the graffiti, the calming disconnectedness of the various inks.

We came to a floor with three offices near the front stairway, a realtor, an actuary, a design consultant. I could feel the multitude of plans and statistical pictures flattened into the filing cabinets standing beyond the wood-and-glass doors. Even that whisper of vivification quieted as we passed toward the back of the building, toward an exit door secured with a chain and a rusted combination lock. Over the door was an air vent, dusted over, out of use.

Ella stopped me with a hand on my arm just below my sleeve. Her fingers were cool, white against the rose sunburn of my skin. The light was weak, drifting from a single bulb over the outer office doors. There was a shadow over Eric's face, the first I had seen since we came into the Skyway. He stood oddly straight in his hanging shirt and shorts. His face had that urgency I had seen on the street, when a bad arc of the foot-sac required him to cut it out of the air with his foot, to take it with his foot inches from the face of a man passing. The subordination of everything to the principle of action. On automatic, working without his own awareness or conscience. He was stiff as a soldier.

Ella held my arm. ``Don't let anyone see you come in or out. If you aren't off this floor by eight in the morning, then you have to spend the day in the room. Even five minutes past, that's a rule that all of us follow. Those office people leave by five, but wait 'till six if you're coming back here, or to leave for outside.''

``Out by eight, in at six, otherwise spend the day in the room,'' I said, again seeing Eric fixed, intent on the words leaving my mouth.

She dropped her hand, and the sunburn on my arm warmed where her cool hand had been. She turned to a blank door beside the chained exit. A door without any logical connection to anything. It was the sort of odd door which old buildings have, always locked. She opened it and I saw candlelight and heard the Dead playing, very quietly, a murmur, as though from levels and long hallways away.

They were in there, as they could have been only in a dead building. Marc's father had been the janitor until he wrenched his back, and now Marc had the job. Like some hereditary living, passed to an eldest son. They were in there: a long, high custodian's workroom, old hag-head mops secured on the walls, and at the far end a vast stone shower, pebbled and harsh to the touch, rough cut without tile, where a succession of old janitors had once washed off paint and ammonias. I heard water raining off the black plastic shower curtain. A metal stall stood next to the shower, the institutional blue of its door painted over in a thousand colors, bright specks of white and robin's egg blue, red giving over to orange, like the accidental mingling of a palette, only the faces of the Dead recognizable in the swirling. There was a sink standing on sharp metal legs. Lauren and Marc sat on a plump sleeping bag fitted into a hollow in the wall where an inset cabinet had once stood.

They had hung blankets on the wall, Navaho, Salvadoran, Ethiopian, and defused the strong overhead light with an expanse of colored silk, which hung from tacks at the four corners of the ceiling. I saw a dull iron ladder bolted to the brick wall which went up past the silk to the outline of a skylight.

Tom and Lane and Margery were resting on an oversized futon mattress that covered most of the right side of the room. They were passing a small onyx pipe between them, something overly casual in their mannerisms with it, a determination to be natural. At the side of the shower opposite the stall was a bank of water-stained wooden boxes, floor to ceiling, and I could see small dark brown shapes rising irregularly within them.

I walked closer, edging around some small pillows which had fallen from the futon. Mushrooms. Their caramel-colored heads poked up over the wet wood, and there was a faint smell of clay dirt and rotten wood chips. Some of the caps were fully flared, fleshy umbrellas, others small and solemn in the dark mulch. It was an amazing sight, the rows of them crowded together in the boxes, twining over one another, groupings of them thick in spots and entirely absent in others.

Tom stood up, came to my side, looking at the beds of them over my shoulder. I knew that he was the keeper of them, without asking. He had a wonder of them and a need for approval in his voice.

``They're amazing, aren't they?'' he asked. ``They love it in here. The ceiling has a crack in it up over the top of the rack, sometimes it rains right down on them and I don't even have to spray them.''

``They're bigger than any I've ever seen,'' I said. I reached out and took the largest growth between my fingers, one standing a full inch over the shallow side of the box bed. It bruised under my touch, staining its own white stem and my fingers a purplish blue.

Tom spoke softly. ``That's how you know they're psilocybin mushrooms, that and the spore pattern. The Indians dyed with them.''

He reached by me and pulled it from the dirt. He took up a small steak knife stuck into the dirt of one of the lower boxes and cut the bottom part of the stem off, sliced the cap free and handed it to me. His wire-rimmed glasses gave him the air of a technician.

``They're more potent wet,'' he explained. The cap filled the palm of my hand. From the way he held the knife, the easy turn of it in his hand, I could see the hours he had in the dark beds, spraying water over them, tilting the nozzle upwards so that the water would fall softly like rain, bringing fresh wood chips to feed them. Hours alone in the room, tending their mute, pallid growth. They were his children. I hesitated, looking at the big cap, the wheeled segmentation of its underside, perfect as a ventilation fan.

Tom began to cut more caps, tossing the stems in a metal tray he had fixed to the side of one of the boxes. He looked up and noticed that I hadn't eaten the one he had given me yet.

``The spores come from Oregon,'' he said as though in encouragement. ``My sister lives there on a farm, they grow wild in the field.''

Lane walked over with his hands out like a beggar, went away with a big cap filling them. The rest caught theirs where they sat, reaching out their hands for them, Lauren dropping hers and taking it to the tub-like janitor's sink to wash it. The water of the shower stopped suddenly, and after a short pause Sarah came out with a towel wrapped around her, her thick dark hair dripping and hanging down her back.

Tom tossed her a mushroom and she took a hand from the towel, caught it easily, popped it into her mouth. She avoided looking in my direction until the bad taste of it struck her, and she made a face at me, grimacing, smiling, grimacing. She took some clothes from a pile folded near the bed, and went into the stall; I heard the small metal lock on the door click over the drums of the Dead. They had the tape box stuck up on a metal stool, the cord ran up the stone wall to a large industrial plug.

Eric brought me a beer from a small refrigerator they had plugged in beneath a work bench. He seemed more relaxed now, not on guard, and he began unlacing his long tennis shoes. ``Do you want a shower? You can only shower at night, because the pipes go down all five floors and some of the lower floors come to work earlier than this one. We're the only ones in the building now.''

``I'm fine,'' I said, and I knew that what he said was true. The building felt perfectly lifeless around me.

He took a drink of his own beer, looked as though he had something to ask but thought better of it, caught my eye and asked anyway.

``Do you have any stuff, or anything? Do you have a suitcase? I mean, you seem like you don't have any stuff.'' He threw his shoes over by the door, and they thudded separately against the wood floor. Ella hissed his name from the corner in reproach.

``At the bus station,'' I answered. ``I didn't want to be carrying it around.''

He looked satisfied, nodding his head, and I sensed rather than heard pauses in the several other soft conversations in the room, pauses to hear my answers. He looked at me and then laughed. ``Do you not eat mushrooms? You don't have to, you know. Ella doesn't. It's not a big deal. Or you can save it for another time, I mean. Whatever.''

I saw that I still had the cap sitting in my cupped hand. ``Actually, I was wondering if you had something to drink. I can't get them down without something to drink.''

A blue and red can was passed from the refrigerator -- ``Pepsi, Pepsi, Pepsi'' everyone said each time it changed hands -- across the futon to me. Ella watched me from the far end of the futon, quietly beading a bracelet with black and blue beads run on red thread. I ate the cap in two large bites, a rarity.

``Good, huh?'' Tom asked.

``Yes, Tom,'' Lane answered in a weary voice, ``they're just top notch, and we're all forever in your debt for growing them. We are eternally grateful, and in case we forget to remind you over and over of it, please accept our undying thanks now and forever. Jesus.''

As I was washing the last of the pulp down my throat, Ella turned her eyes back to her beading, as though she had had a question answered. She tied off the thread, and passed the bracelet down the futon to me. Eric finally handed it to me, and I saw a similar one on his wrist, knotted on in such a way that it could only wear off or be cut. I didn't ask. I just tied it on.

We lay on our backs and looked at the light through the silk, watching the blue after-effects of the glare until Lane got up and turned the overhead off. Then there was only the sequence of candles, standing all around me in the darkness of the room, some on the workbench, others in holders drilled into the walls at different heights. We lay on the futon and any true perception of the limbs next to my own faded into a sense of warmth, acceptance. I knew that Sarah had the top of her head near the top of my own; I could feel the dampness of her hair on my scalp. My side ran for a little ways flush with the side of someone else, my leg crossed the ankle of another leg. Only the voices stood out. Soft, cloistered voices. Hushed in a way that became habitual inside the room.

We talked about the concerts coming up the following week, plans were made to find me a ticket, and I asked if the shows would be held inside or out. But no one could say. We talked about the Millennium shows, only several months away, the passing of the millennium with the Dead. The Dead hold New Year's shows every year, and they are always some of the best. But this year New Year's was also the end of a decade, a century, the end of a thousand years, and the beginning of another. I had heard people talking about them for almost five years.

I was the only one who had been to the foothills of Southern California, where those shows would be held. I told them what I had heard about the miles-long pavilion being constructed for it, the way a vast parking lot had been ironed out of hilltops overlooking the ocean. That heavy machines were scrabbling over the tan emptiness of it even as we spoke. Grass rolled down in carpets and stitched together. Blacktop sealing it all like a tough, watertight skin.

We talked about the moment in which the thousand-year mark would be reached, passed, and how the first, unchangeable figure in the date would transform, click ahead one notch. To Margery it was incredible that we would live to see it, because since the birth of Jesus, only two other generations had seen such a thing, and it would be us, of all possible people. Lane spoke reverently of a state called hyper-inflation, an economy of spiraling wages which would effectively negate existing debt, when wages would dwarf debts incurred under the old economic system, when people would be able to start over again.

Marc said that was wishful thinking; we would be exactly the same, nothing would change in that instant. It was a man-made point like any day on the calender, not a natural phenomenon. But Sarah, her voice vibrating through my skull, said that companies would use it as though it meant something, that they would save their most fantastic products and developments for that moment, so that a man-made moment would be made by men into a natural wonder.

With my hands beneath my head and my eyes closed, I felt the story coming to me. I felt all of the details flowering in my mind in vibrant linear patterns, and the words restoring themselves to my memory. I saw Edward as clearly as if he were in the room with me, his stubble standing on his fleshy chin. I saw Sonjee's face again as if it were the first time, leaning over me in worry.

And I knew before she spoke the words that Ella would speak from the quiet corner where she had drawn up to sleep. I knew how her voice would fill the silence left by our fading voices. Her voice did come then, and it was melodious, for the first time that day truly gentle.

``Didn't you say that you had a story to tell, Story? Tell us a story, make us laugh,'' she prompted me.

Lane and Tom gave a whispered cheer, ``A story! A story!''

A soft giggle ran over the bodies on the futon, the teasing of family. I laughed too, a little, and sat up and crossed my legs, feeling the sudden heaviness of my head on my shoulders. I opened my eyes. I waited until I had my balance in the dark, until the spots cleared from my vision. I heard water dripping in the shower, slower, slower. They were all silent.

``This is the story of Edward and Sonjee,'' I said quietly.

I told it to them in shows, the way I always remember it.

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