My sleep is always black and dreamless as espresso after I tell the story, perfect, undisturbed. I felt only once during the dead course of it the tug of consciousness, like a small child's hands tapping my face. Then nothing. Until the sound of water falling from the shower head and striking the damp, pebbled rock below it became integrated in my hearing, connected to the several smells of perfume on the sheets in which I had wrapped my hands, my face.
Lane was crouched behind the mushroom rack, his hand tensed in an odd way. His finger flashed into a big cap; there was an explosion of white particles, a cloud of them spraying for an instant into the air over the futon where I lay. Before I could speak, he had drawn his finger back again, turning the angle slightly to spray the shower curtain with the damp pulp of a second cap.
He looked over at me, smiled through the rows of boxes. ``Oh! Did I wake you?'' He laughed a little to himself, and took up the steak knife from the dirt of the lowest box, began rooting up the stems he had beheaded. He spoke very quickly and sharply, accenting odd words so that I found myself really only catching those words, losing the train of his talk.
``Sorry about the shrapnel.'' He gave me a cherubic look. ``It's just that it's three-twenty and I've been awake in here by myself for the last seven and a half hours, and it was either ping a few of these mushrooms or go completely nuts. You want to sleep some more? Fourteen hours isn't much to go on.''
The light from the skylight was muted by the silk canopy tacked to the ceiling, but it still seemed overly bright. I looked for a clock, and didn't see one until Lane pointed to a small digital model on a small shelf next to the door. I had a fleeting impression of countdown when I finally made out the glowing red digits: 3:21. Lane came around the side of the mushroom rack and sat on the tall metal stool, leaned his elbows back on the work bench. I sat up and began to brush the mushroom crumbs into a small pile on the faded yellow sheet, their cream color making them all but invisible. Only the outer brown fragments stood out. Lane watched me, with no appearance of remorse, not offering to help. I raked the small pile into my hand and handed them up to him; he leaned over, obviously not wanting to move from the stool, both of us stretching, and took them from my hand. He reached as far to the janitor's sink, washed them down the drain.
``Have to be careful of the water,'' he said matter-of-factly, turning the water tap on and off in a nervous, irregular way. ``Just a trickle here, a trickle there during the day. Can't take a shower or anything. God forbid someone should know that someone else somewhere in the building was washing, for mercy's sake. I'm sure they would have the police here instantaneously, if they knew there was washing going on. And I hope you don't have to take a piss,'' he said, shaking his head seriously.
He nodded and looked sorry, the heavy ridges of bone over his eyes lightly shadowing his fleshy face. His tie-dyed shirt was a blue and green spider web. ``Well, you have to piss a special way during the day. Nothing of the racehorse sort, nothing traceable. Piss only a little, then stop, then piss again for longer before stopping again. These are the rules we must abide by.'' He sounded like a flight attendant. ``Also, try to piss under the rim a little, and into the water a little, vary the sounds. Loose lips sink ships, as Ella might put it.''
I got up, laughing hoarsely, and went into the stall, closed the door behind me. The inside of the stall was papered with pictures of the Dead. Among them were lyrics written in grease pencil, and a number of warning signs which had obviously been moved here from other parts of the room. Please Wash Hands Before Returning To Your Workplace, two hands praying, twisting under blue strokes signifying water. Two faceless figures with round-shouldered bodies, locked in the Kiss of Life, Someone May Need Your Help Someday.
Lane called over the top after a few seconds, in a good imitation of reproach, ``You're pissing pretty uniformly, Story. You're pissing a regular homing beacon. Sorry to be listening and everything like that, but that's really the nature of this place, so you see it's only in your own best interest to achieve the proper effect.'' He paused. ``And the proper effect is complete paranoia. Ask Ella.''
I heard him laugh, then the damp concussion of another mushroom head, heard pieces strike the shower curtain and snap against posters on the walls. I zipped my shorts and went out. My eyes seemed to have a softer focus than the day before, and the outlines of objects in my peripheral vision had a delicate, furry quality. Lane was standing by the door, and as I moved to the futon side of the room, I saw that he had his finger on the clock's set button and was engaged in watching the lighted display build up to eights like glowing red box kites, break into nines, become building blocks of ones over and over again. Then he moved restlessly back toward the mushroom rack.
``Yes. Yes, I am,'' he answered, and his voice sounded hollow under the high ceiling. He looked down over the overdeveloped growths, and stroked one or two of them gently before choosing one. He sighted down on his tensed finger: ``Tom has it coming, don't you worry. We tried to wake you this morning. Or rather Sarah did, an A for effort but really making a poor job of it, and Ella tried her hand, hands. I think she even slapped your face a little bit. But you were immoveable, so someone had to stay to make sure that you didn't make off with the spores. Ella was very clear about someone having to stay. Oregon spores, almost priceless, I guess you know. Not to mention the clock, of course,'' he continued. ``The futon, too, you could have ripped that off.''
``Oh, Tom. Tom snaked on me by leaving the room ahead of the rest of them, knowing full well that either he or I would be the one left here. Tom likes being in here during the day with his mushrooms, and he knows that I have a problem with it. It's a little cramped in here, you know. It would have made perfect sense for him to have stayed. So this is what you might call punitive pinging. These things are like children to him. I will clean up the mushrooms that I have pinged and no one else will know, but Tom.'' Lane ran a hand through his glossy, seal-black hair, and smiled. ``Tom will know. He will imagine the pinging.''
He nodded matter-of-factly and threw the stem in the scrap box hanging from the rack. His eyes on the boxes were a little unnerving. I could see sweat shining under the rims of his glasses. Watching his wrist work, the beaded bracelet on it like my own, watching him awkwardly rake out the root of another stem, I felt a real tension. Lane was claustrophobic. I liked him better instantly. He wandered the room compulsively, twisting his hands.
I watched him return to the stool, leave it to sift his fingers through a pile of beaded bracelets near me on the floor. He finally sat on the floor, his large legs folded heavily beneath him. ``You mind if I ask you a question, Story? Are you still afraid of indoor stadiums? Did you get over it?'' he asked, involuntarily biting the skin of his bottom lip, an actor's way he had of stressing a moment's seriousness, sincerity. He had been an acting student, and a budding playwright, before a series of defaulted loans made him drop out, steal away from his name and his credit history.
``What are you doing here in the Skyways then, for God's sake? This place is like a hamster cage, it's like a Habitrail.'' He smiled and furrowed his brow, laughed. ``I mean, are you trying to commit suicide or something?''
``I heard about them in California,'' I said. ``A man I met named Daniel told me about them at an outdoor show. He said that they were built in such a way that people never had to leave them in the winter, never had to go outside.'' I shrugged. ``I thought I should see them. And the Dead were coming.''
Lane thrust his legs out, leaned back on his arms, looked over at the clock and seemed disappointed with the passage of time. ``The belly of the Beast,'' he said, nodding. ``To see if you can get used to it.''
He watched me begin to bead. ``A stadium's a funny thing to be afraid of,'' he said, and thought in quiet for a second. He nodded his head. ``It's like my mom, though, in a certain way. She stops on highway on-ramps. She hates them. She knows that they're for speeding up, for getting up to speed. I'll say,`Mom, just stay on the gas, stay on the gas and you'll merge,' but she stops at the top every time. Then she has to merge from a complete standstill.'' He shook his head, scrunched up his forehead. ``She claims every time that no one would let her in.''
I started to work out the shape of a yellow-jacket on the band between my fingers, a yellow bead, a black bead. ``Have you ever,'' I asked, ``seen a covered terrarium? The kind that are sealed airtight?''
``No inside or outside as far as the terrarium goes. Everything is either a part of the one world, or nothing. The water is recycled, the chemicals in the dirt, the plants are transformed and recycled. Things die, then they become other things. It rains from the ceiling of the terrarium. Nothing can enter the environment, it's all in place in one closed system. If one of the newts inside managed to smelt iron out of the dirt that had been given him, it could only be natural. Men aren't unnatural, and they can't build anything, technology cannot and never will be able to encompass something unnatural.''
I tied off a thread, snapped it with my teeth. ``Nothing more natural than the idea of a toxic waste. Birds excrete acidic waste every day, and if it falls on an ant on the sidewalk the ant dies, and an ant's worth of chemicals returns to the common stock. If we made enough of it to kill everything on the earth, it wouldn't be any more unnatural than renal failure.''
He was silent. His face twitched in a way that led me to expect a joke from him, but he was serious when he looked up at me. He hesitated. I realized that he was probably only twenty-one or twenty-two, more than a decade younger than myself. ``Can I ask you another question?'' he asked, biting his lip again, thinking as he asked it. ``What happened to that guy Edward? Did they put him in jail?''
``I don't know.'' I felt a sudden late-afternoon sadness. The hangings on the wall and the filmed skylight high above us seemed touches of meanness, squalor. I thought of Edward, languishing in a cell, imprisoned. ``They just took him in. Took him into the inside somewhere. Swallowed him.''
Lane and I both sat quietly, listening to the water in the pipes, the faint sound of bottled waves. ``They took the tape player,'' Lane said with disgust, and picked up a band himself. ``They might have at least left the tape player, so that I could have the tender illusion that I wasn't sitting like a mental patient in a huge empty room doing what could very easily pass for occupational therapy.''
We beaded two bracelets or so each, Lane throwing down the work every few minutes to wander about the room, to ask to see the credit card, to wonder over it for a moment, turning abruptly and flashing it like a policeman's badge before handing it back. Destroying another mushroom. Making me laugh by thinning and thickening his voice to create conversations between the nodding heads of the mushrooms. Arguments over dung rights. Thirty-second family tableaux, with Lane's heavy cheeks hollowed as he mimicked the female voices, jowly with the bass voices of the men, his fingers agitating the thick stems, and all of the time his eyes checking my laughter and the movement of the clock. He was claustrophobic, he needed people, noise. It was interesting; he wouldn't break the rule, Ella's rule to protect all of them.
We spent the last half hour before the rest were due back cleaning the specks of broken cap up from the floor and in the beds, the shower. Lane watched the clock for the last six minutes, managing a little in the way of maniac non sequiturs for conversation, balling the colored cotton of his shirt in his hands. ``Now there's a fine minute of the day, Story, that five-fifty-seven, that's a stylish one. So much more mature than fifty-six. So much more alive with possibilities. Have you got your shoes on? Come on, let's go, let's go.'' He started snapping his fingers. ``I'm going bananas in here. Let's go, kid. Let's go, Story boy.''
We were talking as we walked. Lane began to change when the dead building which held the room funneled out into the new Skyway, when we began to pass a few people in the carpeted tunnel. He stopped snapping his fingers, his voice dropped a quarter-octave. I thought his breath began to come fuller and more smoothly. He touched one of the long glass panes with his hand, trailed his large fingers along it as he talked to me, contentedly. When we came out of the tunnel into a department store and people swirled around us, he simply stopped for a minute and smiled, like a boy standing in a creek on a hot day. He smoothed his hair with his hand, pointed me toward one of the tunnels at the far end of the store.
Lane said, ``Hold your breath, man,'' and I came out onto a ledge where he was standing. There were twelve stories open in one long plunge, six above me and six below me, and at each level were small glowing storefronts and doors, elevators and tables with tiny far away staring people, the many elevators themselves were full of rising and falling staring people.
I had a memory of an Indian cliff-city in the Arizona desert, thousands of deserted black tunnel homes in the white rock, thousands of nesting birds whirling in and out with pieces of straw and grubs. None of them ever colliding.
Everywhere below me and above, people were moving. Every moving dot that came to my eye was in the act of acquiring some thing. They moved in the blind, wide, roundabout way of ants around obstacles, and my breath set up in my chest like glue. The muscles of my chest tightened, cramped. I put a hand to my heart. Lane wasn't looking at me. He pointed out into the empty, twelve-story space and said expansively, appreciatively, ``Now I think we're talking the belly of the Beast, Story. This is life indoors.''
The next thing I remember is Lane's voice making one sound, over and over like a single useful word of Japanese, ``Tsokay, Tsokay, Tsokay, Tsokay.'' I had fallen next to a small display of female mannikins in silk suits, and he had pulled me all but into the display, his arm tight around my shoulder, shielding me from the common gaze. I could feel the very cold black and white tiles against the dampness of my palms.
He whispered to me, ``Oh Story, shit, I'm sorry. I am so fucking sorry. I thought you could handle it, I mean I thought you'd think it was cool.'' I could sense his concern for me in the tightness with which he held me, but there was a part of him that was happy with the attention and the people we drew for a moment. He obviously enjoyed communicating to everyone that everything was alright, his brother was afraid of heights, reassuring everyone with a happy redundancy that everything now was fine, everything was alright. Just needed a minute.
The silk folds fell in front of our eyes like the blurred boughs of trees. Lane just talked to me softly for a while, waiting it out. He told me about the dimension of his debt, pulling a thread from one of the hanging skirts, chewing it like a leaf. His voice was meditative. ``Of course, if this had all come down a hundred years ago, my family would have whipped me for a prodigal son and assumed the shame and the debt, and that would have been the end of that. I'd have had a scene with my dad and his banker, we would have sat around in high collars.'' He smiled to himself. ``Maybe they'd have lost an old sway-backed horse or a couple of milk cows. But I wouldn't have had to go under cover. My life credit history wouldn't be ruined. I'd still be writing bad plays. Maybe I'd be in a television series.'' He patted his hair, smiling bigger, for the cameras. ``But it's total now, this credit shit. I have a warrant out for my arrest, Story, do you believe it? Look at me, you see a criminal? But everything is so personal these days,'' he said a little bitterly.
Finally, we found and ate some Mongolian barbecue from white styrofoam plates, and I paid for both of us with the credit card. The small thin wrinkled woman ran the card through an electric scanner and something somewhere told its light to flash green, and we ate all that we could of her food for a little over five dollars each. Lane was amazed. ``You just run that thing, and it's a go. Every time,'' he said.
Lane led me back past the twelve-story overlook with my eyes closed and my hand on his shoulder like a blind man. I didn't open my eyes until the sound of the water died in my ears. When I did, I saw that people were looking at us. Lane whispered over his shoulder to me, not unkindly, not mockingly, ``It's OK now, man, it's OK. You can look now, nothing's alive any more.''
When we opened the door to the room, the quiet conversation stopped and I saw that all of them were waiting for us. There was an air of surprise. I saw Sarah smile secretly at Ella, who gave a very faint shadow version in return.
We came in and everyone turned to Eric standing by the sink, who had his hair up behind in a leather thong, the sleeves of his shirt cut away to show the sloping of his muscled arms. He fanned a set of tickets out from his hand like playing cards, tapped them against Lane's smiling face. ``We're in, youngster, we have beautiful lawn seats.''
``No, since you actually saw the band,'' she laughed. They all laughed. And I couldn't blame them. It was ironic to say the least, following a group so that I could listen from the parking lot. Sometimes they hung speakers on the outside walls, and then it was better. Sometimes not.
They had two bottles of wine to celebrate, and while they were pooling the irregular glasses on the workbench to receive the toasts, Tom came over to me. We talked for a minute about the show before he lowered his voice, leaned closer to me. His face was lightly freckled, and I almost lost myself in that profusion of parts of pigment.
Tom nodded his head, willing to be satisfied, but still uncertain at some deeper level. He looked again at Lane, who looked perfectly wide-eyed and innocent. Tom kept his voice low. ``Because he's pinged them before, you know. I saw him do it once.''
That night, I heard all of their breathing, heard them slip individually into rhythmic sleep. I heard the whisper of the sheets against the bodies of Lauren and Marc in the shallow alcove, their lips making the sound of moistness. I lay awake and thought how glad I was that the show would be outside. I could visit the camps in the parking lot or leave them to go see the band as I chose. Outdoor shows ran like home video tapes through my mind, segments of one mingling with segments of another. I heard a difference in the breathing at the other end of the futon, and felt rather than saw Tom move to Lane who was curled in a blanket a few feet away. I heard their whispers, heard their lips then too, the occasional heavy movement that escapes a couple trying their best to be quiet and graceful.
I became aware that Sarah was awake near my feet, that she had rolled her body so that her mouth lay near my knee. I felt her breath on my skin there. I moved my fingers into the warmth of her hair, and that is what I remember before falling asleep myself: the feel of her hair in my hand and the feel of her breath against my knee, the warm circle of her lips just touching it. That, and a summer show in Boston, where hundreds of people had painted themselves with war paint from the waist up and roasted turkeys and boiled ears of corn in great hand-thrown pots, and where they had danced to the Dead until the sun went down and the only thing you could see were the lights of the helicopters.
The day of the show, we took a city bus to the lake. The sun washed through the rickety windows, washed back in shadows over us. We giggled and played the cassette player very softly in the rear seats. On the streets we saw deadheads heading for the lake, large trails of them sometimes, flocks of them. None of them lost. All of them happy, as only a day show can make deadheads happy, and their movements jointless, and sweet.
There were lines of trees outside the windows then. Maple trees and some oak, the open windows of the bus occasionally raking away a handful of leaves until the floor was almost covered with them. Margery and I collected some of the largest and the healthiest ones, and she walked, swaying, up the aisle to give them to the overweight bus driver.
``I would if I were hiding a name, if I knew some name and it was a secret. Then I would tell you and I think I know enough about you to know that you would keep the secret. But I'm not hiding a name, my name is Story. No last name at all. Thank you, though,'' I added, ``for telling me your age.''
Margery was still leaning against one of the silver poles at the front of the bus, swaying and talking to the large man driving, who seemed to have reluctantly accepted the pile of leaves and placed it to one side of his seat.
Ella checked her with a glance, turned her eyes to me again. ``Whatever,'' she said, brushing the issue away with a sharp movement of her hand. ``I only asked because Story sounds quite a lot like an alias, it sounds like a name you gave yourself. Like a name you gave yourself without even really putting too much effort into it. Also, I thought that if you did have a last name, and a lot of people do, there shouldn't be any reason for us not to know it.''
``Fine,'' she said. Then she smiled. It was a day show for her too, it got to her like everybody else. ``Because for a minute there I was very worried that you were bullshitting us like a professional.''
The bus hit a low hanging bough, and there was a sound of green leaves ripping. I said, ``If you have to believe that I'm a bullshitting you, at least try to believe that I'm not credentialed, Ella. At least believe I'm an amateur.''
She didn't really believe me, not entirely. She would harbor doubts. But she chuckled a little in spite of her suspicions, dropping her chin and dimpling, the way an ugly young duchess might with a suitor come only for her dowry.
Margery came back to the seat with enough transfers for all of us twice over, return gifts from the busdriver. She passed the handful of them over the seat-back to Ella, and Ella opened her leather bag, placed them inside. There were small packets of mushrooms stored in there too. I could see the watery white color of the plastic wrap. And there was a small, tidy bouquet for the band, as well, flowers she had gathered from a window box outside a restaurant in the Skyways.
Margery was looking at the madras material of her skirt, running the material through her fingers. ``He said about five minutes, we have to go around to the far side of the lake. That's where the lot is.''
Sarah and Marc and Lane, sitting on the opposite side of the bus, began to laugh. Margery went on, smiling. ``He says he has a son at home just about your age, or if you don't mind the wait he'll be divorced in about six months.''
We laughed, and looking up to the front, we saw the busdriver's fat face open in a smile at us, projected in the long overhead mirror above his seat. Lane looked up at the face filling the mirror and whispered loudly, ``I have a feeling that she would come to mind the weight,'' and the laughter grew and began to eat up the smaller conversations which had been going on, until we were all giggling except for Margery, whose laughter died quickly.
Ella showed nothing beyond a small rash of redness at her neckline. She was suddenly a young girl, all of her adultness dropped away. They all kidded her as if she were her age. But her face remained straight, she wouldn't smile.
It wasn't until the bus began to slow, and the others had turned to the windows that I saw her face tighten and I realized that she had been holding herself rigidly in check. She would not show it. But Margery had begun almost immediately to nod over her madras knees and to make the small motions of sorrow, and it was almost the very same thing.
The lake was perfectly blue. There was a wind over it, and small, light boats. A little more than a half a mile away from the parking lot I could see the band shell and the black columns of speakers framing it. The parking lot started where the bus had left us off and continued for that half mile in a series of stands and camps and men hawking food cooking on braziers, women holding out bracelets and clothing that they had dyed or painted.
Sarah began holding out her own arms, on which she had displayed twenty or thirty of the bracelets we had beaded over the last week. I recognized a wood carver I knew from a Utah show. He pulled his beard when I smiled at him, he did not remember me. There was Dead music playing from the band shell, a recording but it was loud enough to reach over the lake and I saw that some of the boats on it seemed to have anchored out there, waiting within earshot for the Dead to come. Eric and Marc, walking point, began to whisper the word mushrooms, mushrooms, shrooms and occasionally, though they did not direct their voices at anyone, someone would linger and Eric would reach a hand into Ella's bag and money would change hands.
At one point, a couple came by, the young man very short and dark and pleasant, and the woman taller with bright platinum blonde hair, and there was something in the mismatched quality of them which made Ella pass them a bag for nothing, a miracle, and Lane told me that she did so once or twice at every show. None of them knew how she chose. It was an instinct she had.
Ella sat on the grass and talked with those people near us, compared the colors of our clothing, remembered shows. I felt spectacular, and when the Dead came out, I went through the gate like everyone else and danced on the grass before the stage. It's always unreal, somehow that feeling of dancing before them. Men on a stage, fingers working, hair moving with the wind. They seem so unlike the forms they take in drawings and tapestries and stories about them. They really seem only men, two lead men and a band behind them. You see them standing on the stage and they pick mechanically with their fingers at a guitar held in their hands, hands like your own, and the music of the Dead comes through the speakers, as alive and as holy as you have ever heard it. You sometimes go whole shows without looking more than a few times at the men. It's as though they're mediums, as necessary as speakers but no more interesting in their physicality than speakers.
But it felt reassuring to me to see them stand there and perform, those men. For the last year, there might have been no Dead, only music, only followers for all I had been able to see in parking lots. The two of them there singing, one so haggard, so gray as to be a middle-aged man, his stomach bulbous beneath an Indian print and flesh hanging from his arms. The other slender and strong as a young man still, the boyishness in the music. And the two of their styles so known to each other that they played much of a show with eyes closed, almost wholly by touch and sound.
When they had cycled into a long, slow, introspective piece, I signaled to Margery that I was leaving and would be back. I watched the message relayed finally to Ella, and Ella smiled at me before closing her eyes again.
The parking lot was much emptier than it had been. Some of the fires were still burning, but most had been banked. White flying ash over orange coals. What people were still there were dancing slowly by their cars with their eyes closed or passing a pipe among the rows or lying on Indian blankets with their shirts off, faces covered with tie-dyed kerchiefs. They moved to the music even lying down. The lot was like a deserted camp, with only the crazy and the sick left behind.
I bought a vegetarian dinner, thick cuts of vegetable ladled onto sticky brown rice. The woman who sold it to me kept telling me as she poured gravy into the rice that there was nothing unnatural in it, it was all as wholesome as the earth, and before I knew it I was sitting on their tailgate and telling both her and her husband the story between bites. It just came pouring out of me. Her husband pulled at her arm once -- when I had gotten to the part where Edward pulled the on-board sink out of the limo -- and reminded her that they had to leave early to go to a wedding, a deadhead wedding in Apple Valley. But I caught at her other arm and she shushed him; she was interested, and I told it to the end.
I thanked the vegetarians and ran between rows of cars, but I couldn't see him. And then rows away I saw him again, the flash of his brown tie-dyes. In the whole of my life I have never known anyone else who wore brown tie-dye, and certainly not only brown tie-dye, as he did.
He had something in his hands and I followed him to one of the center pathways, yelled his name. He turned around slowly, the moody, sullen caste of his features darkened by confusion. He was a small person, only five and a half feet tall, small and sturdy as a troll. There was a dark crease in the skin between his eyebrows, a worry line. He saw that it was me, and he set the brown bag he was carrying on the ground, and hugged me. I had stayed with his group for six months once. We had understood one another.
``I thought you stayed in the desert,'' he said, smiling so that his eyes became small black beads. I could tell that he was as happy to see me as I was to see him. ``I thought you had some place in Reno that you were going to stay out the year. I didn't think I'd see you 'till December.''
We sat down in the shade of a camper, dust coming up around us. A man walked by and offered us hits from a blue helium balloon that trailed behind him as large and long as a zeppelin. Vector pointed to the band shell, the people massed there. ``They're good today. If they're this good on Friday, I can't imagine the Sunday show.''
And then I saw the small sores at the corner of his lips. They were open sores, like cold sores, a pale red outbreak of them. Vector saw my eyes fix there and pointed to them. ``Herpes Simplex, can you believe that? Over a year ago the doctor told me that having Complex had nothing to do with the possibility of getting Simplex. Not that I was too worried about it, you know. It didn't seem pertinent, I guess, you know, Story? And then about a month ago I felt this hot sensation there on my lip. Doctor told me the two things are totally unrelated, but I don't know,'' he said, opening his mouth and touching one of the bumps gingerly with his finger.
Vector had everything. That was the thing you came to know about him. Every sexual disease, they attached themselves unerringly to his life. His real name was Frank, I think, but I had only ever known him by the other name. He said that the nickname Vector was the only thing he had that he couldn't remember who had given it to him. No matter what you began to speak of with him, you always found that virus had come into the discussion, the truths of contagion.
When I met him, at a show outside of El Toro, California, he had just been told by a doctor at a free clinic in Los Angeles that he had genital warts, a condition unrelated to the Herpes Complex syndrome which he had contracted during his first sexual experience at the age of fifteen. The genital warts he had gotten from a sallow-skinned deadhead named Maria who also had herpes, and who, mostly for that reason, had become his second sexual partner. Vector had told me once, when we were smoking in the shade of a California palm waiting for the band to come on, that since he had two sexual partners and contracted only two diseases, he felt like he was at least staying even with the game. He was twenty-four then. I asked him if he was with his group now.
``Sure,'' he said, ``my new group. I met some people in Colorado, and they didn't mind the lip stuff. I didn't tell them about the Complex for a while, but they didn't mind once I did. Susan, one of the girls, rubs my back when she rubs anybody else's. No one gets upset. Of course,'' he smiled, pitching a dirt clot at a tire and watching it explode, ``no one comes sliding into my sleeping bag when the show's over either.''
He dusted off his hands. ``They've got drugs for everything, Story. It's a question of what works. The warts they burn off with liquid nitrogen. They'll come back probably. It all seems to come back, it all works on a cycle, outbreaks, that kind of shit. You watch the symptoms, don't kiss anyone while you've got an outbreak. Don't make love to anybody while you've got an outbreak. Even then, tell them before you do anything with them, and once you tell them it you never do, you know, do anything. Everybody lives a little healthier that way,'' he said and smiled, but there was bitterness in the set of his eyes over his grin. ``Fucking biology,'' he said, shaking his head. ``Fucking bugs.''
``You got it,'' he said, laughing softly, a little wildly. ``Penicillin-resistant strains of things, that's what blows my mind. In high school, our health teacher told us about penicillin and we thought the worst that could happen to you was you'd have to pay ten dollars for a bottle of it. Call some girl on the phone to tell her she was out ten dollars as well, that would be doomsday, we thought.''
``Stronger than anything,'' Vector said. He laughed suddenly. ``You should have seen that doctor walk in with that styrofoam thermos full of liquid nitrogen. Smoking like something a mad scientist would drink. That's all he could do for me, man. They have nothing you can take internally. All they can do is wait for them to come, and then dab this smoking nitrogen on them. I thought for sure he was going to tell me there was a curse on me, or that the spirits were displeased with my genitals and he was going to have to bleed me.''
I heard the Dead move out of the slow cycle, come into a quicker tempo, a melody with a lightness at its heart. Vector took a container of stir-fry from the bag and offered some to me. He opened a can of soda, sipped it. Small flies almost immediately began to circle the open box of food.
``The last option,'' Vector said, putting food neatly into his mouth with a plastic spoon, rounding off each mouthful against the paper edge of the container. ``We're not together. She was the one who gave me the Simplex too, you know. I'm getting a little unforgiving in my old age, I think, Story. She knew she had it, she told me after I broke out. She just didn't think I'd mind, since she'd told me about everything else. Since I had everything else. What's one more bug, I guess, was her reasoning on that one.''
``No big deal. We weren't all that compatible, really,'' he said, batting a fly with the tips of his fingers. ``Not really. We had one of the same diseases. Not much to go on. Not much in the way of romance.''
We moved with the circling shadow of the sun, talking until we were at the other side of the camper. Two of the people from Vector's group came by, and he introduced me to them, a woman named Susan and a guy who seemed to be her boyfriend. They squatted in the shade beside us, never really coming to rest and with something of light suspicion in the way they saw me. I watched their eyes go to my lips, quickly, checking. They shook hands with me, more formally than deadheads ever do. And too I saw that they did not fully enfold Vector, although they joked with him and were obviously anxious to know that he was alright, that he was coming back to join them at the car. Rather than touch him they gestured toward him, about him. Their bodies were a bit strained and their eyes rarely went to his eyes, but most often to his mouth, to his body. Like the eyes and the hands of a family visiting a relative in the hospital.
When they were beginning to leave, Susan leaned forward on her haunches and kissed him on the top of his head, her hands pressing his curly brown hair for a second. Vector closed his eyes as she did so. There was a little fear in that kiss, a little defiance, a little love and distaste, but I liked her more for it, and Vector swiped playfully at both their legs and said that he would be back before the sun went down.
``They seem like nice people,'' I said, and Vector told me that they were. He was leaving town that night because there was a huge house being built up north on one of the larger lakes, and through a friend he had gotten on the job as an electrician, under the table. He was a wonderful electrician. He understood not only the mechanics of it but the concepts. He seemed to think that he could make enough in two weeks to take his whole group back out west, and it was important to him to be able to do so, I could tell.
``Because we're flat broke now,'' he said. ``No way to get back home. The car broke down in Chicago, and a guy in a gas station there cleaned us out. It was a valve job, or rings or something. Of course, it couldn't have been the electrical system. Something I could fix. Had to be the freaking rings.''
We played foot-sac for a while. I told him about our place in the Skyways. He stopped and looked at me sideways and said that that seemed like a very funny place for me of all people to go. I told him about the janitor's shower and the racks of mushrooms, and how Tom tended them and had some special plan in mind for the Millennium shows. Something fine and strange, some way to sell them all, to get a little ahead for once. I asked him if he had heard anything about tickets for those shows.
``It's a lottery,'' Vector said, grunting with the effort of a kick. ``The Dead are going to lottery. If they don't they'll have people dying in line all over the country. They'd have people waiting a week in line, camped out.''
``No, they tried that a few years ago in California and the phone network blanked out from all the calls. The system shut down, it thought there was some overload somewhere. It thought someone was trying to break into the system,'' Vector explained. He took out a bandana and wiped the sweat from his forehead, his small, round face. ``You send them a postcard with your credit card number. If you win, they send you tickets.''
He caught the sac on the top of his sneaker, neatly, balancing it there. Then he flipped it up into the air for me. ``No,'' he laughed, ``no cash, no checks, and if they don't like the looks of your credit history, then no credit, no nothing.''
``Everything's random, Story.'' Vector stopped and caught the sac in his hand, and for him to use his hands in that game was unusual. ``I don't know about you but I would have a very depressing existence if I thought that there was any sort of plan to it, if I thought things meant anything. I'd start thinking I'd been singled out for punishment. I'd start getting all Biblical. The most comforting thing I've ever seen in my entire life was a compact disc player that you could program to play random songs from twenty different discs. Programmed randomness. That's what scientists should be doing with their time, instead of immunizing strains of bacteria.''
I heard the crowd inside the gates begin to shout for an encore. The boats out on the lake had grown to a tiny armada of sails, and they added their horns, the sound of them piercingly clear over the water. The sunlight was failing.
It was a long encore. I found the group, all of their faces flushed with dancing, and we danced the last two songs all together. Tom told me as we were leaving that Margery at one point had fainted dead away, and when they had come to her on the grass she had tears leaking of their own accord from her eyes.
She looked fine to me, her face a little milkier, a little whiter than usual, more striking against her dark hair. And she was cheerful: she and Sarah were like two high school girls, giggling and singing on the way to the parking lot, saying hello to people, turning cartwheels and handsprings in turn on the dirt of the lot. They drew attention, their height and long hair and the fineness of their features. A man gave them each a poem, rolled in scrolls, like diplomas.
The ride home was quiet, a dark ride. Margery and Sarah slept in one seat, slump-ed together, only occasionally bumping awake. It was a new busdriver, and I was glad for Ella's sake. She seemed thoughtful and alert in the seat ahead of me, and I wondered for the first time about her life, whether she had been allowed ever to be a girl or whether she had girlhood taken from her and adulthood, the perspective of old age, put in its place. She turned her head in the light of the tall buildings which had begun to line the street again, and I thought that she was turning to look at me. But she looked back into the dark length of the bus, searching there for a minute, before turning back.
We got off in front of the library. The fountain was off, but a pool of still water shimmered, caught the moon in its surface. The Skyway tunnel around the corner looked well-lit. It felt a little of home. Margery and Sarah walked slowly, still a little groggy with sleep. Ella and Eric were walking very close together, and I could see looking back over my shoulder that she was whispering to him and that he was signalling Marc to come up closer.
Then two other shapes moved into the midst of the group, two young men in T-shirts, and it was only when they had moved up beside Margery and Sarah and begun to talk to them that I realized they were strangers, none of us knew them.
I could see their day in the harsh looks on their faces: they were the sort who go to Dead shows to laugh and to disrupt, to sell things that they've stolen and to taunt people as they dance. They ignored the rest of us, although they seemed always aware that we were there. Their heads were almost shaved, only an inch or so of hair, and they were big-backed and small hipped.
One of them, talking all the while a running stream of compliments, saying them loud enough for us all to hear, tried to take Sarah's hand, and she pulled it back from him. ``Hey babe,'' he reproached her, laughing, ``don't be hard, now.'' He tried to take her hand again. ``I wouldn't,'' he said, ``I would not go being a bitch now, if I were you.'' The other one said nothing but pressed closer.
``What ever happened to peace and free love?'' the first said flatly, as Sarah wrenched her hand away. ``Whatever happened to don't be a bitch when someone tries to talk sweet to you?'' He seemed to know that there would be trouble from the rest of us then, and he turned, a sort of dreamy, mocking smile on his face.
I remember little of it. A memory like a memory of a fall, and a concussion against the ground; that rushed, that dim. I hit him once, his tooth cutting into the second finger of my hand. But I hit him only after other arms had struck him and feet kicked at the overlarge shoulder bones beneath his T-shirt. All of us. The second one of them ran off between the buildings, fully exposed for an instant under the bright light of the Skyway. All of us. I struck the heavy cage of his ribs with my knuckles.
When he was lying against the concrete, curled on his side, eyes open but moving weakly, at that point I can remember the individual faces of each of us. Eric still looking furious, a tear at the bottom of his lip. Lane's face turning to a sickened expression. The look in Ella's eyes flat, black, unreadable. We looked at each other, and there was a strong single feeling in all of our thoughts and in our faces: that we were alright, that everything was alright.
And in the middle of that realization, when we had moved a little away from his body, when he had sat up with an effort, I saw that Ella was still near him in the dark, and she drew back her foot and drove the pointed toe of her shoe into his back, at the base of his spine.
Eric ran to her, pulled her away with us, and we ran for the entrance to the Skyway. We left that person on the concrete. Our shoes echoing and echoing against the walls of buildings. We disappeared inside, all of us fanning out and taking different paths home.