Chapter Four

The Millennium Shows by Philip E. Baruth, San Francisco

In the morning Ella wouldn't get out of bed. She seemed weak, her thin arms pulling the sleeping bag slowly to her throat as though it were too heavy or too bulky for her to manage.

When it got nearer to eight and everyone who was going to shower had done so, and everyone was standing over the futon dressed and ready to leave, she drew farther into the blankets, her legs drawn up and folded to her small torso, eyes closed. When it became apparent that she was staying, I saw the others begin to exchange incomplete, confused looks, fragmentary glances. It was as though they suddenly understood nothing, could envision nothing. They stayed hovering over the bed with their outdoor shoes laced up.

Eric took her wrist in his hand, awkwardly found her pulse. Ella drew her arm back as forcefully as she could. ``Ella,'' he said, ``what if you're really sick? Don't be a hero.''

``I'm not, I'm tired,'' she said, her voice mellow, low. She burrowed into the blankets again, and I could see that her breathing was slow but profound, full. She wasn't hot to my hand when I bent and touched her forehead. There was no feeling of disease about her, nothing alarming in the tint of her skin. No sweat at her upper lip, no feel of sourness to her body. Just the sense of thickening sleep.

``She feels alright,'' I offered. ``No worry.''

``Thanks, Story,'' Ella whispered, and there was a tincture of sarcasm to the words. Nothing could have said more clearly that she would be OK. ``I couldn't have said it better myself,'' she added softly.

Sarah put out a hand and placed it on the sleeping bag above where Ella's abdomen would be, her bracelets chiming faintly. ``Ella, it's not your stomach again, is it? You're not having pains like that?''

``I don't hurt,'' Ella barely said. ``Go on. Go have a good time.''

We all looked at one another again, and Margery took off her waist-pouch and said that she would stay. She sat on the futon and smoothed her purple skirt over her knees. She touched Ella's cheek and Ella made no signal, but edged her head into the crevice between her pillow and the brown flowered pattern of the mattress. Tom suddenly set the tape box back onto its normal stand at the end of the workbench, and he pushed the play button, turned the volume as low as it could go and still be audible. He looked at Marc expectantly.

Marc, a little grudgingly, gave up the cardboard box of tapes that he was carrying, setting it down on the floor beneath the bench.

We all kissed Ella's white forehead before we left, in succession, and each in our own way. Protectively, sisterly or awkwardly fraternal, or for Lane as though the kiss were the last, sentimental act of a comedy. ``Good-bye,'' he whispered tearfully over her little hand, ``And may angels, et cetera and so on.''

When I kissed her forehead it was as though I'd put my lips to a cool window, beyond which was a slow, rustling darkness, and the dormancy of instinct.

The Skyways were clear, sunlight washing through them. At eight in the morning they still felt cavernous, they still rang empty although more and more people filed in from the ground level each moment. I could see them spiraling up staircases from bus stops. I could see full elevators lifting off like pistons, heading for the level we were tracing. But the tunnels were still relatively empty. The cool air inside felt like possibilities.

We came out of the Skyway six blocks over. When we came down the escalator and out the revolving door, the street struck me as dirty, haphazard in its litter. There were smells now.

I could hear the Dead playing. It was a studio version, smoothly mixed and flawless in the changes. The record store was only two doors down, and they had a sandwich board standing on the street: Millennium show tickets! Lottery applications available here! The Dead help those who help themselves! And then in small fuchsia letters below, stylized medieval looking letters: You give us the numbers, we'll take care of the rest.

Sarah and Eric and I waited at the counter, while the rest of the group drifted down through the aisles of music. Sarah carefully read through the form she was handed by a balding clerk, and I read it in snatches over her shoulder. It turned out to be a fairly straightforward arrangement: we filled out an application, and the record store guaranteed postage; they would send the applications out en masse at the end of the week; the Dead would send the tickets to the store in our name if we won, and the store would hold them in our name and charge a nominal surcharge. Sarah rubbed the tip of her nose, frowning. She waved the balding man back over. ``Don't take this the wrong way,'' she began, ``but why should we pay a surcharge when we can buy our own stamp, and mail it ourselves? I mean seriously.'' She said it in a good-natured way, smiling up at him, but it was clear that she wanted an answer.

The man straightened his glasses. ``Basically, the store's percentages in the lottery are going to be greater, since we're on a year-long list of concert ticket wholesalers.'' He was very blase about the set-up. ``We've got a little edge.''

``What does that figure out to in numbers,'' Sarah asked. ``I mean how much better would our chances be?''

The man looked at her and I could see that her face was a chance face to him, he was blind to the fineness of her bones and the thin black arches of her brows, or the long black fall of her hair. He saw only her clothing and jewelry, her colors.

He addressed her mechanically, as he would have addressed anyone else in the store. ``It figures out to a better number,'' he said very calmly, handing out applications to other deadheads reaching up to the counter. The serenity was his way of dealing with customers he didn't like, or respect in any but a limited cash sense. He went on, tranquilly, mechanically, ``Do you want a better number, it seems to me, would be the question. If you would like a better number, then it would good to go through us. We guarantee a better number.''

I was so absorbed watching him very, very subtly snub us, that I didn't hear Sarah say my name. She nudged my shoulder.

``Story, I'm talking to you. Did you bring your credit card?''

Her eyes were shining, and she held out her hand expectantly. I reached into my shorts and brought out my wallet. But before I could wrestle the card out of the leather pocket, Eric put his hand on my shoulder, took Sarah under one arm, and led us toward the door. The man at the counter had already turned to someone else. He couldn't have cared less.

``What?'' Sarah asked, when the three of us were standing on the sidewalk in front of the store window. ``What's your problem, Eric?''

Eric looked a little uncomfortable. He ran a hand through his blond hair. ``Ella just said to bring the application back. I think she wanted to read through it.''

``I read through it, Eric. So did you.'' She seemed to know something was up. ``So did Story. We'll bring back one for Ella to look at, too.''

Eric looked at me, guilt touching the corners of his eyes. He mumbled the words: ``Ella and I talked about it last night, after we got home. She said she doesn't want to use Story's credit card.''

Sarah's lips compressed into a straighter line, and she moved her weight back and forth on her feet as she looked at Eric, put her hands on her hips. ``What is the difference?'' she asked. ``We'll pay him cash for them. He doesn't care.''

A steady stream of cars was passing in the street, every twentieth or thirtieth car letting out deadheads who would run in colored swirls across the busy street. The sun was heating up the concrete around us.

Sarah went on relentlessly. ``You have to use a credit card, Eric, and none of the rest of us have one,'' she said, directing half of her remarks to me. ``You don't have any problem with using your card, do you, Story?''

Before I could answer, Eric put out his hands, made a gesture of clearing away. ``She wants to use Max's credit card, pay him a little to cover the trouble. I'm supposed to ask him on our way home. There, now I said it.''

There was a little silence, in which all three of us looked from face to face. Max was the man who ran the tobacco store. He sometimes bought small quantities of mushrooms to re-sell later. I had never felt comfortable with him. The mushrooms were nothing to him but money. I'm sure he re-sold them for twice as much.

I just shrugged. ``It doesn't matter to me,'' I offered, putting out a hand toward Sarah's arm, but she kept her eyes on Eric.

``What's the matter with Story's card?'' she asked him doggedly. ``Eric, what's the matter with it? Can you tell me that?''

``Ella just said she doesn't feel good about using it.''

``Why not?'' Sarah pressed.

``Because it just says Story on it, Sarah. Because she doesn't know whose paying the bill on it,'' Eric answered a little louder. ``No offense, Story, but it doesn't seem like you're the one who picks up the tab. That's all. Ella just said she wanted to use Max's, Sarah. She's just careful, that's all. That's the way she wants it. That's all I'm saying.''

Sarah looked at him for a few seconds, looked at me as though she felt that I had been offended. I smiled, put my hands flat in the air, shrugged my shoulders. ``Let's use Max's,'' I said. I saw through the window that Lauren and Marc were at the counter with tapes, pulling wrinkled bills from Lauren's waist-pouch. Sarah began to tighten each of the rings on her fingers, a way she had of ordering her thoughts. It became clear that she wouldn't let it go, that it had become important to her in the last few moments that we file today, and that we file with my card. She took Eric by his shoulders, looking straight into his face, gathering him into what she was saying. She was only two or three inches shorter than him, her brown arms and legs as long and as muscle-toned.

``OK, Eric. What about this? We'll do both. We'll make out one application with Story's card now, today, and we'll do another one tonight with Max. If we lose out on one, no problem. If we win on both, we'll take the extras and sell them out in California.''

Eric crossed his arms. It made good sense, but he was hesitant. He looked perfectly balanced between two principles in his mind. It was what I had seen with Lane. He couldn't break Ella's rule. He could hardly bend it. Sarah threw her arms in the air finally and said, ``That's a good idea, yes? Eric? Yes?''

Eric met her stare for a moment, shook his head and smiled: ``Yes. Jesus, alright, OK.''

Sarah slapped his shoulder. ``OK,'' she said. ``Story, OK?''

``OK,'' I said.

As we turned to go back inside, Eric stopped us again, and the look on his face was serious. ``OK, but we don't tell Ella unless we have to. Unless Max's tickets don't pan out.'' He was so serious, his face so like a little boy's on top of his large body that Sarah and I had to laugh.

``Agreed,'' Sarah said.

I nodded. ``Done,'' I said.

While Sarah filled out the form, Eric and I collected the others. Lauren had bought a bootleg tape from a Friday show in Miami Beach during the winter of 1989. She handed me the scratched plastic case proudly, and I ran my finger down the list of songs. Whoever had scribbled the names of the songs on the case had mislabeled one of them and reversed the order of the two encores, but I didn't mention it. Lauren was a fragile person in some ways. I asked her how much she paid. Four dollars, she said. I looked at the tape in my hand again. I was impressed. It had cost the people I was with that day in Florida five dollars just to park their car, and someone had broken into the car during the show and stolen their cassette player.

``You got a bargain,'' I told her, and she smiled and nodded her head, so that her blonde hair bounced.

``Damn straight,'' she said.

We strung out a little on the way back to the Skyway. Eric and Marc ran ahead, racing one another, their long hair whipping straight out behind them. Sarah walked beside me, playing with a marigold she had pulled from a bank's window box. She seemed different to me, but the difference was impossible to assess. A little less direct somehow, a little more polite. She pulled one of the tiny, pinpoint gold petals from the bud with the very tips of her fingernails.

``I'm sorry about that back there, with Eric,'' she said.

``I wasn't offended,'' I answered. ``I don't know who pays the bill either.''

She flicked the bit of gold from her fingernail. ``Well I don't know, and I don't care. It's not stolen is it?''

``No, it's not stolen.'' It was true. It had always been mine.

``Then when you hit the limit,'' Sarah mused, ``it will max itself out and that will be that. Until then there's no problem. It's yours and you're one of us, and if we don't trust it, it's like we don't trust you,'' she said, and every part of the equation was obviously clear and valid and abiding in her mind.

She touched my arm. ``And I trust you, Story. You're far too weird to be that sort of liar. Liars don't tell such strange stories.''

I thought about it. ``I don't think it's such a strange story.''

``Well, yeah, I know. That's because you're weird, Story. That's what I'm trying to tell you. But it's OK, I like it.''

She put the marigold behind her ear, the orange point of it glowing in her black hair, and moved behind a little to bring up the stragglers, Lane and Tom. They had stopped in front of a shop and were engaged in a heated argument over which of them had originally begun a game they had of staging arguments until Sarah came to collect them.

We all met at the Skyway, and now the tunnel was nearly full. We passed over the street, and I looked down toward the record store, the colored letters of the sandwich board sign standing out even at that distance. The glare made me squint. And then I saw the limousine, moving slowly down the street, slowing as it passed the open door of the record store. I saw what looked in the distance like a bumper sticker where one should be on the left hand side of the bumper, a Dead sticker. Just too far to be sure. The limousine was slowing, almost coming to a stop, as though the driver were searching the windows of the record store, or the light crowd of deadheads outside it.

``Edward!'' I yelled. ``Edward!''

I had my hands and face against the glass, sweating, tight as suction cups.


I felt Eric's hands on my shoulders, pulling me lightly but firmly off the window. Tom was standing next to me, shushing me. People passing in the Skyway had stopped, everyone was looking out toward the street in small reactions of fear and curiosity. Behind me I heard Lane's voice come on like an official recording, soothing the people: ``Everything's OK, he's alright, he's afraid of heights, everything's OK. We're on our way to the therapist's office right now, matter of fact. But it's OK. Everything's under control.''

The brake lights of the limousine came on, and for an instant I thought Edward had heard me. But it was only to let a refrigerator truck back out of a hotel parking lot, he couldn't have heard me, or seen the small shape of me in the miniature of his rearview mirror. The limousine pulled out onto Hennepin Avenue, and I thought I could make out a large, listless form at the wheel.

I turned to Tom, and he looked worried, his hands supporting me under my right arm. He was sweating, too. ``Are you alright, man?'' he asked in a high whisper. ``Fuck, Story. You almost broke my eardrums.''

``That was Edward,'' I said quietly.

Tom looked out the wall of the window, staring at the place where the limousine had been, now full of deadheads crossing at the signal. ``The plumber guy you told us about,'' he said.

``Yes. It was him.''

``Are you sure?''

I wasn't, but I wanted to be, and I said that I was, and Tom looked back down and whistled a low whistle, his breath fogging the glass.

For the rest of the afternoon, I simply followed them from place to place, keeping no track of the levels we lost or gained. My mind was with the limousine, and with Edward inside it. I made myself surer each moment that it had been him. He was alive, he was unharmed, he was free. He had a way of turning the car that I remembered, a way of letting the wheel spin free after a turn, while he accelerated. It made the nose of the limousine jerk slightly as he straightened the car out. I thought I saw that slight snubbed movement in my memory of the car turning that morning. And the more I watched the memory, the more colorful and pronounced that tic of driving became.

We ate small breaded things for lunch, a coating around some indeterminate meat, but I hardly saw the sauces I used for them.

We found another group of deadheads in a courtyard on the other side of the NSP building from our own Skyway entrance, and we danced with them for a few hours. They had a huge stereo box, one which played tapes, albums, and discs. They had also just put in lottery applications, and one of them -- a sour-faced woman of twenty-one or two, with red eyes -- kept up a running monologue about the Millennium Shows. The beautiful people. The gratitude with which the Dead would receive the album of clippings she was putting together. How the music would charm open the next thousand years like the top of a cobra basket.

But I could only move woodenly, without any real feeling but sadness. There had been a loneliness, a solitary quality to the passage of the limousine past the record store. He was looking for her, I thought. He had to be looking for her, and he would go on looking for her until the Dead ceased to provide him with an itinerary, a wealth of failed possibilities. He would never find her. By now Sonjee would be married, insulated, bearing children. I imagined him turning down the stiff coverlets of motel beds, watching a loud television for hours so that when he finally shut out the light, the silence buzzed in his ears. Spending in small denominations the money he had received from the sale of his plumbing business. He had to be looking for Sonjee, I thought.

We made two stops on the way back to the room that night. The first was at the tobacco shop, and we all drifted through the store while Eric spoke with Max at the counter. Max was a cheerful, thin man, with curly hair and horn-rimmed glasses. I ran a long black cigar under my nose, enjoying the dark scent of it, and Max waved at me to take it, made a sign that I should put it in my pocket. He smiled almost the entire time that Eric talked with him.

What disturbed me about him was the way he handled the counter. While he and Eric were speaking, he waited the counter as though he did not see his customers: he kept his eyes on Eric, smiled at Eric, simply pulling the money from the direction of the other customers and handing change back the same way. He did not see what his hands were doing.

The last place was a health food store, and none of us went in but Tom. While we waited, people with large arms and thighs went in and out, powerful looking people, hints of a larger race. Tom came out in only a few minutes with a brown bag swinging heavily at his side. He seemed very skinny and bespectacled and undeveloped using that door.

We turned to make the long loop through the Food Court, and while we were switching from a glass tunnel to a department store, I asked him what he'd bought.

``Honey,'' he said, rattling the big bag.

``Honey? All of that is honey?''

``Honey,'' he repeated.

Lane moved up behind us, sneakers making no sound on the carpet. He forced himself between Tom and I, playing jealous. ``I turn my back for two minutes, and you two are making with the pet names.''

We walked for a second, and then I asked again, ``Why honey?''

``Because we're making blue honey tonight,'' Lane whispered to me, and he and Tom exchanged looks. They looked like two kids whose parents have taken down the ice cream freezer from the attic.

``Blue honey?''

``Blue honey,'' they both said. Eric ran by us, his feet thudding in the tunnel, and Tom pumped the heavy bag into the air over his head and to the left, and Eric ran the pattern, found the bag in the air with long, unseeing fingers.

Ella was a little better, sitting up and playing gin with Margery when we opened the door. Margery looked terrible, the undersides of her eyes very dark, and the crown of her hair flat and somehow dirty looking. It was obvious that she had spent the day transfusing what was wrong with Ella into herself. While the others were heating some food that they had brought home, and Sarah was washing Margery's hair for her in the tub of the janitor's sink, I sat on the futon next to Ella, slowly lifted one of her eyelids with my thumb, then the other. She let me do it, her mouth opening involuntarily into an oval. Her face was slightly flushed. Her eyelid felt warm under my thumb.

She waited patiently, then asked, ``What do you look for when you do that?''

I considered it. ``Well,'' I said, ``I like to look at that little red ball in the corner. I don't know what doctors look for.''

She made a weak slap at my shoulder, and lay back on the pillows which she had piled against the stone wall.

``You were OK today? No problems?'' I asked.

She touched her short bangs, pushed them into position with the tips of her fingers, as though it had just occurred to her that they might be mussed. She shook her head, exasperated. ``It was fine, Story. You people are so unbecomingly worried all the time. Margery can make anyone feel better. You know that. So lighten up, please.''

I wanted, then, to tell her about the lottery application we'd made, to tell her that I understood her feelings and that I wouldn't be offended if they used Max's card instead. But I had promised Eric. And I knew without asking that Sarah would consider it a betrayal as well. It was a little heaviness on my heart, and I got rid of it by patting her hand, and telling her that we had missed having her with us.

She did not smile, but the small dimples appeared at their triangular positions, cheeks and chin, softening the set of her face. She looked suddenly more fatigued, and she settled into the sheets. ``Story,'' she asked, ``do something for me?''

Her voice had gone down just a touch, and I leaned forward to hear her. ``Of course, Ella,'' I whispered, and she nodded, with her eyes closed, head weighing increasingly against the pile of pillows.

``Stay inside tomorrow,'' she said, her voice pitched for my ear only. ``Margery will want to stay again, and Sarah will say it's her turn. But you stay. Alright?'' There was no hesitation to it. She never flinched when she asked something of you. She was always operating from need, need which required no gestured excuse or polite phrasing. I was surprised at the request, but I told her that I would.

``Good. Sarah needs to be outside. And Eric. And one of them would insist.''

``I will, Ella, don't worry. I'll stay.''

``Good,'' she whispered, yawning, her arms stretching out before her in a gesture uncharacteristically uncontrolled, her face contorted with the yawn. I noticed her fingers stretching at the height of it, fingernails like chips of mother of pearl, the small trembling that accompanied the stretch. Her mouth opened once more, sound barely registering. ``Tell Sarah to tell Margery. I'll tell Eric.''

She drew her hands down to the blanket, holding it to the top of her body. She was asleep, with her legs drawn up to her torso, tight inside a hollow shell of blankets.

It was a sleep like hibernation. She continued to sleep and wake throughout the evening, usually staying up for only a half an hour or so each time. We all spoke a little more quietly, did what we had to do but trying to make as little racket as we could. After dinner, and after Lauren had made us all instant coffee, we watched Lane and Tom put together the makings for the honey. We had the overhead light off in deference to Ella, but Tom had the one directional desk lamp clamped to the workbench, in addition to the candles. The light on his hands was dazzling compared to the rest of the shadowed room.

He picked some of the smaller mushrooms from the racks, scanning the bunches of them sometimes for a full minute before settling on a small, tender growth that struck him as right. Lane washed them carefully in the janitor's sink, patted them dry in a hand towel, handed them in small relays to Tom.

Tom would stick them with his thumbnail, turning them over and sticking them on each side. Each time a blue half-moon would rise onto the white skin of the stem in his fingers. Lane began to exaggerate the precision with which he assisted Tom, until he was playing a scrub nurse, passing the steak knife to cut the stems free as smartly as if it were a scalpel. ``Steak knife,'' he hissed, slapping it down. Tom tried to be stern, but finally shook his head and tried to ignore him.

The honey Tom poured into small thin jars that Eric told me had been olive jars. There were eight jars, and Tom poured enough into each to cover the mushroom cap and separate stem he had placed inside. The honey engulfed each of the brown heads slowly, dripped in heavy, slow streams down the glass to pool at the bottom. By the time he finished the last of the jars, the honey in the first had begun to stain a pale, pale blue, the very faintest water-color blue.

After a half an hour or so, Tom put them two by two into the rack on the inside of the door to the small half-refrigerator under the workbench. They looked like vials of blue dye in the brightness of the refrigerator light. The mushrooms were now only embryonic shadows within that color.

I straightened up. ``So we eat the mushrooms tomorrow,'' I said to Tom.

``No. We eat the honey, man,'' he answered. ``Tomorrow after dinner, they'll be ready. This way your stomach doesn't get upset at all. And it tastes good, if you can believe that. The honey gives you a natural sugar high that lasts you almost all the way through, too,'' he said seriously. And then he gave me a half-smile, as though he were alluding to something I missed. ``I don't have any doubt that you'll have a good time. It's fifteen degrees to the left of any you ever had before.''

I looked at the rack of them in the refrigerator again, the clinical look to the blue row of them. ``And what do we do with the mushrooms?''

Tom spread his hands, smiled. ``Take them out. Throw them away. We won't need them anymore. We only needed them for the blue.''

A little later we took the mops and brooms, the vacuum and the glass cleaner, and seven of us went through the building from floor to ceiling, cleaning everything. None of us ever asked for or were given individual tasks; we simply did them, with no overlap, no waste. Marc changed into coveralls to do the bottom floor by himself. There were windows onto the street, and in coveralls he was a janitor, less remarkable than dummies in a dress shop window.

I shined the yards and yards of wooden bannister. The lemon-wax I used made the old brown wood gleam brightly in places where the finish had not been scratched. I enjoyed polishing that wood in a strange way, I liked the heaviness that came to my arm. It was very soothing.

We emptied wastebaskets of paper one after the other after the other into a large upright canvas bag supported by a steel frame with wheels. Eric and Lane and Tom ran behind their push brooms. They drove the shining industrial vacuum cleaner like a sports car, its red cloth bag fluttering.

It took us three and a half hours. Then it was done for the week. The seven of us wound up the stairs in a tired, satisfied arrangement of ourselves. Marc left us on the third floor to go around the corner and clean the tall glass doors which opened into the Skyway. I snuck the briefest look around the corner, just a glimpse. I saw Marc with a rag in his hand, wiping glass double doors so clean as to be invisible, and he seemed in the even light like a mime pretending a job, pretending a barrier.

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