Most mornings we would ripple into consciousness, like lights coming on in series. Usually Lauren would wake up first, her head hurting from the old injury to her nose, and she would sit up in her torn, faded pink underwear, her T-shirt crumpled and warm-looking over her slow-moving chest. Tilt her head back to ease the pressure in her sinuses. Massage her scalp with her hand, revealing dark inches at the roots of her blonde hair. I would get an impression, from nowhere, of not only the pain, but the surprise she had felt when that old boyfriend broke her nose, surprise that a deadhead would rage.
That morning I did not come awake when someone moved blindly against me, or when the shower came on, the high-pressure water slapping the black shower curtain. Tom turned on the tape player very, very low, the morning volume. And still I didn't come awake.
I was dimly aware of all of it, but I was half-dreaming. I was smelling blacktop, fresh, semi-liquid blacktop as it steams out of small trucks that carry it slowly along, while workers shovel it out and a man behind with a thin headset steamrollers it down. The black, sulphurous, poison smell of it, burning the soft inside of my nose. I felt keys under my fingers, spring-loaded keys falling and rising under the pads of my fingers. My fingers were directing the blacktop trucks somehow. It was a dream I had a lot. My fingers as I slept were full of the typing feel of keys.
That smell of blacktop, and the feel of the earth being sealed forever joined in my half-dream, and I felt sweat stand on my forehead and gasped and opened my mouth to scream, but then there was a cool hand across it.
I lay back, my chest moving slower. Tom rolled over, lifted up on his elbows, squinting without his glasses. He stuck his tongue out at me. ``Fuck you, man,'' he said, and he fake-spit beside me. ``See if you get any honey tonight, honey,'' he added, getting to his feet.
Tom headed for the stall, whispering back at me. ``You said you didn't know if he did or not, which was an out and out lie. He pinged `em, and you knew it, and I knew it, I just wasn't positive until he told me.''
``Sorry Storyman,'' Lane whispered, sitting up with a sheet gathered around him, holding it together at the center of his large, pink chest. He looked oddly Roman, his black hair bent awkwardly back over his forehead from sleeping on it. ``Tom was getting a little uppitty last night, giving me the line about his record-breaking strain of mushrooms. So I said their hang time could be better, and he asked me what I meant, and I said hang time, you know, like punting a football, and, well, you know how he is, Story. He took it badly. He's a morally sound person.''
``At the risk of sounding like my mother,'' Lane said sternly, one fist on his hip, ``if I told you to jump off a bridge, would you? Would you, Story?'' He got up, giggling, and dragged the sheet like a train behind him, all the way across the cold stone floor to the shower. Sarah saw him dragging it, and the dust it was plowing up, and she slapped him hard on the butt. He picked the sheet up with his free hand. I was still wondering about it. I knew I would jump if Ella asked. But then again, any of us would.
She was still sleeping. When everyone was almost ready to go, Sarah stood beside the bed, nudged me with her sandaled foot. ``Hey,'' she said, ``let's show a little speed. We have to be out of here by eight.''
``Ella asked me to stay here today,'' I answered, and as I did so, I saw Sarah's face slide into puzzlement, her lips purse, her forehead wrinkle. I sensed a disappointment. She turned around to Eric. ``I thought you were staying with her.''
Sarah smiled very quickly, a large, perfect smile. ``OK. Cool. That's cool. We'll see you tonight. If you need anything for her, there's a whole bag of aspirin and cough syrup and stuff in the closet, on the top shelf.''
They left the music playing quietly, and I brought the box from the workbench and plugged it into the wall near where Ella slept. I turned down the bass so that it wouldn't drive its way into her dreams.
I made chicken soup for her lunch. I used a can of it, and chopped fresh onion into it, crushed some garlic and beat it into the boiling broth. I looked in the small refrigerator, avoiding the cool blue stare of the olive jars of honey, and found some sweet basil that Lane had used for Bloody Marys some indeterminate time ago.
I made a peanut butter sandwich, sliced a black, spotty banana onto the brown paste, cut the sandwich diagonally and put it on a paper plate. I poured a glass of milk. Then I carried it all one item at a time to the futon, walking as slowly as a zombie with the full bowl of soup balanced in my two hands. I set it up on the floor next to Ella.
She opened her eyes and focused on the reverse pyramid of lunch in front of her, the soup steaming only a few inches from her nose. She closed her eyes again, and her breath hissed out of her chest as she began to sink to the futon again. But before I could nudge her again, she started almost fully awake, and sat up quickly, blinking in the light. Like an infant, she looked again at the food and reached out and took a half of the sandwich in her hand. She held it for a second, straightening the shoulder of her T-shirt with her other hand, and bit the sandwich tentatively. She swallowed. ``Banana,'' she said, taking another bite.
She nodded, continued to eat. When she had begun to blow on the soup, and to take medium-sized bites of the sandwich, I got up to water the mushrooms. Tom showed me how the first or second day I was with them, and I reached first into the shower and connected the sprayer. It was a small black plastic gun, identical to the ones that fit into the holsters of ordinary sinks, but it had a long, long cord, which Tom had altered to couple with the small nozzle of the shower. I turned on the water just a bit, and small streams of water shot out of tiny leaks in the seal. I thought what a finer, fuller job of it Edward would have made.
She seemed still a little too tired to be embarrassed; she would normally have been embarrassed. I watched her settle back on the cushions, relaxing, but staying upright. Her voice sounded thin from across the room.
``Lauren told me. She's bringing you some more tonight, that was the last. Act surprised, though. I wasn't supposed to tell you.'' I kneeled down to do the bottom rack, stretching my arm in over it to wet the dirt packed under the far edge of the box. Dust balls moved away from my shuffling knees, and my back began to knot. When I straightened up and could again see Ella through the stacked boxes, she had a few pieces of white paper in her hands, shuffling them, looking at one after the other, so quickly that they could only be copies of the same page. She saw me looking and turned them to me. There was a still, patient look on her delicate face.
Even from across the room, I knew that picture. It was the same that Edward had found. And it did look something like me, vaguely. Even xeroxed, in black and white. Even altered and deformed by having come through a lineage of copies made from copies, each one of which had strayed further from the original image. I should have guessed that that was why she wanted me to stay with her.
I came out drying my hands on my pants and sat down on the futon. Ella handed me the three posters, still with no discernible expression on her face. She did not look as tired now. She seemed brighter about the eyes. There was something less lazy about her posture, her breath was even and strong.
They were the same that I had found, that Edward had found: a Los Angeles number to call with information, an offer of reward, a hair color. They were blurrier, that was the only difference. Poorer, later copies in a series.
Ella spoke, her voice even, surprisingly deep. ``Eric found them at the lake show. I asked him to look after you told us that story. He said that they were close together, just these. He said it looked as though whoever put them up wasn't trying very hard to spread them around.''
I remembered the first concerts in California where I had seen them posted, on walls and on camper sides: they had been everywhere. I'd begun to collect them out of curiosity, and to stop the comments from people at the shows, who would ask me if the picture were really me, if they could collect the reward, if I would help see that they got their reward. They could never believe that it was only resemblance, that it was not my face in that Xerox darkness.
``Story,'' Ella began, drawing the sheet over her knees and up to her chest, ``we need to cut out the shit. I had Max call that number, the one at the bottom. He got through yesterday. It's an L.A. number, it's from a town outside of L.A. called La Mirada. Max spoke to a woman there who said that she was your mother. She's paying someone to put up those posters.''
``That's your name,'' Ella said, ``the woman told it to Max. Max didn't say that he had seen you, he didn't want to get her excited. He just told her that he was curious. He said he'd keep an eye out at the shows.''
``What do you want from me, Ella?'' I asked, tossing the needle and the backing down. ``There are only two ways it can go. Either that's me, or it's not. I wish it was. It would be nice to be from La Mirada, I've been through there on the way to the L.A. shows. I'd like to have an old woman waiting for me in La Mirada. But Ella,'' I said, ``there's not. She's waiting for someone else. I'm not from there.''
``Memphis, fine,'' I said. ``Now how in the hell do you know that, Ella? What makes you think that has any validity? How about if I say some old man from Pittsburgh told me that you and Margery and Sarah are his daughters? And he's waiting for you right now in a slum tenement there.''
``Because it's you, Ella. They're not the same because it's your self, it's the way things have gotten stacked over the years in your goddamn mind. That's why you think it's different. You are what you are, what you can believe to yourself without lying. You believe Memphis. When did you leave home? You left together, you three?''
She waited a second, then blew her nose with a kleenex from a small traveler's pack Margery had left by the bed for her. Then she said reluctantly, ``Sarah was in college at Madison, she was there for two semesters. Margery and I moved up there when our father died. We were in a private girl's school, we just quit, just left.''
``Pleurisy,'' she said. Her eyes closed a bit. ``He was an architect, and he was working really hard trying to keep his business going. He got a cold. Kept working, wouldn't stop. And then he went to bed for a few days, and when we got him to the hospital, when we knew to take him, he was almost dead. They said it's very rare, but if it goes too far, there's nothing they can do.''
She got angry. ``You know, Story, this doesn't change one goddamn thing, that my father died of pleurisy in Memphis, or how my sister screwed up her mind and bombed out of college, or how we met Marc, how all of us came to be here in this room with our right names. What matters is that you don't have a right name. That's what matters, you don't have a right name or any, any history, and there happens to be some woman who can put one to you.''
She looked at me. There was a long pause. I heard the digits of the clock change, small noises, before she lowered her eyes. ``I want you to have a right name, Story,'' she said slowly. ``I'd like for it to be that way.''
She was looking at me, and I had an overwhelming impression of the warmth of the blanket wrapped around her. As tight and encompassing as a chrysalis. Ella still looked puzzled, at a loss. Her ears caught my eye for some reason, the way that her short hair exposed them; I could not escape the realization that while small and fine and oddly beautiful, they were nothing really but sound dishes, waiting for sound, warm with blood. I picked up the bracelet, began sticking it with the pin, and without realizing until far too late, ran the needle straight into the ball of my thumb.
Late in the afternoon, I lay on the mattress in the small alcove, wanting to nap and unable to do so. I had a tape on, and the two voices of the Dead sang to me in harmony. The two singers, one so haggard, one so new-seeming: their voices fitted together, matched like silhouettes. The gray, bearded face over the microphone and a spotlight going off, coming on again and picking out the smooth face of the young man, the music never faltering throughout. It was a secret of the Dead, a revelation which I felt inside but could never put into words, a binary essence which collapsed endlessly in upon itself, separated itself out again.
I remembered, saw Sonjee with her head bruised, lying on the bearskin rug in the back of the limousine. ``Yes,'' I answered, ``she was. She was so beautiful that Edward looked beautiful walking in a parking lot beside her.'' It was strange the way people always identified with one or the other in my story, with Edward or with Sonjee. One or the other struck them as tragic, as the larger loss.
Ella's look remained vague, lifeless. She rubbed her eye with a finger, clutched the blankets again. It was hard to see her as the same person who spoke for the group of us without hesitation, spoke strongly and accurately. The afternoon light was stretching itself out over the stone walls, bringing out a dark contrast from the rest of the room. She coughed, and a moment later asked, ``That man that hurt her, he wasn't really with the Dead, was he? He wasn't really part of their crew?''
They came back with the clock still showing two minutes before six, and Ella woke up long enough to scold Eric and Sarah. They listened to her, both smiling and petting her and soothing her, and everyone shared out a little bit of secret laughter at her rule quoting, her worrying. Tom went to the growing boxes and looked them over slowly and carefully, smiled across the room at me. Sarah came over when Ella had run down, and sat next to me on the alcove mattress. She handed me a small, brown, dime store-sized paper bag. I held it for a second, curiously.
The bag tore around the staple when I tugged on it. I reached my hand inside, felt the smoothness of leather, the harsh, fibrous touch of rope. It was a small white leather pouch, wound through with a very thin black rope. It was big enough for a trifle, nothing more.
``You wear it around your neck,'' Sarah said taking it from me and, after untwisting the rope, putting it over my head. ``It's for when you have on shorts with no pockets. It's big enough to carry your I.D. in it.''
She seemed somewhat expectant, so I took the credit card from my wallet, slipped it into the pouch and pulled the string taut. Sarah looked satisfied, and I thanked her. It felt a little awkward around my neck. It felt, for such a trifle, like a little burden.
Eric was going around the room with a butter knife, digging out the burnt-down nubs of candles from the niches carved in the walls. He had a bag of new candles which he would strip of their plastic wrap and wedge into the holes in the rock. I held out my hands, and he tossed me four or five of the candles. I got a knife and started on the wax which had splattered down the wall over the alcove. There was festivity in the look of all the new colored wax around the room. Eric was smiling when we met near the door, working on a candle sconce Tom had made and hung. I handed Eric my last candle, but we were still one shy.
Then he lowered his voice a bit, and said, ``Me and Lane went out to the record store today. They said that they sent their lottery applications out, and the deadline is this time tomorrow. They'll get their winning ticket numbers over Ticketron on Saturday or Sunday. Max did his application through another store, but they find out Sunday too. So one way or another we'll know then,'' he finished. Then he shot a look toward Ella, sleeping heavily. ``You didn't tell her anything about it, right?''
``Of course not, Eric. You asked me not to,'' I said, and he put out his big hand and smiled and we shook in the way that he and Marc had, the way they'd taught me: forearms parallel, hand closed around the other's bicep. Eric lowered his voice still more, to a whisper. ``I already told the rest but the guy at the record store said that some deadheads got kicked apart outside the store last night. A bunch of guys with shaved heads.'' I considered it for moment before Eric went on. ``Didn't know them, didn't rob them or anything. Just kicked their ass. Don't tell Ella.''
The meal took two hours. Everyone was giddy, for some reason. We balled bread in our fingers and dunked them in the spaghetti sauce, and hit each other wet red blows with them. We played until we all paused to rest, laughter still percolating through the sounds of the room every now and again. There was an air of games, expectancy. Everyone waited, grinning, silent, until Tom cleared his throat, still giggling, and asked, ``Dessert, anyone?''
The room was dark, and we had long since lit the candles. Tom went to the little refrigerator and brought out two of the jars at a time. Lane took everyone's plates and stacked them in the sink, brought back clean spoons and distributed them. When we all had a shiny spoon and a jar full of dark blue honey, Tom took out some dry weeds from a bag he kept near the wall, with his duffle bag. He lit them, and they flared like a torch for a moment before dying down into small glowing points of light, smoke rising quickly.
He placed the burning sticks in a large brass ashtray in the shape of a camel. It was sage, the smell was everywhere in a minute, and Tom told us that the Indians in Mexico and in the Southwest would light it to purify a space before they used it for sacred purposes. Lane had an exceptionally straight face on, as though he were trying not to laugh at Tom's seriousness; he nodded occasionally, grunted, the rudiments of a dimestore Indian but not daring to make it obvious enough for Tom to see the parody. We all followed Tom's example, spooning up the soaked mushrooms at the bottom of our jars, tossing them in the trash. We were all left with about two and a half inches of pure blue honey. We clinked glasses.
It tasted like pure bee's honey, but with a faintly tart, wine-like aftertaste. A taste as good in its own way as the simple sugar of the honey. I closed my mouth too soon, and honey ran in a hair-thin stream down my chin, neck, chest. It stuck to my hand when I touched it absently.
Lauren and Marc were pouring for one another, badly because they were giggling, and they tried to use their fingers to take it off one another's chins, smearing it instead. There was a moist, sibilant sound in the room, all of our mouths smacking over the honey. Sarah was eating hers with a spoon, and Margery looked ashamed at her sister's neatness and drew a honey-covered finger over Sarah's cheekbone. It left a blue patch on Sarah's white cheek, at the place where she normally applied her blush.
It came on completely unannounced, a subtlety I had never experienced. No rapid warping of perception; it came on only thickly, as though through heavy fluid. We sat in a circle and played a rhythm game for which we softly slapped our thighs, clapped, snapped our fingers, repeating to that time a chant of long, long nonsense words. And we were perfect. We would go to words of fifteen, twenty syllables before anyone would miss, before it would pass out of the group memory.
I would forget, for long minutes, that I had only known these people for a matter of days. I was in love with all of them. I thought that they were the most beautiful beings I had ever seen, and I felt my heart strain with emotion for them. We played concert after concert of bootleg Dead, and my memories were sharpened to what I had eaten on which days of which shows. Even further: to what the people whose groups I had joined had eaten on which days of which shows. I could remember that a woman I had known for six hours, eleven years before, had salted her stir-fry during a Friday show in the heart of Pittsburgh. I could remember anything. See anything, remember anything.
I wish that I could describe all of this more clearly. There was the usual warping of colors, and the altered sense of time, but so much more. I spent hours looking into one or the other of the faces in the room, and having them look into mine. It felt as though the body of the other person were merely an ornament to the person that you could feel in their words, in the movement of their thoughts.
I felt as though I could do no wrong. The fact that I had done it would make it right with these people. It was outside of materiality, luminous and alive as thought. And then a desire for someone would pass over me like a slight breeze, gone in a minute, and there would be only personalities, souls again, the bodies stacked without any attention paid to them. Yet that sexual desire came more often, stayed longer as the feeling of the honey wore away. It stayed like a by-product, a cruder aftereffect, but it was powerful, that desire.
Gradually, people pulled away. They pulled into the alcove or a nook of the wall with a blanket, all of this very slowly, over hours. Finally, I heard the couples all around me. Their movements in the dark. Unlike the other times I had been aware of it, warmed by it somehow, now I was sick for it. For the physicality of it. It kept me awake, long after I had heard the last soft murmur pass into the night silence of the room, and felt the vibrations of the last small urgency pass away.
Much later, I don't know how late or early in the morning, I felt a movement from the edge of the futon. I saw a figure in the weak, weak light filtering down from the skylight, a blue aura around it and specks of colored light as I tried to focus. I heard the plastic shower curtain pushed back, the water spit, then steady immediately into a strong pulse.
I watched the curtain, hating my avidity, the beating of my heart. But I let myself watch and wait, I let myself long, yearn. For three minutes, five, watching the curtain and actually feeling the damp, warm air from the shower reach my face. Then the curtain drew back, and it was Sarah who looked out at me, the black curtain held under her chin so that only the pale face stood out against it.
I heard my heart. No one else stirred, their breathing remained even. I took off my shorts and my shirt and I went unsteadily to the shower, and pulled the curtain back. I stepped under the water. She ran her wet arms around me, locked them behind my neck, and I kissed her and felt nothing but the sensation of her mouth, her tongue on mine, and her breasts in my hands. I held the small weight of them. I brought their small brown nipples to my mouth and sucked them, pushing her against the pebbled wall. Her shoulders were wide, strong. She kept one hand wrapped around my neck, pulled me close to her with her other arm around my bare waist. She ran her hand between my legs, up under my scrotum, held it tight in her hand. I had her hair in both my hands, pulling it off her neck. I closed my mouth on the nape of it.
Then she had her hands on my shoulders, pushing me gently away, but still holding me by the shoulders. She kissed me, and I could tell from her eyes that she was still feeling the honey too, there was a trace of dreaminess there. She put her lips to my ear: ``Come on, Story, but be quiet, I don't want it to be here, I don't want them to hear us, come on, quiet, follow me.''
She left the shower noiselessly, and I shut it off, took the towel she handed me through the curtain. We both dried in the dark next to the metal stall, and she tossed the towel down and walked to the wall. I watched her climb nearly half the iron ladder before I realized that she planned to go out. Outside. She turned to me, looking down, and I could barely make out her face. I put my foot on the cold iron. We passed the red silky gauze draping the ceiling, and she held it aside for me so that I could put my shoulders through. Once above it, I looked down and saw the silk-filtered shapes of the rest of them, sleeping heavily. I saw Sarah open a small hatch near the skylight, and disappear through it.
I came out on the roof, cutting my shoulder silently on the rough edge of the hatch. There was fresh oil on the hinge, and I closed the hatch without a sound. Then I drew in my breath. There were windows on all sides of us, and climbing up around us: they were darkened for the most part, but an occasional light shone like a dragon's yellow eye in a bank of identical black panes. There were bright bones of steel all around and between, I could feel the sleeping life there. I heard the muffled noise of the huge purification systems that drove the air through the Skyways. Below I could see the Skyway tunnel itself, spanning buildings. There was a light wind like breath on me.
She kissed me, rubbed herself lightly against me, pulling her mouth away every few moments to lick lightly at my open lips. I forgot the structural life brooding around us. We strained at one another. She took my face in her hands, pushed softly, until I was sitting down awkwardly, then laying back on the thick cold bubble of the skylight. She felt my thighs with her hands, then knelt between my legs, her wet tongue on me. She kissed my chest, and when I reached for her, taking her by the hollows of her underarms and feeling the softness of her hair there, she pushed me back.
She climbed on top of me, completely, so that I was stretched out on the unbreakable glass of the skylight, feeling its coldness under me, and she spread herself with her fingers, lowered herself onto me. A wetness, a single trace of it, becoming enveloping. She pushed down until her buttocks pushed me to the glass.
And she began to pitch slowly forward, stroking me that way, returning me as deep inside her as I had begun. She rocked on me, and kissed my mouth, and I was lost in the feeling of it, my hands caressing her back and her legs. Ecstatic. She hunched closer to me, her breasts flattened to my chest, her arms still holding mine down lightly.
She rubbed herself hard against my pelvis, faster, grinding herself against me. Until I felt it build inside me, and I brought my knees up toward my chest, pressed them against her sides, so that we were seamless. She paused with her weight full on me, and drew upward one last time, weakly, and I began to come and pulse far inside of her and heard her voice louder in my ear, the voice that had been coaxing me all along. I could smell her skin, and there were stars flung out over me. Already the sense of her welded to me was passing, the wind settling colder on me, and a thin rhythm from up past the cloud line reached my ears. A plane, I thought. I kissed her softly.
The rhythm became a soft chopping noise, and before she could raise herself up from me, a helicopter searchlight stretched down full on us, brighter than any light I had ever seen. It came closer, grew even brighter, scaring her off me, leaving me confused. It destroyed my vision, I was blind.
It stayed on me for whole seconds, looking. And with the light on me, before I could move, I saw something else in my mind's eye, as though another perspective were forcing itself on me. I saw the outline of Sarah and me locked together, as it must have appeared against the skylight when the helicopter dropped to us, as it must have appeared from the dark room below. Like a specimen shadowed on glass by the white light of a microscope.
I rolled off and the gravel of the roof cut my knees. Sarah and I scrambled to the hatch, but the helicopter had already passed beyond our rooftop. We saw it moving away between buildings, its light swinging out and back, beginning to circle.
Sarah and I crouched next to one another over the handle of the hatch. We were watching one another's faces. We said nothing for a moment, and then she put a hand behind my head, put her lips to my ear, My God, Story, oh my God. I put a hand up to her temple, felt the blood pumping there. My own heart was straining, but I also felt curiously drained, a little sick to my stomach. Sarah put a hand to her naked chest in a gesture of a deep breath, and she pulled the hatch to her. I watched her disappear into the small, square hole, into the dark.
I waited a few seconds and put my feet into it, lowered myself out of the cold wind and the collective night light of street signs and windows. I heard the voice of the air systems grow faint. I pulled the hatch shut and had no vision for a second, only cold iron in my hands. I lowered myself down past the gauze. I felt it rasp lightly against my skin, ankles, buttocks, shoulder blade, hair, and it made me suddenly ashamed of my nakedness, and afraid that the others in the room might see. I wished that I had my clothes on.
As I came down below the gauze, I knew that Ella was awake. I could feel it. I could make out only dim shapes. Sarah was silently hurrying into a robe in the darkness, and all of the others still seemed deep asleep, but I saw Ella's small form propped against the alcove wall, looking thin in her nightgown, the blanket cast off and lying in a long, rumpled snake beside her. I could feel her silently watching me as I rushed the last few steps, made a small noise hitting the floor, found my shorts by groping in the pitch dark by the bed. I was shivering.
Sarah finished belting her Chinese silk robe, and she knelt down beside Ella, pushing her dark, tangled hair out of her face. She began to whisper to Ella words I couldn't catch. Ella interrupted her, her voice a little gravelly, as though she had been crying. She said it at a normal level which sounded like a shout in the silent room. ``They saw you.''
Ella got to her feet, the first time I had seen her up in three days. She swayed slightly in the dark, and then got her balance. She didn't look at either of us, not at Sarah still kneeling on the futon, or at me, frozen by the opposite wall. She walked to the sink with small steps. She filled a kettle. The water sounded like the ocean as it poured in, a distant, muffled movement of water. There was disappointment in the way she set the kettle upon the hotplate, turned the heat dial, hugged herself in front of the reddening coil.
Something had been spoiled, I could feel from her, and too newly spoiled for bitterness. Something not only for the group, but for her. I remembered her voice soft with me that morning. Maybe the poster wasn't the only reason she had asked me to stay with her. Maybe she had wanted me to treat her as something more than a monitor, and less than infallible. She stood watching the hot plate in the dark. Sarah crept into bed. And I would have gone to Ella by the stove and talked her out of her certainty, and her sadness, but for the fact that she was right. They had seen us. They had seen us, there was information now, they would find us. There was only transmission time left to us.
Things unraveled very quickly. Ella spoke to Tom in the morning, and he balked but gave in, began the long process of uprooting the mushrooms and separating heads from stems, cleaning them all. He began that morning and worked until 9:30 the next Friday night, throwing the big brown-skinned heads into a plastic garbage bag. He looked like a soldier on K.P., but no one made fun of him sitting silently on the floor, with successive boxes unscrewed and placed on the floor before him. No one bothered him, or made fun.
We were going to move West, a few months in advance of the shows. Ella convinced everyone of that need. She did not mention Sarah and me, and that protection only increased my sense of shame. Ella went very late Friday night with Eric to an automatic teller machine, five or six levels up in the Skyways, to draw out all of the money from our account. Between the mushrooms and the bracelets there was over six hundred and fifty dollars in it, all of what we didn't need to eat.
They returned just twenty-five minutes later. Their faces were pallid. Eric told me that the machine had eaten the card. Its Plexiglass door had closed down on it and a message had appeared on the monitor: Your card is in need of repair. Please ask for assistance during normal banking hours. They had gone to an identical machine two levels down, tried a spare card that Eric carried and which had never been used: Your card is in need of repair. Please ask for assistance during normal banking hours. The money was gone, eaten.
It was Max. We never knew the reason. Marc went to the tobacco store on Saturday to see if he could make a final sale, for traveling money. Max ignored his customers, talked to him with complete absorption, never taking his eyes off Marc's face. Then policemen walked in and arrested Marc at the counter, took him down and away in a service elevator that ran to an underground garage.
The shoppers passing in the Skyway never noticed anything unnatural. Lauren saw it from a perfume store five levels and a hundred yards away. She came back to the room hysterical, and Eric and I held pillows over her mouth, held her arms and legs. We lay on her until she was quiet.
Eric went out Saturday night without telling anyone, carrying ten or twelve bags of mushrooms. He was going to a deadhead bar where he had sold some once before. When he was only a block from the door of the bar, three young men in plain white T-shirts folded out of a car and began to chase him, shooting their arms up and down with a sprinter's motion. He saw their broad backs, their close-cropped hair. They ran, the four of them, soundlessly and tirelessly as Indians through the streets. They chased him as far as the Skyway tunnel.
When he lost them there, he caught his breath by a neon bistro. After a long minute, he walked out into the glass tunnel, looked down just in time to see a brick crash through the glass. Huge shards of glass washed in around him. He said later that the ventilation fans rose into a whine fighting the outside air of coming winter. He ran, got back to the room late, late.
And at six-thirty Sunday morning, before any of the others were up, Ella pushed my shoulder, shook me awake. I focused on her, saw that she was dressed. She thrust her hand into my T-shirt, onto my chest, and when I pulled back without thinking, she hit me wildly on the neck with her left hand, tore the leather pouch up and off my neck. ``Give me that fucking thing,'' she spat at me.
My chest was bleeding from her nail. I sat up on my arms, breathing heavily. I watched her loop the pouch over her own neck. Nothing that she was wearing showed any connection to the Dead: a tartan-green uniform skirt and a round-collared blouse, black shoes at the end of white socks. Her old parochial school uniform. She looked down at me, as though she would apologize, but instead she stuffed the pouch inside her blouse, buttoned the top button. ``This is all there is left, Story,'' she said flatly. ``I need it now.''
She left before anyone else stirred, and she was gone the whole day. The others were worried. I was worried as well, but there was a small part of me, a hidden, weak part, that was perversely glad that she had taken the card, taken an old weight from me. I felt strangely relieved.
Ella returned at seven o'clock that night. She had moved mountains. She had bought an old VW bus at a small dealership in Northeast Minneapolis, had had new tires and brakes put on it; had stolen two registration stickers from cars parked in a shopping mall parking lot, by loosening them with a hot rag and coming back minutes later to peel them off with a new razor blade; had bought a cook stove, a lantern with a small fiber bag that glowed like a sun at its center; had piled water, and food of all kinds into the very back of it; and had parked it on a side street six blocks from our Skyway entrance. The credit card had told everyone that day who asked of it that everything was alright, everything was OK.
It was a rush then to strip the place. Again everyone had their function, without any sort of directive. Margery stayed with Lauren on the bed in the alcove, holding her, sheltering her from the brutishness with which we tore the hangings from the walls, stripped the gauze from the ceiling. All of us running, sweating. Lane worked with Ella's razor blade on the paintings we had left on the walls and door of the stall, marring them, making them and the graffiti we had written unreadable. Ella pushed everyone to throw things together.
Finally, we had everything packed or destroyed but Tom's empty mushroom boxes, and things with no identity. Then Sarah ripped the gauze into small strips and tossed one to each of us, and we went through the room polishing our fingerprints away. I made myself go back up the iron ladder and clean it but it sickened me. Sarah caught my eye as I did so, sharing that feeling with me, and I felt a kinship with her.
Tom had two garbage bags taut and heavy with caps and stems. He and Lane put on Marc's two pairs of janitor's coveralls and left by one route. Both of them were sweating, deathly quiet, neither one them joking as they lugged the bags out the door. They were risking the most.
We each found our own way to the bus. The Skyway was almost overwhelming to me, as I walked with one of the duffel bags slung over my shoulder, in a white dress shirt of Lane's, the bagginess of it stuffed into a pair of Marc's Levi's. Lauren had begun to raise a fuss when we opened Marc's bag, began to paw through it, but Sarah had taken her aside and talked to her in a low, intent tone. I had my hair tucked under a painter's cap. It matched the paint spattered over the Levi's, completed the disguise.
I fought down a desire to run when I reached the main level switching point, where all of the Skyway tunnels wheeled out as from a hub. I had to stop and close my eyes. I rested in a tight-fitting plastic chair outside a fast-food outlet. Children at a table next to me accepted french fries from their mother's hand ravenously, snapping their teeth. I got up and pushed into the crowd again.
I suddenly remembered the bus at the Headlands outside of San Francisco that time so long ago, how it had left me alone there on the beach. It had driven away from me. I came onto the street in a cold sweat, and the outside air seemed warmer, wetter, choked with the smell of exhaust. I couldn't help it, I half-walked, half-ran the last three blocks. Until at last I saw the bus, and I broke into a dead run.
It was white, and it read Hiawatha Christian Day School across the side. They were all there. Eric was in the driver's seat, Ella in the passenger seat. I could see Sarah's relief when she spotted me nearing the bus, she reached a hand out for me. I saw that I needn't have worried about getting left behind. Tom and Lane helped her haul me in, and Margery shot the side door closed and Eric took off the emergency break. He entered the slow-moving traffic. We waited at lights, we observed the rules of the road. Ten minutes later and from fifteen blocks away we saw helicopters gather and wheel like turkey vultures over our old part of the city.
Ella's face began to cloud over, and Eric took her small shoulders in his large hands. ``I know we should have told you. Or we shouldn't have done it, one or the other. But we did, and there might be tickets over there for all of us. It's not like we can use Max's now. And I'll be goddammed if I'm gonna miss those shows. Just give me twenty minutes. If I'm not out in fifteen minutes, start the engine and let it idle for another five. Alright?''
``They'll be waiting for you,'' she said to Eric after a moment, and at first I thought she meant the tickets, but she had her head down, and I saw that she meant the police. Eric was opening his door, stepping down to the street. ``No way, Ella. There's no fucking way. Just get in the driver's seat and watch your watch.''
He slammed the door and broke into the long, loping stride that defined him more than any other thing about him. The way his body stroked through the air, his ponytail swinging incongruously over his large working legs and arms. He was very afraid of going into that record store, but he turned it around into an attack, pushed himself faster toward it.
We all stayed down in the back. Ella had on her parochial school uniform again, and she sat primly in her seat, ignoring passing cars. A stray helicopter passed over. I heard the blade of it in my heart.
After only eleven minutes, we saw him come bounding back. His face was a beautiful thing to look at as he crossed the headlights. He was jubilant. Ella moved to the passenger seat, and Eric lifted himself in. He fired the engine, let out the brake, yelled a long rodeo yell out the window. He addressed all of our eyes in the rearview mirror. His eyes were crazy, defiant, triumphant.
We reached the highway, and I stood on my knees to watch out the window as we rattled over the iron bridge I had first slept under, and from the road the water below looked clean and pure. You couldn't see the oil or the patterns of vibration passing into the slow current. Lauren wept, curled in a small ball. We left Marc somewhere behind us, in Minneapolis. Like a limb taken off in the hospital, they keep it inside that place when you leave.