The winter never happened for us. We moved southwest in a slow arc, repeating in miniature the diffuse, phototropic movement of population. The first few days we were out, Tom pushed hard for us to stop somewhere and make the honey. The mushrooms were fresh, he argued, they would spoil in their bags unless we used them right then, not next week. Dry them out, Ella said. Tom answered that they didn't turn the honey blue when they were dry, they would just be plain dry rough mushrooms. But Ella refused to stop: she turned once on Tom and told him that if he would really like to spend some time with Marc, it would be quicker just to call the police from the side of the road.
Marc's name fell like a blasphemy. It stopped all the quiet talking and noise in the bus, and Tom was shamed into sitting silently, hurt, beside the two bulging plastic bags. Ella would have seen it on his face a month before, and she would have worked things out. She would have made things alright for him, and for the rest of us watching. But there was a rigidity to her decisions now; I saw her take in Tom's frustration and misery, and then look away out the window.
There were kinks in all of our understandings. It was most visible, most wounding in Margery. She no longer seemed to sense correctly a meaning as it passed imperfectly from Ella to Sarah, as it was disrupted by the coolness between them. Margery would so often look confused, a strange sense of failure intensified by new surroundings every hour.
It was Sarah and Eric, finally, who came up with the compromise for Tom. They broached it to Ella in a rest stop outside of Jefferson City. There was a small 1950's style building, with still photographs of nascent skylines, dead smiling politicians. We were the only ones in the outdated, quiet place: Ella sitting on a redwood picnic table, with her purple madras skirt hanging over the edge, suspended several inches above the unmown grass; Eric and Sarah standing beside her arguing, both of them pulling back a bit when she would lash out at them. The idea they had come up with infuriated her at first. She refused to see the sense in it.
``It is too dangerous!'' she yelled. ``Do the two of you understand that word?'' She didn't like their coming to her together, in concert. She walked out in the field beside the highway, and stood, just a small purple figure, beside the blacktop. Finally they moved her. She agreed, unsmilingly, and Eric picked her up and swung her, and although she didn't want to laugh or grin, she broke down when Tom hugged her and kissed her cheek. She hesitated, then gave in and kissed him back and told him to make it good.
He made it in the bus, as we traveled. We stopped in Jefferson City and bought a stout green plastic garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. We drove through the city looking for the particular sort of organic honey that Tom insisted upon using. He would abide no chemicals, no sort of preservatives, no vacuum packaging. We spent nearly a half an hour in the parking lot of a convenience store, watching Tom in a phone booth, with the receiver to his ear and his fingers twiddling through fragile, yellow pages.
We found two quarts of it at a very small place in the heart of downtown Jefferson City. It was all the woman had and she told Tom that the nearest place that would carry that sort would be in Tulsa, and even then she couldn't say how much, it was not a common sort. We drove to Tulsa, consulted another massive yellow book, found another hidden address, bought three quarts and a few pints more.
Tom said that we needed at least ten or twelve quarts, and each time we would find a few he would pour them into the garbage can. Eric and I drilled holes in the metal sides of the bus, and put eyelets there so that we could strap the garbage can into the corner with bungee cord.
We went from Tulsa to Wichita to Oklahoma City, finding a quart or so in each town. We would all pile out of the bus and fan out in the organic food stores, hunting up and down the aisles, reaching the honey section and rejecting all sorts of honeys, looking only for that one particular brand. We seemed always to be driving, or searching out sequences of street numbers, or asking directions in some new city. Always shooting down highways, lighting for a few hours at a time, from red spot to blue spot to green spot on the fold-out national map that Eric steered by.
In Wichita Falls, we found only one quart, but the owner of that organic food store told us that there was a distributor in Amarillo who supplied all of Santa Fe, and that he could sell us as much as we wanted. It was in Amarillo that we filled the garbage can half-way and Tom began submerging the caps and stems in the heavy, strongly sweet fluid. Every ten or twelve hours, he would fish out the soggy mushrooms with a fork and wrap them in plastic bags and dump them in rest areas. The honey in the garbage can grew bluer, darker. It filled the bus with an overpowering scent, so strong and pervasive that we drove with the windows open, slept in sleeping bags beside the bus at night. It was the smell of mead.
Outside Santa Fe, on a turn-out from a dirt road not even marked on the map and with the red hills beginning to darken, Tom fished out the last of the mushrooms, shot them with flicks of his wrist into the scrub. They were like drowned swimmers dredged from a cold lake: blue, slick, recovered then rediscarded.
Eric and I and Sarah picked up the garbage can and tipped it up, lowering the lip of it very slowly; Tom knelt beneath with the clean honey quart jugs, filling them and calling up directions to us, to hold off or to pour a little faster once he had the stream lined up with the jug mouth. Yellow jackets circled over us as we worked in the dust. Margery and Lane and Lauren handed him new jugs and sealed the full ones with wax which Ella heated in a tin saucepan over a small fire she built.
We caught up with the Dead in Arizona. The air at the shows had become more anxious since the lake show we had seen in Minneapolis, more tense and hopeful and expectant. Total strangers would grab you as you passed, press your face between their palms and kiss your lips. They would pat your cheek, look in your eyes, and then let you go. Everyone told everyone else, when they were leaving them, that they would see them in December. Because of the attention that the Dead were receiving in anticipation of those Millennium Shows, there were more outsiders each night: older people with the air of fairgoers, young kids with no connection to anything there except the vague sense of lawlessness, and groups of young men in high boots and with short, short hair, military looks, playing music other than the Dead. None of these kinds of people danced, they watched us dance, they sat on the ground or on the tops of their cars, but they never moved to the music.
In Phoenix, we caught a Saturday show by driving all night the night before. Eric bought tickets from a scalper and everyone went in but me: it was one of the stadiums at which I had sat a show out with Edward, and it still made me slightly queasy to see it lit up across from the parking lot. Helicopters nodded over it, adding their rhythm to the pulse of the lights and fans of the complex.
A thin round-eyed woman, maybe forty or forty-five, came by the bus and leaned into the dark inside where I was sitting. Her face and neck shared a large strawberry mark. She had a candle in her hand. She seemed thoughtful, the flame of her candle burned steadily, her hair was dirty and matted.
I thanked her, and she looked at me, the strawberry mark pinker in the light of the candle. And then she tipped the holder of her candle and the wax pooled in it ran down over the open door of the bus. It turned immediately white as it cooled. She nodded to me and left. The spilled wax was a blessing to her, a smiling of the Dead.
And it was also in Phoenix, when everyone was asleep in the bus after the Sunday night show, that I called the collect number on the posters that Ella had found. I cannot tell you why I did it. I found one of them in her bag and crawled through the dark bus to the passenger seat. The lot outside was dark, full of curled, sleeping bodies. A few fires burned, but no one was awake. I walked to the auditorium, suddenly walking in halogen light stronger than daylight, but I continued to walk slowly and carefully, as if the huge domed building itself were another thing that I might wake. There was a line of phone booths toward the back side, all shining, all chrome, with receivers that had touched each of them two hundred thousand ears.
I put my ear to one, punched small chrome buttons, and those buttons moving beneath my finger brought back the dream feeling of keys beneath my fingers, that sensation of pressing keys and the sick smell of blacktop. I closed my eyes, held myself, feeling myself close to retching.
A voice came on in my ear. It was a woman's voice like any other. It said that if I had information about the whereabouts of her son, that I should please leave a message, as long as I liked. That I should leave my name and address in case I earned the reward by leading to the return of her son, and that God blessed me. I heard a tape begin to roll, a helicopter passed over head, checked me with its eye, and without knowing that I was going to do so I told it the story from beginning to end, the story of Sonjee and Edward and the life of the Great Western Forum. My ear grew hot under the receiver.
In place of winter we passed in the desert a second, weaker summer of two and a half months. We stayed a full month in a motel near Taos, New Mexico, on the strength of our ability to clean the thirty-five bedrooms of it in a little over two hours each morning. The owner was a bony old man with a stomach that thrust out like a basketball from under his green T-shirt. He would watch us passing from room to room, and repassing with equipment and cleaner, smoothly working in his dead old structure, and he would clap his hands and laugh, look at his watch, marveling at city kids. All of us except Ella, who favored the shade, became desert brown. We would take our tape box and lie stretched out like lizards on the rock piles behind the breaker room of the motel.
We would catch the Dead in a city nearby and lose them again, as they moved east or west. Their schedule was fuller than it had ever been, a packed slate of shows leading up to the bright end of the year.
So it happened that we were in Taos at that point in time, all of us in our free motel room. Margery began to cry and to nod one night and could not be consoled. We were playing cards on the stiff coverlet of one of the beds, and I saw her hand come down, the red faces and numbers suddenly unguarded. She cried through the night, without rest or break, huddled on the dull linoleum of the bathroom, her blue dress balled in her hands. Her eyes grew so red that she could no longer hold them open, and her voice hoarse, turning to a weak cough by morning. I saw blood spackling the hand she would pull from her mouth.
We hugged her and tried to believe that she would stop like other times but I could feel that it wouldn't be. I had the feeling one gets in dreams, that one has committed an act for which there is no redemption, no repentance, a horrible sense of irreversibility, of life ruined.
That morning -- although there was a sun and a line of cars on the highway like any other -- a man told us over the radio that the older, grayer voice of the Dead had died. He had died of exhaustion and a small, abrupt hemorrhage inside his brain. A vessel in his head had opened. They had taken his large body to a funeral home in California, there would be only private services.