There was a time: I knew a woman who was to have a child by the Dead. She told me at the back of an auditorium, where I was bathing her neck with a cool cloth, people circling over us to the music. She had met them at a party at a house owned by a Democratic senator, a house in the mountains built so that one could ski up to the sliding glass door, step into thick animal fur rugs and fire. And the Dead had loved her, she said, that night, the two of them. And she had gotten pregnant. She bought a little plastic kit, tested herself in her own apartment bathroom. A fragment of litmus had turned a certain color. I bathed her neck and listened to her, looking over her plump shoulder at the drum stomach stretched beneath her peasant dress. As I rewet the cloth from a water jug next to her, she told me her story again, and this time the Dead touched her among the pines in the snow, their three bodies warmed a place in it, and they told her that she would carry their child. I ran the cloth into her damp hair. The people dancing over us were so careful around us, so studious of our privacy. Once she touched her stomach and told me that the boy would be born singing.
I did not believe that woman, she had never met the Dead, and there was a man in her group who claimed the child. But the Dead were for her indivisible from the new life forming inside her; there could not be one without the action and the grace of the other. Those deadheads watching her comfort, conforming their own dancing to it, could mark no division either. I could not, as I cooled her neck with the cloth. The Dead were the cause of that drum stomach, and the effect of it, pushing up beneath her shaping hands.
One of them had now died. In the week before we went on to California, their music played as a dirge, no matter what show on which cassette, how bright or how triumphant it had once been. We came apart. Sarah took to the bus, although it was hot and dark inside it, the desert sun full on it in the motel parking lot. Flowered sheets cut into rectangles hung over the windows, slowing the passage of air. The bus smelled of her sweat. She slept in it at night, came out only intermittently during the day, to eat group meals on the picnic table wedged in the sand on the side of the manager's office. I had conversations with her, always from the front seat. I would let myself in quietly, ask if I was disturbing her.
``No,'' she would say, ``come in.'' But when I would make as though to push myself between the seats, she would move a little, quickly, back there in the back. ``Don't come back, Story,'' she would say, ``I need space, I'm thinking, it's too hot, I'm tired, I look horrible, please let me be by myself.'' She would say any number of things. One day, four or five days after the death, I ignored her excuse whatever it was, and began to continue back through the seats. I heard her shuffle in alarm to the back of the bus, like a treed animal.
I retreated quickly, hunched over under the low metal roof, until I was sitting back in the driver's seat, out of her line of vision. ``OK, I'll stay up here, OK? Is this alright? Sarah, is this OK? Because I'll leave if it's not.''
I could see her, darkly, through the two pieces of the driver's backrest. I lay my eye at the separation in the vinyl. She had her hair in her hands, was tugging handfuls of it in short, oddly passionless tugs. Her eyes were closed. ``Yes, you can stay up there,'' she said, and then heavily, ``Story, I'm sorry, but I don't want anyone back here now. I need this for me. I know it's part your bus too, but I have to have it right now.''
``I don't want you to touch me right now. I, it's like I, it makes me feel sick to think about it,'' she whispered, and her face, with the eyelids closed and the muscles at rest, was only a mask of her features. Her normally hollowed cheeks were puffy, whiter than I remembered. ``I feel sick, Story,'' she said, ``I feel weak.''
``I will sometime later,'' she said quickly, before a cough. She had Margery's cough. She raised her head, did not look toward me, but rather toward the rear of the bus where a large square of the faded sheet blocked out the back hatch window. ``But I won't today. Not today. Today I can't.''
I sat quietly for a minute in the driver's seat, staring out the windshield at the overbright desert surfaces, then from nowhere I felt wetness on my cheeks. Tears started falling quietly, disappearing into my tie-dyed shirt. I could feel them stinging their way past the small red balls of muscles at the corners of my eyes.
I heard Sarah moving in the back, shuffling, felt her reluctantly touch the very ends of my hair through the separation in the vinyl backrest, but coming no further, no closer. Then I heard her voice, self-hating, hesitating to say it. ``I'm sorry, Story. I'm sorry. But you can't be in here. You have to go. I need this for me.''
We did not celebrate Christmas. Tom and Lane quarreled because Lane became importunate in his need to be by people, to be with people. He was too needy, and Tom grew short with him until finally, by the dry birdbath in the motel courtyard, Tom turned his back on Lane, and walked away. Then he turned around some ten feet away, still walking, backwards now, looked back at Lane who was still talking to him in a rising voice, held his ears tightly and yelled, ``Shut up!''
So the next day, Lane asked to follow Eric rock climbing. There were huge, shattered pieces of mountain within two miles of the motel, and Eric had taken to hiking there in the mornings, after breakfast. Eric had no choice when he was asked, but he left in a surly mood, Lane close beside him, trying to match Eric's larger strides and talking, talking.
They began to climb and Eric became merciless after a point, pushing up the jumbled slabs until Lane had been left hung in an area with no handholds. Eric climbed further up than he had up to that time, only his fingers clawing the way, his whole weight hung on the pads of his ten fingers. He pushed himself until his fingers worked so hard that they turned lifeless from muscle fatigue and he fell ten feet to an outcropping, tore the length of his brown thigh.
That night he lay on the bed, and Ella cleaned the long wound with cotton soaked in alcohol. Lauren and Margery were talking softly together on the floor outside the bathroom, the fan there on and the cooler air seeping out the door. I talked to Lane in the cooling dark of the portico.
He was obviously still angry with Eric, and refused to watch him be tended to. He had bought a pack of cigarettes in the motel office, from a dusty pyramid the owner kept stacked on a piece of plywood to one side of the cash register. Lane was putting the cigarette through all of the failed gestures non-smokers occasionally make over lit cigarettes.
``What do you mean you don't know?'' he asked incredulously. ``You usually remember lit things that protrude from your face. Do you remember fire, smoke, anything like that,'' he revolved his finger in a circle around his pudgy lips, ``anything like that happening in this general mouth-type area?''
I laughed quietly. ``I remember what it feels like to smoke. That shudder your chest gets when you inhale, the cool feeling on your throat. But I don't remember whether I ever smoked as a habit, no.''
There was a pause, no sound but cars sweeping past up on the highway. Lane leaned in to me, lowered his voice. ``I gotta get the fuck out of here, Story. I'm going loony out here. Tom is acting like an asshole, Eric dickhead almost kills me and himself. Ella seems like she wants to stay here forever. Sarah's in the shitcan, scrabbling around in that oven of a bus all day, day in day out.''
I noticed only then, because of the weak light, that his hair was greasy, lank. It seemed to have gone unwashed for a week. Because it sat tighter to his head, it brought out the heaviness, fleshiness of his face, the thickness of his nose. He held the cigarette like Bogart, thumb and middle finger, and made a point of emphasizing it by flaring his pinkie.
``I think,'' he began, ``that Sarah staked out the bus to get her hands on the honey. I think she's been sipping at it all week, eating it on a constant basis. And I think you've been covering for her because you know Tom would kill her if he knew. If he didn't have his strain of blue honey to take to the shows. This is all speculation you understand. I think Eric's in on it as well, that's why he tried to kill me on the rocks today. I think a lot of things, my friend.'' He took a significant, slow drag. ``I think a lot of things.''
``She's probably thinking of exhibiting Sarah after she's eaten all fourteen of those jugs. Buck a pop. She'd make a killing, people would line up to see it. Ella probably told Eric to kill me on the rocks today, now that I think of it.''
I took the cigarette from his hand, brought it to my mouth and as I did so, I felt my hand give a small, nuanced shift to bring it to my lips so that the smoke would clear my eyelashes. As if I had known, known by habit. I blew the smoke into the lamplight. There were no insects crowding above us, in the still night air, nothing coming to the light.
He said it aloud, savoring the word, ``Yes, henchwomen.'' He dropped the cigarette as I passed it to him, it fell to the concrete step, setting up a tiny show of sparks. Lane batted it violently away from us, out onto the concrete walk. ``Jesus, those things are a pain in the ass,'' he burst out.
But a second later, he was drawn to the matches again, the thrill of lighting another. ``No, no, those two have a wilier place in the whole show. They're like the guys at the end of the bank job that, just after everything goes off like clockwork, they knock of the rest of their own gang. Pick up the loot, the cops think they've got enough dead perpetrators for the press, everybody's happy. They'll probably live free and easy in Mazatlan with all that money Ella's going to pull in.''
``I told you,'' he said squinting behind the smoke, ``you're a spook. To be honest, Story, you're a big fucking spooky question mark and I'm a little uncomfortable to be sitting right here on this patio right now with you. You don't even know if you used to smoke or not.''
There was more than sarcasm, something hurtful in his tone, and I felt my face freezing over my smile. I saw his black eyes now as colder, greedier, and I pulled myself up as though I was going to rise.
``I'm going to go for a walk,'' I said, getting up, his hand on my arm, the pressure there getting stronger. He looked up at me a little wildly, realizing that I was actually going. He half-rose with me. ``I'm sorry, stay, Story. Jesus, don't leave me here, whatever you do. I'm fucking lonely. Let me come, OK?''
I stood and brought my arm up slowly but firmly. ``I'm going for a walk, I'll see you later,'' I said, still feeling the mocking at the back of his voice, the sense of shame I felt for my memory. I left him, gravel under my shoes, then sand. I could feel him standing on the porch behind me, watching my tie-dyes fade to black.
``Hey Story!'' I heard Lane yell, and there was anger and raw hurt there now too. I turned and the pack of cigarettes struck sharply near my feet, almost hitting me. ``Take those in case you ever manage to remember for sure,'' he yelled across the sand at me.
Ella had lost the most of all of us, yet showed it the least. Her love for the Dead was a secret affair, of which I had seen only flashes: fine bouquets she made to throw on stage, but which she hid in her purse until the very moment, and a tone her voice would take on when she talked about them, a reverent, but passionate loyalty.
Since we had left Minneapolis, she had been harder, a colder person to be near. She concentrated on almost pure logistics now. How we would eat. Who must be made to apologize to whom, where they should sleep until they had done so. She had given back the credit card -- I wore it strung around my neck again -- but she did not stand on formalities when it had to be used. She told me bluntly what to buy and where, without civilities but also without rancor.
She found me one day on the swingset behind the motel, sitting and letting the chains kink and turn me in circles. Three o'clock in the afternoon. The sun was still heavy, firing the sky. We had all fallen into a pattern of passing whole wasted hours. After the rooms were cleaned each morning, we separated, found some object to hold, climb on, watch. I was on the swingset, had been for a half an hour, when Ella walked through the weedy sandbox toward me. I continued to turn and she finally caught my shoulder, faced me to her.
I thought of Vector, and of the house I had shared with him and his group: an ugly squat wooden structure, set on concrete, strongly fenced. It was a fortress with a multitude of equivalent houses set on concrete in fenced rows around it. I remembered the shelter there.
I pushed away from Ella's small hand, set myself slowly turning again, the chrome chains kinking and unkinking in short, barely perceptible jerks. I addressed her circling face. ``What are they going to do, Ella, just scat when they come to his parts, just hum and think of him?''
I stopped myself, pushed off from the sand under my feet, started swinging in earnest. I was blackly displeased, somehow, that she was upsetting my time at the swingset. Trespassing. The hard strap of gravity pulled at my head and stomach until my feet were pushing straight over my head. When I reached the top of my arc, I spoke again. ``You're dreaming, Ella,'' I said as I whipped past her, fell back. ``Dreaming a sad little dream.''
She stepped behind me when I stopped; I felt her hands push gently at the small of my back. She began to push me in a slow smooth rhythm. Not fast enough to make the dry air passing my face seem cool, but steadily. I held my feet out straight in front of me, not propelling myself at all. It's hard to resist being pushed on the swings. She asked again. ``Do you know anywhere near the shows that we can stay?''
``He has a phone, but you can only dial out. No T.V. He doesn't believe in access. And there won't be any shows, Ella. If you want to go to California, you should go for some other reason. Go and see the water.''
She had pushed me to the point where the force of her hands could no longer propel me any higher in the arc, and she stepped back to the side of the swingset, said, ``Tonight you can show me on the map. Show Eric too. We can start packing up in the morning.''
``Ella,'' I said and shot my feet down and dug two trenches with the toes of my sneakers, ``there will not be any more shows of the Dead ever, they have played as much of their music as they will ever play,'' I told her. ``Ever.''
``We still have tickets,'' she said, and in that word tickets was as much faith and resolution as I have ever heard in the voice of anyone who claimed kinship with the Dead. She couldn't help but believe. I think she would have been crippled in some way if she could not believe that.
And there had never, ever, been a time before when tickets had not meant admission to the Dead. Even a ticket I once had to a winter show in Boise, a time when three or four of the band members came down with an Asiatic flu, had been redeemable at a future date. It had stayed good, the Dead had honored it. And I thought of the mile-long pavilion built for the shows, all of it prepared, the parking lot as big as a forest, as long as a coastline, waiting for all of us to come. I began to wonder if Vector was out there now, if he had saved enough money from his electrician's job to get his group back out there. Then I had a cold fear, wondering if he was still healthy, still mobile, still alive.
``Alright, Ella,'' I said. ``I'll show you on the map. And if my friend's not there, I know other places we can stay. And if there aren't any shows, we can go to the pavilion and play bootlegs. We wouldn't be the only ones.''
She didn't smile, she smiled almost not at all any more. ``There will be shows,'' she repeated, and then she walked back toward the motel, her summer dress moving limply to a wind that felt in no way like December.
She was, of course, very right. We heard over the radio several days later that the shows would go on, with guest performers and with tribute and memorials. Nearly three hundred thousand tickets had been sold. That news was like dawn on all of us: there was something on the agenda, we loved one another again, and we began no longer to need to discuss and to divvy cleaning tasks each morning. We began, in the days before we pulled out of the motel parking lot, simply to do them, simply to know.
We broke out one of the fourteen jugs of honey the night before we left, and we had a festival in the desert far back behind the motel. It was stronger than what we had made before. There were hours when none of us spoke. Tom was obviously pleased with it, and what of it we didn't eat, he poured in slow, viscous tribute over a small cross of sticks that Margery had tied with a hair ribbon and planted in the sand near our campfire. Lane made a speech, the first serious, almost solemn words I ever heard him use: he talked in a deep bass voice about color and music while Tom poured the honey. He poured the honey until the stick-cross was shining blue in the firelight, glowing, alive.
Sarah and I went back to the room at about three in the morning, while the others were still huddled in blankets around the fire, watching stars break and fall. We took a shower together, and then we took one of the twin beds, crawled inside. While we were lying still I thought again of Vector, and how he would probably never feel trustful of such touching again. To him it would always be a viral deception, worked by an environment whose normal means of regulating our species had grown ineffective. Sarah's lips on my eyelid, her black hair pressed tight to the length of my chest: they would feel virulent to him. I turned away from Sarah.
Her voice was still barely audible, although we were alone. ``I should have let you stay that day. I know how you are, I should have let you stay. I know you're afraid of things, that you can't help it.''
I could hear the fan in the bathroom turning, weak breath on us naked under the sheet. After a minute, Sarah began to rub my back. ``It shouldn't scare you so much, Story,'' she said softly. ``It's only a dream, it's only a vision.''
I had told her one afternoon, when the others were out shopping, and she had listened to it as though I were telling her an odd dream I'd had, or the plot of a movie. I whispered now into the sheet, her hands kneading my shoulders. ``If I told you that people had antennae, and that they communicated from cells, and for the price of that input, they were given back a group picture that protected them and gave them a complexity of vision beyond imagination, would you believe me? Would you believe me, Sarah?''
She stopped again, a confused enervation in the grip of her fingers on my muscles, and I told her about California and the press there for perspective. The raising of helicopter after helicopter with communication equipment for no other reason than to know what the ground looks like from above. Of millions of cars on the freeways below, all tied into a communication net that eliminated time spent inactive through uncertainty. These cars would know if an accident occurred five miles ahead of them: their radio would relay it from a helicopter, a friend would push a signal to the snubbed antenna they carried, an overhead sign would flash an updated report, offer side streets. Drivers wore headsets to free their hands for the wheel, and so as you passed them they seemed to speak to nothing and to listen to nothing; they were active, potent in two worlds, that in front of them, the road, the traffic, and that in which they were present in the form of particles, and in this way they were many-armed, many-legged things.
``It's like vertigo,'' I said in a whisper. ``There's a trick of balance that people are constantly learning, without realizing. I haven't got it. No center to hold. It will be more common every year.''
``Shut up,'' she yelled and slapped the back of my head, playfully, but hard enough to sting. She rubbed it then, scratching my scalp lightly. ``You're such an absolute pain in the butt. What a doomsayer. Jesus, Story.''
Eric was driving, right foot extended so that it rested on the dash, against the far corner of the windshield. The tear on his thigh was now covered with four band-aids taped side-by-side like pink boxcars. He was singing loudly, surprisingly beautifully. Ella did not complain from the passenger seat. His big shoe kept the sun from her eyes. She sat up in her seat, watching the road with a placid interest, occasionally wiping her badly cut bangs from her forehead, sounding the bracelets on her thin wrist. Once she reached out of nowhere and plucked a hair from Eric's leg, smiling a little at his flinch and surprise, then lapsing back into watching, musing.
The rest of us were distributed in the back, beading bracelets, like some cramped cottage industry. We sat with our work in our laps, laughing, stopping to tell stories. We had on a tape of a bright, sunny show in Alexandria from two years before, and it now sounded bright and sunny again. Lane was threatening to tell the story of how he had met Tom, there was some embarrassing aspect and Tom was laughing and reaching around Lane's shoulder trying to gag his mouth with a hand. Margery held Tom back, hauled back on his arm, everyone calling for the story of it.
``Well, we were both in the same building on First Street, in Minneapolis,'' Lane began, again holding off Tom's hand, laughing himself now. ``I was in the drama school on the second floor, and Tom, there, he was a free-lance computer guy for the company on the third floor, they put out pornography or something --''
``-- Anyway,'' Lane overrode him, ``one time we ran out of coffee packets for the coffee machine. Those little filter packets. It was late, we had a late rehearsal, but we knew that somebody worked nights upstairs. I'd seen him a few times, purely accidentally of course. And we needed that coffee, let me tell you. And since I was the best at begging, I volunteered to go up to see if I could borrow a couple.''
While Lane was telling the story, and everyone had their eyes fixed on him, I saw a flicker out the window and glanced out. We were rolling past the site of a new little strip mall: there were heavy machines at work, huge burnished blades scoring the ground, trucks carrying broken slabs of concrete away like so many paint chips, and cranes reaching up to the tops of the metal skeletons. A concrete pump, its long boom stretching down into a cavity in the earth, was spitting concrete at steel reinforcement bars. All of them with my name printed on their sides in green and black. And fronting the road sat a large sign reading Story. Construction, Manufacture, Rep. ``Building the world around us.'' All of those machines moved as heavily and as irreversibly as elephants, as dinosaurs, about a jumble of dust and the climbing nakedness of infrastructure.
I couldn't stop myself, I shot a look at all of the rest of them in the bus, like someone who has fallen in a public place; none of them had seen. Ella and Eric were still talking, Lane was still telling his story. Tom had steeled himself for it.
``-- so it's dark in there, there's just this one little light on over a terminal, all kinds of bizarre shit happening on the screen. I go, hellooo, really softly, because I'm thinking that I don't really belong there after they're closed, but, you know me, I keep walking in. Until I get over by the computer. OK, Tom's passed out on a little couch right next to it,'' Lane said and then paused.
Tom tossed a bracelet on the little pile of finished pieces. Lane reached out to pinch his cheek and Tom evaded the hand, suddenly jumped for him and the two of them rolled through the pile, all of us yelling, laughing. Finally Ella's voice came, as deep and mock-stern as she could make it. ``Do I have to stop this car? Do I?''
Just inside California, late at night, late December, we stopped at a Denny's. The parking lot was full, and we saw knots of people inside the restaurant standing in the lobby, waiting to be seated. Eric and I walked to a gas station next door and bought a street map of Southern California, while the others went in to put our names down for a table. I saw that the map machine, dusty, outmoded, standing by a stack of oil cans, had finally come into its own: there was only one of the faded booklets left in its glass case, and there was a readable record of new streaks in its film of dust.
We walked back toward the restaurant, the lot dry and brightly lit, and clean the way that only parking lots in the West can manage to be. We passed a twenty-four-foot moving van, a long, high metal body behind a smallish cab. The roll-down door was up. There were six or seven people in the dark in there. I saw blankets as we passed by, candles, clothes in rumpled piles. I could make out a huge dark web strung from corner to corner of the metal roof, a large group hammock.
A man about my age was squatting on his heels near the door. He was wearing a cowboy hat, green Dickey work pants, a white tie-dye faded to yellow. No shoes. He drew us toward him with a crooked finger, like a barker. ``Hey deadheads, you got any extras? Tickets?''
Eric and I slowed, looked at each other. The man jumped down from the open back. His feet slapped softly against the blacktop. He seemed much shorter standing next to us. He had a way of positioning himself in front of you, making the fixing of his eyes on yours fill the pauses in his speech. He had shaggy brown hair, the most beautiful white teeth. ``We got money, man. We're not looking for miracles. Hundred a piece, we'll give you a hundred a piece.''
The man took off his hat and threw it behind him into the truck, turned around, again eyes set on us. He said, ``Look, there's six of us. We need fucking tickets, man. You don't have any? You don't know anybody who has any?''
As he was spreading his hands in front of us, looking back and forth quickly, nervously between our faces, a woman crawled to the open back of the truck out of the dark. She was maybe twenty-two, in a loose dirty sweat suit. No colors at all, no signs of the Dead on her. She was beautiful in an entirely lifeless, lackluster way, with almond eyes and pale olive skin, large red lips. But there was no spark behind the eyes, there was a dullness and torpor there. I saw it when she raised her head to us, and smiled. The smile was just an arrangement of muscle she had learned, no emotion in it. She put her legs out, hung them off the edge of the open back.
Watching the man begin to jab back and forth on his bare feet, searching both our faces, like the distress of a terrier, I saw that he needed tickets in an almost visceral sense. He was outside until he had them, the woman behind him was outside, and the others in the truck sleeping. There were only five days left until the shows started, and he had tickets fixed in his mind as the key to something that he and the rest of his group saw in other groups, did not feel in their own.
The woman kneeled behind him, with her arms around his chest, then began slowly running her hair up over her head with both hands. She fixed us with another smile, one of undirected appeal, diffuse sexuality. She seemed long ago to have lost the power to focus it. ``He's going to be there,'' she said, smiling at us.
She still had her hands buried in her thick hair. ``He went ahead to get things ready, he died into the new age,'' she told us, and the man winked at us from off to one side of her gaze. He turned to look at her, encouraging her. ``He's gonna be there, isn't he, Barbara?''
``He's waiting right now on the other side,'' she said matter-of-factly, and the man again turned to us, smiling for us to see. A deep man's voice from inside the truck, from up in the ropes of the hammock, echoed off the closed metal-box walls. ``He's going to be there, he's there right now.''
The man in front of us almost began to laugh at the solemnity of the voice, but he turned back to us, and his face became jollying again. He gave us the white teeth again. ``Look, dudes, I'll pay you a hundred and twenty-five each. That's good money, dudes. I got cash. You need cash for the road, I'm sure, sell me two tickets.''
Eric and I looked at each other again, and we made the signals that two people make when they have silently agreed to go. Eric began to turn, I began to turn with him toward the restaurant. Eric smiled. ``Sorry man, good luck.''
The man was still looking Eric in the face, somehow trying to prolong a vague, created sense of offense, shoulders out and body rigid, nostrils flared. He repeated himself again: ``Don't fucking laugh, man, that isn't cool. That's fucking bullshit.''
The deep voice came from inside the truck again. Slightly nasal, a complete lack of hard R sounds, taking its inflections from somewhere between Massachusetts and the east end of Rhode Island: ``Barbara! You're up, baby! Don't hold up the party! We're waiting on you.''
Barbara brushed off her knees and walked noisily back into the truck, and the barefoot man in front of us turned worriedly and saw her go, and jumped into the back after her without another glance at us. Then there was no one there. No closure to the hostility he had stretched out in front of us a second before. We heard the heavy ropes of the hammock strain in the dark interior. The roll door rolled down.
It seemed that I had no sooner traced the route with my finger on the map at that Denny's than we turned onto Vector's street, only five hours or so before dawn. And then I was seeing his neighborhood out the bus window again, the interval dividing the two incidents dissolved in motion, in bumping, imperfect sleep. We drove the empty sidestreets for a few minutes, down the lines of fenced, gated properties, all of them with houses stuck on concrete slabs. It was like driving a car between the rows of a huge dog kennel, all stained concrete and chain-link, the houses fragile affairs within those pens. Even from inside the car, you could hear traffic out on the main streets, the faint thrum of helicopters somewhere. You could feel city vibration under the skin.
There were no lights on at Vector's house, not even the porch light he always left lit. They weren't home. I tapped Eric on the shoulder. ``It's the red one, pull up so your lights shine on the gate. I'll open it.''
Eric angled the bus into the entrance of the driveway, the grill three or four feet from the high gate. I slid the side door of the bus open, jumped out. I walked into the lights and took the combination lock in my hands. I remembered the sequence of numbers. As my fingers dialed the wheel around like a small, heavy puzzle, I recalled Vector telling me how to remember it, teaching me the picture that it made: A fifty-four-year-old right-wing voter will always be admitted before a twenty-eight-year-old left-wing voter at Studio Fifty-four, right?
The lock came open in my hands. I swung the gate open. Eric pulled the bus in, the bad muffler echoing off all of the concrete, brick, and blacktop surfaces, and I saw everyone's faces pressed to the bus windows. I pulled the gate back and reshot the bolt of the lock.
No one came to the door when I knocked. The key was in the planter on the porch, as it had always been. I had to root through the dirt for a minute or so before I found it, rusty, caked with dry dirt.
The door swung open. There was a cold feeling to the air that touched my face, a faint mustiness. I couldn't see a thing. My hand remembered the odd stretch to the light switch; not straight to the left as in most houses, but up about eye-level, very close to the door frame, harder for a stranger to locate. It was clear to me that he wasn't back from working on the Minnesota job yet. The house still had the sealed air of several month's absence. All of the windows were still down, locked with the spring-loaded steel jambs that Vector used.
``He's not back yet,'' I said, moving into the room. They all came in behind me, a little timidly, throwing bags down on the floor, unharnessing packs. Eric fell in a heap on the floor, bone tired from driving. Ella and Margery and Tom went a little awkwardly into the hall, searching out the bathroom, the bedrooms. Lauren and Lane were drawn around the dining room table, toward the kitchen, the pool in the back. I heard Sarah begin to put away some of the groceries we had brought.
``He'll mind only if he finds out we didn't use all of the amenities,'' I answered, flipping some of the toggle switches, hearing the stereo switch on, the heater start seeking a new level, the printer in Vector's room run a test pattern.
Ella came out of the hall with a set of white sheets folded neatly over her arm, heading purposefully toward the living room couch. She had found them unerringly. Tom nodded his head, sympathetically, knowingly. ``Computer viruses.''
His head pulled back around the corner. The others came in from the kitchen, headed to the reverse end of the house. Lane shook Eric's shoulder, and he stumbled up, working his eyes, followed the rest. I heard some dickering going on in the back rooms over sleeping arrangements. Ella was already making up the sofa. I was fascinated by the fussy way in which she tucked the pressed sheet into the curves of the sofa cushions, the way she patted it down, smoothed it with her small hands. Nothing could have communicated safety more distinctly.
There was no longer any reproach in her voice when she talked to me. Neither was there the impulse, as there had once been in Minnesota, to show me an unguarded self, and to provoke a sympathy with my own. She treated me much as she would Eric, or Tom. With only occasionally a stray, naked glance at me, a fragment of a continued wondering. I regretted that loss. I could watch her move, complex, serious, exceptional, watch her think our way out of some threat rising up around us, and I could regret that. But, too, I was easier this way. I no longer felt her need to know me as strongly, as disturbingly.
It was no accident that she had placed herself near the door. She was not entirely comfortable having us here, not yet. And there would be no arguing her away from that post. I lowered the lights still more, almost to dark.
I hit the play button, betting that there would be Dead already in the disc drive. There was: a digitalized bootleg. Vector had had all of his bootlegs remastered, converted to compact disc. I lifted the slim volume lever until the muttering and applause and cheering between songs became exactly life-sized. The speakers reproduced those sounds without lack of any kind, and it was very much as though there were a crowd fitted into that house with us.
Late, late, and dark. I heard motion in the hall. I crawled up from beside Sarah, replaced her arm under the thin blanket. We were in the small bedroom, what had originally been a walk-in closet when Vector bought the house, closest to the living room. I saw light suddenly run around the top and bottom of the closed door to the kitchen. I put on my shorts. Slowly, I made my way down the long, dark box of the hall, like a Kabuki dancer, straining to create silence.
The kitchen light was blinding. Lauren had the wall phone in her hand, her blond and brown hair standing starkly as though she had washed her face and smoothed it back while her hands were still wet. She turned and saw me, started and almost dropped the receiver, bobbled it once and caught the long cord finally before it hit the floor. She held her heart as the phone swung, and almost immediately began to cry quietly. I hung up the phone, put my arms around her.
She held on to me for another second, until her breathing began to come more and more deeply. She moved around the kitchen, looking for something. I guessed, opened a utility door and showed her a roll of paper towels. I realized watching her struggle for breath that her old injury was worse than I had ever thought -- she seemed for a second or two in danger of choking on her own tears. She had to pull in air with her mouth hung open, panting. Finally, she turned back to me, her stiff hair falling a little now, eyes and nose red.
``But you can't call, Lauren. You know that. They'll have investigators here if you do. There won't even be any lag time, they'll call here right while you're on the phone to there,'' I said. I remembered something that Tom had told me, about the unmistakable individuality of the human voice, and how through complex digital screening it would be possible to pick out a single voice among the millions speaking in the void inside of the telephone lines.
She went back to the cabinet, tore off another paper towel, this time more carefully, stretching out the process so that each of the perforations sounded individually, but quietly. I watched her wet the towel and touch it to her face. She was thinner than when I had first met her. I could see shadows under her cheekbones, and her lips were dry and chapped.
I went to the freezer and opened the small, upper door. Ice fog drifted out. I took out two Hershey's bars from Vector's stash near the back. They were as cold and as hard as ice, but the wrappers turned moist almost immediately as I took them out. I gave one to Lauren, unwrapped my own.
``We'll have to replace these,'' I told her, snapping off a triangular piece of the chocolate. We ate in the bright silence for several minutes. Every surface was smooth and hard and shining, solid under my feet and hands. Vector had a clock on the wall which was only the works of a clock, just a black box of gears and motors, with two long blue tropical bird feathers extending out from where the stubs of the minute and hour hands would normally attach. The feathers extended out about a foot and a half, swept slowly or quickly around and pointed to a larger, wider gyre of pictures taped unevenly to the wall. They were all the same picture of the Dead, neatly cut squares of image-blackened Xerox paper. One group at one, three groups at three, six at six. An entire Judgment Day grouped where the twelve would have been on the original clock. No second hand. I thought about finding a finch feather, surprising Vector.
She laughed weakly, a brown streak at the corner of her lips, like a child. ``Marc, stupid. Aren't we talking about Marc? Do you think he'll be there? Maybe he only got a fine or something. They only got him with a few little bags. I mean, he knows we'll be there. Maybe he'll take a plane out or something.''
``I don't know, Lauren.'' I took the last four squares of my candy bar, and popped the whole large plane of it into my mouth at once, talked around it as it collapsed. ``But I don't see any reason, really, why anyone couldn't be there. I expect to see the whole world.''
``No, I won't,'' she said and held out her hand for my wrapper, opened the utility door and put the crumpled ball of them in the garbage can. She dusted off her hands after she shut the door, kissed me good night on my cheek. I reached up, tentatively, and touched the largish slope of her nose, carefully, with just the tips of my fingers. I could feel the spot where calcium had deposited around the break. She watched me do it, trusted me. I told her softly, ``I'm sorry.''