Chapter Eight

The Millennium Shows by Philip E. Baruth, San Francisco

It was surpassingly strange, to find ourselves in a house. Everyone found that they knew approximately where things were. The closets had, really, to be where they were. The top drawer to the right of the sink should, and did, contain the silverware. Apart from the electrical system, which would suddenly offer you convenience from some singular location -- or deny you some staple convenience you had unconsciously expected -- apart from that we needed only to half-search for things. We all seemed innately familiar with the house for what it was. And for what, despite the differences Vector had created, it had to be.

I would watch for him from the roof sometimes. His garage had a flat top and a deck chair, and I would sit there at nights for a few hours, watching for his car. I saw thousands of cars, both on his street and off across the boundary of the backstreets, on the superstreets and freeways, but not his. No car the exact patchwork color of his, none that moved with the supreme caution Vector conveyed as a driver. Each night I watched blue lights kindle in all of the houses spread around me, sharing the bedrock of concrete with me. Blue lights that leapt very much like fire in the dark houses.

Vector did not come back, and I began to fear again that his health had gone bad, and that we had no way to hear from a hospital. No sense of connectivity with him at all. If something had happened how would we know, how would we make ourselves ready?

Those four days were of a dual nature. Like a changing silver picture I saw in a mountain bar in Pennsylvania: it was both a picture of a jumping trout halted in the sun, and a portrait of Jesus, eyes doe-like, beard as soft as doe fur. As instantaneously as that I would feel the change in the house around me: a satisfying domesticity would reverse into a strange and freeform sense of guilt, and uncleanliness. Apart from the moments when we all met at the kitchen table for dinner, or shot baskets in the small blacktop space to the side of the garage, there were moments of confession. Washing up in the bathroom would suddenly become a ritual of ablution. None of us wanted to cross the year-line unshriven. Of course there was no one among us who had nothing to tell, to confess, or who could keep themselves from telling.

Eric came out the afternoon of the first day, an abnormally hot December day, sat on the cement stoop while I wriggled under the house on my stomach, hunting in the narrow crawlspace full of webs and dirt. I was looking for the gas valve; Vector always closed it off before going out to do a tour of shows.

Eric's head would occasionally move down to peer in at me, blond hair hanging like a curtain, and each time the eclipse of it would leave me in a thick blackness. Finally, I scooted a little to my left, tried to work my neck and shoulder around to look at him. I realized that I couldn't, that I would have to crawl straight back out. I yelled without looking at him, ``Eric! Come on, you're blocking my light.''

``Sorry,'' he said, and then I heard him shift on the steps a bit. The light returned, more or less half-strength, only partial eclipse now. I went back to prodding and touching the dull copper pipes and ducts I could make out. It was cool under the house.

``Hey, Story,'' Eric whispered loudly to me.

``What?'' I said. The cold earth under my arms and chest was beginning to stiffen my joints. A small brown spider with a ridged back walked in the space near my hand. I shooed it, and it sprang out of the shifting light and vanished.

Eric paused and then leaned closer to the mouth of the tunnel, his voice coming lower and the light dying around me again. ``I gotta tell you something. Can you hear me, man?''

``I can hear you,'' I answered.

``When you first came up to our room in Minneapolis, when we very first found out about...right at first, when we found out about, like your name, and your credit card and all of that, I told Ella we should dump you. I told her we should pack up on you some day. I didn't know you then, and I --''

I made another attempt to turn and couldn't, but I whispered back, ``Eric, it's alright. You were doing what you thought was best for --''

``I know, I know that,'' he continued over me compulsively, and I realized that it would be better for me not to interrupt. ``I know, but I gotta tell you something else. I went at that Lake show at Minneapolis and I hunted around for the posters on you, but I also went looking for the guy putting them up. I never told Ella that. But I found him. Just this ratty guy with a beard looked like he was about forty, in a pair of work pants, walking around with a staple gun. Real skinny guy, like pencil arms. And I told him about you. He wrote some stuff down in a notebook.''

Eric's big form had been coming a little further off the steps as he talked, so that now I could see nothing and I lay stretched out quietly, resignedly in the cool earth. I could feel the house's mass balanced over me, vast as a pyramid.

``You told him what?'' I asked gently.

``I told him I thought you might be the guy,'' Eric said, and now I could sense that he had craned his head under the house with me. ``I told him you were in town and that you fit the description, that you were living with us.''

``It's alright, Eric,'' I said. ``I'm not in town anymore. And I'm not that guy. You didn't get me in any sort of trouble. It's not a crime not to be that person. Probably someone at every show comes up to him and describes someone with brown hair about my size. Probably anyone with two eyes, a nose and a mouth could see their own face in that Xerox,'' I said, my voice going nowhere, simply expiring against the dry dirt around me.

The sun came in again, and I saw a valve glint as it did so. I reached toward it, found the distance to be exactly the length of my arm. I turned it and felt the gas move under pressure into the small lattice of copper pipes twisting up into the flooring. There was a dull cheer from within the shell of the house, as the burner I had told Tom to hold a candle near suddenly caught fire.

Eric helped me crawl out the last of the way, helped me stand. The sun and his blond hair glowed in my eyes for a minute. I shut them and massaged the lids, blinked them until I could see his troubled face clearly. There was a lack of symmetry to his face that struck me then, as though the two halves of it had been jogged just slightly out of alignment. His hawk nose tended to draw your attention away from it unless you looked specifically at the facial structure. It was the sort of flaw that, had he become a male model instead of what he was, would have relegated him to profiles and cut-away shots. I wondered if he knew that about himself.

He was looking at me, guilty but unflinching as well. ``When I did it, Story, I did it because I thought it would make you leave. There was still a part of me that thought we'd be better off without you,'' he told me, brushing some of the dirt from the slope of my shoulders.

``Maybe you would have been,'' I said seriously.

``I did it because I thought Ella wasn't thinking straight about you.''

``Eric, shut up, it's alright.''

He smiled. ``OK, I just had to tell you. I thought I'd wait until you were in a spot where you couldn't hit me. I would have hit me.''

He shook my hand, a complex five-part shake that he had taught me, and that he did only with Ella and me now that Marc was gone. Tom and Lane would both turn it into a parody of itself about halfway through.

``I don't give a shit who you are, Story,'' he said then. ``I think you're an alright person. You've been good to us.''

``But you still think that's me, on those posters, don't you?'' I asked. When he looked embarrassed, I punched his chest lightly. ``Don't you?''

He reached up and pulled suddenly at the thong showing near my collarbone, and the white pouch bounced up out of the neck of my shirt, where I had put it so that it wouldn't drag while I crawled.

Eric worked the clenched leather mouth of it open, drew the credit card out and laid it, flat as a bug, in his hand. He turned it over, its edge scratching his palm, poked it idly with his finger. Checking it. He held it up to the sun, looking again for the three-dimensional play of holograms, the way almost everyone in the group had checked it at some point. Then he popped it back in the pouch and closed it tight, let it hang fully from my neck again.

And then he just smiled at me. ``Like I said, I don't give a shit who you are, man. You're a good dude.''

With each day that Vector did not come back, I worked my way deeper into the house, fixing and reordering things for him. I cleaned the pool and brought it up to swimming temperature. When he was home, Vector heated the pool year round. It was one of his greatest pleasures in life to add chlorine to the pool, to run bacterial counts on it, to satisfy himself before he went in each day that there was absolutely nothing alive in the royal blue water.

There was a little handheld kit beneath the diving board with eight or ten different glass cells for testing different chemical contents. It was a controllable thing. He had spent hundreds of dollars on an automatic pool cleaner, a floating motor with slowly whipping tentacle arms that drew dirt into its filter mouth, and he would sometimes watch it work for several long minutes after turning it loose.

We swam, the night before the shows. At dinner Eric had made a small ceremony of giving us each our ticket, and the pasteboard feel of it had made the shows more real for each of us. I folded mine neatly in half, put it in the pouch around my neck. Everyone put theirs somewhere safe, and then we sat at the table smiling like children. Like Christmas. We all sat at the table with our eyes shining, too full of the sense of bounty to say anything.

Later we entered the water with that feeling still strong. We jumped off the sides and the diving board and bobbed in the warm blue water like Easter eggs. The air was still very warm for December. We could hear dishes scrape faintly from inside the house, knives drawn for an instant across plates, cups ringing against spoons. Ella had insisted on doing the dishes before she would swim, refused all of our offers of help. From the pool I could see her standing at the sink, the kitchen window framing her small face, I could hear the water being turned on at regular intervals as she rinsed each dish.

We all held onto the sides after a while, treading water and talking about the shows, except for Margery who began to swim laps with the quiet, controlled stroke of someone who once swam competitively. Our voices sounded odd over the water. The only light came from two spots mounted on the house, which reached the pool only weakly, and from a series of underwater lights. There were sinuous reflections on the redwood fence surrounding the back yard. Lane had his arms up over his head, holding the diving board, telling us about the amnesty programs they would set up after the new year.

``Like traffic tickets,'' he said, ``right now you have all fifty states with different traffic tickets, parking tickets, all that kind of shit. And I mean right now they can catch you from some states to some other states. But once the new year rolls around, and everyone links into the same computer network, start giving the same tickets, they'll have you anywhere in the country.''

Eric was kicking his feet slowly beneath the surface. ``So why should they give you amnesty? When they finally have a way to catch you. Be real.''

``Because everybody is going to owe,'' Lane said smiling. The soft flood lights near the house made his face seem more theatrical, more mobile. His black hair was plastered tight to his head. He lifted his dark eyebrows like Chaplin, smiling. ``That's the beauty of it. When everybody owes, when everybody's a crook, you have to grant amnesty. You let everybody start fresh under the new system. You can't penalize people for playing under the old rules. You have to let them go back to start. Same with student loans. I'm not the only one that screwed up. They'll be willing to deal at some point. They'll make a big scare and then they'll come down with a big show of mercy.''

Tom was sitting on the steps that led into the shallow end of the pool, picking up water in his cupped hands and then letting it fall through his fingers. He still had his glasses on. He put his wet hands on his frail white knees and looked disgustedly at Lane. ``I suppose,'' he said dryly, ``there will be amnesty for misdemeanor offenses too, they'll just wipe your record. Just agree to let bygones be bygones.''

``In case the rest of you don't know it,'' Lane said, gesturing expansively across the water, ``Tom over there is referring to a little misdemeanor possession charge I got when I was all of eighteen years of age, for having a nickel bag of pot in my shorts when I went through the check at a show in Stillwater. But yes, Tom, now that you were so kind to mention it, I do think they'll wipe the minor shit, yes. Not rape, not murder or anything involving actual crime, but the victimless shit, yes I do think they'll wipe it all. Just think for a second how much money they could save just in bookkeeping if they did.'' He tapped his temple. ``Think of that.''

Margery stopped her swimming, settled onto one of the steps above Tom, began kneading his shoulders. His freckled face brightened. I noticed that the kitchen window was empty; I couldn't hear the sound of dishes any more, and I thought that Ella must be changing into her tanktop and shorts.

Sarah broke into the little silence. ``Lane, that's such bullshit. When they have you like you're talking about, they might let you pay in installments. But you still pay at some point.''

``What about Mexico, Sarah?'' Lane asked, thrashing at the water with his legs. ``What the hell about Mexico, eh?''

Sarah looked at me incredulously, back at Lane. ``What about Mexico, Lane? How'd we get to Mexico?''

Lane dropped his hands from the diving board, buoyed heavily down and then up in the water, began to tread water awkwardly. His breath started to come almost immediately in light, faint gasps: ``Same exact thing, as I've been trying to tell you. If you had one guy, in Mexico, who owed the U.S. a billion dollars, you can bet they'd get it. But you don't. You have a whole country. What do you do if they default? You twiddle your thumbs, or you go to war. Or, you do just what we have been doing, you threaten a little, you forgive a little debt, you keep chalking new lines in the dirt. Anything but give the impression, to all those people, that they're screwed beyond repair. Amnesty, you watch.''

``Don't even argue with him, Sarah,'' Tom called over to her, putting his glasses on the edge of the pool, balancing them there. ``He's a supreme bullshitter, and you'll never win, and you'll just get upset.''

Lane sucked water into his mouth, shot a tight stream of it in Tom's direction.

``Plus,'' Lauren said from her dark deep end of the pool, ``that's not true anyway, Lane. With countries like that they send, you know, managers and people and they basically give the country an allowance until they pay it back. They watch them until they pay it back.''

``Yeah, Lane,'' Sarah added, ``do you think they're just going to forget what they know about you? Your credit history? Once they know you're someone who can't pay bills, they're not going to wipe the record and let you borrow again.''

Lauren came back again: ``Even if they say they're going to wipe the record, you know they won't. They'll just say they did.''

I had to join in then. I said, ``Lane, they're right, you know, forgetting is a thing of the past. They might forgive, but they aren't able anymore to forget. Data is forever now.''

Lane looked around at all of our faces, shook his head wryly, waved us away with a sweep of his hand. Then he simply stopped treading water, let his body slowly submerge. His black hair fanned out as his head passed beneath the water line, then it too disappeared. I could see his white form through the shimmering water, dropping deeper, seeming to float for full instants. His toes touched the smooth white bottom, and I saw him pushing off, rising heavily through the fluid.

His head cleared the water, he shook out the water violently from his hair and we saw that he had his eyes tightly shut.

``Marco Polo!'' he yelled. ``Marco Polo!''

He might have cast a spell; all of us began immediately to scream and to laugh, trying desperately to put more of the pool between ourselves and Lane. No thought to it, those of us in the shallow end began to strain our legs against the water, trying to run from Lane's blind advances, and those of us hanging in the deep end went desperately hand over hand from one side of the pool to the other.

Lane moved like a shark, now slowly cruising, and then, when he caught the sound of breathing, yelling ``Marco!'' and thrashing forward when we responded with ``Polo!'' He had a trick of submerging and swimming suddenly forward and it was hard to see through the shifting reflections exactly where he would surface.

Margery had no trouble keeping away from him. Her strokes were fluid and graceful. He couldn't get closer than she chose to let him. Her back and moving arms looked strong and brilliant as she went through the water. Lane shot toward Eric and Sarah and me at the deep end. ``Marco!''

``Polo!'' We yelled, dividing as he came toward us. Sarah and Eric moved like athletes as well, both of them kicking and hauling themselves along by the sides of the pool. They divided off like partners, both drawing enough of his attention to keep him split in his efforts, their wet hair swinging as they moved.

Finally, Lane began to turn toward me and though I worked my way through the water as silently as I could, pressing my body as tightly as I could to the concrete side of the pool, he heard my passage and his pudgy arm snaked through the water and caught my ankle.

``Marco!'' I yelled, closing my eyes, and the word ``Polo!'' was a word yelled at me from all sides of a black sea.

I found myself giggling a little at the sudden feeling that I was being watched as I stumbled through the water. I could see nothing but blue spots which pulsed in the absence of light; the feel of the warm water against my body made me aware of my essential nakedness, my shorts just a rough cover over a small part of me.

I moved in the water, I heard my own laughing voice, I heard the voices of the others giggling and answering. I would move toward them and they would move away, slip away to some other part of the water, and in the confusion of that escape I would accidentally taste the strong disinfectant, and my body would tell me that it was a poison, that if I filled my mouth with water and drank I would be sick.


``Polo!'' they answered from all sides.

I thought that I had Tom once. The sound of his giggle began to merge with the sound of flailing arms and I thought that I would touch him. I cast my own arms around me wildly but touched nothing, and the black water lapsed into silence. It was an entirely disorienting silence, except for a small sucking noise that grew loud in my ear as I swam slowly past a filter outlet in the shallow end. Then, having heard one, I couldn't help but hear them all as I swam, all of the filters placed at regular intervals, drawing impurities into their dainty plastic maws. I swam hand over hand blindly, reaching, as the filters hissed at me.


Tunnels and filters. Tunnels as filters. Filters as tunnels.


I felt my heart pumping strongly, quickly in my temples. I felt my brain stand in the blood inside my body, as I floated in the chlorine. None of us were connected in the pool. We were separated by a chemical barrier, and the small sucking noise of the filters began to dizzy me. I felt the old fear begin to move in me. It was as though the filters were fitted at the end of a vastly reticulated black tunnel, the sucking hiss of them the signal of intelligent control over this network of pressures and of passages. I beat the water with my hands and feet, beat at the water. Beat at the water, felt my limbs slow.

I said, ``Marco,'' very softly. Felt water pass over my face.

And then without any interval in between I felt the scratch of concrete on my back, a wet mouth stretched over mine and air being blown into my lungs.

I shuddered and spit up water in the redwood chips of the flower garden beside my head, coughed, hurting my chest. Margery sat up over me and wiped her mouth, and then I felt the tension in all of the rest of them standing over me. I began to stir, and Margery put a hand on my chest, settled me back to the concrete. Her hair was bedraggled from the water, and there was a small look of horror on her white face. She kept pushing her wet hair off her face, panting.

Lane leaned down, ruffled my hair a little. His voice was worried, but relieved. ``You almost drowned, man. You should have told us you couldn't swim.''

``I can swim,'' I said, coughed again.

Sarah was crying. She said, ``I thought you were playing when you went under. Nobody even went near you for a second.''

I felt a touch at my wrist and looked down to see Ella holding it, counting. She was still in her gauze dress, and socks and shoes. She had never had a chance to enter the water. As I watched her she looked up and I saw tears stand in her eyes as well. She took them away with the back of her hand, patted my wrist. The sight of her crying for that second was stranger than blacking out in water, stranger than waking to someone else's breath.

And later as I brushed my teeth, when I thought everyone was settling into bed and the lights in the house were all off, Ella appeared in the mirror beside my face. I smiled at her through the white foam. She had on a pair of slippers and a green terrycloth robe; she stood in the doorway as a mother would have stood, or a younger sister, it depended how I looked at her. Her eyebrows, the thin auburn lines of them, were turned down, a frame of worry. She walked into the bathroom, stood behind me. I could only see her in the mirror. Her blonde and chestnut hairline was there just at the level of my shoulder, her face sad, watching me brush.

She put a hand on my shoulder, and unlike the other times she had touched me in the last few weeks -- practical, limited touches -- this time I felt her care for me in the way she pressed my shoulder.

``I'm sorry,'' she whispered. Her voice came thickly.

I turned around, took hold of the thick monogrammed towel hanging from the towel bar behind me and wiped my mouth. ``Sorry for what, Ella?''

``For everything,'' she said. ``For treating you like a criminal. I'm sorry.''

``No, Ella, don't even say that. If either of us should apologize, it should be me, you know that.''

``Just let me be sorry, Story. That's what I feel.''

She took me in her arms. I folded my arms around her, feeling the strength of her fine bones, the rigidity in the littleness of her body. She began to cry again, this time more disorienting than earlier, her body shaking. She cried for a full minute. Then she put her hands flat against my shoulders, pushed away and wiped her face with the towel. She leaned past me to look at her face in the mirror, checking the redness of her eyes as she dried them with the towel. Then, after a moment, she began to work over the counter area, capping the toothpaste, wiping up the small green blots of it from the formica surface with a scrap of toilet paper. She used the same piece of toilet paper to shine the chrome of the faucet, and then tossed it in the bowl of the toilet and flushed it. She cleared her throat and looked up at me, smiling at her own fussiness. She put the toilet seat down with a certain stylized reproach, as though for the thousandth time.

I had the key in my hand, but I turned back to check the spring-jambs on the windows. Lane turned with me, followed my steps back to check the nearest window, mimicking my slowness. He started to snap his fingers as I unlimbered the spring mechanism, and reset it tighter.

His voice started low, got louder. ``Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on!''

``Lane,'' I turned to him, ``keep a grip on yourself. Go wait in the car.''

``We'll never get out of here if I do,'' he answered, taking my arm and turning my motion toward the kitchen into an arc back toward the door.

``Maybe we should take some food,'' I suggested.

``We're eating fast food in the car on the way there, Ella said so,'' he parried.

``I want to leave a note,'' I said, shaking off his hands. ``Just give me one minute, please Lane. We will be at the shows for three days. Give me a minute.''

I got a piece of paper from the pad stuck on the wall next to the kitchen phone, sat down in one of the chairs at the dining table, began to write. Lane came around the corner, gasped, ``Jesus God! He's sitting down! Come on, Story, at least stand up and write! Don't make yourself comfortable, we have to go! It's after noon already.''

I didn't answer, trying to concentrate. I told Vector that the pool was clean, that the gas had been on, was now off, that there were no more bars of chocolate, that Lane had broken a small lever on the equalizer panel, that I would look for him every day at the highest point in the parking lot. I thumbtacked it to the door frame opposite the front door, where he would see it when he walked in. Lane went out the door, drawing me after him by my shirt. I locked the door, felt the renewed somnolence of the house, buried the key in the dry dirt of the flower pot.

As I turned around, my legs were swept out from under me: Lane had me in his arms, running for the bus. ``Open the door!'' he yelled. ``I got him, open the door!'' The side door of the bus slid open and Lane thrust me inside. Everyone was looking at me like fathers look at clocks outside cartoon delivery rooms.

Tom asked, ``What did you do, re-wax the floor in there? Whittle a spare key?''

Eric yelled back from the driver's seat, ``Get all the windows washed, Story? 'Cause we can wait a little, you know, if you missed one.''

Lauren locked the door as Margery slid it closed. ``No rush, Story,'' she said, and Margery patted my shoulder, ``We really don't have anything to do, if you're not finished.''

Eric was checking the gauges, hooking his shoulder harness carefully. Lane began to drum on the back of his seat, a quick, plastic thumping: ``Come on, Eric. You can do it. My man, Eric Speed Demon. We love you. Come on, my man. Eric, Eric. Eric, I'll be honest with you, I would like to see the speedometer needle move to the right at some point today.''

``Lane, shut up!'' Eric said, shaking his head. He adjusted the rear view mirror, settled himself in his seat. He paused for a second, reached a long arm out to adjust the side mirror. Resettled himself. Paused. Grinned just as Lane was about to protest, gave the minute rotation of his blond wrist. The bad muffler boomed. We all yelled like little kids.

There were deadheads everywhere on the freeway. Car after car that we passed had groups of four and six, and occasionally groups of two. You would notice color from a distance, in the area of the bumper, the back window, a pattern more vibrant than any normal stickers. And then, as the car passed, a wash of tie-dye, circles and sunbursts that were visual representations of the same music that was playing from all of our tape players, and even our radios. Because all of the radio stations were playing Dead music, a brief and localized harmonic convergence. Then the reds and blues of their colors would diffuse back into the line of traffic passing south on the San Diego Freeway, they would slip back into that artery of color, all the time waving and still vainly attempting to pass a small smoking pipe from their car up to the windows of ours.

When we stopped in traffic, deadheads would run down the lines of idling cars passing out poems, offering drinks of water and Kool-Aid from big plastic jugs. I noticed that many of the cars we passed gave us a signal I had never seen: both fists pressed together at the heels of the hands, so that the closed fingers and thumbs mirrored and pressed against one another. We began to return it long before Lane leaned out and asked a man in a decrepit Honda what it meant. He said that it meant unity, and a woman in the passenger seat of a beautiful Porsche said that it meant hope of coming victory. Everyone thought something slightly different, signalling the same and understanding one another perfectly.

We heard over the radio that the roads south were jammed, lighted signs overhead offered us alternate routes. They even mentioned the shows by name, as an obstacle to traffic, and everyone passing under the huge changing sign board sounded their horn at the celebrity of that abbreviated mention.

We had been on the road for only an hour or so when Ella leaned over to Eric, pointed to an exit sign: Norwalk, Carmenita Ave., North, South. Eric downshifted and coaxed the bus between the crawling cars, while Ella asked the drivers beside us to let us cross through their lane. She could be so demure when the situation demanded that approach. She half-stood as we made the exit ramp, her arm around Eric's seat, pointing at something indeterminate through the window. I saw Eric nod, and we came around the long banked curve slowly, straightened out on the business access road.

I was looking out the window at the crude industrial pilings around us, at the tons of sand, the refinery equipment and the dirty rails of dead trains. We swung heavily into a restaurant that specialized in pies of all sorts. Sarah began to talk about the impeccable pecan pie that they served in Memphis, and she and Margery hugged each other, talking about some restaurant they had known. There was no drive-through window, and Eric parked the bus a ways from the entrance after seeing how full the lot was. Lane was turning his head back and forth, scanning the restaurant through the window.

``Hey,'' he said, almost disappointed, ``I thought we were going to eat fast-food in the car.''

Ella turned around and looked at him blankly, and I saw that she had on her longest earrings, teardrop-shaped hoops of metal, one within another, which hung nearly to her shoulder. There was something vaguely Egyptian in the look of them against her small face.

``Lane,'' she answered, ``you know Lauren gets sick on fast food. We have plenty of time, it's only half past one.''

``And the traffic will lighten up in about an hour,'' Eric added, ``after lunch hour is over and the business people get off the road.''

``We could get it to go here too,'' Lane mumbled, but by then the doors were open and everyone was on the blacktop, stretching, yawning. Sarah put an arm around my waist and drew me toward her, then she drew Lauren to her other side, and she kissed both of our cheeks. Tom and Eric jumped and slapped their hands as high over their heads as they could.

I saw a number of deadhead cars in the lot, and I thought that there was probably not a restaurant or gas station off any exit on the entire shifting spine of the freeway that did not have its share of them: stray particles, entirely random in their grouping, but statistically predictable.

The only table large enough for our party was in the plate-glass window of the restaurant, and we took it. Ella began to balk because it was in the smoking section, but Lane and Tom had already run to it and begun reading the sugar packets. We all slid into the shell of the orange booth, Eric and I like bookends at the edges, one leg under the table and one leg out. The waitress brought us coffee, and ice water.

As we looked at the menus, I saw Ella check a small gold wrist watch on her arm, glance out the window, turn reflexively to me. I smiled, and she smiled back, went back to the tall columns of her menu.

Margery was talking about the Sunday show, when the year, the decade, the century, and the millennia would all roll forward. She was talking about the feeling she had about the part of the Dead that had died, the hopeful feeling she had for him. She said that she could understand the deadheads who thought that he would be there, that his death had been an elaborate hoax, or that he would be subject to some new laws of death and spirit. Her voice was a bit timid, as though she thought that we might burst into laughter.

I was listening to her, but as I did I saw a large, clumsy blue car drop slowly from the freeway down the off-ramp like a ball on a roulette wheel. I saw it negotiate that easy, looping curve and begin to turn its nose toward the business access road. There was a familiarity in the caution that the car showed on that curve, the way it cut slowly and properly through the sun and blue sky behind that raised road. My chest knotted. I put a hand to it, my mouth hanging open.

Like the resurrection of a dull statistic -- like the fact that the earth is three-fourths water -- I remembered then that the city of La Mirada has no freeway exit of its own. It shares a turn-off with the city of Norwalk.

The blue car out the window, a heavy and square, American-built automobile, had stopped half a block away for a light.

Ella began to say something to me, her hands out to calm me down, and Margery's face suddenly clouded over as though she would break into tears.

I ran. I ran as fast as I could through the restaurant, my shoulder struck a man in a suit standing quietly before the register with a white guest check in his hand. I felt him fall off balance, I heard him swear angrily at me, I did not stop to apologize.

I shoved hard at the door, ran through the parking lot past a hundred rows of cars, zigzagging crazily between them, until I found a road through them. I was gasping, pumping my legs and arms as hard as they could move. I thought for a moment that I could hear the Indian regularity of Eric's stride behind me, but even that phantom of sound faded. The sun was full over me, and I felt myself sweating as I jumped a guardrail, found gravel under my feet. I ran through a refinery and smelled its burning-tire smell.

I climbed two chain link fences. The toe of my sneaker caught in a loop of the second one and I fell, scraping open the heel of my hand and the crown of my knee. I walked as fast as I could, limping and half-running again, until I could look back and see nothing of the restaurant or its parking lot through the standing waste of heavy old machinery and steaming factory complexes.

I ran again until my side hurt. I found my way into the dusty grounds of a Nabisco factory, a dead complex with no cameras, no guards that I could see, no one watching over its fabrication of cookies.

I climbed a smog-discolored ladder at the side of the back wall, climbed it like a tree for long minutes. My chest was tight from running, and I stopped very near the top before continuing to climb. I was breathing hard. My hands, tight on the ladder, came away filthy. I came out on a roof, and my shoes left faint prints in the fine soot. I lay down behind a busted air vent, hearing the traffic sluice by on the freeway back the way I had come. I was shaking. I found that I was crying.

She had called. Ella had called the woman behind the posters, the La Mirada woman whose machine had heard me tell the story from beginning to end. Not for the reward, that would not be Ella, but in some bluntly medicinal way, like thrusting a pill down the throat of a small dog. She believed that the woman in the awkward blue sedan that I had seen was my mother, and she had called her, arranged a meeting the night before. It was something that I had believed no member of a group would do, give up an inner part to the protestations of someone or something outside. Only Ella would have done it. She had exposed me.

I stayed behind the air vent at the top of the Nabisco factory for four hours as planes passed over, their engines screaming slowly and dully. I could feel machinery inside the building at work. I felt it in my back against the tarred roof but no coordination to it, no true control. The sun was fading into a paler presence behind the smog when I stood and felt my legs full of pins-and-needles, still weak with the feeling of violation, full of the sense of being alone again.

But I had my ticket. I checked it before I climbed down the long ladder to the ground, and it was still resting neatly folded in my pouch next to the stiff length of the credit card.

On any other day I would have despaired of getting to the shows. That area of Southern California is not built for walking, you cannot walk, there are no connections between places but streets, and they are streets with no sidewalks, no shoulders, no space that is not deeded to traffic. It is not inconvenient to walk, but impossible. There are active barriers.

I might on any other day have had to take a bus, and I would have missed the first night completely. But I walked overland to the freeway, climbing fences like hillocks as I went, and followed the bank of it to a small convenience store. And as I had known there would be, there were several cars full of deadheads at the pumps, gassing up frantically and laughing at their own hurry.

There was never a day in the history of the world when there was less resistance to passing into a group. I rode out of the unincorporated industrial area outside La Mirada in a brand-new powerful white mini-van, tucked in leather cushions among five very young deadheads, all of whom wore headsets playing soft Dead music, which they would mute briefly, by touching a button, when they spoke to one another. Mostly they communicated by facial expressions and by hand signals, pointing and touching, smiling or making shows of disgust at passing objects.

Although I had no earphones I fell into the silent play of those symbols well enough.

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