I filled their tank with gas somewhere outside of Costa Mesa, California, and the old woman cashier reminded me in a soft clucking voice that Sunday was the expiration date of my card. I thanked her, but I went cold inside. I hadn't known. As an afterthought I put a handful of dried beef snacks on the counter. She told me to have a very nice time at the shows.
We passed through lighted city-scape after city-scape. There was no way to differentiate one from another, developers had stood all of them up in identical ways. We rode for almost another two hours, stopping and going with the line of traffic, and I saw nothing that was not concrete, the tan of desert ground or the polished sandstone of office buildings, the metallic tints of high-rises. There was no color which the neon on these buildings did not resurrect and intensify: the clusters of buildings in canyons could be made any color by the play of filtered light down their dun concrete sides.
We rode until the building abruptly stopped, and there was scrub suddenly in the shoulder of the freeway, a tumbleweed cantering in a dark field just within range of the headlights. It was the last undeveloped stretch of the Southern California coast, the start of what had been a massive military installation. All of it was a dead area of coastline and scrub foothills and moving coyotes that would rise at the far end into the lighted arm of the suburbs of San Diego.
I remembered a show in Rosarita, Mexico, where I heard the Dead sing two of their most famous songs in rough gringo Spanish, making that concession to their own ignorance, and pleasing the Mexicans who came in droves to watch the droves of us that had slipped at night across their border.
That last time I had driven through this area there had been no lights for twenty miles, just Elmo fire in the surf. Once there were the landing lights of a troop helicopter, performing maneuvers in the sand a hundred yards from the highway, men scurrying up and down dark threads. Other than that only blackness. Now, I saw one of the young deadheads on the leather cushions with me make a casual O with his mouth, and I looked to see a cluster of bright halogen lights, hanging just at the coastline. Bright as day in that area, like the rising of the sun.
It began as a series of small green signs. They were miniatures of the large signs ordinarily hung over the freeway, with smaller reflective letters forming the smaller message: Pendleton Meadows Amphitheater. We were shunted from the freeway to a smaller, sharper, cleaner road that angled away toward the coastline. The white and yellow markings of the road were crisp and bright, the reflective markers in its center new and perfect.
The signs brought us through a baffle of small hills until we began to see people standing by the side of the road, yelling at us as we passed them, importuning, shoving signs in the headlights, Tickets?, We need tickets, Sell us tickets, We Have Cash If You Have Tickets, I Have Come From The East, Need Tickets Bigtime. Their faces were jubilant and young and earnest, but touched also with a low frenzy; they would obstruct the traffic if they thought that someone in a car had motioned to them. They continued on into the dark scrub on both sides of the road. A couple, when we stopped as the line of cars stopped, held a small child in our headlights: naked, blond hair tied with a bandana, his feet kicking and his small sex hanging idly in the lights and on his stomach painted in day-glo paint, We Need A Miracle.
We rounded a tall hill, and I saw the parking lot stretched out before me. It was I think larger than any parking lot I had ever seen, it was larger even than I had believed it would be. It stretched north and south farther than one could see. It disappeared over the gentle hills that were itself, for they hadn't ironed it flat. They had left the rippling of the coast, the smaller hills and bluffs as a way of increasing the surface area of the lot, as a means of increasing its ground-intensity. They had only landscaped in a small way, regularized it, rounded and flattened it.
The thousands and thousands of cars covering it were very closely set. They were all parked in spaces just big enough to hold them, compacts in a certain area, mid-size cars, trucks, vans, trailers, parked sometimes on the horizontal but more often not. The whole tightly fitted mass glittered under the long lines of overhead lights, with only very occasionally a chink of empty blacktop standing out from that pattern.
The silver light poles that nodded delicately over the lot were like nothing so much as tall mushrooms in their profusion and shape and color, the way that they were clustered together at key junctures within the rows.
There was a checkpoint outside the parking lot; we had to pay to park the car, we had to show our tickets. The young deadhead driving muted his headset, listened for a moment, looking for that moment respectable and earnest and polite. A flashlight was played over the interior of the van. While we idled, I could hear the tinny, complex lilt escaping from the earphones in the car around me.
The driver then took a red sticker from the man in the booth and fixed it to the inside of the windshield. When he rolled up his window, he smiled silently back at us before starting forward, and the rest of the group in the back with me exchanged excited looks, hugged, saying nothing, making no sound really. These Walkman deadheads were strange. It was like sitting in a room full of deaf-mutes, all of whom are actively, silently enjoying themselves, just the sounds of their hands and bodies moving.
Security people in yellow cautionary jackets waved us through the lot with red plastic cones turned orange by their interior lights. We were still part of a slow rolling line of cars. People were boiling through the lot everywhere, marching between every row of cars, small lines of them breaking off and reforming. It took us some fifteen minutes to reach the spot whose number matched the number on our sticker, and a woman in a yellow jacket with a small headset guided our parking so that we settled between the lines.
Once we were parked, I could see the high, white shell of the amphitheater. It stood between the lot and the ocean, its sides wrapping around at an angle just sharp enough to block a view of the stage from the parking lot. I could make out vaguely a line of fencing running away from both of the open ends of that wall, running off toward the ocean. I could see nothing inside, but I could smell the ocean, and I could hear the music faintly from within the shell. In an odd synaesthesia they seemed to touch the same sense within me.
It was true; the music, even at that low, drifting level, was lacking, it had a dimension missing although I could hear that they had someone else playing and singing the dead one's parts. The particular lift of his guitar was gone. His gray voice was simply absent. But there was another feeling in it which ameliorated that loss, a massed energy I heard, a quickening and fine-tuning of the rest of the band. Like juggling, when the arcs begin to widen and accelerate and you find yourself forced to turn the balls more deftly than you believe you can, the rest of the Dead seemed to be pushing and excelling themselves.
Despite the sadness in the missing voice, there was an excitement in that unexpected pace. I could smell that, hear it, and I thanked the young deadheads and began to walk toward the shell. I left them gesturing and signing to one another.
There were small shuttle buses running through the lot, their lighted interiors full of people hanging from straps, but I wanted to walk and look for the tallest point. I knew that Vector would probably be inside the amphitheater, but even the distant white dome of it made me anxious, and I decided to spend the first night completely outside. I needed to be taken in. Despite a small remaining bitterness I couldn't help but keep an eye out for the bus, for the flash of Eric's juggling balls over a car roof.
I allowed myself to walk the lot slowly. I think everyone I had ever seen was there. I recognized so much: the limping gait of a man I had seen at a show in the Oklahoma Panhandle, statues made by a one-handed woman from Pittsburgh, very, very bad -- unforgettably bad -- statues out of soap and wax and paper maché.
A woman of about forty walked by me with a straw basket. She wore a thin dress and tennis shoes. She smiled and I smiled as she passed. She stopped suddenly and lifted a checked cloth from the basket, took out some baked good and held it in her hand. We were standing in front of a Pinto with a shattered back window, very much as though we knew one another. Her face was pouched at the base of the cheeks. Her black hair was run through with silver.
I closed my eyes. ``I love you,'' I said softly. Then I felt the first flakes of pastry being pushed gently against my lips. Baklava. I could taste honey, crushed walnuts, my mouth was stuffed with layer on layer of the thinnest philo dough.
``Not even then,'' I said, and I felt her put another square of the baklava into my hand. I opened my eyes, chewing. The woman looked as though she would say something to me, then smiled again. She walked away, white sneakers sticking to the blacktop.
I found that I couldn't zig-zag through the lot as easily as one normally could at a show. The cars were fitted more tightly together, and the tents and blankets and stoves that people had already run up completely cemented the small remaining aisles. Sometimes I would have to go twenty or thirty cars and trucks before I could find room to pass to a row nearer the white shell. Invariably, at that spot deadheads would be streaming through.
It was at one of these little bottlenecks that I noticed the deadheads in black. The first one I saw was a young woman of eighteen or nineteen, the sort who would normally have worn a beautiful patchwork skirt and a wine-colored tie-dye, who would have seemed vital, fresh in the clearness of her skin and the straightness of her carriage. Like Sonjee, the soft, almost refined colors of her dress would have made her ineffably lovely.
But this woman wore widow's weeds, rough black lace folding out of a straitened waist and bodice. She had on an old woman's gloves and stockings, and her boots were low and black. Vintage clothing-store boots. She clumped when she walked in them. She held her face in a somber expression, young lips turned down. And the members of her group that followed behind were likewise in black, black T-shirts and skirts, black jeans, black sneakers. I thought at first it was their group dress, but I began to see other people in black, here and there one or two among the press of primary colors.
I had told Vector that I would meet him at the highest point in the parking lot, and as I walked I was craning my head, searching for a central signpost, or a tall light fixture. But all of the lights and posts were of the same height; the soft undulation in the height of the lot itself made tall points sometimes seem short, a Volkswagen parked at the crest of a blacktopped hill might seem tall.
I stood for a few moments at the base of a shuttle signpost, one which happened to be near the peak of a flat hill, but as groups of deadheads gathered around me and then receded into buses, I noticed that there was another stop like it about a quarter of a mile away, at least as tall in the distance. Even my shadow would not hold a size, the humming overhead lights were continually shrinking it to nothing.
As it grew later, helicopters rose up, came toward the outskirts of the lot from one of the old military warrens in the far hills. They began searching the blank area between the freeway and the blacktop, those unfinished bluffs. The noise of them chilled me. I thought of Edward, and Marc. I needed to be taken in, but for all of the thousands of groups around me, it was as though there was no one there.
I saw the ship as I was approaching the Oversized Vehicles section. I saw the crow's nest of it thrusting up into the dark air, its other shorter masts, and the rigging waving in the light breeze that sometimes moved in from the ocean. It was a schooner. It was amazing, seeing it sitting there among the cars and trucks, that ship. It was taller than anything I could see, and I began to work my way through rows of cars toward it, stepping over blankets spread with jewelry where I could, once moving a stove, apologizing, moving it back like a secret door after me. The ship was parked in a low section with campers and trailers. The closer I got the more of the lower body I could see; where the bulk of its wooden hull should have been there was a Dodge Ram, a powerful wide-bodied truck with thick and bright white-wall tires. The ship framework extended far over the nose, far back over the rear bumper, a light brown wood hung with belaying pins and heavy rope. Finally I reached the row in which it sat, and I could see two long-haired girls on the small deck, parodying the Miss America wave and smile, and then their act coming apart in laughter.
It had been a float in the Rose Parade, mostly built by a deadhead carpenter from Pasadena named Clifford. This carpenter was a truculent man, little more than two angry black eyes, a thick beard hiding his lips, and a pair of overalls. He had argued for the ship violently after the parade, when the Rose Parade committee would have had it dismantled, and he had won it from them. He had taken off the brown side curtains that disguised the truck beneath, and kept it on the roof of his Pasadena garage for months, waiting for December to sail it south to the shows. Dried flowers still clung to the sides like barnacles. They made a small scratching noise when the wind blew.
All of this I learned in the hour I spent on the deck with him, eating from a bag of undyed pistachio nuts that he had and listening to the music and cheering from the tall white amphitheater in the distance. He was glad for the company. He had set himself a watch on the boat, he talked about car thieves. We were a perfect match; he was a compulsive talker stuck alone on the boat, and I listen.
``I can't frickin' believe it,'' he spat. ``It used to be you could go to a show and pass out in your car and you'd wake up and find somebody'd spread a blanket over you. Now they'll steal your shoes. It's a different crowd, I'm telling you. Thrill-seekers, most of these folks. They ain't here for the music.''
He grumbled about everything. He waved his wrists, curiously thin for a carpenter. He hated how much they had charged him to park the ship, and he had gotten three tickets on the freeway already for having no set of running lights for the upper part of the ship.
He would grumble, chew his pistachios and cast the blond shells down into the lot, where they barely clattered. ``Get your tickets in the lottery?'' he asked me very early in the conversation. I nodded, hugging my knees. He pulled in his lips, grimly, so that his beard filled in his mouth completely, nodded over his hand of nuts. ``That was some bullshit,'' he said, scattering husks and shells from his palms in a dusting-off gesture. ``Yep, that was some bullshit on that one. Random, my ass. It was about as random as picking a new Pope. Even the Dead are bullshitters these days. Only the people with credit wound up with tickets. Random my ass.''
There was as much or more noise from the lot itself than from the show: it dwarfed the official spectacle. I could hear screaming and laughter floating over all of the small blacktopped hills, people passing and jabbering in slow thousands, the patrol cars as they passed at regular intervals, their radios muttering.
Clifford snorted at the noise, shook his head, smiling. ``Oversold the damn thing too. This place is supposed to hold quarter of a million people. But they sold three hundred thousand, three fifty, something like that. And they got another hundred thousand camped out in the hills by the road.'' He scratched his beard. ``Greed and stupidity. It's all over this place, you can see it in the details.'' He looked at me a little more carefully. ``You come in alone, or what?''
He nodded, obviously not one to push. He revolved a finger, managing to include the entire ship and the bag of pistachios in the gesture. ``Feel free,'' he said. I could smell the fires, and chicken and pork cooking, the peanut smell of masses of vegetables being tossed in hundreds of woks throughout the crowded lot. Salt air mixed with the lightest odor of blacktop, freshly set-up. We shelled the pistachios. Clifford was telling me about some man the day before who had juggled flaming swords from the top of a dented Toyota Tercel.
Clifford looked at his watch, nodded with a certain satisfaction. ``Those fuckers learned their lesson, I see. First few days I was here they left the lights on all night. Nobody could sleep, for Christ sake. So people started busting lights, spraypainting them black, all kinds of crap.''
He pointed to a light near the ship, a busted light. He winked. ``I took that one out with a crescent wrench. Hammered the fucker.'' He shrugged. ``That's not normally something I'd do. I tend to be pacifist. But you know. Sometimes the only thing bureaucrats can hear is the sound of breaking glass.''
The amphitheater management had reluctantly agreed to dim the lot after a certain point each night. Now it was so dark in comparison to the earlier light that I could see no farther than a few cars away. The crow's nest stretched up and was lost in that black.
Clifford had the crow's nest working on a revolving schedule. There was a telescope in it, and so many people wanted to see. Every half hour or so, a man or woman would scale the rigging, and one would descend, talk with us for a few minutes about the view from above: the top of the stage was visible over the high white wall, you could see the elaborate play of spotlights on the backdrop.
They would talk excitedly, some of them fumbling out a dollar or a pinch of change and dropping it in a mayonnaise jar which Clifford had marked, California Highway Patrol Fund. If I leaned my head back I could just see the black snub nose of the telescope against the night sky, protruding from the large wooden bucket. That and the twisting arms of the person dancing inside it, alone.
After a time I noticed the numbers of people in the lot beneath us growing slightly heavier, the noise level picking up although there was still music in the amphitheater. I began to half-expect Vector.
Clifford's girlfriend Lu came back to the ship, climbed the silver safety ladder to the deck railing instead of using the ropes. She was a quietly plump woman in a large blue tie-dyed skirt, the sort who seem always to fall in love with talkers and arguers and to spend their lives slightly behind them.
Clifford was obviously in love with her. He stood up when she came awkwardly aboard, kissed her hard, introduced her to me with his arm over her shoulders. This she accepted with a grace and a pleasure that did give a beauty to her. We sat back down, and she folded into Clifford's side, seemed to disappear there until he would draw her out with some question, his voice now soft, gentler.
``Well, I'd hope so,'' Clifford said. He picked up her wrist, held it up to his face, studying it. There was a mint-green plastic band affixed to it, the sort which cannot be removed without cutting them, the plastic snap works only once, the one way. Clifford spun it with his fingers, turning up the square of a zebra stripe on the far side, touching it with his long fingers.
She turned the band back the way it had been, with the zebra stripe hidden, brushed her hair back, smiled and opened her eyes wide at him, teasing. ``Nothing, Cliff. They're giving them out. So you don't have to keep showing your ticket. People were making zebra noises at the show, pretending like they were packs of zebras. People with paints were painting stripes for people.''
Lu looked at me, blushed, shook her head. ``I can't,'' she said, and then she did it anyway, timidly, with her head thrown back: a high plaintive sound, the screeching of startled horses. She shrugged her shoulders, blushing more.
She got up then and went to a cabinet at the base of the main mast, took out a toothbrush and spread some paste on it. There was a big water dispenser at the railing, and she ran water over the bristles, the overflow spattering on the boards. Then she stood at the railing, running the brush in and out of her closed mouth.
Clifford watched her for a moment. He looked at her in a way that told me he had come to center himself in her; there was something a little jealous and greedy in it. Then he recollected himself, turned back and told me that I was welcome to camp out on the deck, they slept in the cab. I felt the warmth of his company slip away a bit. We were not really of the same group, although we had talked and cracked nuts for an odd hour. He would not think to look for me in the morning, for a nest of blankets anywhere in the nooks of the boat. He might invite me to eat with them. Yet there was no real concern, only simple friendliness.
I thought again of Edward. I wondered if he were somewhere in the lot, asking after Sonjee, passing a picture of her and himself, or tired from that and stretched out in the back of the limousine. Unable to sleep for the noise around him, the music, the passing bodies of deadheads, their hands trailing down the car's tan sides as they passed. Unable, after years, to be sure that he still loved her or that he could still separate her face from the remembrances of thousands of women he had seen at shows throughout the country. He would feel his age as he hunted for sleep in that noise. I wondered where to look for him. He was not in Oversized Vehicles from what I could see.
I traded two of the beef snacks that I had in my pocket to a man who walked by whispering Shrooms. I went to the water dispenser, and I ate the mushrooms not because I wanted to, but because they reminded me of the room that we had shared in the Skyways, all of us.
I found an Indian blanket in a plywood chest next to the main mast. The very tip of the ship was finished in balsa wood. The soft material had allowed Clifford to imitate the fineness and haughtiness of those ships that men used to make. An angry face was scored in the wood, at the very tip.
I sat in a metal deck chair with the blanket wrapped around me, feeling the salty air turn chill. I could hear the scratching of the ship's dead flowers as the wind blew among them. The white amphitheater was soon an opalescent moon, and the long, dark lines of people still filing out of it passed the ship with crashing sounds, in wave after wave.