Live the Legend
Noemi Empire clutches her brown hold-all between her feet. Another bag’s drooped on top. She waits among the passengers, all men, and distracts herself with a bite of cucumber sandwich.
A mural of Colonel Candy, a handsome, charismatic, if not troubling head of state, is painted on the wall of the terminal’s drab lounge. It’s emboldened with type: “Welcome to the Libyan Arab Republic.” She laughs. Most sensible people have left the country now owned in full by Colonel Candy’s Revolutionary Command Council. Except her and Wyatt.
The tongue of airstrip wavers with a blue and white mirage, its edges littered with debris from the war. Noemi rallies her nerves when she confronts the antediluvian zinc Dakota. She doesn’t fuss in the end and simply steps up the ladder with her misgivings and boards the bird.
The beauty of the desert is unexpected. Convoys of tanker trucks dust a straight red road into an expanse of brown patterns and riverine etchings interrupted by a mosaic of pipes and tagged with flares. Sometimes the landscape is altered by the contrast of an oasis or shadows.
She arrives in a blitz of sand, streaks of it rolling over the prefabricated huts. The plumes fade around her and Wyatt Pleasure steps through the gritty curtain. Flags embroidered with tridents bend in the wind. The Poseidon Oil and Gas camp is in the center of the concession. The squeals of a nearby derricks pierce the air.
Wyatt greets his wife with a jerry can filled with a bouquet of desert melons, white flowers with bitter lime-like fruits. He’s clean, shaven and has been expecting Noemi with a mixture of mortification and excitement.
He gives her a hug, then rears back. She’s stiff. “All right, Noemi?”
She nods. Is he joking or sincere? “Your nose is red,” she says.
Not the only thing.
Dulled by the rich petroleum scent of the oil fields underfoot, Wyatt has been concerned by the damage to his nose—his intuition, oracle and partner—from too much too often. Studied that very afternoon as he squats in a bucket with soup in one hand and a mirror in the other, it appears like an old foot, red and wrinkled, dotted with craters and breakouts of veins, rows of blackheads and enlarged pores. He doesn’t want to imagine what it’s like inside.
Wyatt Pleasure hasn’t rehearsed what to say, but he volunteers to point out the wildlife lured to the oil field by the twin attraction of runoff and trash. It could take a while to adapt to being together again.
“Not much time,” he says. “Soon it’s dark.”
Wyatt collects the dune buggy. He tosses her a pair of goggles.
The eyewear pulls at her eyes and her scarf, curling over the exhaust pipes, grazes her neck as they careen through the sand. It’s a harsh environment without roads.
He’s a good driver, keenly aware that he shouldn’t show off any gains or accomplishments he might not normally have. But he soon forgets that promise at the precipice of a dune. Full of puerile humor, the engine backfiring, he laughs, regaling her with the story of a prank played on the Poseidon VP. Naturally, midstream he hits replay and launches the buggy over the crisp edge of sand with a punch to the accelerator. The car bucks down in a roar of sand and fumes, the elegant face scarred with tracks.
She pants when they slither to the bottom, her mouth full of grit. “Pity,” she says. “Was so beautiful.”
“Don’t worry,” Wyatt replies, “Wind’ll blow it back.”
She shivers. She hates wind. Wind reminds her of home, of England.
The lights race deeper into the sands, the sky lit by the wells, the flares boiling orange and black.
Wyatt Pleasure kicks at the sand with his boots. He smiles broadly. His cheeks pull up high over his eyes into his brain. He’s an American, a cowboy really, made of all the extremes that implies, and he’s glad when she poses for a kiss. He hasn’t smoked for a few hours, her advice, so his mouth is fresher than usual and that makes him feel good. He is surprised by the healthy benefits of having a wife. He had been unprepared for that aspect of marriage.
Noemi picks at a handful of sand and he explains the different components, the matrix of quartz that held so many other stones. Flecks of chert, jasper and flint, shells, fossils, time.
Carelessness competes with lust inside Wyatt, but he shies away from calling it anything as strong as love. He worries she might be afraid. Instead she is adventurous and pushes him down into the sand.
The night is complete and the sky radiates with pinpricks of starry light.
Unexpectedly, the newlyweds react to the desert’s starkness and purity, so much so that they forget about their suspicion that the landscape has eyes and their loose-fitting description of birth control. In the span of a few miraculous hours they are not two but three.
Grabbed from the desert, the Poseidon camp is made viable by crisp water from an aquifer under the sands. A squatter camp also has materialized, attracted by the possibilities. Poseidon jack pumps and rigs stud the horizon.
Wyatt’s lot is to tend to the strange masts of the Poseidon fleet that sail nowhere, anchored to the desert. He works all day, every day, in a fortnight-long race to tap the zones of pay that bloom underneath, the equal of Arabia. He admits how important he feels contributing to the industry. Then he vanishes from the equipment yard into the roar, a squiggle of pipes and derricks distorted by hellish burnoff.
Despite the human activity it’s remote. Distances can be misleading. Wind and sand may conspire together to wipe away everything. It rises as a blur on the horizon, a great tan haze. A sandstorm can be miles away and never come. Or it can arrive in minutes, swirling and building above their heads like a flat brown anvil, then the foot of the cloud coming, so fine as to breach any membrane or seal. Changed to a spooky constituency by the sun, the clouds of sand billow in waves of gray, red and brown. The grains strangle everything: generators, engines, pumps, shakers, drills and even human communication. Then the living sounds return, sparse and singular: the whoosh of a vulture, a gazelle’s whistle, a moaning camel, a shepherd’s cry, the mechanical insects. But even these sounds can disappear in the end and emptiness.
Noemi is left to the terror of her crackling pulse in Wyatt’s quarters, a scarf wrapped over her nose and mouth against the infernal dust, her ears plugged to dampen the noise. She is either too cramped or too threatened, with little between.
Today she’s lucky. No storms. She’s free.
Knowing Wyatt won’t return from his duties coaxing oil from under the sands and queasy from the constantly vibrating earth of the camp, Noemi leaves the prefabricated hut. She has gathered her box of watercolors and sketchbook and she wears a burnouse, her head lodged in its cowl and her belly covered well. The living bean that is to be Toby Pleasure divides, absorbing the boom of the drills and machinery that compete with his mother’s pulse and voice. Often she wanders to the Bedouin camp.
The racket diminishes. Camels bellow. Goats and children give the place a lively feel. There is no sickness, no typhoid or tuberculosis that she can see. For now, her body accepts the Pleasure in motion. She pushes past the hobbled livestock to get to the spot. She motions through a request to paint the people watching her.
They are mysterious and she is surprised by how much or little they work. She watches the women and children fetching water for the animals and attending to a multitude of chores. A group of men drink tea and smoke in the shade of their button-like tents sewn to the fabric of sand. They are predictable in their attitudes. It’s in their eyes, brown and glinting: she could be a whore, slave or wife. It’s quite a fantasy: to be a white dancing girl covered in gold, tongue removed, at the mercy of men like these. Yet it is the Bedouin who look threatened and she empathizes. Why are the infidels bringing their women to the Libyan desert? How long do they intend to stay? Aside from water, what are the Bedouin getting aside from Poseidon’s leftovers?
Colonel Candy’s militant broadcasts have assured them that the wealth will be shared. “Not too much longer,” he would purr in a voice of pure sugar, their most beloved drug. He even talks of turning the entire desert into a farm. It does seem farfetched but Candy is undeterred by ideas of Libya as anything other than the grandeur of paradise. So the Bedouin wait as the National Oil Corporation poises to take ownership of the reserves.
The Poseidon camp also finds Noemi’s visit unorthodox. She’s a trailblazer on site and they have no choice but to be fine with it, even if a woman disturbs their raw jokes and backbreaking labor. They accept the propriety she expects of them when she extends her hand and introduces herself as Wyatt’s wife.
“My last chance to see Wyatt’s incredible work for Poseidon Oil and Gas,” she might chime, all diplomacy, deflecting their curious eyes.
The enticing smell of milk wafts to her patch of jagged shade and swirls around her. It enters her, drags her down into the heat, into the sand, where she sits, cross-legged under her umbrella, nudged by a goat.
A real social spot in jeopardy, she remarks to herself, looking at the emergent impression on her knee. The heat dries her watercolors before she must constantly refresh her brush.
A man returns from the desert with a gazelle, pretty yet dead.
“Wyatt?” she wonders aloud.
Worrying again, Noemi Empire reassures herself that she’s safe, a white woman among the Bedouin. They have a quotient of knight-like honor. “Kind of like cowboys too,” she gasps in the next breath, thinking of Wyatt Pleasure and his dune buggy. But that doesn’t stop them both from having slaves and victims, she concludes in a moment of insight that she tugs from her mind.
When Noemi returns to the Poseidon camp, she asks Wyatt if he’ll return with her at night.
He has heard the wild drumming and the ululating cries of the Bedouin, but advises against it.
“Don’t meddle with the tribes,” he says before changing tack: his curiosity is sparked too. Sure, he’s seen a few powwows in Utah at the beginning of his career but he’s never witnessed anything not staged purely for the white man’s entertainment, even a kid marooned on the prairie, living for the re-enactments of the Indian Wars at nearby Fort Goshen, the glorious names trumpeted over the dry parade ground as the few token Indians mimicked death. Wyatt has replayed those battles all his life, fed on the legends of the West, and it seems a shame to waste a chance like this.
They dress in dark colors and creep up to the camp, guided by the fires. Wyatt can be exceptionally quiet in his cowboy boots that he argues to be the most practical footwear in the world. Noemi, ill prepared for anything other than a path, is prone to stumbling on rocks in her sandals. Wyatt’s caution about scorpions turns her into a tenderfoot.
The drumming has started with the moon, so close as to be kissing them, illuminating the sand with a misty, glowing breath.
They sneak up to the squatter camp. The Bedouin have a generator or a car battery for light bulbs and an amplifier and they have made a stage complete with a cluster of microphones.
A carpet is strung between two poles. On the ground are two more carpets for the dancers and musicians.
A row of robed men clasp their shoulders, dip in unison. Each man wears a sash of bells low around his hips and shakes to the provocative music. Dust lifts into the sky.
“Didn’t know about male belly dancers,” she says. The suggestive moves tickle her eyes.
It’s the guitarists who startle them. They are swathed in dark indigo cotton and their skin is indigo too.
Wyatt has been warned about these blue people. “Tauregs,” he whispers.
The singer takes the microphone, and with his wooly hair and sunglasses he looks like Hendrix. Wyatt and Noemi laugh together softly at the irony: rock-n-roll has made it to the Sahara.
The drummers softly decorate the beat, allowing room for the expressive, interweaving guitars and the sweet rolling voice. It’s pure soul when the singer reaches a climactic moment and the people dance around the rank of shaking men. Women call in high trilling tones. It reminds Wyatt of Grandma Pleasure’s Bible meetings, the church members frothing at the orifices and speaking in tongues.
A meteor trails across the pale dark sky dabbed with bright dots.
“Fighting a war against the Algerians and Moroccans,” Wyatt says.
He’s right, for the bard is celebrating Taureg victories. Poseidon’s internal reports on the Sahara have indeed warned that the Arabs and the Africans are uniting according to the wishes of Colonel Candy, which means war for people like the Tauregs caught in the labyrinth of sands. He wonders if it’s trouble they intend by being here at Poseidon’s concession. Or it’s just the best place to hide.
The singing and dancing go on for hours and Noemi falls asleep on the ground as Wyatt savors another cigarette. The party has been alerted to their presence all along. It’s their smell. Like fat and alcohol.
Noemi roots in her dreams on the cold sand. She swims in an artery thick with blood and then squeezes into the lump of her child. She reaches for the grub but it’s gone, wrapped in another skin, someone anyway, a relative, who has lived on a diet of wisdom and lies, blown from continent to continent by the winds of great soul storms made of dead people and their favorite objects. She tries again for her baby and in its place she finds a hole that’s a throne. Besotted, Noemi Empire sits and falls. Noemi bumps against a stool and it’s Toby Pleasure, the extra part that is him, her son. He hasn’t left. She puts him on her head and journeys onward, tired but encouraged by the music.
Later, Noemi finds herself next to the stage. Disheveled, Wyatt’s smoking a hookah. His hands are black. He must have been dancing, she decides. He’s somehow in his element and she tumbles asleep.
In the morning she’s in his quarters. Her hands and feet are covered in the intricate blackened red of henna.
“Luck,” Wyatt says.
“And my belly?” she asks, pointing to her skin, a sticky oxidized red-green.
“I rubbed it with crude when you were asleep,” he says. It’s true; he did retrieve a jar of sweet crude from the lab and anoint her belly in the night, chanting as if they were all made of liquid rocks.
Noemi is segregated behind the walls of Wyatt’s compound in Benghazi most of the day. It’s unfair. She’s loyal to the cause, in love with the smell of money inked from the wells and wants to rejoin her husband in the electrifying, precarious desert. But Wyatt’s tours inevitably continue and her pregnancy teeters to the point where she feels better at home, secretly yearning for England and the smell of coal and steam. So she hardens herself with reality.
Benghazi is a city.
The Libyans are civilized.
They have roads too.
Noemi’s therapy for her overwhelming sense of being an inmate is walking. The sun beats the quixotic misery of pregnancy out of her and the architecture of the Italian former occupiers lifts the eye. She’s hooked on their flair for color, geometry, style, relief and modern space.
On such an excursion she might meet another oil widow for a long Italian lunch. Companionship is essential to this dwindling contingent of women, their situation so wretched that the acid rivalries for status, money and class have been pushed aside. Following antipasti, fried fish and white wine, Iris—legendary for her pampering, wife of the very same Poseidon VP Wyatt had scared to death in the dune buggy—suggests a visit to the hammam.
They agree on the following day.
Iris is very patient, explaining what to do. Noemi fills her bucket and washes a section of hot floor. She decides neither to be intimidated by the sight of the naked Arab women nor Iris’s beauty, even then remarkable when removed of makeup and hairspray. She sits down on the hot rocks and enjoys the gentle massage given by an attendant, warned by Iris in strong Arabic of the lady’s bump, evident to all, as Toby Pleasure stews inside. Later, she scrubs and showers for what seems like hours, with a break for sweets and coffee in the vestibule that is a café. She asks herself why hasn’t she done this before, bathed in the centuries to allay her sense of loneliness?
Afterwards she feels exceptionally relieved and clean, accompanied by an inner peace that is frightening but also very intimate and reassuring. Noemi walks out, covered well, very cool after the heat, echoes and water. Suddenly she is a fan of the hammam, she who has never seen her mother’s legs.
Ambling home, Noemi Empire feels a patch of anxiety when she visits the Benghazi war cemetery, the neat names of the dead from the Eighth Army on the graves and the haunting monuments that are simply marked unknown.
“Your lot died for oil too,” she says to the tombs, strangely including herself.
Noemi broods for the rest of week. Many of the closest people have vanished from her life because of the war, especially Momma Empire, who followed Daddy Empire overseas and then divorced him in an act of reckless betrayal. Momma Empire’s rejection hurt Noemi; it’s a bane that she tries to suppress the pain but it leaks out, a sticky plasma that covers her being. By now both Momma and Daddy Empire have returned to England—now that there’s no need for colonies, now that Noemi has left herself, unconsciously following their footsteps. She neither forgives nor trusts the old bitch, and as for Daddy Empire, well, he’s a disgrace.
When Wyatt returns that weekend, she’s in a foul temper. Wyatt’s idea of time off is to spend long weekend at the Poseidon facilities in Brega, Poseidon’s port from where the tankers depart like overfed fish. It isn’t the salve to untangle her mood, but he makes a peace offering: a trip to Leptis Magna, Libya’s foremost ruin.
To his credit, Wyatt isn’t oblivious to the signals. He tries to be patient and assuage her blues, but she has none of the good spirits he has misconstrued with pregnancy.
Noemi wonders at the stones polished so poignantly by their present occupiers, the sands.
“Once the whole desert was forest,” Wyatt says.
That touches her, a city that perished from an acute lack of water as the insurmountable erg took the place of people. A forecast, she thinks, for Wyatt’s brew of Texas tea.
The CB radio crackles in Wyatt’s mind.
He’s distracted back at the house and can only think of oil.
“Sugar 19?” he relays, then digs for the codebook.
Wyatt inevitably rushes away, for when he isn’t working the desert, he’s in the office conferring with the Poseidon team, hoisting little flags along the cores, sniffing the specimens, studying the maps he’s annotated with a selection of colored stickers. It’s a last minute rush to extract every last drop despite Colonel Candy’s claims. Wyatt, like everyone at Poseidon, denies that Libya is boiling over.
Wyatt’s trips to the desert grow in cache and portent and he uses the bonuses as an excuse to prolong his avoidance of any conflicts at home. The fatigue is unsafe but the desert doesn’t care about politics, it cares about calculated risks, and he drives his team to the brink while forming the idea for an ambitious new project in the south. He begins to ask what’s in Sudan, Chad or Niger, what other ancient beaches are littered with carcasses and vegetation that have become oil. He’s so enraptured that he pushes aside the visit home to his folks to show off the yet unborn child. Yet Wyatt hopes that Toby will choose America, not England, and it would be good to introduce him to what he should be, a cowboy, even if his wife would deem otherwise.
Noemi snorts. She’s married an American with scrupulously clean hands, dropped her maiden name for Pleasure and now she’s going to have a baby.
The path home is excruciating, marked with several stops: to pick up passengers in Malta, to refuel in Rome, alluring as ever, before the last leg.
Noemi had wanted to work in Rome. Instead she’d taken the secretarial job with Poseidon. No Cyprus or Lebanon, both places she also had savored, Libya isn’t such a bad posting. She fools herself on that account. Without the Italians, Libya’s terrible.
She impatiently crisscrosses her legs and adjusts the globe of belly. Her inner ear itches with the change in altitude and she doesn’t know where the vessel of marriage is going to take her. She’s been disturbed by Wyatt’s reports when about the Pleasure ranch, his home.
“A desert,” he’d said quite gleefully, unlike the verdant shore of England below the aircraft now jogging through a squall.
The conglomeration of London loomed under the clouds, the Thames grimacing with a torn smile across the pewter city.
They touch down daintily and Noemi, clutching her nylon TWA flight bag, wobbles down the metal steps onto the tarmac into the lashes of rain.
Noemi wonders if she’ll ever finish the queue at immigration, a mirage of skins and languages.
Wasn’t like this last time, she thought.
She trudges forward and has a go.
Once the palaver of claiming her bag is over, she finds her mother waiting outside, Momma Empire wrapped in harsh lipstick and the tang of cigarettes.
“Hospital’s expecting you.”
Noemi smarts. Already? No place for her at mum’s?
Momma Empire is gruff and distant. A bully, she would never dare suppose anything’s wrong and she’s too smart for false manners.
England is a muddy slash: puddles, low clouds, dead leaves, blank faces.
But it’s cheerful once inside and Noemi Pleasure enjoys spending the afternoon in Momma Empire’s antique bazaar. It’s a super place to antagonize her mother, getting in the road, putting off the customers who try to chat her up.
“Sell my Toby Jug?”
“Piss off,” Momma Empire hisses.
“Give me that silver service and I might,” Noemi replies. She’s insolent and has nothing to lose with a barb or two. She has been fancying the silver all afternoon. She wants to gobble and shovel it all in. Now is the time to strike, before Momma Empire has a drink, which won’t be until they’re finally back at Momma Empire’s flat jammed with furniture, paintings, ivory, silk, damask, gold brocade, and crucially, the location of her sherry cabinet.
“I don’t know why you didn’t stay in Libya. You love Americans. You could have done it on their air force base not on my doorstep. What a child you still are. Why have a baby at all?” Momma Empire could be quite direct.
Noemi doesn’t want to hear the reminder.
Momma Empire is very good at getting rid of unwanted children, not just her own. She helps girls in trouble and does more in this practical way to rid the world of unwanted souls than any of her other achievements. Noemi shudders. Momma Empire is a murderer. Suddenly she could see all the dead babies everywhere.
Toby Pleasure recoils from the harsh asp-like voice.
“We’re going to be kicked out, don’t you know? Have some sympathy.” Noemi buckles in front of the old battle ax and begins to cry. The pressure’s unbearable and the rats are leaving the ship. Libya isn’t easy. But her mother. Impossible.
“Us, too,” says Momma. “Us, too.” She can’t abide giving even a pat or a hug.
Another reason to avoid coming home.
“That fat bastard Nasser, thank God he’s dead.” Momma Empire says in a moment of passion, confusing Libya and Egypt. To her it’s the Levant. “Mind you, I lost it all too, and it’s been uphill since. Keep that in mind if you ever come back.”
It’s a foregone conclusion that Noemi will get the silver she wants. An only child always gets what she wants.
“Don’t be afraid of her, Tobias,” she says privately later. “She can’t help being a right old cow.” That’s when she was sure: it’s a boy, Tobias, who would be with her. “Silly, you must come out.”
Toby migrates from stomach to spine, tucks his head and rolls, kicks at the walls of the well-muscled egg. He recognizes danger and pushes away the crafty rope. Already a rational, conscious being, he wants to live not die.
Noemi checks into the women’s hospital in London and Wyatt soon arrives. He’s so kind and delivers Noemi a brilliant kiss flavored with Polo mints.
The Turkish delight from Benghazi are duly consumed by Momma Empire, glowering in the distance, popping rose morsels into her mouth, primed to explode in a rainbow of colored, scented gelatin.
Toby’s very late. He doesn’t want to be born with the other winter babies. He misses the waves of heat and light modulated by the smells and sounds of Libya so he retreats far into Noemi’s body away from the hospital fumes.
Just before the birth commences, she rues not taking the Italian’s tip: a Libyan mid-wife and soft musical utterances of Arabic. Or even the safety of America’s air force base outside Tripoli, now a Libyan endeavor. The Americans believe in cleanliness, kindness and drugs, unlike the grimy London hospital staffed with rude nurses, many of whom can hardly speak English. She’s full of doubt.
She’s handed a turgid glass of water as palliative. A catheter is abandoned on the floor.
Hours later, Tobias is coaxed forth and eventually twisted from his mother with assistance of a dirty pair of tongs.
Noemi finds the treatment cruel and barbaric at the bleak Victorian ward. The nurses leave her to wash in cold water. She struggles with the shit, blood and afterbirth. She vows never to do it again.
He’s coated in a shiny petroleum green sac, still hanging to the black umbilical that reaches into the middle of his pale white mother.
The nurses handle him roughly, wash away the sticky sweet crude, cut him free, wrap him in swaddling and place him near the Empire Pleasure tit.
She’s so traumatized she doesn’t recognize her baby. She has to be told he’s hers.
“Tobias?” she says, a touch of worry in her voice. She laughs. She’s never worried before.
Her head lolls to one side. She’s blind from the effort, her eyes swollen with the dry remains of her tears of pain and effort, her ears numb from the verbal rounding of the nurses, half of whom were from the Caribbean, as if England had released its anchors and set sail across the Atlantic. She isn’t sure what she’s doing in the cold gray-tiled room.
“Heavens,” she says, “He’s dark!”
She states suspiciously at the brown grub. Silent, suckling, she swears can see some black skin underneath. She’s anxious. But he does look cute. They all do. Would the color fade?
Wyatt looks with pride on his son, smeared like crude, brown, black and red, and once refined, no color at all, just pure human energy. Wyatt Pleasure is pleased to no end with the rebellious arrival.
Wyatt paces in his hotel, Noemi’s suggestion to ease the diplomacy with Momma Empire. It makes him uncomfortable thinking he might be needed. He’s soon expected at Momma Empire’s house. Noemi and Tobias are back today from the hospital and would already be up. He wants no more chatter about how abysmal it is. He’s fed up with the hospital, too.
They won’t do it. Their policy isn’t to circumcise. The health officials in the hospital claim it’s inhumane, isn’t English, whatever that means. Wyatt’s puzzled by their overreaction about such a simple procedure when so many doctors in London could easily be Jewish.
When he protests, the administrator says, “We don’t make the rules.”
He knows very well it isn’t as simple as castrating bulls and eating prairie oysters, but he has a reason: he’d been cut at a late age and the fever nearly wiped him out. So Wyatt wants the circumcision done. But Wyatt’s stumped. Where to turn?
Wyatt stops at Louis, a pastry shop near the house, and enjoys a marzipan cake and short, sharp coffee, after being sprayed with bad attitude by the gorgeous blonde with an outrageous Hungarian accent behind the counter. Wyatt loves sweets and these Habsburg creations are so tasty, much like the Hungarian scenery in the café, clearly lovers of good cakes. Wyatt realizes he’s forgotten about sex appeal after so long in Libya without short skirts and plunging tops.
When Wyatt finally asks for help, Momma Empire suggests a rabbi for Toby’s circumcision.
They hover over the baby swathed in blankets. It’s February and cold, even in the gold wallpapered living room with the coal fire choking along.
“A little Jewish boy you want?” asks Momma Empire spitefully, her main emotion for everything and everyone she loves. “Don’t feed Toby any pork!” She screams, then titters, in a high mood from her fourth manzanilla.
Wyatt and Noemi ignore the remark and readily take the number that Momma Empire dictates from her black book filled to the margins with the very important, superimportant, rich, superrich, upperclass, superclass, and with a special and exciting category for the subclass. Momma Empire knows everyone and everyone counts, though some more than others. “From the past and present,” she likes to add. A mystery shines about her and she knows it: her charisma could make people do anything to know or be with her, and by knowing her, feel important. Certainly, she likes the attention. “The secret to mystery,” she concludes, “Is that there isn’t one.”
Now that Noemi has taken on the Pleasure mantle, Momma Empire is even less concerned about her nincompoop of a daughter. What does she want with an American, a Darwinian at that? But she admits he’s somewhat like her, whittling down through the bedrock in search of the dead.
Wyatt, straightforward, very polite, calls the rabbi who answered in a distorted but posh voice.
“For you or your wife!?” The rabbi crackles with laughter at Wyatt’s astonishment. He’s in a fine fettle after his cakes and coffee at Louis. The Hungarian pastry shop also has a line in kosher sweets. “Now, my dear sir, Mr. Vyatt, are you a Jew or a gentile?”
“Noemi, are you Jewish?” Wyatt repeats out loud.
“Daddy Empire had a brother named Abraham,” she says. “Momma?”
Wyatt looks at her quizzically. Could the Empire’s be Jews? What else doesn’t he know about Noemi?
“And what’s his name?” the rabbi asks, hearing the angry bellow of Momma Empire through the chipped Bakelite phone that was filled with his beard and spit from too much kvetch.
“Tobias,” reports Wyatt, “Toby Empire Pleasure.”
“Tobijah?” asks the rabbi.
The rabbi says, after a pause, “You know it means: God is great?”
“Alluh akbar.” Wyatt says it gloriously. It spills out of him; he has no time to counteract. He’s conditioned to the ways of Libya, the ways of greeting Allah as part of daily life. Surely a rabbi would understand that. He’s forgotten about religion to a degree that he can’t really deny. Well, Allah’s great, but Wyatt doesn’t care what name his god is. Allah’s part of his working policy of diplomacy with the Arabs. He never asks them to repeat: Jesus Loves Me.
The rabbi purrs. Pontic in origin, Ottoman in outlook, he wonders about Wyatt’s salutation. But the client did have a referral from Momma Empire and apparently is married to Empire’s daughter, and double-checking in his mind that it is no transgression to help people of other faiths, he buckles. He could bring souls, spirits and bodies together anytime—that’s his job description.
The rabbi stalls over the amount of the community donation offered by Wyatt for a bris on short notice.
“Don’t worry, I won’t shuck you a bit,” he says bringing the negotiation to a rapid conclusion.
The job would be a snap without the Jewish ceremony. But the rabbi didn’t underestimate the task either. He knew the balance of technique and ritual and he had a chant for that.
Noemi is relieved when the man finally comes to the door. He deliberately blesses the threshold as he mutters a greeting. The rabbi fit Noemi’s every stereotype and the rabbi, to his credit, was also unsurprised by the clutter, Momma Empire’s house tipping to the brink, a navel stuffed with objects and on the verge of imploding, so heavy as to pull England down with it.
“Be careful with our royal baby,” she says, worrying after the man.
Wyatt took the rabbi’s coat, very heavy, velvet, seemingly laden with gold if he guessed.
The rabbis’s locks curled from his broad black hat. A knotted shawl was tucked under his waistcoat. His black shoes were very shiny and his appearance was neat.
“Dear Momma Empire, how’re you?” His voice was inflected with acid for his famous rival.
“Oh Jeremy, So good to see you! I’ve been to Jerusalem lately, and I don’t need to read the Kabbalah or the Bible.” She snorts, supposing an insult with a jab or two of her own, denying that she thrived on a diet of esoterica, evident in the surrounding house layered with ritual objects and knowledge as well as valuable antiques.
“Would you like a slivovitz? It is slivovitz that you drink?”
Noemi didn’t know what they were on about. What on earth was slivovitz?
Jeremy fusses when he discovers the liquor isn’t kosher, but then decides to bend the rules and he might as well indulge in this case.
Wyatt bids him into Momma Empire’s study, for the sake of Toby Pleasure’s convenience, converted into a nursery.
The rabbi shivers when they passed through the double door, each wing mounted with a large African mask. Jeremy can feel the dark potential of her laboratory, the energy surging beneath the surface, as if each object has a trajectory of its own that has ferreted it to Momma Empire’s lair: desiccated animals hung from the ceiling, jars of insects, slabs of rock, mortars and pestle, a Bunsen burner, an array of flasks, bottles of spirit and barks, dried flowers, eggs and dolls. A black bust of Victoria mourned in one corner. The queen shares her plinth with a gollywog. Boxes of fibers and fabrics burden the shelves on one wall and one corner holds a strange filing cabinet for the black arts marked “Spells.” A bookcase of esoteric literature encased in glass sat against another wall hung with portraits: a Moor, a corsair, two beys, a griot, Sufis, and holymen. Momma Empire is a brewer of electric spirit wine and she has taken advantage of the opening of popular western consciousness by the hippie movement and its saints. The 1970s are not just a phase for Momma Empire. She doesn’t care a fig for new beginnings like the age of Aquarius. Nothing’s over. Fortune has changed its name time and again but still it yields the same result: ghosts.
Wyatt and Noemi know zero about hippies or even beatniks. They’d been in Libya so long that they’d fallen irreparably behind the times. They had been far behind to begin with, both rural people, who, unlike their many peers, zoomed to an outpost like Libya to take their chances rather than risking a vibrant metropolis.
Toby’s crib rests in the middle under the chandelier. The baby has been washed and has slept.
It astounds Wyatt that Momma Empire took such scrupulous care of Toby; since she’d abandoned Noemi at a young age, the consequences of which he was just beginning to understand, it is with slight reservation that he believes in Momma Empire’s nurturing instinct.
Wyatt speculates. “Guilt?”
He puts his reservations aside about her abilities even if he has trouble accepting the spooky atmosphere of the room.
Unfazed by her mother’s fey behavior, Noemi has told him not to worry about her mother’s hocus-pocus. She believes in superstitions and fortune herself, a natural consequence of growing up with the Celts.
Momma Empire smiles at Toby. He’s been very good so far. He’s been led through the forest and had to stay awake in the dark. He’s fasted, with only honey and rainwater to drink. He’s sweat in an underground lodge filled with moaning men. He’s been anointed with white powder and had a feather placed in his shorn hair. His cheeks have been smeared with chicken blood. He’s been made to wear the color red. He’s come to the crossroads inside a chapel hollowed by a strangler vine. He’s listened to the ancestors who ask him for respect and he’s anointed the reliquaries with tuber paste and palm oil in response. He’s lived under a leaf in the forest and learned everything that it was to be a soul and a man in the universe. Momma Empire is teaching him the way, bringing him back from his great sleep, whoever he is and will be. Momma, like his parents, hasn’t quite decoded the person locked inside.
Jeremy removes a jeweler’s loupe from his waistcoat pocket with a flick of his hairy hand.
He winks, then flips open the glass.
“Now, I’ll fix that watch and make it work,” he says. He reaches for Toby Pleasure, free of a nappy for this important moment, then grasps the specimen.
He murmurs under his breath against the strong presence of djinns and angels. He has to work hard to push against these otherworldly creatures, layers of them gathered around the baby. He reaches through the howling torrent with his razor-sharp metaphysical tools to secure the extra that’s Toby Pleasure.
Noemi squeals and Toby blurts out a sharp cry from the touch of the dry scaly skin of the rabbi’s hand. It seems to rise from the unfocused space that had been comfort, assumed the shape of a serpent with ruby eyes, a ruby tongue and a ruby head, and it veers once more and strikes him like death.
Despite his own promise, Jeremy mutters more prayers. He uses the long hard exceedingly sharp fingernail of his left hand to filet the extra bite of skin. Surprise is his anesthesia.
Toby’s limbs freeze as the skin is lifted from his penis. He gasps in short sharp breaths. Soon comes the blood and with it the pain, white in color. It wells down his legs then bounces into his stomach before reaching into his heart. It barrages into his brain and he feels afraid, terribly afraid of the horrid bite of the serpent hand that has come from the unfocused space of his existence, mostly sounds and without temperature. It makes his body tingle and washes away the fluid warmth and care to which he has grown accustomed. He’s in the real live world. Every ounce, every nub and end. He wants to be held close and the pain to go away.
Toby looks in alarm at the round orbs with dark holes for eyes and mouths. He has been betrayed, not just cut or stung, and he wants to eat them. He puts them in his mouth and swallowed them whole, not just the ghosts, also his parents. And if he couldn’t eat them, he’d eat everything else.
“It’s no good crying, Toby Pleasure,” says Momma Empire. “Your bits are gone and you’ll never get them back.”
Then quite unexpectedly he shits himself, a milky green turd emerging in the cot. He completes the coronation with a cascade of urine. It feels warm and nice.
Noemi’s ashamed. It reminds her of the birth and the fear returns and surges beneath her skin.
“Cute little devil,” says Wyatt, euphemizing.
Jeremy has seen it all, though in lesser quantities lately since many modern Jews didn’t want their sons circumcised, fearing anti-Semitism, benign so long as they ate pork. They were tolerated but the rabbi had his doubts; he often repeated, “If someone says they want to kill you, believe them.”
Noemi gulps. She’s naïve.
The rabbi’s sigh solicits no response. He’s glanced over the desk scattered with scripts, correspondences with stamps from the Sudan, Oman, Armenia and Bangladesh, St. Helena, Ascension, glasses, lipstick, amber. If she isn’t a witch, then she’s definitely an alchemist.
“Well, I’m afraid he’ll be a man of his times,” says Momma Empire. She couldn’t help testing, poking, dividing—it’s her way to dominate.
The doorbell rings, shrill and insistent. Momma Empire leaves to answer the gate to her kingdom while Noemi cleans up the child, her hands trembling, her face visibly upset by the red wound.
Wyatt hears the smooth tones of Arabic echoing down the hall. He’s puzzled about how much sweeter Momma Empire’s voice is when she spoke another language than English.
Jeremy gives them some instructions on parenting, all sense.
“Can I see it?” Wyatt asks.
Jeremy retrieves the foreskin from his pocket. He’s put it in a bit of cotton wool.
It’s a fragile bloody nothing, a piece of dog’s ear, but Wyatt, taking a better circumspect look at the rabbi’s long knifelike nail, says. “Don’t you worry Toby, it’s just a scratch.”
Momma Empire returns to her study. “Wyatt, a cable for you. That boy didn’t look the like of that black hat out in the hall. Asked if we’re Jewish.”
“You are now,” says the rabbi, putting away the foreskin, so tough and delicate as to be the mark of a man.
Only Poseidon knows his whereabouts, Wyatt thinks, as he grabs the envelope. “It’s not a cable,” he says, tearing open the ivory paper watermarked and pressed with a seal, “But an invitation from the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” That’s the first time he’s ever said something like socialist and it sounds a lot brighter than communist.
It’s from the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution, Colonel Candy.
“May you and your family please join us to explore the Jamahiriyah, the state of the masses.”
He hears the voice, very soft and charming, the great Colonel Candy, chosen by the people, in his dark green uniform, his epaulets, the review ground and the Libyan tattoo sending the Zoaves into great, complicated maneuvers.
But what does Colonel Candy want from him, the nose? Was the word out about his pet project? What was it all about?
Wyatt swallows the gulf of sour spit in his mouth. No way is he going to refuse an audience. Surely they would be concerned. But nothing is unprecedented with the erratic Colonel Candy. Wyatt wonders what grand gesture did Colonel Candy have in mind for the junior geologist? Poseidon would know.
“Well?” they ask, curious excitement on their faces when he gets home, flushed with excitement.
“We’re going to meet Colonel Candy,” he says.
“Jolly good,” says Momma Empire. She loves audiences with strongmen. “But you’ve got no credentials.” She also loves sabotaging good news.
Noemi excitedly claps her hands together despite her dread about going back. Colonel Candy, lothario and tyrant, according to the newspapers. Of course, she doesn’t want to believe it’s true. No, Candy’s suave and philosophical, everything a monarch should be. She approves.
Wyatt excuses Jeremy, already fantasizing about another Hungarian cake as he’s washed won one too many slivovitz.
“Do you know if the synagogue in Tripoli has been converted into a mosque?” the rabbi asks before he leaves, lashing down his galoshes since it’s begun to rain.
“Well, the cathedral in Tripoli is still around. But I’ll be in touch if I hear anything about synagogues, okay.” But Wyatt guesses the rabbi has accurate information.
Oh, Wyatt’s welcome to return: more responsibilities, less time, made that more unappealing by the complete restriction on alcohol, which had totally disappeared before he left. To be honest he doesn’t miss the refuge of boozing that much after seeing Momma
Empire graduate between sherry, gin, shandy, wine, and for perkiness, well-stewed tea.
But Toby’s goo-goo-ga-ga makes him feel helpless.
Noemi and his son are bonding so well, it seems, with the nervous thrusts of her nipples into the public domain. But Wyatt has the ignoble and mundane task to secure the ongoing scrawl of supplies needed for their return, Marmite and other bottled spreads foremost among the list to be capped by the smuggling of pork sausages past the Libyan excise service.
Poseidon’s world headquarters rear above the stinking river. A giant trident, its sharp, barbed points rise from shore and puncture the low-slung sky.
Wyatt laughs. It looks like a cactus and it dawns on him why Poseidon is so successful, an amphibian, swollen on a diet of oil from land and sea. With a sense of trepidation and pride, he squeezes between the bollards in front of the revolving doors.
A group of attractive receptionists sit at their stools behind a black bank of stone. They control the foyer, several stories high and carefully decorated with Poseidon’s mementos and lore—the cowboys and Argonauts who had been the foundation of its success, exploring across the world to secure the reserves for Poseidon to remain on top. A corporate film plays on a bank of Trinitons. He halfway expects to see himself victorious and smiling from the zooms of the desert cut between panoramas of the North Sea. A recruiter’s dream, it does look sexy working for Poseidon Oil and Gas.
“Slick,” he says.
“Wyatt Pleasure?” asks one of the receptionists of the handsome man, dressed in a lavender pinstripe suit and lilac gingham shirt, with a tan anyone would die for.
A large mural of the world glitters on the overhead wall, Poseidon’s possessions flickering with lights.
“Middle East desk,” he says, startled musing over her look, her hair asymmetrical and spiky with auburn attitude. Does he know the pretty Scot beaming at his chest? He reassures himself that it’s Poseidon’s business to know who he is and why, one of their most valuable employees. After all, Poseidon took him before he ever worked for them—the man who’s rumored to have the petroleum nose.
“The sixty-seventh floor,” she replies. “The last floor.” She hands him a pass, beckoning to the turnstile and the company security men. “Congratulations too, sir,” she adds, the birth announcement highlighted in her files.
He bows a degree and skips on, his briefcase slapping his rosy brown coat.
An efficient man with a dead expression in his eye says, “Poseidon ID, Mr. Pleasure?”
Wyatt juggles for his wallet to confirm he is who he is, then strides to the banks of elevators wrapped in granite. He nods at the Scottish secretary from afar. Nice company for happy hour, he thinks, to celebrate his promotion, a slam dunk, measured with a quantity of treachery.
The chrome doors etched with the Poseidon logo pull apart like lips.
Wyatt whooshes past floors of petroleum experts straight to the preserve of Poseidon’s chief and board, all rewarded handsomely by the behemoth standing on the north bank of the Thames, piercing the sprawl and smog, a gluttonous weed sprouting from the historical docks of wind and steam, seducing its dependents with three sweeping razor-like brown beams of cyclopean light.
Wyatt ascends to the sixth-seventh floor, surrounded by his reflection, perfectly alone, rising to the top, his big black surprise holstered in his briefcase.
But why not put his contribution in perspective before he’s too overconfident. Shrimp, cog, nose, stoolie, whatever he might be, he could demand a promotion—he needed a better rank for his meeting with Colonel Candy—and a reward for his loyalty and luck. But Wyatt understands that he’s held hostage to his wage; he sees the sheer scale of the Poseidon’s monopoly and he wants to bat a home run against his own team, if that would make him free, that would show them. He’s no longer a poor settler boy scratching out a living on a dry patch of range.
Privilege to the right information and having the ability to interpret and the instinct to act, Wyatt Pleasure has his own plans for fossil fuels. He also accepts the risk of more nominal power while he incubates his plans.
A few days before the meeting Wyatt makes a diversion, a gamble, and he likes to fantasize about his secret project, his royal baby.
Wapping emits a cache of time like no other; the tar has preserved everything along the wharves. Lights, moods and figures rushed together for a moment so uncanny that Wyatt imagines himself lost in time. The light seems to dim and the peripheral edges square and gray, like he’s living in a photograph or when stronger, a film, flickering over the surface of his mind. He could see the masts above the rooftops, hear the gibbets swing.
Near Execution Dock, untroubled by the grisly legends of hanged men, Wyatt finds the map repository, well hidden, tucked under street level. He ducked under the low timber entrance. It smells like breeches, rust, salted beef and hammocks.
A gnome-like clerk unmade by scurvy and shingles greets him from the dark fusty shop, the low timbers abutting the nether regions of his green dome covered by a blue watch cap.
“Good day, sir.” Wyatt stoops uncomfortably, wheezes. “I’d like some maps of Africa.”
“What, master?” His desk is lit with a paraffin lamp.
“Maps!” Wyatt’s excited.
“No need to shout or be rude. This is the repository.” He’s very patient. His teeth are loose, his face pockmarked.
“Maps of Africa.” Wyatt moderates his tone.
“What kind, master? Ordnance Survey?”
“Geological.” The floor squeaks with his irritated movements. “Desert maps.”
“Sahara or Sahel, is that right? Or rather maritime?” The clerk tucked his long alabaster fingers under his shirt at his neck, no collar, no cuffs.
“Yes, quite. For minerals. That sort of thing.” He purposefully phrase his words like treacle, appealing to reason and politeness, but no matter, his voice sounds like American cardboard, brown and rigid.
“This vade mecum, Minerals of Africa with 40 plates. Very popular.”
The guide’s indeed useful. Wyatt doesn’t know it, written by a Hungarian refugee, published in Brussels, from only 1965. But he wants far older materials, rich in color and odor. “Yes, but do you have any proper maps?”
“Four hours, that’s all it’ll be,” the clerk says, turning the large hourglass on his desk, filled with red sand. “But don’t have too many expectations, master,” he says, stretching his arm out, tipping his chin and pointing with a final declaration. “Please take a pair of gloves. They’re priceless.”
Atlases are stacked on pallets, pages torn and scattered on tables. More charts are deposited in trays, rolled in tubes or tied with silk ribbon. Some are ragged pelts, others thin sheets of timber, curled like canoes, but the majority are dried gut inked with observations; a few are so delicate as to recall the precious, illuminated, medieval books he’d seen the Bedouins reading. Apparently, they have a nomad library on camelback.
Wyatt parses through the drawers. Dead reckoning blesses him: he skirts capes, passes inlets and avoids dangers unknown. The light’s sparse and it’s cold in the creaking bottom of the shop. He regrets not having a carbide lamp for company and a modern atlas to guide him through the boggling shapes of the unknown, the educated guesses and outright fabrications. Had they forgotten what was out there and from where they came? The pale shadows of stars and the silky silhouettes of mountains help him navigate.
Like a merchant, he scouts for rivers and beaches, the harbors where he could trade. If his hunch is about the maps is right—that oil’s prehistory perfumes their pores and has worn in their creases, nearly wiped clean by carelessness, stained by weather, salt, blood and fortune—then he might be a billionaire. He’s motivated by Spindletop’s riches and the rags have convinced him: make it big.
It’s up to his nose to react over the grail, a hidden continent-sized reserve entirely made of light shimmering black gold. A flour of gunpowder, mites and dust already encourages his nostrils to mutiny, disciplined as they are. He stubbles across one Ortelian masterpiece, adds it to a frugal stack of likely candidates, arranging them on one large block hewn from a prehistoric oak beam. He could explore for anything in the gloryhole, once beyond the confusing musk, with his Drake, his Daupier attached to his mug, his windrose.
The clerk kindly serves him tea at one point, Wyatt kneeling on his briefcase on the rough planks, succinctly aware of the receding time. He scoots aside to drink the Oolong, not wanting to jeopardize the trove.
“Am I intruding overly?” he asks, but the clerk reassures him, no.
The shop sometimes utters a complaint at the approach of the tide. Iron bars cross the windows from where he peeps at his employer and enemy down the Thames. Wyatt’s hands wrap around the wet corroded metal and he pulls himself up, his nose suspended over the Thames splashing at his face, its muddy surface lit by the grim aspect of the city, the giant trident of the Poseidon building foreboding, cutting into the clouds, its watchful beams scanning the viscous air.
He spreads out the territories carefully with little beanbags. He rolls up his sleeves and clips them back. Is it under a Patagonian or a Carib? He pushes his face down and his bottom up and sniffs and sorts, a blood compass. One smell of socks and a pork sandwich. One of pests and bilge water. Another of yokes and chains. Then a mixture of pepper and tortoises mixed with crystals of gold and precious stones. Everything grows in pungency. Reeds and ferns. Sloths and gingko. He passes deeper and deeper across the paper manifold, through reptilian time, until he’s swimming in banks of Tethys mollusks in the most unexpected places; it’s a black Eden, the digested detritus and kills of the supercontinent, Pangaea and Pangloss, an enormous crescent suspended between the poles, that need more precise exploring. He has to spread the jigsaw of maps across the floor, the table insufficient in size and scope. A tectonic charge runs through him and the maps crackle in place, a universe.
His hours up, the hourglass empty, Wyatt presents his collection of documents: worn tincture, torn edges, filigreed with navigational notes and elaborate characters, shapes of the distant eye. Everything has to be rendered an opaque inky blue in facsimile, a reproductive drum flashing occasionally as he waits.
“Had a lad who wanted just those last week,” the clerk says. “A lad like you, licking maps.”
Broadsided, he shrugs. Who could possibly be hunting for the same thing? No one knew about his project. He’s philosophical about the incident; it isn’t first time in his career that a cutthroat has followed the same hunch and pounced.
Wyatt pays the man, who tucks the money into the fold of his cap, and salutes him with a refrain, “Guineas are for gentleman, and pounds are for prols.”
A low light grips the Thames. Lighters move on the water, ferrying crates of tea and barrels of whale oil from the clippers to the docks. Bells and shouts issue from the Poole. Cabs sway through the streets drowning in human rain.
He’ll stitch together the evidence once he returns to Momma Empire’s residence. Fantastic oily blood drips from the tube of reproductions, dashed under his arm like a sword. Sitting on the upper deck of the Routemaster, gliding with its red sails to Hampstead through the kaleidoscope of rush hour, he becomes very thirsty. He could guzzle rivers, the great greasy predecessors straddling the globe: Orinoco, Euphrates, Niger, Yangtze, Amazon, Mississippi, Nile, Congo ad nauseum. It’s a phenomenal trend of black blood quilted in land and sea. He makes a sequence of annotations to stop any quibbling.
Wyatt’s ready to perform. Let the calumny begin.
Wyatt adjusts the knot of his tie as he passes upward, the cubicles of experts, the laboratories of geophysics and seismology, the library of cores and specimens, the ledgers of finance and law, the chemists reinvigorating recovery and inventing new products. While his colleagues doggedly analyze the difficult data and project plans far into the future, all he has to do is sniff with his trusty probe. He kicks back his head and laughs, shaking his head.
“Oil forever,” he thinks, his motto in tune with corporate cheer.
Then he’s spit out.
The top floor is cleared of any walls. Poseidon did not support an elaborate corporate boardroom. The trident’s engraved in the floor. Tiles of fluorescent light irradiate overhead. Poseidon doesn’t need to overstate its power.
“The tribunal’s waiting you, sir,” says the executive secretary dressed in Poseidon livery, dyed with a palate of greens that associated its business with peace and harmony. Quite the opposite, oil’s the enemy and in order to be a good enemy, it’s very clever in how and when it appears. Poseidon loves rules because rules are to be eclipsed.
“Tribunal?” Wyatt asks, flabbergasted. What demerits does he deserve? A reprimand?
A pair of helicopters patrol around the tips of the trident. From the windows he can see the English coast, so massive is this sculpture of oil and gas. Poseidon’s refineries flare at the mouth of the Thames, a belching conurbation of fire and fumes. He can smell the ambergris of money extracted across the world. Everything’s done to assure no hiccups in the process. How very assuring.
“Poseidon knows everything,” the clerk says. “Welcome to the inquiry.”
The panel of judges sit on three sides of a square. Wyatt’s the fourth.
Everything follows a perfect, predetermined order.
Wyatt panics at the sight of the executives, the men in black gowns, wearing powdered black wigs and black top hats, their mouths painted with brilliant lipstick, their faces dusted with talc. This isn’t turning out like he expects. Who in Libya has sniffed out his plan? Or is Momma Empire a rat?
The judges drub their tables before the first question of the court.
“You do intend to meet the Colonel, Mr. Pleasure,” asks the first judge with a lisp in his voice.
“I do,” he says. Miming submission, body limp, head bowed, Wyatt studies his whereabouts. He notices the sharp contrast between the London and Benghazi offices where he shared a collective desk with another geologist and not much more in the way of amenities of symbolic power.
A membrane divides their backs from the windows rubbing the sky.
“Good,” they say in a chorus ringing with menace, the floor beginning to glow threateningly. The world blinks and flickers underfoot, Poseidon’s resources flagged with green diodes on the continents, tridents posted in some of the most strategic resources on earth.
Wyatt’s standing on Baku, no better place to inculcate himself than in the waterborne fires of the Zoroastrians.
“Too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” he thinks. The majority wear cowboy boots but some moccasins and others fins. A constricted bubbling is muted in the background. Potted ficus trees sit on both sides, a mixture of figs and rubber. Sometimes there are three judges. Then fifteen. Or a remainder or a square root as if the judges were not people at all but spirits of plunder and pestilence, dynasties of the oververse, capable of multiple forms, molds and manikins for the woes and troubles of the world. But Poseidon’s very astute at amity. He never actually appears from the logarithm of entities that he is, camouflaged and sprawled across the floor under Wyatt’s feet, wrapping around his ankles and pulling him down into the porous floor.
“You’ll communicate that we’re concerned, Mr. Pleasure, and we’ll do something about it,” says another judge, bowing to his colleagues. “Candy’s a fool. And all the Arabs who love the Soviet Union.”
Wyatt stutters over what could be his defense. He doesn’t want to antagonize them. They should have their say and it comes like fire.
“What are you doing with those maps, Wyatt? Must you be reminded that any—any—discoveries you make while an employee of Poseidon Oil and Gas become its property?
Wyatt’s aghast. He trembles in front of these strange mineral men blackmailing him in the name of company policy. “Am I not a man and a brother?” Wyatt asks, maker of money for conflagrations and wars.
He’s taunted for his naiveté.
Do you not suppose our interests are everywhere?
Do you not suppose you’re our interest?
How couldn’t we know that you were plotting against us, Wyatt Pleasure, replaceable liar that you are?
The truculent judges fidget in their chairs. Jets of water squirt from their black robes. They pound their gavels belligerently. He thinks it a very elaborate disguise for Poseidon’s board members, recognizable despite the makeup and prosthetic props: Ganeesh, Captain Ahab, Chen Hu, Leopold II, Onassis, the Shah, Kali, Stanley and Gordon, Columbus and Cortez, Kissinger and Kennedy, all his adversaries. Yet the founder, Poseidon, excused on business apparently, is absent.
“So what you got, Wyatt?” they ask in unison.
He’s sabotaged himself with the kangaroo court. But he wants to be caught. Of course, he has brought the maps in order to prove he’s guilty. That’s part of the game. Wyatt smiles grimly. With a great amount of reticence, he unlatches his briefcase and unfolds his deposit of knowledge.
“Deepwater,” he said humbly. “It’s deepwater.”
“Young man, but we already own the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico.”
“This is something else. You haven’t the science for a royal baby.”
“Is there something we can’t do?”
“No,” he says. “You make wars if need be.”
He walks from Baku and migrates to the dark heart.
“Ah, sugar and spice, is it? Please stay abreast of our current activities, Mr. Pleasure.”
“Not so, sir, I’m very much abreast.”
“So nothing of promise?” they ask, displeased. “Are you not the nose?”
He unscrolls his own maps and pushes away the tissues between the blue facsimiles, opens the flutes and unfurls the exhibits.
“Who made them?”
“The invisible man,” he says. “Me.”
What’s there to lose? He can’t be sold because he’s already been sold. Like everyone. With few conditions and little compensation, Wyatt Pleasure is for hire. But he’s afraid he’s going to blow it. Is his idea pure bluff? It’s a crucial moment.
The floor blinks under his feet and follows his footsteps. Pipelines of lights pulsed across the continents, nodes of refineries glittered alluringly and capillaries of shipping carved from port to port. Poseidon is the brain and the men of the court tap their feet waiting for Wyatt to speak about the maps.
The court of executives rustle their black papers and scratch their black wigs.
The hush is his chance and he takes a deep breath. He steels himself for what to say.
An overhead projector is placed in the center of the floor by an audiovisual technician, dressed too much like a bailiff. The light shines through the blue paper and casts a aquatic aura over the room once the lights are dimmed. He’s given a light pen for a pointer.
“First, understand that what you want is incognito, buried by water and rock, the river deltas of our prehistoric home,” he says in one gulp, having successfully mounted the first map. He taps his nose, already reading their objections.
Ribbons wrap around the shelves of the continents, marked up with zones of pink, blue and purple dots, many coastlines unrecognizable, some familiar, made with astrolabe and compass, without full knowledge of the breadth and barriers of the seas.
“You’ll need a fleet of seismic ships to pinpoint the areas.” First is Bahia. Then Congo. He makes a diversion to the Caspian. “Then you must pay for huge concessions of real estate and wait for the technology.”
The room is illuminated with caravels, monsters and compass bearings that would let a man know if he’s doomed or saved, the remnants of the great explorers, their most intimate, wildest crumbs. It bodes well for the future of Poseidon, colonies of men struggling madly to milk the undersea wells of their black mead, their quarters lashed by the hot turbulent seas.
“You will need to build drill ships and floating platforms that will be positioned by satellite, lay new underwater pipelines. These are where the next discoveries will be, offshore, in deepwater, sometimes in oceans two, three miles deep or more.”
The marsh gas rises through the paper waters to his nose. He dips forward, nods then regains his stature, temporarily overpowered by the intoxicating, sweet scent of risks.
“How did you find them, Wyatt?”
“The nose,” he says. It’s always a gamble. The nose, his great detector, mostly right, sometimes wrong, often such a prankster that a whole area could appear to be dry when he should backpedal, accommodate for wind and other meteorological conditions, and then re-sniff for the critical particles leaking from the ground. No fraud, the sweet heavy smell rose right out of the paper and he’s on point, a wise ancient sea hound with stories of discoveries to jabber at the moon, dowsing for liquid gold, pissing on the spits of land that are to be his.
He’s indispensable. A well-timed visit to the drill site helps pinpoint the zones. It’s a remarkable day on one of many such field trips, when Wyatt suggests an innovation: drill the well sideways and hit the pockets laterally to save time and increase their chances. He would stand out in the pristine rocks of the desert with a surveyor’s mirror extended to its full length, giving bearings to the driller, who would chart the course underground with the face of the yawning bit. Soon thereafter, he realizes they could drill right under their competitors, a trick worth repeating.
Wyatt imagines Poseidon must believe in magic. His prodigious punk-like head, seething with remora, eels and anemones, would be kept in a giant electric cage tuned to the magnetic pole and the grounded tone of G sharp. His arteries and veins dangle like sparks through electric bars into a pool of cryogenic syrup and protean chemical soup. Surely, a body is just a shape and Poseidon is no more than a logo, the fearful sausage-fingered spear with which he punctures the earth.
“You try to mislead us, Wyatt.”
“The record’s a bit tarnished but I serve everyone very well.”
“Seeing that royal baby has so much potential, you may be excused for lying.”
Poseidon isn’t so unlike Momma Empire’s salon of exaggerated claims. Like religion, Poseidon pays no taxes and always needs money.
Corporate serf, enticed by his paycheck, Wyatt is not to have a choice and he conveniently doesn’t want a choice either. Choices are his enemy. He sways in one direction and vacillates in the next, almost making choices but Wyatt is better off without them. Except for the nose that keeps him strong and true. Didn’t it quake at the exquisite smell of Noemi Empire?
He backtracks over that idea, the perfume of turpentine rising from her thighs that quell him so.
Wyatt blinks at the offices of Poseidon Oil and Gas. He’s high with coarse emotion and collapsed in his chair. Wyatt has stood his ground at the company court. Cigar and Styrofoam coffee cup in his hand, his gums sore from the stress, the detritus of his presentation litters the walls, the floor map flashing intelligently, digesting and purchasing along his trends.
He’s agreed to drill more in Libya despite the risk of being away from the action. They have an evacuation plan prepared for the penultimate moment, when Poseidon will be dissolved by Colonel Candy and their taps turned off.
Wyatt has to stand up and his shirt is stained with kelp. The executives thank him. He’s congratulated on his foresight. He’s winked at, backslapped, rubbed and shaken. They would plan accordingly and groom him for a new space at the horseshoe-shaped table.
“You’re in charge in Libya, pollywog” they say. “Be good to the Colonel in Candyland.”
They have gotten what they want and the tribunal breaks up, these strange creatures, draped in black robes with black wigs and black ties, holding black papers in their porcelain hands. They move in a throng, dragging their black chains behind them, and vanish to the helipad, set like a nest on the side of the great prong jutting over London. The white coffin-like birds zoom away into the lateral sky, green with clouds, rippling over the canopy of London.
Wyatt doesn’t take the elevator from the sixty-seventh floor of Poseidon Oil and Gas. Both crushed and elated, he scrambles away and takes the stairwell, its top open, blowing like a spume hole, wet with condensation, singing like a pipe. Hesitant, he first takes one step at a time, then he takes them in twos, until he has built his confidence in the drier reaches, lured by the ellipse of steps, and is heaving from landing to landing, bouncing down the inside of the company, past Poseidon’s watery departments of chemistry, finance and law, past a huddle of smoking geologists startled by his deep guttural cries. Showing off for the Scot secretary in the foyer, he twists through the revolving doors, jumping from bollard to railing of the corporate steps into the parking garage stuffed with cars evocative of lubricant and sex, then wiggles under its sewerage into the subterranean docks and chalky foundations of Poseidon Oil and Gas ornamented with a sharp tang of minerals and money. It grows smoky and dark and he waves to Grandpa Pleasure sitting on the steps. Still he vaults down into the bottomless inky earth, tangling like a cougar, compelled into the boiling darkness, never hoving to, on the voyage of his master’s bidding, he, Wyatt, cat and raft, lighting his cargo of oils across the Styx.
The earth retreats from his feet. Where is he falling? Having defied everything else, could it now be gravity?
Wyatt lunges out of bed, his legs cramped, his head afire with fear, for a moment his fantasy a horrible reality varnishing his dreams. The Poseidon meeting has gone very well from what he remembers. He’s got the maps like they ask. He moans and cradles the muscles sewn into knots. Between him and Noemi, the cold water bottle. England’s winter dawn breaks through the windows.
The stairs creak. Momma Empire pulling on her first cigarette as she slips downstairs to rekindle the broad hearth of her home, her cauldron of disillusioned spells and broth shivering over the last of the embers of the Empire fire.
Wyatt pauses. Could the previous night’s homespun entertainment be the cause? He fuzzily seeks an answer as he sorts through the porcelain chippings of his awful dreams.
They hold the séance in the kitchen. Momma Empire has invited over Equiano and he’s brought a tribute, a sheep, and a white powder that he makes people paint on their faces. Momma Empire is wearing a crown of sparkly thorns. Momma Empire can put on quite a show.
Toby is balanced in Noemi’s lap, his head held in her arms, both dashed with white powder and he’s baffled by the medium who lights a shrine of candles and begins her act, her devoted audience collected in the kitchen from the arms of London.
It’s meeting night and the front door is open to the bereaved souls wandering the streets and drawn by the firelight in the windows.
Clean and set, everyone places their hands on the table, its polished edge pulled right to their hearts. Everything is presented there on its surface but many more emotions are pushed just under its tense surface. They are a family for better or worse, joined by their fingers.
Momma Empire leads the spiritualist proceedings with everyone starting with a stretch, pushing away their breath, exhaling. As a way to gain their trust, she asks them to visualize colors and numbers. “It’s time to take control,” she says.
The table levitates in a practiced way, painfully balanced on Momma Empire’s gout-prone toe. She winces and commences the knocking of the spirit world. The wood in the fire cracks suddenly and nearly everyone jumps.
They’ve done the same thing, linked up with the spirit world, as kids on the prairie.
A hare hangs from the pantry door. A pie of partridges and wood snipe cools in the oven. A bowl of pears and walnuts, a spray of chrysanthemum and parsley, a gibbet of dried sausages from the Pyrenees, and several Sheffield knives litter the side table, covered with a velvet baize. Candles burn somberly.
Calvados, soaked with Momma Empire’s collection of barks and herbs, has led Wyatt, by now poisonously drunk, to request Buffalo Bill.
He can’t name a dead relative he wants to talk to anyway.
But Momma Empire has her own ideas, disconnects and finds Black Elk, who long ago gained Momma Empire’s favor for his bravery and thirst.
Wyatt has no idea who’s Black Elk, but he promises to brush up on noteworthy redskins.
She’s a hoot, brimming with obscure or obscene studies of the peoples that made treaties. She follows up with dividing and conquering.
Noemi interrupts with a plea for Elisabeth Taylor. She’d like to know how Lizzie’s managing America, and Momma Empire copies her demure accent for a line or two.
Then in a burst of stupidity Noemi asks to speak to Daddy Empire.
Momma scolds her. “Child, Daddy Empire’s not dead! You know he’s in Wales.”
“Well, if Daddy’s in Wales, it can’t be that bad, can it?” She’s intrigued. So Daddy’s still on the kipper-like island of Albion.
Equiano, usually very diplomatic, rebukes Momma Empire. “Have some respect for your ex-husband, Momma Empire. He’s not entertainment. If you’re feeling so insubordinate, why not call down Mother Earth?”
Momma Empire deflates at the notion. She couldn’t summon her gargantuan sister. Plus, her toe.
Equiano intrinsically understands the ways of Momma Empire, what she was really about and what she needed to hear, that she was good, not just benign, really as good as Mother Earth.
“You’re the sun, Momma,” he says to make the point.
Equiano could be a bit of sycophant but the strategy worked well, leaving him space to rewrite history.
The séance collapses into the kitchen, a gold, perforated frame around its tattered edges, a portrait and a stamp, with Momma Empire standing among it, making coffee that very next morning.
Wyatt notices the hot little package congealed around his mother and some strange impulse nearly forces him to reach out to smother the sleeping baby that would usurp him, he’s sure, as all sons eat their fathers.
He recoils. He’s being overwhelmed. Momma Empire’s house is having a serious effect on his temple. He laughs to himself thinking of his nightmare, incredibly convincing. Anyway, Poseidon’s a fool and Wyatt hasn’t been a complete nincompoop. The oil wasn’t in the water; it was in the desert where the old rivers had dried up. He’s kept his nerve not to divulge the secret of royal baby.
Wyatt chuckles again at his accomplishment.
Poseidon would be off the scent for years, allowing him time to ferret out the real bonanza. And if he didn’t succeed alone, there’s always Toby Pleasure.
His head’s a pear and his penis a plum. Toby’s a strange bruised fruit when the times comes for his agitated removal from London. But the strange muted world soon gets better as swings in the arms of his mother, disembarking from the aircraft in Benghazi, blasted by a tangy heat scented with the smoke of cooking fires.
A large placard of Colonel Candy greets the Pleasure family at the Benghazi aerodrome. He’s grinning upon the bodies of four lynched men, martyrs from Omar Mukhtar’s premature rebellion against Italian occupation, a reminder of the sacrifices he expected from his countrymen. “Partners not wage earners,” is splashed in strong type. Candy has multiplied in their absence. He’s a canny politician and wily strongman, neither the maddest nor the worst.
Re-exposed to Candy’s cult of personality, Wyatt and Noemi smile nervously at one another. They expect a message, a welcome, a bouquet, but nothing. No one greets them and Wyatt struggles with the set of matching brown Samsonites until a porter comes to his aid. The pork and pastes remain safe, undetected by the officials who just wave them past.
Sweet and succulent, Candy’s everywhere. He’s smiling on the shirts of the ground staff, swinging like a saint from the taxi’s mirror on the way home, grimacing on the banners across the highway, hanging from the lamp posts, smiling from the murals on the housing estates, waving from petrol stations with strangely long queues, painted on the sides of tents that have sprung in some parts of the city, screened on the clothes of the populace, blowing their noses in Candy handkerchiefs, drinking from Candy tea cups, smoking Candy cigarettes. Candy’s a brand, a pharaoh. The Colonel understands very well. A new federal state needs an identity and an unselfish, unmerciful volunteer like himself to lead it.
The Libyans fawn to please Toby, the firstborn Pleasure son. They promptly put down Colonel Candy’s preaching and warnings about capitalists and come to stroke him and Noemi’s embarrassed by all the attention. The congratulations and blessing on her accomplishment flow in a reliable stream. It’s so unusual; no one has ever congratulated her on anything. Their kindness touches her, often more than she wants. Charms are offered by the handful. She diligently puts the witchcraft in a box next to her side of the bed where it had all started with Wyatt after one too many gin and tonics. Like a pincushion, she imagines the box can catch all evil and it serves a therapeutic purpose. Like most of her emotions, she thinks she can put the charms out of sight.
A crumpled letter from Momma Empire is on her writing desk. It suggests an itinerary.
I’m most terribly afraid that I’m going to have to ask a favour of you since I’m indisposed to do what I propose due to a terrible attack of gout. As you undoubtedly know, I have many important friends abroad, some of whom you’ve had the privilege of meeting at my home and I have an itinerary in mind. If you would be so kind when in Alexandria, as to visit the Metropolitan of the Coptic Church and give him a good old rah-rah and rap round the knuckles. Also, for the sake of diplomacy, the Sufi order in Khartoum, I’d be very grateful if you’d say hello to my masters. If they have any new books or recordings, do splurge and I’ll reimburse you later. And once in Ethiopia, please pass my kind regards to Prester John. Please have them all get in touch through the usual channels. I hope Toby’s better, I’m positive he’ll enjoy the trip, and do pack a mosquito net.
Momma Empire xox
NB1. Please bring 35-spice mixture for tajine on your way home. Without too much rose, please!
NB2. Tell Mr. Pleasure that the oil is in Chad, a tip from the Lloyds peers in my Ouspensky group.
Utter rubbish. Momma Empire’s obviously deluded. Noemi isn’t going to Khartoum, much less Alexandria, even if Wyatt might have suggested that it’s a nice weekend visit where they could shoot the breeze on the Cornish and watch the world eat ice cream. Khartoum’s the last place she wants to go. No matter that it’s the juncture of the Blue and White Niles, it’s the site where Momma Empire ran off and left Daddy Empire, when she raised her anchor and steamed down the Nile with a new man. The divorce is Noemi’s epicenter, the tricky fault that continues to quake in her emotions of betrayal and loss. Noemi knows that she’s in the wrong place, far too close for comfort to the interior of doubts that she harbors about her mother and home. She isn’t into catharsis. That would be too personal to release all the genies from her box. The Sufis would not convince her that love could conquer betrayal, and everything else too, though she had been very impressed by their desert dancing. Most salubrious.
Alone in the house, Wyatt in the field, her help gone, she struggles with her reservations. Battutu’s disappearance shortly after their return has upset her greatly. He’s instrumental to getting things accomplished in the garden and also reliable company. She misses the dates and pomegranates brought by the old man, and the garden reflects the loss of its horticultural genius. But she senses something else is wrong. The house seems disturbed.
But Battutu does come back, a few days later, haggard, kowtowing, begging for forgiveness, swallowed in a great wool coat with the mortarboards and insignia of the old Italian occupiers. It’s embarrassing to watch and the conclusions are uncomfortable.
“O Begum Pleasure, Colonel Candy has arrested my brother,” he implores, on his knees, his hands clasped together under the sleeves of the great coat. “He’s only a student engineer. I’ve been trying to get him out since the demonstrations.” He looks pitiable, with none of the spry energy that usually sparkles in his eyes.
“Well, we’re not having any of that.” Her sense of justice is aroused to fight Colonel Candy’s campaign against the student unions that she’s read about in the Italian papers.
She gathers Toby, who she regards as her open sesame, and fires up the Beetle. She hates cars but this is too important. She passes the baby to Battutu who holds him in his lap and whispers fairytales in his ear. She’s filled with motherly purpose as the car wiggles through the sandy streets to the district police office. Traffic wardens moving like dolls capped with blue fezzes direct the traffic from their stools perched in the centers of the main intersections. A herd of corgi-like camels trespassing in town charm her momentarily, but her sense of justice is too strong to abort her mission due to pretty livestock. That’s Wyatt’s weak spot, not hers. She parks at the edge of a square darkened by strips of palms and doesn’t bother to lock. Her friendship with Battutu is at stake.
There is no glass in the windows of the district police office. A group of men are drinking teas in the courtyard. A typewriter pocks in the background. The walls are stained blue.
“Salaam aleikum,” she says to the guard, who bows. She gathers her breath for her Italian as the inspector waddles forward, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. Toby cradled in her arms, she addresses him: “What have you done with Battutu’s brother?” she asks in a loud voice.
Inadvertently she combines her French into her Italian, but the inspector didn’t mind her slaughtering the old occupier’s language.
Noemi equivocates: does this gesture mean she’s good and has a conscience? Or is she meddling and imperiling her dear servant Battutu?
A portrait of the Colonel hangs askew on the wall, his eyes shaded by Ray-Bans, his hair tight and curled, his jaw long and rugged, his handsome, rectangular face cramped into the determination of an autocrat carefully plotting to secure his kingdom. He’s patronizing and dangerous, especially at this stage in his career, when everything has to be done. He grips a switch.
It smells of sweat and cockroaches.
“This man’s brother!” she says loudly.
The inspector is paralyzed with genuine astonishment
His colleagues guffaw in the courtyard. Who’s this white whore? Who’s the cowed agent at her side?
She points at Battutu and they cluck at him in Arabic.
“Who you ask for is not here,” the inspector says. “We do not have Battutu’s brother.”
Kafir meddling would only make it worse for Battutu’s brother, the inspector concludes.
For the first time, Noemi notices Battutu’s blackened, torn fingernails and looks with horror at the misdeeds spelled out on his hands that have nervously emerged from his coat.
The inspector gestures for her to inspect the cells and she dares not go through the dark doorway, so strong in its aspect to be both grave and anus. Nothing more is needed to intimate violence.
Noemi and Battutu are shooed away, it being the end of her Agatha-like moment, and she almost topples into the street from the steps. She’s pelted with insults like rotten eggs as she leaves the premises. Bolshy in deportment, determined in agency, she settles in the Beetle and urges Battutu to get in. It’s a very convenient car and refuge, even if it’s German.
The British Embassy is in Tripoli. She could write a very polite letter to them to sort it out.
After, both of them slurping watermelon and pistachio gelato she buys in consolation, Battutu thanks her for her help.
“I will find another way to get my brother, Begum” he says, shaking her hand and saying goodbye.
Likely fearing for his safety, tarred with the brush of collaboration, Battutu doesn’t return to the house again, no matter how much he wants to return to savor the ways of the foreigners who brought only trouble to the Maghreb.
Wyatt hears her report when he’s back from the desert. Her actions seem a little irrational to him. His principle is not to fool around with Arab affairs. It’s best to let them divide themselves. Jeremy had told him that. Poseidon advises it, too.
“Write the letter?” he asks. Why had he encouraged her to learn to drive?
“Of course,” Noemi says. “And I sent a copy to Colonel Candy.” Her secretarial skills were still quite useful. “Would you like to read it?”
He shakes his head. Deliberately or not, she’s thwarting his plans. The baby strategy is backfiring. She’s at least as stubborn and full of bluster as Momma Empire, if not more so. “Let’s not make a diplomatic incident,” he says firmly.
“Please ask the company to sort it out, Wyatt. I do miss Battutu. He told such good stories.”
He weighs the choice. Interference isn’t his job: he’s simply to extract as much oil from the Libyan sands as geopolitics allows. No more. Fraternizing is taboo. But passing the responsibility for this onerous task to the company seems like a good tactic, he admits, giving him time to petition Colonel Candy himself. Poseidon could ask about Battutu’s disappeared brother, if Poseidon still had any sway.
“I’ll try,” he says without enthusiasm; he knows the answer: Colonel Candy would have them know Libya is the happiest, safest country in the world, the face of a new revolution in Arab and African affairs. He hesitates because he avoided principles so far.
The corporation is ruthless and Wyatt is its satrap, well paid to keep his codebook and the nature of his work confidential. No longer is he in jeopardy of spilling the beans in Benghazi, when whisky and braggadocio might mislead him into sharing his ideas with an industry mole mining for information about the prospecting under the desert. He’s the last cool-handed gambler in Libya and he feels very sexy, part of the political and economic whirlwind that’s oil, so vital that he’s needed here, not in Vietnam. Yet he couldn’t guess what Poseidon’s removal from Libya means for him. He needs a backup plan for that eventuality. Could he return and work for the Colonel if he presented the royal baby, the moniker for his pet project? He’s careful.
Soon after, Noemi’s letter reverberates through Colonel Candy’s lock-like administration, and a roadblock appears at the end of the street. Getting in and out became troublesome; the police often were belligerent, maybe drunk. Wyatt couldn’t figure out where they got the alcohol. He certainly couldn’t get any of the arrak brewed by the Copts, given precious religious freedom to surmount the prohibition. Circumspect by nature, knowing the threat to their lives to be ancient and consequential, they had closed their shops and stopped selling publicly. What was the loss of business when one could lose everything?
Wyatt spruces up the Beetle, parked under the date palms, which in the shortage of booze, he now regards as a potential source of moonshine. He adds a leather-framed picture of the great brother to the rearview mirror, as if that would save them from the security clampdown. He’s also grown a mustache in a nod to the trend, but the gesture’s transparent: he’s still a foreigner, a parasite.
Questioned and put on the spot one night by the police, it seems the name of their street has changed. Rue D’Annunzio has been decreed Rue Arafat in honor of the Palestinian Liberation Organization office to be opened down the street. Their Libyan IDs are for the old address, invalid.
They point to Toby Pleasure, asleep in Noemi’s lap.
Wyatt hands over a few piasters, a mix of coins stamped either with Candy or his predecessor, Idris.
They do their best to adapt to the pressure as the community of ex-patriots and their help vanished around them. The lawn grows in fits and it’s up to Noemi to do the watering and gardening. She misses Battutu’s company, with his tall tales of traveling to Timbuktu and Xanadu delivered in a garbled Italian that she had great difficulty understanding. She had gathered that he must be very old though he had proved to be a vigorous gardener, guard and batman, most often willing to please. She envies the dates hanging alluringly in the sky, she unable to scale the palms rustling in the evening breeze. She’s worried too: without Battutu, anyone could slip a hand through the gate and enter the yard. She doesn’t feel very safe with the foul-tempered gander in the garden for protection, even when Wyatt’s home.
Wyatt responds by filling the house and garage with more junk from the souk, a collection of copper and brass objects from the metal merchants, sometimes even annealed bars of iron and neat croissettes of red copper, remnants of trade. He found tarnished European pewter, upon examination sometimes stamped with makers’ marks that indicated origins in Bristol or Liverpool. He’s astounded, holding what amounts to the price of a slave in his hand.
But the souk changes radically, filled with everything left from the foreign evacuations. To him it seems the influx of everyday goods is an opportunity to refit entire buildings, the contents sacked from the Italian and Maltese premises that no longer have habitants or customers: sheets, china, silverware, tiles, fittings, beds, scattered like the remnants of defeat. Folly tempts him to buy it all, export it, and make what he reckons to be a handsome profit.
Noemi marches into old Benghazi most evenings. Toby’s strapped to her back in a native cloth tied in two places, the pair of them protected from the inordinate evening sun by a large umbrella. Noemi wraps up in local garments, too, signaling that she’s willing to play by the rules of Colonel Candy’s country. She likes the gown and trousers, sandals and scarf. The rhythm of walking makes both feel better, especially once mother and infant arrive at the sea wall to watch the legions of people. It’s a taste of freedom, therapy from her isolation.
Toby behaves immaculately. Comforted by the Arabic and overjoyed by the heat, the calls of the muezzin make his infant heart soar. He’s back in his domain.
Yet no one will look her in the eye, not even the men, a very grave sign. She wants to look and feel good again, though there aren’t anymore new Italian clothes to look good in. The city had been psychedelically brightened by Puccini, then replaced with aboriginal browns, creams and blues.
Noemi Pleasure takes a moment to be honest on the promenade, not sure what to do, certainly not watercolor even if her vision is decorated with boats, reflections and feet. She’s tired of the greedy bugger who’s her charge, his hot face needling in for suckle; she’s glad to be wrung out and curdled by the hot spring sun.
A local wetnurse would be a solution, she thought, but how would she make her case at the hammam: a Libyan breast was surely better than Italian. But her inopportune requests for help would surely be turned aside by the local women, well kept, informed, educated in Rome or London, often speaking English, by now utterly hesitant. Everything has changed.
Sitting inert like a toad, she remembers Iris, who had left with her husband, a Poseidon VP, and been reassigned to Jakarta. She wonders who’s in charge where Wyatt’s concerned.
Signs with slogans from Candy’s administration have sprung up along the boardwalk.
Wage earners, however improved their wages may be, are a type of slave.
The cars glide by. The palms rustle overhead. The sails of the dhows are aloft, the boats nosing to shore to sell their catch from the black-blue sea.
Sometimes she imagines Wyatt would join her.
Sharing a mango shake with him, decorated with a sprig of mint, she complains, increasingly tired from the long walk to the marina. “Will you buy me a Vespa?” she asks. “I don’t like the car.”
He refuses the request; she’s a klutz.
“There’s no need to enrage the Libyans,” he adds. “They don’t even want you to ride a bike.”
He secretly agrees: women are distracted too easily and honor is everything.
“I’ll buy Toby a pram if you like.”
That comes as a jolt to her, the abrupt ending of childhood that is the birth of Toby Pleasure. This is what it’s like to be an adult. Noemi had trouble accepting that, her emotional growth so long stunted by Momma Empire’s conviction that she could only ever be a child.
Wyatt grows paranoid as Colonel Candy’s regime stamps his imprint on the country, spouting garbage about killing capitalism when Libya is wholly dependent on Poseidon’s revenues. Candy has it easy: he doesn’t need to develop an economy as such. Sure, the Colonel could make perfect sense and deserves to be heard, but Wyatt has begun to question the wisdom of staying for the perks of his position and bonus. He need not torture his wife. He knows Poseidon’s has a few more breaths in Libya, but Candy is poised, his chariot prepared for war.
He’s in a pickle. No backslider, still he wonders, “What to do? What to be?” But to be isn’t a question for Wyatt, all nose and oil.
The meeting with Colonel Candy is stalled. Rightly, Wyatt suspects that it’s a game of cat and mouse. But they’re ready for the moment, the Pleasure family’s clothes ironed neatly by Wyatt and a bag of baby supplies packed by Noemi. He’s polished his cowboy boots, too.
Wyatt frets that Noemi’s letter has sabotaged the invitation and earned Candy’s disfavor, until the bell to the gate rings in the middle of one spring night when the wind brings Europe’s alpine cold across the Mediterranean.
“Here they come,” he thinks, opening the gate, correctly expecting to be bundled out in the night, no longer protected by company or passport. No point in hiding.
A Cadillac is waiting in the street, its green fins extending into the red darkness lit by the brake lights, its engine chugging like a throat.
“Get your family,” says the messenger, pointing to the El Dorado.
“Now?” Wyatt asked.
“Yes, the Colonel awaits you, Mr. Pleasure.”
He’s prepared them and Noemi knows what to do as she wipes the slumber from her eyes. Her outfit’s in the closet. She’d given the fabric great thought. She’s swabbed in minty green silk like an imam.
Wyatt pulls on a suit, its pockets stocked with sand. He tucks in what he regards as his lucky lilac gingham shirt.
Toby is buttoned up in a jumpsuit of pale blue terrycloth.
Wyatt shoulders the baby bag of nappies and creams, carries his son to the car and holds Noemi close. She’s trembling.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “He’s just eccentric.”
“Erratic,” she says. She senses no fear.
The car has a cream interior with red trim. It’s a Cadillac? She does like roomy American cars. They breeze past the neighborhood roadblock and don’t turn into town but drove away from the green lights of the city along the coast where the desert abruptly hit the shore. The single headlight beam pierces the darkness like a sharp finger and the Cadillac glides into the night.
Wyatt chinks the window, thick, made of multiple layers of glass, and smokes. Noemi is bunched in the other corner of the armored car.
The adversity, real or imagined, makes them feel close. Libya’s for lovers, Wyatt thought, smiling to himself. Toby, oblivious, gurgled.
“Brega?” he asks.
“No, Sirte,” says the messenger.
It’s a huge distance along the Bay of Sidra. Wyatt and Noemi would have time to sleep on the pillows conveniently provided, at some point before dawn the car stopping, the air sweet with the tang of cedars.
The two men pray hypnotically, then they resume the journey.
The stones crackle under the car’s tires. Wyatt doesn’t rouse Noemi and Toby, curled together under a blanket, thinking it best to save her business with Colonel Candy and the matter of Battutu’s brother to the end. It’s cold and harsh. His breath’s frosty. He has business here, nowhere near Sirte.
The tents flaps in the dawn wind. The rising sun puckers behind hard, sour clouds. Sentinels, Candy’s Revolutionary Guard, squat on cairns of rock scattered in clumps over the dry plain free of bush.
The messenger bids, “This way.”
The chauffeur’s already greeting the guards. “Humdillilah,” he says.
“Inshallah,” answers a group of men, removing a teapot from the cute stove, a large can of what had been sardines lined with concrete. It burns with a hot orange flame. The barrels of their guns point into the sky and sand.
The camp’s arranged in a crescent, almost a kraal, anchored against the wind by guy wires. The messenger gestures to a large field tent, the flap on one side drawn over the roof. Straw mats cover the sharp pebbles of the desert and a fabric of repeating green, red, black and beige decorate the canvas walls. The roof’s low and a slit of light and wind emerge from the back. A wide white leather chair is in the background, next to a table, cleaned of everything.
The messenger unfolds three chairs. “I’m your translator,” he said. “In all confidence.”
Wyatt’s certain Colonel Candy spoke English, having been trained by the English in the mid-1960s as a young military officer, but the translator insists: Colonel Candy will speak through him.
“O, Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Great Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution!”
He bows and Wyatt follows suit. He’s going to tell him what he wants to believe.
Colonel Candy radiates a command and charisma that hurdles through their eyes straight into their souls. There will be no pretense here, no deception, no games. His authority is his unpredictability.
“Welcome, Mr. Pleasure,” the Colonel says, “Welcome to my country.” His hands swoop over the rocky soil and he points to the sun. “Congratulations on your new family.”
“Thank you,” says Wyatt. It’s genuine, not a threat, but he does turn to reassure himself just as Noemi emerges from the Cadillac to calm a group of children who wanted to play with curious Toby. They’ve agreed: he’ll talk first.
“Yes,” says Wyatt.
“Now the only milestone left in your life is death.”
Wyatt swallows. Candy’s very cryptic.
Candy wears a brown fatigue shirt and light blue cotton pants rolled up over his calves. His hair is relaxed and unstyled; he has no cap or hat, no jewelry, no adornment whatsoever standing in the desert next to his God. He studies the horizon, his hands on his kidneys.
He grips Wyatt’s hand and touches his heart. But he does not hug or kiss him as he would a brother.
Likewise, Wyatt follows custom and protocol, by now flawless.
“You know some of our ways, Mr. Pleasure?” he asks.
“You must accept my sorrow at the delay.”
“Most humbly,” Wyatt replies. “May I too express my joy at our meeting. It’s a great honor to give your consent. I have written many letters and appeals.”
“I get much correspondence from the United States,” he says.
“I apologize for the arrogance of the people in power,” says Wyatt. He’s rehearsed that gem. American mistakes are too many to tally, a view that has developed during his career overseas. He allows Colonel Candy to settle on grievous thoughts of Israel or Vietnam.
“Yes, yes, I understand,” he says in English. “But this is over.”
Candy’s voice is very soft and charming as he begins to explain his ideas. He flexes his legs, bats his knees together. The translator is his mouthpiece, the young man’s face filled by a light scruffy beard that did not match his strange demonstrative voice, his notebook filling with scripts.
“According to Jesus, and to what’s happening now, there’s evil and there’s good. There are tremendous potentialities. Used for evil purposes they will be destructive. Used for good of humanity, it would be tremendous.”
Colonel Candy plays with a clay pipe with a long velvet-wrapped stem ornamented with a few cowry shells as he talks. He also has a whisk next to his chair and a small fridge by his side.
“The struggle on the earth now all depends on whether or not the will to good overpowers the will to do evil. And the first evil is capitalism. Capitalism must be destroyed. The rich class is very destructive and must be done away with. If socialism was to be realized all over the world, then good will would prevail.
“Wars and the manufacture of weapons of destruction are all instigated and encouraged by the capitalists out looking for profit. Even at the expense of others, even at the expense of the dead bodies of millions. Therefore, we must fight against capitalism. And the solution is socialism. Not the Russian or the Soviet Union or the socialism of China. This is a socialism that has not been applied yet. I mean the socialism advocated by the Green Book. If it is, then we will be heading for good with whatever potentialities we have. People must be convinced that capitalism means war, inflation, economic crisis, unemployment and exploitation. People must be convinced that these evils are the outcome of capitalism.”
His arms are crossed, then he gestures, chop-chop. He pulls up, leans forward, furrows his brow, wipes his lip with his thumb.
“Capitalism needs these evils.”
Wyatt stretched forward in his suit. “I worry about my country,” Wyatt said. “They don’t care. They don’t care about partnership.”
“What do you propose, Mr. Pleasure?”
He’d been thinking the same thing, about royal baby, and at that moment the tea arrives in a brass pot and is poured, black, onto many lumps of sugar, from a long scimitar-like spout.
He’s collated his maps from London into what he thought would interest the Colonel. Hardball.
“Permit me, Colonel Candy, to say that you’re in an ideal position. Build yourself a top notch refining and processing and shipping terminal and you’ll be the envy of the Mediterranean and guaranteed high income for years. The Tunisians don’t have it. Nor the Egyptians. Only the Israelis and the Italians. To finance this, your reserves are strong. More are inevitable. Build the pipelines and infrastructure to bring it to market. Beyond your borders are vast reserves. I can smell it.”
Wyatt points to his maps. Sure enough, parts of Sudan, Chad and Niger, even the Central African Republic, are dotted with stickers, his careful work with the nose that cares neither for borders or consequences. The rocks of Africa emit an irresistible perfume of oil and other countless resources. The obstacles could be overcome if he can trust his new false friend, Colonel Candy, ally of nonaligned oddballs and pariah states, a benevolent man of solidarity.
“Colonel, sir, it may sound like a death sentence, but I’d advise you to make the most of your position and take the assets, like you’ve said in your broadcasts, and make Libya the number one driller of petroleum in the Sahara, Sahel and offshore. You’ve got the money for schools, engineers, geologists and managers, so why not? Don’t sell the crude raw and cheap like that fool Idris. The oil, it’s so close, in physical and geological terms, and Libya’s at the epicenter.”
“And water?” Candy asks with supreme calm. He has another prerogative, to turn Libya into paradise.
Wyatt addresses it in a professional tone. “We have found many aquifers. We call it fossil water. We use it to push out the oil from the old wells. There’s plenty and the potential is unlimited in our assessment.”
Candy harrumphs. He’s fantasized about a river running under the sands in order to feed crops and people. Everything this overdressed man is saying sounds feasible. Nonetheless, he appreciates the respect he’s shown. Indeed, he’s surprised by how far he has gone, a self-made head of state, feted and esteemed.
“Beat that old god Poseidon at his own game, yeah?” Wyatt is being very informal but this was the time to prove his worth. “But maybe you can’t do it alone?”
“Allah akbar,” says Colonel Candy.
The phrase echoes from the lips of the great revolutionary leader to his men.
Wyatt mimes the words too.
“Partners, not wage earners.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. The whole world’s corrupt. What you’re talking about is employee stock ownership, huh? Well, Poseidon does that too, but not everyone’s an owner.” He doesn’t expect to betray his employer with such easy complicity. It feels numbingly good, nearly as good as revenge. He hopes Candy won’t recognize him for what he is: a capitalist rat.
“Twenty years,” he adds. In Libya, there aren’t any clauses limiting Colonel Candy’s powers. “And you have water.”
In his excitement, Wyatt doesn’t notice the microphone boom that slip between them as they sit on their diner-like chairs, the tent snapping occasionally as the sun begins its journey to the meridian and pulls the wind with it, murmuring with the children in the camp.
Why’s there a camera on a tripod?
When did that happen?
What has he said?
“People rule themselves by themselves” is Candy’s mandate and he intends to exploit their gullibility from the top as their sole partner. A few Libyan brains could be sacrificed for the better of the country. And as long as the Americans and British drive cars, he will be rich. He can afford to issue puzzling edicts and warp diplomacy through meddling and proxy wars, especially if what Wyatt Pleasure has testified is as extraordinary as he suggests.
“Do you think me a good man?” he asks, gesturing to the translator and camera crew that time’s up.
“Quite the opposite,” replies Wyatt, “I admire your sense of guile and playboy good looks. You’re quite an opponent.”
They rise from their chairs and Colonel Candy says with a calculating air, “Report to Ali Baba at the National Oil Corporation with your details.”
Wyatt pauses, smiles. “It’s rare to find someone more helpful when it comes to the future of Libya, who knows so little and so much.”
Colonel Candy laughs, shakes his head at the idea of nincompoop, cinches Wyatt by the arm and escorts him into the desert. What had been purple that morning has quickly washed to a rough brown then bleached to an eye-numbing gray as the sun progressed. Candy’s a connoisseur of deserts. They make his soul soar. He likes the hammada because it’s unremarkable.
His family gathers around him. Colonel Candy has plenty of children, some of whom he introduced with funny names like Prophet, Sword, Favorite Wife, Henna or Elephant.
Wyatt is surprised that Candy’s so public with his affection, a father, a role Wyatt is having trouble adapting too, preferring to never be there rather than sometimes be there. He finds himself mumbling about world peace.
Wyatt beckons for Noemi to be introduced. She’s chatting with a group of women in a disk of shade. She’s had some refreshments. Toby’s thrashing in her arms.
“I’m honored,” she says, curtseying and then shaking Colonel Candy’s manicured and very large hand. He touches Toby Pleasure, too, strokes him on the cheek.
Warm and smooth, the leader’s hand smells like frankincense. Toby feels the great, ominous power of the man, his fingers sweet like honey and petrol. His cool magnificence oozes from his skin.
“What’s his name?” he asks.
“Tobias,” Noemi says, and remembering what Jeremy had said, she adds, “In Hebrew it means, God is great.”
“Allah akbar,” the Colonel says automatically. He has a quizzical expression in his eyes. “A Jewish gift for Libya?”
She shakes her head and waits, quite unafraid,
Toby grins blankly at the Colonel, a Lego-like face smudged by a curly mushroom of black hair.
“So you want Battutu’s brother, the engineer, is that correct?” Colonel Candy asks.
“Why yes,” she says. “You received my letter?” She finds the mole in the crease between his lip and nose very alluring.
“Other than you and your husband, I receive many such appeals.”
“It’s rude not to write back,” she says, pushing a hip forward, juggling Toby on her waist.
Colonel Candy recognizes the danger of Noemi publicizing the case. He says without pause, “Battutu’s a very bad man, spreading foreign lies along with his brother, but for your sake, and his, let it be done.” He wafts his hand at her, ignoring what she thought of his manners. In an aside, he bids the translator take special note of his administrative decision.
Noemi issues a sigh of relief. She’s saved Battutu’s brother! She, Noemi Pleasure, who has never done much of anything. Her appeal to the benevolence of Colonel Candy surely proves that the rumors of ruthlessness are untrue. Autocracy’s a cure for injustice in its way, she thinks, such a shame England has abandoned such a favorable model of rule.
She begins to muse on the idea that she likes saving people. If only she could save herself too.
“Thank you, Colonel,” she says. “You’re so kind.”
He nods sagely. “Your car.”
The sun leeches the landscape of color and feature. The earth seemed to disappear into the mirage. The Cadillac’s air conditioner is defunct and the journey back to Benghazi tortuous as the heat blew through the car, dehydrating everyone.
Somehow Wyatt has fallen asleep, but Noemi is far too intoxicated from her meeting Colonel Candy. She thinks, if not a leader, he would have made a wonderful doctor. Noemi pins together a shelter of shade inside the car from her lime green scarf to protect Toby before the wind sucks it out. She sees it stick to a bush, looking no different than a goat.
A long cone of dust rises from the back of the vehicle passing the wrecks of the war scattered among the jackpumps nodding in tribute, slicing at the buttery ground like knives.
She doesn’t both to stop the car. Noemi isn’t going back, no matter how pleasant beaches along the road to Benghazi. Yet she could imagine one last day before they went to Goshen, Wyatt’s home. The water’s so unspoiled.
Some days later Noemi’s crusade to convince Wyatt to take a day off succeeds—no calls, no emergencies.
They park at a beach. The weather hasn’t collaborated, but there they are, rolled onto the sands.
Along the road are a few white-washed houses. The massif’s dark green, striated in places with white rock. From its base, the fields come right to the road, dotted with small palms, new work that’s part of Colonel Candy’s cleaner Libya. Wyatt scowls at the beach from inside the Beetle. Noemi sits next to him and Toby’s in her lap. Windblown waves knock the beach. It’s stormy. They kiss.
“Well,” she says, “other people are trying it.” She points at the dots, maybe bottles or sponges or sausages bobbing on the waves. Sometimes she sounds like her mother. Frightful.
“I’d hardly call them people,” replies Wyatt.
Today, there’s no one. They change in the car. No one wants to muck about too long on the beach on a day like this.
The Libyans are mostly easy-going about trunks or bikinis. Rarely do they receive a censorious look, certainly not from the sand carried off the empty beach and across the road that’s cut into the massif and guarded by the ramparts of an abandoned Italian fort facing Rome.
She fastens up Toby in his floats.
“Careful,” she says. “It’s little nasty out there, Toby.” It doesn’t look like anything he couldn’t handle.
Toby crawls out as soon as she opens the door and he scoots along the sand. His knees and hands divot the beach. The floats squeak pleasingly against his skin.
Wyatt struggles in the wind to light the cigarette he’s been waiting to have since leaving Benghazi for the cool retreat of Jebel Akhdar. He locks the glove compartment that stores the old Italian pistol that he recently purchased in the souk.
He doesn’t want to pay attention to the rumors but he’s worried about their safety, especially on what he had been reminded had been Barbary. The Bedouin in the south had warned him not to trust the coastal Arabs and there’s truth in the warning. Poseidon’s now paying a ransom to Colonel Candy in an effort to staunch the inevitable loss of its business and assets in Libya, hardly different from the tribute paid to the corsairs for the privilege of trespass and trade upon their waters and lands.
A female cry pierces the air, then passes.
“Dido?” Wyatt wonders, squinting at the burly sea, finishing locking the car.
The steely weather catches Noemi off-guard, reminding her of the wind, sands and tides of the Gower, a bittersweet, sore memory of a rare visit from her astray parents, reconciled for a horrible, argumentative weekend intended to make up for the time Momma and Daddy Empire were away. Then, Noemi had to pretend that she wasn’t hurt when she was, very much so, a wounded, rejected little girl. Of course, they buy her love with cod and sweets, and she complies in order to see them together.
Noemi casually notices the waves are much bigger up close.
Toby follows the rope that leads right into water.
Gulls. Shells. Froth. Waves.
Toby tumbles at the steep lip of the beach and the waves reach for him, pulling him down face first. He somersaults down the edge of Africa into the slurry of sand.
The water bites him. It mashes him down into the bank, locks him into the matrix of pebbles, sand and wood, and then abruptly sweeps him away, he his very own raft. Death wants Toby in Paradise, and he’s mushed, walloped, flattened and abraded.
Wyatt sprints after the ragged glimpse of Toby Pleasure vanishing into the waves.
Noemi stands on the beach, biting her hands, puffing. What good are the charms?
Wyatt is in before she can stop him.
She wades in, too, helpless, the water sucking great pits around her legs. A wave reaches for her hands, slips off her Taureg silver bracelet and tosses it in the foam. She curses, plunges her arm into the water, too slow.
Wyatt holds some sash of color and movement, from what she can see over the tops of the waves. She gulps. They’re quite far out. The beach appears hostile and desolate. No one to alert. No traffic. No goatherds. No fishermen.
It’s cold for June. The currents change everything.
Toby panics and pushes Wyatt down. He’s whimpering and frightened. “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” he says. Toby moans. Then assumes a high-pitched wail as Daddy pushes him with the breakers.
“Show Daddy how long you can hold your breath, Toby. Show me you’re a big boy,” Wyatt says as the pair of them launch into an oncoming wave, swelling and sneering, spitting them further down the beach than he expects.
A few Arabs sit on their haunches, as disguised as stones. How had he missed them? They’re cunning. Why don’t they help? But he knows the answer: they didn’t know how to swim. He can’t quite focus on the drama but one of them has accosted Noemi.
He can’t protect her, not stranded in the cold waves with his little boy. With an enormous thrust he gets to a sandbar. He could just push off the sands with his feet, keep them floating.
The mountain rises above them. Its narcotic, fertile smell reached over the disturbed salty air of the sea.
Wyatt’s exhausted from the struggle. He calculates, waits for a wave big enough to jettison them on the beach, from where they might scramble away.
They dunk and roll and are troubled by the undertow. They are going every direction but towards the beach. Wyatt makes his peace during the monumental effort to get to shore. He never would have expected he could die like this. Decapitated by equipment in the field or disemboweled in a traffic accident is a death he can understand, even what he expects, not these waves that disguise their violence with their beauty.
Toby hiccups and burps water that’s sticky with bile, his floats deflated, what he imagines as walnuts or barbells.
“Once more, Turtle,” his father says, showing Toby to hold a big deep breath.
They skid down the face of the wave as it collects them. They tumble over the bottom of sharp broken shells and are at last deposited in a mash of sand and stinging water. Wyatt jumps up, on his feet now, and runs up the slope, runs as the next waves stretches for them, his legs singing with pain. He vaults past the reach of the tide with Toby on his back, coughing furiously, Daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy.
He doesn’t feel like a hero but he is, at least to Toby and Noemi on that day. She never could have done it.
“Oh, there you are,” she says, when she finds them far down the beach. Wyatt’s crying with relief.
An Arab follows. He doesn’t say anything, just looks at the sopping, shivering man on the beach and the woman hugging the child.
Land of the Braves
Wicked, purple desert or naive, green plain. Only a few drops of rain make the difference.
The buzzards hiss overhead, their bellies and heads preened with blood.
“Like the grand tour so far?” Grandpa Pleasure asks his daughter-in-law. He wheezes for a spell, tilts his head down, the brim of his hat allowing enough time for him to light a cigarette.
“Nice,” Noemi says, a platitude delivered to the old man kneeling in Fort Goshen’s parade ground. She’s distrustful of the cracked boots, rough jeans, stained shirt, bolo tie set with a piece of jade cinched around a burnt neck, a face eroded from dirt under a sweat-stained hat, smoke incessantly issuing from the blistered mouth, maybe even from his eyes. Noemi doesn’t know whether Wyatt’s father’s tough appearance is for her benefit or just his way.
The site of their outing is forlorn and rough. What’s left of Fort Goshen? Not much: officers’ quarters, barracks, general store, stables. Preserved with paint by the nation’s park service, the ruins sit at the junction of the rivers Platte and Laramie, both no more than tears due to the need to irrigate what nominally would be called desert, what the Pleasures prefer to call home.
“Old Bedlam a pub?” Noemi asks.
“Pig farm,” he quips, a sly answer about the saloon. He squints at the sky unsullied by clouds yet clogged with birds.
The land’s a carcass, except for the bands of cottonwoods and willows trailing the two rivers. An iridescent purple glass that bounces the hard light back into the indigo sky.
“Used to come by wagon. Wyatt was a boy. Once every five years, when we’d take a day off. Wonderful. He loved it. Does now too.” He nods at the son of whom he’s proud, now hardworking, unforgiving he hopes too, the only figure walking through the mirage of heat waves towards this woman who seems capable of nothing, as much as Grandpa Pleasure can tell.
Wyatt balances the load, Toby wiggling on his shoulder and an Igloo of Kool-Aid sloshing in his arms. He’s fed up because in trying to allay the mutual suspicion and satisfy everyone, he’s forgot about himself.
Grandpa Pleasure exhales a fan of smoke. “Nothing quite sets the mind alight like living history. Sure you’ll agree.”
The past is right beneath the surface, singing in the dirt, ready to well up and smother the land with its sounds and aromas: the reveille of bugles, the nicker of cavalry, the clinking of spurs at muster, the canon and Gatling guns barking on their cradles, hobbled horses, water pulling in the pumps, churning milk, bakery fires, a wooden spoon stirring in a cauldron of beans. History is here, interred under his boots, a memory too real, a deceptive remainder of legend that’s integrated into his being and dreams.
She can’t see what’s living—buildings twisted by the wind and bleached black by the sun.
He smokes a drag and begins to preach in a demonstrative voice. “Them ruts north and south of the river. Eager beavers that went west. But we didn’t go no further, nope, even when they announced gold in California. Heaven was right here in Goshen and my granddaddy built himself a church.”
Noemi gulps at the dry air. What to utter in response? The land’s forbidding, unsheltered, too vast and too open, as if her home, England, had been wiped of green and people. Obscene. The wind pushes her hair across her face into her lipstick. She’s unaccustomed to elements like these, harsh and sapping, that seem to turn her inside out. The grass covers the dunes like a big fat lie.
“That’s the prison. And beyond that, the privy.” He stubs his toe in the dirt, white and sandy. He’s on the lookout for an arrowhead or an Indian bead, something that has been missed. The trick is to alert the eyes for lines and angles, but not exclusively. He fiddles with the ring on his finger, a large piece of olivine, etched with the square and compass of his lodge. Has Wyatt captured this woman, as beguiling as she was, without explaining what she is in for? She didn’t look like any of the broken local sweethearts bred on horse sweat and wheat.
Noemi feels something warm splatter on her neck; it’s too close and out of range of her eyes. She instinctively rubs whatever it is, pulls her hand away. It’s revolting, brown and sticky. She’s afraid her voice will betray her and rise into a scream. “Have I got something on my shirt?”
“Cussed birds,” Grandpa Pleasure says, wiping the sky with his hand, not telling her what he sees, a blob of blood. “Hold on, let me get that near miss.”
She bows her head and waits for her father-in-law to finish. “Stained?” she asks.
“Nope,” he says, “Just some crud on your neck.” He uses his calico handkerchief to wipe the thing from her collar. “Ain’t a pigeon, that’s for sure,” he adds, not showing her the clotted goo regurgitated by one of the buzzards gliding overhead. “Round here, we consider it good luck,” he says with a wink in his voice, but his mind has registered something: it’s flesh and attached to it is a chunk of skin decorated with ink, a tattoo, a paw.
“Dad boring you with his tall tales?” asks Wyatt. He delivers the baby, swathed in cotton, wearing a little bonnet tied in a bow under his sturdy chin, his head staunchly upright.
“It must have been very hard for the pioneers,” she says. She’s no stranger to privation—the rations and wounded of the war. Maybe that was what has sewn them together despite the odds. Wyatt has alluded to how his old man nearly worked him to death between the crops and the sheep. Nonetheless, the Americans would have buckled if they’d suffered the same as the English.
“Lemonade?” asks Grandpa Pleasure.
“No glasses?” she wonders. “I packed some.”
“Forgot them in the truck.” Wyatt harrumphs.
“I’ll wait then,” she says. Toby gurgles pleasingly in her arms, scratches at her recalcitrant breasts. She checks for signs of sunburn or heat stroke, but he’s healthy, just fine.
Wyatt scratches across the parade ground to the parking lot. Anything for Noemi. He dares not broach the topic. Putting up barriers. Couldn’t just get along and adapt like a girl from here. Couldn’t she see his hands are full?
Grandpa Pleasure lifts the Igloo cooler, sticks his finger on the button and the spigot opens in his mouth. “Whoa, that’s sour. Who made it?” A trickle of lemonade meanders through the stubble on his chin.
“Me,” she says, deducing the man to be uncouth, a peasant. She doesn’t credit him one whit for smarts and perseverance.
“War’s over, Noemi. Sugar our manna if you like. No need to dispute the measure—that’s why we dug that irrigation canal: to grow corn and sugar beets.”
She nods obediently and studies her child. He has been impeccable on the long journey to Wyatt’s home, the emptiest, windiest, most threatening place she could ever conceive, worse than Wales. But the boy seems to relish it. He pounds the air with his fists, whoops and bucks, so excited is he by the rich smell of the prairie, the aroma of dung and weeds.
It’s a matter of faith that the Pleasure folks adore sugar and avoid alcohol. The house is full of substitutes: jars of suckers, Jolly Ranchers, liquorices, gumballs and Twizzler sticks; a pantry full of jellies and syrups; from the oven, a constant bingo of cakes and pies.
No, they didn’t drink, couldn’t, not with Grandma Pleasure’s inordinate preparations for the return of Jesus. No Adventist wants to welcome the odd dead prophet with the stink of liquor. Least of all Grandma Pleasure, who thumps on her treasured piano in their absence from the ranch on this holy Saturday, howling her hymns to the callow heavens that blizzarded trials upon them, and from which she harvests the power to carry on.
“So.” Wyatt hands Noemi a glass that he has wiped with the tail of his shirt, an opal-like button scratching at the lip.
“Splendid,” she says, dispensing a glass for everyone.
“Brought some nut bars too.” Wyatt neatly opens the packages, divvies up the soft nougat and nuts with his pocketknife, most recently used to clean his nails. He keeps quiet about that. Just like he did that morning after Grandma Pleasure had decapitated a rattler on the front porch with a pair of shovels. No need to startle Noemi, he had said, taking charge and tossing the still active body, its tail constricting up the handle to his hand, over the stone fence. He admits it’s unfair to pretend that there were no threats or mistakes—the events and creatures that could make it fatal to live on the plains.
“Gift shop—something for your folks?” Grandpa Pleasure gestures at the square, squat cabin, the stars and bars rising from its roof.
“Of course,” she says, wondering what gifts would look like here. What could one possibly want—air?
“Museum too,” amplifies Wyatt.
They move in a group. Grandpa Pleasure limps slightly and Wyatt scuffs at the ground, while Noemi picks her way gently towards the building, Toby linked to her waist.
“Hi!” blurts the park ranger inside, gawking at the visitors, just coping with nothing to do. “How you folks?”
“Good,” says Grandpa Pleasure, his eyes readjusting from the dazzle to the gloom. Greenhorn, he utters under his breath. He doesn’t like outsiders.
“Can I help you find anything in the visitor center?” The ranger’s face is swollen with glee, his hat starched around his ears. The stool creaks under his generous proportions.
Wyatt rushes towards the displays, first of which in his admiration are the racks of repeating rifles that pacified the plains; then buffalo guns, of such weight and caliber that they seemed more appropriate for mammoths; and the cold hot pistols that settled many a barroom tiff. He covets them all.
“Those poor people,” says Noemi, appreciating the war bonnet and beaded breastplate of a buckskin-clad manikin. “Where are they now?”
“Poor people?” mumbles Grandpa Pleasure, shaking his head in shame that his boy would be mixed up with a woman like this. He gains a breath, expanding like anger. “I’m not sorry, Noemi. We took their land. We killed their people. We raped their women. We gave them no choice but to die. We and all our neighbors. Indians can moan all they want about their sacred lands and insist that the whole nation is theirs. Well, it’s not. And won’t be. But if you want an answer, the Apache and Sioux are such great brothers that we put them on a res near Lander so they could fight among themselves over what’s left. English didn’t do much different with empire. And like you, we give ‘em respect. That’s all poor people get. Same as us.”
What he doesn’t furnish is what he has forgotten, actively erased in a way, the others, the Chinese, the Irish, the strange faiths of Jews and Mormons, the Blacks and Basques, who had contributed to making the prairie livable with their labor and enterprise. Yet they had gone to where it was easier to commingle, since the welcome here had been terse and disingenuous; they had been tolerated as long as supplies of laundry, sex, ammo and booze were needed.
Not giving her time to react to the ornery injustice of homesteader opinion, Wyatt interjects from his corner where he sketches a pistol inside the cover of his matchbook. “Oh, we should visit Lander, Noemi. Green and temperate, perfect really. You’d love it.”
“Got hitched up there,” says Grandpa Pleasure.
The extermination is no great secret. Anyone can see that it’s devoid, even of the settlers who had once come, then killed or chased away by the extremes, their cabins empty, except for a few families like the Pleasures too stubborn to listen to the compound threats of weather and isolation. The museum’s dioramas portraying the peaceful fort, the coexistence of white and red man, as station, trading post and guardian of the talking wires, seem duplicitous to Noemi. America just makes up its history as it goes along. It has no king or queen to stamp a regal mark on its outcome—or bestow any mercy.
“The prairie’s a mouth. Eats waves of people right up,” Grandpa Pleasure adds to her discomfort.
“Wyatt, please take off your hat,” she says as a reaction. She expects him to be a gentleman even at home.
Grandpa Pleasure scoffs. What a diffident woman. But she’s Wyatt’s problem. He sneaks outside rather than obey the remark he figures to be aimed at him. He is of too great an age for a newlywed dispute to be cute. Plus, the buzzards have sparked his curiosity.
Toby yanks at the buckskin fringe of a manikin and Noemi, depressed by what was presented as harmony, even as a natural outcome of vanquisher and vanquished, sidles to the aisles of the gift shop. The post cards are her first choice and she has no need for guides on blacksmithing, quilting and other homespun occupations of the West.
The ranger, perceptive to the woman disabled by choice, says in a perky voice, “Ma’am, Red Wing crockery just in. Real collector’s item. Or a spinning wheel? Maybe a Jew’s harp for the little ‘un?”
“Thank you.” Her voice fills with a combination of pride and ire. “But I have to fly home.”
“Where’s that, ma’am?”
“Why England” Just saying it gave her relief, though it wasn’t strictly true.
“My forbearers are Canadays from Ireland. Live in your parts?”
Noemi appreciates that the Americans are friendly, even polite, but they’re ignorant. Didn’t they know that Ireland and England were separate countries?
“Pity.” She dislikes the Irish, even more ungrateful and insolent than the Indians for what their masters had done to save them from themselves. Oblivious, she doesn’t realize she might be insulting. Or Irish.
She drifts to the pile of blankets stenciled Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the quilts and macramé tonged together by the local ladies.
“A quilt, Wyatt?”
“Mom’s got plenty,” he replies.
Noemi returns to the postcards and sorts through the black and white portraits of the Indians. They would at least prove she’d been somewhere, even nowhere.
Grandpa Pleasure picks his way down the Laramie River. The water pours over the pebbles pleasingly, not very deep, a creek at this time of year. He’s near the mouth where it joins the Platte, a junction known by trapper and bandit alike as a spot to gossip or ambush. The trees toss with a gust of wind. He studies the spiral of buzzards gliding over the bank. “Bobcat’s stashed a meal?” he asks himself as he studied the site. The scavengers launch in great lofty waves, as if erupting from the ground itself.
His boots sink into a glittering sandbar and he pushes on. The willows are decorated with knots of cloth. He’s seen the same messages at Devil’s Tower, offerings for the old bear who scratched at the summit. A jay heckles from a tangle of undergrowth.
He scans the ground for clues, a vigilant habit of self-preservation as well as one of discovery, for one never knew what flash of movement would be ready to bite or strike, what stone blade or steel cartridge would indicate something else was there than mere dirt. It isn’t something learned. No, it’s an instinct and part of his spirit, what knit together his lungs and thoughts.
Four great trees are oriented like the points of the wind. The commotion has settled. From the branches, the fat bald vultures look at him greedily, warily, some dipping away, so heavy were they, the wind whistling through their black feathers, gaining the thermals. Others remain, disturbed but staunchly refusing to be intimidated by the mere presence of a living being.
He’s shocked to see a series of platforms erected in the trees, camouflaged from easy sight by the green twirls of leaves. Then more signs of something human and well planned: the sandy ground disturbed with the soft prints of moccasins, the drag lines of travois, the unshod marks of ponies, the paw prints of dogs, the remnants of fires and the short, sharp smell of excrement.
“For heaven’s sake,” he says. Is this what he always had been hunting for, an Indian grave—not some poor prehistoric skeleton wedged in a crack in an escarpment with his weapons and supplies, but a way of death resurrected just outside the gates of the fort? This isn’t a good sign, no better than the reappearance of the Ghost Dance.
Grandpa Pleasure’s ticker boils with an awful kind of excitement. He doesn’t move, doesn’t turn, doesn’t nearly breath. He’s trespassing on a sky burial, a practice that had been outlawed but here, somehow, is underway, right under the nose of the authorities. In awe about his unlikely discovery, he suddenly folds down on his legs. He sits back on his palms and counts the platforms. Eight, he guesses from the places where the trees were weeping with indelible tears of blood. An electric almost spiritual pulse rises into his body. He has to look, even if desecration.
With fear, far more than during any nervy exploration of a wind-blown cabin filled to the brim with snakes, he walks to a cottonwood. He doesn’t see an easy way but he scrabbles and wedges his toes and calloused hands in the crenulated bark and shimmies up, wheezing and coughing from the effort to get to the first fork.
Then it’s easier.
He crawls on all fours and what he sees, the gore of a shredded, bloated man, nearly pushes him from the roost. Mesmerizing. He couldn’t conjure a more splendid sight, not even the fort’s flag flying with taunt precision over the gift shop.
The brave is laid on a bed of woven boughs. A bandana covers his forehead. Tucked in it, a brace of eagle feathers. His eyes and everything else that are soft have been picked apart, though his face is stoic and peaceful despite the damage. His dungarees and flannel shirt are in tatters. Over his chest is an elaborate breastplate of beads, bones and porcupine quills, a bibs that guards his heart. At the ankles and wrists the skin is peeling from the musculature and liquid festers around his bones. At one side is a pistol, clenched in what digits remain. On the other is a quiver of arrows and a compound bow clearly marked with a price tag from Sears. At his feet, a cluster of Tupperware containers, a meal, Grandpa Pleasure supposed. Also, a bottle of whisky, a six-pack of Coors, two boxes of bullets, a carton of Marlboros and a bundle of maize. Whoever he is, he’s ready for the afterlife, ready to hunt and dance.
He touches his own face and feels the strong aboriginal features. They weren’t so different, just dissolved by generations. If death is that tranquil, then he’s ready
He studies the other nests sketched in the trees. More dead braves. Could he swing between them? It’s too great a feat for an old man. He’s nonplussed at how egalitarian and complete he finds the scene. No sense of abhorrence or fear clutch at his heart. Of course, he’s intrigued about who else is up here. Who are these mummies? Where do they come from? Why here? His first instinct is to alert the authorities but the integrity of the sleeping brave is insurmountable. Who would believe a crazy old loon? Since when did the government care about dead Indians? Why desecrate further what he had seen? Wasn’t it better as a mystery?
But Grandpa Pleasure desperately wants a souvenir and he scoots closer to the brave’s nest. The corpse stinks no worse than a cow struck by lightning. He peeps over the rim.
One shoulder has been opened but on it remains a tattoo, a shield embraced by bears. He thanks the buzzards that they didn’t drop a finger or a tongue on Noemi. He looks again. Maybe it’s a turtle, not a bear, dancing around the shield. The ink’s blurred, damaged by the sun.
Yet he can’t hoist himself beyond his armpits, as much as he wants the breastplate; he tippy-toes and feels his feet creak but it’s no use. He isn’t having anything from this dead man on his sacred bed sheltered from everything but the elements. Then he notices the dog tags resting on the ornamentation, dull punched letters that he can’t read. Has the conflagration in Vietnam blown the warriors of the Bear clan back home? No, he can’t wiggle them off; all he gets is a sticky handful of leaves.
He’s disappointed that he can’t have a memento. He has no evidence and he isn’t sure he can keep it bolted inside. He peeps down and realizes he will need all his strength to not break his brittle body into a jigsaw.
When he jumps the last twenty feet, he lands with a young man’s dexterity and rolls forward, complete and satisfied that he is limber and has something in his life.
The buzzards return to the branches and watch him hobble away, turning from time to time, wonderment glossed across his face. They aren’t going anywhere, not with the feast, a man’s return to nature, incomplete.
Has he imagined the unimaginable, too young by an epoch or two?
Wyatt and Noemi are drinking lemonade on the porch of the gift shop, happily chanting in their secret language of love, Toby restless on their laps, inserting a toy gun into his mouth, a strange violent shape that he’s too young and feeble to understand.
“Where you been, Pa?” asks Wyatt with boyish enthusiasm. He sees the scratches and the dust smeared over his dad’s jeans and knew he’s been out prospecting.
“Found this,” he says. “Over there.” Grandpa Pleasure opens his palm and inside is the chipped form of an arrowhead, a strange opulent black.
“Goes to show,” says Wyatt, “Never discount where you’ll find an arrowhead.”
Noemi is bewitched by the elegant point. “Magic,” she says. Never had anything materialized from the ground during her clumsy wanderings along Offa’s Dyke at home, certainly nothing that hadn’t been edible like a bramble or a mushroom. But Noemi doesn’t look, doesn’t know, doesn’t want. She’s interested in paths, sidewalks, the asphalt that lead to civilization, clearly marked with signage and hoardings. Then it crystallizes: if only the whole world could be made of asphalt, just a few cracks for the decoration of grass and trees, how divine.
“Shall we go?” suggests Wyatt. “Guess Mom burnt the roast by now.”
“Oh, it’s dead,” replies his father. “She don’t like to think anything’s ever been alive.”
Wyatt notices the febrile light in his father’s eyes, but he puts it down to the walk, wherever he’d been. Yes, Wyatt’s right: Grandpa Pleasure emanates a haunted fire from his very fabric, his core glowing like a piece of radioactive ore, as if he’s burning inside out, burning so fast and hot that he would either extinguish or explode.
They join the truck in the Fort Goshen parking lot, drop the windows to let in the air and dust. Noemi hugs her envelope of postcards and harnesses Toby in her lap. Wyatt drives, briefly stopping at the nearby at Sinclair for a top up: gas, coffee, nutbars.
They coast over the gravel road to the Pleasure place. Wyatt points out the landmarks in a muted voice, pulling over on the shoulder sometimes—Muskrat Canyon, Hell Gap, Wildcat Canyon, Government Farm—the places that give the landscape with meaning, and he wishes for Noemi too. They are two sides to the horizon they travel towards as the land streams across their eyes. What Wyatt regards as opportunity, joy, wonder, and boundlessness, the epitome of freedom, as big and ineffable as a home run. What Noemi thinks of as no less than unbridled fear.
Wyatt and Noemi don’t manage to eat much of the salty canned green beans and charred hunk of beef served on the yellow picnic table under the arbor, but Grandma Pleasure’s homemade bread drenched in margarine is a heavenly moment in an otherwise penitentiary Sunday lunch.
Rather than relax after, Wyatt says, “Let me show you a secret spot,” and urges Noemi into the truck.
“Awful.” Noemi could retch from the recurring thought of what she has suffered in her mouth. She’s afraid his secret spot had something to do with oil.
“I know,” he says, firing up a cigarette. “Good thing you can cook.”
“Nan taught me. She was a lovely cook.”
“My mum really. But next time, you cook the steaks. She’s not going to ruin them.”
He’s afraid she’ll spill the beans into his lap right then, but she successfully keeps her tormented past bottled up, preserved neatly in a syrup of bile and regret as they bounce down the dirt track, riding between the ruts, keeping the truck out of trouble, the grass tickling the underbelly. It’s a relief.
“Got a little burned this morning, huh?”
“Sun’s a mile closer than elsewhere. That’s all it takes.”
Noemi smiles wryly. She’s English, unaware of the power of the sun, but not so unaware that she hasn’t noticed the dramatic change in Wyatt: how much hokier and more homespun he’s become upon his return to Goshen. He’s stepped from one shoe to another as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. No longer a man with a fancy education in the sciences, but a farm boy, his voice, gestures and volume drowning in a treacle of slow thinking and even slower acts, his sentences without subjects or verbs, depending, the colloquial replacing the well-formed speech she admires.
Wyatt glances back at the house that squatted among the trees, a white turtle of peeled white siding, its beak and eyes of fragile white glass. The hills are gathered behind it, about to fold over, rose and lilac in the afternoon light. The turtle burrows in the prairie, hunkers in the dust freed by the drought, strips of gray wheat in the distance.
Two scaly humans sit on the porch and watch the truck recede down the track towards the gravel road. A basket rests on the steps, Toby snoring securely in the papoose of reeds and swaddled in calico. It’s been a quick adjustment for Grandpa Pleasure: babies again.
Wyatt jigs open the barbed wire gate with his shoulders, leaps back in, grinning, turns to his wife. “He’ll be fine with the old folks,” he says. “Plus, I made some grape Tang. He’ll love that.”
Grandpa Pleasure lights a cigarette as the truck exhales a plume of dust. Wyatt’s gift from Malta, a treat from the best duty-free shop outside the Middle East. They taste a lot better than lunch.
The old man picks up his flute. He only unpacks it for special occasions or visitors, and dabs out a few tunes, out of breath between coda and decoda, struggling with the phrases that he once had used to serenade his flock. But he’s moved on from the immiseration of a shepherd; he’s a rock hound, and for that he’s somewhat respected, unlike the dismal unpracticed tune that he sourly spit into the flute. He abruptly stops. The reminder sounds dreadful and the trees are distracting him.
What he regards as no more than a welcome source of shade and wood reaches far over the picket fence, the pouch of an oriole nest suspended from a bough blowing in the breeze. He’s intrigued by the idea of trees as a cemetery. What a superior way to go, recycled by the birds, who might as well be sardines circulating over the ocean of grass.
He rounds the house to his workshop, a separate building, unconcerned about Toby blissfully asleep on the porch. This is their sanctuary, tended by his hand, erected with his sweat, permeated with his being, and nurtured by one sole helper, the reason for his choosing this spot: the sweet water simply bubbles to the surface from a soft sandy pit, the house its shrine. The legs of his jeans rustle together. Inside, it’s littered with slices of geodes, jades and agates. But the cores of petrified wood are foremost in his estimate, from the time of Pangea when the continents had been one. A rock saw in one corner. A series of grinders in another. He grabs a bucket of siftings, topped with a package containing forceps, cotton wool and little acrylic specimen boxes, and then apprehends the microscope so he can study the fossil seeds. Laden, Grandpa Pleasure returns to the porch to categorize the gravel. He snickers a beat remembering an article about his amateur paleobotany in Life. If he could identify and taxonomize the shapes of prehistoric seeds, so could anyone.
He feels a tad greedy and smokes another cigarette. His heart purrs from the spike. He can see his wife making a batch of lemonade and cookies inside. Their life is quaint and self-sufficient.
When he returns, the little package gurgles. Toby’s curled up in the basket usually reserved for Grandma Pleasure’s flower arrangements.
“Cute little devil, ain’t ya?”
He has trouble hearing himself today, wondered if he says anything at all. He’s deaf to everyone else anyway, out of stubbornness and pride to a degree, but this is sudden: he’s acutely unable to hear himself.
Grandpa Pleasure, uninspired now that he had brought the microscope, stretches for the basket. “What you say, Tobias, take a stroll down to pond?”
He’s a master of doing nothing in his way.
The young spruces are staked down and wrapped with chicken wire to dissuade the deer and porcupines. A peacock bawls somewhere in the cottonwoods, melancholy echoing over the grounds.
The decorative birds are his wife’s idea.
A comet tail of dust rises on the horizon, running across his eye like a sore. Wyatt at the wheel of his own truck, that galls him, along with marrying a gal who knows nothing about the country.
They must be going to the beaver dam, he concludes. Nice spot. Like a lot of good chinks in the hills, secluded, a detail that only a local fellow would know.
Wyatt cracks the gate, drives forward, parks again, then battens the wires back together. They sail into the pasture, guarded by a single white bull bellowing from a pile of white rocks. A lake is somewhere beyond the remains of a homestead and a corral, two separate piles of gray wood.
“Is that a tomb?” she asks, pointing out the shape jutting out the prairie like a giant apple as they snake around the abandoned house, the truck bucking wildly over the uneven ground. Wyatt nods. There isn’t always time to worry about where the dead go when the living have surviving to do.
Playing the tour guide, he says, “Beavers blocked the creek.”
“Brook,” she calls it, much to his annoyance.
“Those two old trees are Adam and Eve, as old as time,” he says, deflecting his ambiguous thoughts about the war of the sexes. “Buffalo hair and bullets in ‘em.”
Wyatt cuts the engine, the silence immediately choking her, and they wade into the chartreuse waist-high grass around the tranquil lake. Red- and yellow-winged blackbirds chat in the cattails that slap at one another. The place is quite an achievement, a series of elegant pools, held by an ongoing sequence of haphazard dams build by the beavers. They walk out a way on one of the barriers, jump between the logs and stare at the plum-colored water.
“Any trout in the lake, Wyatt?”
“Carp,” he says, “Crawdads – you know, langoustines.”
They continue, their bellies tickled by the heads of grass, burrs grasping for their clothes, the occasional soggy footstep and pull of mud. A frog surfaces for a bug. The place is tucked away from the wind and it has a harmony all its own.
“This’s my secret spot,” he says, inserting a sweet green blade of grass between his teeth. “When we were kids, we’d skinny-dip and slide down that bluff opposite into the water all day like otters, sometimes hiding underwater and breathing through reeds. Best thing in the world. Until the leaches got ya.”
Now she grasps the intent, why he wants to rush away from the house so badly. Actually she wouldn’t mind. She couldn’t be intimate at the ranch, not yet, not with his snoopy mother sneaking around a house that isn’t hers and seems to have no doors. But here it’s, well, out of sight. She did feel the right mixture of bodily confidence and attention. Noemi crawls over. Wyatt’s on his back, chewing on the grass. Noemi tugs it out of his mouth and kisses him. Then quite quickly and unexpectedly, Noemi lifts herself onto him and they melt into one another, despite the clothes, two stars blending into one another, limb to limb, both admiring the sky relaxed with promise, striated now with a few wisps of clouds. Their hands interlock and they stretch out their legs, arms and spines, the magnetic current of the earth rising into them, two copper plates full of charge, pinned to the earth like two moths. Ecstatic at the sound of his heart and lungs beating through her own, she approaches for another kiss.
“Hang on,” he says, slipping away, leaping up and dashing into the reeds. A line of bubbles run from the near bank into the pond.
Wyatt surges after something, the water above his waist.
A muddy, farting log?
He dips over the water, his shirt just skimming, and yanks. A great sucking sound follows and Wyatt pulls out a turtle unlike any turtle Noemi has ever seen. It’s a castle, all ramparts and watchtowers, keeps and defenses. It’s hissing and barking and showing its pink white mouth, beating at the air with its muddy, claws. Wyatt holds the beast by its tail, bucking like a bull, older than an oak.
“Poisonous?” she asks. She’s frustrated with the juvenile interruption, just when she’d felt she was getting somewhere with him. But that’s so typical of Wyatt. He doesn’t just avoid conflict, he avoids anything sincere, too.
“Nope, but bite your pecker right off. Or your arm.”
She shakes her head. His language. He was never this crass in Libya.
“Cajuns eat em, I hear, but we never tried,” he says, grinning again, sure his trick would impress his wife.
She’s startled by the whole performance. What had been tender, quiet, almost English, with the willows curtseying over one part of the pond, and the dragonflies zithering through the air, the ducks circulating in one of the pools, was now an adventure in newer and greater dangers of tragicomedy, Wyatt her Virgil, she his Dante in a hell of barbed wire, cattle and crops, the demons on tractors, the sinners the size of bugs, the devil the amorphous shape of the wind. Now that she’s obliged to enjoy herself for his benefit, she doesn’t feel anything at all.
He provokes the beast enough to make it bite down on a stick. He ponders shooting it for fun, but he suspects, rightly, that she’d be appalled. The sight of a gun is enough to make her as frigid as brass.
Wyatt turns the turtle on its back and it gasps angrily. His hands stink of mud and turtle fury. No way is she going to allow him to touch her with those mitts.
She confidently fetches the picnic from the truck, not far off, and returns with the sandwiches, Food Club chips and a jar of pickles arranged in a basket lined with calico. Noemi sets out the napkins, knives and forks. It’s very homey but without walls. Grandma Pleasure can at least make decent sandwiches and doesn’t want her boy going hungry.
“They’re sandwiches,” he says, pointing at the cutlery.
“Yes, but look at your hands.”
They’re embedded with a mess of slime and weeds and it doesn’t want to come off, even as he squats next to the water and vigorously washes. His jeans reek of swamp, too. What a mistake to grab the turtle from the lake. At the expense of a poor joke, he has ruined the mood.
“That’s what attracted me to you,” he says when he’s done. He pours coffee from the flask.
“What for?” She was astonished.
“I’ve this thing for secretaries and girls next door.” He winks, draws her closer with his forearms to give her a smelly hug.
“I know you love me, but don’t antagonize me for your own sake.” Yes, she had been a secretary when they met; thankfully, not his secretary.
The turtle struggles to right itself, its white fibrous belly cooking in the sun, its beak snapping uselessly at the air. For all its symbolic power, the turtle’s vulnerable, useless, paddling at the air, crying like a child, trying to get a purchase.
“Wyatt, it’s coughing,” she observes, raising an eyebrow.
“Huh?” he says, absorbed in his mystery meat sandwich smothered with mustard.
“Wyatt, don’t be so cruel. Put him out his misery. I can’t eat.”
She’s frank in a way that he knows he must obey, something he sometimes has a hard time doing.
He pushes off from his elbow, rolls and kicks the beast over. He’s a good acrobat. The thing snaps and gapes with a smelly exhalation and then waddles away, indignant. Wyatt remembers how he ruthlessly shot them, the old wise men of the creek, nothing but targets in his juvenile mind. He doesn’t think she’ll be too impressed so he won’t explain about his many insults to nature in the name of exploration and growing up, nature being the playground that it is.
He wonders if after lunch whether she would the day conducive to expressing their love once more? So far the forecast looks poor, but he’s the one who has interrupted any intimacy for a prank. Could she relax? Would he relent? Like they did in the desert. Maybe it’s a matter of comfort, the grass coarse and thick under them, pronged with thistles in places. Nature has a way of biting back.
Grandpa Pleasure reaches for the basket. His watch slips down his wrist as he pulls the twisted cane handle, heavy in his weirdly numb arm. Toby’s a very heavy baby, as heavy as petrified wood. Then he gasps, stands sharply, folds over, pushing himself up, sits, his chest in agony, imploding. Then he grabs at the air and topples again.
All sound is sucked from a discombobulating, disembodied world, suddenly deafeningly silent and without wind. Conscious, he hyperventilates and slips down the wall of red rock he has stacked around the house’s foundation. His hat tips off when his head strikes the ground.
Toby and his basket clatter over, too. Toby blinks. He’s topsy-turvy and upside down. His baby face rests on an attractive flagstone of Wulfenite hauled out of the hills with a chain and tractor by the man prone on the flagstones and grass.
Grandpa Pleasure hears the old spirit in his cries, like ages, as if the rocks he loves are speaking to him, summoning him. He slides over the abyss, blinking at the uncanny baby, remembers how Tobias Pleasure eats everything in sight, a black hole of appetite, even eating him, his grandfather. No one can remember a six-month-old that eats T-bone steaks.
“So long, my boy,” he croaks, not falling but rising on a pillow of air.
The house looks welcoming; it always does when the wind and weather work to send a man indoors. Anything can happen here: the hay bailer, the stubborn fence stretcher, a misfiring gun, or nearly wild steers skittish about being roped and gelded. But no courage or luck can save him from the accumulative effect of the deadly white sticks he has smoked all his life despite the efforts of the prairie gusts to extinguish his habit. No one stretches from the sky to right the old man. Nor can the peacocks and rabbits resuscitate him even as they cluster around their benefactor. The house leans, creaks, bends, flattens, but it has no legs, no arms, is just a wooden box, not a nurse. He’s survived everything, the blizzards, the droughts, but for this, his dirty habit. Grandpa Pleasure bows together and expires, suddenly like a withered bean.
He paws at the air, the seizure almost over as he gasps and his heart busts to tiny bits. He curses this body that has let him down, this body that hauled dinosaur bones out of the bedrock, this body that dug nearly fatal wells from the sand, stretched tricky fences where there had been none, shoed horses and oxen, cauterized and sewed amputations of hand and foot, fought prairie fires with just plain old dirt, cut up sod for an estimate of a house when the other was lifted away by storms, this body that ploughed frozen fields, that cut millennia-old cedars from the hills, that climbed the highest point in Goshen, that tracked bears and cougars for their pelts, that muled supplies across the deadly flats, that diverted blizzards from the door, that buried and birthed with equal measure, this body that in its last moments, somehow, preternaturally, raises its right hand, the nails smoldering from the hot cigarette that has ignited his spidery fingertips, in a stupendous movement of divine will and earthly muscle, that loosens his grip and pulls apart his hand and points a lance-like finger at the heavens and locks into place—accusatory and gargantuan in its verdict, sending the Pleasures after him and warning them to watch out from above as well as below.
Toby, cogent, registers the trouble. A great hunger wells inside: for chilis and dirt and milk. He feels the wind tugging his mouth apart, opening its vastness, coaxing. He’s all tongue, stomach, sheer cavity. He has replaced Noemi’s breast with anything else that’s pink and pointed but still he’s empty. The old man twitches on the lawn, peace’s hardness and war’s humor peeling away, Toby grabbing it all. Toby Pleasure swallows the great smoky spirits that emerge from their faltering metabolic host and fastens them to those spirits who line his body already, sleeping, gaining, congealing, growing within him, a stop for more souls as Grandpa Pleasure’s pulse slows its movement and then ceases.
The hunger diminishes in the stomach that is Toby Pleasure, digesting, disposing and deposing as his grandfather retreats into the after-being. The titanic struggle of godly good and ungodly evil resumes in his belly. Whatever he has eaten, it’s made him very full. He’s bloated, puffy.
The screen door sizzles behind her, clamping shut. Grandma Pleasure is a little tender on her feet, with a pitcher of lemonade balanced on the tin tray that she places on the old stove on the porch piled up with Lego-like lengths of rock. The pitcher settles and tinkles with ice. Then she discovers the supine body—the one arm like a spar—and the askew basket, both as if ravaged by an intruder.
She rushes to Grandpa and rights Toby with her free, knotted hand.
“Ok, turtle?” she asks. He’s breathing bluely, alarmed but otherwise fine.
She bends to kiss the stubble of her husband’s face, strokes his shock of white hair and sunburned dome. She calls on Jesus to bring back Grandpa but he doesn’t return, no matter her plain, mordant pleas.
The grackles and orioles clatter in the trees, perpetual war in the canopy as vast as the lawn.
For what it’s worth, old widow Pleasure keens like a squaw, sings part of a hymn until she can’t manage any more feelings. She wrings the tears from her kerchief. She blames the stubborn lemons for keeping her from him, and the piano practice, too.
But very soon she’s forthright and composed and deals with the emergency. She draws strength from the thought of her reliquary, the crucifix, and knows all too well the harsh justice of the prairie when it comes to life and death. She studies it and feels his soul passing through its center, the very center of the crossroads, the prairie, the universe, the mouth of Pleasure.
She doesn’t wait long. Grandma Pleasure alerts Genie, a neighbor, half-breed and fellow Adventist, on the crackling telephone. She’s very practical, very precise and very tidy. She returns Grandpa’s microscope and rocks to the workshop.
A trail of white dusty vapor approaches, homing in like a missile.
Soon Genie hobbles from his warped Jeep that has absorbed the charges of one too many bulls. Bitten by a rattlesnake years ago, one of his legs has dried up, atrophied like a piece of jerky. He limps up the steps to the lawn and greets her.
“Howdy,” he says, his voice a queer falsetto. “The Good Lord has taken Brother Pleasure?”
Genie and Grandma stagger with the corpse into the bedroom, maneuvering made all that more difficult by the odd, pitched arm. Grandpa Pleasure doesn’t complain about the indignity, his arm rigid and blaming, sending them away, marking the deeds to be done.
She puts Toby aside, first on the porch, then in the house on the large blacksmith bellows converted into a coffee table. She doesn’t want the vultures molesting him. She knows what they do to lambs. They’d harass a body before it even dropped.
Flies buzz menacingly against the windows. She deliberates if he could be fine. He doesn’t look worried or traumatized, just curious. His skin’s glossy and eyes shine like kohl. But she considers adjusting the story a hair or two. She doesn’t want to alarm Noemi unnecessarily, sensitive soul that she is; Wyatt, she can deal with. She agrees: she was watching Toby while she made lemonade and Grandpa Pleasure just keeled over on the porch.
This isn’t her first time doctoring a dead man. She sponges her husband’s hairy body with a wet rag, wipes him clean with as much tenderness as she can summon, then dresses him in his cowboy finery, struggling with the arm, and then drapes him in a white sheet. She powders his red face at the conclusion of their last bath together. But she can’t push down the arm—still pointing, as condemning as ever, and she considers limbering it up with an ax to make it obey.
Noemi and Wyatt are flushed with excitement about a bald eagle coasting in the sky. It bombs the prairie as they idle along and then settles on a fence post with a serpent lashing in its talons. Nature could be glorious and remarkable.
The sun glints sharply off the Quonset hut at the Pleasure ranch. Wyatt notes they have a visitor. Maybe that would mean pie?
Genie sits morosely on the edge of the porch. Grandma Pleasure rushes out to the truck.
“Grandpa’s dead,” she says without ado. “Had a heart attack.”
Wyatt lights a cigarette in response. “Show pa to me,” he says, “I want to see pa.”
He’s alone in the bedroom with the body on the brass bed. His father’s right arm is like a tepee pole and he doesn’t know how to interpret it. First, he tucks a pack of Camels in his father’s shirt pocket, fastened the single rhinestone button. They were allies. He feels culpable. He’s been out to have sex and would have succeeded, if not for the snapper. He wants to blame Noemi, then his mother, for the journey to familiar spot, a wild, romantic nest for getting laid.
Crude but true.
He smiles out of the corner of his mouth. It’s unintentional. Wyatt feels no better seeing his old man dead, now that he has received this double christening of adulthood, the birth of his first child, the death of his father, the broad-nosed, thick-browed, red-skinned old man living in Tobias. What more is there for him? His own demise? He shudders and turns from the desiccated lizard. Even dead, he knows his father’s expectations: to return and take up the mantle of the ranch, even if he had claimed it wasn’t so, even if he was closer to the rocks than he ever was to the sheep, much less the Pleasure family. No one had thought the shepherd boy would end in Libya, a star petroleum geologist for the world’s largest company, Poseidon Oil and Gas. That had not been the script of the Pleasure plan, conjoining with just anybody to ensure the Pleasure legacy would spread west. Grandpa Pleasure had wanted everyone to think that once upon a time they had been the stewards of all the land in Kingdom Come. But they had stopped here, where the sweet water apparently flowed eternally from the artesian well, where the hills provided a wigwam from the high drifting bands of wind, sand and snow, opaque, brown and white. They obviously had coupled along the way, until they were subdued like horses; with grazing and water, the Pleasure clan had seen no need to go on.
The arm points, menacing, withered yet tough, an invitation and an accusation. Whatever has killed him, it has left a haunting mark. As he leaves the room, Wyatt thinks about chopping it down to size.
The routine of feeding Toby Pleasure cannot be avoided. He licks his lips and bawls in spurts. His appetite demands that he be fed despite the crisis. He feels the shadow move in him, recently added and hungry for Noemi’s breast.
Wyatt needs something to do, so he builds a fire and grills a round of bacon burgers. He would gladly sink into a cup of whisky but there’s none. The smoke’s pungent and bitter, then sweet when the meat goes on. What the hell is he going to do with it, all the land? And the harness of his new family? He hasn’t counted on that. But he’s disingenuous enough to accept it, this copy of his parents’ bodies and the extra that is Wyatt.
“Help me write the obituary, son,” says Grandma Pleasure that night, calling from the room of the wake. The trees whisper with wind and an owl calls through the darkness illuminated with the pinheads of stars, unpolluted by anything as manmade as light.
He doesn’t know quite where to start as the grief begins to spiral in his mind, and it’s his mother who fashions together the few sentences for the Goshen Gazette that are to be the summary of Grandpa Pleasure’s life. It comes out so smooth it’s like she already had written it, which sends a quiver down her spine, to think she might have willed him dead and did not wean Karl from his bad habits.
Karl Pleasure b. 1902 in Holt, Nebraska, d. 1971 in Goshen, Wyoming.
Karl Pleasure passed away on the afternoon of September 20. Son of an original homesteader family, one of twelve siblings, Karl Pleasure attended Holt High School and graduated in 1920. He moved to Wyoming thereafter and bought his own ranch in Goshen under the Homestead Act. Karl won the Goshen County Fair four years in a row with his entries in the sheep category. He married Pearl Pleasure nee Divan in Thermopolis in 1930. Karl farmed and ranched for over thirty years and was known as a good neighbor and vital member of the Goshen Masonic Lodge. An avid collector of Indian artifacts, he began a second career as an amateur geologist at this time and is credited with several important fossil discoveries in the Black Hills. He and his wife were noted also for their contribution to paleobotany and corresponded with many fellow amateurs in this regard. He lobbied for the archaeological expedition of Harvard University at Hell Gap that resulted in the area’s continued interest to archaeologists as a site of prehistoric activity. He is survived by his wife, Pearl; son, Wyatt; daughter Whitney; and grandson Tobias. RIP.
Grandma Pleasure calls in the obituary to the local paper before bed and it’s her croaky voice greeting the coroner in the morning, who arrives to disperse the death certificate and who wakes Noemi and Toby, both tuckered out from the trauma of the previous day. Even this early before the heat sets in, the house is redolent of death, but the dough and batter of pastries and cakes, the wonderful chemistry of sugar, does much to combat the reminder.
She’s groggy and can’t find Wyatt at first. Maybe he’s gone to town. But from the sound of the hammering and sawing in the shop, she eventually locates her husband. Wyatt’s struggling in the workshop to make a coffin of warm-scented fir. He’s covered in splinters and sawdust and he looks annoyed to see her.
“You didn’t tell me you have a sister,” she says.
“Is that her name?”
“She’s a hippie,” he says.
“Hippie. You know, long hair, funny name like Flower or Rainbow or something. Smokes pot. Likes Hendrix. Child out of wedlock, I guess.”
“You don’t talk?”
“Lost track. We couldn’t keep up.”
“Is she coming?”
“Well, I don’t know. You’re the family with the appetite for adventure.”
“Listen, Noemi, please, today’s a mess. I have to finish this coffin, put up the marquee, make things ready. Lots of people will come.”
“More people around than you think. Now, if you’ll—”
“Yes. But help, mom, okay?”
“Okay,” she says. She can’t be the center of attention, not today.
Before she leaves, Wyatt explains that he can neatly accommodate for the morbid arm, like a spoke or barb, with a special annex that rises like a chimney from the top. The coffin deliberately resembles an arrowhead. None of them want to mutilate the old man.
Later, with the baking nearly complete after Noemi’s welcome cooperation decorating cakes and shaping cookies that are inevitably small and English in their design, the refrigerator tanked up with lemonade and iced tea, she evacuates to a patch of shade on the lawn, Toby on a quilt, playing and pretending nothing is abnormal as the telephone continually trills to exclamations to the Lord, traitor that he is, ruining their holiday.
Visitors ply the track between the road and the house by the afternoon and Noemi revises what she thinks of Grandpa Pleasure as the condolences stream forth. She meets prospectors and bone hunters, Masons and Shriners, shepherds and cattlemen, Adventists and Mormons, bountymen, archaeologists, cowgirls, rock hounds, trappers, national guardsmen, officials of the game and fish department, crop duster pilots, mechanics, just about the whole county and even beyond. Everyone’s exceedingly nice, complimentary about her child, hyper and stuffed with sweets, but she regrets that death seems such a good excuse out here for a meeting of a rural community spread over hundreds of miles.
At long last that afternoon, the vehicles join in a queue, once Grandpa Pleasure’s body’s loaded into the back of the truck. The Pleasure family gets in front and the cars file behind. Wyatt turns on the radio and Hank is spilling his guts. He leaves the dirge on low and stares grimly out the window. They drive over the rolling dirt road at a somber speed and then pull into the settlement of Rawhide half an hour later, the trail of fine dust settling over everyone. Overhead the thunderclouds have rapidly bloomed and the trees shiver in anticipation of rain. Just along the creek is a cemetery with a handful of graves. The procession marches with a slow gait, stepping on ants, twigs, beetles and leaves, following the pall bearers, improvised at the last moment from among Grandpa Pleasure’s neighbors.
The grave’s waiting, anus and mouth, ready to eat with a hunger that would return Grandpa Pleasure to an astringent womb of oily dirt. Of course, this isn’t quite how he might have imagined his burial after his incredible discovery of the sky burial, but he has no time left to communicate any special request. Nonetheless, he’s rejoining the food chain, an alluring digestive treat for the critter-filled ground.
The Adventist pastor begins evangelizing and Wyatt pays no attention to the words. They mean nothing to him. He believes in nothing, worships nothing, just accepts religion as a salve to smooth over human relations, and it holds no substance for him. Anyway, oil’s his creed. He’d just as rather honor Allah, Buddha or Satan, so long as he has permission to drill. That’s what the syncretic resource empire was all about.
Noemi stands sternly at his side and his mother looks on with her watery eyes. The congregation murmurs and bobs and a woodpecker hammers in the distance. The town of Rawhide, all twelve souls, has also come and they stand respectively at a distance, honored just to be present at the funeral of so imminent a man as Karl Pleasure, lowered into the ground like a favorite loaf of beef.
His hair swirls in the wind, lifts above his head as if its own cataclysm, revealing the thinning patch for what it is, a disguise. It begins raining, hard, sparse, nearly crystalline, and everyone else hovers under trees, but not Wyatt, alone, sad and remorseful.
Then it stops.
The abrupt, bruised mixture of clover, alfalfa and sage render the air magic, poetic and otherworldly beyond the tragedy of Grandpa Pleasure’s demise, that stubborn arm accommodated with his special annex to his coffin, the olivine ring etched with square and compass removed and tucked under his tongue.
“Like Peter,” Wyatt says, “Cannot a fisherman learn to tend sheep?”
Wyatt’s traveling light and his emotions are no bigger than his boots burying down into the worn carpet of the creaking Douglas gliding into the green lights of Benghazi. He hasn’t bothered with the time bonus allotted by Poseidon Oil and Gas to come to terms with his downward spiraling feelings about his wife and son deposited in England. He admits he’d rather use his last days going after Colonel Candy’s big dynamic play.
He can’t decipher the graffiti scrawled on his gate. Hostile, he guesses, judging from the colophon: a scimitar dripping with black blood under the Arabic glyph. The driveway’s sticky with bomblets of dates and the shrapnel of pomegranates. The rotten fruit smells alcoholic, illicit.
Wyatt screws at the fuses mounted on one wall of the house. A small dune of sand slopes at the foot of the front door, his key crunches in the sandy lock, and the Benghazi house flickers to life on low battery. He ducks in, fumbles for the switches on the walls, the temporary maladjustment of moving from one place to another.
Wyatt peruses the sad, silent house colonized by sand but weirdly free of scorpions, snakes or spiders. The grit gnaws at his bare soft feet released from the sauna of the boots in which he had traveled for two days. Nonetheless, he’s rejuvenated to be back, happy to have skipped London and his monster-in-law. Yes, Wyatt has returned to Libya full of brawn, excited by the prospect of his great gamble, yet just shrewd enough to be worried about the phlegmatic politics of Colonel Candy.
He deserves congratulations in a way. He fells the occupiers one after another: Italians, Jews, Americans, and British, all exorcized by the political voodoo of his loony regime and filling the souks with their unwanted belongings. Candy beats his hairy silver chest and his rhetoric rebounds across the great oil drum of the region. His voice carries across the Sahara, slips through the bush of the Sahel, and arrives with vigor in the tropics.
Young ambitious men answer back, electrified by an odd-shaped ball of postcolonial independence that they sew from rubber and fiber and fill with spongy bullets. It passes from throne to prison, from stool to barracks, everyone trying to hang on, as erratic and unpredictable as its secret master, Candy. Without judging who’s Mandela or Amin, Candy is helping his proxies’ struggles across the continent. He has no qualms honoring awful men.
Keen to display his power, he hosts the Arab Summit in Tripoli and Candy’s obliged to appear as larger-than-life, with a cache of victories against the scourge of the capitalists. He introduces a Suez Tax on oil shipments, dents Poseidon’s revenues, and talks about an oil embargo. He suggests annexing Egypt in brotherly union and has invited the Russians to take over the American and British bases. To prove the point of what he can achieve, Candy has driven through a Poseidon housing estate in a tank. Yet he can’t be too wild; he still has Poseidon to thank for his treasury, and its employees like Wyatt, who inappropriately and mistakenly believing he’s essential to the geopolitical drama, though he’s unsure of exactly for whom.
Wyatt’s a fool and he’s cemented in place, just like the wells flowing in the desert that threaten to strangle not only Libya with their riches but a vast swath of the continent with an easy, sick death.
Sand has choked the house in his absence, coated the furniture, embedded in the carpet, duned on the window sills, impregnated the wardrobes and cabinets, seemingly migrated everywhere as if a gas. He needs a practical cleaner, but he doesn’t want a woman in the house, more than likely the shape of a melon and with a mouth full of moss, but someone who lives like him, on boiled eggs, ketchup, and chopped onions.
Is his indispensable odd-job man Battutu alive?
And would Battutu be willing to come back?
Wyatt steps into his study to scrutinize his papers and maps. Somehow he has forgotten about the objects, violent or ordinary, that are a crystallization of the little disposable time he allows himself when not in Poseidon’s oil fields. The enameled cement floor’s covered by a rug of running gazelles and the room’s decorated with his refined taste in junk: the skull of an oryx, a prize shot in the desert, a curved dagger with a rhino horn handle, coffee grinders, a spent belt of English anti-aircraft shells, a brass ship’s bell, a brace of Arab powder and ball pistols inlaid with ivory, a ship’s compass, a Rommel corps bayonet, ropes of copper keys from the size of a pea to a loaf, Bedouin camel bags swinging from the back of the door, a dented crescent weathervane from a mosque propped in one corner, a slab of red rock chiseled with a prehistoric petroglyph of hippo perched in another, the tattered fin of an American bomber, and a group of kerosene lamps, the smell of evaporated fuel heady and refreshing, on top of a seafarer’s chest marked in black paint with ports of departure and arrival, Liverpool to Hong Kong, somehow stranded halfway, much like Wyatt.
Desperately inert since the trip to Goshen, his proboscis needs stoking.
He studies the drafting table, a mundane but practical affair recycled from Poseidon’s head office probably reduced to skeleton staff. He has no ingenious method to hide the sum of educated guesses sketched on his maps, the plans for a munificent Royal Baby, the living jelly of his ambitions surpass the dirt and chores of his childhood and be a wheeler-dealer.
The pyramid of rolls is in order. He’s set a little trap, draped four of Noemi’s thin black hairs over the pile, and nothing’s disturbed. Without hesitation, he unrolls them, weighs down their corners with sandstone specimens stained with oil. Wyatt slips off his cramped ivory jeans, lifts himself onto the stool, and in one callisthenic movement he crawls onto the table, lowering his nose ever so daintily to the surface of a waxy map, his rump teeter-tottering into the air.
He scratches at Sudan. He pokes at the Central African Republic. He rubs Chad. He plunges his nose into the proven Libyan reserves. Nothing. Not a drop. Not an iota in his detector.
Has his uncanny sense of smell perished?
He sniffs over certainties: Persian Gulf, Arabia, Niger Delta, jumps across the Atlantic to Brazil, then the Gulf of Mexico.
Nothing exudes from the collection. Or less: negative absolute Kelvin.
Large and tumescent, it looms in his mind like a shape with no center and no end, a doughnut.
The maps are blanks and questions whirl in a panic about the slush of his mind. Are these the originals? They certainly appear to be: those are his stickers of dots and dashes where he remembers placing them. Is there something that he isn’t seeing? Something that is there yet invisible? Is Royal Baby merely a pedestrian child, of no special value at all?
He drinks in the air, redolent of mice and dust, and lowers himself, probes the maps again, counting on a deep breath to solve the conundrum. Is his hunch that misplaced? What’s happened? Did he overexpose his nasal appetite? Was he rushing forward too quickly? Did he need sex? Or whiskey? What’s jamming the signals? Should he need to heat the maps up? What rat has betrayed him?
In order to get out?
Wyatt clambers down, unnerved by the failure of his hound and the paranoia exposed beneath his struggle. Fatigue courses through his body, hardening. He treads down the tiled hall to the kitchen and burrows for the whiskey stashed under the sink. He pours a drink and doesn’t bother to sit, not after three days of propellers and bucket seats. He goes to the bedroom and cracks the Samsonite, unpacks the new duds from Talberts, the black boot-cut jeans, the black paisley shirts sewn with white thread and gussied up with rhinestone buttons, and a pair of shimmering black boots. Hardly a traditionalist, but appreciative of the courtly ways of the cowboy, he’s bound to respect the mourning period after the death of his father. He spreads the duds out on the bed that was all his now, his concerns drifting back to Noemi, adamant and pampering herself in London as compensation for her trials in America. Not caring a fig, he guesses as he removes the black outfit to the dusty wardrobe, tosses them among the officious English suits and rodeo regalia, then diving onto the sandy bed, ribbons of fine grit rising around him. He rinses down the last gulp and soon his body makes a putty of sweat and powder.
Wyatt woke with the calls, the holy lyrics wrapping around the neighborhood. Motes of wandering, homeless, almost static sand glow in the light, low and brown, ineffable and indistinct. He’s covered in it.
Standing at the kitchen sink, trying to prepare a coffee before anything else, a cheroot dangling dangerously from his lips, his throat slimy with catarrh, he finds the water loaded with sand. He puts the pot on the stove anyway and swivels the valve on the gas canister.
“Gravity, you sort it out,” he says.
Silicon and quartz has been a vital part of his diet in the desert, as good as cereal almost.
He’s forgotten about the company radio stuck like a wart on the kitchen shelf. It glows forbiddingly when he switches it on.
“Sugar 2,” he says into the microphone, his voice filled with unease. “Sugar 2? Read me, Sugar 1? Roger?”
The message fizzles into nowhere.
The sand’s still suspended in the atmosphere and occupying any space in the ether reserved for radio waves. He’ll have to tramp if he wants any sugar.
Wyatt rushes through his ablutions, abrading more than shaving, slipping on his wrinkled black outfit, stirring the coffee into the boiled sand.
He hardly bothers for the grounds and grains to settle, bolts back the turgid mix, marches to the garage through the drifts, chokes the Beetle and leaves it to warm up, picking up a sandy cluster of dates as he goes back into the house. He peeks at his study, wipes the sweat from his face, remembering how his nose has failed. But he plunks his hat on his head, nonetheless determined, and fills his chest pocket with pencils, grabs his briefcase, fastens a handkerchief over his face and locks. Wyatt pulls apart the gates, reverses the dune buggy, stops at the curb, pulls them shut, drags his goggles over his hat and eyes, registers the two policemen standing to the side of the property in the haze of the sand storm. They whisper to themselves, playing the game of never looking at their subject, though it’s obvious they’re here to report on the cowboy in black on a spree.
He grunts and speeds off, turns on the headlights halfway down the lane, not sure exactly where he’s going or what he’s doing. He’d have to choose between Poseidon or Ali Baba. He laughs. He’s nearly forgotten the oath to be an informant—a “consultant” as Candy had labeled Wyatt’s gopher-like role.
The low visibility didn’t disturb anyone, certainly not anyone endowed with a turban or veil to draw across their eyes. Mint sellers peddle through the streets. Carts of melons and potatoes are parked along the boulevard. Taxis wait in neat ranks. To Wyatt, paranoid yet confident, it seems that his suspicion is correct: most everyone is a spy for Candy’s multi-departmental security apparatus designed to root out foreign influence. The sense of surveillance definitely is not alleviated by colossal plywood cut-outs left along the boulevards since the Arab League Summit: Sadat, Nasser, Arafat, Hussein, Assad, and those presidents from the Sahel whose names tripped him up like Haile Miriam, all of them magnificent in their suits and robes, bestowing good blessings and bloody threats upon the Arab people cowering below, most of all Candy, at the center of the Arab universe and rendered like Gargantua, bloated in scale and magnificence, dwarfing his peers, even the sun, an ominous stained outline in the roiling brown sky.
Security must have eased, Wyatt guesses, not having to stop at a single checkpoint on his way to the ministry. He’s thankful, as it occurs to him that the gun might be in the glove box, which he stretches to open and confirms: the pistol nearly rusted and useless, rescued with oil, grease, and a clean, but a gun nonetheless, incriminating and easily misunderstood. He has been careless and the worry teases him as he drives under the hollow shadows of the construction booming from the ruins of Carthage’s satellite kingdom. But Wyatt’s preoccupied, ominously thinking of the horrible day at the beach when he and his son nearly drowned, which is probably why he’s doing this anyway. Nonetheless, he notes with some irony that the workers aren’t Arabs but Blacks. Wyatt supposes Candy has ordered the Libyans not to work, such is the ruler’s confidence in the oil economy.
He drums his thumbs on the wheel, thrilled to be doing something. His energy surges back, in large part thanks to the cigarettes and coffee, but he feels a bit cocky again.
Wyatt wouldn’t have to go far for Ali Baba, who is far closer than he ever imagines.
He’s greeted by a sterling act of provocation. In his absence, Libya’s National Oil Corporation has erected a new headquarters of glass and steel next to what’s left of Poseidon Oil and Gas. The workers appear to be finishing the top floors, significantly taller than Poseidon’s squat sponge of a building.
Wyatt grins, and then hoots in the car, cackling maniacally, the laughter pushing his hat off such is his sick joy. Why didn’t Candy occupy Poseidon immediately upon declaring the nationalization program? Wyatt presumes that skullduggery at this level requires a sophistication and authority of which he couldn’t really conceive. But why pretend to negotiate, when you could holster a six-shooter to your waist and solve the dispute in the street? Is not Candy the sheriff and Poseidon no more than bandit vermin? Or the other way around? And who’s Wyatt?
He couldn’t tell.
The trident flag hangs flaccidly, impotent and bleached.
“Sugar 1,” he says to himself melodiously as he walks into Poseidon’s reception, his kerchief pulled down his neck, goggles pushed over the bowl of his hat, his new black boots crunching on the marble floor, half-expecting the famous Scot red head, her cleavage, incredible bum, the come-hither toss of her hair.
But for the first time ever, it’s a man, and a Libyan at that.
“Mister Pleasure,” he says, hiding his disappointment, for the Scot had been the absolute pick from his crop of louche company dates with big bums and easy ways; fornication overseas was Poseidon’s way of life. “I’ve an appointment with Dr. Ali Baba.”
The clerk’s hand creaks across the register. No cheeky repartee or clash of eyes, just a narcotic-like silence that dwindles into the oscillating fans, Wyatt coolly waits, afraid and brash, adrenalin scattering in his limbs, accustomed to days of delays, noticing the man’s lapel, dotted with a very familiar, grinning enamel pin.
Oh, Candy’s cool and smooth, a deposit of nefarious sublimating ice in the oil economy’s favorite cocktail. So drunk are his customers by the end of Libyan happy hour that they can’t fathom how he’s stolen their currency, their women, their dignity and honor, their property, and if they aren’t very careful, their lives. In fact, they will thank him, for graciously continuing to make more rounds of lovely viscous flammable drinks. The secret of theft on this scale or any scale: just smile and no one will notice. Candy has absolute foresight as the best and most malignant of witchdoctors melting time and belief together.
Like in the past, the doors swing easily.
Ali Baba shifts his hulk in a leather chair. He sweeps back his hair then extends his tubby hand. A roughly cut mustache squats under his fleshy nose.
“Very nice office, don’t you think?” he says, zest in his voice, savoring the leather chair and broad expanse of desk.
“Sure,” Wyatt says.
Ali Baba’s shirt is decorated with golden gushing derricks and gathered in knots. He troubles the buttons of his jacket and his trousers are too trim for a man of his girth, wedged open obscenely at the zipper. He’s a slob and supposedly a friend.
“Are you Mr. Wyatt, the cowboy?”
“The one and only,” he says. Could he be anyone else but the cowboy dressed for this rodeo, sitting in the gate on the back of this blue bull, praying to Allah to qualify, maybe even win, with just nine seconds to beat the beast and win the belt?
“That right?” Ali Baba admires the buff black-robed American, so virile and healthy.
“I never rope or drive cows,” Wyatt says, “So technically I’m not a cowboy at all.”
Ali’s globular ears are more like chalices than organs and he expects to hear good results, not lies.
“But you’re good with a lasso, no?”
Did he detect an inflection of Russian in the man’s accent, treacly and crude?
“Didn’t you light the airfield with flares and get the plane down to keep your best driller alive?”
“That was one hell of a night.”
“You also have some babies, if my sources are correct.”
Wyatt pats his quiver of maps. “Sure, I like making babies.”
“Now Wyatt, you can’t provoke me with your vulgarity. I’m an Armenian refugee from Palestine, a Christian like you, your brother and your friend.”
“Baku Oil Academy, would that be right?”
“Very astute, Mr. Wyatt. You read some Russian?”
“No, but that’s the most famous school of them all, the granddaddy if you’re going to be a petroleum geologist. Lots of your countrymen are running the show offshore of California and Texas.”
“You don’t say?”
“And if it helps, my great-grandmother was, if I recall, a Divan.”
“Armenians are hardworking.”
“Who knows where we come from, Ali—a couch or an ottoman, eh?”
Ali Baba brushes aside the innuendo and the impulse to laugh. “Well, see, there’s no excuse that we can’t get along, no barriers at all, Mr. Wyatt. Nothing to fear. The Mamelukes have been vanquished. And the Ottomans are in retreat. Now only the Jews we have to fear in Jerusalem.”
“If you say.” The man’s unkempt appearance is a ruse, a cultivated bureaucratic disguise, a cover of incompetence, though he’s clever and about as trustworthy as an ill-tempered mule.
“Mr. Wyatt, you have a proposal for Libyan National Oil Corporation?”
“Isn’t this Poseidon Oil and Gas?”
“Times have changed, Mr. Wyatt, I’m sure you’ll acknowledge that. You don’t happen to remember people before profits?”
“I’d have to check with my superiors.”
“I’m your superior,” Ali says, glowering, clenching his teeth, his mouth squeaking like a vice.
“Looks like it’s sewn up then and the baby’s just another doll.”
“Why wouldn’t one monopoly replace another, hmm?”
“Good point. But it’s very un-American.”
“Mr. Wyatt, think about what you proposed to our most imminent brother if you want to talk about patriotism. I would suggest you relax in the meantime. The fields are working just fine without you. As you can see the revolution is almost complete. Only the people’s committees are as yet unmade.”
“Isn’t ‘relax’ a foreign word?”
“How do you say? Kill some time, yes? In our wonderful city of Benghazi.”
“I’m taken off the case?”
“I want you to reconsider. You’ll get a retainer for your administrative leave of course. Think of yourself as underemployed.”
“Without me, you’ve nothing.”
“There you’re wrong, Mr. Wyatt. Now, if you’re going to waste my time, I’ll have to excuse you.”
“Dr. Baba, don’t you want to see my maps?”
“No, Wyatt,” he says, his tone stretched of patience.
“You see it’s my nose…. My honker is out of whack. I can’t find Royal Baby without it.”
“Imagine, Wyatt, there’s a wonderful spa in Azerbaijan, where the patients soak in tubs of naphthalene. Cures everything, especially the nose. If you’re as enterprising as rumored, and with so much free time, try it at home. We’ll radio you once you’re all fixed. You can go.”
“Yes, Dr. Baba, I’ll expect your call. ”
He’s being cut off, quite rudely sliced off from the mother corporation without so much a word of warning! It’s sobering. Abandoned. Orphaned. Discarded in the reeds, without a raft and without a god, he’s just one more pawn to be sacrificed to a great strategy.
Wyatt slumps into his car.
What a blow. If he hasn’t been outright dismissed, he’s at least been put on hold. They know. So what that he’s never been careless or carefree with his plans. They’ve managed to turn off the spigot to his very own nose, his dowser and detector rolled into one. Candy’s far too intelligent and Wyatt must have grossly underestimated the man. Inadvertently, he’s boasted about his secret without even naming his price. Most infuriating is Baba Ali, so miserable in his appearance, who commandeered the meeting with such apparent rank. The tables have turned every which way but in his favor. There are no familiar colleagues to query him about his trip home, the reason for his black clothes, the health of his son, about whom he had been looking forward to sharing a joke. No, he’s just another parasite riding on the supply side and he feels awful.
With Noemi nursing in London, he doesn’t have much to do at home and restlessness tears him apart. He has no business living in his pajamas like a Libyan, tooting a hookah and making eyes, rubbing his worry beads, a coffee and pastry on his table under the awning of his local café at his station on the cushions and daybed. Yet it wouldn’t be the first time to be a bachelor again, under self-imposed house arrest. The police or their spies surely rest on the other side, the register of their conversation passing over the wall, but that’s nothing to fret about. Wyatt’s benign, harmless, no more trouble than a worm.
Dressed in a threadbare cowboy shirt and dirty jeans tucked into his stockman’s boots, depressed, native as far as the growth of his beard, ennui prevails in his half-hearted quest for order. His orders to a local boy are chopped up in half-words passing through the iron slot in the gate where he pays a few piasters extra for kebabs, pitas and tobacco. He accepts them with no guarantees of oleander, datura or other malicious seeds of witchcraft being sewn in the deliveries. Wyatt suspects he’s immune to hocus-pocus.
He busies himself cleaning but it’s inconsequential. Sandy funnel clouds rule in the colonial house. Attempts to dust and polish are investments in wasting time. The sand multiplies and returns, as his attention turns to the outer premises. Hidden by a cinderblock wall, its top covered in mortar spiked with broken glass, he takes off his shirt and mows then fertilizes the lawn; he scours the driveway of the fruity detritus until the concrete glistens. Improvising a harness, he prunes the date palms of their fruits and dead fronds, and for a diversion makes syrup from the ripest pomegranates and the mangos are also within reach.
Later, breaking for coffee and a cavalcade of smokes, he drafts a report to the London office, but in the intermittent days he doesn’t bother to send it such is his malaise and belief it’ll be intercepted. Instead, he waits for news, a wire or the blissful call over the CB radio, but nothing, no post at all, no messages in the information blackout. The airwaves, like the phone, are dead, except for the chanting of the muezzin and the rhetoric of Colonel Candy stirring the miasma of intrigue. He frets: did no one care? What has happened to Poseidon? Has the great god of oil been wrestled to the ground and suffocated in Candy’s clutches?
He has zero to lose.
With the help of an oil merchant, contacted through an obsequious series of notes dispatched to the souks, he procures a barrel of crude, 64 gallons of sweet oil. An Arab delivers it at dawn in a beat up barrel sprayed with the Poseidon logo, the man’s donkey wheezing and trembling outside Wyatt’s gate as the barrel is rolled into his compound.
Once he’s taken the delivery, Wyatt revisits his study, but there is no scent lingering among the maps, just the flat inertness of mites, skin and dirt. He considers that hardly noticeable trace of ions an achievement. But the search in his reference books has cast a large amount of doubt on the resemblance of Libyan crude to the magic Azeri substance. He sighs. Even without the exact recipe for naphthalene, he was willing to try any goop of Ali Baba’s persuasion.
After spreading a tarp across the lawn and dragging his bathing vessel into place, Wyatt leans the barrel toward the bathtub scavenged from a defunct Italian Hotel. The liquid’s glassy black yet not black at all, rather blue, then red and green simultaneously, nearly brown, but then also yellow, golden, like a bruise, a very emotional color filled with undecipherable tidings. He leaves the black bath to warm in the sun.
Wyatt searches in the garage among his tools for a pair of torn jockey shorts nominally used for polishing tarnished brass and he wrestles them on. Without an attendant in the bathing area, his temporary Baku, he arranges a flask of turpentine, a covey of brushes and some torn drop sheets around the area, in addition to a little footstool and a new bar of olive soap. With a caution bordering on tenderness, he dipped a toe into the liquid, thinner than he imagines, tepid, not nearly as viscous as what he thinks, and then he sinks in with relish. It’s exquisite, morbid, chocolaty, fecal, like falling in a dirty corral, and the overpowering smell of oil evaporates from the surface of his bath into his nostrils that reawaken from the coma. Rivulets of rusty oil run from his body as he plonks and plunks at the wet tar with his fingers, a strange hard bebop of bass lines and key changes, vaguely scratchy, tinged with shredded dinosaur and a compost of ancient plants. He feels an ambiguous ray-like warmth emanating from it, toasting his skin, warming his joints, penetrating to the marrow, his nerves and lymph purring, a resiny treat, an oozing, thermal massage as if Wyatt has fallen among a harem of beguiling concubines.
“So this is what it means to relax,” he says to his own bent reflection on the surface of the oil, a swirling film of hallucinogenic color. Wyatt’s being surged with a love for himself that he would normally push aside as pure baloney. Blessed in his solitary al fresco hammam, free of the unseemly petting of Arab men and boys, he frolics, stands and dances an awkward slippery country jig, turns the spigots on and off like castanets and using his thighs for bongos. He wrestles himself back into the turgid black liquid, wishing that he had one of Toby’s toys, something other than the dull spear between his legs with which to play. He tosses the jockeys onto the tarp and they splat down with a satisfactory, naked wallop.
Then comes the trial.
He gathers a breath, slides his hairy back down the tub, kicks out his legs, closes his eyes into prunes and submerges into the black unguent. Listening for some ancient ancestor pulverized and liquefied into no more than a guiding voice, the oil trickles in his orifices, runs through his ears into his throat into his belly and lungs and he splutters back to the surface, vomiting a black slick over the side.
If a death like this can’t restore him, he’s uncertain what could.
Blue slippery footprints lead from the tub to the strange black zombie, Wyatt lashing himself with a torn drop sheet splattered with paint. He seizes a brush and rubs, bleaching himself from black to umber, grabbing handfuls of rags to soak up the annealing globs of oil, achieving an effect far dirtier than cleaner, everything from the yard gathering on him: iridescent beetles, bursts of pollen, larvae and bluebottles, an itinerant plastic bag, buttons and rivets, matches and receipts, ash, lint, tacks, moths and gum.
“What sticky stuff,” he says as if he doesn’t know what a gusher can do to a rig’s equipment and quarters, backtracking to the garage for the turpentine, light on his feet, prepared to slip. On the cement he douses himself in stinging turpentine and works off the nuggets congested around his hairs and bound in the creases of his skin. He resorts to gasoline when that runs out and his skin becomes one irritated glistening aroused organ as he performs the tedious task, contorted like he’s hunting ticks, and he’s thankful for the high walls of his premises concordant with the Arab wish for privacy that even the Italian architects of his house had respected.
The vapors rise from him in such strength and quantity it’s as if Wyatt is no more than a mirage, waiting in the sun for the fumes to evaporate so he can have a smoke.
Brassy, confident, impatient, he bangs on the empty oil drum and the rich, bass reverberations gong into his warm, churning guts.
“Who says I’m a loser,” he says to the garden, half expecting bleachers to have been erected around his impromptu ritual and a ticket seller holding back the crowds at his gate.
Wyatt feels content and in control, and his absolutely unnatural sense of venality and greed, the sheer self-interest that had led him to secure a billionaire’s nest egg through deceit, has been transformed into an altruistic desire to make and do good. His silly Royal Baby is crystallized before him like folly; he even smiles at the probability his brilliant, and perhaps bogus, project has been hijacked by Colonel Candy. Yet Wyatt does feel superb. He’s anaesthetized, disinfected and practically reborn. His senses are filled with a fresh, focused sharpness. His nose feels firm and new, revived from its spongy, jejune state.
Postponing his by now obsessive wish for a cigarette, fearing self-immolation and waiting for the inevitable, Wyatt adds one last treatment.
Just a tablespoon.
He measures it out, daps his pinky in the spoon, bending the reflection mirrored on its watch-like surface, the palms, the sun, the clouds, the buildings, his curious face, and then lightly smears some inside his nostrils. He snorts a beat, steps forward, lifting the spoon upward, meeting it with the thrust of his chin as he opens wide and trickles the crude oil into the pit of his mouth.
He gags at first, then lets it settle. It tastes like forgotten clothes and seams of coal. He sloshes it back and forth and rinses it deeper into his cavity as more layers of flavor emerge from the volatile liquid having traveled through burial grounds and ancient seas and been refined by the molasses of time. He holds it down, then swallows, his stomach opening and rebelling, more bitter than castor oil, definitely not glycerin, but something savory and sweet, too, like a well-greased bacon sandwich accompanied by an odd spongy alertness gathering between his eyes.
Examining the sandy outlines of his feet, scraping off the last tar balls, Wyatt vanishes into the house, knowing he can break the voluntary curfew and contact Ali Biba. He must traverse the desert to the landscape where it all could play beyond the wildest of oilhog dreams, Wyatt riding the refreshed jumbo smile mounted on his face and needing the utmost precision to manage his tasks and his ego.
Hostage to Candy, Wyatt’s very life hinges on an ability to read geologic time in the clues and scents of the unmapped reservoirs farting under the continent’s perpetual swamps, squeezed by unstable ranges and the lungs of the savannahs, an ominous hut daubed with his fears and joys, to be and not to be Adam on the haunting, liminal stage of diurnal song and nocturnal language.
He finds himself a space on the leather couch to contemplate the solemn heaviness of time, unjust yet so powerful. Wyatt carefully wraps himself up in a clean cotton sheet, pours a whiskey but never finishes it, slumbering well into the American Jazz hour, Coltrane’s tough chops crackling through the sand.
While he sleeps, a drop of oily red liquid creeps from his nose, gradually worms down his pulsing neck, following his contours to dry like a greasy puddle over his heart.
Lady Be Good
It’s a massive favor and Noemi didn’t intend to impinge or disturb.
But she does.
Noemi reclaims her Toby Jug in Momma Empire’s emporium and bazaar, the grinning chap ensconced on a mirrored shelf among a group of grinning pickaninnies and a pile of tortoise shell combs. He’s grotesque, forlorn and scarred, clutching his infantile teat of ale, his cheeks burnished a lackluster pink under his blue and green tricorn. Unworshipped, unclaimed in his tattered waistcoat, the price tag is peeling off, the dust having mined underneath the not so sticky balm.
Noemi senses the smelly objects that her mother has lugged back from her empire where the sun neither set nor rose, the things she must have enjoyed along with her privileges, replicated here in her glorified pawn shop.
She pulls down the jug: could this namesake be her son?
Momma Empire bristles with discontent. Her broad simian face is smeared with rouge and her lipstick wavers between her nose and her chin. She’s said yes to Noemi’s request to stay, which she regrets, because she wants to be kind and unselfish, but that isn’t the message in her deportment, her garments dragging her in great warrior-like postures of territorial movement as she paces in the narrow galley of the emporium, her earrings shaking, cowry-shaped silver droplets with cross-sectioned slices of snails.
The sight of Noemi, the restless, fidgeting, ungrateful lump, sitting in a cracked Windsor chair, hardly able to control her infant son, much less her own clumsy hands, irritates her enormously. Noemi’s a low priority for her and she’s noted how Noemi appears just when things appear to be going wrong, as if her daughter is a harbinger of personal and economic misfortune.
London is overstocked with the loot and leftovers of the imploded imperial realm; consequently, prices and profits are rock bottom.
Momma Empire, urged on by her new cobra-like business partner, probably Jeremy as far as Noemi can ascertain, feels the need to diversify, at least as far as Ghent to purchase a damaged, termite-ridden lot of art nouveau furniture reputed to be from Congo hardwoods. No, she didn’t escape the mud-filled footprints of the scramble. Instead her enterprise depended on it, although she still has trouble realizing the consequences of the near euthanasia that had led to her returning to what no longer seems like home.
“Noemi, the infernal man has vanished with all my capital,” she says. “It wasn’t like that in Sudan where we had our own syndicate and firm. You see I’m in a bit of a pinch.” She can’t quite adjust to a reluctant life back on the plain damp isle. Even an illusionist like her could not find room for an empire and all its trimmings inside her portmanteau.
Noemi know that she’s included, too—she, she without a name, no one.
Momma Empire brims with anger. She’s been betrayed. Her hair, a knot of hissing dreads, shakes in contempt. “Jeremy’s bloody well gone to Port Moresby or Hobart, somewhere he thinks without repercussions. But I’ll remind him that it was I who built the first crown court in Guinea and the first crown court in Tasmania.”
“Yes, mum,” Noemi says.
Few people like to be reminded of what was, what had been, and what nearly could have been, not least Noemi seemingly pinned down by Momma Empire’s mausoleum of antiques, the gloomy arcade nearly collapsing from the misery of her figure hedging bets with her bric-a-brac. What’s an Ibo ceramic head or a Watusi gauntlet when the trend is for chic plastics molded by machines from the oil her son-in-law—who she likes very much, even if he’s American—is denuding from the territories that once were hers.
That’s how she deludes herself. It’s an irony she resists at all. The colonial social mobility that had made her extravagant, free, outlandish, and curt is no longer a foreign posting but a domestic psychedelic, a knack for guitar licks, a dash of up-yours style, the border between ordinary and entertainment, that’s the way ahead on crusty old Blighty, pop. Sure, Momma Empire, she’s a rebel, too: ancient, consumed and co-opted by the powers to whom she’s a dedicated subject.
Threatened with bankruptcy, she’s damning and damned.
“Bloody fool,” she vents, turning over the accruals in her vile hands, tattooed with henna for good luck, a reminder of her latest ceremony that has failed dramatically, whether due to the countervailing forces of the heavens or some other presence kettling her plans. She’s neither infallible nor invulnerable.
“You’ve read too much Graham Greene,” says Noemi, her contribution breathy, mousey and thin. Submission and humor are the only way when Momma’s in such a state.
“Do you like that pouf?” asks Momma Empire, insouciantly pointing at an crocodile skin, steering away from the truth of her reading habits.
“O, Mummy, no use being bitter. You can’t change a thing now.”
“You’re to be seen and not heard. That’s the condition of you coming here. Or have you forgotten?”
“I’ve got my own baby now, mum. It’s not just you anymore.”
Noemi thrust forward the dozing package to her mother.
“But Toby’s yours,” she says, sputtering and aghast, pushing the baby back.
Change has been foisted upon Noemi. She has to be responsible. She has to care. She nearly had broken in two in the hospital, yet here is Toby, her marker of adulthood.
What had been a dream on the way over, a soft focus of ambient noise, the engines lulling Tobias into the feeling that he’s back at the desert camp of drilling equipment and vibrating sands, is something far different on the return to Europe, tense, the cabin poorly pressurized, the crew acrimonious, and Tobias has been sick, an alarming sign of his distress. It had been even more dramatic, parting in Heathrow, when Wyatt joined the queue of oilmen heading to the Middle East.
“Daddydaddydaddy,” he had cried to the parting jolly blur he knew to be his father. Tobias swallows something he’s scavenged from the terminal floor. He chokes and Noemi whacks him until he coughs up the luggage tag.
Even when they pull aside for a last kiss as they separate at the terminal, Noemi had been adamant. No amount of coaxing would convince her back to Libya. She needs people like her, easy to get along with, united and happy about how miserable they are, prisoners on their humdrum isle.
Momma Empire is waiting on the other side, shaking a calabash rattle at the passengers, like she is now, rattling her head and nosediving into her antiques. Noemi senses the justice. Because she has been waiting all her life for Momma Empire. And due to her own Gypsy wanderlust, perhaps a symptom of the ice in her heart and pain in her soul, covering the surface of her fear, Momma now is disposed to wait for her.
Momma Empire freezes mid-stride, her slippers staunchly embedded in a Rajastani carpet. She never has been challenged by her daughter before. Or if she has, she’d never have realized. This is a new development! Is Noemi growing up at the dowdy age of 32?
“Why not ask Daddy Empire for some help?” Noemi suggests. “He likes a mystery.”
Noemi, on distant terms with her father, has recently sent a letter to his last known address: Daddy Empire, Aberystwyff, Wales. But what’s startling is that she received a reply!
“Bosh! That useless fart. He’s not going to find my money or that lousy Jeremy. I’ll tell you that Daddy Empire costs a woman the clothes on her back and more to boot. But go ahead and meet him and find out for yourself if he doesn’t come crawling for handouts.”
“Yes, Mum,” she says, hastily retreating, “That’s what I want to do.” She must tread very lightly. She shouldn’t show too much pluck or confide that she plans to meet Daddy exactly this afternoon and that he has issued instructions that he didn’t desire careening into his former wife and abuser. Noemi’s good at following their orders and complicit in their games.
“Manzanilla?” asks her mother, needing a cooling swat of sherry.
She declines. The sherry decanter kissed the crystal glass, rang like a bell.
“You look quite smart, after all. By the look of you when you arrived, I’d thought you were down in the dumps.”
She’s made a supreme effort to squeeze into black slacks and a purple and brown Jaeger turtleneck, but she still feels a blimp. “Can’t I look nice?” she says, her voice tinged with acid.
Naturally, Noemi has camouflaged her rendezvous with Daddy Empire with defensiveness, a natural part of her armory of lying, false motives, and not telling what she couldn’t deny are lies. The emotional strategy is well suited to her management of Momma and Daddy’s divorce and the inimical period of her childhood thereafter, abandoned with her Nan, brooding on her feelings of blame, smothered between parental loaves and smeared with fatty problems like an ersatz sandwich paste.
Momma Empire screwed up her face, nosy and prying, persistent to a fault. She loves a quiz. “Gone off Wyatt, eh? O, you’re a right tart. I should’ve warned your husband.”
Noemi wants the little boy to look snappy and he does so, more or less, in his blue and white sailor suit, with a tam on his crown, sprouting blond hair now that he’s older and could hold up his head and focus, and even make a locomotive crawl for a trench. Daddy’s an army man and she hopes he’ll defer to the naval theme.
“Smart he looks, doesn’t he,” she says.
“Like a walrus,” Momma Empire replies, slugging back her sherry and dabbing out a Woodbine. “With Roman legs.”
Is Noemi paranoid or is her mother a total bitch? And if that’s the case, how’s her father?
She sets out from the basement arcade, glad to escape from the smell of hummus and mold, the tangle of hair, wood, jute and metal. It’s like standing in a sunken garden or a demolition zone, skips of broken materials parked at the cellar door. She’s afraid of the leftover bombs.
What had her mother meant when she said, “Roman legs.”
Catholic legs? Moorish legs? Jewish legs? What’s she on about, the old bag who grew up in an alm’s house along Offa’s Dyke, part Mercian, English, Gypsy and mixing with Geordies from along Hadrian’s Wall. They’re right mongrels and that’s why she’s so exceptionally beautiful. Daddy Empire comes from up north, from a dynasty of legionnaires, he claims, though that seems very unlikely.
The nervous puzzlement crinkles over her face, foil not cream. Toby she carries in her arms. She doesn’t want a fancy pram. Noemi’s proud and she has a length of cloth if she needs to bolt him to her waist or sling him under her arms. It isn’t very attractive, might be misinterpreted as horribly native, but it would have to do.
She’s happy walking along the flagstones, skating almost, random drops of rain scattering on the surface, not a shower, nor a flurry, but just a reminder of what’s above, the burly lilac clouds wiping the sky with a pleasant composure. Yes, Noemi’s home and the pavement is all she needs to feel satisfied, the windows and goods bumping together, falling out of their displays so anxious are they to find buyers, to please her, with the assurance that the years of privation are over and the country is remaking itself. She watches the legs and feet moving with such confidence, soles touching the pavement with an optimistic feel, no longer squelching in dung and mud, but walking with a happiness and solidarity that is their solace on this cramped rock on which they are just tenants. It’s a ridiculous system yet she thrives in it. One didn’t have to leave for France anymore to see the bouncing rollicking expansion of taste from spuds and butter to pasta and olive oil, that she had neither liked nor known until submitted to the Italian kitchen of the Libyans. She couldn’t even register the change unless she went away, and she had, and then it becomes apparent that waves of Mediterranean, Caribbean and Himalayan peoples are making it a very absorbing place to be, flavoring street, mouth and families.
She’s a traditionalist, she thinks as she tows her son along the reassuring flagstones, but the change in the country resonates with her and surmounts her most fundamental ideas. They should be her tenants just like anyone. Even Momma Empire’s bastion of Hampstead isn’t immune to Chinese kites dancing on its heath, conjoining like paper moths. Walking, she almost admits that a little social mobility would do her no harm, though she’s hesitant to say that she’s anything other than working class. Yes, Momma Empire might have pretensions for Bloomsbury, but Noemi did not. So engrossed is she in speculating about how quickly her home seems to be transforming, and how provincial she feels even for all the sophistication of the Med, that she strolls past the patisserie, their meeting point, welcoming her with the pungent grittiness of fresh roasted coffee.
Often put off by the tedium of motherhood, today she’s pleased with the bright whimpering of her son. He’s all energy and his cheeks burn incandescently.
The door tinkles behind her. The patisserie’s a garble of long vowels and tongue twisting consonants, a black fog of cigarette smoke, glittering of jewelry that is insurance in case of flight, the drawn noses and depressed attitude of the eyes, the strange cut of the clothes, narrow in the chest, dark and out of date, beards in abundance that spoke of the east. It’s not a chic place, yet it has a core of visitors, exiles and faces far more intelligent than her, Tatars, Huns, Gypsies and Jews reduced in circumstance by misfortune and war and the lives that cannot be replaced and joined together by the want of a good, understated Habsburg cake and topnotch espresso.
The Hungarian proprietor grins like Lothario, resumes sniffing over a newspaper, the Hungarian print looking like a mixture of Norse and Udmurt, none of which she knew.
Noemi doesn’t want to recognize him—Jeremy, shoveling countless crèmes through the gate of his beard into his mouth, his jacket spread over his seat like velvet wings.
He registers her quick, hostile look, purposefully doesn’t lock eyes, wondering if the shisha would come to his table.
She sits down at an adjoining booth. There’s no need to be afraid or avoid him. But Noemi’s more nervous that she expects, rolling her wrist every few minutes to check the time. Talking to Jeremy gives her an excuse to forget and relax.
“Healed?” he asks, pointing at Toby, brushing puff pastry from his cummerbund.
“Oh yes, very much,” she says. “He’s very chuffed. And yourself?”
Jeremy deflects the question about his well-being with a crafty return to his request of Wyatt. “Did you or your husband find anything about the Jews in Libya?”
“I haven’t been back,” she says, “Well, not lately. It’s been busy after the birth.”
“I was just wondering,” he says.
She might as well broach what’s nagging her. “Jeremy, are you my mum’s business partner? She says you ran off.”
“Madame, absolutely not. What she trades is unkosher. We cannot have the hair sacrificed to pagan gods or any of her taboo wares.”
“I suppose she’s got to blame someone, Jeremy.”
He readily directed the conversation back to finding and repatriating Jews.
“Candy kicked us out after the Six-Day War, didn’t he, Noemi? Ransomed the Jews, yeah?”
“He kicked everyone out. We’re the last. And I’m not going back. He wants us to live in Brega, and it’s no more than a few trailers and an oil terminal.”
“Your husband’s alone?” He couldn’t remember the man’s name.
“He’s there. He stayed on. Has a project with Candy, he says.”
“Does he?” He would never advise a wife to separate like this. “What keeps him there?”
“He likes to scratch the rocks.”
“If you talk or write to him, could you remind him to find the synagogues? If he could just document what remains. Take some photos. Maybe find the Jewish cemetery. Something. If he’s got the tolerant ear of the great leader?”
“Last I heard he’s been cut off.”
When did they talk? Has she gotten a letter? No, she’s forgotten about him outright, so enthralled is she with London, preoccupied with the idea that it’s normal. After all, she has promised herself not to tamper with his work or weigh down his conscience with her problems. “What would you do?”
“I’d go back. If my people need me, I go back somehow.”
“Good point. What do you want there, really?”
“Why, to drink the Libyan’s blood!” he says. “Of course, it’s a joke.”
Jeremy could sense Noemi’s distrust. He’s pushed too far. But he’s a radical and thinks it best to challenge stereotypes with humor, hint at the seriousness with a laugh, and then he can go about introducing the knowledge behind his remarks, the shared pillars of body, spirit and soul that made a man real. It isn’t just opposing thumbs.
Toby sniffs and claws at the pastries but it seems like he wants a coffee, not only the vertiginous sweets. The Hampstead pastry shop is dense with the narcotic sexual smell of the beans roasted on the premises in a giant tumbling copper drum.
The coffee isn’t quite the same. The Berbers would make it in the camp, crack the dry cherries open on their haunches, sort, roast and grind the beans in one long ceremony. The Italians had cultivated coffee in Libya, used the locals as free labor for the tedious job of picking, cleaning and drying. The plantations in the highlands along the Libyan coast are snow-white all year with the heavy scent and bright exploding pompoms of the flowers. They had stayed at some lovely plantation houses, perfect places to convalesce.
Enjoying her cake and the memory of her times together with Wyatt, quite insatiable and keen, she realizes the birth has come as quite a shock. She’s had to move abruptly from child to adult, which isn’t something she readily would do. Noemi decides it’s the Hungarian pastry shop that’s making her so reflective, which she cites as a sign of depression. She spoons a little coffee into Tobias who spits it out after thinking he wants it. She already expects so much from the cute bugger and coffee is only the beginning. Then it crackles in her head like a burnt circuit: Bugger Pleasure. She snorts. What a horrible nickname.
She isn’t prepared for his entrance. Frankly, she’s stunned. Britain is partitioning? Daddy Empire looks more like Mountbatten than her own estranged father.
The detachment of guards are adorned with their bearskin hats; their red-trimmed trousers move precisely to the song of Jerusalem by Eldridge and Blake, their pipes and drums competing for the counterpoint. Only a few men, they march along the high street, pushing aside the black taxis and red Routemasters, swinging their way to the premises, the vanguard to a single Jeep, its windscreen folded down, its main occupant, gallant and erect, stroking a white bull terrier with a swollen nose perched on the bonnet. They halt and grin, very pleased by the attention, not the young stallions of the active guard but an older breed, cracked by the sun, dipped in gin, spit-polished by batmen, used to privileges beyond coolies and kaffirs.
The doors to the patisserie are thrown open.
Is it her father?
“Noemi Pleasure nee Empire?” he asks, his voice stentorian and registering like a continent. He has the stripes of a lieutenant major and the sharp pointed cap rises over his white hair trimmed neatly from his ears, the mustache moving with authority, the belly neatly tucked behind the broad green canvas of his uniform.
How acutely embarrassing.
She squirms, not daring to move.
No one steps forward from the pastry shop.
“For curry at half past eight?” He voice starts to warble. He has done his absolute best to arrange his mates, men from his old regiment who are alive and in the area standing at attention with their instruments under the drooping Jack.
“Where the devil are you hiding?” Daddy Empire shouts. Has he been had?
The crowd dwindles outside the shop. The ephemeral moment of nostalgia or emotion, whatever they expected, doesn’t seem to be happening. The guards relax from attention to ease.
She cringes. She’s like a son in that way: she hates her father. But she swallows the crisp hatred down and eventually scoots forward.
“It’s me,” she says.
Is she an imposter or a double? She looks too like him yet not like him at all.
Daddy Empire dismounts from the Jeep. His terrier jumps from the bonnet.
“Steady on, Bull’s-eye!” calls Daddy, baritone, moving swiftly to heel his dog that pays no attention and darts into the patisserie, a white flash, a true ratter.
“Daddydaddydaddy,” blurts Toby.
“Daddy, please,” says Noemi, sighing, faint. She doesn’t want to be emotional but she feels it welling up, an urge to defecate, sneeze and cry at once.
“Why, yes,” he says. “It’s Daddy.” His voice rings with the melodious call of the north, his body wonderful and pillowy like a manatee, decorated with a row of medals hanging from funny bits of ribbon, velvet and gold crowns and epaulets of glue and board on his shoulders, fancy brass buttons running down his tummy, buckles and stitches holding him together.
“How are you, love?”
He hugs her with a might and fondness that she rarely feels. He’s covered in trinkets and symbols, an elephant foremost, a white tusker, sewn to each shoulder. He smelt like leather, metal and boot polish, unfound tarnish, Old Spice, razors, pomade.
A clap, then a holler from the crowd.
From the lads: “Hip, hip, hooray!”
It’s their splendid moment as Bull’s-eye faithfully returns with a pair of soft, limp rodents.
“Real ratter,” Daddy says, leaning down into his daughter’s hair. “Learned in Bangalore, he did.”
“Lovely dog, Daddy,” she says. “Very handsome.”
“Why thank you, Noemi.” She’s just like her mother, always talking indirectly. “And who’s this?” he asks. He couldn’t help being stiff, formal, even if he’s thrilled to see his daughter and her son, after having been swept away for so long, partly by the new wife, partly by the old one.
“Why it’s Tobias. Haven’t you met?”
“Looks like an Empire to me. Get him in the fields and the streams, won’t we, when the season starts.”
Of course, she thinks, one always has to do something with Daddy Empire. The same with Wyatt. Her chief complaint: no such thing as relaxing, just sitting and having a cup of tea.
“Right lads, you’re excused,” he says to his pals wanting for instructions. “I saved you lot once and now you’re saved me, so we’re equal.”
They scatter along the pavement, seemingly to the Rook and Pillard. Daddy’s extremely envious of course and would like to rejoin them with the great adventures they’d had together, the clockwork precision of their engineering unit, the fixing of vehicles and structures under fire and on the march, how ingenious and vital that had been to the war effort and the clean up afterwards as the curtain had closed on the Empire.
“We must catch up,” he says.
“Yes,” she says, meekness rising in her voice. “You married again, Daddy?”
“I’ll answer that in a tic, love.” Daddy Empire checks the horizon, filled with the spic and span brick houses congealed around the heath. “Where are we going to get a curry round here? Don’t see too many of the right kind of chaps.”
“We could take the tube down to Aldgate East. Isn’t it Brick Lane?”
“Absolutely not. Bull’s-eye will find us a Vindaloo. He was born in Hyderabad and he loves his curry, too. Won’t you, Bully?”
Daddy is much more communicative with his dog, admittedly a quizzical cocky fellow, than his daughter or grandson. Typical, he always has to put some obstacle in the way, be it animal or mineral.
Without much ado, they stride forward, following the white dog. Leading them on with his egg-white snout, father and daughter and grandson navigate the streets of Hampstead and then suddenly much further. Trained to find only the very best handmade sauces from spices ground on the premises, only accepting Basmati that has been cold-soaked for hours, sensitive to rancid frying oils, demanding fresh naans and chutneys, sniffing for the best onions and lady fingers, unaccepting of anything tired, spoiled or leftover, Bull’s-eye checks every pub, rushes into takeaways, double-takes outside the better establishments until he catches the scent of some disagreeable kitchen shortcut, often returning with another rat to prove his point. Daddy Empire can see plainly the dog is unhappy with his inspections and urges his scout to find them somewhere to eat.
“But this must be the East End, Daddy.” protests Noemi, who’s flagging. She’s unequipped, needs a pram, at least a shopping trolley; her native cloth has not worked very well.
Daddy Empire sucks on his pipe and Toby is on his shoulders, his little hands holding the tufts of the man’s hawkish eyebrows. He has a sturdy grip.
They zigzag and crisscross. They circle and backtrack. They skirt, then pincer, are cleverly outmaneuvered, until they at last encircle what looks like a proper curry house, a guard standing at the door. They didn’t talk much on the last stage of the forced march but Noemi, in her tiredness, feels an odd tingling ecstasy from the paradise of brick, mortar, asphalt, concrete, glass, and the materials that make a city. Though she’s never trained or been inclined that way, she’s an engineer’s daughter, close to but not quite the union of a jailor and a whore. She feels as if she’s on a stage and the backdrop of city has simply passed by as she and Daddy Empire walk on a hard and unforgiving surface, trusty Bull’s-eye barking, flashing his tail and merrily pointing the way to the Rajput, Curry House Extraordinaire, First Class Just For You.
They breach the entrance and in they go, Bullseye clawing at Daddy’s well-creased army trousers, executing twirling jumps, Noemi following, ragged, her feet tired and blistered from the Bally shoes she insisted on buying the week before.
They sat in a dark booth and Daddy Empire rattled out commands in Hindi. He’s smiling wonderfully, Toby at one side, expectant, his nostrils quivering at the amplitude of scents rising from the red upholstery. Bull’s-eye could do no wrong and Noemi wonders what the dog wants. The air’s toasted with the piquant scent of chilis, corianders, jeera, everything that the Arabs had brought halfway around the world to the souks and that had slipped over the black continent to London.
“The quartet was a lovely treat, Daddy.”
“Some of the fellows from the Indian campaign, before withdrawal.”
“Quite,” she says.
“Horrible idea, withdrawing. We’d just got our heads round governing those bloody sepoys and then they turned on us. Very ungrateful. We made their country.”
“Wasn’t that the case everywhere you were posted? Doing good? Or was it bad?”
“Wasn’t in Sudan and Eritrea. They loved us. We bought all their cotton, salt, copper, built their railroad, gave them ships, taught their children, stopped their barbaric ways, educated their women, gave everything and it came for naught. Though we had our incompetent moments of course. Bad apples in every box.”
“That’s where things went wrong, wasn’t it? Between you and mummy, I mean.”
He balks, stiffens like Punch, grips his mortal bat. But there’s no way out, nothing other than surrender or capitulation, certainly at the bank of Obduran. One has to face one’s mistakes, even if it means the gallows. Daddy Empire guesses that’s why he agreed to come out of hiding and meet. He didn’t like to think he’d been a bad man, though at the rate at which he burnt through wives, he deserves to be faulted. Not for infidelity, not for disloyalty, but for sheer parsimony. Yet he’s a plump as a gander and his wives become mere feathery prawns as he refuses to feed or cloth them, all the while absorbing their money, not a lot, but enough for him and his grand habits of tobacco, fishing, drink, tailoring, meals, and the dues for his private clubs.
“Well, I do say that’s a bit impudent. Who told you that?”
“Mummy may think I’m a little girl, but I know what happened.”
“She left me for another man.” He doesn’t like saying that. But there’s no use. She was his ally, his daughter.
“She didn’t say that.”
“Ask her. She left for a civilian. A Frog. Our great rivals in Africa, the Frogs.”
“She loves Frogs.”
“What was he like, this Frog?”
“A gentleman like myself, I suppose. It was about money.”
“She’s love money more than anything.”
She dare not add, “I do too.” But she thinks about it. Isn’t Wyatt in Libya for that alone. Certainly not for his stomach. “She’s gone bankrupt.”
“In more ways than one, my dear.”
“And the Theosophy?”
“Bah, palaver! Those cheeky loons.” He’s been envious of Momma Empire’s ability to raise cash.
The waiter bows, beginning with a baffling array of English compliments, and Daddy Empire follows with order for a nosh up: “Err, samosas, yes, two please, and what, yes, paranthas, certainly, naans, butter but no garlic, chapattis, yes, chicken madras, beef vindaloo, yes, fish biryani, mango chutney, mint sauce, err, please, yes condiments, what, fried bananas, two, and raitas all round.”
He loves India.
He could eat the subcontinent whole. He would start in Cochin with the synagogue, sweep across Keralia and gobble up the Marxists, stretch his jaws for Tamil Nadu and the island of Ceylon, backwash the tea estates and push in the Hyderabad, take on the big steaks of Goa, and work down the whole damn thing, partition and all, into his gullet, biting it all off at the Himalayas.
“The accent’s in the ears,” he says, “Not the throat.”
Toby bangs the table in anticipation, grips his knife and fork, bangs and wails, as the smell of caramelizing onions and the roasting spices waft through the Rajput. He’s glad to help.
“Got an appetite for snap, does the young squire?”
“Very much. He loves harissa.”
“He may, but has he had a vindaloo?”
Toby’s investigating under his plate while slurping a mango lassi brought by the kowtowing staff, overjoyed to have so enthusiastic a diner.
“See what you mean,” he says.
“The Libyans love him.”
“You’ve been very clever to perpetuate the Empire breed.”
“It’s miserable being a mummy. And a Pleasure. ”
“Your mother said the same thing about motherhood.”
“But she wasn’t there.”
“She did care. In her way.”
“I bet. Between choosing among gowns and deciding who to invite and making gins and tonics. Fat lot of good she was.” The bile and bitter rise from within, turn her nearly green.
He doesn’t defend her. He’s seen it, too. Actually, he’d encouraged it, but he couldn’t say so, the leaving of Noemi behind, the bad behavior, in the end, even the affairs that had made matrimony dissolve.
The first steaming plates arrive, each planted with a cocktail stick of the Indian flag.
“Cheeky,” he says, “But good.”
They gorge. It’s wonderful. Fresh. Spicy. Hot. Aromatic. Emblematic. The fire of Empire.
Daddy releases the buttons on his jacket. Loosens his cravat. Slurps the Kingfisher. Rolls back his sleeves. Tucks on a napkin for a bib.
“My mates…” he says inconclusively.
“Yes?” she asks.
He doesn’t elaborate, just eats with abandon and relish.
Neither Noemi nor Toby can keep up, though they try, Noemi doing double time to feed herself and her charge across the table, landing great gobs of mutton and beef in his mouth. They’re gluttons and when nearing the end of the mammoth feast, Daddy Empire orders dessert.
“You do like lychees in syrup,” he asks.
He gobbles the slick slimy eyes at once, orders another before calling for the bill, suddenly in a rush.
“I’m not going to pay for this,” he says, steam rising behind his ears, “A second lychee dessert? It hardly qualifies.” He’s outraged in a mock boozy way.
“O, Daddy, must you?”
But he makes a scene, a voluminous, turbulent one, and the Rajastanis have only to look at Bull’s-eye, glowering, full but completely capable of the utmost violence despite his clownish good looks.
“Shall I call Momma?”
“Why not?” Daddy Empire’s drunk enough to face the harridan.
Noemi pops into the red box, a lovely silent haven, rain drizzling down the side. Bloated, she makes the call.
“It’s me,” she says.
“I’ve just talked to Equiano and he’s taking us to a club. Like to come?”
“Sure,” she replies inadvertently. She’s pleased Momma deigned to be seen with her after an evening on the town with Daddy.
“You’ve turned into an American, child,” she quips. That made her very cross. Sure. Yeah. Duh. O, the hideous language of the Americans, full of short cuts. “My dear, Wyatt’s gone to your head: you don’t want to be English anymore. But it doesn’t matter, Equiano will take your place. He loves England. It freed him, so he says.”
“I’d never surrender my nationality,” says Noemi, the invitation taking off in quite a different direction, disarming, as her mother steered straight for the rocks. She tries to rope the sloop back, her mouth full of chili and anise. “Where do we need to go?”
Momma Empire missed the “we” part, for she’s incredibly buzzed from Equiano’s pink kola nuts and a stimulant that he claims to be sweet cinnamon leaf. “Hang on,” she says, shouting to him, and then she delivers the address. “The password at the door is ‘obe’—the chief will let you in.”
It isn’t that far. They could walk. Sort of.
They turn up their collars and ignore their sore feet. Toby finds a koala-like place in the pouch of Daddy Empire’s jacket, free of rain and warm with greasy curry pong.
“Usually a friendly lot,” Daddy says, unintimidated by the groups of black men laughing and toasting on the street in the vicinity of their destination.
A row of scooters are parked outside. They have to dip below the street and are confronted with an iron door with a slot in it that smells sweet like shea and cocoa butter.
“Obe,” she says to a pair of red eyes striped with dreads.
They are hustled in, quickly rid of their coats and bid to enter the red, green and yellow themed club pulsing with music and bodies turning in the lights. Bull’s-eye leads the way at a trot, but Daddy calls him back, orders him to sit with Toby, who they place in the nest of their coats, and he obeys, realizing its not his duty to question order, resting his head in his white paws, but not before licking them dry.
The music sounds like jazz, but then it isn’t that either. Someone leans in to ask her, “Dig that Afro soul, babe,” and she’s even more puzzled.
“Afro soul?” Then what’s just plain soul?
It sounds very naughty and in no time Noemi finds herself swaying and grinding, letting her teeth work through her lips, the band on stage led by a very charismatic if not pixie-like black man, his shirt off, his face dotted and circled with white paint, playing saxophone, sometimes keyboard, with a line of women chanting call and response, and a steady clave, leaving a little time to pause between steps, and short sharp toots of the horns. It’s a kind of mesmerizing musical sorcery, so much so that she loses herself dancing with a black man, suavely dressed, and sees Daddy Empire doing the shuffle with his tie off and his belly rolling to the waist of a very pretty negress with an outrageous Afro, who she almost mistakes for a wicked nurse from the hospital where Toby had been born, before lo and behold, in the midst of this brilliant dancing dream, the sweat and elation, she saw Equiano, smiling outrageously, his chest heaving and his shirt open to the navel, and Momma, who Noemi had never seen dancing, shaking and grooving to the funk that did not stop or really alter, massaging her soul in funny syncopated beats and makes her feel that for once she’s back with her parents, not their pawn or child or blackmailer, but their adult daughter who has succeeded in making it really seem like they are together and not alone, dancing with their ancestors.
Music does unite and this strikes her as so odd and trite, but there it is, in her ears, tickling her bones, leading her akimbo, when she reaches out and touches the hips of her partner, a black man whose name she did not know, the first one with whom she had danced, since it has not been possible in the desert. How he touches her back, electrically, his hand drawing down her bodice, his leg inserting between hers, and taking her in the tight hug of a rumba, yet not a rumba at all, but something that could lift her from the poverty of her emotions and make her feel that everything’s pretty superb, even this miscegenation, if it’s that, associating between the races under the watch of Momma and Daddy.
They must have changed, too.
“Who’s that?” she asks the stranger with whom she dances. She’s early when she should be late, but he corrects that.
“Fela Kuti,” he says, in a deep sweet voice. “A special brew from Nigeria.”
Noemi feels very disoriented. Without even battling her prejudices, she’d already forgotten that he’s black. He seems such a nice chap. The disco ball limns the room with its mosaic and the dancing is just beginning.
She’s never been so tempted. She’d even do it here.
But she knows fully and with every sense of honor and consequence that there’s no other way than back to her own bed, surely tagging along with Daddy and Momma to the mad afterparty of cane schnapps, crab soup and fufu that mark on this morning a renewed sense of trust as London begins a vainglorious rainy day, full of import and subterfuge lacing its silent fogs. The Empires reach home certain that they have appeased many an angry messenger with their diplomacy, forgiveness and tight dancing, for none of them have brought any shame upon themselves, new friendships apparent in their chits of paper with the names and addresses of mechanics, suppliers, handymen, grocers and shops all wanting customers.
“What a night,” she says to Toby as she changes him and puts him to bed. “You’ve been lovely.”
Noemi tucks a pillow between her thighs, preparing a nest in the apple boughs of her idyllic, unsullied dreams.
She loves Wyatt, she thinks, actually feeling sorry—why he couldn’t be there to dance and why he’s not there to share with her—but the poor guy will never understand why she loves London so.
Flying from America to Europe is treacherous in the 1970s. Few know where Europe actually is, least of all in Salt Lake.
Her eyes sunken under her white cotton hat, her posture upright and tense, Noemi enunciates to herself the cities embroidered on the posters at the travel agency.
The feather-permed, piste-blonde representative gazes at the map of the world spread under the fluorescent lights of the agency. Tammy wonders if Honolulu, Chicago, or even Saigon is the solution to get there, but Tammy can’t connect the posters with actual places; can’t fathom if they’re cities or countries, edible or inedible; affirm if they aren’t addenda to America or something distinct from it like cookies or taffy.
Noemi explains to Tammy, who shifts in her chocolate leotards, surfs through her binders for flight codes with her glitter-coated nails.
Inordinately cute, Toby pulls down his cowboy hat, bangs on his metal sheriff’s star and then stabs his fingers over the Atlantic. He croaks. “Planes!”
Noemi cannot restrain her young son, so anxious to travel again.
That afternoon the Pleasure family visits a hot thirsty park. Few kids choose the heat of the day to play but Wyatt fills the park with his energy. The sole steep hill works great for wet or dry toboggan runs.
The boy and his father have scavenged a piece of cardboard on this summer day. The dry grass crackles underneath like thunder. They’re wedged together on the cardboard, their last chance to bond before Toby leaves for the summer.
Wyatt does it once.
Noemi stews in the car.
Wyatt fills his pipe and relaxes under the braided brim of his cowboy hat. Toby careens down the hill, small and indestructible, enjoying the falls and tumbles as much as riding a pony.
His ears are stuffed with gravel and grass and he doesn’t pay a lick of attention to the calls to return. He’s almost up the hill again. Waves of pain expand in his arms and everywhere else, but he has the gumption for another massive go.
The cardboard slides with frightening alacrity on the lawn. His hands slip under the torn cardboard and he plummets down the slick brown surface. A yank at any bump results in some air — cement harder than ice, grass softer than cement. ice faster than grass. Insect cities wait for his fall. The words knock out of the boy as he lands in a joyous heap of agony. He hasn’t got any edges and he’s made of hollow parts, like his parents.
Wyatt sucks on the stem of his pipe, wrinkles his brow at the ongoing rodeo and leans on the bonnet of the Nova. He wipes at the bugs desiccated on the windshield and nods in his son’s direction.
Noemi hails her boy from inside the white speck of the car. “Your father wants to go to the antique shop. Come along, petal.” She always says what he wants.
“Broken?” Toby asks his deceitful arm. He’s smiling a bit too.
“My fault he’s that way,” she says. She knows.
Wyatt pulls his driving gloves over his Seiko. His scarf swirls around his neck and it gently touches the Nova’s white exterior.
Dipping his head forlornly, Toby asks, “One more go?”
Wyatt stuffs him in the back seat. He whines about his arm as the V8 roars to life. The light and shadows move through the Nova’s compartment. It smells of green vinyl and black tobacco—revolting, sexual, mesmerizing.
“Move it, cowboy,” says Wyatt in his determined way, gripping at the green steering wheel, taking in Toby’s arm with his calm brown eyes.
“Yeah, um, sure, yeah, dad.”
“Then it’s not broken—that’s bone-setting.” The Nova slips into the bowl of Salt Lake City along the interlude of sun-bleached fences and yellow lawns.
“I wish your children will cause you as much grief as you cause us,” he remarks.
“Is it awful for you two?” Noemi whispers; her comment sneaks out the passenger window. No one answers that question.
Toby’s nostrils flare out to the crack of air. The steep face of the Wasach Range glints under the clear, radiant sun. The Rockies shimmer over the wide streets, a reminder that the nearby mountains are a blockade. The studs in the tires drub onward, turning, braking, and there is the low crackling white flow of football on the radio until the engine is silenced in a parking lot outside the antique mart, a Quonset hut, its corrugated ends buried in cement.
Inside, it’s the inevitable weekend quest. Wyatt combs for an inventory of potential objects: a beehive, a roll of copper wire, a chest, PVC, a corner cabinet, a plane, a spiral of solder, a saw, a cardboard box of screws or old paint. Some grease is smeared on his denim jacket. Wyatt pushes back his hat. He’s in ecstasy at the junk spread out on the tables and tarps—dioramas of cheap and real possibilities where everyone is hoping to turn something into something. His enthusiasm leads him deeper into the antique-mart. One vendor offers a collection of historic guns: a replica of the pistol used to kill Lincoln; a brace of pistols reputedly belonging to Buffalo Bill; and even one of the rifles that executed Garry Gilmore. That definitely attracts a crowd. Wyatt splurges on a bucket of antique cavalry bullets. He’d rather have too much than too little.
“Take them to the car,” Wyatt says.
Outside, Toby carries the heavy bucket of bullets, crawling like slugs. He wobbles in his boots. The sweat collects in his kerchief.
Alone in the car, he turns the keys, turns on the radio. Out come possibilities—talk, ads, sports, jingles, sermons, songs. A vapor trail tracks across the windshield. He aims at the miles of air separating him from earth, pumped into the chamber of his imaginary rifle.
The hot wind blows his Noemi across the parking lot outside the corrugated building.
“He’s found a cast-iron bed,” she reports. “From a fire station, from New Orleans.”
That clinches it: surely he will be drafted for days to scrub off the rust. His hands can get where his father’s cannot. Wyatt will buff the brass ornaments with the same care with which he polishes cutlery, lamps, chandeliers or shoes. It’s going to be Toby’s bed, every wrought inch of it.
The two grown men fight to get the pieces into the back of the broad Nova, now streaked with rust. The car fills with its earthy scent. Wyatt rolls a cigarette with one hand while he drives with the other, beaming about the assignment, but he’s forgotten: Toby will be leaving soon and dad will have to do it all because his son will just fuck it up anyway.
Like any juvenile vaquero, in the future Toby will come to ride the frame of the iron bed. It will twitch and buck, canter and gallop. The sun will shine between its haunches. Then, the ultimate greenhorn, he will somersault into the ironwork and smash up his face, his blood replacing the rust. It will drag him across the room and the rodeo clowns of his imagination will lure the bronco away. His lip will burst and pulse, and the blood will tell him that he is truly alive, both blue and red at once.
“Hair don’t grow on steel, boy,” Wyatt will say that afternoon, his overalls covered in grease and glue, sawdust and snot as he tootles in his shop, far away from his wife or son’s need for companionship, not really aware that anyone might need stitches or attention to stop the pain for a moment.
“Can you smile?” he asks. “If you can smile, you’re fine. Shucks, cowboy, you aren’t even missin’ a tooth.”
Toby sets the round table: silverware, china, salt, pepper, butter. He’s hungry.
Noemi’s silent, a pale ghost that neither speaks nor eats. Something’s wrong. Even the radio’s off. Anything might trigger a reaction in the kitchen.
The Nova is parked in the garage and Wyatt has filled his whisky glass. He changes into jeans and a snappy, rhinestone cowboy shirt smelling of gasoline. Eating peanuts, he rights wrongs about his workday, regresses to mention a new trip to the field.
Noemi isn’t paying attention to the fact that he will be gone again. At the counter she steams asparagus and mixes a sweet vinaigrette.
Even when home, he’s gone.
The asparagus is scrumptious, but the mealy cod in the kedgeree sets her off. Tears flush her eyes.
“Nothing’s ever right.” She moans into her hands.
The American desert is too much for an alien like her, overwhelmed in its magnitude and cruelty, the desert appreciative only of the respect and knowledge that will allow a cowboy to survive.
Wyatt shrugs his shoulders and deposits a bit of poorly thawed fish in his napkin. A branch is tapping at the window. Without water, the city’s nothing.
The implements clink together on the table, consorting. Today, no choice words about the burned blue cheese omelet, the trotter soup poisoned with mace, the runny blancmange rescued with grape sauce, laced with one of Noemi’s new gray hairs. It’s best to stay quiet.
After dinner Wyatt barricades himself below the thick beams of the house. On a nightly basis he engineers a new system of drip irrigation, re-plates candlesticks or adjusts the vice on some gluing-in-progress, always smoking the furnace of his pipe.
Upstairs, Noemi turns on the Trinitron, her answer to loneliness. The careful, moderated tone of Dick Cavett curls up with her on the cold leather sofa.
Toby creeps down. The basement smells like yeast from the jugs of failed ginger beer. Around Wyatt, turpentine, smoke, putty, dust.
A cabinet is tipped over on its back. Wyatt sits on a metal stool and picks through a pan of nails on the workbench scarred with holes; it’s cluttered with ideas in motion.
Toby needs his father’s help to fashion a papier-mâché bull’s head, Plasticine arrowheads, moccasins, alabaster jars — whatever the extracurricular assignment.
Wyatt screws, soaks and solders his way to heaven. The Jazz versus the Lakers snarls through the radio, just white noise to Wyatt’s methodical progress. Sparks fly from the interior of the drill. Sawdust gathers on the floor. A row of binders filled with endless sketches and plans neatly plotted on graph paper rests on a makeshift shelf. The cabinet reclines like a patient. Wyatt strips the doors with some flammable toxic mixture.
“Lot of work, doors,” he says. “Never underestimate doors.” The sanding block moves over the cuts and scrolls but it won’t get in the details.
“You try,” he suggests.
It snugly fits in Toby’s hand like a mouse.
“Not so hard, dummy. Don’t scratch the wood.”
Later that night, Wyatt impregnates the cabinet with quick-dry juice and uprights the thing. The wood is gaining a robust rose color.
Toby abandons the restoration with the best excuse, homework, even if Wyatt knows third-graders don’t have that much to do.
He lights a kerosene lamp, like Wyatt has taught him, and reads in sight of the television and Noemi marooned in the darkness.
Pipe smoke and hammering issue from the basement. The drill interferes with TV reception and Dick Cavett disappears from view at a crucial moment. A buffalo skull vacuously gazes from a wall. Underneath are display boxes of arrowheads, a duo of Colts and a sheriff’s star, the old objects that pacified the Rockies, the desert east and west. Noemi lets out a huff.
Often she escapes to a semi-funky part of Salt Lake when the remoteness becomes too daunting, and she brings her son along for robinish company. The apostle-like peaks burnish the white bonnet of the car. They do not let in strangers. Toby is definitely not missing any social opportunities accompanying her, segregated as they are by the untouchable religious condition of being gentiles, non-Mormons.
The Nova floats over the high intersections cruising down to Salt Lake’s sole funky block, the bookshop Toby’s favorite stop. The entrance smells of print and paper. A secular selection, a few strategically placed armchairs and unlimited browsing is the creed. Toby morbidly leaves through some photography titles. Pictures of sex or death are what he’s after, but he abandons the project, worried Noemi will catch him, worried what he will dream later. Then he scouts the westerns for something for Wyatt, skipping through the stacks, wondering who tells the best lies about the legend of the West—Lamour or Gray? Undecided, he breezes down the broad stairs to the basement for the comics.
He collides with Noemi and she’s recovered two unexpected volumes of Gourmand in French. “I’ll add them to my library,” she says, knowing full well how dear knowledge is out here on the sandy prairie wiped clean of words by the wind.
Today it’s not to be. No comics. No westerns or science fiction. Just French cookbooks from the cellar.
They retire for jelly doughnuts afterwards.
Noemi sips at the weak coffee and calls her son, “Pet,” to which Toby cheerily responds, voice muffled in jam and fried dough, unaware that he is indeed his mother’s pet in what she considers a hostile environment, and as for his abhorrent insistence on dressing like a gunslinger, she’s mute in the face of Wyatt’s neat approval of the act so long as he’s “pet,” a friendly round face.
Her sanctuary isn’t Utah but England. The degrees of separation between the meeting of reality and the ideal are insurmountable. She’s stranded far across the Atlantic, across the Continental Divide, where the isolation of being distracts her from happiness, flowing west instead of back home to the east.
Few people join their raft cum home. But some weekends Part joins them for afternoon barbecue. But not too often due to a proclivity for rowdiness, which fills everyone with dread and excitement.
In a town of frowns, Part is a true spark. Noemi adores him because he’s “a bit of a rogue and boozer, but we do like those kind of types if they’re kind and a good laugh,” and he fits into her English sense of conviviality.
To Toby, he’s a living saloon, everything he’d imagine to be—cardsharp, rogue, killer.
Part arrives later than expected with two bottles of tequila and the dayglo mixer from the state liquor store. But his Thunderbird is dinged.
He growls. “Skunk cops try me for drunk drivin’ but the seals weren’t broken on them two bottles. Made me drive home to the Nerve Center to get my damn license before I come over.”
It has ended before it has started when Part retires to the garden to smoke a cigarillo in his underpants, silk-screened with Roy Rogers, and Nubuck cowboy boots. His legs are blue, thin. He throws chicken and lamb leftovers into the street. The accident has made Part nervous. To compensate he’s now ornery and drunk. His umpteenth margarita is in a crystal glass; it squirts green prisms over the lawn.
“Mo’ bordellos in Salt Lake than Reno!” Part hoots. The neighbor’s vizsla joins in next door, howling from behind the chain link fence.
Some time he departs and weaves the damaged car to the Nerve Center, his roost an old peeling pine house. From there he plots missions to the Gold Coast of Australia and the Mexican Pacific. He’s already convinced Toby they are both fine places, standing half naked in the yard, tossing bones in the air.
As a way of apologizing, Part invites the Wyatt and the boy to the YMCA.
The boy shakes with anxiety about the locker room, but that eases with Part’s easygoing manner with the many Mormon members.
Part religiously punches the bag and his wiry body sweats in the sauna. He smuggles in a fifth from time to time, but Part and Wyatt are dry today.
“Know a Jack Mormon, little cowboy?” Part speaks as if he is filing his own tongue.
“That’s a Mormon that don’t obey the rules, the Book of Mormon and the hierarchy of New Jerusalem. He’s into drinking, adultering, and having a good time, into stimulating himself. In other words, a good friend.”
Toby is too naïve to really understand what he’s talking about.
“Lay off, Part,” Wyatt says. He doesn’t want to be reminded about the bachelor life, an occupation for which Part is an expert.
Later that evening, after relaying the whole episode, Noemi discloses that Part’s two kids are a stock car mechanic and a stripper. She’s sure that explains everything, including the invitation to ski at Alta at the weekend.
Part’s fridge is a zone of penicillin-coated lemons, smelly hotdogs, soft pickles and stale bread. Crumbs bob in his handlebar mustache. The Nerve Center is tacked up with geology maps, a rack of minerals and cores. The sheet rock is knocked out of the walls and wiring and wood is exposed. Wyatt and Part share smokes and bourbon.
“That Prince Albert tobacco and them Dutch Master cigars stuffed in your pocket are classy, man,” Part says. His eyes twinkle with Scotch, indicating the stash in Wyatt’s pocket.
The nylon ski bibs shish and shush as they reach for the ashtrays and glasses on the Formica table. It doesn’t take much for Part to start slurring.
They bundle up for the ride up to Alta, wedge the skis in Part’s T-bird and scrape off the ice. Ash, bottles, greasy papers and a spare are just some of the contents. In the last moment Wyatt transfers over the survival kit—a kettle, a box of tea, packets of soup, Saltines and candles. Part guns the muffler-less T-bird and the car soon veers into the valleys above Salt Lake.
Part lashes on the obligatory snow chains if the car is to navigate any further. The snow falls in big, thick flakes, but the T-bird presses up Little Cottonwood Canyon. The two men are sustained with doughnuts and a thermos. Toby lives on Starbursts. Snowplows move along the road, scraping and salting the meat. A broad frozen lake leers like a big green eye. People are ice-skating on the lake, the spruces wearing snow mascara.
The car throbs up to the Wasach Range. The trash quakes on the wet floor. Toby is nauseous, but he brightens at the sight of the slopes, alluring, peaceful, crackling with carving skiers.
He stretches for his felt cowboy hat, ropes it under his chin, pins his sheriff’s star to his bib and takes his skis now that they have stopped at Alta: a no-frills hut occupied by a cafeteria and ski school, a kiosk for lift tickets, no more.
They snap into their bindings and slither into line with a few skiers. The chairs worm around. A worn wood paddle soon scoops them into the sky. The two men smoke, gloveless, huddle in green army jackets on the planks. The chair rocks through the threshold of clouds. They lift up the tips of their skis, dip off and promptly join another lift. The mountains rise above the mud of clouds: carcasses, joints, cartilage and skulls push against the sky. Wind walks through the pines, kicking snow from the branches.
Knit together, they shuttle upward, the sun simultaneously hot and cold, until deposited very near the summit.
The first run is when nerves and skill may or may not meet.
Wyatt turns into a bowl and shelves of powder. Part slaloms after him, bashing down a bit, pausing for a swipe of booze from a flask, bashing down a bit more.
“Faster you go, the better!” Part yells at the adolescent body recklessly cannoning down the run.
Wyatt moves with an agile, free manner, plumes of exhaust piping from his mouth, until he suddenly disappears from the piste, after something.
Toby stops in a fan of snow.
Shortly, the branches burst open. An animal thrashes in Wyatt’s hand, hissing, squirming.
“Pickin’ up the sucker’s the secret,” he says.
The porcupine writhes, coils, and Toby fears the defense, thankfully insufficient, the tail in Wyatt’s hand. A few brown and ivory quills dart into the snow, some toboggan down the slope. Three of the clever barbed straws have caught in his ski bib. They’re like submarines or planes, sleek and perfect.
“You try, cowboy.” He nods.
Toby can’t refuse, not with Part around. He eases his hand onto the glassy tail. The rods of skin crinkle under his skin.
“Now I’ll take my hand off and you hold him up.”
The weight is incredible. Toby needs two hands and the porcupine dashes his head on the snow, scratches his feet to escape, thrashing and turning to bite with his ugly yellow teeth. It’s as big as he is.
“Drop him, kid. He’s not gonna trouble us no more.”
The porcupine backs away and skitters into the trees.
“With my gun I’d shoot the fellow.” Wyatt spits. “Pests.”
“I’d sure shoot a hell of a lot more than goddamn porcupines,” Part utters, wiping at the ice, snot and liquor drops on his mustache.
“Secret’s sneaking up.” Toby’s voice is cheery at the thought of stealth, a new kind of lying, a new way of finding Tonto in the front yard underneath the shrubbery.
“Yep, like at Alta. My modus operandi.” Part breathes satisfactorily, charmed by the empty slopes and the day of great skiing ahead. “I’d recommend it to anyone.”
The jumbo starts its bumpy descent. The wing punctures the haze. Below is a gray-green isle. Not Iceland. Nor Greenland. Nor the Faeroes. It’s England. The ocean smashes at its inhospitable spiny edges. Fields and farms tile the island’s rural mosaic. Smokers stub out in the smoking section once the orange light comes on. Knots of towns appear, tied to the island’s surface. Passengers snap together their seatbelts and swallow at the unlikely possibility no one wants to consider plausible. Rows of squat, stubby houses glare at one another like owls.
Noemi readies a bag for her pale son, drugged with Dramamine but nonetheless more than capable of returning the in-flight meals. The Thames’ black coils are below. Arrival is approaching and the interval is peaceful, expectant tension.
The slug of metal, people, baggage and little remaining kerosene agitates together when the land catches it. The rivets shake in their sockets like too many loose bones until the force of landing subsumes into a gentle hum. Already everyone is disobeying and rifling for hand luggage. Many emit an odor of relief, gathering for the long walk from the gate.
Toby assembles the complimentary crayons, exercise book and cards. Noemi has yet to give the signal that he too may retrieve his pill-like red TWA plastic handbag, plastic cowboy hat, plastic gun.
The sick bag is poised for action, even when he walks down the aisle littered with cups, magazines, blankets and headphones, past those mysterious, empty first-class seats.
His feet touch the spongy surface of the concourse.
People move with purpose, focused on arrival or transfer. Toby pushes his feet into the blue carpet that lines the terminal, his feet joining the queue of legs poised for the first hurdle. He can smell crisps and sweets oozing through the barrier.
The immigration officer asks with a register of amusement in his voice, “Who are you, kid?”
Toby stammers, forgetting all about himself. “She’s my mom…”
He gulps. “Mum!”
“Clever little bugger, aren’t you,” he purrs. “Where you hailing from, madam?”
She’s tense enough without the harassment, since no one is here to meet her. It’s up to her to get home and almost too much of a punishment to admit, “Salt Lake.”
Film clings inside the airport.
Grime from Rwanda. Skin from Belgium. Sand from Iran. Mud from Queensland. Soot from Yugoslavia. Hair from Argentina. Dust from Utah. Vinegar from England. A mop swims after it, around the swollen feet of the passengers who expect their luggage on the reef-like carousels at any moment. Eventually two brown Samsonites tip from the black tongue. Noemi wrestles the pair of suitcases off the moving reef and onto a trolley. A front wheel swims uncontrollably through nothing-to-declare. Noemi doesn’t announce the comestibles among the inventory of summer gear—the steaks perhaps leaking into the Russell Stouffer chocolates, the apricot jam oozing in the pancake mix.
The intense smell of arrivals, boiled sweets and jet fuel knocks a hole in Toby’s stomach.
The TWA stroganoff is unexpectedly ejected in a slick before the tourist information desk.
“Oh dear,” Noemi announces. She gives him a hanky and he cleans up the corners of his mouth, slightly mortified about his accomplishment, as the clerk peers over her counter. Noemi shuttles him to the women’s toilet. Toby quaffs some water from the tap and rallies for the task ahead, when he will assist in wrestling the two brown cases onto the underground — musty, familiar, greasy—no easy task considering his pockets are stuffed with sweets and crisps, the payoff for good behavior.
Toby’s brown saucers hardly register the people—airport personnel, pallid commuters and marginal types; he’s too engrossed with the crisps, jelly tots and New Scientist to notice.
Mangy lanes are splashed with gray. Graffiti tags walls, trains and underpasses. A clump of factories steam vaguely. Pools of sewage reflect the sky in black mirrors. Nettles cover a logistics yard. A van’s crispy black shell. Shopping baskets.
Dogs snap at trains, dogs pull at chains.
No wonder we live in Salt Lake, thinks Noemi.
Sugar and oil smear most of New Scientist. The supply of crisps is dwindling.
The pigeons and shadows of Paddington move in a symphony of greeting. Noemi’s legs bunch up against the long banks of windows. The rail staff is uncooperative; she doesn’t really expect anyone to help her. The advice of a traveler is the solution (Oxford, Gloucester, Hereford) and she requests her trains, grateful to use money she understands, embellished by Queenie.
Letters and numbers rattle down the big black board. Toby anchors the Samsonites by the phones. Noemi’s excited channel blends with the muffled hubbub of announcements, feet and raindrops obscured by the oblivious rush of adults.
“Dear John! Goodness gracious, malaria? In London? I don’t quite see. You’ve been sacked? Listen — I’m going to the country now. Call me at mummy’s.”
The phone is there to reassure her that she is not a stranger in her own country, but that is the case: she is the one who must travel to her friends since she has already come this far.
Toby wants to tell her that friends are just like that but she fusses more coins in the slot. “Anne? Yes, Anne? Yes, I’d like to, but, well, yes, when I come up then, yes let’s do lunch, if you want to, if it’s all right.”
The last call’s to Momma Empire.
Noemi quavers; her lips tighten when she hazards, “Mummy? It’s me… Yes, by eight at Hereford. It’s not too much trouble?”
A locomotive roars under the crown of glass and iron. A startled prawn sandwich tumbles out of someone’s pocket.
The passage reeks of booze and cigarettes. The blue-green compartment too. Toby’s supplies are arranged next to the window. He smacks at the third tube of fruit gums.
Concertina wire and giant cameras are coupled to ringing alarms and flashing yellow sirens. Signal lights glow down the rails. Robot cranes move sea containers, endlessly shifting and sorting the coffins. Access roads do not access. Road construction sites are abandoned and empty, the space where nothing happens, the edge where the trains are next week.
Toby has stripped some Polo mints by the time the glumness ends. The chalky sweets are the taste of home, a foreign home like crisps or fruit gums mediated by Noemi’s great temper. Toby isn’t surprised to discover such a taste packaged in either a tube of paper or a plastic bag. He likes eating, even things that taste bad.
Noemi, edgy, rehearses Toby on his manners—Ps and Qs—between mouthfuls. Toby will have to wait to brief himself on advances in chemical warfare in New Scientist. She naturally scolds him when he picks his teeth (or nose or navel) too blatantly in the process of her many comments on the placement of courtesies.
“Just remember, please and thank you. And don’t you be a glutton, young man.”
Somewhere on a muddy platform Toby refills with chunks of pork pie, more crisps, a Mars bar and a bottle of Lucozade. He’s permitted to eat anything and everything once he’s across the Atlantic.
In the overcast light Noemi almost looks beautiful, but anxiousness is written in the web of her mouth, a bitter internal, incongruous vertigo, an oblique symptom of her unhappiness away from the windy isle that she claims is home.
The old diesel train moles through tunnels and sidles hedges, noses the Trifid-like moss off the track. Toby nods at the magpies and they return the salutation. Some time he childishly pushes his head in Noemi’s rigid lap; he sleeps to the lull of the train and the burr of the folk in the adjoining compartment.
Something wet and hot is slobbering on Toby’s hand.
A barbed voice recruits someone to drag the baggage off the train.
Someone rattles her silver and brass bangles.
Momma pokes Toby with her stubby fingers, kicks at him with her curly Turkish slippers. Her determined companion, Poppy, is sniffing at his face, licking his hand.
“Lazybones!” She hisses.
He rubs his dopey eyes with a doggy paw, stretches for a Polo mint lost between the upholstery and wrappers.
The hem of her caftan rises in wine stripes over her belly obscured in a magenta cummerbund until the stripes resume and gather around her wrinkled neck knotted with three vibrant scarves. Elliptical sunglasses swab her eyes, gold hoop earrings describe her lobes, and as Toby takes in her grand appearance, her cold fingers clench around his wrist and lead him out of the carriage, his hat dangling from his neck.
Momma Empire barges down the corridor to the platform, shoveling aside spare air for Poppy and Toby under the blue and white ironwork of the station.
“Well, a kiss, buckaroo,” she demands when Toby is standing on the platform and the last carriage staggers down the steel line. Toby tiptoes to her hairy red vaguely tacky cheek.
It’s a bit smoky.
“My name is Empire—not Granny—don’t forget it, lad.” She turns her face for another of his timid kisses. Poppy jealously yanks on the lead. Toby cannot avoid the waxy taste of her makeup and whiskers.
Since the rush, Noemi has re-gathered and is attempting to comb Toby’s hair and tuck in his shirt.
Momma Empire interrupts. “Hang on, let’s have a look at you—the two of you. Backs straight… I was wondering if you’d ever come.”
“We did try, mother,” she says a bit too strenuously.
Momma Empire pushes her sunglasses up into her bun of gray hair and pauses to take Toby in with a steely gaze. “Hah, he’s fat! And smaller than you! Right, in the car, you lot.”
Her smart aqua Triumph hardly takes the luggage.
Prior to ducking in the car Noemi gets a kiss and a hug from Momma Empire, what she has been waiting for. The unexpected slap on the cheek, what she needs in her masochistic way, will come later. Momma Empire revs up the engine, lights up a blue Woodbine and the car accelerates through a tunnel of oaks; more nausea wells in Toby’s being.
“So how’s life in America?” she inquires, her low voice filling a gap in constant movement of gears on the country lane. “The Yanks are barbarians, aren’t they?”
“Here the television and sweets and chips—crisps—are better,” he hazards, nodding at Noemi for some assistance, silent and who will not dare confirm for Momma Empire that America is everything a colony can be expected to be.
Momma Empire supplies her own ideas about the answer. “Bah, an immature lot, I’d say. Dodgy, religious, nostalgic, insensible. Go on, lad, say it—you don’t really like it, do you?” Two nostrils of smoke punctuate each breath. She’s a dragon, if not chaos itself, a chaos that is on appearance wild and fearsome and more likely to be reassuring and kind if given time. Noemi, however, mawkish and pale, is perhaps about to vomit herself.
“Blast!” Momma Empire curses as the curled toes of her Ottoman slippers catch on the clutch and the Triumph lurches.
“Wouldn’t you like some other shoes for driving?” Noemi asks.
Momma Empire’s replies with a huff.
The Triumph zips under the canopy of trees. Noemi answers Momma Empire’s questions until Momma Empire tires of the good report, surely all lies, and must provoke a little rancor as the car beams towards a line of low black mountains.
“Life’s in the East, not in the West, dear.” Momma Empire aims her remark at Noemi, but it is also for Toby. “But the West’s winning, you know, so maybe it’s not worth the trouble. It was our world, the East. And still is. Just that we’re not welcome anymore.”
“It’s my fault,” Noemi says, resorting to her best line. “All my fault.”
Silence cloaks the road like acid and the car hums. Toby happily leers from the window at the coming darkness and wishes the movement would not end today after so many mechanical horses.
Momma Empire lodges the Triumph in front of a trough filled with algae and insects dancing under the light. Mist congregates in the valley where they have arrived and licks the blue bridge over the charcoal Wye. A tractor passes, squeezed among the furrows of the town’s houses. Hay’s clock tower chimes not far away, it bells echoing like hounds baying around its square stone base.
Pushing the cases over the slick slate paving stones up into Momma Empire’s narrow house is Toby’s concern. Noemi lugs them up the creaking stairs to the top floor, but not before disgorging the comestibles — steak, jam, honey, pancake mix.
Momma Empire’s hairy knuckles knead pastry on the marble countertop; she stows it in the pantry to rest. In the interval she pours a sherry as Noemi hunkers down to shell peas along the broad table decorated with two pewter vases overflowing with roses.
A collection of African masks scowl on the wall. Ivory carvings form a miniature Serengeti on a shelf, too far from the bars of the electric fire to return to life. Candles burn in the windows and a door blows shut somewhere in the house. Everyone in the family collects artifacts and Toby wonders if he’ll ever gather something he can’t eat.
“Is there someone knocking?” asks Noemi, her eyes haggard with the realization that the journey is over.
“It’s just the draft,” Momma Empire says. Cigarette ash falls into the steak and kidneys she cubes with a butcher knife. “Beware of the draft.”
When the kidneys hit the sauté pan they emit a strange uric odor but the steak soon rebalances the bouquet of the kitchen with the sweet aroma of muscle slowly conjoining into stew. She tips the filling into a Pyrex dish, covers it with the blanket of pastry. Noemi readies the peas with mint.
Momma Empire launches into a diatribe about the important work done by Afghan Relief before turning around like a top to find no one listening. That sets her off, and though Noemi doesn’t want any criticism to spoil her homecoming, Momma Empire isn’t afraid to push.
“You keep people away because you’re afraid people will hurt you. You’re even distant with me, your mother. You’re like a diplomatic stranger who never discloses her position.”
Noemi withdraws into sheepish niceties as Momma Empire aspirates her remarks with her Woodbines.
“You hurt people because you think you’ll avoid being hurt first.”
Their salvation will be when the pie comes out of the oven.
Momma Empire has yet to christen Toby with her hard verbal water. She rightly suspects he’s a liar—he knows lies are there to facilitate a day-to-day order that avoids asking any bigger questions. Lies are details.
Who drinks the vinegar? Who farts in the car? Who wets the bed? Who snips the heads off flowers? Who eats the bees and bugs? Who sets leaves on fire? Whose fingers fall in the light sockets? Who swims in the canal? Who returns with scabs and gravel? Who consumed the last piece of Stilton? Who leaves home, for Momma Empire, the next day because life is difficult and lonely in America? Who’s dependent? Who’s lying?
It’s Toby and feels wonderful. He cannot fix lies like bones and set them in plaster. Deceit is consonant to his own kind of unreliable strategies for getting along. Toby reasons why tell the truth when he can lie his way around the present? It’s an invaluable lesson on what can or cannot be the truth, on what Toby can forget or remember.
Momma Empire knows Toby for who he is under his thick skin and she will pounce on him when deceit has swallowed his tail.
A mobile circulates above his bed. He collapses instantly, but there is so much momentum in his body that it seems to ascend, bank and pull away from the cold covers like a buffalo charging across the sky.
That night tucked in bed he watches fish prowl on the ceiling, eating stars. The stairs groan and the wind whistles through the house. The draft? Can it be the leopard skin somehow revitalized by the menacing black wind that coils over the walls of the garden? Or are Toby’s lies and dreams pacing and consorting on the landing?
The amalgam of sherry, strawberries and cream flavors in his mouth comforts him hidden under the rustling covers. If they can neither touch nor see him, then he is safe, safe with Momma Empire, who tacitly includes him as friend—too little flesh, too many bones.
Poppy waddles in the night, her paws scratching the splintery wood floors, anxious, barred from Momma Empire’s sulfurous bedroom of sense, like everyone.
Toby’s red legs poke out of a pair of scratchy wool shorts and plunge into two brown cowboy boots. His cap pistol is strapped to his thigh and his hat is planted on his blond head. His rucksack holds a day’s ration of tea and sandwiches assembled that frosty summer morning and placed among the components of a kite.
Momma Empire and Noemi are panting behind their young scout. Poppy’s grounded at home for bad behavior, pouting.
Hedges, gates and walls conspire in a continuous maze. Cows and sheep are clustered together like letters. The colors intensify into a deep black hue in the succession of hills textured with bracken, woods, lakes and rock. Clouds box in the ring of sky.
Toadstools dot the earth. Momma Empire reports that hippies eat them to go purposefully mad. Toby smashes at some with his boots but Momma Empire puts a stop to it when she finds an oval of boletus in the turf at the roots of an oak. Everyone relaxes by the edible gnomes.
“Oh my!” She puffs and swallows the sticky mouthful of saliva from the climb. “Oh my goodness gracious, it’s so remote.”
Momma Empire sucks on a Woodbine and knots her beat-up Aquascutum jacket around her waist; she cuts the jolly fellows out of the peat-like soil with an ivory penknife and secures them in a net bag.
Down the valley a dog is bolting after sheep, dashing from one terraced field to another after the running white dots. Smoke turns from a circle of caravans. The ritzy little town of Hay is directly underneath buzzing like an apiary.
Beagles and liveried huntsmen gather around the clock tower, children chalk the flagstones outside the library, a lanky woman strolls her three greyhounds, someone stands on the ivy ruins of a castle; a pair of binoculars glints like dragonfly eyes judging the potential for rain and bluster above the prone figure of the hills and its lover, Hay’s bluff.
The cool grass refreshes Toby’s legs. He sucks a few blades, and the grass adds to the debris of too many humbugs in his teeth. Sugar and more sugar. His fingers wheedle with a paper bag of lemon sherbets in his pocket.
“Give me one of those scarabs, greedy,” says Momma Empire.
Noemi reinforces the message. “Do offer, boy. You mustn’t be so selfish.”
The clouds are malignantly curdling together despite the sunny disposition of the day. Hail salts the air. Wind blows from the black hills and darts the rain into the pastures. Ferns whirl and dust the party with spores.
Momma Empire rambles on well ahead, testing her company. Toby lags and dallies, listens intently to the rain on his hat, fires his cap gun at the crows at his stomach stirs, really relishing a filet of steaming, flaky halibut instead of this long walk. A sherbet travels over his tongue and dissolves like a fizzy chip of fish.
Waist-high in the sizzling ferns a pair of field mice fall victim to Momma Empire’s eager eye. Their tails are looped through her fingers and they’re scrabbling up her wrist. She craftily smashes their dun heads on a stone and puts them in her pocket in a bit of newspaper. Soon she halts and puts the mice on a cairn. Falcons hover in the distance. She bids Toby to observe as the birds screech from the steel sky. Noemi’s horrified as the falcons glide away with the two tiny carcasses.
Rounds of marmite and lettuce sandwiches are divided on the high common. Noemi has already helped Toby assemble the red Mylar kite. Wind keeps the line taunt as he pays out the filament, wind runs through his jumper and hands into his blood. The kite darts in the sky and Toby joins the clouds fighting in the sky and scratching at the brow of hill.
They gain a macadam road. Dusk’s coming. The last beams of sunlight dapple the lane. The verge of town glimmers with lilac streetlights. The cottages emit odors of vinegar, bacon, cauliflower.
Momma Empire guides them to the Crown for some liquids. She orders whisky toddies in the cigarette-colored public room. A heavy man in a rumbled suit slouches into a glass of port. He chuffs about his navy Rolls-Royce. His remarks cross with those about the success of the new gardener or the excellent picnic hamper at St. Cloud or the strange, clairvoyant weather. Noemi eyes the menu and she too is thinking of scones or sponge, a morsel to perk her up. She argues for the door and Toby trundles after her, leaving Momma Empire to her intrigues and the boisterous publican who breaches another cask of ale to cries of “Aye, aye!”
That night the phone trills. Noemi answers between mouthfuls of marmalade and toast.
The hall is sharp with her lonely quivering voice.
“John? Yes, John, yes, do come. The air is quite salubrious — too salubrious. There is an extra room. Yes, do come, when your fever’s over. But do bring a mosquito net and quinine. It’s Wales.”
Two round jigsaw puzzles occupy the table in front of the divan in the salon. One incomplete circle is the Birds of Britain; the other is Mammals of Britain. Each evening they snap together the two areas — limbs of snipe or wren, otter or stoat — fingering the odd pieces mixed together in one big slippery pile.
Suspended from the drawn curtains is a chromed glass globe. The radii and much of the fauna are missing.
“Wards off the evil eye,” Momma Empire says.
The polished surface records the solution to the mosaic of feather and fur. One of Momma Empire’s trophies from Africa, a leopard skin, winks at Toby, reminding him of his spooky nights.
Noemi brings elderflower cordial and a tray of glasses. She decants the tart musty liqueur.
Their faces are hard with the lines of alienation and mutual anger; it’s almost appealing. They do not say anything of tacit betrayal, but that is the mood as the conversation settles. It’s only when mother and daughter begin to idle on the topic of money that they enjoy talking.
Like a prisoner, Toby fits together the two puzzles that move the evenings of so many incomplete, unsaid words.
Toby stalls on the bridge, its blue paint peeling, the polished Wye below. Among the islets and long ribbons of river weed, extra degrees of speckled shadow, salmon and trout.
Momma Empire’s bulldozers down the path, Toby orbiting around her, Noemi warily keeps to the path fringed with brambles and nettles. Wild strawberries are nestled somewhere in the grass.
“You two walk,” Noemi says. “I’m going back to the house,” She’s calculated for this opportunity to rest.
Momma Empire shrugs, a Woodbine in her toad-like mouth, and turns into the foliage. She teeters along the bank of the river.
“Stay put,” she says.
A shape is breathing in the water.
Momma Empire dips into the Wye, incrementally lowering in her forearm, then waits.
With one lightening move she tickles a trout.
She booms in glee, dances on the bank for a beat and strikes the head against a stone like a match.
Soon her wicker bag sags with a few bloody brown fellows, not the minnows often squirming in Toby’s net. Momma’s cruel and malevolent, always picking at nature so she can have a fry up.
Noemi has arranged her hair, waxed her legs after the morning’s sunning session, her cleavage bowed to the rays in a grotto in the back garden.
Toby, impatient with the slow hot progress in the kitchen, catches butterflies on the buddleia and moths on Momma Empire’s fragrant tobacco plants. Excruciatingly bored, he pushes a shuttlecock in a match with gravity before turning into the cool house to spot the expected guest from the bay windows.
That afternoon the kitchen table is the consequence of Momma Empire’s bittern-like effort. She descales and deguts, leaving the heads and fins, setting them aside in a rub of salt and white pepper. Noemi’s Elizabeth Arden perfume competes with the rooty scents of boiled cabbage and broad beans she’s been put in charge of, until she nods and Momma Empire poaches the squad of fish, the resplendent white-eyed trout placed on a bed of prawns, joined by a quasi-bouillabaisse as a rhubarb crumble slumbers in the oven.
Toby dashes from garden to house and back again, a puppy excited by the prospect of a visitor.
His suit bulges with bottles, pulling at his slacks and pulling his jacket. A twist of gold suspends his spectacles over his paunch. His tie is folded into his shirt.
Toby alerts Noemi from his post at the window and she jumps from the front door onto the flagstones calling after John Gallows before he vanishes into the pub.
“John, Sorry! John!”
His porkpie hat clop-clops across his heart when he turns to Noemi’s summons. “Have I got the right town? It is you?” he asks, holding Noemi’s shoulders.
He hugs her when she sweetly declares, “How lovely to see you!”
“Of course.” She exhales.
“Stand back, let me see you,” he says, pushing her away from his belly and squinting. She helps him up the three treacherous steps to the door and he puts an arm over her shoulder.
John strides into the kitchen and salutes Toby, two crowns and a set of stamps in his free hand.
“Two’s always better than one!” He kisses them. His breath smells like ink.
“Thank him.” Momma Empire needles.
“Thank you, John Gallows,” Toby repeats. His eager fingers rub the shapes of the silver jubilee coins and the pedigree bullocks.
Gallows stoops for a kiss. His cheek is smooth, sallow.
“John Gallows says John Gallows! So welcome! Now, turn your attention to the champagne!” Gallows unwraps and unwires the bottle. The cork ricochets into the fruit bowl. A cool aromatic cloud appears in the room.
Noemi runs for glasses and cheerily declares, “To dear friends.” She dusts the flutes slowly. “To old times together and apart.”
No one answers until he shakes out the champagne. Gallows’ jowls sink into his face, wanly floating on his shoulders sprinkled with hair.
“The country is where I’ll be and the country is where I’ll stay!” he exclaims.
The flutes clash together.
“Don’t patronize us, John. It’s remote, not the city.” Noemi glares from under her set hair. The champagne is swiftly disappearing into Noemi’s glass and she appears to be getting smaller as her ire rises. “Bloody Wales.”
“No one said it isn’t.” Momma Empire bends from the cooker.
“What are you doing then?” Gallows hackles are up.
“When I got divorced they said that.” Momma Empire cleans her station.
“For Christ’s sake, mummy, everyone knew about the divorce. I knew. They knew.” Noemi sniffs, self-pity. “Even the sheep.”
“Then why’d you come, dear?”
“You’re wrong, John. Yes, wrong. We’re not that smart. But you and I both like being strangers. We’ll never admit it, of course. Maybe Mummy likes it that way too.” Noemi swallows her champagne.
The cuckoo clock breaks the downward spiral, allows time for trivial remarks to redress the conversation.
Gallows poses on the edge of a Chippendale chair with his hands on his knees. He fidgets in his pockets — a nip of Armagnac to warm the belly, a last Benson and Hedges between his prong-like fingers.
Momma Empire defuses the bile, cheering, “That’s the way!” She rhinos in the kitchen for the meal. In concert with John a fag dangles from her mouth.
“You could also light the fish,” Toby says.
“Wonderful, dear.” Noemi twists his ear.
“You do get in the way,” Momma Empire hisses. She dodges around Toby with the last piping dish.
Gallows busies himself with uncorking a black burgundy; he splashes some on the tablecloth, and Noemi tut-tuts as the bottle tours the wide table set with silver and Wedgwood. Finger bowls and bone plates arm each place. Wine and water glasses rest on their coasters. The candlesticks are primed. The fruit bowl has been rejuvenated. Cheese is warming on the sideboard. Toby is high with anticipation of eating. John nudges him and whispers, “Remember, lad, you’re to hold a woman and a bottle by the waist. Not the neck.”
Toby is drooling when Momma Empire divvies it up.
“Mine’s like a penis,” Toby says.
“A very tasty willy it is,” replies Gallows.
The women hiss.
“Very amusing, lad.”
Various comments and moans follow.
Gallows wafts his hand, masticates, pauses. “What are the parameters of modern life, aside from this jolly trout?”
“I’d say money,” ventures Noemi, dissecting a bean. “Money and England. That’s bloody important.”
Momma Empire coughs. “Fags. Can’t live without fags, not me.”
Toby gambles. “Chips? Crisps?”
“You don’t know a thing, do you?”
“The boy’s not a connoisseur. Work on that.”
“Don’t be too clever, boy, whatever John says.” Momma Empire kicks him under the table.
“The four parameters are the workday. The office. The computer. The boss.” Gallows wiggles in the leather. “We don’t imagine it this way when we come. But come we do. We imagine our talent will be put to use.” His trout cools on his plate.
“That’s obtuse. Who gives a damn anyway?”
Gallows stammers on about deadlines and interviews, the price of paper and labor, reviews and revenue and circulation. He dismisses them all with a discursive hand. Their mouths molt to a digressive Rhone red until Toby has collected together what he wants to say.
“This world is like a program we would never watch, or a book we would never read, or a newspaper we would never buy, a world where we will never be comfortable. You are always alone.”
“Very grown up!” Momma Empire’s surprised that anyone related to her could be wise.
“My children can’t think like that.” John shrugs. “Eat less fish, boy, it makes you too smart.”
“Mummy!” exclaims Noemi.
“I say bollocks!”
“You’ve a lovely life ahead of you, child. Your mother could never in a million years come up with!”
“You’re always — ” Noemi stamps her foot.
John clops his hat on the table and he summons everyone. “Have courage. Saying no gets you somewhere. Say no.”
Momma Empire feels she must reply to the tabloid man. “It’s a funny old world. I don’t like it. It’s alien to us. There’s no reconciling it. You can’t adapt. The younger, fitter, smarter replace you. You fall to the wayside —”
“I don’t know anything about it,” interrupts Noemi, “I’m not an artist.”
Gallows quivers on the edge of his seat. “You’re either in or you’re out. Most of us are out — the nature of newcomers. Work at the sub-editor’s desk, not high enough to get the flack, but neither low enough to be a hack.”
He says this with grim flourish, wiping his mouth and dashing his napkin onto his plate. His wine tumbles and he fawns at the table, then warms an entire bottle of Armagnac with gusto over a candle, low and hushed.
Some finds its way into Toby’s glass as he says goodnight. Upstairs he breathes the wisdom of Gallows’ visit — vanilla, butterscotch, tobacco.
The wind blows on the slate tiles of the leaning Hay house, the slick gray tiles howling like reeds, humming with the low frequency of the earth, the fish tumbling above the bed, around the room and through the walls into the bleak churning sky.
Kneeling at his trunk of relics, Daddy Empire passes Toby his crispy commissions.
“Under three regents I served the crown,” he says with dash. His hands dive into the trunk like darts, scoring epaulets with double stars, bully hats and an armful of common pictures.
“What’s the job of the monarchy?” Toby asks searchingly. Cheekiness colors his voice.
“That’s daft, boy. The monarch doesn’t have a job,” Daddy Empire says. “Don’t be indignant, son. She’s an honor to the nation.”
Toby scratches at the coconut-scented gel erected into spikes. One of Daddy Empire’s army hats balances on the arrangement. He’s the fink with a line in army surplus. He rubs the curled black and white photographs removed from the sacred confines of the trunk. Daddy’s on assignment wherever it’s hot in the Empire.
Daddy Empire toys with his pipe, scours out the tar with a feeler, packs his cassis tobacco, and slyly waits for Toby to respond to the stacks of pictures where he’s so prominent. His pipe jabs from his mouth in most. He sometimes poses with a white bull terrier. His staff seems pleased to have him. But Toby’s reverently thinking of the documentary on the Sex Pistols on fuzzy ITV, which hardly reaches the cottage lounge where they spend the evenings. He rummages in a pocket for a sherbet lemon somewhere in the lint, leaves and scales.
The trunk is a bank of glory — hundreds of photographs of him in the field, in hotels, in the company of men, at the Red Fort, bivouacked in inhospitable terrain, in uniform, in dress, at the service of the majestic. The pictures make the man.
“Have you been in here, boy?” He’s puzzled. Who has edited the contents of his trunk? He scratches at his sweep of white hair.
His wife circulates in the kitchen where it’s warm, her slippers moving with uncanny determination.
The sleeve of the armchair slips to the carpet, saturated with cat and dog hair as Toby wiggles downward.
Daddy Empire pulls on his pipe, kneels at the relics again and tries to interest Toby in his career in engineer corps. But the television is heating up and Sid Vicious is shouting through the one speaker. Sid pierces his ears with safety pins and carves his belly with razors. There’s much to admire. But grandfather changes the channel to a sheep dog competition.
Daddy Empire’s wife shuttles in from the kitchen. Many large moles cover her face. She smells like menthols. Shib-shib sound her slippers, shib-shib. She unfolds the television trays and delivers the poached eggs.
Toby eats and watches the dogs, not Sid. He attacks the rashers and black pudding and fried tomatoes, still pungent like the vines. They’ll bake potatoes in the ashes of the coal fire between breaks to salt slugs in the garden.
In the morning Daddy Empire puts Toby to use.
Collect the coal. Check the hens for eggs. Mow the lawn.
Grandfather lords over the telly: a cricket test match.
And Toby devises a coiffeur for the lawn’s green head. He hunts around the cottage, eating the wings of butterflies and tasting flowers for nectar. Cows loam over the hedge, crows cry in the trees. No croquette today.
Grandfather rises once from his armchair to fetch his gun and fire at the birds. The crows disperse at the sight of the shiny thing, the peppery shot wasted.
During the test lunch, when the telly has reverted to choirs and quizzes, they play darts in the barn. Next to the dartboard is a deep freeze. Daddy Empire lifts the coffin-like lid and points to the arsenal of salmon, trout and even a pike, the fish staring with their strange clairvoyant eyes.
“Concentrate, boy,” he tells him, turning his attention to a new game of 501.
He hikes up his moleskins and shows off his ankles, blue with varicose veins from too much rugby, poking out of his suede boots. He sets aside his anxious pipe and land lung, cuffs his shirt over his cardigan and dabs his fluke-like mustache with ear wax extracted with a dart. The first thuds around double twenty to open the game.
Toby rehearses his subtraction and keeps a steady hand on his three salmon-like darts, just keeping up.
Eventually grandfather flinches and flubs on double-one so Toby wins by default. Toby celebrates his victory in a tin of boiled sweets, the prize.
Once the old man retreats to the cottage, Toby tosses the ball for Boy, Daddy Empire’s shepherd dog, likely another of his faithful servants. Boy tirelessly fetches the ball from the lane spliced with grass over the wet ferny common, from which they invariably depart in search of fish.
Cherry pipe smoke curls out the window. Daddy Empire revs up his scabby red Volkswagen bus in the barn. Flies orbit his fishing cap. He beckons and Toby becomes another object in the Wanderbaum-scented interior. He hums in hope about the reservoir. He boasts about his catches, the battles on the banks, but Toby reckons the reservoir’s good for only eels or a carp.
Grandfather guides them into the mountains. Toby’s smile illuminates the orange van, complete with a bed and its comforts.
That night, grandfather takes up the mattress. His legs and chest blend into an enormous teat of hard belly. At his best he disguises it with a velvet jacket, a red cotton shirt, a hot pink velvet bow tie, and piano-sized pants and cummerbund, but tonight he snores in his pajamas under the canopy buffeted by wind. Toby hardly sleeps in the bellowing drum. At dawn he manages to issue a war whoop when he shits down a bank like a sheep.
“You’d like to ride a pony?” He prepares the rods, slips them out of their sheathes, slots them together, threads on the reels, draw out the lines, knots the carefully selected lures from an aluminum box and knits the hooks into the cork handles of the poles. The reservoir is touched with whitecaps.
“Not really.” He knows. Once grandfather finds out how much it costs he’ll back out.
After two days lost in the misty mountains, camping among the keeps and cairns of the Celts, fishing in their lakes and reservoirs, Toby is as cold as a pebble.
On the way home Daddy Empire insists, “The Towy.”
His wicker gear and olive oilskins sag with tuck as he tramps along a footpath at the edge of fields of fluttering, emerald shoots populated by rueful cattle. Refuse rests high in the branches from high water, more frequently a place for Toby’s miscast lines. Snags lie in the tangles of shadow and turbulent pools whirl along the tawny river.
Toby sloshes to the edge of a pool dotted with gadflies. The game is underwater, just above the fragrant gravel.
Fish are jumping underneath the decrepit railroad bridge where deep water lies. The weedy railroad cuts through the valley already in amber shadow, the sun shining on the highlands. There is damp silence, the wild river, a filigree of otter runs and heron depths. Somewhere down the line, far in the distance, the local train shrills heavy with a cargo of students, miners, teachers. Oily magpies caw in fields.
Salmon and sewen surge beneath the Towy’s surface, leap in fast, kinetic arcs. They strike at the gadflies hovering over the cool, still water under the bridge. The booms rebound under the bridge’s trellis. Silhouettes of muscle and grace travel in the aspic-like air. Gravel and rocks bubble into the water from the rusty line above. The fish do a strange demolition — launching at the swarms of flies, whistling like mortars. Then splashdown.
Toby eagerly wades in the vicinity, following grandfather’s lead, but with a snag, he breaks the line and must clumsily tie a new fly. He takes the opportunity to jam a chocolate in his mouth and a hook in his finger. Daddy Empire works the scroll of his cast.
The fish thump again and again. Rock and sand plunk into the water.
The thick, waxy line whirls above when Toby returns to ply the waters. He tiptoes deeper yet gets no closer, his flies drifting on the surface, wet, untouched, uninteresting, unnoticed.
Grandfather retreats for a pipe, a think and sandwiches. He breaks open his hazelnut chocolate bar on his belly. Toby crunches a creamy, nutty piece while disregarding the dirt aftertaste of the liver, horseradish and beets.
“I’ll get a cup of tea.” Daddy Empire mutters, winded. The gusts that come with the low sun are redolent of brackish tides and estuary mud.
More flashes register under the bridge. Gravel spills. Two carriages chug around the near curve when the force aggregates — bits of bank are caving in. The earnest train rolls on a sharp toot of its whistle and the carriages move onto the first span.
They wave from the bank.
The pylons and structure fail as the train crosses.
A terrific roar makes them jump.
The trusses are gone.
Gravel and chunks of concrete, carriages and passengers stir in a screaming, thrashing vortex of water and limbs. Thunder percusses over the bruised valley and the second carriage is sucked over the brink to a chorus of laughs and screams.
They sprint to the wreckage, tea forgotten in the field, grandfather’s breath coming in waves when they arrive at the stony shore. Fish jump at the foaming perimeter like uncertain victors. Toby deploys the landing net and catches hold of fingers and toes like fry. Grandfather wades out and reaches for survivors. He cuts his leg open in the debris and his blood mixes with the others as they are pushed downstream by the pig iron and water. Toby runs down the bank, willows and nettles lashing his face as he leans from the shore like a bramble, hooking tumblers of swift current, stunned fish and human debris.
Pants issue from his diaphragm. Grandfather’s collapsed on the bank. A few survivors have scrambled from the wreckage. Some people are swimming and bleeding among the wreckage. Other fishermen run to the shore and respond to the cries. A farmer arrives on his tractor, then roars away to a phone.
The first bodies are brought to the shallows, wan skin, contused wounds, tallow bones.
“Llewellyn?” a stunned woman asks. “Seen him?”
A brawny man emerges with a body down the shore. He opens the mouth and clears back the tongue and props up the torso and delivers a stream of breath.
“Can you please?” cries another woman in the vicinity, staggering on two soft ankles towards the man coughing on the corpse, directing him to another wet silent person.
Toby too finds himself clearing tongues and reviving the nearly dead as he was taught in swimming lessons.
Then come the sirens, the volunteer emergency personnel, on the opposite bank.
A bewildered blue shape appears to be the train’s driver.
The first bandages, disinfectants and painkillers are distributed from two meager first aid kits once a copper struggles them over the Towy in a kayak. CB radios check-check from the police cars. The police, their lips, eyes and fingers, move in disbelief — looking, counting, reporting, realizing. More emergency services appear, medical personnel diffusing from the cul-de-sac where the lane ends.
Toby and Daddy Empire lean against the Volkswagen hedged in among the flashing vehicles, both almost as exhausted and shocked as the victims, a few of whom emerge intact along the tourniquet-like river. A helicopter ominously beats at the air. More cars are arriving and people don’t even ask. An ambulance leaves soon after the helicopter touches down in a nearby field.
He welcomes the nourishing assistance that comes with triage: the tea and biscuits served by a chesty wife. Daddy Empire’s tuck is missing. Words congratulate them on their bravery.
They make their statement later and then the local official asks them to leave. But Daddy Empire’s heaving and crying about the mangled people. He can’t go anywhere. He can’t admit that he too is a casualty on that evening. Age has snatched away his courage and youth.
Somehow Toby persuades him to start the orange Volkswagen. He grinds the loose clutch, works the pedals and finds a way out for the bus, but it’s Toby who steers the bus to the entrance to the cottage barn once they’ve passed onto the lane.
He navigates grandfather’s heavy body into the cottage.
Shib-shib move the wife’s slippers, shib-shib.
Daddy Empire settles into his chair, lights a pipe and waits for dinner in the light of the cathode ray, not mentioning a word.
Toby goes to the barn to recollect. Food and television seem distasteful, even dishonorable on such a day.
The darts play on the plaid board and the fish swim in their frozen box.
Like a flame, Daddy Empire rises from next to the hearth. His newspaper dangerously crenellates close to the fire. He breathes his pipe odor over Toby’s lapel as he repeats the steps to a bow tie, standing behind his grandson.
“Not so easy as a cravat,” he says, pointing to his own loose knot.
They stand like spoons neatly in a drawer in front of the mirror over the mantle. Daddy Empire fiddles the tie with his inky, nicotine fingers. Toby hasn’t learnt the loop-loop-knot; his forte is folding handkerchiefs. The grooming is complete for his weekly class in ballroom dance.
Daddy Empire is visiting America. He’s keen to find marmots barking along the continental divide and to catch rainbow trout, but he’s also old, tired and not himself. Toby leaves him to a crossword and the television.
He pecks Noemi goodbye in the kitchen. Noemi insists he eat. But Toby doesn’t want pork chops, onions or cabbage. He bobs away but she rushes after him with a chop wrapped in foil. He stuffs it in his pocket and adjusts his bow tie.
Noemi gives him a sloppy wet kiss to prove she’s his mother when Molly picks him up in her Datsun, tooting outside on the driveway. Toby smooches Molly’s hand there on the gear knob; its ivory length is bitter with rosin from the bow of her cello. She adjusts his look from proper to something more scruffy and teenage-like.
Toby’s greasy hair rubs against the window that holds the darkening city and its boulevards. He tries not to sweat before dancing but Molly keeps edging her hand onto his thigh. She parks under the swaying streetlights and she kisses him on the lips and pulls him around her waist. It takes a minute to walk into the warehouse emptied of books. It reeks of spines and print, covers and guts.
Miss Ross ushers them through the door, but it’s Mister Chips who gives Toby a brush on the cheek, whispering, “We’re expecting you two.”
The pupils circulate next to the table of sodas looking for optimum partners, someone looks and rhythm, not an easy combination. The boys slot the girls, and the girls sort the boys, everyone temporarily forgetting the criteria for dance — posture for poise, grip for cues, steps for accuracy — in deference to body and charm.
Molly and Toby press together as the needle falls on the records. They are the other aloof couple in addition to Miss Ross and Mister Chips who pause to correct steps. They ignore the clumsy feet filing by, hardly following their demonstration. Toby’s heart beats next to Molly’s. Her tongue might slip in his ear and wisps of incoming beard tickle her neck before they unclasp at the halt of the waltz.
When she takes Toby back home in her snub-nosed Datsun, Molly murmurs solutions to Calculus homework. Her pelvis still dances against him, and he feel its sultry imprint as she offers the solution to deriving the volume of a curved surface. Toby wants to loiter over her body but he is too uncomfortable and starts a complicated yes-no, despite the lust. The mysterious hunger in Molly’s eyes makes him very nervous and it is with reluctance that he turns inside the screen door blushing with Molly’s last words:
“Next time, I dare you take off my underwear.”
There’s a big greasy stain in his blazer pocket from the chop. It’s already late in the house. Daddy Empire snores, his bellows smelling of curry paste, his body oddly glowing like the cathodes in the tiny iridescent black and white television.
It’s at breakfast when he roars back to life.
“I’ll not have you whoring and dancing, lad. No harlot is going to sleep in your bed. I’ve seen that Molly of yours and she’s no good!”
But it’s dancing with Molly that Toby likes, swinging his hips through the bookish dust of the warehouse. No one knows that a malignant lure has hooked his insides and it will reel him to the heavens like a fish.
The blue scrawl of Daddy Empire’s letters ceases, as do the seasonal packages of caps, digital clock pens, and uniforms and guns for Action Men.
Toby will pour his ashes into the nearby river.
Shib-shib grimly smokes a menthol.
The leaden urn is extraordinarily heavy. The ashes fall into the swirling pool of red water in a gray column.
Toby might want to swim in less acrimonious and ephemeral times but this is not the moment as the tail of the ashes disappears into the maw of the afterlife.
He taps on the back of the urn to make sure nothing is left. Noemi throws in a head of daffodils. Shib-shib stubs out her fag in a mossy stump.
There’s no priest or official of the church of any kind.
Toby is a young committed atheist; nonetheless, he seeks a word or music or ritual that could somehow make it more acceptable that Daddy Empire’s dancing on the river bottom, meal for beloved fish.
Lions Live Here
The cottonwoods are moving with wind along Rawhide Creek, where the grass is chest high and the water’s nearly stagnant. Beyond the swings and slide and over the footbridge, a small cemetery, untended and exposed human bones washing from the pioneers’ graves into the cinnamon waters.
Toby curls his toes on the porch, some minerals encrusted around its edge; the boy’s ready to pull on his ropers. Hunks of white quartz sparkle in the sun, here and there the crystals stained with algae. A slab of amethyst is propped in one corner.
Wyatt sucks a cheroot through his brown teeth while he disassembles an old rifle. He attends to the inside, oiling; it has a tendency to jam at important moments. He’s already cleaned the barrel with a long rod tipped with a fuzzy brush.
Toby’s toes want to leap into their boots but he has to tell them no.
Wyatt asks him to slip the hollow-tipped shells into the magazine in a low tone signaling that guns should be revered.
“They’re good enough to kill a gopher… even a man if you hit him in the right place.”
Toby’s fingers load in the cold brass bullets, not without a few falling onto the brown Astroturf of the porch. He recovers the slippery devils and locks the magazine and they’re ready to go. Wyatt moves through the hissing aluminum screen door to return the kit to the closet where the gold shag carpet extends. Flies are buzzing against the door, bashing their eyes against the steel mesh, inside and out. Hissssss, it cries again.
Wyatt gathers the Remington in the crook of his arm, walks to the Chevy, its bonnet black and sappy from a dripping elm. He looks in the bed and tightens the top of the yellow plastic water jug. He scoots into the cab and places the gun barrel down next to his thigh. Toby is already there, sitting on the peanut bars and apples.
“Your boots, kid,” Wyatt reminds him, and it’s true—the ropers on the porch like a couple of dead rabbits. Toby fetches them, the key turns and the truck grunts a complaint. It reverses into the gravel road, scratches a turn, then engages, gravel pinging.
The pick-up moves along the south side of the single block that defines Jay Em—the decrepit lumber yard where bats dwell, the boarded up windows and peeling paint of the general store guarded by two rusty white Standard Oil pumps, the subsiding premises of the bank, some quarters behind its single plate glass window held together by tape. The truck veers past a mansion obscured behind a tangle of trees, the singing domain of wild turkeys, morels and does.
The vehicle thunders over the bridge. A cloud of dust mushrooms behind as it bends around the big corner that leads into the brown prairie. His arm hangs out the window. They pass the first abandoned homestead, tin roof peeled apart by the wind, clumps of wire around the perimeter and a knot of iris that has somehow survived without any human care.
Wyatt fires up another cigarette. The tobacco wind circulates right under Toby’s nose. He figures they’re not stopping at the dump to shoot bottles. He hasn’t asked what the quarry is to be. Maybe nothing. The truck rises over the first big hill. Jay Em disappears from view. Ahead is grass, cattle, cactus, fences, hills and the road.
“See the pronghorns,” says Wyatt indicating the herd with his cigarette. He is naturally the first to spot anything. Anything that moves on the blanket of grassy sea betrays its presence. The pronghorns are not worried about a passing truck. It’s when the truck halts that the antelope will sprint away under the high cirrus clouds and raw blue sky. The hills dip, rise, undulate, the road flanked by barbed wire and old cedar fence posts screwed up by the wind.
“You wanna look for some horny toads?” he asks when the truck passes a gully.
“Nah, dad, last time I just found rattlers with Gramma.”
“Horny toads don’t bite, kid. But they might pee on ya’.” He chuckles half a breath.
“I don’t want no toads. No snakes.”
Wyatt laughs a touch. “Well, we gonna hunt birds or critters?”
“How about both?”
“Don’t be greedy, son. And there’s no good cover for pheasant out here.”
Indeed, there are no rows of corn, marsh or sorghum that might be a rooster’s idyll.
“How about twittlins?” he queries.
Wyatt furrows his brow. “Speak up, kid! I guess I saw a whole flock of what you call twittlins not a few hundred yards back. But it ain’t really the season and we don’t have a permit.”
“We could shoot the doves off the fences if we aim right. Oh please!”
“That’s a mean trick, boy, but I kinda get the idea that we could have ourselves some pigeon pie.
They’ll have migrated by the time it’s the season, so we might as well get those twittlins now.”
The truck’s far enough from Jay Em that the shooting isn’t going to bother anyone, that little amount of anyone who still lives in the town. Certainly not the heifers and steers out in the prairie grouped around a windmill, saltlick or trail. The truck parks and Wyatt doesn’t bother to turn off the engine. He snugs the gun into his armpit and cradles it in his palm and aims at the hand-sized mourning doves clustered on a wire fence in neat rows, some left, swinging on the top wire, others right, perched on a post or flitting in a bundle of tumbleweeds bunched in a corner. He knows the difference between meadowlarks and killdeer and how to aim at the gray mauve birds that kindly sit on the wires. Wyatt sights along the barrel, fills the sight with one bird, then two. His hairy finger is just so on the trigger. His thumb unlatches the safety.
He pulls the bolt and out rings a shell. A gray feather drifts onto the road.
Toby pushes the heavy door open and scuffs down the road to where he expects to find a macerated bird. It’s not Wyatt’s gun for nothing, for under the wire in the grass where the cattle cannot reach is a pair of decapitated doves. The hollow point has swallowed up their heads and all that remains is their white collars.
“You got two!” Toby shouts, picking up the two birds, the warm blood trickling onto his fingers. He’s not one of those people who object to meat resembling the animal it comes from. He puts the birds in a sack in the back of the truck. “Two for one sure is a mighty good start.”
Wyatt smiles, sucking at another cheroot, letting the truck casually roll on.
“You try, kid,” he signals and Toby takes the gun.
His hand and eye wobbles and it seems like he has the dove in the canyon of the sights. He squeezes the trigger but there is no give.
“Try taking the safety off,” Wyatt instructs him as the doves fly further down the road and the truck ominously strolls on, the stones and pebbles sticking to its round feet.
Toby sights up again.
The gun recoils and the wire sings with the sound of the ricochet and the dove is still sitting there with his amigos. Wyatt is willing to be patient. “I ain’t see no twittlin drop, son. Try again.”
Toby squints harder and his hand is wobbling again, and this time when he pulls the trigger he finds that the dove is no longer there.
By the time Wyatt says, “Go look for it, kid,” Toby has opened the door. He hustles down the road and locates his bird, a little worse for the wear.
“It’s still alive!” he hollers.
“Well, either wring its neck or step on its head!” Wyatt shouts in reply.
This choice makes Toby squeamish… so he opts to step on the head. It sickeningly implodes under his boot and the deed is done. The tally — one for Toby, two for Wyatt.
The two of them alternate now — Wyatt efficient, decapitating most of his victims, and Toby making a mess of things, shooting out the breast, really the only edible part, or clipping a wing, the dove hobbling in the underbrush and mewing like a cat when Toby is lucky enough to score.
In an interim of the carnage for a snack of apple and peanut bar, a snake slithers across the road.
Toby hoots but the snake is already in the ditch. He wants to chop its head off with a shovel like he’s seen Gramma do, its tail shaking and coiling up the handle.
Wyatt puts a stop to that idea. “It was a bull snake. They eat the rattlers and prairie dogs so they can’t be that bad.”
It’s a war of attrition: who is going to kill who?
The truck arrives at one of several plots of featureless land. Out of sight, behind the fence, beyond a draw and behind a bluff rests a homestead, every blade of grass accounted for by Wyatt’s boots of childhood. This particular fence holds his wealth according to the county cadaster. Wyatt indicates that they’re to try their luck on the old plot of family land.
Toby unhitches the gate. A barely visible track leads through the cropped prairie. It’s rarely used, except by the rancher who runs his cattle on the place for a fair rent and checks the windmills from time to time. The truck sways and bounces, its chassis creaking over the lumps of grass. Time seems to pause as Wyatt carefully navigates, aware of any rocks that might crack an oil pan or break an axel. In the draw, which drops into a sequence of gullies and the serpentine meandering of Muskrat Creek, they might startle a buck or a bunny, if the wind is blowing against them, carrying away their scent and sounds, but there is no burst of animal speed on this day. The truck fords the creek and grinds up the bank.
A sequence of low domes is mottled with rocks. Here, they stop.
Wyatt already stands on a dome, expounding a glut of geological detail, for among the rocks is an abundance of samples not normally found here. Some pieces have been brought by his father—bits of agate and quartz like those around the porch in town, logs of petrified wood, more semi-precious rocks than Toby can possibly identify.
“Some of these rocks were brought here by primitive man,” he’s saying obtusely. “It’s a great spot and vantage point for huntin’ big fauna; a man can work a flint core into a tool or weapon—an axe, a scraper, a spearhead, an arrowhead—while keepin’ an eye on giant sloth or mammoth. Water’s near. There’s protection below from the wind. See those campsites, those rings of rock that’d hold down a wigwam or tepee?”
Toby isn’t paying attention to the lecture on the ages blowing from Wyatt’s mouth into the wind tinged with cigarette smoke. Instead, he’s hunting for ammunition for his catapult. The cattle collected around the creek make good targets, the projectiles stinging their haunches like flies.
“Cut it out, kid,” Wyatt says. “I don’t want to buy a heifer if you shoot out an eye.”
Toby desists shooting and lobs some rocks into the void of wind and prairie.
“Let’s check out my old place,” Wyatt concludes and they scramble back to the truck.
The house is indicated by a grove of dead elms and bare electricity poles, some posts, wire, a caved-in root cellar. Toby jumps down into the sandy earth that blows around the house and steps up the crumbling cement foundation into what is left of the doorway. The kitchen is scattered with bleached tin cans, broken cobalt bottles, shingles from the roof, bits of blistered wallpaper and dung. It smells vaguely of skunks, and Toby doesn’t stay in the house long investigating the kitchen and two rooms, long defunct and permeated with abrupt snakiness. He won’t recover an ephemeral photograph or a newspaper because paper is sweet, easy food for insects. His interest can only penetrate into the past so far; there are no artifacts to warm in his hand jammed in the denim pocket of his jeans for the moment.
Wyatt unwires a coffee can from the mouth to an old well and he’s already got some wire weighted with a rock ready to figure out if there is any water. Rain is as rare as people in this extreme environment where in the distance of Muskrat creek are two antediluvian cottonwoods, Adam and Eve. In the bark of these two witnesses are remnants of buffalo hair and bullets, in their rings accounts of drought and blizzard and certainly no account of old school, country boy entertainment.
Here at the old homestead, Wyatt can feel himself awakening like a child again, almost like his destructive son, to the memories of the past, yet memories his son can’t possibly have, being a boy of the modern suburbs.
He sneaks along the bluff. He draws the gun to his shoulder and plugs the snapping turtle with bullets. He catches some frogs and stuffs their mouths with cherry bombs. He baits a steel trap and covers it in the reeds and rushes for a muskrat or beaver, whose pelts he will sell for pocket money. He lures crayfish out of the mud and ties them to bottle rockets and sends them into the immediate hemisphere. He fashions a spear in the household forge and plunges it into the back of a carp surfacing like a monster. He carves a hole in a fallen branch, places an irresistible stamp of metal in it and drive two nails diagonally either side of it, so a raccoon will end up his newest victim, caught by his curiosity.
Nature’s a violent arena, and if he could so lucky as to find a cougar roaring in his trap, leaping into the sky as far as the chain will let him, he might lose some skin or even his life trying to kill it. The cougar will thrash and cry and moan more than a man, his paw locked in the jaws of steel. He will remind him that the country has eyes, and not necessarily friendly ones at that, before he kills him with a shot from his gun.
Or the cougar might play dead and come at him and scratch off a good part of his ear before he kills him with his Bowie knife. Or he might find the trap closed and empty and he will save the bullet for another day. Or he might carelessly step in the trap himself on a snowy afternoon when the light’s dwindling ominously and find the jaws have dismembered much of his foot and he will hobble around the plains ever after like a coyote that has chewed off its paw. Nature does have a capacity for revenge.
Toby’s itching to resume their partnership in ornithology. The gun’s in the truck and the doves are not here on the East Place. They’re on the fences. But Wyatt’s adamant about snooping around for more memories of his old home. Toby walks up one of the hills, littered with more rocks and studded with clumps of yucca, and looks down on the drab, half-toppled house and the man picking through the refuse against the expanse of nothingness. He could almost be a child.
Wyatt hears the bleating of the sheep before sundown. He remembers the heavy stroke of the unreliable Model-T likely to splutter and fail. He smells the foam of his pony rising through his dungarees as it gallops over the hills from the schoolhouse. He smiles at the legs of his sister chasing a hen through the yard. He watches his father cut geodes in half and reveal their sparkling centers like stars. He recalls a neighbor who worries over the health of a newborn child and who will die. He marvels at the light emanating from the bulb brought by New Deal progress. He sickens at the putrid smell of offal and skin as his father dresses a buck strung by its haunches from a tree. He savors the taste of sugar in oatmeal cookies hot from the cowchip-fired stove. Wyatt’s memories, nostalgia without the hardship of wilderness living, will not blow away in the elements; they are fixed to this place, and it takes time for him to stem the flow of the past that rises from the ground like salt.
That’s the holler that Toby has been waiting for. That’s his signal to tumble down the hill down to the truck and inhale the tobacco smoke.
The truck noses away, up the hill, past the samples of geologic time, fords the creek, circles past the gullies, heads towards the gate that he will squeeze open and close once more. Sure enough, the doves are there on the fences either side of the dirt road and Toby reaches for the gun.
Wyatt stops him with a firm brush of his hand. “Not yet,” he says.
Toby may not understand why but he heeds Wyatt’s advice, at least until the truck has made its way around a bend to another parcel of property arranged in alternating strips of sienna soil and bronze wheat.
“We’re too close,” he says. His eyes have acknowledged another sign of life, a red and white harvester chugs across the horizon, like a mantis gathering aphids, harvesting the fingers of wheat, spitting out straw. “A toot and a wave will be enough.” The wind drawls in the corner of his mouth.
They take a fork in dirt road. Gullies interstice the hills. The grass is shorn and spangled with cactus. Toby gets out of the cab of the pick-up coated with dust, bug juice and the blood of the doves. Apple cores, peanuts, shells and sand litter the inside. They’re near now.
Against the rose hills sits an old wooden house. This is another part of Wyatt’s desert empire.
Toby opens a hatch in the whistling barbed wire. The wind almost lifts Wyatt’s hat off. Sand blows into his tracks. They rock through the prairie and pass the well and the pump. The house is fenced off to stop cattle from eating it. Five big cottonwoods bend over the house; their eyes nictitate brown tears. He unlatches the wooden gate and digs around in an old iron stovetop for the key in a tin box of cough drops. The door jeers open with a kick. The floor is covered with hundreds of dead moths, millers. A few mementos fill the house and they quietly sit on their shelves. Among them are chert scrapers and flint blades. The fireplace is inlaid with minerals hacked out of the hills. The crystals phosphoresce under a black light. No one lives here but what looks like new embers rest in the grate.
Wyatt scratches his head, puzzled. There aren’t usually visitors. But he dismisses his worries and is quick to tackle what might need attention. They go to work mowing and watering the grounds. From the corner of his eye he keeps an eye on his son.
There is nothing tangible he can identify. It is only a feeling, a suspicion that he is being watched, as if the cougars had suddenly reappeared here against these hills, their claws writing, “Lions live here.” Something walks through the house and stokes the fire. Whether those eyes are his own father’s or, indeed, a lion, he doesn’t know. He returns from the house with a pistol and keeps it holstered on his thigh for the afternoon. But it is no remedy to the yellow eyes that prey from the crag in the hills.
Wyatt calls Toby when the sun is breaking over the hills like a sinking star and a few drops of rain pummel the opal dirt.
A hawk eerily cries somewhere. There aren’t any doves. The air shivers with wind. The ground respires imperceptibly, like the lungs of the planet. He’s spooked and decides they should finish up, quickly.
Unnerved, Wyatt moves the keys to another hiding place, hoping the beast is not in the house.
He leaves a can on the fence, the code to his neighbor that he is not there. His urine splashes on the chrome bumper. The land, it’s his, he thinks. But like a wet whip, the wind is weeping, weeping with the voices of the dead, those who are buried there beneath their wheels and feet, respiring in the dirt like so many roots unconcerned by barriers like roads or fences.
A granite jetty extends along one edge of the river mouth at Matagorda. Toby paddles across a brackish river on a surfboard. His face is burnt and peeling on his cheeks; his hair is far from short; his body is unmarred. Any money goes for petrol and wax and snacks from a bait shop.
The river carries him towards the soupy ocean but he easily arrives on the opposite bank. He grabs the fiberglass surfboard marked up with logos and marches across the wild salt flats, on one side the red river, on the other the brown ocean. His board is clamped in his armpit. In the hot, hazy distance a big rusted iron tank is buoyed to the land. The tide is out, and the usually nocturnal crabs are out too. Toby smashes some in a moronic manner. But his attention is gradually drawn to the perfect swells that are peeling left and right just offshore, the line-up empty.
Hooting, hollering, he races into the surf, paddles through the foam, pushing under the breakers, the waves like watery crowns on his back. He makes it over the sandbars where the swells are unbroken and the ocean is blue-brown glass.
His legs dangle in camaraderie in the bath-like water. A collar on his ankle and a rubber chord leash him to the board. Sets of swells are coming at him and he identifies the one he wants.
The penultimate wave in the set is the biggest, the most perfect.
He turns and paddles in anticipation of the point when the ocean’s energy will take over. The curling face picks him up and he must simultaneously stand and drop down. The board flicks under his brown feet and carves ahead of the breaking lip. He catches a fine, feral thing. The board turns and slashes at the wave’s surface, in the face, at the lip, then decelerates for the slow-motion-like cover of the tube, before it jets out for a rousing finish in spray and exhilaration.
He immediately paddles out for more liquid ecstasy.
Toby repeatedly cuts and tucks under the falling lip, covered by the elliptical tube for a few seconds until he is spit out. He floats to a finish over the shoulder of wave before he deals with the whitewater.
A porpoise startles him. Large shapes often are sharks attracted to the river that dumps plenty of edible items in the gulf. The porpoise joins him on a wave and he feels that nature was better than anyone could have ever expected.
The wave holds him down in the sand and squeezes him like an enormous hand and he is surprised by the whiteness of the water and the whiteness of the sky, that he is in fact still a dude when he returns to the surface, spluttering and ready for more of the waves and absolutely nothing else—certainly not expecting a return to soccer practice or high school.
Over the chain link fence separating the running track from the strip mall, the air-conditioning units are roaring. The adjoining playing fields and parking lots shimmer with sun. Members of the track team are sprinting around the field. Some jocks are running in the bleachers.
Toby stands on the soccer pitch. It’s August. There are no waves. The gulf is as liquid as glass. School hasn’t started. The sun’s blazing, the fortieth consecutive record day of heat. The air is pure humidity, a barrier that everyone struggles against during the drills to determine the varsity squad. Who can trap and kick and head and pass and dribble? It certainly isn’t any incarnation of Josh, Eric or Chad who approach the ball in an off-kilter way, part love, part loathing.
Coach Madar rubs his nylon shorts and pulls his clipboard from the waistband, making notes about the teams for the weekend scrimmage.
Toby jokes with the center back and goalie when the ball runs down the field at the foot of no one. He runs out to meet it. Toby doesn’t bother to trap it and control it first but gives it a big boot with a clunk of Adidas.
But the ball skips over something unanticipated—a clump of dried mud or sprinkler head or dimple in the field—and he scissors at nothing but thick air. He launches forward and panics midstream with all the momentum of his kick. This is not a relaxed fall of non-consequence. His arm is tucked under his guts and he twists when he comes in contact the hard dun grass. He screams, not in any way associated with joy, wonder or ecstasy, but pain. The wrist is instantly a step, the interval between the two notes that are oscillating from his larynx. Something is poking at the surface of his skin as he thrashes on the corrugated surface of the grass crying and baying.
The teams gather around him. Coach Madar shoos everyone away and lifts Toby up in his bearish arms and runs him to his car, the best way to the emergency room.
Madar asks him questions, trying to distract him from the pain from which there is no distracting.
What’s your favorite color?
What’s your grandma’s name?
Momma Empire. She’s dead.
What’s your dog’s name?
Who is your favorite band?
What class is your favorite?
Because it’s easy.
Who’s going to win the first match this fall?
His car is veering along the frontage road past the leafy suburbs.
How are your grades?
Better than OK.
Where do want to go to school?
What are you going to study?
Have you gotten laid yet?
Uh-huh. Cindy Sin.
Do you do drugs?
I’d like to.
Toby’s arm is cradled on the dash. It’s turning into a bat. Each jerk of the car ratchets up the pain. Someone could be quartering the arm. Someone could be applying pliers. Someone could be pouring pitch over it. Instead it’s there, angry and communicative, not the neutral limb of daily use. This is the result of too cavalier an attitude, not clashes with bigger players.
The car speeds to the emergency room, Madar shifting his way through the traffic fumes and heat.
“My orthodontist’s on the other side of the complex.” Toby grimaces.
“Today it’s a different reason, kid.”
Toby is simpering in short sharp stretches when Coach Madar brings him in.
He’s better once he gets a room. Toby gives his statistics to his latest accomplishment in klutz-hood, while his parents are located.
Surgery will be his reward that afternoon. He’s dislocated one bone and broken the other. He has been administered all the good drugs and he neither feels nor remembers anything. Toby does not wake up on the operating table to find that nothing has happened yet, that the surgeons are still working on someone else. The break is complicated and a good doctor is not on hand. Someone pins the bits together. He learns what is agony in the aftermath.
Every year brings a new escalation and real consequences that Toby might not otherwise understand if not subjected to the intricacies of his arm. The break destroys the growth plate of the radius in his forearm and it refuses to grow while the ulna surges ahead. The arm’s a bow of pure pain.
Wyatt and Noemi resort to the doctor who has also torn open Toby’s knees in order to make him a soccer star.
Doctor Butter is the first to recommend a surgical solution. He’s keen on an osteotomy; what’s wrong with having one arm shorter than the other?
Toby kind of likes the idea of another procedure and health insurance pays for it.
In the freezing basement of a hospital complex at dawn Toby’s clothes join the floor of the changing room. The gown is hard and cold. Personnel bustle around the clinical surfaces of the pre-op hall, a bunker. Routine questions about allergic reactions follow from the anesthetist as his vital signs are taken. His heart beats its slow athletic pulse. The blood on the top of Toby’s hand waits for the fructose drip. He climbs on the gurney and confirms that he isn’t having a leg amputated or a tumor excised or lips sewn together.
The anesthetist is from South Africa. He peers through his body hair and twangs. “It’s like beers, boy. One beer. Two beers. Three. Four. Five. Six….”
The anesthesia ripples up Toby’s veins.
“What you like, kid? Miller or the King, kid? Kid?”
The liquid coldly surges into his heart and wades up into his brain-spout.
“The King,” Toby manages to slur, but he cannot manage the brewing slogan as the anesthesia digs its fangs into his circuit. Some residue of what happens under the bright halogen appears in his consciousness: scalpel, saw, smoking bone, clamps, suction, a bright piece of surgical steel that hold the bits together, adjustments, drill, screws, tightening, sutures, then the vague shades of the post-op ward.
Toby has been administered morphine. There are only shadows and the moving, speaking box in the corner that is intermittently consciousness. His spoon hangs in a plastic bottle, it takes him days to relieve the pressure. His mind and kidneys are crashed on opiates. One day the pain fades and everything is gray and neutral. He can move around the ward and soon go home with his arm in a fiberglass cast.
The plate Dr. Butter has screwed in place is not prepared for what Toby has in mind when he says, “Do what you like.” Dr. Butter imagines golf, tennis at most. Though one of his bones has been cut in half and screwed together with a strip of metal, Toby is insistent on getting back to the surf and turf.
A hurricane’s approaching. It’s a month after Doctor Butter’s osteotomy and Toby’s already at football practice when he decides to take up an offer to drive for a storm session. There are no other priorities. He cannot really play anyway.
Toby gives Sean and Deon the nod when he hears the Nissan honking in the school parking lot, his board shining among the quiver lashed on the car’s roof. The sky is grim and low and the clouds move faster than the little car—blowing down the highway towards the beach, banging with the Residents, Cabaret Voltaire or Misfits for good measure.
“Which break, dude?” Deon already went once before school.
Toby smacks at some gum. “The harbor, dude. We need rocks, not sand, dude.”
“Gorda?” Sean pulls his hair back into a ponytail.
“Too far, dude,” says Deon, confidently pushing the Nissan hatchback further down the coastal highway towards the storm.
“Freeport?” Toby hazards.
“I was thinking, dude, I would be so stoked if the harbor’s breaking. Epic.”
Joshing and one-upmanship punctuate the sallies of dude, dude, dude.
They’re in sight of the monsters breaking over the harbor jetty when the local sheriff apprehends the Nissan at a roadblock. He has closed down the town of Freeport, thus the jetty, due to the storm.
“Fuckin’ asshole!” Deon and Sean shout as they u-turn.
Toby looks at the wonderful lines of breakers that are indeed peeling down the harbor mouth. They will have to settle for a less prime spot. The sandbars and prevailing wind are not choreographed enough to make good waves and it’s a fantastic struggle to get through the sloppy surf to the cleaner break far out.
Toby’s fiberglass cast taps against his board, like against like, and somehow he makes it out into the big slushy things knocking against one another like breasts. Toby hollers at the noisy waves and slides down their untidy faces and wishes the wind would turn offshore and clean up the towering surf, but it’s impudent to ask any more from the angry ocean, he knows.
Tunes and junk food wait for them in the car rocking in the wind. Sean and Deon are dosing on the swells far out in the melee of brown water.
Afterwards the cast smells like the ocean. Toby notices it in class, the arm’s vague rueful pong; he sprays it down with Wyatt’s Old Spice every few days. It attracts flies in class and ants on the soccer field. It is also agony whether he runs or walks. He figures it’s merely sore. He does not tell anyone. At night the cockroaches cluster on the ceiling of his room and fly down to his bed, his body sprawled in front of the oscillating metal fan. The arm is ripening. They scuttle and sniff under the edges of the cast when Toby sleeps; they are waiting for him when he wraps the beast in plastic and ducks into the mildew-lined shower; they pursue him from the oak trees on the swampy walk to school; they live in his locker. The cast must come off before Toby’s arm turns into agar-agar.
Before the x-ray Doctor Butter boozily congratulates himself in one of the rooms of his practice. An assistant cuts off the putrid fiberglass with a vibrating electric saw, not without a gash to Toby’s elbow, and his arm emerges: a black haired newborn. It neither smells nor looks perfect. When Dr. Butter notches the x-rays into the light box Toby sees that he has foiled the surgeon. The arm is still sawn in half. He has snapped the metal plate in the hurricane.
After this meeting there are no more sports. Surprised that is has not rotted off, Doctor Butter allows Toby’s arm a few weeks in a removable cast, enough for him to wash the foreign appendage and let it dry in the sun, prior to the resumption of the fiberglass cast wrapped to his armpit.
The arm is immobilized. Toby sleeps with a shackle-like magnetic device to stimulate the bone. He grows morose and depressed; his energy is grounded; the bone does nothing.
Holding a later x-ray in his liver-spotted hand, Doctor Butter says, “Blows cannot be avoided. It takes courage to let things heal.”
Some solace that is.
Toby has had enough of the shriveled, emaciated, atrophied thing, never allowed out to play. Toby is clearly the culprit in finishing it off.
He’s thankful for the invitation from his rich friends to go to the country club. He dives from the high board into the pool and ruins the shreds of metal plate in its entirety.
Doctor Butter will summarily scrape off the colony of tissue in the gap, will insert a beefy piece of metal appropriate for a thigh, will screw the wrist together again. Things will go according to plan.
In a bid to restore order Toby is frequently a guest of the physical therapy unit in the cold hospital basement. In cahoots with Doctor Butter, the physical therapists practice their brand of torture to resuscitate the deformed arm: electric stimulation, ultrasound, weights, all kinds of lifting in the name of rehabilitation. Toby admires the brittle pieces of steel that have been removed from his arm and enjoy the slowly returning appendage.
A roasted black girl is brought down from her ward most afternoons. Nodes of flesh are tied to her body. Her face is almost non-existent, grafts covering what is left of the bone. The physical terrorists stretch her twisted, gnarled body on a rack. The girl starts to wear a mask and seems determined to live.
Toby realizes he’s in a great position; he wasn’t set alight by Wyatt only to live with pink and black dots for eyes.
No one can contain the fall, that certain combination of time and space on a certain afternoon when the waves are turning over the break and the sun takes on a particular whiteness, when speed and confidence are at their peak and thus dear wet jeopardy as the faces scream, treacherous and complete.
The orange wing is dedicated to science. The vectors and forces of teenagers are constrained to plain desks in the rooms. The orange doors are wide open since the air-conditioning has deceased on this muggy day. Grades nine through twelve are wrestling with any of the subject’s key words: cell respiration, photosynthesis, the photoelectric effect, mitochondrial DNA, chromosomes, mitosis, meiosis, equilibria, entropy, enthalpy, the periodic table, vectors, force. It’s when any of the key words become practice — dissection of a fetal pig on a bed of wax, sublimation of iodine under the chemical hood — that it makes any sense.
Rows of orange lockers line the entrance to the O-wing, quiet until the bell signals the end of the learning period. A gush of students fills the upstairs and downstairs halls of the orange wing. Its counterparts radiate from the library: red (math), blue (history), gray (English) and green (art).
Toby fumbles with a combination lock—left, right, left, the march of order and combinations—extracts a Norton reader. Why not catch up on the Ancient Mariner in chemistry? Some soft, crumbling pages expurgate themselves from the broken spine.
The school’s permanent pupil, Dwayne—mullet, cut-off denim jacket, Anthrax T-shirt, black parachute pants—lifts the latch to his orange locker coated with what is left of remedial algebra from last week pressed into an amalgam of exploded ink and Hot Tamales. Dwayne rummages for a pack of Camels, already pondering whether to cut class in favor of hooky across the highway after a five-finger discount on the new Ratt album in Sound Exchange. Tests are like the wind to Dwayne.
A substitute teacher glowers at the conflagration. No one among the staff has been too successful teaching. They have been imprisoned for years with the farts and acne of teenagers. What to explain about intellectual curiosity? That music is math or that sex is chemistry? Who would believe it?
Certainly not the pair of burly jocks molesting Cindy Soon while she checks her blunt face smeared with orange foundation. A mirror hangs on her orange locker door. She is unperturbed by the meaty hands grappling her box.
Toby’s locker is next to hers and he has a good view while he redials the combination under the pretext of a forgotten pencil. Toby is curious about Cindy Soon and what she just might offer.
The bell rings and the crowd thins disappear behind the orange doors and sit at the orange desks waiting for Miss Pea to scuttle in, trailing a tail of cigarette smoke from the toxic teachers’ lounge.
The nerds are tardy due to a slobber session over David’s new Hewlett Packard calculator. Miss Pea says nothing as they lurch into class.
It’s rowdy. A paper airplane glazes the fluorescent lights. Slats of sunshine carve up the periodic chart. The pupils are perched on stools around the lab. The school is well equipped due to the district’s rich residents and the property tax.
Toby looks in reverence at the column of noble gases, inert, refusing to react. Everyone stares at Miss Pea’s hair — orange and vaguely radiating under the ivy leaf from Einstein’s Princeton lab framed on the wall. Miss Pea is a disciple.
“Chemistry,” she says. She adjusts her spectacles. “Chemistry isn’t for failures.” Miss Pea’s weekly theoretical and practical lab exams are tough but somehow this week Toby is not among the roll call.
“Azzad, Chung, Evans, Klein, O’Reilly, Nyugen, Taller, Siegler—today, none of you have names. You can consult with me after class about your results.” The curve does not save anyone from duress.
Miss Pea’s sense of fairness allows a second try. Today, chalk and talk. Ziegler rehashes her unsuccessful solution on the blackboard. At Miss Pea’s prompting, the class’s collective brain whirls into action to comprehend and calculate the normality of acids, the molality of bases, the equilibrium of reactions and the rate of catalysts; they write out the laborious proofs that support the world of chemicals, the measure of the atom (in moles), the electron shells and bonds (that’s quantum theory), and deviations into the chemical soup of amino acids that Mister Kermit is refreshing downstairs in biology. Miss Pea moves her team through the proofs, bosses everyone through the periodical table and the implications of its structure.
The pupils are immigrants in her lab, clucking over formulae and belaboring proofs, studying and working for powers that Miss Pea reveals to be powers like defense and industry, war and profit, which depend on the machine of good science that begins in the orange hall. The proof solves problems of logic and by default reality. It’s not up to her to explain to them that there are other possibilities, but Miss Pea hints it applies elsewhere. She lures the pupils to the assignment with Bunsen burners, digital scales, Erlenmeyer flasks, spectrum analysis.
Miss Pea paces the room, puffs in the ship of learning’s sails to get everyone to the actual experiment after the procedure and its complex formulas that might or might not confirm the hypothesis whether the reaction applies to the first or second law of thermodynamics (entropy and enthalpy), an absolute-zero Kelvin vacuum, crystal lattices or any other trick of the trade. She douses fires, washes a clumsy face at the eyewash station, sweeps up Pyrex glassware inadvertently dropped onto the cement floor, makes sure Toby recalibrates his pipettes when he rewrites the calm conclusion to observations of the mystery reagent—doled out by Miss Pea.
Miss Pea does not crack when the collective brain expires from her regimen. The team of Azzad and Thaller have already captured the district’s chemistry prize and she relents to the class’s protest for more time when it’s the week of the final exam.
The test is only five questions; numbers two and four stump everyone. She does not expect anyone to answer correctly, but she accepts Toby’s application to be lab assistant next year on the basis of his right answers to numbers two and four that orient him in the chemical landscape of her class. He wants to synthesize plants more than humans.
Miss Pea does not realize that she is accepting an intruder in her storeroom when Toby returns that autumn. The metal shelves are lined with reagents in their thick glass or plastic jars. They are safe and inert for the moment, not the horrifying jars of pickled animals and humans in the biology lab. Toby has access to her lab with high orange-lacquered worktables and nests of stools. His job is to reliably mix the chemicals for the other classes. He looks at her brightly through the cheap goggles cutting into his face and she takes him for an enthusiastic assistant. The world is open and it has yet to close. He knows what she is talking about when Miss Pea summons everyone to her desk for a view of the colloid changing colors in the flask.
She does not know Toby has borrowed from her supply of glassware to supply Tyler and Ed with a freebase pipe. She doesn’t know he’s lifted enough K and P to keep Cedric in the Rasta business. She doesn’t know about the MDMA and amphetamine cranked out with ingredients and supplies clearly itemized on her purchase orders to the school district administration.
Tyler and Ed give him the recipe and Dwayne has been vital for advice. They don’t think Toby can do it, but there it is, absorbing into his fingers, which are darting among the caplets multiplying in the Zip-lock bag, three hundred 500 mg gelatin caps. He’s careful not to lick his fingers.
Two hits for twenty-five dollars is the price. This isn’t the cash from throwing papers, feeding cats, mowing lawns or any of the other chores of adolescence.
On a Friday night at the yet-to-be Four Corners suburban development Toby will sell out of caplets. The kids are gathered in the empty lots for a keg party. There are no houses. Toby cannot vouch for what the pills are like other than that they are good. Risk is part of the game. What is happening is already a bad omen for the development.
Cars, jeeps and pick-ups are burning rubber and power braking in one quarter of Four Corners. In another stretch kids are drunkenly playing softball, batting at cups of beers. A cup of beer is dispensed for a dollar from the kegs in the beds of a half-circle of pickups in a cul-de-sac. Toby has plenty after a few transactions. Other kids are dealing also and the number of people lurching around indicates the deals are working. The truck doors are open and throbbing with the Cult or Public Enemy. Someone has outfitted the gunwales of his car with noble neon. The party is fueled by the plausibility that the sheriff will not make it his business to figure out what are the lights and noise in Four Corners.
Nicole or Stacy from school mauls Toby in the back seat of a car for a handful of the pills. It seems to desiccate his spine. His heart beats in his palette. He is elated and confessional. He suddenly cannot find Nicole or Stacy (she has left the car grinding off her molars) and it’s to his surprise that he finds himself drumming his fingers in the hands of Cindy Soon, who doesn’t say a thing, not a thing, as the rhythm of the potion keeps on ticking through their bodies squatting on the cement curb.
“There is music in chemistry,” he tells her and she is naturally bewildered by what he might have concluded—blacking out and thanking Miss Pea.
Cindy Soon saunters through school in a knowing way. Her walk attracts comments from girls and guys alike. At her discrete invitation, a note dropped through the vents of his locker, Toby walks to her apartment. It’s dank and dark inside. An iguana sleeps in a terrarium in her room festooned with white crepe and cotton gauze.
“Can I touch you?” he asks.
Somehow she’s charmed by his naiveté, unlike the typical guy she might romp with, and she consents.
His mouth moves from her lips to her freckled cleavage and further down to her plump sweet-smelling navel and the strawberry abyss beyond. He’s clearly agitated when she asks that he desist. She pushes him away with her stubby, ribbed fingers. Cindy Soon expects her mom at any moment. Her sclerotic nipples poke through her ZZ-top concert T-shirt and her swollen vulva is all too evident through her dripping panties when she closes the door and Toby takes off through the apartment complex past the liquor stores, groceries and restaurants next to the busy frontage road of the highway. The traffic flows like a phosphorescent worm—segments insert and delete, blink and twine together.
Toby’s trysts with Cindy Soon gets serious when he crawls out his bathroom window and pads into the humid night. The security light clicks on when his arm catches the detector’s beam. Wyatt and Noemi are locked to the rules of their embrace when he tiptoes down the road, splattered with an occasional patty of lovelorn frog, to a rendezvous with Cindy Soon at the gas station cum mini-mart.
Cindy’s waiting with Carla, who promptly leaves as soon as he saddles up next to Cindy’s head and gently caresses it. Cindy spills her cola and smiles and brushes back her fiery hair. Perspiration beads on her throat. He flips out biting her cherry-flavored mouth and she grabs at him and squeezes a handful of anxiousness.
He sits for a moment before she nods, takes his hand, places it on her pussy and leads him in the darkness to the grounds of the nearby Catholic church and school. Schoolgirls have been a constant source of excitement for him from the cover of his room within peeping distance of the parking lot.
Cindy urges Toby up the chain-link fence next to the roof and onto the hot, flat, tar and pebble surface of their bed for the night. The air’s acrid and tart with the exhalation of the refineries outside the city. Cindy takes off her denim jacket, lies down on it and she soon makes Toby feel older and wiser as she offers her freckled body in such a natural and comfortable way. Cindy Soon assails him and he fumbles back at the sack of ginger hair and juices among the air-conditioners and skylights. Toby squirms, does what he thinks is the idea. He samples her wet parts and drains his pubescent ideas into the condom notched between the two of them. She hugs his butt when he climaxes and breathes a mist of diet Coke.
Cindy Soon knows the score more than him, along with the likes of Miss Pea or any other of the girls that slip in under his sonar up there on the roof of the church school.
Cindy unswivels the padlock from her locker, puzzled and nonplussed by Toby’s silence as he grovels for his books later that week.
“Toby, do you have any more X?”
The big van’s sunk low on the slick wet road like a ship.
It’s raining and Toby’s driving.
Softball’s been a hoot, hundreds of teenagers swatting at paper-like balls and a rowdy crowd glugging longnecks above the sandy grids of diamonds in one of Houston’s less salubrious municipal parks. Someone tumps over a Porta-cabin behind the bleachers. A poor girl’s emerges, wet with chemicals and sludge. Anything goes at the softball bacchanal.
The van’s loaded with a pile of kids and semi-adults with no idea, reeking like brandy and Irish cream.
Toby’s license is as laminated as his chin. He’s almost there when he realizes it’s the wrong side of the road. He pulls over. What a bummer driving this raucous party in what isn’t even his van. He maneuvers again, bumps a bush, rides a curb with a clunk. Ripples of laughter emanate from its deep guts.
The pigs flag him down, not the first time.
No signal lights to start.
“Everything all right, boy?” The cop’s hands rest on the waist of his tan jodphur’s tucked into black jackboots. His buddy keeps the van covered.
The night’s decorated with crickets and frogs and the swoop of a passing car.
“You been drinking, boy?”
“No Sir,” Toby says, “I’m just new at it and kind of lost my way.”
“We’re going to Brettonwood!” calls a girl from the back.
“Gatorade?” someone requests.
A passel of laughs.
“So you’re the designated driver?”
“You could’ve turned back there.”
What sounds like a parent speaks up. “Hi Mundy! This is Paul Chip from the golf course, you know Bunny’s husband, and we’d like to get home. We’re pooped.”
Parental supervision clinches it.
They can go.
The van edges along the road, ditchwater and canals, mosquitoes and estuary beyond. The van whispers with conversation and the stirring of ice in the cooler.
Toby stops at the gates to the community. Its metal letters are decorated with flames: Brettonwood.
They slip past. Security knows the score and Mr. Chip’s happy to be the responsible entertainer. He’s the big shot anyway.
They pass the club house and tennis courts, the golf opposite.
Toby counts the passengers extruding themselves from the van. He wasn’t far off: twenty-one.
Mr. Chips, thin, with an odd pooch, a wiry mustache and the last one out, says, “Thanks for navigating, son.”
Toby has a problem looking at Mr. Chip. The cement drive looks pretty good and keeps him from smirking. Vanda’s told him every naughty detail about how her dad foot the bill for her breast enhancement.
Sure, Vanda has a promiscuous reputation and a Mercedes cabriolet. That’s why he’s here again avoiding the gaze of Mr. Chip.
Bunny’s inside, a willing chaperone for Vanda’s court of rakish jocks and errant nerds. She’d rather they be fucked up under her wacky supervision. There won’t be any overdoses, guns or babies this way, Bunny reasons, not with such good clean MDMA dusting her marshmallow cookies.
Toby approaches the house, up on stilts and near the shore, but then veers down to the choppy water. The palms are scorched and rattling crisply under the smoggy chemical light of Brettonwood, a subdivision like so many others snuggled along the refinery corridor along the Galveston channel. It’s normal that several service vessels have been pulled from the water not so far from the house, tilted nose down, arrows sliding down a wave. There’s a diving bell, too. And a pair of helicopters held down by wires. A buoy dips and sways precariously out in the bay.
Toby turns to re-park the van on the street. His surfboard’s survived the trip. The back door opens, cha-chunk.
All the lights are on in the house, illuminated like a watchtower.
It’s suddenly showering and hot.
Vanda’s mom totters inside.
“How was the game, kids?” she asks.
There’s no one in sight and she’s fumbling with a box of ice cream, halfway melted, pools of it soon spreading on the countertop as it’s alternately remembered and forgotten.
Mr. Chip corners Toby in the kitchen when he’s back. It sounds like one of Wyatt’s soliloquies, the same ineluctable fragments—hours, contracts, hotels, logs, purchases, nothing that a kid can know. There’s ice cream in his mustache and he insists on opening and reopening the fridge.
The kids occupy the top of the house. Toby would like to escape, go up and bite Vanda’s expensive chest. But he spoons in some ice, sugar, and flavor, biding his time with the Chips.
Mr. Chip switches the smelly bong water.
Bunny offers Toby a cookie but he declines.
Then he breaks off a half, leaving the rest behind.
Mr. Chip takes one, too.
“Who’d dare test Poseidon VPs?” he says to Bunny, already collapsed on the couch. Ice cream’s everywhere, but who cares, they have a maid.
“Anything else you like, help yourselves.”
They’ve already damaged the liquor cabinet and cases of Bud.
Mr. Chip turns in with a tumbler of bourbon. He wants to sleep before the ecstasy kicks in. He’ll deal with the sugary therapy-like insomnia.
A train hoots like an owl far off in the distance.
Toby paces outside on the deck. His eyes are dilated. He’s elated. His spine’s creaking.
A girl hands him a beer. It’s Vanda.
“Come for a spin?”
“Vanda, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Could be fun,” she says.
“Are you OK?” He’s not the candidate for being in Vanda’s car, wrapped around a pylon.
“Oh, right as rain.” She ducks her head cutely.
They’re getting wet.
The night’s vapor closes around them.
The lagoon’s misty, smelly and heavy like methane.
He embraces Vanda and pushes.
Whose ecstasy is this?
It’s a dirty approximation, past MDMA, near speed, half LSD.
Vanda’s kissing him again.
Why couldn’t she address the pock-marks unfilled with orange foundation?
She’s kind of nasty.
Led Zeppelin’s playing through the open patio door.
Mr. Chip’s exhaling great clouds of smoke.
“Let’s go inside,” Toby says.
Vanda understands. She takes his hand and leads him past Bunny up to her own bedroom.
“Use a condom,” Bunny says, slurring as they pass.
Vanda keeps on her bra. She peels the straps and cups down around her stomach.
He breaths around them. He’s gentle as if a touch will break their pact with gravity.
She bites down on him. Her mouth is vulpine and sharp, then soft.
This time he holds it. He sucks in his stomach and she dips her hands into the dimples in his ass.
And comes up and kisses him, laughing. His mustiness is on her breath. It’s weird.
Her tongue’s clicking around in her mouth. Stud?
“I’ll slip on the condom, yeah?”
It smells like bubblegum and oil.
She opens for him and Toby’s in.
It’s dryish then goopy.
They stir together like mice.
He breeds into the plastic.
Her nipples harden when she comes touching herself.
It feels great resting on her.
Some kid walks in unexpected.
“Your butt’s bleeding, dude,” the kid says, not minding.
She’s gored him.
“Thanks,” he replies.
“You wanna smoke some crack?”
“Hey, get out of my room!” Vanda shouts. “Toby, do something!” She throws a sandal at the kid’s goofy face.
Toby rises with as much naked authority as he can muster. His sword’s bent, hard and threatening, with the shield hanging from it. Toby’s ready for more, a Pleasure if he could ever be one.
“Okay, dude!” he says, closing the door hastily.
Toby feels a little foolish naked with Vanda. But he bows at the altar of her chest and that brief, thief-like feeling dwindles.
Surfacing, he asks, “Vanda, do you or your dad have the tanker schedule?”
He has his board and Brettonwood’s near the port.
His butt really is bleeding from where she scratched him.
“Don’t you want to do it again?” she asks, pushing him down into her. It’s a bit rich at first but she’s trimmed and sweet. She taps his shoulders as he tastes her, too hard and too excited.
Her bed’s stained with a patina of boys, Toby, Claude, Jesse, whoever. She’s a trooper.
He passes to the veiny alabaster of her bottom and the two pink white cords of her lips.
She squeals as they bend together. His thumb slips into her. She pushes back.
He slides over her back and sucks a hard breast. He’s heavy and she’s petite.
“Toby, Toby, Toby,” she says. She curls her back like a cat to touch herself.
He pushes her legs further apart. It sounds and smells like sex.
When it’s over, he can’t stop thinking about the surf report.
“Let’s go to the beach,” he suggests midway.
“Sure,” she says.
Vanda’s drinking Amaretto, what she could grab from the cabinet. Toby rushes the van out of Brettonwood, past the canes and ditches. Claude and Jesse are in back with their boards, wetsuits, and lights. They don’t want to get steamrolled by a tanker in the channel.
The beams rake across an opossum smartly faking on the road’s shoulder and they park.
“He’s a mimic all right,” says Toby.
Jesse pokes him with a stick. “He don’t move.”
“Fucker,” says Claude. “Wish I could play dead.”
Toby should touch base with Noemi. His mother’s probably lost herself boozing with her consular friends again. She’s been sad, erratic and louche since Wyatt left. For once, she doesn’t care about Toby’s grades, meals, clothes, friends or finances, what she always insisted on supervising before. Instead the maid has taken over, feeding him tortillas and ironing his t-shirts on the days she’s there.
He doesn’t feel or look any different, but with Wyatt gone, has he taken the reins? After all he feels a hint of remorse and concern for what’s been happening, even if it’s had real benefits like no curfew and unlimited night miles.
Claude has dipped his hand into the creature’s bald pouch.
“Nasty dude,” says Jesse, reviled.
Toby shakes his head, hearing the warm regard of his father’s voice in the oceanic delay of all the gruesome discoveries of adolescence. Oh sure, he’s gung-ho to be an oilman, too, flying around in bugs over the corpse of the earth.
“She’ll bite you, dude,” Vanda says. “Even an opossum has limits.”
“It’s low tide tonight, right?” asks Jesse.
Motivation’s a cinch.
Galveston Bay is murky green like toothpaste. The light’s still and sharp. Dredgers, yachts and shrimpers compete out on the water. The marina rocks slightly with the wind and waves at the edge of the shipping channel, past the spits of sand and shifting sandbars.
“Boat’s my uncle’s,” says Claude. “He told me about the long wave.”
“A beaut, dude.” Toby pats the boat’s sparkly fiberglass shell. “So we’re off, yeah?”
“Sure, just help me untie.”
Their surfboards vibrate with the tumble of the waves, the craft rushing over the water towards the long wave possibly starting at Seabrook and breaking to Red Bluff. It might peel along the shoals of a newly dredged section of channel along Atkinson Island or swell at Baffle Point and run along the Bolivar Peninsula. It’s chancy. But Claude knows the incongruities and rewards, so he says.
The tankers anchor offshore in chains. Having come from halfway around the world, the ships must wait for their pilot boat. This is the homestretch. On a good run the pilots can manage seventeen knots. Their propellers can suck anything up into the vortex of their screwing, turning chops.
Toby’s lucky to be here. Jesse and Mathis are the pros.
Deeper in the channel are the terminals and refineries around Deer Park and Baytown, the sky dark and ominous like accidents. Liquid chlorine and LPG spheroids speckle the landscape. Clusters of tankers are bunched together like bombs at the terminals, their liquid cargo emptying into the thirsty refineries along this tendril of water that feeds the oil-brained fortunes of Houston and America. This is where Midas turns dinosaur shit into sapiens gold.
“The first few times we didn’t get nothin’,” says Claude, the spray and noise of the outboards blowing into his words.
Vanda attempts to light a cigarette in the salty, moist wind.
“Dude, drive! It’s your boat,” says Jesse. He begins to exchange his t-shirt and shorts for a wetsuit.
Toby jumps into his Rip Curl, too.
“Vanda, wanna use my board?” asks Claude.
“Sure,” she says. “Can I use your springsuit too?” She exhales a violet smoke. She smells like wine coolers.
“This is it!” says Jesse.
Now Toby sees the chest-high swell looming in the water and running along the straightaway—the curled back of a serpent surging forward in loops of foam and slush.
They’ve waxed up. Claude needs to lift the boat over and beyond the wave and deposit everyone ahead of the break. It takes some skill but he manages to drop everyone off and get out of the zone.
The three cubs slide onto their boards and dip into the turgid slimy water. Vanda’s encumbered by Claude’s big suit. It’s quiet for a moment, the air booming with gulls and somewhere a squad of bobbing pelicans.
Toby avoids the polystyrene and tar. He thrashes and paddles to get the wave, the little set rolling off the bow of the skyscraper chugging forward beyond his eyes. He leaps forward onto his board. It’s pliant and agreeable in the water. The wave pushes him along, assured and strong.
Unbelievable. Waves when it’s totally flat! He delivers a laugh at the ship, wishing it would yank its horn.
Claude moves into deeper water. He’s in charge of collecting any wipeouts over the shoals. He drifts for a moment and opens up the caps to his field glasses. He dials in the name on the red bow and the white topsides: Aleutian Key. Claude reads it with all the sense of expectant wildness that surfing in Alaska could entail. He’s careful not to drift too near and threaten the ship. By the glint of glass he knows the sea marshal is monitoring its approach and he mimics the actions of any other pleasure craft.
Vanda and Jesse flank him. His legs are already tired. The wax is softening under his toes. He ululates over the face, pumping and pushing for more speed and lip. He curls under to touch it, stable and sure. He hasn’t surfed this much in his life! Too bad Wyatt doesn’t know what kind of fun he’s missed thanks to his own discoveries offshore.
It’s his song, the song in his voice a thin sensitive shell, and he bawls during the refrain with the panache of a Comanche singing his self and all the people that came to make him. He’s singing through the Big Water and calling Toby down, shaking his great fatty hump. The tears falls from his eyes in ecstasy for what he hears, for the song joins him with this strange artificial natural of a wave, imbued by all the freedoms and opportunities, know-how and maturity to be everything that the world was or is.
He digs his fins deeper, cruises with attitude, the fabric of his muscle rippling like the cloak of sea breaking unexpectedly in the channel over the sandbar. Mullet and other fish flash in the wall of water. He’s kinetic, millions of barrels of energy riding the mushy gumbo that’s the entrance to Houston’s ship channel, petrodollars put to sport, a wet road.
For a moment he doesn’t have to concentrate but can smile at Jesse and Vanda, keeping abreast of the supertanker, each slashing in their stylish way, and Claude in the area, shards of water rebounding off the side of the boat, stuttering like a reed over the abused patch of sea, a toxic, soapy, tarred expanse of salt water in which some forms of life just happen to swim. It’s the home of scavengers and bottom feeders in a chemical sludge pushing against plastic sands. And the most desperate of wave hunters congregate here.
His calves burn and his butt is sore. He can give Claude the signal any time.
The air’s heavy with the emissions and smoke just starting to lift. The sun’s gaining.
They’ll all ride that morning, two hours for the tide to turn and the aberration of the long break to keep flowing.
Everyone’s grinning and getting burnt.
Toby watches that he doesn’t drift into the channel while schoonering Claude’s boat. A tanker could come at any moment, the hull welded onto the hazy sky. Flares litter the channel. A siren booms somewhere among the acres of pipes, valves and hot air.
The earth’s a rancid oxidized goopy red. Underfoot is the home of the oil economy. There are splitters, crackers and the plants to make monomers, polymers and aromatics, facilities for diesel, benzene, napthama and gases. An entire chemical universe is just beyond the sands in the scrub, cement docks poured over blocked up creeks, and well-rehearsed lines of tanker trucks loading danger ninety tons a time. The dark steel forest of pipes pushes against the perimeter.
The refineries freak Toby out. He’s grown up with the privileges of lawns and pools, not this dystopia of vinyl, rubber, steel, fluoride, molasses and waste. At the end of this toxic sliver of waterway, ships are turning in the basin, the spoon of acrid water ending right in front of the shining tusks of downtown, lifting the oil to Houston’s chapped lips.
“We’re all just vapor, ” he can remember Wyatt saying. “It’s the same handshake that clinches the deals.” Toby recalls his father’s office on a weekend when he’s been invited to dork around in the map room, illuminated with what’s hot and what’s got potential. He pauses to stare at the freeway, a grid even on a weekend. The monument pierces the haze across the channel, the obelisk no more than another derrick, but Houston’s port is invisible through the smog.
Poseidon Oil’s facility in Baytown is one of scores of volatile monsters along the channel. An army of men and women lightly protected with hardhats, goggles, aprons, boots, tools, walkie-talkies and computers supervise the refining of crude and condensates into petrochemicals. They have a clinical regard for the mayhem of their manufacture. As far as they’re concerned oil’s even good to eat.
It’s sick, he thinks, that his Wyatt’s not here. He’d probably like the view.
Toby registers the hands waving for him—he’d better collect his charges.
“Hey, the cooler’s empty, what an oversight,” Jesse says when he pulls himself onto the boat.
“No 7-11 out here,” adds Claude.
He’s got a rash on his feet.
Vanda’s scratching too.
“Not funny,” she says. She yanks off her wetsuit, wrapping a towel around her chest, then reaching for her smokes in the rocking boat.
Claude takes over the controls and shouts.
The boat punches across the channel.
But Jesse’s wet and strangely incoherent.
“He’ll burn at both ends if you let him,” says Claude. “Get him back on dry land and he’ll be all right. You high, Jesse?”
“It’s the wave, dude.” His speech is seized and dry.
“Lie down,” says Vanda.
Jesse rests at their feet and the boat carves across the bay. They undress him and have him huddle under their clothes. They shrug, they’re mystified.
“The beach’s that-a-way,” Jesse says obtusely.
They laugh; so much for complaints about flat surf.
Later, Toby parks the van along the road. The wheels nudge into the crab grass.
His mom’s Supra is in the driveway.
The backdoor is locked. Maybe she’s sleeping?
“Mom?” he calls. “Mom, I’m home!”
It’s not the maid’s day either.
No one’s turned down the AC.
Where the fuck is she?
He looks in her room. Outfits are strewn on the carpet and bed. He finds the wrappers of cigarettes, and oddly condoms, thrown across the dresser. The towels are still wet. The hair dryer and distributor are still hot.
He tries her mobile.
It’s turned off. This time of day she’s probably meeting her lawyer, outlining her grievances.
“Fucking bitch,” he says.
He goes to the fridge and extracts the tuna salad. He toasts a few slices of wheat-berry bread. He switches on the television for company.
Noemi won’t tell him what’s up, but it’s not to challenge at all to deduce his mother’s state of mind from the clues.
She’s gone. Wickedly gone. Like Wyatt.
“Won’t you come?” Noemi asks, “We could go on a trip.”
Toby’s almost a teenager; he already hates everything and everyone. However, this is an opportunity to get what he wants.
“Once you’ve been to Jerusalem you don’t need the Bible,” she says.
“Why not Greece?”
But not until the compulsory stop in England. For a fortnight he’s just one wet vinegary shit until the appointed hour when they pass over a black island over a black sea, descending swiftly, disembarking into the sultry Mediterranean darkness, a sunny tour rep greeting them at arrivals in Corfu.
The heat delivers its welcome. The cicadas moan in the darkness. The minivan snakes across the island—bugs glowing among cactus and cypress.
Dust whirls under the retreating lights.
Waves strike the bleak shore.
The tour rep administers them to the proprietress, a large attractive woman who later opens a room behind the taverna’s veranda. The walls are green and dotted with tiny flying olives—mosquitoes, guaranteed to feed at dawn.
Tired, chilled, bitten, Toby’s the first person on the patio over the pebble beach and cove. He follows a path to the few cafes and shops that are the center of town. He’s undeterred by figs and peaches in a soppy paper bag or a baguette, short sharp coffee, or peptic mineral water. The bench is salty. The sea and mountains are as bright as spearmint gum. Everything looks fantastic.
His adolescent soul dissolves in the warm glassy sea that morning thanks to his mother capitulating to his demand for mask and fins; he’s absolutely spoiled this trip.
Noemi wraps herself in a sun-kissed towel and muses over her continental breakfast. She dots calamine on her swellings. Later, Noemi will join the esprit de corps of the Scandinavians and remove her tube top, the beach slowly inundated by gangs of appealing female bodies as the sun gains in joy.
A steep fragrant path leads to the lush mountains of Corfu. He can see Albania across the straits. The wind smells of mint, lizards, salt, pitch, his blood, his breath. The view’s too romantic. Nonetheless, it’s a seminal ideal that could be a revelation to an upset boy’s mind. Donkeys kick among the thistle and anis, and men stumble from a white village into the scrub, for such a view is like seeing all that life can and will be, perhaps with the luxury of the corner of an eye. Toby dips over a rise, the brush and stones scratching at his shins and pulling him to the dry red lime of the island, knowing he will return.
Toby’s miserable. Summer’s starting and school’s over. He’s already been in jail overnight for buying booze and he’s inadvertently pushed his lousy girlfriend in a ditch. He posts letters all over the world offering to volunteer for anything absolutely anywhere. Being an archaeologist seems sexy.
He’s forgotten all about his campaign, lost in the gap of empty restless June, when a beaten envelope from the antiquities department at Lecce arrives in Houston, the letter saying yes, he’s most welcome.
There’s no time to lose. Toby must go.
Even Noemi says so.
She’s proud to see him leave for Europe. He can put his Latin to use.
The plane circles the volcano.
It’s a hot, muggy day in Naples. Toby shares a taxi into town. Traffic signals, markings and signs that prescribe the rules mean little here. The cars coast, honk, then weave; the rhythm’s wonderful, vehicles surging, gliding, touching, conveying the lightness of the living to the blackest of secrets.
Toby hovers around the station most of the day, his train across the peninsula only departing at dusk. Bored, he does consign his knapsack for a while and ambles through a lovely, crumbling neighborhood, buildings sprayed in place with rude, menacing graffiti.
But the heat trims his energy and he withdraws to a cool billiard hall; dark men play and wager through the siesta hour, balls slide on the baize for hours—traveling yet not moving at all—Campari and a tiny black espresso at his side. It’s fabulous being Italian.
The train’s baked in the sun all day and reeks of human habits. There’s no choice but to get on and the first cool, albeit smelly breeze only appears once they’re tipping along Naples outskirts. His jetlag takes over once they round the volcano and pass the last human lava of villas, farms, and factories flowing into the hinterland.
No one comes to sit with him. No one takes his things. No one asks for his ticket until very late in the night briskly scented with mountain air.
The conductor rattles the door, forces his way in, sits down, dramatically pushing his buttocks into the brown vinyl seats; he winks, tips his black plastic cap, rubs himself as he asks for the ticket, taking the occasion to drop it and touch Toby’s leg with his wet fingers.
He’s quick to show the porno snaps in his wallet.
“You like girls?” He pushes them forward. “Girls?” He clenches his chest, then fondles his trousers, pauses. He purrs as he marks the ticket, then handing it over, letting his hand linger.
“Creep,” Toby says.
Old enough to claim some authority, he firmly pushes the man away. He’s certainly not drunk, though lonesome and unsettled might do.
The train falters on through the night, curtains swinging, soothing roar subsuming into restless hush. A sequence of abrupt stops begins before dawn, stations seemingly no more than a fluttering grape leave or a buzzing insect dashing across the cobalt sky. Suddenly, a flash of lapis and turquoise, the sea, a white conurbation at its edge, and wagons of freight and containers sketched into the landscape. By mid-morning he’s sandwiched between the Apennines and the Adriatic. Everything is hotter, sweeter, and more aromatic.
The last leg’s a cinch. At Lecce, Toby transfers to a cute local train covering the final few kilometers of track to Italy’s jagged heel. Speaking Latin is useless unless he wants to conduct mass. Somehow he figures out the G’s silent in Màglia.
White dust covers the countryside of Graeca Minor and he’s smothered with it once he disembarks from the old puffer.
A priest intercepts him within a few minutes: he knows why Toby’s here.
“Prego,” he says, guiding the boy to his tiny white Fiat and bidding him to get in.
Màglia’s secondary school has been requisitioned for the summer as a dormitory for the team of volunteers and archaeologists. Toby tramps up the stone steps into the arms of none other than Professor Androtti, who smiles and lauds his “Americano.”
It’s the priest’s idea to retrieve a bottle of red from the car and the two of them are soon happily tittering in Androtti’s office in garbled English.
On this first day the professor leaves Toby to unpack, rest, and get to know his two French roommates: Bruno, handsome, smiling, and Le Bestia, awkward and crooked toothed, aptly named due to the notoriety of his smelly feet.
The team assembles in the evening at a restaurant; they will eat there every day henceforth. Fifty-odd people sit around the table: Androtti and cronies clustered at the head of the table laden with bottles of rosé and mineral water, grad students doting in the middle, and undergrads and volunteers like Toby neglected at the very extreme end. As the courses come and go (soup, pasta, calamari, prosciutto, fruit), Toby finds himself looking into the eyes of two disarmingly beautiful women. They’re Dutch and soon fast friends.
The dinner lasts until the professor rises and declares the meal and conversation done, and there’s nothing else to do except eat, drink, and talk in the interim, not a bad proposal considering Toby doesn’t often meet a pair of beautiful young Dutch women in a small restaurant at the bottom of Italy. It’s the moment to be an American teenager and debate whether there are good waves lurking in the Mediterranean or sound drug and prostitution policies in Holland.
He’d claim anything to get their kit off.
Later, the team promenades into town, Androtti leading the pack, hands clasped behind his back, spinning to admire his acolytes, protégés and just plain laborers. The stragglers have already plunked down outside a café for gelato—Toby’s lemon scoop incomparable to any lemon he has ever tasted—and the Dutch are willing to flirt with Toby by now, pulling and teasing. Adolescents zap around the plaza on their scooters.
Night has fallen and a breeze rises from the nearby sea.
Toby’s true to his vow to retire relatively early, since will begin in earnest well before dawn, sleep easy if it were not for the scent of Le Bestia’s gnarled feet, unfortunately not quite potent enough to drive away the biters.
Toby’s ready to bundle into Bruno’s car for the hinterland at dawn.
“Into the in-between,” he thinks.
But they first stop at the dig site.
People are carefully scraping at the earth with trowels and whisks, separating orange soil from yellow. Professor Androtti is hunting for the antecedents of the Greek colonies in Italy, a distinct proto-culture, the missing link establishing just how old and important are Italians.
Toby already wishes that archaeology could be more exciting. He’s not going further with Bruno today but kneeling in the dirt.
By midmorning everyone retreats to a nearby café for an espresso and sandwich. The locals peruse the pink pages of La Gazzetta Dello Sport. The team’s happy to melt in the shade except for the eager-beavers still analyzing a temple stone. Androtti sends them back out until one.
The light makes separating yellow dirt from orange quite impossible. Everything looks burnt, dun and matt. The science is futile, so Toby pretends, sweeping motes of history’s dust into the air.
They gather for lunch around the long table at the restaurant. Toby’s likes eating across from Anna and Roos, friendly and flirtatious like before; he suspects they’ve been thinking about him because he’s been thinking about them. Professor Androtti eyes the proceedings from his end of the table and Toby’s careful not to be too overt in his exchanges with them.
He dreads the siesta and Le Bestia’s unenviable feet.
Each evening they wash, sort and identify any artifacts from the day. The sacks of pottery shards from Bruno’s land survey are included. A prehistoric shark tooth or a pipe stem might be among them. Concentrations of shards known as impasto, a rough sandy ceramic belonging to the paleo people for whom Professor Androtti hopes to become famous, are why Bruno needs a team of eyes to assist him.
It’s serendipity when Androtti assigns Anna, Roos, and Toby as volunteers to this pleasant work. They find themselves walking in ranks; they comb through tobacco fields, melon patches, vineyards, olive groves, over entirely picturesque hills and glades, scanning and stooping to pick a tile or urn or ewer, anything manufactured. They show their shards to Bruno, who then marks their rough location on his geological survey map if they find a particular concentration. Sometimes they even collect some impasto and Bruno grins when someone hands over the blood-red pieces. Underneath could be a house, mill, workshop, temple, or town.
The survey team’s fine company.
Sometimes they can taste the sea. Not for the first time does Anna jump on Toby’s back and he piggybacks her downhill towards the sea, her breasts pushing into his back until he discharges her into the water. They take days surveying a large estate entered by a long approach lined with piñon pines; they pause each day to gather the nuts from the fragrant cones. The smallest of events are imbued with magic in this smallest of places like when Toby discovers a nest of centipedes, as thick as rulers, completely poisonous, under his favorite picnic rock.
The summer and the heat advance; they blacken their mouths with blackberries reaching from the stone walls; they soak in the polyphonic song of cicadas; they cannot imagine that trouble’s brewing on site.
Bruno, Anna, Roos, and Toby occasionally appear at the excavation and gaze at the progress: Professor Androtti really has unearthed a temple, with the help of a queeny colleague from Ghent who’s sharing the privilege of Professor Androtti’s office cum room.
One night after a few many beers outside the gelateria along the plaza, Anna and Roos seem to have a pact to be rowdy and aggressive. They claw at Toby and Bruno and the boys claw back: they’re wrestling vividly in public and everyone in Màglia sees what lusty orgy could stain or already has besmirched the good name of Professor Androtti, not least Androtti’s pal, the priest who is parked at another café, wondering about the reports of Bruno’s survey team combing the hills nude.
Toby becomes more aroused thinking of Roos, Anna, and Bruno together and wonders whom might be his eventual target. Feeling the bruises and scratches along his body, this might be the night. Will he surreptitiously escape from the cadaverous smell of Le Bestia’s feet to somewhere much more pleasant?
Anna and Roos are angry and packing the next morning. They’re not coming on the survey today or on any other. They’re moving to another dig in the area run by a Dutch university.
“Androtti gave us marching orders,” Anna says. “The little fascist cannot tolerate any fun.”
“Androtti’s jealous because we’ve been giving you too much attention,” adds Roos. “He’s in love with Bruno, too, can’t you tell?”
The women berate the professor and his notions of what is and isn’t appropriate in a small traditional town on the heel of Italy, but Toby suspects it’s handsome Bruno and not him whom they are going to miss, even when they offer him not only a parting hug but two real kisses in the school hall.
Archaeology ceases to be of much interest to Toby with the departure of Anna and Roos, even with Bruno for company. Soon thereafter, he also leaves, forlorn and disappointed; he makes a careful choice: a berth on the upper deck of a ferry from Brindisi to Corfu.
The Greek port’s dismal but charming and just like he remembers it.
He steps down in the exhaust and dust along the main strip of Palaiokastritsa. There are many tavernas from which to choose. One lady assures him of figs from the trees and a breakfast of cheese and eggs. That clinches it. He’ll supply the bread.
“It was built in the night,” she says, “So we didn’t have to get a permit.”
He’s fine with the arrangement, the beach a short trot from his simple room.
A lovely brunette splashed on the sand makes him ache with desire. Her large breasts look painfully taut. But he doesn’t have the courage to look at her face or ask her name. He shakes the water from his lean body. As a last resort he changes from his wet shorts, but she displays disinterest at the dangling spoon. Toby’s Doctor Doolittle for not speaking to her or any of the cute girls selling T-shirts and lavender oil along the road.
The sexual anxiety sends him on a hike to the island’s interior. He’s looking for the spot. His legs, heart, and brain are nagging for air when he arrives on the island’s divide, the Balkan Peninsula stretching out before him. Gazing into the empyreal distance, he’s satisfied with the order of the world, Noemi’s voice behind him, urging him to shed all responsibility. Why have a home when life settles on serendipity? The wind seems to lift his body like a kite from the ground and he’s flying over the straits of Otranto among the breasts of islands, looking for a home, looking for clues of Androtti’s proto people, looking for the place where humanity might have been born.
He can search all he likes, he thinks, the project of a lifetime that he’ll probably never finish, the charm of adolescence despoiled and ruined, adulthood lying ahead somewhere behind the sun, of which he’s been warned but chosen not to listen, reality sending him striding through the mint and thistles back to the mundane beaches and coves below.
Toby’s traveling to a specific dot and he must use all means. His last night is in Corfu airport. He’s kept back just enough for a flight back to base. He curls up next to the baggage carousel and sleeps, not caring about the bucket flights arriving in the night like he had so long ago. The ambient conversations filter into Toby’s dreams: a fabulous cocktail party where he’s well-tanned baggage, all vapor and vermouth among the holidaymakers waiting for their cases.
Sometime before dawn he boards the first flight of two. By mid-morning, the itinerary on pause, he reckons he can walk into Athens; he leaves the perimeter of the airport, heading for the Parthenon. A long boulevard draped in smog indicates that this is impossible. Why not settle for the beach? He turns his brown feet in the dirty sand, trying not to fall asleep in the acid sun. He doesn’t wander; he’s too low on resources and too high on confidence, so much so that he’s talkative and confident the entire way to Heathrow, teasing ten quid from a fellow passenger, a girl, surely willing to pay such a small price to ditch the intrepid archaeologist and explorer that he temporarily imagines himself to be.
He’s careless, a snob and insists on the train, the girl’s tenner getting him as far as Reading. Undeterred, he marches to the motorway and hitchhikes further as evening falls. Late that night he locates Momma Empire’s flat hidden among a street of grumpy maisonettes in Bath. He has one saving grace: a key.
He taps on the radio, fuzzing to life and issuing gale reports.
A sense of remorse and guilt reminds him that she’s not here.
She’d be impressed by the solo journey.
The books are dusty and smell of tobacco and mildew. The rooms overflow with furniture. Two gold angels play tag on the ceiling. Carpets and tapestries line the floors and walls. The four winds blow from the molding. A chrome globe hangs over the window to ward away evil. The hallway brims with ivory, heavy silver, jars of spices, basins and ironed damask, course and fly-fishing rods, oil-skin anoraks, wellies, and spades. The pink cellar bedroom is littered with hand-painted silk scarves. Beads of amber and amethyst, garnet and ebony hibernate in a jewelry box. Two closets, a garish array of textures and patterns, pajamas, robes, shawls, caftans. A chest of drawers is stuffed with fancy, fine knickers.
He recalls his final words to her: “You’re a bitch. You’re not just being one, you are one.”
Why did he say it?
Or did he really mean his mum?
Momma Empire had been pursuing him for days for his mannerlessness when he finally lets her have his teenage judgment. His teeth are clenched in braces and his face is in spots. What’s really wrong is that Momma Empire has cancer but she doesn’t tell him. Nor anyone. Only when they return to America piqued by Momma Empire’s atrocious behavior does she let them know.
Momma Empire fades rapidly. She makes a business of vanishing, but not without spirit or style. She pads around the spa town, attending lectures in the library or tending to her allotment or buying a ticket in the Gods for the theater. She regularly pouts in a coffee shop staring at the weir and fumes on a Woodbine. Yet she’s courageous and battles with her vigor but it’s no good. The odds of lax doctors and late diagnoses are not in her favor.
Momma Empire’s flat is full of Empire; her spell of mystery lives on. The uncanny leopard skin leers on the blue carpet floor, food for the next evolution of moth. The divan is as uncomfortable as ever. Animal ivories roar on a mock Serengeti. Momma’s esoteric books of suspects, teachers, and poets—El Idres Shah, Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, Steiner, Rumi—are interspersed among the more mundane guides to antiques, cookery, fishing, gardens, and languages.
For a woman who seemed perpetually cross, he can’t imagine what Momma Empire sought in the Theosophy movement?
The screed about masters and pupils wiggles on the pages.
What kind of antidote is this?
Apparently she sought harmony and unity with God, whatever demeanor. Did she know that God does not even know himself? Perhaps she needed a cup in which to brew her wanderings, tasked with awakening.
His former ally against the inanity of the American suburbs really has disappeared. He claps if that would summon her but nothing stirs. The damp downstairs is permanent.
No Momma Empire.
No note, no hint, nothing.
He rubs an ivory hippopotamus but nothing like that will bring her back; she’s been gobbled by hawks or angels, no more than a potpourri of memories in her pink bedroom and the churning shadows of the trees tossed by the wind.
A lantern swings above the porch.
Loose slates scuttle down the roof.
Midnight’s at the end of the garden.
Crossroads kiss beyond the house.
Further on, a river swirls with trout.
White wax trickles from the candles.
The ash glides down from a cigarette.
Maybe she hasn’t gone to the cemetery after all, he considers, Momma Empire back from the dead to put the living in order. Certainly, her unsettling secrets may have aroused her from her slumber, the young girls advised to take hot bathes, drop from heights or drink a bottle of spirits if the poultices of white rose and nutmeg and rainwater don’t work in her kitchen, babies induced from their places, helping the girls, as Momma Empire says, “Move on.”
People already are walking on the wet street above the bedroom. Toby’s sheets are cold and wet. He dons a pullover, climbs up to the kitchen, pours the grouts of a Turkish coffee and rustles the newspaper in a fragment of sunlight. His finger plays with one of Momma’s Woodbines. Toby resists lighting it, then opens the door to the lounge.
He cries out.
Is that Momma expired in the armchair, the yawp of life blown from her body?
She’s thin and emphysematous, pale like the blue paper and clutching a smoke. A tiny fly buzzes at the corner of her eyes wryly smiling in one corner.
Is it no more than a cosmic joke composed in his mind by Madame Blavatsky?
“Dear Momma,” he calls, “Momma Empire!”
But it’s no use; he can’t rouse her with his voice and he’s too squeamish to close her gelatinous eyes.
Toby retreats downstairs and phones a neighbor.
He yanks on his dirty travel jeans before hastily opening the front door.
The neighbor confirms that Momma Empire’s quite dead. “Weren’t you at the funeral, Toby?” he asks.
“Oh no, sir, I had exams. But can you tell me who’s that?” he asks, pointing at what appears to be an empty chair.
He doesn’t know what to say in the pause
“Well, get some rest,” suggests the neighbor. “Maybe you should call home.”
The phone rings deep in the American night.
“She passed away, you know that,” his father say, full of sleep but capable of euphemism. “You coming home?”
“Before college starts, dad,” he says, “Not long.”
Toby’s spooked and finds some company in the radio, accidentally nudging the needle over Radio Caroline. Ska and Rocksteady clang from the ether. A DJ anchored somewhere out in the Channel gives the command and Toby can feel the listeners like himself hoist the island’s canvas and set sail for the Caribbean.
Although there’s little to do in Bath for a teenage boy without cash, still he drifts around the sand-colored town so high on itself that no one bothers with a kid like Toby Pleasure. The hipsters on the high street are competing to mimic David Bowie. The hippies on the coal canal Chewbacca. There’s nothing cool or dangerous about a tan geek with spots and braces. But they’re inordinately polite, the cooperation that people offer one another in the cramped quarters of Britain’s terrain, vales of decorum and brooks of friendship, when he asks for a tip about where to go.
“The Hat and Feather,” they say. “The drug pub.”
La Naranja and the Cosmos
Dexter’s a hotshot sculptor and Ella’s a Blues singer. They run a popular restaurant and nightspot, La Naranja, an ideal location for boosting the image of Dexter’s sculptures and Ella’s tunes. Dexter also has a silent partner, Dr. Ruffy, imprisoned for drug possession and incriminated by his wife, her way of asking for a divorce far away from the sweet taste of the orange.
La Naranja’s male customers tend to savor Dexter’s policy of hiring only women who he would like to bed if it were not for Ella’s watchful eye. They’re free to assume Alabama, Elaine, Rachel or Stephanie will not resist Dexter’s paws until the complimentary post-shift margaritas, courteously shaken together by Greg revisiting his sole story about pregnancy and love, and by then they might have arranged a date.
“I was shooting blanks, so it never happened,” he chuckles, smiling at the throng, confidently mixing a pitcher of tequila and Cointreau.
The cute hostess is having quite a time with the mass of people willing to wait two hours at the bar before sitting for dinner. The kitchen’s a long and narrow galley occupied by steam trays, a grill, ovens and a deadly fryer. Four men pirouette from hot appliance to stews, tortillas, stuffings and sauces. Pete flattens pizzas and responds to a plea for more corn chips. Sam sautés pans of fajitas and grills burgers. Juan Carlos had disappeared ostensibly to fetch more tortillas from the walk-in refrigerator, a welcome respite from the inferno too hot for even a Guadalajuareno. Toby’s role is to accidentally burn an anchovy and jalapeno pizza according to Greg’s specifications in exchange for some of the same margarita.
Bubbles of tasks are floating above Toby. They merge into a large, continuously rolling flowchart of actions that manage the information. Cooperation drives the bubbles and thus the meals forward. The chefs develop a cavalier invulnerability to the heat and knives. Toby pushes the grease and food parts from the cooling slit.
A band’s setting up on La Naranja’s stage. Dexter capitalizes on its location in the warehouse district—few neighbors, no law. People are already two-stepping in the parking lot. However, the situation in the kitchen is dire. Pete, senior know-it-all, insists everyone jam to classic rock as they dig through the orders flying like flags above the line. No indie, goth or new wave. Tonight the Creole band zithers and strums and the place slowly ignites as if turtles could dance to the swampy tunes. Dexter understands that music inevitably equals more drinks from Greg’s bar.
The orders will ebb incrementally after midnight and finally it’s the appointed moment to burn Greg a pizza. The bartering with the bar begins for greyhounds and a pitcher of beer. Leftovers are scraped together for the staff. Alabama and Stephanie are wrapping up cutlery, tipping out and fluctuating—whether to stay with the creeps left at La Naranja or go home and take a bath. Toby notices that the hostess is kind of sexy in a pert and serious way.
“What a ratio,” squeals Pete rubbing his brachydactylic fingers together and leering in a ghoulish way.
This ratio becomes dramatic once Dr. Ruffy’s released from prison. His license to practice medicine has been revoked, and he’s drug tested regularly so he cannot get high. Thus La Naranja (half his place after all) is his natural hang out. He spends as much time as possible reacquainting himself with the waitresses and looking for any opportunity to fire ugly, heavy-set Gina and replace her with rail-thin Tina, Hispanola dancer, who is much more into a celebrity guest, Bono, rather than short, horny Dr. Ruffy.
On one nonplussed night the remains of La Naranja congregate at a local pool. Relationships become less transparent as management, chefs, waitresses, customers and Dr. Ruffy swim together beyond the chain-link fence. Does Sam really want to spend his time with Rebecca or would he rather have Rachel, who has already had Pete and Mike and Mark and even Sam himself? Does he want her again? Sam has to work in the morning so he better not, but Rachel pulls him down into the grass next to the pool and rubs her neat little muff against his shorts. Sam gulps at his beer and Rachel goes down on him expertly in the grass, before saddling him. She pokes her fingers into herself and Sam sips the beer a little quieter and she latches on. Sam is still processing enchiladas he will make in the morning when he will stumble out of his beat-up vintage Dodge van.
Sam enters La Naranja and he reeks of chlorine, pussy, cigarettes and beer. His hair dangles in his eyes. He could be either Jim or Paul or Matt or Jay, the self-destructive, over-intelligent, sensitive fellow who scams and skives to get even for being too well balanced. The women who fall into his orbit of freak and radical culture might not see the traces of resolution in his eyes. The underground’s a kind of solution, but in fact it is equally prejudiced as any other actor, no matter if Sam is Jim, Paul, Matt or Jay.
Toby has already prepped the eggs and a few customers are sitting in the sunlight. There are a few clinks of glasses from the bar. The senoras press the corn and flour tortillas and blend the last of the salsas. Sam’s bloodshot eyes tell Toby that he will be making most of the food that morning. Sam will be reading the paper out in the dining room and nursing his hangover with Kahlua, vodka and soda, otherwise described by Greg as a mind-eraser.
Sam makes up for his absent performance with an invitation to his tiny apartment across town. Toby admires Sam for his shy looks and his keen sense of fun that inevitably attracts the opposite sex, and despite the lure of beefing up on his college reading, he accepts Sam’s apartment as a logical destination for Sunday afternoon. Maybe Toby can learn something there. Sam parks the van and they walk up the narrow landing to number four, a cubicle permeated with the smell of fish and steak from a restaurant downstairs. Sam’s apartment roils with acrid smoke and he calmly opens the few windows and turns on the fan, knowing the smell will not abate. He digs through his paraphernalia and locates the bag of dried caps, then drops some into a pair of mugs.
“Dig around in the freezer, will you?” Sam says, popping on the kettle.
Toby opens the fridge and spots the Tupperware filled to the brim with black grass. A bud finds its way into each mug.
“Let it cool down and we’ll add these,” Sam says, producing a blue baggie of dried shroom dust.
As Sam predicts, the psilocybin and sensi infusion is excellent. Soon they are giggling jelly on a patch of the kitchen floor—Rachel and Dr. Ruffy are their targets, along with anyone else who has been fatuous enough to tangle with the La Naranja kitchen.
The clapboard neighborhood pants around them. The houses are reverberating, breathing, hungry. Sam leads the way, then he’s diverted by an old lonely manor, the empty lot spiked with myrtle, pecan and magnolia. They sneak through the fence, cross under the trees to the house, cautiously step into the dark interior as alluring as nectar. The floorboards creak a beat and the stairs are rotten enough that Toby’s foot shoots through. The shadows scurry and hide like humans and Toby bugs out and shoots out to the yard. Sam can do whatever he wants inside.
Later, Sam jabbers at the perimeter of 7-11 as he slugs a quart of malt liquor by the dumpster. In the interval the psilocybin has imbued them with elfish invulnerability as he tumbles down to the creek below. Toby climbs a sapling and swings in the thin pendular branches. Dogs loom from the darkness confusing him with an opossum. Geckos stick to the trees. Toby stirs through the canopy.
It is the fresh taste of beer, extended from Sam’s hand into the trees, that reminds Toby that he is indeed real, a human of liquids, solids and breath, a human apparently slumped on the floor of Sam’s apartment.
Sam, ever popular with the girls, unruffled, untiring, but definitely bleeding, says, “Maybe I should call some girls?” He scratches his balding blond patch.
“You’re in no shape for them,” says Toby.
“Oh, you’re right, dude, too much trouble.” Sam’s in no shape to woo anyone. “Don’t you think a change of environment might take the edge of our trip?”
They pile into Sam’s beat-up van. Sam is soon swerving to the south of town, in search of a particular bar that serves as the headquarters of a violent, reputedly political motorcycle gang, the Banditos. Their sense of adventure considers this a great idea, and in no time Sam and Toby are working through a bottle of Jack D, an elixir to their mad-spore guts, and casually talking to a lean man in the honky-tonk interior. They’ve already tried out the electronic darts in one corner. Sam dials up Les Paul from the jukebox and then lines up a sequence of Johnny and Hank.
The man claims he’s Coyote; he does have a wary disposition on account of the large pistol tucked into his leather pants. His face is scoured with lines from too much of everything and two of his five gnarly ex-wives are hanging in the vicinity. He’s the boss of the outfit, and his aptitude for justice can order execution a good deal faster than the Texas prison board.
A blonde woman enters through the swinging vinyl door; she’s too fresh and beautiful to be a regular. But she walks right up to Coyote, gives him a hug and compliments.
“Hi Dad! Who are these dudes?” she asks.
Much to Sam’s consternation, a goofy guy tags along with her but everyone’s soon ineptly chatting about his saltwater fish tanks thanks to his garrulous nature.
“They’d make a fine addition to the bar,” says Coyote.
He pauses and nods with a gravity that means everyone get.
Toby swallows the last of Jack D and profusely thanks the old wild dog, not wanting to chalk up any disfavor with the chief Bandito.
“Want to visit ours?” asks the blonde girl outside in the parking lot. “Well, you boys follow us.”
Sam and Toby lurch after the white Bronco. They park outside a rundown duplex next to a motel and an elevated portion of the highway.
“I’m Tony,” says the goofy guy before they head inside.
Tony proudly shows them his 300-gallon saltwater tanks alive with corals, anemones and fish. He adds, “They’re stunned with a dilution of cyanide and harvested from the reefs of the Philippines or Australia or Egypt.”
That’s not enough for Tony, resident show-off.
“Come upstairs,” he says.
Toby stares at the sodium lights and breathes the exhaust of the NO2 canister as Tony explains the advantages and perils of cloning until he interrupts himself to call his dog, a big purple vizsla he assures them, until he realizes that his dog’s missing, and it seems the impromptu party’s headed to a halt.
Sam and Toby are about to nod off from cumulative effect of fish and ganja, but Tony’s distress about his lost dog is so palpable they have to pitch in. Once Tony remembers to check the backyard, everything’s resolved.
“How about some barbequed steaks to celebrate,” he suggests to the two lumps.
“You can set your hand on fire and because of the vapor your hand doesn’t burn,” Sam nonchalantly declares having located the lighter fluid, his hand roasting and flaming like a firecracker.
Everyone is soon trying Sam’s pyromaniac trick and Tony has the bright idea to light the beef on fire in the same manner until he realizes that it is not going to taste very appetizing like that. Neither is his hand.
People arrive from the darkness, plain or ostentatious in style, spicy or mellow in mood, maybe even an altruist who sacrifices his credit card as collateral for the keg and tap so everyone can collect near the good liquid Feng Shui packed in ice in a PVC trashcan. They gab on about skated pools, psychedelic bands, the skinny-dipping sinkhole, the best ribs, fucking in space, the choices between speed, black tar, horse tranquilizers or dropping acid in your eye from this excellent little bottle?
The fuel-flavored beef runs out and the drugs and alcohol soak in. A cassette tape of Joy Division auto-reverses into the Cult. Tony warns everyone that his vizsla is not to be eaten but a fish is okay. Tony extracts a beautiful grouper from one of his tanks; he proudly grills it. They’re too lashed to stop him. Its smell blackens the backyard already stinking of herb and beer. People settle on the skateboard ramp that occupies one part of the muddy yard. The ramp affords an excellent view of the neighboring motel and a few spectators have a grand time watching a Hispanic couple drilling one another in one of the dirty rooms and climaxing, not until the first light fills the sky and keg runs dry. Sam’s left to whatever quick romance he’s engineering on top of the skateboard ramp, spurred on by the Hispanic couple that have returned to their passionate labor, before he too must join morning’s soggy heat.
Each afternoon Wolfgang strides into La Naranja under the pretext of ogling the waitresses like any other male, but he’s really interested in the beer and tequila that he tips up to his pug-like face. The chef’s costume—starched white jacket with Wolfgang embroidered on the lapel, black and white hound’s-tooth pants, clogs—adds a touch of sophistication Wolfgang might not necessarily have. He doesn’t see anything wrong with adding to his plastic cup of tobacco spit at his elbow when he offers Toby a job at the Cosmopolitan Club.
Wolfgang comes often enough to remind Dexter that Toby’s leaving La Naranja. However, Toby doesn’t want to leave La Naranja that fast, it having supplied him with a friend (Sam), pussy (his turn with Rachel and the hostess), alcohol (Greg’s margaritas) and tips (tax-free money). Wolfgang gives him two weeks to wrap up.
Toby hesitantly accepts Wolfgang’s offer to work afternoons and weekends at the Cosmopolitan Club located in two floors of a moderate skyscraper. Floor twelve is the health club; floor thirteen is the upscale cafeteria and party zone. An aerobics class is booming downstairs and shaking the kitchen tiles.
Wolfgang plunks into the chair in his office. Like all good executive chefs he does not really work in the kitchen. He administers from his office—he faxes orders for stock, signs the receipts from the food distributor, researches recipes for a wine tasting or wedding. He only steps into the kitchen in order to fuck with everyone, mainly Craig the sous-chef, his white proxy who rules over the Mexicans doing the rest of the labor. Wolfgang’s a tyrant when the shortcut to béarnaise does not pan out.
As Toby punches in his timecard he catches Craig finishing an air guitar solo to a skuzzy ballad. He, too, remorselessly prefers the greats of rock. Today, Craig’s arguing with Jim, the floor manager, if Pete Seeger is not better than Lynyrd Skynyrd or if the Stones are better than Led Zeppelin. Neither Jim nor Craig knows that they almost are all from England.
The Cosmopolitan’s a plain, dry lemon, but slowly Toby’s responsibilities expand under the supervision of Juan and Jose who speak to him in a strange mix of dual languages: marking meat on the grill, piping out Duchess potatoes so they can be chucked in the ovens, prepping garnishes, draining the stock pot, cutting crudités, reducing sauces, icing down seafood, sweeping up the office, warning the waiters to keep out of the walk-ins, flipping omelets out in the dining room for the Easter weekend breakfast buffet, rolling salmon roulades, decorating goose liver canapés, skinning fifty beef tenderloins, deboning four hundred chickens that come in a two wet boxes, shucking sacks of oysters. All the tasks add up in a view vital moments when the chefs plate out the meal. Sometimes Toby is in charge of the steamed asparagus in the whisky orange sauce. Sometimes he just does the decoration with the edible flowers. Sometimes he’s the one to drip the sauce on the edge of the plate.
Against his better instincts, Toby takes on the assignment of pastry chef. Toby clinches the job when he mistakenly bakes the inaugural cheesecakes not with eggs but yogurt, the mushy cheesecakes collapsing from the forms as the dinner party of twenty-five commences, table-side Caesar dressing and Zinfandel poured by Marcus, piqued and nasty from snorting too much cocaine with his wife during his split shift. While the party eats tenderloin with wild mushroom demi-glace, Toby whips the baked remains into a mousse, pipes them into glasses with raspberries and Frangelico whipped cream in the interim. Wolfgang thinks it’s not so bad, taking a break from encouraging Marcus, generous with the booze, to re-air the homemade porno of his overly tan body conjoining with that of his skanky wife filmed by Marcus’s half-brother, Terry, head waiter with the Fawcett-like hairdo and dong centered in his Armani pants, who waters the stock in the bar. Either brother will suck a finger for a hundred dollar tip.
Most of the members are Toby’s enemy: lawyers, politicians, doctors, lobbyists and brass keen to have their wedding receptions and Christmas parties at the swanky, prestige-laden club—key word for incompetence and bogusness. The Cosmopolitan Club is but one part of an international corporate cartel of clubs, spas and golf courses. Managers and executive chefs revolve through the system and tend to the logistics of feeding legions of the enemy. Toby needs to peel 5,000 shrimp for the Freeport McMoRan party where they will toast just how well they have gutted the aboriginal population of Papua New Guinea in exploring for oil.
The Mexicans are employed within this matrix for little money and a five-day paid vacation. Juan and Jose hold knife-sharpening contests and alternately talk about hookers, beer, baseball, pick-up trucks, police, the INS, Cesar Chavez, Guadalajara and family in the course of prepping, searing, chopping, dicing and mixing whatever is required for the daily lunch buffet the members come for. The busboys are shooting up or smoking crack in the bathrooms. The consequences of Senor Sol’s arrest for driving while intoxicated again is a chronic shortage of pots and dishes. Toby makes a very poor dishwasher.
But the Mexicans aren’t having problems adapting, especially when an argument is raging in the kitchen between Angus, maitre d’, HIV-positive and queeny, with burned-out Craig about the demerits of Ronald Reagan and the invisible posse of devils beneath him.
What can Juan and Jose contribute with their heads’ down, constantly working the knives, acutely listening? They’re already buying themselves houses and pick-up trucks. Craig can’t admit that this is a sign of progress.
Like Wolfgang, Craig adores conflict and is soon razzing the hirsute Israeli health club manager who denies doing the coke-freak catering manager who trembles and rubs her nose on a second-to-second basis when she appears in the galley kitchen hunting for a cookie. Craig hassles Juan and Jose to not ride the clock and punch out, lunch’s over.
He chides everyone for not liking his overdone steamship of beef. He threatens to stab the manager, Jim, over his complaint that the chanterelles sauce is scorched. He has a particularly good time with any target who appears to be gay like Angus and shouts as many slurs and oaths as he can. It’s a mistake to sympathize or argue for diversity.
The forum of experience Toby imagines is not quite what Craig might consider kosher. Can Craig or the others understand what a person can be and discover just how strong he wants him or her to be? He’s not like Toby who doesn’t have any borders, a dot without any edges. Toby moves from girlfriend to girlfriend to an invitation to do it with them all; he tries out what it means to swing and films it; he discovers how many times he can snort cocaine and not explode; he tastes his piss or semen or shit; he calibrates what are the limits to his emotions and just what he is capable of when it comes to games of love and hate. His revenge on the Cosmo for its conservative views consists of awarding himself carte blanche to loot the premises.
His flowchart blinks and sounds with tasks as he bakes the cakes, cools them, slices them into layers, cooks the Italian mousse, guts cherries and keeps the mixer running with activities with egg, sugar, flour and cream. His spatula lifts the last streaks of batter from the bowl; he updates the flowchart. Toby’s sweet-swollen face reflects in the doors of the convection oven. Domes of sugar and flour and eggs are reacting. The forms pop; the disks cool; assembly is to come later, at the penultimate moment before the commencement of Lobster Night. The rolling pin grunts over the peeling marzipan. Toby’s job is to do everything.
The lobsters have arrived via courier for the big night and Toby resembles a clown juggling proportions and formulas. Shaved dough mixed with raisin, prune, walnut layers and meringue is addenda to lemon curd, whisky ganache, groggy genoese, peach and blueberry cobbler, walnut-pistachio torte and strawberry diplomat. Mint is stuck to his palms and teeth. Yeast eats the sugar residue from his hands when he attends to the dinner rolls. The funnel fills with a lather of cream, the pipe gushes and traces thorny roses. Metal bowls multiply on stainless tables, warmed or chilled as required, and the batters are poured. The oven purrs. Cream filling is adjusted taste by taste. Hot sugar whips into an Italian meringue. Toby delivers a few crude glances at the waitresses trolling through the kitchen for a scrap of something when he takes a break.
Chocolate dust melts on his knuckles. He cleans and arranges for assembly and makes space on the refrigerator racks for the cakes to come. The layers come with a steady, forceful twirl and sliver of the wrist, disks of fresh cake, morsels of wet sugar delight folded by the steady atomic bulb of the mixer. Jose assists with cutting with a quiver of knives in a bain-marie of hot water and a supply of towels.
The first lobsters, blue and black and red and spiny in their Styrofoam crates, are crying in the mattress-sized brassier turned into a lobster kettle for the night. Juan is happily cracking the first beast, smearing it with clarified butter and lemon when you wheel out the dessert. The steam trays of boiled lobsters are coming; the members in the queue cheer for tails, claws and heads. All four dining rooms on floor thirteen are reserved. The kitchen has just made it, and this is only the start of the four-hour lobster fest.
Toby has a moment to chug a beer distributed by Marcus. The hirsute Israeli health club manager who misses a bit of gore from Zion has brought the catering manager on a date and her nose’s bleeding. She’s not going to eat any lobster. The lawyers and doctors are tucked behind their bibs, chucking claws and chitin into paper buckets, snapping the arthropods in half, stirring brains and gills and offal; their kids are too horrified by the slices of beef, bone and shell.
The guests make regular checks to the powder room cum vomitorium. Toby’s desserts are sweating and melting, certainly more lopsided than they were an hour ago, but the production is working. Someone’s child has inevitably started the cobbler. No one is leaving with an empty stomach for $19.95. More lobsters are boiling in the brassier. There are five more crates to go. A tiny Asian woman eats eight of them. Craig and Wolfgang are schmoozing at the podium with a well-lubricated member speaking in a deep twang that indicates he is far from benign. Juan or Jose alerts Toby that the chocolate fudge walnut cake is the first to need replacing. Senor Sol has clogged the drains with lobsters, so a clean dish or plate or glass is a problem, and it’s Craig who receives a verbal tonguing from Angus about flunking Lobster Night.
Wolfgang notes the arrival of a prominent gubernatorial candidate, for what better opportunity than Lobster Night to press his fellow friends, contributors and supporters than within the bounds of the Cosmo when the election is near? His security detail clears a path through reception and he glad-hands his way through the dining room, lisping, barely able to form more than a compulsory “How are yah?” He slaps the sweaty backs of the diners who gulp down the crustaceans and rush to offer a hand with the words, “You gonna win, George.” George does not turn down Karl or Ken’s buttery lawyer-like palm that he has certainly shook more than once. Lobster night is just one stop in the dynasty.
Toby hides out in the kitchen and slices more desserts. Now they are properly cool and right for serving. The mood in the kitchen has calmed. Two crates remain. Craig makes the decision to transfer the lobsters to two plastic tubs that Toby fills with water and drags into the freezer after returning from a session on the veranda next to the AC. They have been working for sixteen hours. Juan and Jose are breaking down some of the kitchen in tribute to Craig’s mantra, “A happy kitchen is a clean kitchen.”
The hose is out and all the refrigerators are heaved away from the walls. The filters are pulled out of the ducts. Toby returns to the dining room with a trolley of cakes, quickly dismembered and covered with drool, and then assists serving the last of the lobsters. Anything’s better than cleaning the kitchen, even consorting with the enemy.
The security detail guides the politician to the lobster serving area. Then it hits him. This is George Walker Bush, his square raptor-like head swallowed by a vast white cowboy hat. He grins at the beast from Maine. Toby realizes that he has been too complacent: the enemy is closing in. It’s not only George but all of the cronies spread though the dining rooms. He has been paying far too much attention to his secure domain of pastry and the monster has spawned in Toby’s batter. He glares into George’s beady hollow eyes that mark him out as he hands over the verdict of boiled beast.
“Somethin’ wrong, boy?” George asks, his breath sticky and pungent like crude, and Toby cannot even stammer a reply.
From that moment with George, Toby’s ambivalent and incorrigible. For a moment he has understood everything, and it’s devastating. His tone changes; his once-quelled anger rises to the surface. He spits on cars and people in the street as an expression of his disproval. He demagnetizes his mind and trashes the data of what he had ever been. His borderless dot consolidates and hardens as he tries to manufacture a magic ticket, a paper talisman that will allow him passage.
YOU ARE HERE, the map says.
Countless fingers have traced the spot, a boil, angry and nagging.
YOU ARE HERE has been massaged into a centerless white dot, concentrated and contradictory.
Everything indicates that Toby Pleasure is indeed here—finger mushed against the map, feet spread at the very point, head gathering a sense—but a white deleterious space occupies the place. The missing information of the peeling dot will not help. But in that negative space of the dot, the smear of white invading the print and glue laminated on paper, there is a description of the outside and the inside that fills the space in between—and nothing else should concern him.
“Holes are a quest for meaning, holes are a center with no center, holes are where one disappears,” he aspirates. He turns to the city behind him, its armpit, its smelliest, most erotic part, a synecdoche for heaven and hell on earth. Cigarettes, piss, sensimilla, vomit, needles, spit, bottles, papers, razors, semen and skank are scattered from gland to gland. It’s an enormous clew of hair, twine, jute, yarn and hawser, knotted and bound together, a Gordion knot that will not unravel in the maze, for it has no beginning and no end and is fit for the sword.
The exhaust of humanity mixes with the sweat of traffic. Fragments of wet conversation blend with the horns. No one seems to object to the unrepentant odor. Necks and knees perspire into collars and creases. No antiperspirant can purge the stench. Neither spray-on Apocalypse nor roll-on Armageddon.
A phone box is a refuge—the door seals the chamber, banishes the noise. A kaleidoscope of sex is arranged above the plastic shell of the phone, decorated with the religious lexicon of punani for hire: Yellow Fever, Brown Town, Trans Fan, For His Eyes Only.
People squat in gutters, duck into offices and rush the booze; people squawk in cells, chomp in restaurants, scrutinize what’s on offer. People are so hermetically occupied being people that they are unaware of being subject to influence, desire or sense. It’s public: a knot, a coiffure, a belt, a stocking receives a touch, a primp, a cinch, a dab of nail polish.
They secretly smell the armpit, its musk. They think it has no effect, but it’s an aphrodisiac, like money, and the transaction depends on the mood of fickle nose and wayward pocket.
CCTV records the success, the diesel-flavored smog and the people clad as marbled Stilton or incorrigible teabags. Bins of teddies and Beefeaters litter the streets. Neon lights: blink Fuji blink Coke. Homegrown sounds emerge from a quartet of buskers passing the cup in return for three-part harmonies, syncopated claps and human beat box. Earth First travelers chant around an iceberg rescued from the Artic. An aborigine plays the Stones on a didgeridoo. PETA and the Animal Liberation Front release rabbits, monkeys and beagles. Punks secrete various sharp objects. A man swallows fire. The Family competes with the Scientologists with popcorn and candy-floss, trying to mollify anyone with the soft, innocuous strains of revelation. Steel drums resonate somewhere with an Oasis cover. Anything can happen. Nothing is prevented.
A young man proffers cards from his stack of promotional leaflets; his baseball cap is askew due to his abundance of wiry wig-like hair. A beard dangles from his chin. He distributes the flyers with a single hand, adroitly clutching the flyers between shoulder and ear. Toby flashes a smile of recognition, but he cannot place the puzzled, sly face due to his own distracted anxiousness.
“Is this a friend?” he wonders. Would he acknowledge one anyway, on so important a day?
He moves on, his eyes reading over the flyer that advertises neither religion, credit cards, insurance nor kink.
“Animal Society. Meetings every Sunday in Galapagos.”
The text is elaborated with the structures of chemical bonds. It’s intriguing and secures a place in his pocket.
A bicycle ticks by. A cane taps the gum-specked surface of the pavement. A woman walks a bouquet of dogs, a pooping, diddling, yipping, sniffing knot of trouble reading the streets for good piss messages. Down an alley Chinese hoist birdcages into the air and commence Tai Chi among the skips where no one will trouble them. Coats dart in the pigeon-colored shadows.
“Let’s hook up, and I’ll tell you about all my birds, bunnies and fish.”
“You want it that way? I’m not really interested in cute stuff.”
“All right,” he says begrudgingly. “At Galapagos. It’s not open yet but we can meet—I’ve got the run of the place.”
An alarm buzzes in the liquor store. The booze is behind bulletproof glass. The mescal between the Kahlua and rum. Outside, cafes, boutiques and galleries, ethnic restaurants, chic watering holes. Dealers, homeless and immigrants fester among the culturatti here for vibe.
He pushes the steel door, crosses past the reflecting pool in what was once a garage. The beard is on the zinc bar. So’s the hat. The organizer of the Animal Society steams a pot of milk, delicately maneuvering his sole hand. The espresso machine shrieks like an eagle.
“I’m Pop,” he says.
“Better than Pet.”
Pop laughs, swallows. “I’m sick with sick.”
“Me too,” Toby says. He winces. Delicate. The wound between his legs is sore. He dips a flute of local croissant into the stern white milk. Pop stabs the foam with his pastry too.
“Drink. You can’t be that sick.”
“I did.” Pop eyes the taps.
They laugh and clasp waists. No one is here in Galapagos.
Pop touches his tonsure, exposed now that the baseball hat is off.
“Outfoxed me with that beard.”
Pop returns Toby’s brown gaze. “You’ve got to be wicked cool to sport a beard.” He jams the baseball cap on his head and pulls at a Marlboro. “The world has woven a cage around us, huh?”
No, Toby thinks, not at all.
Pop requires a degree of introspection. He’s an artist. “Escape is an impossible, desperate task. We can drop off mountains or kayak across the ocean or circumnavigate the globe by balloon, certainly. It’s a desert, but one with too much.”
“Guess so. No turning back. But I’ve got a remedy at home.”
Toby and Pop walk to a scabby warehouse, climb the loading bay. The black iron doors clawed from use. No bell, no indication of how to get in.
The door creaks; it’s ajar.
The hall is filled with bikes, ropes, motors, wood, fans, canvas, tools, buckets, grease, tarp, wire, bales of clothes. An egg-like car carries them up. The array displays less numbers for up than down. Is there a bunker below, a series of corkscrewing planes?
The top floor is made of books. Books cover the windows, the floor, the walls. Titles and authors are laminated, glued, stacked, paper rescued from oblivion, reused. The walls dividing the space are old paperbacks, multiplied in mirrors that are buried in the exterior walls of books. They look like carcasses of burnt toast. The freezer is open, bursting with frozen blood and frozen wax. Two blocks wrapped in plastic—one of peat, one of felt—also suffice as chairs.
Pop settles behind a monitor, his tonsure just visible, tucked behind the horizon of equipment.
Codes animate in the space. Strings of numbers and letters crawl through the air.
A large cube is installed in one portion of the floor. A small pond and fountain rest in the middle among latex plants.
“Alula,” says Pop. “This is Alula.” He taps ENTER, rises. He’s wearing a cowl. “She’s my queen.”
Toby turns to shake his one ivory hand. Pop’s stump wiggles amiably.
“Looks like a square to me.”
Big latex sculptures of what look to be plants, Triffids and other Geiger-esque forms, sway from the ceiling and walls. Silk-screens, lymar prints, slides, text, globes, satellite prints, beamers, super-eight loops, LEDs and LCDs are all valorizing the space. Every object is confusingly draped in moving, bipolar images that have been recorded and rendered. A cistern on the roof has been adapted into a camera obscura; it’s mirrored into the room. Reflections of people move on the walls. They could very well be insects.
“Do you want to meet Alula? She’s quite friendly.” Pop gestures to the cube.
Toby steps over the lattice and into Alula, white on the outside but black on the inside, deeply black. Fields of green, pink and orange amalgamate and merge into a greater shade of blackness. Two cats on some natural hit of ecstasy purr in the light apertures of the cube. Woe and anxiety wash away as the shades of darkness respire like the bright pink tissue of a lung. Toby feels like a compass enjoying the pole where all lines and direction converge. All Pop’s images intersect here in the apex of the cube and he’s blasted with digital stardust. The entire world seems to be confidently within reach.
“It’s like the edges of the universe!” Toby hollers to Pop.
“It’s a she! But I never thought about it like that!” he shouts from somewhere outside the darkness.
“Is she animal or mineral?”
“Alula’s the universe! Like you said. That’s part of the Alula experience. She’s alive.” Pop’s face looms out of the darkness and retrieves Toby from Alula’s ambiguous edges. He throws a blanket on his friend’s shoulders. He’s star-burned, bleached to black. Leaves of dead microbes fall from Toby’s round face.
“To understand Alula you have to open your mind,” Pop says. He swells with rhetoric about his project. “In fact, she’s already here.”
Toby’s skin is crawling with images from the beamers that Pop has integrated into the space. “You’re optimistic.”
“I have to have an agenda.” Pop’s fibers are wiggling.
“I like plants better, Pop, but Alula’s all right.”
“Acceptance is my strategy.” Pop’s earnest.
“Can I, like, rent it, rent the cube?”
Alula’s calling, broadcasting a seductive tune.
“Well,” Pos says, “I’m not going to give it to you.”
The long hall is busy with the hum of computers and other electronic equipment. Pop noodles with his machines. What appears to be a woman with hairy ears curses at a sampler and keyboard surrounded by percussion and guitars; an androgynous figure in black leotards and black face rehearses in falsetto. Everything is cloaked in another image that may change at any moment. That pen may be a cipher. That cup may be a number. That beer might be a code. Pop might be Amy or Dennis or Frank or Lulu. The effect is nauseous.
“You’d like a cup?” Pop intermittently pinches the mug with his stump, “Ginger tea?”
“Anything.” Toby groans, squatting on the linoleum floor, clasping a sheet.
“I moved Alula into the lift.”
“All of her?” The space occupied by the cube is now negative space, the white dot proclaiming YOU ARE HERE.
“Move the universe around a bit if you want.”
Toby is sullen and silent. It’s too cryptic, a jumble of subtexts, messages and symbols.
Pop ceaselessly chats to himself about his codes. The composite animations of spheres or tentacles court, mate and mutate like tumors. Pop is in a self-promotional mood. He hands over a book of his press clippings. The same gormless faces are in most of the photographs. “Alula again?”
“In a moment.” Pop’s a pest.
“You can come like that, in your sheet.” He defiantly cuts a stroke through the air with his stub, cracks the fridge open for a lager and Toby proceeds out into the corridor, along the walls made from books. He calls the lift. She clunks up. What was cold metal is now warm Alula, materializing before them: fountain, cats, water, light, lattices, Triffids.
“It’s the universe, like you said. I was looking for a larger theme for my work and here it is, the universe, something to really capture people’s attention. Shall we go for a ride?”
“What’s on the lower floors?”
“Studios, workshops, that kind of thing.”
Toby pushes the lowermost button in the egg and the Alulalift fitfully descends until she docks with her polysexual kin reproducing and sprouting in the cellar.
“I’m gonna make more Alulas over here, too.” Pop connects a tissue of tunnels, rooms and spaces from tarp. He kneels to glue-gun the different colored sheets together. Pop’s stump pegs down the measured material. He will join them to her and they will balloon in the Alulalality. Her skin is iridescent and unctuous like the wings of moths.
“Not too many people.” Toby trips on the sheet, his sole weapon in the Alulinth, who increases her voice as he goes deeper.
Some of her caverns drip amplifiers and speakers, others surge with images from beamers and projectors. Bats fly madly around the lights. A group of men who look like the members of Van Halen or U2 sip fluorescent drinks. Asians count rice behind a curtain. Priestesses in bird masks serve macaroni to a motley assortment of guests, who sprawl on beanbags and pillows; they sink into the replicating walls.
“Alula isn’t living up to expectations. I’d rather see someone grill clothes,” mouths an orchid-faced woman. Pop’s smitten.
Full of admiration, Pop needs to feed his bionic codes. They have quit budding, incorporating, bumping, sensing, changing, living. Instead they are gobbling the guests, who vanish, screaming, into the black and white holograms dancing in the air like bones. Is Pop’s investment in face-time a farce?
News of Alula is spreading and more people continue to arrive, so Pop’s got more faces to talk to. Who will get the credit for the experience?
Pop pontificates to a crowd of edible admirers. “To join you’ll need to know the different ingredients: lychee or persimmon, saris or ponchos, mescal or absinthe, fenugreek or molé. The ingredients also might be talas or slang or intervals or skin. Diversity demands that everyone learn, manipulate, filter and adopt them. You’ll then need to understand polysexuality and be willing to consider sex with a number. Only then can you join Alula.”
Toby interjects. “A parallel universe. Is that what you had in mind?”
Pop’s loathe to admit it. He would rather baby-sit and care-take in his off-kilter, one-handed way—making sure that the light, fountains and music are coordinated, informing people about his work, dosing everyone with creation myth and the monster of suspended disbelief.
He’s distributing maps of Alula underlined with the slogan, “Bionic codes for bionic beings.”
Pop fondles the living data, his stake in credible lunacy. The codes and crowd multiply and feedback. Pop slobbers in his desperation to communicate with everyone. They respond to protocol and grumble at the aesthetic choices, grimace at the music, frown at the atmosphere, though Alula is very much in control. The codes swallow the critics.
Pop resolves to correct his voracious pets after checking the vibe-o-meter. He types at his machines, manipulates, cuts and pastes, runs programs, trying to breach his codes with the mislaid passwords to the Alula.
The horde cheers: “Pop the Compassionate! Pop the Merciful! Pop the Great!”
Toby ambles along a matrix of passages, the party just a hubbub. Alula has reproduced everywhere. Bad digestion. Triffids wiggle and sting. The walls seep acid and blare atones. Codes malignantly burp. The way is forward through the belligerent sludge and Toby finds a way to the Alula stop of the Underground.
Escalators rotate in a ceaseless toothy way. Signs point to the exit. The turnstile. The beeping machine. The green arrow. The flat lozenge of ticket.
“Go on.” Everyone whispers.
Trains rumble. Commuters mute. Men in orange jackets work the tracks. Lines of dead or living congregate on the platforms. Alula envelopes them. Alula scavenges and grows.
A tartan of arms and legs knits in the corridor. A rat picnics on a tower of Fruit Gums and a babble of chips. Spanish trill in Urdu to Tamils. Kurds seduce Nigerians in Turkish. Kalmykians recite the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Kenyans demonstrate Tae Kwan Do in Flemish. Gulf Arabs recite ghazals in San to Maghrebis. Jamaicans refresh their Inuit. Hungarians translate Beowolf into Swedish for the Fuegian Education Project.
Toby’s audio dictionary is jammed, overwhelmed.
A rainbow of cables swells outside the window. The train rocks past trusses, signal lights and switches. The third rail consistently twinkles. One of the windows is scarred with the letters KGB. Water trickles down its surface. Bleary passengers lunge for a grip or tackle a seat. No one appears to be overly concerned. Elbows dig into the rough texture of the checked upholstery.
Toby huddles between two carriages and curses a cigarette he has twisted together; both he and the cigarette are wet.
The train disgorges passengers at stops that deteriorate in legibility—bleached, deleted letters. Smiles, glances, sneezes, yawns, sighs, fidgets disperse. They evaporate through the turnstile. Pop has not quite pacified his codes.
Toby scans the stops, hoping to recognize a name from his travels—Alexanderplatz? Ramses? Puskin? Lavopiernes? Bowery? Camden?
Nothing indicates the train’s destination. Ghost stations, unpasted posters, scorched tiles and the crispy bones of laborers phosphoresce under the earth. The train seems to burrow under sands and waves.
Toby’s wet cigarette smoke wisps between the cuffs of two carriages for a roaring interlude.
The stop’s take letters, gradually dye with people and colors, but it’s not what Toby expects. Legs swell like yams. Arms sour and stink. Everyone’s eyes fatigue from the glare of the carriage lights. No room to sprawl, no chance to loosen the light bulbs and sleep under the seats in the luxury of yo-yoing darkness.
The carriage roof drips. Seawater wells against the glass. Seaweed slows the train’s progress. There has been a collision with a whale. Water collects in puddles, thick with soupy life.
The guilty are among the innocent: drug and diamond mules; vigilantes of machete, grenade and landmine; military men schooled by the West to eliminate rebels cum civilians; holy men calling for war from their pillows and prayer mats; politicians wearing belts of payoff, kickback and extortion; traffickers watching over their charges; nabobs and mandarins of the world order. Gringos with broad mustaches and Shell, DeBeers, Lockheed or RioTinto neatly sewn on caps inculcate the headmen, healers, chiefs, elders, ancestors and demigods. Gringos with RELIEF silk-screened on their shirts distribute millet, salt and fire, but it’s commandeered. Nothing goes where it might.
The Alulatrain loops on the vast circuit of the ocean floor.
The passengers’ faces are sallow and rotten. Only now do they fear something on the endless, rattling express reeking of the poor.
Babies, felt tents, saddlebags, blankets and cooking fires fill the carriage. Men gather on their haunches to gossip. Men bear the burden, each sent with village money to anchor a livelihood after they have sold their children to the anvil, loom or kiln for passage. Women follow a better life in a sweatshop, brothel or detention center. What indenture awaits them?
Handlers march on the platforms. The families are escorted into vans. They’re distributed down into the cracks where they will not be seen or heard from until payback, the penalty for insouciance and hope. They survive on chickpea flour and chilis, jerked okra and ducks’ tongues. No gas necessary.
Toby escapes the train at Alulagardens.
He enters a big glass greenhouse. It’s tranquil. He pushes aside the vines. Momma Empire sits among the plants of the gods, breathing and meditating. A group of editors (Carlos, Terrance, Timothy, Abraham, William) sit around her at a thick oak table in the garden reading manuscripts, working the slush.
Their time’s limited so they give each manuscript two pages. Terrance and Timothy hoot with derision. William howls because of his lapsed ass. Carlos supplies the chillums of grass and hashish. Abraham spits a mix of coca, khat and betel.
The table’s laden with black food: truffles, peyote, oysters, black risotto, caviar, rose schnapps and one-hundred-day-old eggs. They eat from a bowl of dry black mushrooms on the table. They bound into the trees. They revel in the aqueducts and fountains of Aluladise.
They will break to a sweatlodge and lick one another’s sweat. Abe swipes at Will who shoots Timothy. Carlos buries Terrance in the psychoactive compost. They testify to their greatness. They boil iboga. They blow dust up tubes into their noses. They harvest ergot. They’re strung out. They pull one another’s beards and break one another’s spectacles. The pages of the manuscripts separate like snow. They are gods and lie to one another about it.
Momma Empire governs the hysteria. She comforts the gang under her skirt once the paranoia proves too much. She swallows an apple and smiles at the botanic chaos as the editors wind up her legs. Momma beats a mortar and pestle and gives Toby sachets of spice, herbs and bark, seeds and cores, pith, leaves and roots. But as she gives them to him, they slip away and dissolve in the broth of the garden.
Commas and colons (codes) patrol the garden and snatch the gang away to the canopy: words, compounds. Toby is sucked up too.
Pop’s wired Toby into the universe, into Alula.
Pop types next to Toby’s sheet. He controls him, and titters. He puts a straw between Toby’s lips.
Toby sips milky chaj that tastes of cannabis. A grow cabinet glows from the corner of the room. Pink and blue buds sparkle, drying on the cabinet’s door. The kettle whines, perhaps for ginger tea. Pop whips the milk. Pop chops the grass and blends more marijuana-tea shakes with ice, sugar and milk.
“Never underestimate what you want for breakfast,” he says, leaning, revealing an octagon of chest. “That’s my motto.”
Toby can’t immediately answer, but sits in the slowed time of the bunga shakes or Valium, whatever Pop’s into.
Alula hums in the room. The two cats mew in the cube. The studiomate with the hairy ears curses her linguini marinara, “Fucking lubrication. Fucking lubrication.”
Pop wrap up cables, servos and electrodes, replaces slides in the projectors, reverses films and rewinds tapes.
The ghostly studiomates share a Garfield bong loaded with sensi. Alula darkens and grows silent.
“I’ll watch you next time. You got too close,” Pop says. Pop has already rendered Toby’s form and body, perhaps even his soul. He’s mined Toby’s data—credit card numbers, medical and tax records, birth certificate, driving license, phone bills—certainly enough to represent Toby as a cohesive whole.
He’s the next string of code dancing on the screen, the most frightening, dangerous thing of all, when fantasy becomes reality.
Pop squats and blows out the toilet. Pop bends into the mirror to brush and floss. Pop stoops under the spigot. Pop shaves his face and neck. Pop trims his nipples, sternum, armpits, nostrils. Pop gargles. Pop swallows multivitamins and B-complex. Pop looks at his tongue, squeezes a few spots and pulls rogue hairs out of his shoulders. Pop squeezes orange juice, surfs the cable and files his nails. Pop fast forwards to his favorite scenes. Pop is constantly busy and restless as if he were caged. Pop slips on his flip-flops, takes a towel, dons his gold Serengetis and steps on the roof. The urban beach is littered with toys and laundry, a herb garden, buckets of marijuana growing in the shade of the cistern, the camera.
Alula’s boring under the earth with machines seemingly right below him. In the distance the city is distorted like bonsai. Intermediate space is a jumble of canopy and roofs, a railway corridor and its network of wires.
Pop salvages a banana and a bottle of absinthe between bites of cigarette while trying to unknot himself. “Just testing,” he explains as he tips water over sugar into the green fairy.
The absinthe doesn’t do much of anything in Pop’s greater appetite. He’s soon down in the cramped flat, bursting with Alula. Pop rummages for a thermometer and sticks it under his swollen tongue. Pop tunes a stethoscope to the roar of plasma and valves and then his churning GI track, barking like a toy. Alula is drilling through the earth, through the basement, and he can hear her through the stethoscope. Pop grabs his sphygmomanometer, listens to the force at rest, at work.
The medicine cabinet is clogged with paraphernalia smuggled into his tiny bathroom, sprayed with skin, bacteria, nails, fungus, scales and hair. He inoculates his rump, counts his corpuscles and sperm, calipers his skull, scans his brain, consults his pharmaceutical tables, seeking the elimination of his sickness.
Toby peeps through the keyhole: Pop’s hugging the sink. The tiny hole smells like bandages. He turns the handle.
“What’s the diagnosis, doc?”
“An attack. Something awful.” Pop retches dryly.
“Alula? Is she okay?”
“She’s a monster. What am I going to do?”
“Send them away. Knock on the door three times with a rock and send them away.”
“That’s amusing.” Pop smiles for an interlude.
“Answer the question about the monster.”
Pop heaves creamy absinthe into the sink.
“Is that it?”
“She’s thinking man’s pussy!”
“Did you say that?”
“You’ll know when you see it.” Pop grins. “When they come over.” All in all, he’s macho.
Toby nestles down on the felt and peat blocks, pokes his fingers through the plastic, enjoys their weird earthy sophisticated texture like yurts and whisky. He flips on the television and Pop starts the porno in the VCR. Alula screws deep under the building. Pop flexes himself off while Toby necks it, too, looping it, before a siesta on the sheep bog.
Good smells billow from the kitchen.
People chortle and chat and splash wine on the picnic table installed inside.
The guests disgorge their intellectual occupations and adult diseases: the therapist, the HIV clinic, the theater, methadone, commercials, gonorrhea, kids, graphics, real estate, living hand to mouth behind the door of ambition and reality, a balance between good and evil. Pop is their hero.
Pop crackles with good humor and fusses over the asparagus and whatever else is boiling in pots and baking in pans. Half a lamb sears on the rooftop barbecue and smoke curls down the stairwell. A fire alarm is squealing, but Pop fixes that.
Toby attempts to insert some flavor and texture. He reduces orange juice for the whisky dressing.
Theresa, Samuel and Samantha make way for him on one side of the picnic table and soon the wine flows with gossip, rivalries, conflicts.
Sam mentions Theresa’s vanity. Theresa warns him with her enormous Italian-Asian eyes. Her sister curls her wine and sips her hair. Pop returns that Sam is vain. Sam replies that Pop is arrogant. Sam tells Toby about crop circles and how sexy his dentist is. With a kiss Samantha shows him she is in love with her sister. Pop tells Samantha he loves her. Theresa asks Sam for a divorce and takes Toby’s hand. Pop starts crying and everything gets very confused. Drink and food conspire into tense grievance and hostile sympathy.
One side of the table acts irrevocably spastic, drooling, beating and petting. Theresa shows Toby her bosom and he licks it. Someone dons a flak jacket and camera and films the slobber and wine, crumbs and bones, ash and contorted faces that have been consumed in the course of the quasi-successful, pell-mell dinner.
“Nonsense!” Pop hollers.
He brings everyone to hazy sense on the picnic bark. They retie, refasten, reclip, reallign. Inertia carries everyone into the Alulalift. Pop’s finger deliberates, pushes the button for the exit.
They pull bicycles from the cluttered hall.
Bearings spin, pedals turn, lungs sing and take them into the night. Other ranks of riders gather like formations of red pulsing ships.
Pop’s guests veer into the darkness. Lost.
Is there some fun and company to be had, a desultory skewer of meat or filet of idea to talk to beyond their fleeting unit?
Pop stops and bangs cigarettes out of a machine. Pop snags chocolate croissants from a truck. Pop borrows beer from a petrol station. Luxury cars cruise the streets, moving like robots, enforcers.
Pop doesn’t have one but he looks at them: he wants.
Toby and Pop settle for a kebab shop; out the windows are whores imported from across the world, a necklace of strip joints.
Pop leads the way. Subways, tunnels, buildings, skyways, underground parking lots, boiler rooms, corridors—Alula. He makes an exhilarating ellipse on the heavy iron bike. They ride shoulder to shoulder, in the peloton, wondering when they are going to be caught as the memories surge out of the darkness, for Pop is quivering, afraid, afraid of the end.
Pop bounces naked on a trampoline. Pop strains his neck, unable to run. Pop barfs. Pop jet-skis naked. Pop spears. koi in the Japanese Consulate. Pop shoots at cars. Pop crossbows in an alley. Pop fondles a girl on a bus. Pop does motor-cross. Pop timberbashes in the backcountry. Pop pisses in a Jacuzzi. Pop buggers some ski slag. Pop in his underwear, his money tumble-dries. Dirty Pop. Pop urinates on the daylight. Pop shits again on cars. Pop rolls in leaves and mud. Pop walks the gauntlet. Pop, nailed to the river, growls.
Traffic stops in a long red impatient blinking ribbon somewhere on the highway as rescue workers scrape off some humans and cars ahead. Minimal trance ticks against the bigger broadcast of bass. The forest streaks with strobes: wilderness fest. Some drivers dance next to their cars wedged on the motorway. The wait prolongs. More emergency crews arrive. Pagan roars emit from the flashing woods.
Through the perimeter of trees, the glow of weird robot machines working, fighting, spawning under klieg lights. Dust spreads through the night, stirred by machine war.
The forest is a thin green barrier around the wasteland—cranes, yards, lots, buildings, pipes and smokestacks, enterprises in energy, chemicals, metals, materials. In its epicenter is a camp. Over the camp a flag flies; it’s printed with jagged black letters: V-O-E-S-T.
The causeway is bowed with spectators. People in orange flare outfits and goggles work in the circus labs. They release monsters into the Drome. Larger monsters burn and pinch, crush and shred. Along the causeway, Japanese punks, S/M freaks, strippers, people with snakes and tattoos and other underground riffraff wearing an inordinate amount of leather. They clamor with pleasure as the monsters tear one another apart and fuck. The thirsty contingent hollers: rodeo!
Sea containers form HQ. Machines are disemboweled, flayed. They perform rudimentary operations: slice, shoot, cut, burn, saw, compress, grip, mortar, catapult, pour, spark, hover, patrol. The team with the oscilloscope tests a malfunctioning droid. Other monitors and equipment glow among the scraps.
An audience mingles as a speaker lectures about the esoteric nature of machines. A bar for beer and shots. Radicals and artists in sneakers and T-shirts. They squeal and argue beneath the screens that replay a kill.
A metal stairway leads to a platform lined with flags, antenna and banks of controls. Controllers guide their probes into the blackness. Other teams are conducting counterintelligence. Drones circle, jam command and control.
A container strung with beads. It’s a betting shop. Punters cheer and pay again. A bank of monitors show the battles. They rub their greasy pocket money against their bellies and claw their bad skin.
Odds on monarchs. Odds on tuna or skate. Odds on cabinets and presidents. Odds on space. Odds on water. Marriage. Rockets. Smog. Odds on heaven, oceans and ice. Odds on conflicts to come. Odds on odds.
The machines roar out in the night; they hulk under the klieg lights for a moment to drop a carcass and then vanish in the flaring blackness. Corps run out to salvage or repair a wounded beast, spurting oil, fire, blood.
Aphid green images. Faces rest among the metal.
People are interred in the machines, fighting and dying in the privilege of their creations. The remote combat flows, spews in fountains of gore. Machines are plausible here, human.
Casualties pile up in the labs. The wreckage is redoctored. Volunteers step in to replace the performers. The machines march again.
People eagerly await an outcome, a survivor. Throngs of people mingle over the circular array of the HQ: the bars, workshops, stages. Toby teeters into the sprawl.
Spectators are devouring Thai stir fry. Organ riffs in the background. The chef is scented with brilliantine. He whacks a cutlet. He cleavers veg. Toby struggles for the next spice shot from the gourmand-naut.
Pop’s frenetic eye appears in the throng. He’s wearing a new red beard. He smiles at his new arm.
Megaphones mounted on posts call with the headlines of Monster Mash.
A technician tries to tape a microphone onto Pop’s chest. He buckles for a moment. He maximally slurps vodka from a Tiki mug with his new mechanical hand. He’s given a helmet too. Pop stretches his thumb and four fingers. He’s measured and weighed. He’s dispensed pills and potions to quell his anxiety but it’s little good.
“Sexy,” he mentions, surveying the females. Pop tongues at the air. He unzips and druggedly penetrates the air with his hose.
Catatonic, Pop is encased in a cockerel. Spurs, beak, feathers. The technicians are very kind and earnest to him.
Toby gives him the thumbs up from his purchase on the scaffold.
The outfit’s ridiculous. He’s more twigs and muscle than machine. He stalks the perimeter of klieg lights.
He kicks up plumes of oily dust.
He dances and crouches like a boxer.
His feet sweep the air.
He flips and rolls, ready.
Pop destroys assembly lines and just-in-time delivery. He smashes the ranks, dodges spear, hook, net, arrow, bolt, magnet, flame, gas and beam. Plunders the wasteland. Executes his victory. Whoops on his wings.
Pop’s fearful face appears from the helmet-cam.
Aphid greenscreen. Audio.
It’s muffled. Chortles, chokes, screams.
The cockerel hurls into combat, lunging, biting, leaping, spraying acid. Pop ejaculates over the wounded. Pop’s on the rampage, attacking noncombatants, referees, civilians. Pop disgorges vats of molten ore. Pop hobbles cranes. Pop tangles pipes and networks. Pop unstitches power and transport. Pop mounts a mountain of coal. He’s the grid.
Pop the machine can do, dream, become anything; it’s carnal, fingertips, ten of any tiny machines.
Fans and spectators are crowding in to praise the victor.
Pop is feted; Pop’s god.
Pop Pop Pop!
Of snakes, fetishes, droids, hands and stir-fry.
The technicians escort him to HQ. Battles of yore are replayed. Volunteers pack the components and robots for the next event. Men in flak jackets edit the footage, fading and titling the present.
Pop is crowned.
Pop wolfishly stares at the packs of sleazy, aroused people. He lurches over the causeway, autographing, grimly smiling, in the care of a trophy freakbabe in a silver cowl.
The darkness is rising. The blackness is rising. Alula is coming to collect them.
“I love you,” he says and he slips away from Pop like anyone who would be a friend.
The Mouse is the Map
Someone’s whistling. One person passes the tune to the next. Someone rides and decorates it. The tune changes keys and modes. It stitches into Amsterdam’s fabric of roads and water. One day the tune is wet. Another day it could be happy, lukewarm or stoned. Never, silence. Without fail, someone is whistling and riding. The whistle is ubiquitous, an aerial score; it comes from every direction in syllables of spit, breath and tongue.
The rusty chain tambourines over the cogs. The wheels wobble, untrue.
Toby follows the short clusters of notes.
They chorus from canal to canal, stutter over cobbles, kazoo over bridges. An arcade tumbles with the sound of breath, that ineffable substance joining body and mind. The whistling fades and rematerializes, aloft in the humid air, and the movement resumes, thinning as Toby leaves the messy, blinking core of Adam.
He picks up fragments of melody, weaves through a market, harmonizes with other cyclists carving to and fro—peeling into side streets, hopping tramlines, zipping through parks, flanking canals lined by somber houses and dotted with bollards. Darkness falls over the ranks of warehouses built with carbuncle brick that were once part of old Adam.
A house is hidden under the buttress of a railroad bridge. Wafts of schnitzel, cabbage and beer emanate from it. The door is ajar. It’s an establishment—chalk menu, cold tap. The aroma convinces him.
Everything in the rhomboid-like place is acutely angled towards the canal—the floor, the tables, the rough pews and two petulant women. The two crones are hunched over a chipped Bakelite counter. Their heads are rinsed blue, lilac.
A locomotive rumbles overhead. A display of sailor’s knots, a rusty astrolabe, a pair of crossed oars and an ebony ship’s wheel tremor on the wall.
One crone lurches to life. “What’ll it be? Eatin or drinkin’?”
Soon thereafter, she balances the daily plate and a frothy pitcher of beer in her arms. Toby wedges his heels under the tilting pew. An eely sausage swims in the sea of grease and mustard evolving on his plate. The beer washes his mouth with the pleasant taste of horses. Both women grouse around the tip.
Toby swallows the last strands of cabbage. He ashes a cigarette, nurses the beer, ruminates, considers his swollen bladder, his yellow eyes.
They nod as he scampers down the stairs. They’re puzzling: mammoth blocks. Then matchsticks.
They urge him, “Go on! The loo is down there!”
The call rebounds down—echo and arpeggio, missed, irregular, atonal notes that bounce along the soapy register down to some sonic, visual bottom from where he can go no further, no deeper, no higher.
Nothing sucks Toby nowhere.
An outline of a lighter shade of darkness.
In a stroke he moves beyond the velvet rope.
Intrigued, he steps forward.
A cold heavy metal encloaks him.
The last words of his surprise rebound in a large black room.
A man is chained in a large crib. He wears a collar, wires and nothing else. Several technicians in white lab coats bother a treadmill.
EKGs blip on several screens.
Two bowls are in the man’s cage. He barks: he’s a dog.
One wall is plastered with newspaper clippings. The dog has a public relations agent. The dog (man) pees in the snow. The dog bites the Patriarch of the Autocephalous Montenegrin Orthodox Church. In a bow tie, the dog attends a gallery opening. The dog rips up paintings. The dog is whipped by a critic. The dog fetches a ball for King Juan Carlos. David Bowie and Mick Jagger scratch the dog. The dog does his ablutions in front of the European Parliament. The dog receives a prize for art. He carries it in his mouth like a downed duck, its head tucked behind its wing.
The dog’s an artist. The dog’s never a man. The man’s always a dog, tail and ears cropped.
The laboratory monitors the dog’s every movement. His statistics are projected on one wall; other data algorithms bend and rotate in the space, holograms.
What he has eaten, what he has purged, how much he runs, how many times he fetches, when he sleeps, when he wakes, the wax in his ears, his nails, when a whisker falls. Is he Cerberus perhaps?
The dog (man) stirs, yanks his chain, indifferent. But the contact registers. Against the odd hum of machines and the mute technicians, the data moves through the ultraviolet air.
Toby prods the corners, trying to locate the aperture, the exit, not to mention a toilet.
He briefly joins the dog, and urinates in his run.
It’s nearly impossible to find the seams to the black exit somewhere in the black walls. Toby asks the technicians for a ladder and walks on the ladder, the chain rattling between his legs.
The dog is hoisted into an immersion tank and he vanishes into the water. The dog (man) sputters to the surface and paddles.
The dog looks like him!
Toby traces the borders of the exit with a piece of chalk.
It’s mercury and breeds into a larger silver patty.
The tips of his fingers touch the surface.
Toby feels the cold, powerful way close behind him like a dream—in which everyone is asleep. He passes through the larynx, singing the tune, the melody of the streets, notes scented with rain, chips and ganja.
Toby faces the stairs: the third stage came before the first.
The two crones clack above.
He miscalculates and slips on a nasty edge. His head dashes against the banister. Blood drips into his eyes, and he fumbles up to the askew restaurant.
One of the crones coos, dabs his forehead dry, applies astringent alcohol. She leans to give him a kiss.
“A tankard of ale for the brave gentleman?”
Toby demurs and flees.
She releases a foul cabbage and schnitzel burp.
He turns away from the stump lodged under the tracks.
The concerto of whistles perpetuates in the streets.
The wound on his forehead sings and the bicycle runs on its own.
The pedals circle on their own accord. Toby grabs at notes and melodies dozing in the opulent evening air and stuffs them in the gash in his head. People look with horror. And he passes them. Chortling and singing, studying the faces, memorizing a curve, a fold, a mole, textures of color, cloth.
The gash in his forehead mimes like a mouth. He’s like an apparition flowing over the shop windows, bending around corners, banking along curves, weaving through traffic, coasting through the city—ceaseless, unerring.
In the distance a lanky man hoots over a wall. A gibbon howls in reply. Monkey and mouth sing to one another.
Kids throw shoes into the canal. The shoes float nicely. The water hardens and the kids scamper down, their tracks dimpling the water.
A market brims with immigrants securing stores of Gouda and smoked mackerel. The Dutch purchase papaw and jack fruit, habañero chilis, pistachios, apricots, tahini, buckwheat noodles and smoked tofu.
Two men exchange clothes on the street, leathers for a suit. Their similar, structured bodies glisten as they exchange briefcase and wallet, kiss and depart in opposite directions.
The canal smells of salt and seaweed. Toby slings one leg over the bars, screws it around, straddles the bike like a board—balance supernatural.
Men lurk in the bushes. They nod, signal yes and vanish deeper into the undergrowth.
A plane tears at the clouds.
Where the greenbelt abruptly ends, people are piloting through the concrete wilderness: overpasses, flyways, tar shoulders, cats’ eyes, pylons, exits and entrances, toll booths, placards and signs. The whole muck of highway engineering abuts massive projects where the air is permeated with the odors of benzene, fat, oil, charcoal, laundry and cheap, sweet disinfectant.
Another jet soars into the granite clouds, its corpulent, cargo-laden belly skimming the antenna installations at the end of the runway.
The bike funnels into the logic of the grounds, relentlessly follows the yellow stencil of the path direct to the terminals, hangars, hotels and parking lots. It slows, noses for a space to park among the other bicycles that are coiled around racks like serrated wire. Taxis’ meters bleep. Doors open and close. Castors roll. Bags spin away. It’s Departures.
Georgette taps him on the shoulder with her red go-go boots. The canal is dangerously close. His limbs are entangled with the big black bicycle. He sleepily looks up her ankles, up her legs, up her skirt into the mossy interior of her croup.
“I came down to buy breakfast and you’re here on the street. Lock the bike so it doesn’t get stolen and come inside. Or come to the bakery. Hot apple pie pique your interest?”
“Oh,” he drools, “Oh.”
“You’re a mess.”
“Yeah, a mess. I jus’ wanna sleep.”
“Go up and sleep, honey. I’ll be back later.”
“Hot apple pie.”
“It’ll be cold when I get back. Now go on up. Sleep.”
He mounts the stairs laced with the dreck that won’t fit in the flats and lurches up the steep incline to Georgette’s chamber. He’s clobbered.
The bed is rumpled. Relief spreads its warm arms around him once he disrobes and tucks himself in, adjusting his body under the plush duvet with a deep child-like sigh, a border, a tiny transition from real to nether.
“This is the recipe,” he thinks, turning into the sheets, turning off sesame.
Sometime Georgette snuggles around him.
“Apple pie… pie…?” he queries, drowsy.
Cold, claggy pie appears before his blurry mouth, going down in thick chunks. He crashes back into the pillows. Later he detects a determined series of thrusts at his buttocks, a wet-like tongue. Blissful dreams of hallucinogenic color wash through his mind.
In the interlude Georgette splices her cries with a call.
“Best asshole in the world! Best asshole in the world!”
She squirrels against the small of his back, grasps his hips, squirms between his legs. Georgette doesn’t believe in sleep; she’s more than willing to enjoy a too-tired-to-fuck fuck. Toby doesn’t resist the waking, dreaming border between consent and resistance either.
She adjusts the sheets around her pointy breasts and looks at him in a lozenge of morning sunlight. Her petite hardbody forms a tough silhouette under the sheets and her face is bent like a boxer’s. She turns to light a cigarette. Her natty, dyed-out hair falls over the flame. It sizzles.
The tart smell of burning human wakes him.
Her plum-like eyes are nervous. She screws out her black tongue and dampens the fire in her wiry hair like a chow learning to smoke. His angry eyes provoke her to speak.
“Thank you, dear. It could be an important discovery on the frontiers of sex.”
Georgette spreads her legs. Her oyster gurgles like a ventriloquist’s puppet, quivering its walnut-like jaws and wearing a tufty dunce cap.
Georgette plays with ash and hair in the bed and muses
“Have you ever swallowed a dick? Like swallowing the sun.”
She gestures to her wrinkled larynx, wipes her chin with her shoulder, reaches for the smelly strap-on.
“If the feeling in my ass is any indicator,” he manages to say.
The buzzer sounds.
She zips up her go-go boots.
“Here, take a look at my journal.”
Her rough, wrinkled hands deposit the thick hard volume in his lap.
“It’s from Tokyo.”
He opens the heavy book, anointed with crayon, brush and pencil. Elaborate poses have been sketched with silk knots and ritual. Annotations sprinkle sketches of Japanese transgenders adorned with tattoos seemingly peeled from the living and pasted on the parchment-like pages. On another page a field of anuses dots a landscape. Georgette is entwined with some masked creature on a button of ass; the veiny bronze anuses steam around her like doughnuts. Georgette gives herself to the press. In a newspaper clipping, Georgette flashes her bald pagoda.
Georgette elaborates, strutting in her go-go boots, fondling a whip she’s picked up somewhere in the atelier. She giggles into the speakerphone. Her slave is downstairs.
“It’s illegal to show be naked in Japan. Not like here in Adam, where anywhere’s suitable. We Dutch cannot stop talking and thinking about fucking.”
As she recounts this erotic diagnosis, she exhales the sultry odors of female sperm.
Toby turns the pages, collecting the erotic energy around them, rubbing the silk cord stapled on a page, folding out an accordion insert of brown paint.
“A shit painting,” she confirms, purring at more lurid disclosure. “Made with just a little pebble.”
“I couldn’t care about the difference between roses and shit.”
She grins. Laughter dials through her tough body. Her humor pressures him in its arbitrary, rational Dutch way where taboo is intellectual fair game. Georgette wrestles away the book, flips deeper into the catalogue of Tokyo hedonism and points.
“Here’s the best asshole in the world. Not you, silly.”
The best asshole in the world genuflects like a dog. Bearded and bespectacled, the asshole mouths a freebase pipe. Georgette’s fist works his hole.
“He smokes the cocaine to loosen and relax his bowels.” She reels away from the page, seemingly high.
Toby fumbles through the book until he succumbs to saying something.
“Anyone could have the best asshole in the world. It’s a matter of training.”
“Oh, that’s not enough, training.” She pooh-poohs.
A rap at the door.
The diary’s pages fluttering like prayer.
Her boots tock across the floor to the door and the deadbolt turns.
A pair of arms embraces Georgette with exclamations.
A man enters with two black suitcases. He doesn’t acknowledge Toby ensconced like a maggot in the sheets. He’s busy inspecting the sex machines placed around the flat.
Georgette tugs him away from the piss shower and brings him to the edge of the bed.
“Leo, this is my cute new friend.”
They huff at one another, delay, then shake.
Leo registers Toby’s uncomfortable eyes and passes the suspicion to Georgette with a click of his giant scallops.
“We can tempt you, Toby,” Leo says, “There’s more of us. Eric and Natalie? Medea and Imola? Leon and Natasha? Or you might just prefer Pit. He’s a special one, a bit of both, right on the frontiers of sex.”
Leo and Georgette could be two monkish spiders preparing to copulate and eat him.
Leo opens the two suitcases on the drafting table by the windows.
Vibrators, butt plugs, gels, balls, strap-ons, studs, pins, clamps, chains, cuffs, boots, quirts, masks, velvet, latex and leather.
Apparently in a demonstrative attitude, Leo arranges the items. He tosses a flaccid dildo with black latex balls and hand pump Toby’s way.
“Pump it up. A token from Tokyo. Did Georgette tell you about the best asshole in the world?”
Leo rubs his nose with his fingers.
“It takes practice. Top secret.”
The black apparatus inflates, absentmindedly bigger and bigger in Toby’s hands. Leo sniffs around the atelier. Toby lets the air hiss out of the dildo, fat and threatening like a forearm.
“Oh, the sound, oh, it is so nice to remember.” Georgette moans. “What an asshole he has!”
“You’re obsessed,” Leo warns her. “You must watch yourself.”
Toby asks, “Does anyone else have a nice hole?”
“No one can such a hole,” says Leo, sternly stomping the floor with his foot, “Not even me!”
Leo polishes the fastidious bristle-like sprout of hair emerging from the crown of his lentil-like head.
Trees sway along both sides of the inky canal. It’s strangely not raining. It’s neither light nor dark. Neither is there a temperature. Everything is still, waiting, in void; the equilibrium searches for an event, a signifier to move the pieces.
Sooty red bricks and pewter sky color the dun waters.
A stage occupies one end of the studio.
Leo retrieves a preserved wild boar from the crates of materials, electronics and equipment. He then punches at ENIAC sprouting from among the sex devices arranged on the high drafting table. He logs in and paces, waiting for the connection to stabilize.
Four feeds flicker on the big monitor under its plastic hood.
One of the windows is empty. Leo begins to lubricate the spray the boar with gel. It has a crucifix-shaped latex orifice. Leo unzips and copulates with the beast. The feeds pause for a moment.
Georgette swirls a sheet around her head and issues a war whoop.
She writhes and spits four eggs out of herself into her hands.
“I didn’t think we ran out of eggs.” Leo stumbles but he’s still impaling the boar.
Georgette isn’t empty. She squirts out four more eggs from her folds.
She juggles them in her hands, lovingly pops them into Leo’s mouth. He swallows them without bothering to shell or chew them.
“Do you keep any other food in her ass?” Toby asks, bewildered, hungry.
Leo turns ruddy; he’s almost done. The other feeds have resumed their thrusting and sucking.
Georgette kneels behind him, licking and tapping at his parts enmeshed with the fur, gel and latex, cheering as Leo and emits a cumulative climax-like roar.
Georgette stretches in bed and starts playing between her legs in a distracted way.
“The Ice Age is coming. We’re packing, assembling our gear for the expedition, packing to specific instructions. The Ice Age. The seas will freeze again and we will skate between Iceland and Adam.”
“What will be will be,” Toby says, trying to avoid her fingers.
Leo folds his arms, arches a smug eyebrow from behind his easel. “In a cold, frozen world what else is there to do but fuck?”
Georgette senses her little topical victory.
“You like Leo’s shit portrait? He’s had great success with shit portraits —”
Leo corrects her. “Shit ink—an emulsion of shit and piss actually.”
Toby walks to the canvas, a portrait of the best asshole in the world, a human smear of shit. He’s engulfed in his great whorl, his twitching, universal hole. It’s a rainbow of dark indelible hues—purple with beets, brown with breads and meats, yellow with grains. His delicate fold of asshole envelopes his body, a world unto itself.
“Lovely, isn’t he?”
Georgette pushes him away. “Travel in it, then you will find answers.”
Toby bumbles to the easel. He stubs out her cigarette on the way. He lounges in front of the picture of shit, the best asshole in the world enveloping its owner.
The fecal smell overwhelms him.
He gulps to ask, “How can I meet this God?”
“He’s behind the mountain when you want him, especially since he’s preparing for the Ice Age.”
“The earth’s cooling. It’s one icy summer after another here in Adam. We’re drowning in ice.”
Georgette moves from the bed. She arranges a canvas under her buttocks and squats. A turd emerges, coiling at her croup, until it falls on the blank white canvas. She bends over the steaming snake and she cautiously inserts her fingers. She smears the shit in an arbitrary, abstract manner. She presses it into the material, leaves globs of it here and there. She deftly rubs it around until she is satisfied with result, the shit climbing up her wrists.
The canvas is removed to dry on the iron fire escape, her artistic toilet at a conclusion.
Her libertine eyes are glazed with ecstasy. Her limbs are trembling and she wisely soaps her arms, wipes and washes her brownness in the studio sink. She gathers a bucket of latex and plastic toys and scrubs.
Toby searches for his erotic bearings, confused by the gates where the unseemly becomes seemly, where shit becomes something for cloth or body or both.
Georgette brushes her kinky hair in the mirror and then reclines on a spot of sun. The chow wears red go-go boots and nothing else. Leo brings her a selection of boiled eggs and she refills. She puts her lips together, flicks her black stub of tongue.
“I was a little of you this morning. I almost ate your heart.”
Georgette clenches her teeth. She unexpectedly sprinkles a little of her urine, like perfume, into the air. Leo’s fingers have migrated to her sex and strongly clamp the prickly mound.
She wraps her legs around Toby, who has blundered into her vicinity.
“You cannot have enough sex. Ever.”
Leo rustles around on the table and selects a stiff quirt with an ebony cock handle. They are both in their prime.
Georgette snaps. “Where’s my brush? Get me my brush.”
“Hair is what she really likes.” Leo licks his lips.
“There’s no better cunt,” she says, over-splitting, pushing her engorged, oblique smile with knobby fingers.
Leo slips a noose of feather and sequins over Georgette’s head.
“We’ve one for you too. Come take a look.”
Leo sputters when she grasps the quirt from his hands and dabs its polished head between her legs. She pushes out four eggs, then slips them into her anus. She wriggles and convulses and their reemerge from her snatch. Georgette’s Mobius.
“Piss in my hand, Leo.”
He promptly untucks his organ and Georgette strokes, sucks, strokes.
She indicates to Toby with her free hand. “Yours too.”
He also receives the treatment but not before Leo and Georgette simultaneously gasp at the few grams of metal dangling from the end of his penis, quick to find solace in wetness.
Leo’s penis leaks piss. Toby’s also starts to trickle, the golden liquid spraying out of his pierced head. Leo aims and Toby spurts at Georgette’s busy hands and mouth.
“I’m drunk on cock,” she urges. “Top me.”
The eggs move like a blur of blinking eyes around a nucleus. Leo and Toby kiss, two rasps, whiskers cascading to the floor like iron dust. Leo’s serpentine tongue takes his scent and temperature. He coils around and Georgette squirms and groans, shudders and relaxes.
What is the password that favors mercy and grace? He has reached his edge. He likes these strangers, he could go further. But their desperate, unnatural insistence is repulsive. Georgette tries to braid their dicks together for double anal. Toby untangles his prick and quits the game.
Toby stubbornly stands at the edge of his emotions.
Leo and Georgette are too preoccupied to stop him before they notice someone is missing from the triangle.
He locates his clothes scattered across the hostile studio and assembles them into a pile. He sprays them with deodorant or lubricant, anything that might rid them of these weird, clawing people, so uncomfortable alone and together.
“Why, why?” pleads bleary Georgette behind her mask of expectation.
“Leo, stop him from… give him… some mushrooms… or Charlie, anything!” Georgette shakes her teary, piss-drenched face and burgundy mane.
Leo grapples for Toby’s face, catches him in the cheeks with his nails, kisses him, rakes his forked tongue over his palate. Toby breaks away, a few moons of blood breaching under his eyes, and turns the heavy bolt in the door.
Georgette maniacally chatters. “Oh Leo, find me my brush!”
The penultimate words reach through the door.
She trills, laughing at Toby’s impotency. She embraces Leo for a moment, having located the ready-made.
Urine glistens on her coquettish body. Leo stalks in front of the windows, ranting.
Outside, Toby is lost. He droops over the bicycle. He lights a cigarette, his worry dispersing in the smoke, adverse to devolving anymore.
Toby drinks a Duval on the upper floor of the disco, once a cinema. Everyone is swallowing tablets, smoking spliffs. The stage is filled with machines. A naked couple perform. Lights and music complement the set. One machine is a shower. Another hangs. Another for fellatio and cunnilingus. Another appears to be a self-contained restaurant. They piss on one another, eat oysters from each other’s cracks.
He recognizes Leo and Georgette all too well behind the make-up and masks.
Leo performs the farewell routine. A microphone is taped to his belly. Techno blows through the speakers. The audience responds as he gyrates and slaps his dong against his belly. People climb on the stage, very ecstatic with this final act, and kiss Leo.
Should he leave?
Georgette does materialize on the disco’s upper deck later. Everyone’s congratulatory.
Toby has no reason to reconcile with her. Nonetheless, he trusts her to collaborate, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Georgette says, “As an apology I can give you a map.”
“A map?” He scoffs. His mood browns. Will he ever get anywhere with her? “I think it’s better I don’t meet anyone.”
“Toby, better take the map.”
“The Ice Age is coming. I stand by that. You’ll see. It’s a good map.”
Georgette produces the map and slips it in his pocket.
“Feel the mouse in your pocket?”
The mouse rummages in his pocket, nosing in the lint and coins.
“It’s a mouse not a map!”
The chow is threatening in her clever way.
“Go Toby. Go. Before I start to want you. Just follow the mouse.”
“The map is the mouse, huh?”
Toby dangles the mouse by its tail.
“Like the vibe-ometer that measures the tuning of the room, that will cheese its way to the best hole.”
“He smells like cheese.” She snatches at the morsel. “Like Gouda.”
“Gouda’s a shape not a cheese,” he says.
Georgette bites at the poor thing.
“Hey, don’t eat the map! You don’t even like mice.”
“Where does the tricky language end, sweetheart?”
“It never really does.”
“Be with me in this room tonight.” She provokes him.
The mouse is restless, claws around his wrist. The mouse-ometer tickles him in the right direction as she tries to engulf him in her widowy body. He barrels down the stairs, walks past the bouncers into the rainy night. He knows where to go with the mouse.
A roulette wheel turns in a blur. Red and black. Numbers and colors merge under the routine operation. A pair of croupiers deal blackjack and poker, whatever chance is offing.
Toby recognizes Ronny, unshaven, greasy, delirious, eyes independently orbiting his face and arms akimbo, deleterious material for a dealer.
Ronny’s girlfriend, Gadget, is the sexy hostess. She serves drinks in plastic tumblers in the vicinity of Ronny’s table.
Toby orders whisky and ginger ale, a match for her erogenous brunette aroma when he feels his libido crossing with hers. A mouse peeks from her apron pocket with telescopic eyes.
Ronny deals the cards to the mostly Asian clientele: Chinese, Moluccans, Malays and Indians. Some Africans and Arabs also mix around the tables. Everyone is decorated with gold, for sale when the luck turns. Watches, bangles, earrings and rings consort in anticipation of the new deck, the new combinations. Ronny hits 21 and closes the table. He’s the house.
Ronny delivers a hug, slaps, a kiss on both cheeks.
A thatch of chest hair pokes out above his clip-on bowtie. He reeks of bad breath and raw armpits. Teeth poke dismally at his lips.
Ronny isn’t discouraged by this scenario. He looks cheery.
“Stay here and drink. Drink all you want. It’s free. Then after you can buy me drinks for all the money I saved you. We can go to my place, next to a Kosher restaurant, so if we get hungry, good Jewish food downstairs. Cabbage. Boiled meat. I know you like that stuff.”
“How can you say this? There is Gadget. She’s everything to me.”
“Gadget’s all you got, brother.”
“Look at her. Don’t you want her? Everyone wants her. But I have her, and we do crazy things together.” Ronny beams. He’s extraordinary. Passion radiates over Ronny’s handsome face, restored by a smile, before he returns to his true deceitful manner. He fumbles from sentence to sentence.
“Did I tell you how beautiful I look tonight? Everyone tells me…. All the girls tell me. All of them.”
Ronny glares at him.
“Because I’m better than you, more beautiful than you and you are jealous because she’s the blond hostess with the most pleasing manner. The one with a mouse in her pocket.”
“Man, I know what she looks like. What do you want?”
Toby slugs back his whisky and ginger ale for effect.
Ronny withdraws, helpless, child-like.
“Wait or gamble. My shift’s over soon. We go fishing after, right? Gadget will come. I know you want her.”
Ronny smiles grimly and rejoins the game, fussing over the cards and refusing to acknowledge anyone in the throng. Cards glide over the baize table. Chips circulate from player to player. A croupier flattens the creases in her shirt.
The night accrues the hazy color of cough syrup.
Ronny’s dressed in fatigues. He gathers his bag and kicks onto his bike. Toby pedals. Gadget merges into them from another direction. Her basket tinkles with bottles. Before too long they pause to crack a round of tiny Camparis in need of soda. They share a smoke.
Together, they abandon Adam, exchange its oppressive perfection for the surrounding tenements, ride to a greenbelt that concludes in the dikes and sea. The planes move overhead, panting like will o’wisps.
A petrol station glows in the moor. Toby buys. A tall pimply nitwit mans the counter.
Ronny gobbles instant coffee and apple pie on the curb. He picks a scab from his face. Ronny’s not much for subtleties.
Gadget kisses his forehead.
He doesn’t really understand why.
They ride through the hinterland, Ronny promising that the end is near. No one complains.
A refinery looms ahead, its deep-water harbor and terminals illuminated with floods. Supertankers are anchored in a queue out into the sea, a shoal of giant squid. A thick jetty punches out to sea. It’s studded with pylons of lights. Families avoid the weather, their cars parked in knots and fans. Cards, backgammon, heat and music are the entertainment inside. Corridors of light reach over the dark, outer bank of the jetty, sweep the swells.
Ronny gawks at the fancier masses of metal.
Gadget and Toby bump along the giant slabs of rock.
Under the floodlights it’s daylight. Offshore, murky chop. The sky’s blank. Spray bashes upward.
Men wearing rubber boots fish from the rocks, cast far into the waves. The tackle whistles through the air and splashes into the surf.
The jetty’s cracks are a mortar of rubbish, crabs, monofilament and nets, shards and sheets of plastic, driftwood charged with the smell of salt.
One fisherman gaffs a fat conga eel from the surf. He clubs the yawning alabaster head. Salty rings bling on his fingers, medallions bling around his chest. The man hooks the eel by its gills and smugly slaps it into his Styrofoam cooler. His glossy, cloudy eyes glitter with boastful malice.
He yells and gestures.
Ronny shivers and shirks, pretending not to notice. The man yells some more in our direction.
Gadget smacks her gum. “Fuck, it’s our boss, Manuel.”
They pick our way along the rocks to the eel catcher with smoldering eyes.
Ronny apprehensively shakes the man’s bloody fingers and stutters, “Hello, Mister Manuel.” Toby shakes too, the fingers like cigar stubs.
Tiny Manuel rattles in his rubber boots and stalks around them. Manuel chews his words and spits them out.
“Come fishin’? You no pole.”
Manuel leers, his mustache prickles above his lip, he breathes alcohol in Ronny’s mute face.
Ronny stammers with fortitude, “Bosssss?”
What deceit to produce for the little Noriega?
Manuel drops to the rocks with barely a sound, flashing salt-encrusted watch, gold necklace, pulling off a fleet of rings and tossing them in the cooler along with the conga eel.
“It’s me who Gadget wants,” he says.
He fiddles with his stout pole, towering above him like an antenna, reels in the tackle, cuts up some bait, stabs the barbs of the hook through the bait, casts far into the sea.
The refinery complex sits in the background—meditating Buddha, condensing Zen, oblivious to small debts and white lies and what is unsaid.
Gadget looks down blankly at the conflict, rolls her eyes.
Ronny draws a line through the refuse and seaweed on the rocks. “Manuel, I walk away and not give.”
Ronny and Manuel redden. Manuel helplessly flails at Ronny.
“Cards don’t lie! Dice don’t lie! But workers lie!” He shouts.
Ronny, bigger, stouter, is impassive.
Manuel, sharper, shrewder, glints under the spotlights, licks his lips, rubs his palms, dances an imp-like jig.
The shoving match escalates and they step around the cracks.
Ronny’s eyes flash. His fists form around a pair of keys.
He metes out hard, dirty punches.
Manuel scrambles for his knife among his tackle.
Ronny is piqued and violent. He stuffs Manuel’s gold medallions in Manuel’s mouth and punches him. Blood spews through his cheeks.
Manuel’s no match.
Ronny nonchalantly punches away at the little man, sensing his advantage, relishing the revenge, taking his time.
“You can stop now,” Toby says.
Ronny picks among the gear and tackle, pockets a few lures and other shiny items, takes Manuel’s fishing cap and sets up the next blow.
When Manuel vomits, Ronny loses interest.
He examines the fat coil of eel in the Styrofoam cooler. Some beer is underneath. He soon cradles the white box.
“Nice fishing, huh boss?”
They bump along the jetty, back to the shore, and load up Ronny’s bike with beer and eel.
Gadget dances with some kids among the cars. Gadget swings her hips next to the beat, dangles a spliff between her fingers, shares a can of beer of the kid next to her. Ronny seizes her and marches her to the perimeter.
“No rough handling,” she says. She squeals.
“Just get on and push.”
Ronny’s in charge.
Away from the refinery and terminal lights, the sky darkens and cools for an impulse, then rewarms. The eel snoozes in ice. Toby’s bike shows no signs of animation. Gadget and Ronny don’t believe in the paranormal.
They pause in a patch of sunshine along a canal, crack open more mini-Camparis, guzzle beers as chasers.
Ronny scratches his protean brow.
“It’s better when they are no Dutch in this country. Better that way. They can’t stick their nose in my business.”
Toby walks in a circle. Ronny orbits. Gadget’s the sun. Hothouses and dairies toil around them. Plants and cattle low from their quarters.
“You want her?” Ronny leers.
“See. You want.”
“Only if I can have her without you?”
“Oh, I’m included.”
“That’s your game.”
“She was telling she was thinking of you. Of your cock, of rings, gross motherfucker!”
“Maybe later, Ronny.”
“I just watch. I watch how she enjoys it.”
“But you want, don’t you?”
“I wasn’t thinking about it.”
“Since you’re my friend, you not pay. She wants you.”
Ronny kisses him, strokes him and chants.
“You want you want you want.”
Ronny completes his transformation.
Gadget undresses beside the canal. She hardens Toby with spit and hand. The nervous, expectant filly pushes him in.
There is no appreciable hunger. It’s neutral. He’s still recuperating from Georgette. His carnality wants to remain whole, not deteriorate into dimensions that cannot be the one, true, real dimension. The one. The one that is the truth and the end.
Toby confronts the last hours or days that might have been up to this act. Gadget poses accordingly: breasts and torso, hips and hair. Her qualities are her breathtaking detail.
He tunes into the lanes and mountains, ports and apertures he’s crossed, fanning into the sea. Toby is the boulder, rock, grain, virus—he obeys, does, marches, prays, messes, cleans, designs, assesses, watches, most certainly watches, for small wars on the horizon, watching the whole, real, only one of kit and flesh.
Toby isn’t just meat in their sex life.
Toby excuses himself and leaves them to their deeds.
Ronny dashes after him with the conga.
“You want! With the eel, Toby! The eel!”
Ronny jumps on Gadget’s very bones. He roars one more time.
Toby pumps at the pedals of his iron steed gaining its preternatural powers. His mood brightens. For a while he plays little pranks and stunts on the road to stay awake. Then he climbs on the rack, rolls his jacket to make a pillow and sleeps. He wants to keep thinking and seeing.
Toby dials Ronny’s number.
Georgette circulates in the background between her shit paintings and her sex devices.
“Help me, Ronny.”
“Where are you?”
“We’re not friends anymore.”
“I never loaned you any money. We’re still friends.”
“You buy whatever I want.”
“OK, whatever you want.” Toby hoists himself together. He checks that he has the envoy. He’s secure in his pocket along with a trusty toothbrush and credit card useful in a million places.
“You’ve got the map, jah?” She’s sweet now that Toby is splitting. “So you can come home.”
“The seas are rising. For your country that’s important information,” he says, winking. He hops to the street. He whistles to the bicycle, slips over the cobbles.
Ronny spirals like a vulture on his own black cruiser.
“She want you.”
They pedal in two concentric circles, shoulder to shoulder, keep the velocity, lean against the force.
“Christ, you’re relentless.”
“Come to my place? See what happens? Or do you want to meet my friends first?”
“What do you think?”
“You and Gadget. Us.”
“I didn’t actually want to meet you that badly.”
Toby is dizzy, sleepy from the circles.
Ronny laughs. “There’s a mouse in your pocket. It’s Gadget’s mouse. She’s waiting for you.”
“Shall we say where it takes us?”
The mouse perks up as they ride through the streets. The mouse-ometer detects glittering crumbs of expensive cheese. The mouse nods at a dinghy.
Ronny leads the way to the miserable craft. Ronny tugs on the outboard. Toby hands him the bikes.
Ronny navigates nowhere. Mist. Vague lights. The chug of tour boats, chatter in twelve languages. The wind smells of brew ups, bicycle grease, apple pie, kerosene, windows. The residents: opaque, a hundred jewels of rain.
The gibbon howls, lopes in the canopy of linden and ash.
Some jade slime lives on the canal walls.
Inspired, Ronny crudely smells his fingers.
“You wanted. You were there, with me, looking over Gadget and you could not and you were humiliated because you like to be humiliated. Have Gadget. You love us.”
He’s unsure about that.
The snub-nosed narrow boats look like ornate dicks, blue and yellow, portholes, brass trim, planks trim, polished.
“You get fatter and slower and dumber but I get smarter and more handsome and quicker, ready for face cards, for risks you would never take, for cocaine and sex, for money and sex, for drink and sex, ruled by face cards, the cards that count, the one’s that always win the hand. You’re Ronny but not Ronny.”
The mouse (map) is dormant, sleeping as the trail goes cold. Toby’s hands strain at the oars. They moor at a slimy stairs along a quay.
Ronny ties a poor knot.
“Don’t be an asshole. Tie it up properly.”
“Let it go,” Ronny says, not caring, cold.
The boat slaps out with the tide, out into the windy chop of the port and bay.
They slip into a sense of place, halt for a space cake at Adam Massive.
They huddle in a corner. Blaxploitation, Blues and Afrobeat on the sound system.
Toby coughs a few burning spears down, nibbles on the mealy, fragrant cake, nurses a hot chocolate. He snorts a line of speed from Ronny.
He blows it up his nose and then spits it out.
It’s shattering, awful.
He smokes to calm down and this activates the space cake. His teeth hurt in a vile paranoid way.
His hands enter his mouth, keep his teeth in place.
Toby has to bite down in Adam Massive, not saying anything, trembling from the intake.
Ronny pants about Gadget, pants his drawl of lurid detail. All the prostitutes greet him when he flashes his roll. They hand Ronny bits of small-talk, the privilege of his illicit position. He takes their little wads of words.
Tumescent neon light bathes the top floor. The trapdoor to the attic is locked.
The trees are yellow, dead. The succulents, alive, sharp. A gibbon hoots. A crotch-rocket leans against one wall, perhaps to be ridden across the roofs.
Ronny glares at Gadget, then swaggers
“Put on some underwear, will you?
“Is there something to eat.
“Are these your Marlboros, Gadget?”
Toby delivers the welcome kisses. Her mouth is musty with male and female cum. Her breasts dust his shirt. She holds a salami.
“Where the fuck is the remote?”
He settles into the sofa, clears the table of dead leaves and a tangle of creepers.
He hunches over the table to cut a sequence of lines.
“Snort… for sex.”
“Slow down, baby.” She murmurs, slicing the salami on a dead magazine.
Ronny grows impatient salivating over the thick lines of speed.
Or is it coke?
He does all of them anyway. His body and mind need it.
The air is sweaty and humid.
He paces, unable to repose.
A spiral staircase circles down from the flat laced with trees, some chopped and smoldering. Has Ronny slashed and burned for a planting of manioc?
Condensation drips down the walls, down the windows.
The gibbon rustles above, curious, looks down at Toby with its loquacious eyes and tufted crown.
The mouse stirs in his pocket. The mouse loves heat, voices and salami, but scurries into the canopy. The gibbon grabs the mouse and kisses it with no ill effect. Friendly monkey and mouse chatter rebound from the high glass ceiling.
Toby gazes into the weird extension of zoo.
Ronny’s repellent. He baits Gadget with one of his inert commands. He snarls but Toby slides away. He can rely on his resources, maybe.
Toby gives her his mouse.
A squall is forming inside. Lightning flashes. Ronny rushes to the cabinets behind the trees. Thunder booms somewhere.
“You won’t find it.” Gadget painfully smiles, massages one of her breasts.
Ronny finishes another line. He gives the gibbon a swab of the powder from his finger. The lines brood in his nose. He fiddles with his greasy, curly ape drape.
Gadget is high and hitting herself.
“Ginger and whisky,” says Ronny.
Gadget twitches around for drinks.
He fusses with his clothes with an increasing sense of foreboding and dispassion. His feet, gut and spine are cold in the hot, humid zoo. Toby pretends to be aroused, looking for an exit.
Ronny preps more lines. “Snort.”
He does so. It’s cocaine that he has, the better chemical. Most of the line sticks to the table, saturated in Ronny’s sweat that drips in anxiety and anticipation.
After he lights a Marlboro. His mouth and mind are numb.
Gadget sidles up, laughing. “Socks are for your tongue, not your feet.”
The gibbon hysterically screams and sways beside them. The monkey takes the cigarettes in his black fingers and returns to the trees.
Ronny glares at Gadget as he takes a sip, all whisky, hardly ginger.
Gadget sits in Toby’s lap and raises his drink. They twist together, face to face, imbibing like snakes.
“Thanks for saving me,” she says.
She strokes his face with leather gloves. He’s feeling vulnerable to the leather.
Ronny agitates with powder and power, hoots.
Ronny ignites the dry jungle, and the gibbon howls at the fire crackling among the trees.
Ronny marches back to the sofa.
He puts points his hand and inserts it in his mouth.
He cocks his thumb.
Waves the gun before resettling it in his mouth.
He pulls the trigger again and again and again.
Bang bang bang!
Gadget kisses him, pushes her tongue down his throat, squirms on his lap, insinuates her very being into his.
The back of Ronny’s head splashes against the smoldering jungle. His head crashes into the trees, lodges. His face falls on the table, white with powder, blood, carelessness. He’s blown apart like a cheap grenade.
Gadget opens herself, crying and moaning, offers passage, soft and textured like corduroy, a horrible coquette.
The buzzer to the flat sounds, taunt and incredible.
Keys rattle in the trapdoor.
The locks turn over and a middle-aged woman hoists herself through the trapdoor. She cries at the sight of the trees, cuddles the branches, leaves, palms, ferns.
She cuffs Gadget on the ear—she’s wetting his thighs, wetting him in a torrent—then cuffs him.
“Get out. Gadget and you.”
A hemisphere of Ronny’s brain splats to the floor from the canopy, the gibbon swinging down after it, smoking a Marlboro.
Ronny is already crawling to heaven; he’s as dexterous as an anchor falling from a ship, crashing through the coral to find its purchase.
“Put him on the bike,” Toby says.
“He’s dead. He can’t ride.”
“It’s a special bike.”
“Yeah?” Gadget sighs.
“We’ll push ours.”
“Don’t follow too close.”
“At a distance.”
“How can he be dead?”
“It’s a practical joke?”
“Ah, Toby, you’ve got my mouse? Because I lost mine.”
“I’ve got your mouse.”
“How do you want to tie him?”
“Yes, but what about his head?”
“We leave it and no one will notice… the blood.”
“Just a cap… a hat of some sort… Take my camouflage one.”
“Help. He’s fucking heavy.”
“Tighter. Yeah, like that.”
“His feet too?”
“He can help.”
“The monkey doesn’t have to pedal.”
“It’s just like a tree. Ease him on. That’s it.”
“Look, Ronny’s riding.”
“Round and round, like a ghost —”
“A ghost clasped by a monkey—push!”
He notices her bloody hands, the bloody monkey.
“Wash them. In a fountain. In the canal…”
Gadget halts. The paranormal bicycle loops ahead.
“Just a minute.”
Toby strides over a big bike. “Can you keep up?”
“Has anyone noticed?”
“No one. Now that you’ve washed.”
Gadget twitches her ears and leaps on her bicycle. She’s much less two-dimensional without Ronny.
Hums and whistles warm the cold.
“See, it’s over there, as patient as a shark.”
“Killing you. Keep on pedaling.”
He’s going to hit it off with Gadget. It’s gross and he’s disgusted at his strange yield. He’s her convenient harvest of boy for the moment.
“Where’s it going?”
“Ronny’s riding. Only Ronny can ride like that. Like he’s sleeping.”
“Close your eyes and see what happens.”
“Like flying. But with your eyes closed.”
“Better to fly with your eyes open.”
“I need to wash his body.”
“And tie his jaw.”
“Find a chapel.”
“I’ve got his skull.”
“In your pocket?”
“Your mouse got a little wet.”
“We’ll bury him too.”
“Everything was going so well until…”
“This, this body. ”
“I love him so.”
“What to do with him?”
“Reverse the situation.”
“That it’s you who’s dead?”
“Would you take advice from the living?”
The gibbon’s swinging between the bars, bloody.
They persist riding after the gibbon and Ronny. Conversation cedes, but then resumes in a morbid manner. Toby distractedly tries to locate some kind of cantina for fries and herring.
Planes plop from the sky, cut the air with their engines. Toby and Gadget are near the perimeter. Ronny wobbles ahead. Something skitters in the bushes, keeping pace, but does not come any nearer. They bounce along a dirt road littered with puddles. Poplars blow along its route. The planes are lower, landing gears and flaps out. Light arrays, radars and antenna also sway in the wind.
The mouse rustles out of his pocket, climbs his shoulder, grooms.
Everything’s coalescing, collecting around this clot of body up ahead, bucking down the road.
Vans are parked outside a mill, now a squat: trailers, campers, graffiti, mess, garages.
Two naked kids pick at planks of smoked mackerel in the yard.
A group of naked adults, masked in leather and feathers, perform with erotic tools before two cameras. One man is tying his wang in a knot. Someone takes an enema.
The paranormal bicycle dumps Ronny’s body into the proceedings.
The mouse runs from shoulder to shoulder.
Toby kisses Georgette’s gnarled hand, which smells like shit; she holds a clear, wet wand with the other. The mouse runs up her arm and leaps into her mouth. She laughs under the hull of a passing plane shakes the ground. Wind and noise tear through the camp. Bodies buckle and interlace. Bodies limber and loosen. The two kids are scarfing popcorn, flicking cheese, peeing in the coffee while the actors pump the props. The sun unexpectedly shines.
Toby’s hot and takes off his clothes. He doesn’t want to be an outsider this time. The others look at him through their masks—in the midst of spanking, stretching, shitting, nipple clamping, burning, whipping, cutting—at the two shining loops of steel suspended from his urethra. He eats some mackerel with the kids who aren’t bothered by the new flash toy.
A Volkswagen parks on the overgrown drive. A civil servant in a blazer and tie unfolds from the car and sits down at the picnic table with a clipboard. He ticks through the social support paperwork, stamps the pages, puts them in the letterbox. He goes to the car and rifles around in a trunk full of books. He returns to the table, opens one, squints and writes in the margins with a gigantic hand.
She spits a clutch of eggs from her crotch into a hat. She shakes flour over herself and into the hat, shaking violently. She pees into the batter, delighted. She pastes herself with jam and chocolate.
Leo offers the civil servant the glass pipe and a tray of rocks. Toby is invited to join.
“Hubba,” says the civil servant.
Gadget talks with Ronny under the eaves of the building.
Dust clouds on the horizon, like cars are approaching, hustling to the scene. The actors squeeze their piles onto canvases and smear the feces in an aboriginal manner. The actors accost Gadget, take Ronny from her and hang him by his heels. His body is putrid and puce.
Toby inhales when civil servant holds the burner to the rock.
Ten minutes later, Toby’s watching himself still smoking.
Georgette provokes them.
“Suck you both off here behind the caravan.”
She presses against the corrugated metal.
The gibbon and a dog (man) are leaping between the squat and garage. The mouse scampers on the monkey’s shoulder.
Ronny’s being disemboweled by the others. The dog (man) and gibbon bark and howl. The paranormal bicycle wobbles in a circle. Gadget screams and screams. The civil servant and Toby are in Georgette’s mouth.
“Top me, oh, finish me off!” She moans as she chokes and throttles them.
The civil servant loosens his tie, peels off his blazer and shirt to reveal a leather singlet. He starts fingering Toby, touching and appropriating. He leans over to burn down another rock. He exhales and then excretes from a slit in the singlet over Georgette’s expectant face. He grins with the pleasure principle. Liquid laces into Georgette’s hair.
The actors are frolicking in Ronny’s offal.
Toby stumbles on the crack bong and it shatters under his bare feet.
The civil servant dons a penis sheath and a string of shrunken heads.
The actors are feasting on Ronny’s raw ribs.
Gadget and the gibbon weep like tornados.
The others are groveling for the two cameras.
Georgette’s gumdrop nipples rub Toby’s back. She besmirches him with her shitty lips and hands.
The civil servant pumps up Leo’s latex inflatable and lubricates his hindquarters.
Planes screech over, their bellies glistening with shit.
The civil servant pumps and inserts.
Georgette plunges her fists into his gap.
The actors are taking turns walking in Ronny’s flayed skin, taking turns walking in mime, possessing him with sick display.
Planes fly into the airport, but they don’t land. They fly into one vast asshole that eats everything before it like an ice storm, enveloping all of them.
Toby’s horrified, horrified, but the strange, cruel logic defies him and cannot vanish like any dreamtime. It’s frigid and bitter as Toby looks on.
The Ice Age is coming, for the best asshole in the world is him, Leo’s portrait is him.