THE DAY AFTER SUPERMAN DIED
Strung out and shaking he was, pacing distractedly about the clutter of his office upstairs in the barn, poking among the books and bottles and cobwebs and dirt-dauber nests, trying to remember what he had done with his colored glasses.
His special glasses. He needed them. Since before noon he had been putting off the walk to the ditch out in the field because the air was clogged with an evil eye-smiting smoke. Since the first smudge of dawn, long before his eyes had started smarting and his sinuses had begun to throb, and even before the hassle he'd just had with those hitchhikers down in the yard, he had been telling himself that this dreary day was going to be one real bastard without some rose-colored armor. Those glasses, he had been telling himself, would surely ease the day's sting.
As he paced past his window, he heard the heartbroken bleating of the mother sheep start up again, baffled and insistent, twisted by the hot distance. He pushed the curtain back from the sunlight and looked out over his yard into the field, shading his eyes. He couldn't see the lamb because of the thistle and Queen Anne's lace, but the three ravens still marked the spot. They eddied above the ditch, arguing over the first morsels. Farther away, in the ash grove, he could see the ewe bleating against her rope and, farther still, past the fence, the backs of the two hitchhikers. Little was visible beyond that. Mt. Nebo was only a dim line drawn into the hanging smoke. The merest suggestion. It made him think of Japanese wash painting, a solitary mountain form stroked hazily into a gray paper with a slightly grayer ink.
The Oregon farm was uncommonly quiet for this hour. The usual midafternoon sounds seemed held in one of those tense stillnesses that ordinarily prompt the peacock to scream. One New Year's Eve the big bird had called steadily during the half minute of burning fuse before Buddy's cannon went off, and last week it had screamed within seconds of the first lightning that cracked the iron sky into a tumultuous thunderstorm.
A storm would be a relief now, Deboree thought. Even the peacock's horrible squawk would be welcome. But nothing. Only the little clock radio on his desk. He'd left it on for the news, but it was Barbra Streisand singing "On a Clear Day, etc." Terrific, he thought. Then, above the music and the distant grieving of the sheep, he heard another sound: a high, tortured whine. Certainly no relief, whatever it was. At length he was able to make out the source. Squinting down the road toward the highway, he saw a little pink car coming, fast and erratic, one of those new compacts with a name he couldn't remember. Some animal – a Cobra, or a Mink, or a Wildcat – with transmission trouble, whatever the beast was. It squealed around the corner past the Olson farm and the Burch place and came boring on through the smoky afternoon with a whine so piercing and a heading so whimsical and wild that the hitchhikers were forced from the shoulder of the road into the snake-grass. The blond gave it the finger and the blackbeard hurled some curse at its passing. It screamed on past the barn, out of sight and, finally, hearing. Deboree left the window and began again his distracted search.
"I'm certain they're up here someplace," he said, certain of no such thing.
Deboree's eyes fell on his dog-eared rolling box, and he took it from the shelf. He gazed in at the seeds and stems: maybe enough could be cleaned for one now, but unlikely enough for one now and one later both. Better save it for later. Need it more later. And just as well, he thought, looking at the box in his hands. The little brown seeds were rattling all over the place. He was still trembling too violently with the surge of adrenaline to have managed the chore of rolling. As he returned the box to its niche in the shelf, he recalled an old phrase of his father's:
"Shakin' like a dog shittin' peach pits."
He had been up two days, grassing and speeding and ransacking his mental library (or was it three?) for an answer to his agent's call about the fresh material he had promised his editor and to his wife's query about the fresh cash needed by the loan office at the bank. Mainly, since Thursday's mail, for an answer to Larry McMurtry's letter.
Larry was an old literary friend from Texas. They had met at a graduate writing seminar at Stanford and had immediately disagreed about most of the important issues of the day – beatniks, politics, ethics, and, especially, psychedelics – in fact, about everything except for their mutual fondness and respect for writing and each other. It was a friendship that flourished during many midnight debates over bourbon and booklore, with neither the right nor the left side of the issues ever gaining much ground. Over the years since Stanford, they had tried to keep up the argument by correspondence – Larry defending the traditional and Deboree championing the radical – but without the shared bourbon the letters had naturally lessened. The letter from Larry on Thursday was the first in a year. Nevertheless it went straight back at the issue, claiming conservative advances, listing the victories of the righteous right, and pointing out the retreats and mistakes made by certain left-wing luminaries, especially Charles Manson, whom Deboree had known slightly. The letter ended by asking, in the closing paragraph, "So. What has the Good Old Revolution been doing lately?"
Deboree's research had yielded up no satisfactory answer. After hours of trial and chemistry before the typewriter, he had pecked out one meager page of print, but the victories he had listed on his side were largely mundane achievements: "Dobbs and Blanche had another kid… Rampage and I finally got cut loose from our three-year probation…" Certainly no great score for the left wing of the ledger. But that was all he could think of: one puny page to show for forty hours of prowling around in the lonely library of what he used to call "The Movement." Forty hours of thinking, drinking, and peeing in a milk bottle, with no break except that ten-minute trip downstairs to deal with those pilgriming prickheads. And now, back upstairs and still badly shaken, even that feeble page was missing; the typed yellow sheet of paper was as misplaced as his colored glasses.
"Pox on both houses," he moaned aloud, rubbing his irritated eyes with his wrists. "On Oregon field burners poisoning the air for weed-free profit and on California flower children gone to seed and thorn!"
He rubbed until the sockets filled with sparks; then he lowered his fists and held both arms tight against his sides in an attempt calm himself, standing straight and breathing steady. His chest was still choked with adrenaline. Those California goddamned clowns, both smelling of patchouli oil, and cheap sweet wine, and an angry festering vindictiveness. Of threat, really. They reeked of threat. The older of the two, the blackbeard, had stopped the barking of M'kehla's pair of Great Danes with only a word. "Shut!" he had hissed, the sound slicing out from the side of his mouth. The dogs had immediately turned tail back to their bus.
Deboree hadn't wanted to interface with the pair from the moment he saw them come sauntering in, all long hair and dust and multipatched Levi's, but Betsy was away with the kids up Fall Creek and it was either go down and meet them in the yard or let them saunter right on into the house. They had called him brother when he came down to greet them – an endearment that always made him watch out for his wallet – and the younger one had lit a stick of incense to wave around while they told their tale. They were brothers of the sun. They were on their way back to the Haight, coming from the big doings in Woodstock, and had decided they'd meet the famous Devlin Deboree before going on south.
"Rest a little, rap a little, maybe riff a little. Y'know what I'm saying, bro?"
As Deboree listened, nodding, Stewart had trotted up carrying the broken bean pole.
"Don't go for Stewart's stick, by the way." He addressed the younger of the pair, a blond-bearded boy with a gleaming milk-fed smile and new motorcycle boots. "Stewart's like an old drunk with his stick. The more you throw it, the more lushed out he gets."
The dog dropped the stick between the new boots and looked eagerly into the boy's face.
"For years I tried to break him of the habit. But he just can't help it when he sees certain strangers. I finally realized it was easier training the stick throwers than the stick chasers. So just ignore it, okay? Tell him no dice. Pretty soon he goes away."
"Whatever," the boy had answered, smiling. "You heard the man, Stewart: no dice."
The boy had kicked the stick away, but the dog had snagged it from the air and planted himself again before the boots. The boy did try to ignore it. He continued his description of the great scene at Woodstock, telling dreamily what a groove it had been, how high, how happy, how everybody there had been looking for Devlin Deboree.
"You shoulda made it, man. A stone primo groove…"
The dog grew impatient and picked up his stick and carried it to the other man, who was squatting in the grass on one lean haunch.
"Just tell him no dice," Deboree said to the side of the man's head. "Beat it, Stewart. Don't pester the tourists."
The other man smiled down at the dog without speaking. His beard was long and black and extremely thick, with the salt of age beginning to sprinkle around the mouth and ears. As his profile smiled, Deboree watched two long incisors grow from the black bramble of his mouth. The teeth were as yellow and broken as the boy's were perfect. This dude, Deboree remembered, had kept his face averted while they were shaking hands. He wondered if this was because he was self-conscious about his breath like a lot of people with bad teeth.
"Well, anyway, what's happening, man? What's doing? All this?" Blondboy was beaming about at his surroundings. "Boss place you got here, this garden and trees and shit. I can see you are into the land. That's good, that's good. We're getting it together to get a little place outside of Petaluma soon as Bob here's old lady dies. Be good for the soul. Lot of work, though, right? Watering and feeding and taking care of all this shit?"
"It keeps you occupied," Deboree had allowed.
"Just the same," the boy rambled on, "you shoulda made it back there to Woodstock. Primo, that's the only word. Acres and acres of bare titty and good weed and outa sight vibes, you get me?"
"So I've heard," Deboree answered, nodding pleasantly at the boy. But he couldn't take his mind off the other hitchhiker. Blackbeard shifted his weight to the other haunch, the movement deliberate and restrained, careful not to disturb the dust that covered him. His face was deeply tanned and his hair tied back so the leathery cords in his neck could be seen working as he followed the dog's imploring little tosses of the stick. He was without clothes from the waist up but not unadorned. He wore a string of eucalyptus berries around his neck and tooled leather wristbands on each long arm. A jail tattoo – made, Deboree recognized, by two sewing needles lashed parallel at the end of a matchstick and dipped in india ink – covered his left hand: it was a blue-black spider with legs extending down all five fingers to their ragged nails. At his hip he carried a bone-handled skinning knife in a beaded sheath, and across his knotted belly a long scar ran diagonally down out of sight into his Levi's. Grinning, the man watched Stewart prance up and down with the three-foot length of broken bean stake dripping in his mouth.
"Back off, Stewart," Deboree commanded. "Leave this guy alone!"
"Stewart don't bother me," the man said, his voice soft from the side of his mouth. "Everything gotta have its own trip."
Encouraged by the soft voice, Stewart sank to his rump before the man. This pair of motorcycle boots were old and scuffed. Unlike his partner's, these boots had tromped many a bike to life. Even now, dusty and still, they itched to kick. That itch hung in the air like the peacock's unsounded cry.
Blondboy had become aware of the tenseness of the situation at last. He smiled and broke his incense and threw the smoking half into the quince bush. "Anyhow, you shoulda dug it," he said. "Half a million freaks in the mud and the music." He was beaming impishly from one participant to the other, from Deboree, to his partner, to the prancing dog, as he picked at his wide grin with the dyed end of the incense stick. "Half a million beautiful people…"
They had all sensed it coming. Deboree had tried once more to avert it. "Don't pay him any mind, man. Just an old stick junkie -" but it had been a halfhearted try, and Stewart was already dropping the stick. It had barely touched the dusty boot before the squatting man scooped it up and in the same motion sidearmed it into the grape arbor. Stewart bounded after it.
"Come on, man," Deboree had pleaded. "Don't throw it for him. He goes through wire and thorns and gets all cut up."
"Whatever you say," Blackbeard had replied, his face averted as he watched Stewart trotting back with the retrieved stake held high. "Whatever's right." Then had thrown it again as soon as Stewart dropped it, catching and slinging it all in one motion so fast and smooth that Deboree wondered if he hadn't been a professional athlete at a younger time, baseball or maybe boxing.
This time the stick landed in the pigpen. Stewart flew between the top two strands of barbed wire and had the stick before it stopped cartwheeling. It was too long for him to jump back through the wire with. He circled the pigs lying in the shade of their shelter and jumped the wooden gate at the far end of the pen.
"But, I mean, everything has got to have its trip, don't you agree?"
Deboree had not responded. He was already feeling the adrenaline burn in his throat. Besides, there was no more to say. Blackbeard stood up. Blondboy stepped close to his companion and whispered something at the hairy ear. All Devlin could make out was "Be cool, Bob. Remember what happened in Boise, Bob…"
"Everything gotta live," Blackbeard had answered. "And everything gotta give."
Stewart skidded to a halt in the gravel. Blackbeard grabbed one end of the stick before the dog could release it, wrenching it viciously from the animal's teeth. This time Deboree, moving with all the speed the adrenaline could wring from his weary limbs, had stepped in front of the hitchhiker and grabbed the other end of the stick before it could be thrown.
"I said don't throw it."
This time there was no averting the grin; the man looked straight at him. And Deboree had guessed right about the breath; it hissed out of the jagged mouth like a rotten wind.
"I heard what you said, fagbutt."
Then they had looked at each other, over the stick grasped at each end between them. Deboree forced himself to match the other man's grinning glare with his own steady smile, but he knew it was only a temporary steadiness. He wasn't in shape for encounters of this caliber. There was a seething accusation burning from the man's eyes, unspecified, undirected, but so furious that Deboree felt his will withering before it. Through the bean stake he felt that fury assail his very cells. It was like holding a high-voltage terminal.
"Everything gotta try," the man had said through his ragged grin, shuffling to get a better grip on his end of the stake with both leathery hands. "And everything gotta -" He didn't finish. Deboree had brought his free fist down, sudden and hard, and had chopped the stake in twain. Then, before the man could react, Deboree had turned abruptly away from him and swatted Stewart on the rump. The dog had yelped in surprise and run beneath the barn.
It had been a dramatic and successful maneuver. Both hitchhikers were impressed. Before they could recover, Deboree had pointed across the yard with the jagged end of his piece and told them, "There's the trail to the Haight-Ashbury, guys. Vibe central."
"Come on, Bob," Blondboy had said, sneering at Deboree. "Let's hit it. Forget him. He's gangrened. Like Leary and Lennon. All those high-rolling creeps. Gangrened. A power tripper."
Blackbeard had looked at his end. It had broken off some inches shorter than Deboree's. He finally muttered, "Whatever's shakin'," and turned on his heel.
As he sauntered back the way he had come into the yard, he drew his knife. The blond boy hurried to take up his saunter beside his partner, already murmuring and giggling up to him. Blackbeard stripped a long curving sliver of wood from his end of the stick with the blade of his knife as he walked. Another sliver followed, fluttering, like a feather.
Devlin had stood, hands on his hips, watching the chips fall from the broken stick. He had glared after them with raw eyes until they were well off the property. That was when he had hurried back up to his office to resume the search for his sunglasses.
He heard the whine again, returning, growing louder. He opened his eyes and walked back to the window and parted the tie-dye curtains. The pink car had turned around and was coming back. Entranced, he watched it pass the driveway again, but this time it squealed to a stop, backed up, and turned in. It came keening and bouncing down the dirt road toward the barn. Finally he blinked, jerked the curtain closed, and sat heavily in his swivel chair.
The car whirred to a stop in the gravel and mercifully cut its engine. He didn't move. Somebody got out, and a voice from the past shouted up at his office: "Dev?" He'd let the curtain close too late. "Devlinnnn?" it shouted. "Hey, you, Devlin Deboreeeee?" A sound half hysterical and half humorous, like the sound that chick who lost her marbles in Mexico used to make, that Sandy Pawku.
"Dev? I've got news. About Houlihan. Bad news. He's dead. Houlihan's dead."
He tipped back in his chair and closed his eyes. He didn't question the announcement. The loss seemed natural, in keeping with the season and the situation, comfortable even, and then he thought, That's it! That's what the revolution has been doing lately, to be honest. Losing!
"Dev, are you up there? It's me, Sandy…" He pushed himself standing and walked to the window and drew back the curtain. He wiped his eyes and stuck his head into the blighted afternoon. Hazy as it was, the sunlight nevertheless seemed to be sharper than usual, harsher. The chrome of the little car gleamed viciously. Like the knife blade.
"Houlihan," he said, blinking. The dust raised by the car was reaching the barn on its own small breeze. He felt it bring an actual chill. "Houlihan dead?" he said to the pink face lifted to him.
"Of exposure," the voice rasped.
"Yesterday. I just heard. I was in the airport in Oakland this morning when I ran into this little hippie chicky who knew me from Mountain View. She came up to the bar and advised me that the great Houlihan is now the late great. Yesterday, I guess. Chicky Little had just got off the plane from Puerto Sancto, where Houlihan had been staying with her and a bunch of her buddies. At a villa right down the road from where we lived. Apparently the poor maniac was drinking and taking downers and walking around at night alone, miles from nowhere. He passed out on a railroad track between Sancto and Manzanillo, where he got fatally chilled from the desert dew. Well, you know, Dev, how cold it can get down there after sunset."
It was Sandy Pawku all right, but what a change! Her once long brown hair had been cropped and chromed, plated with the rusty glint of the car's grill. She had put heavy eye makeup and rouge and lipstick on her face and, over the rest of her had put on, he guessed, at least a hundred pounds.
"Dead, our hero of the sixties is, Dewy, baby. Dead, dead, dead. Of downers and drunk and the foggy, foggy dew. O, Hooly, Hooly, Hooly, you maniac. You goon. What did Kerouac call him in that book? The glorious goon?"
"No. The Holy Goof."
"I was flying to my aunt's cottage in Seattle for a little R and R, rest and writing, you dig? But that news in Oakland – I thought, Wonder if Dev and the Animal Friends have heard? Probably not. So when the plane stopped in Eugene, I remember about this commune I hear you all got and I decided, Sandy, Old Man Deboree would want to know. So Sandy, she cashes in the rest of her ticket and rents a car and here she is, thanks to Mr. Mastercharge, Mr. Hughes, and Mr. Avis. Say, is one supposed to drive these damn tricks in Dl, D2, or L? Isn't L for driving in the light and D for driving in the dark?"
"You drove that thing all the way here from the airport in low gear?"
"Might have." She laughed, slapping the flimsy hood with a hand full of jeweled fingers. "Right in amongst those log trucks and eighteen-wheelers, me and my pinkster, roaring with the loudest of them."
"When it started to smoke, I compromised with Dl. Goddamn it, I mean them damn manufacturers – but listen to me rationalizing. I probably wrecked it, didn't I? To tell the truth? Be honest, Sandy. Christ knows you could use a little honesty…" She rubbed the back of her neck and looked away from him, back the way she had come. "Eee God, what is happening? Houlihan kacked. Pigpen killed by a chicken-shit liver; Terry the Tramp snuffed by spades. Ol' Sandy herself nearly down for the count a dozen times." She began walking to and fro in the gravel. "Man, I have been going in circles, in bummer nowhere circles, you know what I mean? Weird shit. I mean, hey listen: I just wasted a dog on the road back there!"
He knew he must have responded, said, "Oh?" or "Is that right?" or something, because she had kept talking.
"Old bitch it was, with a yardful of pups. Whammed her good." Sandy came around the front of the car and opened the right door. She tipped the pink seat forward and began hauling matching luggage out of the back and arranging it on the gravel, all the while relating vividly how she had come around a bend and run over a dog sleeping in the road. Right in the road. A farmwife had come out of her house at the commotion and had dragged the broken animal out of the culvert where it had crawled howling. The farmwife had felt its spine then sentenced it to be put out of its misery. At her repeated commands, her teenage son had finally fetched the shotgun from the house.
"The kid was carrying on such a weeping and wailing, he missed twice. The third time, he let go with both barrels and blew bitch bits all over the lawn. The only thing they wanted from me was six bits apiece for the bullets. I asked if they took credit cards." She laughed. "When I left, goddamn me if the pups weren't playing with the pieces."
She laughed again. He remembered hearing the shots. He knew the family and the dog, a deaf spaniel, but he didn't say anything.
Shading his eyes, he watched this swollen new version of the skinny Sandy of his past bustle around the luggage below him, laughing. Even her breath seemed to have gained weight, husking out of her throat with an effort. Swollen. Her neck where she had rubbed it, her wrists, her back, all swollen. But her weight actually rode lightly, defiantly, like a chip on her shoulder. In her colored shoes and stretch pants and a silk Hawaiian shirt pulled over her paunch, she looks like a Laguna Beach roller derby queen, he thought, just arriving at the rink. She looks primed, he thought. Like the hitchhiker; an argument rigged to go off at the slightest touch. The thought of another confrontation left him weak and nauseous.
M'kehla's Great Danes discovered her in the yard and came barking. Sandy sliced at them with her pink plastic handbag. "Get away from me, you big fuckers. You smell that other mutt on my wheels? You want the same treatment? Damn, they are big, aren't they? Get them back, can't you?"
"Their big is worse than their bite," he told her and shouted at the dogs to go home to their bus. They paid no attention.
"What the shit, Deboree?" She sliced and swung. "Can't you get your animals to mind?"
"They aren't mine," he explained over the din. "M'kehla left them here while he went gallivantin' to Woodstock with everybody else."
"Goddamn you fuckers, back off!"Sandy roared. The dogs hesitated, and she roared louder. "Off! Off! Clear off!" They shrunk back. Sandy hooted gleefully and kicked gravel after them until they broke into a terrified dash. Sandy gave chase, hooting their retreat all the way to the bus, out of his view.
The ravens were flying again. The sun was still slicing a way through the impacted smoke. The radio was playing "Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys. Back in the yard below, at her luggage, Sandy was humming along, her hysteria calmed by her victory over the dogs. She found the bag she had been searching for, the smallest in a six-piece set that looked brand-new. She opened it and took out a bottle of pills. Deboree watched as she shook out at least a dozen. She threw the whole handful into her mouth and began digging again into the case for something to wash them down with.
"Ol' Thandy'th been platheth and theen thingth thinth Mexico," she told him, trying to keep all the pills in her mouth and bring him up to date at the same time. Seen lots of water under the bridges, she let him know, sometimes too much. Bridges washed out. Washed out herself a time or two, she told him. Got pretty mucked up. Even locked up. But with the help of some ritzy doctors and her rich daddy, she'd finally got bailed out and got set up being half owner of a bar in San Juan Capistrano; then become a drunk, then a junkie, then a blues singer nonprofessional; found Jesus, and Love, and Another Husband – "Minithter of the Univerthal Church of Latterday Thonthabitcheth!" – then got p.g., got an abortion, got disowned by her family, and got divorced; then got depressed, as he could well understand, and put on a little weight, as he could see; then – Sunday, now - was looking for a place where a gal might lay back for a while.
"A plathe to read and write and take a few barbth to mellow out," she said through the pills.
"A few!" he said, remembering her old barbiturate habit. "That's no 'few.' " The thought of having more than one carcass to dispose of alarmed him finally into protest. "Damn you, Sandy, if you up and O.D. on me now, so help me -"
She held up her hand. "Vitamin theeth. Croth my heart." Pawing through a boil of lingerie, she at last had found the silver flask she had been seeking. She unscrewed the lid and threw back her head. He watched her neck heave as the pills washed down. She wiped her mouth with her forearm and laughed up at him.
"Don't worry, Granny," she said. "Just some innocent little vitamins. Even the dandy little Sandy of old never took that many downers at once. She might someday, though. Never can tell. Who the hell knows what anybody's gonna do this year? It's the year of the downer, you know, so who knows? Just let it roll by…" She returned the flask to the suitcase and snapped it shut. Rayon and Orion scalloped out all around like a piecrust to be trimmed. "Now. Where does Sandy take a wee-wee and wash out her Kotex?"
He pointed, and she went humming off to the corner of the barn. The big dogs came to the door of their bus and growled after her. Deboree watched as she ducked under the clothesline and turned the corner. He heard the door slam behind her.
He stayed at the window, feeling there was more to be revealed. Everything was so tense and restrained. The wash hung tense in the smoky air, like strips of jerky. The peacock, his fan molted to a dingy remnant of its springtime elegance, stepped out of the quince bush where he had been visiting his mate and flew to the top of one of the clothesline poles. Deboree thought the bird would make his cry when he reached the top, but he didn't. He perched atop the pole and bobbed his head this way and that at the end of his long neck, as though gauging the tension. After watching the peacock for a while, he let the curtain close and moved from the window back to his desk; he too found he could be content to let it roll by without resolution.
Over the radio The Doors were demanding that it be brought on through to the other side. Wasn't Morrison dead? He couldn't remember. All he could be sure of was that it was 1969 and the valley was filled to the foothills with smoke as 300,000 acres of stubble were burned so lawn-seed buyers in subdivisions in California wouldn't have to weed a single interloper from their yards.
The bathroom door slammed again. He heard the plastic heels crunch past below; one of M'kehla's dogs followed, barking tentatively. The dog followed the steps around the other corner, barking in a subdued and civilized voice. The bitch Great Dane, he recognized. Pedigreed. She had barked last night, too. Out in the field. Betsy had got out of bed and shouted up the stairs at him to go check what was the matter out there. He hadn't gone. Was that what offed the lamb? One of M'kehla's Great Danes? He liked to think so. It made him pleasantly angry to think so. Just like a Marin County spade to own two blond Great Danes and go off and leave them marooned. Too many strays. Somebody should go down to that bus and boot some pedigreed ass. But he remained seated, seeking fortification behind his desk, and turned up the music against the noise. Once he heard a yelping as Sandy ran the bitch back to the bus. Sometimes a little breeze would open the curtain and he could see the peacock still sitting on the clothesline pole, silently bobbing his head. Eventually he heard the steps return, enter the barn below, and find the wooden stairs. They mounted briskly and crossed the floor of the loft. Sandy came through his door without knocking.
"Some great place, Dev," she said. "Funky but great. Sandy gave herself the tour. You got places for everything, don't you? For pigs and chickens and everything. Places to wee-wee, places to eat, places to write letters."
Deboree saw the pitch coming but couldn't stop her chatter. "Look, I blew the last of my airline ticket to Seattle renting that pink panther because I knew you'd want Sandy to bring you the sad news in person. No, that's all right, save the thanksies. No need. She does need, though, a little place to write some letters. Seriously, Dev, I saw a cabin down by the pond with paper and envelopes and everything. How about Sandy uses that cabin a day or so? To write a letter to her dear mother and her dear probation officer and her dear ex et cetera. Also maybe catch up on her journal. Hey, I'm writing up our Mexico campaign for a rock'n'roll rag. Are you ready for that?"
He tried to explain to her that the pond cabin was a meditation chapel, not some Camp David for old campaigners to compile their memoirs. Besides, he had planned to use it tonight. She laughed, told him not to worry.
"I'll find me a harbor for tonight. Then we'll see." He stayed at his desk. Chattering away, Sandy prowled his office until she found the shoe box and proceeded to clean and roll the last of his grass. He still didn't want to smoke, not until he was finished with that dead lamb. When he shook his head at the offered joint, she shrugged and smoked it all, explaining in detail how she would refill his box to overflowing with the scams she had cooking in town this afternoon, meeting so-and-so at such and such to barter this and that. He couldn't follow it. He felt flattened before her steamrolling energy. Even when she dropped the still-lit roach from the window to the dry grass below, he was only able to make the feeblest protest.
"Careful of fire around barn?" She whooped, bending over him. "Why, Mistah Deboree, if you ain't getting to be the fussy little farmer." She clomped to the door and opened it. "So. Sandy's making a run. Anything you need from town? A new typewriter? A better radio – how can you listen to good music on that Jap junk? A super Swiss Army? Ho ho. Just tell Sandy Claus. Anything?"
She stood in the opened door, waiting. He swiveled in his chair, but he didn't get up. He looked at her fat grin. He knew what she was waiting for. The question. He also knew better than to ask it. Better to let it slide than encourage any relationship by seeming curious. But he was curious, and she was waiting, grinning at him, and he finally had to ask it:
"Did he, uh, say anything, Sandy?" His voice was thick in his throat.
The black eyes glistened at him from the doorway. "You mean, don'cha, were there any, uh, last words? Any sentences commuted, any parting wisdoms? Why, as a matter of fact, in the hospital, it seems, before he went into a coma, he did rally a moment and now wait, let me see…"
She was gloating. His asking had laid his desperation naked. She grinned. There he sat, Deboree, the Guru Gung Ho with his eyes raw, begging for some banner to carry on with, some comforter of last-minute truth quilted by Old Holy Goof Houlihan, a wrap against the chilly chaos to come.
"Well, yep, our little hippie chick did mention that he said a few words before he died on that Mexican mattress," she said. "And isn't that irony for you? It's that same ratty Puerto Sancto clinic where Behema had her kid and Mickey had his broken leg wherein our dear Hooly died, of pneumonia and exposure and downers. Come on! Don'cha think that is pretty stinking ironic?"
"What were they?"
The eyes glistened. The grin wriggled in its nest of fat. "He said – if Sandy's memory serves – said, I think it was, 'Sixty-four thousand nine hundred and twenty-eight.' Quite a legacy, don'cha think? A number, a stinking number!" She hooted, slapping her hips. "Sixty-four thousand nine hundred and twenty-eight! Sixty-four thousand nine hundred and twenty-eight! The complete cooked-down essence of the absolute burned-out speed freak: sixty-four thousand nine hundred and twenty-eight! Huh-woow woow wow!"
She left without closing the door, laughing, clacking down the steps and across the gravel. The injured machine whined pitifully as she forced it back out the drive.
So now observe him, after the lengthy preparation just documented (it had been actually three days and was going on four nights), finally confronting his task in the field: Old Man Deboree, desperate and dreary, with his eyes naked to the smoky sun, striding across the unbroken ground behind a red wheelbarrow. Face bent earthward, he watches the field pass beneath his shoes and nothing else, trusting the one-wheeled machine to lead him to his destination.
Like Sandy's neck, he fancies himself swollen with an unspecified anger, a great smoldering of unlaid blame that longed to bloom to a great blaze. Could he but fix it on a suitable culprit. Searching for some target large enough to take his fiery blame, he fixes again on California. That's where it comes from, he decides. Like those two weirdo prickhikers, and Sandy Pawku, and the Oakland hippie chick who must have been one of that Oakland bunch of pillheads who lured Houlihan back down to Mexico last month… all from California! It all started in California, went haywire in California, and now spreads out from California like a crazy tumor under the hide of the whole continent. Woodstock. Big time. Craziness waxing fat. Craziness surviving and prospering and gaining momentum while the Fastestmanalive downs himself dead without any legacy left behind but a psycho's cipher. Even those Great Danes – from California!
The wheelbarrow reaches the ditch. He raises his head. He still cannot see the carcass. Turning down into the ditch, he pushes on toward the place where the three ravens whirl cursing in and out of the tall weeds.
"Afternoon, gents. Sorry about the interruption." The birds circle, railing at his approach. The wheel of the barrow is almost on top of the lamb before Deboree sees it. He is amazed at the elegance of the thing lying before him: a rich garment, not black at all, not nearly, more the reddish brown of devil's food cake. A little chocolate lambie cake, served for some little prince's birthday on a tray of purple vetch, garlanded with clover blossoms, decorated with elegant swirls and loops of red ant trails and twinkling all over with yellow jackets, like little candles. He blows them out with a wave of his hat. The three ravens swoop away to take up positions on the three nearest fence posts. Black wings outspread, they watch in imperious silence as Deboree flaps the ants away and bends to inspect the carcass.
"What got him, gents? Any ideas?" Betsy was right; not a tooth mark to be found. Maybe the dogs were running him and he tripped in the ditch and broke his neck. "He looks too healthy to just up and die, don't you birds think?"
The ravens rock from foot to foot and advance no theories. They are so righteously disgruntled that Deboree has to smile at them. He considers leaving the carcass where it is on the ground, to be attended to by the ravens and bees and ants and the rest of Nature's undertakers. Then he hears the mother bleating again from the ash grove where Betsy tethered her.
"I guess not. No sense in agony for ecology's sake. I'm gonna have to bury him, boys, to get him off his mom's mind. You can sympathize…"
Not in the slightest, the ravens make it clear as soon as they see their rightful spoils being lifted into the wheelbarrow. They rise from their separate posts, beating the air with their wings and calling. They flap into a circling formation above the wheelbarrow, calling together in perfect cadence as they follow all the way through the pasture to the swamp at the other end of the seventy acres. Sometimes the circle rises higher than the cottonwood tops so their continual rain of abuse sounds almost musical in the distance. Other times they circle close enough that Deboree could have swatted them with the spade.
He picks a shady spot under an overhanging oak and sticks the spade into the dirt. It's clay: mud in winter, baked concrete in summer. It would be easier digging up by the pond, but he likes it here. It's hidden and cool. The arms of the old scrub oak are ceremoniously draped with long gray-green shrouds of Spanish moss. The pinched, dry oak leaves are motionless. Even the ravens have abandoned their raucous tirade and are watching in silence from a branch in the tallest of the cottonwoods.
He hangs his hat on an oak stob and sets to digging, furiously now that he has chosen the site, hacking and stamping and chopping at the mat of clay and roots until his lungs wheeze and the dust runs off his face in gullies of sweat. He finally wipes his eyes with the hem of his shirt and stands back from the simple black basin. "Ought to be deeper if we want to keep the foxes from smelling it and digging it up." He looks down into the hole, panting and shaking so violently that he has to support himself with the shovel. "But then, on the other hand," he decides, "it's deep enough for folk music, as they say," and tips the corpse into the hole. To make it fit he has to bend the front legs back against the chest and force the hind legs together. It looks actually cute this way, he concedes, a kid's woolly doll. Hardly used. Just have to sew on a couple of bright new buttons for eyes, be good as new.
Then the trembling starts to get worse. This must be how they begin, he thinks. Freak-outs. Breakdowns. Crack-ups. Eventually shut-ins and finally cross-offs. But first the cover-up…
He spoons the earth back into the hole over the little animal much slower than he had dug it out. He can feel that he has blistered both hands. He wishes he'd remembered to bring his gloves. He wishes Sandy hadn't smoked his last joint. He wishes he had his glasses. Most of all, he wishes he'd thought to bring some liquid relief. His throat is on fire. There is water back up at the stock tub, a short walk away, but water isn't enough. There are fires in more than the throat that need attention. And no hope in the house. Why hadn't he driven to the liquor store in Creswell before he started this flight? Always good to have a parachute. Never know when some unexpected downdraft might pop up, throw the best flier into a tailspin. He closes his eyes and frowns, examining the possibilities. No downers, no tranquilizers, no prescription painkillers even. All went with the main troops on the Woodstock campaign. Not even any wine left at the house, and Betsy still off with the only working vehicle. In short, no parachutes nowhere.
He begins to shudder uncontrollably, his teeth chattering. He's afraid he is having a stroke or a seizure. They run in the family, fits. Uncle Nathan Whittier had a seizure slopping the hogs in Arkansas, fell into the sty, and the hogs ate him. No hogs here, just those ravens up there and these still oaks and, over there, in another little glade only a dozen yards deeper into the swamp, atop a stump in a beam of smoky sunlight, by the grace of God, a gallon of red wine? Burgundy? From the heavens a bottle of burgundy?
He drops the spade and reels through the branches and banners of moss until he has the bottle in his hands. It is a wine bottle, cheap Gallo to be sure but still half full and cool in the shady bottom air. He unscrews the top and upends the bottle and drinks in long swallows until he loses his equilibrium and has to lower his head. He turns around and sits on the stump until he catches his balance, then tips his head back for the bottle again. He doesn't stop swallowing until his lungs demand it. There is less than a fourth remaining after his unbroken guzzle, and he can feel the liquid already spreading through his body's knotted thoroughfares, already bringing relief.
It's only then that he notices that it is not a light, dry 12-percent burgundy after all but a syrupy sweet 18-percent wino port with a bouquet just like he'd smelled out of Blackbeard's mouth a couple of hours back. He looks around and sees two raggedy bedrolls, a World War I shoulder pack, and the remains of a small fire. There is a dog-eared pile of underground comics beside one bedroll and a paperback On the Road. In the other bedroll's area lies a pile of shavings, idly whittled slivers, some as thin as the fallen cotton-wood leaves.
"So this is why they were up the road from this direction, not down from the highway direction like every other pilgrim. Asshole bums…"
But there is no heat in the curse. He tips up the bottle again, more thoughtfully now, and somewhat curious. Maybe they're more than bums.
"Team," he says to the ravens, "I think we ought to put a stakeout on these assholes."
The birds don't disagree. They seem to have already begun the vigil, hunching their heads deep into their black breasts and settling down on their limbs in the smoky air. Deboree picks up the paperback and the stack of comics and retreats to the wheelbarrow, his finger still hooked in the gallon's glass handle. He selects a blackberry patch about twenty steps from the camp and bores into the brambles from behind, using the wheelbarrow as a plow and the spade like a machete until he has cleared a comfortable observation post in the center of the thorny vines. He tilts the wheelbarrow up and packs it with the Spanish moss from an overhanging oak limb until the rusty old bucket is as comfortable as any easy chair. He settles into his nest, arranging the leaves in front of his face so he can easily see out without having to touch the vines, and takes another long drink of the sweet wine.
The shadows climb slowly up the tree trunks. The ravens desert, squawking off to their respective roosts after a disappointing day. The air turns a deeper red as the sun, dropping to the horizon, has even more smoke to penetrate. The wine goes down as the Checkered Demon and Mr. Natural and the Furry Freak Brothers flip past his eyes. At last there is only an inch left, and the paperback. He's read it three times before. Years ago. Before heading off to California. Hoping to sign on in some way, to join that joyous voyage, like thousands of other volunteers inspired by the same book, and its vision, and, of course, its incomparable hero.
Like all the other young candidates for beatitude, he had prowled North Beach's famous hangouts – City Lights, The Place, The Coffee Gallery, The Bagel Shop – hoping to catch a glimpse of that lightning-mouthed character that Kerouac had called Dean Moriarty in On the Road and that John Clellon Holmes had named Hart Kennedy in Go, maybe eavesdrop on one of his high-octane hipalogues, perhaps even get a chance to be a big-eyed passenger on one of his wild rapping runs around the high spots of magic San Francisco. But he had never imagined much more, certainly not the jackpot of associations that followed, the trips, the adventures, the near disasters – and, worse danger, the near successes that almost put Houlihan on stage. Houlihan was Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, and Lord Buckley all together just for starters. He couldn't have helped but been a hit. But a nightclub format would have pinched his free-flying mind, and no stage in the world could have really accommodated his art – his hurtling, careening, corner-squealing commentary on the cosmos – except the stage he built about himself the moment he slid all quick and sinewy under the steering wheel of a good car: the bigger, the boatier, the more American, the better. The glow of the dash was his footlights, the slash of oncoming sealed beams was his spots. And now, and now, and now the act is over. No more would that rolling theater ever come bouncing and steaming and blaring rhythm and blues and Houlihan hoopla up the drive all full of speed and plans and hammering hearts.
For now, now, now, the son of a bitch is dead.
And, with the last inch of wine lifted in a salute before finishing it, Deboree begins to weep. It is not a sweet grief, but bitter and bleak. He tries to stop it. He opens the familiar Kerouac paperback, looking for some passage that will wash out that bitter burn, but the tears won't let him focus. It's getting dark. He closes the book and his eyes both, and enters again the library of his memory, looking under H. Looking for Houlihan, Hero, High Priest of the Highway, Hammer-tosser, Head-twister, Hoper Springing Eternally. Or maybe not so. Now it is the disciple, looking and hoping, hoping to ward off the circling heralds of desolation with some kind of gallant scarecrow, stuffed with some strawhead records showing just who this wondrous Houlihan was, what his frenetic life had meant, stood for, died for. Hoping to stave off the mockery of his hero's senseless death and to buttress himself against those bleak digits by checking out a collection of inspirational Houlihan aphorisms (Six four nine two eight: the complete works of another one of those Best Minds of Their Generation!), anecdotes, anything!
But the section is empty. The H shelf has been stripped, the works all recalled, out of print, confiscated as invalid in the light of Latest Findings. Deboree laughs aloud at his library metaphor and finds his throat dried almost hard. He drinks the last of the wine as though he is fighting a brush fire. "Year of the downer," he says, speaking up through the little arch of berry vines, watching the last rays of the rusty sun fade from the tops of the cottonwoods, staring until the last smolder has drifted away and the wine has carried him back into the forlorn stacks and shelves of his memory. This time he finds a slim volume – not under H at all but under L – about the time Houlihan the famous Fastestmanalive met the renowned Stanford Strongman, Lars Dolf, and lost to Dolf in man-to-man charismatic warfare. Under L, for losing…
During the late fifties and early sixties, these two giants had towered over the budding Bay Area revolutionaries. Both men were titans of their own special and singular philosophies. Owing to his appearance as a hero in a number of nationally distributed novels, Houlihan's rep was the greater, the more widespread. But in his own area, Lars Dolf was Houlihan's equal. Everybody that had any touch with the hip life on the peninsula had heard of Lars. And because of his Bay Area proselytizing for a Buddhist seminary, many had met him personally and were all in awe of his soft-spoken power.
One spring partying evening, Lars Dolf had dropped into the Deboree house, across the street from the Stanford golf course. Dolf claimed he had heard of Devlin, and he wanted to meet him, and he was open to invitations, especially concerning wine. Deboree saw immediately that they were due to argue – it was in the way the man placed his feet – and passed him the bottle.
It was first over art. Lars was an unknown painter, and Deboree could match him that in the field of writing. Then over philosophy. Lars was a graying, wine-torn Zen beatnik champ, and young Devlin was a psychedelic challenger with a higher-than-wine insinuation. And, eventually, naturally, over the much more ancient and basic issue: physical prowess. This category happened to be Devlin's strong point during that time. He was driving three times a week to the Olympic Club in San Francisco hoping to represent the United States in freestyle wrestling in the upcoming Rome Olympics. Lars was also the bearer of such laurels: the All-American Stanford linebacker dropout Kraut. Tales about him were many. The most memorable and oft repeated described him taking on a truckful of Mexican artichoke pickers at a Columbus Day picnic in Pescadero and fighting them to their own national standoff; when local deputies stopped the battle and an ambulance driver examined Lars, the broken points of three Tijuana switchblades were found sticking out of his great round shoulders.
Deboree can't remember who started the contests that day on the Lane. Probably he himself, with one of the trick feats he had learned from his father, probably going through the broom so supple that Lars Dolf didn't even uncross his legs to try. Then, as he recalls it, the spotlight was wrested from Devlin by his brother Bud, who was down from Oregon for some culture. Buddy went through the broom both forward and backward, which Devlin never had been able to do. It was Buddy who started the Indian wrestling.
Standing palm to palm and instep to instep, Buddy flipped through one after the other of the gang of awkward grad students, besting them each so easily that he became embarrassed with his one-sided victories and was about to turn the center ring back to Deboree (who hadn't challenged him; the Indian-wrestling issue had long before and many times been decided between the brothers; Devlin was heavier and older and longer reached) when Lars Dolf spoke from his lotus position near the wine:
"Ex-cuse me. May… I… try?"
He remembers the way Lars spoke, deliberately slow and simple. He always addressed a listener in odd, singsong phrases that might have seemed retarded but for the twinkle behind his tiny eyes. That and the fact that he had been an honor student in mathematics before he left the Leland Stanford Jr. Farm for North Beach.
Now, observe Buddy and Buddha standing there in the middle of a 1962 beer-and-bongos council ring. Observe Buddy, blushing and grinning, enjoying his prowess at the game not out of any sense of competitiveness but out of playfulness, playing only, as all their family had been raised to play, for fun; win, lose, or chicken out. And now see standing opposite Buddy this opponent of entirely different breed, hardly seeming part of the same species, in fact seeming more mechanical than animal, with legs like pistons, chest like a boiler, close-cropped head like a pink cannonball set with two twinkling bluesteel bearings, planting a bare foot beside Buddy's and offering a chubby doll-pink hand:
"Shall… we… try?"
Buddy took the hand. They braced, waited the unspoken length of decorum, then Buddy heaved. The squat form didn't budge. Buddy heaved the opposite direction. Still no movement. Buddy drew a quick breath for another heave but instead found himself sailing across the room, into the wall, leaving the impression of his shoulder and head in the particle board.
Lars Dolf had not seemed to move. He stood, grinning, as inert and immobile and, despite the expression on his round face, as humorless as a fireplug. Buddy stood up, shaking his head.
"Dang," he marveled. "That was something."
"Care to try… again?"
And again his brother was sent flying to the wall, and again and again, each time getting up and coming back to take the pink hand without any kind of anger or chagrin or hurt pride but with Buddy's usual curiosity. Any marvel of the physical world interested Buddy, and this squat mystery tossing him to and fro absolutely fascinated him.
"Dang. Something else. Let me try that again…"
What the mystery was Deboree couldn't see. Squat or not, Dolf still probably outweighed Buddy by close to a hundred pounds.
"He's just got too much meat and muscle on you, Bud," Deboree had said, his voice testy. He didn't like the way his little brother was being tossed around.
"It isn't the weight," Buddy answered, panting a little as he got up to take his stance before Dolf again. "And it isn't the muscle, exactly…"
"It's where a man… thinks from," Dolf explained, grinning back at Buddy. There didn't seem to be any hostility coming from him, or any cruelty, but Deboree wished they would stop. "When a man thinks from… here" - incredibly sudden, the pink hand shot out, one bullet-blunt finger extended. It stopped less than a quarter inch from poking a hole between Buddy's eyes – "instead of here" -- his other hand came forward from the hip in a hard fist, right at Buddy's belt buckle, this time stopping even nearer and opening, like a gentle flower, to spread over Buddy's solar plexus – "he is of course… unbalanced. Like a Coca-Cola bottle… balanced mouth-to-mouth with another Coke bottle: too much weight above…and below… and no connection in the middle. See… what I mean? A man must have balance, like a haiku."
It had been too pompous for Deboree to let pass. "What I see is less like poetry and more like ninety pounds Buddy is giving away."
"Then you try him," Buddy had challenged. "I'm curious to see how you do, hotshot, giving away only maybe a third of that."
The moment he took Lars Dolfs hand he had understood Buddy's curiosity. Though he knew the round little form still had the advantage by perhaps two dozen pounds, he could feel immediately that the difference was not one of weight. Nor was it speed; during his last three seasons on the Oregon team Deboree had been able to tell within the first few seconds of the opening round whether his opponent had the jump on him. And this man's reactions were almost slothlike compared to those of a collegiate wrestler. The difference was in a kind of ungodly strength. He remembers thinking, as Dolf snatched him from the floor with a flick of his forearm and hurled him through the air into a crowd of awestruck undergraduates watching from the daybed, bongos mute in their laps, that this would be what it was like to Indian-wrestle a 250-pound ant.
Like his brother, Deboree had risen and returned to battle without any sense of shame or defeat. To take the hand, to be thrown again and again and return again and again, more out of amazement and curiosity than any sense of masculine combativeness.
"It's where you think from, do you begin to see? The eye that seeks the lotus… never sees the lotus. Only the search can it see. The eye that searches for nothing… finds… the garden in full bloom. Desire in the head… makes a hollow in the center… makes a man… ahm!" -- as he threw Deboree into the particle-board wall, with its growing array of dents and craters – "unbalanced."
When Lars Dolf left after that evening, he took three of the undergraduates back to the city with him – two psychology majors and a frat boy who had not yet settled on a field – to enroll them in the Buddhist seminary on Jackson Street, never mind that spring term at Stanford was only two weeks short of over. Deboree himself was so impressed that he was half considering such a transfer until Lars informed him that the sutra classes began at four in the morning six days a week. He decided to stick it out at the writing seminar instead, which only met three times a week, and at three in the afternoon, and over coffee and cookies. But, like his brother and everyone else, he had been awestruck. And Lars Dolf had reigned as the undisputed phenomenon of the peninsula until the next fall, when a Willys jeep with a transmission blown from driving it too far too fierce too fast had brought Houlihan into his yard and his life.
The famous Houlihan. With his bony Irish face dancing continually and simultaneously through a dozen expressions, his sky-blue eyes flirting up from under long lashes, and with his reputation and his unstoppable rap, Houlihan became a sensation around the Stanford bongo circuit before the tortured jeep had hardly stopped steaming. He was a curiosity easily equal to Lars Dolf in charisma and character and, without the heavy-handed oriental dogma, a lot more fun to be around.
There were, in fact, no real similarities between the two men. But comparisons could not be avoided. As fast as Dolf was phlegmatic, as sinewy and animated as Dolf was thick and stolid, poor Houlihan was matched with the Buddhist Bull before he was even aware of an opponent's existence. By mid-fall term, all the talk in the hip Palo Alto coffeehouses was about the latest Houlihan blitz – how he had climbed on stage during Allen Ginsberg's reading in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, without a shirt or shoes, carrying a flashlight in one hand and a flyswatter in the other, to stalk invisible scurriers about the podium: "Maybe so, Ginsy, but I saw the best mice of my generation destroyed by good 'ol American grit – there's one take that you rodent you oop only winged 'em there he goes anyhow – you were saying? Don't let me interrupt"; how he had talked the San Mateo deputy sheriff into giving his stalled sedan a jump start instead of a speeding ticket after being pulled over on Bayshore, and, so persuasive and brain-boggling was Houlihan's rap, got away with the cop's cables in the bargain; how he had seduced the lady psychiatrist who had been sent by a distraught and wealthy Atherton mother to save a daughter deranged by five days' living in the back of the family's station wagon with this maniac, and the mother who had sent her when they all got back to Atherton, and the nurse the family had hired to protect the daughter from further derangement. Usually, eventually, these coffeehouse tales of Houlihan's heroics were followed by conjecture about future feats and finally, inevitably, about the meeting of the two heroes.
"Wonder if Houlihan'll be able to mess with Lars Dolf's mind like that? Should they ever lock horns, I mean…"
Deboree saw the historic encounter. It took place in the driveway of a tall, dark-browed, spectral law student named Felix Rommel, who claimed to be the grandson of the famous German general. No one had given much credence to the claim until a huge crate arrived from Frankfurt containing – Felix had announced – his grandfather's Mercedes. Lars Dolf had been phoned to find out if he would like to see this classic relic from his fatherland. He arrived on a bicycle. There was a champagne party on Felix's wide San Mateo lawn while the car was ceremoniously uncrated and rolled backward into the garage under the lights, gray and gleaming. Lars looked it over carefully, smiling at the double-headed eagle still perched on the radiator cap and some of the Desert Fox's maps and scrawled messages Felix showed him in the glove compartment. "It is a beaut," he told everybody.
The car had been carefully preserved, unscratched except for the right side of the front bumper, which had been bent in shipping and was crimped against the tire. Felix even started the engine with a jump from Deboree's panel. Everybody drank champagne in the yard while the big engine idled in the garage. Felix asked Dolf if he would like to drive it when the bumper got straightened, that there might be a chauffeur's job open as soon as the California bar exams allowed Felix to practice. Felix said he couldn't legally drive it himself for another nine months because of a DUIL, and his wife wouldn't drive it because she was Jewish, "So I need somebody."
Dolf was politely thanking the couple for the offer but was saying he would probably stick with his old Schwinn – "For my German vehicle" – when into the drive came a steaming, lurching '53 Chevy with a noisy rod about to blow under the hood and noisier driver already blowing wild behind the wheel. Houlihan was out the door and into the startled yard before the signal from the ignition had reached the poor motor, shirtless and sweating and jabbering, zooming around to open the other doors for his usual entourage of shell-shocked passengers, introducing each to everybody, digressing between introductions about the day's events, the trip down from the city, the bad rod, the good tires, the lack of gas, and grass, and ass, and of course the need for speed – "Anybody? Anybody? With the well-known leapers? Bennies? Dexies? Uh? Preludins even? Oops? I say something wrong?" – admonishing himself for his manners and his hectic habits, complimenting Felix on his idling heirloom, kicking the tires, clicking his heels and saluting the two-headed hood ornament, starting all over again, introducing his bedraggled crew again only with the names all different… a typical Houlihan entrance that might have gone on uninterrupted until his departure minutes or hours later, if Felix hadn't distracted him with a huge joint that he drew out of his vest pocket as though he'd been saving it for this very occasion. And while Houlihan was holding the first vein-popping lungful of smoke, Felix led him by the elbow to the little cement bench in the shadow of the acacia where Lars Dolf had retreated to sit in full lotus and watch. Without speaking, Dolf had slowly untwined his legs and stood to take Houlihan's hand. Houlihan had resumed his chatter, the words spilling out as irrepressible as the smoke:
"Dolf? Dolf? Didn't I, yass I did hear tell of a fella supposed to have confiscated all the switchblades in Ensenada – or was it Ju`arez? – went by that name Lars Dolf, also by the nick of 'Snub,' Snub Dolf the sportswriters called him, used to be a footballer, all-something, all-defensive something of the something, forsook future with the Forty-niners for meditation, which, the way I see it, correct me if I'm wrong, is mainly the exchange of one coach and his philosophy for another coach and another game plan – same game – single wing 'stead of double – this meditation practice probably just as beneficial as tackling practice – rather beat off, myself personally, if it's for spiritual purposes we are considering…"
And on and on, in a fashion best left inimitable, until the round, grinning face and the ominously unblinking eyes began to affect Houlihan in a manner none of the fans had ever witnessed before. In the face of Dolf s deliberate silence, Houlihan began to stammer. His rap began to rattle and run down. Finally, with his brow creased over the same mystery that Buddy and Deboree had encountered Indian wrestling, Houlihan stuttered to a rare stop. Dolf continued to smile, holding on to Houlihan's hand, watching him fidget in his unaccustomed silence and humiliation. Nobody broke the silence as the moment of victory and defeat was wordlessly accepted and formalized.
When the victor felt that his power had been sufficiently acknowledged by this silence, Dolf let go the hand and said, softly, "That is the way… you see it, Mr. Houlihan."
Houlihan could not retort. He was buffaloed. The dozen-or-so spectators smiled inside and congratulated themselves on being present during the decisive settling of this historic duel. They had all known it all along. When it comes right down to it, the mouth is no match for the muscle. Houlihan turned away from the grinning puzzle, seeking some route of escape. His eyes fell again on the idling Mercedes.
"Well on the other hand hey, what say, Felix, that we take 'er for a little turn?" He was already opening the right side door to climb behind the steering wheel. "Just round the block…"
" 'Fraid it would have to be one way around," Felix said casually, hands in his pockets as he followed around the front of the car after Houlihan. He took him by a naked arm and drew him back out of the car. He pointed at the bent bumper with his long chin. "Until we get that straightened, the best you could do is keep going in circles."
"Ah, cocksuck," Houlihan grunted, looking down at the wedged tire in disappointment. It was the first time Deboree had ever heard him use the word. On the contrary, Houlihan was often heard correcting others for cursing; he claimed it was spiritual sloth to allow oneself to stoop to obscenity. But this didn't sound like sloth to Deboree. It sounded more like desperation.
"Cock suck," he said again and started to walk away. But Dolf wasn't finished rubbing it in.
"You don't have to… keep going in… circles." Dolf was coming into the garage, walking around the grill, smiling his merciless little Zen smile. "You just have to be… strong enough… to straighten the problem out."
And while everybody's eyes popped, the little chubby hands reached down and hooked on each side of the bumper, and the back bulged in the ragged turtleneck and, as smoothly and inexorably as some kind of powerful hydraulic device intended for this very work, pulled the heavy metal away from the tire and back into proper place. Gawking, jawhanging, Houlihan couldn't even curse. He left, muttering something about needing to crash, maybe at an ex-wife's digs in Santa Clara, someplace alone, his crew abandoned on the lawn.
In the years of association that followed, as they became close comrades in adventure and escapade and revolution (yes, damn it, revolution! as surely as Fidel and Che had been comrades, against the same tyranny of inertia, in the guerrilla war that was being fought, as Burroughs put it, in "the space between our cells"), Deboree often saw Houlihan at a loss for words, or, more specifically, at an emptiness of words after days of speeding and driving and talking nonstop had left the dancing Irish voice raw and blistered and the enormous assets of cocky self-made intellect momentarily overdrawn, but never again so completely stymied. At least not so blatantly stymied. For Houlihan had a trick of filling the lapses with meaningless numbers – "Hey, you dig just then that lovely little loop-the-loop cutie doin' the ol' four five seventy-seven jive back thar on the corner Grant and Green, or was it eighty-seven?" – until his stream of consciousness commenced to trickle again and he got back on the track. Nonsense numbers to fill the gaps. An obvious trick, but none of his audience ever saw it as something to cover a failure. It was just noise to keep the rhythm going, just rebop until he found the groove again. And he always seemed to. "Keep rollin' and you'll always eventually cross your line again." And that faith that saw him through his lapses had become a faith for everybody that knew him, a mighty bridge, to see them across their own chasms. Now the bridge was washed out. Now, at long last, it did seem that he had lost it for good, in terminal nonsense and purposeless, meaningless numbers of nothing. Forever.
Worse! That it had all been a trick, that he had never known purpose, that for all the sound and fury, those grand flights, those tootings, had all, always, at bottom, been only rebop, only the rattle of insects in the dry places of Eliot, signifying nothing.
Forever and ever amen.
So. Strung out and distracted and drunk in the dark, Deboree starts awake in his nest of moss in the wheelbarrow in the blackberry bush. Through the darkness he hears again the twang made when fence wire is strained, its barbs plunking through the staples as the barrier is breached by a head of stock forcing its way through, where no breach is intended, or by a foot climbing over. The twang is followed by a curse and a chorus of giggles and the crashing of sticks. He leans forward in his nest far enough to see a battery-powered lantern wheeling through the shadows of the cottonwoods that line the border of his swamp and his neighbor Hock's pasture. Followed by more crashings and cursing, the light comes toward him, erratically, until it breaks into the clearing around the stump and is hung from a branch. It is the two hitchhikers loaded with packages and sacks, followed by Sandy Pawku. Sandy is carrying an enormous stuffed teddy bear. So loudly is she cursing and staggering about with the bear that the blond puts down his load and turns back to hush her.
"Cool it, huh? You want that old fart and his dogs down here?"
"I don't want that old fart and his dogs at all," Sandy answers. "You two farts will do, to share… for Sandy and her bear."
Fascinated, Deboree watches from the brambles as Sandy waltzes in a slow circle, then leans the huge doll against the stump and sits in its lap. "Give us a hand," she says, picking at the button of the collar taut across her throat, "an' a drink." Blackbeard draws a half gallon of wine from one of the grocery sacks. He uncorks it and drinks beneath the gently swinging light, his eyes on the fat woman and the doll. He lowers the bottle and takes a big summer sausage from the other sack and begins to chew the plastic wrapping away. Blondboy kneels beside Sandy, giggling, to help with the buttons of her blouse. Blackbeard watches, and Deboree. The 10:10 toots past at the Nebo junction. The shadows rock. The fumbling fingers have the garment off one shoulder when, abruptly, Sandy's head falls back to the bear's shoulder and she begins to snore. The giggle bubbles louder over the healthy teeth as Blondboy hefts the bra strap up and down.
"What kinda credit card got you these, mama?"
Sandy sags and snores louder. The boy tries to reach behind her sleeping back to find the clasp. Blackbeard is going through her shopping bag. He takes out a little transistor radio and turns it on. He leans against the oak tree, gnawing the sausage and tuning the radio as he watches his partner wrestle with the sleeping woman's brassiere. At last, Deboree has to close his eyes to the spectacle, and the dark swirls over him. His head is ringing. He hears the radio dial travel on until it finds The Beach Boys' hit. The harmony softens Sandy's snores and grunts and covers the crunch of twigs. Deboree can barely hear any of it. It comes from a long way off, through a twining, leafy tunnel. The tunnel has almost twined shut when he hears Blackbeard speak.
"What did she say he was doing out there on the railroad tracks? Counting?"
"The ties," Blondboy answers. "Counting the ties between Puerto Sancto and the next village. Thirty miles away. Counting the railroad ties. They got him doped up and dared him and he did it, didn't he, hee hee?"
"Houlihan," says Blackboard's voice, gentler. "The great Houlihan. Done in by downers and a dare." Blackbeard sounded honestly grieved, and Deboree found himself suddenly liking him. "I can't believe it…"
"Don't let it bother you, bro. He was fried, you know? Gangrened. But c'mere and check this. I bet this makes you take that wienie outta your mouth…"
Deboree tries to lift his eyes open, but the tunnel is twining too fast. Let it close, he tells himself. Who's afraid of the dark now? Houlihan wasn't merely making noise; he was counting. We were all counting.
The dark space about him is suddenly filled with faces, winking off and on. Deboree watches them twinkle, feeling warm and befriended, equally fond of all the countenances, those close, those far, those known, those never met, those dead, those never dead. Hello faces. Come back. Come on back all of you even LBJ with your Texas cheeks eroded by compromises come back. Khrushchev, fearless beyond peasant ignorance, healthy beside Eisenhower, come back both of you. James Dean all picked apart and Tab Hunter all put together. Michael Rennie in your silver suit the day the earth stood still for peace, come back all of you.
Now go away and leave me. Now come back.
Come back Vaughn Monroe, Ethel Waters, Krazy Kat, Lou Costello, Harpo Marx, Adlai Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway, Herbert Hoover, Harry Belafonte, Timothy Leary, Ron Boise, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lee Harvey Oswald, Chou En-lai, Ludwig Erhard, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Mandy Rice-Davies, General Curtis LeMay and Gordon Cooper, John O'Hara and Liz Taylor, Estes Kefauver and Governor Scranton, the Invisible Man and the Lonely Crowd, the True Believer and the Emerging Nations, the Hungarian Freedom Fighters, Elsa Maxwell, Dinah Washington, Jean Cocteau, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, Jimmy Hatlo, Aldous Huxley, Edith Piaf, Zasu Pitts, Seymour Glass, Big Daddy Nord, Grandma Whittier, Grandpa Deboree, Pretty Boy Floyd, Big Boy Williams, Boyo Behan, Mickey Rooney, Mickey Mantle, Mickey McGee, Mickey Mouse, come back, go away, come on back.
That summer-sweet Frisco with flowers in your hair come back. Now go away.
Cleaver, come back. Abbie, come back. And you that never left come back anew, Joan Baez, Bob Kaufmann, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gordon Lish, Gordon Fraser, Gregory Corso, Ira Sandperl, Fritz Perls, swine pearls, even you black bus Charlie Manson asshole. And you better get back to Tennessee Jed come back, get back, now come back afresh.
We are being summoned. We get a reprieve, not just rebop. He wasn't just riffing; he was counting. Appear and testify.
Young Cassius Clay.
Young Jack Kerouac before you fractured your football career at Columbia and popped your hernia in Esquire. Young Sandy without your credit card bare. Young Devlin. Young Dylan. Young Lennon. Young lovers wherever you are. Come back and remember and go away and come back.
Attendance mandatory but not required.