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Chapter Eighteen

The crowd crumbles at the edge, stale granola, and I’m lowered into a battered aluminum lawn chair that resembles the mangled box from which the granola was spilled. The same man who was sitting at the door approaches me with a blood pressure cuff and a bottle of Gatorade. He holds these items with priestly passion, his arms stretched out as though proffering host and chalice.

“You wear a lot of hats around here,” I point out. “I’m a busy-ass guy,” he says. “I told you at the door you’d need water.” He’s so swollen with vindication that his vest is the size of a postage stamp now, but I don’t tell him my collapse was just the counterfeit hundred-dollar bill I waved to flag down the Yellow Cab of the crowd for the ride across the room. “You’re right. But I’m fine now.”

“Let me be the judge.”

The blood pressure cuff drives my brain into my bicep, like a cowboy herding wild palominos into an aneurysm’s corral.

“120 over 80,” he announces. “Still, drink.” I take a seeming recuperative sip of the green felt-tip broth, dribbling an ingrate’s damp-paper sarcasm. “Yum.”

“Electrolytes are no laughing matter.”

“Listen,” I say, standing, “I’m looking for a girl 5’5” with black hair, shoulder length, dark eyes, last seen wearing jeans and a black T-shirt with a yin-yang symbol on it, she might have on a little diamond nose stud …” As though to say you’ve got to be shitting me, he cuts me off with a deadpan sweep of the arm that encompasses the room and coats what I’ve just said, Dan Rowan’s smooth straight-man butter oversmearing Dick Martin’s badly burnt toast of buffoonery.

“No, wait, she’s Iranian, and she’s supposedly dancing in a cage?”

I see ripples as though his pectorals are deliberating. “Her name Sage?”

I’m bouncing like a kid’s beach ball, so full of excited air that I almost float away. “Yeah, that’s her name!” In my exultation I grab for the little vest, miss, by accident pinch nipples the size of mutant pencil erasers. I expect a blow to the jaw but he just smiles like he’s used to it.

“Down the hallway, past the chill rooms to the end, turn left. At the end there’s a staircase goes up to another room like this. It’s like done in a retro disco theme. Past meets present, you know? Go-go cages hanging from the ceiling. Disco ball.”

This time I take precautions, spraying silicone from an aerosol can of haste to slick the spaces between bodies in the hallway. Stopping even a moment to contemplate an itinerary invites a fate akin to the one awaiting the shark that forgets to swim, crowd’s crush the current withholding circulation through fins. I keep moving, down the narrow hallway and to the right.

There’s a scene in the movie Poltergeist where the besieged mother steels herself, measuring the gauntlet of the hallway leading to the children’s closed bedroom door at the end, and with mother-lifts-car determination she launches toward it. The camera pulls agonizingly back, scene loud with soundtrack, to subjectively suggest an infinity of demon-tinkered time and space. Like that I launch myself, almost running, the destination of the staircase receding in proportion to my headlong plunge.

I pass open doors and in a striptease of periphery I glimpse smaller groups of ravers sitting or lying on mattresses. The mattresses on the floors in these rooms suggest casual carnality, but the people stretched out on them are only staring up at the ceiling chastely, or embracing each other with the heartfelt simplicity of long lost friends who just happen to find themselves reunited on a mattress.

I bound up the second steep staircase, a steel Shake-N-Bake of framework, my hot footslams the oven heating vibration well done, and see people swarming in and out of a room with inward swinging double doors, the kind bisected with horizontal metal push bars that make sweaty hands smell of dried blood. Something about the doors suggests they’re dwarfed by what sprawls on the other side, a space so sizeable that it’s barely contained.

When the doors swing open, light lasers the shadowed hallway like festive science fiction, eager to escape to other dimensions.

When I shove through them I’m in an auditorium-sized room, bigger than the one on the first floor. The size of the place intimidates, like a knuckle-cracking Mafia thug. The people in here are gumballs, packed in tight, slotting in and out of the door around me.

A disco ball whirls like a brain dangling from a Ritalin cord. On the other side of the room – the other side, again – I see a cage with 2 dancing girls suspended many feet above the floor, both wearing black calf-length boots, short black leather skirts, black blouses with tails tied off above navel. One of them is tall and blonde. The other is around 5’ 5” and has dark shoulder length hair that’s thick, as though her face is almost lost in the bury of a pillow. Her nose is fetchingly prominent.

I try to think like a knight, jumping through L shapes into little unoccupied spaces as though playing bad chess.

The blonde girl dances like a roller coaster in a box, a thrill ride of cardboard hips. In some ways, her sense of rhythm is consonant with the music, the boxy manufactured beats.

The other girl focuses the dance in her hands, her arms floating over her head, wrists looping like slender serpents, bracelets rotation’s chaperone until the branching flesh above the elbows stops the slipping and says far enough, and her hips ignore the boxy beats, move in ribbons that gift wrap the rhythm, the flat stomach undulating in a mellow wave of seamlessly recycling abdominals, top to bottom and back.

I’ve seen this before, Sage in the afternoon belly dancing through the living room or kitchen, the rings on her fingers winking silver eyes in kitchen sunlight, an ankle bracelet like a surfer catching the wave rolling down to the soles of her feet and holding on for dear life, riding the shallow curve concaving into calf’s fibula, the chain a sinuous S laid sideways and slithering.

Sage turns like a spiral of sand inside the hourglass tapering above the knees and below the ribs, and I see a tattoo below the right shoulder blade, Sage’s tiny butterfly tattoo, wings floating on a ripple of muscle.

I aim my yell across heads bobbing up and down like rigged targets at a fairway arcade, firing into the crowd. “Sage!” I push this time, bumping boldly, jumping on the balls of my feet, arms waving above my head like flames feasting on palm fronds laid out to spell look down on Gilligan’s island. “Sage!”

A boy short as a 2-second fuse wearing an eye patch and dancing next to me sees what I’m doing and carbon copies. This spreads, a new contagion not yet classified by the CDC but one that would shortly be named Hopping Disease Syndrome. Everywhere I look now, people are bouncing up and down on the balls of feet, arms scissoring above their heads. “Sage!” Eye Patch is yelling, exhilarated.

The crowd takes up the chant, mindless and as if damned, like a lynch mob of drunken linguists setting fire to a threatening new synonym for the word black. “SAGE … SAGE … SAGE …”

In the cage Sage looks startled, then smiles and waves to the crowd. “SAGE … SAGE … SAGE … SAAAAAAAAGGGGGEEE!”

Not possibly could she see or hear me in this howling Hun-like horde, even though I’m standing not 30 feet away from the cage now, shouting her name along with everyone else.

Standing on a wide railed platform that’s a waffle of metal behind the cage and attached to a 20-foot-tall tower of Erector-set scaffolding with wheels bolted to the floor, another woman strolls across a plank that leads to the cage’s rear door, opens it and steps inside, embracing Sage. Then Sage leaves, climbing down steps behind the tower, and the woman who took her place begins dancing.

The bouncer-medic with the tiny vest waits for her at the bottom, hands her a black leather jacket, and she shrugs into it, even though this place is a furnace using body-heat and the left-over firewood of the felled summer day for fuel. He leans down and as though feeding her ear rolls a whisper rimmed in a shout like the quiet O in a loud red Lifesaver.

This is what Sage does, what she’s always done before the ingot in her throat melts to golden laughter and flows from her mouth: cocks her head to the left, hooks the leftward hanging ribbon of hair that strays across one eye with her index finger, scrolls it behind left ear’s spool.

The black leather jacket with the sleeves split by zippers into cloven hooves at the bottom is the one I gave Sage last June for her birthday because one day, she said, we would buy a Harley, one day we would pack everything we owned in cheesy imitation black-and-white cattle hide saddlebags, one day we would leave Milwaukee behind, she said, and begin our lives in earnest.

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