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Table of Contents

Chapter Sixteen

Floodlight makes up the cavernous room in overdramatic blue and green rouge.

The maze of ceiling pipes is prehistoric, ribs exposed in a museum’s dinosaur display, but the floor is extinction’s opposite, filled with Paleozoic life-forms evolving toward higher-order complexity. The bones of the bacchanals in this evolution mutate into metal, limbs extending like barrels, ravers shot from an AK-47 of dance.

How they locate rhythm in the haunted electronic beeps and blips is at first a mystery to me, then I hear the bass submerged in a boom so deep it seems to tunnel the ears with a shovel of long unbroken hum, until you learn to listen. You discover the Alaskan pipeline of bass in the lay of the frosty track is drilled with rivets, accents punching down through a parkinsonian structure of shudder.

An amplified female voice wanders through the track as though lost, dropping words every so often in the water tumbler of some forgotten Slavic language, glassy uninflected syllables swimming in an Alka Seltzer fizz of digital blips and bubbles.

“How did you know about this place?” I ask Sigh, standing behind me with Larry still highchaired on shoulders and the young woman with the girlish laugh whose name I’ve learned is Nova.

Everything not shouted is swept up by a broom and discarded in hearing’s dustpan.

“It was a part of Schlitz brewery once upon a time,” Larry explains, “and then it was a theater. Sigh played piano in a production years ago. He remembered the clock out front. Guess the rumor that raves roll through here sometimes is true.”

“Is that right, Sigh? You play piano?” Nova asks.

Sigh modestly nods.

Larry is hurt. “What, my word’s not good enough?”

A metal staircase half a football field away rises in folds to a balcony, where a white sheet hangs down in a banner. Meticulous craft has been expended to paint what I think is supposed to be a red resemble of balls and jacks, and then I see what they are: molecules, a before-and-after representation. The before molecule has a face with a straight line for a mouth drawn in the middle chamber. The after molecule has been subtly subverted, a few rods in its Tinkertoy geometry missing. This one smiles broadly, its teeth lengthening into the letters MDMA. “Molecule of the Month” the caption reads.

A subcaption reads, “Avoid hyperthemia, drink water.”

A sub-subcaption reads, “Avoid hyponatremia, don’t drink too much water.”

MDMA stands for 3,4 methylenedioxyethylamphetamine.

A youth circling us on a tricycle, knees in awkward jackknife, wears a yellow T-shirt with a logo of the same smiling molecule. When the tricycle plunges into a dancing horde nearby he crumples like a balled newspaper of aikedo and immediately unfolds to his feet, rolled off shoulders, body a headline of dance.

“Rave, rave until the dying of the light!” Larry cries.

Larry may be a dummy but he introduces the crowd to Dylan Thomas, tweaking the famous word’s molecule.

Speakers are embedded in the walls like steaming post-collision asteroids.

A sleek racetrack of a bar crescents the long side wall and eventually zooms off into another room. The bartender stationed behind it hands out surgical masks smeared with Vicks Vapo Rub, plastic necklaces alit with plasmic glow-in-the-dark particles, water bottles, Buddhist prayer bracelets, Vicks inhalers, finger cymbals, press-on tattoos, pacifiers on strings. Something to suck on if the E turns sadistic piano tuner, pulling jaw muscles into tightly stretched strings.

The bass performs CPR on my chest, cracking ribs. People stand on some kind of catwalk above the room, looking down, watching the crowd I’m in shift like beaded aluminum powder in a flowing Etch A Sketch pictogram.

I see a spectator-cluster, shadowy off to the side. Compressing my shoulders thin as a tarot card seen edgewise, I shuffle sideways through dancers spangling sweat into the fug, join them to see what they see. I insinuate into the cluster and stop short because there’s a boy in surgical scrubs with a lamb of hair bunched blonde on his head sitting in full lotus with his face to the wall, the focus of everyone’s attention.

It’s the Boy of Fleece.

“Fleece!” I shout, but he doesn’t move.

An angry-looking boy standing in front of me wearing a miner’s helmet turns his head and a cigarette of lightbeam burns into the back of Fleece’s neck, cervical vertebrae a C1 ashtray lumpy as amateur pottery. “Dude’s deep in it now,” he observes.

I ask, “What’s he doing?”

“Doing? He’s down in the valley, the place we’re always running from, you know? Yea, Fleece walketh through the valley of the shadow of death, and he most definitely fears evil. No rod nor staff shall comfort him. Hey, check out Meadow.”

He drops his head and I notice a girl sitting there in the spotlight, both arms extended, holding a panel of newspaper, four feet or so directly behind the Boy of Fleece. “Check it out. Fleece, do another paragraph.”

The beam shifts back up and Fleece’s neck receives the white ash of the cigarette again. His body, already straight and still as bone, draws the marrow from motionlessness, calcifying surrounding space. His voice starts up, like his skeleton is climbing out of a coffin lodged in his throat. “In a move that underlines Placido Domingo’s status …”

The miner interrupts him. “Dude, louder.”

“In a move that UNDERLINES PLACIDO DOMINO’S STATUS AS TOP DOG IN THE LOS ANGELES OPERA WHILE DRAWING CONDUCTOR KENT NAGANO CLOSER TO THE ORGANIZATION, OPERA OFFICALS THURSDAY UNVEILED A NEW SET OF JOB TITLES AND CONTRACT EXTENSIONS AMONG …” He waits.

Meadow, open mouth busy chewing on awe, has missed her cue and now scrambles her arms like runny eggs. Flustered, she turns the page fast, snaps it smooth, mumbling an airy apology.

“Higher, please,” the Boy of Fleece politely requests, still facing the wall. Flustered onto devastation, flirting with the failure that makes even the simplest of tasks a danger, the chameleon of incompetence clinging to her skin deepening to sudden coral blush, she apologizes again and lifts the newspaper higher. The sheets tremble in the uncertain mirage of her hands.

“Goddamn, Meadow,” the miner says. “You do know how to fuck up the flow.” Snatching the newspaper he kneels and Meadow covers her face with both hands, lobs up and darts away, the shoeless soles of her feet alternately bouncing like diminishing white tennis balls over the net of her chagrined sprint.

“… AMONG THEIR KEY CREATIVE AND ADMINISTRATIVE PERSONNEL.”

The cluster applaudes and then loses interest, ghosting away in boredom.

The miner stays. “Anything you hold up behind him, he can see it like through this eye E puts in the back of his head.” He looks around.

“Where’d she go?”

“Gone like the wind,” I say.

“Unstable as a short-legged table,” he tells me, walking toward the bar. Only now do I see that he never wore a helmet, that the gleaming ovoid dome of his hairless skull was helmet’s imitation in tight skin, a lens the size of a headlight held against his forehead with a white elastic band. I find a place against the wall in front of the Boy of Fleece and hang like an eye chart, then slide my back down the plaster and lean forward so he can focus on the tiniest line. “What are you into now? Smoke and mirrors?”

“Datcher?”

“What are you doing here?”

“This is where I am when I’m not on my way here. This or someplace like this.” If a sign advertising an underbooked motel’s overabundance of vacancies were nervous, it would sweat neon, gleam the after-sheen I see on his face. “Am I late? Was I supposed to collect from you tonight?”

“Tomorrow. Fleece, somebody told me Sage was here.”

“There are so many rooms here,” he says.

“Remember that guy the other night? James?” I toss the lifeline of his first name to stop his astronaut’s drift from the shuttle I navigate in the hope of returning him for a moment to planet Earth, just long enough to focus on my questions. He looks startled when I say it, suddenly awakened, jarred by the hint of homespun American formality it carries. He almost salutes when he hears it. “He lost his daughter? You helped him? I’m like that guy, I want you to you help me. Remember how he felt?”

“Oh, man,” he says. “That dude.”

“I’m like him. En or ex, remember? I’m fighting a world of ex. Somebody said she might be here. Is she here?”

“I’m not sure,” he says slowly. “Does she like to dance in cages?” I stare at him a long time. A muscle below my eye tangles dismayed twitch.

“Cages.”

“There’s some cages, yeah, with some girls dancing … I don’t know, she might maybe be in one. Dancing.”

“Where?”

“There are so many rooms in this place, it’s weird.”

I stand and walk behind him, and when he starts to turn, I stop him, clamping his head with my hands. “Keep looking at the wall.” Using his first name had been a mistake because it threatened to break his spell. I back up cautiously, re-weaving the fabric of semi-trance from the lighter stuff of the cozy winter angora of his last name. “Fleece, just keep looking. I’m holding a newspaper up, okay? It’s a newspaper with a picture of a cage and a girl dancing in it …”

“Two girls,” he corrects me. His voice is once again remote and foreign, a complement to the female voice effervescing occasionally above the cold crisp music of the track’s repetitive loop.

“ … That’s what I meant, two girls dancing. On the front page. Below it, there’s like a map that’s a layout of this place. If you look at the map, you can see what part of the building the cage is in.”

“Go where the staircase is. Don’t go up. Go through the hallway under. Past the chill rooms. There’s another staircase you go up. At the end, it’s right. Or. No. Somewhere off to the left.”

I head off into the fragmentation, into a Picasso of legs, torsos, arms.

“Like, maybe, I think,” the Boy of Fleece says, talking into the wall.

Next Chapter


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