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Table of Contents

Chapter Thirty

How had there been, after The Boy of Fleece’s recent arrival, time enough for visitors to appear loaded up with this surplus of supplies that transformed the transient anonymity of a hospital room into a cozy den of domestic entrenchment?

I don’t believe what I see, and I do what I usually do when I’m bewildered by something, cataloguing and annotating everything around me quickly to reinforce its reality and make it credible, which is the secret and inherent power of otherwise useless mental lists: The bed has been moved to abut the window and there’s a hammock in a portable frame set up where the bed had been. In its buoyant bulge of netting lays the sleeping Boy of Fleece, heaped. On the floor next to the bed is a potted philodendron, an air purifier that engineers the ions so a staticy smell of synthetic thundercloud spreads throughout the room, and an old-fashioned record player holding the black plate of a 78, its arm extended in a bent spoon, ready to serve up scratchy sound. Too homey to be institutional property, there’s an oval throw rug in front of the bathroom door, a coarsely braided multicolored spiral, and on the door itself is a red poster with the word “poster” centered in tiny black letters. The hospital’s bedside table has been resituated and stands next to the hammock, and on it there’s a plastic hamster’s cage with a threadmill, a hamster legging in a butterscotch craze. I’m standing next to an ancient broad-armed easy chair with squatting legs that scroll at the bottom, like a woman on her haunches in a field giving birth to infant treble clefts. The chair’s upholstered in black and red and ochre plaid, varnished oak wearing a Scottish kilt, sunken as a bagpipe in its last escaping wheeze. Could Kyle have carried it in, piggyback?

I’m standing, here’s the chair in its decrepit come-hither, so I sit. In the room’s corner is a stack of manuscript papers.

On the bed is a monopoly set, and like twin avenues where hotels have not yet been established, the legs belonging to the girlish voice border two sides of the board, extending the conceptual premise of the game in a thin real estate of flesh, paltry as Baltic Avenue. The legs poke out from a salmon-colored smock, pulled up nearly to the waist so the legs can breathe, the crotch a smocked cul-de-sac, and her feet are buried in a thick white snowdrift of socks. Her hair is a fringe of wisps escaping its greater strawberry mass, the bulk of it pulled back and scaffolded on the sides with a stab of smile-shaped combs, freeing a face that’s a jury’s unanimous verdict of innocence. But it’s the prominent knees that are my mnemonic, and I easily remember her on the stage with the hundred-dollar bill Kodiac had given her. She’d had on high-topped red sneakers and standing had been shy and sheepish, and I’d imagined her knees inclined toward one another beneath the blue dress she wore, smock-styled like this one: Amber, with slats for bones and a six year old’s eyes. All this not-long time she’s been gazing down, humming contentedly. She’s preoccupied with counting Monopoly money, stacking cards on the Community Chest square, raking through the tiny metal avatars that represent the players scattered inside the overturned box cover. When she selects the thimble for herself she raises her head, lifting it between her thumb and index finger to examine it, holding it up to the fluorescence recessed in the ceiling’s aluminum ringlets. Her fingernails are the color of a tongue dipped in grape juice.

“Hi, Amber.”

Looking at me she answers with neither surprise nor alarm. “I thought you were Kyle. How’d you know my name?”

“I saw you one time on stage at a Federakkt meeting.”

“You did? What was I doing?”

“You were saying yippee because Nicolai Kodiachevesky had given you a hundred-dollar bill.”

“Did I look scared?”

“Confused. Tentative.”

“I am confused much of the time. But the confusion’s so definite and concrete that there’s no room for me to feel tentative, so you might be mistaken about that. What’s your name?”

“Peace. Datcher.”

“That’s a really nice name. Names connect to karma, you know. And yours fits you, too. I don’t remember you, but there’s always so many new faces at the Federakkt all the time. You here to see Fleece?”

“Yes. What happened to him?” “Poor thing had an accident and was burned. Something like that should have never happened to someone like him. He doesn’t deserve anything but good things. He’s one of the sweetest people I know. But even with all the good karma in the world, bad things happen to good people.” She says it sincerely, completely unaware of having breathed her best resuscitating breath into a drowned cliché’s clammy lips.

To help me say this next thing, I think of the man with the bat and how Fleece had driven him home the night the man’s daughter died. “He seems to be a good person.”

The toilet flushes, churns vortical drone, and the bathroom door opens. “He is one of the best of persons, our sleeping friend, and this I will say unreservedly.”

Smiling at me, Kodiac comes out zipping up his pants.

He’s the same, if not more so: In his sixties but still broad like the moat of a castle filled with doorknob-backed crocodiles, the imperious mouth with the lips of a king, accustomed to speaking words that are always listened to, the broadly regal nose shoveling out a space for itself in the center. He’s a monarch ruling over a juvenocracy, and because his subjects are young and always surround him, something in him has stayed young too, an inner resilience like a plantlet. The only betrayal of age is when he sits on the bed – the legs joints are a creaking wooden bench, and I glimpse an old man’s face hiding in the baggy pleats of his knees. Over his kingly paunch he wears another Hawaiian-themed shirt, ever on vacation, a twinkling-eyed tourist of the world, its times and places. This time the white Einsteinian hair is stuffed under a snazzy grey Fubu baseball cap, but he still wears a pair of deep-pocketed khaki shorts. Like Amber, he doesn’t seem surprised that I’m here in the room with him, which is more than I can say for myself, and in fact he greets me with what seems to be heartfelt pleasure. “And here is another, Amber, another person in the process of rising to find the best in himself, though he encounters many difficulties. Introductions have been made, so you know this is Mr. Peace Datcher. Americans have a, what, a fondness I’ve noticed for calling themselves by the patronymic, and so he’s called Datcher, even by his wife sometimes, who was born in Iran but is more American than many Americans I know, in her spirit. I was just thinking about you, Datcher, and zoom, you appear – could it be that I’m dreaming, and that maybe I have thought you to this place? Or maybe the reverse – you are dreaming me here. Let me prove to you something. Tell me, have you been to your studio this evening?”

And I fall in, as through a hole, as though this man has had nothing to do with kidnapping Sage or turning my life upside down. I don’t rise to strike him, and in answer to his question I slowly shake my head no, speechless, afraid that if I move my head any more abruptly, my murderous thoughts of the past days will leap free in a neon jettison and he would see them, read them, run. With these steely thoughts I’d bolted together a death row for Kodiac where I saw him sitting behind bars moments before I threw the executioner’s switch. But then Sage had strode boldly into the fantasy, dampening its torrid tone, and she’d placed one of her hands over mine and with the other had cupped my face, and with her head cocked inquisitively to the left she’d looked at me in a way that made me feel ashamed of what I’d wanted to do.

“The death penalty, Datcher?” she’d asked. “The same death penalty that’s 10 times more likely to be meted out to African-Americans, compared to their white counterparts convicted of the same crimes?”

“I know. I thought maybe, since he’s not African-American, on a one-time-only exception basis.” So I’ll try to forget for a moment what Kodiac has done and the changes he’s forced me through, all the people I’ve been forced to encounter whose scattered, freakish, miscellaneous lives I’ve stepped inside and always secretly feared I’d end up living, with the result that now I’m a person more confused, more lost, more adrift than I’ve ever been – and though you may be forced through changes and resist them, there’s no emerging from them untouched, so I’ve been changed too, but in truth maybe not even that much, for there was much I hadn’t liked about myself anyway, pre-Kodiac. Scattered, freakish, miscellaneous, fallen short of the goal because of windings in the road and emotional mishaps – how far from that did I think I was? The awareness, heightened without Sage, of what I’ve always been is what Kodiac’s done: a glacial mass of potential adrift and in search of actualization, like Sugar Boy with his inventions, The Prodigy and his dummy, my father perversely through his booze, the cute-as-pie but apparently shy Joan Weller in vampira’s guise, Existentia and her porthole, the ravers and the children of the Federakkt, and all the motley rest – trying to undo mistakes and errors of judgment, trying to climb barricades and blockades out of the lonely self, out of Milwaukee, out of the Midwest, to arrive at who knows where or at what, maybe some ultimate California of realized potential paralleling this world like the Bizarro World in the old Superman comics.

Thanks, Kodiac.

Had I been to my studio, he’d asked, and I’m still slowly shaking my head no, not smashing his face to bits. Kodiac claps once, and I know with the clap he’s only sharply accenting his delight at something, but it’s as though he’s trying to wake me up.

The Boy of Fleece stirs but keeps sleeping, keeps dreaming the past into the future.

“Had you gone there, you would have found a message, Datcher. I’m telling you in the message that, after tonight, directions have changed. Therein lies the proof of my thinking of Peace Datcher.”

“I haven’t been home because I’ve been looking for Sage.”

“How do I tell you this without becoming, as the expression is, the windbag? The best ways for getting to places are not always in straight lines, but in the circles, so …”

Amber cuts in, speaking up with surprising force. “Don’t call yourself that, you are not old and you are not some windbag, or if you’re a windbag, then all of us are –- ” “So, to prevent becoming the windbag, consuming all the air and time in this room, allow me to tell you this in straight lines, zoom: Datcher. I am taking the Federrakt, which is after all mine, and I am breaking the affiliation with Thaddeus Dodge, who’s traveling at reckless speeds in a direction I refuse to go in. Very dangerous directions, Datcher. James Fleece is like my son – they are all in the Federrakt like my sons and daughters – and because of Thaddeus Dodge, James who is perhaps too gullible has embarked on his own foolish excursion in his experiment with a substance that has nothing to do with the Federrakt or how I am seeing things. Experimenting, tonight he injects hypodermically the unredemptive neurotoxin heroin, because that is what Thaddeus Dodge now wants to sell and James acting as its courier has gained access to it. All this just for money, always more of money. James’ accident, I believe to be a glimpse of things to come, so I must divorce myself from it. What I do, I do because I believe in it, not simply for money, money, money. My message to the Federrakt – yes, there is risk in it, yes, but there is always risk in the pursuit of visions. But I have explained the risk in the use of the material, my facilitative drug, and I have explained my vision, and the choice exists to be left or taken. We all must make such decisions for ourselves.”

“Poor Fleece,” Amber says. “Smacking it up, and then smoking cigarettes when he doesn’t even really smoke, and nodding out, and his hair catching on fire and now,” she sing-songs mournfully, “it’s all gone, all gone. But other than his hair, he’s all right, isn’t he, Kodiac? Kodiac?”

“Thaddeus Dodge,” Kodiac says, staring at me, waiting.

“Yes, I know who he is. Fully.” “All businessmen have rights to make money. I myself must make money. I feel no obligation that the way in which I must make money be married to the legal. There are far too many people, corporations, and governments making money in ways legal but not ethical. No, I am too old and too wily to be fooled by legal and illegal. In this reason I have fondness for the game of Monopoly, so Western-ly unapologetic in its acquisitive goal. But not just West. Money is the summing up of the world now, is it not so? But I own my vision. In the beginning I told Thaddeus, I want to reach people who feel as I feel, seekers after truth. To speak freely – may I? This is what methylenedioxyethylamphetamine is to me, through the community of the Federrakt. And I also want to publish new writings, new ways for art to express itself. This is what Flowology Publishing was to be. His money to back my concepts – the American way. We work together, through the nightclubs he can buy, which helps the Federrakt to enlarge – American way. This is the American way, the way of symbiosis.”

I ask, “And the kidnapping?” I’m prepared for what he’ll say: American way.

But he doesn’t say it. “This is perversity of character that is not so very good in our Mr. Thaddeus Dodge. You and I met by chance, and I read your pages, thinking: this is what I want Flowology to publish, okay? I show this manuscript to Thaddeus and whish, boom, bam, he is all for it. But I later find – Kodiac finds out everything in relation to the later, eh Amber?” – I don’t know whether Kodiac means later as in too late, or later as in inevitably, and Amber just smiles at him in a sad soulful acknowledgement – “that his motives rest on ulterior foundation. In college you have won a contest, no? This much you yourself have told me. A contest judged by the father of Thaddeus. How very much, with so much desperation, Thaddeus would like to win this contest! Not for himself but, what, for his father’s sake. So he is angry at you and your success. When I brought your manuscript and Thaddeus read it, your name was one he seemed to know well. ‘Give him the money, give him the year to produce it.’ I am glad to do this, Datcher, because your words in the rough awakened me. And Thaddeus is all for the win, to win what he wants, okay? If you finish the book, we publish it – and he is connected to whatever happens in consequence. He will gain the esteem of his father, for his good judgment in publishing it.”

“I don’t have to tell you that books are published every day, and they don’t make enough money to pay for the paper they’re printed on.” “Ah. Does not sell, does not make money? Here is the purpose you are in danger of missing: the esteem of the father, for the son’s judgment in publishing it. Or this is not farfetched: someone reads it anyway. One person, then another, then another’s another. No money made but maybe possible to become a success d’ estime? Thaddeus, all for winning, still wins. He is connected to a critical success. His father, he had been one such critic of your work already, yeah? Why not others, feeling the same? Maybe even his father, leading the opinions? The great shepherd leading the flock? Thus Thaddeus is inflated in the eyes of his father, swollen grandly into worthiness. And if it is published and there is nothing whatsoever, either of money or success, in the eyes of his father he has still made a worthy endeavor. Or to tell the father that he himself has written it, this is not farfetched.”

“But that wasn’t my question, Kodiac. I asked about Sage.”

Kodiac stands eagerly, as though once again on the makeshift stage before the audience of the Federrakt. He walks over to the hamster’s cage and, spreading his legs wide, rests his palms on his knees, peering in. He seems to be speaking directly to the hamster, still treadmilling, its body stretched out lankily, a butterscotch Slinky. “I know, I know – you go around and around. Your patience has reached its limits. You are angry with me and with deceptions. You would like to do this old man in. Sage. Forgive me to speak openly, please allow this – he has been in love with your wife. Can we agree? This is something I have only learned later.”

The hamster keeps circling.

“I have no idea what a person like Dodge loves. Does he know? When he was with her, he cheated on her. After she walked out, he sent letters to our house, and packages filled with rubber body parts. Does this seem to you to have anything to do with love?” “Is not, what, whether the authentic capacity that exists so much as his belief. Can we agree?”

He wants to hear me say it so I do, leaning forward in the chair. “Okay. Dodge loves her. He had his chance, he was in the relationship but shits all over it, then after he finds out she’s married to the guy who took this bullshit contest from him, suddenly, conveniently, he believes he really loves her.”

“Exactly! Perhaps there is no real love, perhaps jealously. So now we have this: his opportunity arrives, his serendipity, to practice the manipulations Thaddeus is so extremely adept in, when Peace Datcher appears with book. And to his happy amazement he finds that Peace Datcher is married to the woman he knows and believes he still loves, Sage. What Thaddeus will and must do is well rationalized, reasons are swiftly established, the groundwork of justifications laid. He invents terms. Deliver the book or return the money, a proposition Peace Datcher readily agrees to. Your stamp of approval is on it, so this too becomes a part of his rationalizations. I know, I know, but wait, please. Time beyond the year passes. No delivery of the book, no paying back of the money? Your breaking of the agreement now justifies drastic measures. He presents to me an image of deep concern, the persona of one doing his deeds in good faith, now taken advantage of, but more – what am I trying to say? – for your sake than his, more for the sake of the just deserts of the book, that it should fulfill its destiny and be completed. Peace Datcher will receive incentive in the form of a demand in collateral Thaddeus will feel he has every right to exact.”

“Collateral wasn’t part of the deal. Sage as collateral wasn’t part of the deal. When human beings are used as collateral it’s kidnapping, or indentured servitude.” “Part of the deal? No. Would Peace Datcher have ever agreed to such a thing? I’m telling you only of his logic: you break the deal, so now Thaddeus can, what, break deal that was never made, except through rationalizations. At first, I was prepared to think that, yes, Datcher perhaps will benefit from this incentive. I did not know, then, of his belief in his love for your wife, finding this out much much later, much closer to the now. Do you believe this? That I was a fool, capable of being fooled? Why do I say this, why was I capable of being fooled? Because this is what I wanted to believe.”

“You wanted to believe what?”

“That to set up this ploy, this taking of Sage, and to set up in your mind this false danger – false, because he is telling me that he is a friend of your wife, and she herself has agreed to this innocent deception – that what you believe you cannot continue, when you are so close to completing it, you will now be convinced you must complete. And when in the beginning I looked to see on what this assertion rested, of Thaddeus knowing your wife? In other words, for me the essential question became, was there ever such a friendship? – I find there that was such a friendship between them, and that the relationship was even beyond simple friendship. And now I will permit myself to say that, the last but not least, I am wanting to believe, because I am wanting with all my heart that the pages you give me would be completed.”

“You’re saying you believed Sage went along with this? So that I would finish it?” “In the beginning? Yes. I am not there the day Sage is taken. This is done by Dodge’s workers. Had I seen her distress that day I would have known, would I not? So yes, in the beginning I believed. This too I am saying, along with much else. When you listen to my message tonight, you will see that now, knowing, I divorce myself from it, telling you all that I know.”

I only see the electric hot plate in the corner by the manuscripts when Amber takes a tall bottle of Arrowhead water and a small saucepan from a large red aerobic tote bag on the floor by the bed, pours the water into the pan, carries it carefully and places it on the single burner, a warming reddening zero, after turning it on. She returns to the bag, digs around and comes out with cups and a box of tea.

“Green tea,” she says, displaying the box, very pleased. “Fleece’s very favorite.”

There’s movement in the hammock and it begins to sway, and slowly, dazedly, the Boy of Fleece wakes up. Kodiac’s loud clap had failed to wake him, nor had the conversation roused him from sleep – Kodiac’s voice sometimes ringing with oratorical resonance – but Amber’s, barely rising above a whisper, reaches up into his ozone of dreams and pulls him back. He’s got it backwards, the larger things failing to register, the smallest spurring his attention, as though he’s attuned to the infinitesimal. Shifting to his side, his head has the queer rudimentary look of sneakers without the laces, a foot without toenails, misery without company. His hair was so deeply a part of any association connected to him flitting through my mind that now he appears to be an imposter, Fleece-esque at best. Just as I imagine that anyone white musing on the essential identity of Peace Datcher might be inclined to first locate it in the color of the skin, and if there’s something second, in the dreadlocks. For a moment Fleece finds peace in the dreamy caesura occurring between remembrance and apprehension, but this merciful oblivion doesn’t last long. The Delilah of the fire had taken away the strong focus of his identity, and with the horrified realization that fell like a Redwood of repentance on Samson when he awoke from a slumber of wine and sex, Fleece runs his hand over his head and surprise ambushes his face. “I thought it was a dream,” he says spacily. His voice is grainy, pulverized by sleep. He’s wearing the green surgical scrubs. “I thought I dreamed it.”

“You only had singed patches left so I shaved what little was left off,” Amber explains meekly, bringing him tea. “In case you wanted it, I saved it, I put the patches in that bag.” Trotting to the bed to retrieve a neatly rolled Victoria’s Secrets bag – could it be her aura of innocence perhaps extends a little less broadly than I’d thought? – she returns to the hammock and hands it Fleece, who struggles to find a way to sit in the swaying net.

Unrolling the bag, he peeks into it gloomily and verifies. “Patches. Many patches.” Kodiac, standing next to him, runs his hand roughly over the head, tousling skin. “Will grow back,” Kodiac assures him heartily. “Is only keratins, polymers of amino acids and all the rest that you are without. Subtypes of keratin proteins in the fiber, hard and soft keratin, the hard hardily resistant to the degradation of proteolytic enzymes. Cysteine, serine, glutamic acid, threonine, descending in the order of the amount of amino acid extracted down to, what, methionine. But the hard keratin is not so hard that it is resistant to fire, as you have sadly discovered. Above all, I hope you have discovered your lesson, James. Much worse could have happened. You escaped with no burns of significant degrees, but I insisted that you be given this room, so that you could begin the inner processes of recuperation – to think, to mull over, to regret and then, zoom, to move forward.”

Fleece hangs his head. “I just thought I’d try it out.”

“And?” Kodiac probes.

The Boy of Fleece sees me and, not knowing what’s safe to say, is hesitant.

“You are here with friends. Peace is such a friend,” Kodiac tells him, “and he has been most kind to listen while I have explained many things. Your encounter with heroin is no secret to him. You must speak, to begin the inner processes of recuperation.”

“There’s not much to say. I had a parcel from him he gave me to drop off to Spider at Club Dhalgran, and I thought.”

“Him? Who is the him?” Kodiac asks, cunningly.

Again he hesitates, then admits, “Dodge.”

Kodiac nods. “Ah yes. We mean Mr. Thaddeus Dodge. For you, the name must not go unnamed. This is a flaw of your nature and you must recognize it, James, that you must never let the name of whatever pulls you toward defeat to go unnamed. To name in the open, my friend, among others, is to defeat hiding and to finally know. And to know is to obliterate what you may be tempted to deny.”

“Yes, Dodge. And he said it was the next step, the next thing. I thought it was okay with you.” Frowning, Kodiac takes the cup of tea Amber hands him and delicately sips, his bushy eyebrows meeting in a caterpillar kiss. “No, this was not and is not okay. This is without my knowledge. He has recently spoken of this new venture and I have told him, no. This is not my interest, not the interest of the Federrakt – this interest of his in what is variously known as the smack, the poppy, and in bygone days, the horse. And probably not even authentically the smack, the poppy, but the methyl-fentanyl analog. And probably not even that, but a combination of elixir terpin hydrate with tripelennamine and codeine to create, what, the weaker substitute. And so this is a parting of the ways, his path is now different than mine.”

Now Amber brings me tea and I accept it. “What about the conversation when I spoke with Sage on the phone? She was right there, you handed her the phone. You heard what she said and you saw that she didn’t want to be there, wherever you were holding her.”

“No, no seeing,” Kodiac denies firmly, shaking his head. “There was no seeing, I am simply playing a tape to you. Pre-recorded. Do you understand? And I am told by Dodge that Sage has spoken in the way she spoke only to convince you that she is being held against her will.”

A nurse walks into the room, a short, middle-aged Korean woman with a wide smile. “For our patient,” she says, handing the Boy of Fleece a cup of vanilla pudding from a tray she’s holding, “and I thought Mr. Kodiac-chevs-sky might want a little something, too.”

There are five cups left and she hands the whole tray to him, her arms straight out – her gift. “Please, I will be insulted if one such as you prefers the distance anything other than the use of something less intimidating and more intimate, implies. For you, I am just Kodiac. It reminds many of the bear. May I prove this to you, its aptness?”

Not knowing what to expect, she nods, delighted with the attention Kodiac sprays down on her, his showerhead set to a stimulating pulse. This is what he excels in, effortlessly, making a single person feel as though she were multiplied prismatically by a hundred, each one of the hundred equally his crux and exclusive focus. I had felt like that when he told me that he was ashamed to offer me a sum of only $20,000, an amount not at all commensurate with what he claimed my talent warranted – that if he could, he would have given me a million. The nurse nods, and after placing the tray on the floor, Kodiac swoops her up in his arms, and her face opens in the expression of calamitous oval-mouthed surprise seen on the face of the besieged claymation figurine Mr. Bill in the Saturday Night Live reruns. Caught up in the amusement park ride disguised as a hug, her legs flap and fold a willowy origami. Back on her feet, her arms dizzily grope for a banister, and Kodiac steadies her with big bear’s paw.

“Is fun up in the air, aloft, with Kodiac?”

“Oh Mr. Kodiac-chev – Kodiac, aren’t you just full of vim and vigor.”

“Kodiac the old bear!” he exclaims.

The Boy of Fleece and Amber radiate joy.

I stand up and offer her the chair, because it looks like she needs it, but she refuses.

“Well, I’m glad I was able to help you out in the way of giving the room a little bit more of a personal feel. It’s not exactly in the regulations ” The nurse says this with just the smallest splinter of doubt as she views the room, looking around at what’s essentially an audacious miscellany of junk, but Kodiac gives her a smile that sparkles with conspiracies and secrets, something just short of a wink, and she says more resolutely, “but if a head nurse can’t bend the rules just a little bit for her favorite patient.”

She should be looking at Fleece, but she’s batting her eyes at Kodiac.

“Exactly! We live in a world of rules, so many regulations, so many do-nots, and these make us old before our time. Nurse Kim, please allow this boldness, I would like to invite you to a special evening, the details of which have not been  ironed? Ironed out? Location is not yet known, but I sometimes address a group with very special topics of interest. My instant impression of you was that, what, you are one who has the gift of vitality, in the intellectual sense, and I think you would not be threatened by new ideas.”

“I should have guessed you were a lecturer or a professor of some sort?” A question burrowed inside a statement.

“No, nothing so esteemed, I have a PH.D in a field close to your own – but everyone has a PH.D in these easy times – studying biochemistry when I was young, and I love to share my own modest nugget of knowledge with those seeking new ways of understanding the world.”

“It’s sounds fascinating,” Nurse Kim says as though chewing something juicy.

“It is fascinating,” Amber confirms. “The Federrakt opens your eyes to everything.”

“Fed-er-rakt? Does that mean something?”

“Ah, this is mouthful. Each letter standing for word, a most ponderous acronym, I’m afraid, but I am hoping that it’s not without whimsy: Standing for Fearless Endeavors Developing, Evolving, Racing, Rushing through Kaleidoscopic Time. When the details are arranged, I would be very pleased to call you. Everyone in these days has a card, and if you would be so kind as to leave this with me.”

“I believe I can produce a card, Kodiac, if you would just stop by the station outside on the way out.” Nurse Kim spills these words as though knocking over a large vase of perfumed water where roses had waded demurely. She does things with her hands, smoothing her uniform, patting her hair, other bits of sign language for sudden shyness, and backs away toward the door. “Duty calls,” she says, talking with her eyelashes. “For now.”

Kodiac swoops through a gallant bow.

When she’s gone I say, “You’re good at that.”

He frowns. “Good? At what?”

“Making people feel good.”

Still frowning, he asks, “And this is bad, to make others feel good?”

I shake my head in slow frustration. Why assess, why examine, why dissect? I don’t want to debate with Kodiac, I want him to tell me where Sage is, to confirm what Ricky Chang had said. This sounds good, even to me, so I say it. “Kodiac. I’m not here to debate. All I want you to do is tell me where Sage is.”

“What I told you, Datcher, is no ruse. What I told you about the writing, this is still true. From what I am seeing, your book is finished. Yes, before this whole unfortunate episode with keratin, James had picked up your pages. I will read it, twice, three times more, and this will be my pleasure. Maybe you will add the final smoothings, a little here, a little there, is my first impression. I hope, even thus amid so many confusions, that you would still see me as its advocate. You have written something that is not a novel, not a book of stories, yet with so many points of view in independent functioning, and in language that often climbs rigorously out of itself. Yes, I am startled by it, excited at its prospects, these writings spill strange beauties from page to page.”

I interrupt like a telephone call during mid-coitus, Kodiac making love to the sound of his own voice. “Why do you care so much, if you really do, Kodiac? And my simple question still stands, do you know where Sage is or not, but why should I even believe you?”

Another long Sageless day has passed, one filled with a parking-lot rumble, amped-up stun guns and weather humid as Catholic guilt. Even the caged hamster had the sense to call it quits and has ended its futile ballet, having retreated to a corner to pull back its sawdust quilt and curl into its bed of shavings, conserving its strength for another bout of senseless quixotic rotation tomorrow. But I continue to circle in my own butterscotch craze on my treadmill.

“May I?” Kodiac asks me, gesturing, and I step aside. He moves wearily now, sinking slowly into the chair, the Titanic going down in an Atlantic of plaid instead of water. “I will tell you all I know, Datcher, and anything more I may come to know. And if you sit for only a handful of moments, I will tell you something else to help you.”

I sit on the bed’s doughy edge.

“You have asked me two whys, there is why number one and number two. Why number one you will think is too easy, maybe that I am dissembling, when I am not. Therefore I answer second question first, to set the stage for your belief. Can you agree to this?”

I spread my hands in a bland papal gesture, encouraging confession. “In Yakutsk where I am born, of the Sakha Republic in eastern Siberia, life can be very hard. My father worked as a laborer, either in the saw mills or tanneries or brickworks along the major highway, but was paid very little. Working hard, under the sky and in sun and in the long severity of winter that blows down from the northern tundra, he is at first strong in sprit and limb, invigorated by these elements, but then as time passes, they contribute to his fall into debility. The labor ceases to build the builder as he ages and begins to tear him down, almost molecularly. Because of this man I was able to go to the Sakha State University to study, and from thence, what, to St. Petersburg. But I will make this long story short for you, Datcher. Dying of pancreatic cancer, my father is made to endure great pain. And it was during this time that he acquired a great desire to know God. A man filled with strength of limb all his life, needing and knowing nothing of palliatives or anodynes, falls mortally ill and now needs these substances but has no access to them when his suffering is most extreme, and furthermore cries out for the God he has ignored all his life. ‘Ah, now you need Me, now you wish to know Me, whom you have ignored for so long?’ – this is what I imagine the God of Creation to have been thinking. Perhaps He turned His back on the little dying man? Maybe if I were God, looking down on the people crying out to me who had ignored me, I would do such a thing, too. But maybe He didn’t, after all, turn His back. It could be that in his blinding pain, my father did not have the strength to reach out to connect to The Father, okay? This is what I have come to believe. The day he died, he spoke last words to no one. Writhing and churning in his cot, befouled, he simply turns to face the wall, and succumbs. And he dies knowing nothing whatsoever of God, never experiencing the goodness and compassion he wished to know. I have found that people with the greatest desire to know God are, what, those with the deepest need to be forgiven. I have no knowledge of what he has done in his life to feel he requires such forgiveness.”

And though Kodiac allows himself a ruminative moment, he doesn’t succumb to the image he’s painted for me, maybe fearing that I might interpret it as contrived or calculated, and he hurriedly pushes forward. But that image of his father, in pain and facing the wall, whether spurious or not, is true, and surges through me in an influenza of sympathy, a damp onset, and I feel sick and weak in my arms, my eyes, my lips.

“Later, I will learn two things. The first is this, that as a child watching him perish slowly, I had no idea that there were synthetic substances that could alleviate such pain. Most certainly he would have died, but with morphine, with any synthetic opiate, he would have died without so much churning, so much writhing.” Kodiac spends a moment imagining his father pregnant with pain, turning and tossing in his bed, the morphine, like an abortionist, pulling it out of him and discarding it. “There is no dignity whatsoever in death, this has been said before, but to die churning and writhing is to die in the depths of greatest absurdity. I was led by that last look at him, years later, to my interest first in medicine, then more completely in biochemistry, and then beyond, to the second thing. What did I discover? I discovered that just as his pain might have been alleviated, he might have been brought to the mystic understanding and forgiveness he sought. I learned that the brain could be made to open like a door when the key of certain chemical triggers was inserted, precisely, into our padlocked receptors – yes, I learned that, Datcher, I know of this first hand, not theoretically but experientially, you might even say phenomenologically.” Leaning forward in the chair, he turns his head to fix me ruefully with his eyes. “And you are thinking now, what blasphemy, what foolishness, to believe that God could reside in a pill?”

My look approaches the threshold of his but I don’t cross it with an answer.

“Is foolish to think that God resides everywhere and in everything except in pill. Where is God if not in the key and the lock?”

Amber’s been listening. Now she holds up the mirror so that it faces me, racketing the light from the ceiling into my eyes. “I don’t. I don’t think it’s foolish. I don’t think so at all.”

Kodiac welcomes her remark with a bearish laugh and the intensity of his muffled melancholy slackens. “That so many opinions about such things can be freely aired, this is the grand consequence of living in America. I tell you all this, Datcher, so that you may know, what, how I have come to be motivated to begin the Federrakt. My interest in anything that takes us to new levels of perception is deep and genuine. This is why your writing affects me. You are a seeker in your writing, speaking quite loudly to other seekers. This is why I have made a most special region in my feelings for James Fleece, because he is reminding me, always, of someone who has demonstrated some capacity I can only call divine, of some degree of connection with the divine, the one that my father would never know. So now, in hoping I have your belief, to address your last question – Sage is with Dodge, as far as I know, using his parents’ home in uppermost regions of this state, a place called Sister Bay that has that air of insular unreality that all greatly affluent places have, and here,” – from his shirt pocket he takes a small yellow pocket notebook festooned at the top with tiny metal spirals, digs in his pants’ pocket for a pen, scribbles something and tears off and hands me a piece of paper, the same address Ricky had recited – “here is address. His parents have been away on vacation. I understand that Sage Datcher has been given free reign and the house is quite large. And it is my understanding also that she has been free to swim, to play tennis, to wander the gardens, to read, to write in her journal, to watch satellite dish entertainments, and that her every whim has been catered to, so far as that has been possible given circumstances. There has not been on his part the attempt to approach her with unsavory demands. He seems to have great respect for her, or fear of her strength, I am not certain which. I have made a visit to that place only once, I have seen her one time only, I was in the garden watching her from afar, with boxing gloves.”

“Boxing gloves?”

“Sage Datcher, wearing gloves of sort used by practitioner of martial arts? Open in the palm for gripping? And on the feet also. These devices were curious to me and so looking later, I find they are called Safe T Punch? Perhaps to take exercise, she was, what, in spar? Sparring! Yes, with Kyle standing by, both demonstrating and observing, your Sage was sparring with my Mr. Thaddeus Dodge, and after learning a rounding kick and delivering such a rounding kick, she has put Dodge down in the dew of the grass. Extraordinary.”

“Kyle, the one with the stun gun. He’s in the parking lot, by the way, out cold, not down in grass but down nevertheless, on the asphalt. In case you need to find him.”

“Ah, I see. The sparring and the putting down into grass or asphalt, this is something running in the family.” He shakes his head, a sour line limes his lips in a downturned slice. “Kyle has always accompanied me, at insistence of Thaddeus Dodge, whose long time confederate he is. Thaddeus Dodge has given him this charity of empty employment. After tonight, I will be free of him. Too much of aggression, too much of yang energy, too much obsessiveness. And Dodge too, too much of obsession. Many months after breakup, convincing himself of how severely he misses Sage Datcher, he offers a young woman with similar traits and features money so that through plastic surgery, she is made to resemble Sage Datcher even more. Simply, what, to have this simulacra available to him at Club Flowology, so that he can gaze upon her, pretending she is Sage, and his idle dreaming can thus be accommodated.”

“I’m thinking I can’t just go there and ring the doorbell and say hi, I’m here to pick up Sage.” “No, no, Thaddeus Dodge has several like Kyle, his security henchmen. Principally they are buffoons, but you are one and they are many. I will find out more, if I can, about the arrangements there, but I’m afraid Thaddeus Dodge is now quite angry with Kodiac. I am sorry for this, Datcher. This is what you will hear on your message machine tonight. I, too, have been deceived. Please, allow me to call you if there is anything more I am able to know.”

He stands, pushing on his knees to rise from the chair, then straightens. Even so, in this gesture’s forced leveraging of aging tendon and bone, as he approaches me he moves like a rider in a time machine, particles flung backward into a quantum youth. He holds out his hand and I hesitate, then extend my own, and my knuckles bunch into a steeple in the almost demonic crush, praying for a swift expansion into realignment.

“I hope all this is true,” I say, like Ward Cleaver to the Beaver.

“You have Kodiac’s word of honor, which is all I have for extending to anyone. For the past week, I have neither seen nor spoken with Thaddeus Dodge.”

I turn to leave and Kodiac says, “Stay for a time, Datcher. We are about to play Monopoly, it entertains James and I admit to being its fan. I would also like to continue to talk to you from new angles, concerning the writing. Your completion of it is cause for celebration.”

“I have to go, I have friends waiting for me downstairs.”

“Friends? Downstairs? Why downstairs? Bring them up, Datcher! We will make a party, with game playing, music” – he points to the record player – “and lively discussions.”

“Rain check. Maybe when Sage can join us.”

When I’m at the door Kodiac says, “But you see, you have been writing, even through all this.”

“Anything off the top of my head. Any crap just to fill pages and end it.”

“Your perception is at variance with the work you construct.”

“I’m doubting it.”

“I have very special ways of reconfiguring the perceptual matrices, Datcher, which you are in dire need of. Maybe this you should consider.”

And for the first time in days, I laugh. It’s half a laugh without Sage, so the sound of it halves my heart. “No doubt.”

“One thing more. For the past year, you are writing, but with great difficulty. You believe you have been dwindling toward silence. I would like to ask why.”

It would take too long to explain. “You’ll be the first to know whenever I figure it out. But it’s funny,” I tell him suddenly, not knowing why I’m volunteering this confession, maybe it’s Kodiac and the business with his father, my candor coaxed and cannily competing with his, “all the junk that filters into your head to undermine you when it’s the last thing you need. Every time I couldn’t write, I thought of what Thomas Jefferson said: ‘Never yet could I find that a black man had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.’”

And also, I want to see how he responds to this.

When I had shown the passage to Sage, she had burst out laughing and acidly said, “Jefferson, huh? If figures. The not-even-morally-conflicted white thinking man billboarding in front of the self-justifying redneck hypocrite.” After pondering a moment Kodiac replies, “He says this in his Notes on the State of Virginia, I think, and just imagine. Imagine leaving such words for your posterity. Do not authentic men of vision possess the ability to see beyond the context of their times, however fraught with relative moral perspectives? Thus Mr. Jefferson eliminates himself from serious consideration. America is a great and terrible country, preponderant in contradiction.”

It seems that everyone but me has accepted the Notes on the State of Virginia as either as a sort of unsurprising given, or as so rankly obvious and expected that to accord it any response beyond laughter would be to invite self-diminishment.

“You have said I will be first to know whenever you figure out. This I will take as your own word of honor.”

Time to leave, my word of honor in tow.

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