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Table of Contents

Chapter Thirty-Five

Dead leaves crackle beneath the fuses of our feet in a fire-cracker hiss, not yet soaked to softness by the pattering rain. The clouds smile with the darkness they carry inside, dimples sliding off their cheeks, laying laughter on the ground in drizzle. If you look for signs you can find them everywhere. Rain is supposed to be a bad omen on a wedding day, I would presume even for the sort of wedding Dodge has planned: spuriously symbolic, legitimate only within the clouded confines of his mind, and that would explain the audacity of my optimism, unsupported by anything remotely resembling a strategy or plan.

As we passed through village after fairytale village, I’d had time enough to discuss what course of action we’d take once we arrived in Sister Bay, but all I’d done was allude to the predicament that hovered before us, forever the unreachable mirage, in the most general of terms, off-handedly, almost dismissively, parading a version of Ricky’s words for Turk and Sugar Boy – how hard could it be to get in with dozens of people coming and going? Minimizing the challenge was a form of bravado, a way to hold panic at bay. Kodiac hadn’t called, I didn’t know what had happened to Ricky, but I’d reasoned that no good would come of dwelling on it. I didn’t want to dampen Turk and Sugar Boy’s buoyant belief in the ease with which we would breach Dodge’s would-be fortress, but once I found the street, the house, saw the line of cars parked near the gated entrance and extending helter-skelter along the shoulder of Willowtree Parkway, once I parked our car a good distance away in the lot, unmonitored at this hour, attached to the Willowtree Country Club Golf Course, my bravado shrank alarmingly, like the purchasing power of a dollar under the Bush administration. The unreachable mirage had finally dimmed its teasing shimmer, revealing an obstacle solid and immovable as lock-down incarceration. As we walked, hugging the shoulder’s shrubbery, toward the wall encircling the Dodge property, the bad-omen drizzle that began to whisper lifted my spirits, and so did other things, anything that suggested a willingness to lend itself conspiratorially to my purpose and to finance my stealth and secrecy, no matter how meager: the faint dry decibels of trees with squirrels scrambling discreetly among branches and leaves – are squirrels nocturnal? – the shadows nibbling the edges of shallow pools of light cast by the ornamental roadside lanterns, the manna of night floating down from the sky.

But now that we’re here, next to an expanse of the property’s retaining wall sheltered by the ganglionic branches of maples with their broad cellular leaves, I’m remembering how it rained the day Sage and I were married. Her brother, a chiropractor who lived in Calabasas, California, had generously insisted on hosting our wedding ceremony in his home. The formal ceremony itself, presided over by a portly mullah, had been held in the living room, and when it was over, when the last exuberant chorus of kalels faded on the women’s trilling tongues, the small gathering of relatives and friends – small was 75 or so people by Sage’s family’s standards – spilled out through the patio doors into the backyard. It was not a huge backyard, but the pool, like a liquefied diamond inset among finely wrought azure tiles that tamed the water with its rectangles, and the hills seesawing to the horizon beyond the chain link fence where, in the distance, a lone stallion rode the seesaw to its crest and stood as though entranced by the sight of a huge moon, combined to create a sweeping cinematic effect that was enhanced by the miniature twinkling lights, the dream-palette floral displays, the tables draped in breezy muslin with candles and artfully arrayed centerpieces – all the intimate decorative flourishes and appointments exquisitely crafted and arranged by Sage’s mother’s hand. I was relieved to see that my father was behaving (the fact that there was no alcohol served would have been seen, at any other occasion, as a challenge easily surmountable by a flask and a few moments of privacy hastily snatched in the bathroom), pleased to see my mother dancing (rhythm residing, secure as cells, in inklings so deeply enthroned in the body that failing memory’s monarchy was overthrown without a battle), thankful that the whole affair had so far escaped collapsing into any of the weirdly improbable disasters that Sage had envisioned.

“What if a candle falls on the train of my wedding gown and it goes up in flames?”

“That’s easy,” I’d told her. “Just scream in a blood curdling, but delicately bride-like way, drop, and roll.”

“Funny.”

I was also pleased and surprised that Sage had been able to contain her own tendency to stray from the conventional and adhere to the promises she’d made to her mother. “Maman, don’t be such a prude. I don’t see what’s wrong with skinny dipping under moonlight in the pool …” I’d actually heard Sage propose.

“Ayeeeee!” her mother had answered.

“Not if any kids happen to be around … the kids can stay in the house, in the TV room …”

“Ayeeeee! Ayeeeee!”

“Okay, okay. But the moon probably won’t be all that bright …”

And so that night, because Sage’s wedding gown was not on fire and there were no skinny dippers in the pool, and everyone was happy and carefree, I’d watched with apprehension the rain no weathercaster had predicted as it tiptoed across the pool and lifted the dryness from surfaces like a lid, peeking under to see what the dryness hid. It was moisture eased from the gourd of raindrops, a shapeless hint not even drizzle, but I worried because maybe Sage, whose sentiments rose soft and malleable that day, might be prone to feel the prick of a needle inside the softest feather, see our future inside a crystal ball of inauspicious weather. She’d been so well behaved and for her behavior to be rewarded with rain that others would say was bad luck on an otherwise perfect wedding day made me feel anxious. But when the rain shooed its wispy ghost away and more solidly inhabited its shape, the guests cried out in surprise and applauded. I was told that according to Persian tradition, drizzle during a wedding ceremony was propitious, and when I looked at Sage, she was musical with beauty and beaming.

What’s lucky, good or bad changes with the world’s terrain. I remember my father used to say a rabbit’s foot wasn’t lucky for the rabbit. One person’s luck is another’s luckless. I continue cracking open thoughts, my fortune cookies of etcetera, until Sugar Boy says, “Rain’s good, let’s hope it picks up. It’ll fray their attention, add a chaotic element to the scene,” and I’ll take that as a sign that it’s a bad day for Dodge’s make-believe wedding.

The step ladder Turk had taken from the trunk is wedged in at the leave-laked base of this 7-foot wall and I’m on the top step, palms planted on the ledge, elbows braced in a trestle, weight from the waist down leaden as I heave and horseshoe the rim. My body dangles both sides of the wall like a cat slung over a road-kill clothesline. The exertion was minimal but my arm muscles purr pathetically with contentment’s opposite.

“What’s the view?” Turk asks, with an emphasis on whispering that makes his voice louder than when he’s not whispering.

We’re at the back of the property and I sit on the wall, safely unseen. The darkness is a blown-out prism of p.m., eight-o’-clock shades of gray, post-twilight gradations, subfusc pockets of deceptive depth. Trees in the shadows wear stovepipe hats, stand tall and gaunt as Abraham Lincoln on a high pedestal in his sartorial black. The yard is a sizable fragment of the United States, seems large as a village. From here the house is the distance you would cover on a serious hiking expedition. Other structures, smaller – maybe guest houses, perhaps Dodge’s infamous shed – seem shrink-wrapped by this sprawling landscape. Lights from the house encode windows with flicker and glitter as though programmed by stars light years away, and music reaches my ears like the taste of weak tea on the tongue.

“It’s too far away and too dark for me to see people, the real layout. But we’ll be able to get over there without being seen.” I look down and consider jumping, but my knees taste the taffy in my arms, and my toes hunger for the safer and more solid flavor of the ladder, so I oblige them and climb down. “Then what? What do we do when we’re there?” “I say we bum rush those punks,” Turk suggests. “She’s your wife, we walk out with her, that’s all. Might have to throw my weight around a little, I’d like that. Hope my friend from the parking lot is there. Long as we get there before that hokey shit with thehelicopter.”

I ask, “What about guns? They might have them.”

“A whole pack of people running around and they’re willing to pull heaters and use them?” Turk asks.

“We walk in, walk out, five minutes. Look, your no-show friend had the right idea. Diversion. I’ll just kick ass right and left if comes down to that and you and Sugar Boy scatter with Sage. Simple strategy, plus Sugar Boy’s got a few helpful items we can use.”

Turk lets Sugar Boy take over, as though he’s in an AT&T boardroom in the middle of a presentation and it’s time for his assistant to break out the glossy graphs. When Sugar Boy says, “I think Turk’s right, basically,” I know they’re in cahoots because the two seldom agree without first bickering. Sugar Boys starts pacing, gliding, the leaves in their crumbling sienna ballroom dancing at his feet. “I say we go in, stay low to the radar until we get there. I mean, we don’t know what the layout is, like you said, so it’s hard to plan anything. But after you called this morning, I threw together some stuff we can use.”

Along with the step ladder, Turk had also brought a small laundry bag that I’d assumed was filled only with food, since I’d seen him in the back seat raking through it for the cans of sardines and Spam he’d feasted on. Now he squats, opens the drawstring, dumps out the contents. The first thing I see are guns.

“Tell me those aren’t guns.”

“They’re guns,” Sugar Boy says. “Yeah,” Turk confirms. “But now, before you …”

“Gun-toting African-American males killed in Sister Bay shoot-out, news at eleven,” I predict.

Turk says, hands out like a traffic cop to re-route my rant, “Peace, before you go off …”

To make matters worse, the guns look like M-16s, but smaller, so I revise my sound bite. “African-American males with defective, oddly small M-16s killed quickly in Sister Bay shoot-out, news at eleven.”

Sugar Boy glides into my rising tirade, claps down on my shoulders. “Calm down, Peace, they’re paintball guns.”

But I’ve got momentum on my side, days of frustration baying at my heels. “Hey, maybe we can just paint Sage out. Maybe we can shoot paint on the wall in the shape of a door once we’re in there and all four of us can just stroll out through it. Maybe we won’t get a chance to because when they see us carrying what look like oddly small M-16s, they’ll pull out their own adult-sized M-16s and we can have a paintgun versus adult-sized M-16 contest to end all contests …”

“Peace – ”

“Maybe we …”

“Peace,” Sugar Boy says sharply. I expect the slap in the face reserved for the hysterical, weak-link-in-the-chain, risk-averse character who refuses to jump the chasm in the movies. “Do you have a better idea? For seven days I’ve watched you going in circles and coming up short. If you have a better idea, let’s hear it.”

Except for the bouts of depression brought on by failed expectations, emotional restraint has always been Sugar Boy’s approach to life in general, and even though his reprimand would be judged mild by many, I know by his own standards he’s been pushed by my pessimism to the edge of an outburst. Sugar Boy’s quality-not-quantity approach to anger forces me to apologetically drop my head.

“We don’t go in there waving them around. Look, they’re small, we just hide them in our clothes. Turk and I talked about it after you called this morning. Just thinking, anything to cause some confusion. But the thing that best suits our purpose is this.” He picks up a small canister, one of three. “Smoke bombs, each one lets out 500k cubic feet of yellow, green, or red smoke. Fifteen minutes’ worth. Just pull the string.”

“Might as well have some fun with this whole thing,” Turk says.

I don’t know about the paintguns but the smoke bombs actually may not be a bad idea. “Where’d you get that stuff?”

“I used to play paintgun with Donavan, my little ten-year-old cousin. The smoke bombs are home made, he used to love that. Stuff’s still piled up in my garage.”

“Home made?” Misgivings tap me on the shoulder, whisper remember me? Who knows what genie of miscalculation might erupt from those cans. So many of his inventions have been so desperately innovative that I’ve grown accustomed to viewing them in a scant, almost dubious light. Then I recall that with a major corporation interested in one of his inventions, he’s in a slightly different category now, elevated from aspirant to serious contender, and I revise my opinion of the smoke bombs accordingly. But I stop short in the middle of the revision. That my perspective had been contaminated by the same virus of doubt that caused acquaintances to smile illegibly, express admiration, then move quickly and diminishingly to another topic when they learned that I was an unpublished writer (with the exception of a single story) is something I hadn’t realized until now and is, of course, baldly ironic. He’s still the same Sugar Boy with the same ideas, and to judge their merit in a sudden more favorable light because they’ve been legitimized by the possibility of commercial success shows me how easily perceptions are tinted by the halo of imminent or actual dollars and cents. I should have taken his talents and gifts as seriously then as I do now, and that I hadn’t unconditionally given Sugar Boy his due makes me disappointed with myself.

Sugar Boy explains, “You can make simple ones with sugar and potassium chloride – potassium chloride, salt peter. It’s a little more complicated to make colored smoke. For red, sulfur flour, lactose, sodium bicarbonate, powered sugar, paranitraniline red, etcetera.”

“I want the green one,” Turk announces preemptively.

“I don’t know which is which.”

Turk shows real frustration, throws his arms out and down in hip hop choreography, bounces on his knees. “Damn, S, you should have marked those cans.”

“Why? What difference does it make?”

“Because that’s the motherfucking one I want.”

“Well I’m sorry big guy, but I don’t know which is which.”

Drizzle inks its scribble, dotted lines without a signature. An owl somewhere asks an irrelevant question, a nearby bush succinctly answers with a rustle.

“Maybe we could let a little out right now, test them.”

Face sandblasted clean of affect, his expression resting somewhere below the stark foundation of deadpan, Sugar Boy looks at me and then slowly turns back to Turk. “Why do we always have to go through this kind of thing? Why? You can’t put the string in once it’s out. Because it’s a string, Turk. As you’d no doubt put it, it’s a motherfucking string. I’m asking you to let it go. Will you? This one time, will you just let it go? For the sake of the spirit of Sister Teresa looking down on and assisting all people who are attempting against all odds to cultivate just the tiniest fraction of her own saintly patience and forbearance, will you, Turk?”

Turk mutters, “How did Sister Teresa get in this? I just hope I get the green one.”

“If I get the green one, or if Peace does, we’ll switch up with you before we throw, all right? Does that meet with your approval? I’m asking, do you approve of that, maybe not wholeheartedly, but to the extent that we can move on?”

“I won’t give up the green one if I get it,” I say for some reason. “What about my needs?” I begin to whine. “What about my feelings, what about what I want?” because Sage delights in telling me that my sense of humor, while not entirely non-existent, is often seriously impaired, but that she finds this impairment attractive because her own modest sense of humor, by virtue of the comparison, shines with the intensity that characterizes sheer comedic genius, and I’m also thinking what better time than now, in the face of adversity, when the troops’ morale may be bit eroded, to show grace under pressure, a little lightness to lift the tension and rifts, a little soft-shoe loosey-goosey?

Sugar Boy regards me with barren pity. “I don’t like pointing it out, but it doesn’t work when you try to be funny, Peace. It’s disorienting and the last thing we need is disorientation. It’s just not your thing.”

“You can have the green one, Turk.”

“Copasetic.” Grains of expression return tentatively to Sugar Boy’s face. “I also figured we need to keep our visibility in check, so …” But damage has been done, and even as he’s about to present remedies for our visibility challenges, his conviction is draining away. First me, then Turk – the man is no doubt completely demoralized. “We wear black,” he says, anticlimactically.

He tosses me a black bundle and I shake it out of its crumple. It’s a pair of black slacks and a turtleneck.

“We’re on a mission, we need to run it like a mission. I’m already good to go.” Turk sweeps one arm frontally from head to toe like Vanna White trying her hardest to make the consolation prize nobody wanted look appealing, indicating his black velour Nike running suit, matching zip-up jacket, black T-shirt underneath.

After I squeeze into the slacks and turtleneck I force myself to say, “Excellent idea,low to the radar, like you said, S.B.”

The pants are well above the ankles, so tight it feels as though my legs are storage canisters filled with toxic novocaine. All sensation below the waist has been numbed, circulation extracted like a molar. I move with difficulty, then give up and stand there, rigid as rust, my neck a ring-toss stick beneath the bulls-eye loop of too-tight turtleneck. As though afflicted with a rare degenerative adam’s apple dysfunction, I stiffly turn my head. “This is good,” I affirm in a choked-off voice. “It’s like I can almost feel the stealth taking over my limbs.”

I’ve reeled him in a bit with my adjusted attitude. Sugar Boy nods with wary satisfaction. “You look seriously ready,” he finally declares, watching me as I test the limits in my range of motion, move my left leg one inch forward and back, jab at nothing with a constricted but chipper thumbs-up. Turk scrutinizes me closely. “I for one would not fuck with him.”

Sugar Boy’s pants and turtleneck are an agreeable fit, allowing him to move his limbs freely, like a human being, and the outfit is dangerously dashing. He looks sleek, 60s mod, snugly but still flexibly angular, like Illya Kuryakin with a much needed tan. “All right. Let’s gear up and do it.”

“Let’s kick-start this bitch, disseminate some havoc,” Turk growls, voice in his throat lower than sin committed below sea level, punching his palm twice like it’s two faces.

I join in, “I’ve got so much stealth going on here, I can barely find myself.”

Five minutes later, we’re over the wall and in.

                                                  *

Some trees twist like C-section scars, mar the darkness warm and smooth as skin. Others are unseen like the invisible man until some paint can hovering above pours tree shape shadows and we see, too late, what was hidden as we scamper from here to there. The paint cans have stylish designer names like Head-Bang Black, Ebony Collision, Dislocated Shoulder Sable. Only 5 minutes in (Sugar Boy made us synchronize watches), our bumps and bruises interrupt the proceedings, call an impromptu meeting, a rainbow coalition made up of swollen burgundy, scratches and scrapes in blueberry hues, almond toned abrasions, suggesting the need to slow down, regroup, re-pace.

We’re still too far away to be spotted, and there’s really no need for the zigzag scurry and scramble, the war-game crouch and hustle. But I understand that for Turk and Sugar Boy this is an opportunity to unzip the close-fitting uniform of adulthood, let the crush of that fabric pool at the ankles, and to emerge in boyhood’s second skin. Even Turk, for all his imposing bulk, had found a tempo long truant in his trot, a buoyancy belying his build, and though he tripped a second ago and fell like the Roman Empire, he’d sprawled there on the weedy lawn, relaxed and at peace, as though hearing the carefree echo of faded childhood scars still laughing in older calves and knees.

So we take the advice of the coalition and move along now at a slower pace, abandoning the folly we’d illegitimately fathered with hasty footsteps, saving earnest stealth and speed for adoption later. We’re fanned out slightly, Turk flanking the left, Sugar Boy the right, and I’m in the middle. We all carry and use cheap K-Mart walkie talkies that Sugar Boy had also packed in the laundry bag. The crisp clipped static produced every time the button is pressed to talk, released to listen, contributes tiny sonic ambients that lift the flat nonevent of three men walking across a backyard to the higher plateau of bogus paramilitary maneuver.

“SB? Over.”

“Yeah – Turk? Over.”

“Turk here. What do you see on your side? Over.”

“Trees. Over.”

“Peace? Over.”

“Yeah – Over.”

“This is Sugar Boy. Over.”

“Okay. Over.” “What about you? Over.”

“What about me what? Over.”

“What do you see? Over.”

“You’re only like ten feet away. I see the same trees you do. Over.”

“Stay sharp. The trees have proven themselves to be problematical. Over.”

“Fine. Over and out.”

“Wait. Peace? Over.”

“No. Over and out.”

Mulchy with moisture, the ground rises and falls in intestinal ruffles. The slipshod condition of the grounds in this part of the estate, the shabby lawn and flower beds gone to seed, lead me to infer that Dodge's father must have been the sort to polish only the front of the shoe, the part an observer would see first when he entered a room, unconcerned with impressions attending departures. The mansion seen from the road had created the impression of an immaculate fortress, but back here neglect runs rampant.

On the other side of the crest is a sloping field of weeds. In the middle is a wheelbarrow surrounded by trees staked to Dracula shadows. On the field’s far side, rudimentary signs of cultivation suggest the tidier encroachments of civilization – a small body of serene water, a sheet pulled from a tin-foil roll of liquid and laid down without a wrinkle in a shoe-soled shaped lagoon, is crowned by a climbing terrace of stone overlapping in shingles, the shrubbery behind it aesthetically trimmed, screening the view of the house still some distance away. Music, jazz-rock hybrid, faintly finds our ears. The wasteland ends and on the other side of the hedge the landscape dips and the estate steals shape from the vault of the night. Indefinite in outline, dark but growing discernible, the shapes are smeared into ponds and gardens, pathways skirting sunken squares that could be swimming pools and tennis courts, rectangles, octagons and hexagons that are likely greenhouses and gazebos, guesthouses and stables, and presiding over all these geometrical boroughs and interconnecting footpaths is the house, the columned mansion with its giant gaudy heraldic key-chain, with an L-shaped extension that must be a more recent additament, a wing. Light smudges its alphabet on windows like envelopes and on scraps of air, an indecipherable narrative in white and salmon glare. Scenery as we sneak flows by like bar code under a supermarket scanner, my heart reduced to merchandise, beating in blips and beeps.

Before we see that one of the flagstone footpaths we found and followed leads to a small grassy courtyard with benches elaborately carved from porous stone, a wooden trellis with barber pole ivy shushing the area with leafy intimacy, we’re in the middle of it.

A couple sits on one of the benches, a young woman and man scantily clad in costumes like a satyr and nymph. He’s wearing a fig leaf on a string, brow crowned with an olive wreath. She sits on his lap, lithe in something webby and translucent and dusted with sequins that are like snow flakes on the verge of melting, ears pointed in elfin putty. I look around for Fellini, expect him to appear yelling “cut and that’s a print” in Italian.

If I’m surprised, I would think they’d have to be – three guys wearing black, five if you’re tempted to count Turk twice, black camouflage paint, courtesy of the bag, in lines on our skin as though we pressed our faces against a wet zebra with a fresh coat of stripes and we missed the white ones, walkie talkies in our hands, black baseball caps also from the bag pulled down low on our foreheads, my own bulging with a pregnancy of dreads in a fetal tuck. My pants pocket, obscenely tumid with the canister, cries out in embarrassment for a smoke bomb fig leaf. At least they can’t see the M-16 paint guns, jammed with thuggish efficiency down the waistband of our pants in the small of the back, covered by shirt flaps or jacket. The surprise that should be shining its headlight in their youthfully doe and deer-like faces and capturing startled expressions in its oval isn’t there, refraction bending the beam back toward me so that my own surprise is twinned.

“Gentlemen. What’s up?” the satyr asks. “I can’t call it,” Turk responds amiably.

The nymph taps pursed lips with her finger, a metronome of speculation. “Who are you guys supposed to be? No, don’t tell me … ET hunters, like the men in black?”

“You’re good,” Turk praises. “That’s it.”

“Except you don’t have the skinny ties and white shirts and shades,” Satyr points out, his tone languid and disappointed.

Sugar Boy says to Turk, “I told you we should at least have gotten the skinny ties.”

Nymph throws her head back, opens her arms in an embrace that’s objectless, is all about the subject undividedly engaged in the process of embracing. “All this is quite cool. I mean, who ever heard of a masquerade wedding? Who would dare come up with something so against the grain as that?”

“The bride,” Satry tells her. “I heard the bride came up with the idea.”

“Oh really? She must be just soooooo creative.”

“I don’t know anyone,” he assures her, “more creative than you.”

They move their faces close together, fencing with noses, quick rapier thrusts of saccharine affection, swords throwing sugary spark, and in the meatime they’ve forgotten we’re here.

I unzip the seam between the noses with the hook of a question mark. “Do you know the bride?”

“Not personally.” Nymph clenches her teeth and bounces her smile experimentally one way then the other between bunched cheeks. “We’re like friends of friends of friends who’ve been invited.”

Satyr nods. “Like everybody else here. There must be a hundred people already and they keep coming. Friends of friends of friends, on to infinity.”

“Tonight we’re all friends of the infinite,” she says.

“The crowd. We wanted to chill a little bit, away from all the activity,” Turk explains. “Place is so big, we’re just wandering now. Back that way, right?”

“Right,” she answers. “Follow the yellow brick road.”

“Gentlemen. Have you experienced the libations?” Satyr holds a plastic cup high and unsteadily above his head. “Libations of the gods. Libations of compassion. Libations of connectedness. Extraordinary libations in the guise of ordinary Hawaiian Punch …”

“Yeah, we’ve partaken,” Turk tells him.

We head off, Satyr’s voice droning on behind us.

“I say smooth libations. I say pastel libations. I say libations of cease fire. Libations of aborted hostility. Libations of growth. Delicious libations. Libations of the spirit. Allow me to suggest, libations of reconciliation …”

Nymph chimes in, “Might I add, libations of epiphany.”

“Epiphanic libations.” “O sweet and secret libation of enlightenment, I pray thee, lead me ever on to greater and greater consumption of ephiphanic libations …”

“Dare I propose exquisite libations?”

“You may. And I will make so bold as to propose mystic and facilitative libations …”

The litany recedes as we forge ahead on the yellow brick road but I know they’ll go on forever, rolling permutations like dice, extolling the virtues of mystic and facilitative Hawaiian punch, the Ecstasy a thesaurus of acclamation on tongues that turn phrases like gilded pages, nature herself for them and with them enraptured and the sky sprinkling its sparkling champagne, the drizzle an exalted effervescence, clouds uncorking libations.

The spectacle holds a séance with my eyes, conjuring comparisons that eerily bump, jostle and make unstable the trusty legs mooring the surface where ordinary things are typically tabled.

In the genitals that nest between their legs I see caricature extensions of personality instead of flesh, appendages emblematic as ID cards, a summation of vital statistics that seems to reflect the owners’ foibles and flukes of character rather than anything physical – a second and auxiliary expressive face. Their occupations, circumstances or stations in life I’m able to deduce from the clues of body type or through intuitive whimsy. The bald guy posing by the swimming pool ladder, perhaps a plastic surgeon whose passion in life was stamp collecting, has a penis that lists far to the right and brands him as one you couldn’t trust with your empty purse or wallet. The tall thin man diving into the pool, the unemployed accountant, has one that’s stumpily pendulous and betrays an inability on the part of its keeper to make sound decisions. Aberrantly knotty, oddly thick, bulbously endowed – gregarious philosophy professor prone to panic attacks, cantankerous rock band drummer with chronic insomnia and a lisp, kind-hearted McDonald’s franchiser struggling with severe dyslexia, respectively. It’s the same with the women who frolic their feet in the water or float on inflatable rafts fat as monster truck tires, their breasts jovial or stubborn, melancholy or manic, cerebral or machiavellian. Maybe each part of the body is etched with the tattoo of temperament, an essence or indicator residing in every freckle and fold of skin. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, the genitals must be, at the very least, its jumbled closets, where essential things are stored and later sought but have managed to mysteriously vanish. The sight of this group by the pool is so jarring and fantastic that my brain turns in circles equally surprising, tries to wedge itself into a cleavage of reason, pops out like a sun-starved breast from a bikini at the beach. If I saw things through an entrepreneurial alembic, filtered golden opportunities from the common ore of my perceptions, ways to capitalize on my insights regarding the mirror of the genitals and what they reflected and revealed about human nature would prompt me to shrewd and decisive remunerative undertakings. I could set up a booth with a sign that said WE GO WAY BEYOND PALM READING over there by the man whose strangely lank and hemorrhoidal organ hinted at monstrous inner deformities, unsavory ideation. He would be my first customer and I would seduce him with a one-time-only discount. Maybe the advice I gave him would steer him from making irreparable errors of judgment, save him from a fate of imprisonment or vilification by animal rights’ activists. “Your bright future will be aborted unless you manage to stay away from pastoral environments, avoid farms and the temptation to start a career in animal husbandry.” He would gasp in shame and his exposed soul would shudder and reach for a concealing cloth, then he would break down and in gratitude attempt to embrace me. I would back off from the embrace, but he would understand and make due with a sterile handshake. “Next,” I would say ethereally, watching money multiply on my counter’s crudely fashioned timber like a 50-car collision on a Los Angeles freeway after a cloud spills three drops of rain.

I’m no longer comforted by the ability to think along the involuted lines drawn and demanded by the suggestion box, but the tendency, like a bad habit, is difficult to break.

Turk says, “Would you look at these fools?” Incredulous, he laughs with glee and relief, sanding down the trunk of muscle at the base and back of his neck, no longer the sturdy log cabin of tension he’d chopped at in the car when he wondered what we would encounter. As big and strong as Turk is, I sometimes forget he’s mortal, wanders through the universal forest of everyday mortal fears. “And here I was thinking we were walking into Fort Knox or some similar shit. Look way over there – isn’t that the gate at the end of that long drive? If that’s it, the damn thing is open. We could have walked in.”

Sugar Boy performs a brief calculation. “These people are to various degrees bombed, special K-ed, E-ed and lit.”

At the back of the estate, I’d needled into the vein of skulking acumen I’d relied on as a kid like an addict thumbing the plunger on a stubborn syringe, seeing worlds of danger revolving in every blade of grass, in every knife and stab of shadow, anticipated an explosion in the landmine of a pebble, heard the shurikin sigh of each pinwheeling leaf as it fell. Plunging forward in martial praying mantis postures, rigidly striding in pants that gripped my legs with the inappropriate fervor of a lonely man’s clasping handshake (until a fraying seam of indecency loudly announced a sudden tectonic realignment, ripping, the pants toothily separating along the faultline of the seat), I tried to rehearse the epic battle I’d thought we would encounter. Apparitional mechanisms of fantasy took over, grinding out grim scenarios on an assembly line of gore.

I saw squads of Dodge’s men charging over the rolling landscape, urging one another on with rebel yips and bloodlust yodels, some dropping to their knees to take aim, others swarming unstoppably forward. They had paint guns that popped small cherry tomatoes of ammo while our guns blazed actual bullets, launched grenades and missiles, all the heavy artillery of our wrath. I left Turk and Sugar Boy behind to wade through enemy bodies piling up like autumn’s slaughter of leaves and kept going until I stood face to face with their scurrilous blackguard general, Thaddeus Dodge. Faster on the draw, I held the muzzle of my weapon to the partition of hair, large enough to conceal instruments of mass destruction, hinged deviously to a fold on his forehead. “Any last words?” I asked and Dodge answered, “Just one question. What happened to your pants? Your ass is hanging out.” When I pivoted to glance over my shoulder the hair sprang triumphantly open and a barrel extended its snout, my susceptibility fatal as mythological fate, tragic as a Greek god’s gliding combustible downfall. I’d often watched that hackneyed scene in movies where some character pinned into a corner by a sideways-held gun, knowing that the game was over, his number up, would clearly enunciate in a final burst of bleak and inexplicable defiance his last worldly words, fuck you, radiant with contempt, and I’d thought the gesture not only foolhardy but unbelievable.

Because first, it was difficult to reconcile the image of someone who had been fleeing frantically from death for half the movie with the image of that same someone suddenly inviting it with rakish indifference, and second, there was always a chance, wasn’t there, that a less venomous and more placatory utterance (something simple but effective like “you know, blowing my brains out might ruin your suit, and that's a good-looking sleeveless t-shirt you've got, one that endows you with a rakish appeal ), a less inflammatory remark might just appeal to the psycho killer’s sense of expansiveness, a chance that the killer might be persuaded to simply let bygones be bygones. A possibility that the words fuck you more or less nipped irrevocably in the bud. Yet my fantasy unraveled into something that had truth’s sandpapery texture, if truth can be felt in a fictive flash, and I found myself vehemently saying exactly that to Dodge, and then boom boom, I died a death clichéd as a corporation buzzword (bottom line, proactive, downsize). And now that Turk tells me that our covert trek was for nothing and we could have strolled through the gate, I’m thinking how once again I’ve threaded my shoelace of energies through eyelets and tied it in futile knots, tried to shoehorn my way into the concrete boot of a daydream that dragged me down, so that even in fantasy I could not stay one step ahead of Dodge. The brain breeding such vivid nonsense should be capable of wrangling plots that rival those of the old Russians, the dewy serpentine slither of The Brothers Karamozov, its viper of characters gliding through possibilities springing up in a fertile intricacy of weeds, or War and Peace with its uncaged menagerie, lions and tigers of prose loosed and prowling through a dense forest of pages. But mine is an imagination punching overtime on an institutional-colored factory clock, the paycheck bearing no traces of the reward, which is eaten up by something resembling taxes. Still, the world after all revolves differently now, if you turn outward to it for inspiration as those august Russians seem to have done you may be disappointed, and if you turn away from it, be prepared for all the dreamy muck and pearly mire inside, all flow and fantasy fragments, shards and whirling wreckage, like so much debris floating by on the fluttering scarf of a river: you grab what pieces you can and content yourself with the process of cobbling it all together – this is not a philosophy, certainly nothing I’ve invented, it’s more an unsteady stance, as though, having snagged a chunk of the swirling driftwood, the next required step is to stand acutely balanced on it.

And where is Dodge? If he’s here among the peasantry it’s unlikely we’ll spot him. According to Ricky, Dodge had stated that the gathering was to be small and intimate, but there are as many people here as books in a well funded library. They seem aimlessly at home as they pose in a display window of nudity, comfortable as a manikin in its blankness, the pool skimming frisbees of rippling astral blue reflections across their faces, people talking in an animated chatter, laughing, touching one another with no consciousness of boundaries or intrusions, their very skins affording them the easy unrestricted access of baggy-fit jeans. As we walk away from the pool toward a canopied lit up with tiki torches, the pool’s magnet of enchantment weakens and the spell compelling nudity is broken. Under the canopy the invitees stand dressed in costumes before rows of tables laden with catered food being dished out by servers. Improvised from domestic odds and ends or rented, the costumes are united by no common theme and mirror only a type of motley inventive freedom, a dark sabbath of the imagination in an unruly treat-or-treat romp, a masquerade ball as it might have been conceived by minds that had attained imploded zen states. We see torsos encased in cardboard boxes painted to look like cell phones, a pubic region covered by a George bush mask, a body draped in the flag of Portugal, a dancing apple core and something that looks like a goiter, a Direct TV satellite dish made from aluminum foil, a man wearing a burlap sack who in imitation of a pit bull barks viciously and crawls on his hands and knees, a hat made from a kitty litter box, a woman covered in twigs and leaves who introduces herself as Kate Cannabis (“Hi, I’m Kate Cannabis, and who might you be?”), fish from contaminated rivers and mutant fowl, a gesticulating pirate and a ten commandment tablet with nine commandments crossed off, a strutting sushi roll and a body-length rubber oblong with a gel-matted polyp atop the head that I’m guessing is supposed to be a used condom, a giant bedpan, a tarot card, and so on. What’s not worn is sketched on flesh, stenciled, lacquered, painted. Scores of hatless roaming revelers parade hairstyles that might have originated at Supercuts if that franchise had been absorbed in a hostile corporate takeover by Taco Bell and the clippers replaced by the full spectrum of spicy gelatinous condiments. At the top of an embankment behind the tables I see what might be Dodge’s scandalous shed, and in front of it are a dozen people wearing what appear to be martial arts uniforms. I think they’re practicing tai chi, for I’m watching a Nyquil of limbs, movements stolen from the inside of a lava lamp, ectoplasm blooming in soap bubble air. In a haunt of hands they seem to summon and shape sprits, describe rooms without walls, trace globes like worlds spinning on an axis of billowing inner space.

Turk taps a guy on the shoulder who’s wearing a sandwich board with the word “uranium” printed on front and back. “What time is the ceremony?”

“Supposed to be at nine, over by the bandstand.”

It’s now eight thirty.

“What are you supposed to be?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I spent a lot of time on this costume. Guess.”

Turk says, “Since it’s as obvious as you say, uranium.”

“I am uranium.”

“You have the potential for toxicity, is what I’m guessing you’re trying to say,” Sugar Boy tells him.

“I’m trying to say that, and more.”

Sugar Boy nods thoughtfully.

Like merchandise from a thrift shop of apostrophes, drizzle continues to spread its threadbare stock, and we walk through and don the worn wet punctuation, heading toward the bandstand where music roosts, a loud bird on a nest of dissonance. Turk veers toward the tables under the canopy. We pass a ring of people looking down on something in the grass. Joining them, we see a woman with a shaved head in a harem costume who looks to be somewhere in her seventies, laying on her back with her arms and legs flung open, eyes closed and head rocking side to side, smile beatific.

“Does she need help?” Sugar Boy wants to know.

“No,” a woman dressed like nothing I can immediately identify whispers. “Angel says that she’s discovered that urination, under certain circumstances, is almost like having an orgasm.”

Everyone watches an elongated stain on the costume spread speedily, like some new form of flu that targets the crotch, with the segment of the population over seventy and clad in harem pants at highest risk.

“What she needs is that guy dressed like a goddamned bed pan. Let’s go, before she takes a dump,” Turk says, curiosity wrestling gamely with disgust but losing the match, the referee of his appetite calling time out for a huddle at one of the tables.

A twitchy man wearing a contraption attached to straps slung over his shoulders and suspended bulkily around his midriff – he’s supposed to be bumper cart – rams into me, then asks if I have insurance and wobbles off. The band I can’t see from here is playing an old Sly and The Family Stone song called “A Family Affair” with eldritch idiosyncrasy. The decibel level, hearing-prohibitive, makes lip readers of us all. The thump of the bass clutches the diaphragm in a sonic Heimlich Maneuver.

The array of dishes, chaotic in range as the costumes, embraces no single epicurean style or theme. Turk looks at everything, inhaling the invisible feathers on a peacock of fanning aromas, his line of sight splintering up and down the table.

“We won’t be here but a minute,” Turk says to me, then: “Tell me what’s all on this table,” he demands of the server.

The server is a tank-like man wearing a Julia Roberts mask that does not fully cover his face, chin with its undisciplined platoon of stubble exposed and standing at mangy attention. He points at each of the dishes with a dripping wooden spoon and recites, “Sweet and sour red cabbage with cranberries. Stuffed veal roulade with crabmeat. Pomegranate Mojito with vanilla sugar. Hazel nut crusted duck breast. Pork scallipone with honey mustard. That there would be the spicy speared scallop salad. Lobster salad on brioche with orange-vanilla vinaigrette, yummy. Rigatoni with Italian eggplant. Spicy jambalaya. And last but by no means least, cauliflower gratin.”

“Tell you what,” Turk declares, “just put me a little bit of everything on a jumbo platter. Except the cauliflower gratin.”

“The cauliflower gratin, in my opinion, is the best thing here,” the server remarks.

“Does it taste like cauliflower?” Turk asks. “Well, yes, it would taste like cauliflower.”

“Keep it for someone who can appreciate it. I don’t appreciate cauliflower, gratin or not. I don’t eat anything that looks like brains.”

“It looks like brains but does not taste like brains,” the server makes clear. “I can promise you that.”

“Why don’t you try it?” Sugar Boy suggests.

“I don’t want to try it. Why don’t you try it?”

“Me?” Sugar Boy asks. “I don’t like cauliflower.”

“Then why are you trying to get me to eat it?”

Sugar Boy shrugs. “It’s not a conspiracy on my part, it was just a suggestion – a suggestion I still endorse. Try it.”

“Try it,” the server says.

Turk looks at me. “What the fuck?”

“Try it,” I say.

“Eat it,” the server says.

Turk blinks three times, one blink allocated to each person involved in the great cauliflower gratin conspiracy.

“I insist,” the server says, a bit more forcefully this time.

Turk lifts his arms and lets them limply fall. “Go ahead. Put the goddamned cauliflower on the plate,” he moans in defeated tones. “What the fuck? What, did you make it yourself or something?”

“No, sir,” the server answers, cheerfully spooning the cauliflower onto the plate. “Not me. I can’t even fry an egg.”

“You can’t fry an egg, but you sure as hell can spoon out that cauliflower gratin like there’s no tomorrow,” Turk says irascibly. He looks as though he would like to cry.

“That I can, sir. That I can.”

When we’ve left the table and are no longer in sight of the server, Turk scrapes the cauliflower off the plate he’s holding. It falls to the ground, bountiful and pasty. “That’s what I think of that.”

Sugar Boy states indignantly, “That’s wasteful. You shouldn’t have taken it if you really didn’t want it.”

Turk lets his fork do the talking for him, clinking on the plate as he spears great mounds and mouthfuls, the fork maneuvering like something manufactured by Caterpillar or John Deer.

We wander for a while.

A piece torn off the crowd banks the torch-lit bandstand like stranded tumbleweed hitchhiking to catch the next breeze. In the front is a row of five guys with their arms crossed on their chests in a Ray Charles-like self-bearhug wearing 6-foot papier-mache painted black and molded in the shape of a stun gun, and it’s not farfetched to assume these are Dodge’s henchmen because they’re wearing actual stun guns tucked in belts around their waists. Black fabric tightly hoods their heads so the paleness of the faces is offset into ghostly visibility. Plowing slow irregular lanes of look-out, their eyes are loosely harnessed to a wide focus. The one in the middle breaks off the embrace to slap at his crotch, as though hardily restoring vital blow flow.

Turk chews his words with his food, spraying syllables with sauce. “Would you look at those sorry motherfuckers. I don’t see the guy I laid out in the parking lot. Probably still there.”

Sugar Boy says, “I feel pretty good about this, so far. We don’t stand out at all.”

“Other than being the only black people here in a crowd of maybe hundreds who aren’t dressed like a condom or bed pan or some shit,” Turk says, “I guess not.”

“That’s not exactly true,” Sugar Boy contradicts. “I saw four or five black people somewhere over there.”

Turk shares a savvy wink. “The help.” On the bandstand – yet another area canopied in silk – four fuchsia-haired youths in dark narrow-lapeled suits fitting tight as a cork broken off in a merlot bottle are playing what might be an original composition below a banner emblazoned with the group’s name, 9 Lives Death Wish (the verses of the song, the chorus, the bridge, consist of the bellowed lyrics, “Nine Lives Death Wish.”) Behind the stage scaffolds streaming with bright pennants and cubed with speakers rise like silos. Flanking a fortress of drums, the guitarist and bassist hold instruments that appear to be custom-made and are complicatedly skeletal, ribcages plucked from a third-world emaciated chest and embedded in glossy black plastic curves and chicanes. The drummer punishes the snare in a spirit of avid chastisement that raises red welts of whip-like resonance on the 2 and Gnawing at his microphone on its stand, fixed and motionless as a photograph of a root, the singer has an unearthly injured voice, as though his throat were lined with blisters and the blisters were being scraped off with a razor, a raw emotive quality that makes you think somehow of a female monster of some kind singing a monster lullaby to its immensely skulled monster baby. The listeners near the stage writhe in a dance that could be called The Corkscrew, springing forward as though to insinuate themselves into the tightly suited cork of the players in their slim merlot bottles of immobility. Turk seems to listen to the singer from the inside of a reluctant trance, his hand having unconsciously drifted to his neck, gingerly massaging imagined boils and blisters in his throat.

In the background I can see the mansion like the Emerald City. There’s a man hanging off the keychain above the door. He’s not that high off the ground but he screams as though he’s strapped to the outside of a space capsule descending into the Pacific. We follow a dirt path down a hill that opens in swales of shuffled damp earth and tummocks, dirt with its faintly raw coffiny smell, the earth scored with the waffled print of tractor tire treads, an area that looks to be in the nascent stages of construction. In the middle of this, a concrete foundation overhangs another huge canvas canopy. The space is filled with folding chairs, row upon row pressed from overturned ice-cube trays accurately spilling seating arrangement. Some seats are occupied by people who, at this remove from the more reckless atmosphere of the tumultuary above and behind us, are already settled in for the ceremony and sit quietly puffing cigarettes or joints. Using broad gestures and in a sign language of trailing smoke they gauge the formidable sweep of all this baronial acreage. Darkness is densely packed between peninsulas carved out by torches. Standing beneath the canopy, I hear the drizzle pacing in a broken strut, trying to establish a more solid foothold, prowling for heavier presence. Off to the right beyond the ruled margin of chairs a screen the size of one you’d find in a drive-in movie inscribes its enormous rectangle against the sky. At the front where the ceremony is to be held is a wedding gazebo recessed in a floral arch, and behind it is a fountain, a silver spire surrounded by a trough that spirals from the top down in widening loops like the track in a gumball machine, spewing a rooster’s comb of water that’s conveyed in a cascade to the broad basin at the bottom. I see something else up there but not clearly, and Turk and Sugar Boy follow me as I walk down the middle aisle between the chairs.

Sugar Boy scans the distance, the depthless tin-target shapes of structures, backdrop in an arcade game of lavish wealth. “How much money must this guy have? How much pure material stuff does a person need?”

“Maybe it’s time for you to start thinking big,” I tell him. “You’ve got Maytag through some subsidiary they’re about to set up interested in your product. If you sign on the dotted line, your life will change in a big way. And you deserve it, don’t you? Look how hard you’ve worked.”

Looking at me he says, “It’s a shame everything you do has to be measured in terms of the almighty dollar. Hell, we all work hard.” In that look Sugar Boy seemed to be saying to me, don’t worry, you deserve it, you’ve worked hard and your day will come as well. Dodge’s world, this world, was one that the vast majority of people aspired to and would never attain, and though the weight of his childhood had been deeply recessed in the sumptuous cushions and princely pillows of prosperity, he had portrayed it to Sage as a smothering plentitude, an asphyxiation of abundance. Here was an ampleness that overran the horizon in a waterfall of Solomon’s bounty, yet Dodge had only felt crushed and enfeebled by it. The same goblin of regret equally torments those who have too much and those who are haunted by having too little, both seem exiled in the gray gulf between what you have and what you want.

Sage and I had this in common: No mongrel childhood with tail between its legs had followed us through our days, tongue lapping crumbs from the ground, ribs to skin an adversary. There had always been food on the table, clean clothes on our backs. (In my own case I came to understand that my mother’s saintly emphasis on “clean clothes” meant that style had taken a back seat to more practical qualities like durability, that my hopelessly outdated pants and shirts and shoes were items purchased at Rock-Bottom Everything-Must-Go-A-Month-Ago prices, stock being frantically liquidated by entrepreneurs with traumatic gambling debts, that my wardrobe was inexpensive but would wear into perpetuity, last forever like a curse on a clan, and I would inwardly cringe – outward cringing, eye-rolling, or minutely twitching lips calling down a fate that would dwarf death – when I heard the familiar mantra, intoned from the summit of some morally superior higher ground, “These clothes may not be snazzy, but they have a workman-like quality that you can hold your head up by, and they’re clean.”) But there was always food on the table and clean clothes on our backs only because of extraordinary sacrifices our parents had embraced, and when we talked about it we would feel a lingering sadness, a helpless regret that things hadn’t been easier for them. For both sets of parents, working two jobs, working double shifts, working weekends, working holidays, had been the rule rather than the exception. My father had taken pride in asserting that no matter how gruesomely hungover he had been, he’d always managed to hold a job and was never fired as a result of his drinking – fired for things like attempting to strangle the CEO of the company in the parking lot, yes, but never for drinking. And when the coils of the economy tightened, they slithered into jobs whose menial status struck no relation to education or experience or qualifications, the kind of jobs my father explained had to be worked in tough times because of something he labeled “The last to be hired, first to be fired phenomena.” My father, with his BA in sociology, believed that his ticket to a sound financial future went unredeemed only because of his “character defects,” and both he and my mother nurtured the notion that my MA in English would ensure me a voluptuous paycheck somewhere. I never had the heart to disabuse them, to tell them what Sage and I both knew, that a liberal arts degree, even an MA, guaranteed absolutely nothing in economic times where unemployment continued to spiral, barely paved the way to the high school teaching career I had never wanted. But after all was said and done, I was responsible for the path I had taken. I’d arrived at the decision to pursue graduate school and an MA in English with no thought of the real-world consequences of my choice, a decision fueled solely by my own impractical and myopic passion for literature and writing. So Sage and I had substituted the Myth of The Monetary Rewards Of Higher Education for another myth, the myth of Talent Is Invariably Rewarded. As for working hard, as Sugar Boy had just maintained, when I’d had what at the time appeared to be a legitimate opportunity to devote myself full time to writing, fear fissured the edges of each utterance that touched the page, cracked along creases like winter lips, fused words to a moping frost of paralysis. Hastily I’d tied the frayed ends together and called it finished, but it wasn’t finished so much as ended, like a life cut down in its prime by a preposterous accident.

My response to the golden opportunity Kodiac had extended must have seemed illogical to Sage, who tried to gently rescue me from paralysis by describing the life that would be ours once I finished the novel and it was published, dangling fruits of labor before me like a hypno-disc, careful to avoid burdening the plausibility of the daydream with a runaway lavishness and naivete that could only taint the trance. Since we didn’t have parents who had been able to buy us a home for a wedding gift – Sage and I marveled at the stories some of her university friends told, how Mommykins and Daddykins had generously provided such financial endowments to the newlyweds to help them cross the threshold of their new life together – since we didn’t have parents to silver spoon us, we scaled our dreams down to dimensions we believed would be possible to actualize on our own: a first novel that would not elicit a windfall but would simply afford us the downpayment on a modest home somewhere in a Northern California or Oregon city where encounters with the color green weren’t restricted a stop light’s loop, maybe a kid or two (girls), maybe a creative writing post entailing a nominal light teaching load to supplement the first novel’s income while a second or third, possibly more profitable, novel was in the making. And while all this was happening she would pursue her own dream, studying, obtaining her real estate appraisal license, moving gradually from the appraisal of humble single-family residences to lucrative commercial real estate, malls, shopping centers, government institutions. Though Sage made it clear that the fulfillment of my dreams was not a requirement for her happiness and that I myself would be better off striving to hold them loosely rather than clutching them with desperation, my own unvoiced concern that I might fail to breathe life into this zeppelin of modest ambition and cause it to rise crippled me with asthmatic disadvantage. Groping for my phantom inhaler, chest corseted with lacings of self-imposed stress I insisted on tightening, I smiled as I listened and contributed to the daydreams she seemed to be able to plunge into and accept simply for the momentary pleasure they occasioned and then walk away from, refreshed and wistful, nostalgic, as though it had already happened.

And now, as Turk and Sugar Boy and I walk around the gazebo and spot the helicopter, I knew that these dreams really didn’t matter, were as empty without Sage as a shell where the tenant of the sea’s sound has been evicted. I knew all the grand fictions I worried I would never fabricate would leave a hole that was infinitesimal compared to the Mimas crater that gaped in my life when she was absent from it. I knew that nothing I might create or even perfectly imagine would compete with the marvelous reality of even a single strand on her left-tilted head. My priority had always been Sage, but now priority was slowly aligning with perspective, and for first the first time I’m beginning to understand what she asked me to do when she’d cup my face in both her hands and tell me to “just let it go.” “I don’t know that I worked hard. Unless you count working hard to fuck things up.”

“Whoa. Hold up. Long as I known you, you worked hard,” Turk insists. “You were supposed to know the whole publishing thing they fed you was based on a bad premise?”

“I should have known it was way too easy. Nobody gives you 20,000 dollars. I heard what I wanted to hear. But you know what? None of it matters now.”

While Sugar Boy and Turk stand in dumbfounded surprise at the sight of the helicopter, the welter of spectacles I’ve seen here on the Dodge estate has wrapped me in a jaded cocoon, a state of mind where it’s woefully unlikely that the capacity for fresh and spontaneous responses might emerge in a butterfly cloud of wonderment–- as though I were watching a fanfare of dead bodies on the inuring evening news. After all, I had seen a man who had no doubt devoted considerable time and resources to molding unidentifiable and slightly sinister materials around his body to produce the semblance of a used bedpan, his dedication to nuance and detail particularly awe-inspiring in the utilization of a suspicious chalky yellowish substance sprayed or sprinkled in the pan’s depression to suggest an erosive runnel paved by uric acid. I can only admit to myself numbly and a little sadly that the helicopter is less startling than the simulated urine.

And of course Sugar Boy is ablaze with all the excitement of a clinician looking through a microscope and discovering some monstrous new cellular aberration that made cancer look like the common cold and would eternalize his name when it was recorded in the annals of medicine: Remmington’s Disease, caused by eyes that when focused on the spectacle of a helicopter bulge so profoundly they invite the invasion, through exposed sockets, of air-borne viral entities mysteriously residing in rotorcraft – also known as OIRRV, ocular-immuno retro-rotor virus. His sense of allegiance to our cause is a source of internal conflict, for he’s reluctant to display his excitement, yet bursting with the suppressed hyperactive desire to do so.

“This,” he announces, voice tightly coiled in a barbwire of breath, controlled and narrow as iron-curtain propaganda, “is an Agusta A119 Koala.”

In its hallucinatory coat of yellow and red paint applied in broad diagonal swatches, the Agusta A119 Koala looks like a yellow jacket endowed with a deviant sense of fashion or stricken by a savage genetic glitch. Wasp-like, barbaric and redoubtable, it stares at us through the distension of its sleek and smoky-tinted insectile windshield, squatting on skids above its asphalt pad.

The only thing Turk can come up with is, “This is a helicopter.”

“Not just a helicopter, an Agusta A119 Koala,” I say, to prevent Sugar Boy from repeating himself. “An Agusta A119 Koala that probably costs, I don’t know, about ?”

Sugar Boy unwinds his roll of barbed wire, arms waving like an auctioneer’s. “Well over a half mil, I’m guessing. Well over.”

I echo broadly, adding a layer of disgust and looking around as though addressing a vast audience, “Well over a half mil.”

“Fuck me,” Turk says.

“This guy has everything, but it’s not enough,” I say. “He wants Sage. Only, of course, because he can’t have her. This jackass – ”

Turk almost shouts, “This motherfucker – ”

“ -– believes that whatever he wants, he deserves to get …”

Turk finishes for me, preaching. “We’re here to tell him, shit don’t work that way. Where we come from, you take shit, you better be prepared to do what it takes to keep it. The taking is easy, the keeping is another thing.”

Sugar Boy stares at the helicopter. “It looks like he’s more or less prepared.”

Turk walks up to the helicopter and dramatically attempts to spit on it. The saliva has an elastic consistency and dangles from the lip in a sluggish string, cleaving to the chin. I realize that this is a pivotal symbolic gesture and that symbols have the power to unite or destroy, and I rescue his gesture from elastic impotence by stepping forward and also spitting with greater success on the windshield. We both look expectantly at Sugar Boy, painfully torn between this demonstration of solidarity and his clinical admiration for the Augusta A119 Koala.

“Do it,” Turk urges.

“Hawk one up from the hellish depths of those lungs,” I say.

“Spit right on it,” Turk commands. “Spit accurate and hard.”

“This is important, Sugar Boy. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the importance of it.”

“This is ridiculous,” he declares, but gives in and thrusts his chin forward and expectorates – not spits – fastidiously. Drizzle catches the saliva in its frayed net and shreds it sideways onto Turk.

“Goddamn it, S.B.” Turk cries. “It was a simple thing!”

“If it was so simple, how come you couldn’t do it right?”

Furiously Turk spits again, redeeming himself.

I tow Sugar Boy away by the arm and we take seats near the front in the 7th row as two women push a wheeled platform holding a towering wedding cake and park it to the left of the gazebo. The cake might have been erected by the ostentatious Mr. Trump, hired by Dodge to serve in an astringent-lipped consultative capacity. To the more conventionally proportioned cake that had been presented to him for his evaluation and approval, Mr. Trump must have roundly uttered with dismissive finality those words that fill corporate drones the world over with abject terror, “You’re fired.” The women quickly assemble a tent of protective plastic supported by poles to prevent the rain from transforming the cake, rising on 8 or 9 mattress-thick layers, into a sweet swampy bed of frosting. Because the sheer mass of it is almost supernatural I’m compelled to think of Jesus, but a Jesus who had undergone a crisis of avocation and decided to attend catering school. Gazing out into sugar-starved multitudes and wondering what could be done with a single tiny angel food cake, Catering Jesus would summon a miracle to produce one the size of the leviathan on the platform, followed by another astonishing manifestation whereby ordinary water would be transformed into large quantities of insulin and made available to those who had succumbed to the sin of gluttony, tumbling into steep sugar comas.

“The place is starting to fill up,” I say, and then I hear the muted trumpet of a simple strategy blow a sparse note or two in laconic improvisation. “For now, Turk and I just sit here. We sit here through the ceremony. Sugar Boy, you sit in the back. When the ceremony’s almost over, you create the diversion. Whatever happens, we don’t let them hustle Sage off into your beloved Augusta A117 Koala. When we get her, I don’t know which is better, going through the front gate, or back the way we came.”

Picking up the theme and embellishing, Turk tells Sugar Boy, “We’ll hit you up on the walkie talkie, let you know when. Then all you have to do is meet us back at the car. Soon as you do the diversion thing, you head for the car.”

“Wait a minute. What kind of diversion? What am I supposed to do?”

Turk advises, “Anything. Scream. Holler. Throw a fit.”

“I’ve always wanted to throw a fit somewhere, like in some crowded place, where’s there’s not really any reason to throw a fit. It’s just one of those dark anti-social urges that come out of nowhere and grab you.”

“Then this is your big chance. Go on,” Turk says. As Sugar Boy walks away, Turk cups his hands to his mouth and shouts, “Go on with your inventorish self and fulfill that dark anti-social dream.” Then Turk turns to me. “Tell you this much. This escapade ends tonight. Get you and Sage back together. Since this started, you tried to write any of it up?”

“Sort of. A little. What I could. I just threw it together and called it ended to get Sage.”

“That guy, the Russian or whatever dude, he’s not gonna do anything with it?”

“That was all a farce, so I seriously doubt it. Besides, the book’s a mess.”

“That’s harsh. Besides, world’s a disorderly place. World’s a mess.”

“Yeah, but if people who call themselves artists want to write about it, they can’t just produce a mess and justify it by saying the work’s a mess because the world is.”

“They can if what they make is a beautiful mess. Like when you listen to Bitches Brew. That’s a beautiful mess.”

“Miles.”

“Miles.”

The band stops playing. Something instrumental and pre-recorded marches through the speakers to inaugurate a more solemn ceremonial mood, the cellos a chamber of churning amber resonance for high sweeping strings, the high strings an Icararus of violins soaring on trembling wings toward the fire of an unseen sun.

“You forget I’ve read your shit, Peace.”

“I know you have.”

“know what you got on your hands?”

“Besides fingerprints, not much.”

“That’s good. Yeah, fingerprints. Your own, dropped right off your hands and smeared all over those pages. Know what you got on your hands?”

I look at my hands.

A woodpecker confusing bark with flesh comes to life in his index finger, tapping temple instead of tree. “A beautiful mess.”

                                                          *

Rain rises from the dead of drizzle and is reborn, a stronger rhythm resurrected.

It’s not heavy enough to extinguish the omnipresent torches but it does pollinate umbrellas and encourage them to open their black blossoms throughout the crowd.

In people sit quietly in their chairs, motionless as dots grooved into dominoes, formal comportment at odds with but ultimately taming the outlandishness of costumes surrounding them like the motion lines signifying unruliness or agitation drawn around cartoon characters. Turk sits in the chair at the end of this row, I’m in the chair next to his, and next to me sits the Buddha. Cosmic good fortune shines down on the Buddha tonight, because he has a plate of the cauliflower gratin in his lap, and Turk, convinced of the authenticity of the great cauliflower gratin conspiracy, might have been inclined to behave badly had the youth been seated directly next to him

As the wedding march plays a foursome of henchmen, wearing in papier-mache regalia, rise from their chairs in the front row and move with ritual solemnity to the gazebo, splitting into two pairs to stand at its right and left. One of the stun guns standing on the right, the same one from the bandstand, begins discreetly slapping at his crotch, concentrating once again on the task of hardily restoring vital blood flow to that blighted region, until his partner seizes his hand, stills the irrigation of burrowing fingers.

A skim of applause in random ripples passes through the crowd, touching down here and there, then it bounces along and picks up speed, a stone of sharp surprise skipping over a murmuring lake of consonants, deep hmmms and adoring mmmms. On a rustling pivot of outlandish fabrics, with the props of their mimicry jangling, in a swivel of collective neck a tide of heads turns to the rear.

I lean out past Turk and look down the long aisle, see a gown that’s an embezzlement of the ivory cupped in luminous dew you’d find in a sunrise garden of chrysanthemums, a face behind a veil not thick enough to prevent the torch light from emulsifying the darkness of those large eyes. And I see, before Turk pulls me upright off his lap, the white tuxedo, see even from this distance the paltry gleam of the lip’s diamond stud in whatever leftover light the veiled eyes hadn’t absorbed and deigned to discard in his direction. Here comes the bride.

Sage makes a rough irritated adjustment of the gown before walking down the aisle, gathering the mass in its bell of froth and lifting it, and I notice a peek of pink Puma sneakers and black sweat pants beneath the lacy layers. Since I hadn’t heard from Ricky I don’t know what he had or hadn’t been able to tell her. But the fact that she’s present at all and has managed to subdue any signs of the desire to resist suggests that before disappearing he was able to issue instructions to play along. The stampede of chaos she could have shepherded with every step fails to appear, those bulls aiming sharpshooter horns on lowered heads and charging on thundering hooves were nowhere in sight. With no fierce menagerie of beaks or talons or teeth in her wake, Sage walks down the aisle with Dodge next to her. He observes the mincing progression to the front dictated by the reedy strains of the wedding march – dum, dum da dum-mm-mmmm – in the classic step-stop-pause that inches couples with humiliating and excruciating slowness toward the nuptial destination. He holds an umbrella above her head with gentlemanly decorum, and the free hand that spectators must have noticed was not holding hers is nested, a useless solitary wing needing another to fly, in his jacket pocket. Apparently he’s decided against the bridesmaids. Even harboring the knowledge that her ruse welds triumph to a poised portrayal, her rigidity suggests that the hand-holding aspect of the march must be torture for Sage. And while Dodge observes every nuance of the stuttered march, Sage steps with rhythm abandoned, then pauses in suppressed exasperation as though, waiting, she’d like nothing more than to plant her hands impatiently on her hips. As she passes my row her eyes never surrender their whites to peripheral glances, but I can now see her face, expressionless as vapor behind the veil’s pale closed cloud. I utter a pair of silent prayers as she passes, one disregarding danger to beseech her slight sight, one a soundless howl invoking her brazen blindness. My second more sanely framed petition is answered as, with shoulders squared to balance the box she’s wedged her field of vision in, she steps into the gazebo, turns with Dodge to face the crowd.

I feel my profile peeling in the bake of Turk’s concern, bone burning in a stove of skin.

“You holding up?” he whispers, loudly.

A shush snakes up from somewhere behind us, hissing.

Turk turns slowly. “Who said that?” No one responds. “For as long as I’m here, do not fucking shush me again. Ladies, my apologies for the language but I see that’s the way this thing has to be.” The absence of response deepens and Turk turns back to me. The stun guns guarding the gazebo give no sign of having heard anything, the wedding march poorly timed and still playing while Sage and Dodge wait. Dodge is awkward while Sage seems flippant inside the gown’s I-really-don’t-give-a-damn drape. “There’s a time for trying to reason with people but this is not that time. We do what we do when, before the ‘I do’ or after?” he whispers, loudly.

“Before.”

“Thought you’d say that.” A minister with yeasty puffs beneath his eyes, a vanilic complexion and doughy muffins for cheeks, peels off the cookie sheet he’s been baking on somewhere and steps into the gazebo, followed by a videographer, a woman carrying her chubbiness like a teddy bear who’s been charged with the task of taping the event for posterity and who immediately begins scrambling about in a scout for promising angles. The minister is so tall his stoop seems permanently installed, bolted to his shoulders, and he stands under a buckling low ceiling of self-consciousness that must follow him everywhere. But costumes and the uniforms of officialdom, as with the titles that accompany them, can embolden even the weakest personalities, and with the help of the white ministerial robe he begins to stride into strength. A thin thread trails behind him, the man wired for sound, a microphone concealed perhaps in the robe’s neckline. When he raises his hands, I see his right one is missing the index finger.

“We’re here on this glorious night to consolidate the union of Dodge and Sage. Dodge and Sage, two people who have decided that there is such a thing as the future, and who have decided to journey into that future together.”

He ruminates on the crowd while the pinched drone of voice echoes and saturates, flung down dozens of rows, over egg-carton grids of chairs and their unstirring egg-like heads. To the right the huge stadium of screen falls into a staccato flicker of battling images. Then the skirmish resolves and both the people seated too far away to see the gazebo and the hordes like festive Tartars wandering across the remote and secluded acres are presented with a composite of immense figures, Sage, Dodge and the robe-fortified minister, the darting hunch of the videographer skulking through the frame.

“The reality is that we live our lives in the ongoingness of retrospect, in the always-just-happened. Our bodies seem to contain us but we flow backward. Describe any experience to yourself. You’ll find that you seem to be situated in the present moment but the present moment is anecdotal only. You can only confirm it by speaking in the past tense. Can you truthfully say ‘I am doing’? Whatever it is that you say you are doing, you were doing. This is our great loneliness and the source of our nostalgia for wholeness. Describe this feeling to yourself. You’ll find that that at bottom this nostalgia focuses on the desire to be here now. Impossible. What can we do? We’re left with seeking. And isn’t all seeking, the small daily journeys we make over and over as well as the larger ones, isn’t it for those things which do not belong to us in the fictive now? Herein lies the paradox: we seek for the now but seeking can only exist in the context of the future.”

The minister smiles. He smiles in the gazebo and on the screen.

“Well then, what is the future? It can only be what we invent, from the vantage point of our always-just-happened. It is what we decide will become the always-just-happened. Don’t waste your time trying to measure something called the present. What is a second? What is a nanosecond? It is ten to the minus ninth power, one billionth of a second. There are zeptoseconds, these are ten to the minus 21st power, or one sextillionth of a second. And yes, there are more. There are yoctoseconds, ten to the minus 24th power, one septillionth of a second. Which one of these constitutes the so-called present moment? Describe this to yourself in the question ‘Where am I in time?’ You cannot find yourself. You cannot locate yourself. Because we are all lost in the great snowstorm of being.”

A blonde high school-aged girl dressed like Snow White sitting directly behind us begins to softly weep, sorrow pattering the roof of my listening.

   

“I’m glad to see,” Turk confides in a booming whisper, “that she looks good, beautiful as ever. Stress of these seven days hasn’t broken her down.”

My eyes dog paddle between the image on the screen and her actual face. Sage rarely wore makeup, wears none now, and though I’ve said that her fingernails were her single concession to vanity she was secretly proud not to have to rely on the powdered cumuli and rainbow dustings of self-adornment. The light from spotlights in the gazebo’s ceiling reaches down in wide overlapping fingers, scratches patches of clarity on Sage’s actual face but spreads the rashes of graininess spotting the screen’s skin, the gown’s creamy glow blending with brighter overhead lights and casting a pinkish calamine tint, as of lotion hazily drying. On her actual face her eyes are most visible, with a depth like 10 Moonlight Sonatas played simultaneously, then the prominent cheekbones curve with the shapely swell of ripe strawberries, while her face on the screen expresses more mood than molding bone, more attitude than dabs of detail, appears iced in mild distaste – frozen against flinch as Dodge’s hands fumble to fasten back the veil.

Pulling a large crumpled pill of paper from his jacket pocket, still looking into Sage’s projected eyes, Dodge begins to read in a voice where the blunted Camelot inflections abut the grindstone of communal scrutiny and are sharpened, and he talks a shower of sparks to impress the onlookers.

“Sage. I met you a long time ago and made promises I wasn’t ready to keep. At that time, per the forces arrayed before me, I gave every ounce and iota of the resolve I possessed to proving that I could stand on my own two feet and make a place for myself in the world. I believed that I had things to prove. To my father, who unfortunately could not be here today as he’s traveling and engaged in research for his next book, to my father I wanted to prove that I had my own modest allotment of talent. The efforts I made took the shape of a project where I served as an editor for a book that I hope to publish in the very near future. And my forays into the world of business have been successful but have presented me with many challenges. When you came into my life, there were things I wasn’t prepared to understand. You offered me a gift and I didn’t see its value. My priorities were askew, sadly. And as I watched you leave my life as abruptly as you had entered, I knew that I had made a terrible mistake. It’s not often that we’re presented with second chances, but when fate drew us together again, I recognized that with all I had, all that I had worked for, in reality I had nothing.” Sage stares at him with the neutrality of a camera, her expression a closed aperture.

Rain reads the camera’s instruction manual, coaxes the aperture open by clicking a button that widens the lens of Sage’s surprise. Now it falls harder, striking a more dramatic pose. It dampens somewhat the Camelot sparks leaping from Dodge’s gleaming voice. The crowd coins a soggy murmur, trying to shift into the dry spaces sandwiched between drops.

Dodge clears his throat to signal his arrival at an important juncture, as though it’s all been preamble until now. “But I want to make this a time of new promises, Sage. Sage. I promise fidelity and faithfulness, qualities that have eluded me in the past. I promise to listen to your dreams, no matter how strange or even deviant they might be. Not that they would actually be deviant, the point is, anything, is what I’m saying. I promise to listen to you with ears from which as it were the wax of all selfishly has been dissolved. And, even as we nurture our spiritual longings, I promise that you shall never know material deprivation. Whatever you desire that may be bought with rising or falling yen, peso or deutschmark, Eurodollar or franc or toman, I promise that it shall be yours. I promise that our lives shall unfold on wings of passion through adventure after adventure, amidst strange and exotic places” – he gestures grandly at the helicopter – “and I shall always strive to shine mine own heart like a powerful Halogen headlight, that you may follow it through whatever darkness might swirl, vicious and bat-like, about you. My dear, when you are isolated in the dark dungeon of the despair that sooner or later encloses every life, in those difficult times let me be first your key and then your  umm, what’s this word? Emporium? Your emporium of refuge, your secret suburb, your cave of solace, your parlor of peace. These things and more are my promise to you, through all the days of my love to come. And, Sage, I when I am old and feeble, with limbs or organs – pancreas or lower intestines, glands adrenal or pineal – that no longer function and have been replaced by the tiniest digital devices, I shall still love you with a heart as naked and exposed as a newborn baby’s innocent bottom.”

The crowd murmurs floridly, affectionately.

The minister steps forward. “And so with these promises, do you take Sage as your bride?”

“Yes, most definitely. I do.”

Turk crouches over in his seat and says something in the walkie-talkie.

“And Sage,” the minister intones, “before the ceremony, you explained to us that no words could possibly express the depth of emotion in your heart. You have explained that no dissertation seeking to propound your feelings would be sufficient, and that all the promises you might strive to make are implicit in your very presence here tonight. That in the profundity of your silence there exists an affirmation beyond any utterance you might possibly make. That, for you, to speak of it would be tantamount to trivialization. And in this silence we hear your resounding ‘I do.’”

It’s as though she’s chalked a replica of her own two eyes on the surface of a stare as wide and empty as a blackboard.

“And now the ring,” prompts the minister.

Dodge removes the ring from his pocket but drops it. As it falls, a faceted gleam cartwheels, a tiny diamond gymnast of glint. Dumbfounded he watches it roll away somewhere, then drops to his hands and knees, touring the floor with palms that become the sightseers of his clumsiness, this public discomfiture his private foreign country with borders expanding to admit embarrassment. The minister pauses then sky-dives into Dodge’s confusion, his robe parachutes as he drops to the floor. Three minutes become four. The videographer joins them, her camera laid to the side like a purse, the ruckus in the gazebo stuffed in it, the flow of decorum shoplifted. And the crowd’s composure is stolen by the sight of the commotion – a teasing titter skitters through spectators. Wet discomfort begins to orbit the guests’ haunches, a spoon of rain stirring sitters in chairs like cups. Two stun guns wade into the gazebo and with a thalidomide flippering of arms they swim into bulky descent. Once down they move like inchworms that have lost the ability to inch. All sweep around, a limbed mini-mall in motion. You can hear breathing, exertion, grunts of murky abdominal origin, unceremonial oaths amplified by the mics.

Standing in the middle of this Sage watches, eyes stepping carefully through confusion like a bed of ruby coals.

When the realization comes that the ring with its starry constellation has disappeared into a black hole, the minister briefly huddles with Dodge, conferring. The two stand, hoist the stun guns to their feet, and the videographer recovers the camera.

The minister announces, “As the ring itself is a symbol, let it also symbolize the imagination, and the power of the imagination to rise above the unexpected mishaps in life that surprise us at every turn. And so we proceed: Dodge, would you please place the imaginary ring on Sage’s very real finger.”

Sage surrenders her hand and Dodge, smiling sheepishly, worms a pretend ring up her finger.

The minister lifts his arms. The gestural repertoire of the ministry can’t compete, apparently, with the more widely varied and nuanced secular modes of rhetoric and self-expression. Much mileage is being squeezed out of the lifting of the arms. “And now without further ado, by the powers vested in me …”

The down pillow of a descending hush absorbs a lone cough in the audience.

The scrape of a chair somewhere, instantly smothered.

Loitering homeless sounds immediately put to sleep on their park benches.

“So much for Sugar Boy’s diversion,” I tell Turk. “You ready?”

I hear a jangling, small but distinct, that I think must be my heart.

The minister pauses, hearing it too.

Something ringing or buzzing. Not in the crowd, but in the gazebo.

Dodge looks around, puzzled and peeved. The stun-gunned minions swivel their heads, see only the rain’s fine bulbless filaments, look down at themselves for clues.

Turk whispers, “What is that?”

Sage cracks out of her deep freeze. Her hands flutter into action, patting around the waist before she can remember to stop them. Something under the dress falls with a dinky clatter and bounces in that insanely hopscotched way of dropped four-cornered objects, escaping from beneath. It’s so small you would miss it were it not for the color, vivid black against the contrasting gown, a rectangle ricocheted back to rest against the fleecy hem. Dodge picks it up, holds it up between thumb and finger while it continues to spurt and buzz.

It’s the pager. The one that Ricky said was supposed to be set to vibrate. The one that wasn’t supposed to make a sound.

Reading the message Ricky apparently input ten seconds ago meant for Sage’s eyes only, Dodge brings it closer, squinting.

“It’s Ricky Chang,” I tell Turk, panic-stricken.

“I thought that thing wasn’t supposed to make noise.”

“Something went wrong.”

“Man, this is so jacked up. What the hell happened to Sugar Boy?”

Having Read the message, Dodge’s face stiffens, lips a drawstring tugged tight. He looks at Sage fixedly, face souring with a sliced grapefruit’s look of wounded betrayal. Hand cupped over his eyebrows, he scans the seated crowd for threat, mishap, upheaval, a nimble assassin’s evanescent blur. He grabs the minister’s arm and jerks him out of his puzzlement, tells him, “Finish it,” snaps fingers to summon his stooges, who surge woodenly forward.

Flustered, the minister says, “Yes  where was I ?”

“Fuck it. It’s showtime,” Turk says, standing. The cake.

The cake is moving. It moves as though rumbling colonically, the layers shifting, bulging, the whole structure shuddering, the scrolls and decorative festoons of frosting suddenly flying free, the sides caving in and the top half exploding in a spray of clumps.

People in the audience cry out in dismay.

The wedding march comes on again, speakers vomiting volume.

I hear a chorus of voices in the back yell, “Fire” and turning, I see smoke weaving an intricate tranpunto in a widening quilt. I respond to the squawk of my walkie-talkie and Sugar Boy is yelling, “It wasn’t me, the fire ”

People are craning in their seats, some standing to look toward the back.

The minister says, “There seems to be a disturbance that ”

Cake trailing a comet’s tail of crumbs arcs through the air and vaudevillian frosting strikes the side of the minister’s face, the minister recoiling convulsively. Residual clumps rain down in the gazebo, showering Sage, Dodge, the stun guns, the teddy bear videographer. The lens of the camera positioned somewhere in the gazebo and feeding the image to the enormous screen has apparently been struck by cake snarpnel because the images are now imprisoned by dark blotches.

Like a butterfly that has emerged from a cocoon, a figure in a white-fringed bikini stands in the wreckage of the cake with upraised arms and legs sensually bent, thighs mated, one knee coyly tipped over the other, a gaudy pinup pose. To the bottom half of the bikini is affixed a dangling prosthetic device, male genitalia of nightmarish proportions. At first I think it’s a woman but it’s not, this is a man batting fake eyelashes exaggerated as televised evangelism, smile embedded in that shade of silver-white lipstick that resembles the zinc oxide lifeguards smear on their lips, and he’s in the process of shimmying his hips, squirming down to the ground and up again.

He bellows in a high-pitched voice, “Time to get loosey-goosey, duckies! Time to paaaaaaar-TAY!”

It’s the man I met at Ricky’s office – Hollingdale.

Turk’s ankle tangles in his chair and he falls, an epic descent like the Third Reich, into the aisle.

“PAR-TAAAAAY, OH YAAAASSSSSSSSS!” Sugar Boy’s voice squawking through a sleet of static, “… knocked over a torch …”

I see citrus-colored flames back there blooming on something, maybe on one of the canopies, the smoke fluttering like paper currency, denominated in shouts and screams.

“Help me the fuck up!” Turk is shouting at me.

Chairs overturn and people are running. Some jump over Turk as they pour into the aisle, screaming FIRE. Their legs pedal bicycles of disorientation as they continue running even after falling on their backs.

Dodge grabs Sage by her wrist and his satellites orbit stiffly forward to form a wall, drawing their weapons. An umbrella opens in my chest, scraping membranal panic. I’m pushed into the aisle as the unenlightened Buddha shoves past me, deeply attached to survival. I reach behind, jam my arm down the waistband of my pants, miss, my hand pokes through the split. The next time I find the paintgun, aim it, squeeze the trigger. Balls in rapid sequence pulse out of the barrel with punky sounds of ejection, finding and drumming an underling’s face, printing his forehead with the impact’s tomatoey teletype. Face bombed ripe-vegetable red, he draws his hand across the drip and examines it, then swoons to the ground, believing it’s blood.

Sitting, Turk lobs his smoke grenade and it falls near the Augusta A117 Koala.

Smoke starts as a scribble and then grows episodically through chapter after chapter on lurid phosphorescent pages: Green After All, An Epic by Turk Mitchell. Dense and incredibly copius, synthetic-looking and surreal, it spreads a verdant apocalyptic cloak, but the breeze the rain rides in on is westerly, and the cloud gallops off to the side.

Hollingdale is in the gazebo.

He shoves a great handful of cake and frosting into a henchman’s face, does a victory shimmy all the way down to the floor. But when he rides up on a supple oscillation of hips, the henchman is right there, waiting with an injection of voltage. Prosthetic swinging, Hollingdale stiffens, goes limp and drops.

   

The minister trips over the bodyguard still hynotized by the sight of paintball hemoglobin. Falling backward with oaring arms, he crashes through the gazebo’s side railing, the wood cracking chiropractically with the snap of 12 spines adjusted at the same time, the minister’s own spine the unlucky 13st slated to receive no immediate treatment.

I’m trying to pull Turk to his feet.

Dodge is pulling Sage through the chaos fringing the gazebo.

A foursome running past me stops, backtracks – the satyr and nymph we’d met during our incursion with two other stocky, muscular guys. “The men in black! Need help?” Satyr shouts, sipping his Hawaiian Punch. Somehow he’s mastered the feat of running while holding a cup filled with mystic and facilitative libations.

I tell them to help Turk up and take off.

My running becomes the primal template for all nightmares: treadmill archetypes, arrays of Ephesian-like powers and principalities, tunnels webbed with impediments tapering to pinprick portholes of access or escape, destinations shrinking to skeleton keyhole shapes, flashing red exit signs hung above featureless walls instead of open doors. Faces avalanche toward me and I try to will my way through the pores and out the other side. Bodies build a hockey rink of unprincipled elbows with no penalty box in sight. I push against the crowd’s contraction as though giving birth. To the left where we were sitting, guests pinball the poles supporting the huge silk canopy and it descends in slow motion, blanketing guests still scrambling through rows of chairs. I can’t tell how far from all this fallen fabric the fire is, but I can see that the flames pocking the darkness are advancing, I can see that unless the rain finds the force it’s looking for …

I wanted a diversion.

He’s fighting the same flood of people I am, pulling her along, moving like a stain gradually spreading toward the helicopter.

A canister catapults high over my head.

Smoke the color of emergencies, a bright hematic red, chases the canister like a disreputable lawyer in pursuit of an opportune ambulance. Slamming against the helicopter’s windshield, the canister takes meek rabbity hops toward the fountain. In the near distance I see a small group of people fleck over the crest of an embankment, naked, skin glossed with the slick cellophane of recent swimming, running toward the turgid red fog. Dancing, flapping their arms, they disappear into the fountain’s crimson cloud, re-emerge, plunge back in, over and over.

From somewhere far behind me I hear cries of distress incongruously woven with wild laughter, then a percussive aboriginal chanting drums the air.

Someone grabs my shoulder, spins me around while my eyes stay fastened to their targets, hovering facelessly. I try to turn back to reclaim them, return them to their sockets with images of Dodge and Sage’s precise location preserved on the retinas, an X on a map, Dodge the pirate and Sage the fading treasure, but the hand grips me tight. “It’s a madhouse, the place is on fire back there,” Sugar Boy yells. “Some guys were running around drunk with torches.” His head is cocked up at me, he’s bent over, palms on knees, chewing the air, ingesting the night with gulps like it’s a Slurpee. “I think I saw your friend rolling around, the wheelchair guy …”

I look back. The flames hang off something ropey, dripping. White coffins of smoke shimmer above them, rising through dead spaces toward the starless sky. Through cupped hands I funnel my voice into his ear. “I’ll head to the helicopter from the right and you go at it from the left.”

“Where’s Turk?”

“Somewhere …”

Bodies bump us apart.

“See you at the chopper,” he shouts, ducks down and is gone.

The next collection of moments evolves quickly in a fastigium of jade and sapphire mist. Steep shouts that go nowhere. Soot coating the mouth with the taste of scorched herbs and damp wood, an odious cocktail poured down the throat. Tilt and cant and kinesis on a tide of audible adrenaline. The wedding march still thundering in its storm of decibels. Pockets of transparency in the haze open and close, and framed by one such window I spot a silver-haired man wearing a navy blue commercial flight uniform trimmed smartly in white, epaulets on the shoulders and silver wings winking above the blazer’s breast pocket, one hand pressing the crown of a captain’s hat to keep it secured to his head, his comportment an exemplum of posture and military bearing even in this chaos – this must be Augusta A117 Koala’s pilot. In front of him, clearing the way, is Kyle, Goon, the Supreme Grand Dragon of Stun Guns, Turk’s fallen adversary resurrected. He’s up to his old tricks, jabbing and shoving, crisp in his black karate gi as he carves a path to the helicopter with occasional kicks, inhaling pandemonium as though it were a refreshing mint leaf, neck diagrammed with angry veins.

Cradling a fish bowl containing a black molly, a woman in a pink terry cloth bathrobe runs past me shrieking, a hornet nest of sparks buzzing in hair 5 sparks short of full combustion. Her smoldering beeline for the billowing fountain knifes a temporary slice from the apple-hard density that surrounds me as though I were its core. Spilling through this space, juice squeezed from the apple, I watch a bodyguard join Dodge as he continues to tug Sage through the still-thick wedge of guests trying frantically to launch themselves from the gazebo’s gravitational pull.

Kyle has managed to open the helicopter’s door. The pilot is ducking into the cockpit.

Somehow Sugar Boy has found a hole, worked his way around the back of the gazebo, and is standing near the nose of the helicopter. He’s holding something, his arms extended, bouncing in the saddle of a squat, taking aim like an alcoholic whose lips shakily seek the bottle’s rim. A quaking red dot appears on the pilot’s back and I remember the Tazer he confiscated in the parking lot when Turk had fought with Kyle. And as I’m remembering how impressed Sugar Boy been with the device, with the 50,000 volts squirming around inside it, tails of electricity lashing spermatically in the eagerness for discharge, he pulls the trigger and the probes I can’t see apparently fly out, stretching copper tightropes the voltage sprints across. Because just as Kyle moves up behind the pilot, the probes connect, but not with their target – it’s Kyle who grabs his neck and goes down, skeleton strobing beneath his skin in a X-ray light show for those nearby.

There’s a blinding flash and for a moment everything, this whole crumbling estate, becomes a solarized white stencil, and every shadow is lifted like a spirit raptured in the bleach of homogenized Aryan light.

The enormous screen cracks in half, collapsing around its fissure – as each leg in a pair of pants would peel down on either side of a mile-long broken zipper.

Distant screams muffled inside a hollow-barrel rumble.

Thunder, then a sudden torrent from the sky’s womb: a hysterectomy of rain.

This is my diversion, customized beyond recognition, the result of an overkill of prayer.

A salvo of paint balls, Turk or Sugar Boy’s or both, showers down on the guilty and innocent alike, on hesitant bystanders trying to decide which way to run and on Dodge himself, his white tuxedo drilled red like an alley wall Al Capone ordered his enemies to stand against, and though Sage takes no direct hits her gown is tommy gunned with splatter.

I’m close enough now to call her name, and when she hears me she strains against Dodge’s grip, hopping on her tiptoes to see over heads, the veil in its circelet tumbling off and trampled underfoot, but one of the underlings, his costume half gone where it’s been torn off to allow room to maneuver, is pressing her forward, relentlessly, from behind. A voice through a loudspeaker somewhere on the helicopter repeatedly warns people to stand back while three of Dodge’s men shove bodies off the Agusta A117 Koala’s asphalt pad, a fourth dragging Kyle away by the armpits. Then the rotors cough and churn sluggishly, sputtering before springing to full spin. The blades chase themselves and slur silver, a malevolent medallion, a spinning platinum platter serving a small inedible hurricane to guests whose stomachs already reside in their throats. The Fahrenheit of Dodge’s frustration climbs to a boiling point and he begins kicking his way through people, exhorting his henchmen, cracking a bullwhip of verbs, howling expletives that the roaring blades chop into confetti and pull into a windy abyss, his free arm swinging blindly as he plows forward onto the pad, and I see now that all the counter-pulling and tugging that Sage might continue to muster is futile because somewhere between where he was and where he is, Dodge has decided to ensure inseparability by clamping her wrist to his with handcuffs. By the time I reach the pad Turk is here too and moving with a grim vengeful glee as though Dodge’s protectors were somehow responsible for all the weight he’d been trying to tunnel through for years, each man representing a measurable unit of the unhappiness he faced in the form of a calorie finally made tangible, easily disposable now that he could wrap his hungering hands around them, I’m on the pad and when one of them jabs at me with a stun gun I swing the paint gun and the stock shatters against the side of his face, the violence triggering a feeling of sickening exhilaration, I think of all the violence in the world that must be taking place at this exact moment and let’s face it, I understand that it’s the shortest distance between two points and that peaceable resolutions are a luxury most of us can’t afford because we’re creatures of finitude and the clock is always ticking, time running out, politicians know their summit meetings to negotiate peace are doomed before they’re started, the man goes down and I raise what’s left of the paintgun to do it again but Dodge is lunging into the helicopter, and better-late-than-never Ricky Chang is here too colliding and ramming righteously into legs that have escaped being mangled or crushed in some mysterious accident or rendered useless by some dismal congenital deformity, his wheelchair a chariot, a tank, a mechanical force of nature, and I’d like to welcome him to our little festival of violence (next to me a folding chair coming down on Sugar Boy’s back) but Dodge is lunging through the door of the helicopter and Sage of course is with him, the wind whipping in rain-riveted steely sheets, the Augusta A117 lifting, her wedding gown billowing so that I grab it and miss, my hands closing on the skids and I’m off the ground, hanging, Ricky Chang clutching my ankles out of his chair for a moment and what a glorious relief that must be for him, to be free as though running weightlessly in air, just for a moment before the tail of the helicopter gyroscopes and he lets go, and as I’m dragged through air and look down I can see Hollidale on the slowly shrinking pad, fighting because he’s frustrated too and maybe trapped in a marionette body with gender pulling the wrong strings, but it’s all shrinking and I’m left with nothing but Sage’s screams opening a canopy above me, my legs climbing rungs of air as I’m hanging maybe 50 feet, 70, 90, too high to let go, I’ve never been good at estimating heights, higher and faster now over the hyphen of an embankment and down there an watery aqua square, a hamate brightly blue-lit pool as the rain on the skids dissolves my grip grows larger as I fall, through a long smooth vertical chute it seems, my body flossed clean by strings of silky descent it seems, the helicopter jubilant without me and soaring suddenly higher and away in the dervish updraft of my deducted weight, and I hit something either hard or soft that opens around me and I sink, my brain manufacturing the prickley smell of citrus, illusory lemons or limes, and a short-circuited neural burst suns my mouth with the taste of dirty pennies and burnt Coca Cola, a black seam closing over me.

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