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Chapter Thirty-Six

Lemons and limes and a black seam closing over me.

I won’t call it a coma because they didn’t.

Through panoramic glass I’m watching a 747 raft its silver tonnage across the sky and float with the arrogance of helium, in that dolefully miraculous way that to modern jaded eyes elaborates, aerodynamically, nothing more than the now-tedious foregone conclusions of technology.

The body is all bone, is a territory held under rule by the sovereignty of bone. You only realize this when there is a revolt.

Clavicle, two metacarpal bones in the right hand, several carpal bones in the left wrist, floating ribs on both sides of the rib cage, femur in left leg and tibia in right, tallus in the left ankle -– these have been broken or fractured (if fractured, they are either of the nondisplaced or comminuted variety), seized in a coup de gras staged by insurgent gravity. And other things, the foot soldiers in the battle bones had fought, torn ligaments and a ruptured spleen and a clangorous concussion.

Because many of my appendages are bulgingly sleeved or bandaged or taped or bound in casts, people passing through the corridor toward Gate C3 glance at me with a pity raw as pornography, or with suspicion, even disbelief, as though I’m the mummy who has risen, not from a crypt, but from some haunted sausage warehouse on the forlorn industrial outskirts of Munich.

Almost three months later, this is what I don’t quite remember, without being able to forget: the rollercoaster ambulance ride, the suffocating blood pressure cuff, the penlight beam lancing in pupils they feared would dilate and fix, the cold coin of the stethoscope deposited in the empty cash register of my chest. The ride on the gurney through fluttering emergency room doors, the fluorescent lights overhead repeating in nursery rhyme stanzas as I’m wheeled down an endless white corridor, then more tables, injections, perhaps liquid Demoral for pain, perhaps Demoral’s older and wiser sister, morphine, for pain, tube fed down the trachea or maybe it was just my tongue, and nurses, large of breast and spirit, and the features of faces breaking apart and floating like pieces of evil cork. People floating in and out of the room, the hospital room, I think my dear old friends Sugar Boy and Turk were there, both looking drawn and stricken as never before, then later someone holding my sweat-gloved hand in a different hospital, then later still, whispered promises, promises that one day soon everything would return to normal even though so much had happened, so much had changed.

                                                 *

There are also things I could not possibly remember because I wasn’t there. Sitting in the chair next to the hospital bed in Milwaukee, speaking or reading in a considerate whisper to avoid disturbing my neighbor on the other side of the pale green curtain dividing the semi-private room -– 12 different neighbors admitted and discharged during the course of my six-week stay -– this was what Ricky told me:

On the day he was to contact me he’d been shopping for legs at Legs ‘R Us.

The newspaper advertisement for Legs ‘R Us promised that prices on all inventory had been slashed to a deep discount. The prices were so ludicrously low that to suspend the buyer’s disbelief the advertisement had been cast in the self-referential and self-mocking way of certain postmodern texts: Idiot Typesetter Lists Wrong Price, Legs ‘R Us Must Eat Mistake. Slashed inventory exuded an irresistible allure to someone like Ricky, who lived on Subway sandwiches because his dream, like a devious caterer, had spread an elaborate tablecloth where a nourishing feast seemed to circle in splendid roulette -– The Kaleidoscope, his own newspaper of lean meat and substance, covering alternative lifestyles and chronicling the ongoing saga of corruption and skullduggery in the United States of Corporations as practiced in one of its 52 active recycling subsidiaries, Milwaukee. For the masses that deserved to know the truth Ricky would pre-digest, like a cow its cud, the brittle grass and yellow graze of information that became the news and, in effect, he would make it palatable, he would ramify the zeitgeist. Offer a relatively ethical editorial viewpoint –- yes, he knew he just said “relatively ethical” -– someone had to package and manipulate information, why not Ricky Chang? The promised feast, however, turned out to be little more than a starvation diet, a source of deprivation he had to struggle to continue to characterize as noble. The Kaleidoscope managed to produce a grainy income while yet continuing to be wildly popular with university students and maverick faculty members. There was a steady stream of perky volunteers and “interns” who believed in The Kaleidoscope and passionately embraced Ricky’s vision and then two weeks later … well, fuck them, basically. Civilizations crumbled on the foundation of good intentions, America itself was crumbling. In debt, preyed on by creditors, living on the linty edge of near poverty, his financial solvency drained away in a deathless crisis of mismanagement that mirrored, in microcosm, the erosive malaise of the national deficit itself, Ricky ate turkey Subway sandwiches and when he couldn’t afford them, as happened often enough, he’d insert a piece of full-fat American cheese between two slices of bread, wind it all in aluminum foil, plug in the Black and Decker iron he’d borrowed from his sister last year and never returned, and iron himself out a nice soggily crisp grilled cheese sandwich – this was Yankee ingenuity, was it not? Necessary because his usurious landlord’s stove had somehow fallen apart and bugs of some kind, long leggy creatures shiny as black patent leather, had established a highly active colony in the oven’s cold charred hull. It was insane –- he basted the bastards in Raid and they raised antennae like a construction worker taking a leisurely shower, soaping energetically under the armpits. Finally they rolled away atop a weedy monorail of legs, dribbling nonchalantly through the perfect little holes you could see the nonexistent pilot light through, a pilot light that was staunchly aflame as long as you could imagine its presence. And the bugs were strange in that they seemed so laid-back, so stylishly unconcerned, it was really difficult to explain – as though they wore moccasins, casual comfortable footwear … had he been born a lowly bug, he’d have legs to spare, and this irony did not escape him. Even with two mangled legs, as a lowly bug he would have perhaps 500 others left in weedy-legged reserve. His girlfriend, Caeldera, had left him six months ago and as a result he’d become reacquainted with the unhealthy obsession regarding all things leg-related that his anal retentive Pacific Rim Asian shrink, behind the vast hide-and-seek oak longitudes of her desk, and from behind the prim interlaced wedge of her fingers, had worked so hard to modulate. But she stressed that in order to avoid simply suppressing his painful emotions regarding his otiose legs, the pain had to be acknowledged. How does that make you feel? she would croon. When my girlfriend and I go to the lakefront for a romantic evening, I’ve learned to WALK ON MY HANDS TO KEEP UP AND SHE GETS TO HOLD MY ATHLETICALLY SOCKED ANKLE, THAT’S HOW I FEEL! Unfortunately he had screamed this. After that session he had been prescribed Xanax and Prozac, with copious refills. Caeldera had left him for an anvil-faced jock with DID, Deficit Intelligence Disorder, and calves that, viewed from behind, flared in a cobra’s hood of ridged muscle, and Ricky sank, sighing in relief, into that familiar bewitched throne of consciousness, depthlessly cushioned, where all thought was a decree of free association revolving around legs. He read the other newspaper, the “real” one, for the red-font coupons lined up on the back pages like sloppily rouged whores or shameless mercenaries still badged in blood from the last third-world debacle, vying for his patronage. After the postmodern mockery of the opening line the ad had gone on to state: … Prices Slashed So Deep Even Jack The Ripper Would Admire! Would admire what – the prices or the goddamn legs? If legs, prosthetic or real, could be cheaply procured, it should come as no surprise that Ricky would make every effort to be first in line. For, oh, to circumscribe his tumid sorrow! He’d used his VISA card many times to buy a single 6-inch Subway sandwich, sliding it under the pitying gaze of a sari-clad woman so short you could see the part in her hair feeding its dry riverbed into the delta of a blackly liquid braid, so why not max it out, if necessary, for purchases that were truly worthy ones, at Legs ‘R Us? When he arrived people were pouring through the doors as though fleeing from Bush-engendered nuclear devastation, which was not, after all, improbable. Any day now. The sky drinking its own nuclear ferment, a sky the color of ale, drunk with destruction. Of course, the cretinous dullards who had voted for The Intellectual Cipher Who Would Be King would be the first to wonder how in the tumorous bowels of hell such a thing could happen, wonder if there were still time to impeach (there wouldn’t be). He rolled through the Legs “R” Us doors flung open dramatically and precisely at 9:00 a.m., then wheeled madly up and down the aisles, ricocheting off counters, admittedly a bit keyed-up at the prospect of stocking up on legs. When the products heaped on counters tumbled off with the wheelchair’s rudderless impact he saw that a terrible mistake had been made. A terrible misunderstanding that prompted him to grab by the belt an oddly sedate young name-tagged factotum who happened to be scooping up the merchandise that Ricky had careened into. Once he’d hooked his fingers around the belt the clerk was forced to bend over, and then Ricky was able to grab him in the simmering assaultive manner in which all serious grabbing was intended to be executed – by the lapels. What is all this merchandise, this shit? he asked the youth, is this some kind of joke? No sir, came the calm response, every product here has been slashed to a deep discount, I can call the manager if you have a problem … But these are toys! Ricky exclaimed, where are the legs? We sell toys, sir, here at Toys “R” Us, not legs. Ricky Chang did something rather inappropriate, then. He asked the unruffled toy broker if maybe … would he happen to know … perchance, did he have any Xanax? Alas, no. Of course he didn’t. Ricky wanted to scream, THEN WHY ARE YOU IN THIS CALMLY MUFFLED STATE? Wanted to scream, but did not scream.

That was how the day had started.

The advertisement?

He had gone back to the apartment to re-read it, but there was such a squall of paper and linty-poverty detritus on the floors that he couldn’t find it. Maybe the colony of laid-back moccasin-wearing bugs had decided to write out its declaration of independence and had carried some of the papers, the ad among them, back into the Brave New Vermin Colony of the oven.

He was sorry about the confusion, the call he hadn’t been able to make that day, according to plan. You see, typically he kicked off the morning with a couple of 10-mil Xanax, chewing 10 or 15 throughout the day on an ad hoc basis, sometimes more, but he hadn’t been able to find the bottle that day – still hadn’t found the damned thing. It was the last bottle, what turned out to be the valedictory one, no more refills without a degrading face-to-face with the calmly muffled shrink, and he had severed his relationship with her because he knew, frankly, more about psychoanalytic theory and modalities of treatment than she did. Adler, Piaget, Jung, the cigar-chewing, cancer-jawed and cocaine-inspired king of viscous psychic sludge, Freud, and on up through Laing and Perls – the entire babbling posse of them riding through the mind’s lawless Dodge City, kicking up alkaline clouds of prairie dust and reeking of midget pony shit … The Xanax was a scissors snipping off the sharp corners of hours that threatened to box him in, and without them he realized his behavior tended toward mania, breezy disorganization, emotional states like jagged mountain peaks scraping away the sky’s serenity, and he was aware too that tripling up on the Prozac to compensate probably wasn’t a wise approach, since the right side of his face subsequently went numb … but wait -– that was just the visible peak, on that hellish tragic iceberg of a day when he hadn’t been able to call.

There was the interview with Existentia, a young woman who struck him as being the genuine article, radiant with haphazard native genius, tightroping a thrillingly precarious line between philosophy and performance art, calling into question all the tottering presumptions on which our sacrosanct notions of public and private teetered. She was so secure, so effortlessly inspired, that she was able to bare her soul, the whole unromanticized moment-to-moment banality of the soul, without blinking. It was safe to say that Ricky was a little obsessed with her. The fierce herd of unsaddled sexual fantasies bucking through his brain in a libidinal rodeo attested to it. A 3-ply toilet tissue roll of reveries fluttered around him, each scenario empanelled on a flimsy white flap that he tore along its perforated line and discarded, eager to explore the next one … he simply couldn’t get over how that day she had appeared from behind the screen at The World’s First Non-Internet Viewing Porthole, standing on a gallows of vulnerability before the judging eyes of spectators, executioner’s eyes, all those people silently condemning her for the same acts and mishaps that defined their very humanity. As if they didn’t shit and wipe their pompous pimpled asses with toilet paper and maybe unfortunately forget that the toilet paper still trailed in befouled mishap behind them. Had the toilet paper been befouled? This he couldn’t remember. But the sight of the toilet paper, perhaps gaudily ornamented with excreta and dangling from her waistband, that long white flag inducing his own surrender, had kindled an almost paternal desire to protect her and had also aroused him in a way he could only classify as, well, somewhat disturbing -– a mystery of the psyche that would have made his shrink’s day.

At some point the startling possibility that Existentia might have orchestrated the whole misadventure soared into his head like an arrow disguised as a bird. Brilliant! He was flabbergasted to think that she had known all along what she was doing, that she had done it to tease the audience into condemnation and judgment so that one or two might ultimately realize what he had just realized and thus be compelled to stand, exposed, as the boomerang of judgment hastened home to the hurling hand … he sank, almost deliriously, through the daedal layers of nuance Existentia had craftily overlapped. When he walked –- strike that from the record, but this slip of the tongue only demonstrated the insidious sweep of his fixation with legs – when he rolled, he meant to say, into the World’s First Non-Internet Porthole, lemmings in the guise of words leapt off the lip in a breathless disclosure that was suicide, his vertiginous emotional state recklessly revealed: You are who I aspire to become, what you’ve done here, this bold honesty … I’m in love with it and I think I might be in love with you … She covered her mouth with her hand like it was an oxygen mask, laughter leaking out in airy bubbles of surprise. She wore the same cargo parts she had worn that day and he sprinkled her with furtive glances, hoping to see another strip of toilet paper dangling from the waistband – or even the same strip, yes, he’d settle for seeing the same one even though there were, undoubtedly, hygienic or contaminative risks associated with being in the presence of several-days-old used toilet paper.

Only then did he notice the young man,covered with a flannel blanket, stretched out on the floor in front of the refrigerator in the back of the room. That was Kyle, she explained, and he was sleeping or unconscious, he’d had a bit too much to drink and besides that, he’d repeatedly stunned himself with a stun gun, which had probably deepened his stupor. Why in the name of …? Well, that’s what Kyle often did, stunning himself frequently to raise his threshold for pain, thereby testing and pushing the limits of his endurance, and if he didn’t get carried away to the point of losing consciousness in the course of these intense self-inflicted exercises, he benefited from a heightened sense of clarity, his senses shocked and fireflied, the kinks in his reflexes disentangled as the voltage tugged its hotcomb through his body. Ricky didn’t ask whether the stunned and drunken man was an acquaintance or a boyfriend, because at that moment he didn’t care – fuck him and the post-electrified torpor he lay in. Existentia sat on her sofa with her legs – her legs! – bow-tied beneath her, answering his questions candidly, disarmingly, Ricky taking notes on his coffee-stained legal pad. The story of how The World’s First Non-Internet Viewing Porthole came to be, the encounter with aliens – he, too, believed that aliens were here among us, but had never imagined them to be strips of aluminum foil – he would shape it all into an interview that would be a goldmine of well deserved publicity for Existentia and give him the opportunity to engage in the sort of yellow journalism that The Kaleidoscope typically eschewed but that would no doubt boost sales: soft reportage of right-brained provenance, essayistic, meandering to oblique conclusions and liberally mined with adjectives. Existentia poured metallic-tasting Gallo Chablis wine from a half-gallon jug and they both drank, expanding into giddiness. How to explain this next part? He would need a segue soft and slick as a path paved in cantaloupe slices to do it justice, to prevent the account from sounding coarse, boastful, sordid, and he knew of no such seque, so: they had sex. Strike that – they’d made love. After two hours the interview had drifted seamlessly into pre-pillow talk confessions and revelations of a highly personal nature, talk flowing like alpha waves, the time I this and the time I that … and what happened to Ricky’s legs, what was the story there? Not much of a story there, a garden-variety tragic car accident when he was sixteen, a drunk driver falling asleep at the other car’s wheel, Ricky left with a spine crooked as a liar’s labyrinthine tongue. To tell the truth, Ricky sort of dramatically milked his description of the months of physical therapy, the despair and the pain, the pillow-muffled lamentations and the forest of tears descending like felled willow trees, because he suspected she was susceptible to such sorrow. He wasn’t proud of that but it was apparently effective, because by the time the story was over she was perched above him on the wheelchair, the cargo pants down around one ankle, her head thrown back, his head thrown back, both of them riding this incredible seasaw of spontaneous lust that would surely lead to the sort of relationship in which he would eventually refer to her as his Significant Other … so vigorous was the coupling that the wheelchair had married its motion to theirs, before they knew it they’d coasted across the floor and the wheels had parked themselves against the curb of Kyle’s outstretched legs. Groaning and disoriented, the electricity-addicted man sat up. He looked up at them and his face was blank as a wall awaiting graffiti. Maybe he couldn’t believe what he was seeing? Ricky felt Existentia’s surprise in a sudden clasp of the vaginal lips, as of damp hands wrung in prayer. Kyle fumbled for the stun gun on his lap. There was a long deadly silence, a rest in the sonata that Ricky and Existentia had composed with their bodies, a soundless dissonance that Kyle was attempting to shake from his head. Ricky could only plunge his eyes into his ocular ostrich hole, the dark tunnel behind the lids, and he jerked as though spattered with hot grease when he heard the stun gun frying its fatty bacon of wattage. When the wave of needly pain and the suctioned pull into the tunnel he anticipated failed to materialize, he opened his eyes. Kyle was stunning himself with the gun, mechanical and systematic as genocide, and after several resolute jabs he sank, with a rapturous roll of the eyes, into prostrate oblivion. He’d drunk his electric nepenthian juice in draughts sufficient to ensure sleep deep as myth, and Ricky and Existentia resumed their ride on the seasaw, not bothering to roll away for privacy.

And speaking of privacy – was that a crack in the storefront’s black curtain? A crack they hadn’t noticed? Was that a man’s head, hovering in the vertical split, watching them? It was. The man seemed to be throwing some sort of voyeuristic tantrum because he began pounding on the window with his forehead, as though knocking, pitifully, on a door to gain entrance. Without disengaging they rolled in the chair to the window and Existentia jerked the curtains closed. But she felt sorry for him, she said. Look how the poor guy continued to beat on the window, either with his forehead, his fists, or both….

When it was over, he was telling Existentia about what Dodge had done and the bogus impending wedding and the helicopter and the desperate state of mind of one Peace Datcher, and yes, she had spoken with Peace, she had been thinking about it and felt terrible … and on this note, unfortunately, they fell asleep.

In the morning he remembered everything, the call he should have made – he was so sorry, he couldn’t apologize enough, could he be forgiven? – but he found out that some time around midnight Existentia and heard his cell phone ringing and had simply turned it off, then returned to sleep. The roar of their passion must have prevented him from hearing calls earlier in the evening. He hurriedly began listening to his messages and the first one he heard was his mother, explaining that his father had suffered a near-fatal myocardial infarction. WHERE WAS HE? WHERE IN THE NAME OF GOD, WHEN HIS FATHER WAS ON HIS DEATH BED … She was screaming as he himself had screamed at his shrink that day, and it seemed to Ricky that nothing less than some sort of ugly genetic predisposition was playing itself out. Considering this only heightened his Xanax-less confusion, and in addition, his penis felt rug-burned and seemed to softly gong. He wished to check it for abrasions but did not.

Kyle was still on the floor, though his position had changed, slightly. Perhaps he’d awoken in the night, remembered the sight of Ricky and Existentia looming above him in the chair, and decided to erase the awful memory with a flurry of supplemental stunning? Ricky toyed with the notion of placing the stun gun to his own temple and firing away, to clear his muddled thinking. At any rate, now his nerves were completely shot, a blown-out fuse, and Existentia, bless her, volunteered to go with him to Saint Mary’s. His plastic surgeon father had evidently suffered the heart attack not in Sister Bay but right here in Milwaukee, in the same hospital, ironically, where he performed cosmetic surgery twice a week, sewing faces on flaps of skin attached to the hairline and scrolling the flaps down in new and improved youthful masks for wealthy women, at least that was how Ricky imagined the procedure, if he bothered to think of it at all.

In his van he tried to call to explain what was happening, to say that although he hadn’t devised a plan he was still headed to Sister Bay to stop the wedding, but Peace Datcher’s cell phone carrier played a message apologizing for the fact that the number Ricky was attempting to call was temporarily outside the service raidus, or the calling zone, or some such bullshit … and as they sped to the hospital he swerved to avoid running over a cat or something covered with fur, and for one hellish lung-siphoning moment he’d actually thought it was a fucking baby crawling in the street! until he remembered that human infants were not covered with fur. Even so the thing could still have been human, suffering from some accursed little-known fur-afflicted medical condition … whatever it was he didn’t run over it, but vaulted over a curb and clipped a parking meter where, very near to it, a gentrified young woman had stopped to arrange the blanket in a stroller she’d been pushing that contained an actual fucking human presumably non-furred baby! Jesus Christ, what was happening? His mind tumbled thoughts in auto re-dial tones, shrilly. Or was it the gentrified woman, shrill with verbal abuse, flapping her arms and calling needless attention to the near-tragedy? The woman was ignorant of the fact that near tragedies after all did not count, only tragedies that left you LEGLESS mattered in the scheme of things. He wished to point this out but thought it unwise. Eventually she wandered off and Ricky saw that the right front tire was as flat as his immediate prospects for expeditious transportation to the hospital, five blocks away. Stalwart Existentia suggested leaving the van, she would simply push him, so she parked the van and fed a parking meter behind the mangled one and she did just that, pushing him down the street, striding, then – Jesus Christ, let’s go! – galloping, running. There was a whiplash of shocked astonished faces as they flew up the street, Existentia simulating the sound of an admonishing but courteous horn or bell, brrriiiiiingg, please, brrriiiing! And of course, of course at the corner of Mason and Hillhurst she was unable to slow down enough to negotiate the left turn and he, like a passenger in a James Bond Austin Martin, was ejected from the seat of the veering skidding wheelchair – BRIIIIIGGGGG, OH SHIT, BRIIIINNNGG – and he found himself rolling like a balanced coin bowling downhill on its rim into the screen of an ATM jutting from the façade of the Wells Fargo bank. Furthermore his shoulder was dislocated, because the socket just sort of ….

Well, yes, they did finally arrive. His father was fine.

He had not had a myocardial infarction.

In fact, his father had just finished sewing a new face flap on a woman and was loping down the corridor, the picture of bristling energetic health in the baggy surgical greens that made him appear stockier than he actually was, just as Ricky and Existentia came coasting through the hospital doors. Now they were both war-torn veterans, scarred and bandaged in sweat, disheveled survivors of a vicious skirmish waged in The Battle of The Gravity-Defying Wheelchair. When Ricky explained why he was there, his father shook his head in mystified amusement. I told your mother that a colleague of mine had just finished with open heart surgery on a patient, she must have gotten it wrong. You know your mother, so dramatic, how she gets things wrong …. Lacerated skin hung by a sulky strand on Ricky’s cheek. He waved away his father’s close-faced zoom-in of concern – maybe he would ask him to sew it back on later, though a scar might be instrumental in re-engineering the image of a tougher, less laidback Ricky – but he did allow him to work the jelly of the arm back into its socket, easy as screwing the lid on a jar of jam, thank god. After smearing the shoulder’s strawberry pulp back into its socket, his father pulled him aside so that Existentia would not hear and said, You reek of promiscuous sex, winking and giving Ricky the goofy thumbs-up that he used with embarrassing addictive frequency to indicate approval.

It wasn’t too late, he could still make it to Sister Bay with time to spare. And somehow, even with his nerves standing at Medussa-splayed attention, on the trip there he conceived a plan.

                                              *

Coaxing lazy familiarity from the cot where it sleeps in my eyes, using blinks like prods to stir the staleness, I watch a plane whisper its intention in the runway’s ear, and the runway listens and surrenders to enlistment, rises in a rush to partner with the wheels as they taxi. So much weight wielded so majestically, the plane like a symphony sinking slowly into its last measure. I think I managed to see or hear it only because the child standing next to me has freely donated his sense of wonder, an unwitting philanthropist with his face pressing dreams into the glass.

“Do you know how the pilot lands something so heavy?” I ask him, and he looks at me with charitable nine-year-old’s eyes.

“The pilot makes it light,” the boy answers.

And so the tables are turned.

“How does the pilot do that?”

“He makes it so the air can take over.”

This sounds like a nine-year-old’s translation of something that Sage would have said, had she been standing here.

The boy asks, “What happened to you?”

“I fell down from a high place. But I was lucky, I fell in a swimming pool.”

“It doesn’t look so lucky,” he says, assessing me. “You were too heavy. Are all those real broken bones?”

That must be the boy’s mother over there, reading the slats on the boarding schedule.

“I wish they were fake, but they’re really real,” I tell him. “You can have them if you want. I’m giving them away, practically for free. Ten cents a piece. I don’t want them anymore.”

He’s too wise for such a transaction and shakes his head solemnly. “No. Those aren’t pilot bones. But I would buy them if they were pilot bones.”

“Charles,” the boy’s mother calls. “What did I tell you about that?”

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“Way off to California.”

“Charles,” she calls, stamping her foot. “That’s where we’re going. But mister, guess what? I have pilot bones,” he says. For a moment he gauges the adults going and coming, arriving and departing, marching devoutly through the corridor, leaning or listing with the weight of suitcases, backpacks, packages. Then he sees something I hadn’t seen, a cleft of space no movement cleaves to, a crevice soon to close, and he spreads his arms and shuts his eyes the way children will when that’s their sole intention, crushing the lids together hard, stapling them down with concentration. “Ready?” he asks, as though I’m going with him.

“You do it with your eyes closed because you’re scared?”

“No, I do it like that so my emage-nation can see. Now watch,” he instructs, tilting, aloft.

                                                 *

It was five ‘o clock when they arrived in Sister Bay. He should have been exhausted but he was not. It might have been the DMAE, ginseng, bee pollen, NADH, and the 16 other herbs, aminos and enzymes daily dumped down his throat, tongue a wheelbarrow heaped high with bulky parcels of gulps and saliva awkward as luggage, that helped Ricky replenish what the suck and siphon of his madcap life stole away, and now his legs, technically insensate, nevertheless buzzed with energy as, perched on a tree-huddled section of the estate’s wall – no, don’t ask how he and Existentia managed to get him up there – he watched Sage through the pair of binoculars he sometimes put to use in novel and intoxicating ways for his own amusement in his apartment. He used the binoculars to watch the television five feet in front of him, but through the end that made mockery of magnification. As a result the heads of statesmen, generals, prime ministers, presidents and the rest of the self-important geopolitical harlequins polluting the airwaves were tiny cold-shrunken testicular orbs. This amused him, which was all anyone could hope for. He was an American with certain inalienable rights and the pursuit of happiness was evidently one of them. The pursuit of happiness? Into the gravely adult endeavor of establishing a republic that would not buckle under the weight of an unprecedentedly lofty democratic ideal, that bizarre, almost childishly ingenuous concept, with its sly suggestion of adolescent hedonism or self-absorption, had been conspicuously inserted. Hearing the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in connection with fundamental human entitlements, Ricky invariably imagined some spoiled kid whining for a lollipop and, when it was denied, rolling around on the ground, drumming the floor with heels, bratty breath bottled in cheeks. I demand my freaking lollipop, mama, you are impeding my constitutional right to pursue happiness, BAAAWWW! The freedom to worship the God of choice, so important to the so-called founding fathers, those wig-wearing malcontents who would have been hanged for treason in Big Europe for scampering off and cobbling together Little Europe, was now a diminished imperative. Ricky wasn’t saying that God was dead, it was just that God had changed hats. As successive generations of men and women bloomed and withered through their mortal seasons, it went without saying that God was collectively shape-shifted into symbolic representations that best captured the particular spirit of the day and times, and so no, He or She was not dead – Simply, God’s current ineffable face was the face of HBO.

Don’t laugh, he was serious.

Listen: computers had become commonplace fixtures in working class households not because a universe of data could be domiciled on chips the size of a pinhead, not because the jutting raggedly fanned edges of our lives could be tamped and tapped into an organized cohesion like that of a card deck. No, it went beyond pure utility, they were popular because you could watch streaming videos, DVDs, play games, listen to pirated music, download frivolous files. The computer was merely an instrument of amusement. Entertainment and its profligate consumption were now as important as the pursuit of religious freedom once had been. Leisure-media diversions and the digestion of a ceaseless stream of cozenage spewed by HBO and others were pursued with the avidity of one hungering for spiritual epiphanies … his point?

His point was simply that when he sat in his wheelchair before the stove and, of an evening, chose to entertain and amuse himself by using his binoculars to surveill the bugs in their dribbling reconnaissance, he was simply exercising his birthright, the pursuit of happiness, the seeking after God’s face through holy acts of entertainment and amusement, and who cared how strange others might claim his actions to be … so accustomed was he to using the binoculars backwards that when he saw Sage walking through the front door of The House That Would Be Kafka’s Castle, her head, too -– and he was badly startled by the sight – was a tiny testicular orb until he remembered to reverse the binoculars. Yes, that was better – Sage restored to her rightful proportions, and he watched her as she stood under the keychain, grabbing her ankles and pinning head to knees, so that she was a stretch of sinew nimble but taut, a bow anticipating the arrow. Hair stuffed into the hamper of her bandana’s blue ring, she wore a white T-shirt and black sweats, a nervous underling beside her, Dodge in the doorway watching them both. His manner was one of stout superintendence, as though he were in Central Mexico and accustomed to being addressed as Jefe. All he needed was the phallic cigar. When Sage bounded off, the underling followed, but in a golf cart. Thus the underling in a twinkle undergoes metamorphosis and becomes an escort: ah, the transformative power of words, of language, it was something to behold, was it not? One minute you’re a fucking underling, the next an escort. The bride-to-be, allowed to take her daily run, loped down a path at the property’s perimeter. The golf cart escort stayed behind, allowing Sage a decent margin of privacy but keeping her well within sight. Ricky watched through the binoculars, laughing, somewhat evilly. This was someone hired for his ability to respond to and divert threats directed against Dodge? This was a bodyguard, who could reasonably be expected to exhibit a demonstrable degree of conditioning, physical prowess, stamina?

The guy was useless as a rubber scrotum and knew it, riding along with a cushion beneath his jellied ass, face wincing with the cart’s jolt and jostle as though he were running a marathon with bare feet on a broken-glass treadmill. Hell, Ricky, legless, could probably crawl faster than the guy could sprint, though that would surely be a pathetic sight, Ricky pulling himself forward with tufts of landscape in his hands, legs in withered desuetude trailing behind him. Pathetic, but at least he … Sage stopped. The golf cart coasted up alongside her, proprietorial. There was a brief discussion, Sage gesturing toward a cluster of thick bushes, trees stretching into high-leafed reaches. She was emphatic but the escort was shaking his head like a morocco staccatoed with beany hiss. Through the powerful binoculars Ricky could read her lips, and then she confirmed the word he had seen – UR-I-NA-TION – by jerking her sweats down in theatrical exasperation and squatting in her underwear to likely demonstrate the absurd predicament the escort’s disallowance of civilized privacy left them both in. The underwear – he didn’t like using the word panties, somehow it was a word that degraded the vocabulary of an adult – the underwear, he couldn’t help noticing, had some sort of Taoist dragons woven into the fabric, which was abundantly cool. Anyway it was possible she painted an unpretty picture of the probable punitive consequences such overzealousness would elicit from the Jefe. After the escort reversed the golf cart, parked, and turned his head in the opposite direction, Sage disappeared behind the bushes. Not thirty seconds later the escort saw her emerge and he followed her in the golf cart as she continued on her run, and frequently he would wince as the cart sank into some noxious declivity and bounced out of it, and each time he would plaintively readjust the cushion.

Now this was a juncture that Ricky could not, in all good conscience, cross. What he meant was that for the 30 seconds or so when Sage ducked into that cluster of trees, his connection with her was broken. He could not presume to enter Sage’s mind. He could only imagine what she thought when she penetrated the thicket, and he would be glad to embellish … but wait, there were a few things he’d left out, how could he have forgotten Hollingdale, the drama of the text-message instructions? This would entail a brisk brief backtracking, and he apologized for that, as a writer he should have realized that in factual accounts of events the sequential approach worked best, laying chronology in a line straight as the horizontal denouement droning on a cardiac monitor, instead of all this leapfrogging through time. But, to be honest, leapfrogging came closer to embodying his secret childhood desire, the desire that as a kid he confessed in answer to that eternal question posed by adults, What do you want to be when you grow up, Ricky? – a desire encapsulated in his heartfelt response, I want to be Master of Time and Space, which was always met by a blank face frayed at its edges with bafflement … sort of like your expression right now, Peace, as you lay there listening. But Ricky hoped the blank facial expression he was observing was just the depletion that came from listening. It was to be expected, the sinking reserves of energy recuperation leaned on like a borrowed cane. Or maybe it was just the glare of hospital fluorescence fretting at the eyes’ edges, something as simple as a pillow beneath the head needing to be fluffed. Just lift the head a little .. now wasn’t that much better?

                                              *

Sugar Boy returns from the airport gift shop holding a white bag containing, I surmise, my going-away present. He holds it eagerly, as though it contains a happy ending for Peace Datcher.

But the bag is ominously small and crumpled. If its size is any indication of the scope and depth of the contents, then the happy ending has been broken into fragments, pieces and nuggets, so that everything will fit – nuggets panned from the Datcher River of Multitudinous Troubles, found to be flecked and veined with gold once the crust of accommodations and unexpected adjustments has been patiently chipped away. As he extends it I consider begging him to take it back, for my own immersion in Datcher River has been long and deep, leaving my few remaining bones soaked to the marrow. Maybe he could exchange it for a more appropriate gift: a rubber life raft, scuba gear or at least a snorkel, even an assortment of pre-molded snap-on plastic casts for future accidents awaiting me in California, mishaps and manglings hibernating in the sun-carved cave of temperate West Coast climate. And there are no doubt plenty of swimming pools there for those who insist on falling from helicopter skids. I know that Sage would tell me to accept the bag, that a gift you’d hoped to receive but didn’t is often in itself an unexpected gift. Or maybe, for once, I would surprise her by saying it first and extending the insight as my gift. My thoughts have centered so steadfastly, so exclusively on Sage, that even if I knew what she was doing at this precise moment and could track her movements on a screen, I’d continue to wonder where she was.

I hold the bag in my bandaged claw as another plane hurls its silver javelin across the sky, competing with high Olympian clouds.

Today Sugar Boy is a ray from the spectrum of subterfuge, a ray reflected in fabric: he’s dressed in the same black slacks and turtleneck he wore that night when I fell into the shimmering hamate pool.

“You look like Illya Kuryakin, with a much needed tan,” I comment.

“What I’m hearing is a conscious attempt at humor on your part. It just doesn’t work when you make the attempt to be funny, Peace. I should laugh just out of politeness, considering what you’ve been through, but I don’t think you’d appreciate that kind of dishonesty.” Always sparse, his goatee now more thinly ferns the slope where the lower lip ends, as though a drought dwelled in his chin. These last few months, a time rife with role reversals, must have been difficult for him: Sugar Boy stopping by the house every day to check on my progress when I was finally released from the hospital, just as I had paid him visits during the tailspins of depression he dove into when a promising invention had been shot down. “Aren’t you tired of standing?” He paces, skates nervously to and fro, rounds worry into a rink. “Shouldn’t you be sitting?”

I nod and he positions himself behind me, his back to the window, as I spread my arms and my weight discovers the rocking chairs that have been smuggled inside my heels, my twin Trojan Horses. I rock back and catching me under the armpits, Sugar Boy lowers me gingerly to the chair, where I sit with my legs, like hope, outstretched.

Special arrangements have been made by the officials at Delta Airlines, who have been kind enough to provide a wheelchair in the last row in the tail of the plane, where I’ll be able to sit with my legs outstretched.

“Where’s Turk?” I ask.

“He’s with Kodiac, in the gift shop. And Ricky called me, he’s held up in traffic but he says, have no fear, he’ll be here before your plane takes off. I get the feeling he’s soft of addicted to his own drama.”

“I guess that might be an accurate description.”

Sugar Boy takes a seat next to me and unrolls a newspaper. “Have you seen this?” He hands it to me and I unfold it. “The latest issue of The Kaleidoscope.”

“He read it to me in the hospital, when it was still a draft.”

On the cover is a picture of the Augusta A117 Koala, airborne. A fish-eye camera lens, like sass in a young girl’s mouth, had snapped the picture as though chewing bubble gum and stretched the wad of the angle wide. Below on the helicopter pad, silhouettes against a backdrop of Bubonic medieval hues clashed in a demonic melee, and above it a figure dangled one-handed from the helicopter’s right – no, that would be the left – skid. The caption reads My Adventures Inside Ecstasy: Flying High & Out of Control. A dramatic first-person account, the article builds a staircase that begins with a description of underground nightclubs connected in a web to Ecstasy’s spider, winds to the upper floors of a strangely cogent philosophy spun by a charismatic genius with a cult-like group of devotees, and finally culminates at the uppermost balcony of the near fatal tragedy, with a man in vain pursuit of his wife hanging from helicopter skids as from the balcony’s crumbling railing. But the whole thing, even the kidnapping, was cast in an almost whimsical, not at all criminal light that allowed Ricky to sidestep condemning and demonizing Ecstasy per se. He maintained that while Ecstasy was illegal, researchers had established the drug’s tremendous therapeutic efficacy. The Federrakt, the Sangrinarium, the kidnapping, the counterfeit wedding – the entire fiasco was credited to the irresponsibility, the lack of stability and judgment of the individuals involved, with the Ecstasy positioned as an incidental or secondary factor rather than a primary cause. The article suggested that the same line of reasoning which rightly skirted condemning alcohol and instead attributed the many tragic consequences of overindulgence to the failings of the individual drinker be adopted. It further extended and illustrated the validity of this reasoning by drawing an analogy to justifications invoked for the legality of firearms, implying that “Ecstasy Doesn’t Foment Discord And Almost Kill People Hanging Off Helicopters, People Do.”

This ten-page chronicle was written in a breathless, true-confessions, I Was There, subversively comical tone, and it was impossible for me to determine whether Ricky intended the reader to accept these assertions at face value. In the hospital when I had finally crawled into coherence he had asked my permission to write it and I had given it to him, shrugging. He had promised that he would not reveal the real names of people or organizations. As I scan the article now, I see that The Federrakt is called E-Visions, Kodiac has been renamed Jimminy Swaggert, Bite Me Inc. has been substituted for The Sangrianrium, Dodge is Mr. Shed, and so on. Names changed to protect us all, the innocent and guilty alike.

Sugar Boy says, Sort of an expose, but without exposing anything. And humorous. But he has a strange sense of humor.” As in the past, the purpose of the goatee once again reveals itself as a surgical aid to contemplation. His fingers become scalpels for words like misplaced organs rooted in strands, and the stroking transplants them to his lips. “Is he a good writer?”

“Only Ricky could have written it the way it was written.”

“I take it that’s a yes. What do you think about all that other business? What did you tell Ricky?”

All that other business: Ricky told me that a week after the article appeared he received a call from a producer working for an independent production company in Burbank called Halcyon Pictures. The producer, Jerry Lewis (not the comedy icon), was in Milwaukee on an assignment with a small crew filming a commercial for the Old Milwaukee brewery. He told Ricky that he was in the process of reading scripts for Halcyon’s next feature film project and asked him if he would be interested in writing a treatment based on the Kaleidoscope article he’d read, and then, if the executive producer and owner of Halcyon gave the green light, go on to write the screenplay. Ricky’s lack of previous experience wouldn’t be a problem, because he would collaborate with a script writer under contract with Halcyon, who would do most, if not all, of the actual writing – though Ricky would be given full credit as the cowriter.

When Ricky met Jerry Lewis for lunch at the Milwaukee Hilton the next day, he explained that he was immensely excited by the proposed project and would like to proceed, but that he wanted to play a legitimately active rather than a nominal role in the writing process, since he was confident that he could produce a viable first draft. However, he would not be able to do so without the input of the soon-to-be published novelist, Peace Datcher, whose story had been the basis and inspiration for the article. It was essential that Peace Datcher participate in the capacity as either a cowriter or story consultant.

“I told him I didn’t know,” I tell Sugar Boy.

“I mean, it seems like a generous proposal. Those guys don’t need permission to take a story and change it around just enough to avoid a lawsuit. Or they could just offer to buy the rights to do it based on the pitch, couldn’t they? Instead of involving you guys at all? Or buy an option?”

“I think a book or script has to already exist for them to do an option. I really don’t know about the legalities.”

“It sounds like Ricky does.” Now he’s performing brain surgery with the help of the goatee. “Didn’t they do that movie called Swerve? You know, with what’s his name in it?”

“The guy from the Soprano’s?”

“That’s it,” Sugar Boy confirms with a snap of his fingers. “Gandolfini.”

“I’m not sure. Maybe they did.”

“Jesus, Datch,” he says, his tone suspended, crocodilian, in a moat banked between irritation and puzzlement: frustration, the long paddles of its mouth set to snap with saw-ridged teeth. I stand on the drawbridge, looking down, seeming remote and unresponsive, Sugar Boy bobbing below, hungry for whatever morsel I might care to offer, something other than what he worries might be my sense of defeat or resignation, his only meal from me these last few months. I know that it hasn’t occurred to him that the preparation involved in leaving things behind – even, sometimes, the things you know you are ready or eager to leave behind – might feel the same as exhaustion. “Maybe you should think about it a little. I know you’ve been through a lot, but you’ll be in California anyway, and … maybe, if nothing else, it would help you pass the time while you recuperate.”

These things take time, Turk had once said.

                                                 *

Hollingdale was strange, there was no doubt about it, and he was not referring to the man’s sexual orientation, which at any rate was not at all clear to Ricky. Gay, bisexual, cross-dresser, fetishist, or whatever mode of sexual expression was in current favor, none of this was his concern.

The requisites of his vocation reliably steered him along non-judgmental roads, where the view lacked the thrill of scenic diversity but offered sure and judicious perspectives. He traveled in his profession as in a car, staying in the narrow lane of journalistic objectivity – yes, he knew there was no such thing as objectivity – and if he allowed himself to swerve from it, like a drunken motorist crossing the median, he would become little more than a chauffeur of opinions, a braggart rubbing elbows with the false glamour of his own ideas, self-starstruck. The only reason he had even bothered to note Hollingdale’s strangeness and had persuaded him, in the beginning when they met, to elaborate on his upbringing was because he hoped it might eventually come in handy. Maybe there was a story in it somewhere, an angle, something he could eventually use for The Kaleidoscope? Sure, he admitted his motives were self-serving, but so be it. Were it not for his knowledge of Hollingdale’s background, maybe Ricky wouldn’t have known which buttons to push, might never have been able to convince him to take part in Operation Sister Bay. He’d learned that Hollingdale’s father had been a mortician who, in a misguided effort to mitigate his eleven-year-old son’s fear of the dead, had decided that exposing the boy to his labors with the slabbed deceased, without fanfare, would be tantamount to a therapeutic demystification. The tactic was successful, but only because of an ingenious psychological ploy that young Hollingdale discovered and was able to use to his advantage.

A man with a robust life-affirming physique whose favorite sensual activity was sinking his face into the plush coffin of a breakfast buried in fat (bacon, ham, eggs, pancakes embalmed in butter), dead himself at the age of forty-seven because this meal, eaten three times a day, had reduced his heart to a creamy crimson paste, his father drained, sliced, suctioned and sutured with a cigarette slanted from his lips while Hollingdale sat, a witness to all the gruesome activity, in a purple bean bag in the corner of the funeral home they lived above, a drawing pad on his knees. (His father did it all: mortician, technician, funeral director, desairologist) At first horrified, Hollingdale, who had a love of drawing, learned that if he sketched what his father was doing, he could distance himself from it, and finally in this way managed to station himself securely behind a wall of inurement. With a reverence born of cunning he drew the ankles, legs, arms and fingers, and finally the faces of the dead, though eventually the cunning withdrew and disappeared, as the parent makes way for and is replaced by the descendant.

Mistaking this ploy as an early predilection for the family business, pleased to think that his work would be continued once he himself had succumbed to the slab, his father allowed Hollingdale to assist, once the chilly science of the work had been surmounted, with the more aesthetic aspects of the labor, the application of the make up. But it was in that task, in the administration of the aesthetics of death, that Hollingdale witnessed the limitations of his father’s artistry as a desairologist, the coarse lack of finesse, all the inflexible granite of the wrists and fingers. He attacked the lifeless faces with the same forklift of haste and clumsy ardor that accomplished the scooping and shoveling of his beloved bacon and eggs for storage in his collapsing warehouse for cholesterol. He laid the make up on in thick patches, and Hollingdale imagined it running off, once the coffin lid was closed and the heat of putrefaction set in, a sad maple syrup of decay. That mourners would never observe the faces of inhumed loved ones as they quickly came to resemble soggy Mrs. Butterworth pancakes brought him little consolation. After hearing this, Ricky’s mind, which had previously vacillated in the matter of cremation versus burial, inclined in a definitive anti-Mrs. Butterworth direction. This was a no-brainer, cremation was the ticket. Who needed indignities like that following you into the presumed peace of the grave? The idea of lively eye-feasting maggots was bad enough, but to think of some breakfast-obsessed hack mortician being paid to transform your face into something that looked scraped off a short-order cook’s greasy grill … well, fuck that, basically. And Hollingdale must have felt the same way too, watching his father dribbling ellipses of cigarette ash onto the cold trusting faces as he crudely cosmetisized, ham-handedly slathered. Maybe the senior Hollingdale felt something like chagrin as he watched his son wave an accomplished wand over those waiting faces, showering down all the untutored virtuosity and technique that had eluded him, and he was forced to confront his own lack of prowess in the evidence flowing freely from the boy’s hands, hands that housed all the delicate levers of tone and texture, flourish and pressure, fingers that were fulcrums for shadow in balanced ballet with light. In the end, though, he seemed happy to simply step aside, and the application of the make up, the tints and hues colonized in brushes and blotters, pads and puffs, fell under Hollingdale’s exclusive rule.

Now here was the thing, the odd thing Ricky had been able to use.

There was a man of some importance who had garnered a degree of notoriety for his involvement in local politics, something that had to do with City Hall and Milwaukee’s falling tax base, or its rising tax base … Hollingdale at eleven years old would of course have no idea, and really didn’t understand the difference even as he attempted, in a loosey-goosey style of communication that worked against the articulation of such exactitudes, to explain it to Ricky so many years later. At any rate, the tax base, the politico, struck down in his prime by some preventable disease or other, stretched out a on the stainless steel table. While his father slotted Bob Marley tapes into a boom box the size of a hump-backed whale and danced through all the ghastly preliminaries with his usual festive ash-dribbling aplomb, Hollingdale, from the bean-bagged periphery, studied the peaks and valleys of the deceased man’s face, determined to read its sleeping topography, fathom its inner meaning, and transpose this gleaning to the smooth simulacra of wakefulness hiding, invitingly, in a corresponding palette. Senior Hollingdale trusted the boy’s judgment so completely that he no longer bothered to supervise. He had even invented a sort of jingle or motto, Remove all trace of disgrace from the face, and after exclaiming the face cursorily, he would happily heave up the stairs toward the dinner his wife laid out on the table like some yellow and white zoot suit, fitting himself first in the loudly vivid eggs, then going on to drape himself in the remaining meal’s jazzy nonconformity, eating with an air of gaudy rebellion (“Eating a.m. in the p.m.” he called it, slicing up the phrase with a rapper’s metrical switchblade). Alone, Hollingdale was allowed to begin his work in earnest.

With the politician he’d been able to discern a seed of division that had flowered in his life, a face serenely floating like a lily pad on the rippling pond of an underlying face, the authentic one. In the public face the eye sockets were so deeply recessed that the eyelids seemed shields driven back by the pounce of spears, and Hollingdale received an impression of masculine reserve or withdrawal, the power of the braced stance. The bones in their jut and cut controlled the skin with blunted precision, and his smile must have been an affront to spontaneity. Ricky was able to confirm that his public presence had been as unyieldingly formal as a verb that refused to allow the speaker to take the shortcut of the contraction. Years later, Hollingdale had a theory – as an African-American in the public eye, the microscope he was under was more intensely focused and less forgiving than the scrutiny his white counterparts were subjected to in the ongoing campaign to mark and magnify transgressions. But it was the face below the surface that interested Hollingdale, the one that barred others from access, something like a doleful whisper passed between intimates, or a quiet sob heard from behind a rented room’s door as the night struggled, crawling on broken knees, to reach the dawn’s merciful ministrations. There was a receptivity that the public face attempted to repudiate, a softness, a wanting-to-belong that reminded Hollingdale of his mother. When he became an adult and puzzled more deeply over the matter of just why the private face should be reminiscent of her, he understood that the stirring of queasy echoes had been false, that there had been nothing specific linking the two. And then he lucked into the realization that the association had originally arisen because his mother was a woman, and that what he’d actually identified in the secret face was a female or feminine quality, repressed. The young Hollingdale, without the reassurance of an articulable insight to support him, was acting on faith when he began the odyssey of the dead man’s facial transmutation with softening effeminate tones. Like the figures in myth acting as guides, gliding men through the otherwise unnavigable perils and hazards of mortality, Hollingdale’s purpose, he now sensed, was to safely escort the hidden face through truth’s twilit underworld to the light.

He would pry those shields from the eyelids and sweep them away using brushes broomed with fawny fibers at the end of thin long-stemmed wands.

First Hollingdale put the cranky shadows to sleep beneath a silky sheet of concealer, the tantrum of darkness thrown by the sockets beneath the eye and in the high hollows of the nose bridge lulled. The tuck and turn of inkiness was soft as moss on the thin skin there. Then from pucks of condensed powder, one the shade of shy mushrooms and another the hue of crushed copper, came the eyeshadow, both colors dusted, respectively, dewed on each lid. He’d watched his mother do this. She had been mesmerized by her own silver reflection, making her face pinched, long, pinched again. She started with foundation and covered everything, even her eyelids, but Hollingdale had already devised his own more meticulous method, starting with the dual dews on the eyes and then blending the foundation until it reached in a whisper to the rims. he narrow lips were constricted with all the politician had wanted to say but didn’t, and these Hollingdale loosened with gloss and set gently on fire with the tubed torch of lipstick – pale cherry mild as sorbet, a color in harmony with the ginger complexion. For four hours he subtly painted, whisked, blushed, crayoned and smudged, gilded and glittered, and when he was finished he sighed like a teapot bidding farewell to its steam. Here was what the politician had wanted and hidden, the skeleton that bypassed the closet for the casket, the face that no one had glimpsed or suspected. Hollingdale inclined his head, as though listening. The dead could speak to you if you deadened your ears to everything else. The boy smiled and said, You’re welcome.

Was it Ricky’s place to judge? No, it was not. But it was a strain, to tell the truth. Asking questions for a living, hearing the responses with a face straight as a soldier’s spine, processing those responses, all the while withholding judgment – try listening without passing judgment, it was almost a Herculean task. Hollingdale said that as an eleven-year-old he’d talked with the dead? Then fine, he talked with the dead.

But the elevation of the hidden face to a place of primacy could only be a temporary gift. His father would not appreciate the liberties Hollingdale had taken with the face of a local minor celebrity – the black community in Milwaukee had so few. He intended to wipe away and reapply the makeup, after a time sufficient to allow the man to bask in the same genre of freedom that opened like a rare book with a well-worn spine when a uniform was finally shed at the end of the day. But his mother called and he climbed the stairs, reluctantly, to have dinner. By this time his father, an early riser, had gone to bed, his snores beating Nembutal hooves on the bedroom door. Taken nightly, the barbiturate enabled the early riser to sleep late if he wished, linger in the bacon-and-egg banquet halls of his dreams. By the time he was eleven, Hollingdale would be addicted to pilfered pills, but that was another story, one so common Ricky had little use these days for the self-aggrandizing soliloquies of addiction, though an eleven-year-old addict was a selling point. Listen: little Hollingdale, eyes closed at the dinner table after eating, opened them the next day, Sunday, in his bed where his mom had tucked him. When he awoke, all at once he remembered the hidden face, now exposed, and he bolted into the kitchen. Where was his father?

Sleeping, his mother told him, sleeping off a tummy ache, while Rafe was downstairs at the ceremony for the politician. Typically Hollingdale helped his father and Rafe, the teenaged assistant, set up chairs in the chapel-like viewing room used for families who had decided on an open casket ceremony, but this morning his father had apparently been in a generous mood and, during the few moments he was awake, instructed his mother to let the boy sleep late.

His legs were flimsy scarves flying behind him as he as vaulted down the stairs three at a time, the walls like surfaces in funhouses that retreat and rush forward invasively, shimmeringly, bouncing off his shoulders. Streamers of long semi-silent noo-oo-ooo-ooo’s, escaping through the sides of his clenched lips, trailed as he tumbled. At the bottom of the steps he fell and chipped a left incisor that would later necessitate a traumatic first trip to a dentist with hands that fell like fleshy hail in his mouth, the snaggle tooth arduously capped. Angels came to his aid and winged him down the corridor, but the passage of time was the purview of demons with lessons in irretrievability to teach, and from the back of the viewing room he saw the mourners already in their chairs. Rafe, who always disappeared after the preparations were completed, was wearing a suit and leaning against the wall next to the door, where Holligdale stood, aghast, staring down the aisle at the open coffin on its elegant mahogany pedestal, the prow on the sinking ship of death. Because of the flowers, the politician’s face would not be visible from a seated position. Noo-oooo-oooooo! He slid the discreet key of his voice beneath the mat of richly tremulous pre-recorded music, and the assistant retrieved it. Rafe explained that because Mr. Hollingdale was so pleased with the work he’d been doing lately, he’d decided to let him take over today, represent Hollingdale Funeral Home with quiet dignity, maintain a commiserative but noninvasive readiness. When Hollingdale asked him whether he had seen the politician’s face, Rafe, who after all had rolled out the coffin and levered it down onto the pedestal – he was possibly a little jealous that Hollingdale was allowed to help his father with makeup and hair – Rafe simply shrugged. Hollingdale never learned why the minister who had already delivered the sermon, standing above and behind the coffin, hadn’t reacted to the deceased man’s face. Perhaps the pinkly luminous asphodels rampantly banked about the coffin embraced or obscured his view. But now a family member, a tall man with stormy brows seated in the front row, rose and was walking to the coffin, his head down in somber rumination. Rafe had left Hollingdale’s side and now stood near the coffin in an inconspicuous way, without seeming to hover, in case he was needed for traffic jams. Family members frequently broke down at the coffin, but with gentle prompting they could usually be ushered along, a bottleneck in the procession of mourners tastefully avoided. Grief, Mr. Hollingdale had instructed them, inflicted docility on people not otherwise necessarily so inclined: Dictators knew this, he explained – one did not need to wipe out the majority of a nation’s population to control it, one needed only to wipe out a select minority of those whose manner of carrying themselves identified them as the probable recipients of love. Hollingdale could no longer stand by idly, watching this catastrophe unfold. He flung himself up the aisle, intercepting the man mid-way to the coffin, thrusting both arms out as though pleading. Maybe that was exactly what he was doing, pleading. The quizzical look on the man’s face was concentrated in the balled fist of his eyebrows, and seeing this, Hollingdale felt ashamed for what he had done. What could he have been thinking, painting a woman’s face? Ricky thought this tableau, of child opposing man, must have been particularly heartrending, for rarely do we see children pleading, other than on telethons. Rarely do we see them on their knees, wordlessly and touchingly pleading with perplexed mourning adults. The sight of young Hollingdale with his arms wrapped around the man’s pant cuffs may have been interpreted by all those who had come to pay their respects as an instance in which a junior staff member of Hollingdale’s Funeral Home – on the way down he had snatched from a walled hook a navy blue blazer with the Hollingdale insignia on the breast pocket – had lost all sense of professional neutrality, his funereal restraint torn away by the room’s powerful magnet of melancholy. Because, after all, he was not only on the floor, clinging to cuffs, he was moaning as well, in deep-bellied gutturals. Riding his magic carpet of stealth, unobtrusive as the circumstances permitted, Rafe slid between the two and was detaching his colleague from the silk-socked ankles, Hollingdale adhering as though in the throes of separation anxiety. Since the fingers were so tightly knitted that the prying away had to be accomplished in a way that would not result in the man’s pants being jerked completely down, this took some time. Friends and family in the audience abided the spectacle with admirable, albeit bewildered, composure. Detached, visibly shaken, the man once again started toward the coffin, deeply enclaved in the fuchsia foam of asphodels. It was now or never, and Hollingdale, hit by a crazed bolt of inspiration, stripped off his blazer and hurled past the mourner to the coffin. The man, his ankles perhaps weakened by the boy’s long chokehold, failed to root him solidly in this collision and he stumbled, actually fell, but no matter, Hollingdale vaulted onto the pedestal and leaned down into the coffin, his legs off the ground and astir, the crowd uttering a collective gasp. With the jacket he vigorously scrubbed the face of the reposing politician as though panning for gold. Ricky could not imagine what this looked like to the seated observers, the boy’s broken-propeller legs spinning, the coffin slowly swallowing his torso. It must have looked like … well, who could say, really? Ricky’s power of metaphorical invention failed him. It looked fucked up, it was safe to assume. Rafe and several family members sitting in the front row managed eventually to extract Hollingdale from the coffin, but in the process … go ahead, guess. Yes, correct, the consequence of all this agitation and stridor and pushing and pulling was that the coffin was dislodged. It rolled on its side, dense and heavy, slow, like a massive man turning in bed on the pivot of an enchanted pea. It was so macabre that Ricky couldn’t help imagining himself there, watching with the others. They would be beyond astonishment, they would be childishly entranced, watching through a dense fog of beguiled resignation. The corpse was a torpedo of rigor mortis but, rolling from the box, the arms flared out in what seemed to be a haunting invitation or appeal. Then with the sound of a duffel bag filled with dolor it fell to the floor with an abysmal thud. Once again the corpse lay on its back, contemplating the ceiling through the devastated smear of the makeup, the face an immitigable mess, as though struck with a clownish cream pie by eternity’s court jester.

So this was wild, was it not? As in certain scriptures in the Old Testament delineating genealogy and lineage in an infinite regression, consequences begat consequences. Hollingdale could weave only a flaccid skein of lies to his father, something about feeling ill, feverish or delirious, being unaware of what he was doing. Senior Hollingdale in turn shoveled this lie along to the relatives of the deceased, who in vociferous and aggrieved voices threatened the Hollingdale Funeral Home with a lawsuit the magnitude of which, they promised, would rush the man and his business into hovelled ruination. In the end, although no lawsuit was initiated due to the fact that Mr. Hollingdale waived all the fees associated with the services that day and printed a public apology for the mishap in the newspaper, the funeral home became the object of unsavory rumor and calumny in the black community and dwindled, dwindled to an atom-sized speck like the relationship between Mr. Hollingdale and his son. Primarily he spoke to the boy by routing clipped minimal sentences through his wife, who later relayed them to the boy with chatty embellishments designed to foster the illusion that his father had not permanently forsaken him. But the boy understood that the relationship was beyond repair, and for many years, much like Oedipus, he was inconsolable in his exile. The thin thread unraveled on the spool of their relationship until it snapped with the death of his destitute father eight years later.

So what did all this have to do with the cost of CIA-sponsored crack in South Central L.A.? How was this relevant to Hollingdale and Operation Sister Bay?

Well, first of all, taking the local, microcosmic view of things, weren’t such stories intrinsically redemptive? For a man confined to a hospital bed, struggling day after day to allow the body to harness its own regenerative energies, the agency of healing, which was the passage of time, could be extremely demoralizing. In fact, broken bones or no, we were all in need of healing, every moment of the day was spent in transit, through small ephemeral shatterings to fragile recuperation, back and forth, always back and forth. Stories provided us with alchemies and alibis, they echoed the syllables that started the avalanche toward reconstitution. A man confined to a bed, like a man or woman standing on two feet, needed … call it catharsis, for lack of a better word. Agreed? But, yes, there was a link, and this was it: Hollingdale had been able to put his talent for drawing and his knowledge of anatomy to use in his later work with prosthetics – Ricky still didn’t know what his official title or function was – but his real work, begun that day when he’d liberated the politician’s “authentic” face, had gone unfulfilled. Hollingdale must have been hungry to engage in the abortive work he’d discovered years ago, which, all things considered, was almost spiritual, if you thought about it.

So Ricky was able to cut a simple deal: there was to be a hollow cake at a wedding in Sister Bay, and all Hollingdale had to do was leap out of it wearing any costume of his choosing, the more bizarre and distracting, the better. Fling the cake about to disrupt the ceremony. In return for this favor, Hollingdale would be referred to the Sangrinarium, a group of self-professed vampires holding a convention with other vampiric organizations from 14 other states to share information and discuss the launching of a public campaign to debunk the myths surrounding vampirism. On hearing this, Hollingdale’s voice over the telephone became a yawning soundtrack, like the first five notes in the Space Odyssey score. The convention was slated to be held at Sheraton Hotel in Minneapolis, one month after the Sister Bay wedding. Ricky had spoken with Dorothy – remember, the woman with the magnolia blossom accent from the Sangrinarium? –- selling her on the idea of a makeup artist possessing extraordinary abilities, someone who could find in each and every member of the Sangrianium the authentic inner vampire with all its longing and perpetual hunger, and render it impeccably, in the vectors and veneers of anemic and ashen perfection, on the canvas of the face. What better way for the Sangrinarium to represent itself at the First National Convocation of PSI And Blood Vampires? When Dorothy learned of Hollingdale’s credentials, his background as a precocious desairologist at the family funeral home, she lifted the back of her palm to her forehead in an ironic exhilarated swoon, dipping her knees and arching back like a breeze-bent leaf tip surprising its stem, declaring that she’d nearly darkened her drawers.

Ricky sent a total of six text messages to Sage. He tapped one message out on the pager and sent it to her the day before the wedding, delivering the others on the morning of the wedding day. He had to use a magnifying glass to perform in the spelling bee for fingers the keypad’s pygmy Scrabble board squares imposed, which made him even more ruefully aware of his deteriorating vision than usual. Only twenty-seven and his eyes leaned heavily on the crutch of a perpetual squint to pull things into focus, the world hobbling pitifully closer. Contact lenses were cats’ claws in his eyes, and glasses, no thank you, the rolling billboard of the wheelchair advertising his disability to every woman who happened to glance his way was quite handicap enough … all three times, wherever Sage happened to be inside or outside the house, feeling the pager’s ticklish fibrillation where she’d surreptitiously tucked it under the waistband of her sweatpants, she would announce to Kyle or one of his staff that she needed to use the l00, and in the privacy of the bathroom she read Ricky’s instructions while the flunky waited in the hallway.

The first message was short and sweet: expect us on the wedding night. Ricky sent the second message the next day on his way to Sister Bay, when pieces of his plan were shifting into place: order wedding cake from Agnes at 355-8676, someone will be inside it to later create a diversion. He had spoken both to Agnes, a friend of his sister’s who was a caterer, and Hollingdale, shortly after leaving Milwaukee. It had been Ricky’s lucky day, he’d been doubtful that Agnes would be able to provide what was needed on such short notice, but she told him she would be able to do something with a cake she was stuck with from the previous day when a wedding had been cancelled, the result of some bride or groom’s capitulation to an agony of second thoughts. Was this not perfect? How Agnes was able to hollow the cake out and fit it with a cardboard cylinder was anybody’s guess. Next he contacted Hollingdale, who was hesitant but loved the idea once Ricky explained that he was to be hired by the Sangrianium. An hour later, he was inside the cake speeding to delivery in Sister Bay.

Of course, a cake had already been ordered, but at this point Sage enjoyed playing the role of the disgruntled diva held captive. She had already made it clear to Dodge that the only reason she was participating as the bridesmaid in the ceremony at all was because of the muffled threats he’d made regarding her husband. For this reason, she could never love him again, if, indeed, she had ever really loved him at all. And she made it clear that at the first opportunity, whether six months or six years later, she would find a way to escape his round-the-clock vigilance and leave him. He was unscrupulous, despicable, untrustworthy, unbalanced, a petty criminal despite, or possibly because of, the amount money he’d managed to accrue – drug money. Dodge listened thoughtfully, humbly, nodding. But in his eyes lurked the deluded conviction that all that could change, a conviction reflecting the arrogant belief that, given time, she could indeed learn to love him again. Fueled to an iron fury by what she saw in his eyes, she told him to cancel the cake that had been ordered, insisting that if there was to be a cake, it would be prepared by a dear friend of hers. The fury must have fed his impression that on this point she was not to be refused, and Dodge, still humble, still arrogant, assented, eager to placate her in any way possible.

He called the number himself, and when the delivery truck arrived, Dodge was there when his men inspected it. They looked for cameras, electronic bugging devices, even swept around the surface of the cake with beeping hand-held digital devices that would detect the presence of transmitters. Dodge nodded and the cake was transferred from the truck to the kitchen.

In the car traveling to Sister Bay Ricky conceived the coup de gras, the element that had been stubbornly missing. Why hadn’t it been apparent before now? It simply fell into place. Maybe it was due to the liberating sweep and swirl of a landscape that mimicked brainstorming, coiling and churning, flexing through permutations, or maybe, because his thoughts only moments before had felt so parched and drained, it was the fertile milk of the dairy-white sky.

In the World’s First Non Internet Viewing Porthole, Existentia had explained how she’d been paid to imitate Sage – learning Farsi, studying her mannerisms, her style of dress, the surgery with the nose and eyes, the dyed hair, the movie they’d told her would be made … he thought back to the time he’d met Sage in the student union, confirming the viability of the plan. He thought of this as early evening’s five-o’-clock shadow fell across the day’s face.

He sent the third message: there was someone with him who resembled her closely enough to double for her in the ceremony.

Three more messages were exchanged in a flurry and the plan was set. Sage would arrange to take a run, duck behind the screen of bushes 50 yards or so north of the Olympic-sized swimming pool #1 and Existentia would emerge in her place. Existentia would return to the house, wearing Sage’s sweatpants and T-shirt, the headband, and insist on being alone until the ceremony, in the second floor bedroom. Dodge would not see her again until she appeared in the wedding dress, her face safely behind the veil that was like a flimsy corner torn from a dream. She would simply wear the veil, without questioning its appropriateness for a mere bridesmaid. Discovering that Sage wanted to be alone, Dodge must have believed that already things were tilting in his favor, that Sage had softened and was embracing the immemorial tradition of the bride – -though she had not been told she was a bride – who superstitiously avoided the eyes of the beloved. And, thinking this, his delusion must have deepened.

The irony of the coup de gras was, of course, that it negated the necessity of the diversion altogether. Hollingdale hiding in the cake was no longer necessary, because it was Existentia who stood in the wedding gazebo, while Sage had made her way to rear wall, climbed it, and was waiting safely in Ricky’s car. But why let a good diversion go to waste? Why let the chance, so seldomly realized in every day life, to create chaos and plunge into it slip by? In the destructive element immerse – Conrad? He didn’t know how far the ceremony had advanced, but it had surely started, and so he sent a few text messages to the pager for the hell of it: Dodge must die, DODGE MUST DIE. He’d told Sage to set the pager to ring and give it to Existentia, lusting for a dose of good healthy pandemonium shortly after realizing there was no longer any reason for it. DODGE MUST DIE! While Sage sat in the car, Ricky returned just in time to see braids of smoke and flame beginning to hang in the air. What the fuck? He had returned with the strange feral desire to create chaos and he was too late, here it was. He was almost dejected as he rolled through the open gate the bodyguards had abandoned when the fire started. He hadn’t seen the look on Dodge’s face when the pager rang, he hadn’t set the fire, and he deeply regretted these lost opportunities.

However, he did see what took place on the helicopter pad, and he labored to propel himself toward it, into it, with all the wiry energy locked in his well muscled arms.

Was that Peace Datcher hanging from the skids? And moments later falling from the skids? Because none of it was necessary, that was perhaps the cruelest irony of all.

                                                 *

Morphine builds castles above the highest and most plaintively phantasmagoric of clouds. True sorrow, which borrows the body’s salt, is an impossibility and is diverted by parched and reticent eyes, if they are open, though most often they are not open, are always in the midst of a fluttering dove-winged descent. Instead, the salt seasons an eternal lethargy, preserves it like a filet, and lays it as a second flesh tepidly atop your own, as though your own flesh were a butcher’s counter and the lethargy were on display. The people who visit you, discerning customers, file past the counter, desiring a filet more robust and radiant with blood. But because no such offering is available, they leave empty-handed and return hours later or the next day, hoping for something better, some more salubrious and substantial fare. You see all this –- I saw all this –- from the castle’s stained-glass window perched at the end of an impossibly high stilt, looking very serenely down. However long I had been there, I was at that point still regally sequestered in my opiate castle and trusted nothing, nothing that skated across the bleary ice of my eye. Compounding the effects of the morphine, a fever, a potent delirium modulating my pores, those microscopic sprinkler heads continually irrigating my skin, frolicked freely as I lay like a lawn under twilight, and later I found out that there had been a sustained effort to abort it. It would disappear for a time and return, toying with the pills and injections I was given, like a flea having its way with a toothless poodle. I was convinced that the things I saw must be hallucinations and figments, my memory supplying the raw materials for the familiar manifestations they assumed. My mother and father, Kodiac, Ricky, Existentia, Sugar Boy and Turk, the Boy of Fleece, I treated them all with a kind of amused condescension, knowing what they were about, knowing that responding to them as I would to real flesh and blood entities would be an admission that I could no longer distinguish between reality and sthentic illusion. And this was the source of the numb alpine sorrow I couldn’t feel and could only gaze down from: all these familiar faces made me wonder where their original prototypes had disappeared to, made me wonder what I would do once the fever broke and the morphine was no longer necessary, and even the figments vanished.

Existentia posed a real problem for me. When she accompanied Ricky I was able to convince myself that she was Existentia’s authentic figment, but when she appeared in my hospital room without him, bearing an inexhaustible supply of roses and tearful reassurances, speaking fluent Farsi, placing a cool cloth on my cracked-mirror lips and burning forehead, attempting to amuse me with stories, alerting and exhorting the doctors and nurses whenever so much as an errant twitch wormed its way free from beneath my galactic sedation, sleeping in the chair or climbing atop the bed carefully so that the intravenous tubing and the traction’s scaffolding would not be disturbed and lying next to me like a precarious whisper, kissing my eyelids and urging me to speak – all this time I could summon no words from their moth-eaten storage in what must have been a badly bruised and battered vocal box, if such an injury is possible –- then I had to struggle to remind myself that she was only Sage’s double. When she was present, which was most of the time, it seemed, I maintained on an arid inner plane a tolerant, wily and guarded vantage point. Ricky and the others, I could deduce from their earnest expressions, spent all their time going over what had happened, and though I could hear them, their voices seemed amplified by a microphone made of water, and my head was rivered with the sound of water flowing over clattering bone-white rocks that resented the disturbance of their deep mineral sleep under blankets of sullage. But I would not be taken in by all these mirages performing their sincere pantomimes and I refused to allow myself to think that Existentia’s figment was Sage’s figment. And from my gelid light-yeared distance I would sometimes feel a sense of spectacle as I watched them perform for me, in my own private cabaret of loss.

One night I heard rain dragging fingernails gnawed down to the cuticles across the window. Without knowing why, I imagined it falling straight down from the sky while the world tilted into it at a 45-degree angle. The darkness in my room maintained a charitable distance from absolute ebony and was the caramel color of bitten-open dates. She had moved the chair at the foot of the bed and placed it next to the bedside table and was sitting on an angled roost of lower limbs, tiptoeing the surface of sleep. When she heard the glassy pecking she woke up. -She must have recently washed her hair because when she turned her head toward the sound a mild herbal fragrance feathered my nose. She stood and drifted toward the window and the air followed her, an obedient ghost, and into this brisk displacement the warm scent flowed and kindled, finally striking me with the force of a fanned flame, singeing my cling of cerebral cobwebs, a dormant volcano of violent blinks erupting over my eyes.

At the window, without looking at me, she said, “A long time ago you said that when your time came and you drew your last breath, you hoped it would be raining. ‘Put me out in it, let me feel it fall on my face.’ You can’t have known how strange that seemed to me – I might have even said so -– but later it didn’t seem so strange a wish.”

When I said, “What I really wish is that I had invented rain,” I was surprised to hear my own voice and she spun around, surprised too, and then I felt Sage’s hands on my face, moving in a kind of cautious surprise. She leaned in very close and chided, “Pesar sheytun-y, koja budee?” which meant mischievous boy, where have you been? And I said, scraping off my coarse burnt-toast whisper, “Waiting.”

                                                  *

Then eventually I was home and there was very little privacy because each person who had worried about me when I was in the hospital had in a sense become habituated to the emotional weight they had carried, and they needed to reassure themselves that I was on the road to recovery before they could let all that go and stand straight, in the same way that one who leans to the side carrying heavy luggage still feels the phantom pull for a time after the hands have been emptied.

“What you mean is,” Sage remarked me when I told her this, “is that they’re still worried.”

“That’s what I said.”

“Say it with me, azzizam, just to appease me: they’re still worried.”

“I don’t want to say it that way.”

“I know you don’t,” she said with great compassion.

I thought that my remark was a joke, but her tone in answering me made me realize that my little act of rebellion, my insistence on saying things in my own way hadn’t entirely been a joke (I might have mentally substituted writing for saying), and her tone, as well, hadn’t entirely been facetious, as though she knew I had a long battle ahead of me and hoped with all her heart that I would be equal to it.

Time, believing that there had been a minor clash of wills, a fender-bender, passed far too slowly, rubbernecking, and I waved it along by finally admitting, “Okay, they’re still worried.”

“I only make you say it simpler for now because you’re recuperating, and I’d prefer that you get used to directing your energy, economically, along those lines,” she said, handing me the 100th glass of water I’d drunk that morning as I reclined on the pallet of blankets she’d bunkered on the sofa. I drank the water to please her, not because I was thirsty, though with the 100th glass I felt I was drawing breath through a cotton-plugged snorkel. Her logic was that water cleansed, water purified, it was health-bringing. -I was tempted to add that if you were drowning in its internal lake, the health-bringing benefit of water perhaps lost a great deal of its allure, but I didn’t say it. “But I admit,” she continued, “if you were putting it down on paper, your baroque way of saying it would, maybe, sound much better.”

“Baroque?”

“Somewhat baroque, yes. Though intriguingly so.”

And that was Sage’s slight circular hint that despite the fact that my writing had been the reason my bones were now calcium mines where exhausted laborers threatened to go on strike because of the deplorable 24-hour shifts, I had her blameless permission to extricate myself from self-incrimination and to allow writing to become the avenue to my healing.

“You know, the water is good, but a little hit of that morphine right about now might be just what the doctor ordered,” I said, parading wistfulness.

Her left eyebrow lifted its ladder and she climbed it to change the blown out bulb on my marquee of inanity. “I would think you would have had enough of walking down that murky road. You didn’t even know what was going on.”

“Existentia?” I said to her, blinking rapidly, mocking my confusion in the hospital. “Existentia, is that you?”

“Morphine’s mad murk and mire.”

“Morphine’s murk of mad mellow mayhem.”

She snapped her fingers. “I forgot, there’s a package of it in the car’s glove box. It has your name all over it.”

“Would it be snuggled next to the PCP?”

“Exactly. I have an idea,” she said in a voice that was the tonal representation of a young pig-tailed girl’s lightsome skipping. “Why don’t you walk out there and get it?”

In my cage of casts I would be unable to walk to the door to let in Ed McMahon had he been standing there holding a Publisher’s Clearing House check for multiple millions. “I’m feeling a degree of cruelty in play here.”

“Not at all. In fact, you can get there faster if you just trot, or even sprint.”

The doorbell rang.

“Sprinting won’t be necessary. As you can hear, I’ve taken measures. I signed up for the Morphine On Wheels home delivery program.”

“The renegade adjunct program to Meals On Wheels?”

“That would be the very sister program under discussion.”

Turk came in, or Sugar Boy came in, or Kodiac and the Boy of Fleece came in, or it was my mother and father, or it was Ricky and Existentia, and once it was the Eric, the mailman with the cleft palate, because he saw me in my bunker on the sofa and wanted to know what happened, and Sage served him lemonade while she told him the story – she told it better than I did – and I was happy to listen. I enjoyed hearing how Sage in her confinement had made life miserable for Dodge with the sheer bulk and rapacity of her tireless and inordinate demands at all times of the day or night.

In fact, she’d insisted on having a buzzer installed in the bedroom she slept in, and she would ring it at 1:00 am to request, for example, little known Persian meals that were the rural variants of more popular and easily obtainable dishes, containing exotic ingredients she was certain Dodge would not have stocked in his kitchen, for though he’d filled cupboard after cupboard with the things she asked for, she never requested the same thing twice. (Most of the time she spoke to Dodge in Farsi, forcing him to hire a live-in translator.) Perhaps at 2:00 am, after placing the tray untouched outside her door, claiming the chef had failed to capture the spirit, the essence, the character of the meal, she would ring the buzzer and demand to read a book she suspected would not be shelved in his father’s library, and most often this would be the case. She would confess to being tormented by an unappeasable desire to read Lautreamont, or a particular poem by Apollinaire – Le Phoque, say – or William Melvin Kelley’s Dunford’s Travels Everywhere, or Xam Wilson Cartier’s Be-Bop, Re-Bop, and Dodge would dispatch his henchmen to his father’s library to find it, and when they couldn’t, she would see BMWs tearing off through the gates and into the night, the henchmen returning weary and bedraggled perhaps three hours later, the book in question placed on a silver tray with a candle, which she had also stipulated, outside the her door.

By what devices they managed to find such books well after midnight, when libraries and bookstores were closed, she did not care to speculate. On the day that two of Dodge’s henchmen had abducted her, she’d left wearing little more than the clothes on her back, and she certainly couldn’t be expected to wear the same thing day after day, so she wrote long lists filled with costly and often absurd items of apparel she would come across while surfing the internet (she was allowed to do this only under supervision, to prevent her use of e-mail) and these would be delivered to her for examination. Subsequently she would demand their removal from her sight, for the items were always the wrong size or the wrong color. As a consequence of all this, Dodge inflicted her with his presence less and less, as though fearing his visible proximity might trigger the full force of her passion for esoterica and she might next command him to deliver a platinum sousaphone. “I guess I’m accustomed to Peace making sure that I get all the things I need. I would think with all your resources, it wouldn’t be so hard,” she told him. As it turned out he was the one held captive, a prisoner worn down through the unyielding attrition of all Sage’s obscure and unreasonable whims.

Though I often felt dispirited by everything that had happened, the feeling was overshadowed by watching Sage, or rather, by seeing her. If habit is a joyless old man who has taken up residency in the eye, peering through its porthole and pressing his tired face against the membrane’s pane, graying the sight with his silvering hair, then habit interrupted evicts that elderly resident and invites a boy to take his place, and the new occupant brushes away the cobwebs and throws the pupil open wide, allowing images to assume the freshness and vividity of newly discovered meadow vistas. I had never taken Sage for granted and fallen into the kind of complacency that stems from believing that the people you love are obligated to reappear in your life each day, with the same inevitability as the waning waxing moon. But because I’d lost her and had feared I would never see her again, seeing her now struck me each day with the same impact that the shattering of a deeply ingrained habit engenders. And so I looked at her with shattered eyes as she assembled the minutes of the day with the careful reverence of a toothpick hobbyist, building structures beautiful and intricate as miniature cathedrals from all the ordinary chores and tasks that bridge one hour to the next and carry a single day into tomorrow. Boredom was an impossibility when Sage was in the same room with me, because I could never predict what she would say or do, and I had never known anyone whose perspective was so elusive and protean and yet was so firmly rooted in something unchanging in her nature. This was Sage, unfathomable as that fluctuant unit of quantum energy that is both wave and particle. Because the hallway leading from the kitchen to the bedroom in the back of the house was prohibitively narrow, using my wheelchair to get there was more trouble than it was worth. And if, with her help, I was able to hobble there, a journey that slowed time to a virtual standstill, the bulk of my casts and brackets and belts and bands and supporting devices and sprawled stiff limbs made dual occupancy in our double bed an impossible proposition, so I stayed on the sofa, which when pulled out into a bed accommodated us both and allowed us to safely avoid a tangled twinned car wreck of sleep, though the mattress was thin as a sitcom starlet. I tried to convince her to sleep in the bedroom alone but she refused, telling me that such an arrangement simply wasn’t on option.

Stranded on the sofa, then, I would ask her to bring the cutting board into the living room so I could watch her slice tomatoes into spoked and seeded wheels, chop round dominoes from carrots, cut an onion that launched its scent like a Molotov cocktail fueled with tears. I watched her talk on the telephone, I watched her pay bills and balance the checkbook on the cocktail table, I watched her meditate or work out on the small portable treadmill. I watched her style her hair in a million different ways, I watched her reading library books on appraisal to get a jump on the classes she planned to take, I watched her while she read to me, and I watched her struggle to maintain both a straight face and a semblance of patience (she was a bit of an impatient teacher) when she decided so much time on our hands presented the perfect opportunity to intensify my lessons in Farsi.

Sometimes she read aloud the pastiche book I’d written for Kodiac, and I listened from the same dispassionate height from which I had observed comings and goings in the hospital room, elevated in the initial days by morphine and fever. When I heard it I felt a sense of relief that was connected to the fact that Kodiac had wiped the slate of my debt clean the first time he came to the house to visit me, claiming I’d been through enough and that $20,000 was a drop in the bucket to Dodge, but other than that I didn’t know what I thought of it. It was like listening to your own voice played back at length on a tape recorder, alien, off-putting, disorienting. She would stop after reading certain passages, and I would watch her eyes backtrack and skim through the passage again, and then she would look at me and shake her head.

Sometimes she would say, “This is so oddly beautiful, Peace,” and I would be unmoved. Usually she would voice an observation and continue reading. But that day she went on, “What is it that you did here?”

And for the first time I explained the method married to my madness, something I hadn’t previously revealed, maybe because I was superstitious and believed that preserving an aura of secrecy was somehow integral to the continued efficacy of the technique, or maybe I thought that for some reason she would disapprove. But my convalescence was, in a sense, a chance to wipe the slate clean, so I told her how I came to write that particular sentence and others like it.

I explained that I had started with a paragraph from a book, any book, written in French, a language I had no knowledge of, could neither speak nor read, selecting a paragraph at random, and then I would read the words in the sentence aloud to myself as best I could. Since I had no guidelines for the proper pronunciation of the word, I would repeat it over and over until the sound suggested a word in English, and I would write it down. In this way I would make a sentence based solely on sound, free associate, impose syntax, and recast it so that it made some minimal sense. If the French text were accompanied by its English translation, I would cover it with a piece of paper so I wouldn’t be temped to look.

A line from a poem by Rimbaud, for example – Je ne regretted pas ma vielle part de gaiete divine became: Jay knees regretted past my villain parched day/daze gaiety divine – and this in turn evolved, becoming: My jaded knees, regretting prayers from the past, were my villains, and I knelt on the day’s dazed broken pew, a day in which I divined no gaiety …

And I would continue to refine it in this way until something in me was satisfied, loosely predicating the next sentence on the meaning established in the previous one, with the challenge being to connect it all to the story’s original governing idea, a process of construction that was like building a house from the roof down. Sometimes I would use Farsi or Spanish or Swahili as my springboard. Actually I no longer used Farsi, because the few words I was familiar with, when I encountered them, worked against my ability to free associate. My complete and utter ignorance of the language I started with forced me to rely on sound only, and in this cascade of meaningless sounds my imagination was able to roam freely. I used this technique sparingly, when I felt blocked or when I found myself cuddling clichés as though they were old destructive lovers, but my sense of paralysis once Kodiac – Dodge – had imposed a deadline had made even this liberating technique difficult to successfully employ.

“There was a guy who wrote text and cut it up and put it together out of order, wasn’t there?” Sage asked, positioning herself on the sofa between my wishboned legs. “It was Kerouac, or some guy, wasn’t it?”

“I think it was Burroughs.”

“I’m not saying that this is like that, because the cutting up thing strikes me as being somehow more gimmicky. It’s more like, something in you knew that you were really sensitive to sound and rhythm, and you found a way to help you exploit what’s a part of your sensibility. I’m surprised you’re not a musician.”

“When I was 14 I took trumpet. Then my dad told me I’d get a corn on my lip and no self-respecting girl would ever want to kiss me. And that ended that.”

“Concert A or unkissed lips. I see you were a young boy with priorities. Still, it’s a little strange that you even write prose, instead of poetry,” she said, gazing off.

“I wish I could write poetry. Half the time, to tell the truth, I don’t understand it when I read it, which is pretty bad considering I was an English major.”

“And you never told me this before, about how you write.”

“I might have been afraid it would go away.”

“You’re always afraid of things going away.”

“I guess so. Goodbye,” I called, waving at nothing. “See you later.”

“But I’m here, aren’t I?”

“No thanks to me.”

“You couldn’t possibly feel responsible for another person’s insanity?”

“The whole world says the same thing. It makes you wonder who is responsible, then.”

“You think far too much, baby. You have a hidden ego that’s as big as a planet. Well guess what? The only thing you have control over is the next thing you say. So select your words carefully.”

“I love you. Is that careful enough? When you were gone I started believing in God, but I didn’t know how to pray. Someone needs to teach me to pray.”

Sage looked at me.

“A minister, a priest, a rabbi, an imam, a guru, a Braham, a shaman. Someone needs to teach to me,” I said angrily.

“Goddamnit, Datcher. Cut it out.”

But it was too late, and she began to cry, to weep. “Falling from a fucking helicopter …”

“Not just any helicopter, a Koala All7 … ”

“If I live to be 100, I’ll have the image of you falling from a fucking helicopter, breaking yourself into pieces.” She embraced herself, cupping her elbows. “I feel like I went away and never came back. I feel like I’m the one with broken bones who had a ruptured spleen and a concussion. I can’t stand to think you’re hurting like this, that in the most fundamental parts of yourself, in your bones and cells, it’s all trying to mend and be whole. My god, what if you’d hit your head on the rim of the pool instead of everything else you hit?” She spoke in a way that wasn’t whispering but that made it difficult for me to hear. She stretched open like a pocketknife and leaned into my ears, a whispering blade. “What if you were broken up so badly you couldn’t recuperate? What would I do, Datcher? What did I buy into with all this? Who do you think you are?”

“Wait a minute,” I said.

“Don’t you know that I’ll always be okay, as long as you’re okay? Don’t you trust me that much? Nobody can hurt me, Datcher, nobody, except you. And let me tell you something,” she said, sweeping her hair back, “I’m stronger than you are. I’m sorry, but let’s just admit it. All you have to fucking do is not kill yourself and keep being yourself, keep being beautiful, even though you don’t realize it. Just, you know, write, and be neurotic, and do whatever else you decide to do. And that’s all I’m asking you to do. “

“I’m alive,” I said, “I’m still neurotic. I’m here.”

“Barely. Where’s your common sense? Americans have no common sense. America is not the world. You take so many things for granted. Charging into things on principle, instead of pausing to think. All the stars and stripes blowing majestically in the wind. Doesn’t that look pretty. Look how it flutters. Let me tell you something.”

“Wait.”

“You understand? I give up things for you, Datcher. And now look at me, crying like some little girl who lost her dolly. That’s not … ”

“Hold on. I give up the same things for you that you give up for me. It’s harder for you to give them up than it is for me, because yes, you’re stronger than I am. Strong people have a harder time being put into the position love puts you in, because that’s what you’re talking about, right? But it was the same for me when you were gone, the same when I realized anything could happen to you, and my loving you couldn’t stop it.”

“Bad timing. That’s not what I want to hear. So there you go again.”

“Me? There I go? I didn’t invent the rules and conditions of love. I didn’t invent the way love works, Sage.”

“Oh yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing, inventing the way love works. So suddenly you don’t invent? You invent. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Invent yourself out of those casts. Do that,” she challenged. “Okay. Once upon a time, there was a guy, Datcher, who needed a person named Sage, the same as needing to breathe. He needed her so badly that even though he didn’t have wings, he tried to fly. They said it couldn’t be done. But he didn’t listen, and because he found himself up in the air, he decided there was nothing to do but let go, and falling, he thought of the one thing that mattered, and for a time it felt like he was flying. The end result? His cells and all the other fundamental things in him had a reason to mend. They learned to grow wings. But he’ll always remember how, falling, he forgot he was falling and could fly. And his cells thanked him for having a reason to prove themselves, that they could mend, if they had to.”

Sage sniffed. “That’s nice, baby. But he didn’t fly, did he? In reality he fell. Isn’t that right?”

“Not in my story, it isn’t.”

“Well that’s the operative word, isn’t it? Story.”

“It’s just a thin line, between what happens and the story it becomes. Something happens, and you have to tell it. I mean, isn’t that it? Now close your eyes.”

She closed them. “They keep fluttering.”

“It doesn’t matter. Just like that. Now, ready?”

“If you say so.”

“I say so. See it?”

“The line? If you insist.”

“Good. The line between your story and mine. Now, take a deep breath and cross it.”

Some time passed. “Guess what?”

“What?”

“I’m there.”

“You’re there? Did it hurt?”

“It hurts, but I’m there.”

“I’m sorry it hurts. I’m so sorry, baby. But welcome home, azzizam. Okay? Welcome home.”

She said it as though she really didn’t want to, but she did say it. “Okay.”

Sugar Boy is sitting in the chair next to mine on the left, watching me open the bag he gave me earlier, when Turk comes back from the terminal gift shop, also carrying a bag.

“Wait a minute,” Turk says, holding his bag out. Just as Sugar Boy had chosen to wear the Illya Kurakin black turtleneck and slacks he’d worn on the night I fell from the helicopter, Turk has on the black Nike running suit he’d worn that night to maximize his imagined sense of stealth. I spend a few moments wondering what reason, if any, they might have had for contacting one another this morning and deciding jointly to coordinate their wardrobes in this way, but come up with nothing. Yet if this is a coincidence, it’s surely one that borders some newly discovered territory of garish extravagances. “Maybe you should open mine first.”

To my right Ricky is sitting in his wheelchair and each movement he makes drills the chair’s frame and jackhammers the provisions hanging from their hooks, prongs, brackets, jigsaws the reflections sliding across anything wrapped in plastic, his trail mix, his licorice, his Aquafina water bottles dangling from the armrests on cords in a xylophone of anticipated thirst. His state of preparedness today seems apocalyptic in scope. By now – at the hospital and at my home – he’s seen the combative chemistry generated when Turk and Sugar Boy mix and pour themselves from one test tube of friendship into another, and he no longer seems surprised.

“Why should he open yours first?” Sugar Boy wants to know. “He’s already opening mine. He should stop opening mine to open yours?”

Turk thinks about this and replies, “I suppose that’s what it amounts to.”

But I have 20 minutes left before I board the plane to Woodland Hills, California, and I know that if I allow this to evolve, like a image on photographic paper in a film processing tank awash with embattlement and entangled drama instead of developing chemicals, the resulting portrait of stasis will keep me here until tomorrow. “Flip a coin. I would do it, but my hands are coin-flip compromised, as you can see.”

Turk flips a quarter, it twirls off his cheerleadering thumb in a baton of silver, and he scoops it from the air and slaps it, stingingly, on the back of his palm, announcing “Heads” so imperiously that people passing turn theirs as though obeying a command.

“Fine,” Sugar Boy snaps.

Turk peeks under a blanket to avoid disturbing the fate that’s settled into place like a comfortable baby. The coin is heads. Sugar Boy’s face hardens with the acrylic of disgust. I open Turk’s bag and inside it is a one of those small globes filled with liquid and mounted on a base that when shaken bristles with imitation snow. I watch the flakes in their wintry suspension over a miniature cityscape of lakefront buildings jutting unevenly to convey rampant growth at a frenetic pace. Skyscrapers, a word that now sounds hopelessly dated. On the bottom of the base in a pesky-seeming font is written the word Milwaukee.

“So you don’t forget where you came from, you and Sage living the wild life out in Wooden Hills, California.”

“Woodland Hills. We’ll be there only until we know what’s up with Sage’s mom, then we were thinking someplace else,” I say.

Ricky’s voice is remote and hazy, inhabiting a crystal ball. “I see you guys in Santa Monica or Venice.” “You been there?” Turk asks him.

“Where hasn’t Ricky Chang been? I’m suggesting it should be some place where there’s a boardwalk close by, where I can take in a view after Peace and I have put in a hard day’s work on that script. We can send each other files and then when we’ve got a last draft, I can fly out to work on the final.”

Ricky looks at me with termite eyes that bore deep below the surface of all my ensheathing lightweight plastic to the heart of my wooden demeanor. About this proposition I’ve remained as uncommitted as the street-roaming mentally compromised during the Regan administration. Without me, Ricky had stated in an abracadabra of repetition meant to levitate the guilt from my body so that I could see it plainly floating above me, he would not move forward with the writing no matter how gilded the prospects. The day before yesterday when Sage and I discussed the matter of my involving myself in Ricky’s project, she asked me what my reservations were, and I told her that I honestly didn’t know. When she then asked me if I thought there was a possibility of Kodiac actually publishing the book as he insisted he would do and if I was waiting for that to happen, I told her no, that wasn’t it, because while I thought that he believed what he was saying, I had no idea whether he would be able to follow through, and even if he did, I would be lucky if he was able to release 2,000 copies. And then she said that whether I decided to work with Ricky was up to me, but she hoped, if I decided against it, it would not be because I was afraid. I was about to answer when she laid her finger on the words crossing the threshold of my lips, and I let them – the protests, the denials, or the confirmations -– dissolve into the faint peach and marine taste of her fingerprint. Then Ricky drove us to the airport, this one, Mitchell International, and I watched as she boarded the plane that would take her to Burbank, where her brother would meet her. From there they would travel 21 miles on the 134 West and 101 North to West Hills Memorial Hospital, where Sage’s mother had been taken after she’d suddenly slipped to the floor and lost consciousness for 10 alarming minutes while shopping in a Pavillion’s supermarket two days ago. She would stay there until a formidable battery of scheduled tests was completed, the diagnosis we hoped would reflect a ray of divine benevolence safely pronounced.

After my accident we had decided to finally leave Milwaukee, but now there was urgency, an imperative, a reason to not wait the planned 3 months more. I told her to leave immediately to learn the status of her mother’s health first hand, that Turk and Sugar Boy would help me arrange to put the few pieces of furniture we owned in storage, and that I would follow her no more than two days later. For a time we would live with Sage’s mother, then find a place of our own.

“Listen, you guys,” I say to Turk and Sugar Boy. “Thanks for helping me out with the storage and for spending the last few nights at the house with me, babysitting.” Turning to Ricky I say, “Ricky Chang. What can I say? I might never have gotten Sage back if it weren’t for you.”

All of them wave the bug of my gratitude away, an annoyance.

Ricky says, “I’m surprised Kodiac’s not here.”

“He called me this morning tell me he wanted to come, but couldn’t. All he said was he had to leave town in a hurry.”

Ricky nods as though mulling this over. “Leave town in a hurry? As in flee?”

“All he said was he’d call me after I’d settled in.”

I return to opening Sugar Boy’s gift bag. “Don’t even bother,” Sugar Boy says starchily.

But my hand is in the bag, and I’m already pulling out his gift, which turns out to be the same wintry Milwaukee lakefront snow globe that Turk had bought.

I hold it up for all to see. “Great minds thinking alike?”

Sugar Boy says petulantly, “Damn it Turk, I wondered why you were lurking around me when I picked mine out.”

Ricky gestures at the wide sweep of glass that turns like a furtive ballerina into a gently curving plane at the edges where it disappears into walls the color of institutional straightjackets, and only because of looking there do you backtrack, realizing that the glass is an almost imperceptible convex bulge tapering away, like the song from the music box the ballerina figurine twirls atop, from its middle. A female voice sprinkles flight announcements atop the smooth inflectionless vanilla scoops that all public broadcasts and directives offer like bland ice cream cones. “It’s time,” Ricky says, indicating my plane on the tarmac. The pedestrian walkway stretching in a sleeve from the door of the terminal to the plane’s door, like a firefighter’s flat canvas hose inflated, has been connected and the first-class flyers are summoned for boarding and queue in the lane marked off between burgundy ropes that dimly suggest, for me, the sense of style predominant in colonial times. With Turk and Sugar Boy flanking me, their shoulders offering support under my outstretched arms, I hobble forward and we stand at the back of the line, Ricky rustling like a leafy bush participating in an aerobics class behind us. But the flight attendant responsible for checking tickets waves us up to the front of the line, stubs my ticket off, and yes, here is the wheelchair the Delta officials have generously arranged for me, the mysterious extension of faceless corporate pity – in a burst of cynicism twisting my lips in a knowing smile I suddenly understand that I must be a write-off – I’m lowered into it and make my appreciative murmurs. As if I had paid for first-class tickets we precede the others in line, travelers watching with a resentment that threatens to boil over into mutinous protest, as Sugar Boy and Turk push my wheelchair through the sleeve and I wave goodbye to Ricky, who returns the wave but does not accompany us. “Give my love to Sage,” he calls out. This is all happening so quickly that my heart flutters with haste, a pale dying flame.

At the end of the tunnel I’m on my feet, lifted gingerly by both friends, and Turk leans forward, clasps my hand in a firm testosterone grip and pulls me into the stylized half-hug now used for greetings or goodbyes by the citizenry of the hip hop nation, executed with a single resonant thump on the back with his free hand. I rattle beneath the thump like a cartoon skeleton. “Watch yourself out there in Cally. You two take care of one another. Do our digits.” Sugar Boy grasps my hand conventionally and echoes, “Call,” and then I’m down in the chair again and they’re backing away, waving. The female flight attendant greets me with a smile wide as the Internet, hair a swiftly downloading auburn webpage as she bends down to assure me and it spills. “We’ll got everything nicely arranged so you’ll be able to fly in comfort,” and, still maintaining the brilliant smile, wheels me down the aisle.

For now she parks my chair in a roomy rectangle of first-class space that will intersect with no passenger’s prowl as seats are taken. Once the plane has ascended these passengers will come face to face with the herd of needs that begins to roam the inner plains and prairies when the familiar earth recedes and ease of fulfillment threatens to become the catechism of the unattainable, I mean needs suddenly illumined and foregrounded, extraordinary thirst, anomalous hunger, abrupt afflictions of bowel and bladder, pains that scream for airborne first-aid, or the untrussed terrors and sweated fears of flying that disguise themselves as needs.

If I could sprinkle the confetti of a happy ending I would, I would toss the iridescence high and watch it spread in a festive party-favor galaxy above my head, watch the colorful spores as though each one were a shooting star committing its sparkling suicide, floating down to the floor of the plane to spell sentences and shape the outlines of scenarios that would have been beautiful, the wistfully drawn illustrations in fairy tales of departure.

In the happiest of endings I would have $10,000 instead $2,000 left from the money Kodiac gave me, and that would see us securely through a period of what will no doubt be bumpy transition in California.

My mom and dad would have been here to see me off this afternoon, an impossibility because Raymond Datcher was arrested last week on a DUI and has been handed down the sentence of serving time in the county jail or undergoing rehab, and, surprise, has chosen rehab, where he’s now under lock and key 24 hours a day for 30 days. While my mother is now blooming, a bright berry, in one of her lucid seasons, she preferred saying goodbye over the telephone rather – such a goodbye would not be as emotional for her. But she was able to give me her blessing, and when I asked her if she thought, after dad was out, they would consider living in California, her response was, Why not, your father has never had a real career, just a string of jobs, he should be able to get a job and drink himself to death anywhere.

Yes, the happy ending would be that my father would be genuinely clean and sober, and my mom’s bright berry of lucidity would never fade. Sugar Boy would have what he deserves, richer by hundreds of thousands, instead of mulling over a deal gone sour before it could be launched, the Maytag subsidiary left in its crib, financially stillborn, the money needed for the corporate offspring never materializing. When he received the news Sugar Boy was too busy worrying, paying me daily visits, to fall into his broken trampoline of depression, and the only thing he said in connection with the vanished opportunity was that he would keep on inventing.

Turk? Shayna would feel what her name intimates and barely avoids echoing – shame – and she wouldn’t have returned to Turk only days ago, once again tormenting him about his weight. And in this happiest of endings he would find peace with himself, peace if weight fell from his body, peace if the weight remained.

Dodge, of course, would have been arrested, placed in San Quentin, no requisite minimum-security prison reserved for the white-collar criminal and the wealthy for him. Or preferably he’d be confined to a mental institution instead of still roaming the grounds of his father’s estate, unfettered as a sociopath’s thought processes. By the time the helicopter landed on Washington Island near the tip of the peninsula, he knew that it was Existentia in the wedding gown and not Sage, and when they landed she simply walked away. Maybe knowing he can’t have Sage will be prison enough.

Kyle would be surrounded by stun guns, with an infinite supply of batteries for triathlon endurance contests of self-inflicted electrocution.

Sophiala and Sigh would be in New Orleans, in a house with a fireplace blazing with Larry’s limbs.

As for Kodiac and Ricky Chang – it’s hard to imagine happy endings, in the commonplace sense, for people who always seem larger than life.

And as I’m imagining happy or appropriate endings for all the others, from Hollingdale to Joan Weller, from the Boy of Fleece to Existentia, for Mr. McGruter, the ravers and the members of the Federrakt, my cell phone rings, its tongue rolling R’s, and I answer it.

“Chekar mekoneed, azzizam? Koja hasteed?”

“I’m right here, on the plane, sitting in a wheelchair in a spot the flight attendant acts like was a shrine, I suppose because it’s in first class,” I tell Sage. “She’ll be back in a minute, then I’ll be transferred to a seat. Where are you?”

“I’m at mom’s. They’re sending her home tomorrow, with a clean bill of health. They think she hyperventilated, had an anxiety attack, got dizzy and just, I don’t know, I guess it was like a swoon or something.”

“Maybe she had a premonition we’d be coming.”

Sage wreathes my ear in laughter. “Any anxiety related to that would be because of me, not you. She loves you.”

“You know how I feel about your moms. I wonder what she feels anxiety about?”

There’s a digital burp as the signal breaks apart and reassembles. “With my mom it could be anything, she worries so much about things. And speaking of moms, I just talked to mama D. She says she’s relieved that your dad’s in rehab.”

“He should have done that a long time ago.”

“I think the relief was more for herself. She said she was glad to have time without him in her hair. I gathered that she and Mrs. Baterman are having a pretty good time by themselves.” As long as the words continue everything is fine, but every pause stretches the silence into the shape of a wok and fills it with the hiss of digital stir-fry. “I told her to think seriously about moving out there once we’re settled. Turk and Sugar Boy and Ricky were all there? Hallet chetorie? Rasteed? Are you okay?”

She was asking how the goodbyes affected me, whether the solemn air of ritual that seems to shroud friends and loved ones at the moment of leaving them behind had been, on some remote hilltop rising from beneath my breastbone, my coyote of sorrow baying at the moon.

“It happened so fast I don’t think it’s hit me yet.”

“Whenever those chuckleheads want they can come out and visit. I know you won’t let that not happen. But I did feel weird when I left. Even though we didn’t much like it in Milwaukee, I still felt a tad sad.”

“If nothing else, it’s where I met you. For everything else it wasn’t much good.”

Passengers are taking their seats now, placing bags in the overhead compartments. I see the boy from inside the terminal, the one who’d taken an interest in all my mummified accoutrements, taking a seat with his mother 5 or 6 rows ahead of me. I would think most kids would want the window seat, but he sits in the one edging the aisle. He sees me, leans out, waves, and I wave back. “You know what? I’m thinking maybe I might take Ricky up on his offer.”

“If that’s what you want to do, I’m happy. And baby? I want you to do something for me.”

“Anything.”

“I’m going to hang up and call you back in ten minutes. During that time I want you to close your eyes. I want you to imagine something …”

I interrupt her eagerly to ask, “Will this be something like phone sex?” Like Sugar Boy, she ignores my attempt at humor. “Ready to take my ride? I want you to imagine us together, how the plane will fly over the Burbank Airport at 10 tonight. They’ll probably put you in an aisle seat, so you’ll also have to imagine all Burbank’s lights below you. And not just Burbank – I want you to see all the lights spreading out into all the cities around it. There are so many cities here, baby, it’s incredible, and then there are the counties, Orange County and Los Angeles County and Ventura County.” Her voice acquires the warm buoyant quality that singing brings out in it, like smoke streaming from the stem of a pipe, but a pipe that’s somehow feminine. “Imagine that there are so many cities there’s a place for almost every kind of person, so many cities that no one can be left out, everyone can find a place that reaches inside them and touches them where they want to be touched. Cities by the ocean for water people, cities in mountains for mountain people, and cities in the dessert. Then you imagine me being there when the plane lands, how you’ll come into the terminal wondering where I’ll be in all those people, and I’ll step out from some spot you didn’t see, some direction you didn’t expect me to come from, and how surprised you’ll be, even though you knew I was in there somewhere. Then I want you to imagine me in your arms, even though the casts make it clumsy, or you in my arms, whichever or both. And then the rest of it, what happens that night and the next day and the next, well, I can’t tell you that, that’s up to you to imagine. Okay? Khodahafez, azzizam,” she says, hanging up.

But as it turns out, Sage can’t call back in ten minutes, because you can’t use the cell phone once the plane is in the air, and we’re in the air now, we’ve already risen and are in the air, and she was right, I’m in an aisle seat. Imagining the phosphorescent pointillism of cities at night winking from above should be easy, but I’m distracted by a saying that speaks to me in a voice so familiar as to be avuncular. The observation made in the saying is that when you come back to a place you’ve left after a long time it seems smaller. And this in turn makes me wonder what happens when you arrive at a place you’ve never been – will it seem bigger than it really is? It’s also a challenge to imagine everything because shortly after the ascent a long tentacle of turbulence attached itself to the plane and now refuses to completely let go. This is not the least of my reasons for disliking flight. An airy pear of gravity lodged in my gastrointestinal tract is ripening to iron, elevator-descent is plunging to some basement deeper than my stomach. To say that I’m preparing myself for the rough ride is probably inaccurate because what am I actually doing, other than glancing at the other passengers, comparing the range and intensity of their panic to mine? As I scan faces I see nothing but degrees of rigidity and suppression until I notice the boy – -now I remember his name, Charlie -– leaning out into the aisle, looking back in my direction. His is the only face with an expression that swings open on a hinge of awe, a kind of dark exhilaration, and when our eyes meet he smiles. Then he closes them and I find myself wondering why mine are still open, and his smile becomes something both fixed and fluid, or not fixed but determined, as though it’s a great privilege to be in a position where nothing is certain and not even the pilot knows what will happen.

–The End


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