Table of Contents

Chapter Three

“Ready to take my ride?” she asked.

I nodded in the emphatic cover-up way used when someone says something you have not quite heard or understood.

“A stranger comes to your door one day,” she began, “this big-ass smile on his face. You don’t suspect anything’s wrong because he doesn’t give you any reason to. He comes into your house, says he’s your new neighbor or whatever.”

The bedtime tone and tempo softened my spine, lulled the seat’s hard L into a shape more organic and submissive.

“Your kids have their crap all over the living room floor, their toys and so on which you’ve told them a million times to clean up but is still there. You kind of like it, the junk spread all around, because it creates an atmosphere of home. Now, let’s see … where’s the wife in all this?”

“Making dinner?”

She pierced my guess with the sound of a wrong-answer buzzer, the game show’s injection of public humiliation into the bruised vein of the player’s ego. “She’s in the spare bedroom that’s been converted into an office doing the day-trading that’ll pay for this year’s vacation in Maui.”

With this variation she had grasped in a firm hand the pitcher sloshing with the milk of the culture, deliberately pouring outside the rim of her glass. I nodded, a gesture I seemed to be over-exploiting, aware that I’d poured my own glass unthinkingly full.

“The stranger comes in, looks around. ‘Your place is cool. But my place is definitely cooler.’ The idea of your place disturbs him, for reasons he can’t quite put his finger on. Whoa.” She laughed as a preadolescent child with a backwards baseball cap zoomed down the aisle on a skateboard. “Seize the moment, kid.”

The bus driver yelled out the rules of the road and the kid used his foot to pinwheel the board from floor to hands, then in an act of penance twisted to the front cap’s funneled bill. “He’ll never make it with that attitude,” she observed, then went on: “The stranger takes a tour of your place, moving from room to room like he owns it all. ‘You know, I think this would look better over here.’ He moves the stereo where the floor lamp was. You’re not sure about all this but the guy moves so fast your head is spinning. Then you look outside in the driveway and see a furniture truck pulling up. ‘On second thought, I’ve got some stuff that’ll look much better than your stuff.’ You like your stuff, of course you do, but in a flash it’s gone, and the guy’s stuff is all over before you know it. All this before he even asks your name. When he finally does ask and you tell him, he says he’s got better ones for you and your kids. ‘Wait a minute,’ you say, but it’s too fucking late. The guy’s got some official forms and in a blink they’re signed and your name’s been changed, your wife’s name, your kids’ names. You were one thing and now you’re another. Everything you were, devalued, mocked, appropriated, stolen. And that’s just the beginning. Well, I wouldn’t like it. I’d change my name back first chance I got. Maybe your bios had something like that in mind.”

She had just called my parents “bios.”

She had called it “appropriation” but seemed to be talking about something Malcolm X had called “the slave name” and casting it off.

She was … Middle Eastern?

I was abnormally still, like a carcinogen hiding from chemotherapy behind a healthy cell.

I was surprised by all this and had my skin been like my father’s, the neoprene black of a wetsuit, its flush would not have been apparent in the raspberry of complex reactions my blood brought to the surface in its ripe rush. As it was, the cinnamon complexion I had inherited from my mother left nothing to the imagination. I had reason to hope that she would not see it, for what remained of the setting sun, filtered by the window’s smudge and grit, was a timid lamb of light waiting at the horizon to be led over its edge by night’s shepherd.

“You’ve got a gift for storytelling,” I said.

Introducing herself she extended her hand, which left a butter-pat of warmth melting in my palm after I shook it. “My name’s Sage,” she said. “And it’s true I like stories. What else is there? You were about to tell me one.”

There were only 8 other people on the bus, sitting near the front. This was, perhaps, the reason she felt comfortable pulling a lighter and joint from the pocket of her black dress, clearly a thrift-shop acquisition with faded red flowers, bending forward, dotting the twisted tip with flame, inhaling, then offering it to me. I bent forward and took a modest pinched-off inhalation, a single seed splitting with the sound of a marble dropped on concrete, and when she took it back she stubbed it out on the floor, then misted the air with mint Binaca breath spray I hadn’t seen in her hand.

Our lips were doors to exorcised haunted houses through which we simultaneously expelled the ghosts of the high toward the ceiling.

“Illegal,” the bus driver yelled.

Sage stood, fingers borrowing balance from my stranger’s shoulder. When she did this, something inside me moved closer to her, and I viewed the distance between stranger and friend through a truncating lens, the wrong-end telescope of her touch. Up the aisle she went weaving like a firefly. The hand of the bus’s motion clapped a lid down, trapping a stride that struck the spark of her resolved gait inside a jar, forward float fettered by velocity’s glass.

The backs of passengers’ heads tilted out into the aisle when she passed, like bowling balls watching a pin walking away in combat boots. The bus driver, a big man battling boredom with headphones jammed into his ears like soldiers in trenches, reached into his shirt pocket to turn down the volume on the Walkman with which he attempted to create his own private demilitarized zone of sound.

Sage leaned down toward him and he pushed up, listening. They fulcrumed up and down on abrupt laughter and then she jumped off the seesaw and turned, the bowling balls suspended in the aisle rolling back into the gutter, and waved to me as she approached. She kept waving and when she finally sat down next to me, she looked at me and waved again, as though she were two blocks instead of two inches away.

“Hi,” she said.

“That was quick. What’d you say to the driver?”

“I apologized for being a naughty girl. I told him the way he was driving the bus, all capable and unwavering, made me get carried away because I was so relaxed that I temporarily forgot where I was.”

“That sounds like something that would get a wrong-answer buzzer from the very person who said the wife would be day-trading, not cooking dinner in the kitchen.

“Some wives day trade, some wives cook.”

I felt obligated to say, for no good reason, “Some husbands cook.”

“Some husbands drive busses and wish their wives day traded.”

“Those are the husbands who can’t cook.”

“You a husband?” she asked.

I paused.

Sage laughed. Her laughter was crisp like fresh lettuce on a hot afternoon shredded by a cool fingers. “Movazehbash! I’m just full of trick questions like that one.”

I decided to hazard a guess. “Farsi?”

“Kheli khub, very good,” Sage praised. “I’m impressed. Shoma Farsi harf mezaneed?”

I surmised that she just asked me if I spoke Farsi and answered, “No.”

“Before, when I said movazebash, what I was saying was, be careful, as in, I’m just full of trick questions.”

With my hand an abacus, dropping beads of fingers palmward to count, I enumerated, “I do not cook. I do not drive a bus. I do not day trade. I am not a husband. Don’t a lot of countries speak Farsi?”

“This is true. I’m Irani,” she said, “and I speak Farsi. What you speak is Engilisi. I’m still waiting.”

“For …?”

“The story you owe me.”

“Once upon a time there was boy named Peace Datcher. Datcher had these bios, a father and a mother who wholeheartedly subscribed to the notion, those who can’t do, teach. In fact, Datcher began to suspect that he was some kind of experiment. Here’s what he imagined.” I closed my eyes and seeded the soil behind my lids with a quote that took root and blossomed. “Datcher’s mother and father at last came to an agreement, after tediously plucking quills from the porcupine of opposing strategies, a prickly little beast of impassioned debate creeping through sheets night after night when they should have been making love or sleeping. It may be that idle minds are the devil’s workshop, but it’s not always possible to extend the logic of that adage, for the carpentry of accelerated minds often succeeds in fabricating mansions that transcend the angelic. The agreement was this: to fill the rest tube of the child’s consciousness with a distillate of startling concepts and abstraction – fantastical formulas and datum, subverting mythologies and precepts, astonishing credos, fluid anti-classifications. Their purpose was radical in its simplicity: to observe and quantify, as far as possible, what would happen to the little boy as he galloped like a pony from some rare and undiscovered species through the vast prairies of an uncircumscribed childhood into the city of looming consequences called adulthood. Surely, extraordinary things would come to surround him and wonders resound in his wake. What causes, antecedent to unprecedented effects, might he possibly set in motion, {a} firmly establishing the superiority of audacious theorems, {b}, firmly establishing his own brilliantly forged superiority and that of the father, the mother?”

Sage became something supple suggesting puzzlement. She quickly jigsawed in the seat, rearranging her limbs, her body twisting toward me like a question mark searching for the end of a sentence. “Wait a minute. I know you didn’t make that up. No way. If you made that up I would see steam coming from your brain right now.”

I seized on a technicality she could not know existed. “No, I really made it up.”

“Kheili mote a sefam, I’m so sorry, but no. There were too many clauses and things that fell into place without a hitch. Just the way it sounded, that had to be a quote of something.”

I watched as her eyes become glassy and magical with retrieval and she began pulling rabbits from the deep dark hats of her pupils. She recited, quoting my quote, “‘Their purpose was radical in its simplicity: to observe and quantify, as far as possible, what would happen to the little boy as he galloped like a pony from some rare and undiscovered species through the vast prairies of an uncircumscribed childhood into the city of looming consequences called adulthood.’ Dot dot dot, ‘What causes, antecedent to unprecedented effects, might he possibly set in motion, {a} firmly establishing the superiority of audacious theorems, {b}, firmly establishing his own brilliantly forged superiority and that of the father, the mother?’ Come on. You can’t expect me to believe you just spun that off the top of your head.”

“How did you do that?” I asked. My tone was desperate. I could not remember what I had eaten for breakfast that morning. Neither could I not remember the last time I had been genuinely awestruck. The awe tasted rusty in my mouth as though it were my memory’s squeaky hinges mocking me for the breakfast I couldn’t recall. Now I could only tread in a stagnant pool of repetition. “How did you do that? Just now, how did you do that?”

“What?” She parodied coyness, blinking her eyes until they shone in a polished zirconium of innocence.

“It’s just as likely that I could have made it up as you, you memorizing all that.”

“With the difference being I did and you didn’t.”

“I wrote it. It’s from a story I’m writing.”

“Ha. Ha as in not only laughter but the first two letters of the word half, which as it turns out is what I am, half right, at the very least.”

“Granted. So how?”

“We came here when I was eight and I had the hardest time learning English. It wasn’t just memorizing words, it was trying to memorize combinations of sounds that didn’t exist in Farsi. So my uncle Ali taught me to turn sounds into pictures. For every sound that didn’t exist in Farsi, I found a picture. It was easy, after I practiced finding bizarre picture links to link them together. Then it was like I couldn’t turn it off, it almost drove me crazy. Now the sound-to-picture translation thing just runs constantly in the background. Like Windows 8 or something.”

I would from this point on notice that in lapses of concentration brought on by excitement, fluid thought racing ahead of its more mechanical counterpart speech, sometimes her W's contracted into Vs, like an earthquake of shifting consonants measuring a harmless 1.5 on a Richter Scale of endearment.

“So it seems we’re back to your being unusual.”

“As was the beginning of your story unusual.” Her look lingered in thoughtful assessment. “I should have known. You have a writerly look.”

I liked that until it occurred to me she could also have meant there was something scholarly and virginal about me, an untouchable or seldom accessed quality, like page 362 of “Finnegan’s Wake,” and then I did not like it. “Well,” I said.

To the tune of an old song called “The Look of Love” that always reminded me of James Bond movies and sophisticated sexual innuendos passed between strangers drinking martinis in a bar tinted blue with world-weary cigarette smoke, Sage sang, “The curse, of words, is in, your eyes, a curse, your dreads, can’t disguise.”

She had a lovely voice, rich and dark like sap threading down from a spool embedded deep in the bark. I asked her to explain why words were a writer’s curse.

“Because. The opposite of words, is silence. At the bottom of every word is a well, filled with silence. You have to keep dropping the words in to cover up the silence, always more words, and it’s an endless task, because no matter how many words you drop down the well, the silence is still there. Don’t ask me what the silence is. But anyway,” she said lightly, getting back on track, “what about the rest of the story? So this Datcher guy is his parents’ experiment. Okay. That’s really good. I mean, when I say it like that it sounds corny, but the way you write it, it’s extremely original. It’s like, really, what you’re saying is the real story is not the story but how it’s told. So then what happens?”

“That’s as far as I’ve gotten. The idea is that you see, in a series of scenes, the experiments where the parents want to create this kid who comes to see that everything that’s one way could have just as easily been another way. The parents think that if the kid knows everything is arbitrary it’ll empower him, give him the ability to rise above limitations because the kid has the power to re-define it all. But the kid begins to float around in all this freedom and gets more and more confused.”

“But, what, are the parents crazy or evil or what?”

“They want him to realize that all the things that held them back, he can rise above. Because they know that the culture will hand the kid all these definitions and labels. Gender, class, race, religion, all the stuff you buy into without thinking. All the bullshit the parents bought into. So their motives, as weird as it seems, are actually good.”

“As in life with a capital L, nothing is black is white. And you haven’t written any more of it?”

“Just one scene that I’ll put somewhere around the middle, but other than that, no.”

“What’s the somewhere around the middle scene?”

I closed my eyes and saw the scene I had written about my own father, Raymond Datcher, who “in real life” had tried to become a welter-weight boxer and failed, tried to open a Subway franchise and failed, tried to sell real estate and failed, tried to sell Amway products and failed, then as a last resort tried to become an alcoholic and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

I had chosen to write about my father in a way that skirted depicting these failures literally and I had the feeling that this evasion was the reason why the scene stood there like a suspect in a line-up who knew he was being watched by a witness behind the two-way mirror and tried to flood his eyes with fraudulence because he was forbidden to drop his head.

I always tried to memorize what I wrote because in grade school I had been forced to memorize and recite the poems of writers like Edgar Allen Poe, and to do so with my own words seemed to invest them with the same sort of legitimacy and official status that, for the most past, the world had so far withheld.

With my eyes still closed I recited, “The father rushes home at different times during the day. One morning at 9:45 he’s dressed as a death-row convict, though wearing the black-and-white stripped uniform from a bygone era, with ankle shackled to ball and chain. Another day at 9:46 am he appears in a ruffled Victorian gown, with sparkling crown rakishly aslant across his brow, announcing he is the Queen of Russia – but which one? It might have been the anecdotal Katherine, for a lewd and dissolute smile played lightly across his face, somber as a pond on a night that has brutally abandoned the moon. Yet another day he stands at door’s threshold in starched and cadaverous executive attire, instructing the boy to address him as ‘Mr. President,’ though it is impossible for him, at so young an age, to pronounce this without a murdering lisp. And more: A sniper intoxicated with nullity and lack of remorse, a G-stringed male stripper in misogynic jactitation, an astronaut homesick for the glittering motel of constellations, a gloomy newscaster reading a report denouncing methadone, the father wearing a body-length mock-up placard of National Review magazine slung over his neck shoulders, complete with corrigenda for the previous issue’s inaccuracies. Also a man on the verge of suicide with the savage jewel of a razor arrogantly embedded in wrist.”

Sage said, her tone puzzled, “You really are a writer.”

The finger of emphasis she used to underscore the sentence also accomplished the task of turning the page in “Finnegan’s Wake” from 326 to 325. I was losing ground, sliding into that quality of being recondite and inaccessible a page at a time, until she said, “Your style … to whatever extent it’s possible to have your own voice, you have it. A friend of mine – ex friend – used to all the time tell me how hard it was to take all the stuff you read and use it without getting stuck imitating somebody else.”

I was about to answer and there was a great percussive thump, an enormous tin can of commotion and careen losing its loud lid. I opened my mouth and a surprised “Oh” slipped out like a patient under low-quality anesthesia who feels the bite of a scalpel and distantly thinks the word “lawsuit.” Then the road groaned and lifted the bus and swung it onto a stretcher, carrying it to the shoulder while traffic flew past like rubber gloves snapped off a surgeon’s hands.

“Mechanical failure,” the bus driver barked. “Remain in your seats please while I ascertain the pre-cise character of whatever the problem possibly is, or may turn out to be.” His voice was broad and happy with authority, like a cop who has just given you a ticket and then instructs you to have a good day.

The passengers tried to digest this and rumbles of discontent rolled up and down the aisle.

“Can you believe this?” Sage exclaimed, then suddenly lunged across me and pressed her face to the window.

Through the window I saw a black BMW slingshot over from the middle of the freeway, screeching across 3 lanes and skidding to a slanting stop in front of the bus.

The bus driver pitched his weight side to side to unwedge himself, roughing up space, engaging it head on, grunting combatively, splaying his arms across the massive wheel as though attempting to bring it down in a brutal bear hug. I might have been watching a baker who had mistakenly joined the World Wrestling Federation attempting to pin an oversized and particularly vicious donut to the mat. I looked out the window, trellised with ferns of fingerprints, when Sage sank back in her seat.

The BMW was a ball that had rolled to a stop before the boot of the bus, tempting the toe of the bumper to deliver a kick or nudge. The ball, knowing that the foot of motion had broken its bones and left the boot discarded in the dust, sat there in arrogant mocking invitation, and when the driver’s door swung open it was with the arrogant swagger of a child escaping punishment that a man in his mid twenties planted his feet on the asphalt.

From behind the slats in the white picket fence of headlights flashing across his face, his skin seemed a spanked pink, flushed as though slapped by splintered wood. His clothes, a loose white T-shirt and baggy shorts that billowed in traffic’s vacuum, seemed packed with lively straw instead of flesh, the thin body bereft of skeletal articulation and airy as a scarecrow’s, black crow’s wing of hair flapping across his forehead in an ice-wedge of mousse, frozen flight. Pierced with a diamond stud, his bottom lip was a congested balloon of flesh. It did not take long for me to diagnose that he removed the ornament every four hours or so to expel air and relieve the congestion. He clutched a red cell phone and when he jabbed the keys, Sage’s phone responded aggressively with counterpunches of tone, a sonic Muhammad Ali.

Darting across the aisle, she threw the beeping boxing glove against her ear, knocking her words unconscious as she flung them. “I told you to leave me alone. I told you to stop following me. Leave me alone, Dodge. What part of it’s over do you not understand?”

The bus driver had gone outside and was fastidiously positioning flares behind the bus. They sprayed orange, salivary and sulphurous, like an allergy prone Mephistopheles in dribbling need of a 12-hour Contact.

Some of the passengers were standing outside watching. An air of slouching festivity united the riders in a sort of aimless Mardi Gras of loitering. The driver came back into the bus, announcing that he would call “official headquarters” and that they would soon dispatch another bus.

Sage stomped down the aisle and went outside. Her footsteps were breadcrumbs and I followed, already a character in a Sage fairy tale.

“Sage,” the man with the BMW said expansively when he saw her. “Sage. Sage. I apologize. The word perpetuity comes to mind to describe the extent of the apology. I am apologizing. You can’t blame me. People in love do things, stupid things.”

“Do other things,” Sage snapped, approaching him. She moved as she had on the bus, Colt .45s of sensuality holstered in a gun belt slung low for quick draw, danger in a shootout of hips, an OK Corral of unpremeditated undulation.

“I mean, you can’t blame me. You could, but you can’t. You shouldn’t. Look at you, Sage. It’s not like you’d make People’s list of top ten most beautiful women in the world …”

“Thanks, Dodge,” she said.

“No, wait, you didn’t let me finish – per the way our conversations have played themselves out lately. Per that.” He was moving almost imperceptibly, jogging bonelessly in place. His phone rang and he answered it. “Your needs are not my responsibility, Temple,” he said calmly, politely turning aside. “Did you know that your name appears in Sanctuary? The perpetually befuddled character Temple Drake, running all over the place in hectic misery? That’s you: Temple II, the saga continues. You are the coda in misery’s song. You owe me money, Temple, and that’s that. That is surely that. Negotiations are impossible because you are tragically in arrears.”

Turning toward Sage, he dropped the phone on the ground and, smiling conspiratorially, crushed it with his heel, the red fragments splashing all over like cowardly tomato soup fleeing from a spoon. “You didn’t let me finish. What I went on to say but didn’t was that although you wouldn’t make People’s top ten list of beautiful people, partly for the simple reason that almost nobody does, you’ve got something. You more than hold your own. Sage. You’ve got something and whatever it is, I can’t let go of it, I can’t leave it behind. This is the reason I follow you.”

That jittery jogging-in-place style of standing required the prop of a cigarette dangling negligently from lips as surely as a porn star will at some time or other require lubricant. Without it, he could not, for me, convey maximum visual impact. I wanted him to convey maximum visual impact in a way that was boldly disproportionate to lucid reasoning faculties. I was standing near the door of the bus and said to him, “Dude, you want a Marlboro cigarette?”

He looked as though he wished he had known me better so that he could make a lighthearted comment about my dreadlocks. But what he said instead was, “Would I like a Marlboro cigarette? No, I don’t think so. Would I like one? I think not, my strange unsolicited friend.” Then he looked at me again. “Somehow, you look familiar. Have we met?”

“I would bet against it. And it’s a good thing you don’t want a cigarette. I don’t smoke,” I said.

“Ah,” he replied. “Then surely that settles that.”

But now he knew I was there and that I was possibly more unbalanced than he was.

Despite his rumpled appearance and agitated manner there was something vaguely patrician about him. It might have been his voice, which lavished an opulence of cadences and inflections, though higher in pitch due to youth’s song, reminiscent of Robert F. Kennedy’s. I was forced to think of the impermeably elite Eastern academic establishment, alpine ivory towers, supercilious boarding schools, vanilla-smooth Camelot landscapes like rich frosting on overpriced carrot cake. Dodge might have been a legislative page on a summer internship, a gambit which would be calculated to enable him to polish his resume to an impeccable competitive sheen.

“What do you want from me? What am I supposed to say? I don’t love you anymore, Dodge. I think I did once, but you ruined that. Your paranoia ruined that. Your can’t-compete-with-famous-daddy fixation ruined that. Your inability to sleep more than 8 minutes a night ruined that. Do you really want me to go on?”

“Yes, I want to listen to you, really listen, take everything you say in no matter how wrong it is or how painful for me, because I care about what you think. Care immeasurably.”

“Your insecurities that go on forever, your obsession with playing Close to You backwards to validate your theory that Karen Carpenter was actually a Satanist, your filling your pockets with quarters so that you can put your hands in your pockets and rattle them around when you talk …”

“Ouch,” Dodge said. He quickly removed his left hand from his pocket.

“Your goody-two-shoes putting of the toilet seat down each and every time, like you can’t stand to be seen as thoughtless or ego-centered or chauvinistic enough to leave it up, when you really are those things. Your self-righteous vegetarianism, just so you can announce it, but obviously you have no fondness for animals because you kicked that dog that time when you thought I wasn’t looking …”

The kid from the bus had his hat on backwards again, inspired by the adventure and chaos of taking part in broken-down-Greyhound-Bus history in the making, skateboarding through our loose cluster with a rebellious disregard for safety, ours and his, that might have drawn Sage’s cheers had she been paying attention. Now he rode the board with an aerodynamic revelry and pent-up fury that made me envy the energy looping from his lissome limbs.

“I’ll take exception with you on that, Sage. Kicked a dog? Why would I kick a dog?”

“For no other reason than that it was down there where your feet happened to be?”

“Sage,” he said.

“And what, you caught up with and overtook the bus because you shot the tires out or shot the engine? With the gun you’ve said before is a just a prop?”

Dodge jimmied his hand down the waistband of his shorts and pulled out a handgun, looking at it as though he suddenly held the Marlboro cigarette he had earlier refused. “With this gun? No, surely not. I would never shoot the tires out on a moving vehicle, endangering the safety of innocent passengers, with this gun. This is a prop. It has no bullets, like I told you before. This gun is nothing.”

He held nine millimeters of nothing in his hand, tossing it up and down on the palm. “This isn’t a gun that has been fired. If you sniff the barrel you would know that,” he offered.

“I’m not sniffing that thing,” Sage said, stepping back.

The kid had returned in a banked swirl, surfing air inches off asphalt. “I’ll sniff it,” he volunteered.

Sage asked him, annoyed, “Where’s your mom or dad, anyway?”

“I travel light,” the kid disclosed slyly. “I’m a big boy. Mister, I sure would like to have the opportunity to sniff that gun. Mister, I’d sniff that gun so hard, it wouldn’t know what hit it.”

“I bet you would, kid,” Dodge said with rough affection.

Other people were gathering around, eager for unscripted spectacle, surprise, free-association in three dimensions, the odds and ends of process-flow. Boredom lifted its skirts like a woman on a chair and they skittered closer, squeaking with curiosity, beginning to surround the gun as though it were cheese. People were standing far out from the shoulder, cars passing like a parade of mousetraps waiting to spring. The air rocked, cradling dead-rodents-to-be. An audience was what Dodge with a gun displayed didn’t need, and he planted it somewhere in the fungal depths of his pants.

“Show’s over,” he declared. “I’m trying to have a private moment with my lady.”

“He’s trying to have a private moment with his lady, but he pulls out a gun,” someone grumbled.

The crowd ambled away but kept looking.

“I’d boldly sniff that gun like it has never been sniffed before,” the kid insisted, then, his right leg beginning to piston, he slanted off toward the bus.

“Was it the Joan thing?” Dodge sadly asked Sage. He moved closer to her and she moved back in an L shape, Sage the knight retreating from Dodge the bishop’s diagonal swoop on the chessboard of their confrontation.

I had established a zone of proximity to them that cast my connection with Sage into an uncertain light. I was far enough away so that my newly kindled intimacy with her could not be readily inferred, but perhaps closer than a dispassionate observer. It would be impossible for Dodge to characterize my relationship to her and he was determined not to compromise his sense of unctuous self-confidence by making a jealousy-based inquiry or even acknowledging my presence. Had he thought this through, he might have concluded that he had a right to be concerned with my not-too-near nearness, if for no other reason than that I had offered him, a complete stranger, for reasons justified by neither logic nor precedence, a Marlboro cigarette I didn’t have.

However, he did have a nine-millimeter Beretta in his pants.

Maybe I was the one who had failed to think this through.

A passing headlight like a harried yoga instructor contorted Sage’s short hair into a sudden blonde asana resembling an electrified full lotus. This effect contributed, in my eyes, to her vehemence when she spat, “What would make you think that walking in and finding you screwing Joan would have anything to do with me thinking that most assuredly a dog has more dignity than you do?”

A phone rang and everyone looked at the tomato soup of phone fragments on the ground.

In faded self-plagiarism he pulled another cell phone, this one black and smaller than the last, like technological Chinese boxes, from his left front pocket and, demonstrating yet again to Sage his capacity to meet the requisite of undivided attention her presence imposed, cast the phone down like Lucifer from heaven and consigned it to the hell of his hot heel. The whole thing seemed to be a new form of guerilla theater with the cell phone as the central theme. “I suppose my line should be that Joan didn’t mean anything at all to me, it was just something that happened. But, no. I refuse to say that. I’m not so shallow as you think.”

Sage began walking away as though she had an appointment with disgust and was 30 minutes late.

She dismissed him with a sharp expulsion of air: “Ffffsssst.”

As he followed her, the wedge of hair flapped stiffly on its hinge of mousse. “What I’m saying at this juncture is she was a person, with feelings. I never thought otherwise, even given the unfortunate circumstances. At least that encounter, which admittedly never should have happened and as sordid as it was, meant something to me. What I’m saying is that to me she was a real person, Sage, not just a sexual object. But I am apologizing. Who doesn’t make a mistake? Please, somebody, cast the first stone.”

The bus driver, in a diagnostic squat near the rear left wheel of the bus, rose and in perplexity announced, “I don’t know if this was a blow out or what. It’s like it was punctured and exploded. We’re lucky I didn’t lose control.” Then he disappeared into the bus.

Sage said, “Why don’t you run home to daddy and tell him how hard you’re working to win the National Book Award, just like he did. How you’re working so hard at expanding the horizons of your talent by spending daddy’s money for the sake of bogus personal research so you can acquire new experiences and break new linguistic ground.”

“You know I don’t need my father’s money.”

The other bus pulled up and an orderly transfer of passengers was conducted.

Dodge said nothing more and stood forlornly watching as the bus we were on, a dinosaur re-emerging from extinction, lumbered into traffic.

I had taken a seat in the back, giving Sage the chance to sit elsewhere if that was what she wanted or needed to do, thinking she might choose to be alone.

She waved to me as she walked down the aisle and threw herself into the seat next to mine. “Hi,” she said, waving, two inches away.

Her combat boot grazed my Nike.

“Listen. My name’s not really Taye,” I said. “It just seemed like it fit what was happening at the time. It’s Datcher. Peace Datcher.”

“Writers are such irredeemable liars,” she said, but she was smiling.

She shook my hand for the second time. Hers fit mine perfectly, like a seed enclosed protectively by a pod, and I felt the future germinating in this embrace. I speculated that much care and attention would be needed to cultivate the exotic flower our relationship could become, and I did not know why I should be willing to provide such ministrations, just as I did not know what made me think the inner resources required for this task belonged to me so abundantly that I could freely share them, because I already knew that none of it would be easy.

I knew the darkness shining out from the world’s eyes, that bone-dry pierce and glare, would not nourish a Sage and Datcher flower. I did not know why I should believe in such a flower, but I did. Already, I did.

“Everybody calls me Sage. It’s easier to pronounce than Scherazade.”

I said, “Hi, Scherazade,” and waved.

Next Chapter

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