Chapter Twenty-Seven

When I’d called Ricky Chang at The Kaleidoscope, his voice somersaulted to the back of his throat. He pitched the tone high, tried to swing it on a trapeze of tonsils. It was a harried, overwhelmed voice, grabbing the trapeze and unfastening. He attempted to imitate the secretary he thought a legitimate office should have, but the timbre plunged in mid-imitation to the coarse manly net strung below. Maybe he was imitating the voice of a secretary who had left because she hadn’t been paid for three weeks and the promise of a check missled to mailbox had failed as her inducement to stay, much as the sight of a slingshot would have failed to convince the feet of a clairvoyant Goliath to shun running away. I had asked to speak to Ricky Chang, and I sprinted through his long ensuing pause like a kid through a sprinkler’s watered claw, my explanation dripping with haste. My name produced only a blanker annexation to the pause, as did my quick-sketch description of myself, my recounting of the admirable physical prowess he’d displayed in the confrontation with the skeptical spectator and television anchorman. But when I dealt a wildcard afterthought, gambling on the mention of Existentia and the toilet paper trailing indiscreetly from her cargo pants, he responded as though I were a friend long lost and finally found.

I explained why I’d called in lengthy detail, told him that as a reporter I knew he was adept in all the ways of acquiring information, and finally asked for his help, sweetening my plea with the sugar of quid pro quo: I could use my “influence” to arrange an interview with Existensia. Had I been able to tell him the toilet paper’s brand, he might have pledged the Pulitzer he probably swore he’d one day receive.

Yesterday afternoon when my face fell like Hiroshima at Existensia’s mention of Dodge, I’d closed the door against the shoe wedging its toe in the crack, summer’s salesman hawking heat only a nuclear scientist would react to. Returning to the sofa where she sat, still blindfolded, my face had reconstructed with the lumber of hope like a post-war city the government builds after bombing. Just moments before, she’d answered the questions I asked, but I hadn’t known about Dodge. She told me more, but not enough: that Dodge was rumored to be the flex of monetary muscle behind the clubs that Kodiac shouldered. That Dodge relied on Kodiac’s magnific magnetism to pull people in. I speculated that the mystique of The Federakkt with its visionary philosophy added a shimmering new page to Ecstasy’s now-familiar, well-thumbed story, revitalized its vacating vogue, and she agreed, though it was apparent she was uneasy in a way she hadn’t been before.

She explained that she hadn’t been a member of The Federrakt – she’d known about it, of course, who didn’t? – and reiterated that she had been paid only to dance at Flowology, to have her face cosmetically altered, to watch tapes and learn Farsi, to tag it all on Sage’s persona, and maybe to appear in the movie she was told they would soon be making. She had nothing to do with kidnapping or the sale of Ecstasy.

Again I poured reassurance like blameless water, a healing spring, cooled her with ablutions of clear current. Gingerly I probed the sore Dodge inhabited like infection, and then she said this: that he sometimes came to the club when she danced in the disco cage, taking a seat at a table in the corner, sipping bottled water and watching. And when her shift was over and she fluttered from the cage, molting whatever feathery costume reflected that night’s flighty theme, Dodge would sometimes approach her and say “salaam” for hello or “khodahafez” for goodbye. She would answer him, as Kodiac had instructed her to, fishing minnows from her shallow pond of Farsi, doing little more than parroting what he’d said, while Dodge stood there, sinking his gaze in her skin. She said the gaze was too intimate, like your gynecologist’s eyes when he happens to greet you in line at Starbucks, and she always lowered hers in embarrassment, slipping away as he played the faded-denim stare, a wide-eyed ritardando. That was the extent of her creepy contact with Dodge. When I asked her when she had last seen him, she told me it had been three or four days, thank God.

Bargain bartered with Ricky, this evening I’d met him in the Kalidoscope’s parking lot. He had information to share with me, if I didn’t mind tagging along while he worked – an interview he was to conduct for a feature he was writing – two sparrows with one stone killed, he’d promised with a jaunty wink. So we bounced through the evening in his syncopating van equipped with hydraulic lift, as though riding on shock absorbers built by Charlie Parker’s hand. Bugs beaded the windshield with their damp brown sugar, sticking. His wheelchair, folded in the back and sleeping in chrome, was the reason for the hand controls he fingered and shifted like a card shark’s tricks. His hair paved over his collar, black as a tar path wetly slicked. It was the second time I’d seen him, both times his confinement belied by the sense of questing intellectual energy he gave off, but what I glimpsed the first time was still there, the sadness of the wheelchair still rolling its shadow across his face. A deep bronze breaking into brown my dim cinnamon envied, his skin proved that whatever it was, race was not color, a fact a nation of eyes preferred to forget. I’d spoken to his profile in earnest like it was the first face ever seen from the side. But the constant ringing of his cell phone built a waiting room of chimes, and each conversation he had took a waiting-room number lower number than mine, while my questions were forced to sit, twiddle thumbs and mark time.

At eight o’ clock this morning the sun had been meek, just taking a seat in its assertiveness training class but eager to graduate. At ten, it had argued combatively, surpassing assertion like a platoon of noons gathering for battle in a single sky. Now it’s evening and though the war is over, the heat still lays its wilting defeat over everything as we sit in this backyard, waiting for who knows what to happen.

Ricky instructs me, “Just act like you’re with me from the paper. You’re a veteran co-reporter, a general battle hardened by the streets, so nothing you see or hear shocks you.”

I nod like Colin Powell.

Not far from where we sit, a Polynesian themed pool is fed by a waterfall fingering cleavage in breasty facsimile boulders, artfully arranged, the kind you buy at Home Depot. Tropical ferns and fronds on the deck bend green lifeguards to rescue leafy reflections on the surface. The water in the pool seems to smolder blackly under bulbs podded in crimped paper lanterns strung above. Bodies break the water’s glass opaque, people diving in off the rim, heads bobbing on the break. But when I lean forward a little, Ricky’s chair next to me motoring inches back and forth over the lawn, its jerry rigged provisions and survivalist’s supplies rattling like 50’s rock n’ roll from hooks and pegs affixed to all available free surface, I see that the water is actually a deep crimson as though the moonlight wears lipstick and smears hostile kisses.

“Am I imaging that the water’s red?”

“Imaging? No. The water is red,” Ricky concedes.

“Why is it red?”

“Food coloring or something, I would hope. Maybe the plaster’s been painted.”

“No, I mean why?”

“Where is it written that water in a pool has to be clear?”

I sense his remark is part of my preparation for my journalistic Colin Powell impersonation and nod, then shrug disastrously but philosophically, as though the general had defected to France.

Around us, tables fill the lawn like stumps, dark tablecloths the pleated trunks, and people, paired or less intimately numbered in threes and fours, chatter with the softness that underscores pleasant expectation. Each table has a candlestick, rising from the center like the number 1 with a candy-corn flame. Night, despite the paper lanterns, has slowed the gears of my sight, and I shift them higher, my eyes a slowing bike, to ride closer to the things I’d previously sped by. Noticing is to sight as stuttered speech is to thought. I’m living my life 10 seconds behind the rest of the world without Sage, who’s always been my clock. Ten seconds of delayed time doesn’t seem like much until you step off the curb into a Mack truck. I tell myself to notice and remember for her sake and mine, then pull myself into the present, through seen, saw, see: there’s a table behind the swimming pool on the patio at the back of the house, steaks barbequed on a grill and slabbed on platters, too rare for my taste, platters steeped in the singed meat’s leak. There’s a television with a chassis the size of a grand piano, screen the size of spinet, rigged to a VCR sitting in front like a flamboyantly digital Liberace. At least half of the thirty or so people wear sunglasses and are dressed in the dark colors befitting a funeral, but this atmosphere reflects bright babble, as though the funeral were held for a sunny sensualist. Maybe this is a wake, the kind where the attendees have decided to celebrate the death, make a party of the person’s passing.

A small group throws darts at a humanoid-shaped dartboard, the words MUNDANES – WE LOVE ‘EM! written across the bottom in furry black marker. Darts dangle in the region of the figure’s neck, the highest score assigned to the bulls-eye at the jugular. What else? The paper lanterns are black or red, candles on the table ebony.

A woman with legs so long she’d need two dresses wears a white uniform ten tads too small, with a Red Cross symbol on the front, Red Cross armband and pert geometrical cap. Serving liqueur in crystal aperitif glasses on a scalloped tray, she bends balanced silver eye level, offering us the drinks. Lips pursed as though to pounce, Ricky stretches nimble neck, angling like a rear view mirror. I’m reaching for a glass but from the corner of my eye notice him just barely shaking his head, a no urging my hand to veer.

“Just water, please?” Ricky asks her.

The woman’s eyebrows dip into disdain like nose-bridge snuff. She walks away in a rhythmic huff.

“Ricky. What’s this interview you’re doing?”

“Never mind the interview. You mentioned Thaddeus Dodge – The Dodge. Well, you’ll like this. I know the guy personally. I can likely tell you whatever you need to know. He and I go way back.”

“Way back to what?”

“To the day on the playground when he was 7 and I was 8, and I taught him how to masturbate, or so he thought. We both went to this upscale school called The Shulman Academy. It was my parents’ American dream to be able to send me there. ‘You go good school, Ricky. You always go good school.’ Still one of the comic high points of my life, sheer imaginative genius, in terms of the absurdity of the misinformation I gave him, though I can’t take all the credit. I described this intricate ritual to perform, involving Pam cooking spray, I think it was, and Pepsi. I used the same story I’d overheard my older brother laughing about with a friend of his on the phone, how they’d duped some clueless younger kid.”

An Autoban of blood finds its straightaway in my chest, memory pumped by pulmonary pistons. Sage had told me Ricky’s story long ago, during that time when a couple newly in love lays bare the gossamer of disastrous affairs they’ve had in the past, then shreds it with conspiratorial laughter: Dodge in the shed, the bucket, the taking of the dump, the telescope, the many tribulations of the cooking sprayed popo. I’d already put the whole thing in a suggestion box as a chapter, changed names, the setting, made the little boy a grown man incalculably confused about the ways and means of masturbation, and as I recall, Kodiac had returned those pages daggered with enthusiastic exclamation marks.

“You’re that Ricky? The one who charged Dodge the money and traumatized the guy for life?”

“How did you know I charged him money?”

The Dodge, Ricky calls him – like a pet name without the affection. Or a nickname that sums up the personality with a simple article devoid of descriptive attributes, augmenting the noun to larger-than-life proportions by adding exactly nothing, but a cardinal nothing, thus drawing all attention to the thing itself. Unless he means it as a state-of-the-art verb – the movement, the action that’s comprised of but transcends the actor. “Sage told me.”

He’s about to answer, then points. A door at the back of the house opens and the low-watt kitchen light skips out to play on the patio with the lanterns’ soft suffuse. A squarely heavy-set smiling woman with an almost beautiful face and a blonde mushroom cap of hair steps out, standing next to the serving table. Swimmers stop splashing and phantom the water to hear, talkers stop talking to listen.

Her voice opens with confidence like a politician’s umbrella, shelters a cultivated southern accent. “Most of you know I’m Dorothy, and isn’t it a beautiful night? It’s just so good to see you all. Welcome to the sangrinarium. The time that passes between our monthly court always seems just way too long.” Stately as a magnolia tree giving a State of The Union Address on the White House lawn, she exclaims, “Excuse me, but I just don’t think I can help myself,” and picks up a steak-slabbed platter, tilts the rim at her lips. The sip is audible. “I have a thirst like you wouldn’t believe!” When she wipes her lips on her sleeve and winks, there’s laughter. “Well now, that was just a little joke, like a little bitty test to see if you all haven’t lost your sense of humor, because Lord knows it’s tough for us sometimes. Really, I should be on my very best behavior, because we have members of the press here tonight, and what we’d like more than anything else is an accurate depiction of our little community that we can share with the community at large. Maybe some misconceptions dispelled, that would be a nice big breath of fresh air. Mr. Members of The Press, are you there?” Eyebrows standing at attention, she salutes to shade her eyes, searching the backyard.

Ricky raises his hand, I raise mine.

“Our guests, Mr. Ricky Chang, and I’m told an associate of his from Milwaukee’s oldest alternative newspaper, The Kaleidoscope!”

People pinch off cautious crumbs of applause, breading us in stale stares.

“Now you all can just rest assured I have discussed the matter of the press being here with the elders in our little community, and they agreed that this was as good a time as any to lift the veil a tinny weeny bit, in keeping with our philosophy of doing away with the spirit of concealment and hiding that causes us all so much internal damage.” The smile on her face never leaves, like a renter ignoring an eviction notice. Her black dress tents with surprise when a sudden broad breeze camps out under it, and she smoothes it down, bosom to pelvis and fanning out to hips. “And The Kaleidoscope has just the best record around for reporting the kind of thing that the more conservative press turns away from, short of being in California. So everybody, just be yourselves.”

While Dorothy continues to speak, Ricky leans toward me, firing off whisper. “When we were older, The Dodge seemed to have brushed the whole thing off and admitted it was all pretty funny, but later on I found out the guy can hold a serious grudge. We went to the same high school too, but we didn’t hang out in the same clicks. College too.” He inhales, reloading his derringer of small whispers. “That cocksucker was supposed to get me an interview with his old man when I was writing for the campus paper, The UW Badger, which would have opened all kinds of career doors for me later because he was so famous. We’d gotten a ton of advertisers buying space around it. At the last minute, my reputation on the line, The Dodge reneged. I didn’t see him for a week, wouldn’t return my calls, zero, zilch, nada. It was a balls out and blowing in the wind situation for Ricky Chang. After I looked like a complete fabricating psycho to everyone and it was all over, I saw him. He told me there had been a death in the family. But when I asked him to at least let everybody know I wasn’t a liar, he refused. Did I already call him a cocksucker?”

“No,” I extenuate, helpfully.

“That bastard,” he says, and then he’s all out of whisper ammo, and I hear Dorothy saying:

“We’re here because this is a haven for sangrinarians, a place where we can come out of the shadows, so to speak, and show our faces without fear. There are some events this summer that I’ll announce later, that big solstice celebration way up north later when summer’s ending, a Renaissance fair in July, fun stuff like that, but for now, this is a time for strengthening our bonds with each other, sharing our experiences, and continuing to educate ourselves on some of the very real dangers associated with feeding, and just having a real good time. And to make new friends. Speaking of which – easy segue, just the way I like ‘em, smooth as lard on a hot skillet – this evening I’d like to welcome someone … where’s Joan? Where’s that little cute as pie Joany-girl Weller? Don’t be shy.”

The people sitting at the tables on the lawn are looking around for the cute as pie, but apparently shy, Joan Weller.

Ricky cracks open his Dell, makes a computer omelet on his lap. “Joan’s the one told me about this, called me and said she thought it might be a good story for me. Then you call, and you want 411 on The Dodge. Now that’s weird.”

“What’s so weird about it? And what the hell is a sangrinarian?” But there are pieces and roots of the word I’ve already dug out with my rusty spade of etymology, and I see the woman in the Red Cross uniform, now serving by the pool. “Is this some kind of blood drive charity or donor function?”

Ricky’s fingers scramble the omelet, stirring on the keys, and he laughs.

A young woman in the pool, the cute as pie, but apparently shy, Joan Weller, paddles to the ladder and climbs out. She stands for a moment like some women do when they’re wearing a bikini, arms crossed and shoulders hunched, legs pressed together tight as a plastic ziplock strip. Why wear a bikini if you’ve decided you have to peek out from behind your elbows and turned-in knees? The dark water-weighted hair conforming to her oval face is slick as a vending machine slug and styled in an elfin coif, her eyes are large and inestimably strange, as though she looked out of them from a second pair of eyes behind the first. The Red Cross woman hands her a robe and she scampers the deck in a mincing wet-sole-slapping hunch as though chased by a rapist of cold weather to stand next to Dorothy, who hugs her with magnolia blossom arms.

“Joan is coming out tonight, what we might call out of the coffin instead of the closet, after the long and difficult period of awakening we all know so well. Isn’t that right?”

“Yes … and I’m so happy to finally … it’s been so awful,” she admits. Her four eyes shine with quadrupled tears.

“Awwww … well you found us honey, thanks to our support website for sangrinarians, and here you are, and everything’s gong to be all right. We all know that process to say the least is a shock if you’re alone, moving from the latent stage into the awakening, where you don’t know what’s happening to you, and you think you’re maybe going crazy. You feel yourself changing over from being a daysider, and you can’t sleep at night like you used to because that’s when you feel yourself coming alive, and when you go out during the day, for a lot of us that nasty old sun hurts your eyes, and people start looking at you like you’re from another world because you have to wear your sunglasses all the time. Well shoot, in a sense, you are from another world. And then maybe the food you’ve been eating all your life doesn’t satisfy you, no matter how much of it you eat, and sometimes it might even make you sick. And you’re just hungry all the time and food has nothing to do with it. And then maybe you’re at work, and a coworker gets a paper cut, and you’re staring at it like it’s the answer to all your problems … and that blood hunger never goes away and there’s only one way to temporarily stave it … well, no one ever said being a vampire was easy, but that’s what we are, and if you’re a true sangrinarian – and I’m not going to get caught up in the debate about whether blood drinking vampires are more authentic than psi vampires who feed on energy, as far as I’m concerned both are authentic vampires – you really don’t have a choice. Those were the cards and they were dealt to you, probably at birth. Lord, it’s just a dark, dark mystery. But you’re here now, Joany-girl, and I say welcome!”

“How do you like that?” Ricky whispers. “You’re in a back yard full of vampires. To what extent have these people, who call themselves vampires, been influenced by the vampire legends of old? Are they vampires because they’ve deluded themselves into thinking they’re vampires? Are they vampires because they’ve always been outsiders and alone, or are they outsiders because they’re vampires?”

I remember that Ricky had launched into the same sort of thought provoking, metaphysically elevated but exhausting dialectic when we stood before Existentia’s storefront. It’s apparently something he does when he’s in reporter mode. Or is he a reporter because it’s something he does? He goes on, “Have they mistaken a set of symptoms for vampirism – is it actually nothing more than porphyria, or more obscurely, Renfield’s Syndrome? Are they simply blood fethishists and role-playing fanatics? Does society …”

“Vampires?” I ask, cutting him off.

“Observe if you will that sexy little Red Cross sangrinarian by the pool. Take a wild guess what’s in those tiny wine glasses.”

Oh no.

The cute as pie, but apparently shy, Joan Weller has joined her smile to Dorothy’s and I can see her teeth, the canines luminously pointed, as she gruffly scrubs away timid tears with the back of her hand.

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