by Patrick Redding
What I’m about to tell you may seem a matter of no importance, but it’s filled with great portents (and possibly some pretense). It happened one night not very long ago. Just happened. Past tense. In the past: gone but always with us. In all ways. I fell asleep under the stars – or in a tent, if you like, I could tell it that way but it wouldn’t be true. I wouldn’t mean it. Intent is a very important factor here. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, you know. Portents, oh yes, there were lots of them. I suppose you might find it easier to understand if you’d ever found yourself living with a whore in a tent. Not that I have, but just suppose. Just suppose. Juxtapose my brain on drugs alongside my brain without drugs (yes, they call them meds, preferable to reds, they say, they say, these educated shite-coats, I mean white-coats). The two halves, the hemispheres (hymns-of-fears) make a whole where once there was but a hole, and now I may tell a story. (And about time, get on with it, you say.)
I say that night began with a lot of standing around in the parking lot after work, a most useless operation, the work, I mean, not the standing around afterward. I was watching the moths annihilate themselves in the streetlights and wondering if they had near-death experiences of being sucked into great white tunnels of light or whether they merely sizzled for a moment and passed through to the other side and immediately began looking for the next streetlight. I am not a streetwalker, you know. I merely walk the streets to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk, to prevent mothers around the world from breaking their backs. They have no appreciation, of course, of the service I perform for them. They don’t make it easy, either, with all that bending-over-backward-for-you talk and what-not.
I was joined by Hutchins. Hutchins was a musician, a keyboardist, in a local band who rented rehearsal space in an empty office building near where I worked, or pretended to work. Counting tokens was not my real work, you know, it was only what they paid me to do. I do not know what my real work was supposed to be, only that it was not this, and that it was probably not avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, but these I did and did them both passably well, which is really of no importance. Of no portent. Let us not pretend it was. He was reminiscing, Hutchins was, in that coolly brain-fried way people on unforced medications have of meandering between inconsequential topics. We were talking about the lake where several of us used to go and get stoned before the state had it fenced off and gated. We were speaking of a holy place where we took communion and learned of sacraments before the First Amendment got out of line and found itself no longer First but somewhere down there among the other ones such as the Fourth. There is no privacy in public baptism, you know. There is no privacy in having unconsecrated wafers placed upon one’s tongue by white-coats bearing paper-cup goblets and pine-scented incense in mop buckets of unholy water.
“The lake isn’t fenced anymore,” he said. “You can drive right down to the water. We should go.” It was late by now, and the moon was out. I wondered if any misguided moths ever saw the moon and thought that it must be the streetlight to end all streetlights and set off to fly into it only to become lost forever in the cold blackness of space. Then I wondered if that was much different from what happened to the ones that went to their deaths with a snap-crackle-pop in the streetlights; maybe they just experienced a fantastic flash of fire and then an infinite cold darkness. My doctor called this “excessive existential anxiety” and gave me more meds for having too many X’s. I should probably take one now but no, I will wait. We are going to the holy place and the moon is out and perhaps I might be healed of my afflictions and affections if I touch the hem of someone else’s garment. I touched my doctor’s coat and all I got was four-point restraints. Whose coat must I touch to rid myself of all these X’s?
When we got there we saw that someone had cut down a lot of the trees, leaving the shoreline open so that it could be easily seen from the road. Hutchins said they’d probably done that after the fence came down, so people wouldn’t be as likely to go there and hang out after dark. A park is a park, but not after dark. The water level was low and Hutchins drove onto the hard-packed sand, pulling the van around sideways. We got out and smoked a joint, and then walked down the beach, smoking some more and drinking. I meditated upon the names of musicians I knew, and reflected that Hutchins’ name was very fitting; something about the way his nose twitched when he lit a cigarette made me think of rabbits. Perhaps his ancestors kept rabbits many years ago and that’s where their family name came from, as well as the resemblance of mannerisms. People come to resemble the animals they live with, or so I’ve heard. I didn’t mention this aloud; they can’t say I didn’t learn anything at all in there. I learned not to say out loud when people remind me of animals, despite how many X’s and Y’s we have in common with other species.
I didn’t notice how far we’d walked or how drunk I was getting until I sat down after awhile. I must have passed out. I might have flown and cracked my head on the moon. It definitely felt like I might have. I wondered if that’s where all the craters came from, drunken fools trying to fly into the master streetlight and banging their heads on the surface, trying to get in, looking for the light that so mysteriously disappears when you get up close. I woke up lying in some weedy, sandy area by myself, not quite sure where I was. It seemed to be just before dawn; there was starting to be a little light in the sky.
I didn’t see the van anywhere. In fact, I didn’t recognize this part of the shoreline, and guessed I must have wandered off in the dark. You look for the light, you know, but you never really catch up to it; it’s always over there somewhere, and you wouldn’t even notice it was there if it wasn’t so dark where you are. I heard an animal-like noise I couldn’t place, and it alarmed me just a little, not knowing what it was, exactly, so I got up and walked toward a shed I saw, which I hoped might be some sort of information station with a phone or something.
Then I noticed the birds – many, many birds – ducks and hawks and such – lying scattered on the ground. Some of them were flapping a little, making feeble squawks. They were covered with black gunk – as was most of the ground near the water. Looking down, I saw that my shoes were caked with the stuff too, and now that I thought about it, I could feel that the back side of my clothes was wet. I’d probably been lying in the stuff. I looked at the low water level, saw the shiny iridescent stuff on the top, and realized that the black stuff was oil. Sometimes shedding a little light on something isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Iridescent rainbows aside – a sheen of erstwhile beauty may cover an ugly oilslick. I’d been perfectly content to wallow around in the blackened mud until the sun came up enough to let me see what it was. A bird croaked hoarsely as I looked at the nasty water, and I felt sick.
My stomach twisted and threatened to empty itself; I crouched on the ground for a moment, trying to let it pass while I racked my brain for ideas about what to do. Those damned doctors with all their nice, neat answers were never around when you could really use a little help. Maybe there were some rags or something in the shed, I thought hopefully; maybe I could clean up the birds, wash the gunk out of their feathers, and they’d recover. Maybe there’d be a phone in the information station, and I could call someone – an animal shelter or a vet or something… maybe… I felt my throat close up as one of the birds near me convulsed, flapping madly in the sandy dirt for a brief few seconds, and then was still. Maybe everything would end – the birds, the water, time, even my oil-soaked mind – dying a torturous and brutal death, while I stood around trying to think what to do.
I’d started toward the shed again when I heard another noise that seemed to be coming from up in the bushes; it sounded like someone groaning. Shoving my way through the underbrush, I found a man lying in the leaves, grimacing and clutching at his chest. He wasn’t exactly dressed for the lake; he was wearing a dark three-piece suit and tie, and an overcoat. A hat had fallen to the side of his head. He saw me and began trying to pull some papers out of his jacket. It was difficult for him to talk and I had trouble making out what he was trying to say. “Let me help you,” I said, grabbing his arm and trying to haul him to his feet. He gasped as I realized, too late, that moving him probably wasn’t a good idea.
“Leave me alone,” he moaned, sinking back into a heap on the ground. “You can’t help me.”
“I can call someone for you,” I offered. “I’m sure there must be a phone around here somewhere…”
“You fool,” he hacked, “there’s no phone service out here. This is sacred ground. You don’t put a hotline to civilization in a place like this. Do you want to ruin everything?”
I thought it wasn’t looking too good anyway, but I didn’t want to argue with a dying man.
“I wanted to stop it – what was happening to the lake and the birds,” he coughed, “but I couldn’t…” He rolled onto his back, choking, and I tried to help him sit up but it was useless, just useless. Still, he persisted with a good ten minutes’ worth of plot exposition, so I left off trying to get him up and instead hunkered down on the ground near enough to listen.
Through his wheezing, I managed to grasp that someone had bought the land from the state. They were using tanks buried underground to store oil; some of the tanks were leaking, sending oil and sludge into the lake and saturating the shoreline. Complaints had been lodged, and ignored; apparently they were within tolerance levels, and couldn’t be forced to remedy the situation. The man had even approached them with an offer to buy the land from them, intending to take care of the clean-up himself, but they were unwilling to sell. He suspected there were illegalities involved, bribes and trafficking and the sorts of things that make people want to hold onto property which has no ostensible value to them, but he’d gotten nowhere with trying to persuade anyone to investigate this. “They’re all in each other’s pockets,” he hissed in disgust. “A nest of vipers, and heaven help the one who steps in it and doesn’t kill them all. That’s the only thing to be done, you know.”
Since he’d exhausted every legal avenue to get something done, he’d contacted someone to take care of the situation by other means. However, en route to pay the man and make the necessary arrangements, he discovered he’d been found out. Someone had tried to kill him, and he’d barely managed to make it here, deciding to make one last desperate effort to call attention to the situation by leaving his corpse to be found on the beach. Beached whales made the news. Surely a beached environmentalist was entitled to the same lack of dignity.
“If the man gets the money by noon, then our deal is on and he’ll take care of things,” he told me, but he was obviously not going to make it. I offered to help, and he agreed; as long as I knew the code words he’d arranged with the man, it wouldn’t matter who brought the money – he’d never even seen the man himself. The words I needed to know, he said, were “Beethoven’s coat.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he sank back to the ground. Was he dead? I shook him, patted his face, did all the things you think you should do if you find yourself with a possibly-dead person in the woods in the middle of nowhere. He was definitely dead. I was freaked out, but thought I’d better try to keep my head together and get out of there. I went through the papers he’d been trying to get out of his pocket and found a hand-sketched map with directions noted in the margin. I turned it one way and another until I thought I knew where he was going. Looking back at the shore, I saw another bird thrash the sand violently for a few seconds before dying. Sizing up the man on the ground, I took off his suit and tie and put it on myself, wrapped him up in his overcoat, and rolled him back under the bushes out of sight.
His car was parked beside the road with the keys still in it. Following the cryptic map on the seat beside me, I found the house.
It was nearly full daylight by now. There were a lot of cars outside, and several big nasty-looking guys standing by the door. I felt conspicuous suddenly because although I’d donned the man’s nice coat and tie, I was still carrying my old green army-surplus coat. To my surprise, though, the goons just nodded and let me pass. Apparently there’s no dress code for going to pay off someone to “fix things.” I wandered uncertainly down the hallway, wondering if someone was just going to approach me and strike up a conversation about classical music or how this sort of thing worked.
The place was a huge old mansion, well-tended, lavishly furnished with antiques and deep, deep carpet. A nice change, I thought, from institutional floorwax, cracked sidewalks, and black sand. I recalled that I was supposed to be back at my token-counting job sometime today, but it didn’t seem real. In light of waking up on a beach full of dying birds, miles from anywhere, tokens seemed no more real than any of my other hallucinations the white-coats had attempted to banish for me. Was this real? I stopped and looked down at my grimy shoes on the nice clean carpet. I turned and saw sandy footprints leading from the door to where I stood. OK, yeah, this was probably real. I continued down the hallway.
From the sound of it, a loud party was going on even at this early hour. I followed the noise until I found the gathering in a large sitting room – a “parlor,” I guessed it might have been called, when more genteel people lived here. The guys around this door looked at me more closely when I entered but let me pass. There were maybe ten or so people, all well-dressed, sitting around an oversized coffee table, drinking and laughing and such. One was younger – my age or maybe even less – and she seemed very out of place and ill at ease. A man who seemed to be the host turned to greet me and I knew that he was the one I was supposed to see. He made grandiose gestures over my entrance, introducing me briefly (using the dead man’s name), then murmured, “That’s an unusual coat, isn’t it?”
“It’s Beethoven’s coat,” I said quietly. He nodded and indicated that we’d make the exchange later and that I should act natural and join the party. I took a chair by the window, putting the coat on the floor behind me. I noticed him looking at it again. Suddenly I realized that the money must have been in the dead man’s overcoat – how could I have been so stupid? Now here I was in this psychopath’s parlor with no money for him. What could I do?
Fortunately for me, he was enjoying his party and in no hurry to do business. I tried to stay calm, hoping I’d get an opportunity to slip out. Passing for the dead man to gain entry to this guy’s house was one thing; I couldn’t very well carry on the dead man’s business without having some money in hand.
I noticed the girl watching me. She had cropped blond hair and looked decidedly uncomfortable. My uncle always said that women cut their hair short when they’re unhappy. She had a wistful look, as though she’d rather be almost anyplace else. She also appeared to be the host’s girlfriend. I avoided her gaze; I was in this too deep already without misunderstandings over an unhappy girlfriend. An older woman beside me leaned over and told me with whiskey-breath whispers that I’d arrived just in time – our host always had his girlfriend to entertain at his parties, she explained, giggling.
Just as she’d said, in a few minutes he stood up and clapped for attention and announced that we would now be entertained. He put on some different music and nodded at the blond girl, smiling but giving her a threatening look to make her comply. She stood up on the coffee table and began to gyrate to the music.
The host disappeared into another room with a couple of other guys. The whiskey woman leaned over and commented about our host’s habit – a very heavy addiction, she gossiped; there were those who thought it was beginning to affect his ability to take care of business, she added, although it had done nothing to take the edge off his temper. Frequently, I learned, this need resulted in his disappearing from the party for good; the girlfriend would latch onto some guest she found interesting, and the party would continue without him. This sounded promising – maybe I could slip out unnoticed. Well, I had to, didn’t I? If I had no money, there was no business to be done, and even if I had the money, from the sound of things, there was no guarantee that he’d do the job properly.
I looked up; our host was still gone and the blond girl was now stripping down to her slip, still dancing on the table. Shortly, she had undressed completely.
Someone laughed and threw her a man’s shirt. She put it on, leaving it unbuttoned, and began to touch herself, to applause and cheers. She seemed lost, in a daze, then embarrassed when she caught my eye. She looked away abruptly and got up, strutting around the tabletop, moving around the circle of guests, giving everyone a closer look. The music pounded at a deafening volume.
She kept working her way around the circle, eventually getting to me. Latching onto my sleeve, she pulled me up and began dancing with me in a very sexual way. People shrieked and howled over this, laughing and whistling. I realized that she didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be entertaining this godawful collection of degenerates, but she didn’t know how to get out of it. I began to kiss her; she was grinding against me, clutching my hips, then hanging onto my shoulders.
“You hate this, don’t you?” I remarked.
Her eyes rolled, they might have rolled back into her head for all the life left; she may as well have been dead, she was already dead inside. Dead eyes. She probably heard this at least once a night, this attempt at connection, protection – enticements to defect from men in love with her moral defects. I said it anyway.
“Why don’t you leave?”
“It’s complicated. Just dance with me.”
I tried. I don’t dance very well, even with a gifted partner who could do it in her sleep. Sleepwalking. Sleepdancing. Sleep…. I thought for a moment, the gears in my head groaning into motion above the grinding of the bodies. “I think I can get you out.”
“What – ‘save’ me?” She laughed. “You can’t even save yourself. If you could, you wouldn’t be here.”
I stopped. She grabbed my waist and pulled me into the motions again. No dance, no talk. There were rules. Heaven forbid the man should come out of his back room and find her conversing with someone; why, he might think she had a mind of her own. Couldn’t have that.
“People who can take matters into their own hands don’t come here,” she told me, her mouth close to my ear. “I can’t. Neither can you – or you wouldn’t be here… would you?”
We danced; no one was paying any attention anymore. More guests had arrived and the crowd filled the room now, the music blared and glasses were filled and drained, filled and drained. She was right. I could see right through all of them, now that she’d said it: no one here could help themselves. Not one person in the room knew how to take matters in hand and fix anything. Not one. They all just milled around, drinking themselves into a stupor, and waiting for the man to decide whose problem he might fix next – if he was up to it, if he wasn’t too wasted. She was right. She was absolutely right. And now she was pulling the jacket down around my waist, dancing hot and heavy, relieved that no one was watching her now.
Something hard pressed into the flesh between us and I looked down curiously as she pulled me closer. No one was watching, no one at all. I felt her hand slip under the jacket, and she leaned in tight. “Take care of your own problems,” she said, shoving my hand into the pocket of the jacket. “You’ve got everything you need. Do it yourself.” Confused, I pulled back slightly and looked to see what my hand had closed around. A gun. I stared at her, not quite believing, again, what seemed to be happening. Where were those guys in the white coats when things seemed to be happening that shouldn’t reasonably be happening?
She stepped back and gave me a shove. “Go on. Get out of here.”
I didn’t stop to think about it. I took her by the arm, pulled her off the table and got my coat. This would have created only a minor ripple in the crowd, but she started to raise a fuss, saying she couldn’t leave. What could I do? I pulled out the gun and pointed it at her. “Put this on,” I told her, tossing the coat in her direction. Now people were starting to take notice. Now it was going to get interesting. Now we’d really have some fun. Now was a good time to go. I gestured impatiently while she slipped on my coat to cover herself somewhat. “Does this window open?”
The whiskey woman, apparently delighted at the prospect of a departure from the usual “entertainment,” helpfully staggered over and unlatched the large floor-to-ceiling window, letting it swing open. By the time word filtered out to the heavies at the door, I had a firm hold on the young blond and the gun pointed squarely at her head as we stepped out the window.
She yelled at me all the way back to the lake, bawled me out all the way through the woods and down to the shoreline. I don’t know why I took her there, really, I just wanted her to see the mess I was trying to clean up. I’d explained it all to her, as much as I understood, and she got it but she couldn’t get past the idea that the guy was probably going to track her down and drag her back to the house. We were arguing like fiends when we emerged from the woods just above the shoreline. I stopped short, feeling a wave of disorientation.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, realizing something must be amiss. I waved her off, needing a moment to sort out things for myself.
There were no dead birds. No black sand. No oily rainbows on the water. I turned around and around, slowly examining the details and configuration, the shape of the shore, the thickness of the woods. Yes, this was the spot. This was where I’d woken up this morning. There was the shed. This was definitely the place.
“I didn’t imagine it,” I insisted. “I couldn’t have. Well, I could have, but I didn’t.”
“Do you think someone came and cleaned up?” she suggested.
“They could’ve cleaned up the birds – but there’s no way they could’ve cleaned up the water and the shoreline this quickly,” I pointed out. I retraced my thoughts, my mental deductions; yes, this was the spot, no, they couldn’t have cleaned up this quickly, I couldn’t have imagined it because I did use the man’s map to find the house, where I met the girl, who was clearly here, so that much was obviously not a hallucination – wait, what about the man’s body? I struck off through the underbrush, looking for it, looking for familiar twigs. The girl, still wrapped in my coat, followed me. Where was he? Sure, I’d hidden him, but not this well. I couldn’t have hidden him even from myself, could I? I stomped around through the brush, searching every square foot – nothing. I couldn’t have imagined that. I was wearing his clothes; I drove his car, I used his map. I pulled out a wallet from the inside of the jacket and showed it to the girl. “This is not me,” I said, waving his driver’s license at her.
“No,” she agreed. “This is some old guy.”
I looked around, bewildered. Could he have gotten to the shed, maybe? Surely not; he’d been dead when I left him. Still, I had no other ideas, so I wandered back down to the shed. As I did, it occurred to me that I’d meant to check it out several times when I was here earlier, but I’d never gotten around to it, what with the oil-soaked birds and the guy dying and all that. Where on earth could his body have gone? Dead guys didn’t just get up and wander away, and even if he had, I’d taken his car. He couldn’t have gotten far. If I’d known he was going to come to life and need his car, I certainly wouldn’t have taken it, or the map, for that matter, and that train of thought led me back to the girl and the gun. It always comes back to the girl and the gun, doesn’t it? Yes.
I saw her watching me from a safe distance. She’d taken off my coat and was carrying it, looking around at the deserted lakeshore and probably wondering if I was completely out of my mind or just using a story about dead birds as a poorly-thought-out excuse to get her alone in the middle of nowhere. Now that she wasn’t doing the bump-and-grind on a coffee table in front of a dozen drunken fools, she was rather attractive. “Are you going back to him?” I called.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I think he’s a lunatic and dangerous as hell, but hey, I only just met him.” I do know about lunatics, however, I’ve a considerable amount of experience with that. I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I said, “It’s up to you. Your choice.”
“Yeah. It is,” she agreed. “So what about you? What are you going to do now?”
I was going to have a look in that shed, that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t need to find anything to clean up birds, or a phone to call an ambulance, but all the same, I wanted to check it out. It seemed like a good idea. It seemed like the right thing to do.
I expected it to be locked but the door swung open easily and I stepped inside. “Come in,” said a lilting voice from the depths. I walked in hesitantly, blinking to let my eyes adjust. The room spread out in front of me, filling my vision with bookshelves and comfortable furniture and fluorescent light.
The light’s always over there, you know; we keep it over there, keep our distance so we won’t bang our heads into it and annihilate our minds. You have to be ready to destroy yourself in order to go toward the light. You have to not mind the tearing apart and putting back together to make a better whole.
“How are we doing today?” Dr. Hawks inquired hopefully, tucking a stray blond hair behind her ear and straightening her nice white coat.
“Um… OK. Not bad, actually,” I said, settling into a chair as she reached to turn down the volume of the classical station playing on the radio. “You could leave that on,” I suggested.
“I thought you didn’t like music,” she smiled quizzically.
I shrugged. “It’s Beethoven. Number 9, I think.”
“That’s right,” she nodded, obviously pleased. She took up her pen and a folder of notes, and I took silent note of the ghostly pale band on her finger where her wedding ring had lately been and now was not. Past tense.
Intent is everything. It all comes back to the girl and the gun. I pulled my coat over my lap, to be less conspicuous, sat back and looked at the light, the brilliant white sunlight illuminating a halo around the edge of her hair. It was beginning to grow out since I’d seen her last, I noticed. She referred to her notes and reminded me where we’d left off from last time, and we began the dance.
Today, I decided, I might save myself.
© Copyright 2005 by Patrick Redding. Republished 2011, 2015.
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