The cook poisons himself with astonishing consistency. The cook either wallows in self-hatred or basks in egomaniacal sadism. The cook is often one misplaced fennel frond away from total psychological collapse.
• • •
Scotty, the self-coronated salad king, is having a crisis over his impending thirtieth birthday. He puffs hash on the second story roof, behind the neon sign, peering down at the street, sitting alongside the pig skulls glued in place on the brick ledge with fish caramel sauce.
Owen, the busboy, is in the walk-in sneaking slabs of applewood smoked bacon into his cavernous backpack, enough to pray away a fortnight of hangovers. Sandy, the waitress, is spit-shining vases of orchids in plain view of the clientele. Trevor, the dishwasher, is rapping a verse for each rack of plates that passes under his dangerously omnidirectional sink nozzle.
Garrett, the runner, is standing behind the windowed double doors gazing into space for a brief moment of empty-headed gawkery, watching the swaying motions of women he will never know as they parade down the sidewalk toward the downtown scene.
Julian, the prep slave, has discovered the blow torch is running dry. He slips out front to enlist the aid of Martha, the bartender. Together they fill a fry pan with bourbon, ignite it, and pour the flaming liquid all over the grinning severed pig head to banish the last prickles of stubble.
D’Artagnan, the chef, is in the throes of a boozy spell, locked in battle over the soul of a single clementine segment, picking at the white veins with a bird’s beak knife, mesmerized by the task, oblivious to the chaos around him. It is unclear whether this hypnotic ritual is meant to cool his rage or to raise it to legendary barometric levels. One look at the sweat pouring unchecked into his bloodshot eyes is enough to dissuade all attempts at communication.
Meanwhile, Mike the sallow-eyed grill man, prone to one night stands that stretch into love affairs that stretch into agony and die, has just received word, while hauling compost to the curb, that the last quiver of affection between he and his newest lover was struck down like a roach scurrying for cover, some hours ago, while he worked a double to afford the good wine for her one last time.
He has made off with a half gallon of one hundred proof vanilla extract and locked himself in the broom closet with the lights off.
Service is going smoothly.
Footsteps. Voice of Placed fading fading fading.
Placed: I’d go with you I truly would if I knew where the Spot would take me. Maybe I could try again and see my son. . . . Beautiful boy with dreams and a future way his father never had. His mother knew what was best for him and sent me away . . . and how could I give up the bottle after she gave up on me. . . .
Overpass builds to a roar and from this roar the sound of one engine overtakes the scene, inside the car the retro hip journalist chatters over psych rock. Monologue.
Journalist: We’re closer now. Cock your weapons of mass desimination, brother. Load the cameras and click the pens. Rewind the tape, epate eht dniwed. Keep your fingers ’round your cocks and your eyes to the blazing skyline this is it and if you can’t get off to this then you ain’t alive, dig? It’s gonna be untellable, it’s gonna be unrecordable but we will record it anyway and the reality of the thing the real ineffable shit, right, that shit will be known only by the impression it leaves on us, by the way it widens our pupils from now until the worms stake their claim, and we will be more human than the rest and we’ll be sure they know it from the ways we don’t speak, the shit we don’t talk about. . . .
[Musical interlude, psychedlic jam on the melodic theme of Agua de Beber.]
Fade back to the familiar footsteps of Tagonist. Roaring of all kinds, an orgy of noises. We’re talking wolf pack howling, dinosaur screaming, children crying, rushing by, auditory focus shifting rapidly. . . .
Fruitstand Lady: An orange for a pine cone! A watermelon for a pocket knife! Money is dead, fruit is delicious!
Footsteps, noise. . . .
Military Official: Yes sir . . . two blocks east of main locked down . . . cutting power lines in three . . . two . . . one. . . .
Surge, hum from high to low, a machine grinding to a halt. Footsteps. On the radio, deep blues. Change of the dial. News flashes on.
Newsman: Citizens continue to flee the epicenter of the affected zone. Physicists speculate the growing surface area of the Spot could be due to fenzied radioactivity occuring at one of the time-nodes linked by the event, leading polytemporal historians to speculate on the existence of a possible future or past in which the earth is or was heavily irradiated and lifeless. . . .
Spiderlegs Raymond tells us wounds heal faster on the coastal flats. He sells us a vial for a third of the score and we drive south.
Go south, he says. Take to the flats and drink the stuff. James is hurt bad, I say. He’ll be okay, says Spiderlegs. I ain’t hurt, I say. He needs you there, says Spiderlegs, as the tether.
James winces when the shattered left wrist of every terrible color bounces on his knee, seems put together, on his feet the way few are, and that’s why I work with him and that’s why I’m at the wheel southward on the back roads, gentle lean to the west as we go, no directions but the cardinals marked by the sun. James smokes and curses, I smoke too and I’m feeling trapped in the truck, closed off behind a thin wall while everything outside is closing in a pack of dogs our scent in their noses black blind justice behind bloodshot eyes.
What if she was inside, says James. I tell him again she wasn’t inside. And if she was she would have gotten out just fine but she wasn’t inside.
While I say it James lifts from his pocket with his good right hand a wad of foil, spreads it open on his lap with petal picking motions and kneads the dark waxy ball softer than resin into the wood pipe between his legs, lights it with a waterproof wooden match struck off the dash, kind they designed for soldiers humping through the rainy season. He pulls deep, spews sweet smoke out the window. I look for different colors in the smoke like maybe the scent would make it green or blue or purple but it’s only gray smoke. He coughs and retches and for a second I think he’ll vomit but he swallows it down and with the swallow comes a new kind of smoke over his eyes and he leans back and traces the swollen misaligned purplish fingers of his left hand with the fingers of his right, gentle like four paint brushes, coloring the pain away.
When he dozes off a bit I miss the conversation bleak as it was. Lift my fingers to the dusty radio controls. AM preacher howls revelation over the rioting congregation and how he would love the fire right then and there to die in the right. It is no company to me.
From the trash at my feet I fish a nameless cassette and into the deck it goes. From the guts of the dash comes that slow clicking and from grainy speakers this bluesy psychedelic rock bleeds into the cabin and I feel for a minute like the disease is lifting, or it’s all dreamy anyway and nothing matters. Halfway through the second track a guitar tone comes in banshee high over the mix and the speakers squeal and James opens his green brown eyes and talks slurry through numb lips.
Raymond that old fucking cajun voodoo clown bastard, says James something like. He’s all busted up inside and I’m busted up outside thinks he knows what’s good for a man with a shattered wrist, says James. Some bastard old Spiderfuck Raymond.
Spiderlegs is alright, I tell him. And I tell him the old story with the insence and that psycho window jumper Tyler something with hairline fractures in his spine laid out and half dead with pain. And the long nights in the woods in the lee of the boulder and they fasted together for twelve days and the storm rolled in on the tenth day. And on the thirteenth day Spiderlegs says get up damn you and Tyler gets up and jumps and climbs trees and does push ups and looks around through new eyes fresh from some dark second womb.
James knows the story and never cared before and he spits out the window what must feel like a wad of steel wool and grits his teeth, but I see that twitch in his arm like he’s testing the strength of the tale against his own pain as if one might influence his belief in the other inversely maybe. Hard to see through his craggy stone face, solid through to the face bones, thick and unusual this man but that’s why I work with him. He will not crack. To the day of his death I do believe he will not.
Once met a clockmaker who cusses more than any man alive as only a clockmaker has a right to, says that antique clocks keep on working after the gear teeth wear because of the dirt crusted up inside. They stop ticking if you clean them.
James, I say but he is already slipping deeper after that third hit. I reach to catch the pipe as it tumbles from his fist and at the clink of wood on my ring I am alone. Spiderlegs says opium is the drug of the dreamer-in-pain. He prescribes it to those who bleed purple from the eyes as he says.
Keep the truck steady with my left and one knee and on the brief straightaways scavenge with my right for butts with a few pulls left to give, buried in the clay planter pot ashtray, delicate work, could it be spines lie in wait, no the uprooted cactus lies intact and dying spines and all on the shoulder of a highway one hour behind.
Two motorcycles light and roar hurtle past going back the way we came my eyes are elsewhere and my nerves are burned through so I look up and jerk the wheel this might be it oh no even these fragile reflexes are enough and we don’t go careening off the cliff not this time. James stirs and says in the bleary moment, maybe she was inside Jesus what if she was inside.
She wasn’t inside James, and I say it like the god given truth and the tone is enough to send James back into his dreamless mineshaft.
I threw up my dinner in the bathroom. Then I walked out and paid for it.
The next day I spent some time in a tree on the lake. Walking down the path by the Fairyland sign I recognized a thick tuft of hair, belonging to the one and only Xander-man. There he was staring out at the water radiating anxiety. Distressed by a sub-par dance performance earlier that day. Rolling a joint with trembling fingers. Out of a bag of weed nestled in his boot.
He couldn’t complete the task. I rolled the joint for him, shielded from the wind in the lee of the boot. I cannot for the life of me, still, here and now, after everything, at age twenty three, roll a proper joint. It doesn’t seal into a fleshy cylindar the way shredded tobacco does, not under my fingers.
It was a terrible joint, chunks crumbled off at his lips as he took the first few drags. He didn’t seem to mind. We were both distracted by our surprise, that despite his etc. and despite my etc. we actually enjoyed one another’s company.
The woman in the torquiose dress and clinking brass jewerly wandered over from the free love encampment across the path, babbling drug-addled word salad. She sat next to us.
She said she would sniff it out. Sniff it out in the grass. She sniffed at the grass in my direction. She called me a beast. Then she gestured out to the sunlit skyline and exploded into rapid monologue.
“I teach you. I tell you. Look. Rocking rock water up from down. We the bees knees. All the bees have all the knees up from down in the grass. This grass. Look at it. Bees, two of ‘em, up from the ground, two shapes like this, that’s an M, that’s a W, that’s west coast. There be diamonds, there be rubies, there be pearls coming. Up. Out of the ocean. Pearls are the cheapest thing there is. Pearly shoes. Nose knows no’s. Look.”
Conversation was impossible. So we listened. Him smoking the joint, me smoking a cigarette, looking out at the water, trying to make a game of it, to trace her finger to the vanishing point and glimpse some figment, any object that could be a key to the cypher.
Then Xander-man spoke over her.
“There is . . . some . . . message here . . . and I never . . . never know what the fuck it is.”
She muttered something about an on-the-clock off-the-clock dichotomy. Seems she determined we were on-the-clock and that was no good. She left and sauntered over to a man sleeping in the grass. She kept talking like a machine gun and that man, god save him, did not wake up.
After a while Xander-man lapsed into a powerful spell of deja vu. It was time to leave him with his thoughts, time for me to go. I shook his hand. He’d forgotten my name. I kept it a secret.
Last winter I was stone sober at a party for a school I didn’t attend, where a guy trying to screw me asked, “What’s your favorite sensation?” I responded seriously, even though this highfalutin dope clearly thought he was the star actor in a play he wrote on the toilet.
I said, “You know the King Tut ride at the carnival that comes to town? The big pendulum boat? I love that little anti-gravity nausea spike when you hover above your seat.” The answer rolled off my tongue, because I’d thought about it at length in the past. He took an economy-sized gulp of his drink and snapped his head away. This disturbed the molecules, and the stench of rum slithered into my nostrils. Irritation warmed me. “Hey, we should co-star in a movie where we’re telepathic superheroes,” I thought forcefully into the back of his head. He didn’t respond.
I left, and walked four miles to Chinatown where I had a bowl of 30 dollar shark fin soup. No one from that party ever contacted me again.
There were signs of impending divorce all over the house. The dog wanted to be around us because he was lonely and the man with the guitar sang his sad songs in the bedroom down the hall because he wanted to be alone. Leila and I were dressed in kimonos and sitting cross-legged on the floor. On her lap was a book about fairies.
“Look here,” said Leila. She pointed to a drawing of a ring of mushrooms. A ruined old man in tattered clothing was on his hands and knees crawling away from it. “This is a fairy ring.”
I told her I didn’t know what that was.
“If you step inside a fairy ring, the fairies make you dance with them. They pull you around and around and around. And when they finally let go, you realize decades have passed—and suddenly you are very old.”
She closed the book and stood up. In her pink kimono she examined her own room. “I see things I like and I see things I don’t like. I want the things I like to stay forever. I want the things I don’t like to go away.”
And what do you like? I said.
“I like the things that are beautiful.” She pointed to a picture hung up above the fireplace which showed the migration paths of birds from North America to South America. “Like this. This is good,” she said.
Leila walked to the other side of the room. She took off her kimono and laid it out neatly on her bed. “This too,” she said. “I want to wear this forever. It’s telling me secrets right now.” She laughed.
The mason jar on her bedside table was empty. I picked it up and said I was going to the kitchen to fill it.
Leila put her kimono back on and padded over to me in her bare feet. Her face was rosy and her eyes were shining liquid. “Downstairs I have blueberries,” she said, “and there’s nothing I want more right now than blueberries.”
Quietly she opened the door and crept down the stairs. Her kimono flowed behind her. With the empty mason jar in my hand I followed her to the lamplit rooms below.