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PREVIOUSLY: J.R. and Georgia reunite in the wake of Ritchie Ra’s death at the hands of the pandrogynous henchperson Renfro Vale; we meet some of Georgia’s many roommates--somnolent Ket and Kava, Poppy the runaway, musclebound Herb; Bob the cat is stymied; in Georgia’s bedroom, she and J.R. play at circumlocution, letting things ride pretty close to the vest, and for all their professed desire for connection their farflung stars reveal no discernible constellation. He, who’s inherited his father’s penchant for secrecy and brutal, stultifying logical interiority, recounts some dispiriting paternal memories, and she indulges a familial impulse for libertinism; a certain identification with the moon is posited; a diagnosis of refraction is made. We are all living ends.

“You know what this song really reminds me of, right?”

There is a sort of hopeless boredom that wafts over the courtyard, men leaning arms folded, whispering to each other and gesturing, in terse shorthand and with just-lit cigs, towards the tower. The winds are quiet here, though in the columns of warm floodlight ahead some swirls of what looks like dust, or maybe tiny flecks of vapor, coalesce obviously into little shapes, tongues of breath forking like flame and winding up the facade, brushing, kissing the brick. The tower’s base glows in the fine particulate mist. Seems the breeze is somehow starting out here, being generated, snatching up some energy or movement from the tired huddles and pulling it in, along the path and up the interior spiral ramp to the lit platform at its top. Some nighttime anomaly is sucking vampiric, some unknown specific of the night’s pressure gradient drawing, ceaselessly, on paltry human respiration; nobody here can breathe too deeply, and the cigarettes keep going out.

Everyone is just sort of standing around, waiting for the next group to be called. Some nap, hats over faces, leaning against the heavy marble plinths deposited along the stone courtyard’s statue-lined circumference. You stroll destinationless--it’s chilly, keep the blood flowing, type of thing--and try to clock your surroundings. Take a look, squinting and teary against the night’s chill, at the various sculptures. A bronze spear-carrier without a head. A pharaoh with a broken-off nose. A faceless female nude, cut voluptuary and languid in the old style, lounging upturned on a scorched granite pedestal. You take a look at the cylindrical drum stuck obstinate in the earth before them, rising squat but resolute the 119 ft to the ruined turret that punctuates its tip. The White Tower. No interior platforms, just the room at the top, just this helicoidal ramp winding ceaseless, just this central chasm mawing wider and wider the higher up one gets. You can see, silhouetted through the row of embrasures lining the structure’s upper half, another coterie on the inside, gaggle of troops waiting, ramp-locked in single file, stooped and hunched in various sorry postures. In the dark and distance, you can’t get much of a lock on their expressions, and you know actually it’s much the same for the men that surround you, now you think about it; you’d only been glancing, cursory, but even now, under the weight of sustained gaze leveled at point blank range, they are inscrutable. Their faces are the pharaoh’s, the spear-bearer’s; half-finished, fragmentary.

It’s about to rain. You make about 120 yards to the tower’s entrance, a small arched portal set into a thick rectangular recess. 119 yards to the open latticed grill. 357 ft as the crow flies, but the route from the courtyard varicates considerably; the footpath is longer, ringed by thick low grasses on both sides, down a swathe of circuitous, pitchblack mud.

You’re halfway, moving at a blurry, anxious pace, before sudden sounds overheard snap you still. There is movement close by. Indefinite shapes are lurching, black on black, in the brush. Grass blades snap and crunch. Damp soil turns over. Grubs surface, tunnel and plow on either side. But the path--wait. A shuffle, just in back of you, caught ringing out a half-second past your untelegraphed halt. A shuffle, unmistakeable. And so, suspended, you take a breath and hazard an intrepid look behind.

In the mud at your feet--actually reaching high as the mudflecked tops of your mil-spec Altama boots, 21 inches--swaying squat in a contained, modest oscillation, a movement whose depth is roughly that of a respiring pair of lungs, is the most enormous bug you have ever seen. Thick, black and fiercely reflective, the sheen off its exoskeleton about the only thing, besides an implicit but untraceable spatial suggestion of large mass, describing its shape at all: a huge beetle, dung or scarabaean, black curled antennae and furred forelimbs nearly a ft long apiece. Sharpened points projecting out, nubbing its front joints in armored symmetry. And this heaving breath, labored, human, even a little wheeze coloring its underside, light, sensual, in a touch of eerie femininity.

“Go on,” she says, between breaths in an unaccented but tonally insectine drawl, “you’re almost there.”

“The entrance?” you here with a feel for what seems to be expected by the night. She nods, mandibles cooing, a calm extension of her wheezy intake, and a light drizzle commences.

You swallow. “But then I’ve got to climb all the way to the top?”

“It’s not so far.”

“Won’t I have to wait in line?”

“Not you,” emphatic and softening, in fact, toward something resembling flirty. “You can just walk right in.”

You smile sheepish and turn back toward the tower. “They’re going to pick me, huh?”

Behind you her voice is all smooth edges now, as heavy raindrops start to come down and her antennae uncurl, fan out into six-leaved peacockian splendor, and palpate excitedly. “You are going to make just the cutest subject.”

Fifty feet out, the footpath gives way to deep sinking on both sides, pools and rivulets, bits of brush and small stones washing out from the center, spilling down and running back aground somewhere in the dark. A stone causeway juts across this last span, with low, white brick walls running the interval to the tower’s doorway, the ruined open grill, and the floodlamp cans deposited around its base. The walls’ widths are cut in wave patterns, alternating concave and convex the whole way, ostensibly to account for cracks from shrinking bricks or swelling, marshy ground, though their look--periodic, steady--pushes certain correspondences to the fore: this sinusoidal curve, conducting you inexorably to the gate; those sealed beam lights, radiating upturned against the building’s underside; the individual resistances encountered at each successive doorway, and their aggregated volume of cold opposition waiting, up there, on the platform. You break into a run, sudden exhilaration, enough to just begin to feel it till--

“Look!” a sudden call going up makes you look away at precisely the wrong moment, kfft--some sliding out from under and--crfft, thud. Altamas, torn jeans, mud; nope, you can’t see much, and a fat raindrop just fell right in your eye, but “Look out!” again, from somewhere just ahead. And behind you? Yeah. Growing out of the wrought-iron gate--left ajar on wet turf for who knows how long and gone planter--are a gaggle of weeds, and having gunned it down the causeway, across the marshy ditch divide and past the open lattice door, you’ve snagged a mil-spec foot on one, tripped and fallen, tough guy, right on your face.

But who’d yelled out? Scrambling up, muck splatterns and tiny bits of blood fringing the spot where, hmm, and your hand feels funny, must’ve landed on it weird--though finally sheltered under the tower entrance’s outcropped lintel, you’re inside, and not thinking of complaining. The speaker is just ahead, peering out a window, a heavy canvas rucksack blocking any opportunity for positive identification though, even with his back turned, you can see that you both are wearing the same uniform. Got two arms out the window, pointing double-indexed down one of the tower’s cardinal sightlines, past the lamps to sunrise’s earliest glowings, out over the town, at horizon’s edge. Without turning back he lets out a wordless low bleating, and rubs his palms together.

“A mysterious light from the east!”

Knowing you’re not to look, though, you elect to walk past. The rain’s kinda pounding away out there, but inside there’s this mist you’d been eyeing, beads of perspiration depositing on mudscrapes and ripped clothing and a chill whose profundity, even in the stark absence of draft or breeze, is just beginning to kind of peek out. Starting up the ramp, you crane for a look toward the top, where, from the courtyard’s distant vantage, you’d seen those other subjects. Now there’s no one, just silence. They must have gone inside, and now nothing--neither your footsteps nor the rustle of clothing or of hand against waveform-patterned ramp banister, not the pump of arterial blood in temples or neck or in the nascent throb of your swelling hand--makes a sound.

The light hits suddenly, and four shadow forms leap upward to fold compacted against the ceiling and crumple, obliging, at stations north, east, south, west. You’re being quartered in the floodlight beams. You’re looking at your hand, at the modular ornamented stone ceiling, and out, onto the platform. You’ve hit the staging area.

The space is dusty, hasty swept Dryvit shavings, fake plaster lumped in piles here and there. Real cheap finish on the floor tiles, thin with perforation holes and substrate showing through. Construction was only recently suspended, and this whole arrangement is temporary. Dust forms twist round each other, billow and preen. Large gray cushioned swivel chairs are set up in a large inward-facing circle, with distended bubbles of chrome or hard shiny plastic welded to their tops on bony metal cords. All the chairs are occupied--their domes bent down, over the heads of seated subjects, resting mute with heavy black headphones clamped on them--save one. Your chair. The headphone cables disappear into crude 1/4” drilled holes in the tile, and little mounds of fine powder are still piled up alongside. But you’re looking at the spot on which the seated subjects’ sightlines converge, where the lightbeams meet and refract, harsh and prismatic. They’re lit, aimed and calibrated to provide heat for the simulation. To control, on cold nights like this one, for environmental conditions. Their beams center on a compound glass-fronted case on a coated plywood frame. Modular stacked tanks cut in irregular cubed chunks jut wildly and pile one atop the other in a crude tetrominal pyramid. Heat lamps, mats and glowing plates line the structure’s edges, converging at vertex points and illuminating the byzantine frame. Vapors hiss gently, water drips or bubbles from onboard humidifiers, maintain the oxygen breakdown at proper levels but it’s all academic because, see, you can’t breathe at all. Aquaria and terraria, arranged like puzzle pieces, and swarmed--inside is all wriggle and squirm: here a mass of long-tongued black skinks buckling and pivoting with the gut determination of a single creature; here a tendrilate lump of brown flatworms, cavernous pharynxes stretched inside out, attacking, devouring, fucking a few of their own; here a single fist-sized hymenopteroid, a fat hairy bee preening, rubbing legs against the edge of her shadowsunk glass case; a--yeah, hundreds, insects and reptiles, arachno-, mammali- and tongue and beak and no--their blown-out dimensions and frantic activity, their jerky, violent movements somehow exactly what was anticipated, exactly what you’ve been inhaling all along, exactly what snatched the breath in your meager, wet lungs. Exactly what’s loosening the veins in your--yeah, as balance leaves you you look down, down at the hand you sure can’t feel anymore, the hand which has doubled, roughly, in size--and you drop.

You’re in the allotted chair, headphones on. “The subjects are escaping,” you murmur to no one in particular. “They’re getting outside. A beetle--they’re getting out of their tanks. I just talked to one. She was--she said--”

But the placid white wash of playback clicks on and you can’t hear yourself sputtering anymore. The program tonight is brand new. “Gentlemen, we’re glad to meet you. Welcome. Remain seated as the magnetic tape is engaged.” Hand throbs agreeably. “Be aware”--as your gaze spills down through the drilled-through floortile, down through the vast central gulf of the White Tower, as insects click to frenzy outside and, in the courtyard, soldiers stand at attentive worship of a sun threatening never to rise--“it does get loud.”

* *

“And when I woke up,” actually shouting here over the gusts of wind, “I had a tear in my eye. I was crying.”

Respite’s been slow in the offing for ragdoll Atonwa, who can’t seem to quit being tossed around, especially here on the Perdido River, sharing a beer in a tent while vicious wind and sideways rain whips its sides, fabric puckered tight to the metal poles, this whole raft, in fact, leaping a good half-foot into the air every couple of seconds, knocking Atonwa and his new companion Pat clang, skulls into tentpole, again and again. And getting in the way of this dream recounting sesh.

“You had a what?” Pat making can’t hear you signs with one hand, using the other to press cold beer compress to fresh bump on the head.

“A tear in my eye!” but no use, Pat shakes his head again just as the tentside zipper opens with a sawtoothed screech and they both duck instinctively, faces buried to avoid that incoming squall. Each, holding on to something, looks up tentatively at the figure stepping through the flap and notes it’s just Billy, back from shore--really just the convenience store a couple miles back up the country road whose ‘Scenic River View’ parking area they’ve decided to tie up and wait this blower out alongside--and he’s brought more beer, which happy fact requires nary a word to convey.

But there’s something else--here zipping the tent back up, checking on the snugness of the stakes in their pine joist holes--Billy means to show them. “This motherfucker,” talking to Pat but pointing at Atonwa, “was dead right. Check it out,” riffling excitedly through his duffel bag, clank of loose bottles and fireworks just about the only thing audible over the din, he pulls out a rolled-up dirty sweatshirt, unfurls it in a single fluid ribbon dance. Out spills a roughwrought cube of an object, wooden, 1 x 1 x 1, onto the deck, which--the pontoons below jolting over a sudden swell--leaps up once more, bbbbump, and lobs the item, pop, into Atonwa’s somehow ready, somehow steady good hand. Whatta catch.

What it is is a strobe light, little homemade lightbox with a lamp behind an opaque white plastic screen and a loose photocell, tiny round piece of metal knocking around inside, unattached and so grooving on the bouncy current, pinging like a marble against the other components. A short length of cord lolls out of its front like a tongue, but ends a few inches later in a gnarl of stripped wire. Yellow sticker on the side reads “$??.??.”

Atonwa, for whom confusion has so far today figured as default expression, looks up nonplussed. Pat, by contrast, is wearing a look of considerable shock and a jaw so slack that, when the next bump catches him off-guard, he jumps practically through the canvas roof.

What it is is a clue, folks, as to who robbed these guys. A corroboration, more accurately, on a tip. Damning, too.

Alright, to back up, Billy--sometimes Billy Bonney, fake name, thanks--Red Indian guitarist for the Seminole punk band NMF, and Pat, Pat Garrett, drums, found Atonwa early this morning. Or he them, more accurately--it happened while Pat was out on a little truckstop walkabout which had really just been about getting cellphone reception. With no idea who had unhitched and spirited the trailer off of their Econoline camper conversion van in advance of their Pensacola gig, the two had spent a while trying to call friends up and down the coast and put the word out--”all our gear was in the stolen trailer, there’ll be no shows without it, we’re fucked,” being the main takeaway--but even after Pat’s calls started getting through no one was picking up. Ritchie Ra was throwing a big party in New York that night and everyone was presumably hanging there, and so with no better plan the guys had sort of settled into a measured panic, resolved to just drive north through the night, maybe make Richmond by noon and take stock then. And so here they were, at a quiet Flying J just over the Alabama border, gassing up for another night-drive, this one a touch more depressing than usual.

Billy went inside the station to piss, buy two giant cups of watery coffee, and pay for the diesel--the cash for which had to come, rather terrifyingly, from the theretofore untouched “emergencies only” envelope, a measure NMF had only just put in place after years of tour catastrophes firmly cemented the theoretical usefulness of a store of bills, carried on one or the other bandmember’s person at all times, set aside for bail money or vehicle breakdown. But fuck if they hadn’t counted on theft--personal, targeted theft of their musical gear, all the shit they required to play; their livelihood, such as it was, not to mention the only possessions either of them really owned. It was an extraordinary violation.

Such were the types of thoughts, at least, cycling through Billy’s frazzled late-night cortex as he shook off the endorphin comedown of the canceled gig, stared past the ruddy-complected checkout clerk and the racks of cheap Alabama-priced cigarettes to the row of video screens that lined the store’s back wall and locked eyes with his most dejected self, there on one of the closed circuit monitors. His tall frame and crooked posture, exhausted, pissed expression; bleached shirt, filthy, threadbare and a nauseous yellow, cut into a crude beater shape; some crummy travel trinkets from the just-completed drive out West, a leather pouch of red rock sand from a vortex zone in Sedona and an arrowhead from the Mt. Shasta foothills, now hanging round his neck and just feeling like a couple of bad luck charms; patch-sewn torn-up pants that had once accounted for some kind of nice cotton deal; beat-up red leather vaquero boots, a rusted bullet belt with a broken buckle, a lot of stupid tattoos and, there in his hand, the bag of Little Debbie mini-cupcakes into which he’d already tore. The accumulated tokens of a youth spent as a proud peripatetic revealed, in this harsh fluorescent light, as the costume of the oblivious derelict, the directionless slob, eager to put on appearances but only so much dead flabby weight when push came to shove. No purpose, no skills--aside from a certain prowess on those guitars of which, yeah, he’d just been stripped. Amidst the tinny moan of country radio and the sweaty stink of indifferently rotating hotdogs, Billy saw himself, really saw. Fuck. The bleakest of moments.

He had been running mental inventories on the stolen gear over and over for hours. There were his two guitars and a bass. The guitars had been the gift of Edgar O’Nubb, who’d used them back in the 80s. Now, sentimental value was kind of goofy as a concept but Billy--for whom all the early O’Nubb axe work had been the reason to pick up a patch cable in the first place--could already tell he was going to be torn up over their loss. The bass had belonged to a former bandmate, and truth be told Billy was not too hung up it’d been taken. Pat’s drums were also nothing too special, a set of Japanese beginner pieces that he hooked up to contact mics and ran through a whole battery of effects. A material loss there, yeah, but one easily replaceable and so not really the end of the world.

Still, the rest of it he couldn’t bear to think about. Most brutal by far was the speaker theft: gorgeous, giant guitar amps, the custom PA to which they linked up (a powered mixer, huge subwoofers and sundry tweeters to catch that bright end), ten pieces in all, painstakingly assembled, broken in over countless shows until they sounded exactly right, and always transported lovingly, with the utmost caution and care; indeed, though the equipment was mightily, absurdly heavy, Pat and Billy always refused help loading in to a venue, as if it was dignity itself they were carrying. They loved those fucking things. Whoever took them was going to have to die.

“Do what?” in an alarmed whisper that emanated just then from the kid checkout clerk, as Billy kind of clicked back out of his little woolgathering session and realized he had been staring up at the security feed, tensing into ever-angrier facial contortions, and--most disconcertingly--that he had voiced that last threat out loud.

“Sorry, just a, thinking, heh, fucking, Christ, almighty,” giving up on excuse-making halfway through this one, settling on just slamming a wad of emergency cash on the table, slapping a manic grin over his exhausted features and winking, for some reason. Shouldering in for the slump toward the exit and taking one last look, punishment glutton, up at the row of security camera displays, he--but not so fast. The feed trained on pump #2--and their attending vehicle, still gassing up--caught his eye. Time stopped. A long evening’s worth of accumulated, deferred aggression found its referent. He made a fist instinctively. There, on the screen, was a shape, a human shape, climbing onto the van, monkeying with the back window. Some motherfucker was trying to break back in.

“You fuck!” pointing at the screen as the kid, who probably thought Billy meant him, literally ducked behind the counter. No time to fool around and with hands full--two hot coffees and no particularly sense he ought to put them down--Billy kicked the door open hard, knocking the “thanks for visiting” entrance chime into some kind of manual overdrive, and came tear-assing down the path to the gas pumps while the doorbell dinged behind him over and over. He arrived there in a second and a half, instantly locked on to his target--this skinny shirtless Red Indian scrambling atop the van, mid-climb, halfway up the rear gate, one boot on the back bumper and a slippery palm slapping down on the roof for purchase--and thoom, whipped one cup, hard, then thoom, the other.

“Aaah!” and Atonwa--for duh, it was he--looked up with an expression of utter vacuity, each eye going in a different direction, just in time to catch both offerings dead in the forehead, foam cups exploding into hot black fonts, liquid fire splashed raw across his sightline and he fell, spectacularly: first an “ehhhuh!” kind of babyish staccato as he lifted hands to shocked face and “bhugh,” leveling into low wordless bleating here as “gguh,” more hard-edged he went over the side between the van and the pump, whose nozzle was still in the fuel tank, and so “aaooh!” the pump’s hose went taut and caught him right under the chin, knocking his neck whiplash-straight back and landing him head-first compacted vertebral while his legs got caught on the fuel-hose clothesline and kind of pretzeled around the rubber, snagging on his boots at at least three different points and bringing the whole arrangement more or less to cat’s-cradle proportions. Just then the gas tank--still being filled--clicked to completion and the pump shut off, spitting the nozzle out of the tank onto the ground, allowing the rest of the hanged man to drop finally, thoomp, lumpen, against the pavement. And to lie there, silently.

Billy, who for a truckstop cupcake-eater was strong in a way that kind of snuck up on you, was positive he’d killed this guy. But not for long, as the whine soon kicked back up. “I beseech you brethren...”, weak-voiced from tire-level.

He approached, wary, and stood over the would-be-intruder, lying face-up. “The fuck were you just doing?”

“I give up my body a living sacrifice,” Atonwa said, leery, brow furrowed across sad, expectant eyes, “holy, acceptable...” facial expression going blubbery in a profound way, like the skin might drip clean off the frame any second now.

“Hey, c’mon,” Billy way too fried for all of this. “Are you hurt?”

“Holy...” Atonwa lifted his right hand--badly swollen and wrapped in a grass-stained strip of white gauze--over to the hose, and before Billy could say anything had snatched and six-gunned it with a little backflip twirl to turn the nozzle on himself and douse his own body in gas.

“What the fuck are you insane!?” grabbing the dispenser away from Atonwa, who gave up right away, and stuffing it back in the pump’s holster.

“Holy...” as reaching with his unbandaged left hand the fuel-drenched Atonwa grabbed a rear mudflap of the Econoline and slid himself out of range, back into position to re-climb the bumper. Billy froze as--“acceptable,” Atonwa kept kind of mumbling, clambering up the gate yet again until before long he was back on top of the van, “acceptable unto the Earthenware Virgin and Child--”

“--Wait.” Cold singularity, a flash; brutal, anesthetizing. A plot, emergent, darting, though in that moment, Billy detected it: there, a weighty beast of unknown origin, spotlit prey fringed by the tallgrass of his earthly desires, his complaining, this anxiety and embarrassment, painful spot on his neck where his guitar strap should be hanging. The gear. Billy felt a hand on his shoulder and looked back. It was Pat, returned from his quest for a phone signal. He’d heard it too.

“Did you say Earthenware Virgin and Child? Do you know that band?”

Atonwa--suddenly unsure whether he’d said too much in mixed company--seemed to panic, chickenshit, and clamped a bandaged hand over his mouth as if to actually stuff the words back in.

“What about them?” Billy, in a pretty scary voice that came out more or less automatically, impulse to angle for violence kind of renewed. But sing-no-evil Atonwa just shook his head uh-uh, hand still idiotically vise-gripped around his jaw.

Earthenware Virgin and Child was a stoner metal two-piece out of New Orleans. They were on a southeast tour at the moment, and would have had cause--P.I. mind kicking in for old Billy here--to’ve been in Pensacola that night. They knew NMF alright, had crossed paths once or twice; and even though the conventional wisdom said no one but no one ever steals gear from a fellow touring musician, something about this band in particular seemed to check out, at least in a “persons of interest” kind of capacity.

Pat and Billy, stuck fast with indecision at the discombobulatory ride of it all, just looked at each other, the gas station doorbell still chiming some 50 ft away, repetitive backing soundtrack buying Atonwa here some meditative moments to peer into the van, whose back windows didn’t roll down, only opening maybe an inch or so on an offset, ventilational basis, meaning he had to tilt his head at a crazy angle to see inside. And so of course he lost balance and fell again--not quite so ceremoniously this time, just a quick anchor drop, thud, straight to earth.

All that Pat and Billy had left in the van were their 8-ft plywood boards, styrofoam pontoons and a pretty cool tent they’d picked up out west, pieces of the raft they had vaguely planned on constructing on one of their scheduled off-days, which, heh, was all their calendar comprised now. Lying in cozy collapse on the ground with his good hand still muzzling himself, Atonwa looked up at them, flecks of coffee, blood and gasoline girding an expression of perfect lunacy as he issued a muffled rejoinder, though not the one for which they’d asked.

“Let’s build that shit.”

* *

Which is how they spent the morning, dropping the remainder of the emergency money (a cool $98, when they bothered to count) on more plywood, a cheap Ryobi drill and, oh yeah, these beers. Something about having Atonwa around--though he’d spent all night and day sleeping--had them putting in a little more effort, lending a touch of, maybe call it lunatic immediacy to the process. By noon, Pat and Billy’d quickly assembled a more seaworthy craft--long beams screwed flush against the floorboard, a perfect fit--than the two of them, they don’t mind admitting, would’ve managed on their own.

But then, this was no pleasurecraft, their mission no leisure pursuit. They were planning a straight-up rescue.

“Where’d you find the strobe?” Pat asking between bites of pizza, wind died down and the river’s southbound flow having returned to its casual norm, hot sun out but readying to set, the cast-off craft puttering smooth toward the ocean, a few beers in every belly and Atonwa napping somewhere in a pile of sleeping bags on the tent floor.

“Pawn shop just up the road,” replies Billy, smiling significantly. “Clerk, nice guy, told me it was brought in this morning.”

“And did he tell you who--”

“Sure did. ‘Ah yes, a tall boy, long black hair, beard, seem to remember an older blonde lady friend of his waiting outside in a matte black station wagon with some heinous, highly offensive designs painted on it.’ Apparently they hung out smoking for a few minutes; guy described both of them perfect.”

Earthenware Virgin and Child, the pride of the bayou metal scene, a band with a couple, let’s say unusual proclivities, not the least of which was manifested in their hearse-like touring vehicle. The clerk was probably talking about the inverted-cross decal painted on the hood, which was honestly kind of cool and glowed in the dark.

“And the car--”

“No trailer hitched up to it; I asked. But plenty of gear in the back. The clerk tried to make an offer on some of the equipment, but the tall boy wouldn’t have it,” Billy relishing the reveal here, “especially when it came to those Sunn cabs.”

Sunn cabinets. Same amplifiers as these two use. Or did, till the things got ripped off. So they’d ditched the trailer, maybe, but wow, the case is open-and-shut. Pat, bit of crust in his mouth, can only chew and chew in quiet disbelief.

“There’s more,” Billy spitting overboard. “Seems they asked about a young Native, wandering around alone, whether the clerk might’ve seen or heard of him.”

“Meaning me?” Pat had been out alone early this morning, it was true, on that cell phone odyssey.

“Clerk thought it was me, actually. ‘You being, might say, a singular Red Indian, heh heh, uhh, think may’t’ve been you they was asking after,’ and I didn’t correct him.”

“Because you didn’t want to mention our new friend?”

“You know,” just then, sloppily from behind, “You know what this song really reminds me of, right?” Atonwa, some sleeptalk intonation piping up from inside the tent, groggy, groping for a response.

And, some shaky contemplation of just what it is they’re mixed up in taking hold over their unaccustomed features, the members of NMF look one to the other, and back at the tent, and down at the water.

* *

In the last few weeks, Ket has taken to wearing a small golden swastika charm around his neck (‘ancient symbol of cyclical creation,’ as Kava often reminds onlookers, although Ket himself has kept mum on the item’s personal significance). It’s shabby and shiny at once, and is always at a bizarre angle of disarray, knotted up on its chain or stuck someplace in its wearer’s long rat’s-nest hairdo or single bleached dreadlock, or else caked or dripping with food. Ket leans a lot--back and forth and often without much regard for the oscillation’s depth--and since he’s pretty much always cooking, it’s not uncommon for him to start awake with a heavy whiff over a bubbling pot, his jewelry and sometimes his loose shirt collar already in the soup. Sometimes he finds himself absentmindedly sucking on the nubs of the swastika-legs, picking up on the ancient tastes there for the detecting.

Think whatever you want; Ket really is a great roommate, and his girl Kava too. Where their clan is concerned, they do right by all. Kava, who moved in last winter, has deep connections in the natural foods underground, which vague hookups, combined with their EBT accounts, are responsible for feeding pretty much 95% of the house--everyone except Herb, really, who doesn’t like to share--all required sustenance on any given day. And though their meager earnings, from the exotic plant and tea mailorder Kava’s been supposedly running since moving to New York and the odd gig Ket gets doing sound for a band in the city, all seem to go to the drugs they share, the couple has never been late on rent or bills of any kind. They appear to genuinely care about the house--cleaning and making small repairs as needed--and its inhabitants, giving away all their cigarettes, watching Bob the cat when Blob’s out of town or contriving medicinal decoctions when someone’s sick.

Mornings usually Kava will head into the city to meet their guy and return with the day’s worth of product as well as a bike basketful of fancy groceries. Usually by late afternoon you’re looking at Ket’s famous lentil mush frothing accommodatingly, a steady though leisured boil; he and Kava are vegans and opioid-cases and so, as you might guess, they like to cook it low and slow.

Which has pretty much been the deal today, a stew pleasantly enmushening in the big pot since about 10:00, 10:15 this morning, and Ket standing guard blankly in a corner of the unsanded, butterfly-grooved and decidedly ramshackle kitchen area, actually staring straight ahead through the greasy dark hair that frames, bisects and oftentimes completely obscures his sightline (this not counting the one white dread off to the side, which, questionable aesthetics aside, never gets in the way), while an 80s new age cassette dribbles tinnily from the spraypainted old Califone he’s got parked on the countertop, the soft synths drowning out the occasional hiss of his long boil as bubbles drift up to the soup’s surface and swell, momentarily volcanic, before popping with a satisfying burp and spewing out a bit of vapor. It is an intoxicating, primordial pattern: a placid brewing punctuated with moments of terrific volatility, crackles and hisses appearing out of nowhere, before everything returns to safety and warmth. Can’t blame a guy, eyeing the routine, for spacing out. Kava is reading a magazine or maybe napping on the couch, and fat Bob, the only other resident that seems to be home at 2:45 on a Thursday (though nobody’s seen Georgia today; could be she’s still up in her room), is almost definitely sleeping in a cupboard somewhere. Everyone feels alright.

Ket is kind of hung up, though. What he’s thinking about most likely has something to do with the current fortunes of NMF, the band in which he figured as a member for something like five years--playing bass on records and shows around New York as well as touring religiously--until quitting in a huff last New Year’s. Ket had long regarded bandmates Pat and Billy as brothers, could never have imagined their collaboration coming to an end. But hooboy, ended it sure had--and if the same wasn’t maybe officially true of their three-way friendship, once ironclad, then its current material metaphor was decidedly less metallic; something more along the lines of a threadbare string, if you really wanna know.

The wound is still raw, at least on his end. So what had they fought about? Well look, it does seem kind of overblown, but in Ket’s opinion the disagreement had been sort of, well, fundamental. And far-reaching too, going back, in point of fact, to the mutual political passions that had initially underlay the band’s founding.

Ket is actually Russian. Born in Leningrad in the last year of Soviet Olympic domination--his hardliner father had often proudly recounted how Nikita Aleksandrovich had emerged at the precise moment the USSR notched a 7-1 win against Sweden in the 1988 gold medal hockey game--he was inculcated from birth with a healthy store from the dwindling supply of old-world European national fervor. Most of his friends growing up listened to rap, new American groups, or at least the Beatles or something; Ket’s dad, on the other hand, had kept a strict eye on his son’s CD collection, and in family settings had jammed only Alla Pugacheva and Valery Leontiev tapes.

All of which meant that when, after years of experiences marked by the corrosive character of post-dissolution Petersburg and a youth at the margins of a crumbled orthodoxy (as in ‘Orthodox;’ his grandfather had been a priest in the Eastern church and his mother, a Kazan Tatar, was for the most part stringently kept out of the equation), Ket found himself in the States, alone, stridently cultivating a sort of areligious, outlaw punker identity for himself, with--he admits it--something of a political stick up his ass. Meeting Pat and Billy constituted the perfect opportunity to make good on subverting his heritage, his unsolicited birthright, and so--in a move designed specifically to turn the bones of the late Aleksandr, buried in Tikhvin, to ever-finer flecks of paternal dust--Ket began playing punk music with a pair of American Red Indians.

And it had been sick, man, so much fun; touring endlessly, living off their tunes for years on end with nary a booking agent, manager, lawyer or record company jerk in sight. All until the end of last year, when Pat and Billy, tired of losing money on long drives and house shows, seized on a promised cash advance from some NY party-scene fools and cut a deal (Ket, whose feelings on the matter wouldn’t have been hard to guess, was not consulted), signing with some group called Jeweled Opal Booking for full rights to schedule shows, tours, record company meetings, the whole bit. First gig under these new auspices--and the moment Pat and Billy chose to inform Ket of the band’s new direction--was a December 31st midnight set punctuated with drunken flare-ups, live sound problems, sundry ill omens and an epic fistfight. Of course Ket had walked. And he hasn’t seen Pat or Billy since.

“And now we’re high and dry! No gear!” Not actually Pat talking to Ket here, just his voice, discreet hallucinatory murmur. Happens from time to time, Ket imagining himself attuned to certain frequencies but, you know, could obviously just be making these visits up wholesale. The sound is unmistakeable though; it’s his old friend’s, soft, wispy, emanating direct from the bubbling soup.

“I heard, man, bummer.” Ket is speaking right into the pot. “They got my bass too probably?” It had never been returned to him; truth is he hasn’t much felt like playing music these days anyway.

“‘Fraid so.” The soup pauses a moment. “Hey I guess you were right, huh? Looks like those booking agents really fucked us.”

Ket hesitates a second, peeks over at Kava asleep on the couch, mulls something over. “I just didn’t want to play the game, you know?” What passes, here in the kitchen, for an apology. “Didn’t want to be famous. Didn’t want to try. Worried it would change me...”

Does this sound dumb? Like one long cop-out, a series of excuses hastily thrown together for self-protection? Ket can’t decide. That he’s shooting himself in the foot, living like this, is plain as day; there is a growing fear, stuck fast to the underside of his every waking thought, that says he is dissociating further every moment, careening away from reality into a kind of managed stasis, a functional dementia that sees him, sure, talking to the food, but otherwise keeping up. Causes are not hard to spot, and the timeline doesn’t lie: this drug thing has only really kicked up in the last six months, you know, since he’s quit the band.

“I don’t know, though,” brow furrows narrowing, maybe a tear? “I got a lot of doubt...”

“It’s okay, dude...” the pot here radiating blissful, condolences all around, “be seeing you soon...” so inviting, and--

“--Nikita!” a yank on his necklace tears his head back flipping sopping hair and splashing lentil bits, cooked carrot chunks and--yeuch--flecks of vomit all over the counter, the Califone, and on Poppy herself, who’s just done the yanking.

“You passed out!” He’d actually dropped to full submersion, stuck his head all the way in the boiling pot, and started barfing and shaking. His face, as she dabs it with a wet paper towel, burns something awful.

“You gotta be more careful, man! Jesus...” Poppy, getting the puke out of her hair, trying to sound in control but pretty stringently avoiding eye contact.

“...when did you get home?” all he can manage to warble out, slow, frighteningly slow, leaden.

She finally looks up, countenance of piercing concern, too freaked out to shoulder this burden. Nobody’s nurse. “Ugh,” she just turns and walks away. Shakes Kava, who wakes with a slow smile, and points back to the kitchen, ‘go talk to your homeboy, he’s not doing so hot,’ kind of gesture. And sprints the rest of the way to her room, knocking over a stack of LPs in the corridor, slams the door shut and dives onto her bare twin mattress to bury herself in a pile of dirty laundry.

* *

That the info on Pat and Billy’s lost gear should’ve gotten to Poppy so quickly should come as no shock. Of course she has her ear to the ground where they’re concerned--they’re in NMF, her favorite band, one of the first she saw when she got into the city, the same night, in point of fact, on which she first met her beloved roomies.

So just for starters, Poppy, who’s grown up plenty fast, has no qualms about placing herself in the archetypal lineage descending from those disaffects who pack their bags and, in the verses of classic rock and roll tunes and attendant cultural lore, decide to leave their old life behind for New York. In her embrace of this folk legend and all it implies we might note her desire to mythologize herself, perhaps wilily gloss over some incidental heartache. She would probably say it’s worth the lie and be done with it.

Like NYC emigration, Jersey childhood, for a misfit, is after all pretty well-troped-out: cutting gym to smoke in the woods, hanging with older kids, getting a ride to the hardcore show a few towns over, etc. She’d stumbled through it, had fun, had fights, lived. Participated, half-knowingly, half-bashful but enjoying it all the same, in that inflation of purpose so intrinsic to being young. After getting socked, thrown around, elbowed for four hours in the mosh pit, she’d kissed the boy she liked in the parking lot, gone home wearing his studded leather jacket and been unable, even back amongst her viciously feuding parents, to stop smiling.

Different story for them. Their little girl, their obstinate Renoir wildflower, was misbehaving. How could they put a lid on it? She’d get called into the office of the principal, caught with a joint or a bottle of wine in her locker, and they’d be waiting there for her, Dad stooped over and Mom’s eyes all a-fury. Later she’d get an earful about that commute in from the city, where they worked, and just what it took to get someone to cover for them at the office, etcetera and so on. And she was sorry, honest; not for enemies, least of all these two, Poppy just wanted them to understand the situation, so she’d tried to explain that if, sure, sometimes she fell into that bored program of chemical-stoked misadventure and creeping behind backs, she was also mapping the parameters of an adolescence wherein identity was beginning to crystallize, wherein exhilaration at getting away with something could actually be pinned down to this nascent feeling, only ever a hinting thereof, that she was alive, beginning to be, feeling it out... That she was sorry, anyway, but couldn’t change who she was, who she was coming to be. Why--when she’d tried to explain, when she’d detailed it in all sincerity and love at their having delivered her this far, when she’d assured them she knew what was happening and had in no way fallen in for some headlong stumble, when she’d told them, hat in hand, Mom and Dad, that she would never lie to them, that they would go through this together, that at the end of the day she would need their help--why, then, did her parents turn away?

Thought she was posturing, maybe, and tried to call her bluff. Well, she wasn’t bluffing, man, and so ugh, things spiraled from there. She ran away, sort of a dry run, over the winter, came home after a night to find they’d bought her a little turtle, blinking dead-slow in a tank and turning its wet head hi. Quiet things down, no listening to her confessions and keep the unsightly out of sight, right? Noble effort, Poppy guessed, and so being on a real Motörhead jag in those days, she named him Lemmy and began to keep secrets, the way they’d trained her to do, only ever confiding in her turtle.

Was it guidance she craved? No, not particularly; she found guidance in steadfast camaraderie, in braving danger with her new cadre. What she sought at home was an end to denial, to the holding pattern. To all this avoidance. Now with it all gone sour, she couldn’t stay strong, not even for her own benefit. The night she let somebody’s older brother--he of the 40oz breath and the confident touch--snatch her virginity, boorish, all business, she’d come back to the house and started sobbing in the shower, gone to sleep drunk, haphazard and thrashing around without telling Lemmy the first thing about what had happened to her, and when she woke up in the morning his bedside tank sat cracked on its side and tiny lilypad puddles betrayed the hesitant tracking footprints showing her exactly where, upon his evident escape sometime during the night, the little creature had plodded along the windowsill and--her heart choking on despair--out the open second story drop. This was what did it, see. She packed her shit and as soon as her folks left for work, Poppy was gone.

Hasn’t been back since, but she wrote them a real doozy of a tender letter, early in her stay in the city, let them know she was alright, that she loved them dearly and knew they loved her, too, that she was sorry that it had to happen like that. But she included no return address. Enough’s enough. Poppy will do no more on behalf of Mom and Dad.

Now this swarm of roommates here at Third Mind House bespeaks plenty in the way of familial bonds, alternately healthful and danger-fraught as are all close relationships worth their salt. Of course Poppy, to take the primary example, loves the Georgia Klay who dotes like a sis, and notes that affirming upswell of enrapturing admiration and comfort that breaks over her each time she finds herself afforded entrance into that mysterious bedroom.

When winter’d piled snowy on the outside of their windowsills and no one had bothered to clean up, sweep the stairwell entrance or rescue the bikes from their chained-in alleyway crypt, these two stranded themselves on Georgia’s loft bed smoking rollies, drinking coffee with Reddi-Whip and doing art projects while all the world’s whiteness pounded outside, Poppy absently collaging all weed-nugg centerfolds to be found in the moldy pile of Ket and Kava’s old High Times magazines, Georgia sewing together an octopus costume for a play they’d always talked about putting on but which existed at this point as little more than a shared joke.

Poppy’d drifted through steady regard of Georgia’s heavysheened hair hanging pendulous, falling by hap here, there, partitioned by the threaded needle poking edgy from her lips as she looked up smiling through meaningful eyes at something the other’d said. The play was to be a sort of Hansel and Gretel for the new stupid century, wherein the two blaße Kinder were a pair of grimy mole people from beneath the city--much of the action would take place in the swampy Gowanus Canal and so here’s where this octopus fella would come in as ostensible nemesis--but don’t worry, they’d all be friends by the end, teamed up against the real enemy, a vulgar witch named Mrs. Shitler who bore a more-than-passing resemblance to Poppy’s onetime school principle. Look, it was only ever half-intended to be performed; it was a creative project, something done for its own sake, something unifying, a manifestation woollily and impulsively assembled from this and that idea that’d made one or both of them fall off the bed laughing. That was all it was, and all that was needed, at least for Poppy, trying to acclimate to life on one’s own (headstrong but mature, she really wouldn’t go back home; didn’t mean, though, that she hadn’t begun to miss it), and, she surmised, for Georgia too, who always operated on some edge of the unspoken, whose every action contained a correspondence with a hidden world from which, her little friend could tell, Georgia was seeking to protect her. Some place quite obviously sad, drug- and danger-inflected. Every so often Poppy would prod at this barrier, to what end she couldn’t say, maybe just to bolster herself in the eyes of the admired; admittedly childish, and anyways it never worked: like here they were on the bed all slumber party vibes and, jeepers, this whipped cream can all done? Georgia trying to shake out the last bits, yup, but Poppy who sees an opportunity all of a sudden decides to pull something she once saw a friend’s Rutgers fratboy brother do--grabs the next Reddi-Whip in line, stands it up unshakingly with nozzle between pursed lips, and rips a fat whippet. Drains the can’s nitrous oxide content into her lungs and falls back on the bed, back arched crazily in a forced Exorcist-level contortion, giggling, head spinning, rolling around for thirty or forty seconds.

When, still lying face-up, ears ringing and face kinda achey, she props two elbow supports and cranes neck to shoot a look across at Georgia--hoping presumably for some kind of reciprocal crazy-eyed party-girl expression--she’s not peering back at all, actually seems to be avoiding Poppy’s gaze, eyes cast off to the side, refilling a coffee cup in a bit of intentional busywork. Wordlessly she tries the can of whipped cream but with all the propellant gone the only thing that comes treacling out is a nasty glob of thick milk. Georgia looks up at Poppy, smiling but all facadey, actually a smile imposed on a frown, on the face of a shared moment now ruined by Poppy’s asinine insistence on seeming adult, and tosses the can off the loft into a pile of clothes on the floor. Its impact is muffled by the laundry, and ditto for whatever Poppy begins to say here by way of apology as Georgia accommodatingly changes the subject and seems to take no major notice. But Poppy’s face starts to burn, the cold giggly N2O globbing into some kind of hot humiliation compound in her brain. So you’re feeling tough now? something inside needling, and what, exactly, are you trying to prove?

Yeah, would that you could leave all that flexing and showing-off to the phonies out there, the phonies everywhere, the power politics and petty jealousies of socializing in the world of nowts and poseurs and their insecurities, their jockeying for coolness and their shabby escapist rituals. Really you ought to just be grateful for what’s brought you here: the right show at the right time (NMF, natch) to meet Ket--then the bass player, kind, if kreepy--who’d introduced you to seraphic Georgia outside on a cig break, for the hand of providence guiding you to this bedroom, to this window for sincerest connection while meantime alternate-universe Poppys are stuck suffering in study-hall periods stretching to infinity; really you ought to just do away with outmoded attitudes and be sincere. You’ve positioned yourself, lucky kid, to avoid high school outright. Now make good on your promise, on hopes which from the outset seemed utterly unrealizable, jeez, on what you’ve done to your parents, and become a better person for all of it. Don’t relapse, now you’ve come this far.

But you know, maybe Poppy could be a little hard on herself, too, and thankfully the housemates make allowance for this sort of thing, oblige the odd countervailing experience to ratchet the childlike wonder and so offset the teenagey slip-up here and there. On the third day of that long snowed-in weekend, they resolved as a group to battering-ram down the front door and start fuckin’ playing out there, already. In the downstairs foyer, then, as a team, ready? One, Poppy delightedly surveying the other determined faces, two, now turned hard-nosed for the job at hand, three! and she threw all her weight against big Herb ahead of her, who barreled into the next person and so on until as one great mass they cracked the barricading ice into powerless component pieces and great hingey swing, the door opened. High-fives, back-pats. Not bad for ninety pounds, a little trick she picked up in the basement moshpits of northern Jersey.

Outside she entered another life. The world was pristine and dusted pure, snow up to her knees where left untouched and piled even higher in buildingside mountains fashioned by neighbors to allow for a clear sidewalk, long-since repowdered and repacked, generation after dreamlit generation. And it continued to fall still, flakes cast black against the white sky, whiter than she could remember ever seeing, and turning effortlessly white themselves at the instant the background shifted, her eyeline tracing their downward path, to dark buildings and street-level. Such invariability of purpose. Such comfort in the inexorable drift, in one sanctioned by all drifted past. As if there were, truly, a plan, and divergence, what looked outwardly like rebellion, were an inseparable component thereof. It was a pantheistic reminder of unity, in case she ever forgot that some things transcended her infantile delineations--enemy and ally, virgin and grown-up, jock and punk, cliché and straight dope--with an eye toward a grander network of more delicate correspondences. It was a hint of the bright cumulative totality of youth’s experience to carry across the darkly sundered spots, unspecific, nothing to pin down but this suggestion of glory, of purposeful bestowal, these unerring snowdrifts a gift vouchsafed from heaven.

She tries, hard, to integrate any and all of these miasmic hints, and to apply them, as she applies such religious thinking anywhere it seems called for. Which is to say that even though she knows otherwise, rationally speaking, the suggestion stubbornly persists: Georgia is some kind of angel. Not the sort wont to post up in the corners of a childhood bed of fantasy, no, she’s not ostentatious, in fact largely withdrawn, and yet she carries on her person some mementos. In a symbolic conception that trumps any stringently factual one, Georgia Klay has been touched, kissed, wrapped in the silvery-threaded cloths of another argent world. When she walks among secular workaday souls, there is a soft light of distinction that haloes her around. This much is clear to Poppy, even from her vantage at arm’s length.

It’s equally irrefutable, though, the way Georgia sometimes avoids her gaze. Often those errant half-seconds, the moment before the nitrous hit her lips, the false move hastily whitewashed over in their history, their relationship’s path paved quickly and detouring direct beside these moments of missed connection, of overstepped bounds or raw-nerve-exposure, so that the side of their road, forever finely snaked and hopeful, is yet littered with countless little tokens of dishonesty. How can Georgia mean so much to Poppy, be so open to all that her meaning suggests, and still, in this one secret arena, dissemble without pause? What was she hiding? Hadn’t Poppy gotten enough denial at home?

Of course it was different. Her parents’ refusal had arisen by proxy, out of their general lack of interest in the tough questions of raising a kid who didn’t want to take orders, plain and simple. Their systemic program of meekness and their hope it would all just go away. It was passive, their failure, almost a side effect, bloating till it eclipsed the center, the rapidly dwindling stores of what had been unconditional love... Georgia’s refusal was intentional, see, by way of distinction, willful, and borne not from the negative space that surrounded feeling but from feeling’s very core. It was the action of someone who understood perfectly, who sympathized and related and had likely gone through all this and more, little girl, and who in spite of it recognized this furthest frontier as one step too far. She, who shared everything, would never share this--and the gravity that that exception implied, and Poppy’s all-around trust in Georgia, was enough. Curiosity’d lingered, would always linger, but Poppy’s maturest self will keep assuring her that to be kept at such specific distance must be for the best, though there’s no way of knowing for sure.

And Georgia, who knows too much, and indeed, knew too much much too young, neatly bouquets this relationship’s twin reliances on openness and concealment. Yeah, she has tried, at length and effort, to stay honest, but she has also sought to keep Poppy from growing up, much as can be managed, doing so for all the apparent altruistic reasons but also for that other one, the one that allows her to revert, to regain some modicum of innocence, a--not to say secondhand childhood, but at least an evocation; one capable, out there that day playing in the snow, of loosening some of those sullying calcifications of age and compulsion and accumulated awful behavior, of easing her back toward a former wholeness, of helping her cope with the vacuums and lacunae, the capacities of which she’s been forever emptied... It might not be overstating the case--Georgia standing that day in the snow watching Poppy at self-conscious frolic--to think of this little thirteen-year-old form, bucking and bristling at a purity she’s desperate to reject, as the logical complement to her own weary self, in perennial mourning over that very purity that’d long since been revealed as all too transient, there bicycle-kicking a hanging icicle and couldn’t rightly say whether it was Poppy doing it or Georgia, another Georgia herself, something blurring before gahh, what the--

--and she jumped near out of her skin to say nothing of her reverie, diverted attention shocked back to the immediate, this stuffed snowball streaking slick hot numbing down the back of her shirt, frantically patting it into freezing ice smush as who? turning after some unseen culprit, couldn’t have gone far--and a meatheaded chuckle from behind her gave it away.

Yeah, it was Herb there, lounging in the open doorway, real pleased with himself on account of his maneuver: hide, bide time, strike. Why?

It was an unwarranted attack, and neither was it the first time an action of his could be so described; Herb, in fact, had become the handful of the house, the roommate who was always going too far, hurting someone’s feelings, riling everyone up, or, as often, bringing the cops out on noise complaints. “Did you just stuff a snowball down my shirt?” Chortle. “What the hell?” Georgia kicked some snow at him while he just laughed harder, “Christ, that’s really shitty, Herb, a shitty thing to do,” in a schoolmarm tone that surprised her. Poppy and Blob, who’d right then been engaged in an intense firefight of their own, stopped and watched, not sure how serious it all was.

“Get over it?” Herb impassive, or feigning it, just leaning.

Georgia had suddenly felt like she might cry. “I didn’t do anything to you!”

Herb’s expression, eyes gone strabismic and mouth sewn shut, suggested he was surprised at the depth of her offense. “I, uh,” embarrassed, smiling jocular but averting her eyes, and he just went back inside, recess up, the schoolyard unwelcome.

Some days later in the kitchen he’d tapped Georgia, washing dishes, on the shoulder and given her a real apology.

“It’s okay, but are you mad at me about something?” she’d asked then. “I thought we were pals.”

“I, uh,” searching for the words, “no. It’s like... I just have to. Because I don’t really mean it. It’s like you’re my sister or something.” Eyes denoted sincerity, regret, distress and she, seeing it all, hugged him for his trouble. “I don’t know why,” Herb offered, pithy, mid-embrace.

Herb was, even for a Third Minder, an odd one. Didn’t hang out, rarely socialized at all. Had lived at the house for almost a year and yet had been, until recently, more or less a nonstarter in the arena of the interpersonal relationship, any level past casually-acquaint. All’d known him, but hardly at all; he appeared regular and regularly, but was at home a lot, if we’re tallying, and kept in-between times tacitly guarded behind the logical prompt of a locked bedroom door. And if things had changed of late, the suddenness just bespoke the eerie regularity of what had preceded.

Because yeah, no denying a transformation had commenced with this guy, twinning forth on planes social and physical. Herb had grown in confidence, to be sure, if that was the right descriptor for the dude who could now be regularly seen haranguing and challenging roommates on every conceivable issue (how to break down the snowblocked door over the winter, for instance; Herb had pished every plan but his own, which involved a group-jump from the roof and seemed in Blob’s words, with which all had agreed, “super ill-advised”).

So Herb was pushy, but there was also this other side of things. Along with his assertiveness--really his aggression--had come this conspicuous fitness indulgence: calorie counting, a stringently-managed weightlifting regime, a clearly delineated program of self-intensifying and with it an attendant clamming up, a denial that anything was different, an omission that stuck out horrendously. Acting as if he had always been driven to lift, to bench, to squat, lunge, burpy; fuck--soon enough all of this meaning to hassle, to push people around, well, something in the changing Herb wanted addressing, no question. But what?

Suppose his personal history, but Herb (who came from a happily unbroken family in Long Island, to nip that line of inquiry in the bud) hasn’t one too likely to oblige an instructive symptom. One could look at interests, maybe: like his roommates, he had applied an underground cultural ethos formatively, dedicatedly. Maybe it’d gone awry, planted itself in some latent insecurity, lying there by dumb luck, too raw not to inflame. Maybe his thinking afterward had been a little, well, dogmatic, as watchwords like punk and DIY, meant to confer some handy self-determination to wayward kids, began to resonate in the young, hopelessly shy Herbie more as terms of power, projections of dignity, end-alls, be-alls.

Not to say he’d ever punched someone over a difference in underground doctrine--for bringing booze to a no-booze show, say, or for calling someone a hateful name where good vibes were to prevail--but the very fact that he could, that he was armed with a philosophy, a moral calculus to smooth out his impulses, his shamelessly self-aggrandizing ones, the ones of which he was less proud, well, it catalyzed quite the shift. He saw the world as if through new eyes. Saw the way folks acted around him. Saw he was maybe getting pushed around a little more than he’d’ve liked. And so he started in with this tough guy shit.

Don’t judge too harsh; I mean, Herb knows it’s a bit juvenile, these compulsions, but lay off their foundation, at least. Why shouldn’t he, after all, have sought solace in music, in an aesthetic, in a community which neatly transmuted pariah status into inner strength? Why shouldn’t he have sought to turn that strength outward, with an eye toward living more proudly, more fearlessly? It was only that something, somewhere, hit a switch, clicking the whole thing over into anger, into hostility, into a zone decidedly past goofy youthful conviction.

Maybe a lurching moshpit bully flouted basement-show-logic’s safety standards and just wouldn’t stop elbowing him; maybe a girl whose eyeline he was trying to catch instead stared traceably past him as she up and went swooney over a rival; maybe, probably, both--but whatever did it, it got done. Suddenly Herb was intent on getting big, and every hard-fought arm extension at the benchpress was alive with the searing satisfaction of another hypothetical jerk put in his place.

And it proceeded apace till, too much hardcore having turned him into an unlikely bro, aggro as his compatriots across college campuses the nation over, he became a jock in punk’s clothing, found himself at Third Mind House living with crusty kids who mocked him behind his back, pointed at the accoutrements of his bizarre hybrid lifestyle, protein powders and free weights and other substances and paraphernalia littered among the creature comforts of the scrawny, the perpetually-winded and wet-cough-prone, the nutritional invalids he called roommates. Other substances? Well yeah, sometime during Herb’s first structured forays into weightlifting, in the corner of a rusty locker room at a YMCA under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, he came upon some pentagonal pink pills, “BD” imprinted on one side and a snake design on the other.

“Not for everyone, guy,” the white-haired middleman, red skin, pallid grayflecked eyes had offered in accented English on noting the then-underbuilt Herb’s tempted glances, “different reactions for different people. You will want that Human Growth Hormone too.”

Herb swallowed, wiped palms on a towel that happened to hang nearby. “What do you think I should do?” With no one around to ask, he had actually put this question to the dealer.

The man shrugged. “Buy some.”

0.3 IU per pound of bodyweight weekly put his initial HGH dosage at 52 IU, or 7.4 per day. Dry somatropin wafer plus 1.5 mL bacteriostic water, gently swirl to solution. Pinch the flesh and pull back (easiest subcutaneous injection site was in his stomach) and inject, Christ, did he really mean to, hmm, there in the pocket of soft tissue and already swore he could feel the whisperings, cells responding, hormone passing through his liver for conversion into insulin-like growth factors, this powder just a precursor, see, with exogenously elevated levels of thyroid hormones and anabolics headily brewing, injection after injection spaced careful and methodic and of course he felt it: fat tissue burned, muscle cells increased in number and size, protein was spared for mass retention. He became weightier, quickly. Ditto for his perception of the stuff; he began to imagine the brittle clump of hormone as Eucharist, a rite towards alimentation of a transubstantiated morsel of another’s flesh--the first exogenous HGH was obtained by extraction from the pituitary glands of the dead--in pursuit of nutrition most precious and celebration of corporal vibrancy. He consumed the life force of others, body and blood, soul and divinity, to bolster his. It was positively liturgical.

But not without its downsides. The hormone gave him horrendous nightmares. There he’d be, bed alone and only his own body’s thickly inorganic warmth to keep the cold away and this communion become far more powerful for his dead-of-night defenselessness, a magnetic draw leading him down endless subterranean streets toward buildings, hallways, rooms he knows he must avoid for their promise of certain oblivion, disintegration of this petulant reformed kid’s soul that’d regressed so egregiously, overstepped so flagrantly its rigid adult bounds, drawing nearer the patient creature that waits at his sinful regimen’s conclusion, Herb resisting the pull with all his power but of course in the dream he is not strong enough, not very strong at all, and he can’t fight it... It is always the same: a grand cityscape of demonic thoughtforms, peering down through fogged windows, tittering on balconies above, often dripping viscously, bacteriostically on his shoulders and burning, every step a further glimpse, hells which should desensitize for their interminable repetition but never do, only proceed, proceed, proceed, in all due terror... On waking, often enough too early, no promise of light, barely the prospect of sunrise, he recalls too much and must relive, stew for hours afraid to go back to sleep, even wait up the next night in safety of secular civic cold, shivering and yawning but at least in control. It’s not even an issue of desolation; indeed, sometimes he thinks he spots other trapped souls conveyed as slow and tortuous as he, and though they appear never to see him he nonetheless believes that in these moments he is sharing in genuine oneiric correspondence with another, that these fellow subjugates are the avatars of living breathing humans asleep somewhere in the physical world, suffering same as he. But there is no tenderness in connecting this way, without reciprocation, without even confirmation, just a taunt. It is worse than being alone.

He even swears to have made out, adrift one night in February, the coldly acclimatized face, faraway but unmistakable, of Georgia Klay following a similarly preened female escort, the latter guiding, tracing a parallel path through the land of the dead, gossamer footfalls traceable, dizzyingly backward and labyrinthine, erring asymptotically toward Herb’s own delineated course stretched behind oily visible but naturally never coupling, never even crossing. No connection.

Herb can plain see something’s off the rails, to answer your question, would probably benefit from talking to someone, all the ifs and buts unfurling with a grace which, being in short supply in most areas of his life, makes here a last show of itself. Snatches, briefest attempts at openness--as when he apologized to Georgia--seem to confirm the fact he’s come to lack something essentially human. Incapable of explaining, Herb won’t even broach it. And meantime he, uh, can’t seem to quit injecting this stuff...

* *

Ket’s lentil soup--barf-riddled and ruined as it was--got thrown out and the kitchen thoroughly cleaned, after which he and Kava, feeling bummed, self-conscious, and a touch alarmed went ahead and cleared out of the house for the night. Probably the first time Ket has left in months, and though he’s only at a noise show up the street, the eerie empty vista of a Third Mind kitchen scene with neither his reliably hunched shadow in the corner nor his tea-tree olfactory signature pervading the smellscape is just now lending the whole house this subtlest uncanny that Bob the cat, keyed into the vibes, is doing a poor job of handling, running crazed laps, jumping up and down, just completely freaking out.

Georgia’s in her room working on music, recording source sounds to use in a possible set at the Third Mind Grind show, just under two weeks away. No idea what she’s going to do for her performance exactly, but a certain trust in the process has got her at least giving this cram session a shot. She’s got headphones on and a decent room microphone to catch the tones but Bob, scratching at her door and mewling psychotically, has been ruining every take, so she decides to take five and just opens the door to let him in.

“Hey whoa,” as he rockets past her and instantly starts in running riot across her desk, hurriedly stacked pile of books, her music station, shitty keyboards and old stereo, CDs, letters, scraps of paper and scribbled index cards fluttering desultory to the floor as he goes on leaping, clawstuck from speaker to speaker, scrambling up her hanging bedsheet, yanking it loose and exposing the aluminum ladder it covers before landing with a thump, purely agravitional, atop the wooden loft.

“Damn dude!” Bob is, you’ll recall, extremely fat, and Georgia’s duly impressed with his nascent get-up-and-go. But still, she’d like to contain the fallout, so she climbs up after the creature with an eye toward going ahead and gently shepherding him back out into the common area. “Alright, fella,” as she scales the ladder, “party’s over--” but he sees her coming, hisses, arched back fur mohawking in attack posture, and bats her across the forehead. “Owwwhat--!” a pretty major scratch here announcing itself with a numbing blankness already arcing up her brow but no time even to lay in with some reprimanding as whushhhh he hurtles past, heavy landing sounds rocketing backward into the house.

“Why...” he’s never done that before, too weird and oh, look, great: now everything’s all disarray up here too, the writing drafts she keeps stacked on the plywood landing, lazy mornings’ desk space at the foot of the mattress, papers sticking wet together and ink bleeding through thanks to this open jar of bedside water that’s just been knocked over, naturally, why not--fuck it, grabbing the stack of sheets, “Bob, you’re banned! No longer welcome here!” calling back over her shoulder and--hmm. One new item up here, actually, now she stops and takes a look.

It’s halfway hanging off the loft landing, J.R.’s leather suitcase, slipped in sideways down the gap between the bed and the wall. Evidently got left last night; but how? Wouldn’t he have known? No way could it have slipped his mind, yet, yeah, alright--grabbing at it--it’s wedged pretty good, and though combo-lockable it’s actually opened; a little page of something has already spilled out of its maw.

It’s an invitation, cardstock printed 3x5, postcard style, paper quality cues somehow conspiring to lend it an air of importance but here look, its edges’ve been torn off in small rectangular strips; the kinda bits--she needs no help recognizing--that get rolled up to crutch joints with. Her forehead is starting to sting. Unhesitating, she grabs it and reads.

It’s a letter authorizing a temporary furlough for a Non-Ranking Basic Serviceman J.R. Shrapnel, no middle name and this perfunctory insignia at the top, a rudimentary half-toned lightning bolt inside a circle, comic-book crude, and above it centered blue stencil print in fat sans-serif: SURF. It specifies a 24-hour window, back in January, for a visit to the Landstuhl US Armed Forces Medical Center in which a Major Benjamin Shrapnel is being treated. It thanks J.R. for his compliance and discretion.

Georgia blinks, looks away, not quite locked in just now on what’s real. Catches an errant reflection in her big cubed loft window, can already see Bob’s slash claw-cut on her forehead starting to bead out red, with white bits of kicked up skin peeling its edges. She turns back to the paper, gives it another mechanical once-over. Reads the signature at bottom, delicately wrought in the impeccably curlicued mode of the old masters, and stifles an involuntary shudder, stuffing the sound back in though she’s alone in the house.

‘Renfro Vale,’ it says.

NEXT: An innocent basement show goes awry; a mechanic restores an old clunker; a demonic possession is observed; Atonwa crosses paths with the Earthenware Virgin and Child.

MARK IOSIFESCU, 2013
   






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