Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Popcorn Girl: The Complete Novel

 

The Popcorn Girl

a novel by Michael J. Vaughn



Buy the Kindle version at Amazon.com


Copyright 2012 by Michael J. Vaughn



For Michelle Sutton


with special thanks to Wayne Rogers, Nina Koepcke and Akire Tiduj Csavok



pov

jersey said to the popcorn girl
add two letters to your name and I will
make you a streetcorner

the popcorn girl swooned

jersey woke to the sound of
pigeons
pecking on the shower stall door.


Jasmina

I want you to say it like this: Yazz-mee-nuh Kawn-treh-vitch. Very good. You’ve noticed already: I don’t talk like a Jasmina Contrevic. I talk like a Betty Smith, a Shirley Martin, a Heather Warner.
           
Not all of the Serbs were guilty. But bombs are indiscriminate. I was five, living on the outskirts of Sarajevo. The night was cold. My parents left me home, for safety. I stood at the window to watch them drive away. I felt the rush of air. They were vaporized.

I ended up in Bergen County, New Jersey with my second cousin. The trees were bursting with color, and Laszlo’s backyard felt like a country estate. He bought me a swingset, and we spent the afternoon putting it together.

Laszlo was so affectionate, for such a long time, that I did not recognize when it was that the line was crossed. Looking back, it was the introduction of the penis, but at the time I suppose I thought of it as a new toy. At twelve, after much painful effort, Laszlo put his penis inside of me, and it was then that the triggers finally went off.

I went to the library and scoured the biology section until I discovered the word intercourse. If Laszlo continued, I would have a child in my belly. I didn’t want that. Over the years, Laszlo gave me little cash gifts. I took all that I had saved, plus the diamond engagement ring that he kept in his dresser, and bought a ticket for Minneapolis.

I ended up in Mill Valley, California, a dollhouse town guarded over by redwoods. I work at the old moviehouse, where I take tickets, clean the theater after screenings, and work the box office. But I think of myself as the popcorn girl.


Paul

 It’s been raining for weeks. The hillsiders are walking their perimeters, looking for signs of  mudslides. Down here in the village, with our asphalt and storm drains, we feel pretty safe. Although the corner by the Depot is beginning to resemble a koi pond.

It’s January, so I don’t expect shoppers, but the gray desolation is getting to me. I hang the Back in 15 sign and walk a cigarette to the bridge.

Not so much a bridge; the creek crosses under the road through a concrete tunnel. I’ve seen kids hiking the tunnel in summer, and I’m a little curious about where it ends up. Some of the bigger mysteries are right beneath us. I lean over the railing and watch the water as it roils into civilization. It’s downright river-like.

“Isn’t it magnificent?”

To my right is a white hood.

“Do you ever picture a single raindrop falling into the water like a tiny kayak, and the wild ride it must take before it reaches the Bay?”

I take a drag and let it go – a stall tactic.

“Oddly enough, I do. Only, for me it’s a raft. Like Huckleberry Finn.”

The hood angles away, revealing a remarkable pair of eyes. Round as marbles, black irises, glimmering in the faint light. She smiles.

“I love Huckleberry Finn.”

I can’t speak. She glances at her cell phone.

“Oh shit! Gotta go.”

She crosses the street to the moviehouse. She takes off her jacket, revealing thick black hair, falling to her shoulders in sidewinder waves. Egyptian princess. Russian czarina. My cigarette burns down to my fingers. I flinch, and it falls to the water.


Jasmina

            Why do people find it so difficult to be nice? There are certain (blonde, lazy) employees who expend large amounts of energy being surly, acting like each customer through the door is another one-ton weight upon her oh-so-frail back. People often tell me how pleasant I am, but really I’m just taking the logical path. I am being paid cash money to engage people, to be nice to them, so I embrace my role, and the day goes by much faster. And here’s the key to the whole thing: I ask people how they’re doing, and then I listen. You’d be amazed at how many people are desperate to talk to someone.

The owner, Fosh, is a Persian man with a jowelly brown face. He reminds me of a cinnamon roll. The rest of the staff is a little scared of him, but I just treat him like another customer: I ask him how he’s doing. Sometimes the answer is very long, and I have to remind him that I need to get to work. Fosh is long-married, to a woman who looks like an ambassador’s wife. I’m betting it was an arranged match. I’m betting he hasn’t had sex for years, and I’m betting she does not ask him how he’s doing.

Tuesday evening – very slow. An older couple. The man has silver hair, but retains a bit of youth in his face: sharp features, blue-gray eyes. The woman is well-preserved, but much of it is artificial: the $200 frost-blonde hairdo, the tight, expressionless face. She looks bored. Most of the terrible stuff in the world is perpetrated by those who are bored.

Fifteen minutes into the movie, Mr. Silver returns, armed with a soda. He wears a gray suede jacket, knit collar, very nice. He breathes a sigh and hands me the soda.

“I’m sorry. Could I get a Diet Coke? I could have sworn she said regular.”

“Happens all the time. How’s the movie?”

He rolls his eyes. “Chick-flick. But I’m tough; I can take it. How are you doing today?”

Ambushed by my own trick.

“Slow. It’s harder when it’s slow.”

“I know precisely what you mean.” He eyes my name tag. “Jasmina. Gorgeous name.”

“And you pronounce it so well!” I snap a lid on his Coke and hand it to him.

“Lucky guess. What’s the damage?”

I smile (this being just the right time to smile). “Let’s just pretend that the whole thing was my mistake.”

He smiles back – a small smile, a little controlled. “You are a gem. It does an old man good to be served by a young beauty.”

“Enjoy your chick-flick. Take notes.”

“Oh I will.” He laughs and turns to go. Ten feet away, he stops, comes back and hands me a business card.

“Jasmina, could you email me sometime? I have some business I’d like to discuss with you.”

I slip the card into my jeans pocket. “You’d better get back to your wife.”

“Yes I’d better. ‘Bye.”

“‘Bye.”

Mr. Silver lopes away. An hour later, I take a bathroom break and give the card a scan: Anthony Francis, attorney, tax specialist. I envision my most recent trip to the ATM, the drop in my stomach when I saw my balance. The Minneapolis cushion is gone.


Paul

I have what you would call an ineffectual smile. When I manage to get it to make an appearance, it is inevitably off-kilter – too small, listing to the left, a square of gritted teeth. I have landed only one natural-looking smile on a photograph, at my sister’s wedding, when my uncle made a fart joke.

For the girl in the white hood, this is not a problem. The counter of my shop is positioned in such a way that my gaze falls on the box office of the moviehouse. A customer approaches. She flashes that smile as if it were hooked up to a light switch, and it is always perfect. I am terribly envious.

I have found the secret to those dark eyes. I apologize for not knowing a better word, but her face is porcelain. The contrast is alarming, a woman in black and white. And thick lips, as if she is permanently pouting. Unless she’s smiling.

I am an accidental stalker, a victim of feng shui. And it surprises me. After all that… nonsense, I thought I had lost these urges entirely, had tossed them into the creek like a useless appendage.

At the end of her shift, she counts up her cash drawer and takes a moment to gaze out at the street. Her face takes on an expression of despondency, as if someone has just told her the most awful news. For those two seconds, she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.


Jasmina

I work hard at my sunny disposition, but some days are tougher than others. Anthony has taken me to lunch twice. He is charming, genteel, but I wish he were a little more rude. I need to know what he wants. More importantly, I need to know how much he intends to pay for it. But I have learned my lessons from Minneapolis. You need to let things unfold at the customer’s pace. Even if you’re a week late on rent.

The weather’s not helping. The skies have been gray for a month, and the moviegoers are irritable. My stress buttons are out there, waiting to be pushed. When I duck my head into the box to scoop some corn, the popper spits a drop of hot oil onto my cheek.

“Shit!”

I take time with the butter, hoping to quell my frustration. But my customer has noticed, so I’d better acknowledge it.

“Sorry. Our popper likes to spit oil on me.” I hand her the bag.

She smiles. “Maybe it’ll leave a beauty mark and you’ll look like Cindy Crawford.”

She’s a blonde lady in her fifties. Something about California baby boomers makes them cooler with stuff like this. God bless her.

“Hey Jazz. Why don’t you take your lunch?”

Javid, my savior. He always knows what I need. If he was thirty years older, I might go out with him.

“Thanks, Jav. 45 okay?”

“Go for it.”

I am thankful for the power bar I had at break, because I have something in mind that is not related to food. I head across the street to the store with the curious name. The owner is perched at his counter, applying price tags to a stack of Darwin fish magnets. I’m tempted to do the noncommittal browser thing, but I’m short on time, so I head straight for the source.

“So what does The Free Thinker mean?”

He laughs, and I realize right away that this is his calling card, his secret power. It’s a deep, manly laugh, absolutely heartfelt.

“I thought of calling it the Atheist Shoppe, but I thought that might be a little forbidding.”

“That’s funny,” I say. “I’ve been thinking of becoming an atheist.”

I feel a little rush, like I just stepped off the high dive. He makes again with the laugh; he really should hire out to comedy clubs.

“I like the way you put that. But there is a distinction. You don’t really become an atheist. It’s more like discovering you’ve been one all along.”

Behind his spectacles are small eyes that appear to be hazel, but they give off flashes of blue and green as he shifts his gaze.

“So how does one go about discovering one’s atheism?”

“Raised Christian?”

“Serbian Orthodox.”

“Ooh. Tough one. I would say, you should start by studying some Christian history.”

“Isn’t that what I’m trying to get away from?”

“A religious upbringing is miles thick. You’ve got a lot of mythology to shed. And the best place to start is Paul.”

He pulls up an old-looking green book.

“It’s an analysis of the New Testament, and especially Paul’s epistles, written by a Talmudic scholar.”

“Talmudic?”

“The Torah. The Old Testament. Paul basically created Christianity, and this…” He stops himself. “I’m sorry. Why don’t you read this without any pretext? We can always talk about it later."

“Awesome! How much?”

“Ten bucks.”

“That’s all?”

“I tend to find these at yard sales.”

“Thanks!”

I hand him money that should be going to my rent. When he hands me my change, I see his long fingers and I smile.

“Hey! You’re the guy with the raindrop riverraft.”

“Pardon?”

“Huckleberry Finn.”

“Oh! Yes.” He gives me an awkward smile.

“I’m Jasmina. I work at the moviehouse.”

“I thought you looked familiar. I’m Paul.”

“Now that’s funny.”

He nudges his glasses. “Should I tell you the standard story?”

“By all means.”

“On the road to Tarsus, I was struck down, and I saw a bright light. Then I realized it was a BART train, I was in Berkeley, and I was very drunk.”

“That’s good. But then, shouldn’t your name be Saul?”

“I enjoy the irony.”

“Irony is good. I’d better get going so I can grab a snack. ‘Bye.”

“Thanks for coming in!”

I exit to find the sky still gray. The green book feels hot in my hand.


Paul

Exit Wonderland is playing in a meadow near a Canadian glacier. The fans go on forever, and each of them holds a single orange gladiola. A dark-haired groupie rushes the stage to throw corn flakes over my head. Billy plays the intro to “Change.” When we hit the triplet at the end of the line, the crowd claps along. The triplet gets louder each time through, until I open my eyes and it all goes away. Except for the triplet, which is sounding from the front door. I pull on some clothes and wander downstairs.

I creep to the counter and scan the window. Mill Valley’s a pretty tolerant place, but still I’ve had some pretty nasty threats from so-called Christians. A woman appears at the glass, using her hands like blinders so she can peer inside. I walk to the door and undo the latches. I have barely opened it when she flattens her face to my chest and wraps her arms around my torso. She is sobbing violently.

The sensation of touch is overwhelming; it makes me realize how deprived I have been.

“Jasmina? What’s wrong?”

There’s no way she’s going to answer. She’s shaking, and gasping for breath.

“Well. Come in.”

I take a slow step backward and pull her inside, then I reach past her shoulder to redo the latch.

She has clamped on to me like a barnacle, and I’m not sure what to do. I wrap my arms around her back, lift her off the ground and carry her down the aisle to an armchair. I turn around and sit; somehow she ends up on my lap, her face pressed to my T-shirt. I find myself with a close-up of those amazing curls, serpentines that just keep going and going. I would like to touch them, but I’m unfamiliar with the protocol.

She is not going to stop crying, so I have all the time in the world to ponder my situation. Perhaps I am being punished for wishing too hard. A father catches his son smoking a cigarette, so he buys him a pack and makes him keep smoking until he gets sick.

Jasmina smells of flowers. Gardenia, magnolia. Shampoo, perfume. Her breathing begins to slow. She lifts a hand to my collarbone. Cars roll past, sending washes of light over Voltaire and Jefferson.


Jasmina

I wake up in Paul’s armchair, two wise men watching over me. A third appears and nudges me on the arm.

“Doing okay?”

I sneak a hand to the crotch of my jeans. The pain is still there, but nothing fluid.

“I’m all right.”

“Unfortunately, I’ve got to get going.”

“Take me with you.”

“Well, you’ll probably be…”

“Please?”

“Okay. I’ll be right back.”

Behind the shop, Paul’s got an old pickup truck. The bed is packed with round black objects. He hands me a violin case and drives us to the freeway.

Marin County at night has the feel of an overgrown village, round hills speckled with houselights, boats grazing on the edges of the bay. We roll into San Rafael and take an eastward jag, ending up in a neighborhood of flat, straight avenues overgrown with trees. Paul turns into a dirt driveway stacked with cars. A truck at curbside has a sign that says Roamin’ Hounds.

The backyard looks like an outdoor rec room. A large tent shelters a ring of old sofas and camp chairs. A bar juts out from the house, lined with Christmas lights. Off in the corner is an old-fashioned detached garage, a strip of light seeping under the door. Paul motions me into a chair.

“Stay here. I just want to make sure this is okay. Protocol. Here.”

He takes off his jacket and lays it over me. I pull it up to my chin. A minute later, Paul returns and leads me into a side door. The garage is a chaos of equipment. Egg crates cover the ceiling; the floor is a motley of rugs. I see a guitar and finally make the connection: the black objects in Paul’s truck are drum cases. Paul takes me to a low vinyl chair and sits me down.

“I get the feeling I don’t have to ask you to keep quiet. We’ve got a gig coming up, so we might be a little intense.”

A small brown dog jumps into my lap.

“Well! Augur likes you.”

Augur gives me a sad look – likely his permanent expression. A nice-looking blonde lady hands me a beer.

“Hi. I thought you could use this. I’m Anne. Keyboards, backing vocals.”

“Hi. Jasmina.”

“Whoops! Gotta check my mic.”

Once Paul assembles his drums, they jump into a run-through. Anne calls out the songs. The band is rounded out by the lead guitarist, Billy, a thin man with long brown hair, and the bassist, Smeed, a stocky man with long black hair and chiseled features with a touch of American Indian.

The singer, Pamela, is a svelte brunette. Her voice is not showy, but it’s got a soulful edge. Her delivery is marvelously direct, blue-collar. I suspect a lot of the lyrics are political, but I’m too exhausted to piece them together. The music sweeps over me, but I can tell there’s a lot of variation in rhythm and style: funk songs, rockers, surf songs, a bit of Ray Charles, a metal song, a power ballad. And a bit of three-part a capella from Paul, Anne and Pamela that shakes me out of a nap.

Most of the entertainment, however, comes from dog number two, a reddish-chocolate dachsund who seems bent on destruction. Pamela spends much of her time chasing Jasper from hazardous areas and pulling foreign objects from his mouth. Billy is halfway through a guitar solo when Jasper decides that his wah-wah pedal is a see-saw. Billy nudges him away and says, “Dachsund slipper!”

Thinking that things are under control, Pamela delivers her next song while striking various yoga positions. Jasper saunters by and pees on her mic stand.


“That was hilarious!”

We’re taking the back way through Larkspur, dark little houses flying past. I am re-energized, filled up with music. Paul looks like he’s about to ask me a question, so I ask one first.

“How did you get into this band?”

He finishes taking us through a long curve. “I started as a fan. Saw them one night in Sausalito and fell in love. Their songs are so straightforward and self-contained. They’re songs. So I got their schedule and went to every performance. There’s something very pure about being a fan; it’s an unselfish part of your being that you really need to exercise.

“I did, however, have a chink in my armor: I could see their fatal flaw. Just about every band in the world has one. I’m convinced that the bands that make it are the ones who have the cojones to get rid of that flaw. What’s worse, it was the drummer. Guy had chops – long, impressive fills, rapid snarework. But he belonged in a metal band. Exit Wonderland needed a no-nonsense type, a drummer who could create funky beats, throw in a snappy fill, a well-timed cymbal shot. Who could play the song. And that was me. But I couldn’t say anything, because I was trying to maintain the purity of my fanhood.

“Anne came by the shop one night and handed me a CD. Their drummer had a foot infection, they were playing a picnic the next day, and my job was to play it with them. Cold. Talk about adrenaline! But I drew on all the tricks I’d learned in jam sessions: stick to the backbeat, no big fills, follow the cues, play a little laid-back so you can react. I had the luxury of a couple rehearsals before a house party the next week, and I guess I planted a seed. Three months later, I got an email inviting me to be their drummer. I finally found a band that fired somebody, and that’s why we’re so good.”

“When’s your next gig?”

“This Friday, right here in town. The Sweetwater. We’re opening for the Baby Seal Club.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Baby Seal Club. You gotta see the Baby Seals.”

“I am so there. By the way, what the hell is a dachsund slipper?”

“That’s what you get when you put your foot up a dachsund’s ass.”

This has the effect of taking all of my great stress and turning it inside out. I giggle and cackle till I’m out of breath. This gets Paul laughing, too. By the time we recover, I realize that we’re nearing Mill Valley. I have to decide whether to divulge my place of residence.

“So are you going to tell me?”

It takes me a second to compute the question. “I’m sorry. No. It’s too… it’s embarrassing. I don’t know you well enough.”

“But you know me well enough to come crying to my door.”

I don’t actually know why I went there – I was pretty much out of my mind. It might have been simple geography. But I think Paul deserves something better.

“I feel comfortable with you. You’re very kind. And… I hope you take that the right way.”

He laughs. “I’d have to work pretty hard to take that the wrong way.”

I’m grateful when he pulls in behind his shop, removing the other dilemma. He takes me to the sidewalk, gives me a hug and a wave. Crossing over the creek, I rediscover my pain. Tony was no gentleman, he was much too big for me, and if it weren’t for the money I would have to say it was rape.


Paul

The sun is back. I’m so relieved, I gave myself a lunch break. I head for the Depot, where they have a butternut soup that inspires fistfights. The air outside is freezing, but I will not be kept from my UVs. I don my sunglasses, baseball cap and ski jacket and take a seat on the patio.

The Depot is Mill Valley’s epicenter; all surrounding ridges are equidistant from my table. It’s like standing on the 50-yard line of a football stadium. I take a taste of my quadruple espresso (what they call The Cardiac). The substances meld and blend and I think I may be ready. I reach into my pocket and pull out an envelope. It’s a letter from Callie. It’s been surfing my desk for a week, nibbling at my skin.

It’s not that this letter contains anything dangerous. I came to my present way of thinking all on my own; therefore, I am not reprogrammable. Beyond the perfect cursive address, the lines of scripture on the flap, lies nothing much more than an irritant. If you come back, she will say, all your crimes will be forgiven.

Inevitably, though, the irritant becomes an aerial photograph of a widening chasm. I spent a large slice of my life with this woman. We created beautiful moments: delicious dinners, stunning vistas, funny jokes, luscious sex. Now, all she cares about is my soul. Or, rather, an object that she thinks is my soul.

In Callie’s world, if you join the proper Girl Scout troop, and take all the necessary pledges, then Bingo! Your soul is saved. The atheist soul is a much more complex creation, composed of the daily actions you feel compelled to take, the ideas you feel driven to pursue. We are always thinking. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. The paint-by-number ease of religion is tempting.

After a while, though, you step back from the easel and realize that you’ve come up with this big and grasping picture – Picasso’s Guernica, Seurat’s La Grand Jatte. You can’t quite believe all the sparks that you have set into motion, the way they streak and wave and bounce off of each other like sardines in a school. You’ll never get to heaven, but you will never ever go to hell. When you open a letter and find an illustration from Dick and Jane, it’s pretty depressing.

I take another sip. The espresso guns my engines. I run the letter under my nose. I’m surprised to smell perfume. You slut! I set it back down. A gust of wind whips it from the table. It slides under the patio fence and winds up on the sidewalk. I give myself up to a greater force: meteorology. If the wind keeps taking it, then so be it.

A woman in a red coat trots over to pick it up. She smiles, revealing her identity, then comes to my table and takes off her sunglasses.

“Paul! Your epistles are blowing all over Ephesia.”

“Junk mail.”

Her gaze drifts to the blue skies. “You know any good hiking trails?”

“I know several.”

“Well let’s go then.”

I open the gate and let her pass. Once she’s ahead of me, I toss Callie into a garbage can.


Jasmina

Paul leads me out of town on a zig-zag of uphill streets. The last line of houses are what I call “hilltoppers” – not precisely mansions, but they do radiate money. One of them is a woodsman-style creation, its foundation buttressed by entire Douglas firs sliced in half. Just past the gated entrance we slip between two metal posts onto what looks like a fire road.

“It’s a little late for hiking,” says Paul. “But with fire roads, visibility’s not really an issue. Besides, I… Well now I’m just explaining too much. Have you gotten very far with the book?”

It takes me a moment to remember which book he means. “Yes! I swear, it feels like I’ve been carving holes in a piece of wood, and this book offers all these pegs that fit right in. Like all the transplanted Greek mysticism. And the misogyny!”

“That’s exactly the reaction I had. If Paul had gotten laid more often – or ever – we wouldn’t have all these creepy celibate priests and their pedophilia.”

A lizard zips across the sandstone. A thought lands on my radar. “You don’t suppose he was latent?”

Paul laughs and picks up a rock. “Oh believe me, hon, you’re not the first. I tend to be cautious on such matters – but yes, there are definite signs of closeted self-loathing. Also, they recently discovered a mistranslated passage in Corinthians that seems to refer to Judy Garland.”

“Oh! You are evil.”

“You’re not the first to say that, either. But isn’t it amazing how one guy can screw up sex for billions? Schmuck!”

From there, our hike gets quiet. It seems that Paul has as much on his mind as I have on mine. I suspect it was the letter; the writing looked feminine. For me it’s Tony. He’s trying to make up to me. He says he’ll be gentle. And he’s offering me twice as much. I can feel the danger, but I’m flattered that I’m considered so valuable a piece of ass.

“Are you doing better?”

Paul’s talking over his shoulder. He’s not even winded.

“Yes. Thanks. I’m much better. It was a family thing. Nothing huge, just… upsetting.”

“Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
I’m relieved. We’re on the southern flank of Mount Tamalpais. If Paul wanted, he could take us uphill for another three days. A little later, as the sun fades behind us, we come to a clearing. Over the slopes of grass I can see Mill Valley, down to the tiny yellow loop of the moviehouse marquee. A hundred feet on, we enter a patch of live oak and bay laurel. I can see another clearing at the far end, but before we get there, Paul stops.

“Okay. Can you stay here a second?”

“Um, sure.”

He smiles. “Fantastic. I’ll be right back.”

He jogs ahead for thirty yards, stands there a second, and jogs back.

“It’s perfect. Now. I am attempting to maximize your experience. So, put your hand up to your eye, like a horse blinder, and promise me that you will not look to your right.”

“Okay. I promise.”

“Just keep your eyes on the trail.”

“Gotcha.”

I cover the thirty yards looking at the trail and Paul’s feet. He stops and turns.

“Okay. Now. Take my hands and close your eyes. Don’t worry – it’s a smooth path.”

My trust alarms are going off (“I’ll be gentle”), but it’s also a little exciting, like heading downstairs on Christmas morning. I can feel the calluses on Paul’s hands, probably from drumming. The path feels like moist soil, a little grass. The air is getting cold.

“Okay. Keep them closed.”

He comes behind me, takes me by the shoulders and adjusts my bearings.

“Okay. Go ahead.”

What I’m seeing is so extraordinary that it takes me a while to sort it out. It’s the city of San Francisco, miles below us, a hilly blanket of white buildings speckled with lights, fog lining the valleys like mink stoles.

“My God. It’s like a city in a snow globe.”

Paul says nothing. He is just as enchanted as I am. As I look harder I begin to pick out features. Coit Tower. The green swath of the Presidio. The TransAmerica Pyramid. The shiny necklaces of the Bay Bridge. A wink of light from Alcatraz. We find a boulder and take our seats, drinking it in as the twilight darkens and the city lights up. Paul begins to talk.

“I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. I loved it. I was their best salesman. The door-slam, the curt no, the hurled insult – I took them as blessings. I was doing the Lord’s work.

“I married a Witness. Callie. Not that I had a choice. But I loved her anyway. I was lucky. Soon after our first anniversary, my mind began to wander, especially during readings of scripture. I attributed this to evil forces, as I was trained to do. Then I realized that the evil force was my own mind, a powerful organ that had been held in check for too long.

“I began to raise questions, all of them unspoken. Then I took the fatal step – I brought my doubts to the elders. They were horrified. They ordered me to stand trial for heresy. I was destined to lose. My marriage was annulled – I had clearly misrepresented myself. I was declared an apostate and ordered to leave.”

I look at Paul’s profile against the lights of the city. His nose is prominent, Mediterranean, with a small notch halfway down, as though he had broken it butting up against God.

“You’re a heretic? That is so cool!”

Paul thrusts his hands in the direction of San Francisco. “I’m a heretic, motherfuckers!”

After we stop laughing, I stand and stretch my legs. He has given me quite the workout.

“So one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you, Galileo…”

“Martin Luther.”

“Judas of Mill Valley. You can’t possibly be supporting yourself with that shop. What’s the deal?"

“Ah.” He slaps a hand against his thigh. “Well. You can just imagine into what dire straits I had thrust myself. But news travels quickly in a family tree, and soon I received a call from a personage I had always considered to be as mythical as a Griffin. My great aunt Minnie, rumored to be a communist spy, a Wiccan priestess, founder of the Gray Panthers, original bassist for the Sex Pistols. She was, in fact, executive editor of a publishing house in Boston. When she heard that a member of her lost tribe had escaped, she flew me to her house in Cambridge and had her lawyers draw up a trust. With the proviso that I use the money to continue my spiritual evolution. And thus was born The Free Thinker.”

“Well God bless Aunt Minnie. Whoops! Sorry.”

“Never apologize for a figure of speech.”

“Okay.”

“We better go. Lord knows, we don’t want to get caught in a rainstorm.”

“Right on. Heretic.”

“You really like that.”

“You should tell that to all the chicks.”

“I will think about it.”


Paul

A grown man shouldn’t feel so goofy because a girl holds his hand. But I am years and years out of practice. Mill Valley is not helping matters, halos around the streetlamps, Cassiopeia haunting the ridge like a fairywing.

To Jasmina, the hand-holding may not mean as much. She strikes me as the type who’s affectionate with everyone. We arrive at the shop. I start to say something and find that she’s kissing me. That she’s rolling her tongue along the inside of my mouth. I’m so shocked I almost forget to enjoy it.

She breaks off and backs away, looking like a dog who’s been caught with tomorrow’s roast. “I’m sorry, I really, thanks, I’d better…”

She makes a vague gesture and leaves. I watch her go until she’s gone.


Jasmina

Lexi is such a ditz it drives me nuts. She’s always punching the wrong keys on the register, and then I have to come over and void the transaction. She could learn this stuff herself – she’s been here for a year – but she’s lazy. Blondes. They spend their whole lives having stuff handed to them.

It’s Friday, opening night on two of our screens, one of them that Norwegian mystery writer who begins all of his titles with The Girl Who. I’m hovering over one of my everyday delights –a spanking clean popper, ready for the day’s first batch – when I hear the familiar two-syllable whine.

“Ja-azz! Can you help me?”

You’re beyond help you freakin’ moron.

“Sure.” I walk over, dissect the latest faux pas, and hit the usual buttons. Nothing. I try again. Shit. I smile at our customers, a young Asian couple.

“I’m sorry. I’ll be right back.”

I leave them in Lexi’s inept care and race-walk to the office, where Fosh is posting something on his Facebook page.

“Hi, boss. Did you change the security code?”

He scans the ceiling, searching his memory. “Ye-ess. Just a moment.” He burrows into his desk. His cell phone goes off.

“Ja-azz.”

“Fuck, Lexi! Just a…”

Lexi stands in the frame of the hall. Trailing behind her are tentacles of black smoke.

“Shit!” I run to the fire extinguisher, but I can’t work the latch.

“I’ve got it.” Fosh frees it up and runs to the lobby, where the popper is sending out smoke like the stack of a locomotive. He mumbles something in Farsi and hands me the extinguisher.

“Get everybody outside.”

“But won’t…”

“Now!”

His ferocity snaps me into focus. I wave a few customers into the street and prop open the doors. A river of smoke climbs the marquee. I stand to the side, holding the extinguisher in case anybody needs it. Lexi comes up to offer a few helpful insights.

“Shit, that was scary! What the hell was that?”

I feel the surge of heat but I can’t stop it. “That was the oil overheating. Which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have to help you every five fucking seconds because you won’t learn your fucking job!”

Lexi undergoes her own kind of surge. Her eyes crinkle, she starts to cry, and then she runs off down the street.

“Wow,” says Javid. “You’re kind of a bitch! I like that.”

I check the smoke, which seems to be lessening. “I guess I held back too long.”

“You know, less intelligent people make their way through life by developing delusions about themselves, and they fill those delusions with helium. You have to be careful about popping them, or you’ll end up with a high-pitched voice.”

“That is the weakest analogy I’ve ever heard.”

“See? There you go, popping delusions.”

“So what’s the word?”

“Boss man cut the circuit to the popper. This kind of thing has happened before – no flames, lots of smoke. We’re supposed to tell the customers that the first showings are cancelled. Oh! Here’s a few now.”

He heads for the ticket window, where a dad and two girls are studying the scene. I cradle my fire extinguisher and take a moment to feel sorry for myself.

I arrived at Tony’s boat to find that he intended to share me with three of his friends. One of them was celebrating a long-awaited divorce. I refused, but then he doubled my price. As we neared Angel Island, I actually began to enjoy it. Something about being the focus of all that energy. Now I am deeply afraid of myself.


Paul

I’m about to start our surf-punk song when I see a smile and freeze. Smeed leans over and gives me a stage aside.

“POV.”

“Yeah. I got it.” I kick up the beat (three tom, one snare) and we’re off. As my hands sink into auto-mode, I allow myself a sideways glance. Now she’s laughing.


“Geez. You surprised me.”

“So I noticed. Your band is wonderful.”

“We’re pretty tight without the dachsunds.”

“I’ve had such a hellish week, I totally forgot about tonight. But I saw a flyer at the Depot.”

“So you set the fire.”

“Oh God! You saw it?”

“I work across the street.”

Jasmina scans the room – the Baby Seal Club setting up, our squad of followers dominating a large table up front. “This place have an outdoor area?”

I take her hand and lead her to a small patio out back. Across the alley, the well-heeled of Mill Valley are eating Italian food.

She smacks her lips. “So how do you write these songs? Where do they come from?”

“Well, first we hook a couple of mics to a computer and keep it running. This one time, I laid down this caveman beat and Smeed came up with a chord structure – let’s see, full measures of E, G and A, followed by a little cut on D and C. I doubled up the beat and Pamela started vibing some vocal lines. Later on, when we…”

I would go on, but I’ve got Jasmina’s tongue in my mouth. This one lasts for a full minute.

“You know… if I’m talking too much, you can always just… tell me to shut up.”

“I think I prefer my way.”

“I’m not really complaining. But tell me, these little guerilla attacks – what’s that about?”

“You don’t know?”

“I am a visitor from the planet Jehovah. Your ways are strange to me.”

She looks down and rubs a spot on her pinkie. “I’m not exactly sure myself. I do it because I can’t help not doing it. I find you kissable. As for the ferocity – well, it’s been a long time. Not that I’m… What I mean is… could we just enjoy this part before we get onto… the other parts?”

I have to laugh. “Oh! Believe me. See previous comment, ‘planet Jehovah.’ But let me… Hold still a second.”

She freezes, as if she expects me to wipe away an eyelash. Instead I duck down and kiss her very softly, for a very brief time. She keeps her eyes closed, as if she’s expecting more, then opens them and smiles.

“You see,” I say, “those kind of kisses are okay, too.”

“And everything in between?”

“And everything in between.”

Smeed pokes his head through the doorway and grins. “Paul! Safety meeting, Mark’s van. Are we a plus-one this evening?”

Jasmina tilts her head. “Safety meeting?”

I take her hand. “Trust me.”

“I think I will.”

“Excellent,” says Smeed. “I’ll get you a seat next to the wheel well.”

The wheel well is, in fact, poking into my ribs, but I’m also serving as Jasmina’s pillow. I rest a hand along her waist and take in the tremors of her laughter as we pass a joint. I don’t think I’ve had a better moment in my life.


Jasmina

I am back in the red armchair, which I think has become my safe zone. I have become a regular visitor during my breaks, and have grown accustomed to the gazes of my uncles, Voltaire and Jefferson.

I used to think that the shop had no customers, but I have discovered the illusion. Everybody parks in the back. Perhaps The Free Thinker is like a porn shop – perfectly legal, but you don’t necessarily want to be seen entering. I doze a little to the music of the register, happy that my honey is doing well. I see him walking up through Enlightenment, carrying a small book. He kisses me and sets it on my lap.

“What’s this?”

“Now that we’ve deconstructed St. Paul, it’s time we blow up Christmas.”

I put on my best sad-face. “Oh! Poor Christmas.”

“I discovered this author when he was giving a talk on the Da Vinci Code. He’s a religious studies professor – the writing is delightfully free of hyperbole. The basic premise is this: the early Christians had this fully worked-up messiah, but they lacked a snappy birth story. So they made it up from scratch, being careful to manipulate the details to match all the prophecies. The most obvious fabrication was the tax census, which was a rather torturous way of getting the holy family to Bethlehem.”

“I hope it doesn’t destroy Christmas completely. It’s awfully fun.”

Paul gives me a calm smile. It’s a recent addition, the only smile that doesn’t shift. I’d like to think that it’s got something to do with me.

“The Christians were brilliant marketers, and they stole things from every pagan tradition they encountered. By the end of this book, I think you’ll feel like Christmas belongs more to you than the so-called believers. Ah but shit, here I go telling you the whole story again.”

“You’re my personal audio-book.”

The chime to the back door goes off.

“Oops,” he says. “I better be attentive.”

I stand and give him a kiss. “And I better get back to the popcorn. See you tomorrow?”

“Can’t wait.”

And I’m off, into a blinding sun. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I have a Valentine, and yet I’m sandwiched by dilemmas. It’s Mack, the guy whose divorce we were celebrating. I guess he liked my work. Like a good diplomat, he has received the okay from Tony to make me an offer: my own apartment and a hefty retainer in exchange for exclusive relations and two visits a week. I could easily give up the moviehouse. Not that I would. I learned that in Minneapolis: hang on to the day job.


Jasmina

We are tremendously busy. It seems like every couple in Mill Valley is catching a movie before the traditional dinner. Thankfully, I’m on a four-hour shift, and then I get my own dinner. Paul’s not talking, but he did ask me if I liked Indian food.

Fosh wanders into the lobby, patting his face with a handkerchief. It’s not warm in here.

“Jasmina, could I ask you to stay till closing? I’m afraid Lexi has called in sick.”

Why that little cunt. Lexi’s got a whole pack of drooling dog-boys. I’ll bet she’s got a couple of dates tonight. Fucking whore.

“Yes. Okay.”

Fosh smiles. “Thank you, thank you. I owe you once more.”

I would do almost anything to make that man smile. Him and his horrible wife. I scoop up a large popcorn for yet another couple as I construct a disappointing text message for Paul.

But the rush continues. I don’t even have time to get to my cell phone. I’m surprised by a familiar face.

“Javid!”

He gives a sheepish smile. “Hi.”

“You’re not, um… out tonight?”

“Please! Do not rub it in. I am here to console myself on this most horrible of holidays.”

“Not doing much better myself.”

“How so?”

“Lazy Blondebitch called in sick.”

“Oh! That is criminal.”

Somebody steps into line behind him. I give him an eye signal.

“Oh, umm… large popcorn and a root beer.”

A half-hour later, I still haven’t sent a text. I look at the Closed sign across the street and I feel terrible. Somebody taps me on the shoulder. It’s Javid, wearing his uniform.

“You had better get going. You don’t want to be late.”

It’s almost too much to take. I grab Javid and kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you! Thank you!”

“Call me Cupid. But do me a favor – read this.”

I take his note and tuck it into my pocket. When I turn to wave, he’s already helping a customer.


Jasmina

We are just outside of town, heading into the wilds. Paul takes a sudden turn into a dirt lot packed with cars. But there doesn’t seem to be anything else here. He leads me across the lot to a small wooden sign that reads Lakshmi. Next to the sign is a graveled path illuminated by a strand of light-rope. Fifty feet along we come to a covered walkway. A trio of broad stone steps leads to a landing, a slab of varnished redwood burl lit by a large red candle. After that, another three steps, another burl, another candle. After fourteen of these combinations, we cross an arched bridge over a creek and arrive at a pair of enormous red doors. Paul pulls the left-hand door, revealing a five-foot bronze statue of Ganesh – the Hindu elephant god – and the interior of an Indian restaurant. The hostess leads us to a green granite table set off by rattan screens. The centerpiece is a squat red candle framed by three white orchids. Paul seems pleased by my expression.

“It’s a fairyland,” I say. “But why are they trying so hard to hide it?”

The calm smile. “Mill Valley marketing. The more you hide something, the more people want it. But I certainly didn’t fool you, did I?”

He refers to my outfit, a sari of butter yellow and tangerine. “Well, you did ask me if I liked Indian.”

“Damn! I should have taken my chances. Regardless, you look like a Bollywood starlet.”

“I’ll play whatever ethnicity you want.”

“Not with that skin.”

“You’d be amazed at what people will believe.”

Our waitress is a light-skinned beauty with the kind of long, straightline nose that Indian women totally get away with. Paul orders Naan flatbread, which we dip into a cucumber-basil-yogurt sauce. I depend on his expertise for the rest: saffron rice, nauraton korma vegetables, mulligatawny soup, tandoori chicken, rogan josh lamb, and a dessert called kajor kheer – creamy dates with almond pudding. The spices leave a warm feeling in my stomach. He insists that I order a mango lassi to wash it down, and he’s absolutely right. I take Paul’s hand across the table.

“This is absolutely perfect.”

“It’s made with yogurt.”

“Oh the drink, yes, but I meant the evening. You are a wonderful man.”

The flattery sends a flush of red into his face. “I’ve been meaning to bring someone here for a long time.”

I take the last spoonful of kajor kheer. “Mmm. You know, this evening has an additional Indian element. We had an emergency at work, but Javid covered for me.”

Paul’s smile shifts. He raises his glass. “Thank you, Javid.”

“Poor boy. He’s very lonely.”

This reminds me of the note, which I slipped into my evening bag. “Excuse me, honey. I need to freshen up.”

The path to the ladies’ room is almost as involved as the entryway. I slip into a stall and give the note a read.


I’m enjoying the evening too much to mess with it, but my resolve gives out at the door to Paul’s shop. He’s hesitating, no doubt entertaining an invitation, and I’m feeling like I need to put everything on pause. I kiss him, and I say, “Is there something you want to tell me?”

Paul smiles. “It’s a little early for that.”

I punch him in the chest, hard.

“What the…”

“You don’t have any fucking aunt.”

He raises a hand, a gesture of protest, then lets it drop. “I don’t.”

“Smoking is one thing, but dealing? That’s illegal and dangerous, and why the hell didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it’s illegal and dangerous.”

I’m not really interested in his answer. I am much too worked up.

“Thanks for dinner. I’m sorry.”

I turn and walk away. I hear my name. I keep going.


Paul

Greetings, communist scum. You got a lot of fucking nerve bringing your Satan shop to our town. I know it’s Fagland Central around here, but it’s still America, goddammit. I’d love to take a knife, gut you and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for sorry shits like you. We will not go quietly away. If in the future that requires violence just remember you brough it on. My rifle is loaded.

Have a great fucking day.

I get a letter from this same guy about once a month. The threats get more and more creative. If I were not a small-time pot dealer, I would show them to the police.

And what of the flaming hypocrisy? Please. Imagine that you have concocted a fairy tale in which the hero is stabbed, beaten and nailed to a torture device to die an agonizing death. You celebrate this death by wearing a tiny replica of the torture device around your neck (why not an electric chair? a guillotine?). Then you invent a pit of fire, take all those who refuse to believe your fairy tale, and toss them in to burn for all eternity. So let’s get over this idea of hypocrisy. Christians are sick fucks, and this letter is entirely consistent with their death cult.

My particular hell is a table at the Depot, where my desires are at war. The butternut squash soup indicates a wounded man seeking consolation. The long stares into the rainstorm outside reveal a man snuggling up to the abyss.

Something causes me to burst across the patio. I catch him at the corner, grab the shoulder of his coat and push him against a brick wall.

“Why?”

He’s unable to speak. His eyes are huge. I’m sort of enjoying this.

“I’m… sorry. I thought she should know.”

“That is such a bunch of shit. You’ve got a hard-on for her.”

“Please let go of me.”

It’s a polite enough request. I release my grip. I even smooth out his coat. But I continue my narrative.

“Consider yourself cut off. And don’t even think of ratting me out, or I will go straight to your parents.”

“Yes. Okay. May I… go?”

I leave. I am proud of myself for not giving in to my useless compassion. I return to my table and stare at my soup, the adrenaline percolating in my arms. Here’s the sad part: I wasn’t threatening to tell Javid’s parents about his marijuana use. I was threatening to tell them about his rejection of Hindu.

So my first romantic venture is just the fiasco I expected, and somewhere my ex-wife is laughing. I lied about her, too. I did not go to the elders about my doubts. Callie turned me in.

The rain deepens. There’s nothing to do but laugh.


Jasmina

Javid’s being weird. Like he’s afraid to speak to me. I can’t figure the mixed signals. He enables me to go out with Paul, then he hands me a land mine on the way out.

If he knew what I did off-hours, he would run screaming. I have accepted Mack’s offer. How could I not? Cutting my client list to one means a lot less worry about hygiene – or getting caught. The apartment is a gorgeous little place just under the hilltoppers. Fireplace, balcony view. Enormous bed, sunken bath. I feel like a movie star. And no wife means no need for firearms.

“I hope the note didn’t cause any problems.” Javid stands at a safe distance, next to the Icee machine.

“No. Thanks. It was good to… have the information.”

He dashes back to the box office. I look across the street and feel a pang of old-fashioned religious guilt.


Sylvia

I don’t care. You should have known.


Paul


I am an evangelist for logic, and logic tells me that there is nothing I can do. If I stop selling, I will have to close the shop. Therefore, if she really does have a problem with this, perhaps it was best that we parted ways.

But logic does not usually meet up with an across-the-street Venus. I catch glimpses of her several times a day. She looks more forlorn than ever, which only intensifies her beauty. My nerve endings tick with her movements.

Oh shit. I am thinking and drumming at the same time. Having become accustomed to the hijinks of dachsunds, my band prides itself on finishing a song no matter what, but now I have drifted right past my drum break and we’re fucked. I flip my sticks into the air; they strike several objects on the way down. The band stops, piece by piece.

“Jesus. I’m sorry. Can we take a break?”

My bandmates have all had evenings like this, so it’s really no biggie. This is part of what I love about Exit Wonderland: our biggest argument, compared to most bands, would barely qualify as a terse discussion. I venture behind the storage shed to continue the ruination of my favorite bush. Anne is running keyboard riffs from our Doors cover. I emerge to find a half-moon dangling from the sycamore tree.

“It’s the chick, isn’t it?”

Smeeed passes me a joint.

“Thanks. Yep – the chick. Also, this.”

“Oh-hoh! So she will partake of the smoke, but she will not abide anybody selling it. Well that is pretty fucked.”

I laugh. “You make an excellent point, Senator. This is just feeling a little rough, you know, for my first time back.”

“Got yourself a looker, though. An impressive debut.”

“Okay. Ready to rock?”

“At all times.”

“Am I getting the tempo right?”

“On POV?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe a little faster.”

“A band that wants me to play faster. That is so cool.”


Jasmina

Javid’s being weird again. He keeps peeking around like he’s casing the joint. It’s time to get assertive.

“Look, Javid, can we get over the thing already?”

“The thing?”

“The note thing. The boyfriend thing. Stop feeling guilty, and stop being weird. I would have found out about it eventually.”

He looks like he’s about to argue the point, but then he smiles.

“Okay.”

“Just relax.”

“Okay, um…”

He directs a gaze over my shoulder. Fosh is standing at the end of the lobby, looking expectantly at a customer who’s being ignored.

“Oh! Hi. I’m sorry. What would you like?”


The rain is back. God. Rain, rain, rain. The locals tell me it’s a pressure system; they call it El Niño. But it wouldn’t be the first crock of shit I’ve been sold.

In the morning, living on a hillside is terrific. Easter light in the bedroom window; a brisk downhill walk to work. Nighttime, not so hot. After hours on my feet, the trudge uphill makes my backpack feel ten pounds heavier.

I blame part of this on my first “date” with Mack. He recently got the okay to go on the Viagra program. I had to work a solid half-hour to get him off, and then he kept going. He kept yelling “It’s a miracle!” and whipping himself out to admire his adolescent rigidity. Problem is, the rest of his body couldn’t keep up, so his concubine had to do all the work. Still, it was nice to see the old guy so happy.

Most of all, I miss his voice, the even pace of his sentences. His laugh.

When I toss my pack onto the table, it lands with an unexpected thwack. I unzip the top and remove the contents: an extra sweater, my purse, a pair of jeans. A book. The cover features a detailed illustration against a black background. Vivid colors, like a bird by Audubon. A cannabis leaf. Tucked inside is a sheet of yellow notebook paper, folded in half. I open it up and find letters written in black marker. Harold Anslinger.


Sylvia

You’re going to hell, you know.


Paul


I’m being a bad boy, but it’s a bright Tuesday and I have no appointments. The free thinkers of Mill Valley will have to fend for themselves. I take the long trail to the snow-globe vista. The air is incredibly clear – I can see Oakland like it’s right next door. The buzz doesn’t last; these days, nothing does. I take a mental snapshot and head downhill. I realize that I am enormously hungry, so I stop by the Mill Valley Market for a bagful of dates.

I feel the need to force myself into some kind of productivity, so I decide to take stock of the science aisle. Sagan, Dawkins and Gould are doing okay, but Douglas Adams is running pretty low. Adams is a conundrum, anyway. I could just as easily put him in the humor section with George Carlin and Julia Sweeney, or use him to start a sci-fi section. None of this matters – wherever I put him, he sells.

Jasmina’s here.

“Hi.”

She’s wearing a black turtleneck, which tightens the frame on those dark eyes. I pretend to study my inventory list. “What are you doing here?”

“Saying hi.”

The only thing I truly have faith in is my ability to repel women, so this reappearance puzzles me. It also kind of pisses me off. I stand up and place a hand on the bookshelf.

“I actually would like to know the reason you’re here.”

She looks nervous. Good. She reaches into her bag and pulls out Martin Booth’s The History of Cannabis.

“I want to talk about Harold Anslinger.”


Jasmina


I’m a little surprised at Paul’s reaction, but the book seems to calm him down.

“So. You understand.”

“I hadn’t realized the level of treachery, and…”

“Bullshit?”

This makes me laugh, which makes Paul laugh.

“Bullshit is the central target of my life. The most harmless drug in the world is reviled because Mexicans brought it here, negro musicians made it popular, and Harold fucking Anslinger decided he could grab a whole lot of power and money by demonizing it.”

I touch Paul on the arm to stop him. “Honey. I read the book. I know. That’s why I’m here. I… wanted to apologize for being so judgemental.”

Paul takes his arm away and walks into the next aisle. “I appreciate your apology. Does this mean you’d like to be a client?”

“No, I…”

“Then maybe you should leave my store. That book doesn’t change the fact that cannabis is illegal. I have to be careful. I’ve already cut off your pal Javid.”

He retreats further, to his stool behind the counter.

“Vijay gave me the book.” This seems to catch his attention. “But it’s not about that. It’s about… Paul, I like you.”

He takes off his spectacles and pinches his nose. “You like me. What is this, third grade? This is a real fight I’m putting up here, and I can’t be sidetracked by some dilettante piece of ass who changes her beliefs every time someone hands her a fucking pamphlet. Now get out. Please. Leave.”

“But I…”

“Now! Please.”

I suppose that’s the power of someone who’s so calm and even all the time. When they shout at you, you feel it. Despite all intentions, I find myself on the sidewalk, headed toward the Depot. A minute later I am staring into a window display of glass figurines – faeries, birds, unicorns, butterflies – and thinking of Tennessee Williams.


Paul


I’m a little proud of myself. In the face of great temptation, I held my ground. I sit on a crate in the philosophy section, staring at the collected works of Bertrand Russell. Someone walks in, but I hold off on a greeting. (When one is contemplating atheism, one is easily spooked.)

“Paul?”

Jesus. I rise to my feet and there she is, holding the book to her chest like a shield. We spend fifteen seconds looking at each other. She takes a breath.

“No.”

“No?”

“I won’t leave.”

I am faced with the greatest threat to human reason ever created: a beautiful woman who’s about to start crying. I feel my shoulders melting.


Jasmina


I have stopped breathing. Finally, he rolls an arm and says, “Follow me.” He takes me to the back of a storage room, grabs a fully-loaded set of shelves and pushes it aside with surprising ease (the boxes are empty).

Behind the shelves is a door. Paul undoes a combination lock and leads me down a narrow set of stairs into a brightly lit room. When he reaches the bottom, he heads to the left of a room-wide curtain and pulls it across. Five long tables host a half-dozen buckets each. Each bucket holds a plant, three feet tall, spring green, with spiked leaves. A network of black tubes runs from plant to plant. A framework of PVC pipes holds a dozen sunlamps.

Paul stands before them like a teacher addressing a class. I stumble on the final step and catch myself on the back of his shoulders.

“Welcome to The Spa. As you know, the other thing the bullshitters hate is that we can grow our own – which keeps their filthy hands off our pocketbooks. The next question being, ‘Are you in or are you out?’

“It’s beautiful.”

He reaches up to take my hand. “That wasn’t the question.”

“Oh! In. Yes. In.”

“Excellent.”


Paul

Modern rock marketing can be a dicey affair. For the gig at San Francisco’s El Rio, we have to draw a certain number of customers or we end up paying the sound guy out of our own pockets. Pamela’s feeling pretty tense about this, so her final web-post said exactly that: come see us or we have to pay the sound guy.

The layout of the El Rio is an inverted U. The first leg is a standard neighborhood bar. The crossbeam is a large patio, walled off by the backs of adjoining buildings. Thirty feet to the right you find a shotgun band space, high stage at the front, couches at the back, and in between a fifty-foot spread of open floor. Our opening band, Slippery People, is setting up, fine-tuning the feng shui of amps, mics and drums.

I check my gear – stashed behind the couches – and return to the bar. My city pals Joe and Carye have come to see me, despite the fact that they can’t stay for the show. Carye is a cute, radiant blonde who must have been a fairy in a previous existence. I love any excuse to see her. I met Joe when he fell into the web of my shop. He’s a high-tech idea man whose thoughts on the nature of existence are so arcane they make my brain swell. He’s also a gadget freak.

“Okay, so check this out. I go to the site, log in, and report my presence at the El Rio. The site tells me who among my fellow users is also here: in this case, a slim, exotic brunette named Lana. Holy shit.”

He holds his iPhone so the photo of Lana matches up with a woman standing five feet away.

“Oh this is too good.” I don’t know what’s gotten into me (perhaps pre-gig adrenaline). I go up to her and say, “Lana! God! I haven’t seen you in forever.”

Lana greets me with a hug, but, alas, refuses to follow the script.

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t remember you.”

Joe appears over my shoulder with a phony smile. “Lana!” Then takes her off the hook by showing her the iPhone.

“A-ha!”

We continue to chat and make friends, sounding just like a commercial for the website.

“Hey!” says I. “That guitar-drummer duo in the courtyard. Are they regulars? They seem really popular.”

“Actually,” says Lana, “Dawn used to be the drummer for Four Non-Blondes.”

I don’t know what’s gotten into me (perhaps the pint of Guinness Joe bought me), but I charge to the billiards room, where I find Dawn Richardson herself, toting a pink bass drum.

“Hi Dawn, I’m Paul. I just wanted you to know that ‘Bigger, Better, Faster, More!’ is one of my favorite albums ever, and I love your work on it. I’m a drummer, too, and I steal little bits of it all the time.”

For a rocker, Dawn is surprisingly impish, a combination of short red hair and a round face. She gives an appreciative smile, and sets down the bass to shake my hand. She also looks a little tired, so I give her a couple more compliments and let her go. I look back at the bar to see that Joe and Carye have skedaddled, so I head for the hall, where Smeeed is checking hand-stamps.

“Jesus! We have to be bouncers, too?”

“Yip.” He taps a guy in a top hat. “Can I see your wrist? Cool. Thanks.”

“Hey, I just met the drummer for Four Non-Blondes.”

“Awesome! But not as good as my story.”

“Oh yeah?”

 “You know how I had to transport nearly every piece of equipment in the studio?”

“Yeah.”

“So what would you guess would be the one thing I forgot?”

“I don’t…”

“The bass guitar.”

“No!”

“Yes. Fortunately, the Baby Seal guy is loaning me his. But how stupid is that?”

“You realize I’m going to tell this story to everyone.”

“Doh! Just for that, it’s your turn to cover the door.”

“Doh! Hi, can I see your wrist? Cool. Thanks.”

The night is like this, a continuing string of mini-adventures. Our actual performance is a blur. We’re so well-rehearsed that conscious thought is not really essential. I try to make my usual smart-ass remarks between songs (this is, in fact, one of my duties). When my hands are on automatic pilot, I check the crowd. Our stalwarts are well-toasted and shaking their parts. I love them all. My only other distraction is Pamela, who dresses pretty casually for rehearsals but shows up at gigs as a hot rocker goddess. Tonight it’s tight chocolate pants and a leather vest that exposes her midriff. She’s like a superhero with a secret identity.

At the end of “Peace Frog,” I throw a stick at my toms and duck as it flies over my head, then I charge offstage to hug all my friends. The celebrity buzz lasts for ten minutes, and I’m quickly demoted to roadie. Pamela reports that we have earned $150 per band, which is like the freakin’ Mother Lode.

I set down my hi-hat and head back to the stage, which now features a bowsprit figurehead all in red: leather pants, cardinal boots, long scarlet cardigan and a cherry satin blouse revealing generous portions of milky cleavage. Her eyes are lost in the spotlight.

“How does it feel?”

She looks down and gives me the quick-trigger smile. “I don’t know. Kiss my foot.”

I take a boot in my hand and give it the full treatment.

“Ah,” she says. “Worship.

“Come on down and I’ll give you more.”

She kneels and rolls on to her back, dangling her head over the edge of the stage. I cup a hand behind her neck and give her a silent-movie kiss.

“We may be upsetting the regulars. Rumor has it this is a lesbian bar.”

“It’s San Francisco,” she says. “Every bar is a lesbian bar.”

“Did you catch our set?”

“Yes. I came in during the blues song. You guys fucking rock!”

“You say that just like a Californian. Can you help me with my drums?”

She half-closes her eyelids. “You sure know how to talk sexy to a gal.” She swings her legs over the edge and pulls a nifty dismount.

“Hey, you wouldn’t believe who I met tonight! You’ve heard of Four Non-Blondes?”


Paul

It’s late and I’m still cranking, propelled by forced absence and the human urge to mythologize. I go to the printer to collect my results, then I head for the moviehouse and a midnight showing of American Beauty. I pay Javid for my ticket and say, “Come by the shop sometime.”

Javid’s playing it cool. “Harold Anslinger?”

I smile. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Enjoy the show.”

I have learned something new about Jasmina’s smile. When it’s somebody else, her lips are perfect, like a model in a photo shoot. When it’s me, her bottom lip reveals a subtle crease. Because she’s smiling harder.

“Your hugest, butteriest popcorn, young lady.”

“Certainly. Something to drink?”

“A large root beer.”

“Excellent. And where will you be sitting this evening?”

“Ah, dead center, five rows back.”

“So close!”

“If I wanted a small screen, I would stay home.”

“Enjoy the show.”

The boy next door is showing the girl next door his father’s creepy Nazi collection. Jasmina slides next to me and folds her hand into mine. She whispers, “I’m off for the night.” The folks in the fourth row give us dirty looks. I take the papers from my jacket and hand them to her. “For later.” More looks.

Later, as the boy next door shows the girl next door the video with the dancing bag, Jasmina pulls out her phone and punches the keys. The phone in my pocket vibrates. It’s a text.

I took off my bra. The third button of my blouse is undone.


Sylvia


Jesus is crying for you. You have betrayed him.


Jasmina


The curtains are putting on a shadowplay, a Steller’s Jay bouncing on a redwood branch like a springboard diver. I turn over and find a fold of papers on the nightstand. This is a signal sent to me by Nighttime Jasmina. The first page begins with handwriting.

For beautiful Jasmina, in case I have ruined Christmas for her. Love from Saint Paul

An Agnostic Christmas


The neighborhood that Scootie Jones grew up in was populated also by Santa Claus, and his reindeer, and the three wise men, and General Electric. Scootie’s cul-de-sac was one of those where the neighbors made of the December holidays a dazzling, block-long forest of electrical lights. Even the Applebaums, who erected a huge menorah covered in aluminum foil.

Of all the neighbors, none were more enthusiastic nor better equipped than John Sorenson. The Sorensons’ was the biggest house on the block, a sprawling two-story affair with a balcony and a barn-style garage. He wrapped the balcony railing with a zig-zag weave of colored lights. He strung the rooflines with large outdoor bulbs, dangling from the eaves like ripe fruits. A Styrofoam snowman greeted visitors at the head of the walk, and in the large front window stood a fifteen-foot Douglas fir, banked in white lights, silver balls and silk angels. The lawn hosted a nativity scene of illuminated figures, possessed of that inner glow one might expect from a holy family. Their paperboy, Markie Rodriguez, took great pleasure in placing the Chronicle in the crib so that it would appear the infant messiah was perusing the headlines.

The crowning achievement of John Sorenson’s holiday assemblage was a fully rigged sleigh – Santa, reindeer, bag of gifts, three elves – lofted on a wire from the TV antenna to the center beam of the garage. The effect was such that Santa appeared to be circling the house in preparation for a landing. Every Christmas Day at noon, the neighborhood kids gathered in the driveway as Mr. Sorenson pulled a special cable and released a shower of candies and small toys on their heads.

The other twenty-two households followed suit, and the weeks preceding Christmas attracted a steady stream of visitors. Every third year, the Chronicle sent a photographer and featured the court in its holiday supplement.

The only chink in the neighborhood’s collective armor was Scootie’s father, Harman Jones. Declaring himself a “devout agnostic,” Harman declined to take part in any activity which would seem to favor one religion over another. Thus, viewed from above, Arbor Court resembled a long electrical smile with one tooth missing. This caused no end of frustration to John Sorenson. A tense discussion of the issue worked its way into the Yuletide rituals right along with caroling and mistletoe. Harman Jones would be taking out the trash on the day after Thanksgiving, and John Sorenson would just happen to be strolling by with his poodle, Spikey.

“Hello, Mr. Jones! How are you this morning? Did you have a fine Thanksgiving?”

“Very fine, Mr. Sorenson. My wife makes a pumpkin pie that you would not believe. I must have eaten five slices all by myself.”

“Wonderful, wonderful.” John Sorenson ruffled Spikey’s head, working up courage for the battle to come. “So tell me, Mr. Jones, have you given any thought to maybe doing some decorating for the holidays?”

“Why yes, Mr. Sorenson. We are getting a tree. Fine pagan tradition, putting up an evergreen in the darkest time of the year. And I do enjoy the smell of it.”

“Well, Mr. Jones, I was thinking in terms of outdoor decorating.”

“Oh, that!” Harman Jones scratched his head in false contemplation. “Why, I can’t see why I would do that, Mr. Sorenson, seeing as how I don’t have any particularly religious feelings on the matter of Christmas.”

“Well, Harman, I certainly wouldn’t expect you to change your feelings on the subject. Not at all! I was just hoping you might perhaps put up a few lights. Nothing complicated, just something to fit in with the general spirit of things.”

“The general holy spirit of things.”

Thus, the first shot was fired, and John Sorenson was free to speak bluntly. “Now Harman, you know how beautiful the block looks all lit up every year. You know the kids come from all over to see this thing. Wouldn’t you like to take part in something that brings pleasure to the children?”

“Not if it doesn’t agree with my religious beliefs.”

“But you haven’t got any religious beliefs!” said John Sorenson. “You told me so yourself.”

“What I have told you is that I have chosen not to choose, and to put up a string of lights in celebration of the Baby Christ would be an act favoring one line of thought over all others. I won’t do it.”

“How about a reindeer, or a snowman, or some candy canes? They’re not very religious. I’ve got extras. I’ll loan you anything you need.”

“But don’t you see, John? These are all things which have become tied up in one way or another with a Christian holiday. Now, granted, that holiday was stolen from the Roman pagan holiday of Saturnalia, but still, in this country, in this context, it is a religious event. I know I’ve tried to explain this to you before, John, but I derive a certain power in leading a life in which I know that I do not need to have answers, and that is why I insist on things like this. It leaves one’s intellectual and spiritual channels so much more open than investing oneself in a specific, organized body of beliefs.”

By this time, John Sorenson was teetering from one foot to the other, like a captain on a foundering ship. He gathered himself for one last foray. “You’re a stubborn man, Harman, and half the time I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. But just think about it. Please? It would mean so much to the neighborhood.”


For twelve years of Scootie Jones’ young life, the dialogue around the trash can remained pretty much the same, a tiresome conference between a religious man, a secular man, and a poodle who really couldn’t care less, so long as he was fed. But then, one year, something changed. John Sorenson’s wife, Felicia, took up the banner.

Thanksgiving was larger than ever, with more relatives than Scootie knew he had crammed into the Jones’ modest ranch-style home. The next day, his father had to cart six bags of garbage out to the trash cans. Felicia Sorenson came by on bag number three, poodle in tow.

“Good morning, Harman.”

“Oh! Good morning, Felicia. Hi, Spikey.” He set down his bag and fluffed the old poodle’s head. “Where’s your husband? Did he finally give up on me?”

“He did. But I didn’t. Listen, Harman Jones, this is a perfectly wonderful thing the people in this neighborhood do, and folks really seem to enjoy it. I know my husband’s a bit of a fanatic, but you know, in a life of bills and labor strikes and all the crappy little things that get you down on a regular basis, the holiday fair is one thing that really gets my hubby excited about life. And the only thing that keeps it from being perfect is you, Harman. I know about your religious sentiments and everything, but couldn’t you just once see your way to putting up a string of lights or something? Look at the Applebaums – they’re Jewish, and they don’t seem to mind taking part.”

“Ah, but the Applebaums are religion-impaired, just as you are, Felicia. Mine is the only free-minded household on the block, and God bless me but I see no reason why I should add to my electrical bill just to provide a false sense of neighborhood unity. Much as I would like to please you, I’m afraid I can’t go against my beliefs.”

That would have seemed a conclusive response, but Felicia Sorenson was no quitter, and she was well-acquainted with the ways of persuasion. So, she tried another tack.

“How about this, Harman? I make a chocolate cake that my husband refers to as Heaven’s Own. And you know how my husband feels about heaven. So here is my deal: for every strand of lights, for every illuminated figure, for every festive object you place on the front of this house, I will produce one of Heaven’s Own and deliver it to your doorstep. If you do a really fine job, I may just lend a few more personal tokens of affection as well.”

If there were any doubt as to the exact meaning of this last comment, it was erased by the sight of Felicia’s tongue stroking along the edge of her finely shaped lips. Harman gave the matter more thought than usual.

“This thing really means a lot to you, doesn’t it, Mrs. Sorenson?”

“When the lights are up, Mr. Jones, my husband is happy. When my husband is happy, I’m happy.”

“Well then,” said Harman. “I suppose I will be putting up something for the holidays this year.”

Felicia Sorenson found herself fixed squarely between shock and jubilation. She burst upon Harman and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Oh, Harman! I knew you would do it. Thank you. Thank you so much!”

Harman, cognizant of neighborhood gossips, held Felicia at arm’s length and wiped the lipstick from his cheek.

“It’ll be my pleasure,” he said. “Happy holidays, Mrs. Sorenson.”

“Happy holidays, Harman! Come on, Spikey, let’s go tell Daddy!” Felicia and Spikey trotted off down the street. Harman laughed and turned to fetch bag number four.


Jilly Skamadjian-Jones and her three children had no idea what force had gotten hold of Harman. He locked himself up in his workshop, ignored all televised sporting events, and refused to let anybody see what it was he was working on. Each night, he would arrive home an hour late and slip some large object into the garage before anybody could catch a glimpse. On the morning of December 5, after the rest of the neighborhood had completed its transformation to Messiahs ‘R’ Us, Harman Jones called in sick to work when he did not seem to be sick at all. The kids went off to school, Jilly went off to do some shopping, and Harman went back to his mystery cave.

Just imagine you are John Sorenson, respected banker, treasurer of the Santa Ana Presbyterian Church, grand poobah of the Arbor Court holiday bonanza. Imagine that the one holdout who has plagued your favorite time of year with his dark front porch has finally agreed to hoist up his lights for the good of the neighborhood. Every night you drive home in your Olds Cutlass, and you round the corner at Valentine Street and you drive past your home in order to check the Jones house. And then, one clear, cold evening, you round that corner and you realize right away that something is different, because the front lawn that has always been dark and plain is suddenly brilliant with color and light.

And imagine that you drive slowly to the front of the Jones house, home of Harman and Jilly and Jennifer and Steven and Leonard who they call Scootie, and you have begged this man every day-after-Thanksgiving for the past decade-plus, and finally there is something there and your heart is beating faster than a one-horse open sleigh and you will give your wife the biggest kiss when you get home… And then you take a look.

Perched in the center of Harman Jones’ lawn is a barber pole, lit up from the inside, festooned with tinsel, and on top, a single shining star. Positioned around the pole are four luau-style tiki torches with electrical orange flames. Over the garage door hangs a classic holiday snowscape interrupted by the large neon letters of a popular brand of beer. Attached to the front door, at the spot usually reserved for a wreath, is an illuminated clock from a fifties-style diner, its hands fixed at twelve-twenty-five. Near the sidewalk, next to the mailbox, stands a small billboard advertising the kind of after-shave commonly endorsed by quarterbacks and home-run hitters. The front walk plays host to a strip of bright green astroturf equipped with a putter, a dozen red and green golf balls and an automatic putt return.

Finally, spread along the front window there stand eight plastic pink flamingos, silver bells around their necks, led by a stuffed Saint Bernard with a glowing red nose. The team is reined up to the kind of vibrating electric rocket ship you might find at the front of a supermarket. Astride the rocket ship is a life-sized cardboard cutout of Gene Autrey in full cowboy gear. Gene has one hand flung back, an old guitar strung around his neck, and a red cowboy hat with a white puff on top. Over his shoulder he carries a large bag full of laundry.


Harman Jones never did receive Heaven’s Own or any other favors from Felicia Sorenson. Somewhat disappointed that he had held to the letter of their contract yet received nothing for his efforts, he took great satisfaction, nonetheless, in having made his point. He received no further post-Thanksgiving visits from the Sorensons – husband, wife or pooch – but continued to participate in the annual holiday fair, consistently drawing the largest crowds in the neighborhood to see his collection of post-modernist illuminated agnostic artworks.


Paul

Eventually there comes a night when Jasmina comes to my bed. Mostly because my room is small, and we have nowhere else to sit. We watch television, my back to the wall, Jasmina using me as her personal armchair. She continues to inch backward until her rear-end is doing a number on my crotch. My intentions might be as pure as driven snow, but my body’s intentions are abundantly clear. So I give in. I shift her hair to the side and kiss the back of her neck. This is, apparently, an ignition button. The following minutes are a maelstrom of fingers and lips and clothing.

She pushes off on my chest and tumbles to the floor. She sits on her knees, her blouse halfway off, her breath coming in chuffs.

“I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t want to. God. I really want to. It’s just that you need to know some things. It wouldn’t be fair.”

I rub my chest; if I looked, I would probably find a pair of handprints. “Okay.”

She shakes her head, trying to regain her senses, then closes her blouse and settles back on her haunches. A car drives past, sending a square of light across the room. She gives me a long look.


Jasmina


I lost my parents at six. They were killed in a bombing, in Sarajevo. I saw the whole thing.

They sent me to New Jersey to live with my bachelor uncle. He seemed very nice, very affectionate, but the hugs and kisses turned sexual. By the time I was twelve, he had advanced to intercourse. Somewhere along the line I put the pieces together and I ran away. I picked Minneapolis, just because I liked the name.

I was lucky. I hung around the bus depot for so long that somebody called social services. I was eventually matched up with a foster family, the Gaylords. They seemed nice, but I had learned not to trust nice. They weren’t doing anything illegal, but they were definitely working the system. It’s really difficult to place teenagers, so the Gaylords knew they could pile up the checks by taking nothing but teenagers. They had ten of us crammed into a three-bedroom house. A lot of the boys had criminal records; I spent a lot of my time trying to keep them out of my pants.

I managed to find a guardian: Sass, a big black girl who was 17 and basically using the Gaylords’ as a way station until she came of age. She told the boys that anyone who messed with me would face the prospect of a late-night castration. Sass also seemed to have money, and clothes. When I asked her about this, she took me downtown to a large Victorian house. The owner was Georgina Salazar, a rough-looking Puerto Rican lady who gave me the sales pitch. She provided regular checkups and birth control pills. The men were required to use condoms at all times. Any incident of abuse was met with immediate blacklisting. The girls could make use of the Victorian’s many bedrooms, and were asked not to meet clients elsewhere unless the man had established a long-term relationship.

Thanks to Uncle Laszlo, I was acquainted with the equipment. Thanks to my parents, I had good genes – and thanks to Sass’s reassurances, I knew that I was good-looking. I became very popular, and I even had some celebrity clients: a congressman and a televangelist. When Sass turned 18, the two of us moved into an apartment.

I walked into Georgina’s office one evening. She was chain-smoking, and crying. I asked her what was wrong. I remember thinking that she sounded like a leaking tire.

“Sss… Sss…” She slammed her fist on the desk. “Sass. Sass is dead.”

It was one of her regulars, one of her best clients. He was an entertainment promoter; he handled all the big touring acts that came through town. Rock stars, circuses, Broadway musicals. But his company went under. When his wife found out, she left him in the middle of the night. I thought about that later. Finding out that your wife only wanted you if you were rich. That’s got to bring up a lot of anger.

But his wife wasn’t around, so he took it out on Sass. He beat her with a fireplace poker, and he kept on beating her. Georgina said she almost couldn’t identify her. She said she looked like a piece of roadkill.

That was my wake-up call. I went home, packed a couple suitcases – God it was hard, Sass’s stuff was everywhere. I caught a bus to San Francisco.


The downside of someone as stoic as Paul is that he’s awfully hard to read. All during my story, he has remained at the head of the bed. He has said nothing, and made no gesture. It’s like talking to a statue. I know that my story has room for sympathy – the orphan, the molested child – but still I feel filthy, and his silence is not helping. It goes on forever – thirty, forty seconds. He smacks his lips and shifts to a sitting position.

“I don’t think I’ve known anyone who’s had a life like that. It’s pretty… incredible.”

“I wanted to tell you before we… I’m healthy, Paul. I don’t have any diseases or anything. But I know that some men might not want to be involved with someone who did those kind of things.”

I wish it wasn’t so dark. I wish I could see his eyes.

“It doesn’t seem like… you had much choice. But it’s… You’ll have to give me a little time. This is really… different. But I mean… it came out okay, right? Not for Sass, - Jesus, I mean, horrible. But you got out okay, it kind of scared you out of the business, right?”

Oh, God. My silence hangs in the air until Paul gets his answer. He stands, picks up his shoes and stands in the doorway.

“I…”

He’s gone. I hear his steps as he pads down the stairs, and then the front door. I sit there for a long time, staring into the darkness.


Paul


            I stop at a bench to put on my shoes. The moon is disappearing. Miles later, it’s gone, and I remember what they said on the news. When it comes back to full, I find myself approaching Sausalito, a row of houseboats, the reborn moon painting a white line across the water. A small boat cruises across the inlet like a ghost.
           
What we call morals are not limited to the religious, and in this case are probably beside the point. I know men who are genetically wired to sleep with as many women as they can – and who tacitly accept that those women are sleeping with others. I am not one of those men.

            I turn around and raise my hands over my head. In the distance, I see the hills of Mill Valley, slipping under a blanket of fog. I drop my hands and start to walk.


Sylvia

You’re a whore. No man will ever love you.


Jasmina


Maybe I could have lied. If I had thought it through beforehand, if I had prepared myself.

If it weren’t for Paul, I could be happy right now. Mack treats me like a princess. And the sex has gotten surprisingly good. We’re like a couple of office-mates collaborating on a project. There’s nothing emotional about it, but there’s this sense of achievement. I had my first orgasm. Ever. Electrical charges, parts of my body moving on their own. I’ve heard women talk about this, but I had no idea. Mack was thrilled. To see your penis do that to someone, that’s got to be such a buzz.

Minutes later, the two of us were sitting in the jacuzzi bath, laughing like a bridge team that has just cleaned up. But still, I think of Paul, and what I may be giving up for my self-preservation. I see him, once in a while, outside his shop, smoking a cigarette over the creek. My insides feel like metallic parts rusting over. I have heard that love, when it strikes, does not respond to analysis, or prodding, or verbal commands. Love is an ill-trained puppy, and it will do what it wants.

It’s only been two weeks. I am in for a ride.


Paul


It’s been a month, and it doesn’t go away. Each time I see her through the window, she looks sadder and more beautiful. She actually wanted me. The idea confounds me. I know I made the right decision, but it hurts that much more because the decision was mine to make. If it was Jasmina who had turned me down, the world would make a lot more sense. I have thought of finding some large poster to tape to my window, along the sightline from my front counter to the moviehouse box office. But I don’t want the clean black slate. The yearning is better. It reminds me that there is wonder in the universe.

I continue to surprise Javid. I handed him a free ounce and invited him to join me for a drive-and-lunch to Stinson Beach. We’re on a patio next to the main strip, wolfing our way through enormous burgers under slabs of provolone. Javid wipes his mouth and laughs.

“Why are you being so nice to me? I was, like, totally cock-blocking you.”

Kid cracks me up. “Yes you were, y’little shit. But you realized it. And you effectively did the hard part for me, regarding the clarification of certain agricultural issues.”

Javid looks across the street, where a quartet of high school girls are adjusting bikinis and rubbing sunscreen on each other. “So… how come it didn’t work out?”

For this I have worked out a beautifully crafted phrase. “I wish I could tell you.” (Read it again – I should be a damn lawyer.) “We are awfully fond of each other. But sometimes the real world gets in the way.”

Javid leans back and locks his hands behind his head. “Well I wish you two would work out something. The gloom just pours off of that girl, and it’s getting all over me.”

“That bad?”

“Compared to Jasmina, you’re like Professor Sunshine.”

Javid and I have a deal: even our most evil thoughts are fair game. I mimic his locked hands, give a shameless ogle to all those tits and asses across the street, and I say, “Good!”

Javid breaks up. “Oh! You atheists are heartless.”

“Hush or I’ll sic Shiva on you.”


Paul

I am backstage at a converted warehouse in Oakland, watching a rag-tag troupe act out a poem about insects. A trio of topless spiders sit in front of me.

“Shit! Where’s the cocoon? Did you see a green bag here somewhere?” She paws the dark spaces, her tits bouncing.

“I…”

“Ohmygaw! What’re we gonna do?”

“It’s all right, we’ll figure out something.”

The music rises. The topless spiders race onstage. They are met by a potato bug in assless chaps, holding a green bag. A minute later, applause, and we’re on. I scurry onstage with my stripped-down kit: snare, floor tom and crash. Some guy slaps two mics on my rims, strings up my vocal mic and locks in my levels, all within a matter of thirty seconds. When I look up, the band is ready and the emcee is finishing her intro:

“…a special song that we think you all will appreciate.”

I look to Anne. She nods into a series of eighth notes on the low keys. I match her on my tom. Sixteen of these and we’re in:

“Flash!”

Well. At least I’m in. Pamela and Anne follow me with harmonies on “Ah-ah!” Sixteen more and we’re in again:

“Flash!”

Nope. Just me.

“Ah-ah!”

And there they are. I have apparently received a field promotion to lead singer.

We’re playing a 500-person birthday party for a dude named Flash Hopkins – which explains the campy Queen song from Flash Gordon. We’re even doing the cheesy dialogue parts, after which I cue us back in with a roll on the toms.

“Flash!”

Alas. But the brain-locks go unnoticed by our spectators, who are digging on the name-joke, the fact that it sounds reasonably like the original, and the actual Flash Gordon movie clips on the screen behind us. The birthday boy is out of his mind with glee. After our final “Flash!” (thank God, all three of us), Pamela hops offstage to give him a hug, and we get a nice rowdy applause. I give them a wave and pull my drums right back off. Tonight, we are the surgical-strike rock band.

I’ve got an intriguing case of mixed feelings. I’m a little miffed that my choirmates choked so badly, but I’m thrilled that my balls-out vocals saved the day. Not that I can verbalize any of this. I would rather my bandmates not hate me. Plus, I need to maintain their egos for future use. So I tell them that we covered everything, nobody noticed, and the acoustics were really muddy.

I wander onto the floor to watch Goat Fluffer, an all-female band with a drummer and three bass players. The lead, a brunette with Betty Page bangs and lime-green stockings, is just going off, getting so into her solo that you would swear she’s on heroin. After their set, I run into her backstage.

“Hey, that was great! It’s amazing all the sounds you can get out of that thing.”

Anne’s in the passenger seat, leaning all the way back. We’re climbing onto the Richmond Bridge.

“And she gave me this look like, Why is this person from another band giving me an entirely unsolicited compliment?”

“It’s a shame how… competitive the music scene gets.”

Anne’s words are getting mushy, which means that the hour, the beers and the road massage are having a soporific effect. (Great word, soporific.) I let her drift off as the lights of San Rafael get closer. It occurs to me that right now – two-fifteen a.m. – is the first I have thought of Jasmina for hours. I am in peril of actually getting a life.


Sylvia

You’re a goddamn mess. Why would a man have anything to do with you?


Jasmina


I am either healing myself or punishing myself. I am at the Depot, having a bowl of butternut squash soup. Paul would talk about this soup with a particular look in his eye – as if he were talking about an ex-girlfriend who went on to become a supermodel. It’s good, but I’m obviously not getting the same buzz. Perhaps I lack the emotional investment.

It’s been that kind of morning. We managed to get the latest film from Pixar – quite the coup – and the kids have been whining and screaming all morning. My favorite was the mom who apparently brought every kid in the neighborhood. She arrived at the head of a long line, five minutes until showtime, and only then turned around and said, “Okay kids, what do you want?” As if ten wound-up kids are going to give an organized response. I wanted to slap her.

And now, it gets worse. Mack and Tony have just walked in with Tony’s tight wife and a 50-year-old redhead with the surprised look of a plastic-surgery queen.

This is what I’m down to. I am jealous of the woman who is dating the man I’m being paid to have sex with. I’m pretty sure I’m breaking some prostitutional code of ethics. What’s worse is that my occasional glances are getting zero response, not even an undercover wink. Jesus. I am such a product.

I finish my soup and head for the restroom. When I come out, Mack is scanning the bulletin board, waiting for the men’s room.

“Hi.”

He gives me a mystified look, then smiles. “Hello.”

“How’s the lunch going?”

“I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure the redhead can’t see us.”

Now it’s a blank look, and then a laugh.

“Oh! You’re the popcorn girl, at the theater. God, you really had me going there.”

I can’t believe this. I can’t believe he’s carrying it this far.

“Asshole,” I say, and leave.


Three grinding hours later, Javid and I sit at a table in the break room.

“God!” I say. “I am so glad we don’t do a lot of kiddie movies.”

“I’m betting you got the worst of it.”

“Well that’s nice of you to…”

“Not nice at all. A simple matter of straight thinking. I’m just selling tickets. You’re dealing with the evil combination of kids and food.”

I give him a Hindu-looking bow. “I thank you, Mr. Spock, for your insight.”

“Oh, hey… I got something for you.” He pulls a bag from the shelf and hands it to me. It’s a pair of books: God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

 

“Javid! This is…”


“Once again, I must interrupt you. You should probably read the bookmark.”

The Dawkins offers a moss green marker with a Darwin fish and the logo of The Free Thinker. Halfway down is a brief note in Paul’s handwriting: It’s time for graduate studies.

I burst upon Javid and kiss him on the cheek. “This is even better! Thank you.”

I wrap the books in my jacket, stuff it into my pack and begin the uphill climb, away from all things small and whiny.


Paul

I’m working on the drying table, separating buds and stems, loading a couple of one-ounce bags for delivery. I like this kind of work. It’s tactile, it keeps my mind occupied. My brain is my greatest asset, I marvel at what it can do, but I often wish it would just shut the fuck up. I am lost in the greenery, just about at the level of zen when a knock on the door throws me right back out. In a room full of marijuana plants, a knock on the door is a loaded occurrence.

Whoever’s outside has likely heard no sound. I slip off my shoes and creep up the stairs. Part of the challenge is to fight my innate politeness. I need to be rudely quiet and wait for a signal.

“Paul? It’s Jasmina.”

Clear enough, but just to make sure, I indulge in a worst-case scenario. Jasmina has been busted for prostitution and is turning me in for a plea bargain, standing in my stock room with three sheriff’s deputies. Not likely. I open the door and there she is, alone, still in her work shirt, a black button-down with long sleeves.

“Jesus! This is really not a good idea. How did you get in?”

She scratches her arm. “I’m sorry. The back door was open.”

“I am really a lousy criminal.”

She laughs, then covers her mouth. “I finished the books.”

This isn’t how I pictured our reunion, but still I feel like kissing her. Which is a really bad idea.

“Why don’t we go to my conference room?”

I have recently outfitted the Enlightenment corner with a small sofa and a pair of café chairs. Jasmina slides into the red armchair. I take a chair and straddle it backwards, which I realize is a defensive posture, the back of the chair providing a shield for the family jewels (I have got to stop thinking).

“So. Tell me about the books.”

She lifts her legs to the seat of the chair and folds them Indian-style, then looks at me with wide eyes.

“Thrilling. Absolutely thrilling. All these things I have suspected all my life. All these things I have never spoken out loud because I didn’t want to upset people. These guys, they just say it, and make no apologies. They have roiled up so many ideas in my head that I can barely sort them out. Here’s one: I have noticed this tendency of Marin County folk, so desperate to escape their Christian childhoods that they embrace Hindu, and Buddhism, and Islam, not realizing that they have simply traded one flavor of bullshit for another. It’s all mythology, it’s all been manipulated for the cultivation of power, and the first commandment is always the same: turn off your brain and accept our fairy tales as absolute truth.”

She stops to take a breath. The look on her face borders on sexual arousal.

“It’s pretty exhiliarating to say things like this, isn’t it?”

“God yes.”

“You know, it takes most people – notably Roman Catholics – decades to work all these toxins out of their systems. You’re making leaps.”

“And this idea of Dawkins, that we allow religion to corrupt our politics, to infect our science and to make idiots of our children simply because we have decided that religious thought merits automatic respect, and immunity from criticism. What a load of crap. If the fucked-up patriarchal torturously celibate foundations of your church lead your clergy to molest children, then we have an obligation to criticize your fucking religion!”

I have been here before. I have used Hitchens and Dawkins for years to pull budding atheists over the brink. They are my Atheists with Attitude, and they have a way of switching on so many ideational connections that the reader’s brain becomes an overamped pinball machine. My job is to keep pumping in the quarters until all of the forbidden notions are pulled into the open air, where they may be sorted and assembled into a very necessary arsenal. The rest of Jasmina’s life will be a tricky navigation through well-meaning idiots who worry over the blackness of her soul, and a depressing realization that most of the world is happy to turn off their brains and wallow in superstition.

“One time, I got the black-soul treatment from some old friends who were pagans. I wanted to shake them and say, ‘You’re fucking pagans! Millions of your forebears were tortured and exterminated by people who claimed that they were only doing it because they were concerned about the health of their victims’ souls. And you want to start the same process with me?’”

“So what did you really say?”

“‘Oh look, our pizza’s done!’”

Jasmina breaks up, then catches sight of the clock. “Oh, geez. I need to let you get some sleep.”

My gaze settles on Voltaire, the sharp nose, the narrow features.

“Absolutely not! There are times when the conversation simply must continue. Are you familiar with a fine dining establishment known as Denny’s?”

She rolls her eyes. “All too.”

“Midnight breakfast? Public discussion of heretical ideas?”

“Nothing could be finer.” She smiles and gets up from the chair, her breasts passing inches from my face.


After pancakes, eggs, bacon, several cups of coffee and enough blasphemy to inspire an Inquisition, we exit the restaurant and stand outside. The eastern sky is going baby blue.

“This is epic!” I declare. “This  is the kind of night that American teenagers have after the prom. As long as they’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses.” I feel Jasmina’s fingers folding into mine and I pull away.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t…”

“No,” she says. “It’s me. I…” She falls silent, then pivots to face me. “No! Let’s not be this way. We’re atheists, let’s just damn well say it. I know that my… occupation means that you and I can’t be… involved. But I love you, and you’re my friend, and I want to feel free to express my affection. So set some rules for me. Tell me what’s okay.”

She looks at me with such frankness that I need to look away in order to consider the question. A firetruck rumbles down the freeway.

“Okay. Not the hand-holding. Hugs are fine. Touches on the arm, the back, the shoulder. And… a peck on the cheek, in moments of inspiration.”

I turn back and find myself kissing her on the lips.

“Hey!” She slaps me on the chest. “I was trying to kiss you on the cheek.”

I lean on the hood of my truck and start laughing.


Jasmina

We are headed down 17 through San Jose, toward a gap in the mountains. It’s not quite summer, but the weather is awfully nice. Which explains the beach traffic crawling through a three-lanes-to-two bottleneck.

“So. My dear Saint Paul. You know I trust you. You know I have faith in you. Hee hee. But I’m not sure if I understand why we’re doing this.”

Paul smiles, just a little, and nudges his spectacles. “Let me first tell you what someone else is doing. Carolyn’s best friend, Yvonne, is a Methodist. She has refused to come to Carolyn’s baptism due to the minuscule differences between Methodist Christianity and Mormon Christianity.”

We pass under a footbridge. A couple of kids wave at us. I flash them a peace sign.

“But you think they’re both garbage.”

“Actually, no. Mormonism holds a special place in my heart. Joseph Smith is one of the filthiest scam artists in theological history. His disappearing golden tablets, so like the missing 18 1/2 minutes on Nixon’s Watergate tapes. ‘Mormon’ should be spelled with only one m.”

“Joke received and registered. So why, then, are we attending a Mormon baptism?”

“Primary reason: I love Carolyn, and Carolyn asked me to. Secondary: as much as I enjoy my atheism, I acknowledge that it takes a certain mental strength to pull it off. Some people are not cut out for it. In the ten years since her parents died, Carolyn has fallen into an aimless drift. A little structure might be just what she needs, and you can’t beat the Mormons for structure.”

“This is just blowing my mind.”

“Good. Oh, and I have a tertiary. The church itself can’t be beat for misogyny, homophobia and a host of other sins, but I have yet to meet an individual Mormon that I didn’t like.”

We finally reach the crest of a hill and come out on a straightaway next to a reservoir. The rains have been kind; the banks are ripe and lakeish. Just as the traffic begins to loosen up, Paul hits an offramp and loops around.

“What the hell!”

Paul smiles. “My point exactly.” He pulls into a turnout that looks over a small annex of the reservoir, tucked against the mountains. He gets out, props a foot on a split-rail fence and looks out over the water. I assume I’m supposed to do the same.

“Oh God, you’ve become one of those enigmatic Buddhist teachers.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps, when the eagle calls, you must follow.”

“So you’re a Navajo.”

“I am not speaking metaphorically.”

An actual bald eagle crosses the water in front of us, long, fluid wings carving the air.

“I’ve seen a few of them in Washington state,” says Paul. “I have never seen one this far south. I sorta figured I was hallucinating.”

Time stretches. The eagle finishes its left-to-right skim, scales high over the traffic and vanishes behind a stand of evergreens. I kiss Paul on the cheek. We return to his truck.

“You know what a religious person would say at this moment?” I ask.

We slide onto the highway. “Well,” says Paul. “Rather than appreciating the moment for what it was – a beautiful creature who has ventured far from its usual range – the religious person would take it as a personal message from God. Because religious people are the most megalomaniacal folks on the planet, and assume that even the flight plans of bald eagles are mapped out with their personal needs in mind. But then, I’m preaching to the choir.”

“You may be preaching to the choir, honey, but the choir really gets off on this shit.”


The Mormon approach to architecture is a little confusing. We pull off Highway One in Watsonville before what looks like a school, then ramble around for ten minutes before we find the small, plain room that serves as a chapel. We enter mid-service, the Marin County heathens dressed in black. It’s beautiful.

I sit next to Paul as an African man delivers a rambling homily, and I fight off the itch. It usually happens at quiet concerts, that sudden impulse to disrupt the proceedings. Here, it’s worse – gray-haired women dressed in spring-colored dresses and encouraging smiles, stiff-suited elders working up their little auras of authority. I want to scream. I want to strip naked, sing the national anthem and take hostages. But I suppose Paul would never take me to another baptism, so I fold my hands and stifle my urges.

His friend Carolyn seems very sweet – bashful and giggly from all the attention. She’s dressed in a white robe, as is the athletic-looking man next to her. From all the discreet touching I begin to get the gist: Carolyn met a nice Mormon boy. After a few more passages of scripture, he guides her to a side room outfitted with a stand-up bath and one of those angled convenience-store mirrors so the rest of us can watch. Mormon Boy says the magic words and dunks her under. She surfaces giggling, looking even cuter with wet hair.

Afterwards, we adjourn to a small gym with a table of refreshments. I find myself talking to the baptisee herself.

“So I guess this is the obvious question, but are you ready to give up the caffeine and booze?”

“Pshh. That’s the easy stuff. It’s the sex. Can’t do that till I’m married.”

“What about the tall drink of water who dunked you?”

She giggles. “Hey! One life-changing event at a time.”

“Here. Have another cookie.”

“Now sugar,” she says. “That’s allowed.”

Paul’s right: the Mormons are likeable. I look around and find him at the far end of the gym, shooting hoops with one of the elders.


We are midway up the Peninsula when my stomach starts to gurgle. Paul pulls into a vista point. You can see a long distance, the lights wrapping the bay in fields of gemstones. I would be enjoying it more if I were not vomiting into a cypress bush. Paul brings me an old towel, and I clean up as best I can.

“Too many Latter-Day desserts?”

“Too much religion.”

“You’re still in the grasp. It creates a lot of tension. But don’t worry – it gets easier. Ready to go?”

“Sure.” We take a slow walk, looking at the lights, the faint spiderwebs of the bridges. “You had a mean bout of basketball going there.”

“Game of HORSE. Ernie said if I lost, I had to get baptized.”

“And?”

“He kicked my ass.”

“Nice knowin’ ya. Mormon Boy.”

“It’s all right. I’m pretty sure that Mormons aren’t allowed to gamble.”


A little later, we’re climbing the long uphill of 19th Avenue, following the neatly alphabetized cross-streets: Vicente, Ulloa, Taraval. Paul turns on the heater.

“My mentor was a landscape designer. He was the safe harbor, the sounding board for my most radical thoughts. One night, he told me that religion is the thing we must jettison before we can get on with our evolution. That really stuck with me.

“Years later, he told me something else – and perhaps I’m remembering it now due to our eagle encounter. California, you see, has given rise to two distinct species of coyote: one from the south, one from the north. This division derived from the geographical obstacle created by the San Francisco Bay. Recently, however, they found some coyotes in San Francisco. They tested their DNA and concluded that these were northern coyotes. Which means? Class?”

Trying to process a thought right now is like trying to shove a potato through a keyhole.

“I’m… I’m not following.”

“That particular coyote crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. What kind of coyote would you have to be to look at that long, man-smelling, trafficky monstrosity and say, ‘I’m gonna cross that suckah.’”

“Coyote con cojones.”

You are adorable. Honestly. But see, that’s who I want to be. I want to be the coyote who crosses the bridge.”

Paul is radiating with fascination. I want to jump his bones and drink up all that light. Instead, I smile most sincerely and say, “Okay. Let’s do that.”

We hit the crest of the hill at Noriega, and there it is.


Jasmina

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

Javid hovers over me, looking all snappy in his uniform.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to confiscate that book. You’re corrupting the neighborhood.”

“Funny! You got the late shift?”

“Just heading in. Is that a good one?”

He refers to Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby, my latest purchase from Paul’s store.

“So far, yeah. It’s a good set of weaponry, next time I meet one of those In God We Trusters.”

“Or a One Nation Under Godder. Or a God Bless American.”

He pulls up a chair and straddles it backward. I’ve noticed lately that all my men sit this way.

“I have come to the conclusion,” he says, “that these confrontations occur mainly in my head. To actually conduct something resembling a debate with one of these church-state deniers would be, oh, I don’t know, like trying to talk to someone who has their head stuck up their ass."

“Ha! You’re funny. The most intriguing part, so far, is discovering how truly atheist/agnostic/secularist many of our founding fathers really were. I mean, George Washington? Who knew?”

“Well, yes. Many of them felt the need to be a little vague about it. Except Thomas Paine, and you see what happened to him.”

“Goddamn Americans.”

“We’re a country of idiots. But we do have a Constitution. Is that butternut squash?”

“Yep.”

“Paul swears by that stuff.”

“Want a taste?”

Javid takes my spoon and gives it a try. “Damn! That bastard is right about everything.” He pauses, looking hesitant. “You know, I see you two together sometimes and I wonder, why aren’t you… together?”

“Wow. Um… that’s pretty complicated.”

“Give me a sketch.”

“Okay. Well. Two people arrive at a… potential relationship with their respective collections of baggage. And sometimes…”

“The baggage doesn’t match.”

I smile. “Ambiguous analogy completed.”

“And secret reasons for ambiguity respected. Still. It’s pretty cool that you have transitioned to friendship. Doesn’t always happen. In the case of my fucked-up culture, you might very well find yourself in a marriage with neither love nor friendship. But enough about my parents. I had better get my sorry ass to work.”

He stands and spins his chair so it’s tucked under the table.

“Bye, Jav. Thanks for dropping in.”

“By the way,” he says. “When Lexi makes the popcorn, it is not half so good as yours.”

“That’s because mine is freethinking popcorn.”

“And Lexi’s is brainless blonde popcorn.”

He leaves on a joke. I watch him disappear past the espresso bar. I feel very much that Javid has just told me to wise the hell up.


Mack takes me to a Cajun place in Sausalito called the Twist ‘n’ Shout. The décor is classic French Quarter: panels of distressed wood, wrought-iron railings, red lamps. The food is downright salacious. I order blackened catfish, a shrimp pirogue and a Hurricane big enough for a Navy squadron. We’re both feeling pretty jolly – especially Mack, whose affection for food is well-established. I sit back, warmed up inside and out, and study his demeanor. Lately, there’s something different about him. Twinkle-eyed, avuncular, Santa Clausian.

“What’s up with you, loverboy?”

He pops a hush puppy and chews it down. “So it shows?”

“It’s like you’ve been snorting glitter.”

He laughs and folds his hands over his belly. “There’s an image for ya. Well, gumdrop. I suppose I’d better ‘fess up. I’m in love.”

I pull up the automatic smile, but the interior walls are quaking. “The redhead?”

“Yes. And, well, I’ve never been in this position before, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to terminate your services.”

I laugh gaily, which proves what a good actress I am. Given the setting, I suppose I’m Blanche DuBois. “I haven’t been in this position myself. When do you need me to… move out?”

He rubs a hand over his moustache. “Well, the lease doesn’t run out till September, so why not September first?”

“Mack! That’s very sweet of you.”

“And I… won’t be so crass as to give it to you here, but I’ve written you a severance check. Five thousand. I also wanted to give you something more… personal, so I got you a day-long treatment at Graziela’s Spa.”

With each tribute, my insides are calming. I’m beginning to see a possibility.

Thank you!”

He gives me a smile. “For all the wear and tear I have inflicted on that lovely body of yours, it’s the least I can do to see that it’s taken care of.” He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes.

“Mack! Are you crying?”

He stares at the tabletop till he regains his composure. The big softie.

“Honey. I know what most people would think about you and me. But I’ll tell you, once my wife got through with me, I felt like a beat-up sack of money. Somehow, by taking the transaction to a more overt level –  let’s call it retail affection – I met you, and you have restored my manliness, my joy. That’s what Marnie – my redhead – saw in me. And so, you see, you have succeeded in working your way out of a job.”

Now I’m the one who’s losing it. I am laughing and crying, all at once. I am craughing. That’s a good one; I’ll have to tell that to Paul.

We walk to the car, arm in arm – for all the world knows, a father and daughter celebrating a birthday. I am downright giddy. I feel the wings sprouting at my shoulder blades. As Mack pulls his SUV onto Highway 101, I get up on all fours and undo his zipper.

“But Jazz, you know you don’t…”

“If I were you, young man, I would concentrate on your driving.”

“Yes ma’am!”


Paul

Sunday is a downer making its way into several uppers. I am awake much earlier than I prefer, conducting an urgent paint job on the front door. This opens the way for a visit from Jasmina, who approaches my work site in her black movie clothes. It’s a wonder her boss won’t let her work in short sleeves. She scratches her arm, which seems to be her favorite tic.

“Don’t tell me.”

I finish a stroke around the doorknob. “I almost left it up. If only they had been more accurate. ‘Godless heathen,’ by all means. ‘Infidel’ – hell yes. But ‘Satan worshipper?’ The bastards make up a bogeyman to take the blame for all the bad stuff, and then they accuse me of worshipping him?”

Jasmina cracks up. “Assholes! Hey, that color is a good match.”

“Last time they did the building, the painters gave me their leftovers. Let’s just say I anticipated some holy vandalism.”

“The meek shall tag the earth.”

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want for semi-gloss. Isn’t it a little early for movies?”

“I’m gonna drop by the Depot for some reading.”

“Cool. Hey, I got some terrific news just now.”

“Stop! Hold it right there. I’ve got some news, too. Why don’t I take you to dinner and we can swap stories.”

“Well!”

“Came into some money,” I say.

“Oh.”

“You are so totally not allowed to go there.”

“Hey! Nice use of the displaced ‘totally.’ You sure you’re not a native?”

“I’ve been practicing. Six o’clock?”

“Sure!”

“Do you have a suit?”

“Somewhat.”

“Do your best.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Ciao!”

I go back to my work for a ten-count, then I turn to watch Jasmina walk away. Instead I find her watching me. Damn women. Always staring at your ass when you’re trying to stare at theirs.


She arrives at six looking stunning: black boots, plush corduroy pants, a charcoal top with smatterings of sequins, and a red crushed-velvet jacket with burgundy lapels. Her hair is up, except for two small tendrils framing her face. It’s the kind of outfit one might wear to a corporate fundraiser, just boho enough to converse with the proletariat. My own outfit – green sportcoat, jeans, white dress shirt – pales in comparison, but with Jasmina around who the hell would be looking at me?

“Ready to close up shop?” she says.

“You got it. Let me lock up the front.”

I’m driving uphill. Both of us are being quiet – an unusual occurrence.

“You know,” I say. “Sooner or later, you should probably tell me where we’re going.”

She laughs, a terrier yap. “I guess I was trying to figure out some way to surprise you, but you’re right. Take us to Lakshmi’s.”

“I’m salivating already.”

We take the long walk to the restaurant, shafts of sun stabbing the walls. I notice a vase holding a dozen silver tulips, the stems wrapped with a rubber band. Jasmina gives the vase a little tap and keeps walking.

We sit at the same table as before. The time for news arrives in the gap between ordering and eating.

“Okay,” she says. “You first.”

I sip from my Zinfandel and run it around my tongue. “Okay. I have an old friend – a fellow JW graduate.”

“JW?”

“Jehovah’s Witness.”

“Oh! Right.”

“Zelda’s a doctor, and an activist in the field of medical marijuana. She has decided to open a clinic in San Anselmo, and wants me to be her supplier.”

Jasmina shoots me the beauty pageant smile. “So you’re going legit!”

“Um. Sort of. The whole field is in this weird limbo right now. Mostly between state and federal. The gist is that she’s free to sell the stuff – at non-profit rates – but not to purchase it.”

“Well that’s just screwy.”

“Yes. But it actually works to my advantage. With a proven record of quality, discretion and espionage, I am the ideal candidate. I will be taking a hefty cut in my profit margin, but the volume is excellent, and who knows? Maybe someday I can take the whole thing above-board.”

“Just legalize the shit already!”

“That’s why I love you, Jazz. You have this habit of making sense.”

And there I go, tripping the wire again. Jasmina goes all silent, and I decide not to push her for her news. The silence continues into our entrees.

“I’m quitting.”

I finish a large mouthful of chicken curry. “Not the moviehouse! What would they…”

“Not the moviehouse.”

Eventually it sinks in. “Oh! That’s… great. Will you be okay financially?”

She’s looking at me but not precisely at me. “Yeah. I’ll be fine. I’ve got… options.”

The silence returns, but eventually, note by note, we build a conversation on easier subjects. Mostly, the effect that her latest book is having on Jasmina’s feelings toward her adopted country. I have come to greatly enjoy the way her mind processes new material. I suppose it reminds me of myself, when I first ventured into the wilds of freethought. She’s still at it as we climb the walkway – in fact, is so involved in her discourse that she’s still holding her dinner napkin.

“The thing that really intrigues me is how the early evangelicals actually encouraged the separation of church and state, because they knew that a religiously free society offered a more fertile ground for recruitment. And now, how those same evangelicals, without the slightest trace of irony, want to tear that separation down.”

She stops at the vase. She takes the silver tulips, wraps the stems in her dinner napkin and hands them to me.

“The thing is, I quit because I wanted to. I also quit because, for lack of a better way of putting it… I want to be your girlfriend.”

Her smile is shaking, the way it did before. She has caught me completely unprepared. I look at the tulips, which are perfect, which are frozen at a peak ripeness of petaldeath. Petaldeath – great name for a band.

“Paul?”

Still there. Still with the smile.

“Geez, Jasmina. I’m flattered. I am. But, well, what do I want to say here? I’m dizzy! You haven’t let me stand in the same spot for more than five minutes since I met you. Mentor? Lover? Friend? What role am I playing? What’s my motivation?”

She kisses me on the cheek. “It’s not a pop quiz. I wasn’t expecting an answer.”

“Oh.”

 We drive home in more silence. Jasmina seems content, holding my tulips, her eyelids at half-mast. I’m feeling foggy, and so is Mill Valley.

When we reach the door of my shop, I turn to suggest, for the hundredth time, that she let me drive her home. She looks like one of those soft-focus closeups from an old movie, her hair loose around her shoulders, her dark eyes marked with apostrophes of light. Her smile replaced by a pair of plush lips, slightly parted, hint of white teeth. A target that no man – atheist, agnostic, evangelical – could possibly resist.

So I don’t.


Sylvia

You’re an evil, dirty girl with evil, dirty thoughts.


Paul


One of a drummer’s favorite moments is when one of his bandmates sits behind his kit and tries to play. The results are plenty amusing, owing largely to the counterintuitive way that a drummer uses his limbs as independent kingdoms. This rewiring takes countless hours of playing, but the rewards are phenomenal. Occasionally, you will find yourself so fully engaged that your hands will do something you didn’t really ask them to, as if they have declared themselves as sentient beings.

Tonight, I am pushing these faculties to the max, as Smeeed and I lay down the rhythm tracks on our recording project. He has taken five drum mics and clipped them to my snare, three toms and a bass. A sixth dangles from the ceiling over my cymbals. He positions another mic before his bass amp, checks all the levels and we’re off.

You might compare the recording process to building a house. The drum and the bass are the foundation, outlining the structure of the song. The other players may then add their studs, crossbeams and joists until, layer by layer, they have completed the edifice. Then Smeeed sits for hours before his computer, picking out window treatments.

In a better-equipped band, we would lay our foundation while listening through headphones to a scratch recording of the full band. In our case, we’re working from memory. “The Man” is not bad. We’ve been playing it for a year, and the structure is pretty straightforward. “Fool” is not so easy. We’ve only been playing it for three months, and have not entirely fixed it in place. Our first attempt is a train wreck. After that, Smeeed and I discuss the structure until our brains are bleeding. Concluding that we’ve been playing the changes off the vocal cues, I tape Pamela’s lyrics to my bass drum and sing along in a wide-mouthed whisper so Smeeed can follow. At the same time, I’m trying not to work too hard, because the best recordings capture two opposite qualities: sounding tight while playing loose. Or the drummer’s equivalent: concentrating by not thinking so much.

I’m in a weirdly good space for all of this paradox, because my brain is packed with imagery. Jasmina and I have wandered into the wilds of sexuality, and although getting there was half the fun, we still have a ways to go. Granted, any first coupling is an awkward endeavor: body placement, likes and dislikes, roughness, verbosity, the “freak” factor. But I assumed I was dealing with a pro. Thinking like a woman, it could be that the introduction of actual feelings is throwing her off, but at one point she was eyeing my principal pleasure device like an amateur plumber. “Hmm, I wonder what this does?”

My brief but active stint as a married man left me in the familiar role of instructor, and eventually we succeeded in bringing all the parts together. The greatest satisfaction came in lying together afterward, knowing that we had finally crossed the threshold.

All during the act, Jasmina left her blouse on, unbuttoned for ready access. In her post-coital dreamstate, she had let it slip, exposing a zig-zag line running from her shoulder to the fabric just above her elbow.

“Yaz? What’s that?”

“What?”

“On your arm.”

She pulled the shirt back on and gave me an expression that I couldn’t translate until later: equal parts embarrassment and fear. She kept moving her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

“A tattoo? A scar?”

“No. Not…”

So many of our conversations orbit the subject of reason, I thought it a good direction to go.

“Yaz? You know you can trust me. You told me the worst already, and I haven’t told a soul. If we’re going to be doing… this, it would be best if you showed me everything.”

She bit her lip and nodded. I helped her take off the sleeve. The line ran all the way to her wrist in perfect, 90-degree cuts. I traced the scarred ridges with my fingertips. Jasmina began to cry.

“I’m sorry. It’s a… release, a bad habit. I don’t always… like myself.”

The crying segued into song, whimpering lines of hurt and pain. I wrapped her up and took it in through my pores.

“You think it’s a keeper?”

Smeeed’s sitting on a stool in front of the computer, lining up the tracks of the recording.

“What? Oh, yeah. I guess we’ll find out for sure when we add the other parts.”

“Okay. I fucked up a change in the final bridge, but I think I can patch it in.”


Sylvia

Are you listening to me?


Jasmina


“How do you do that?”

“Steady hands, I guess.”

“What do you call that? Parfait?”

Patty gives me a sheepish smile. “I call it ‘pretty-style.’”

I take my latte to the patio and settle in for a luxurious half-hour break. It’s August, and a lot of the locals have gone on vacation. The town seems abandoned.

I am suffering from restlessness, and I think I know the source. My life has been one long string of crises, survivals, escapes – disasters. I have heard that soldiers fall in love with the adrenaline of the battlefield. It could be that the constant lightning and thunder has taken away my appreciation for peace.

Here’s the thing: I think I’m happy. I’m not sure if I can deal with happy. I can see how people might be happy for years and then trash everything out of a craving for change. Perhaps the thing is to change the nature of your happiness, to remodel it and push it forward. I don’t know if this is possible, but I intend to try.

Job One: I have to tell Paul how amazing he is. If Mack lost his manliness to a divorce, how would it feel to have your wife rat you out to your church? I never want to become one of these women.

A huge truck rumbles through town, looking like a lost dinosaur. As the roar of its engine dies off, I hear a piece of classical guitar that sounds oddly familiar. I study the trio of liquids in my glass. I take out a pen and the first of many napkins.


Andre plays classical guitar at the How You Bean, a coffeehouse in Boulder, Colorado. He plays for tips, but really he plays for Roxanne, who works behind the counter.

Andre is drawn to a well-defined type, olive-skinned girls with robust features and dark eyes. He spent his high school years with Maria Frenghetti, an exuberant Catholic beauty who chose graduation day to sacrifice their love on the pyres of religion and family.

His first night at the Bean, Roxanne barely registers. She is slim, red-haired, freckled, a quick entry to his Not-My-Type file (he does not do this consciously, but his filters are ruthlessly consistent). He plays for two hours, to meager applause but several smiles, plus sixteen dollars in his guitar case.

“Say, Andre?” It’s the tall, red-haired barista. “Did you want your drink? You get a free drink.”

“Oh. Sure. How ‘bout a double latte? I’ll pick it up after this last song.”

He plays an arrangement of “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. It’s a remarkable rendition, done in the baroque style. You have to really pay attention to catch the tune. Andre savors the raised eyebrows and chuckles of recognition. An aging hippie yells, “Rock on!” Five more dollars migrate to his case.

“That was great!” says the barista. “I’ll leave your drink on the table.”

“Thanks.” He gathers his tips, lowers his guitar into the case, then turns to find a work of art.

It sits in a tall, narrow glass, like a clear two-inch pipe with a handle. The bottom layer is four inches of steamed milk, the middle an inch-wide strip of espresso the color of charred wood. The top is two inches of milk foam, edging past the brim, one feathered dollop flipped over like a pompadour.

Only once has Andre seen such a thing – a caffe in Florence, on a tour of Italy after his first year of college. A woman who could be Maria Frenghetti’s mother laughs when he sips at the foam.

“No!” she says. “Presto!”

He’s not good with Italian, but he does know musical notation. “Presto” means “quickly.” So he swallows. The espresso bites into his tongue, then slips away in a wash of hot milk and foam. It’s like rough sex. In his mouth. He has trouble expressing this to his friends.

He has more trouble explaining it to the baristas of America, where efficiency has buried all other considerations. He refers to it by one filthy word: sploosh. Everything dumped in at once, a warmish, beige beverage. He tries to explain the Italian method with adjectives: “parfait,” “striped,” “separated.” He turns to ad-hoc lessons: Now pour the espresso down the back of the spoon, so it goes through the foam, but not into the milk.

But life gets busy, and you shouldn’t have to give five minutes of instructions every time you want a freakin’ latte. So he gives way to the sploosh majority, and he drinks from cardboard cups.

But now – this. He studies the perfect striations of brown and white, then tips the glass and drinks. Presto.

Andre plays again the following week, and he finds himself slipping up, on a piece he has played since he was six. These are small flaws: releasing a chord too early, dropping a note from an arpeggio. Nothing that an average listener would notice. But it bothers him. He understands that perfection is not, logically speaking, attainable. But if you’re not going to at least chase perfection, what’s the purpose?

He knows what it is. Too many of his focal points are occupied by the image of Roxanne’s latte. He takes an early break and requests his free drink.

“Double latte?” she asks.

“Exactly the same.”

“Ah.” She smiles. “A connoisseur.” She packs the grounds into a disc and slides it into a machine. Andre stands at the counter, watching.

“So what do you call it? Parfait? Striped?”

Roxanne twitches her lips in thought. “Pretty-style.”

“Pretty-style.”

She laughs. “I know. Corny. But it’s the only expression everyone seems to understand.”

She pours the milk, then lays in the foam, till it comes to an inch from the top. Then she brings the shot cup to the edge of the glass.

“No!” says Andre. “You pour it freehand? No spoon?”

Roxanne keeps her eye on the brown trickle. “All that is required… is the touch… of a neurosurgeon.”

A dark line appears between milk and foam and rises to a solid band, as if someone has painted it on the glass. She covers her pour spot with a cap of foam, then stands back to admire her work.

“You are a goddess of the caffeine arts,” says Andre.

That night he crosses his front lawn, huffing steam into the cold air. He pauses and sets down his guitar case. A full moon is filtering the madrone, silvering its smooth limbs. Andre sees Roxanne’s shoulders, bare and slender, turning away as the espresso bites into his tongue.


Roxanne realizes that her job is predominantly customer-service. She also knows that her age and appearance fall into a certain type: tall, high-cheekboned, girl-next-door (Julia Roberts comes up). She is a magnet for heartbroken forty-year-olds.

But most of them want just a conversation, a smile. Just the fact that she remembers their names and favorite drinks brightens their faces. She is careful to draw boundaries, but time is her friend – always another customer, another chore to keep the encounter brief. And they all seem to understand.

She is protective of her true affections – rarely gives them out – and is very clear on the type of man who buzzes her circuits. He is big, a barrel-chested guy who could squeeze her to a pulp. Not that she wants that, but just the idea of all that suppressed force. In the old high-school fantasy game, her picks would be Russell Crowe, a young Sean Connery, Brando in Streetcar.

Slight, effeminate Andre doesn’t stand a chance – until he starts playing. The deftness of his fingering captivates her. His choice of material – piano transcriptions from Poulenc and Satie – has her lifting in her shoes to listen. He also knows a good musical joke, dropping a quote from “Hotel California” into a Granados tango. She’s the only one who notices.

There’s a reason for this. Roxanne is a piano student. Her teachers love her playing, and encourage her to give recitals. But her ears tell her differently. She knows that perfection is a ruthless master, but she wants to be at least somewhere in the same county before she exposes herself to an audience. She tells no one about her studies – not even her closest friends – and when she hears someone like Andre, her feelings are confirmed.

The thing with the lattes catches her off-guard. She never realized they were so exceptional – but then, she’s never had such a knowledgeable audience. It reminds her of a trip she took to Italy, where espresso is almost a religion. And it gives her hope. If her hands are really so adept, perhaps someday they will pour a perfect Rachmaninoff.

Still, these feelings are self-centered and intellectual – not the same as attraction. Perhaps Andre’s lack of manliness is the price for his brilliant sensitivity.

They are working a bright, cold Sunday when Roxanne feels a sound at her shoulder, like a rustling newspaper. When she turns, a dark blur flings itself at her head. She ducks and lets out a girly shriek. The blur zips across the room and strikes the window with a thwack!

Oh God. It’s a bird. With lots of door traffic and lots of crumbs, this happens at least once a month, but she never gets used to it. The customers panic; the bird panics. The plate glass offers a deadly illusion.

The first impact renders this one semi-conscious. He settles on a windowsill, a dark brown sparrow blinking his eyes like a boxer on the mat. The customers buzz and chatter.

The music stops. Andre paces across the room, holding his sportcoat like a shield. He brings it to the sill, trapping the sparrow underneath, then bunches the sides into a sack. He carries his package outside, wingflaps ticking the fabric, then settles his coat to the ground and whips it away like a magician’s cape. The bird shoots off for the nearest tree.

Andre watches him go, then re-enters to applause and whistles. He returns to his chair and says, “For my next trick, I will play the guitar!”

Roxanne feels a pleasant tingle running the roof of her mouth.


Roxanne’s best friend is I-Chun, a Taiwanese tomboy who wears thin rectangular spectacles, several piercings and a white skunk-stripe through her jet-black hair. When she smells a clove cigarette, she knows that Roxanne is troubled, and retreats to the back alley to find out why.

“’Zup, girlfriend?” She slides down the wall to sit next to her on the sidewalk.

Roxanne takes a long drag. The sharp spice numbs the end of her tongue.

“Guy.”

“’Nother strappin’ lothario?”

“Nah. Guitarist.”

“That guy from NedRed? I didn’t think you went for longhairs.”

“Classical guitarist.”

I-Chun bugs out her eyes in that way she knows she’s good at.

“Geez!” says Roxanne. “No need to go all Academy Awards on me.”

“You’re going a bit far afield, Roxy. But – what’s the problem?”

Roxanne squints her eyes and takes another drag. “Goddamn lattes. All he ever talks about.”

“Well, you are the Queen of La…”

“Stop right there!” Roxanne waves a threatening finger. “There is more to yours truly than a… beverage. I am a luscious piece of feminine flesh, and I am about ready to hear that from someone besides myself.”

“You are a luscious piece of feminine flesh.”

“And the second I go lezzie, you’re at the top of my list. But back to my point.”

“Do you have anything else in common?”

Roxanne hesitates. Is it time to tell I-Chun about pianos? “No,” she says. “Not a thing.”

I-Chun takes the cigarette and steals a puff. “I got it,” she says. “Change the pattern of discourse. Fuck one up.”

“Fuck up a… latte?”

I-Chun pantomimes a witch throwing two toads into a pot. “Sploosh! Give him the world’s doggiest latte.”

“Oh not sploosh! Wouldn’t I be breaking some ethical code?”

“The hell with ethics! This is sex.”

“Or romance.”

“Yeah. Right.”


Andre places the glass on the counter like the opening exhibit in a homicide case. Roxanne stops, mid-cappuccino, and pretends to look puzzled.

“Hi. What’s up?”

“Excuse the language, Roxanne, but what… is that?”

“What language?”

“Fill in the blanks.”

Roxanne shouts “Double cap!” to the coffeehouse, then returns to Andre. “Sorry. I was in a hurry. I can make another, if you like.”

“Well, yes! Geez, Roxanne, I didn’t think you were even capable of something like this.”

“Is that the only reason you like me?” She tries to make it a joke, but it comes out all wrong.

Andre thinks about it. “If I played really crappy, strummy, homeless-folk-singer guitar, would you still like me?”

“Yes!”

“But would you think less of me?”

She sighs, defeated. “Yes. Because your playing is lovely.”

“There! It’s no crime for me to appreciate the care and skill you put into your work.”

All this logic is pissing her off. And there’s another customer at the register. Does Andre have no psychic powers at all? Does she really have to put this into words?

“Name one other thing you like about me. You have five seconds.”

He leans into the counter. “You have the most elegant shoulders I have ever seen.”

Andre sits in his basement apartment, watching television. That’s it. I have killed off a perfectly good gig. Why couldn’t I say she had a nice smile? Good breath? A cute nose?

Roxanne sits at her dining room table. She spies her reflection in the window. She turns her chair till she’s facing away, then looks back over her shoulder. Elegant.

Andre is cordial, friendly, but no closer. He natters on about lattes as if he has been banned from talking about anything else.

“A spell,” says I-Chun.

Roxanne raises her eyebrows in that way she knows she’s good at. “You are kidding.”

I-Chun throws her hands up. “I’ve got nothin’ to work with. Why don’t you just ask him out?”

“No. I need him to ask me out.”

“Jesus! Hop a bus into the twenty-first century.”

“It’s not about that. It’s because I have no idea if he’s really interested. Oh, God. Do you suppose he’s gay?”

“Hah! You supermodels are all alike. ‘If he doesn’t like me, he must be gay.’ A spell, sister. That’s my last word.”

I-Chun heads back inside as Roxanne complains after her: “But I don’t know any spells!”

Two hours later, it’s time for Andre’s break. Roxanne fills the disc with espresso and looks around. Cardamom – the spice they use for Turkish coffee. She shakes it into the grounds and locks the disc into the machine. Under the hiss, she leans close to the shot cup and whispers, “Courage.”

She is stacking chairs on tables when Andre stops by, guitar case in hand.

“Was there something… different tonight?”

“Sure. I added some cardamom.”

“I like it.”

“Good.”

A silence drifts in like a tule fog. Lots of room for someone to ask someone out on a date. Maybe they could meet for a cup of coffee.

“Well,” he says. “Gotta go!”

“Goodnight,” says Roxanne. She lifts another chair.


Andre sits on his couch, working through a new Scarlatti. It’s getting worse! That look on her face. She’s so popular. It seems like half the town knows her. What’m I doing even thinking about it? Oh Jesus, Andre – read the fucking music.

Roxanne continues the cardamom, to no discernible effect. If anything, Andre seems more distant – even vaguely annoyed. Then he’s gone, replaced by a guy named Martin. Roxanne stops by on his break.

“Do you know Andre?”

“Sure,” says Martin. “He’s in my composition class. He sort of passed this gig on to me.”

“Did he say why?”

“Heavy class load, somethin’ like that.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Hey, thanks for the latte. It was screamin’.”

“Yeah. No problem.”


The next three months are winter. The short days and foul weather conspire to drive Roxanne into the ground. Even the snow, which used to excite her. Now it reminds her of lost chances, the dying earth – some connection she has failed to make. She spends hours in the rehearsal room, playing Schubert sonatas and Chopin nocturnes, forcing the sad music into her veins so she can bleed it back out.

On the first day of March, she sits in a corner with her biology textbook. A shadow comes over her table. It’s Andre.

“Andre! Where’ve you… It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you. I’ve been kinda… busy. But today’s been really rough, and I thought, What you really need is one of Roxanne’s perfect lattes. But I guess… you’re not on?”

“No. But I’ll make you one. Be right back.”

Roxanne sprinkles cardamom into the disc, whispers “Courage,” then stands there, staring into the cup.

What the hell am I doing?

She fills a glass with ice and pours in the espresso, then drinks it down at a shot. Shards of light bulbs tinkle into her brain stem. Then she makes a perfect latte.

“Here ya go, sailor.”

“Ah, perfection!” says Andre. “Thanks. I will leave you to your studies.”

“No,” says Roxanne. “There’s a price for this service. You will sit here while I pick your brain.”

Andre smiles and joins her. “Sure. Whatcha got?”

“Well first – that transcription from Ravel. Where did you find that? You see, I’m studying piano, and I…”

Roxanne plays classical piano at the How You Bean, a coffeehouse in Boulder, Colorado. She plays for tips, but really she plays for Andre, who sits across the room and watches her elegant shoulders.


Paul

I suppose there are ultimate moments in life, and ultimate evenings. You don’t necessarily see them coming. Especially when you worry that your hot Serbian girlfriend is out of your league.

The beginning is not so great. We are on the Richmond Bridge, and we are moving at the rate of a government task force. Also, we have no AC, and the six o’clock sun is surprisingly warm. I look at my hot girlfriend, and I see a lightning bolt.

“Yaz? Your line is showing.”

She smiles. “You remember that scarring craze a few years ago? Because tattoos weren’t stupid enough? I got really drunk one night. But at least it isn’t some guy’s name, right?”

“I’m sorry. Am I missing something?”

“It’s my white lie, silly! I’ve been rehearsing all week.”

“Oh!”

“You think it’ll work?”

“Not only that, I think there was a scarring thing.”

“Branding.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s much better.”

She pulls a sheaf of papers from her purse. “Okay. I was going to give this to you later, but considering the circumstances, I will read it to you now.” She stops and licks her lips. “I wrote this for you, because you are an amazing man.”

“Wow.”

“Silence! Amazing man.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Andre plays classical guitar at the How You Bean…”


About the time that Andre is seeing Roxanne’s shoulders in the madrone, we pass the accident that caused our delay, and the traffic works its way back to normal.

“Wait! Go back.”

“Back where?”

“Back to the tree. I was distracted. I want to hear it again.”

Jasmina grins and flips the page. “That night, he crosses his front lawn, huffing steam into the cold air…”

She finishes as we near the Oakland skyline.

“Honey, I really wish I could look at you as I say this, but that story is fucking gorgeous.”

“Really? So why can’t you look at me?”

“Because the last time we played in Alameda, I missed this turnoff and got totally lost.”

“The story is gorgeous because I love you.”

I look at her. She’s crying. I’m laughing.

“What?”

“I just missed the turnoff.”


Long before the comedian Dana Carvey invented Garth, the long-haired blond goof of the Wayne’s World movies, he lived in San Francisco. So did our pal Gomer Hendrix. After lengthy debate, we have concluded that this is no coincidence. Gomer is a human jukebox, and he can’t resist screwing with the material, inserting the theme from Gilligan’s Island into a Zeppelin tune, or changing Frampton’s “Show Me the Way” to “Show Me Your Tits.” It ain’t Oscar Wilde, but fortunately most of his audience is drunk.

Tonight is John Patrick’s, a bar that feels like somebody’s rumpus room. Six weeks after the Fourth of July, the stage is bedecked with red, white and blue bunting. A month ago, Gomer asked me to sub for his drummer, and the idea of rehearsal never came up. Gomer is a master of improv. He could give a seminar on delivering cues from the guitar, and when in doubt he just shreds. My principal amusement is watching Smeeed at the front table, eyes popping as he follows Gomer’s solos. As he kicks into “What I Like About You,” I discover a live mic in front of me and offer up the backing vocals, a simple call-and-response. Gomer flashes me a grin.

All this fakery is so involving, I fear I’m being a terrible boyfriend. I note, however, that Jasmina has found Landa, Smeeed’s witchy girlfriend, and they seem to be bonding. During a pause – as Gomer talks chord changes with his German bassist – I spot my cell phone, vibrating atop my stick case.

It’s a text: You are so studly when you’re drumming I want to sneak back there and do nasty things to you.

I have no chance to reply – Gomer is counting.


Exit Wonderland plays a set, Gomer plays two more, and by the time we reach Mill Valley it’s three in the morning. I reach the usual left turn and stop. Jasmina is asleep, her head on my thigh. I trace my fingers along her face until her eyelids feather open.

“Mmmwha…?”

“I’m driving you home.”

She slaps my leg. “No!”

“Either that or you’re staying at my place.”

She cranes her neck until she can see over the dashboard. “No. Have to work tomorrow.”

“Ergo…?”

She gives me a bleary smile and crawls up to my ear. “Drive me home, baby.”

Home is uphill on Blithedale, then a right turn into a pretzel of tiny mountain roads. We pull up to an English-looking house with a broad chimney, a jumble of rose bushes and three Mayan pillars. As I stumble behind her I see what looks like a horse, half-buried in the shrubbery. She leads me to a modern white addition with tall windows and skylights. Bright light streams out in shafts. When Jasmina steps on the porch, a black labrador barks at us as if he were warding off a terrorist attack.

“Oskar!” A woman calls out in a sharp voice, then comes to the door. She’s small, silver-haired, with weathered cheekbones like a pioneer. Her clothes are marked with swipes of gray. She greets us with a laughing voice.

“Well! How was the music?”

“Fantastic! Anna, this is Paul. Paul, Anna. I can’t believe you’re still at it.”

“Time just disappears out here,” she sings. “And these antlers are driving me nuts!”

We head to the table, where a very real-looking deer gives us a determined stare. She has constructed a rig of PVC pipe and blocks of Styrofoam to support the antlers. She takes a chopstick and scrapes a spot on its neck.

“Poor dear,” she says (ignoring the pun). “Fighting gravity, as are we all.”

“Allow me,” says Jasmina, “to point out the obvious. Anna is a ceramic sculptor – with a decided flair for animals and wordplay. Here, let’s start you out easy.”

She takes me to a large yellow hand with a rectangular cutout framing a graceful gray-brown bird.

“A bird in the hand?”

“No, but excellent guess! Think rhyming.”

“Oh! Dove in glove. Very Dr. Seuss.”

“Okay, now for my favorite.” She stands beside a large bird with orange and black markings. I am catching the character of Anna’s birds. They seem very authentic, but they also carry a smirking quality, as though, if they really wanted to, they could burst into impeccable English. This one stands on some sort of cake, which is then balanced on an odd-looking cushion.

“I have no…”

“Start with the center. Something you’re likely to have for breakfast…”

“A muffin.”

“Rhyme it with the bird…”

“Oh! A puffin. On a muffin. On a…”

She traces one end of the cushion. “Note the openings at either end, where one might put one’s hands…”

“A puffin on a muffin on a muff!”

She kisses me. “You are a brilliant man. Oh! That reminds me.” She touches me on the arm. “Be right back.”

Anna’s back to her work, smoothing and scraping at her buck. Oskar is curled up on a futon at her feet. I wander to a bookshelf filled with nature photography, field guides and Audubon illustrations. At a nearby table I find a blue man, bursting through a pair of oversize books. He wears a blank expression, and on his forehead a trio of Hebrew letters. Anna has noticed my interest, and walks over.

That is a very interesting story. It’s a golem, an artificial man created by a rabbi. A woman bought it because it looked like her father, who had recently died. But the resemblance was too great. Every time her mother looked at it, she broke down in tears. The daughter refused to take the money back, and asked me to donate it to a museum. Alas, the poor golem is in limbo.”

“Wow. So are you Jewish?”

“Jewish atheist.” She chuckles. “I’m not usually so up-front about it, but, well, fellow travelers.” She returns to her table and eyes the problem antlers. “In fact, I’m the one who told Jasmina about your shop.”

“Really!”

“She came home one night and said, ‘What is that odd store across from the moviehouse?’ My late husband would have loved that place. He was quite the rabblerouser.”

“So you’re the one who brought us together.”

Anna gives a wry smile. “It does me good to see her with a nice atheist boy.”

Jasmina enters to laughter. “I should have known the radicals would get along.”

“Quite well,” I reply. “What’s this?”

She hands me a box. “When I told Anna about the silver tulips, she gave me this vase, which she made in a crazed moment of orthodoxy. And now I give it to you, so that I may fill it with more flowers, and more flowers.”

The vase has a broad, round base rising to a narrow neck. The glaze is gray-green, with a crackling effect like an old oil painting. It’s the last thing I look at before I go to sleep.


Paul

I think it’s easy for San Franciscans to take their cultural freedoms for granted. Today I add another item to my list of pleasures in being the boyfriend of Jasmina Contrevic: seeing a San Francisco street fair through her unspoiled eyes. At the moment, this consists of watching an aging hipster fry up our New Orleans beignets while smoking an enormous doobie. We take our first bites as we cross the street.

“That is hilarious!” she says.

“Yep.”

“So you can pretty much do whatever you want?”

“Within reason.”

A completely naked man sets up a chaise lounge on the sidewalk.

“Or not. The neighborhood’s blocked off and they’re policing the exits, so the cops don’t feel the need to hassle anyone. Hey! Free coffee.”

We head to a bicycle-drawn cart, where a couple of young dudes are delivering free cups of java. Jasmina licks the powdered sugar from her fingers and takes a sip.

“So this is the Promised Land.”

“We call it Dowhateverthefuckyouwant-istan.”

She reaches back and gives my butt a mighty spank.


As choice a gig as this might be, the logistics are proving a little sketchy. During setup, I realize that we will be playing in eighty degrees of freakish October sunlight. The people running our stage float the idea of fixing their tardiness by shortening our set. Pamela (bless her) shoots them down. Then the sound guy takes freakin’ forever clipping a dozen mics to my kit.

The funny thing is, all these red flags lead to a pretty terrific set. The mics are giving my drums a lot of power, and the band feels especially tight. At one point, the sound guy has to snatch my boom stand before it falls off the back of the stage. The distraction causes me to miss a drum cue, but the band plows through, unhindered. Our stalwarts have arrived just in time to fill up the shaded half of our dancing area. I spot my lovely girlfriend up front, and I don’t even care about the sweat soaking my shirt.

Afterward, I stuff my drums under a table, enjoy the unparalleled luxury of a musicians-only porta-potty and head out with Jasmina to catch the Mermen, a legendary surf-rock group. A passel of young ladies walk by on stilts, clothed in petticoats and gartered stockings. Jasmina whispers in my ear. “You had better check out those girls.”

“I don’t even care.”

“Don’t give me that patronizing bullshit. They’re wearing tiny little skirts, and they’re five feet off the ground! How often do you get this opportunity? Now look!”

She grabs my head with both hands and aims me like a telescope. The queen stilter, trailing a train of white ribbons, catches our predicament and gives me an enchanting smile.

“Now how did that feel?” says Jasmina.

“Nice.”

“Use that later on me.”

We lean against each other and stroll the freaky avenue. I nuzzle her ever-gorgeous hair. “You’re getting feisty. I like that.”

“Elizabeth Cady-Stanton.”

“The Woman’s Bible?”

“Lizzie had balls the size of Delaware. Check out the lookie-loos.”

A road soars over the Potrero Hill District; fifty spectators stand at the railing, some with binoculars.

“Voyeurs,” says Jasmina.

“Cheapskates,” says I.

“Chickens. Bug-gock!” She flaps her arms, then slides over to give me a kiss. “I’m going to surprise you today.”

“When?”

“That’s the surprise. I hear surf music.”

“Well let’s go.”

The street fair coordinators have left me in a troublesome situation. I can’t drive back on grounds till midnight, but I’d really like to get my drums into my truck. The only solution is to carry them, two pieces at a time, four blocks to my parking spot. I send Jasmina off to enjoy herself and set to my work.

An hour later, I am recovering with a beer next to a miniature airship when Smeeed and Landa wander past, clothed in black leather biker-gear. Powered by gig buzz, I grab both of them in a big, goofy hug.

“Awesome job, dude.”

Smeeed grins. “You too. Dude. I was really digging on all that power. Your drums were thunderous.”

“I know. I could feel it.”

“We found your girlfriend on a telephone pole,” says Landa.

I laugh. “I told her to stop doing that.”

She pulls a piece of paper from her pocket. It’s a missing person flyer. The girl in the photo is a little heavier, the hair a little shorter, but otherwise she’s a dead ringer.

“Kelly Copper. Freaky!”

“You’ll have to show it to her,” says Smeeed. “Hey, the Baby Seals are playing in half an hour at the far end.”

“Geez. I better start out.”

I’m walking past a mob of techno-dancers when I spot Jasmina two blocks away. We send each other big waves, and then she takes off her shirt. I respond by taking off my shirt. She reaches behind her her back, undoes her bra and takes that off, too, twirling it over her head as her breasts bob in the sun. An electric charge takes form in my feet and shoots through my groin. My girl, topless on a crowded street. The lookie-loos on the bridge give a cheer as I race up and meet her bare torso with mine. She smiles through a fit of giggling.

“Surprise.”


She nudges me awake at five in the morning and we enjoy a bout of wild, barely conscious sex. When I return from the bathroom she’s back to a full snooze, her hair spread out over the pillow. I see something sticking out of my jeans pocket and pull it out. It’s the flyer. I bring it under the bedside lamp.

Kelly Copper has a small but distinctive freckle near her left eye: a flattened lower-case m, a seagull seen at a distance. I lean over the bed to study Jasmina’s face, but I don’t really need to.


Sylvia

Here, please. Drink this. You need it. You both need it. I know this is hard for you. But there are so many things you don’t understand. God sets obstacles in our path, to make us stronger, to test our faith. Even Jesus was tested. Will you eat something? Please, eat.


Paul


I am horribly baked out. So I declare my own sabbath. I leave Jasmina snoozing away, tie my hangover to a leash and take it for a stroll. My limbs feel like sections of lumber, but the memory of lovemaking leaves them loose at the hinges. This divinity, this sacred girl has penetrated my tendons.

Inevitably, the Depot. Patty makes me a perfect latte. She turns to grab a pitcher, revealing her madrone shoulders. She catches my gaze and smiles.

“You’re Jasmina’s squeeze.”

“Yeah.”

“So you read the story?”

You read the story?”

She waits for the milk steamer to quiet down. “I was equal parts impressed and embarrassed. If only I could get a guy to write me something like that.”

She squares her stance behind the glass and begins the espresso-pour.

“Jasmina’s mind is pretty borderless. She stuns me on a daily basis.”

Patty finishes and spoons a cap of foam over the brown spot. “Yeah. And the package ain’t bad, either.”

This makes me laugh.

“Hey, I-Chun’s the lezzie. But I do know gorgeous when I see it.”

I crouch a little so I can study the stripes. “This is exactly how I pictured it.”

“Presto!” says Patty.

“Thanks.”

The back corner affords an old couch for the weary, and I am certainly that. I drink my perfect latte and attempt to read the Sunday paper, but soon I’m down for the count. When I awake, I feel like a spelunker emerging from a mile-long cave. The sun has migrated to the other side of the café, and the clock reads three-fifteen. After a brief dance of stretching, I am able to hobble streetward. I lean my head into the moviehouse, but Jasmina’s not there.

“She’s not in.”

I follow the voice to the box office, where Javid wears a haggard expression.

“Really? I thought she was working today.”

“Supposed to. I’ve been covering the snack bar all day.”

“Wow. Sorry. I’ll go see if she’s sleeping.”

“She’s at your place? She’s fifty goddamn feet away?”

I wave and cross the street. When I open the door, I hear a sound like a ventilation fan with a squeaky belt. It’s her.

I race up the stairs and find Jasmina in the bathroom, curled up next to the tub. There’s blood everywhere: the sink, the tiles. She looks at me with frightened, animal eyes.

I grab a towel and wrap it around her arm, trying hard not to look. In ten minutes we’re at Ava’s clinic and the towel is soaked. Ava jumps up from her chair and pulls us into a back room.


Ava’s hair has a mind of its own, a mop of wiry red that can be molded into shapes like topiary. Her preferred nervous habit is to pat it down, as if that’s going to do any good. She hands me a glass of water.

“Okay. Look. I understand the impulse to come to me, Mr. Undercover. But… I am really pushing my luck here. Your girlfriend’s got some pretty deep lacerations, but I’ve got them stitched up, and the bleeding has stopped. From what I can tell, she took the zig-zag thing from the other arm and just went a lot deeper. I’m going to give you some bandages and disinfectant; you need to clean the wound and re-wrap it once a day. At the first sign of infection, you need to take her to Marin General, okay?”

“Yes. Definitely.”

Ava grips my shoulder and drills me with those blue eyes. “This is some serious shit, Paulie. You need to get this girl to a psychologist.”

“Yes. I’ll do that. Thanks.”

“I’ve got her on some pain meds. She’s a little groggy, but I think you can take her home. She should be able to get by on Ibuprofen after this, but let me know if she needs something stronger. Or perhaps you can give her something homegrown.”

I give her a nervous smile.


Jasmina stumbles up the stairs, mumbling like a drunk.

“Let me out… out! Don’t… want to. Don’t make me.”

“It’s okay, honey. We’re almost there.”

“Outside, want out…”

I manage to ease her onto the bed. I do a quick study of her bandages before pulling up the blankets. She’s already out. I pull a chair next to the bed and watch her face. My hands begin to shake, and then I just cry. A few minutes later, I’m all leveled out. I wipe my face on my sleeve, and then I see a wad of paper on the rug. I pick it up and flatten it out. Kelly Copper.


Paul

I am fortunate to have a job near my patient. I climb the stairs every fifteen minutes. Jasmina sleeps as though she’s in a mild coma. Finally, at noon, I find her with eyes open, studying her bandage.

“Paul? What happened?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Were we in an accident?”

“How’s the pain?”

Her eyes are heavy-lidded, touches of red. “Dull. Achy.”

“Would you like some Ibuprofen?”

“Sure. That would…”

“Be right back.”

I rifle the medicine cabinet for some pills and bring them back with a glass of water. “Be sure and let me know if the pain…”

“Paul.”

“…gets any worse and I can…”

“Paul.”

“…get something stronger from…”

Paul.

I stop.

“Tell me.”

I scan the far wall for useful deceptions, but decide I had better speak the truth.

“The thing you did on that arm. Deeper.”

Her face develops new creases, the look of a lost child. “I… Oh God. I don’t remember a thing.”

I’m dying to ask questions, dying to know what’s going on in there. But I’m afraid of what else I might set loose. I kiss her on the forehead and ask her what she wants for breakfast.


We have, of a sudden, become a jazz band. It’s Pamela’s mystery song, a melody that seems to have come from the ghost of Billie Holiday. We’re working on a solo piano roll that hangs in the space between the chorus and the third verse. The overhumble Smeeed (who’s a better musician than he will ever admit) is anxious for Anne to pin the thing down so we can move on. But Anne does not respond well to pushing. Fortunately, in the tricky turf wars of a rock band, I am allowed to intercede in matters of timekeeping.

“Go ahead and stretch that pause for as long as you want.”

Anne’s got the figuring-out look, brow furrowed, eyes on the keys. She finds a path from the roll back to the verse intro.

“Yeah,” I say. “That works. So the vocals are back on four?”

“Yep.”

“Cool.”


Hours later, I ask Smeeed for a cup of driving coffee, but it’s a ruse. We sit in the living room, surrounded by the sci-fi miniatures of his housemate Wayne.

“You and Anne are pretty funny.”

Smeeed smiles. “I know! I can’t help it. She’s like my big sister. Every once in a while, I just have to poke her.”

“Watch it, man. You’re like a helium balloon toying with a cactus. I love playing brushes again. It’s like the song is small dog, and I’m just stroking its fur, coaxing it along.”

“Well! If the rock thing doesn’t work, we can play a cocktail lounge.”

“Yeah. Metalhead.” I take a sip of coffee. “So. You know that flyer you found at the street fair?”

“Doppelganger?”

“No. It’s her.”

Smeeed and I kid around so much that it takes him a moment to realize that I’m serious. “No shit!”

“No shit. And when she saw it… You know those scars on her right arm?”

“Sure.”

“She did the same to her left. Only, this time she cut so deep that she had to get them stitched up.”

“Damn! Is she okay?”

“Yeah. I asked her landlady to keep an eye on her.”

“So… I’m sorry, but why are you telling me this? Isn’t this a little personal?”

“I have to tell you, because I can’t have you or Landa mentioning the flyer to Jasmina. I’m afraid of what she might do.”

Smeeed paces to the window, which is lined with Christmas lights year-round. “Is she seeing a shrink?”

“That’s what the doctor suggested. But I’m afraid of what she might dig up.”

He puts his fingers to his forehead, that funny thing people do when we’re trying to summon thoughts.

“Okay. But try this out. That flyer’s already in San Francisco. Who’s to say it doesn’t get to Marin County? Who’s to say Jasmina doesn’t bump into it? You can stand on top of the land mine and hope it doesn’t go off, or you can start looking for a way to defuse it.”

I drive home with this thought in my head. I know he’s right. I keep going back to a line in Pamela’s song: How can I expect people to be their own heroes?


Jasmina


I cannot trust my own thoughts. As they pass by, I tack little tracking devices to their ears. I interrogate every reality, narrating the most mundane actions: Pick up brush. Apply paste. Brush teeth. And I know why Anna cancelled her shift at the gallery. She has to keep an eye on the crazy girl, to make sure she doesn’t cut her wrists.

In the case of sleep, the narration does not work: Close your eyes. Drift. Fall. Dream. But I can’t. Every few minutes I wake up and give my right hand an accusing look.

I hear the release of air caused by my door when it opens. I feel familiar arms. The relief is so great that I begin to cry. Paul touches the side of my face. I drift, fall, dream.


Paul

Molly Sharp is like a goth-girl who isn’t trying to be one. Moon-shaped face, white skin, big brown eyes with an upward-crescent tendency, and thick black hair cut in a line across her forehead. Her mouth seems small, but her smile blossoms unexpectedly, as if she is in a constant state of being charmed. Not the cool neutrality one expects of a psychologist, and I know right away that she’s the woman for the job.

“Is it all right that we’re meeting in public?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s fine.”

“Good. I get a little cooped up in the office. So. Ava gave me a briefing on this. Pretty scary stuff.”

“Are psychologists allowed to be scared?”

The charmed smile. “I operate in the real world, honey. Truth be told, I hate psychologists. They spend so much time being aloof and brilliant. I’d rather be human – and yes, I’ve got some trepidation about this. The layman’s understanding is that I’m supposed to go into this poor girl’s head, yank out all this stuff, spread it on the ground like a freakin’ yard sale and read the entrails for signs from the gods. Problem being, just a tiny dose of that stuff apparently caused her to carve up her arm. So tell me, what’s your understanding of the life story?”

I take a sip of lemonade and clear my throat. “Pretty horrible. Her parents were killed in a bombing in Sarajevo. Moved to New Jersey to live with an uncle who molested her, then ran away to Minneapolis, where she became a prostitute. Friend of hers was killed by a john, and she moved out here.”

“Hmm. Any prostitution here?”

“Yeah. A paid-mistress kind of thing. She quit three months ago, when she and I became involved.”

Molly reaches into her bag for a pad, and makes a few notes.  “Hell of a story. Have you considered the possibility that she made it all up?”

“Well, yes. The name Kelly Copper does not exactly evoke Yugoslavia.”

“No.”

“But why make the cover story so awful?”

She taps the pen against her cheek. “The bombing erases the parents pretty effectively. And consider this: if you make your cover story horrible enough, no one questions it.”

“You are good.”

She smiles. “I am. But of course this is all conjecture. I do want you to understand, however, that even if I’m right about this, it doesn’t mean that she’s lying to you. It’s more likely that she believes the story herself. That she has placed a protective shield over her real past. Self-mutilation is usually caused by a bad self-image. If the mere sight of that flyer can cause this much damage, we’re really tossing around some nitro-glycerine.”

“Scary.”

“Exactly.”

“So what’s the approach?”

“I will start very slowly, and attempt to build up trust. When the time feels right, I will guide her through this life story and let her do the work of untying the knots. I assume that you will be playing detective?”

“I think I’d better.”

Molly leans forward. “Be very careful. And for God’s sake, don’t make any contact with the family.”

“I will skulk in the shadows.”

She hands me a card. “Keep me up on any new info. I may be able to use it.”

“Sure.”

“A couple other things. How forthcoming was she on these stories?”

“The bombing and the uncle, pretty early in our friendship. The Minneapolis stuff – the prostitution - not till we were about to have sex. Also, when she told me about Sass, her friend who was murdered, she was much more emotional.”

“Good. Okay. Now, she first came to you in the interest of becoming an atheist?”

“Yes. She was pretty up-front about it. I get a lot of, um…”

“Looky-loos?”

“Exactly.”

Molly lets out a laugh-breath. “I used to work retail.”


Jasmina

The specter of my first session is making me a little jumpy, but I think I’m in love with Molly’s office building. I am sitting on a bench in the courtyard before an enormous mushroom cap made of blue-gray granite. Water burbles from the top, coats the cap in a fluid skin, then drops from the edges into a pool filled with gold-and-white koi.

Soon it’s time, so I climb the steps and announce myself to the receptionist, a young Persian with her hair in a scarf. She shows me to an office that’s surprisingly spare: a glass-top desk with a phone and one picture-frame, a leather chair, the classic backless couch, and three paintings that I don’t recognize. (This is good; if I see another Limt I will puke.) I sit on the couch until Molly makes her entrance wearing a loose black pantsuit, laughing at someone’s joke. She turns and spots me as she’s pulling out her lipstick.

“Oh well. May as well ruin the illusion right away.” She takes her time with the application, then extends a hand. “I’m Molly.”

“Jasmina.” I take her hand and receive a shock. Molly emits a one-syllable laugh.

“Ha! I’m sorry. The carpets in this place should be hooked up to the power grid.” She settles into the chair and crosses her legs.

“Aren’t you going to take notes?”

“Do you remember the first day of school, when your teacher would just talk, and pass out the reading sheets, and not give you any homework?”

“I love that.”

“That’s today. Indulge me in a little small-talk, and maybe that way we’ll get to know each other.”

“Should I… lie down?”

“No. Today I’d like us to be face-to-face. In fact…” She opens a closet and pulls out a folding chair, aluminum with a padded seat. “We use these for group. Please, sit.” She waves me toward the leather chair.

“You’re sure?”

“You’re the guest. I want you to be comfortable.”

“Thanks.” It’s a very comfy chair. It reminds me of the chair in Paul’s store.

Molly leans forward and laces her fingers. “So what kind of music do you like?”

“Really?”

“Really. Music matters.”

“I’m a rocker. Indie rock. I can appreciate other stuff, but… no passion.”

“Bands?”

“The Killers. Black Keys. Muse. Weezer, old and new. Oh, and Radiohead, always. Green Day. Alas, Dave Matthews.”

“Alas?”

“Burned myself out. I can’t really hear him anymore.”

“Oh! I hate that. I don’t think I’ve consciously processed a Beatles song for twenty years. So what about Paul’s band?”

This makes me smile. “Big relief.”

“How so?”

“Bunch of near-forty-year-olds in a band? I was deathly afraid they would be, like, a Steppenwolf tribute band.”

The one-note laugh. “Ha!”

“They’re very cool, because they don’t try to sound like anybody. And stylistically, they’re all over the map. Right now, they’re working on a psychobilly song.”

“Um. Sorry?”

“Rockabilly with trippy, twangy guitars like you hear in surf bands. Buck Owens. Dwight Yoakam.”

“I love Dwight Yoakam. So Paul passed the coolness test?”

“He passed that ages ago. I have put that man through an enormous amount of crap.”

Molly leans back and puts a finger to her cheek. “Oh, that reminds me. I should tell you that I had a brief discussion with Paul, just to gather some basic info. I may meet with him in future, but I will not share with him anything that is said in this room. Oh, and Ava gave me the rundown on the medical situation.”

“Oh.”

“Listen, Jasmina. I know I promised you an hour of small talk, but I do want to make a few things clear. Jasmina? Could you look at me please?”

I realize that I am staring at the carpet, my vision going all fuzzy. I force my gaze upward. Molly wears an expression that is friendly but intent.

“Thank you. I know this is embarrassing for you, but you are far from being alone on this. Self-injury is an increasingly common behavior, especially among women, and there are distinct reasons for its appeal. Self-cutting releases dopamines and endorphins that provide a chemical rush, as well as a pronounced sense of relief. It enables you to claim a control over your body that you may have lost. It’s a way of calling out for help, of relieving guilt by physically punishing yourself, of providing a release for overwhelming anxiety. I guess what I’m saying is, there are bona fide reasons you’re doing this. Which means that you’re not helpless, and you can find better ways to deal with your feelings. It’s a long, difficult process, but when I say I know what you’re going through, well…”

Molly lifts the hem of her pantleg all the way past her knee, revealing a storm of faint red lines on her lower thigh.

“I stopped a dozen years ago, when I was getting my Master’s. I worked my way through it by doing a thesis on myself.”

There’s something about Molly, already, that brings out the sass in me. “That was a pretty stupid thing to do.”

Molly gives me a charmed smile. “Says the kettle to the pot.” She claps her hands together. “Onward! So what kind of movies do you like?”


Paul

Perhaps I’m being paranoid, but I don’t want to leave a cyber-trail. I head for one of the computers at the library and sign up for an email account under the name jeffersonpaine76. I de-crumple the evil flyer, take a picture of it with my cell phone, send the image to my email and immediately erase it from my phone. I take a card from my wallet and write down the flyer’s phone number, adding two to each digit (0591, for instance, becomes 2713). I’m beginning to feel like a secret agent. I fold the flyer twice and stow it in my pocket for later disposal.

The phone number is from Western Montana, the big counties around Helena and Great Falls. A search for Kelly Copper reveals random associations: Gary Cooper (a Montana native), an actress in New York, a guide to copper mining and an industrial supplier in Helena. Then I try the daily papers for both cities, imagining some “missing girl” piece, but I get more of the same – plus a male Kelly Copper, shortstop for the University of Montana. I am beginning to wonder just how badly the Coppers want to find their little girl. Still, I am not about to try that phone number. It feels radioactive.

A half-hour in and I’m already at a standstill. I’m stalling for time, trolling my Facebook page, when I get an idea. I return to Google and search for “Sass Hunter Minneapolis.” Jackpot. An article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Former Prostitute Helps Inner-City Teens: New Youth Center Opens Today

“The attack was a sign,” says Sass Hunter. “A sign that I needed to remake my life.”

The attack came from one of Hunter’s johns, and landed her in the hospital with a broken jaw and several deep bruises. The resultant scar – a jagged scrawl along her left jawline – gives the 28-year-old instant street cred among her new clients, the at-risk youth who come to her New Beginnings Youth Center. Clearly she has been there.

The accompanying photo shows a broad-faced woman with a medium-dark complexion and a beaming smile that belies the mark across her jaw. I head for the New Beginnings website, find Sass’s email address and send her a message with the heading Jasmina Contrevic/Kelly Copper. Then I kill another fifteen minutes at Facebook. When I return, I have an answer:

Dear Paul: I am delighted to hear that Jasmina is okay. Before I answer your questions, however, could you please send some verification of your identity and relationship with her? Sorry to be so cautious.

Peace be with you – Sass

 I send a reply telling her that I’ll think of something, and then I head out for a walk, hoping that I’ll think of something. I spot a city garbage can with an ashtray built into its lid. I position the flyer at its center, pull out my lighter and reduce it to cinders.


We’re touring the grand strip of Van Ness Avenue between the opera house and city hall. Tonight, we are doing a very city sort of thing: a warehouse party in the South of Market Area (SOMA). I picture those trendy beer commercials in which masses of young people writhe and sweat amid techno music and flashing lights. Jasmina is talking about her sessions with Molly.

“You’ve seen Anna’s studio: X-Acto knives, scrapers, skewers. But Molly says hiding the ‘sharps’ is the last thing we should do. The real danger is inside, in the way that my mind is mis-handling crisis situations. So we’re working on ways to cool down my circuits when they get overloaded: writing exercises, breathing techniques. My favorite is painting. Anna gave me an easel, and a canvas, brushes and paint. Anytime I’m getting the urge, I’m supposed to simply apply paint to canvas, no forethought, just focusing on the action itself. Very… meditative. Paul? Do you mind that I’m telling you all this?”

“Of course not.”

“It’s good to have one other person I can tell. Just to reinforce everything.”

What is bugging me is all this secret information I’m carrying around. For instance, the resurrection of Sass Hunter.

The warehouse is smaller than I envisioned, but I like the accoutrements: a small stage with lighting, a dance floor framed by long bus-station benches, and a balcony sound booth. A worker stands on a ladder, drilling screws into the balcony’s support beams. I set down a pair of cymbal stands and wrap an arm around Jasmina’s shoulder, careful of the bandage beneath her sleeve.

“Look, honey, they’re almost done building the place.”

“That’s good.”

“I predict we go on at two in the morning.”

“Seriously?”

“Just kidding. Maybe.”

The party begins with a round of karaoke, dominated by a drunken troll with big glasses and a beard. I gesture at him with a burrito. “That dude is trouble.”

Jasmina laughs. “Oh?”

“Yes. Also, this karaoke is trouble.”

“Why?”

“Not sure.”

At midnight, Scott the birthday boy takes the stage to administer a self-inflicted mohawk, using a trimmer equipped with a micro-camera. The screen behind the stage offers follicle close-ups resembling the decimation of a rain forest. Troll Boy decides to offer accompaniment by playing my drums with a pair of ballpoint pens. “Hey!” he calls. “Anybody got drumsticks?”

I take to the stage and skip the preliminaries. “Hi. Get the fuck off my drums.”

He gives me a look of wounded innocence. “But I… couldn’t find any sticks.”

“I don’t care. Get the fuck off my drums. Now.”

He teeters upward and knocks over a cymbal stand. Fortunately, it’s my ride, which can take a beating.

“Dude, I’m so sorry. I’ll pay for any damages.”

“Sure you will.” I straighten the stand and take a protective posture on my stool. When I look back, Troll Boy is wearing Smeeed’s bass.

“Take that off.”

“It’s cool, bro. I’m a musician.”

I stand up. “If you were a musician, you wouldn’t fuck with other people’s instruments. Now give me that, and get the fuck off the stage!”

This catches the attention of Scott, who looks back from his trimming. Pamela escorts Troll Boy from the stage, and I return the bass to its stand. When I get back to our table, Jasmina’s wearing a concerned expression.

“Are you okay?”

I laugh. “I told you he was trouble. Sorry for all the barking. With guys like that, you have to make a lot of noise. I hate drunks. And I love my drums.”

I only hope you feel the same way about me.

“Honey, if he was messin’ with you, they’d be taking him out on a stretcher.”

She gives a little shiver and ruffles my hair. “I think I like Macho Paul. Hey, follow me.”

She takes me to the far side of the room, where two guys in bowlers are posing for pictures in front of a blue screen. The photographer is an automated booth. We take a seat on the posing bench, and Jasmina presses a flashing button. A video screen shows us a five-second countdown plus the background image that will appear on the photo.

“Now kiss me,” she says.

We collect our photo-strip from a slot on the side. The kiss appears before a postcard from Cape May, New Jersey; a cuddle-shot before a fireworks display, a back-to-back before a ‘70s orgy, and a final pose in which Jasmine is fondling a well-endowed anime girl. At the bottom of the strip is a website where we can download a digital version.

“Hey, Yaz? Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

“Oh, okay. I…”

I kiss her on the cheek. “Right back.”

I race outside and turn left for the corner gas station. I find the stacks of newspapers and grab a Chronicle, featuring a headline about the recent uprising in Egypt. When I return, Jasmina is drinking a beer with Pamela and Landa. I rudely yank her away.

“Okay. I got us a prop. For the first shot, I’ll pretend to read the paper, and you can point at something on page three. We can improv from there.”

“You are really into this!”

In our final shot, we hold the headline between us, offering a hearty thumbs-up to the Egyptian protesters. The DJ’s voice booms from the booth.

“Okay, we’re going to cut off the karaoke so the band can play…”

A dozen wannabe singers groan and complain. I start laughing. “And there’s the reason the karaoke is trouble.” I look at my cell phone; it’s 1:30. “But look! We’re ahead of schedule.”


Sylvia

If you try that again, I will kill you. God has a plan for you. It’s not wise to fight God. Or me.


Jasmina


“Are you keeping your impulse log?”

“Yes. But I’m a little confused. Sometimes I think about my therapy, and that creates an image, and the image gives me an impulse. But is that a real impulse?”

Molly re-crosses her legs. She does that a lot. It must be hard, sitting all day, listening to people.

“I would rather you overwrite than under. This may surprise you, but entering into therapy can actually increase the danger of incidents. In the long run, of course, it’s the right thing to do, but in the first few months it has the effect of ‘stirring the pot.’”

I settle against the headrest. I have grown comfortable with the couch cliché. But just to be ironic, I tent my fingers. Evil genius. “Why do you tell me things like that? Isn’t that a secret?”

Molly re-crosses her legs. “Jasmina, you are much more intelligent than my average patient. Therefore, I refuse to bullshit you.”

“So you bullshit others?”

“I do not necessarily give them as much information as I give to you. So tell me – any impulses from outside forces?”

“Yes. One.”

“Any idea of the cause?”

“Babies. Crying babies.”

“Oh.”

“Once a week, we have a special screening for mothers of newborns. Baby starts crying, mother brings it into the lobby so we can listen to it.”

“How did you deal with the impulse?”

“I started with feedback. I listened to my heartbeat, my breathing. I tried to ride my mood, like a horse, like you said. The pot coming to a boil. And I quieted my limbs, fought the need for physical action. Then I asked for a break and wrote about it in my log.”

Molly smiles. “You did well. During the course of this coping, did you ever feel you were in any actual danger of giving in?”

“No. The contract – that’s my brick wall. So… do you think I should ask for Baby Day off?”

“Once a week, you say?”

“Thursdays at noon. Like to come by and experience it for yourself?”

“Oh hell no.” She tents her fingers. Evil genius. “I think you should insist on working every Baby Day from now on.”

“Ooh. You’re good.”

The charmed smile. “Yes. I am.”


Paul

Your photo reminds me of those al-Qaeda videos sent out to prove that bin Laden was still alive. Nonetheless, it is good to see my beautiful Jasmina. Lord, I miss that girl. So. Ask me some questions.

Thank you, Sass. She has been a wonderful surprise, as well as a rollercoaster. The reason I sought you out is that she is suffering from some kind of memory loss, accompanied by bouts of self-injury.

I remember that. The stairsteps down the arm.

She does remember you, and your attack. Only, in her version of the story, you did not survive your injuries.

That’s a little upsetting – but not necessarily surprising. We had a big falling-out. Jasmina was so helpful when I was in the hospital. She visited every day, brought me flowers, ran errands. But soon after, when I found God and began my volunteer work, she seemed to take it as a betrayal. She was so angry! That’s when she disappeared on me.

After your attack, did she, too, give up prostitution?

Oh dear! Jasmina was never a prostitute. I refused to let her anywhere near it. She was my project, that girl. In a sense, that’s when I discovered the good that I could do for other people. She was the gateway to what I’m doing now.

Could you tell me how you met?

The high-class girls worked the airport; I worked the Greyhound station. This beautiful thing, that exotic hair – she sat on a bench, looking completely lost. And I thought I had better grab her before someone else did.

I bought her some breakfast to win her trust. She came from a little town in Montana, name of a President. Johnson? Nixon? Carter! Carter, Montana. Her story was terribly sad. She lost her parents in a bombing in Sarajevo, when she was four. She came to live with her aunt, and her aunt’s boyfriend molested her. Typically, the aunt chose to believe her boyfriend. What women will do for love. Jasmina hitchhiked to Great Falls, went to the bus station and picked a city. She chose Minneapolis because she liked the name.

I was lucky enough to have my own place, and I talked her into staying with me. We even managed to get her into school. You should have seen the looks we got on parent-teacher night. I just told them her hair was mine and her skin was her father’s. I loved that girl. I hope she will forgive me for whatever I did and come see me.

I hope so, too. But it’s tricky. This all began when I found a missing person flyer with Jasmina’s picture. Apparently, her real name is Kelly Copper. I was gone one day, and I left the flyer out. When Jasmina got a look at it, she cut up her other arm pretty bad, and she can’t remember why she did it. I have to let her psychologist decide what parts of her past she’ll be able to tolerate.

And if she can bear seeing a reborn dead woman! Well, actually, I suppose I was reborn. Ha.

You’re a marvel, Sass. The work you’re doing is tremendous. And I will definitely keep you up-to-date on her progress.

Thank you, Paul. I know you can’t say anything, but I wonder if you will do me a favor? Some night when she is drifting off to sleep, kiss her on the forehead. That’s what I used to do.

Will do. Bye, Sass.

God bless.


Paul

I am walking Molly along the trail that I now think of as Jasmina’s. I suppose I thought it might offer some extra insight, but I may be overtaxing her stamina. By the time we reach the outcropping – the city of San Francisco cloaked by fog – she is out of breath and rubbing her legs.

“Note to self: get out of damn office more often.”

“I’m sorry. I should have picked something easier.”

“No, that’s all right. Besides, I’m pretty sure it’s all downhill from here.”

I laugh. “So what do we do about our reincarnated prostitute?”

Molly slaps a patch of dirt from her shorts. “Pretty much nothing. This notion that repressed memories must be dug up is largely a Hollywood fabrication. In the eighties, there was a group of psychologists who actually created false memories for their patients, in order to replace the bad memories from their childhoods. With excellent results. So this information I’m getting from you… Well, look at it like this: I will not be yanking memories out of Jasmina’s head like a farmer rooting out weeds. They must spring forth on their own. The primary job, still, is to help her know her own mind, and how to control these damaging impulses.”

“And how is she doing in that regard?”

“Very well, actually. Your girl has a powerful intellect.”

I pick up a chunk of quartz and roll it between my fingers. “So this detective work I’m doing… Am I just making trouble?”

“No, not at all. You’ll be helping me sort the false memories from the real. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I’m finding this all pretty entertaining.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. Sometimes I feel like I’m using Jasmina as my personal mystery novel.”

Molly gives me the charmed smile, an expression that I’m growing increasingly fond of. “We are hunters of the intellect, Paul. Most of my income comes from rich Marin County bitches whose only real affliction is ennui. When I run into someone with real and complex troubles like Jasmina’s, I give myself permission to enjoy it as much as I can. It makes me a better psychologist.

“Speaking of, I rediscovered something the other day that I thought you might find interesting. In times of profound psychological distress, the body fortifies itself by releasing glucocorticoids. What they have discovered is that these same chemicals seem to damage the hippocampus, which is pivotal to the brain’s memory functions. Oh, hold on.”

Molly’s phone erupts with the Beatles’ “Help!” She answers while walking away from me. “Jasmina? Yes. Yes. Okay. Slow down now. Breathe. Okay. Stay on the line with me. I’m sending Paul to help you. But just stay on the line. Jasmina? Focus. Breathe. Okay? Okay.”

She paces back toward me and covers the phone. “She’s hurt herself. She’s at the bookstore. Run. Now. I’ll stay on the phone and talk her down. Go, go.”

I’m off. The hills fly past as I go with gravity, watching out for mud and loose gravel. The town appears – the hilltoppers, the steep roads into the village. When I finally hit bottom I’m soaked in sweat. I push through the door, but I don’t see anyone.

“Paul?”

She’s in the stockroom. The shelves are pushed away, and the walls are covered in blood: wild swirls and smears, the word BREATHE. Jasmina lies in a lump at the basement door, her hands covered in red. I’m trying to stay calm, but the adrenaline is pushing me. When I kneel next to her she grabs me, her breath coming in chuffs.

“Paul! Thank you!”

I hold her by the shoulders, looking for her wounds. “Yaz, where are you hurt?”

She sees my expression, looks at the wall and bursts into laughter. She’s laughing so hard she can’t speak. I don’t know what this is – is this mania? A cell phone lies on the floor, calling out in Molly’s voice. “Jasmina? Is he there?”

“Yaz? Where did you hurt yourself?”

She holds out her thumb, wrapped in a small towel.

“That’s it? Where else?”

She covers her mouth, trying to calm the laughter, but succeeds only in getting blood on her face. She scrambles away, searches the base of the wall and returns with a plastic tube. It’s acrylic paint. Cadmium red.




Jasmina


“Are you okay to talk about this?”

Molly’s couch affords a wonderful view of Mill Valley: the little bowl of the downtown area, the high ridges across the way, slivers of fog teasing the redwoods.

“I was afraid that I had broken the contract.”

“Okay, Jasmina. I appreciate that, but… Let’s say we’re in a court of law right now. I’m an attorney, and I have just asked you to describe the events of… the afternoon in question.”

“Okay. Counselor. Paul headed off for a meeting. He was being mysterious, so I assumed it was with you. I decided to make a nice big salad so I could leave some for Paul. Lettuce, cucumbers, red bell peppers and a can of sweet peas. The can had one of those pull-tops. I was having a hard time getting leverage, so I braced my thumb against the edge. When I yanked it open, the side of the lid cut my thumb, and… I started bleeding.”

“Okay,” says Molly. “Stop right there. Why were you worried about the contract? This sounds like a common accident.”

I look out the window. My eye lands on a tall white steeple. “I can’t trust my own mind. I thought maybe I had done it on purpose.”

Molly thinks about it. “Okay. What happened next?”

“I wrapped the cut with a towel. The sight of the blood was bringing on an impulse. I was getting fuzzy.”

“Okay. Hold on. You understand what was happening, right?”

“I think. But… tell me.”

“Okay. This would be like an alcoholic who mistakenly takes cough syrup that contains alcohol. The incident with the can activated some of the same endorphins and dopamines that you used to get when you self-injured on purpose. And the fuzziness was the same too, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. So what did you do next?”

“I sat down, stilled my limbs, fought the physical action. I focused on my conscious thoughts, did the breathing exercises. But still, things were speeding up: breath, heartbeat, the boiling pot. There was something else I had devised as a last resort: Plan F, Plan G. I headed for the basement.”

Molly shifts in her seat. “The basement?”

“That’s where Paul grows his pot. He keeps a pipe on his drying table. For… sampling.”

“Okay.”

“Was that… all right?”

“Well, yes. I’d rather have you smoking than self-injuring. But you so totally didn’t hear that from me.”

“Anything you say here is held in complete confidence.”

“Okay. Smartass. So… why weren’t you in the basement when Paul found you?”

“Okay. This is where the – what do you call it? The fuzziness?”

“Dissociation.”

“Yes! This is where the dissociation got really heavy. I moved the shelves, I undid the lock, and I just… couldn’t. It was like every little Satan in the world was in that basement. It felt like a dead end, and the pot kept boiling. For a moment – I confess – I thought of going ahead and doing it, just to have it over with. I took off the towel and looked at my thumb – and of course that just made it worse. I started to search my pockets – for anything, distractions, ideas, Plan J. In my sweatshirt I found a tube of paint. I squeezed it onto my fingers and pressed it to the wall, watching the loops and smears take shape like roads on a map. I spelled out the word BREATHE. A minute later, I remembered my cell phone and I called you.”

Molly walks toward the window, rubbing a spot on her thigh. “Where did the paint come from?”

“Anna gave me a set of acrylics. The day before, I thought it would be a good idea to carry one with me.”

She taps a pencil against her lips. “Good thing you did. This particular scenario had never occurred to me. Oh, and I completely trust you on the accidental cut. But don’t let it happen again.”

“I’m thinking not.”
She returns to her chair and crosses her legs. “One suggestion?”

“Yes?”

“Next time? I’m thinking… blue.”


Paul

I have definitely made the right choice. I am simply not smooth enough to be relaxed with some non-Jasmina woman, so I got this wiry dude named Scott. Scott’s got strong hands, and his technique is on the level of a ninja-masseur. He seems to reach under my skin, isolating each of my knots and drawing out the fibers like Billy tuning his guitar. The man’s a freakin’ genius.

This is further evidence that I have been taking on stress, absorbing Jasmina’s issues as if they were my own. For one thing, I cannot seem to make a landing on Carter, Montana. The place is a virtual Brigadoon. After the grand Eureka of resurrecting Sass Hunter, I have come to a standstill. Lately, I just sit at the computer and run aground on the usual sandbars: Kelly’s Bakery, Coppertown Supplies. I feel like I’m letting Molly down, forcing her to wander a dark forest without a flashlight. Once a day, I take that card out of my wallet and stare at my encoded phone number.

Other stresses are more immediate. On a trip that was supposed to be a pleasure cruise, Jasmina is being aggressively quiet. There’s something brewing in there. Perhaps I am overthinking. Nobody can maintain that level of graciousness forever. Scott’s fingerwork settles me into a welcome semi-snooze.

The mud room offers three grave-like depressions, two of them filled with a substance resembling half-melted chocolate. I shuck my clothes and sink in. Yaz wraps herself in a towel, and then uses it to screen her body as she makes her descent. Bashful? Now? I pretend to find great fascination in the gray-green tiles until she’s done, then I turn to address her disembodied head.

“Have a good massage?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know if this stuff really does anything, but it is certainly a unique sensation."

“Explain to me how you’re affording this?”

“Ava got her distribution license this week. I made my first delivery – in broad daylight, no less – accepted her generous payment, and received a certificate for this weekend as Ava’s bonus.”

Ten seconds later, Jasmina blinks and says, “Okay.” I decide that it’s best if I shut up and soak.


Scientifically, I’m not buying the claims of mud-bath therapists. Except perhaps in the area of libido, because mine is raging. That and Jasmina’s continuing striptease. When she finishes a lengthy toilette and joins me in bed, I kiss her on the ear and trace a hand along her side. This brings nothing, so I kiss her neck. And… nothing.

“Honey.”

“No.”

“I just…”

“No.”

“Not ‘Sorry no.’ Just ‘no.’”

“Yes.”

“Well, fuck.”

She turns over and glares at me. “What is your problem?”

My problem is not a problem at all. I’ve been rubbed and muddied and lubed up, and I am now in the mood to do something we usually enjoy. Is that a problem?”

“It’s my body. I’ll do with it what I want.”

“Well at least allow me to be disappointed.”

“No. Fuck you.”

“What the fuck is with you? You haven’t said twelve words all day and now you’re pissed at me?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, that’s illuminating.”

She turns back over and mutters, “Asshole.”

I’m on my feet, pulling on my jeans. What does Molly call it, the boiling kettle? “I do not fucking deserve this. Jesus. Is there nothing I haven’t done for you this weekend? Princess?”

Again, nothing. The brick wall of Jasmina’s back.

“Shit!”

I slam the wall, then I stare at my palm, the skin flushing red. Time to get the kettle away from the stove.


A half-hour later, I’m down to a simmer, sitting in the lobby with a glass of port. I seem to remember that Jasmina needs me, but I’m forgetting why. My feet are bare, but I’m betting the employees are used to various levels of undress. I think of Jasmina in the shower, mud drifting down her shoulder, coffee over cream. This is not helping. A retired couple sits across the room, reading magazines. The woman gives me a glance. No doubt her husband has once or twice found himself barefoot in a lobby, thinking, What the hell did I say?

“Hi.”

Jasmina stands above me in a white bathrobe. Her face is scrubbed of makeup, tired but calm, as if the whole argument was a practical joke and she’s about to spring the punch line. She sits across from me.

“I’ve been trying all day not to tell you something.”

Try not telling you that Sass Hunter is alive.

“I can’t have sex. Medical reasons.”

“Is it… serious?”

“Yes and no.” She chews on a fingernail and holds up a hand like an Italian who’s been cut off in traffic. “Rrr! You see how this is? We’re so goddamn close, I’ve got nowhere to hide. I can’t even tolerate a little fib. And now I’ve set myself up. If I don’t tell you now, that withheld piece of information will sit between us like a slobbering dog. Couldn’t you be a little more… distant? Aloof?”

I’m in the middle of a laugh when she says, “I had an abortion.”

“Hang in there, Paul. I know what’s hitting you. The primal stuff. You, me, our genes doing the cha-cha, beautiful little atheist children who like popcorn and banned books. And yes, I hope we have a child someday. Now, make the adjustment, turn the knob, activate that delicious logic of yours and fill in the blanks for me…”

Nothing.

“Please, Paul. Help me out. Write my lines.”

“Umm. Beautiful young woman undergoing psychotherapy for self-injury. Not ready to raise children. Not ready for the chemical bath of pregnancy.”

Jasmina gives me the fluctuating smile, the one that could easily break into tears. She crosses the breach, lands on my lap and gives me a kiss. She tucks her head to my shoulder and stays there, her breath slowing with the minutes. I run a hand over her hair and catch a glimpse of the retired lady smiling at us. I hope she’s been here, too.

“What was it like?”

She stretches her arms toward the ceiling. “It was wonderful. Everybody in this fucking country wants you to believe that it’s an agonizing experience, even when you really want one. I go into this place. I meet with a counselor who asks me, in the most compassionate of terms, what it is that I truly want. Not what some jackass says on the evening news - what I want. Then she explains the procedure, step-by-step – a much simpler operation than most would have you believe. Afterwards, I sit in the recovery room with a college girl who offers me supportive chit-chat. I talk of dodging bullets and life-long commitments, how much I would have fucked that child up. When I walk outside, I just feel giddy. Walking on the moon. Is that too much? Am I just being a callous weirdo?”

I place a hand on her waist. “May I play amateur psychologist?”

“Why not? You’re already having an affair with mine.”

“Yeah yeah, sure sure. Seriously.”

She kisses me on the forehead. “Seriously.”

“One of the skewed motivations for self-injury is to re-establish possession of one’s own body. No?”

“Yes. Like, I’m going to cut this because it belongs to me.”

“Right. Well. Through the disastrous accident of a leaky condom – for which I duly apologize…”

“As you should.”

“…you have landed upon the ultimate opportunity for taking control over your own body. Thereby goes giddiness.”

She lays her head back against the chair and looks at me sideways, bringing to mind the adoring gaze of a Myrna Loy, a Claudette Colbert.

“I love you so much it hurts. Now, if we’re all okay, can we go back to our room and sleep together? Literally speaking?”

“You betcha.”

“And since you’re so all-fired randy, perhaps I will find some way of re-establishing possession of your penis.”

“Agreed. One thing, though? I am really sorry about slamming the wall. Resorting to physical action. You know…”

She thinks about it. “In what way did you slam the wall?”

“Um. With my… palm?”

“Why?”

“So I wouldn’t… hurt myself. Oh.”

“I’m the patient, honey. Not that I enjoyed your little explosion, but if that’s a way for you to dissipate your anger, go ahead. I’m kinda like an alcoholic who has to get used to being around people who drink.”

“Gotcha.”

We puzzle ourselves out of our chair and stroll down the hall.

“There was a picketer in front of the clinic. Christian chick.”

“Oh joy.”

“She stepped in front of me. I guess she was going to talk me out of it.”

“And?”

“Well, I didn’t mean to… I had a pretty good head of steam going…”

“And?”

Jasmina smiles. “Clocked her. Like a linebacker over a Girl Scout.”

This mental image revisits me several times over the next few days, and does not fail to crack me up.


Paul

Billy’s been leading a campaign against dead air – those awkward pauses between songs. The antidote, it turns out, is a little bit of ruthlessness. Whoever we have designated to begin the next song is expected to plow on through, and if somebody’s not ready, they had better just catch up. Anne tells me that, at one point, she is adjusting her keyboard settings for one song even as she’s singing the a capella ending for another.

I have always been a little skeptical of the dead-air phobia, but tonight, playing the single cavernous room of Mountain Charley’s, I have happened on an unexpected by-product. Halfway through our set, the non-stop playing has propelled me into a trance. My focus has broadened out into a warm bath of brainflow, and my body has divided itself into two parts: my animal self, four warmed-up limbs operating pretty much on their own; and a ship’s captain who peers through my eyes to take note of other things going on in the room. Billy is shredding more than usual – something we’ve been urging him to do – and tossing his hair around in a Cobain-like manner. Our crowd is standing around in chatty clumps, an indication that they’re really here for the post-band DJ party. Anne and Pamela’s harmonies are striking me the way they used to before I joined the band, as the cherry on the sundae. Smeeed nudges my cymbal stand and almost sends my crash a-crashin’. He smiles and tiptoes back to his spot.

My next subject is the drummer. Near the end of “Fool,” he’s supposed to go into a tom-tom jungle beat as the guitarists repeat their four-measure progression. The tempo hasn’t changed, but he has somehow doubled up the number of strikes. The ship’s captain finds this quite amusing, but also realizes that this new sound is throwing off the guitarists. He gives an order for the hands to return to the standard beat, then triggers the trio of cymbal strikes that cues the final cut.

The sudden cessation elicits a chorus of shouts – it always does. I’m the next song-starter, but I decide to wait for the applause. I want to save this for later.


This is the curse of drumming. You’re all buzzed from the crowd and the band. You’ve got ten friends to talk to, you’ve got a hot girlfriend with a cold beer. But NO, first you’ve got to load up your shit. Especially tonight. We’ve got a huge dance crowd coming in, so we need to clear out fast. I go into speed mode, slipping my cymbals into a carry-case, breaking down my stands and easing them into a converted wardrobe bag. I undo the toms from my bass and carry everything outside. The sound guy has the freight elevator locked open on the ground floor, so suddenly I have some down time – time to gaze over the parking lot and think about Sass’s email.

Hi Paul. Something occurred to me today, and I thought it might have some significance. When I first met Jasmina, her scars appeared to be fairly fresh. In fact, two of them were still scabbed over. I took a particular pride in the fact that they stopped after I took her in.

But my streak did not last. Two years later, I came home to find her in the bathroom, applying a fresh bandage. I demanded to see what was underneath: a brand-new stairstep, still oozing.

Two girls at school had somehow found out that Jasmina’s mom was a prostitute. They informed her that the both of us would burn in hell. I told her she should ignore that kind of talk. She started to cry. “I couldn’t,” she said. “I beat them up. I beat them up pretty good.”

You know Jasmina’s temperament by now, and you know she’s not exactly built like a street fighter. I can’t be positive she was telling me the truth, but I could sure feel the anger. I would actually be pretty happy if she did beat up those bitches, but I tried to teach Jasmina the wisdom of walking away. That was the last time she cut herself in Minneapolis.

I miss my girl. I hope she’s doing well.

Sass


The sound guy sends the elevator back up. I prop the door open and load up my equipment, one other image floating in my head. Jasmina, shaking in her sleep, some sort of night terror. I thought of Sass and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. Her face grew calm.


Jasmina



I envy his drumming. When he’s heavy into a set, I can see him becoming absorbed. He goes away without going away, and the people shake to his sound. Magic.

Now he’s off loading his kit, and I have my assignment: trade a pair of drink tickets for a pair of drinks. The bartender is mesmerizing: young guy, bottle opener strapped to his arm, deciphering orders over the infernal thump-thump. He drops cubes into a trio of glasses, flips a bottle of vodka, catches it over their open mouths and pours, shoots them up with the soda gun, takes a twenty, spins to the register and returns a handful of singles even as he takes the next order. I would never be able to do this. I’ve got patrons to my left and right, vying for the ‘tender’s attention, but I’m not about to add to the chaos. Molly whispers in my ear.

“I’ve been reading this book about the story synthesizer, a processing center in the brain that takes the random material of dreams and fits it into oft-repeated motifs. Apparently, most people have a single idea that takes over most of their dreams. So I’m wondering, what’s yours?”

“Paralysis. The inability to act.”

“You realize that’s pretty common – being that dreamers are unable to physically act in their own dreams.”

“Hey, you’re the one who asked.”

“Sorry. Unfair of me. So give me an example.”

“Here’s my latest: I’m locked in a room, lying in bed. There’s a fire outside, curtains of orange at the windows. The flames are peeking inside like curious snakes. I should be getting the hell out, but I can’t move. But it’s not precisely paralysis. It’s more like I’m butting up against a force field. Then, all of a sudden, the fire’s out and water is pouring in. I’m relieved until I realize that the water isn’t stopping. It’s creeping to the edge of my bed, and still I can’t move.”

“Yikes. Does it end there?”

“Usually. But last time, a kayak slid down the stairs and splashed to a halt at my bedside. It was Sass, my friend from Minneapolis, dressed like Sacagewea. She reached over to touch me on the forehead and zap! The water was gone. And so was Sass.”

“Stairs. Was this room a basement?”

Someone touches me on the hand. It’s the bartender.

“Oh. Hi. Two black-and-tans.”


Paul


The club throbs with twentysomething bodies – maybe three hundred of them. Squirming through the crowd, I feel like I may, technically, be having some sort of group sex. I burst forth at the other end to find Jasmina at an elevated table, hovering over a pair of two-tone drinks.

“Awesome set, honey. You guys were really tight.”

“Thanks. Felt that way.”

We meet at the corner of the benches, her head against my chest, my arm draped around her shoulder. I gaze over the sea of limbs and pan to the window, the shockingly calm main drag of Los Gatos. A silver Jaguar rolls to the intersection. I take a sip of the black-and-tan, and study the purple paint on my girlfriend’s toenails. Three hours from now, we will roll up to her house and find eight pink flamingos hitched to a riding mower, a giant panda at the reins. She will eat up the look on my face.

“It was the closest I could get. Do you know how hard it is to find a life-size Gene Autrey cutout?”


Jasmina


            “Do you have any other recurring dreams?”
           
I laugh. “You’re still reading that book, aren’t you?”

Molly peers over her glasses, a gesture meant to inspire intellectual authority. “Well look here, Miss Smartass. When were dreams ever not a part of psychoanalysis?”

“I would love to offer a retort but I suspect I would be wrong.”

“Smart girl.”

“Smart ass, smart girl. So what’s the problem?”

“Life. Every person in the world is an algebraic equation, and life is x.”

“The variable.”

“Yes. Now. Dreams?”

I lean back my head and close my eyes. Last night’s feature begins to roll.

“It’s my number two, after the fire and flood. It shows up maybe once a month. Not very dramatic. But curious.”

“Shoot.”

“I’m a courier. A UPS delivery chick. I am wandering a deserted downtown – skyscrapers, alleys – late at night. I’ve got a package, size of a shoebox, and I can’t find the address. Then I see a sign and I have that a-ha moment. A glass door slides open; I slip inside. No one’s around, so I set down the package and I leave.”

“Is that a little odd, just leaving it like that?”

“In my dreams, I am wildly irresponsible.”

“Yeah. Sure. But you did make the delivery.”


Paul



“So if we’re meeting here, will I be charged?”

Molly emits a very unprofessional snicker. “Don’t worry. Our running arrangement with Ava covers all my hours.”

“And They said that marijuana would be my ruination.”

Now I get laughter. It occurs to me that, in another life, I might already have asked Molly Sharp out. A woman that smart, who laughs that freely. Very sexy.

“I’m thinking soon I may need a psychologist for myself.”

I’m in therapy. I highly recommend it. We spend so much money keeping our cars tuned up. Why not tune up your brain?”

The laughter’s gone. She wanders to the window. It’s spooky-rainy, dark phantoms scaling the hills.

“Do you get popcorn out of this relationship?”

“Oh yeah. I notice, however, that it’s always in the small bag. Could be she doesn’t want a fat boyfriend.”

“Smart girl.”

Her pause goes on for a long time. I get the feeling she’s trying to bait me into starting a conversation.

“So are we actually going to talk about something?”

She turns from the window and folds her hands. She wears a fuzzy white sweater that accentuates her breasts. Which is something I’m not supposed to be noticing.

“I am wading into tricky ethical waters. Lots of details that I am not supposed to divulge. Unless you already know them. Jasmina informs me that she’s been talking to you about a lot of this.”

“The dreams?”

She gives me the look of a chess master. “Name them.”

I settle back on the couch (may as well get my money’s worth). “Can’t get out of the basement. Fire, then water. Sass Hunter in a kayak. That was me, by the way.”

“How so?”

“Sass told me to kiss her on the forehead.”

“Okay. The other half is public knowledge. Jasmina painted your stockroom walls because…”

“Um, because… Oh! Froze up. Couldn’t go into the basement.”

Molly holds up a piece of invisible yarn and pulls it across. “Connect the dots.”

 “Oh! The basement. Allegorical?”

She walks to her chair, bouncing her palms together. “I fear not. You think you can finish this thought for me?”

“Okay. Let’s see. Self-injury often originates in childhood trauma. We’re talking… confinement? Abuse?”

“I didn’t say that. But now I sorta feel like I should be paying you.”

“Nonsense. Just going for the obvious.”

“So you’re Occam’s Barber?”

I laugh. Molly smiles. “I’m glad somebody gets my jokes. The thing is, I’m venturing into some dangerous shit, and I would dearly love some more information.”

“I’m at a dead end. In fact, I’m parked at the dead end, my car is out of gas, and I am banging my head on the steering wheel.”

“But you do have one more arrow in your quiver.”
It takes me approximately five seconds to get the reference. “But you know that thing is toxic.”

“Perhaps you need a firewall.”

“You are really into this private-eye shit.”

“Psychologist, detective, treasure hunter…”

I hold up a hand. “Okay. Let me work this out. Firewall, firewall…”

It’s such a buzz when the light bulb goes on. I give Molly a smile.

“Sacagewea.”


“New Beginnings. Sass Hunter.”

Her voice is just as I imagined. Red velvet cake. Sarah Vaughan. And she’s not even trying. Prostitution, hell. Phone sex.

“Hi. This is Paul Debenkof. Jasmina’s guy.”

“Paul! What a treat. How’s my girl?”

“Doing well.”

“Then why are you calling?”

“Damn! You’re quick.”

A throaty laugh. “What did you expect?”

“Exactly. But one quick digression. I kissed her on the forehead, and you appeared in her dream.”

“Alive?”

“In a kayak.”

“Naturally. So what’s up?”

“I have a favor to ask.”

“Anything.”

I send her the number in an email. Two hours later, I’m in my room watching television. Jasmina’s across the street, working the box office.

“Hi. It’s the ghost. Is the coast clear?”

I glance out the window. “She’s selling tickets. What’s the dope?”

“The toxic number has retrieved a man. A young man, Jasmina’s age. Not a relative.”

“Now, that email account – Mr. Paine – is that secure?”

“Yes. I use it only at the library.”

“Excellent. Our young man, who has not as yet revealed his name, is going to send you a list of instructions.”

“That’s odd.”

“Oh, so you’re the only one who gets to be mysterious?”

“But I’m the one holding the hostage. What’s he got?”

“Oh he’s got somethin’.”

“Do tell.”

A little breath of a laugh. Crafty. “No. Not till you promise me something.”

“I am surrounded by extortionists!”

“Yeah, yeah. Yakety-schmakety. I want to see Jasmina. If the doc gives the okay. You let me know, I’ll be out on the next flight.”

“Okay. I’ll ask.”

“Okay.”

Silence. I hear her fingernails click a tattoo on her desk.

“He’s the father.”

“But…”

“Jasmina has a child.”


Paul

“Okay. Stamp down on the boot.”

I slide the toe-tab under the fitting and press down on the heel. It locks in with a satisfying click.

“Awesome,” she says. “Feel okay? No rub-spots?”

“None that I can feel.”

“Zappo! You’re ready to fly.”

“I was kinda hopin’ to stay on the ground. Can you tell me where the ticket window is?”

She hands me an afternoon pass. “Right here.”

“Wow! So what do I owe you?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

“Really?”

“I have orders from secret sources.”

“Cool! Thanks.”

“Now hit those slopes before I change my mind.”

I carry my gear outside, feeling like royalty. I’m way ahead of schedule, so I spike my skis into a snow bank and head to the café for a snack. The mountain is a bowl of milk criss-crossed by ants, umbrella’d by blue sky – for January, quite a treat. Thinking of sun damage, I clomp to the gift shop and find a Castro-style cap, 50 percent off. (Evidently, we’re still afraid of looking like communists.)

When the time arrives, I check my list of instructions and head for a two-seater chairlift called the Koala. I arrive at the top of a ridge and find a devastating view: a field of snowcapped mountains going on forever. A jet etches the the blue with a vapor trail. Once I’ve had my fill, I cruise to the left and turn downhill at a mellow intermediate called Hog Back. I’m relieved to find that I remember how to ski, the groomed snow sliding under me like sugar. I straight-arrow the hill and take in a double rush of speed and wind. I plant a pole and pivot left, scraping a bank to a flat trail, funneling out to the main area. I head straight across, making for a three-seater called the Bear. Next to the lift line stands my contact, a lean young man dressed all in white – ski suit, boots, knit cap – plus a pair of reflective goggles. I pull up too early and I have to duck-walk to his post.

“Angel?”

He gives me a blank look (which is easy with those goggles) and points a finger. “Devil. Come on, let’s board up.”

I follow him through the ropes, noting the bits of red hair sticking out from the bottom of his cap. I’m a little remiss on the choreography, and I arrive at the boarding stripe just in time to plop onto the chair. The lift operator shouts at me.

“What’d he say?”

“You need to reach for the chair with your outside hand.”

“Whoops. It’s the little things that you forget first.”

“Been a while?”

“Couple years. Lack of money, mostly.”

Angel scans the slope in front of us, wide, flat fields of white, skiers and boarders sliding in from all directions.

“Intermediate?”

I laugh. “Functionally.”

He’s got an interesting nose, small but with a slight misdirection, a boxer’s break. His chin is narrow, a little long, whispers of a goatee. Thin lips, his mouth a little robotic, like the mouth of a ventriloquist’s dummy. I’m having a hard time working up any trust.

“Here’s the deal,” he says. “A chairlift is the best place in the world for exchanging confidential info. Now, I work here, so I’m a pretty advanced skier. When we get to the top, just keep going, over the hill to the back side. I’ll be heading for the black diamonds; for you I’d suggest the blue squares to the right. The runs are pretty long, which is why I gave you the Koala as a warmup.  But if you get tired it’s okay, take your time. Meet me at the very bottom, it’s a quad, the Polar Express. It’s fast, but it’s also the longest lift on the mountain. Questions?”

“You’ve really thought this through.”

He scans the trees, looking for secret agents. “I have thought about this since I was fourteen. We’re dealing with some pretty scary shit here. I’m still working a little bit on the issue of trust. That article about your store was a help. Gotta say, major balls. Very impressed.”

“Eh. Marin County.”

“There’s religious wack jobs everywhere.”

“Yeah.”

“So let me see – oh, the shot with Kelly and the newspaper. Nice touch. Kind of a shock seeing her. But… you’re sure you’re not some undercover Christian?”

“They don’t really offer atheist membership cards. We’re kinda informal. How about this: Your so-called Christian God can suck my dick!”

This earns me a laugh, albeit a robotic one. “Okay. I believe you. You’re gonna burn in hell, you know.”

“Doesn’t exist.”

“Okay. Good. Well, here we go. Head to the right off the chair. I will prepare my confession on the way down the hill. Seeya!”

I raise my skis, push up from the seat and manage to navigate the exit hill without killing anyone. I look around and Angel is gone, so I plant my poles and push off toward the back side. The most winsome candidate is Shady Grove, a mellow little shot between two stands of fir, but Angel’s right, it’s plenty long. I can feel my quads straining with the workload. I give them a little pep talk – taking one for the team, that sort of thing – and they seem to respond. I groove into some long curves, bottom out at a narrow trail called Pipeline and coast into the Polar Express. Angel wears a small smile.

“Quads?”

Oh yeah. I do some pretty serious mountain hiking, and still…”

“Well, like I said, take your time. Let’s go.”

The lift picks us up slow, but at the fifty-foot mark it kicks into overdrive. I consult my Inner Molly, who advises me to shut up and listen. We trace a line of treetops laced with snow. Angel begins his story.

If you drive three miles west out of Carter, Montana, you’ll spot a dirt road marked with a small cross. If you follow that road for twenty miles, you will climb a slowly rising plateau and descend to a small valley filled with cottonwoods. Scattered among the trees are squat white cottages and a long white church with a modest steeple. This is the Cloudburst Christian Camp. They call it a camp because it’s temporary; the residents are much more interested in attaining heaven than in having any kind of actual life on Earth.

The central figure of Cloudburst is a young, bearded man called Sam Matterhorn – a name as obviously made-up as any you will find in a strip club. Working only on externals, you would assume Reverend Sam to be the worst kind of snake-oil salesman, but he does have one mitigating quality: he absolutely believes his own bullshit.

Sam’s major theory on getting to heaven was to beat the sin right out of you. Parents at Cloudburst were given monogrammed paddles, and were expected to use them at the slightest provocation. I can’t tell you how many times I went to sleep to the cries of some poor kid getting walloped – or the many times I received such treatment myself. As I made my way into adolescence, I developed a strategy for avoiding this. Hide your thoughts. Talk as little as possible. Try your best to exhibit no hint of personality. My father became concerned that he hadn’t punished me for a while – Reverend Sam having convinced him that sparing the rod was a sure ticket to hell for both wacker and wackee. So he decided I was too content with my goodliness – a sure sign of excessive pride – and he beat me for that.

We were also kept in line by certain underground legends. Years before, soon after Reverend Sam was led to the cottonwoods by a talking goat – seriously, you can’t make up this shit – a three-year-old smacked his one-year-old brother and refused to apologize. So they paddled his little butt, and still he refused. After two hours of continuous spanking, he passed out. They took him to the hospital, but of course that prize-winning dirt road slowed them up, and by the time they got him to Great Falls he was dead. Internal hemorrhaging. His parents left the community, probably to avoid arrest. Sick fucks.

Later on, I figured that story as another piece of Reverend Sam bullshit, sent out to scare the bejeesus out of us, but then I discovered a news report. The couple who beat their kid to death were suing the church for creating a “pernicious atmosphere.”

Another thing I discovered was how my parents ended up there. A couple of their old friends looked me up in Great Falls and told me the whole story. They were swingers! My mom found out she was sterile, so they decided to make the most of it. Cocaine, orgies, cross-dressing, S&M – you name it. I guess when my mom did get pregnant, they were so shocked at how wild they’d gotten that they boomeranged back in the opposite direction. It’s the worst sinners that make the most insufferable Christians. ‘Course, my parents were nothing compared to Kelly’s mom. Ah, shit. Remind me where I am. Sylvia, right?

“Okay. Sylvia.”

We slide off the exit hill, and Angel disappears again. I nudge my bearings a little to the left and find a slope that’s even easier, Grouse Connection. I try to see if I can actually enjoy the skiing, but my mind is racing. I have run into the freakin’ Mother Lode. I catch an edge and nearly buy the farm. The idea of breaking a leg in the middle of all this revelation is pretty horrifying. The slope runs a long, long way straight to the lift. Angel waits for me, looking a little disheveled.

“Y’look a little frosty.”

He smiles, his goggles flashing in the sun. “Kohoutek Gully. Lots of trees and powder. I love powder.”

We board up and rise to the trees. Angel uses his pole to knock the snow from his boots. “One time I was doing this and I hit the release. My ski fell to the snow in slow motion. Like a Hitchcock movie. Had to rake my way down a double-diamond on one ski. Misery! So…”

“Sylvia.”

“Right.”

Sylvia was the most fucked-up bitch in the history of Christendom. Word was that she got knocked up and her boyfriend deserted her. Smart man. After that, she saw nothing good in the world, so why not get ready for the next one? So she brought her bastard child to Cloudburst. The emphasis on corporal punishment was a bonus. It gave her license to take out all her anger and disappointment on Kelly. I don’t think I ever saw that girl without a bruise, a cut lip. Burned hand. Broken arm. By Reverend Sam’s calculations, Kelly was destined to get to heaven before any of us. Sylvia backed it up with her mouth, too. She was just in love with the idea of hell, spouted the gospel of damnation everywhere she went.

That was a mother-daughter combination that could make you question the power of genetics. Kelly’s father must have been one handsome son-of-a-bitch. And of course that kinky hair raised a lot of speculation. Kelly was also incredibly kind, and wise beyond her years. Normally a boy will do anything to avoid a kid two years his junior, but I never felt that way about her. She had this ability to find joy in the tiniest things. One day, she swore me to secrecy and led me through a network of deerpaths to a clearing covered in clover and mustard. At the center stood a broad sycamore. Kelly had constructed a lean-to over a log, and along the log’s top she arranged an impressive collection of quartz crystals. A couple of them were rose quartz; one was an amethyst. Cloudburst children were not allowed to have private possessions, so to me this exhibit was both a scary and thrilling thing.

“How do you hide the pieces from your mom?” I asked. She reached into a braid of her hair and pulled out a crystal. “But aren’t you afraid your mom’s going to find a piece and beat you?” She said, “My mom’s going to beat me regardless.” I kept that thought in my head for years, and I took it out when it came my time to escape. That Kelly was an amazing girl.

Hunting for quartz became our main pursuit, and often I would sneak into the clearing to offer my latest find. One time my dad found a piece in my pocket and beat me for covetousness. I got a kick out of that later, when I discovered how many times he coveted his neighbors’ wives. Hypocrisy is a delicious meal.

“Sex education.”

“Pardon?”

“That’s my next cue. Sex education. See ya!”

My legs are getting limber now, and I’m pretty proud of myself when I get to the lift before Angel. He arrives a minute later, coated in snow and cracking up.

“Ha! Totally bought it. Landmine.”

“A… what?”

“Land mine. That’s when you got a really harsh mogul, and it’s camouflaged by a smooth layer of powder. Kablooey! Anyways, off we go.”

We board up and clear the first tree.

So! Sex education. There was none. Again, richly ironic, coming from my perverted parents. They never talked about it. Never. And if I talked about it, even managed to stumble onto something that could halfway be construed as sexual, then let the floggings begin! They wanted us to abstain, but they wouldn’t tell us from what. They talked about it in this vague biblical code: “temptations of the flesh,” “carnal knowledge.” What does that mean to a ten-year-old? Was there ever a religion that had a more fucked-up view of sexuality?

One day – spring, gorgeous day – Kelly and I were hiking a footpath next to our road, searching for quartz. We heard a trail bike and jumped behind a bush. We had been trained to fear outsiders. To anybody else, it would look like a pair of college kids out on a lark. What we saw were demons, with wild clothing, tattoos, piercings. The girl had a stripe of magenta in her hair and a ring above one eyebrow. Jezebel!

They rode around the bend, and then the engine stopped. Bored children that we were, we followed, creeping along the trail like Indian scouts, and found them in a field of grass. They were naked, and the boy was pushing the girl from behind. It seemed like some kind of wrestling. As we crept closer, we got a profile view, and made a shocking discovery. It appeared that the boy had somehow inserted his penis into the girl’s body. Imagine what a wild concept that is to someone who has absolutely zero information on the subject. The girl began to scream, as if she were being attacked, then the two of them collapsed into a fit of giggling. It seemed like terrific fun.

After they left, Kelly and I walked back to the clearing in silence. She added a few crystals to her collection and said, “What were those two doing?” I said I didn’t know. She said, “How did he get his thing inside of her? Isn’t it too soft?” I confessed my most shameful secret. “Sometimes,” I said, “it gets hard.” In truth, I found my erections terrifying; I thought there was something horribly wrong with my body. I thought I was dying.

Kelly came back with her own secret. “My… where I go pee? Sometimes it bleeds. I wouldn’t dare tell my mother.”

I said, “Do you suppose… we could do what those two were doing?”

“Well!” she said. “Let’s look.”

You can imagine the rest. When I took off my pants, my penis started to grow. Kelly thought it was a miracle. Through a lot of trial and error, I managed to fit myself into her peehole, and then we did what the other kids did, pushing and sliding. The blood kinda freaked me out, but Kelly told me it was okay. Poor kid had an overdeveloped threshold for pain. Once I got used to the weirdness of it, it got to feeling really good – but when I came I thought I was having a heart attack. I recovered, of course, and over the next month we played our mysterious game four or five more times. And then Kelly kind of disappeared.


“I hate to leave you hanging, Devil, but here we are. See you at the bottom!”

Halfway down, I can feel my legs giving me the early warning signs. It’s not the amount of skiing, it’s the pace. That’s the problem with weekday skiing. I dawdle at the snowboard ramp, hoping for a free show, but all I get are timid beginners. When I get to the chair, Angel looks concerned.

“Hope I’m not working you too hard. That’s how it is when you work here. You build up this superhuman stamina, and you forget that other people… well, for one thing, other people don’t live at seven thousand feet! But don’t worry. I’m almost done.”

“Cool.”

We board the lift. Angel takes a deep breath. A skier in black cuts through the trees below us.


Even when I heard that Kelly was “with child,” I didn’t make the connection with our game. Such were the depths of my ignorance. I’m guessing that Kelly didn’t make the connection either. That’s how stories of virgin births get started.

One day in early summer, I was out on a chore that took me past Kelly’s house. I heard screaming, and a steady drumbeat. I crawled to the basement window. Kelly was naked, crouched on all fours atop her bed. Her stomach drooped down. Her hands were cuffed to the bedpost. Sylvia stood behind her, spewing the usual hellfire and taking swings at Kelly’s rear end with her monogrammed paddle. The surface of the paddle was covered with blood. The part that really got to me was Kelly’s face. A blank slate, no expression whatsoever. Mouth open, eyes just… dead. Like she wasn’t really there at all.

Even though I didn’t understand my part in this, I felt horribly guilty. But then, guilt was my default mode. Since then, the guilt grows exponentially. Because I heard that screaming all summer, all fall, and I never did anything. They had me so scared.

Angel’s voice is beginning to break. I didn’t know he had it in him. He shakes it away.

I did one thing. That October, we had a heavy rain. Kelly’s house sat near a creek, so I made a point of walking past to check it out. The water had climbed the bank, and some of it was pouring into the basement. I worked up my courage and knocked on the door. That woman was terrifying. Her hair was this crazy-quilt of red and gray, and she had one eye that seemed like it was knocked out of joint – too many years of staring down sinners. She said, “What do you want?” I said, “I’m sorry for bothering you, Mrs. Copper, but I noticed that you’ve got some water pouring into your basement.” She gave me a long stare, and apparently I passed the test. She said, “Okay. I’ll go check.”

I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had just let her drown, but I guess that wasn’t the purpose. She was going to force Kelly to have that child in the same way that she was forced to have Kelly. I can’t figure the reason for chaining her down. Like she was going to run off and have an abortion? We didn’t even know what that was.

Angel goes quiet. I suppose it’s time that I can ask a question.

“Did she have the child?”

“Yes. She brought it to church for baptism. Ruth Elizabeth. A week later, Kelly and the baby disappeared. But Sylvia remained, and acted like nothing happened. People in that place talked about nothing but heaven. It was like Kelly never existed.”

This appears to be a hole in Angel’s life, so I give him a little time. A kid in a red-and-black suit takes some wicked air off the snowboard ramp below us.

“You got out?”

“Yep. I waited till I was eighteen. I wanted to make sure they couldn’t send me back. My folks went to a bible meeting one night. I pretended to be sick. Loaded up a backpack and just walked. I got to Highway 87 just as the sun was rising. What a great fucking feeling. Got a job at a grocery store in Great Falls and spent years working the bullshit out of my system. It was only last year that I left Montana. That’s why my phone number’s still there. Whoops. Heads up.”

The lift exit is right on top of us. I raise my skis and manage the dismount, but this time he’s not getting away from me. I slide up from behind and grab his elbow. He stops and gives me a look of surprise. I’ve broken protocol.

“Angel. Believe me, I understand the caution. For years, I envisioned some late-night visit from the Jehovah’s Witness Mafia. But I’m pretty sure Cloudburst is not on your trail. It doesn’t seem like they’d even go to Great Falls, much less California. And I’m not sure if I can make it down that hill again.”

He thinks about it and nods his head. “Okay.”

“So why the flyers? Why are you doing this?”

He looks around, like he still doesn’t believe me, and leads me to a bench bordering a grove of pines. We sit; my legs are immediately grateful.

“Number one,” he says. “I guess I need to know if I’ve got a kid out there. And… if I can do anything to help. Two, I want Kelly to know something.”

“What?”

Angel takes off the knit cap, unleashing a mop of squirrely orange hair. Then he takes off the goggles, revealing a pair of light brown eyes with a hawk-like sharpness.

“Sylvia’s dead.”

“Wow. Okay. I’ll do what I can. I assume Sass told you…”

“Repressed memories. Self-injury. It’s amazing the girl hasn’t killed herself, really. But you know all about that remarkable brain of hers. Anyways, just keep me up-to-date. You’ve got my number. Oh, and my real name is Jacob.”

I offer a gloved hand. “Thanks for finding me. This’ll help a lot.”

“Good. Um, you might want to stop at that shack for a cheeseburger. Anywhere else they’re awful; on top of a mountain, they’re fantastic. When you’re rested, hit that run to the left, the Mokelumne – nice, easy groove.”

“Awesome. Thanks.”

“Hey, and if you get the itch sometime, I can always get you a lift ticket. Two, if she’s ready.”

He gets up, grips his poles, then stops. “Oh, one more thing.” Jacob reaches under his shirt and pulls a silver chain from around his neck. He opens his hand to reveal a chunk of milky purple. It’s the amethyst.


I make my way down the Mokelumne, stopping to take in the vistas and rest my legs. When I take off my boots, I discover blisters on both feet. Still, the pain is pleasant, especially in my well-worn tennies. I limp to the deck and find a surprisingly festive gathering. It’s a conference of wineries and cheesemakers, complete with free samples and a combo of youngsters playing hot jazz from ‘30s Paris. I settle at a table with my bounty and let the dark secrets of Jasmina’s childhood run laps through my head.


Paul

Molly’s kissing me.

“Hey! Yo!” In the way of protest, this is the best I’ve got.

She backs off with a sheepish smile. “Sorry. But this is… God! This is fantastic. You have handed me a map to the minefield. I could kiss you!”

“You did!”

We’re ascending the steps at Lakshmi’s. I thought news of this import merited a dinner. I’m realizing the fatal flaw of the place: after you stuff your face with chicken tandoori, you have to walk uphill.

I’m sorry,” says Molly. “My enthusiasm gets away with me. And, well, I’m living a little vicariously.”

“That’s okay. Jesus, I’ll bet you never thought you’d be involved in cult deprogramming.”

“It has gotten quite exotic.”

We reach the parking lot and head for Molly’s car, a silver Audi 3000 that makes me want to live vicariously.

“Wait a minute. What do you mean ‘vicariously’?”

Molly hits her keypad and unlocks our doors. “Oh. Yeah. I sorta had to break up with someone. He was so uninvolved in the relationship that he couldn’t even see how bad it was. Technically, I was the dump-er, but it felt more like I was dumping myself.”

“Jerk.”

Molly laughs. “You’re a good friend. Now tell me I deserve much better.”

“Can I first change that word to ‘asshole’?”

“Please do.”

“Asshole! And you deserve much better. A foxy psychotherapist such as yourself.”

Molly looks a little embarrassed and ducks her head into the car. She turns the ignition; the dashboard lights up like a blue hologram. Her car eases through the turns like a hovercraft.

“One of the tools that I use in the management of my personal life is the compare-and-contrast. Mr. Can’t B. Bothered suffers immeasurably in the face of… present company. You are so committed to Jasmina. You go to such extremes on her behalf. These are not easy issues to face, but look at you! You are elated because you met the guy who got your girlfriend pregnant.”

“I suppose I didn’t think of it that way.”

She gives me an overlong look and returns to her driving, taking a sharp turn like it’s nothing.

“You’re an extraordinary man, Paul. And next time, I want one just like you.”

“Aw gee shucks.”

We’re interrupted by Molly’s phone. She checks a message on the dash. “Nothing important. Another suicide attempt by Mrs. Priestly.” She waits a beat. “Kidding!”

“So,” I say. “Where do you go with this minefield map?”

Molly twitches her lips. “I have no freakin’ idea. But I do have a preliminary step in mind. Thanks for dinner. It was delicious.”

“It always is.”


Jasmina


This stuff about Paul and Molly having a secret affair started out as a joke, but you know what they say about jokes – kernel of truth. This little date they had last night, I don’t know, borders are being messed with. They’re talking about me behind my back. I know it’s probably necessary– maybe even a key to my recovery – but it puts me in a weird position. I am the lab rat, dissected for general amusement. I worry that Paul will tire of sleeping with a head-case, and I compare myself unfavorably with Molly. Cute, successful, funny, compassionate. Hell, I’d do her.

“Jasmina?”

“Oh, um. Sorry?”

“Look, I really need you to focus today, because I want to take you into some new ground.”

I saw Mack at the movies last night with his red-headed chippie. I wasn’t expecting much. A nod. A wink. How many times do you have to suck a guy’s dick before he treats you like a human?

Molly’s throwing me the evil eye.

“I’m sorry. Could you start that from the beginning?”

“Okay. We’re on the dissociative aspect of self-injury. The fuzziness, the separation.”

“Really? Come on, I got that about thirteen sessions ago.”

More evil eye. “I’m trying to follow a thread. Work with me. The dissociative state goes back to the childhood trauma that started all this.”

“Oh, like, having your parents blowed up?”

“Yes. The dissociation is a form of protection. If you take on a separated mindset, it helps you to maintain a distance from the trauma. Another protective device is the repression or alteration of memory.”

I sit crosswise on the couch so I can face her. “Okay! I got all that. Could we please cut to the chase?”

She folds her hands and takes a breath. “I would like you to consider the possibility that some of your memories are false.”

“Oh! Now you’re really fucking with me. What kind of sci-fi movie bullshit is that?”

“I want you to consider the possibility that Sass Hunter did not die from her injuries.”

The pot is boiling. I need to get away.

“Jasmina? Where are…”

“How dare you! I sat in that hospital for weeks watching that woman suffer. I was there when they took her away. I was destroyed. I spent months just sick with grief. And now you’re raising the dead? You’re Jesus? I don’t believe in gods, thank you.”

Molly looks at me with those big, calm eyes. She is the reasonable one, the one with all the fucking answers.

“And stay away from my boyfriend!”

It seems like a good exit line. I grab my jacket and hit the streets.


Paul


Molly tells me it’s okay, Jasmina’s ready for this, she’s not out somewhere cutting herself. But Molly’s got more patients than I have girlfriends. I spend the afternoon wishing I could throw up. By ten, I have stationed myself at my bedroom window, scanning the streets, aching for a sight of her. Instead, I get a loud knock at my back door. I hurtle down the stairs.

She clamps onto me, sobbing. I carry her to the easy chair, just like the first time, and I kneel to kiss her hand. The sobbing fades with the minutes, and she draws a big breath.

“I killed her. I killed Sass. How could I do that?”


Paul

I’ve got a new toy – one of those tiny little video cams – and I’m hoping to try it out at practice. I’m still taking it out of its case when Jasper the dachsund attacks his favorite rug, tearing it from the floor and dragging it across the room as an offering to Billy. Pamela quick-steps out of the way, laughing.

“What the hell!”

Smeeed yells, “Dog on crack!”

As soon as I power up and hit record, he retreats to the corner and behaves himself.

“Jasper, if you want to go viral, ya gotta wait till the camera’s on.”

I raise the viewfinder and discover a woman with a Jazz Age hairdo, cut sharply at her shoulders, bangs in a line across her forehead, a frame for big dark eyes. My God. That woman is my girlfriend. A chill begins at the right side of my neck and meanders to my left pinkie.

I’m called to attention by Billy, who grinds into a chunky power chord work-in-progress. It churns forward like a Harley engine and then bursts into a three-stroke blossom at the chorus. We play this sequence over and over as Pamela sits in front of her mic and tries to channel a melody.

Maybe it’s the company, but the drive home seems more vivid than usual. I suppose I have the same reaction to Marin County as I do to Jasmina. My God. This gorgeous place is my home. Bay waters, pleasure boats cruising in for the night, hills peppered with lights like flakes of parmesan. Beneath us, a freaky line of energy we call the San Andreas. There’s no other place to be in the world, and there’s no other woman to be with.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she says.

“Sorry. Cost you a dollar.”

“Goddamn inflation.”

“I like it when you cuss. Hell, I like it when you do anything.”

“Thanks for letting me sit in. I like that last thing you were doing.”

“The cemetery song.”

“Yeah. I dig that. Creepy. What’s that thing you’re doing on the low drum?”

“Floor tom?”

“Yeah, whatever. Frog sound. Ribbit.”

I laugh. “My latest obsession. After twenty years of drumming, I have finally learned how to paradiddle.”

Jasmina gives me a salacious grin.

“It’s a real word! I swear! You hold the stick loose and bounce it off the drumhead. You get three, four hits from a single stroke. That’s how they do drum rolls.”

She sends a laugh all around my cab.

“What?”

She smiles. “Paradiddle.”

“I am so in love with you.”

Her smile sweetens. “I think I knew that. Thanks for finding Sass.”

This comes at just the right time to make me miss my exit. “So. The cat’s out of the bag.”

“The Mistress of Information filled me in. Apparently I deleted Sass because she found Jesus. Molly suspects I had some profoundly bad experiences with religion.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

She blinks. “Really?”

I choose my words carefully. “At my store, I get two types of seekers. Those who came to atheism rather naturally and those who had to fight their way through thick walls of toxin.”

“Toxin – that’s me.”

I pause for a second so I don’t miss my second exit, and take a right toward home.

“But here’s what I don’t understand,” she says. “Jesus freaks don’t… freak you out. You and your Mormon basketball games. How do you do that? How do you forgive such gross stupidity?”

“It takes a while to get comfortable with the atheist identity. Hopefully, you reach a point where you realize you’re not rejecting other people’s beliefs – merely embracing your own. After that, it’s easier to let them think whatever they want. One day you’ll find yourself mixing with the religiocrats, and you’ll realize you’re no longer Jasmina the Atheist, you’re just Jasmina Copper.”

I negotiate a left at the light. “Did… Molly say it might be all right for you to see Sass?”

She grins. “Can you make that happen?”

“Yes.”

Wider. “Do me a favor. Surprise me.”

“You got it.”

“I had the dream last night.”

“Fire and water?”

“No. UPS. And I realized… it’s biblical.”

“Howso?”

“Young woman wanders strange city, looking for a place to deliver a package…”

You’re the virgin Mary?”

“Why not?”

“I doubt the Pope would appreciate your interpretation.”

“Oh fuck the Pope.”

“Yeah, and that’s not gonna help you, either.”


Jasmina

            Among other things, Molly informs me that Sass disavows my involvement in prostitution. It’s difficult getting used to these mental gaps, but I am trying to think of them as hiccups – annoying but basically harmless. On the other hand, I’m relieved to learn that I was not actually a hooker. Paul does a terrific job of accommodating my checkered past, but I’ve always worried that it would eventually cause a rift between us.
           
After the nine o’clock rush, I leave Lexi to hover blank-eyed over the snack bar as I run the rounds of the waste cans. I’m in the backmost hallway next to the Woody Allen movie when the door opens and I feel a hand on my rear. I turn to find a patrician-looking gentleman in a brown leather jacket.

He gives me a sly smile. “I’m sorry. Seeing you at the counter brought back some very pleasant memories.”

“So you… know me?”

His eyes light up. “How could I forget the popcorn girl? You were stupendous.”

I force myself to focus – to think like a lawyer. I give him my fast-trigger smile, the phony one.

“So tell me…”

“Anthony.”

“Anthony. What was it that you enjoyed the most about my… services?”

He chuckles and traces a thumb along his jawline. “I suppose it was, well… you had this way of seeming very innocent – awkward, even, like you had never done anything like that before.”

I tap his nose with my finger. “I know how you rascals are.”

He eats it up. “Well, I’d best get back to the wife. Do you… Are you still in the business?”

“I’m afraid I’ve retired.”

“What a shame. The world has lost an artist.” He kisses my hand, even though it’s holding a garbage bag, and returns to the door.

“Anthony. Tell Mack I said hi.”

He tilts his head. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I know a Mack.”

“Oh! Somebody else. Bye.”

“Ciao.”

He slips into the theater. I stand there, running a Geiger counter over my memory banks. Tick. Tick.


Molly’s latest trick is to rub her earlobe like a worry stone. I imagine that psychologists have seminars in this stuff: 25 Simple Gestures for Conveying Deep Thought.

“So you met this… gentleman at work.”

“Yes.”

“And it appears that you actually did have relations with him?”

I can feel the blood rising to my face. “I… yes.”

“Do you remember that night?”

“Well, yes. But I had sort of lumped it in with the rest of my made-up prostitutions. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Ear tug. “Was there any fallout? Any self-injury?”

I find myself employing my own thought-gesture: reaching across to scratch my shoulder. “Self-injury requires a boiling pot. In this case, the lid just blew right off. I showed up at Paul’s door, sobbing my head off. He was an angel. Actually, that was the beginning of our friendship.”

Molly takes off an earring and tosses it onto her desk. “Damn things. Itchy as hell. Okay. I’m going to paint a picture here. You tell me if I’m full of shit.”

“Gladly.”

“Smartass. I think at some point in your murky past, somebody convinced you that you are an evil girl. A harlot. A Jezebel. You internalized that image so completely that you had to find ways to ease the conflict between that Inner Jezebel and your actual, good self. When you met Sass, the world of prostitution gave you exactly that, and a way to identify with your foster mother. I also notice that most of your imagined clients were older men, and don’t even get me started on daddy issues.”

I have to smile. “Sometimes I don’t think we’re paying you enough.”

“I know you’re not. But stay with me here. Your brain did such a thorough job of rewriting your life that you evidently saw this guy’s proposition as just another day at the office. Faced with the actuality of a naked, horny senior citizen, the conflict between reality and fantasy blew your circuits and sent you off, rather serendipitously, to the very man that your good self deserved.”

Sparks are going off in my head. “Okay.”

“Now, Anthony said he didn’t know Mack, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. I’m really stretching here. Bear with me. But after intensifying your self-loathing Jezebel fixation with an imaginary foursome on a yacht, you apparently decided to cut yourself a break. So you fabricated Mack: high-class kept-woman thing, older guy who treats you nice. This allowed you to hang onto the Jezebel ID, and to fight off your feelings for Paul – because your self-image told you you didn’t deserve him.”

“That poor man.”

“That poor man loves you.”

I laugh. “No, I mean Mack. I mean, the guy I thought was Mack.”

“You’ve had… encounters?”

“Yeah. I saw him at the Depot one day and gave him a rash of shit.”

Molly starts laughing. I swat her on the knee. “That is highly unprofessional, young lady.”

“Well, you have to admit…”

“Well, yes.”

She lets out a sigh. “It’s all right, Jasmina. We’ve got a lot of unwinding to do. You’re not crazy, you’ve just got a brain that’s done a lot of mischief on your behalf.”

I start to cry, despite myself. “It’s just so hard.”

She passes me a box of Kleenex and lets me go for a while. I return the box to her desk and spot the earring, a tiny sun with a smiling cartoon face.

“Copper?”

“Gift from my mother.”

“Weird.”

“Well, it was a nice thought.”

“No. Copper. It…”

“What?”

“I have no idea.”

“That’s all right. Kept your impulse log this week?”

“As always.”


Paul


I arrive to pick up Jasmina for Valentine’s dinner, but she doesn’t appear to be home. After a full loop around the premises, I find her in the studio, seated before Anna’s ceramic menagerie like a queen. She wears a red halter-top dress that hugs her waist and descends to her knees in cloud-soft pleats. She sees me at the window and gives me the good smile, the smile that wavers. She opens the door and greets me with a kiss.

“Hi. When I’m having a bad week, I arrange a conference with the animals.”

“Are you having a bad week?”

“It just got better.”

She holds me for a long time, taking in medication. I look past her shoulder to the puffin on a muffin, which always makes me smile.

I have secured a waterside table at Horizons in Sausalito. We dine on artichokes and Sauvignon blanc as San Francisco lights its candles across the Bay. Our milk-fed blonde waitress arrives with our entrees: wild boar steak for me, salmon filet for Jasmina. The waitress gives us a tired smile.

“It’s the end of my shift, so I’ll be handing you off to another waitress. Have a great Valentine’s Day.”

“Thanks,” I say.

Ten minutes later, we are greeted by a tall black woman with close-cropped hair and pronounced cheekbones.

“Hi. Are you ready to see the dessert menu?”

“I don’t know,” says Jasmina. “I’m awfully…”

I suppose all prostitutes are actresses at heart, and I give Sass a lot of credit for staying in character. After ten seconds of stunned silence, however, even Deniro would break. She unwraps a broad smile and says, “Hi, darlin’.”

Jasmina stands too fast and sends her wineglass smashing to the floor. She buries her face in Sass’s shoulder and begins to cry. The dining populace is divided between the puzzled and the amused as the black waitress and the white customer begin to sway. Sass strokes Jasmina’s hair and makes hushing sounds, exactly like a mother.


Paul

On the road to Gualala, we stop at Goat Rock, one of my favorite spots. The rock is a huge bullish thing, not much on style, but the adjoining beach offers a number of endearing quirks. The shoreline cuts to the water in a sudden drop, creating “sneaker” waves that will reach up and grab you if you’re not on your best behavior. The beach dead-ends at the crusty ridges that frame the Rock, and the pocket accumulates a gazillion tiny, smooth rocks. The walking is arduous, but the feel of the pebbles against your bare soles is vastly therapeutic. It is here, as Molly and Yaz fall behind, that I finally have a moment alone with Sass.

“So how does one tell one’s foster daughter what one does when one is a prostitute?”

Sass chuckles. “How long do you intend to talk like that?”

“One may well wonder.”

She shifts her eyes landward, where a fog bank is dive-bombing the road.

“It begins vaguely. ‘Men get very lonely,’ I said. ‘They would like to do physical, affectionate things, things that they would normally do with a wife, or a girlfriend. But wives and girlfriends are not always easy to find. So instead they hire me to do these things with them, and for a while they feel less lonely.’”

“That’s good,” I say. “I assume she waited maybe five seconds before demanding specifics.”

“Yes. And that’s when we found out how much Jasmina knew about sex, courtesy of Uncle Laszlo.”

“We’ve been very unfair to Uncle Laszlo.”

Sass looks behind us to check on distance. “Will she ever know the whole truth about her childhood?”

“I’m amazed we’ve gotten her back to you. Her brain seems to possess a remarkable plasticity, an ability to remake itself and adapt to sudden changes. But Molly’s still feeling pretty cautious. We don’t want to re-ignite the self-injury thing.”

We walk twenty slow feet in silence. Molly and Jasmina’s conversation gathers energy behind us; they sound like a pair of seagulls.

“I’m not sure I get you,” says Sass. “You’re so into atheism that you start your own store, and yet, from all reports, you’re the one who helped Jasmina get over my Jesus stuff.”

“‘Jesus stuff.’ That’s…”

“What side are you on?”

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t prepared for this. Born-agains have a morbid fascination with atheists, much as carnival-goers have a fascination for side-show freaks.

“At heart I’m a scientist, and a logician. I had an awful, awful experience with religion, and it took me years to train myself not to spend the rest of my life reacting against that. The way that I judge people is pretty simple: I watch what they do. By that standard, the character of a Sass Hunter, be she Christian, agnostic or Druid priestess, is pretty spotless.”

“Well thank you. But what do you have against Jesus?”

“Actually, I’m rather fond of the guy.”

“Just not as your savior.”

“Don’t need saving. Tell me, as a Christian, do you feel obligated to go around proclaiming your opposition to Allah and Buddha, and Quetzlcoatl?”

“Huh?”

“Aztec.”

“Oh. Well… no. It’s not rejecting others. It’s accepting Jesus Christ.”

I snap a finger. “That’s what I’m trying to teach Jasmina. If she is an atheist – and it’s not up to me to make that determination – she needs to get to the point where she’s not rejecting the religion she was born into, but accepting the ever-evolving intellectual rigors of operating without divinities.”

Sass laughs and puts a hand to her temple, the gesture of an impending headache. She grabs my head and kisses me on the cheek.

“Thanks for bringing her back to me.”

“Yo bitch!” This is Yaz, thirty feet behind us. “Keep your hands off my boyfriend.”

Sass gives her a sassy look and slaps me on the butt. Yegads. I’m surrounded.


Weirdly enough, given her recent bouts of jealousy, Jasmina sends me off to the bedroom with Molly. She and Sass claim the foldout that once was the kitchen table (RVs are magical, shape-shifting kingdoms). The psychologist and I drowse off in separate beds as she explains the camper, purchased for a post-divorce cruise to the Rockies. Now it serves as her getaway machine, whenever the neurotic patients of Marin County get too much for her. The campground in Gualala is a favorite destination, a cozy riverside site under a canopy of willow and maple. We spent our first evening around a boisterous fire, passing a jug of rosé as Lady Sass told us tales from her saucy past.

I awake sometime in the freakyearly to the call of my bladder. Sadly, Molly has declared her tiny bathroom non-functional, and the camp restrooms are a good ways off. I bundle up and tip-toe away, stopping to hover over Sass and Yaz, who are spooning like a pair of parentheses. There, I think, is your future mother-in-law.

It’s a clear, cold night, and moonlight filters through the gaps in the trees. The lower branches have twisted themselves into Celtic knots, giving the path a spookshow aura, and feathers of smoke rise from last night’s fires. Near the men’s room, I catch a raccoon inspecting a coon-proof garbage can. He gives me a look of annoyance and grumbles away. I check into the facilities, conduct my business and exit to find a kinky-haired waif holding a towel and a bottle of shampoo.

“Have you considered what two people could do at this time of night in a campground shower?”

 “Have you considered the fact that these showers are coin-operated?”

She smiles and holds up a roll of quarters.


A half-hour of naughty bathing goes a long way toward banishing an utter lack of sleep, so we set out on a hike to the ocean, following a meandering trail that skirts the river. The water gets wider and wider till it’s choked off by a man-made channel beneath a bridge. The trail rises to said bridge, which turns out to be Highway One. We traverse a field of coastal scrub and descend to a wide beach.

The Pacific has lifted a huge log to the brink of its breakers. We use it for a backrest and sit on the dry, buff-colored sand, watching the waves peak and crash in the growing light. I sneak a sidelong look, finding her eyes intent on the horizon, her hair in damp ringlets, her face scrubbed and relaxed. If you could chart such things on a graph, my adoration has reached its apex.

“Are you terribly, terribly happy?”

She sings “Ye-e-es” on a long, even note, and takes my hand without shifting her gaze. “She fills a hole in my life that I didn’t know I had. Thanks for finding her.”

“You’re welcome.”

“How did you manage that waitress schtick?”

“This information is somewhat classified, but our first waitress is one of Molly’s patients.”

“Fear of seafood? Bad tipper issues?”

“If I told you, they would have to kill us.”

The sun peeks over the ridge and extends a tendril of orange light to spark the water. A sea lion periscopes a wave. Jasmina sighs.

“I had the UPS dream last night.”

“Any variations?”

“My package was no longer a package.”

“Do tell.”

“It was a baby.”


Jasmina

Paul and I wake at noon in the bedroom. The rain is beating a march on the top of the camper. I start up my phone and get a text from Molly.

Yo niteowls! Meet us at the Gualala Coffeehouse – to the left on the main drag. Call us if U R going to stay there and screw.

Charming. Not that I wouldn’t consider the latter option. But it feels like time to rejoin society, so we dress ourselves and hie away to the coffeehouse, which offers delightful homemade cookies to go with the espresso.

“Gualala,” says Molly. “Gwa-la-la. I want to move here just so I can say, ‘I am from Gwa-la-la.’”

Sass gives Paul a funny look. “So what does one do in Gualala when one is being rained upon?”

Our barista, a teen with the obligatory colored hair and pierced nose, pops up from the counter. “You should see the Opus Giovanni. It’s like a half-mile north of here. Just look for the cobalt bottle archway.”

“But what is the Opus Giovanni?” asks Paul.

“No!” I say. “Don’t tell us. You had me at cobalt bottle archway.”

We squeeze into Molly’s Audi and pull into a lot bordered by split-rail fences. The arch is almost a tunnel, ten feet long, trelliswork with openings just the right size to hold upside-down cobalt wine bottles. As we pass underneath, our faces turn blue.

The Opus Giovanni looks like a barn, but the interior looks like an art gallery, with clean white walls. The left side offers large black-and-white photos, the right a long table scattered with jewelry. I stop before a frame, five feet high, featuring a mountaintop, equal parts rock and snow. A thin woman in yellow-framed spectacles sidles next to me.

“Hi. Let me know if you have any questions.”

“Is this Mount Shasta? The Tetons?”

She smiles. “The Matterhorn.”

“Oh! Yeah. It’s an amazing photo. I imagine getting there was half the work.”

“Yes it was.”

“Oh! It’s yours?”

“The light was amazing that day. I get a little obsessed with light. My partner says I’m nothing but rods and cones.”

Is there any word more perilous than partner?

“Anyways, we also have smaller matted versions and picture-cards if you’d rather not have this monstrosity in your living room.”

“Oh! Good. Thanks.”

Sass waves me over to the table, where she’s sorting through silver chains with chunky-looking pendants.

“Look at these, hon. They’re crystals and semi-precious stones, left in their natural state.”

I look at the two she’s holding. “Rose quartz and… amethyst.”

She checks the tags. “Very good! I didn’t know you were a rock hound. But then, I only knew you in the city.” She looks around. “I fear I could spend the Foundation’s entire treasury here.”

“I kinda think that might be illegal.”

“Well duh!” she says, and cracks up. “Sorry. I always wanted to say that to you. You used to tell me that thirty times a day.”

“Oh God. Was I a punk?”

“You were a teenage girl.”

“Same thing. Let me buy you one of these.”

“Really?”

“Time I start making up for being a punk.”

Sass gives me a sneaky smile. “I did have my eye on the jade.”

“You got it, Mom.”

She gives me a surprised look.

“Sorry. Just… slipped out.”

“No, no,” she says. “I like it.”


Paul

With all the hubbub, I’m beginning to think of days at the store as days off. After a heart-rending farewell at the airport, Sass’s visit is over, and I’m back to my duties. I spend the early morning checking my neglected plants, and find that things are just fine. In truth, cannabis is a glorified weed, and any idiot could grow it. But Ava is looking to build up her stock, so it’s almost time for another harvest.

Just after noon, I’m enjoying a cup of coffee at my counter when I find Javid walking across the street, clad in the black T-shirt and pants of his work uniform.

“Hey! How are you?”

He leans on the counter, gives me a rafish grin and says, “I did it.”

“You didn’t.”

“I certainly did.”

“What was it like?”

“Such drama! I think they might have taken it better if I had told them I was homosexual. But I did just what you told me. I treated it as an entertainment. I remained tremendously calm, and I did not argue. As a result, they have asked me to leave the house.”

“Oh geez. I’m sorry.”

He places a palm to the counter, as if he’s holding at a blackjack table. “What price do you put on a free mind? I’ve been saving up, and I have a friend who has offered me a tiny room in San Francisco.”

I put a hand to his shoulder. “You are absolutely my hero.”

“Thank you, sensei. I have to get back to work, but I wanted you to know.”

“Tell my girlfriend I miss her.”

He turns at the door. “Didn’t make it in today. No call or anything. I assumed it was your fault.”

“It usually is.”

He gives me a salute and ambles across the street. His report on Yaz makes me a little nervous, so I give her a call. She doesn’t answer, which makes me worry some more. So I call Anna.

“Paul! How are you?”

“Hey, have you seen Jasmina today?”

“I thought I heard her rambling around this morning. Wait, let me check.”

I hear the clomp of Anna’s wooden shoes (she wears them in the studio) followed by a door-knock. “Jasmina? It’s Paul.” A pause. “Hello?” The sound of the doorlatch, and a long silence.

“Paul? I think you need to come here right away.”


The wall next to Jasmina’s bed is unbroken by closet, window or furniture. Covered in the kind of blue-gray paint used on houses near the ocean, its sole occupant was a Spice Girls poster that now lies trampled on the bed. The blue-gray has given over to a chaos of gold and green, a sea of cross-hatches and hieroglyphics. The only breaks are circles of sky blue containing words spelled out in a graceful cursive. The circles are connected to each other by sinuous white lines, creating a diagram resembling the molecular models used by science teachers.

“I know this,” I say. “Clustering. It’s a technique used in writing classes to develop story ideas. Write a word, circle it, draw a line to a connected word, circle that, and so on. A left-brain/right-brain thing.”

Anna stands behind me and gives the wall a studied look. “These words don’t look very… related.”

Cloudburst. Amethyst. Montana. Matterhorn. Jacob. Copper.

“Copper,” I say. “That’s the keystone.”

“That’s funny. A few days ago, she asked me if one of my pieces was copper. That eagle over there. I said, No, more of a bronze. She said, Are you sure it isn’t copper. Like she was looking for an excuse to say the word ‘copper.’”

“It’s her birth name. Kelly Copper. This wall is the story of her childhood.”

Anna’s looking a little irritated. “And when was I going to get this information?”

“Sorry. We were doing whatever we could to keep it from her. This is traumatic stuff – stuff she’s blocked out.”

“Goodness.”

“It appears that she had received these few bits of the puzzle, and was trying to recall the whole picture.”

I spot something on Jasmina’s dresser. It’s a black-and-white photo card, a magnificent thunderhead rising over a set of spiked rock formations. The inscription reads Cloudburst, Butte Montana. Photo by Ruth Archibald.

Ruth is the part I’m not getting. At the right-hand edge of the wall, Jasmina has painted a stack of white words that resembles a dragon.

Ruth
Ruth
Ruth
Ruth Elizabeth
Ruth Elizabeth
Ruth Elizabeth
Ruth Elizabeth Copper.


The watercolor in Molly’s lobby is bugging me. There’s nothing about it that should bug me – a hummingbird sipping from a computer motherboard – so I suppose I’m projecting. I hear Molly’s voice, coming down the hall.

“Listen, Sarah. You’ll be fine. Just get through the wedding, and remember…”

“Molly.”

“Oh, Paul. Just a…”

“It’s very urgent.”

“Just a moment.”

“Jasmina’s disappeared.”

“Sorry, Sarah.”

“No, that’s…”

“In my office,” says Molly.

I sit on the couch and do my best to describe Jasmina’s wall.

“So you think this all came together at Opus Giovanni?”

I hand her the picture card. “Three of the words, right there. Amethyst and copper might have come from the jewelry section.

“Wait a sec.” Molly flips through her pocketbook and pulls out a business card. “The jeweler: Sue Jacobs. So all these words were stirring around in her brain, and last night she used her painting therapy to work them out.”

“Do you think she’s all right?”

Molly looks up, then down, then up again. “I think we’d better call the police.”


Mama told me to stay away from places with too many people. The sin piles up on itself until it swallows everything up. Now, nothing but houses. I run to the top of the ridge to get away, but when I turn around I see millions of them, all the way to the water. I can’t breathe. Finally, I reach the woods, at the base of a mountain, and I walk into a grove of gigantic trees. I find a trail called “Miwok.” and I like the sound of that. Hours later, I stop in a grove of sharp-smelling trees with gray leaves shaped like crescent moons. I sit on a log next to a creek and I try to piece things together. I woke this morning from a long sleep. An angel left instructions on my wall in wild colors. The room next to mine was full of animals that seemed like humans and a gray devil with alien letters on his forehead. I must get back to Mama. She will be very angry with me. I notice that the log I’m sitting on is one of the gigantic trees. New trees are growing from its carcass, which is either grotesque or beautiful. I see a bank of fog coming in over the ridge. It’s bound to get awfully cold. I set about gathering limbs for a lean-to. Oh God. Please let me be okay.


Paul

I am trying very hard to stay in my logical mind, because the emotional side is a powder keg. I spend my days wandering the shopping districts of Marin County, posting fliers, but I don’t even know if I am entitled to do so. Jasmina’s mental state may be pretty sketchy, but she is an adult, free to go wherever she likes. I only hope she retains enough of her practical skills to stay out of danger.

The weather is a game of hopscotch, five-minute deluges followed by bursts of sunshine. I sit in a corner of the Depot and take infrequent sips of butternut soup. The most alarming of my deprivations is tactile. I long for people to touch me. Last night, a waitress put a hand on my shoulder as she made her way to the next table. It remained there for hours, like a Day-Glo handprint.

I have made a tactical misjudgement. Far across the room, a bulletin board holds two of my fliers. Jasmina stands in a wash of orange light on Gualala Beach, a lock of hair straying to her left cheek. She looks unusually angelic, the smile a surprise, as if I have snuck up on her.

My phone rings. I would love to ignore it. The ID reads Angel.

“Hi Jacob.”

“Hey! Sorry I took so long. Out on the slopes. You ready for those lift tickets?”

“’Fraid not. Wow – I’ll bet you’re getting a shitload of snow.”

“It’s fucking glorious.”

“You like the F-word, don’t you?”

“And you like taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Jesus! You’re right.”

“You’re a goof, man.”

“She’s gone, Jacob. She… disappeared.”

“Oh, wow. Sorry.”

“She might be having an identity crisis. We’re pretty sure she figured out her past. I don’t think there’s any way she could find you, but I figured I should let you know, just in case.”

“Man. I hope she’s all right.”

“Well, considering all that she’s survived already…” My gaze returns to the flier. Gualala. “Hey, umm. I just remembered something she told me, a few days ago. I think she may have abandoned the baby at a hospital in downtown Minneapolis.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. This all sorta comes from a recurring dream – which is not the most reliable of sources, but it seems to fit the logistics. Ruth Elizabeth, right?”

“That’s my daughter. Not that she would know it.”

“God. Missing women everywhere.”

Jacob laughs. “Well, thanks for the info. And seriously, come up here sometime. Skiing is great therapy.”

“You got it, Dad.”

I look outside, where the next deluge is power-washing the patio. I hope to God she’s not out in this.


Jasmina


After a day of regular soakings, I have discovered a small shelter. The walls feature pictures of good-looking people who smile at me as if I have just handed them a plate of  cookies. I have also inherited half a peanut butter sandwich and some crackers. It’s hard to believe that people throw out such things. I feel much better, but I also feel like I should keep moving. I dig out a plastic bottle, fill it with water and am about to take off when I hear a far-off crashing. I follow the sound along a short path and come to a low stone wall. I am standing at the top of a cliff, and looking at a shoreline that I cannot quite believe. It’s as if someone cut a mountain in half and sent its sandy innards tumbling toward the ocean. I move to the left end of the wall and find something even more stunning: a white city, a million houses built on hills. Some of the houses are enormous, rising toward the sky in fantastic shapes: a triangle, a stack of cards, a fire hose. I know that Mama warned me about places like this, but I have already decided: the road back to Cloudburst begins in the white city.


Paul


I know that I am a pathetic figure, but I also know what I need. I step on to the sidewalk and rap on the glass. Javid looks up from his work and comes over to unlock the door.

“Hi Paul.”

“I know you’re closing, but… could I buy some popcorn?”

“No,” he says. “But you can have some popcorn. Butter?”

“Lots.”

He fills a bucket, spends a long time at the butter-pump and grabs a handful of napkins.

“Thanks, Javid.”

“No prob. I… I miss her, too. Well – I better get back to work.”

He slaps me on the shoulder. It stays there like a Day-Glo handprint. I sit in my bed and squash handfuls into my mouth, parsing a late-night talk show for words of wisdom.


Jasmina


The sky has cleared out, but the light from the city obscures the stars. I descend the final hundred yards to the orange bridge, feeling like a knight approaching the dragon’s lair. The first tower rises forever, disappearing into the night sky. I am relieved to find that a person can, in fact, walk across to the white city. I pass beneath the tower without being eaten, and the giant cables slowly sink to my side. I begin to see dark silhouettes, shadows that have escaped their people. They gather at the railing and take turns leaping into the water far below. One of them turns and reaches out to me, an invitation. A black-haired angel appears on the cable and raises her arms, like a queen addressing her subjects. She speaks in a low, calm voice. “These are the shadows of people who were silly, and wasteful, and threw away their lives. Ignore them, and keep walking.” I turn toward the white city.


Paul


We’re playing a party in Sebastapol, in a funky little house on the edge of a vineyard. It’s actually two houses: an aging farmhouse and a slapped-together cottage that serves as the band room. Things with Exit Wonderland have gotten too serious, so we decide to play a bizarro set. We play the surf punk as a stoner reggae, the metal anthem as a disco song, the rockabilly as a polka. Some of the new versions sound better than the old – or perhaps we are just dazzled by our own ingenuity.

Afterward, we head outside to attack the remains of a pot-luck. Sitting at a picnic table, we watch the next band through a picture window. A hip-hop drummer is doing some amazing tricks on my hi-hat as his word-man conjures an impressive run of rhyme and invective. The bass player spends most of his time cracking up.

“They are fucking awesome!”

“And you’re fucking drunk!”

“Molly! What the hell are you doing here?”

The charmed smile. Always the charmed smile. I just want to attack that thing.

“I’m here as your personal assistant. It was great to hear your band.”

“I got news for ya. That wasn’t us.”

“You’ve been doing the Jello shots.”

“And the hash brownies. I am an equal-opportunity dessert consumer.”

“Good thing I brought the camper.”

“So you’re my designated driver?”

“After a good long sleep. The shrink is going to indulge, because the shrink is fucking worn out.”

Even in my altered state I can see the sadness in Molly’s eyes.

“Rough week?”

“Yeah. Lost a patient.”

“That’s too bad.”

“She just… disappeared.” She holds up a fist and opens it, like a magician vanishing a coin.

“You know, Molly? You’re a beautiful woman.”

The next smile falls more in the category of amused. “And you’re drunk.”

I raise a declamatory finger, but succeed only in upsetting our bench, sending us tumbling backward onto the grass. After a lengthy fit of laughter, I open my eyes to a sky that is absolutely crammed with stars. I feel certain that I am supposed to be sad about something, but I am grateful that I don’t remember.


Jasmina


The city is dazzling and terrifying all at once. The buildings scale the hills, and seem to be leaning on one another. I fear they will tumble down and crush me. I keep them at arm’s length by staying to the waterfront, and I take a nap on a park bench. When I awake, I steel myself and I wander onto a street lined with shops and restaurants. The air smells of seafood and candy, and the people chatter in a hundred languages. The crush almost feels comforting, but still I’m relieved when I burst into the broader spaces near the wharves. One of them features a row of colorful banners at its entrance: Pier 39. I walk the gray planks amid jewelry stores and ice cream parlors, and I discover a ride with painted horses circling round and round. Two brown girls are holding onto a white pony and screaming with glee as their mother snaps photos. But I hear something else, too – a howling and bellowing, like the sound of Reverend Matterhorn’s hounds. I take a corridor past a souvenir shop and come to a railing next to the water. Twenty feet away, a wooden island is teeming with oily-looking creatures, flopping around and barking their heads off. The scene is so silly that it sets me into a fit of giggling. “What’s so funny?” someone says, and I say, “Those goofy dogs!” I turn to find a man with lean features and skin as black as obsidian. His smile is blinding. “Those are not dogs, silly girl. They’re sea lions.” “Now what’s more likely to be in the water,” I say, “a dog or a lion?” He lets out a ringing laugh and says, “You make a good point.” He lights a cigarette and stands a little away from me so it won’t blow in my face. “Your skin is incredible,” I say. His face tightens, as if someone has blown smoke at him, but it passes. “You actually mean that, don’t you?” “Well of course!” I say. “Why would I say it if I didn’t mean it?” He chuckles and puts out the cigarette. “Skin is a touchy subject in this country.” “I also like the way you talk – it’s musical.” “Well thank you. I am from Kenya. I am told it’s a pleasing accent. My name is Kumbra.” He extends his hand. “I’m Kelly.” The exchange of names brings an awkward silence. The sea lions jump in the water, all at once. “Well!” I say. “What’s that about?” Kumbra says, “Perhaps they spotted a fish. So pardon me for being blunt, but you are much better-looking than our usual homeless clientele. What brings you here?” The question makes me a little sad. “I’m not really sure. I’m trying to get home to Montana. My mother’s probably worried about me.” Kumbra gives me an all-over look. “Listen, I just had some people from Oklahoma turn up their noses at my best prawns. What the hell does an Oklahoman know about something that comes from the sea? Wait right here.” A minute later, he returns and hands me a paper bag. “I tell you what. I get off in three hours. Let me take you out for a drink, and we’ll see what we can do to get you back to Montana. Please don’t stay here, though. Tell you what. See that tower up there?” “Oh! The firehose?” “Yes. Exactly. Take a nice, easy walk up there, eat your prawns, and perhaps by the time you get back I will be ready for you.” “Okay,” I say. “Thank you, Kumbra.” As I turn to go, Kumbra says, “You have incredible skin, also.” This makes me laugh.


Paul


Interstate 101 is no place to be on a Return Sunday, so Molly takes the back way. My head is throbbing, which makes it easier to monitor my heart rate. We’re passing a farm with a long row of eucalyptus when Molly decides to talk.

“I feel responsible for this.”

“Hey, nobody forced me to take those Jello shots.”

“I pushed her too hard. I should have been more careful.”

“Oh nonsense. You only went forward when she forced the issue. Wherever she is, she’s not injuring herself, and that’s because of you. Nobody could predict a random convergence of words in an art gallery.”

She clicks her tongue. “Opus fucking Giovanni.”

This makes me laugh, which makes my headache worse.

“Regardless,” she says, then seems to lose her thought. She tries again. “Regardless, I am part of this disaster, and I intend to do whatever I can to help you with this.”

“Be a friend.”

She looks at me, then back at the road. “Are we friends?”

“We’re sharing a hangover. We’re both in love with Jasmina.”

“I’m not supposed to be…”

“Who can help being in love with Jasmina?”

Pause. Pause. “And I’m not implying that you’re a lesbian.”

Molly laughs, a single open-mouthed yap. “Thank you for that.”


Jasmina

Kumbra drives us away from the white city on a bridge so long that it must rest at an island before continuing on. When we arrive at his apartment, I find that I am almost too tired to walk. Kumbra tugs on a couch and turns it into a bed. Mama warned me about this kind of dark magic, but I am too tired to resist. When I open my eyes, the curtains are fat with light; I peek through them and see the white city across the water. Kumbra serves me a breakfast of eggs and a pastry he calls kwa-saunt. Afterwards, I take a shower and join him on a hike along the water. The trail forms a capital C, taking us to the end of a long jetty that looks back at Kumbra’s apartment. He puts a hand on my neck and rubs. It feels wonderful. “I hope you are feeling better,” he says. “You were very tired.” “Yes, I was. It’s been a long and puzzling journey.” “Where did you start?” he asks. “I’m not sure. There was a long trail through the giant trees, and then I had to cross the orange bridge.” Kumbra’s eyes grow wide. “You are a wonder.” A speedboat crosses the water in front of us, a father and son, yelling with glee. “This is an incredible spot,” I say. “I feel like we have walked into the middle of the water. Like Jesus.” Kumbra answers quietly. “I knew you would like it. I come here to clear my thoughts. But now, I have to get back.” We return along the jetty and pause at an island peppered with rocks and spindly-looking trees. “I am going to give you some money,” says Kumbra. “Did you notice the long brick building behind my apartment?” “Yes.” “It’s an international marketplace. Go there and buy some lunch – I recommend the Vietnamese place – and then walk to the very end. There you will see a store called Goodwill.” “Goodwill to men!” I say. “Exactly. And inexpensive clothing. Used clothing, but they clean everything. I want you to buy three outfits, and get something for all kinds of weather.” I’m so struck by his generosity that I can say only “Okay.” A tall white bird stands on one foot in the water, looking for food.


Paul


Exit Wonderland has been in a bit of an exile. With his girlfriend and her children moving into the household, Smeeed saw the need for a hideaway, and booted our equipment out of the garage so he could make some renovations. After a month without rehearsals, I march in with my bass drum to find a vastly different space. The cluttered shelves are gone, making room for large photo collages and a comfy futon sofa. The southwest corner plays host to a computer center, a wooden desk resembling the bridge of a spaceship. Most alarmingly, the rugs are utterly clean.

Smeeed comes in behind me and says, “Here, I’ll take that.”

“Oh you will, will you?” He takes my six-pack and sorts the bottles into a mini-fridge. “My God, man, do you realize what you’ve done?”

He gives me an amused look. “Not really.”

“You’ve created the ultimate man-cave. Complete with its own rock band. I have half a mind to call Sunset magazine and have them do a feature.”

“Why not Rolling Stone?”

We revert to our usual preparations. Smeeed sets up monitors and mic stands as I perform the endless back-and-forths of drum delivery. Once I’ve got all the parts, I begin the process of sorting them into a playable feng shui.

Smeeed folds out the keyboard stand, an X-wing affair. “Any news on missing persons?”

“Nope. Given that she’s an adult, and we’re not related, the powers that be cannot really force the issue. Never mind that she may not know who she is.”

“Rough.”

“Yeah.” I set my ride cymbal into place and cap it with a wing nut. “I sometimes think this isn’t a brain thing. Maybe I was just here to give Jasmina her memory back. And now she’s on her merry way. Maybe I’m not that important to her.”

“Nope.”

I wait for more. Smeeed checks the levels on his soundboard.

“That’s all? ‘Nope?’”

“Nope, you’re wrong. I’ve been around you two. I have observed the vibe. Something strong there, something gravitational. Same thing as me and my lady.”

“I think it’s hilarious that you call her ‘my lady.’”

“Considering the benefits, I’m willing to suffer the ridicule.”

The door swings open, followed by two dachsunds, straining at their leashes. “Don’t worry,” says Pamela. “Just giving them a tour of the yard before I lock them in the truck.”

“No more dachsunds?” I ask.

Smeeed waves a hand. “Clean rugs.”

Pamela pulls her charges toward the yard. Jasper nearly chokes himself, looking back at all that virgin territory.


Jasmina


The lights of the white city fill Kumbra’s window like a magic trick. He tells me this is San Francisco, which surprises me. Rev. Matterhorn always held up San Francisco as the modern Sodom. I used to picture a city of demons, flames licking at the sewer grates, sinners running down the streets, naked, killing people at random. I am equally dazzled by Kumbra’s television, which seems to contain a separate channel for every possible human desire. In the presence of such a device, how would a person get anything done at all? But the wait is long. Kumbra has the dinner shift, and though I try very hard, I am unable to stay awake. Deep into the night, I am roused by Kumbra’s hand on my shoulder. He looks tired, but he is still handsome. “Kelly, I am sorry to wake you, but I have news. Did you buy your clothes?” “Yes,” I say. “Good. Very good. I have something for you. Scoot your legs.” I shift to the side, and he lifts a suitcase onto the futon. “What’s that for?” Kumbra smiles. “It goes with this.” He hands me an envelope and turns on the lights. “What’s an Amtrak?” I say. He laughs. “You are, at this very moment, three blocks from the western hub of a train called the California Zephyr. This train will take you to Salt Lake City, after which another train will take you to Great Falls. And you will use this to feed yourself.” He hands me a wad of bills. I am barely awake and shocked. Kumbra gets up from the futon. “Now! To celebrate your voyage, I have purloined some fine swordfish from my restaurant, as well as some excellent Italian wine.” We eat and drink and laugh, but I don’t feel entirely comfortable. Eventually, with the help of the wine, it bursts out of me. “Why, Kumbra? Why have you done this for me?” He takes my hand and gives me a serious look. “An entire village labored and sacrificed to send me to the culinary academy, and to allow me to work in this paradise. I send them money, but it is never enough to express my gratitude. So when I meet a beautiful girl who wants to go home – and believe me, I know what it is to be homesick – perhaps I will help her, and perhaps in this way my debt will feel less burdensome. I give this gift freely, Kelly. Do me the favor of accepting it.” I am overwhelmed. I kiss Kumbra on the cheek. “I once had a friend named Jacob. He and I played a game that gave us much pleasure. I wonder… if you would play it with me?” Kumbra looks entirely amused. “Why would I ever say no?” “Good,” I say. “Come with me.”


Jasmina


After four hours of too many people and not enough space, I have discovered a sanctuary, a café under the viewing car. I am closer to the rails, and I have my own window. We’re climbing long hills through a tunnel of trees. I spot a lone patch of snow, and a swingset – someone’s backyard! How odd that must be, having folks from all over the country careening past your fence. Kumbra knelt forward, his head to the floor. I thought he might be sick. “Kumbra?” He held up a hand and whispered something to a small rug. Then he lifted his head and smiled. “Sorry. I am not a devout man, but I promised my mother I would keep up with my prayers.” I snickered. “That’s a funny way to pray.” “Not at all,” he said. “But I do admit, it is often difficult to locate Mecca. I wonder if they make a GPS for that? Well! We had better get you going.” I was grateful for Kumbra’s chattiness, because I was trying to hide the fact that I was horrified. I shared a bed with a Muslim. If my mother ever found out… But Kumbra is so kind. Perhaps he is not really Muslim. Perhaps he is mistaken. I sip my coffee – coffee purchased with Muslim money – and I feel more confused than ever.


Paul


I am perched on a footstool in the philosophy section, sorting through some new arrivals, when I hear a ruckus outside, followed by loud footsteps. I stand to find a man in quasi-military dress: black ballcap, boots, flak jacket. He holds a large black weapon with all manner of spidery attachments. I have only seen such a thing in really bad movies. My first thought is that the Christian Right has decided to take me out.

“Sir! Please stay where you are and put your hands on your head!”

Nope. The Christians would not be that polite. The clean-cut muscleface, mouth like a mail slot: pure cop. Two more muscleheads bang their way in. One of them turns and I see the letters on his shirt: DEA.

“Sir!” Mail-slot. “Is there anyone else in the store?”

I shake my head.

“Are you the proprietor?”

“Y-yes.”

His partner comes over and gives me a pat-down that borders on molestation. The third guy paces the perimeter, waving his gun toward phantom cartels.

“Okay,” says molester. He’s Asian, broad-faced, his brows two perfectly trimmed hyphens. “We have reports that you have cannabis plants on the property. Please lead us to them, and please do so without making any sudden moves. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”


Jasmina


I report to the dining car and find that I will be seated at a table with three strangers. If I were not so terribly hungry, I would turn right around. The waiter seats me next to a teenage girl plugged into some kind of music player. But the elderly folks across from me seem more than eager to talk. The lady smiles at me with perfect artificial teeth and says, “I’m Irma. This is my husband Sal.” “Hi. I’m Kelly.” The girl says “Cecily,” which surprises us all. Irma scans the menu and then gets back to me. “Where are you from, Kelly?” “Um, Montana.” “Oh! So you’re returning home?” “Yes, I was… visiting San Francisco.” Irma’s eyes light up. “Isn’t it a lovely city? We had so much fun. Of course, Sal saw it as one big lunch bucket.” Sal pats his belly. “Some of the best damn food I ever tasted.” I smile and give a little laugh. Perhaps this is survivable. They’re a talky couple. I will smile and say “gosh” and volunteer nothing about my shameless Muslim fraternizing. Why is it that I can drift into sin without even trying? It’s not fair. Sal and Irma are conferring on some technical matter, so I take a look outside. We’re on a long plain of high desert scrub, swales of snow like patches on a cow. A big plume of dust, a truck, perpendicular to the train. I grab onto Cecily, I grab onto the table.


Paul


I imagine the supervisor talking to the painter. “Gray. Grayer than gray. If someone arrives here in a depression, I want them to leave suicidal.”

That would explain the walls, at least. I’m a little fuzzy about my location, but I do know that the drive was a half-hour. The door clicks open and in comes Eva, her hair frazzled into a semi-Mohawk. The next character is a short, bald man whose suit matches the walls. I stand to accept Eva’s hug.

“Paulie! God, I am so sorry about this. This is Stan Gardner. He’s from the Marijuana Legalization Board. He’s taking up our case.”

I take Stan’s handshake and laugh. “No offense, but you don’t really look like a pothead.”

Stan is determined to stay serious. “Never touch the stuff. That’s kind of the point. It’s not about getting high. It’s about rights.”

“Excellent.”

We sit at a small table. Stan sorts his way through a sheaf of papers. “So let me get this straight,” he says. “They came in armed.”

“Check.”

“Did they point the weapons at you?”

“Not aimed, really. Brandished.”

“Searched you? Cuffed you?”

“Yes. Both.”

“Miranda rights.”

“Yes.”

He checks the sheet on top. “Warrants check out. They confiscated all the plants.”

“Jesus. So excuse my language, Stan, but what the fuck?”

“Same old shit. The feds have been screwing with medical marijuana ever since our wise citizenry okayed it. Our little Green Enlightenment is threatening a lot of jobs at the War on Drugs, so every once in a while they stomp on a local grower. The difference in this case is the weaponry. I’m fairly certain they scared the shit out of you, and they also put your life in danger. Imagine if you had been holding a pricing gun.”

I like Stan. He talks like a non-lawyer.

He stuffs his papers into a worn-out satchel. “We’re getting you released right now. You will likely face a court date – in two to three months – and we will be there to help you with whatever bullshit charges they come up with. And here’s the really annoying part: you can’t go home. They’ve sealed off your store.” Stan folds his arms across his chest and gives me a long study. “Paul, you strike me as a very calm hellion. Would you be comfortable going public about this? Talking to some media?”

I place my hands on the table. “Just point me to a fucking microphone.”

It turns out that Stan knows how to smile.


Jasmina


My flight comes to a halt when my face hits the table. The sounds go on forever: squeals, explosions, shouts, percussion of flying objects. I touch my forehead and come away with blood. I turn carefully and find Cecily with a cut lip. She’s conscious. I whisper to her, only I’m shouting. “Get out of the train! Cecily! That exit, there!” I point to the red letters, two tables down. She nods and disappears. I find Irma on the floor, crouched on a scattering of smashed plates. I take her by an elbow and help her to her feet. The car is filled with similar scenes, people moving like zombies, food and silverware, ripped clothing. A moan, agitated chatter. Smoke. “Irma! Can you make it to the exit?” She nods. Her dentures are gone. I see flames. Irma stops at the stairs. “Sal! Where’s Sal?” Sal’s in his seat, head back, unconscious. I wave Irma off. “Don’t worry, I’ve got him.” There’s a redheaded man in the booth behind us, writhing. He’s gripping his leg, which is bent at an unnatural angle. I try not to look. “Help! Help here!” A black waiter, broad-shouldered, jogs over to carry him away. I give Sal a slap. “Sal!” Nothing. I can feel the waves of heat from the car in front of us. I’m choking. I have to do this. I grab Sal by an arm and a leg and slide him from the booth. He lands on the floor with a sloppy thud. I spin him around, put a hand under each arm and pull him through the refuse, then down the stairs, his poor old butt bouncing on each step. By the time we reach the exit my arms feel like rubber bands, so I lock my hands around his chest and fall backwards. We land in a pile and keep going, down the dusty soil of the embankment. I come to a stop in a tumbleweed. I can hear Irma bending over Sal, saying hopeful things. When I open my eyes, the engine and the truck are no longer there, just a pile of metal and rock, followed by two cars lying on their sides. The sky fills with black.


Paul

I awake to Jasmina’s hieroglyphics. Matterhorn. Amethyst. Perhaps a wise man would paint it over, accelerate the process of forgetting. Problem being, it’s a work of art. To cover it would be a crime.

I take a shower next to a sea dragon mosaic, dry off next to a Mexican mask and a nude sketch. Fortunately, I have left enough clothing here over the months to assemble an outfit: blue jeans, a plaid shirt. I follow the sound of a British baritone to the studio, where Anna is listening to an audiobook mystery. Something in the kiln room distracts me: four oversized paintings, of a large white-haired man in a hospital bed, tubes and bandages attached to his face and arms. The British baritone goes silent. Anna stands in the passageway, next to a golden eagle, a smear of claydust on her neck.

“Oh!” I say. “Hi. I’m sorry.”

“For looking at my paintings? That’s sort of the point of painting them.”

“Sure. Is this your husband?”

“Yes. Dick.”

“How long has it…”

“Ten years.” She puts her hands on her hips and gives the paintings a fresh study. “People get a little freaked out by these. They feel a need to rationalize them, so they ask me about catharsis. ‘Was it therapeutic?’”

She stops to brush a cobweb from Dick’s face.

“So what do you tell them?”

Art is therapeutic. I’ve conducted a couple dozen seminars with just that in mind: cancer patients, troubled teens, inmates. But that’s not really the answer. Art is the way that I process the world. So when your husband is dying, you pick up a brush.”

I take another look at the faces of Dick and I feel better. “Thanks again for…”

“Okay, here’s the deal,” she says. “You need to stop thanking me. You’re wearing me out. But I will put you to work. I’ve got some junk in the backyard that needs to be hauled to the dump. Jasmina’s good at a lot of things, but she was never much for lifting heavy objects. But first, have some breakfast. I have a cormorant beak that needs adjusting.”

“Okay.”

She heads for the studio but stops at the eagle to deliver a declaration. “She’s coming back, Paul. She’s out there somewhere, putting pieces together. But she will be back.”


Jasmina


I have inherited a family. Cecily’s lip took seven stitches. She refused medication, choosing instead to squeeze my hand whenever the pain hits a peak. Irma is asleep on my shoulder, her gums giving her snoring  an extra turbulence. The scrape on my forehead is superficial, but my arms ache from my superhuman endeavors. I am staring at a poster for something called a pap smear when I am interrupted by a Latina with lips that you could use as throw pillows. She motions for me to wake Irma. I give her a shake and she immediately covers her mouth. “Hello,” says Latina. “Mrs. Patterakis?” Irma mumbles back: “Yeth?” “I’m Dr. Salazar. I wanted to give you a quick update. Your husband has suffered a fairly serious concussion, so we do want to keep him overnight, but you should be able to pick him up tomorrow morning. He’ll continue to have headaches for a couple weeks. Oh, and he has a few contusions on his buttocks, as well, so sitting might be an issue.” Irma nods. “Take care,” says the doctor, and walks away. I put a hand to my forehead. “I am so sorry.” “Why?” says Irma. “I… manhandled your husband.” “Oh by Gaw!” says Cecily. “Ah you bugging gidding be? You burr awethub! You burr lige bugging Thupahwoman!” Irma looks away, her eyes filling with tears. “It wath like God wathn’t ready for Thal to go yet, tho he thent you to thave him.”

“No! Two babies were killed on that sleeper car. I will not believe that God would be that cruel. No predetermination. No supernatural intervention. Maybe Deism, maybe the Hobbesean view. A Creator sets the world into motion like balls on a billiard table. The rest is free will and dumb luck. But I will not have God killing babies!”

I seem to be standing. My family is staring at me. What the hell am I talking about?

“And you two really need to work on your enunciation!”
           
Cecily’s reaction comes in the form of a waltz: two giggles, one ow! two giggles, one ow! Irma is a storm of flapping and snorting. I sit down and join them until my abdomen aches.


            Jasmina


            I’m having a hard time getting out of bed. The fake wood paneling is so familiar. I can’t stop staring at it.

“Yo, shleepyhead! You had better get down here and give me a hug.”

I scuttle around so my head hangs over the bedside. “Cheyenne? Already?”

“Yep. Drove all night. Thanksh to the inshomniac here.”

Justin sits at the fold-out table, looking proud but bleary. I perform several yoga positions in my effort to escape the overhang. I grab Cecily and hold on like we’re dangling from a parachute. “You are going to keep in touch with me, young lady.”

“Hey, you’re the one with no number. Addressh. Email. Et shetera.”

“Yeah. Okay. Soon as I get one of those.”

She smiles, as much as her stitches will allow. “I wazh thinking about the nexsht time I hear the phrase ‘train wreck.’ ‘Wow, that movie was a train wreck.’ Oh no it wazhn’t!” She kisses me on the cheek. “Thanksh for being Shuperwoman. Shweetie.”

“Anytime. Take care, honey.”

She and Justin leave the camper. I watch from the table as she heads for a payphone across the street. In the distance, I can see a set of barren mountains dusted with snow. A minute later, Justin raps on the door. “Hey! You want to ride up front with me?”

“You’re going to keep driving?”

“Sure! Don’t worry. I’ll know when to stop.”

I’m not buying it. Justin keeps rubbing his eyes, holding the wheel at arm’s length, trying to focus. As we cruise the center of Casper, I begin to think this is my last chance to get him off the road.

“Tell you what. I’ve got some spending cash. Let’s check in at a motel. I would love to get a shower.”

He casts me a sharp look, blonde curls piled up on his head like a young Jerry Lee Lewis. “Nonsense. I’m fine. I’m a Colorado kid, born with a steering wheel in my hands.

“Justin! I see how tired you are. How would your grandpa feel if the woman who saved his life perished in a fiery auto crash?”

He laughs and speaks to me through the rear-view mirror. “Don’t worry! I’ve got slumber indicators wired into my nervous system.”

I do not like the results I’m getting. I also don’t like the look of the stormclouds gathering on our northern horizon. Justin turns left onto Highway 20. We’re climbing a hill toward pine trees and snow. The last piece of civilization is a Motel 6.

“What if you took a shower with me?”

He glances in the rear-view, sea-green eyes rimmed with red.

“Yes. I actually said that. Now stop.”

Justin hits the brakes and pulls into the parking lot.

“You’re not a… Muslim, are you?”


Paul


I have recruited Molly for video duty, an all-ages club in San Jose. My bandmates are a little skittish about the young audience, but a number of pleasant circumstances swing in our favor. We’re opening for a high school band that has managed to pack the place, and the kids seem genuinely excited to see a “real” adult band.

Afterwards, we settle into the biergarten with some Finnish rockers. The guitarist compliments my snare work, which is just specific enough to seem sincere. Molly appears with my video camera and two ice-cold ales.

“Oh! You are too awesome.”

She smiles. “Yes I am. But I guess you noticed the problem with that table you saved me.”

“I believe I was directly behind Pamela. That’s all right – she’s our eye candy.”

Molly squeezes onto the bench next to a bass amp. “Speaking of disappearing, where did you go after the second song?”

“Ha! Bass pedal came completely off. I asked Pamela to stall for me, so she did the intros.”

“Sharp!”

“You don’t know the half of what goes on up there.”

I take a big swig of Bass ale. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was. “You seem more… girly than usual.”

She swings her pony tail. “Extensions.”

“No! How beautifully artificial of you.”

“Thanks. I’m trying to become more shallow. Hanging out with celebrities…”

“Who?”

“You.”

“One news report does not…”

“Oh stop right there. You have found your true vocation, laddie. You were eloquent, you were smart – but without seeming smarmy. It was really turning me on. And you made that guy from the DEA look like a total jackass. Where did you get this? Where did this come from?”

She jabs at my ribs. I grab her hands.

“Seriously? You want to know?”

“Yes.”

“Ever been tried as a heretic?”

“Not counting family Thanksgiving?”

“You are automatically guilty. They know all about your blasphemies, and their job is to guarantee your reservations in hell. To take away your wife, your family, every friend you’ve ever had – to wipe you from the face of the Earth. You, meanwhile, think that you have an actual chance, so you sit there for hours as a bunch of old white men who wouldn’t know their scrotums from Saskatchewan shovel on truckload after truckload of theological hate. Even for a purely rational being, who understands the bullshit soon after escaping it, it takes years, decades to scrape all that condemnation off your skin.”

Molly just looks at me. “Jesus. I guess I never really understood what they put you through.”

“Well. Here’s the good part. Shit like that makes you strong. By comparison, the court of public opinion is a breeze. This time, I know I’m right, and I’m operating in a county where much of the adult population indulges in the evil weed.”

“You go!”

“Also, it’s a damn good way to distract myself from other recent events.”

The Finnish guitarist pulls out an instrument in the shape of a crescent moon and heads for the entrance.

“How cool is that?” I say. “Let’s check ‘em out.”


Jasmina


I hope someday I get to see Wyoming, because right now it’s nothing but a white sheet. Even with four-wheel drive and snow tires, Justin’s truck is sliding around like a drunken skier. Every few minutes, a Wyoming-plated car passes at twice our speed. I suspect some native secret until I see three of them at various spots in the fields, being attended to by tow trucks and patrol cars.

My general anxiety is not being helped by last night’s dream. Justin and I were playing the game on a flat cart, the kind you see at a hardware store. In fact, we were in a hardware store, and the checkout lady was my mother. She aimed her scanner at my rear-end, but it wouldn’t read, so she got on the P.A. “Price check, aisle three, fornicators?” A young Mexican guy ran up to my mother with the amount, Justin handed her a credit card, and we rolled toward the doors. They slid open, and we disappeared in a flash of orange flames.

Sex. The game was sex. This was the reason my mother beat me, and yelled at me, and damned me to hell.

Justin stops the truck and sets the brake. “I gotta admit, this is one hell of a drive. I’ll be right back.”

He clambers onto the hood and hacks at the windshield with a plastic scraper. It’s not a complete job, but he has managed to open up a few peepholes. A few miles later, we’re greeted by the lights of a gas station. After a restroom stop, I find Justin scanning twenty-three varieties of motor oil.

“Look,” he says. “The guy says that this storm will pass in an hour or two. I was thinking maybe we could wait it out. Go in the back, take a nap. Maybe… play the game?”

He’s such a sweet kid, and he’s working so hard to get me home. There’s got to be a way of telling him without hurting his feelings. I start by giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“I’m awfully sorry, but I just got my period.”

His face deflates. “Oh. Well. Nothing we can do.”

I can’t stand that look. I spot something across the aisle.

“Maybe there’s something else we can do.” I hand him a jar of petroleum jelly. His face turns red, which is so cute I can’t stand it.


Paul


This pot thing is getting a little crazy. Today I’ve got a radio appearance, followed by a showing of Reefer Madness in Berkeley. I suppose you’d say I’m the emcee. I’m giving a little talk about the history, how it started as a propaganda film and became one of the most popular unintentional comedies of all time. Especially the part about marijuana leading to spontaneous acts of violence. Hilarious!

But I’ve got to wonder, what’s next? Dress as a cannabis leaf for the Hemp Festival? Cut the ribbon on a new head shop? Look! Up in the smoke – it’s Reeferman!

I’d like to know that this isn’t just an escape valve – some white noise to drown out my darker resonations. Take away all this hubbub and I am cryogenically frozen. If I knew that Jasmina had forsaken – was even capable of forsaking me – maybe then I could get on with things. Maybe I could go out with Molly. But then, Molly’s in the same boat, bound by ethics to keep our friendship at a safe level.

Stan the lawyer got me my home back. I might have been better off at Hieroglyphics Hall. I spend the late evenings at my window, staring across the street, expecting any moment to see her at the counter.


Jasmina


There’s a man in my head, like a tiny jockey on a very large horse. He’s a nice man – peaceful, calm, intelligent. Almost Jesus-like. But he tells me there’s no God. How can such a nice man say something like that? I shoo him away like a gnat.

Justin drives me all around Great Falls, buying me things with money from Grandma Irma. Mostly camping supplies: a small tent, a sleeping bag, lots of dried fruit and nuts. I get the feeling that he doesn’t believe in Cloudburst. He thinks that he’s dropping me in the middle of the wilderness.

I’m very grateful for his truck. The twenty-mile road is worse than ever, muddy with slush and snowmelt, pockmarked with holes and ruts. When the trip meter hits 15, though, I’m very insistent. Strangers are not welcome at Cloudburst, and I’m already in enough trouble without bringing in an Outlander. I’m already bracing myself for a horrendous beating. Why did my mother beat me for doing something I didn’t understand? Why did God punish Adam and Eve? How can someone be born with sin? That’s ridiculous.

“Are you ready?”

I smile. Such a sweet boy. “Thanks to you, I’m ready for just about anything.”

“I’m under orders.”

I give Justin a long kiss, hop from the cab and hitch my pack around my shoulders. He pulls the truck into a three-point turn, and I wait till he disappears around the bend before I start my trek.

I’m on the final stretch of the plateau, the road rising into a spread of sagebrush marked with patches of snow. The air is filled with light, and a hundred tiny smells from my childhood. Judging from my body, I seem to be no longer in my childhood, but I don’t know how I got here. I near the top of the rise and the earth begins to change: early shoots of wildgrass, blue wildflowers, a straggly pine. I feel the cold air snapping my lungs, opening things up. My pace quickens.

The road begins a steady back-and-forth into the foothills. The snowdrifts grow deeper. I spot a small coyote next to an outcropping of gray rocks, keeping an eye on me. He reminds me of Justin. The pines grow thick at the roadsides, and I know I am nearing the brink. I come to a hairpin turn. As it straightens back out I am greeted by the hidden valley of Cloudburst: the neat rows of cottages, the modest white steeple, the stream we call Jordan running along the northern edge.

As I descend the final switchbacks, I catch glimpses of the valley floor. The snow lies thick and barely disturbed. The cottages are unkempt, paint peeling from the walls, yards scattered with scraps of lumber. And I don’t see smoke anywhere. The road takes me around to the stream, which is pushing at its banks with snowmelt. A hundred feet further, I spot a familiar elm and a sign with the name of the cottage: EZEKIEL.

It looks like a ghost house. I open the door and creep in like a burglar. It is absolutely bare. The only signs are a stove bearing a broken handle and the striped purple-and-silver wallpaper. I know it’s a stupid thing to do, but I call out for Mama. No one answers. I come to the basement door and find that I am frozen in place. I stand there for a long time, and then I hear the small miracle of footsteps.

I wipe a circle in the window-dust and find a man walking along the stream. He wears a gray striped suit, the kind you would wear for church, marked with patches of dirt. He holds a shotgun, a pair of rabbits looped over his shoulder, and is whistling a tune that I recognize, an old hymn called “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”

I race out the door, and immediately I realize my mistake: never surprise a man holding a shotgun. But Rev. Sam just turns and smiles. His thick hair and mustache have silvered, but he is as handsome and well-groomed as ever.

“Well! Who do we have here?”

I step slowly onto the walk. “Kelly,” I say. “Kelly Copper.”

“No!” Rev. Sam sets down his shotgun and rabbits and walks toward me. He looks me up and down and smiles, then takes me by the waist and lifts me up. It’s like a dream. Like heaven.

“Little Kelly Copper! You have become a grown-up, beautiful woman. What brings you to Cloudburst?”

He sets me down. I’m breathless.

“I… I wanted to come home. I thought Mama must be wondering where I am. Is she here?”

Rev. Sam smiles a little harder. “No. She’s away. For just a while. Why don’t you come to the church and I’ll make you some dinner? You must be famished!”

“Yes, I am.”

I follow Rev. Sam’s footsteps into the snow. The rabbits swing along his back, leaving trails of blood on his jacket.


Jasmina


Our dinner is fairly amazing. Rev. Sam rubs the rabbits with sage and pepper, wraps them in bay leaves and cooks them in a covered pan over the woodstove. Once we unwrap th leaves, the meat is moist and savory. On the side, we have sliced apples, canned by the good ladies of Cloudburst, with a touch of nutmeg and cinnamon. We eat in the pastor’s study, where Rev. Sam has converted his big walnut desk to a dining table. The wall opposite my seat features a painting of the valley in rich autumn colors, done by Isadora Hampstead. Isadora was a strange bird, walking laps around the cottages as she talked to herself and fiddled with her hair. But she certainly had a way with a brush; the golds of the aspen next to the church seem to flutter in the breeze.

Rev. Sam wears a moss-green suit with a silver vest, in much better condition than his hunting outfit but hanging a little loose on his frame. He eats with great concentration, but once he’s done he wipes his mustache and sets to reminiscing.

“A pastor is not supposed to have favorites, Kelly, but your Thursday Bible tutorial was the highlight of my week. You were such a radiant child. And sharp, too. Intellect and optimism are rare partners. And you had such interesting questions. You tested me – forced me to take even the most familiar parables and re-think them. The Prodigal Son bothered you greatly – you couldn’t stand the injustice. And here you are, the prodigal daughter. Forgive me for not serving a fatted calf.”

Rev. Sam laughs and takes a draught of water. I stare at my half-finished rabbit. I am unaccustomed to such large amounts, but I sense that I should eat while I can.

“Reverend…”

“Please. Call me Sam. You’re an adult now.”

“Sam.” The name feels strange, and short. “Where is… everybody?”

Sam crosses his legs and settles his chin into the cup of his hand. “The calling of a prophet is not purely a calling. At some point you have to determine whether you are up to declaring a grand vision. And prepared for the possibility that your vision will be rejected.”

“But it… It seemed like everyone was with you! It seemed so solid. What happened?”

Sam clears his throat. “Well. Lots of things. It’s a little hard to explain. The founding members began to die off, and the younger folks… With the increasing powers of technology, it was very difficult to ward off the influence of the outside world.”

“It’s just so disappointing. There were so many people I thought I would see again.”

“I’m very sorry, child. Believe me, my own disappointment is tenfold. Mostly in myself. If only I had expressed my vision more powerfully.”

“Oh but you did! I loved your sermons. You’re a wonderful orator, and your biblical knowledge is superb.”

Sam smiles and covers his mouth, as if he’s embarrassed to be enjoying my flattery. He drums his fingers on the desk and gives me a studied look.

“Kelly, I… I need to show you something. Please put on your coat.”

Sam picks up a lantern and takes me outside, where the cold air turns our breaths into long trains of steam. We cut a path between the twin lines of the cottages and come to the sacred garden, centered on a boulder supporting a white cross. Rev. Sam used to hold special bible classes here, or awards ceremonies. I’m assuming he has some homily to relate, one that requires an outdoor setting, but I’m wrong. He continues up a narrow path, into a clearing surrounded by pine trees and a low stone wall. Sam studies the geography of the place, then proceeds to a drift of snow near the center. A minute of digging reveals a slab of granite. He brushes away the remaining crystals.

I remember words from a play: Are these the shadows of the things that will be? I drop to my knees and read the rest: the dates, Blessed of God, Mother to Her Beloved Kelly. The blood rises through my body, pushing out tears. Rev. Sam draws me in. His jacket smells of woodsmoke.

We remain in the snow for a long time, but finally Rev. Sam kisses me on the forehead and pulls me to my feet. We walk along the swollen creek, the water flashing in the lantern-light, and return to the church. Sam settles me into a leather armchair and goes to make some tea. My eyes drift over the walls, an old drawing of Jesus walking on the water, a shelf of red books, Isadora’s painting. I feel the blood rising once more, only now it has no place to go. It presses against my skull, an intolerable, boiling anxiety. I can’t breathe. When I stand from the chair, I feel woozy and stagger forward, bracing myself on the desk. I’m reaching for a drink of water when I see the steak knife.

I hold the tip to my arm. The skin presses down. I can feel it already, the rush of blood, the release. It’s like the game, when the man explodes inside of me. I hear footsteps, and the crash of a teacup.

“Kelly! No!” Rev. Sam grabs my wrist. “My Lord, child, what are you…”

He stops when he sees the first stairstep. He runs a finger over the rise in the skin, then he rolls the sleeve up to my elbow. He takes my hands and looks at me with wide eyes.

“My God, Kelly. What would your mother think?”

I hear it in my mind but I do not say it: She would have done it for me.


Paul


I’m speaking on a panel in San Francisco. Alternative medicine. They ought to call it Quackapalooza. Acupuncture, which has never been proven to do anything. Nutritional supplements, which are completely unregulated, and thereby scare the hell out of me. And homeopathy, which is just an out-and-out scam. In this kind of company, marijuana looks downright establishment. Thanks to the feds’ refusal to allow testing on it for most of the 20th century, pot’s effects remain largely anecdotal, but given such an enormous sample size, its benefits in the areas of pain management and appetite are pretty freakin’ obvious. Still, I try to be a good colleague and not roll my eyes while the other panelists are talking.

We are ensconced in one of those old hotels that got a little swallowed up by surrounding buildings. The place offers the kind of intimate, old-world charms not found in its skyscraper neighbors. We meet in a catacombish conference room before an audience of spectacled academics and aging hippies. The great exception is a woman in the second row who literally towers above the rest, whose frosted blonde hair and green eyes are doing a number on my powers of concentration. So far, she has been responsible for three ums, two ahs and one ahem. I fear I am beginning to look like an amateur.

After a round of elbow-rubbing in the foyer, I head down the street to a place called Major Tom’s, where my panelist badge gets me a fifty percent discount. It’s a buffet-style sports bar, high wood-paneled walls, 27 televisions. The food is comfort-style American, and I cannot resist a slab of sauced-up homestyle meatloaf. I succeed in finding a small table near the back and am about to dig in when the tall blonde sits across from me. Apparently, Reeferman has acquired the power of conjuring supermodels.

“Hi.” She takes a sip of iced tea and smacks her lips. She’s wearing a cream-colored blouse that reveals trace amounts of bra and cleavage.

“Um… hi.”

“Hi.” She smiles expectantly.

I clear my throat. “Ahem! I think we covered that. Are you here for the, uh, conference?”

“I’m here for you.”

I’m about to request a price list when I notice a small scar on her collarbone.

“Callie?”

She smiles.

“You look very much not like a Jehovah’s Witness.”

“I’m not.”

“Excuse me. I’m going to eat a big bite of meatloaf now.” Callie waits patiently as I ruminate.

“Mormon?” I ask. “Lutheran? Presbyterian?”

“Buddhist.”

“No! That’s my least unfavorite religion.”

“I like it.”

“So… what happened?”
           
Callie takes a look sideways. “My mother died.”

“Oh.”

She wipes her eye. “Skin cancer. Godawful, horrible. It ate her from the outside in. It burned her alive. I can no longer accept a God that would intentionally torture a beautiful human being. And I began to ask questions. Which set into motion the same humiliating, dehumanizing process that I once inflicted on my very… dear husband.”

Her eyes crinkle. She tries to smile, but only succeeds in producing more tears.

“Could you… could you ever bring yourself to forgive me?”


I would not suspect my ex-wife of subterfuge, except that the décor seems to match her hair. We are settled in a corner of the hotel lobby, a charming little compartment of Spanish arches and amber bead curtains. We’re drinking Irish coffees.

“I never answered your question.”

“I think I interrupted you with waterworks.”

“The answer is yes. Of course I forgive you. In the classic Mafia sense, you ratted me out, but you also did me an enormous favor. One thing I can’t figure, though. Why did you keep inviting me back? You knew the church wouldn’t take me.”

She smiles. “I wasn’t speaking for the church. I was speaking for me. The impossibility of the real-world situation did not faze me, because I was operating on faith, which is really just the same as stupidity. And God I missed you.”

I’m not yet ready to admit that I missed her. She takes my hand.

“What about now? Can I have you now?”

I have no answer. She takes my finger and sucks it into her mouth. “I have a room in this hotel. And I am not any longer a moral woman.”

Without the semi-arranged marriages of JW, I never would have landed a woman like Callie. And we would not have discovered an extraordinary sexual chemistry. The memory of those volleyball-player legs has me considering her offer.

“How long have you been out?”

“Six months.”

“You’ve come a long way.”

“Answer the question.”

“Live locally?”

“Half Moon Bay. Answer the question.”

I bite a fingernail. “A painful no.”

She lets my hand drop. “I guess I can’t blame you.”

“You got a little time? Can I tell you a story?”

“Some other chick?”

“Some chick whose religious tribulations make ours look like a trip to Disney World.”

“Well. Okay. But I’m gonna need another drink.”

“Wanton Jezebel.”

She shivers. “Man! The old epithets are kinda sexy.”

“You have only begun to discover the joys of secular… well, Buddhist life.”

She waves a hand. “Buddha’s a cover. I’m still not ready to call myself an agnostic. I keep expecting lightning bolts.”

“Yep. It takes a while. But it’s worth the trip. Another Irish?”

“You got it.”


Jasmina

Sam inisted on sleeping with me. He was concerned about the knife incident, and wanted to act as a human shield. The first night, he wore the pants and shirt from his green suit. The second night, I insisted he at least strip down to his long johns. On the third night, I had a visitation from the moon-faced angel, the one who warned me away from the phantoms on the orange bridge. She told me that I should take up painting.

Two weeks later, our sleeping arrangements have become a habit. Sam tells me it helps him to sleep better, knowing that he doesn’t have to worry about my safety. I enjoy having him beside me, his breath rising and falling. He reminds me of my atheist Jesus. When it gets too cold, I wrap his arm around me. Sam scolds me for this, but I don’t think he means it. He’s had too many years of worrying about his public image, and doesn’t seem to realize he no longer has a public.

In the morning, I stoke the fire and place a teapot on the stove (Sam is a veritable addict). I give myself a quick sponge-bath and head for the Sunday-school classroom, where I have cleared the back wall and covered it with white paint. After a thorough search of the art supplies, I found a box of French colored pencils marked with the letters IH – Isadora Hampstead. I begin at the very center, eye-level, with tiny lines, crosshatches and squiggles. They spread from the spot like a puddle. I have no particular aim, but soon my hand produces letters, numbers, punctuation marks, scattering across the wall like moths. The letters begin to congeal into names: Jacob, Amethyst, Matterhorn, Sass, Cloudburst, Throckmorton, Paul, Tamalpais, Sylvia, Depot, Paul, Mill, Wonderland, Javid, Montana, Molly, Paul. Paul. Every time I write Paul, the letters send a buzzing down my arm. Then I write Ruth Elizabeth and I freeze, just the way I froze at my basement door. I take a breath and write it several more times, each in a different color: Ruth Elizabeth, Ruth Elizabeth, Ruth Elizabeth Copper.

Sam drops by, teacup in hand, and marvels at my work. “Child! What a magnificent whirlwind.”

I step back from my work and take his hand. “I like it, too, but some of the words puzzle me.”

“Why? I see biblical names, geography, my name – thank you…”

“You’re welcome.”

“It all seems fairly random, which I assume was your intention.”

“I don’t know if I have an intention, but… I feel like the words are trying to tell me something.”

Sam laughs. “Being words, that is their inclination.”

“Oh! Now you’re making fun of me.”

I return to the wall, to the letters written in gold.

“This one especially. Ruth Elizabeth Copper.”

“Isn’t that your grandmother’s name?”

“I… I never met my grandmother.”

“Which would explain your curiosity. It’s very natural to yearn for heritage. If you want, I’ll look into the church records. But tell me, this painting – and drawing. Has it helped? Do you feel better?”

My face feels hot. But I don’t really want to revisit the knife incident, so I say only, “Yes. Thank you.”

“Could I leave you on your own tomorrow? I had best get to some hunting.”

I look at my shoes. “Yes. I’m over it now.”

“Good.” He comes over to lift my chin and kiss me on the nose. I wish that he would kiss me on the lips.

“I’ll leave you to your work. Michelangelo.”

“Thank you, Sam.”


I dream of letters, W’s with wings, H’s with legs, big hairy Q’s chasing me toward the ocean. I run along the spine of a bald mountain, and I realize too late that half of it has been eaten away. My fall is punctuated by letters: Aaaaaaeeeeeooooo...

I land on Sam’s bed minus Sam, and I experience a brief panic before I remember his hunting trip. His absence makes me feel insufferably alone. I cannot face my wall of mysteries, so I heat up enough water for a lukewarm bath and prepare for a hike.

It’s early April, I think, and the weather has been generous. I take a trail that crosses a meadow behind the church, and I find that the snow has been replaced by a thousand yellow daffodils. I take off my sweater and stuff it into my backpack – the one that Justin bought for me. This makes me think of Irma and Sal, my train-wreck family. My step feels lighter.

The trail rises into a hillside of birches. I stop at a rivulet carved by the snowmelt, and I see a flash of white. I dip a hand into the water and pull out a shaft of cloudy rock, capped by a lopsided pyramid. It’s a crystal. Quartz. My childhood hobby comes flooding back to me. I wash away the sand, burnish it with my shirtsleeve and stow it in my pack, wrapped by the sweater.

The trail climbs onto a small plateau. I pass an outcropping of dull brown rocks marked by coyote scat, then I spy the crown of a sycamore tree, nestled in a swale of clover and mustard. When I enter the clearing, I smell cigarette smoke. A red-haired man. I turn and run.

“Wait! Kelly! It’s Jacob, I… Jasmina!”

The basement door. Ruth Elizabeth. My body is constructed entirely of emergency brakes. I look back, ready to sprint away at a sudden movement.

“Who’s Jasmina?”

“You are. Also Kelly Copper. Childhood friend of Jacob Andergrast.”

I peer at him, the thin build, the rusty hair, the funny stiff set of his mouth.

“Jacob?”

“Yes!”

I pace toward him, close enough to get a better look. He stands perfectly still, like a soldier under inspection.

“What’s the game?” I ask.

He looks down and laughs. “It’s sex. We didn’t know that. We saw two college kids on a motorbike, and we just… did what they did.”

I walk toward him; I stop two feet away. A smile grows across my face, and then his. We meet in a hug.

“Been a long time, Kelly.”


Jacob heats a pot of water over his campfire and stirs in something from a foil packet. The results are surprisingly good.

“They do some amazing things with dehydrated food,” he says. “This is beef stroganoff.”

“Nice.”

He pours a dark liquid into a metal cup and offers it to me. “Wine. Not too strong, but it’ll warm you up a little.”

The clearing has fallen into twilight, and I’m worried about Sam. But Jacob seems to know more about me than I do, so it’s hard to leave. I look up at the branches of the sycamore, showing the slightest hint of budding.

“Is this a special place?”

“This was our hangout. Our refuge. Oh! Speaking of…” He reaches into his pack and pulls out a rough cube of crystal. I laugh and pull out my own.

Jacob smiles. “You are the best quartz-hound in Montana.”

“Pure luck. So where’s the amethyst?”

“I gave it to Paul.”

I give him a look that must be pretty easy to read.

“So. Paul rings a bell.”

“Does he… Does he look like Jesus?”

Jacob squints at the afterglow, performing a mental scan, and chuckles. “Yeah. Kinda. If Jesus went to Berkeley.”

“Um… Berkeley?”

“Kind of nerdy. Spectacles. Skinny. Bookish.”

“How about Jasmina?”

Jacob takes out a cigarette and lights it in the fire. “Look. I am in way over my head. I’m not really sure if I’m supposed to tell you any of this. I’m afraid it’ll freak you out.”

“You’re afraid I’ll cut myself?”

“Well, yeah. For one.”

I grab Jacob’s cigarette and take a drag. He looks surprised.

“My first night here, when I found out my mom died, I was about to… Sam stopped me. Then the moon-faced angel told me to paint, and all these names came up in the pencils. I don’t know what they mean, one of them was Paul, but then Sam went hunting and…”

“Whoa! Slow down, Sister Kelly.” He throws his cigarette into the fire. “Okay. Keep in mind, this is just my understanding of things. You went through a lot of shit as a kid. After you left Cloudburst, you kind of developed this other identity. You called yourself Jasmina, and you told people that your parents were killed in Serbia. By a bomb. The thing is, the story was so good that eventually you believed it yourself, and your original identity, Kelly Copper, disappeared. A couple of years ago, you ended up in California, got a job at a movie theater, and hooked up with a bookstore owner named Paul Debenkof.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I tracked you down. Fliers, websites, that kind of thing.”

“Why?”

“I’m your friend. I always wondered what happened to you.”

I am very close to something, and I fear I will not break through this wall unless I force myself to be rude.

“Bullshit! Do not bullshit me. I will leave right now.”

“All right, all right.” Jacob waves me down and lights another cigarette. He takes three long pulls before going on.

“You had a daughter. Because of the game. When you left Cloudburst, you took her with you.”

The pressure rises to the backs of my eyes. I stand and rub at a spot on my forehead.

“Ruth Elizabeth.”

“She was christened here, in church. The next week, you were gone.”

My nativity dream. The package. The sliding glass doors.

“I’m really sorry, Kelly. If I had known what was going on…”

“I abandoned her. How could I do that?” I’m wandering around the fire now, feeling like a madwoman. “Okay. I abandoned her. Where?”

“Minneapolis.”

“Okay. Go on.”

Jacob stands and paces the opposite side of the fire.

“About a month ago,” he says, “you disappeared from California. I had a pretty good idea that you would end up here. But first I went to Minneapolis. There’s a website where adopted kids seek out their biological parents. I had a lead, a girl, abandoned at a hospital the same week you left Cloudburst. We arranged a meeting, and the similarities were stunning. Eyes, face – especially hair.”

He returns to the log.

“Well, Jesus, Jacob. Don’t stop there.”

He cradles one hand in the other, rubbing at his knuckles. “We took a DNA test. I’m not the father.”

I sit next to him and sip at my wine. The afterglow is almost gone.

“Oh God. Sam’s probably worried.”

Jacob glares at me.

“What is this fucking thing with Sam? Do you realize what that asshole did to you? Your mother beat the shit out of you, while you were pregnant, under direct orders from Reverend Sam Matterhorn. It’s like he was trying to kill your child.”

Jacob’s anger frightens me. But I also have the terrible feeling that he’s right. I am frozen. Again. He kneels before me.

“I’m sorry, Kelly. I didn’t mean to raise my voice. I realize you’re in a… precarious state. But you were my best friend, and they took you away from me. So do me this favor, okay? Stay here tonight. Just one night. I brought an extra sleeping bag.”

If the speech didn’t do it, the look in his eyes did. Somewhere in all that shit, I managed to make an actual friend.

“Okay.”

He slaps me on the knee. “Good. And… I’m sorry about your mom.”

“She was an awful human being.”

“I know. But I’m still sorry.”


Jasmina

I am sucking on my finger, which does not please Mama. But then, nothing pleases Mama. She has worn a scowl for so many years that the lines drop from either side of her mouth. She looks like a bassett hound.

“What now?”

“Sorry, Mama. I reached for the stove handle, the broken one, and…” My explanations don’t usually get this far before I’m swatted. Mama chews on her thumbnail, then takes a bit of the nail and yanks it out. A drop of blood forms at the cuticle. She looks at it and scowls.

“Reverend Sam wants to see you.”

I try not to smile. “Why?”

She swats me on the ear. I see those funny little stars. But I know not to cry.

“You’re probably in trouble. You had better not be in trouble. Now get going. He’s in his office. Get!”

I hurry outside. It’s beautiful, early fall. The aspen tree is starting to turn gold. I wait until I’m out of sight and I suck on my finger. I can see a blister rising from the pad.

The church is strangely deserted. Miss Hampstead isn’t at her desk, so I go right to Reverend Sam’s door. I’m about to knock when I hear his footsteps coming down the hall. Reverend Sam doesn’t walk like everyone else at Cloudburst. He strides. He squeezes my shoulder and smiles. I can smell his cologne, just a trace of bayleaf.

“Child! Always so good to see you.” He opens the door and waves me in, then locks it behind us. I settle into his big armchair. Reverend Sam sits at his desk and combs a hand through his thick black hair. I notice the aspen in Miss Hampstead’s painting, and I feel a warmth rising through me, knowing that soon the actual tree will look just like that, gold leaves fluttering in the wind, the glossy overside, the flat underside, shimmering like magic confetti. Reverend Sam sees my expression and rises from his seat. A drop of water falls on my forehead.

I don’t mean to be mad at Jacob, I mean only to critique him. In early spring, in Montana, you should always put a fly over your tent. I lie in the dark, wrapped in my sleeping bag. It’s time to go. I peer next to me. Jacob is fully asleep, snoring quietly.

The pre-morning sky has conspired to guide me, a half moon covering the daffodils with a whisper of light. Sam has left a lantern hanging on a hook over the front door of the church. I take it and go inside. I should be nervous but I’m not. Perhaps I’m still dreaming. I check the bedroom and find it empty, then I spot a faint glow coming from his office.

When I step inside, Sam is asleep in his easy chair, still in his hunting suit. I take a small Bible from his desk and let it drop to the floor. Sam wakes in a start.

“Wha…? Kelly? Is that you? Child! I was worried sick about you.”

He stumbles to his feet and wraps me in a hug.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I got lost.”

“Well! Imagine that. I’m very relieved you made it back.” He goes to kiss me on the cheek and I kiss him on the lips instead, and I stay there, and I insert my tongue. Sam pushes me away.

“Kelly Copper! What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking there’s no one within twenty miles of this room. Come on, Sam. Let’s play the game.”

“I have no idea what you…”

“For old time’s sake.”

Sam freezes, then settles himself into his armchair. “I don’t know where you’ve been, child, but I believe your thoughts are running away with you.”

“You like calling me ‘child,’ don’t you? Funny thing to call a grown woman ‘child.’ ‘Suffer unto me the little children.’ You know, I admire your will power, Sam. A lot of men wouldn’t be able to share a bed with a grown woman without, well, you know. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed.”

Sam clears his throat. “Well I… it would not be proper…”

“No, it wouldn’t. Or maybe I’m just not your type.” I turn around and bend over the front of Sam’s desk. “I remember staring at that painting. When it was no longer the game. When you began to curse. When you began to hit me. When I began to bleed and you wouldn’t stop. I stared at the aspen tree and I thought, Bear with this, just make it through. Someday you will go to heaven, and everything will be all right.”

I turn back around and I stare a hole right through him. “I don’t believe in heaven anymore. I believe in the truth of things. The truth is, you beat me on the head until I blacked out, you sick fuck. And then, when I turned up pregnant, you ordered my mother to flog me for the next nine months. You didn’t need to do that. It was Jacob’s kid. The week you raped me, I was already having morning sickness. But I have to wonder, Reverend Sam. While you were fucking me, while you were beating the shit out of me, late at night when you walked past our cottage and you heard my mother screaming at me, trying to kill my child – at any point during this long, long period of time, did the thought ever occur to you, she’s only… TWELVE… YEARS… OLD!”

Sam shoots out of his chair and comes at me. I lift my face to his upraised hand.

“What more could you possibly do to me?”

We stand there like a photograph. Sam’s breathing evens out. He lowers his hand and slips it into his pocket. He returns to his chair, gripping the arms like a man awaiting execution. His eyes are wide circles.

“So,” I say. “They caught you.”

He takes a hard breath and answers in a whisper. “Yes.”

“They left, and they told you to stay here.”

“Yes.”

Sam is melting into the cushions. When he speaks, his voice is a wild, mewling creature, skipping octaves.

“I wanted only to serve God, and he answered me with this sick… this disgusting perversion, this abomination. I fought it, and I prayed, and I fought it some more, but it always won. I wanted heaven so badly, I wanted release…”

I kneel on the floor, a few feet away, and I try my best to let reason take charge, the way that Paul taught me.

“Sam. Listen to me. It’s a disease. People get diseases. You need to stop blaming God. You need to stop punishing the children who tempt you. You need to get help. Real, medical help.”

I’m running out of gas. There’s only so much of the world that I can fix. I stand up, I walk back to the desk and I look at Isadora’s picture.

“Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to think long and hard about Jesus. I want you to go to Great Falls and call the mental health department, or a psychologist. By your beliefs, you should do this because otherwise you will burn in hell. By my beliefs, you should do this because you owe me.”

Sam raises his face, his features contorting into odd shapes. “I’m… so…”

The rest is sobbing, and I’m in the hall. Then I’m on the steps of the church. The sky is tangerine fading into royal blue. Jacob stands next to the aspen, holding a gun.

“Are you okay?”

I run right past him, up the trail, across the meadow. The air chaps my lungs. I keep running, the plateau, the coyote rocks, into the clearing. I lean against the sycamore, its bark peeling in strips of blue and gray, my breath huffing, out of control. Jacob sets the gun on a log.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t…”

I grab Jacob and I hold on for dear life. The power drains from my limbs. I cry for a long time.


The sun tips the eastern mountains as we clear the rim of the valley. I can smell the sage; I remember this smell from the morning I left. I take a look back at Cloudburst, the little white cottages, the steeple. Jacob stands next to me, shifting his pack.

“Kelly,” he says. “If I hadn’t mentioned it, you are the bravest mmph…”

My hand covers his mouth.

“I want you to say it like this: Yazz-mee-nuh.”

I release my hand. Jacob says, “Yazz-mee-nuh.”

“Now normal.”

“Jasmina.”

“Good. Let’s hike.”

“Yes ma’am.”

I don’t look back. I say, “By the way, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”


Paul

The first of May, and Mill Valley is gorgeous, the trees bursting with chlorophyll, the weather a mid-70s California perfection, fog banks tickling the ridges with natural air conditioning. We should all feel insanely guilty. I take to the hills for a hike, all the way up Throckmorton to Crystal Falls, a delicate little descent stashed into a redwood grove as if a contractor had put it there. I backtrack to Old Mill Park and find a free production of A Comedy of Errors in a grove behind the library. I can only stay ten minutes, but it’s good to drink in the old language, feel the enrgy from the audience and chuckle at the backstage facilities, a wall of blankets hung over ropes.

When I arrive at the Depot, I order a passion fruit smoothie and find a table with plentiful shade. A covey of techno-nerds sit at the next table, exclaiming over their cats.

“You’re looking awfully intense.”

“Great. My first murderous thought all day, and I’m busted.” I get up to give Molly a kiss on the cheek.

She settles into her chair with a cup of coffee. She’s wearing a knit black top that reveals quite a bit of cleavage. This is a recent trend.

“Perhaps they should have sent you to jail,” she says

I hold up a hand. “Listen carefully.”

“I swear sometimes that cat thinks he’s human!”

“Ew,” says Molly. “Y’know, I spent a year working on a patient who was using her cat’s death as an excuse for not dating.” She sips at her coffee and surveys the square. “What an incredible day.”

“A-men.”

“Do you miss the celebrity?”

“I can honestly say no. Having Stan on my side, I figured a quick dismissal was in the works. So I didn’t get too attached to the spotlight. At heart, I’m a drummer. I like to be in the back, pulling strings. I got a basement full of Humboldt County plants, the free publicity is bringing new customers to the store, and I’m thinking of starting a modest speaker series.”

“Fantastic!” Molly gives me the magic smile, but she holds it for much longer than usual.

“So what’s with you?”

She laughs. “I sort of wondered if I was… radiating. I’m seeing someone. A fellow psychologist. I met him in Carmel, at a seminar on suicide prevention. Bernardo Cantafaccio.”

“Jesu Christe!”

“Yeah, I know. And he was born in the Bronx. He took me to a roller derby match. Who knew that I would love the roller derby? It’s so sexy and empowering, all those tough chicks pummeling each other. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to go on.”

“Who deserves to go on more than you? You spend an extraordinary amount of time listening to other people’s problems. And I am so glad you’re getting attention! This also explains the low necklines.”

She glances downward. “Well would you look at that? I had no idea.”

“My white honky ass.”

“I’m under orders from Bernie. He’s very… appreciative.”

“Okay. Now I’m just jealous.”

We have maxed out our flirtation limit, which sends us into a familiar no-man’s land, the place where I would be Bernie were I not stuck on the great invisible girlfriend.

“Any news?” she asks.

“Not really. No contact with Sass. Nothing from the missing persons network.”

“Jacob?”

“Jacob has also gone missing. The boy is a bit of a flake. Not that I blame him.”

Another dead end, another silence. A breeze rolls down from the ridges. Molly sighs, ecstatic. I know exactly what she’s feeling. Love is a tactile sport, and all of her nerve endings are wide open.

“Come on,” I say. “I want to show you something.”

“Okay.”

I take her to the end of the square. Perched upon a set of steel wheels is a flat, open rail car, really just a glorified box, eight feet wide, twelve feet long, with five benches. The plaque reads Gravity Car. I hop into the front bench and pat the seat next to me.

“What the hell is a gravity car?”

“Say it’s 1928. You and your financier husband, Bernard Candlefloss, take a long weekend away from your San Francisco manor. You take a steam train up to Mill Valley to see the mighty redwoods, but once you arrive at the depot…” I flip a thumb toward the coffeehouse. “Boom! Dead end. You’re right up against Mount Tamalpais. No way you’re getting over that. But here’s the genius part. The way back is completely downhill. So. When you’ve seen all the trees you can stand, they bundle you into this simple-looking device and you coast all the way back to the ferry docks, equipped with nothing more than a brakeman to regulate your speed.”

Molly smiles. “Fun! Do you know, I never actually realized The Depot used to be a train station?”

“Well what did you think it was?”

“Marketing gimmick?”

“Good point. So, anyway, on nights when the ghost of Jasmina Kelly Copper Contrevic takes away my ability to sleep, I come here, and I sit in the front seat, release the brake, and I coast all the way to Sausalito. On especially bad nights, I gaze down Miller Avenue and I picture the silhouette of a kinky-haired woman, a bedraggled wanderer walking in my direction. Then I release the brake, I scoop her up in my arms, and we go for seafood in Tiburon.”

Uh-oh. Now I’ve done it. Molly’s crying.

“Molly! It isn’t necessarily a sad thing.”

“I know.” She wipes a hand across her cheek. “But it’s so… fucking romantic.”

A well-placed f-word can really crack me up.


In late June, I took a spontaneous trip to Yosemite. I had something to get off my lifetime list: hiking the Mist Trail to the Vernal and Nevada waterfalls. I had read reports of record snowmelt, and arrived at the footbridge beneath the Vernal to find the water pounding the rocks with a thrilling white fury. At the other end of the bridge, I found a missing-persons flier with a tragic story. A young woman, hiking with her Greek church group, was splashing in the waters above the falls when she slipped. Two male friends saw her being carried away by the strong current and raced over to help. All three were swept over. The snowmelt had prevented search teams from venturing into the rapids below the falls, and two weeks later they had yet to find the bodies.

That day, I punished myself. I climbed hundreds of granite steps to the top of Vernal and kept going, climbing hundreds more to the top of Nevada. Toward the end, I had to stop every twenty feet to gather my strength. A fellow hiker saw my condition and handed me some snacks. A seeming eternity later, I stood on a bridge over the Nevada, watching the engorged river hurl itself into a granite chute and over the precipice. I filled my bottle from streamside and drank and drank, then I rode my ruined legs along the blue granite cliffs. Just after sunset, I regained the Vernal footbridge with its young Greek faces. To pay for one stupid mistake with three lives. I envisioned a park ranger exiting a secret portal to pull a switch and halt the falls till morning, when the day’s first hiker would trip a laser and set them back into motion.

“Whatcha got there?”

High school girl.

“Oh, hi. Ansel Adams.” I flip it around, a two-page spread of Half Dome.

“Wild!”

“I’m thinking of putting in a section on the environment.”

She turns to a shot of Tuolomne Meadows in winter. Then she giggles and says, “What?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You’re kind of… staring.”

“Oh! Sorry. It’s your hair.”

“I know. Isn’t it weird?”

“Let’s say ‘unusual.’ It reminds me of someone.”

“Someone else has this mess? I feel sorry for her.”

“Nonsense! It’s beautiful. But I was trying not to sound creepy.”

She gives me a quick study. “Nope. I know creepy, and you ain’t it.”

“Good to know.”

She leans on the counter and takes a scan of the store. “So is this where you go to get a God-ectomy?”

“I don’t guarantee it, but it’s certainly a good place for challenging old concepts.”

She purses her lips. “I have observed lately that religion is used largely as a rationalization for killing people who disagree with you.”

I laugh. “Me: choir. You: preaching.”

“So where’s a good place to start?”

“Hmmm… I am betting that you are looking for a little affirmation of your suspicions. A little courage to drive you forward.”

“A fire under my ass?”

“Precisely. Head for the philosophy section up front and check out Christopher Hitchens. Or, if you’re into the science-based angle, Richard Dawkins. Or, for the blue-collar female, Julia Sweeney.”

“The comedian?”

“And recovering Catholic.”

“Awesome possum.”

She goes off to browse. I try very hard to look like I’m working. She returns with Hitchens’ God is not Great.

“That book will blow your freakin’ mind.”

“Good,” she says. “It needs to be blown.”

I swipe her card and wait for the approval. “So. Since we have concluded that I can’t be creepy, how come I haven’t seen you around here before?”

“’Cause I’m from Michigan. I’m spending the summer with a friend from college.”

“You’re in college?”

She smiles. “I get that, too.”

“Young-looking, gorgeous hair. Is there any end to the indignities that you must suffer?”

“Okay. Semi-creepy.”

“Too late! I have immunity.”

She folds her arms over the counter. “You are a card.”

“Atheists are funny people. I’m Paul.”

She shakes my hand. “Maggie.”

“What is it really?”

“Magdalena. Boy! You do have me pegged.”

“I run into a lot of biblical names. Raised… Lutheran?”

“Now you’re just playing regional probabilities.”

“Okay. You got me.”

She taps the book. “If this is any good, I’ll be back.”

“In that case, you’ll be back.”

“Seeya!”

“Bye, Maggie.”

She’s about to hit the door when I am struck by the temptation to push my luck. “Hey, Maggie.”

The lookback sends her ringlets flying.

“If you’re bored on Thursday, my band is playing the Throckmorton Theater. It’s a benefit for Japanese tsunami victims.”

“What kind of music?”

“High-powered rock with an aggressive empowered chick singer.”

“I am so there.”

“Fantastic! I’ll look for you.”

“Ciao.”

I watch Maggie cross the street. I’m feeling a little puzzled. Jailbait is not exactly my style.


The Throckmorton is a cute old place, outfitted with the usual early-century Greek touches (pillars, cornices, archways). Its standard offerings are local theater groups, touring acoustic musicians, the occasional stand-up comic and lots of Rotary meetings. It’s a little odd for rock groups – especially our openers, Pitch Black Providence, a speed-metal outfit with a “lead screamer.” The cushy theater seats keep everybody a little sedentary, but it’s nice to feel like you’re actually being listened to. Our first set is a little less kinetic than usual, but we’re playing sharper, enjoying our songs as if we had just created them.

I head out to the lobby for intermission and run into Javid, equipped with an asymmetrical upswoop of hair and a small silver earring.

“Uh-oh. Someone’s been living in San Francisco.” I give him a big old hug and he grins.

“I feel like I am myself for the first time in my life.”

“That is always the best thing to be.” Past Javid’s shoulder, I spot a head of kinky hair. “Hey. ‘Scuse me a sec, wouldja? I just have to say hi to someone. As a matter of fact, I think she might be your type.”

Javid smiles. “Excellent.”

Across the lobby, Maggie is studying a wall full of photos, big stars who played the Throckmorton: David Crosby, Carlos Santana, Robin Williams, Joan Osborne. I tap her on the shoulder, but it’s not Maggie. I stare and stare, waiting for the illusion to drift away. I reach out and discover that the illusion is flesh and blood.

Five minutes later, I’m still afraid to let go. The lights are flashing. Pamela paces into the lobby.

“Paul! We’re back on in… Holy shit.”

Jasmina pulls back from my shoulder and gives her a smile. Pamela waves and turns back for the auditorium. I wipe a tear from Jasmina’s cheek. She wipes one from mine.

“If I play another set, you’re not gonna…”

“Hell no.”

I kiss her and walk backwards for several steps.

Long after load-up, and an ad hoc press conference from my bandmates (and Javid, who is beside himself), I manage to smuggle Cinderella down to the gravity car. The leafy crowns of the residential forest hum with the light of a three-quarters moon.

“You didn’t answer one damn question.”

She laughs. “I should run for office.”

“Are you going to tell me?”

She squeezes my hand. “I’ve got lots to tell you. But first I need to tell Molly.”

“That makes sense.”

“I will offer you a highly compressed rundown. It seems that my two selves decided to have a reunion, and Kelly decided that this reunion had to take place in Montana. After unearthing an event so traumatic that both of us had suppressed it, my two selves met up somewhere in my cerebellum to create the new, improved hybrid you see before you. Jasmina Kelly.”

“Really?”

“I have only to visit the proper government department to make it official. Anyways, I also ran into Jacob – okay, was rescued by Jacob – and he helped me track down my daughter.”

I have to lean back in order to display my full surprise. “Maggie?”

“Maggie. She’s staying for the summer. I hope she didn’t freak you out too much, but she was dying to check you out. I have to admit, I was also using her as a spy. I… wanted to find out if you had hooked up with someone else while I was gone.”

I’m staring at her like an idiot. This effect may last for weeks.

“So?” she says.

“Oh!” I shift on the seat and pull a rolled-up bandana from the pocket of my jeans. She works it open, looking puzzled.

“My amethyst!” She dangles it, watching it sparkle in the moonlight, then she gives me the kind of kiss I’ve been dreaming about for six months.

“I’ve been carrying it with me ever since you left.”

She gives me a smile, the one that oscillates, and sits in my lap. I lose myself in the labyrinth of her hair. We are renegade planets, stellar objects who have finally given in to Newton’s laws. She taps a finger on my nose.

“So. What the hell is a gravity car?”

“Close your eyes and hold on tight.”

I reach down and release the brake.