Thursday, January 8, 2015

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Eleven: Fangs at the Ready

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Fangs at the Ready

The Serpentine is a single golden door between two of Denver’s ugliest skyscrapers. The only thing approaching a sign is an Arizona sidewinder in the shape of an S.

“That’s it?” says Skye.

“You don’t like?” asks Sigh.

“What is says to me is, We’re so fucking hip we don’t even have to tell you where we are.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”


Sigh opens the golden door and leads him inside. The first long hallway is painted deep purple. The right-hand wall features a silver-blue anaconda, thirty feet long. A jog to the left offers a yellow hall with a gold-brown Burmese python. To the right, a lime-green straightaway hosting an army of dark-green garter snakes. Another left: burnt orange, seven cobras, standing at attention before a charmer. A right turn into a set of switchbacks, each corner marked with a single snake and its identity: water moccasin, gopher snake, copperhead, black samba.

Pacing the turns, Sigh calls back. “Okay, at this point I think they’re just fucking with us.”

Finally, they arrive at another golden door, with another sidewinder. Sigh pulls it open to reveal the most surprising thing of all: fresh air. The Serpentine is a perfect square of open space surrounded by the backs of four buildings. The left half features an awning of galvanized steel, sheltering an espresso counter with a bright aluminum façade. The end of the counter makes a U-turn into the dining space, a silvery zig-zag that breaks here and there into benches and tables.

The right half is open to the elements and populated by black tables that are supposed to look like wrought iron. A series of concrete steps rises to a broad stage. The wall behind the stage features a frieze of a rattlesnake, ten feet high and coiled, fangs at the ready, as if it’s about to spring from the wall.

“Okay,” says Skye. “I gotta admit, I’m intrigued.”

“Whattya want?” asks Sigh. “Latte? Guinness?”

“No,” says Skye. “I’ll get it.”

“Yo, brotherman. You get the big stuff, I’ll get the small stuff.”

Skye laughs. “You already got me a Brandy.”

“Or Sandy. Or Mandy.”

“Hi guys,” says Peter. He sets down his guitar and gives them a once-over. “Oh, I get it. Y’all had a great time without me, didn’t you?”

Sigh wraps him in a hug and lifts him off the ground.

“Peter, Peter, Peter. I have a great time regardless.”

Peter regains his footing and gives Skye a handshake. “So now you know Sigh Cavalier.”

“He’s a great provider,” says Skye. Sigh snickers.

Peter holds up a hand. “Okay. Stop right there. This has the markings of a long story, and I’m running late. How’s my car?”

“Soul annoyed,” says Sigh.

“The starter,” says Skye. “Had the same thing myself three weeks ago. Didn’t cost much at all.”

“Good,” says Peter. “I am going to pay you back.”

“You are so not.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”

Sigh butts in. “Gentlemen? Drinks?”

“Cappuccino,” says Peter.

“I’ll take that Guinness,” says Skye.

By the time Peter sets up, a dozen Friends of Sigh have settled at the stagefront tables. Twenty non-listeners are scattered towards the awning, hovering over laptops, chatting over drinks, snacking on pastries. Sigh takes a seat behind the mic and smiles.

“Hi. The folks at the Serpentine are shy, so they asked me to make the introduction.” He takes a deep breath and rubs his chin.

“When I first met Peter, he was a tiny green caterpillar. And now he’s not. Would you please welcome my best friend in the world, Peter! Chung!”

Peter begins, as always, by addressing the elephant in the room. As he’s tuning up, he takes several glances at the rattlesnake behind him, and finally yells toward the counter.

“Excuse me! Is this thing supposed to make me feel welcome?!”

And he’s in.

From there it’s the usual excellence, but Skye finds it hard to concentrate due to a singularly beautiful woman at the front table. She is gloriously Latin: glossy black hair in straight bangs over wide-set cat’s eyes and a sharp, generous Aztec nose. She reminds Skye of some fifties actress, perhaps Ava Gardner, and spends large portions of the concert sending smoky glances toward the stage. Twice, Peter breaks character to smile back.

Skye leans toward the red planet. “Who’s the hot muchacha?”

Sigh gives a self-satisfied smile. “Remember how I procured for you – a man I barely know – a pair of lusty dwarves?”

“Of course.”

“For my best pal Peter I got Molly Santiago, a woman so hot she scares me. Really I just asked her to give him a ride to the gig, but let’s just say I was playing a hunch.”

“You are the world’s best wing-man.”

“I like to think so.”

After the concert, Peter and Molly sit together selling CDs. The crew from CU sticks around, coalescing into a post-performance shindig. One of the workers wheels in a Mexican chiminea in the shape of the winged serpent Qetzlcoatl, and lights a fire in its belly. Skye joins the circle around Sigh and consequently meets every good-looking woman in the coffeehouse. He takes a break to hit the restroom and passes Molly and Peter in the hallway, deeply committed to a liplock.

He’s waiting at the counter for another Guinness when Peter comes up and grabs his shoulder.

“Skye! Hey, thanks again for saving my Bug. I’m gonna do something big for you. I’m gonna name an album after you.”

Skye wraps an arm around Peter’s shoulder. “You just keep singing. That’s my payback.”

Peter turns and waves across the courtyard. Molly smiles and waves back.

“Thing is,” says Peter, “I think I’m in love. I was thinking I might stay around Boulder a couple weeks, maybe hit the Eastern U.S. some other time.”

Skye laughs. “What are you, crazy? You can’t flake out for some chick.”

Peter’s expression goes serious. “She’s a little more than some chick.”

Skye holds up his hands. “Hey, I am not averse to a fine piece of ass, but…”

“Are you fucking kidding me, man? Who made me a fucking monk for the arts? I’m sick of being dead-ass broke and lonely and getting all these pricktease promises that turn into shit.”

Skye puts his hands on Peter’s arm. “No! You have to keep going. You’re too talented. I won’t let you do this.”

Peter shakes off Skye’s hand and steps back. “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want. If you’re gonna be a dick about it, just take my fucking car back to Vail.”

The crowd around the stage is now staring at them. Skye lowers his voice. “You’re being an idiot.”

Peter gathers his breath, trying to stay calm.

“Get the fuck out.”

“Gladly,” says Skye. “Fucking ingrate.”

He follows the snakes all the way out and sits in his truck, waiting for the anger to even out. He is sorely tempted to drive all the way to Kansas, but he spots a motel in Aurora and thinks it best to catch some sleep.

He wakes to a rainstorm and turns on his cell phone. It buzzes with a text from Sigh.

Dood! Sorry abt last nite. B4 u leave town, let me take u to bkfst.

He suspects that a negative response will result in several more texts, so he just says yes. He showers up and reports to a cowboy-theme diner a couple blocks from the U. He finds Sigh and Peter at a corner booth underneath a bullwhip. Sigh pops up from his seat.

“Well! I’ve done my job. Now you two fuckers have a civil discussion. I will be at the counter, and I swear, if I hear any yelling I will call the fuzz.”

Sigh trots off. Skye and Peter avoid looking at each other. Skye sits down and picks up a menu.

“Whatcha havin’?”

“Denver omelet,” says Peter.

“Being ironic?”

Peter laughs. “Dude, I am so sorry for being such a dick. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I do.”


“Molly Santiago. And I do not blame you. She’s fucking hot.”

Peter flares his fingers. “Right?”

“And generosity does not buy one the right to run someone else’s life. I’m kinda new at this money thing.”

“And really, I am so thankful for what you did.”

The conversation eases into normalcy and soon Skye is telling the sordid tale of Glenwood Hot Springs over a pile of Buckaroo flapjacks.

“So we are not completely certain that we were not, in fact, dealing with triplets.”

“Oh my God!” Peter exults. “That Sigh, he’s my hero.”

“Mine too, but don’t let him hear us.”

Skye stirs a sugar into his coffee and notices a bookstore across the street.

“When I was younger, I wrote a book about performers and I sent it around. It was unanimously rejected, so I signed up for a subsidy-publishing deal and I lined up readings at 25 bookstores across the country.”

“Awesome!” says Peter.

“A month after I got back, I found out the whole deal was a scam. The publisher was using on-demand printing technology. They would promise to print five thousand copies, but in fact would only print copies as orders came in. The two owners took the authors’ payments to Vegas and blew it at the casinos. That’s how they were caught. They’re both in jail now, and I have not received one red cent. My only consolation is that my tour forced them to print a thousand copies of my book, so I was probably their least profitable author.”

Peter chews on a hash brown, waiting for an ending. “I’m sorry. Is this story supposed to inspire me? ‘Cause I’m not really feelin’ it.”

“Oh!” says Skye. “He wants a Disney movie. Nah. Just this: I do not regret it at all. That tour was a magnificent adventure. I learned a lot. And I will never be young enough or stupid enough to do it again.”

Peter smiles. “I see what you’re doing there. You’re describing me.”

Skye takes a bite of his Buckaroo flapjack and gives him an index-finger pistol shot.

Photo: the real-life Peter Chung!

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