“The skull never bounces true.”
Common truism of the
National Drifterball League
Willi resented his flying down to California because it placed extra burdens on her. She quickly pointed out – when he reached the office at eleven that next morning – that she didn’t really have time to do a good job for any of his smaller clients because the entire load of the media buy for the Busy Beaver Supermart’s Triple Coupon Fair as well as the preparations for the Beaverteeth Golf Tourney were now pressed directly on her youthful shoulders, if he was to go gallivanting down there with the movie stars in spite of all the emergencies and panics that were beginning to set in around the rumors about the parade or, more correctly, the lack of a parade. Chester vaguely noticed that the phones were all ringing.
“Is there something really wrong with you, Chester?” Willi demanded, peering at him. “I’m going to lunch now because I have to go over to where my sister-in-law is dinkiní around on the Beaver Lumber Company float. Then I’m goiní to the golf course to see Ernie and run around the desk for awhile. Why can’t I be an Associate, Chester? It would be a face-saviní way to síplain to people around town why you don’t pay me hardly nothiní. What do you know about the parade, anyway? Am I supposed to know somethiní I don’t know? People from Petersunn Products who are buildiní their float were sayiní last night that they heard Midden’s pulliní out. What am I supposed to tell these people when they call? Chester, is there somethiní really actually wrong with you?”
“You mean as opposed to being just normally wrong?”
“Why is your hand swollen? There was a call this morniní from some guy who was so drunk that he was slobberiní into the phone. He said you better take him to Hollywood. How can you afford this, Chester? Who is he? He said his name was Jim.”
“Oh, God. Stop staring at me,” he moaned. “My buddy Jim is going to save what’s left of the goddamn parade. Don’t say I said that. Did you get his number?”
“It’s on your desk. God won’t help you out of this, Chester. Oh, I took it on myself to check about bankruptcy proceedings. You’ve got to face this, Chester. I put the information in your briefcase. I’m goiní to lunch. Tom also said to tell you that there was nothiní he could do anymore and that the news about the parade would probably hit the Midden and Tacoma papers today. What news is that, Chester? Oh, and I told that stupid bitch with the purple fingernails down at the Police Station that you were being threatened and she just laughed.”
“She’s practically Shirley Anne’s head disciple, for God’s sake. What did you expect?”
“Oh, and a lawyer guy from Midden named A. Aaron Baxter called and said he was going to track you down like a ??? wolverine, I think that’s it, and hunt you to the ground and you know why. Isn’t he one of Shirley Anne’s lawyers? Are you in trouble about Shirley Anne again?”
“Baxter is my new best friend. We’re embarked on a great mission together. Never let him know where I am. Lie, Willi. Don’t argue with me. Don’t tell him where I am or what I’m doing. You haven’t even heard from me. Lie or quit, Willi. That’s the way life is. That’s the deal.”
“I think I’ll quit,” she said. They stared at one another. She was stuffing her young body into a flashy purple neon ski jacket and digging for her keys in her purse and staring him right in the eyes.
“You can be an Associate, Willi. How’s that?” he caved.
“Are you gonna pay for me to redesign my business cards?”
“Can’t you just write in ëAssociate?í”
“That would just look like shit, Chester,” she said. He could tell she was pleased. “Oh, yeah. Shirley Anne. She called in her own voice again at about six in the morning on the voicemail and said you were a dead man. You know why, she said. Sort of a popular subject around town, your death.”
She was gone. Honeyacre and Associate. Quickly he called the phone number for Jim Rook, looking out his window at the rotting potting shed on the roof of the Bulb Building next door and aiming himself toward the door for quick escape should A. Aaron Baxter suddenly appear, gun – or worse, warrant – drawn.
“You ready to go, big guy?” He tried to make his voice sound confident and secure. “Let’s fly down to Hollywood and we’ll see what my brother can do for you, because this parade, hey, it’s going to really be something with you and Rosie Everlasting involved.” He let the sentence hang out there.
“Ok.” That was all. He hoped that Jim Rook had not heard any of the rumors about the demise of the parade.
“You ok, big guy? How about that fire last night?” No answer. “Well, I’m on my way.” Jim Rook told him where he was to be picked up.
He was real nervous every time he saw a rack of lights above a pickup truck now. He counted himself lucky to be alive and that made him feel much better than he rightly should have, as he headed out Hangingneck Road. Jim Rook was waiting for him in the mist, out in front of a pasture that eventually touched on Annie Bob’s place, near one of the many berry fields where the old woman had often spent the summers living outdoors in some bend-over plank shack with one or two of her elderly relatives. Jim Rook was neatly dressed in a sportcoat and slacks and a raincoat. He carried an expensive Italian overnight bag. The look on his face was drawn and concentrated, as if trying to remember something, but when he squeezed himself into the car he was silent for the most part and seemed to have no questions or observations.
“Well, I suppose you’ve heard some of this bullshit about the parade, huh?” said Chester tentatively.
Jim Rook had heard nothing and wasn’t interested anyway. Chester couldn’t believe it. It was another piece of luck or fate, another of these incidents in which he seemed to be the only person with knowledge, as if everyone else were looking away, or frozen, or in some other dimension. This meant he owned Jim Rook all day long without the big man having knowledge that the parade was in fact no longer even real; that it was, at best, a very smalltime affair with no hope of national television exposure. He knew that his brother Mitchell wouldn’t know any different either; in fact, he would have bet money on it, if he’d had any money. He hoped that Mitchell would be impressed with Jim Rook and he thought that in return he might inveigle for Rook a little part in some movie or other and when the smoke cleared he might have his parade back because he’d get real celebrities to be in it. Mitchell could send undressed actresses to appear in the parade as if they were his personal slaves. It was just that it was so hard to ask Mitchell for a favor.
He got himself and Jim Rook on the plane on time and without incident. They were screened, of course, and their non-muslimness established, but everyone who inspected them knew who Jim Rook was. Lots of people aboard the big plane knew him on sight and soon men and kids and women and kids began to queue up for Rook’s autograph, some even getting through from the coach section and the big guy was sweet and charming and quiet and modest as he carefully wrote out his name for each, prefaced by the usual ìGo Long.î He made a point of introducing Chester to each person who leaned over the seat to talk to him, as if tying Chester to him with bonds of formality and celebrity.
Jim Rook had a strange effect on the world around him, Chester noticed. He came into any situation and seemed to fill it right up. He took ordinary things like friends or families or jobs or play or conversation and filled them so full that others had no choice but to stop what they were doing and deal with him. Some men fought him and some followed him but when he was gone, a hole appeared where there had been no hole before. He left behind a big emptiness that had to be filled, an invisible whirlpool, rather than leaving behind an emptiness that just was, that could stand on its own. When Chester – or Fate – chose Jim Rook to be the Grand Marshall of the broken parade, he – or Fate – was taking a big chance. But if you were going to take a chance, thought Chester, you could do no better than to place your money on Jim Rook. After all, Beaverteeth had never had a hero like him. Even Mitchell Honeyacre would lag far behind him, as would Shirley Anne, in a cold-blooded ranking of the few Famous from Beaverteeth. If there was one thing that gave a little town with a stupid name something to be legitimately proud of, it was the exploits of Jim Rook. Although he had toiled in the grip of the Middenites, still he was a Beaverteeth hero and everybody in Midden knew it. He had been everything: All-State, All-Conference, All Prep All-America in football at Beaverteeth Union High School. He was the greatest alumnus of Beaverteeth University College ever. And, most important, he was the single person who had then dragged drifterball up out of the muck of professional wrestling or carnivals. He was the real thing, that’s who he was; all sports, all letters, all honors, all everything.
It would take Chester at least a year to realize that Jim Rook wreaked change the way other men wreaked havoc; that if something was ready to be pushed over the edge, Jim Rook would be the person to push. Although he had played the Drifter, he wasn’t the Drifter. He was the Changer, he was the man, he was the guy who made things happen, Mr. Unpredictable, the Transformer.
(Once during his playing days, so the story goes, Jim Rook had somehow suspended himself from the substructure – above the lights but beneath the dome – of the old Kingdome in Seattle. It was a championship game, for the first time on national TV, and it was a great moment in Jim Rook’s life and he chose to celebrate it by hanging like a big spider some two hundred feet above the playing field, just hanging by his powerful arms, nothing on but a g-string jock strap. When the TV cameras found him up there above the stadium lights, above the cheering crowd and when they all looked up and he could hear the hush of them, the indrawn mass breath, when he thought that thousands of eyes were making some kind of squishy sound as they all swiveled in their sockets to see him, then he laughed with delight. He had hung a moment longer, just enjoying the fact that the game was smaller than himself and then had slowly swung himself up onto a girder and effortlessly stood upon it and balanced for a minute and walked along it in the roar that overcame him as it pounded up in the great domed stadium like the slow beating of a huge drum. He had sauntered down the beam, pretending to trip and fall once. He had smiled kittenishly to the cameras. He had descended majestically, with the help of guards who called him sir, and he had got out on the field for the second quarter and had won the game with a terrible display of courage that featured him being knocked unconscious twice. Jim Rook, so the story goes, had once – in his college days – pretended to three girls in his fraternity house that he was temporarily blinded by their naked beauties and to prove it – cock hard as a rock, stark naked, eyes closed – had walked out a window onto an icy roof and then slipped out onto the air itself and he had fallen like a naked snowflake to the ground below. He was taken to the hospital where he was unconscious for three days and nearly died. On the morning the doctors let him go he opened his mouth and a bird flew out. He was Jim Rook and he was more man than other men knew existed and he didn’t feel the need to explain much of anything to much of anyone.)
Jim Rook was a problem. Jim Rook was a puzzle. Jim Rook was trouble. Jim Rook could break you in half. He had a huge scar cut diagonally across his face and the cartilage of his battered pudding-nose had been dissolved by cocaine long after it had been broken into little bits by the forearms and helmets and weapons of the defensive backs of the National Drifterball League.
As the big plane lofted out over the Sound and its islands and peninsulas and headed south as if sinking down into a world of sterner gravity and higher stakes, Chester noticed that Jim Rook seemed peaceful and still and too large for his seat.
“Well, here we go. Flung out over the West like a hot dog with wings,” Chester said pleasantly. The big man only nodded and then stared straight ahead. His eyes widened suddenly but then closed and it seemed to Chester that he was instantly asleep. It turned out later that he was not exactly asleep, but in those later times, the distinction between sleep and waking for Chester had itself become largely a matter of conjecture. For now, he was relieved and he hoped against hope for a peaceful trip southward and a successful visit to the City of the Queen of the Angels. He stared out the window, down at what had once been the Romance of the West for him.
A little kid watched him carefully from across the aisle of the plane and occasionally whispered to its mother, presumably about Jim Rook, but then Chester became afraid that it might be about him. He couldn’t remember when he had last looked in a mirror. He tried to focus on the lack of the Romance of the West below rather than stumble to the bathroom and face whatever facts were apparent to Innocence across the aisle. He didn’t like flying anymore and now found the view artificial, like flying over the human stomach, banking and turning to view its folds and mountains of flesh and pools of gastric liquids. He was shaky and hadn’t slept, so filled was he with his parade plans, so desperately desirous of avoiding questions of his mental illness and his hallucinations and still thinking about the giant dream beavers. He didn’t like airplanes, they were confining to a man of his size and he thought of them as tubes and this was not a comforting thought when combined with that of incipient death. He noticed that the little kid across the aisle was still staring, but not exactly at him. He had a horrible realization. Behind him, nose peeking through the space between the seats, was Baxter.
“Hello, Honeyacre, you son of a bitch,” snarled Baxter in a rough whisper. “Thought you could lose me, didn’t you?”
“I never thought that. I thought I’d surprise you with the good news, give you a phone call from Hollywood after I told Mitchell about your idea – and don’t get me wrong, I think it’s so good that I don’t want you to feel that you can get away without cutting me in for a healthy percentage on the whole deal.”
“I never told you my idea, Honeyacre, you son of a bitch.” Chester could only see his nose. It might have been the corner of an airline magazine. Chester smiled to the kid across the aisle as if this were a whole hell of a lot of fun. The kid gave him a thumbs-up gesture, signalling a kind of camaraderie that might spring up among those whose friends do dumb things with their noses. Suddenly, Jim Rook let out a yell and woke bolt upright. He ripped the seat belt off his waist with one grasp of his big hand and he stood up fast and smashed his head into the overhead compartment. He yelled again.
“I DON’T LIKE BEING CONFINED!” he shouted, authoritatively, as if talking directly to someone in charge. All through the cabin, people jumped fearfully. Two guys in suits – obviously Air Marshalls, rolled out into the aisle, crouched and then, seeing who shouted, their expressions turned soft and voices of approval began to arise from them. Some of the voices wondered at the wisdom of a captain and airline who might confine Jim Rook for any reason at all. This was no terrorist. This was Jim Rook. Everyone relaxed. It was miraculous, Chester thought.
“Yeah, alright Jim!” said one guy and everyone pretty much echoed the sentiment, which was a sentiment of good sense. Jim Rook looked around him. Light applause burst from some of the pretty flight attendants, who nonetheless did not go near him. He abruptly sat down.
“You alright, Jim?” Chester had a depressed view of his condition: blackmailed and trapped in a pressurized weiner-tube with a homicidal lawyer and a mad giant, suspended over the human stomach. Jim Rook stood up quickly and broadly smiled to the plane at large and gave a big wink and wasn’t everyone relieved? Yes, they were. Especially Chester. Jim Rook sat down suddenly.
“Jim, this is a friend of mine from Midden whose name is Baxter,” said Chester quickly. The two men shook hands, Baxter standing finally and hovering, smiling, almost drooling over Jim Rook. Baxter had on a complete Midden Ravens merchandising outfit: a black baseball hat that said Ravens on it, sweatshirt celebrating the Ultra-Super, Jim Rook Edition Blow-Push Cross-Training Shoes, expensive black Midden Ravens Commemorative Ultra-Super Jacket.
“It’s just great to meet you, Jim. My sister went to school with your brother, but you wouldn’t remember her,” proclaimed Baxter proudly.
“No,” said Jim Rook sourly. “And I’ve about had it with remembering things. We’ve got to move forward.”
“My feelings pretty much exactly, Jim. In fact, I have something here that you may be interested in.”
Baxter waved a brown envelope filled with too many pages of what Chester already knew would be some self-serving attempt at movie-writing by the kind of idiot who thinks actors are real and celebrity is worth. Jim Rook, to his credit, merely stared and sat, ignoring Baxter. In seconds, the big man was again asleep. Suddenly, Chester saw a tall, red-haired woman several rows ahead of them, clearly, as if he were sitting next to her.
Karen Mae Petersunn had often looked behind her to make sure that the huge man who shouted was not running around loose. She had talked to the flight attendant to keep her on her guard but had been reassured that this was no hijacker nor mentally ill person but was in fact the famous Jim Rook and therefore everything was all right. She was indeed surprised to see that the man whom she had seen yesterday with Annie Bob, just before the old woman died, the man covered with mud, seemed to be in attendance upon the Rook person back there. She had never followed drifterball, although her father owned the Midden Ravens, for which, as she recalled, this Rook creature had once – or did still – play. She liked professional basketball and was a fan of the Phoenix Suns, mostly because she had been excavating a site near Flagstaff on the Little Colorado river some years ago and had fallen in love with a man who taught archaeology, who fly-fished and who nearly swept her away with him but then didn’t. He had Suns season tickets and so she went to lots of games and came to love the players, one and all. Drifterball, she felt, was just plainly absurd compared to professional basketball, in spite of the fact that it was a sport based on a book written by her own great-grandfather and that one of its prominent teams was owned by her own now-dead father.
She clutched the two big covered baskets full of mushrooms on her lap. She couldn’t leave them in the luggage compartment overhead for fear of a lack of ventilation. She hoped they weren’t already turning slick and wet the way she felt herself. She hadn’t even had time to wash her hair and she had slept no more than an hour. Her father was dead, as dead as a doornail, she thought. She was a tall woman and she found air travel restricting. She thought of the five dogs she had left behind and she felt guilty. Sally, her house-sitter, had been living at her place so long that Karen Mae had felt bad about imposing the dogs on her, but Sally was good with animals and took it in stride. Karen Mae sat nervously in the airplane and tried to think her way through her predicament. She had flown up and slept in her own bed and looked at her own books and even found her favorite spring boletus spot and discovered that her stupid father was not only married again, but was dead. She had gathered boleti, she heard voices, she spied, she saw the old witch woman, the skeletal old woman, she saw the man – a bumbling, large, confused, balding, vaguely familiar-looking man who now sat several rows behind her in the plane with another big man who stood and shouted and who had belonged to her father, when her father had been alive which, she remembered with a start, had only been last night. For a moment, staring out the window, Karen Mae thought she saw two huge black birds flying alongside the plane. There was nothing, just air. There could be no crows or ravens this high.
They were an hour or so away from descent into Los Angeles. From the seat behind, Baxter eyed Chester with hate. Chester’s problems were now truly compounded. He thought about the Romance of the West and wondered where it had gone. His only plan was to follow the giant beavers’ advice and go see Mitchell and the publicity boys at the Studio and get them what is called in Hollywood excited, excited about the parade. We are all the same, we publicity boys, thought Chester. Excited. He’d had the tour of the office down there years ago and he’d even had dinner at Charlie Christianstein’s mansion in the hills with Producers and Stars and after all, he was the boss’s brother. The publicity guys all loved him. They’d get some press, Mitchell would get some more press, they’d get actresses’ agents and their publicity men some press and the Press would get its own kind of press and in short, as they say in Hollywood, everyone would get some press out of it. And of course, everyone would get excited.
Hollywood, Karen Mae thought, was something different. Like many famous artistic places, it was really just a kind of neighborhood in a larger city, like Greenwich village or North Beach or the Left Bank, but there were great and subtle and obvious differences between Hollywood and Soho, differences hidden from the uninitiated yet familiar to the most simple-minded tabloid boor. Like those other famous dens of Art, Hollywood attracted its requisite creative types from all over the world; writers and painters and financiers and actors and photographers and musicians and specialists of every description (paleo-mycologists, for instance) who, typical of Artists the world over, would have liked to settle their energy and fire among the poor and hardworking for inspiration. But in Hollywood, there were no humble folk in appropriate picturesque environs near, no fishermen coiling their nets or Chinese workers wading in rice or even Italians perspiring in sweat shops, there was only expanding row upon row of comfortably pensioned sun-seekers from the Midwest, lined up on little streets in bungalows. The artists of Hollywood had to live with and among themselves, inbreeding, practically habiting their workplaces. And because of the nature of large-scale, industrial movie-making – that is, the need for large controlled spaces – the Industry itself created factories in which the artists toiled. They did not live in the normal world of struggle and reality, these artists, pressed and enriched by more important things, renting cheap lofts in abandoned real factories next to where real people worked dressing out cow carcasses or packing fish into cans. In Hollywood, the Dreamer necessarily lived within the Dream itself, in the establishment itself, enslaved by it and yet desperate to remain victorious over it. No one was immune, no one escaped this enslavement, she had noticed, especially the big money boys from the East or Texas who thought they’d get in and out and make a fortune. They were quickly trapped, as trapped as the camera assistant wondering where her next job was coming from, trapped as the lowliest writer wondering when his next meeting might come, trapped as the actor wondering if she had blown the audition because she hadn’t worn the right outfit. The thing they were doing, thought Karen Mae, was the same thing they lived in. They had no perspective. They thought the dreams were real, too, just like the rubes in the Twin Star Theatre in Beaverteeth or set in front of their TVs in Elko, Nevada. The Hollywood factories would tool their dreams into shadows which could be held in a can, like flattened fish, shadows that could be resurrected by stringing them through noisy sprockets and hurling light at them or by nit-picking at electrons in tubes and chips and sandwiched imaginary lattices of the forces of virtually nothing. This local business, these factories, (these fish) separated Hollywood from any other Artistic Colony in the world, that was her thought. Indeed, she thought, it was more like a utopian company pottery town, the artisans in charming bungalows built in the shapes of dishware, the factory turning their dreams to cups and saucers. A necessary formalization ensued. After all, humans have thumbs and coffee is hot. We call it a cup and the handle is made like this and by God, you’ll make cups or at least saucers or there will be no company housing for you, my lad. Or, in her case, my girl. She wondered what was becoming of her life. She had to get out of Hollywood. She was beginning to fit in, she realized, when she noticed herself expecting to be picked up at the airport by a limousine owned by Honeyacre Pictures. She thought of her cute little unbelievably expensive suite at the picturesque hotel in Santa Monica virtually on the beach paid for by Honeyacre Pictures for over a year now. She thought of so many things as the plane whooshed and seemed to stop in midair and floated free for a moment as it began the long drop on the gentle slope of air down into Los Angeles.
Chester had always liked Los Angeles, liked the heat, liked the sense of mild ease beneath the flowering jacarandas, of nothing happening until something happened that was just so awful you couldn’t believe it, some firestorm or pestilential insect invasion or mud-flood or riot or earthquake or drought or box-office disaster or other. Two days afterward, no one remembered. Another east-coaster or Korean or Arab would be found standing in line to build right over the scars of yesterday’s disaster. Life went on in Los Angeles until it stopped but then it just went on again. Chester liked that. He tried not to think about his vision. If he closed his eyes, he would begin to see little neon dots that made him feel very, very crazy. He decided to concentrate instead on the back of the head of the tall red-headed woman way up in first class. He saw her head every time the partition opened and closed. She looked familiar to him in some way, as familiar as if she had been in his vision. He decided to wonder about her instead of bemoaning the loss of the Romance of the West and the fact that he was not in possession of much of a plan to save the parade and that he was probably going crazy. He wondered if a tall, good-looking woman like the familiar redhead in first class could ever fall in love with a crazy person like himself. No, he thought. No way. He was doomed to only attract crazy little women with big breasts who so hated him down deep that they would attempt to ruin his life, such as it was. He looked behind him and Baxter glared back.
“Honeyacre,” Baxter whispered, not wanting Jim Rook to hear, “your ass is mine.”