[The Mask on Brahman]
))))))) Fires a Chesterfield. Feels even better. They are driving straight into the sun. Crank the speed to mach 3 they could beat it to Bangladesh, check out the starving pagans, infants with sightless eyes. Here it is lovely, red rim under the visor, sinking into the tinted glass, something to worship if you are 91 on a marble piazza consulting the TIMES with a Bausch and Lomb. Maid in an apron would serve up a tall Tom Collins, a diuretic, something for the heart, let you fondle her ass. Here it is so lovely going burnished yellow through the clear, warm on Justin's eyelids, gentle on his lips.
The sun, nudging down on the distant rim, is dazzling, sweet red juice suffusing impotent slate with pronged libido. Whitman with a box of truffles waiting for his lover. Estling orgasmic. Scarlet billows, crimson tendrils, insisting their dalliance in a sea of encroaching black, fatality of autumn, splash of riot under the lid, blood of the carotid spilling from a suicide's throat, curious affirmation, strangled radiance in the maw of night, impudent defiance washing the horizon with utter red. Driving straight into it on a plane of concrete, into futile magnificence scattered on the ebony shroud, flecks of black, black contending, canceling scarlet as the sun descends, jealous of the last trace, space of its beauty, majesty unto death.
The giggly old psychic in trance—you were a painter, a great artist. You shot yourself in the chest—that night in Hillsdale the aging deva with her Pall Malls in the corner, little coil of gray at the sensual lips. Middle-aged couple looked on like roosting vampires, somehow benevolent, Shep Wright with the cassette player, Christa scared brainless when the presence spoke. Give it up or you won't last a year. I see an ancient pattern. She herself returned to Black Mountain—please write; I fear for you—and he pulled one more book out of his psyche much against orders. Hopefully slick, it lies in the jet black box.
"I always cry when the sun goes down. I always think of my father."
"I don't want to think about anything much. Sometimes I see myself at 5, whining to stay out on the porch when it's time for bed. Afraid to go to sleep, stretching moments in the silence. The light is like incandescence through a carpet, like flecks, tunneling through toward a friend. Maybe he's 6 and very strong."
"Do you think he's all right?"
"Yes. Do you think he made it?"
"If people make it he made it."
"Do people make it?"
"I don't know. I really don't know."
He reaches to touch her dark hair draping at her shoulders, runs his fingertips down to touch her spine.
"Justin. Say something comforting."
"I love you. Ich liebe dich."
"Are you certain?"
"Certain as love itself."
))))))) In dead night the charm is gone. They pull off at a truck stop in Indiana, refuel with no-lead and food from the auto-mat, swim slowly into sparse traffic past the pumps. On the Interstate the broad beams stab clean in density as Justin pushes it past 80, rushing through the void. His mind is filled with that first breakdown, the sky that night absolute, dark as a dead man's mouth, and the snow drifting in the headlights, materialized out of sheer vacancy. The big trucks winding past the white Mercedes—insects, carnivores, winging their way from out the waste. Shrieking, pressing at Estling—don't let them eat me—and Estling himself a carnivore, stepping off SERGEANT PEPPER, sucking his vital juices toward the wards, jealous of his mission to wrest the course of evolution from Lucifer's legions, from Pavlov at the Great Good Place.
"It's not far now." After a great long void.
))))) South of Whitewater on a country road, Justin sees it coming at a vast distance, at first a speck and finally twin specks and at last the stab of headlights, quavering, snaking on the round-top, hurtling drunken, awesome speed, crowding his lane, after all this endless trip, from a thin thread of illumination to at last a wall of light coming ever onward, threatening his sanity, drugged with Mellaril and lack of sleep, bright eyes looming, flashing teeth, massive radiance blotting the night, carnivorous, maw of unending light.
"Swerve, Justin. Oh help us."
He hits his brakes and skids on the shoulder, fishtails gravel, clips a fence row, hand clamped on the bellowing horn, the flare sweeping past, a Continental, white-faced driver over the wheel, carload of maggots, and he is back on the shoulder, grinding to a halt, too dazed to check the damage, heart-pumping agony crowding his chest, leaking from his throat.
"My sand painting. Daddy, it's ruined."
"Oh Justin. That was TOO close."
He simply can't finish it. Christa takes the wheel. He curls fetal into the window. Tries for sleep. That last 8 miles are a dark haze, undulations in an ether mist, rocking cradle in the void, helpless in uterine darkness, tapping the vinyl wall, the safety glass, a chromium ashtray in the armrest, gripped on the velour placenta, lulled by the whirring clock.
))))))) A solitary light burns on the Estling porch. They leave Justin half-conscious in the car. Estling's face looms at the window. Justin feels his forearms, mutters protestation. They ease him toward the door. Over the twilit threshold, a wrinkled carpet, to the cellar stairs. Flare of light on cannabis sativa in an earthenware crock, quivering pale and graceful. Feet on the steps. A sleeping bag. Someone has his shoes. He is inward with his clothes, Estling sitting in a straight-back chair, blond and powerful, Blake's magnificent Newton without the single vision, dance of shadows on the cinderblock; and Justin eases out with that last flick of Estling hunched with forceful hands. Here in sleep he finds surcease of sorrow, dark warm eiderdown touch, caress of gentle softness, windings in the black. Floats on ether, cruises the astral plane. So many times he is in fact aloft in his dreams, controlling his height and trajectory by the slightest nudge of his will. All his friends once faded straddle the spinning earth—look at Justin, at Justin, he can fly—clap their hands in glee and adulation—we've always loved him, we knew he would make it—Justin parting the azure lid, sculling for Stockholm, a host of dignitaries—descend to us in silence, heir of Hamlet, grace our humble lives. Aloft he fondles cirrus, tickles the burnished sun, shudders through total blue. Crests on the jet stream, paddles the stratosphere, hovers at Bangladesh, billion tons of soybeans spurting from his fingertips, petals and rain, streaming brilliant, gold and silver, sapphire from his lips. Settles on eternal spring, lushly appointed, accepts bouquets from children, simple broken toys, baskets of amber fruit, lilacs—addresses their innocence with metaphor—they toy with his crimson cord, their pull-string doll, laughter at his wisdom there on the green un-ravished earth.
He twists to her body in the first daylight through the cellar window, languorous into her buttocks, nuzzles her scented hair, nudges his eyelids into pale smooth soft unaltered skin, sleeps. Very far away is Westwood, Hauschildt's Continental in the lot, the asphalt waste. Here the air is fragrant, fresh-turned earth, new-mown grass, maple and evergreen, vegetables in the garden, corn, sweet peppers, squash, wind through the sycamores, acres off the chatter of a buzz-saw, odor of resin and shavings, traffic so faintly remote it seems to him like a wind harp, clean and unthreatening in the casement here in merciful summer, touch of innocence and calm—again he sleeps.
))))))) He wakes past noon. Shirley is in the straight chair. Her serenity is lightly lined, crinkle of humor at the corners of her innocent open gaze. The smile is a faint whisk, touch of a master's brush, yet deep as tissue, shuddering into her cells. Beyond her shoulder cannabis sways, delicate green perfection. Footsteps dance beyond the ceiling.
"How ARE you, Justin?"
"All right. I think I'm all right."
"Norm said you might be in the mood for something to eat. It's nearly one o'clock."
"What do you have?"
"Fried eggs, bacon?"
He finds the work boots, decides against them. Her buttocks are harmonious, odalisque in the faded shorts. Like Christa's the hair is threaded hickory smoke in the draping brown.
"I think I'm fine."
"I thought so. I thought you were just great."
Lisa is blond by the stove, stirring vegetarian soup, wisp of a smile out of Raphael, perhaps 15, certainly old as innocence, reaches her arm about his waist. Estling through the archway stretches lean at the edge of the sofa, watching shadow on the cobalt rug. He snaps erect like coiled steel, arm around Justin, beard against his belly, stands a taut virility, man-hard, Whitman on a dappled slope.
"It's hard to believe you're here."
Beyond the big window untended grass reaches to a sun-warm shed. A '49 Buick sedan, tiny windows in the massive weight of it, spills at the opening, rust-brown hood in the sunlight. Christa stands barefoot on the gravel, face toward encircling trees, transformed somehow by the azure meridian, turns to fondle Daniel diminutive with a fire truck, scooting through the grass. Waves. Splendid smile.
Shirley enters from the kitchen.
"The bacon's fresh. Rachel picked it up this morning on the way back from Richardson's. I'll make you 3 eggs. All right? Since the girls went vegetarian last winter we haven't had meat in the house. Not to speak of. Hell, it IS nice. Incredibly nice. Christa said you wrote something. The last was prolix, involved. Pain. She said you were after something a little gentler. That's not the word. Let's see. Perhaps a touch of levity in the darkness. Justin. There's light out there, you know. Catch it in the trees."
Justin grips her husband's triceps, sinks to the couch, doubled bewildered into his knees. Andrew steps in, the eldest son, turns away embarrassed.
"You look well. You really look well. I guess we always knew you'd make it. Maybe since '73."
))))))) Whiskey bottles scatter translucent over the back lawn. The labels are missing.
"Looks like you had one hell of a party."
"It's Danny's bottle collection."
Estling stands with his blond arms folded in the body-shirt, his thick hair gathered at the back. His chin is precise, even in the beard, which shows no trace of gray. He leans down, gathers up a Frisbee, tosses it in a slow high arc which lazes back to him, a red blur in the afternoon sunlight.
"Still into this?"
"Not since Spellman."
"How is he?"
"I don't really know."
Justin ascends barefoot through the bottles, pauses short of the thicket, strands of barbed wire silver in the dark entanglement. He turns. Estling stands by the house, flicks the Frisbee a bright shudder up to him. They pass it up and down the slope, Estling controlled, certain, Justin somewhat erratic, going for a velocity which his blond friend picks off with ease, sending it back with one sure motion.
"That last thing wasn't bad."
"What'd you say?"
"Your last novel. Incredibly negative though. I figured getting that out you'd survive, but I didn't think you'd write again. In fact I was hoping you wouldn't. I guess it's too much a compulsion. I was hoping you'd float for a few years, maybe even 10, and break their hearts with affirmation. Let me tell you. It hasn't been easy watching you, even from a distance, even from here. I guess you know that."
This last toss of Estling's goes wild into the thicket. Justin reaches down at last and emerges toward Estling distant in the sunlight. He puts his whole body into it, and it shudders wayward toward the garage to cleave on a rusty axe-blade discarded in a heap among the dandelions. Estling is over there fast, coils and comes up with it, launches into dance, sinks to his knees, spreads his muscular hands pale over it among the scattered bottles, arches into the sun, lean and immediate with his eyes an opaque haze splashed with brilliant blue, eyes of virulent statement, creases in the sun-browned flesh.
"Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Krishna shines in darkness bright. Enter this wounded creature. Infinite compassion in the sway of night. Siva siva flashing light. Heal this martyr in your karmic fire. Render it prior. Forgive our Justin, oh mystery, for fucking over this Frisbee. Succor him in his plight. Sacrilege itself is holy. Selah is selah."
Inside the garage Estling takes a soldering iron to the plastic disk, welds it whole. The heated steel is a bright red worm in the twilight, the smoke coiling like haze at the corner of an old woman's mouth.
))))))) "I know it seems idyllic, out here on 7 acres. Yet I had 4 sections of freshman comp last semester. My ratings aren't good. Maybe I'm trying for too much. When I let it slide they thought a lot of me. The kids take up my time. I tinker with the Buick, work the garden. Replaced the heating plant last fall, saved 300. The Ghia here rusted out, and I welded steel plate in underneath. It needs shocks. My poetry goes into these things, trips to concerts in Madison, Lisa's guitar lessons, the tree house—I'll have to show you that. I've monitored your suffering but somehow envied you for it. An artist doesn't really suffer. He has his product. Used to complain to Shirley about it. 10 years ago we reached a tacit understanding—no more discussion of Norm isn't writing, when will Norm be writing, is Norm finished. This narrative thing had promise, but I haven't given it 10 minutes since June. I'm not complaining. I've had a marvelous summer. Let's just say it wasn't free of guilt."
Estling rocks the Karman Ghia with a bare foot. The afternoon is bright, utterly focused, framed at the open door. Justin lights a cigarette, leans back on primer-coated steel. His feet are chill on the broken concrete. Estling stands with his arms crossed, powerful biceps, blond in the twilight, continues.
"I've told you to go with the current. Float on the Tao, slake your thirst. So much of it was thrashing, painful. On the other hand I felt secure. Fed you strength from a distance, criticized your work in utter objectivity, until finally I came around to a most disquieting discovery—I was beginning to envy you for your output. Regardless of its final quality the work was there, a massive amount of it, while I lay fallow. In the last years the few short things I sent you only set me up for pain—your every enthusiasm was a barbed hook in my strained assurance that it was I who was strong, who had this process of living by the balls out here on these acres, here or, especially, Rock Ridge."
"You still feel that way?"
"No. I guess not to the same degree."
"I'm not sure I do."
"Where's Rock Ridge?"
"That's where we're headed Friday."
))))))) They enter the '49 Buick past 3, Estling and Justin in their work boots, pulling on Honduran cigars. The drive is packed earth, a slow arc descending among trees. Justin catches a last glimpse of his Father's Electra up into the woods as they reach the flat, a ribbon of dark macadam past Estling's mail box where he pulls in some letters and settles back for the trip to town. The tar of the freshly paved road is mildly acrid, fragrant among the field smells, a dairy farm swimming left, emerald water, splash of cattle on the far rise under chestnuts. Estling's hands are immensely capable on the wheel, reaching the good cigar to his lips, entering that experience with no thought of its termination, gripping eternal now and its radiance only firmly enough to sense its texture, surrendering its savor graciously to the flow, this shudder up asphalt toward 72 and south by the river.
"Any fishing in there?"
This whole stretch is so familiar. Justin has driven it perhaps a 100 times either to Estling or on to Madison, and once in a '55 Buick to carry household goods for one of his friends in Whitewater who took a house on back from the road, white frame listing among trees. Half the department pitched in—good therapy for trembling Justin seeking to recover from that first breakdown, headed for a 2nd and a 3rd in less than a year.
"Ever heard from Kandinski?"
"Jesus, wasn't that a trip? No. Last I'd heard he was in advertising somewhere east. Split with Jessica. We all knew that was coming. I guess I just nudged it a little."
"How innocent was that?"
Estling turns and smiles, examines his cigar at a stoplight. The firm gray ash has yet to splinter. He taps it off across the sunlight on his left elbow and laughs just a touch, nearly soundless, free of strain, gentle as those hands might be in tenderness had the cards been dealt that way, tender toward Justin.
"Innocent. Just that. You won't believe what I went through for it. Much as if I had betrayed all we had shared in 15 years of marriage, of total honesty, mutual respect, tenderness. Lucifer and Mussolini in the same nasty basket—blackguard, ingrate. Total recrimination, bitterness. I'm still paying, Justin, maybe in a different way. Not to say I'm monogamous. I'll never be that—I will bring to thee girls of bright silver and of furious gold—it hasn't come to her total acquiescence, but she knows I'm taking my pleasure. It's not really freedom. If I wanted that I'd take to the tree house in lotus, burn the klesas. But hell, I'm young, Justin. Any imbecile knows that. Look at me. See any fat on this belly?"
See any fat anywhere? Estling's thighs are striated through faded denim, lined with firm taut muscle, supple as mainsprings, smooth as Machiavelli, hard as adolescence, tactile as a hashish afternoon under brilliant sun, taking love from them floating in crimson fields, or simply there against them angling from the ample base of the trunk, plying the time-worn pedals like a genius with a Bach toccata, furious flesh at middle-age, Priapus himself.
Justin reaches over and grips Estling's belly.
"I'd say you're lean, Norm. Very lean indeed."
))))))) In the grocery store locals crowd the counter. Estling straddles the linoleum graceful as a cat, taut, the arms crossed in the body-shirt, play of pectorals through the tinted jersey, head erect, calm as Christ, while the others surge forward, filling the slightest gap. Justin yearns to wedge his way through them, is horribly pained to see his friend bested in such a fashion. Estling's patience seems misplaced, his self-composure a travesty—Bodhidharma in a parking lot, Jesus at a bargain table, Buddha at McDonald's—Justin crowds at last toward the counter.
"I'll have 7 pounds of cheddar and 5 pounds of pressed ham. Give me a dozen eggs."
Justin turns. The little brown man behind the counter is taking down the order. Estling has parted the swarming locusts. They have cleaved a path for his voice. Everyone listens. The gap closes around that patient form, that majesty. In a space the produce passes over the top into Estling's arms and they are on their way out. Incredibly, Estling is unconcerned, seemingly oblivious to a miracle. He parts the crowded exit like the Dead Sea, slides into the old sedan.
"Leave the window open. We've got a leak in the exhaust."
Sure. Why not? Why not anything for Norman Estling? Why not here in this silence toward the beer distributor along Shirley's afghan over the wasted nap of the seat? Is there nothing in this preoccupation? Justin lights a Chesterfield, flicks the match under the dash, settles into the sudden sweet warmth he feels all the way from his abdomen. If Estling had the slightest notion of these undercurrents it would have touched him only as pain. Somehow there is no death in this afternoon, taste of sorrow totally sweet as life, as if in living such humility in sexuality toward him there is suddenly earth and rain, the pulse of blood, lilacs on a hillside, sunlight swirling at the cobalt meridian, serpent-hooded touch, glossy undulations in August, passive rapture on the spermatic crotch-hot earth.
"Just a case to slake the thirst. All right?"
"Don't worry about me."
"How long has it been?"
"That's real strength."
"I mean it."
"I know you do. Thanks a lot."
))))))) Estling nudges cold Hamm's into the trunk, palms a can, slides in behind the wheel, notches it, pulls out, sipping.
"I guess you could call this a death trip but I find it tasty in small installments."
"I don't mind, Norm."
"Same way with acid. Spaced 5 trips over 7 years."
They head north by the river in the massive sedan.
"You never told me you did LSD."
"I was afraid you'd be encouraged to drop again. Anyway it wasn't much after the first occasion."
"What was that like?"
"Pretty much at that. Somewhere there was a disk of swirling light. Closer and closer among the melting forms. I reached out and it took my hand away. Then it was as if I were dissolving inward, all the way until I was outside looking on, I guess, at the lack of myself. Then I formed again loose as vapor, floated toward the trees. Incredible colors. Lilac, vermilion, a fearful orange, all shredding, breaking up into an incandescent haze. Then the disk reappeared, very distant. I fell asleep on the lawn. Shirley called me in about 11. I listened to Vivaldi that night. The colors were dancing."
"You remember it pretty well."
"I guess so."
"You still smoke grass, don't you?"
"Enough of that, but I don't get that high anymore. Don't try to. More of a social thing. I guess I feel you shouldn't force things. Mostly I'm into my body. Physical fitness. It seems more natural, safer."
"I saw the plant in the basement."
"That'll last us 7 years."
"And your body?"
"Sex is important now. More so than ever."
"How is that?"
"I go through some pretty concrete fantasies these days. Sometimes my whole body is penis and I'm really involved. The woman simply as instrument or the whole reverse of that. On occasion I totally lose my boundaries."
"Sometimes. Sometimes I'm perfectly straight."
"You bring back memories. Christ, I knew what it's like."
Justin slides far down on the seat, eyes the ceiling, melting suddenly with the same languor he felt in the distant past, as a child or getting high in Whitewater. Talking to Estling, so close to him, within a foot of his angled thighs in the denim, the body-shirt, remnant of a cigar in his strong fingers.
"Would it matter to you if Andrew or Danny were gay?"
"Of course it would. I'd be concerned."
Justin reaches for his cigarettes in the black T-shirt, cups a match to his lips, lets the gray gust into the shudder of wind through the open window, straightens up and hunches over the cigarette like a little boy with ragweed, young, so very young, naked in sunlight.
"I think it's all one odd perversion, Norman. Any way you go."
))))))) They ascend gravel to the porch. Estling passes in, hands the groceries to Shirley, who gathers his face down. They kiss. Estling steps out for the Hamm's, nudges it into the upright, gathers into a battered red chair with a second can, lights his cigar. Christa is off the kitchen hunched at a table with Lisa, who works a large sheet of paper with watercolors. Glimpse of Rachel's body as Justin steps to the landing, standing tawny with beads of water, unconcerned. He makes the basement, a typescript in the black container. Smells the hemp plant, ascends. Rachel is in shorts and a halter, 17, large-boned lovely woman smiling now, climbing ahead with a firm vibration of the rump.
"It's called PALE DESIRE. THEN SHE BORE PALE DESIRE."
"Yes. The title's from Blake."
Estling settles back with the double-spaced sheets, adjusts a floor lamp, is surrounded by red upholstery.
"The skeleton man."
"Yes. It's rather slick. Maybe they'll go for it."
Justin steps out, descends a path through the trees. An ancient chassis pokes rust through undergrowth, a prop in Estling's multimedia PLASTIC POEM with the naked blonde fondling the steering column. Justin sits against rough bark, smokes toward the lowered sun slant through a big maple out beyond the clearing.
He had almost forgotten. The night he wore the Aztec robe, 50 cents at a second-hand store in Eagle. In the gymnasium was an opaque womb inflated by an air pump, flower children inside, blur of bright color and faces pale, giggles at the vibrant huge enclosure. They crawled through to emerge in total darkness and suddenly Estling's poem brilliant on multiple screens, disks of tinted luminescence shuddering over the floor, that husky voice chanting orgasmic mantras, on screen a spinning cadaver, flick of Wheaties, artifacts over the sea of hands. And the saxophone solo, shrieking metal in the murmur, a final spiral inward, nihilistic anthem on a polished axe. A rock group, Truth, on the platform, wired to a 1000 watts, dark angels plying steel in a rush of sound that levitated Justin stoned in the robe, and in the lull at last he shouted. Does Whitewater deserve this? Scribbled a poem on a wrinkled scrap and collared the closest seraphim—use it someday, take this in remembrance of me. Calm descending. Wink of joints in shallow arcs, passing in the darkness.
Time passes, several hours facing the riven sun.
There it burns past indigo, edging toward the earth. Justin hears him coming down the path.
))))))) "A plastic surgeon with skin cancer? It's the same trip, Justin."
"How about the ending?"
"How would you have done it?"
"I can think of a 1000 ways. Certainly before he reaches the apartment."
"I wanted it cheap."
"Well you got it. Cheap as sequins."
"Will it sell?"
"What do you think?"
"Pissing against the wind."
"That's about the size of it."
Justin gathers up, enters the clearing.
"Don't sulk now. You gave it a try. It didn't pay."
"What do you suggest?"
Estling is a silhouette against the corn. The light is going, thin shadows broken on the furrows, extending toward the trees. His gesture is sudden, as if pulling down cosmic energy to cast on the darkening earth.
"Christ, Norm. I'm a writer. It's all I can do."
"You've got a family. Bring home some bread to them."
And then he shows Justin the garden in final light.
"We had a real scare last April. Keith Richardson rented one of the farms out here a few years back, left a big job on the coast. Brought a lifetime supply of Sunshine, acid he stored in his freezer. He has a son about Danny's age, 9 I think. They raided Keith's supply for one hit, cut it in half and dropped it. We found them staring at imaginary cartoons, touching them with a finger—zap, you're gone—giggling. Danny seemed to be having the time of his life. I stayed up with him till 3, put him to bed. About 10 minutes later he was screaming—daddy, there's bugs on me. We got him down finally just talking him through it. I mean we were SCARED. He wouldn't speak for weeks unless you worked with him. He won't discuss the experience. Just lately he's come around, the Danny we knew, playing with his fire truck, washing his bottle collection in the back yard."
They mount the porch, swing in to color and light. Lisa at her knee, Christa is sitting on the red chair. Her face is softened, open, discussing fairy tales with Estling's youngest daughter. Norm ladles soup into 2 large bowls, breaks off whole wheat bread. They eat on a couch, Estling slow and deliberate, Justin checking his haste.
"Where is everyone?"
"They're out back watching Shirley's Tai Chi."
Estling climbs past the landing, emerges with a coffee tin, rolling papers, banana yellow, fashions a joint with steady hands, fires it, slides the tin under the couch. Lisa and Christa accept a toke, return to their discussion. Justin waves no thank you. Estling smokes in silence.
"This is local grown from Columbian seeds, very raw but serviceable."
Justin feels a certain high even without the drug, picks up Buckminister Fuller and scans the first 30 pages, hears Estling.
"Bucky's got his shit together."
"I'd say that. Certainly beats Alice Cooper. Right, Christa?"
She nods. Her eyes have certain sparkle. On Christa's knee, Lisa rests a hand, her chin on the hand. Estling drops the roach in a silver box, rolls another joint from the tin, stands arched backwards, thrusting a pale strip of his belly, blond thatch under the navel, crosses to the turntable.
"Let me play you something."
))))))) Estling's LP's are on a shelf beneath the landing. He works in from the left, pulls one out, obscuring the jacket, observes the naked grooves, settles it down. Justin hears the first sweet chords as Estling kills the lights, feels the sagging couch as he sinks into concord. There is no fear, totally calm, woven harmonies in the darkness. The others enter through the kitchen, gather on the carpet, muted conversation and at last the scent again, arc of the burning coal, flare of inhalation on fingertips, ghost of lips and nostrils crimson, fading as it passes through the void.
The system is excellent, 1000's invested by Estling since '68. Justin has heard the Beach Boys sound like Stravinski on those big speakers. This present album has the color of a sunset but none of the tension. It is beautiful, devoid of heartache. Justin enters it, floats on the sweet affirmation, gentle chromatic rush. With the arcing cigarette and the hush of their voices, Estling somewhere invisible, close enough to touch, Justin hears his own voice somehow detached or perhaps again through him from a distant source.
"Is this new?"
Estling sighs, reaches for the joint, settles back.
"Justin, it's the resolution of suffering."
"I think I'd call it the resolution of inadequate suffering."
Estling laughs hoarsely, giggles, shifts on the couch.
"That's your old trip again."
"Sure it is. You're hanging onto the pain. That's all."
Time passes. Christa at last is gone. Justin refuses the marijuana. Somehow he wouldn't have needed it anyway. At last he descends.
In the basement he makes his way by the grow light. He stands a moment in violet darkness, climbs in against her rump through the cotton gown. She wriggles in the sleeping robe, turns murmuring, presses her belly into his naked torso. He lifts the gown to free it, the drape of her generous breasts. Comes to her, nuzzling his face over her soft sweet body, hooking his elbow at her groin, hand up the crease of her spine, bicep into the vulva, achingly holding her writhing flesh so eager to be done with it, her whispers for ultimate haste. And soon he IS done, into her belly intensely, spasms as she arches, heels into eiderdown, the press of her nipples, teeth at her neck, holding till her sound returns his coming, reciprocates in ragged trailing moans, damp in the sleeping bag, chill of the concrete beneath him.
She lies sobbing, covering her eyes, elbow creased by twilight on the basement floor. He knows it was less pain than release, but it is always difficult when she cries after orgasm. He can never quite understand. Perhaps there is a depth to her to which those tears attest far beyond his capacity to enter, to probe, an area of her inner life he has never approached. And the hint of that unknown region is a source of anxiety, perhaps of guilt. He would have liked to think that even their greatest depths were visible to each other, that nothing between them was ever held back, ever totally private. And he rocks her in his arms, somehow helpless, until at last she stops.
"I'll be leaving for Madison quite early."
"No. I'm taking Shirley and the kids. Is there anything you want me to say to anyone? Anything you want me to do?"
"I guess not. The only person I'd ever want to see again is Andrew, and it's far too late for that."
"Andew? Yes, he meant a lot to you."
"More than I can say."
As Justin drifts at last toward sleep, glimpse of the priest in guttering candlelight. He couldn't face Justin's eyes—you are too perfect, too perfect—couldn't touch his skin. Glimpse of him entering a black Chevrolet, and then that last night he saw him in Madison. Dear Andrew. At last he sleeps, quiet as ultimate stone.
))))))) Justin ascends barefoot to the kitchen. Estling's muscular back tenses in the body-shirt over an iron skillet. His hair sways in the thong, flash of smile. Justin grips Norm's triceps, smells the eggs bubbling toward crisp in the butter, lifts a strip of bacon brittle from the counter, steps toward muted sunlight through the living room, turns. Estling's smile. The sky is overcast. They sit off the kitchen. Estling cuts his eggs with a bread knife, cups his fork, lifts bacon from dark strands on an orange platter. There is whole wheat bread and honey.
"I am dead but have arisen."
"I wish we could have had you the whole summer."
"I'll accept what's given."
The house is quiet, chatter of a jay, distant thunder.
"They're going to hit rough weather."
"How about tomorrow?"
"There's no problem with tomorrow. I just heard the forecast."
"Do you like Gary Snyder?"
Rain comes at last, hisses on the roof. Beyond the twilit yard lightning flashes, silhouettes the trees. Estling gathers from the couch, claws at the ceiling, reaches blond hands for the nape of his shirt. Justin, fascinated, observes Norm's chest go bare in flickering light. Difficult to watch those hands at the heavy belt, parting cotton over wiry blond, pale of skin and the genitals. Kicks off the trousers, Estling terribly naked in the shudder of lightning, a ripple of lean pale muscle, currents of tensed virility as he turns, pale hard buttocks vibrant over the tense of the legs. Pauses at the landing, snake of blue vein in the tensile belly.
"Come on. Jesus, come on."
Estling enters the beating rain, looses the hair, luxuriant blond to his shoulders, sprints up the slope, turning turning in the torrent, lightning flashing beyond the trees, thunder racking the distance in a jet black sky.
Justin stands in the doorway. Estling faces ahead toward the foliage, pale against the barbed thicket, thrusts his clenched hands out in tensed fury, lovely cruciform flesh glossy in the rain. There strained, striated muscular perfection takes a sudden awesome miraculous hit of lightning which splits the dark and rolls upon his flesh to meet the ground and tumble over the rain-slick grass.
And Estling impossibly turns, pale and virile, spins and descends with the sway of his manhood to the foot of the slope, flashing teeth, opaque eyes splashed indigo toward Justin frozen mute by the apparition.
Steps inside, reaches a towel from the landing, works it harsh over glossy flesh, climbs to the living room, pulls on his trousers—and Justin isn't even sure THIS is real—stands bare chest, navel seemingly vestigial, and the down of his abdomen, thatch above the leather and denim, tendons tensed in the pale of his perfect feet. Oblivious to miracle, reaches for the coffee tin, rolls a joint in the yellow paper, fires it. Beyond the house lightning flashes, thunder batters the skies.
"You shouldn't be afraid of your body. You have a lovely body, Justin. You shouldn't be afraid of it."
Afraid of his need for him. Does Estling sense it?
))))))) The rain is an even gentle mist as they drive toward Whitewater. Beyond Fort Atkinson a country road creases undulant countryside straight south past the Cold Springs Inn. In the big sedan it is almost as if Justin is a boy again, peering through his father's windshield. So often had he sat inside while the administrator washed it, sprayed a wriggle of translucent water muting his outline and the forms of shrubs and trees, their porch beyond the drive. Here he is quiet, passive at Estling's sure command of shuddering steel, and his tawny voice, modulating color against the rumbling snow tires and the faulty exhaust.
"All I knew was farm work on poor land, my father's futility with 40 truculent acres. The yellow bus to a country school seemed a miracle. I saw too well my father's defeat. The land had claimed him before I was 17. I would break with that slavery, master syntax, prose rhythms, geography and calculus. And it paid with a scholarship, straight A's at a teacher's college, fellowship to Cornell. What an impossible rube in those years toward the doctorate, hopelessly outclassed. Shirley held my hand. We raised a family in graduate housing. I returned to teach, struggled with a thesis 8 long years. Probably know Wallace Stevens better than anyone else on this earth. Discarded the poet for Union Graduate School, a new approach. I'm just about titled. The kids are nearly grown. Danny drops acid at 9. Rachel fits up with a diaphragm, pursues the ultimate fuck. Shirley's a stranger. I cast my seed where the bright wings open and conjure a new art form. Ultimate social statement. Buddhist monk torched with U.S. petroleum, naked on a cross, flaming to a crisp with Verdi on all 4 channels. This whole thing's God, Justin. I really shouldn't complain."
"God or the mess he's made of it."
"God. We made the mess of it."
"I don't know. I think he did a pretty good job before we started."
"That's just YOUR view of it, a very private view."
They enter Whitewater past dormitories Justin saw go up in '69. The Buick is improbable, stirs glances from the street. The lot is nearly deserted, a battered Subaru and a yellow Mercedes. Estling cuts the engine, accepts a cigar from Justin, lights it from a kitchen match he flicks through the open window.
"What's YOUR version?"
"Here's the first installment."
Estling hands him a bill from his multimedia work. It reads—
KLUGE MOTION PICTURE LABORATORIES, INC.
5350 W. Clinton Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53223
Transmag to optical 1 hr. at $35/hr. $35.00
1 reversal sound answer print 174 ft. at .265 46.11
Setup B windtrack 5.00
"Sort of a concrete poem."
"Yeah. That's what I was getting at."
In the darkened laboratory Estling readies the projector. Shows him a film called CAVEWAYS, shudder of sleek sedans toward stone dead Milwaukee, arcing pale concrete, clover leafs, intricate tunnels in pitiless light, pavement looping eternally, anguished pursuit of futility ever nowhere, impossibly nowhere with a quavering ghastly baritone counter-pointing fright, anthropological text on ancient creatures burrowing fitful pathways through the earth, haunting tearful emptiness, void in range-less purpose, mass culture, mass pursuit, ragged pathos, emptiness personified, maniacal chant, prophetic doom raging on the Interstate.
"Is that the second installment?"
"No, Justin. It's simply your version."
"I guess so. Lately I think there are better things to say."
Spellman had to have known the waste of it, known Justin's impotence, incandescent shudder in the web of black indifference, snuffed like a taper by the gale of immense necessity, biological will or angry judgment roaring its indignation toward any such impudence that might seek to set man free.
"Justin. You're shaking."
"It's all right. That's one of the strongest things I've seen."
"Right. But it's really a very small part of it. The whole picture."
"You'd have to convince me of that."
"Give me luck and a little more time."
))))))) They stop at the rural inn for lunch, sit off the taproom, have curiously large hamburgers, Estling a Hamm's. The day is clear again, stepping out from the darkness, almost as if bad art or intentions never existed, pale blue purity over distant corn, grazing cattle on a blue-green meadow, fence posts, wire, slovenly sheds, weed-grown cultivator off the paving, rusting in sunlight. They swing a low shallow arc in to the crossroads, drive west through Fort, crush of cars by the river, pastel boats sputtering like buzz saws, fishing tackle. Heading north off 72 Estling has the Buick up to 80, creaking, careening, rumbling on the asphalt, glossy tar in pools and rivulets leaking at last in the heat.
Past the Estling mailbox, winding up packed earth, Norman steady with the old sedan, stabbing toward the porch, backing in to fill the shed. They slide out on damp concrete, enter brilliant light, at last the house. Inside Estling rolls marijuana in banana yellow paper.
"It's been important for Anna to be out here. Gets the idea it's not all defeat. She's given us some trouble this year."
"We had the same thing with Lisa. Yes Lisa, our Lisa, gentle passive creature. Told her mother directly to kiss her ass just a week ago. She'll go days perfectly serene, warm, lovely. Suddenly she's a stranger. Why don't you die? She asked me that."
They step out on the porch, negotiate a slab of marble still wet from the rain. A path cuts through trees, weed-grown, brambles, flecks of color in the undergrowth. Justin sees wild flowers, a raspberry bush, Estling's buttocks tensing through the faded denim as he slants past fallen branches to the tree house, a rough platform 20 feet up on sycamore limbs, dark wedge against foliage and cumulus, aching blue clarity, shuddering sky.
Justin usually fears height, but ascends here mindful only of the rungs. His hands are tight at the top of the ladder, stepping to the creaking planks. Sits at the center. Estling, standing, pulls off his shirt, dancing shadow on the tense of his skin. Sits. Pulls his legs into lotus, lights the first joint. Justin declines. Estling smokes in silence.
"Had in mind a place to lure the Muse. Muse can't be lured. The kids use it mostly. Maybe with some handles on my ass I'd sit tight here once a day, even in winter, scorch my klesas."
Time seems nonexistent. Estling lights a second joint. Justin again declines but feels that high across from him enter his body, a difficult intensity mellowing at last to sweet languor, calm.
Pulls his legs into lotus. They face each other at 3 feet.
"Don't feed me strength. It never works that way."
Estling's eyes are most precise. His outline is utterly clear. Justin presents the totality of himself to the totality of Estling, centers it at their pupils. In time the whole of Estling is linked by invisible currents to the whole of himself. Euphoria ascends in maddening waves toward unity almost unbearable, intensification, presence. Estling and Justin are more there, totally there, intolerably there. Quiet there as time stands still. Tathata. They are fused. Till Estling wrenches the union quivering on the shuddering planks in emerald green and sunlight to Justin's agonized voice.
"I just SAW you, Norman. For the very first time."
"Yes. I just saw you for the very first time in my life."
Justin clings to the swaying platform.
))))))) The others return at 3 to cheddar and pressed ham on paper plates out in the sun-splashed yard, knees into the grass at a bright checkered cloth, passive conversation, Lisa's real serenity, Shirley standing with sun-browned tapered legs, drape of unfettered breasts under faded madras, Estling presiding like an avatar, flash of teeth, ripple of humor, Danny chasing a grasshopper, wriggle of diminutive buttocks toward the kitchen.
Christa's face has lost all tension. It settles toward utter calm. Justin has seen it on opium afternoons, lysergic evenings, in hashish dreams past midnight in the flicker of a Buddhist strobe. Here it shudders noble in the sun, dignity of eons over Estling's seed-blown yard. Conjures her apprenticeship, sobriety of craft, Moroccan bindings, watermarks, Jane Austin in manuscript, holograph Byron, pastel Blake on brittle paper. Her dazzle of sudden conviction assumes Platonic form, pours through passion and tranquility, seraphic aspect in emerald light.
Estling directs Andrew and Anna toward the shed. They emerge with a volleyball net, absurd above the slanting grass, bizarre their efforts slapping a spheroid in the splintered sun through spruce and mimosa, levity's laughter, Estling dancing away his solemnity in rippling luminescence, tense of flesh apprised of incongruity, rivulet sweat on the beaded cheeks, blond flesh man-smell exuberance as Justin's team emerges in tentative triumph.
All but Justin earn banana yellow in the dusky interior. His high is purely contact. Tibetan chants on the powerful speakers, clear as Lucite, trembling eternal voice, the children a wash of color on the carpet, accepting the fragrant cigarettes from Estling's tin.
And it is ritual with the clashing instruments, the clacking wooden blocks, entering the body, getting the brain in everywhere, equality of presence roaring toward self-sense, sweet unbearable sadness.
Rachel flicks in tawny from the porch. A dark angel perhaps 19 settles into lotus on the hardwood. Ricardson with the 1000 hits steps in from sunlight. Christa discusses transmigration. Lisa colors with florescent crayons. Danny maneuvers his fire truck. Estling stretches leonine. Shirley is simply there. And should Justin's haunting metaphor ever again apply, it is beatific frozen stills of utter duration, time flickering forward, trailing images in the wake of each gesture, fixing eternally each scant second to shudder forward to the next, succession of fixed infinity, sprung film chattering utterly, sprayed on flesh and silence. For Justin at last, there overhead, a billion miles in interstellar space, Jehovah, lulled by charas, falls asleep for eternity—no one is left at the lens.
))))))) They drive toward the Fireside at 8 PM. Justin in the rear seat imagines Sunday evenings returning from Lotta von Stiel in his Father's black sedan. There ahead Shirley and Norm seem curiously his parents against the massive dash and the tiny windshield. He nuzzles against Christa, suddenly Melissa his sister, incommunicative, a silent source of softness and protection. Here in the rushing womb he heads, impossibly, for fresh warm linen, enclosing dark, the tick of a hand carved clock on his walnut dresser, night sounds, sleep. He lingers in this reverie with the creaking lights, head lamps stabbing pale on asphalt and fence rows, flare of sparse oncoming traffic swimming past headlong toward their own versions of security in an utterly summer night. He hears her voice.
"Are you happy, Justin?"
"We were given these few days. Someone was generous."
Shirley slips left in silhouette toward her husband. Justin stretches down toward Christa's lap, feels her inclining breasts in the velvet jacket, the sway of her hair, sees at last faint planes of muted light, a spray of stars framed by the dark interior, Estling's jacket indefinite white cresting the somber seat, calm and security east on 72.
"I'm not that anxious to go back."
"I believe you."
"Well we have Friday yet. We have tomorrow. Where did you say we were going? Norm?"
"West of Madison. The Friends have about 200 acres. They call it Rock Ridge. I thought we'd spend the day."
"Sounds like fun."
"Why don't you stay on? Till Sunday."
"Too much of a drive. I wish we could."
"I think you should move back out here."
"Maybe. It's hard to predict."
"Well here's your restaurant."
))))))) In a forest of Lincoln Continentals, the Buick splays silent, tiny amber wink of the joint through glass, suspicious in the dark interior. Estling giggles in a white suit and black string tie, circa '55, shakes his thick hair free to tremble on flannel shoulders, savors the local hemp in strawberry pink paper. They swing out to an orange Eldorado, snicker self-consciously on asphalt. Christa is high in velvet, Shirley giddy in a granny dress, Justin strained in his black jacket and trousers, a faint spatter of silver thread in the knife-sharp silhouette.
Continentals hiss, 450 SL Mercedes's prowl the parking lot, lean stabs of light on gleaming steel, Fleetwoods murmur. Ahead the Fireside glows in antiqued wood like an Aztec temple, glossy gray shag descending to the ochre canopy, vinyl palm trees, illuminated water spurting from stainless steel, tinted flagstones, portable Styrofoam shrubs in flaming pink—chromium spotlights flaring thin wedges aloft, fitful illumination of elderly matrons, executive types in double-knit suits.
They enter a long tunnel to the hostess in an emerald pants suit. She eyes them incredulous, checks their reservation—yes, certainly, there's just the slightest delay, I'm sure you'll like the Cordova Room. Ushers them to a glossy alcove, imitation onyx bar, Estling's Tuborg, daiquiris in shaved ice, Justin's ginger ale, and they wait in the plush surroundings.
In time they cross the yellow bridge, eye the porcelain myna birds, edge into greater darkness, flicker of candles, a florescent waitress with an automatic smile that seems to click. Estling's eyes flicker in the ruddy skin, gust of a cigar from the taut precision of his face, his giddy convulsion with the last shudder of smoke.
"I can't believe this place."
They all roar at the plastic absurdity, gales of laughter, shattering release in the deep funereal hush. Heads jerk up indignant. Monstrous sacrilege and eyesore, those hippies by the air ducts, darkest table imaginable, probably ordered hamburgers.
Estling draws a skewered sausage out of the plastic pumpkin. Other edibles protrude like bristles over the lazy Susan side dishes—pickled herring, smoked salmon, black olives, blue cheese, assorted biscuits.
"Used to eat these massive steaks, but I always saw eyeless brown children streaked with ash and dust. Made it stick in my throat. Now this is decadence. Pampered menopause, sharkskin suits, Pierre Cardin and Yves St. Laurent, slashing longhorns, marbled beef, crimson juices bubbling on a porcelain slab. Incredible."
The sound is delicate, muffled in twilight. Christa carves discretely, ladles sour cream into her baked potato. There are string beans, an order of onion rings. Estling disappears, returns, grinning vastly. Pitter of ingestion in the flickering light, muffled clack of steel-ware, glass against porcelain.
"I told them today's your birthday. There's a free cake."
"How old did you make me?"
When van Gogh shot himself. Theo, the brother, arrived to find him smoking in his room. No anguish, rather deep serenity, resignation, calm. Justin carves his beef with such detachment yet is suddenly conscious of his fork in soft flesh, a larger fork, perhaps ultimate, imbedded in his back, pinned to a shallow slab, crimson fluid climbing the cosmic tines. Tries to shake it off. But it lingers.
))))))) "Here they come. Jesus, look at that."
7 waitresses in miniskirts approach with milk-white thighs, forced gaiety, a tiny white cake with a squat blue candle draining clotted wax, smile feverishly, launch into song. Justin, still impaled by an imaginary fork, is suddenly terrified.
"Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you."
He starts from the table. The room is whirling. Stabs for the bridge, containing his fear, lunging reflection through the cave-way, out into night, starlight, sprints down the road, flick of cars, headlights, wrenching it down, calm now, finally calm, burning lungs, calmer now, resting.
It is very calm, just the hiss of traffic. He sits against a fence post, racks in air, conjures lines from Dylan Thomas, Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in control now, Beowulf, taste of Tennyson, counting to a 100, all the way back against the rough shag of the post, the matted earth, the winking sweet void above yielding a last compassion.
"Are you all right?"
He nods at Estling's white flannel suit.
"Taking in the night. I'm okay."
"Why don't we go home?"
He nods at Estling's suit.
))))))) "Perhaps this is paraphrase."
"The world is filled with God's grandeur;
It will flame out like shining from shook foil."
Estling pauses at the stoplight, turns, reaches a strong hand back to grasp Justin's shoulder. His smile is warm yet somehow contained, controlled. Shirley glances left at him, turns to eye the green. They move out in a wall of sound, Estling commanding the gears through Fort, drifting at last by the river, ebony ribbon under the tinted slate, minute points of brilliance hazed with shuddering light, a swirl of energy dancing in sidereal space, yellow crescent moon, rimmed with radiance, silhouetted foliage distant on the flat, hemlocks, slash of traffic straining at the crossroads, aeolian rumble, Justin drawing on the remnant of a cigarette.
"It's just so incredible he saw it that way. Skies of couple color. Rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim. I mean I knew it too once but it seems so damned remote."
Estling's voice comes strong and vibrant, calm as deep water after hush, a space of unalterable silence—
"Don't be overjoyed at the right.
Don't be distressed over the wrong.
For the ancient masters, things are like flowers and
Peach blossoms are red, plum blossoms are white, and
Roses are pink.
Though I ask the spring breeze why they are so, it knows
The '49 Buick stabs toward 7 acres.
))))))) At last in uterine darkness Estling hovers at the turntable, settles invisible toward the sofa. The children are out on the lawn with a homemade telescope. Justin declines the glowing cigarette, lights a Chesterfield, listens to AMERICAN BEAUTY, crisp color liquid from the speakers. A perfumed night insists through the open windows. Fireflies dance on the gravel. Danny's giggles pitch high through Jerry Garcia—if my words did glow with the cold of sunshine—through amber tawny chords in the winking black—let it be known, there is a fountain, that was not made by the hands of men—and Justin feels a simple sudden affirmation floating in the darkness, sweet hungry tremulous sadness at his mortality, gusts of wood smell, jasmine and decay, dying toward autumn, winter's difficult kiss—in the attics of my life, full of cloudy dreams unreal—merciful drifting, dazzled hungry fragrance ticking toward final release.
"Tomorrow's Good Friday."
"I didn't hear you."
"I said I think I'll turn in. It must be past 11. Going to nudge down another Mellaril, enter that big dark bag, flake off in narcotized sleep. Get 9 hours maybe. See how it looks in the morning. I haven't had a day like this in 7 long years."
"You sleep, Justin. You get a good sleep."
He leans down at the soft haze on the carpet.
"I'm staying up. I don't want to miss anything."
Justin kisses his wife, raises up. The Electra is barely visible through the trees, glossy patch of enameled steel in the moonlight. Somewhere out there they are scanning the heavens. Good night for it. Shuddering starlight nearly like lasers rending that great black shroud. So huge. So immense, and beneath—these fussy human concerns, a huddle of children hushed at a spindly tripod.
"Good night, Justin. Sleep well."
"Thank you. I think I will."
Sleeps well indeed, dreamless toward morning.
))))))) He wakens to bird cries, laughter, reaches for Christa—she is gone. Orients himself in the slant of light through the basement window, glitter of motes, clarity and rest. Is calm, wriggles in the robe, zips it down and sits, pulls his work boots over bare feet, sneezes—it is slightly chill. Starts. She is sitting in the chair, materialized from vapor—Christa.
"How did you sleep?"
"All right. Is anything wrong?"
"I was just waiting for you."
He gathers her against him, soft hair, utterly smooth face fondled by his hands. Feels tears on the sound cheekbones, her shudder, kisses the salt of her lips. Danny squeals aloft, chases aborigines through the nap of the living room carpet—suddenly they are laughing. It is light.
"Shirley has some breakfast for you. Come on."
They climb toward the bright kitchen. He eats homemade granola, wheat bread, honey, strips of bacon. Estling flashes good teeth, loads a wicker hamper—cheese, ham, fruit, lettuce, mayonnaise, butter, oven hot bread. Rachel ascends tawny in terry cloth. Lisa smiles enigmatic, Renaissance Madonna over the cobalt rug.
"Maybe we could help. Are we taking both Buicks?"
"Just the old Roadmaster."
"9 of us?"
"We had 10 one winter all the way to Milwaukee."
Estling loads the trunk, ties it with binder twine. He climbs in front, lights a cigar. Shirley shifts in beside him. Justin is shotgun with Danny squirming on his lap. There are 5 in back, giggling flash of limbs. They slant down the drive, dappled by shade, toward the road. There on asphalt the sun is brilliant, waves of heat cast on the distant rise, Holsteins passive, scattered sheep, Shetland wide-eyed just beyond wire, clutter of sheds and shadow, silo phallic beyond emerald maples, shimmering foliage, furrows straight as train tracks by the creek.
"Mary Finster said she saw GREAT EXPECTATIONS last week and there was an actress in it called Jean Simmons. That's the same as Gene Simmons of Kiss. I thought it was pretty strange."
"Gene Simmons is pretty strange. Maybe he had a sex change."
"Daddy. Gene Simmons is excellent."
"Maybe he padded his jock."
"'I'm the king of the night-time world.'"
"Daddy. You're terrible. You're just terrible."
))))))) Shimmering light, bright flecks dancing, yellow undulance over the rolling earth, broken asphalt lancing through meadows, cleaving hills, skirting timber, flick of fence posts, weathered barns, splash of cattle, gust of the morning chill as virgin snow, fragrant, sweet corn, potatoes, pasture, scattering shadow, fragments, laughter, Danny's tender lean tremble, thatch of blond, soap sweet, scented, brittle-soft to the touch.
They cut left on ancient macadam, angle right, left. 18 miles as the crow flies, 23 on principal routes, here they stretch it forever on asphalt, gravel, packed dirt, weaving past rusted combines, carted hayricks, primered relics lurching on odd-sized wheels, sun browned rustics tipping hats, snorting brown sputum at Estling bearded, with the flowing hair, whipping past like Jesus in a shudder of glass and steel.
The Rock Ridge community is a barn and silo, a farmhouse, rippling acres mottled in the light, massing toward bluffs, ridges, fence line culling space for rhubarb, string beans, carrots—sycamores exploding on the flat, slash of creek, raw earth snaking toward seed blown green, edging toward indigo, primordial acres, germinal dance at cyanic sky, sun flowers by the porch, metal clothes line, Estling fitting the key. Inside, the mildewed smell of hunting lodges, the children clattering toward the attic, footsteps muted through deep brown, a raw plank ceiling, thunder again on the stairs.
"We'll have company by evening. The kids will sleep upstairs. First let's see the boulder. In the afternoon we can build a platform for the tent. That's over on the north quarter. We hope to have an A-frame on the crest, perhaps in 10 years. It's the 2nd best spot in creation."
"Where's the best?"
"We're going there now."
))))))) The trail winds at the hill, barely visible in the grass. Justin is winded, falls back with Shirley. Estling pushes ahead. The others scatter up the slope, bright trembling patches, taking a short cut through mulberries and rhododendron, Danny blond among seed pods, Christa framed in velvet against the sun-warm earth. Here it is quiet. Justin steadies himself at a sapling, reaches for a cigarette. Shirley faces away toward the children, symmetric swells in the faded cotton, sexual glitter over lean brown legs, improbable—turns. He catches sorrow in the smile, mortality. The serenity is always too perfect, formidable. Here it is gentle, less achieved. She is very attractive, preserved. He has desired very few women. He has always desired Shirley, charmed to know she never takes offense.
"Somehow I always feel pain. Even when I'm happiest."
"Then you're much like Justin. Justin Price."
"Except I never talk about it."
"You never talk about anything."
"That's because I'm bright. People take offense."
"That's what Norm always says. He says you're bright as hell."
"It's not fun being bright."
"If you know you're bright you're not bright."
"Maybe I could check you out."
"How long would it take?"
"About 3 hours."
"It only takes Norm 20 minutes."
"That's because he has a bigger clock."
"Let's stop talking about it. All right?"
"I do care for you, Justin."
"I wouldn't want to say. I never investigate these things, you know. I really don't know myself."
"How about Norm?"
"I stopped knowing Norm 10 years ago."
"Would you like to know me?"
"I already know you."
"What do you know?"
"You've been dead a very long time. There's still death in you. You're standing there talking and you're nearly 37, and you would like to go to bed with me, to what end I'm not certain. You function. You laugh. But there's a touch of death and it only gives me pain."
"Take my death away then. Take it away."
Shirley looks up the slope at brown velvet through the trees, dancing against the darker trunks.
"If she can't do it, how the hell can I?"
Estling turns, transfixed, blond radiance in the sun. He waves. Shirley starts for her husband. Justin digs a toe into the roach of his cigarette, follows her quivering buttocks up the path.
))))))) They have the valley now, virile undulations in the slant of sun, waving energy straining for the light, ochre and emerald, jagged brown, indigo, russet, cerulean blue, shimmer of Monet, solemnity of Rembrandt, dazzle of Mondrian, shudder of Vincent van Gogh, addressing Norman in lotus, Justin full length, Shirley hunched, Christa dangling legs at the edge. Here on pale surface, Estling thrusts out a fist, indicates birches on a distant slope, reaches to clasp his hair, runs strong fingers through its shag, shakes it free to settle on the shoulders, wipes sweat from his forehead, folds his muscular arms, addresses a silence profound as the last shard of laughter from the children down the trail, mellow as bird notes tracing into resonance, Estling's baritone poised on the great blond rock.
"The summer of '73. It was a Sunday toward July, sunlight, calm as creation. I was in lotus, about 20 minutes, good progress, something made me open my eyes. I saw lichens, smooth, accessible. I saw this slope. A light snap of twig and out across there the tawn blur, improbable brown eyes, body slatted by birches. The doe stepped forward toward the open slope, scanned the valley, careful, eyes pivoting to a woodpecker's volley—I could just hear it. Nearly clumsy, stepping out with a body ready for leaping, eating yet watching. Her head swings up, uncertain panic, breath sucking, nostrils sensing this way, that, now straight at me, widening like discovering eyes though she doesn't see me. She doesn't run, but half-trots, stops, bends but doesn't eat, taut. She moves off, away. I could hear the highway grind dimly behind me. I sat there with man-smell heavy in my hands."
"Maybe that's mortality. Is that what you mean?"
"The taint of the rational."
"Yes. I had it just a minute but she sensed it. Wouldn't permit me. Maybe I shouldn't talk about it. It's in a poem just about the way I said it. Mailed it to SAMISDAT. Form reply. Send it to you if you like. Shirley calls it clinging."
"Calls what clinging?"
"Getting it down. She's right, you know. We didn't really enter this for art. Read that any time in Zen. Read it in Lao Tsu. Read it in GENESIS. Read it just about anywhere."
"Maybe the doe had you figured, Norman."
"Super-stud Hemingway with a Mannlicher."
"Justin's false messiah."
Shirley toys down the buttons of her madras blouse. The bare breasts are mature, drape nearly to fault. She leans back into her palms, catches sunlight. Justin aches.
))))))) By the farmhouse Andrew winds patiently a balsa airplane, flicks it into the light. It arcs hyperbolic, hovers fitfully, spirals toward the earth. Estling holds a spent cigar in close to his body, laughs. Danny appears, a blond crease in the gaping barn-way. Inside the house the girls prepare lunch, click of steel-ware, treble laughter. Justin sinks to the steps, fires a Chesterfield in the shade, works his boots off, narrow feet on the cool cracked walk, presses his toes on the texture.
"She seems very loose, Norm."
"Shirley? She's freed up, yes. Tried to get her interested in men's bodies, taste of the unfamiliar. The opportunities were there."
"What could she get out of that?"
"She'd bring it back home, as many of her as the men she'd slept with. That may be hard to understand."
"I guess not. Albion's daughter."
Shirley glitters in the screen door. They enter.
"What sinful abundance."
"Here. Try these apricots. Try the tomatoes."
They eat at masonite, large sandwiches, slabs of cheese, whole milk, cherry juice.
"Where's the tent?"
"There's a lot of gear in the basement. The tent's there."
"Who's coming tonight?"
"Mostly people from Madison. Discussion of parapsychology. Is that right, dear?"
Shirley's smile flashes against the floral wall paper.
Danny comes in with a clatter, scoots for the ripe tomatoes, bites in, fleck of seeds on the chin, juice on his sun-browned fingers.
"I saw a monarch."
"It was in a nasty old spider web. I took a stick and cut all the strings and it fluttered a while. I thought it was going to take off. I held it up and blew on it and it fell right down on the ground. It didn't move after that. It's not dead, is it, Daddy?"
"I don't think so."
"That's what I thought. Nothing ever dies. I found a dead rat once and we buried it over by the tree house. But it wasn't dead, was it?"
"No, Danny. It wasn't dead."
"Good. I have a whole box of bugs that aren't dead. I'm going to put the monarch in the box when we get back."
"Where is it now?"
"It's in my pocket."
"Take it out."
Estling looks at the lifeless form in Danny's brown hand. He runs his fingers over the dusty wings.
"No Danny. This butterfly is certainly not dead."
"Is it sleeping?"
"No. It's in your mind. It's in God's mind."
"Am I in your mind, Daddy? Am I in God's mind?"
"Forever and ever and ever. World without end."
"Just the same, I'm putting it into the box. Otherwise, I just might forget about it."
"That just might do the trick, Son."
"There's a lot of butterflies in this world, Daddy, maybe a 1000. There are bugs and rats and grasshoppers. There's mice and sparrows and pussy cats. There's zebras. I'm going to need a bigger box."
Estling arranges his face, fondles Danny's hair.
))))))) "Most generous. Yes, look here."
Estling leans down at a great shag of lumber, frees 4 by 4's from the tangle. The barn is a somber wall against the sun, cirrus, powder blue sky. He seats an old frame on the rusted sedan, lashes it with twine, heaps the clotted logs up high over the roof, perhaps a dozen. From the crest of the pile he pulls out odd-sized planks, mildewed, rotten. The sound he hands to Justin who hefts them to the roof, careful of nails, flecked or rusted brown, jagged.
"We seek the greater comfort, outwit the elements, challenge the thunder, rain. What good is a tent, young man, without a sturdy platform? Nada."
Estling secures the heavy cargo with twine against the frame, a darkness against emerald, saffron, uncertain pale of the distant house. Lumber flexes out beyond the hood, quivers with each tug of the muscular hands. They slide in, fire the Honduran cigars, edge slowly toward the creek.
Justin swings out to take the gate. The Buick lurches at the ford, boils through the current, climbs to packed earth. Justin crosses on stones. He is in beside his strong blond friend, climbing toward a spiral hardly visible in the chest high wind blown grass.
"We'll see her to the top, Jehovah willing."
But they realize only a 3rd of the greater slope. The angle brings the boards a tumble with the snap of the twine over the side of the car. Estling grins and curses, nudges a nostril. They step out and gather each an arm-load, head for the brilliant crest.
The ascent is much too difficult. Justin makes the campsite, sinks winded against a sapling.
"I figure on 6 more trips."
"Yeah well let's make it leisurely, old friend."
Estling stabs a finger into the sunlit valley.
"Across there is the boulder. You can just see it beyond the spruce. Over right I saw the doe. You get a better angle on the timber. We pay in 300 a year with the option to build. It all goes before the elders. Shirley made her side official last winter. She feels good about it. I'm going to apply myself in the fall."
"What are they like?"
"The Quakers? Some pure, very pure. Warm as fresh bread. Some grasping. Some lost. What can I say? Friends. You'll get an idea tonight. That's if you want to sit in. Tents all down the valley. We'll be up here. Check out the Milky Way. Maybe a shooting star."
"I never saw a shooting star. You know that? I spent a lot of time looking; then I gave it up. I never saw one."
"You'll see one tonight, wager a pound of sin."
Each struggle up the slope brings a rest by the sapling. In those lulls of quiet the sun sinks finally to scarlet. Justin eyes those distant tendrils through the trail of his cigarette, spiraling gray flaking into eddies, eyes violet, crimson, indigo, eyes amber, emerald, as the earth goes black, jet black under splendor in an evening sky. The sound is Estling tamping the 4 by 4's, laying the planks, struggling for surface, creak of timber, boots on the shuddering boards. Remote as starlight the farmhouse winks yellow slits. The distant highway hums mysteriously, faintly treble.
Estling settles down by Justin's shoulder, flares his features with a match, fires a remaining stub. Dance of the coal somewhere near his knee. He raises a 5 cell flash, stabs it at the darkness.
"I'll bring the tent up here while the others conjure spirits. We'd better get back. I haven't had much luck with this."
Down the path the flashlight casts on milk white bones. Estling kneels, runs his hand over the skull. The sockets crumble. Teeth shade strong and even under the long incisors, parchment in the dancing light.
"Yearling. Dead maybe 20 years. Hard to tell."
Justin is silent. They back perhaps a 100 yards down the slope before there is room to turn.
))))))) Justin in the basement leans back against a concrete wall, lifts a sandwich. The coarse bread tastes faintly of molasses. He eats slowly, drinks coffee from a tin cup. People drift in from time to time, aggressively casual, serene. A large man detaches himself from Estling, approaches. Justin has seen those eyes in cocktails, absurdly small in the mass of the face. The lips are thin, moist, the black hair clipped compulsive, dark cast stubble on the shaven cheeks. The hand is moist, soft, like a wet infant, yet somehow dead. It lingers like a nightmare, a troubling hint halfway on through the day. Justin edges backwards. There is nowhere to turn.
"You've suffered. What do you think of karma?"
"I didn't hear that."
"It's simple. Baba Ramdas remarks that lysergic acid is a necessary evil in the West, opens the ponderous door. To what? A billion years of suffering, the trap. Teilhard's Omega Point, Buber's I and Thou. The mystical East appears in a 100 micrograms, more powerful than Gandhi. And there's more. The impact on karma of just one trip. The klesas. How many are scorched? In what degree? Are they operative? Is this grace? Is it Christogenesis? Can we find our way back to the labyrinth, chasing our demons toward death? Is there original sin? It's staggering. I've followed Leary, you know, down a blind alley. Soaked myself in the clear white light. To what end? Should I have not paid my dues to Brahman? What about Jesus? What about any avatar? Must we face the dark night or burn it out of us in one brief dazzling flood? Are we mystics? Are we freaks? The flower children. Where have they gone? Is it all going dry and tedious when the bucket breaks or in fact, and this is the crux of the matter, are we here on the threshold, poised, this minute, this second, at a vast abyss beyond which lies mystery, the rapture, suffering beyond Calvary, agony inconceivable? Is this our karma? Is this our chemical karma? Are there no seeds? Please. I beg of you. You must know. I saw it in your eyes. You've suffered beyond human reckoning. What is your decision? I cannot wait forever. Just give me a chance, just a few brief words I might toy with. What was that?"
"I said I have to take a piss."
Upstairs he urinates into the bowl, yellow froth against the porcelain. He squeezes his penis and reaches for his wallet. There is a light rap on the door.
"Justin? This is Shirley. Are you all right?"
He slips the razor blade out of the glassine pocket and peels off the cellophane. He drops the latter in the bowl. His hand is trembling, holding the blade to his organ.
"Are you finished?'
"I'm coming in."
"No. It's all right."
He slips the blade into his T-shirt and flushes the toilet. Closes his trousers, steps out. She scans him with troubled eyes.
"He does that to everyone. It's Zen sickness. He worked for Dow during the war. Perfected napalm they dropped over there. His children turned him on. He's tried very hard, but the curse is still on him."
"The curse is still on me."
"Let's go downstairs now. They're going to begin."
))))))) There is space toward the rear, a blond wood chair. Shirley sits further back. In the hush of voices an old man stands and smiles. He seems Biblical, perhaps an older John the Baptist. He introduces his wife, also Biblical, perhaps Mary Magdalene. They launch their message in a hiss of conversation, creaking shifting seats, children giggling in the corner.
"We shall discuss the paranormal—voice prints, telepathy, psychokinesis, spirit photography, precognition, communication with the dead, illustrate some recent breakthroughs. We have tapes. You can judge for yourself."
The old man's voice is rich, yet pebbly, wide-eyed, open as a child's. Justin has a cigarette. No one copies him. In the pale wash light the couple share the strangest secrets he has ever confronted, touch of an angry past.
"Yes. According to the best minds, the suicide is locked on the astral plane, wanders through psychic flux in frozen time the natural course of the incarnation."
"Yet what do they say about intensity? Are they locked in an acid trip?"
Christa shares her nagging suspicion she was once Elizabeth I.
"Were there other paranormal experiences among you?"
"I know you'll find this hard to believe, but I conjured images on a TV screen set to a vacant channel, controlled objects, mesmerized my friends, shattered glass."
The old man winces.
"Yes, drugs can heighten the psychic's power, little research in that area. The voice prints? We'll show you some."
Plays a tape with muted whispers.
"Hello hello, merry Christmas, Nathan, wherever you are."
An old lady in a pants suit over left scratches her heavy neck, looks around in agitation, leaves the room.
"As for spirit photographs, examine this blow-up of a wedding party, the two massive shapes hovering over the distant arbor, certainly extrasensory."
The room is taut as wire on an ancient dulcimer.
"We've done work in just about every field. UFO's? Certainly. Read our book."
Material is circulated through the room. At last the old man leans toward a small cassette player on the plywood table.
"This final tape I'm going to play, I'll tell you its history. A German psychic tried for Edison in deep trance, made contact. Edison suggested that during a certain phase of the moon in a specified town in Switzerland they play a television set altered to certain megahertz. He would hear music. Everyone scorned him. He went through with it."
The room is hushed now, dead quiet. People strain to listen. An elderly man cups his ear.
"He recorded what I'm going to play to you. Shaeffner in Zurich, a musicologist of real integrity, pronounced it Coptic, strains likely heard in ancient Babylonia, played at funeral marches. I like to call it music of the spheres."
Throughout the room people exchange glances. Some are skeptical, most intrigued. A dull snap of the cassette player issues the strangest music Justin has ever heard, celestial, haunting. He turns. A few are moved to tears. Several older ladies embrace each other. The majority are serene, calm, as if perfectly adapted to the miraculous. Somehow they are too contained for Justin, too wholesome. He starts from his chair, steps outside.
Estling straddles a fence in the moonlight, smoking a cigar. It seems thinner, darker, delicate in the pale of his hand. The coal winks like distant starlight, dances in the slight tremble of his fingers. A thin smooth strip of flesh hazes above his belt. Justin approaches, pulls him against his face, feels the beard, the thick coarse shag of hair. He stands back, lights a cigarette. Estling stabs a powerful beam toward the barn, skips it off foliage, dwarf trees, the cut of the creek, on up toward the sky. There it ascends like Jacob's ladder toward a scatter of starlight, less remote than unattainable, cruel as the Milky Way.
"I borrowed Kevin's flash. The other can't be trusted."
"You should have been in there. "
"There wasn't time. Anyway, I had the night."
))))))) Estling holds the flash as they cross on the stones. They stand in darkness as he joins them, flare on his work boots, the rippling water, at last a shard of earth. He flicks the beam ahead. They walk in surrounding black, night sounds, wind through unseen foliage, muffled laughter from the distant house. Kevin's torch is chalk pale on knee high grass, fitful. Beyond the hills is starlight, the lid of sidereal space.
It is a slow wind up the slope. They pause for Justin, winded, dizzy in the fragrant air, night smells, twig snaps.
"Raccoon. Over there. See it?"
Estling trains the flash on a leafless twist of branches. The eyes are two bright holes in a simple Mask. Wink shut, return. The animal bolts for safety.
"Danny had one as a pet 2 summers past. Cage behind the house. Got so you could pick him up, set him on your shoulder. Road him in the car. One morning we went out he was gone. Chewed through the wire. Broke Danny's heart. Quiet 3 days. Brought home a kitten. Grew up into this big lazy thing we called Mr. Meat. Found it squashed on the road last fall."
Toward the crest the grass is waist high off the path. The trees are a black shag, solid as middle age, yet twist in pain, frozen gestures against the lighter sky.
"It's a perfect night. Are we tired?"
"I don't know about Christa. I'm turning in."
"I'll join you."
"You don't have to, Christa. Really."
The 2 women step inside the tent. There are 2 large robes in the light of Kevin's flash. Estling hangs it on a thong from the ceiling. It angles and twists, shedding pale on the canvas floor. Outside Justin steps a bit down the slope, lights a cigarette, turns. Estling stands, a black spill against radiance leaking from the split of the tent. Closer he is apparent only from the glowing cigar. They make their way in vague moonlight, brambles catching like static, grass a lighter tug, to where a 2nd clearing opens and they halt, lie back tactile on the springy earth.
))))))) Christa inside the tent sees Shirley's flesh dance at the edge of the light. The older woman is totally naked, tuft of pubic hair above the lean soft legs, belly flat, sway of draping breasts, flickering off now toward darkness, entering Estling's robe.
"I was deathly frightened all the way from the creek."
"What was it, Christa?"
"It seemed as if something evil was coming from behind. A dark power trying to claim us. I wanted to turn but was frozen. Its scent was on the air. I was afraid to turn. It would take me over, perhaps Justin. I know it sounds silly."
"It's not silly. It's just that I didn't feel it."
"Maybe we should warn them."
"That WOULD be silly. No, nothing can touch us on this hill, certain as love itself."
"I guess I'll go to sleep."
"I'll sleep 10 billion years."
"Tomorrow isn't that ugly, girl. I know you're going back."
"I fear tomorrow. Like cancer of the breasts."
"No. No, don't say that. It's 40 minutes off."
"It's that late?"
"I guess it is. Quite late. Very late indeed."
))))))) Estling's baritone tries for texture, the starry void, resonant paean to galaxies, waste beyond measure, dwarf stars, holes, planets swimming in ultimate black, lonely lovely Jupiter swirling in infinite space, creaking hugeness. Sings that totality, strut of man on a puny cinder, scanning the heavens with curious impotent glass, angling with electronic acres, and there those light years incalculable, shuddering vastness immeasurable, flick of sentience chattering toward the earth. Toward Estling's quaver, Justin's vision of indigo, violet, cobalt, stabs of radiance, waves of saffron light. For him that energy is hostile, seethes on the muted lid, on infinite void, a twitch of brilliance, scattered flecks pulsing on a sea of black. Here on the soft shag he eyes the moon, thin shard hooking starkly, yellow crease in an ebony waste. Polaris he doesn't know. Draco, Corona Borealis, Pisces, spattered on a monstrous shroud. Aniline, cyanine, blue, bone, Brunswick black. Lamp black. Pierced. By mandarin, ochre, cadmium. Stabbed by yellow so hideously remote, so distant, eons toward the furthest reach of it racing toward greater vastness. Hears the last sentence—
"It'll all collapse some day into a mustard seed."
"The size of my faith."
"Don't tell me about faith. You got as far as this hillside."
"Just long enough to get it down. I had to get it down."
"Your point of view?"
"What good's a point of view?"
"That IS just the point. I had to tell them the way I saw it."
"Everyone. Even the old man watching."
"Do you think they heard?"
"They don't want pain."
"So why tell them?"
"Maybe so they'll believe it exists. Even just one of them."
"They know it exists."
"Why don't they do something about it?"
"They're trying. Don't you think I'm trying?"
"Maybe it's not enough."
"Justin, maybe that's the dignity of it."
"The human condition. Trying. Hanging in there."
"But what about the old man watching?"
"God? He's going through it with us."
"Justin, He loves everything down here, even the maggots."
"Why doesn't He put an end to it?"
"Because He couldn't get it started any other way."
"Then maybe He shouldn't have started it."
"He had to start it. He didn't have a choice."
"No. He had to start it. He had to."
"I don't believe you."
"Nevertheless I'm right. Anyone knows it down deep inside. He loved us so much that He had to bring us into this even knowing we would suffer because it was more important that we lived than anything else He knew, even Himself. Life IS a beautiful thing. Just look out there. That night takes in a whole lot of suffering. There's so much of it I think we can accept the pain in the face of it, all that night out there just making it better to be here, to be alive, to care for things, to work for the night and that perfection, the perfection that's in your heart if you'd just look for it. Justin, everything you've done with your life, just surviving in itself—that's not nihilism, that's affirmation."
"But I'm not sure I want to affirm anything."
"That's because you're more interested in meaning than living. If you really cared for life you wouldn't care so much for meaning that you'd embrace the sickness in you. The sickness is only part of you and must find its place. That immensity out there is much greater than your sickness."
"But my sickness is that immensity."
"You have it the wrong way around."
"That immensity is my sickness?"
"That immensity is everything. It's the most rudimentary belief and the most rudimentary knowledge. It's good and evil and up and down and in and out. It's not just you with your private vision. It's everyone. You don't mean to tell me you feed Anna your viewpoint."
"She couldn't handle it."
"Then how can you feed it to the world? Justin, your writing is an act of aggression. You think you can make your pain so beautiful that everyone will accept it and climb into your little box with you. They're not going to do it, even if you cut your prick off and flush it down the toilet. You see they just don't buy it. Ask Anna. She knows there's a hell of a lot more out there than she can find in your books. They just won't buy it. You're the only one that can buy it and the only way you'll ever buy it the whole way is to flush your manhood down there and ask for pity. But you won't be around to see if anyone's looking. If anyone's applauding. Just more pain, Justin. And they'll forget. They'll go on living because that's what it's all about. Living. Living despite your vision. I just want you to get a little larger, that's all, a little every day maybe. Just larger because with all your ego you're still a very small person in this vastness. You always will be because you want to have the whole thing. And you want it your way."
"But that's the whole point. You either have the whole thing or you have nothing."
"I'll give you the whole thing."
"Yes. Why not?"
"That's a good trick."
"No. Come on. I'll give you everything but you'll have to be big enough to let it into your heart."
"Nobody can give me everything."
"What's it going to be?"
"Close your eyes. It'll only take a minute."
Justin closes his eyes. He reaches for the razor blade in his T-shirt and holds it to his neck, holds it there eternally. He is shaking terribly and he doesn't know where he is anymore, doesn't care to know, but is afraid to open his eyes because there is too much out there. Then he feels Norm Estling's hand and takes the hand and feels what is in there, knows what is in there, simple and small and evident, more there than all the pain, more than the ego, and he doesn't want to admit what is there so small and insignificant, just then, as he seems to dig in and draw the blade across his throat, so seemingly absurdly inconsequential to effect this change in him, and at last, releasing the blade, he opens his eyes.
"There's your star, Justin."
Flash bright white across the spangled slate white brilliance short as life and stunning totally his perception with the blade of grass held tight feeling the star flash sun streak enter him withlight light light, omnipresent light, so calm so whole and even totally him to feel this wholeness totally calm so bright in the light of it warm and loving like Mother totally Mother and Father totally Father smiling into his crib as he utters the thanks of his suddenly heated entrails brain heart to the life of it, to the utter joy and bliss of it without the fall, without differentiation, without and with the pain which was only part of the totality which is somehow strangely acceptable, yes affirmable yes yes yes, and his tears are sweet-warm on his cheeks melting into the grass and Estling beside him with a warm vibrancy into him to be one with him and all with him in the dawn of him and the suddenness of him there totally under night and yet with night and with sunlight and with everything totally always and eternally there there there in the loveliness so quiet in the night and the daylight and the dawn of his perception, having seen behind the Mask.
"'The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.'"
"'And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.'"
"'Did you fear some scrofula out of the unflagging pregnancy?'"
"'Blessed are the poor in heart for they shall see God.'"
So savagely vague. Even after ever.
"Come on. I think we'd better get some sleep."