The Silver Year: Chapter 18

Chapter​​ 18

Dancing Around​​ 

 

 

After less than three hours of sleep, the​​ horizon of consciousness​​ came at​​ the​​ sound of​​ light rain​​ drumming​​ on the​​ left​​ open​​ skylight, then the sight of​​ her​​ red hair​​ on the pillow​​ beside​​ him.​​ Whether​​ the color​​ was natural or not, he cared not. It was the most beautiful​​ red​​ in the world​​ because​​ he’d only seen it​​ in a​​ dream. But​​ his​​ raw​​ lips​​ and​​ aching​​ muscles​​ were a testament this red was in fact a real color of life and​​ the​​ dancing they made until​​ the​​ moon​​ met the first rays​​ of​​ sunlight. But​​ then​​ real​​ also​​ were​​ his​​ feelings​​ and the evening which defeated his supposedly superior powers of reasoning.

But no,​​ Walter​​ reminded himself,​​ your powers of reasoning are​​ under slept​​ and​​ heavily​​ intoxicated​​ by​​ dopamine​​ from all that dancing last night.​​ This feeling of a​​ jigsaw puzzle​​ falling into place will pass.

But then​​ the red hair​​ turned​​ around​​ and her still sleeping face made all the pieces fall right back.

For the next few minutes​​ all​​ he​​ could do​​ was​​ stare​​ this​​ puzzle​​ in the face, this puzzle he’d known for​​ less than​​ one evening, an evening he still couldn’t remember beginning only being dropped into​​ as​​ an entangled​​ electron coming into​​ being. He saw so much of himself mirrored in her,​​ like​​ two unknown hemispheres of the same earth that could​​ now​​ never be independent​​ of each other.​​ But​​ the reflection wasn’t​​ at all​​ what​​ he​​ was expecting.​​ He never thought love would be a tarot-card-reading hippie.​​ But somehow too, it made perfect sense.

Perfect sense?​​ None of this makes any sense.

“Whatta ya​​ looking at creep?”​​ Shiva​​ said with her eyes​​ still​​ seemingly​​ closed. She​​ then​​ opened them​​ and​​ began laughing, the​​ same​​ musical laugh that​​ had​​ sound-tracked his dream.​​ “Did you even sleep,” she asked​​ moving her head over to his pillow,​​ “or​​ were you afraid you’d wake up and lose me?”

“No,”​​ Walter​​ said​​ wrapping his arms around her,​​ “I slept and woke up​​ and you’re still here. So​​ I guess​​ last night wasn’t​​ a dream.​​ Unless dreams leave​​ love bites.” He showed her​​ the inside of his​​ bruised​​ lower lip.​​ She then peeled her lip and he saw hers looked the same. They both laughed.

“No​​ sir,” she said,​​ “only flesh and blood. But I guess I was​​ appraising​​ the​​ validity​​ of​​ yours​​ also.​​ It would’ve been lonely​​ this morning​​ with​​ only​​ a figment of my​​ subconscious​​ to warm me.”​​ She snuggled her​​ flesh and blood​​ even​​ closer to his​​ beneath the blankets.​​ “Bodies are much​​ warmer in the morning​​ than dreams.”​​ ​​ 

“But​​ whose​​ body’s going to keep you warm​​ after this dream ends?”

Shiva looked at​​ Walter confused.​​ “What do you mean by that?” she asked.

“Did​​ you forget I’m on a bus tour that leaves at​​ two​​ today?”​​ he said.

“Oh, no,” she said, but​​ looking as if she did.​​ “It... it​​ just felt so far away last night.​​ The​​ night​​ always seems like it can stretch forever​​ and it always catches you off guard when it doesn’t.”

“Almost​​ like a dream.”

“Yes,” she said​​ with a anxious smile, “especially​​ a dream​​ that​​ keeps you so busy dancing​​ you​​ forget about the time​​ . . . Uh, so what’s your next stop?”

“A small​​ German​​ town in the Rhineland called St. Goar,​​ then​​ Munich,​​ Tyrol​​ Austria, Venice, Switzerland,​​ and​​ Paris.”

“Sounds​​ like an amazing trip.​​ Anything planned?”

“Other than​​ visiting​​ some​​ famous headstones in Paris,​​ not much.​​ Contiki plans​​ everything​​ for you.”

“Let me guess...​​ Descartes​​ obviously.​​ Voltaire,​​ Jim Morrison​​ possibly?”

Walter smiled and shook his head.​​ “How well you’ve gotten to know me in our little time together,” he said.​​ “Also Proust, but that’s for someone else.”

“Well,​​ tell Jim I said hi.​​ His grave was the first place I​​ went​​ when​​ I went​​ to Paris for the first time.​​ I was madly in love with​​ him​​ as​​ a​​ teenager.​​ He​​ was my gateway to poetry.”

“Are you sure ‘hi’​​ is​​ all you want​​ to say​​ then?”

“No,​​ also​​ tell him this...”​​ Shiva​​ then​​ sealed​​ her lips​​ onto​​ Walter’s​​ and​​ their​​ torsos​​ imitated, arms and legs​​ knotting​​ around​​ one​​ another​​ as​​ if​​ trying to stem the​​ flow of​​ time​​ left together.​​ But the harder they pressed, the more time​​ had something to measure itself against​​ inside​​ their chests. Their hearts were ringing like​​ fire alarms.

“I’m sure​​ he​​ would​​ much rather hear​​ that​​ from you,” Walter’s heart​​ spoke​​ out loud​​ after the​​ kiss withdrew. “Let’s go to​​ Paris and tell​​ Jim​​ hi together.​​ Fuck my​​ bus​​ tour. With the exception of two people, I wasn’t a big fan anyway.”

Shiva​​ said nothing,​​ but​​ in​​ her eyes​​ was​​ a war of words.

“I’m sorry if that sounded crazy,”​​ he said.

“No...” she​​ replied, now unable to look him in the eye. Her body​​ also​​ loosened​​ its grip around​​ him.​​ “It sounds​​ wonderful,​​ but I’d hate for you to do that for me.”

“Well,​​ I​​ hate​​ the thought I’m going to have to say goodbye to you in less than six hours,”​​ his​​ heart​​ pressed on.​​ “I’m sorry again if I sound crazy,​​ but​​ how am I supposed to walk away from the person every sign in the universe is telling me​​ to​​ be​​ with, the only​​ person who’s managed to convince​​ me​​ the universe even​​ gives​​ signs?”

She​​ became even more uncomfortable, her body continuing to​​ unfasten​​ and separate.

Shut up Heart!​​ Walter’s rational mind​​ begged from the chair​​ it​​ was tied to inside​​ his head.​​ Shut up! You’re going to​​ spoil​​ love like​​ you always do by speaking too soon.

“I... I—”​​ he began

“Please don’t finish that,”​​ Shiva​​ said​​ cupping his mouth.​​ “But please don’t feel ashamed for wanting to say it.​​ Let’s just say,​​ signs​​ can​​ also​​ be traps in disguise . . .​​ Um...” she began breathing heavily,​​ “...there’s something I’ve been dancing around that I need to tell you.​​ Mags isn’t just my best friend and roommate, she’s... she’s​​ my girlfriend.”

He​​ shuttered and sharply turned​​ his head​​ away with his eyes closed​​ as if a​​ landmine had exploded.​​ He​​ should’ve known better than to​​ follow​​ his heart​​ into​​ no​​ man’s​​ land.​​ ​​ 

“W-Why... why​​ didn’t you tell me?”​​ Walter​​ asked​​ doing his best to cover his wounds.

 “Because I didn’t think I​​ would have to​​ when​​ I first met you,”​​ Shiva​​ said, her body​​ clinging​​ back to​​ his to calm​​ his​​ shaking.​​ “Mags and I have​​ always had an open relationship. But as of recent,​​ it’s been increasingly​​ open,​​ and​​ you’re not the first​​ stranger​​ I’ve taken to​​ La Lune Rouge​​ and spent the night ‘dancing’ with​​ after.​​ However,​​ it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me you’re​​ no ordinary stranger, and not just because of the signs.​​ Youre​​ the first​​ and only person​​ I’ve ever sung ‘Harvest Moon’ to​​ because I was​​ actually​​ saving it for my future husband or wife. But now my guinea pig​​ will​​ forever​​ have​​ it, along with the only tarot card I’ve ever given​​ away​​ from my mother’s deck, and I’m not exactly sure​​ why I’m​​ attaching​​ so much meaning to​​ you,​​ someone I’ve known for less than eight hours,​​ other than I’m under some strange spell​​ . . .​​ Or maybe it’s the signs convincing me.​​ Now that I think of it,​​ my horoscope​​ said​​ my love life was​​ going to be fucked this month​​ because my ruling planet Jupiter​​ is​​ moving into Gemini and the full moon lunar eclipse in​​ my sign​​ Sagittarius​​ would be the beginning of it,​​ the full moon you appeared on.​​ But​​ I never take horoscopes seriously, however,​​ the moon,​​ we’ve always shared a​​ special​​ connection. I just wish... I wish there was more time to think about it. While​​ I’m not exactly in a happy relationship,​​ Mags​​ still​​ has a lot of my heart and​​ I’m​​ not sure​​ abandoning her​​ right now​​ for​​ someone I’ve known less than eight hours—because if I leave with you​​ we both know that’s what​​ I’d be doing—is​​ the right answer either. But​​ then again,​​ it​​ is​​ now or never for you.

“No​​ it’s not,” Walter said.​​ “My tour ends in​​ Paris​​ in a week. Meet me there if​​ you decide​​ to follow the signs.​​ We are under some strange spell and it’s called​​ sleep deprivation​​ mixed with​​ toxic levels of dopamine.​​ Also, I did do a lot of drugs last night.​​ Let’s​​ wait until then to​​ see if​​ the signs​​ are speaking​​ as strongly.”

Shiva sighed.​​ “You’re right,”​​ she​​ said.​​ “Obviously we’re​​ not thinking straight, and maybe some of this is in our heads. However,​​ my heart feels differently.”

“Mine too, but hearts​​ are​​ idiots​​ we shouldn’t always trust.”

She let out a laugh.​​ “Yes, following my heart​​ to Europe​​ is what​​ got me into this mess to begin with.”

“But​​ it’s not a mess you have to stay with, and Paris isn’t you’re only option.​​ Why not​​ go​​ back home​​ to​​ San Francisco?”

“It’s...” she swallowed nervously. “It’s hard to explain.​​ Not​​ that I don’t want to go back, I just only have​​ so much​​ time left before I can never travel again, so it’s​​ now​​ or never.​​ Going back home means... it means the​​ beginning of the end​​ in a way​​ for me.​​ I know that doesn’t make sense​​ probably, but that’s the​​ best​​ way​​ I can put it. Also because I overstayed my​​ visa, I most likely won’t be able to return to Europe for a long time, possibly never if the authorities discover the illegal activities I was engaged in, and​​ it’s​​ a good chance they​​ will.”

“So what, you’re just going to stay in Europe until you get​​ caught​​ and deported?”​​ Walter asked.

“Basically.”

He​​ scoffed.​​ “Come on Shiva.​​ You’re twenty-two. What’s​​ so limiting in your life? What​​ else​​ are you dancing around?”

She smirked​​ and​​ sighed​​ weakly. “How well you’ve​​ also​​ gotten to know me in our little time together . . .​​ My mother and I’s secret,” she​​ said​​ at last.​​ “I don’t want to tell it, but from what the signs have been telling​​ me, I don’t​​ think​​ she’ll mind.​​ However, that doesn’t make it easy.” She​​ fanned​​ her eyes to dry them.

 “The​​ morning before my first day of first grade,” she​​ began after a deep breath,​​ I​​ went into her room to say goodbye and was the first to​​ discover her​​ after her​​ overdose.​​ Although it​​ was a suicide,​​ she’d been suffering with​​ Huntington’s disease​​ my entire life, but hadn’t been​​ diagnosed until​​ after​​ she was pregnant with me.​​ It​​ started​​ slowly,​​ but by the time I was four, she was basically a prisoner of her body. She couldn’t complete a sentence without stuttering or walk without falling. Then she started to sporadically forget who​​ I was, and eventually my father too, and it only got worse as time went on. There’s no cure, so we just had to watch helplessly as the disease robbed her of everything she loved about life: dancing, singing, her family, her freewill. So I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same in the same situation.”

Her​​ eyes began​​ glistening​​ again, but this time she couldn’t dry off the tears.​​ “Here’s something​​ you might find interesting,” she said.​​ “Did you know if your entire genome sequence​​ was stretched​​ around the world, the genetic mistake that caused my mother’s disease would only make up less than an inch? Just a few extra repeating lines of DNA makes the difference.​​ But did you also know an affected parent has a fifty percent chance of passing the disease​​ onto their child?”

“You’re​​ telling me…”​​ Walter​​ attempted to ask.

“Yes, she passed it onto me. I still have​​ an​​ estimated​​ seven years or so before my decline​​ should​​ begin,​​ but it can happen any time. Ultimately, however, whether by suicide or a slow regression from my body and mind, I’m not going to see anything close to a full life. But then I guess I should be asking myself if my life is already so compromised, then why should my heart be also? And​​ as the Ace of Cups says, ‘divine love always looks like certain madness in the beginning’ . . .​​ Fuck, it’s so much easier​​ looking​​ for guidance​​ from the universe than accepting it.​​ But how more direct can it be than someone with your​​ fucking​​ name on his​​ t-shirt?”

Speaking of​​ my​​ shirt...” Walter​​ cleared his throat nervously,​​ ...come to think of it,​​ there’s​​ also​​ something​​ I​​ danced around’​​ last night.”

A flash​​ of the banshee came over Shiva’s face.​​ “What?” she asked.

“My​​ friend, Dug.​​ I’m... I’m​​ 99.9 percent certain hes the owner of the label that ripped you off,​​ because indeed​​ he​​ was running a record label—or what on the surface appeared to be a record label, and​​ my​​ shirt came out of a box of band shirts he had. While I can’t say I saw​​ irrefutable​​ evidence of a cocaine operation,​​ he did have a lot of other boxes in the room with the box of band shirts he was very adamant about me not looking into. Also,​​ I did see him​​ do a​​ suspicious​​ amount​​ of​​ coke​​ for​​ the brief time I was with him.

“But the label​​ was in Paris,”​​ Shiva​​ said. “Not​​ here​​ in Amsterdam. That’s what doesn’t make sense.​​ The only reason I moved​​ to​​ Amsterdam was this was where I was told I was selling the most records.”

“Dug’s label​​ was in Paris, but​​ he​​ moved​​ it​​ to Amsterdam​​ because his girlfriend wanted to move here, however, she left him for someone else three months after arriving. Now that I think about​​ it,​​ he said his girlfriend was​​ a cabaret dancer . . . Mags​​ isn’t​​ Parisian, is she?”

“Yes.​​ When did Dug move​​ the label​​ here?”

“Two years ago.”

“And I met Mags two years ago.”

“This may sound offensive,” Walter said,​​ “but how​​ is​​ Mags’s ass compared to other asses?”​​ 

“Best​​ I’ve seen,​​ hands down.”

“Dug said the same. He also said​​ he fell in love with her because​​ she​​ was into things in bed no other girl was into.”

Shiva​​ began laughing.​​ “As a dominatrix,​​ Mags is​​ famous for her fisting​​ services.”​​ Walter gave​​ her​​ a coy look.​​ “I​​ said​​ as​​ a​​ dominatrix,” she replied to his eyes.​​ “Nobody wants to​​ be at​​ work​​ at​​ home​​ and that’s all​​ you need to know.”

“Does Mags​​ do any​​ painting?”​​ he asked.

“Not​​ that I’m aware of. Why?”

“Dug also said his girlfriend was an abstract painter who liked to mix vomit into the paint along with other bodily fluids​​ like blood and semen.”

“Where’s your shirt?”​​ Shiva​​ said​​ as if suddenly realizing something.

“Here.”​​ Walter​​ scooped​​ it up from the floor​​ and handed​​ it to her.​​ She​​ then spread​​ it​​ out over​​ the bed.

“Look closely,”​​ she​​ said, “I always knew there was​​ something about​​ this image​​ that made it seem of flesh and blood, because it is—or at least​​ some of it is. It’s​​ so obvious​​ looking at it​​ now.​​ His girlfriend​​ must’ve been the person who painted this​​ . . . Oh my God,”​​ she​​ put her hand to her face. “It​​ all​​ makes sense. But also, no​​ sense at all.”

“What does?”​​ he​​ asked.

They were then abruptly interrupted by a thunderous​​ pounding​​ at​​ the cabin door. From the door’s porthole on the other side of the boat they saw​​ a small​​ image of a​​ bald and​​ mustached man​​ poking an eye in on them.

“The deadbolt!” Shiva yelled​​ and​​ darted to the​​ door on the​​ other side of the boat​​ to​​ engage​​ it. The​​ man​​ in the porthole​​ then​​ exploded in presumably Dutch expletives.​​ Apparently he didn’t have a key.​​ 

Having followed her to the door, Walter saw​​ the​​ man​​ had​​ what​​ appeared​​ to be his family​​ behind him, a wife,​​ an adult son, and a young daughter.

“What’s going​​ on?”​​ Walter​​ asked. “I thought you said you knew the owner?”

“The​​ owner’s son​​ technically,” Shiva said.​​ “The tall guy in the blue shirt​​ out there.”

“He doesn’t look like a Deadhead.”

“He’s not. I made that up​​ last night, sorry.”

“How​​ do you know him​​ then?”

She sighed.​​ “Mostly biblically,​​ every couple of weeks​​ or so​​ in here.​​ But last week he​​ said​​ he​​ was going out of town for a week starting yesterday, or maybe it could’ve been today. I wasn’t the most sober. I also didn’t consider ‘going out of town’ meant on his boat.”

She​​ waved through the porthole at her handsome-looking beau, who​​ just stared back awkwardly.​​ The​​ father then​​ kicked the door a few times, turned to her beau, then sent him away.

“Well,​​ that bought us some time,” Shiva said. “If I translated correctly,​​ I think he has to go get​​ the key​​ for the deadbolt.​​ Let’s get​​ out of here​​ before he​​ does.”

“So...” Walter asked as they​​ clothed, “...anything else you’ve been ‘dancing around’ I should know?”

“Oh because hey Walter,​​ let me take you back to my occasional fuckboy’s boat would’ve been better? Yes, you met me at sort of​​ a shameful period in my life​​ and I’m sorry​​ if​​ I’m not so​​ ready to​​ share it​​ all​​ with​​ you right away.​​ But​​ regardless,​​ what you ‘danced around’​​ was​​ way​​ worse.​​ How could you​​ have​​ not told​​ me after you​​ learned​​ what that bastard did—what he took from me?​​ However, now I’m realizing he might have​​ not​​ been alone, but still.​​ It​​ just​​ makes me wonder if there’s anything else you’re protecting for him.”

“I wasn’t protecting him.​​ And no there’s not.​​ I didn’t tell you for the same reason you didn’t tell me about your girlfriend​​ right away;​​ I didn’t know last night would come to this. But I never planned on not telling you.​​ However,​​ now​​ I’m​​ wondering​​ what else you might be​​ ‘dancing around’​​ because you find it too​​ ‘shameful’ to tell me.​​ At least​​ I​​ actually​​ danced​​ around​​ the truth, you​​ just​​ flat out​​ lied.”

“Yeah,​​ but​​ a​​ white​​ lie hurts a​​ whole​​ lot less than​​ a​​ fatass​​ half-truth.”

“Yes, but you’ve also done your fair share of fatass half-truthing too.”​​ 

Shiva​​ scowled at him, then​​ looked​​ out the porthole. “Shit,” she said, “he’s already back​​ with the key.​​ We’re just going to have to make a run for it.”​​ They primed themselves​​ by​​ the door.​​ “Ready?”​​ she​​ asked.

Walter​​ shook his​​ head emphatically.​​ 

She​​ then​​ swung​​ the door​​ open​​ and​​ they charged forward, catching​​ her​​ beau​​ behind it​​ off-guard​​ and​​ knocking him​​ to the​​ ground. They​​ then​​ jumped​​ over his body to an applause​​ from​​ a​​ crowd​​ that​​ had gathered​​ on the bank​​ to watch​​ the spectacle. They​​ clapped​​ again​​ as​​ Walter outmaneuvered the​​ short but burly​​ father​​ on the slippery and wet boat deck​​ while​​ the​​ daughter and​​ wife watched in​​ horror.​​ 

Just as Walter’s feet made it to​​ the canal sidewalk,​​ the crowd​​ lit up​​ again​​ as the father​​ seized​​ Shiva by the arm​​ just as she was about to leap off​​ the boat deck.​​ She​​ began shaking​​ like a rodeo bull,​​ but​​ couldn’t free​​ herself.​​ She then slipped and​​ the father managed to grab the other arm and pinned them both behind her back.

Walter​​ leapt​​ back onto the deck and​​ circled in a standoff​​ with​​ him.​​ “I’m very sorry,”​​ he​​ said. “Please let her go and we’ll leave. I don’t want any trouble.”

Politie!​​ Politie!”​​ the father​​ shouted​​ back.

“What’s he saying?”​​ 

“Police!” Shiva​​ cried,​​ scowling​​ in agony and embarrassment.​​ “Walter,​​ do something!​​ I can’t get arrested.”​​ However,​​ just as she said that,​​ she​​ wrestled​​ an​​ arm away,​​ then​​ kicked​​ the father​​ squarely in the crotch.​​ “Run!” she screamed.

Adrenaline took the lead. Sprinting faster than he thought capable, Walter began​​ winding​​ through the streets, keeping Shiva’s flashing red mane in his peripheral​​ behind him.

“Run up that alleyway to the right!” he heard her shout.

He ducked into it and came upon a​​ small​​ and shady​​ garden​​ hub​​ in which​​ three smaller​​ alleyways​​ convened.​​ He went​​ into the left​​ one​​ and turned to wait for​​ her. After waiting a five second​​ eternity, he ran back out into the street. She wasn’t there.

“Shiva!” he​​ cried. But the quiet street gave no response. “Shiva!”​​ he cried again, but the same thing.

He then​​ tried​​ to backtrack his steps, but​​ two streets in,​​ he began to be unsure of his path. Two minutes​​ later his mind was in​​ a​​ terror.

“Shiv—” he cut himself off​​ just​​ as he​​ came upon the chirp​​ of a siren from around a corner.​​ 

He dipped into​​ a nearby​​ flower shop and​​ from behind its​​ window​​ saw​​ her​​ being​​ loaded​​ into a Volkswagen​​ police car. As he went​​ to the window, the car then pulled away.

Tears​​ began waterfalling helplessly as he ran​​ out​​ of​​ the flower shop and back​​ onto the street​​ in hyperventilation.​​ He​​ then​​ staggered back to the​​ garden​​ hub​​ and​​ crumpled onto​​ a​​ bench.

He’d lost her, and​​ neither​​ of them​​ had any contact information for each other.​​ Maybe love would forever be a no man’s land​​ for Walter.​​ 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 17

Chapter​​ 17

The​​ Guinea Pig

 

 

Es-tu prêt?” Shiva said coming out of​​ Maloe Melo’s​​ restroom after changing into​​ her street clothes,​​ a​​ brown​​ maxi​​ skirt​​ and​​ a​​ black​​ shirt​​ covered by a blue jean vest.​​ She’d put her hair in a messy bun and had a​​ wrap choker​​ cord​​ necklace​​ tied​​ around her​​ swan-like neck.​​ No longer the banshee,​​ what Walter​​ thought was​​ a​​ dream was becoming more real.

 “Prêt​​ comme je serai jamais,” he​​ replied.​​ 

In​​ the taxi,​​ Walter​​ learned​​ La Lune Rouge​​ was​​ a Parisian cabaret, but with an Amsterdam​​ twist. While not technically a brothel, there was a hotel above it, and if performers,​​ who were often times​​ either off-duty sex show workers or​​ prostitutes,​​ wanted to take someone​​ up there to exchange money for sex off-premises, they​​ could and did. Most, however,​​ came to the cabaret to practice​​ routines​​ they put together themselves​​ or with others.

The cabaret​​ is where I met Mags,” Shiva told​​ Walter. “She did​​ this​​ routine to Bowie’s​​ We Are The Dead​​ as Halloween Jack​​ and I​​ was floored. I don’t like everything Bowie, but that​​ song​​ and​​ Diamond Dogs​​ are​​ all-time favorites.​​ We spoke after​​ about doing a​​ show​​ around​​ the album, and​​ it didn’t take long before we​​ became​​ best friends.”

“Where’s Mags tonight?”​​ Walter asked.

“Working​​ as always.​​ She enjoys​​ work​​ more than anything else​​ because it’s not​​ prostitution​​ to her, it’s​​ theater,​​ a​​ world​​ she’s in control of​​ away from the​​ one she’s not​​ . . .​​ She’s a dominatrix. Although when I first met her, the only money she​​ made for sex​​ was​​ just for fun​​ at​​ La Lune Rouge,​​ but then she found a​​ character,​​ Lady​​ Duc de Glace, and​​ a niche​​ crowd there​​ where she could​​ express herself in ways she couldn’t on a cabaret stage. Now​​ La Duc’​​ not only​​ dominates​​ most of​​ her life, but​​ the​​ Amsterdam​​ BDSM​​ audience. She​​ has a waiting list over a month long.”​​ 

“Quite an interesting best friend​​ you​​ have,”​​ Walter said.​​ 

“Yes, but best friend doesn’t always​​ mean good friend, just whoever happens to​​ best​​ reflect​​ you​​ at​​ a moment​​ in​​ your life, and​​ I have to say​​ my moment​​ in reflection​​ with Mags has come and gone.​​ But​​ I have no​​ one​​ else in Europe,​​ so​​ she​​ still holds my best friend​​ card.​​ It’s rare we see each other more than once or twice a week​​ though. She’s​​ effectively​​ moved into​​ the ‘lair’ she rents for ‘theater’​​ now.”

“How long ago​​ did​​ you meet?”​​ he asked.​​ 

“Right after luna hunny went to shit. I was barely twenty​​ and​​ a lot​​ more nihilistic since​​ everything​​ I had to live for had​​ just​​ been​​ taken​​ away. And​​ Mags,​​ being ten years older​​ than me,​​ had​​ long before​​ climbed into bed with​​ nihilism​​ and​​ brought me​​ right​​ in​​ with her​​ for a time.​​ I​​ dropped out of the art school I was attending,​​ became a borderline alcoholic, cocaine was my morning coffee, although morning was usually about sunset. But I rationalized it all because we were ‘saving’ lives, so​​ why​​ care about mine?

But after Maria​​ and meeting death in-person,​​ I​​ began questioning whether​​ living in nihilism was​​ a life worth living, while for Mags it​​ was​​ only more justification. Since then she’s only​​ fallen deeper into drugs and​​ ‘La Duc’, and although we still say we’re best friends,​​ we’ve​​ been​​ drifting in​​ opposite​​ directions​​ for​​ a while.​​ However, since​​ I’m​​ an illegal alien​​ now​​ because​​ I​​ overstayed my​​ student​​ visa​​ and​​ she’s​​ an EU citizen,​​ I’m anchored to her​​ for​​ almost anything I can’t acquire legally, including​​ a place to live and​​ most of my​​ money. The money I lived on​​ before came​​ from​​ a college trust fund set up in my mom’s name after she died, but once you overstay a visa, immigration authorities​​ are alerted and​​ monitor​​ your bank accounts.”

“Why not​​ just go back home?” Walter asked.

“It’s more complicated​​ than that​​ . . .​​ Anyway,​​ the cabaret was​​ originally​​ built as​​ an underground​​ nuclear fallout center...”​​ she continued on.

Eventually​​ Shiva directed​​ the taxi​​ driver​​ to​​ an​​ alley​​ that​​ seemed to go nowhere. The surrounding streets were​​ soulless and​​ veiled in​​ darkness.

“Are you​​ planning to murder me?” Walter​​ asked​​ looking out the window​​ as they stopped.

“Yes,” Shiva said opening the taxi van’s sliding door. “But​​ only​​ because I want to show you the fun side of hell​​ after—which is down that alley.​​ Besides,​​ if you still think this is a dream,​​ nothing can actually kill you. So what do you have to lose​​ other than​​ waking up?”

“You, that is if this is a dream.”

“True. But​​ wouldn’t​​ I be also killing myself by killing you?”

“Well, how else are we supposed to​​ get to​​ hell together?”​​ 

She laughed.​​ “You​​ are​​ clever,”​​ she said​​ then​​ stepped​​ out of the taxi. “But truthfully, all we need to do is walk down that alley.”​​ 

 

They walked to the end​​ of the alley​​ where​​ a red, nondescript door​​ was.​​ Above it​​ were​​ seven​​ stories of small, barred windows, three to each floor, all softly glowing like candles behind sooted​​ glass. From the other side of the door, Walter could hear a​​ muffled​​ ruckus of​​ shouting, stomping, pianoing, and fiddling.​​ Shiva​​ pressed​​ a​​ hidden​​ bell​​ fleshed​​ into the door frame. Two minutes later it opened and a​​ female​​ hostess with​​ short brunette hair and​​ a​​ foxlike​​ face greeted them.

Bonsoir monsieur,​​ la dame,”​​ she​​ said, giving Shiva a knowing​​ glance. “Le mot de passe?

Audaces fortuna iuvat,” Shiva replied.

“Welcome to​​ La​​ Lune Rouge,​​ the hostess​​ said​​ smiling.

She​​ opened a door behind her​​ to​​ a sleepy​​ piano bar with a few patrons scattered about​​ as​​ some lazy​​ piano​​ jazz chords​​ settled over some still​​ enigmatic​​ ruckus wallowing the walls.​​ Shiva then took him to​​ a​​ corner of the bar​​ where he found the source​​ emitting more loudly from a​​ tightly​​ descending​​ corkscrew staircase​​ drilled into the floor.

“The real fun is down there,” she said.​​ 

They​​ entered and spiraled​​ thrice, then​​ went​​ through​​ a​​ dimly-lit​​ tunnel into a​​ small​​ foyer with a​​ drink stand,​​ from which they​​ got two beers before entering​​ the​​ small,​​ but​​ filled and​​ riotous​​ cabaret​​ room.

The room​​ looked like a cave made from the​​ belly​​ of a whale​​ with​​ candlelight​​ dancing​​ along​​ its​​ bleached and​​ uneven​​ rocky​​ walls.​​ The whale’s​​ brick​​ backbone and​​ ribs supporting the ceiling were​​ greased​​ by​​ many hands over many years​​ being​​ easily within​​ reach​​ when​​ standing on the long​​ and​​ wide​​ wooden​​ table that divided the room in two, which​​ many people were.​​ That’s why upon first impression it was hard to distinguish​​ audience​​ from performer, for the table in the center also doubled as the stage, but many of the patrons were also partaking in the​​ bedlam of the​​ performance.​​ One plain-looking woman with glasses had even taken her shirt off—but left​​ a​​ bra​​ on—and was wheeling it over her head like a flag of insurgency, while another couple was laid out at the end of the table-stage, dry humping each other as if no one​​ was around.

Carved into the wall​​ at the other end of the table-stage was a small platform just big enough to support a saloon-style piano with player, a furious fiddler, and a small and stripped-down drum set with drummer.​​ Two singers, a dandelion-haired drag queen about six-two and a tuxedoed woman with a fake mustache​​ almost​​ the same height,​​ were charging​​ and chirping​​ up and down the table-stage​​ knocking over drinks singing​​ an​​ anthemic​​ number in Dutch​​ while bumping and​​ grinding on audience members who were also​​ on the table-stage.​​ Shiva​​ said the song​​ was​​ a local​​ soccer​​ favorite,​​ “Blood, Sweat and Tears”.​​ 

While not perfectly fluent​​ in either,​​ she​​ spoke​​ as much Dutch as she did French and switched between them and English as she greeted staff, performers, and other apparent regulars​​ she knew​​ while​​ moving​​ throughout​​ the room​​ with​​ Walter​​ at her side like an accessory not many people seemed to notice.

Once the song ended​​ and the mood calmed,​​ the dry humping couple​​ at the end of the table-stage​​ rolled off​​ and​​ staggered out​​ to assumedly​​ continue in the hotel above, leaving open the two​​ best​​ seats​​ in the house.

“Shall we?” Walter asked Shiva, pointing to the seats.

“Sure, why not?” she said​​ grinning enthusiastically.​​ 

“This next song…” the drag queen said​​ in​​ a​​ French​​ accent​​ from the​​ other end of the table-stage​​ as they​​ sat,​​ “…is a song I wrote​​ in English​​ about the man who tore out my heart only to steal it away.​​ I love you​​ chéri,” she​​ blew a kiss to the mustached​​ woman who had taken a seat amongst some​​ of the​​ other apparent performers in the audience.

The drag queen​​ then settled sideways into a chair​​ she’d​​ placed on​​ the​​ table-stage​​ and her red silt dress opened revealing a long and elegant leg.​​ She gave a passing glance to the piano player, then brought the microphone to her lips​​ as a​​ bleary, burlesque jazz number​​ began playing. At first her lispy voice lumbered low, then soared into a tiny, tinny timbre, like that of a child on the verge of crying, enchanting the air with every sorrowful color of life:

 

Blood-drawn rain on​​ a​​ desert’s skin​​ 

That’s when I kissed your lips and found no end

But what is love without your design?​​ 

Does it feel? Does it laugh? Does it even know how to cry inside?

 

What did​​ I​​ mean to you?

For you to throw away my love like you always do?

So now instead​​ my love​​ hovers just above your heart

Like birds of prey waiting over a dying art

 

Oh Mother Myth and Father Fear

Throwing arrows through my ears

When do you​​ think you've had enough

Of trying​​ to press diamonds from the ashes of love?​​ 

 

At this point, the​​ drag queen​​ had walked from one end of the table-stage to the other and was now cloaked over Walter like a backwards coat as fleshly mechanisms began working at him through her thin underwear.

Love is like a tiger cub,” she sang,​​ a good idea until it grows up. Crush to being crushed,​​ crush to being crushed.​​ So let me​​ put​​ on a show fer you​​ tiger​​ cub, let me show you​​ my​​ love...”​​ she sang until the song’s end.​​ 

“Forgot to tell you,”​​ Shiva​​ said laughing​​ after the drag queen relinquished him. “These two seats​​ see​​ the most action all night.”

As the show wore on, they were honored with​​ a program​​ in several languages from the whole of the​​ world and​​ sexual spectrum,​​ a gathering of​​ fetishists,​​ misfit toys,​​ artists, and exhibitionists,​​ featuring​​ cabaret and sex show routines,​​ poetry readings,​​ and​​ mime and comedic pieces.​​ There were​​ more lap dances and more​​ stage-table​​ dances, during which,​​ Walter and Shiva’s​​ singing voices​​ and bodies​​ got to familiarize themselves​​ for the first time​​ while grabbing​​ ahold​​ of​​ the ceiling​​ with one hand​​ so they weren’t knocked over by​​ all the​​ other singing and​​ familiarizing bodies​​ they​​ shared the​​ cloister​​ with.

After a​​ rousing​​ hour or so in the never-ending cabaret show that went into the daylight hours, they​​ then​​ went upstairs to​​ decompress in the piano bar.​​ Upon​​ ascending,​​ the piano was playing a tune Walter knew well.

Oh you pretty things...” he couldn’t stop himself from singing along to the melody only the piano was singing.

The piano player, looking a little like a latter-years​​ Serge​​ Gainsbourg, smiled back at him with a​​ tobacco-stained grin and waved​​ Walter​​ over as he began singing along in a low,​​ gravelly​​ growl as Shiva​​ teased​​ the upper register, untangling something in Walter every​​ time​​ their eyes met​​ while singing.​​ The​​ sleepy​​ bar​​ then​​ woke up and​​ nearly everyone was​​ singing the choruses​​ toward the end, which the piano player repeated over and over​​ to stretch out the song.

“Do you know any more Bowie?” Walter asked​​ when​​ the piano player​​ finished.

“Some,” he said in​​ an​​ Eastern European accent Walter couldn’t distinguish, “but I haven’t had cigarette for hour. I’m dying for air. You play?”

“Yes he does,” Shiva answered for​​ him.

“Then you play.​​ My voice is shit​​ anyway. You two sound like angels.” He​​ then​​ grabbed his​​ suit​​ coat​​ and vacated the piano​​ to smoke outside.

“More Bowie?” Walter asked Shiva as they sat​​ together​​ on the​​ piano bench.

“No,” she said. “I’ve had enough Bowie. Serenade​​ me​​ with​​ the cheesiest love song you know, Bowie’s​​ excluded.”

“Luckily,​​ I know​​ such a song,​​ the first song​​ I​​ ever learned on piano.” Walter then struck the opening of “November Rain”.

He then​​ bellowed​​ and played​​ the​​ nearly nine minute​​ ballad—guitar solos and all,​​ but only in the style of Axl Rose at impromptu moments just​​ to​​ make​​ her​​ laugh and snap her out​​ of​​ the trance​​ he kept catching her fall into when he sang​​ in​​ his natural voice.​​ Because the piano faced away from the crowd and their eyes​​ were​​ so distracted​​ with​​ each other, they were surprised by the loud applause when the song ended. They turned around and the bar​​ was twice as​​ full​​ as before.​​ 

“Not bad job,”​​ the piano player said returning, soaked in​​ the stench of​​ cigarette smoke. “You’re really good. You want to play more?”

Walter looked to Shiva​​ who was trying to subdue a stubborn smile.​​ “I think I’ve had my fill of cheesy love songs for the night,”​​ she​​ said​​ to him. “Unless of course you want to.”

“No,”​​ he​​ said standing, “I think I’ve taken up enough spotlight for​​ the​​ evening.​​ All​​ yours again my friend.”

They left the piano and sat​​ at​​ a table,​​ however,​​ once the energy and patrons drained​​ back downstairs Walter and Shiva found themselves restless.

“Do you want to dance some​​ more?” she asked him.

“Down below?”​​ he said.

“No, alone. On a houseboat.”

“Your houseboat?”

“Don’t​​ ask questions. Yes or no?”

He​​ smirked.​​ Well,” he said, “as long as it’s​​ only​​ dancing​​ we’ll be doing.

“Of course,” she​​ replied. “However, when​​ is life not dancing? If you’re not dancing you’re dead.”

 

“See that boat up there?” Shiva​​ pointed to a​​ small​​ houseboat about a hundred yards up​​ on a lonely canal.​​ “The​​ owner​​ is my friend and he’s out of town right now.”

“And he’s okay with you using his houseboat?”​​ Walter asked.

“Yeah, fellow Deadhead. We’re very generous people.”

Taking her word,​​ he​​ followed her aboard, even though to open the cabin door she had to pick the lock with​​ his​​ credit card. “He​​ always​​ locks​​ the easy​​ one,” she​​ said​​ sliding the card into the doorjamb, “but​​ leaves the deadbolt unlocked​​ for friends.” Seconds later the door was open.​​ “Welcome aboard Mister Huxley.”

Inside was a​​ miniaturized​​ kitchen and living room​​ with​​ a​​ miniaturized couch and chair and​​ even a​​ miniaturized​​ acoustic​​ guitar hanging on the wall. Shiva went for the guitar and took it​​ with Walter in tow​​ and​​ a bottle of wine from the kitchen​​ to the​​ only​​ bedroom​​ in the back of the boat​​ with a skylight above​​ the bed​​ and​​ a sliding glass door leading to a deck.

Keeping the lights off,​​ Shiva​​ cranked​​ the​​ skylight​​ cover​​ open​​ and a ghostly moonbeam​​ streamed in​​ making the white​​ bedding​​ sparkle​​ like​​ marble. She​​ lit a few candles around the bed before​​ drawing​​ the curtains​​ and sliding open the deck door,​​ letting​​ the​​ full moon​​ peek​​ in.

Come hither Mister Huxley,” she said​​ motioning with her index finger,​​ our dancefloor awaits​​ outside. And​​ I lied​​ a little,​​ I​​ didn’t bring you here​​ just​​ to dance with you.​​ I want​​ to serenade you​​ with​​ a​​ cheesy love song​​ also, but​​ I wanted to do it​​ in the moonlight. You’ll see why.”

The​​ wooden​​ deck​​ outside was​​ the length of the boat​​ with wooden​​ trellises banking​​ its​​ edges​​ for partial privacy. There were​​ two​​ canvas​​ deck​​ chairs​​ and​​ a hammock​​ spread across one of its ends, which they opted​​ to​​ share bottoms in.​​ 

“I never actually want to be married,”​​ Shiva​​ said strumming the nylon strings of​​ the​​ small​​ guitar as she tuned them,​​ “but​​ I always said this would be my​​ first dance song if I ever have a wedding. It’s a Neil Young song.​​ I hope​​ you don’t mind.”

“Wow, you really are cheesy,” Walter said​​ grinning.​​ “‘Harvest Moon’​​ under a full moon? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to seduce​​ me.”

“Not cheesy and not seducing,” she said smiling back,​​ “I’m just a romantic opportunist and you just happen to be​​ the right​​ guinea pig​​ on​​ the right night.​​ And while it’s a Strawberry Moon​​ tonight,​​ not a Harvest Moon,​​ it’s​​ still a​​ special one​​ because of the​​ partial eclipse earlier.”​​ 

“You’re right. I forgot​​ because we couldn’t see it here​​ . . . Well,​​ your guinea pig is waiting.”

Suddenly​​ Shiva​​ turned​​ bashful and had to restart twice before slipping into the song. But once she did Walter​​ became completely​​ unraveled​​ in​​ her​​ voice’s​​ soft crystalline timbre​​ and the silky​​ patter of the guitar’s nylon strings​​ up against​​ the​​ rippling​​ water.​​ In the​​ luminous dew​​ of the moon,​​ she​​ appeared powdered in starlight and her​​ silvery​​ eyes flickered like​​ brightly polished coins​​ every time she flashed​​ them his way.

Too perfect for a dream,​​ but​​ too real to believe,​​ Walter​​ thought.

“Well​​ guinea pig,”​​ she​​ said after,​​ setting​​ the guitar​​ by her side, “what did you think?”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Shouldn’t a first dance song be danced to?”

“I can only do​​ so​​ much holding​​ a guitar.”

“I don’t see you holding one now.”​​ He​​ stood,​​ then offered his hand to her.

“And what? I’m​​ supposed to re-sing the song​​ while we dance?” she​​ asked.

“No,​​ that​​ would spoil​​ the song for​​ your first dance​​ because it’d only remind you of your guinea pig.​​ And​​ what would your future husband think​​ if​​ he​​ discovered your first time was not actually your first?​​ No, I only need you and your feet. The sound of life​​ will provide the music.”

Charmed,​​ Shiva​​ accepted​​ Walter’s​​ hand and he brought​​ her​​ to​​ the water’s edge.​​ They laughed as they began to​​ dramatically​​ pirouette​​ over​​ the deck, mocking their absurdity, but every time their eyes met, they seemed to speak​​ more seriously.​​ At last​​ their eyes​​ clasped and wouldn’t let go, bringing​​ their​​ dancing​​ silhouettes​​ into​​ communion​​ in front of the falling moon.

Warm​​ cheek​​ to​​ warm cheek, their​​ quickening​​ breaths​​ stroked each other’s​​ ears​​ and neck,​​ sending an​​ exciting tension​​ they could feel in each other’s​​ firming​​ bodies.​​ Walter’s​​ hand​​ then​​ slid​​ to the small of​​ Shiva’s​​ back​​ while the other swept aside a stray ringlet of​​ red​​ hair from her face. She then​​ reached behind her head and​​ undid her hair, sending it​​ cascading​​ down like a coppery lava flow​​ over​​ his fingers,​​ which​​ proceeded to weave and run themselves through it.

His​​ hand on her back then pulled​​ her​​ closer as her hands​​ around​​ his back did the same.​​ Now with​​ foreheads​​ pressed,​​ their breaths​​ tickled their lips and trickled​​ down across​​ their jaws,​​ eyes​​ locked and​​ wide​​ on each other.​​ Then with one last​​ caress​​ their​​ eyes​​ shut​​ and​​ the space between their lips​​ closed, releasing the​​ restless​​ tension​​ like a bungee​​ cord​​ recoiling, leaving them to​​ reel​​ and float in​​ a careless​​ air of​​ mad​​ peace​​ as​​ their​​ mouths​​ began​​ dancing​​ wildly​​ to​​ the​​ music of the freefall.​​ Losing feeling of the​​ ground​​ beneath them,​​ they​​ fell to their knees​​ with lips still smacking.

“We’re fucked aren’t we?” Shiva asked​​ through their​​ kissing.

“Yes,”​​ Walter​​ replied, “but​​ we can worry about that in the morning.​​ Tonight, we’re only dancing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 15/16

Chapter 15

The Happy Banshee

 

 

As​​ Walter​​ approached the​​ captivating​​ music, it fell into a​​ meandering​​ instrumental. The bar​​ from which it was emanating was just one​​ small​​ door​​ among many​​ that lined the bottom of a four-story,​​ dilapidated and​​ faded,​​ redbrick​​ building. There was a sign above the​​ entrance, dimly lit​​ by a yellowed light and​​ spotted with graffiti. Its edges were wrapped in​​ years of​​ rust.​​ The weathered words​​ on it​​ read:​​ Maloe Melo- Home of The Blues.

Looking​​ inside the open door,​​ Walter​​ saw nothing but a sea of​​ dancing​​ tie-dye.​​ Outside, as expected, were​​ some​​ old men, also dressed in tie-dye, smoking and conversing.​​ A​​ playbill​​ was posted to​​ the​​ left​​ of​​ the​​ door​​ under​​ a sign saying: TONIGHT LIVE!/ OPTREDEN VANAVOND!​​ On​​ the​​ playbill​​ was​​ a​​ portrait​​ of a​​ young woman​​ with​​ bright​​ gray eyes and​​ flowers weaved into her​​ wavy​​ vermillion​​ hair. A​​ wry​​ smirk played across her​​ pink cheeks​​ as​​ she mimed​​ playing an invisible guitar.​​ 

Kali​​ &​​ The Easy Wind: A Tribute to The Grateful Dead, Walter read above her image.​​ So​​ that’s​​ what this mysterious sound​​ was.​​ He​​ knew of the Grateful Dead​​ because they influenced much of the​​ music he listened to, but​​ remarkably,​​ he​​ had​​ never listened​​ to them​​ himself.​​ ​​ 

The old men​​ smiled as he walked toward the entrance. One of them gave him a peace sign. “Have a grateful time!” he said.

 

On the other side,​​ the place was perhaps slightly larger than a​​ one-bedroom​​ apartment with a bar running​​ nearly​​ the entire left-hand side​​ length.​​ The​​ narrow corridors were wallpapered with American and European blues festival flyers and an assortment of collected oddities typical of​​ any​​ dive bar. Wall to wall, beneath colorfully backlit​​ mists​​ of​​ swirling​​ marijuana smoke, men and women of all ages​​ danced, many of them in tie-dyed,​​ bohemian attire.​​ There were​​ no subdivisions​​ in the crowd, just a giant mass of varied personalities and energies stitched​​ together by the hand​​ of​​ communal​​ soundwaves.​​ It was as if​​ Walter had​​ stepped through a time portal into the Summer of Love.

On​​ a​​ corner​​ stage,​​ a​​ young and​​ statuesque​​ female​​ drummer​​ tapped along with an​​ energetic​​ female bassist in baggy overalls​​ and pigtails.​​ To their left,​​ a lizard-looking guitarist​​ was​​ whipping​​ his long​​ hair and tongue about​​ manically,​​ while a middle-aged and balding,​​ mad-scientist of a man​​ fingered​​ a​​ stack of keyboards.​​ However,​​ where or whom​​ the singer was, was​​ still​​ a mystery.

But as​​ Walter’s​​ eyes adjusted,​​ he saw her​​ at last, the redhead from the playbill,​​ in the crowd, dancing​​ in the whirlpools of tie-dye.​​ She was​​ dressed in​​ a​​ white​​ summer dress and​​ had​​ white​​ fringed and fingerless gloves​​ that went to her bicep.​​ Her long and balletic​​ body​​ was​​ spinning​​ wildly while people poured around her like​​ prairie​​ grass.​​ 

Turning​​ his​​ way, her spinning stopped. Smiling,​​ she​​ then​​ pulled back her wet hair and​​ splayed her elbows like the​​ cape​​ of a cobra​​ as an upsurge of music filled the room.​​ She then threw her​​ arms​​ down in a​​ dramatic​​ arc​​ timed with a disco-tinged synth chord​​ struck by​​ the mad-scientist.​​ The crowd went into a frenzy of​​ ahs​​ as everyone seemed to be anticipating something only unknown to Walter.

The redhead then​​ hopped​​ on stage and picked up a well-used, black​​ Gibson S-1​​ and began playing​​ it, bopping along to the music with a shit-eating grin.​​ You tell me this town ain't got no heart…” she sang​​ like a happy​​ banshee.

​​ Well, well, well, you can never tell…” the crowd​​ chanted​​ back,​​ dancing​​ as​​ if​​ they were​​ alone​​ at home​​ in their​​ underwear.

The sudden jostling of feet pushed Walter to the center of the room​​ and his​​ arms and legs​​ began​​ wagging​​ unconsciously​​ like the others around him.​​ WOO!​​ everyone​​ then​​ yelled​​ as they​​ jumped​​ into the air and landed on a springy chorus​​ about a place called “Shakedown Street”.​​ 

Like the first, this song too eventually went into another​​ long​​ and​​ meandering​​ jam, during which Walter was passed​​ several​​ joints​​ and handshakes​​ from the people around​​ him.​​ The​​ jam​​ then​​ tumbled into another bouncy tune,​​ but​​ this one more reggae-rooted, but not exactly reggae.​​ The change inspired another flurry of excitement​​ from the crowd.

“Shakedown to Scarlet—that’s unheard of!”​​ someone yelled nearby, while everyone shook their heads and bodies in agreement that they were indeed sharing in on something special.​​ 

As the song played and the​​ happy​​ banshee sang, phrases of verse caught​​ Walter’s​​ ear, each one​​ more relatable, until it seemed his thoughts were being sung into​​ lyrics,​​ lyrics​​ he had​​ just​​ heard​​ earlier that night.

Once in a while you get shown the light​​ in the strangest of places if you look at it right...”

The​​ phrase​​ stunned​​ Walter​​ into stasis.​​ Apparently the therapist in his head was a Deadhead.

To his surprise, the banshee also appeared to have been shot​​ by​​ the same​​ sensation.​​ Fingers frozen​​ over​​ her​​ fretboard,​​ she was now​​ dumbstruck​​ by​​ Walter. She then began​​ glaring him down with​​ bewildered​​ ferocity, making her miss the cue for the next verse.​​ She shook her head, then signaled​​ to her confused bandmates​​ to play another​​ measure, after which she finished the song, opting out​​ of​​ the typical​​ extended jam.

“Thank you.​​ Dank je,” she​​ told the applauding​​ audience​​ in what Walter​​ assessed​​ to be an American accent. “We’re going to take a​​ very​​ short intermission now, but we’ll be back soon.” Unlike her singing, her speaking voice had the​​ tranquil​​ nature of a folk song,​​ the banshee all but​​ dispelled—that is until she​​ advanced on​​ him.

 “Where did you get that shirt?” she​​ demanded. Walter, in disbelief she was actually speaking to him,​​ could say​​ nothing. “Spreekt u Engels?”

“What?”​​ he said.

“English.​​ Do you speak English?​​ Where​​ did you get that shirt?”

“Oh…” he looked​​ down at​​ his shirt.​​ “I-I​​ borrowed​​ it from a friend​​ after I made a mess out of my other one.”

“Who’s​​ your friend?”

“Um,​​ I’m not​​ so​​ sure I​​ should tell you by the way you’re looking at me​​ . . .​​ Why? What​​ is this​​ shirt to you?”

She pulled​​ back​​ her emotions​​ a bit​​ before answering.​​ “It’s​​ a lot of things to me,” she said,​​ “but​​ luna hunny​​ is​​ me.”

Walter​​ shook his head,​​ thinking​​ his brain was​​ playing​​ tricks on him again.​​ “Did you just say you’re​​ luna hunny?” he asked.​​ “You’re the​​ artist​​ on my shirt?”

“I was,” she replied,​​ “but I haven’t been​​ for​​ over two years now.”

“There’s no way . . . Well, if you really are,​​ I​​ have​​ some​​ questions​​ for you​​ then.”

“And so do​​ I,​​ and you’re going to answer them first. Like,​​ who’s your friend and where did he get the​​ shirt?”

“My friend…”​​ Walter​​ hesitated, not sure what he should reveal.​​ “My friend, well, I only met him tonight, so can’t say he’s a close friend.​​ I’m​​ just​​ visiting from California. This is my​​ first and​​ only night​​ in Amsterdam.”

“California?” she said. “I’m from San Fran myself.​​ Where​​ are you from?”

“Orange County and L.A. I’m kind of​​ in between​​ right now.​​ How’d you end up in Amsterdam?”

“Funny you should ask because it has a lot to do with that shirt.​​ I​​ moved to​​ Amsterdam​​ on​​ a​​ student visa​​ thinking​​ luna hunny​​ had a larger fanbase here​​ than in the States.​​ However, come to find out​​ later​​ after I was out ten thousand dollars for​​ a​​ new inventory​​ buy​​ and design costs,​​ the European label I thought​​ was selling so much merchandise and records for me was nothing but a laundering front for a cocaine operation. In reality, I had no fans​​ in Europe​​ at all.​​ Now spill it.​​ Who’s your friend?”

Inside, Walter began freaking out. No wonder Dug was so against this bar. He must’ve known she would be here. But having just met this girl, Walter was unsure where his allegiance stood, however, he also was never good at lying under pressure.

“Dug,” he answered. “His name was Dug.”

“Doug?” she said.

 “Yeah, spelt​​ D-U-G​​ though.”​​ Her face told him this was not a name familiar to her.

“Where does​​ Dug​​ live?” she asked.

“God if I know. Some apartment on some canal.​​ He found me in the streets pretty fucked​​ earlier​​ up after I lost my friends​​ and​​ let me clean​​ up​​ at his house,​​ even though I was​​ a​​ stranger.​​ He also gave me​​ new clothes​​ because I had ruined mine, and that’s how I got this shirt.​​ He really seemed like a good guy, however, we​​ didn’t part on the greatest terms.”

“Why’s that?”​​ she asked.

“I wrecked​​ his​​ expensive​​ tandem​​ bicycle​​ we were riding​​ on purpose.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“I’m still not exactly​​ sure,​​ because it​​ kind of was an​​ asshole move. However,​​ I​​ heard your​​ music​​ coming from the bar​​ and I​​ wanted​​ to​​ stop and​​ listen, but​​ he didn’t,​​ and​​ he​​ wouldn’t stop​​ to let me off, so I crashed the bicycle.”​​ 

She​​ snickered.​​ Hm,”​​ she​​ said. “That’s interesting.​​ Where is he now?”​​ 

“I’m not sure. And I have no way of contacting him.”​​ Walter​​ showed her his obliterated cellphone.

“What happened​​ to your phone?”​​ she asked.

“I was having a bad trip on edibles​​ and​​ thought​​ light​​ monsters were coming out of it​​ so I threw it. Like I said, I was pretty fucked up earlier.”

She let out a guffaw. “Making the most of your​​ night​​ in Amsterdam I see,” she said.​​ “Do​​ know​​ how to get back to​​ his​​ apartment?”

“We took a secret bicycle route​​ only​​ he knew and I was​​ on the​​ back​​ not paying attention.​​ We went over some canals and through some neighborhoods, that’s all I can tell you.”

Shiva scanned​​ Walter​​ over​​ for any hint of fabrication, which none of​​ it​​ was. He just​​ omitted​​ a few​​ damning details.

“Can I ask you something​​ now?”​​ he​​ said.

“What?”​​ she asked.

“What’s​​ the​​ phrase on my shirt mean?”

I think​​ the meaning is​​ pretty straightforward,​​ to say life has no meaning is not to say it has no value.​​ It’s a​​ lyric from one of my songs.

“Yes,​​ I figured that. But was there an​​ inspiration​​ behind the lyric?”

“Yes,​​ and​​ probably​​ more so than​​ any other lyric I’ve written. It was inspired by a​​ birthday​​ I​​ spent alone in​​ a place called​​ Pacific Grove​​ in​​ northern​​ California. Every year,​​ monarch​​ butterflies​​ gather​​ in trees​​ there during their​​ annual migration​​ over thousands of miles,​​ a journey​​ none of them would live long enough to see​​ completed. So as I watched​​ them take off from the trees,​​ I thought​​ how meaningless their lives were to themselves, but everything to the species.​​ But our lives are no different; just pieces of a journey we’ll never see completed​​ unless we somehow find ourselves at its end, which for us and butterflies could be soon if we don’t start caring more about the journey and less about ourselves​​ . . . Are you​​ tearing up?”

“Sorry,” Walter said wiping​​ his eyes. “You’re just—I mean that was​​ just​​ so​​ beautiful, and beautifully said.​​ Also, I find myself crying​​ easily​​ nowadays.​​ For the longest time I never​​ did, but I’ve sure made up for it in the last year.”

She smiled and took his hands​​ away from his cheeks.​​ “Don’t apologize,” she said. “There’s never a reason to hide your tears.​​ I​​ also​​ never​​ used to​​ cry,​​ but​​ now​​ I find myself needing​​ to​​ just to feel balanced​​ sometimes.”

“God, me too,” Walter said. “So, is the image yours​​ too?”

“No, the label provided it. I had my own artwork, but when they sent me that, I couldn’t refuse. It was perfect.​​ I never did find out who made it though.”

“Is there anywhere I can hear this song?”​​ he asked.

“Nope. I​​ wiped​​ luna hunny​​ from the earth​​ and the internet​​ because it​​ became nothing but a​​ painful humiliation for me.​​ I know​​ it​​ sounds melodramatic, but​​ the whole experience​​ gave me a breakdown I almost didn’t recover​​ from.”

“No...” Walter smirked. “I​​ actually​​ understand​​ completely.”

They were​​ then​​ interrupted by her lizard-looking guitarist.​​ “Hey Shiva, you okay to go back up​​ yet?” he asked​​ in​​ an​​ Australian accent.​​ Aussies just seemed to be everywhere in Europe.​​ “The crowd’s getting antsy since we cut the first set so short.​​ But also,​​ I​​ was hoping we’d have time to​​ play ‘Cobrasnake’ again​​ tonight.”

Shiva, Walter thought.​​ Her name is Shiva.

“No Lou,” Shiva said. “If I let you play your song​​ again, then Cage will want to play his stupid song about his​​ cat​​ again.​​ I only let you guys do them​​ that one time​​ because I was drunk.​​ This is a​​ Grateful Dead​​ tribute, not your own band.​​ Ashlyn and Jayleen never ask me to play their​​ own​​ songs.​​ I’ll go up when I’m ready.” She signaled him away.

Men,” Shiva​​ said​​ after​​ her guitarist left.​​ “Why do they​​ always​​ have​​ to stick their ego in everything? But he’s right. I should​​ get back up.​​ You​​ a fan of the​​ Dead?”

“I think I will be after tonight,”​​ Walter​​ said.​​ “This is my first time hearing their music—or I​​ think​​ it​​ is. I keep having this feeling like I’ve been here before.”

She​​ smiled.​​ “Your first show, I’m honored. And the Dead’s music can have that effect on you. It​​ just means the magic’s working. But just wait until second set.​​ That’s when it really starts flowing.”

“What do you mean?”​​ he asked.

“Well, let’s just say​​ anything can happen during​​ the​​ second set of​​ a​​ Dead​​ show—even if it​​ is​​ just a tribute​​ show.”​​ Shiva​​ then​​ eyed his​​ hat.​​ “I like your hat.​​ Mind if I wear it​​ for second set? I promise to give it back​​ after.”

“Okay,” Walter​​ said with no objection.

She leaned in​​ as if going for a kiss, but at the last moment maneuvered​​ up​​ and​​ lifted​​ the hat​​ away. She​​ put it on and​​ tilted​​ it​​ back​​ so that the brim formed a​​ bright orange halo behind​​ her head.

“How do I look?”​​ she asked.​​ 

“Like a psychedelic Virgin Mary,”​​ he​​ replied. She seemed very content with that.

 

In her​​ long and​​ breezy dress,​​ Shiva​​ appeared​​ to fly back onstage. She​​ then​​ picked up her guitar and romanced from it an icy blues riff, and like well-drilled soldiers,​​ her band fell in​​ step​​ as​​ the house lights drenched the room in a​​ bottomless​​ blue​​ while​​ a tune​​ crooned​​ like​​ cancer​​ slowly squeezing life from its victim like toothpaste from a tube.

Y'know death don't have no mercy in this land” Shiva cut the​​ air​​ like a preacher​​ from a​​ pulpit.​​ In contrast to their earlier playful manner, the crowd fell silent,​​ drifting away behind their eyelids​​ as they rocked to the​​ funeral​​ march rhythm.​​ A​​ Dead show wasn’t​​ just​​ flowers and sunshine​​ Walter​​ was seeing,​​ but​​ more​​ so​​ a journey which mirrored the​​ perverted​​ path and beat​​ of life.​​ 

After the song burned itself out,​​ from​​ it​​ arose a new one, fluttering​​ off​​ of​​ Shiva’s fingers​​ like the first flaps​​ of freshly-budded butterfly wings.​​ The crowd then rejoiced as the house lights warmed the scene​​ with​​ rays of orange, red, and yellow. She then went to​​ the mic,​​ her gray eyes​​ glowing in Walter’s​​ direction.

My favorite, she mouthed​​ to him, then​​ told the epic of​​ “Terrapin Station”,​​ a story​​ which​​ again seemed​​ to​​ strum upon​​ every​​ part of him.

The​​ rest of​​ the​​ second set was​​ as​​ tumultuous​​ as promised. At one moment exultant and​​ droll,​​ the next forlorn and frightening; at​​ one​​ moment psychedelic, the next country,​​ jazz, then who knows what to call it.​​ For​​ fifteen​​ minutes, the music​​ just hung​​ in an ambient space of hallucinogenic​​ soundscapes​​ and drums, while everyone including​​ the band took turns​​ going to the bathroom. Then​​ like​​ a​​ tiny​​ crack,​​ a​​ spidery​​ preamble​​ crawled into​​ the suspended air​​ and shattered it with the tale of someone named “St. Stephen”. Then​​ someone named​​ “Bertha”,​​ someone named “Althea”,​​ then a song about women being smarter, then​​ an​​ acoustic​​ and palliative​​ encore about a place called​​ “Brokedown Palace” just to send everyone​​ off equalized.​​ 

After,​​ Shiva took a​​ humble​​ bow in front of​​ the small​​ sea of​​ roaring adulation,​​ of​​ which Walter was ardently a​​ part of, clapping his hands until they hurt.​​ After​​ some​​ schmoozing​​ and tidying away​​ of​​ her things onstage,​​ she​​ soon​​ floated​​ back​​ to​​ him.

“Here,”​​ she​​ said lifting​​ his​​ hat​​ from​​ her head. “See,​​ I promised I’d​​ return​​ it.”

She​​ came in​​ close​​ to​​ crown​​ him​​ with it. He​​ could feel the heat of the performance​​ still​​ radiating from her​​ body.​​ She​​ fussed​​ with​​ the hat​​ for longer than seemed necessary​​ until it was​​ seated​​ just​​ to her liking.

“There, perfect,” she said taking her hands away.

“You’re unlike any performer—or really any person​​ I’ve​​ ever​​ met before,” Walter said.

“Thank you, but you hardly know me.​​ But let’s change​​ that.​​ Come with me​​ to the bar.”

 

 

Chapter 16

The​​ Tower

 

Taking a seat at the now mostly empty bar,​​ Shiva​​ hailed an older gentlemen behind it with a mustache,​​ smoking a cigar.​​ “Patrick, can you get me an Amstel with a shot of Jack and my friend here a...” she​​ eyed​​ Walter to finish the order.​​ 

“Make it two of that.”

“You got it my dear,” Patrick replied in a Dutch accent and got their drinks.

Sante,” Shiva said holding up her shot to Walter.

Sante,” he replied. “Et merci pour les boissons.”

Tu parles français?”​​ 

Oui, mais juste un peu.​​ J'aime beaucoup de philosophes français. ‘Je pense, donc je suis.’”

She laughed.​​ D’accord​​ Monsieur Descartes,” she said. “Et j'aime beaucoup de poètes français. ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur comme il pleut sur la ville.’”

“You lost me on that one,” he said. “Also, I​​ don’t know a lot of French poetry.”

“Verlaine,​​ but that’s okay. Also you’re​​ welcome for the drinks, but thank him.” Shiva nodded to Patrick. “They’re on the house, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tip the man…” Her eyes and smile insinuated​​ he​​ should.​​ Walter​​ took a few Euro coins from his pocket and splashed them on the bar.

“No,” Patrick said pushing them back, “but thank you. This young lady​​ brings me so much business I feel guilty she doesn’t ask for more.”

“You perform just for drinks?” Walter asked Shiva.

“Of course not,”​​ she said.

“Yes she does,” Patrick insisted. “All she asks for is free drinks and joints. The rest goes to her charity, half the cost of every drink and joint sold here tonight.”

“You run a charity?” Walter asked.

Shiva looked at Patrick annoyed.​​ “Yes,” she said. “Technically it’s run under​​ my roommate’s​​ name though since I’m not living here legally. She’s actually the ‘Kali’ in Kali & The Easy Wind, the name of the band and the charity. But​​ Kali’s just her legal name. She’s ‘Mags’​​ to me and everyone who knows her.​​ We started the charity together, but it’s really just​​ been​​ me for a while now.”

“What’s the charity for?” Walter asked.​​ 

Helping​​ human trafficking victims​​ in Amsterdam.​​ Although prostitution’s legal, a lot of girls are still trafficked​​ here​​ when they’re young and brainwashed by pimps who pretend to be their boyfriends,​​ or what’s called a ‘loverboy’. Mags,​​ who’s an independent prostitute,​​ introduced me to this uglier side of the sex trade. Originally we planned a charity cabaret show based on David Bowie’s​​ Diamond Dogs, but then her ‘career’ started taking off. So, since I grew up listening and playing them all my life, I started a Grateful Dead tribute​​ with some musicians I knew in town instead.”​​ ​​ 

“Yeah, but that​​ Diamond Dogs​​ cabaret show would’ve still been awesome to see,” Walter said. “David Bowie is my favorite artist.”

“Funny. Bowie is Mags’s favorite too,” Shiva said.

“So were your parents Deadheads?” he asked.

“Yes, but more so my dad than my mom. She always liked Neil Young more, which I can’t fault her. I love Neil just as much as the Dead.”

“Funny. Neil Young was a favorite of a friend of mine who recently passed away.”

“I’m sorry to hear. How’d they pass?”

He cleared his throat, then took a drink. “You don’t want to hear it,” he said. “It’s not a fun conversation.”

“My mother died when I was six. Does that bring the mood down enough for you?”

He stared at her in awe. “Um,” he began blinking rapidly, “she... she killed herself. And she wasn’t just my friend, she was my ex—I mean, she was my girlfriend.”​​ 

Shiva’s jaw dropped. “I’m sorry I pressured you,” she said, followed by a brief silence. “My mother also killed herself,” she then said quietly. “Is it me, or is there a lot of alignment between us?”

“If you mean coincidences,” Walter said, “yes, I’ve taken notice of that too—even more than you know. My mother also died when I was young. She died giving birth to me. I also have a ‘musical identity’ back home you could say I’m trying to run away from. And funny​​ enough, I also used to be in a tribute band, but Guns N’ Roses though. However, I don’t really believe in ‘alignment’, otherwise I might have to start believing in astrology and every other pseudoscientific​​ or religious​​ system of divination.”

“So what system do you believe in then?” she asked.

“Reason. And reason says​​ alignment is nothing more than​​ our exceptional pattern recognition​​ skills stringing together​​ anomalous coincidences into meaning something more;​​ our own evolution​​ playing tricks on us essentially.”

Shiva burst into laughter.​​ “So you’re basically saying alignment is​​ only acceptable when it can undoubtably be proven not to be​​ alignment?” she said.​​ “See, that’s the paradox about you​​ ‘reason’​​ types. On one hand you’re trying to disprove God, yet on the other you want to prove the universe has some predictable course so long as it’s under your control.​​ But if​​ it’s not ‘anomalous coincidences’ guiding our lives, then​​ what is?​​ Do you think the monarch butterfly​​ knows why it flies to​​ places it’s never been yet somehow knows how to find?”

“So what?” Walter said. “You’re saying​​ some greater power brought us together?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care, but I won’t ignore​​ the signs.​​ It’s not every day the universe sends me someone wearing my past on their shirt.”

Shiva then reached into her handbag and pulled out a well-worn hemp case containing a deck of cards.

“What are those?” Walter asked.

“Tarot cards. You mind if I do a reading for us? I’m sure ‘reason’ says you have nothing to be afraid of.”

He looked at the cards nervously.​​ “No,” he said. “I suppose​​ it​​ should be fun if anything.”

Shiva​​ began​​ shuffling​​ the​​ deck, then dealt out four cards in a cross formation on the bar.

“We’ll keep this simple,” she said. “The card on the left will represent you, the card on the right will represent me, the card on the bottom will represent what brings us together, and the card on top will represent our future. You first.”

Walter flipped his card over.

“The Fool,” Shiva​​ said.​​ “The Fool is number zero in the​​ Major Arcana deck and therefore can be placed at the beginning or end of it.​​ Because of this, the Major Arcana is often considered the Fool’s​​ journey. And as you can see​​ on the card,​​ the Fool is setting out on a journey with nothing but a knapsack,​​ gazing​​ up​​ into​​ the sky unaware he’s about to walk off a​​ cliff​​ into the unknown. But by his side​​ is​​ a small​​ white dog,​​ there to protect, guide, and motivate him through the​​ lessons he came on this journey to learn​​ . . .​​ Sound like someone you know?”

​​ “I’ll admit,” Walter said,​​ “the Fool and I have some​​ uncanny​​ similarities. But I’m sure I’d find similarities with any card you could have pulled. Anyway, you now.”

Shiva turned over her card.​​ “The Tower,” she said.

“What’s the Tower mean?”​​ he asked.

“Upheaval, destruction, chaos.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“Yes, but in the end, it’s for the highest good. As seen on the card, a tower has been built upon a shaky foundation. A lightning bolt from the universe of sudden clarity and insight​​ then strikes it down along with​​ a crown​​ which once stood atop​​ the tower. From the tower’s windows, two people​​ are​​ leaping​​ into the unknown. However,​​ around them are twenty-two flames, representing the twelve signs of the​​ zodiac and the ten points of the Tree of Life, reminding them divine intervention is always there.”

“So, are you the Tower?” Walter asked.

“I did come to Europe on a ‘tower’ of false premises,” Shiva said. “And I’m still living in its ruins you could say. I just can’t decide whether to start all over or rebuild from the rubble, and it’s been that way for a while now . . . Maybe my answer has to do with whatever’s brought us together.”

Shiva turned the card,​​ a skeleton in black armor riding a white horse: Death.​​ They stared at it in silence for several seconds.

“I guess that card needs no explaining,” Walter said.

“Yes, but Death’s not always a bad thing. It’s also symbolic of letting go of something that’s no longer serving you. However, in our case, I think Death might be more literal than symbolic.”

“Yes,” Walter said taking a deep breath, “but I’m finding it highly symbolic too . . . Do you have a phone with internet access? I need you to read something, then there’s something I want to show you after. If anyone can make sense of it, it’s going to be you.”

“Okay...” she said looking slightly afraid, then handed him her phone. He brought up the Rolling Stone interview, then handed it back.

“There,” he said. “Read.”

He then​​ watched​​ fretfully​​ as​​ she learned his most intimate secrets. Every so often she’d stop and look up at him as if to reassure herself he was indeed the same hideous creature on the screen. At last, she then set down the phone.

“Your name is​​ Walter Huxley?” Shiva asked furrowing her eyebrows.

“Yes,” he said. “I guess we forgot to exchange names. Yours is Shiva—or at least that’s what everyone calls you around here.”

“You know,” she smiled unexpectedly, “your name sounds like a bad penname. And your stage name isn’t much better. No wonder you said you had a musical identity back home you were running away from. I would too if my name was Quinn Quark. However, I was totally oblivious anything was still happening in rock back in The States. But uh...​​ Amber, your girlfriend. I thought you said she killed herself?”

Walter then explained every gruesome detail.

“Wow,” Shiva said after. “That’s... that’s really heavy. I’m so sorry.”

“So does it change your opinion about me?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve hardly known you long enough to form an opinion, and I’m not going to let a magazine article make it. Everyone has at least one secret they don’t want anyone to know. Yours, unfortunately, was just put in Rolling Stone. However, if you want to hear my secret, it might definitely change your opinion on me.”

“All right,” Walter said. “Let’s hear it.”

Shiva took a deep breath, then began. “Before my​​ charity​​ was a charity for human trafficking victims,” she said,​​ “it was really just​​ robbery​​ for human trafficking victims so they could buy themselves out of it. Mags,​​ myself,​​ and some other friends—some formerly trafficked themselves—would​​ prowl the swankier places in town to find rich,​​ gullible tourists who were too drunk or​​ too​​ high to know what they​​ were​​ spending​​ and sell them on a girl we knew​​ was under the control of a loverboy.​​ We’d then​​ deliver the sucker​​ to her​​ personally, but not before taking​​ a finder’s fee, which usually doubled the price, but always went to the girl, that way she made​​ just as much​​ as her loverboy. However, after someone complained about me to a loverboy because I got a bit testy with him after he grabbed my ass, the loverboy became wise to our scheme. But instead of taking it out on me, he took it out on the girl. She was in a coma for two weeks before she died of brain injuries.​​ Her name was Maria, and only one person outside of you knows about her.”

“Wow,” Walter said agape. “I guess we’re connected by Death in many ways on many dimensions. Outside of, well, Amber’s mother, I didn’t think I could share that kind of guilt with anyone. It was just too heavy.”

“So does it change your opinion about me?” she asked.

“Yes,” he smiled​​ timidly, “but only in a good way. It’s nice to know you’re not perfect.”

“I’m glad you think that,” she said smiling back. “Because after reading that article I felt the same way about you . . . So, what was it you wanted to show me now?”

“Right, I almost forgot,” Walter said then reached into his wallet and removed a small plastic bag with Amber’s suicide note inside. “It’s actually a connection I’ve been trying to rationalize all night before I even met you, but alignment keeps working against me. Honestly, I’m expecting to wake up anytime now. Something about this night doesn’t seem real. I think I’m dreaming.”

Shiva took his hand and pressed it near her sternum. “You feel that beating?” she said. “I can assure you, you are not in a dream.”

“We’ll see how you feel after this,” he said taking the note out of the bag and unfolding it. “You only need to read as far as the first sentence of the second paragraph to understand what I mean,” he said giving it to her.

She read then gasped, unable to take her eyes from it. “What value does a life have without meaning?”​​ she said. “To say life has no​​ meaning​​ is not to say it has no​​ value.”

“Sounds like something from the​​ Tao Te Ching, right?” Walter said. “So do you think there’s a connection? Maybe it has something to do with your mother’s suicide.”

“No,” Shiva said defensively. “I assure you my mother’s suicide has no relevance.”

“Why? How did she...”

“Did she do it? She overdosed on pain pills. Why she did it, that’s a secret only my mom and I share. I’m sorry. And honestly, I don’t know if there’s a connection. I think we might be stringing together coincidences now.”

“Listen to you,” Walter said.

“Listen to you,” she replied.

“Maybe our future card might have an answer then,” he said and turned it.

“Oh my God,” Shiva said under her breath. She then brought her hands to her face and sighed.

“What?” Walter asked.​​ 

“The Ace of Cups. Okay, maybe my mother might be involved. But never mind that for now. Um, as you can see a​​ chalice, symbolic of the universe’s invitation for divine love,​​ is​​ overflowing​​ onto​​ a sea​​ of​​ lotus blossoms,​​ representing​​ a​​ coming​​ awakening of the human spirit, but only if one is willing to accept the universe’s invitation for divine love first. However, few ever do. Divine love always looks like​​ certain madness​​ in the beginning, but peace isn’t​​ sewn without passing through the eye of insanity first.”

She then picked up the card and handed it to him. “I never thought I’d ever give this card away,” she said, “but it’s what alignment is telling me to do.”

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Neither do I completely. But just keep it as a reminder of the chalice waiting to be filled in you. That’s all I can say . . . How about a​​ change of atmosphere?” Shiva said standing up and putting away the cards. “Patrick’s closing soon anyway.”

“What about your gear?” Walter asked.

“I keep it here.”

“All right. Where to then?”

“The only place I know to go this late at night; a place where we can practice our French, dance to some music, and see some titties:​​ La Lune Rouge. I guarantee you won’t find any other place like it in Amsterdam.”

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 14

Chapter 14

The Blessed Bitch

 

 

“Stand up . . . stand up​​ . . . stand up mate! You’re sitting​​ in a fucking​​ pile o’​​ puke and​​ piss!” Two tattooed arms forklifted Walter to his feet.​​ He​​ then​​ staggered to​​ a​​ nearby canal​​ where he​​ again collapsed to the ground.​​ Crawling​​ on his belly to the​​ canal’s edge,​​ he​​ then​​ evacuated his​​ demons​​ into the water—about​​ four​​ still-semi-solid​​ pot​​ brownies. ​​ ​​ 

“God​​ damn it. Now you’re really fucked,” the Aussie stranger​​ said​​ as he went over to Walter. “The locals​​ don’t take lightly to tourists chundering​​ in their​​ canals. That’s what these dunnies​​ and rubbish bins are here for.​​ Come on, we’ve got to get out of here before the police find you.”​​ 

He helped​​ Walter​​ to his feet​​ again​​ by​​ putting​​ an arm under him for support.​​ “Holy shit​​ you reek,”​​ the stranger​​ said. “Can​​ you​​ make it​​ a​​ few blocks? I’ve got a flat up the road;​​ let you​​ clean up and​​ get your head on​​ straight​​ if you’d like.”

As​​ Walter’s​​ vision stilled, his rescuer​​ came into​​ focus.​​ He was a mustached man​​ around​​ the same age as Walter.​​ His mouth rested in​​ a​​ permanent​​ smile​​ with​​ a severe gap​​ in the middle,​​ which was periodically interrupted by the cigarette he was smoking.​​ His medium build was dressed in black from his ragged Cleveland Indians cap to his dirty and frayed Vans shoes. His unkempt hair stretched out wildly under his hat​​ and his jeans only reached his ankles. His pulled-back flannel sleeves revealed extensive​​ tattoo​​ collages​​ up and down his arms​​ of horror​​ movie​​ characters,​​ obscure metal bands, and​​ bizarrely, more​​ Ohio​​ sports teams.

“Do I know you?”​​ Walter asked.​​ For some reason this stranger seemed familiar.

No, but now you do.​​ I’m Dug,​​ Dug DeMargo. And that’s spelt​​ D-U-G. You can thank my illiterate mum for that.​​ And you are?”

“Walter, Walter Huxley.”

Walter?​​ What,​​ are you a grandfather? I’m gonna call you Walty.”

“Okay…” Walter said still confused. “Why are you…”

“Saving​​ you? Don’t know exactly myself. I’m​​ pretty​​ drunk​​ and I almost pissed on ya until you started talking to yourself,​​ but it seems the right thing to do.​​ Also,​​ I don’t think you’re in any shape to be on your own​​ with all that​​ got​​ puke and piss​​ you’ve got on​​ ya.”

Walter looked down and realized​​ he​​ was​​ covered.

“But your choice,” Dug​​ continued.​​ “Just thought I’d offer. I’m just as fine leaving​​ you here and letting​​ you be someone else’s problem—most likely the police.”

Walter thought about it. All points of logic advised against going to some stranger’s home in an unknown foreign land, but with​​ a broken​​ cellphone,​​ no clue where he was​​ or the hostel​​ he was staying in,​​ he​​ was​​ in​​ desperate​​ need for​​ a savior—and a shower.​​ 

“I guess you’re right,” Walter​​ said. “Uh, thank you.​​ Thanks a lot.”

“Don’t mention it,” Dug said.​​ “It’s been a​​ shit​​ night​​ anyway, so​​ I’m willing​​ to throw the dice​​ on​​ something​​ different. C’mon, this way,”​​ he​​ said​​ then​​ skipped away.​​ 

“So,​​ you like the Indians?” Walter asked​​ as he followed Dug,​​ seeking to​​ know​​ more about his​​ savior. “You don’t sound like you’re from Ohio.”

“That obvious, huh?” Dug​​ replied.​​ “Nope, from a little place in Queensland, Australia​​ called Edmonton—nothing​​ like its Canadian counterpart. I had a roomie back in uni from Cleveland​​ who​​ turned me​​ onto​​ American sports and naturally all of Cleveland’s teams became my favorite.”​​ Dug​​ tore​​ out his​​ right​​ arm from his flannel and pulled up​​ his shirt​​ sleeve​​ to reveal a huge Cleveland Browns​​ helmet​​ tattooed on his upper arm and​​ a​​ Cavs logo on the inside of it.

So​​ lemme guess,” Dug said,​​ you’re from​​ Cali-for-nee-ya?”

“Is it that obvious?”​​ Walter​​ replied.

Yes, all you​​ Cali-for-nee-yans​​ look and sound like people in the​​ movies.”

Dug​​ then​​ paused​​ in front of an​​ entrance to an​​ upscale Victorian apartment complex.​​ 

“Is this your place?” Walter asked.​​ 

“Yep. Not a bad little shag pad,​​ huh?”​​ Dug​​ waved an electronic fob over a sensor​​ next to​​ the​​ entrance.​​ They then​​ entered a foyer with​​ a​​ set of​​ elevators​​ and​​ took​​ one​​ to the top​​ floor, then​​ went​​ to a door at the​​ end​​ of a​​ very​​ long​​ hallway, where Dug waved his​​ fob over a​​ sensor again to​​ unlock​​ it.​​ 

Once inside​​ his apartment, the polarity​​ of Dug continued to perplex Walter. In contrast to his​​ black attire and​​ disheveled appearance, the immense apartment was​​ colorfully​​ and​​ immaculately​​ styled​​ in loud tones of red, orange,​​ and dark​​ blue.​​ The matching furniture was modern and from a windowed​​ balcony​​ door, the Herengracht Canal was visible.

“Shoes off,” Dug said. “And don’t even think about sitting​​ on anything​​ with those​​ stinking​​ fucking​​ clothes​​ . . .​​ Here,​​ you can put​​ ‘em​​ in this.” He handed Walter a trash bag from the kitchen. “Shower’s down the hallway,​​ and I’ll get​​ you some new clothes​​ and put ‘em in the guestroom for ya.​​ We look about the same size…”​​ he said looking Walter over.​​ “Shit, now that we’re in the light, you​​ actually​​ look like you could be my brother​​ or something.​​ Except for that dumb hat. And​​ what’s up​​ with​​ the​​ ridiculous​​ flares mate?​​ Did you go to​​ a throwback party​​ tonight​​ or something?”

Walter laughed.​​ “I always wear​​ bellbottoms—or​​ ‘flares’​​ as you call them,”​​ he​​ said.​​ “They’re​​ just a part of who I am.”​​ 

“Ha, right.​​ That’s because they’re so​​ goddamn tight​​ you​​ probably​​ can’t get them off.”

 

The​​ shower was a​​ renewing​​ lift​​ and​​ just enough of home to help​​ Walter​​ find the rest​​ of​​ his mind.

After,​​ he was taken to​​ the guest​​ room,​​ or​​ what​​ Dug​​ called​​ his​​ “Box​​ Room”.​​ Dug​​ ran a​​ small​​ record label​​ out of his home​​ and​​ boxes​​ of records, shirts, and other paraphernalia​​ were stacked along every wall of the room.​​ Other than a queen-sized bed and a small nightstand,​​ the boxes were the room’s only inhabitants.​​ Also, even though Dug was in the music industry, he seemed unaware of Walter’s past​​ in it, and for now, Walter was keen to keep it that way.​​ 

“It’s nothing​​ big,”​​ Dug​​ said​​ of his operation.​​ “Just​​ a grassroots type of thing. We mostly do reissues, and the original acts we have are​​ real off-the-wall, extreme​​ metal​​ bands,​​ freeform​​ jazz,​​ hard house—stuff no one listens to.”​​ 

“Seems more than​​ just​​ a grassroots type of thing…” Walter said gesturing to the elaborate abode​​ around them.

Well...” Dug said​​ aloofly, “let’s just​​ say I​​ come from some money, and​​ that’s what pays for the digs.​​ This” he gestured to the boxes, “this is just my rich kid pet project​​ . . .​​ Anyhow, here’s some pants, socks,​​ and​​ some unworn​​ undies I had,” he said throwing them on the bed. “Feel free to take whatever​​ shirt​​ you​​ want​​ out of these​​ four​​ boxes here, but only these​​ ones.”​​ He pointed​​ emphatically​​ to​​ four boxes​​ of band shirts​​ on​​ the right-side​​ wall.​​ Other than that,​​ let me know if you need anything else.

After​​ Dug left, Walter​​ was disappointed to find​​ the​​ pants​​ Dug​​ gave​​ him​​ were highwaters​​ like​​ his, and​​ instead of hiding​​ Walter’s​​ cankles,​​ they showcased them. But​​ his bellbottoms were​​ irredeemably soiled.

For his shirt,​​ Walter​​ found​​ one​​ in the box of mediums​​ with a​​ four-armed, feral-looking woman​​ on it with blue skin and bright, red hair​​ centered between​​ two monarch​​ butterfly wings. Made out of what looked to be​​ splashed paint and organic-looking​​ matter​​ swirled together, the image had a textured depth, and the woman’s​​ glowing green​​ eyes​​ seemed​​ to follow​​ his​​ as​​ he moved them​​ over the shirt.

Circling the image in a lowercase Sanskrit-like print was written:

​​ 

to say life has no meaning is not to say it has no value

​​ – luna hunny

 

Why did that sound like an answer to a question he didn’t know he was asking? He then remembered​​ why. Amber’s suicide note.​​ Faintly,​​ music​​ then began playing​​ inside​​ his head and a​​ voice​​ he imagined was​​ the woman’s began to sing the​​ lyrics.

Walter​​ put​​ down​​ the shirt.​​ 

He​​ took a few deep breaths​​ and lightly slapped his face.​​ Perhaps​​ his head​​ wasn’t completely cleansed of bad chemicals yet.

 

Dug​​ was​​ behind an island counter​​ in the kitchen​​ pouring​​ himself a beer from a tap​​ built​​ into​​ it​​ when Walter entered.​​ 

“Who is luna hunny?” he asked

Dug’s​​ eyes shot up quickly, and for a moment Walter thought he saw a flicker of panic in them.​​ 

“Uh, sorry, what’d​​ you say?”​​ Dug asked.

“luna​​ hunny.”

Dug​​ squinted at the shirt. “Bloody hell​​ if​​ I can remember,” he said.​​ I’ve had​​ so many bands​​ over the years, I​​ can’t remember​​ em all. I’m mostly​​ just​​ a​​ European​​ distributor for​​ vinyl reissues and​​ bands​​ outside​​ of​​ Europe.​​ I hardly​​ ever meet bands​​ face-to-face, and they’re always coming​​ and going.​​ It’s a cool shirt though . . . Care for a pint?”​​ 

“I’m good​​ for now,”​​ Walter​​ said.​​ “Just enjoying being sober again for the moment.”

“Figured, but thought I’d ask.”

Dug then​​ viciously​​ clamped​​ onto​​ his beer and guzzled it like a crocodile swallowing​​ a small fowl.​​ It was followed by​​ two​​ less rapid​​ shots​​ of​​ Jägermeister,​​ Dug​​ seeming​​ to enjoy​​ them more.

Hm-hm-hm…”​​ he​​ said. “Don’t care what people say about it, but Jäger is the shiz tits.​​ Stuff tastes like Dr. Pepper​​ and always makes me feel better.​​ Although,​​ it’s usually​​ also​​ what made me feel​​ bad​​ in the first place, but you know, the hair of the dog that bit you or some shit.​​ But​​ in that case…”​​ he made a​​ large, Jack-Nicholson-like grin, however, his​​ gap​​ made it look much more comical,​​ “…there’s something​​ else I need to make amends​​ with.​​ He​​ then​​ ducked beneath the counter​​ and reappeared​​ with a​​ large​​ bag of​​ what looked to be​​ cocaine.

“Want some?”​​ Dug​​ offered​​ to​​ Walter.

“Never really been my thing,”​​ he​​ said, “but don’t let that stop you.”

Dug​​ poured a pile onto​​ the countertop,​​ chopped​​ it​​ into​​ a​​ fat line, then​​ dove​​ in​​ like a seabird. After, he​​ arose more relaxed than​​ he’d been the entire night.

“I have a feeling​​ you’ll want my next treat​​ though,”​​ Dug​​ said​​ and​​ dipped​​ again beneath​​ the​​ counter, coming up this time with​​ a large​​ bag of weed and a​​ glass bong blown into the shape of a​​ nude and​​ upside​​ down Marilyn Monroe. Her legs were wrapped around​​ the​​ mouthpiece protruding​​ from her crotch, and inserted into her mouth was​​ the​​ bowl. While the American icon looked absurdly degraded, it was hard to deny the awesome artistry of the piece.

“Wanna take a hit outta Marilyn’s pink bits?” Dug​​ asked.​​ “I got the​​ finest​​ Pineapple Express​​ you’ll ever find. If you need up, it brings you up; if you need down, it brings you down. It’s never treated​​ me wrong; hangovers, spins, binges, depression, anxiety—it cures it all.​​ I​​ swear it’s fucking​​ magic.​​ I got​​ it​​ from this​​ Sinatra-looking​​ motherfucker up the road​​ who​​ grows it himself and only shares it with​​ friends—never sells it. However,​​ I​​ managed to get a​​ couple of​​ ounces​​ for​​ some rare records.​​ Here,​​ come​​ take a whiff.”​​ 

Well...” Walter said after he did. “I guess​​ if​​ I need to pick a poison,​​ that’s the​​ one.​​ And after all, I am in Amsterdam.

“That’s the spirit!” Dug said. “Let’s​​ go to​​ the​​ balcony​​ though​​ to smoke.​​ The view’s​​ much better.”

 

Outside, they both sat in silence, saturating the​​ sounds around them​​ while passing​​ Marilyn back and forth. The top-story​​ balcony​​ overlooked a bend in the canal, allowing their eyes and ears to venture​​ far into the city. Bicycle bells chimed,​​ water​​ lapped,​​ a classical guitar played​​ distantly,​​ a group of girls​​ giggled from below; the city was alive and​​ murmuring with a​​ cadenced​​ clarity.​​ A​​ freeform jam of life, Walter​​ thought.

​​ “Ya know…” Dug turned to Walter with his index finger pointed to the air​​ as if readying a conductor’s baton. “There’s music​​ in​​ the sound of life,​​ you just have​​ to shut up once in a while to hear it.”

“Did you just read my mind?”​​ Walter​​ asked.​​ “I​​ was​​ just thinking sort of the same thing.”​​ ​​ 

“Na mate, it’s this weed. It creates connections between people;​​ puts​​ ‘em on​​ the same​​ plane​​ of perspective​​ if you know what I mean.

Walter couldn’t pinpoint it, but he did feel an odd sense of chirality to Dug. ​​ 

​​ “Yeah, maybe​​ so,” Walter said putting his lips to Marilyn’s pink bits. “Either way,​​ this is​​ some​​ great​​ fucking​​ weed.”​​ He then lit, ripped,​​ and exhaled, then passed Marilyn to Dug.​​ 

“Walty,” he said taking it.​​ “I don’t do anything​​ but​​ fucking​​ great—or I​​ at​​ least​​ always​​ try​​ to. God knows I’m far from​​ always​​ perfect.”​​ 

“Well,” Walter said as Dug took a hit, “at least you’ve never managed to end up in the bottom of​​ a​​ urinal​​ talking to yourself covered in puke​​ and piss.”

Dug​​ coughed the hit out and began laughing.​​ “Yes,” he said hoarsely, “I’ve​​ never managed that​​ in a literal sense,​​ but​​ sure have​​ plenty of times​​ metaphorically.​​ I guess that’s why I​​ felt the need to help you​​ when I found you.”

Dug​​ then​​ momentarily lost his loose posturing and fell into straight sternality​​ as he​​ took a swig of beer​​ and​​ lit a cigarette.

My life’s full of fuckups,” he said exhaling his first puff, “great,​​ giant, donkey-dick​​ fuckups.​​ But that’s the risk you take living in the moment; you run the risk of all the risks you take. But had I always kept​​ it​​ straight, I never would’ve learned​​ the lessons I needed from my mistakes. And​​ that’s how I’m able to​​ forgive myself for​​ them.​​ Otherwise,​​ mistakes​​ only continue to​​ lead your life​​ astray from the moment, and the moment is where real life lies. Not the past, not the future,​​ now.​​ But so many people can’t live in​​ now,​​ and it usually has one or a mixture of three​​ versions: people who don’t​​ want to face their​​ mistakes, so they​​ lead their lives in the future—real anxious types;​​ ones who​​ can’t​​ forgive​​ their​​ mistakes,​​ so they dwell in​​ the​​ past—real depressed types, and ones who​​ try to​​ mask​​ their​​ mistakes with​​ someone​​ or something​​ else—real pathetic types.​​ But it’s​​ only natural. Living​​ for yourself and with yourself​​ goes against the very success of our evolution. We are afraid to be alone​​ with our​​ true​​ selves,​​ mistakes​​ and all.​​ However, if​​ you​​ can​​ find​​ comfort​​ in​​ that fear,​​ the world​​ gradually​​ becomes a much easier​​ place​​ to​​ navigate.”

Dug​​ then​​ relaxed back into​​ his​​ careless​​ manner.​​ “But what​​ the fuck​​ do I know?” he said snubbing out his cigarette in an ashtray.​​ “I’ve​​ been covered​​ deep​​ in my own shit​​ more times than I can count, but​​ if it weren’t for​​ shit, I never would’ve ended up in​​ wonderful Amsterdam. So,​​ shit’s not all bad.”​​ 

“What kind of shit?”​​ Walter asked.

“Shit I don’t want to​​ really​​ get into right now. But​​ originally, I​​ came​​ to​​ Europe to study mathematics at Cambridge, my first blessed mistake.”

You​​ studied​​ mathematics​​ at Cambridge?”​​ Walter​​ asked.​​ ​​ 

“Yeah, but in​​ my​​ sophomore​​ year I realized​​ Cambridge​​ just wasn’t my​​ shit, so I decided to move to Paris​​ since it always seems to be the​​ place​​ where​​ people​​ go to​​ figure​​ their​​ shit​​ out.​​ I​​ then​​ got tangled up in the late-night jazz scene, and about​​ three​​ months​​ later​​ I​​ was putting​​ together​​ my first​​ operation, reissuing​​ old, out-of-print,​​ jazz records. I then took on some local acts, and before you know it,​​ I was off and running.

“Soon after​​ that,​​ though,” Dug continued,​​ “I​​ met​​ my second blessed mistake,​​ a​​ beautiful​​ Parisian​​ cabaret dancer​​ who shall remain unnamed. That’s how much of a mistake she was and how much respect she deserves. But​​ still,​​ when I say​​ she​​ was​​ beautiful,​​ I mean​​ she was​​ flawless. And she had​​ the best ass I still have ever seen​​ to this day.​​ Anyway,​​ although she was a dancer, her​​ true​​ passion was painting—real abstract shit. She’d​​ mix​​ her​​ vomit into the paint, along with some other things at times:​​ semen, blood, piss.​​ When it came to her​​ art,​​ the​​ weirder the better,​​ which​​ was also her philosophy in bed​​ too.​​ She​​ was​​ into shit​​ no other girl I’ve met was into.​​ And I’ll admit,​​ I’m into some weird shit.”

“Like what?”​​ Walter asked.

Dug lit off a firecracker-like​​ laugh. “I ain’t telling you. That​​ shit stays​​ between her and​​ me​​ . . .​​ Anyway,” he continued,​​ “she was the freak​​ of​​ freaks, and​​ daddy liked—actually, I loved.​​ I loved​​ her​​ so much I let her convince me to move my label to Amsterdam​​ after​​ only a little more than​​ six months​​ together. She had lived in Paris her whole life​​ and​​ said she needed a ‘change of scenery’ for​​ new​​ inspiration,​​ and​​ of course​​ I was happy to appease. However,​​ three​​ months​​ after I moved here, she​​ told me one day she’d fallen in love with someone else and​​ that was it.​​ I never found out who or​​ how,​​ but after a while I didn’t care. I realized it was my​​ prick​​ that was in love, not me. However,​​ I​​ did​​ end​​ up falling in love with​​ Amsterdam,​​ so I stayed.​​ That was two years ago now.​​ Not​​ even​​ sure if that blessed bitch even still lives in the city.

Dug​​ lit​​ another​​ cigarette, took a long, slow draw, then​​ blew a​​ giant​​ smoke​​ ring.​​ “But I’ve​​ been passing​​ out enough pieces of me,”​​ he said.​​ “What’s your story​​ Walty?​​ What​​ was​​ your​​ journey to the bottom of an Amsterdam dunny?”

“I’m still trying to piece that together​​ myself,” Walter said. “But before that I was on a Contiki tour. Have you heard of Contiki?”

Dug began laughing. “Explains a lot,” he said. “Of course I have. Contiki’s a Kiwi company and us Aussies love those things. But also, can’t tell you how many one-night stands I’ve returned to Hotel Nieuw Slotania.”

“Is that the Contiki hostel?” Walter asked.​​ “I kind of forgot where I’m staying.”

Dug laughed again.​​ “Jesus,” he said, “and to think if I never found you?​​ Yes, and it’s not​​ that​​ far.​​ You​​ begin walking now and you’ll be there in twenty minutes. Hopefully you stick around​​ a little​​ longer​​ though.​​ I’m really enjoying​​ our time together. Haven’t laughed this much in a while.”

“Me too,” Walter said.​​ “It’s weird, but I feel like​​ I know you​​ from a past​​ life or something, and you’re not the first person on my trip I’ve felt that way about.​​ I was​​ a physics major at UCLA.​​ Maybe​​ I read a paper by you?​​ I was reading a lot​​ of student​​ theses​​ back then.”

“I told you,” Dug said, “it’s the weed.​​ I​​ assure you,​​ you’ve​​ read nothing by me. But physics mate?​​ That’s what my uni roomie from Cleveland was studying—actually still is. Sometimes he still sends me stuff to get my take on it, but mathematics is much more​​ a​​ leisure activity for me nowadays.”

“Physics is for me too. However,​​ mind if I throw some stuff at you?”

“Of course not,” Dug said crossing his legs and taking a long draw​​ of his cigarette. “I hardly ever get to​​ talk shop​​ with anyone​​ anymore.”

And for the next​​ half​​ hour they​​ did.

“Not that I’m any authority,” Dug said,​​ “but I think you​​ might’ve​​ undersold yourself on​​ theoretical physics.”

“Thanks,” Walter said. “I do miss it a lot​​ sometimes.”

“Hey,” Dug​​ thumped​​ him on the chest. “It’s​​ always still​​ in​​ there.​​ You can go back any time. You don’t need school.​​ Shit, they’ve​​ got MIT​​ courses online for free now. If someone wants to become a theoretical physicist​​ without school, it’s never been​​ a better time.”

Dug​​ looked​​ at his​​ wristwatch. “Well,​​ surprisingly​​ it’s​​ only a little after​​ midnight,” he said. “If you’re up for it, we​​ can blab​​ more​​ someplace​​ else—preferably an establishment with alcoholic drinks and​​ some​​ women.​​ Plus, it​​ is​​ your only night in Amsterdam.​​ But don’t worry. I won’t let​​ you end up back in​​ a​​ dunny.

“I am feeling​​ much​​ better now,” Walter said. “And you’re right. I do​​ only​​ have​​ tonight in Amsterdam​​ . . .​​ All right.”​​ 

“All right,​​ all right,​​ all right!” Dug said standing excitedly. “We’ll keep away from the Red Light District for now. We’ll​​ go to a locals’ sector​​ where there’s a great lounge I like. But first, shall we partake​​ of another bong rip before we get on the​​ tando?”​​ 

“The​​ tando?” Walter asked.​​ 

“My​​ tandem bicycle. It’s​​ a beach cruiser from your part of the world.”​​ 

Walter let out a belly laugh. Nothing​​ sounded better to​​ his​​ stoned mind.

 

After pulling it out of his garage, Dug threw his leg over the beastly tandem. It was the gaudiest thing Walter had ever seen, and​​ was more motorcycle than bicycle, painted candy gloss white with red pinstripes running down each​​ of its​​ oversized​​ fenders.​​ Attached to the front handlebars was a chrome headlamp, large enough for a motorcycle, and a​​ large​​ basket with a built-in stereo.​​ Dug flicked a switch in the center of the handlebars and the bike became accented with more red and amber lights than a semi-truck.

“Safety first,” he​​ said. “You ever ridden a tandem?”

“No, can’t say I have,” Walter​​ said.

“Well, you’re in for an adventure.​​ But first, some rules.​​ Rule one,​​ leave the​​ piloting to me​​ up front. As you can see, you​​ also have​​ handlebars, but they are connected​​ to my​​ seat,​​ so if you try to steer them,​​ the only thing you’ll​​ be​​ steering​​ is my arse, and you’ll knock me off balance if you do. Rule two,​​ synchronicity. Peddle with me and not against me.​​ And​​ lastly, don’t ring your fucking​​ bell unless I say so.​​ Now get on.”​​ 

Walter threw his leg over​​ the beast​​ and sat on the over-cushioned seat.

“All right,​​ position yourself,” Dug​​ told him. “On the count of three, we’ll take off​​ . . .​​ One, two, three!”

The bike had a wobbly launch, nearly tipping over, and by instinct,​​ Walter​​ tried to correct by steering.

“Whoa!” Dug shouted​​ back. “What’d I say about steering?​​ I swear, it never fails.”

 

The streets of Amsterdam welcomed​​ them back​​ warmly.​​ A slight breeze carried the sounds of a city still very much awake at twelve-thirty in the morning as the enormous bicycle floated down the paths like an old, cushy Cadillac.​​ 

Walter took off his hat—his​​ only article of clothing to survive the urinal—to let the cool wind tickle every follicle of​​ his​​ scalp as his cheeks​​ stretched into a broad​​ smile. The sky had cleared, leaving a dark backdrop for the evening’s show of stars, while Dug blasted​​ Queen’s​​ “Bicycle Race” on repeat and barked incoherently at the​​ rising​​ full​​ moon. People’s reactions to the bike were mixed. Either​​ they​​ shook their heads at its​​ ridiculousness, or chimed their bells with approval as they passed by. In the latter case, Dug would​​ then​​ shout, “Ring the​​ bell!” and took a swig of Jäger from his bottle riding shotgun in the basket.

After crossing​​ three major canals, they​​ went through a network of back alley residential streets that ended at a line of local dives and restaurants along an intersection of two smaller canals. As they drew closer to one dive, Walter was hit by music and a voice unlike any his ears had​​ ever heard. A funky rhythm line loped like a three-wheeled​​ jalopy,​​ while a​​ wild​​ vibrato snarled with sensational​​ emotion. The music and voice then​​ lifted​​ like​​ a​​ geyser.​​ California!” The word waterfalled over the air. “California!” it spouted again.

“What bar is that?” Walter asked Dug.

“Which one?”

“The one with the music.”

“Some old man’s blues joint. You don’t wanna go there. It’s horrible. No girls, only grimy old men.”

“But that sounds like a girl singing . . .​​ And​​ that voice, it’s-it’s...​​ I don’t know, but it’s doing​​ strange things to me. It’s so​​ moving, yet strange and sexual all at the same time. I’ve never heard anything like it. We have to stop.”

“Believe me,” Dug said. “You do​​ not​​ want to go there. It’s not a place for tourists, just a lot of old men and seedy scumbags who will probably pickpocket you the moment you step in. Where we’re going​​ is much, much nicer; a lounge full of fine women who get drenched at the sound of an American accent.​​ Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”

“But I’m more of a dive bar type of guy anyway,” Walter said.​​ “Can’t we just check it out?”

Dug ignored him and kept pedaling.

“Dug!” Walter shouted.​​ But Dug turned up the music and remained unresponsive. “Fucker!” Walter​​ said, then​​ pushed back on his pedals and gave his handlebars a sharp jerk to the right.

“What da fack!” Dug yelled as the bike went squirrely.

Unable to regain control, it eventually ejected them off, and came crashing down on its side, its bells shrilling painfully as it skidded down the pavement.

“What the fuck​​ Walter?!” Dug screamed.

“I’m sorry,” Walter said. “I don’t know what came over me. I just wanted you to stop.”

“Well, we’re stopped! You happy?! Jesus Christ, I save you,​​ bathe​​ you,​​ and​​ clothe you, and you repay me by wrecking​​ me bike?​​ You’re a real fucking​​ wanker, you know that? . . . My baby!” Dug cried as he lifted the bike and inspected it over for damage. “Great.​​ I’m gonna have to get it repainted now. Look at all these scratches.”

“I’m​​ so​​ sorry Dug,” Walter said.​​ “I’m really sorry.​​ I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ll give you everything I have left for repairs.”

“Oh, it’s fine,”​​ Dug​​ said​​ after Walter’s beggarly face seemed to soften him a little.​​ “It’s not that bad I suppose. I can probably paint ‘em over myself. But just why Walty? Why would you do that when I’ve been nothing​​ but a mate to you?”

“I don’t know,” Walter said just as confused. “I just wanted you to stop so badly. It was like this sudden urge. Then when you ignored me something came over me…”

Walter’s attention trailed back to the music which had continued to chug along unchanged. Dug noticed and shook his head​​ cynically.

“Please Dug?” Walter begged again. “Just a song or two?​​ It’s my only night in Amsterdam. Shouldn’t we be spending it how I want to?”

“No.​​ You lost that privilege when you decided to crash my​​ bike.”

Well,” Walter said, “it seems I never had that privilege to begin with​​ anyway.”

Well,” Dug said,​​ if it was any other bar, I’d be fine. But not that one. Really, I’m looking​​ out for you. Remember, I’m supposed to keep you out of trouble,​​ and that bar is not a tourist-friendly place. C’mon, the other place is just five minutes​​ more​​ up the road.”​​ Dug​​ then​​ put his leg back over the beast.​​ 

Inside, Walter was being torn apart.​​ The music—and especially that voice—had gaffed his heart​​ and wouldn’t let go.

“Fine,” Walter said​​ after a while. “If it’s five minutes up the road, I’ll meet you there. I’m sure​​ the​​ big bike out front will​​ make it​​ easy​​ to spot. I just need to see who that band and especially that girl is. I’m sorry.”

“Of all the bars in Amsterdam...​​ Dug said shaking his head.​​ He​​ then pressed​​ the​​ pedal forward,​​ and​​ soon disappeared​​ into the night. And like that, Walter was alone again . . .​​ alone again. ​​ 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 13

SIDE​​ B

 

 

Chapter 13

Madcap Laughs

 

 

Each palpitation of​​ bass​​ pushed Walter​​ farther​​ away from himself.​​ But really,​​ who is myself?​​ the​​ shaky​​ voice inside​​ his head asked.​​ I’m thousands of miles away from any type of familiarity. I don’t know these people,​​ their language,​​ this country,​​ this​​ city, or even what type​​ or how many drugs I’m on.​​ I don’t even know how I got here​​ . . .​​ Am I at​​ a​​ rave?​​ 

Electronic dance music chomped with the precision of pneumatic machinery, slicing the air around​​ him​​ into rhythmical bouillon cubes of music and noise. Blacklit glowsticks and the smell of​​ Vicks​​ VapoRub pulverized​​ the dark​​ as glistening skin pumped and humped around him in an​​ orgy of​​ neon​​ movement.

What beautiful oddity allured me to this strange plane of existence and time?​​ He​​ pondered​​ but​​ found his​​ most​​ likely​​ answer​​ in​​ the half-naked​​ woman​​ bouncing​​ her buttocks upon​​ his hips.​​ Apparently his​​ females are friends only policy had gone out the window.​​ 

In the sobriety of day—from the little he could remember,​​ Amsterdam​​ had been​​ a​​ serene​​ Dutch beauty. But in the inebriation of night,​​ it was turning out to be​​ a​​ shape-shifting she-devil, and not​​ the​​ place to​​ come to​​ in not​​ knowing​​ where​​ you​​ were, how you got there,​​ or​​ where your friends went.​​ 

Hello​​ Planet Amsterdam!​​ Walter said to​​ an​​ imaginary​​ audience​​ in his head.​​ You are strange and so am I, so please accept me as one​​ of​​ your own​​ . . .​​ Please?​​ 

Tracers of light​​ started​​ to sputter and​​ stop around him,​​ faces within his vicinity​​ started​​ to​​ change and​​ unhinge.​​ He​​ then suddenly​​ felt himself falling,​​ cannonballing​​ down​​ a​​ mineshaft​​ inside his​​ mind.​​ How far above reality was and what​​ waited​​ below was unclear,​​ but if he could somehow find a​​ rein,​​ perhaps​​ he could pull​​ himself​​ out.​​ He​​ just​​ needed to find​​ out​​ when and where reality​​ began falling away.

I am​​ Walter​​ Huxley—for the most part​​ I am Walter Huxley,​​ he started with what he​​ could last remember​​ to be true.​​ I​​ am in Amsterdam.​​ I came here on a Contiki trip…​​ And that was all memory​​ gave him​​ for the moment.​​ Thunderclouds of​​ fright​​ began​​ gathering.

Well, this is a new high,​​ he thought.​​ I’m not even sure if I’m really alive.​​ Am I,​​ really?​​ . . .​​ ​​ Great​​ Walter.​​ Your greatest fear about this trip came true.​​ Whatever​​ drug​​ or drugs​​ you’ve taken has made you lose your mind in a foreign country,​​ or possibly​​ killed you​​ or put you in a coma or​​ somewhere in between,​​ because​​ whatever this is,​​ this​​ isn’t real life . . .​​ But then what is it?

No this is real. It has to be real. I just​​ need to find a restroom because​​ not only​​ do​​ I​​ suddenly really need to pee, but this​​ orchestration of strobing​​ lights​​ and​​ merciless​​ EDM​​ is​​ fucking​​ my​​ psyche with the​​ grace​​ of a jackhammer.​​ Once​​ I’m​​ there,​​ I’ll​​ get​​ a​​ good​​ look over​​ in the​​ mirror to reaffirm​​ my​​ existence,​​ my reality,​​ and that will​​ fix everything​​ . . . I hope.​​ ​​ 

Fog​​ machines​​ then​​ began​​ dusting​​ the dancefloor​​ with​​ a pulsating cloud of​​ color​​ and​​ confusion​​ as the music crescendoed.

Doooo​​ you know where the bathroom​​ izzzzz?”​​ he​​ yelled to the​​ owner of the​​ behind he’d been​​ humping.​​ Inside his head, his voice​​ sounded like​​ it​​ was being run through a pitch-shifter.​​ The music was so deafening it was not only affecting​​ his​​ hearing, but blurring his vision. Certainty’s outlines kept going in and out of focus.

The​​ behind’s​​ owner​​ looked back and​​ shrugged, then​​ continued rubbing her behind on him.​​ Walter​​ turned her back around.

“Is there a proper place to urinate,” he said,​​ or shall​​ I just go on this dancefloooooor?!​​ Punch​​ drunk​​ and​​ now​​ sure​​ he was in a​​ lucid​​ dream,​​ he​​ unzipped his pants and exposed himself​​ in a challenge to reality. “Wheeere​​ do I take this​​ guyyyy?​​ he said.​​ But before​​ he​​ could start​​ discharging, two hefty​​ and very real​​ security guards​​ hauled him​​ off​​ the​​ dancefloor​​ and out​​ onto the cobbled streets of the Red Light District. “Thank​​ yooooou!” he yelled​​ after​​ they​​ tossed​​ him.

Okay, so I am still in reality,​​ he thought as he petted the hard ground and the​​ industrial stomp​​ of the​​ nightclub​​ receded​​ into​​ sounds of urban nightlife.​​ Im​​ still​​ in Amsterdam​​ . . .​​ But God, I​​ still​​ need to take a piss.​​ He​​ then​​ remembered​​ a​​ green,​​ spiral-shaped public urinal​​ he’d​​ pissed in​​ earlier​​ on his way to…​​ 

The sex show!​​ the memory climbed out of the abyss​​ and began playing​​ like a backwards movie reel.​​ I went​​ to​​ a sex show​​ and...​​ and​​ I ate​​ a​​ banana?​​ No wait,​​ I ate​​ a banana... I ate​​ a banana​​ out of​​ a​​ vagina?​​ That can’t be good. Oh, okay. So​​ I was pulled onstage​​ and​​ ate​​ a​​ banana out of one of the performer’s​​ vagina. Oh, nope.​​ I excitedly volunteered myself.

The​​ memory flow​​ then​​ ceased​​ and his​​ thoughts​​ went back to his bladder.

Setting out in search of a urinal, the air was cool as it hit​​ Walter’s​​ lungs. The​​ roads​​ were​​ polished​​ by​​ a​​ recent​​ rainstorm​​ and were​​ gleaming​​ and​​ menacing​​ as the District’s​​ red​​ lights echoed off them, making​​ them look as if they were​​ bathed in blood. He tried to ignore the blood as he walked, but soon began seeing it everywhere. Paranoia then began squeezing​​ his mind’s eye​​ and voices​​ started cooing and​​ cackling​​ at him​​ from​​ every​​ corridor​​ and​​ from​​ every​​ contorted face​​ of every passerby.​​ 

Unnerved, he began running, setting a frenetic​​ pace​​ as​​ he​​ bounced​​ down​​ alleys​​ and​​ roads​​ like a pinball off​​ bumpers. The faster he​​ ran​​ and the more he changed direction,​​ the less time his​​ psychosis​​ had to play tricks​​ with​​ his environment, and​​ somehow​​ by this method,​​ he​​ ran straight into a city urinal.

Shelter!​​ Walter​​ thought as he​​ clambered into​​ the​​ chamber.​​ Surrounded by​​ only​​ green-painted​​ steel and darkness,​​ the​​ malicious animations​​ of his mind​​ had little to work with.​​ The urinal was​​ nothing more than​​ a​​ spiraled shade around a hole in the ground, which after​​ his heartrate and breathing regulated, he​​ relieved​​ himself​​ into,​​ stirring up​​ a​​ foul odor of stale​​ urine, vomit, and spoiled milk.​​ 

After finishing, he​​ then​​ fished​​ into his pocket for his cellphone, not to​​ make a call, but​​ for the​​ front-facing camera. He needed to see his face just to​​ reassure himself he​​ was​​ still​​ himself.​​ But​​ when he turned it on,​​ he​​ was only greeted by a black screen.​​ He pressed the​​ screen​​ and his face​​ against​​ the steel walls, hoping to catch some​​ reflecting rays,​​ but​​ the darkness ate them all up.​​ Resolving​​ to​​ using​​ his​​ phone’s​​ primary camera​​ which​​ had a flash,​​ he turned​​ the phone around and pointed it at himself​​ with eyes closed.​​ The flash​​ banged​​ like a loaded gun​​ and​​ an imaginary force of voltaic monsters​​ came​​ screaming​​ in under​​ his eyelids.​​ In reaction,​​ he​​ threw the phone,​​ and after several seconds of blindness, a​​ sad image​​ waxed​​ into view.​​ There,​​ in a pool of public​​ excrement,​​ it​​ lay like​​ his​​ spirit:​​ shattered.​​ He​​ squatted down and picked up the splintered device and its assorted pieces. He pressed the power button with both thumbs as if​​ choking​​ it, but​​ to​​ no avail.

Unable to confirm himself,​​ Walter​​ gradually​​ waned back​​ into the ether, left to swim again with his​​ chemical demons​​ as inner​​ catcalls​​ oozed​​ in​​ from​​ grates above.​​ He fell over and​​ cowered fetally​​ over the​​ urinal’s hole, covering himself and his hands with​​ some kind of​​ mucus coating the​​ floor.​​ Unthinkingly, he then​​ held his​​ hands​​ to his face​​ to cry,​​ putting the​​ filth​​ in his eyes​​ and​​ making​​ himself​​ blind.

But sight wasn’t the last of​​ Walter’s​​ senses to​​ forsake​​ him.

Slowly, he​​ retreated from any​​ bodily​​ sensation until​​ he​​ was​​ only​​ thought,​​ then​​ only​​ one thought:​​ This​​ must be what death feels like.​​ It​​ bounded down​​ the halls of​​ his empty consciousness until it was​​ nothing​​ but a whisper. Then,​​ impenetrable​​ silence.​​ 

Now out of​​ the outside world,​​ Walter​​ was left to​​ wander​​ within himself in search of any trace​​ of himself;​​ any proof he​​ had​​ ever existed. An ember of life​​ then​​ flickered. It was the oldest memory he could​​ conjure​​ from the database of​​ his​​ existence.​​ A young woman​​ was​​ humming, the light hush of her breathing and the rhythmic pulse of her heart pressed against his ear.​​ There was no sight, only sound.​​ He​​ was in his mother’s womb.

Walter​​ had​​ always felt​​ unwelcomed​​ by the world he’d been born into, but​​ now,​​ here​​ in​​ her womb,​​ he​​ realized​​ that was never​​ quite​​ true. There was​​ and​​ always would​​ be​​ one person​​ who​​ saw​​ worth in​​ his existence;​​ she gave her life for it.​​ And although he never knew his mother, he’d always known her love:​​ his life.

Soon​​ his​​ mother’s​​ heartbeat​​ became​​ all​​ Walter​​ could hear. It​​ beat​​ like​​ a war drum,​​ until​​ gradually,​​ his outside tormentors​​ withdrew​​ and​​ corporeality​​ returned​​ to his soggy corduroy bellbottoms​​ rinsing​​ in​​ whatever​​ marinade​​ he was​​ sharing​​ the floor with.​​ Still lying on his side, he​​ then​​ picked up his cellphone and pretended it was​​ still operable.

Hi​​ Mommy,”​​ Walter​​ said​​ into it.​​ Mommy,​​ he wasn’t​​ sure if​​ he’d​​ ever said the word​​ before.​​ “Even though​​ I’ve only met you in​​ pictures​​ and Grandma’s stories,​​ I​​ realize​​ now​​ I’ve been meeting you my​​ whole​​ life.​​ Your love is my life,​​ my​​ love​​ most supreme. And​​ I don’t know the last time or if I’ve​​ ever told you this​​ directly, but I love you. I love you with all​​ the​​ heart and life you gave me,​​ and​​ I’m sorry I​​ forget that sometimes.​​ I love you Mommy. I love you​​ so much.”

He​​ sat up​​ from the floor​​ with a​​ more​​ peaceful mind.​​ He was still high as shit, but at least the monster was manageable​​ now.​​ 

“I thought you came here​​ to be inspired and to honor Amber?”​​ the​​ therapist inside​​ his head​​ then​​ spoke.​​ “I don’t think the bottom​​ of this​​ urinal​​ is doing much for either.​​ But I suppose​​ once in a while you​​ do​​ get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right,​​ including a goddamn urinal.​​ But still,​​ you shouldn’t be​​ wasting​​ time​​ in a​​ goddamn​​ urinal​​ reflecting​​ on​​ your​​ past. You should be outside​​ of this​​ goddamn urinal​​ creating​​ a past worth reflecting​​ on;​​ inspiring​​ a story​​ to​​ keep you entertained for​​ an eternity. Because​​ in the end,​​ your life may be​​ the only story​​ you have​​ left​​ to read.​​ 

Now as​​ you know,” his therapist continued, “Im an advocate of​​ moderate​​ drug​​ use, but you’re​​ doing it​​ all wrong.​​ Traveling the world is​​ already a​​ mind-altering​​ experience​​ and​​ additional intoxicants should be​​ taken with extreme​​ care—especially when you’re in a place you’ve never been​​ before.​​ And​​ while​​ drugs​​ may open the path to enlightenment, they’ll never​​ get you​​ to the​​ destination.​​ But there’s hope​​ for you Walter, and​​ I’m glad I found you when I did. You still have a chance to salvage​​ your​​ one night in one of the greatest cities in the world. Don’t blow it on account of​​ a bad trip. We all have them. But that’s why it’s called a trip, you can always​​ stand up

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Sisyphus Smiles

 

 

Walter’s​​ seat jerked forward as the airplane clawed​​ the Heathrow tarmac.​​ He grabbed at the empty air in panic as his mind was still unsheathing itself from​​ sleep.​​ He looked out his window torpidly and it dawned on him he​​ had​​ made it;​​ he​​ had​​ landed in​​ London. So far it​​ looked just as he imagined—cloudy and dreary,​​ so dreary in fact he fell back asleep.

“Sir . . . Sir,”​​ his​​ British​​ flight​​ attendant​​ nudged​​ him​​ awake​​ again​​ later.

“Yeah-yeah, what?”​​ Walter​​ said, arising​​ to a​​ now​​ empty plane.​​ 

“As much as I’ve enjoyed having you here, I’m sure you have other places you need to be.”​​ 

“Not right away.​​ This plane’s kind of nice now that it’s quiet and empty . . . But I can’t stay on,​​ can I?”

The​​ flight attendant​​ shook his​​ head amused.​​ “No, unfortunately not. Did you need help with anything?”

“No,​​ I think I’ll be​​ okay,”​​ Walter​​ said standing woozily.​​ He’d overdone​​ the wine trying to make himself fall asleep during the flight. It worked, just​​ not until an hour and a half before the flight landed.​​ “Just a little tired,​​ kind of hungover—just a little of everything right now, that’s all.”

“It was a stressful flight for everyone,” the flight attendant said,​​ “but​​ you​​ especially.​​ That’s why I let you sleep​​ as long as I could.”

In​​ an​​ ominous beginning to​​ Walter’s​​ trip, the elderly British lady in the aisle seat of his row​​ had a​​ heart attack​​ an hour into​​ the flight,​​ forcing an emergency​​ landing​​ in Las Vegas​​ and leaving him​​ with the entire row.​​ The middle seat was never filled​​ by standby.

“I saved you some​​ fruit and muffins​​ since you slept through breakfast,” the attendant​​ said handing him a paper bag.

“Thank you... what was your name again? Sorry, it always takes me two or three times to remember​​ a name​​ and my brain is​​ always​​ at its worst in the morning.”

“Ambrose.”

“Ambrose?​​ Like Saint Ambrose.​​ How’d I forget?​​ Anyway, Ambrose, you’ve been very kind​​ this whole flight. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome sir. Just doing my job.”

Walter​​ picked up his backpack and​​ began​​ moving​​ up the aisle.​​ “Oh,” he said turning back. “Do you know what happened to...”

“Abigail?​​ The hospital​​ said she’s​​ still​​ recovering, but doing fine. The heart attack was just a small one.”

“Oh thank God. You don’t know how happy I am to hear that . . . Well, take care Ambrose.”

“You too Mister Huxley. Also, welcome to London.”

 

After​​ going through​​ customs​​ and​​ getting​​ a​​ coffee,​​ Walter​​ sat on a bench in baggage reclaim to​​ sip​​ it while waiting for his​​ checked suitcase.​​ As he​​ did so,​​ people​​ passed​​ him​​ as if he wasn’t even there. As a test, he took off his hat,​​ leaving​​ his freshly-shaven​​ face​​ unobscured, but still, not even a stare.​​ He​​ was​​ no one again.​​ The​​ bells of his bellbottoms began​​ swinging​​ excitedly​​ beneath​​ the​​ bench.

Once​​ with​​ his suitcase, he​​ walked​​ slowly​​ through the airport, taking in his surroundings​​ without interruption from fan,​​ paparazzo, gawker, or heckler​​ until​​ reaching​​ the​​ London Underground—aka “the Tube”.​​ As he​​ boarded​​ the train,​​ funny English accents chattered​​ like companies of parrots;​​ the trashcans​​ read​​ “rubbish”;​​ someone said his phone battery was “flat”.​​ The most minor of quirks were the first to catch​​ his​​ attention, but were the most​​ affirming of his new​​ existence: he was alone,​​ five​​ and a half​​ thousand miles away​​ from​​ home;​​ a foreigner​​ in a​​ foreign​​ place;​​ an​​ American with an accent.​​ It wasn’t a​​ third world country—the natives even spoke English,​​ but that didn’t​​ mean he wasn’t allowed to be a little culture shocked.​​ He’d also been so caught up in the trip being Amber’s gift that he’d forgotten indeed it was a trip, a trip​​ to a place he’d never been in a world he​​ thought he knew so well.

As the train accelerated, the gray and sooted outer​​ west​​ reaches of the city jetted​​ over​​ the windows, many​​ of the​​ cracked and cobbled buildings looking​​ as old or older than his native country.​​ So used to the full​​ color​​ of the California sun,​​ the muteness​​ made​​ him​​ feel off kilter, as if he​​ were inside​​ a black and white television set.

Nearing the city’s center, the​​ train dug underground​​ and began​​ stopping more frequently,​​ billowing​​ with​​ occupants—drunk​​ occupants, so much so there was a​​ miasma​​ of​​ stale​​ beer in the car.​​ A​​ group of men​​ then​​ boarded with paper masks​​ on​​ of​​ the​​ most​​ well-known members of the monarchy​​ and squeezed in next to Walter.​​ He​​ asked the paper-faced​​ Duchess Catherine​​ the cause.

“Whaaaat?!” the man behind the mask​​ cried.

“What’s going on?”

“What do ya mean what’s going on?​​ The fuckin’ queen​​ mate!​​ The fuckin’ queen.”

That’s right,​​ Queen Elizabeth’s​​ Diamond​​ Jubilee​​ Pageant.​​ Before her heart attack, the elderly lady on his flight had made mention of it.​​ The Queen​​ was​​ going​​ to be carted down the River Thames​​ today​​ for all of London to see in celebration of​​ her​​ being queen for sixty years. But also,​​ it was​​ an ornate excuse to be drunk in public.​​ 

At​​ the​​ stops​​ nearest​​ to​​ Buckingham Palace,​​ the miasma dissipated, and by​​ Walter’s​​ stop,​​ Russell Square,​​ the car was almost empty.​​ A​​ wide elevator—or “lift”—then​​ carried him​​ and his luggage​​ up from the deeply buried​​ station​​ and​​ spit​​ him​​ onto the sidewalk.​​ There, he​​ drew​​ in​​ his​​ first breath of moist, outside​​ London air. The​​ roads​​ around him​​ were narrower than the​​ ones​​ back home,​​ and all the buildings looked to be​​ laid in brick or​​ carved out of stone, earthly shades of red, brown and tan, stained with rain and glossed with moss.​​ Bright green treetops lined​​ the​​ street perpendicular to him,​​ and red and blue Union Jacks hung over the sidewalk in front of him​​ and​​ everywhere​​ he looked.

He continued following​​ the directions provided in his Contiki travel wallet—almost getting run over because he forgot the​​ new orientation of car traffic—until​​ arriving​​ at the Royal National Hotel. The instructions​​ then​​ guided him to an underground side entrance of the hotel labeled “Contiki​​ Basement”.​​ Inside the basement, which looked like an empty nightclub,​​ it was a dead silence​​ compared to the streets above.

“Ello,” a cutely chubby Aussie girl behind a stainless steel counter​​ in front of him​​ said. “Checking in?”

“I guess so,”​​ Walter said.

“Your last name?”

“Huxley, Walter Huxley.”​​ Her eyebrows furrowed as her search came up empty.

“Could it be under a different name?”​​ she asked.

“Yeah,​​ my hitchhiking ghost​​ probably,​​ Amber Evans.”

“Your what?”

“I mean my girlfriend—ex girlfriend. Uh, forget about it.​​ Sorry,​​ I sometimes make these inside jokes with myself and forget there’s other people around.”​​ She looked at him puzzled, but politely humored​​ him.

“Long trip?”​​ she said.

“Yeah…”​​ 

“Where you coming from?”

“California.”

“Oh, lucky you. I’ve always wanted to go there . . . Ah, found it. Sorry about that.​​ Amber Evans and Walter Huxley. I’ve got​​ a single room with a​​ double bed for​​ one​​ night, then have you leaving on our European Horizon tour​​ tomorrow.​​ Is​​ Miss Evans​​ arriving later?”

“Um...​​ no. She​​ actually​​ won’t be arriving at all.”

“Ah,​​ you booked the trip before the breakup.​​ We see that a lot.”

“Actually,​​ there was just​​ this​​ kind​​ of thing, this​​ uh…​​ event. Truthfully,​​ she kinda...​​ she kinda​​ died.”

“She​​ kinda​​ died?

Walter cursed himself for not leaving it at breakup.​​ “Not kinda,” he said, “she just died.”

“Oh my goodness.​​ Like on the way here?”

“Oh, no-no. It was​​ over a year​​ ago.”

“I’m so sorry. You poor thing. And now you’re going on the trip in​​ her​​ memory? That’s so sweet.​​ You must’ve loved her a lot.”

“Yeah” he laughed uncomfortably. “Actually, she became​​ my ex-girlfriend before she diedI mean like,​​ right​​ before she died.​​ She’s not my ex​​ because​​ she died. So she’s​​ kind of​​ like my ex-ex-girlfriend​​ . . .​​ Maybe I should call her​​ Dos Equis.

The counter girl​​ shook her head slowly and was​​ bug-eyed as if he were holding up the place. He​​ couldn’t tell if she was just extremely confused or​​ thought​​ her life was in danger because​​ the only reason he had an ex-ex-girlfriend was he had killed an​​ ex-girlfriend—which he​​ kinda​​ had.

“You know​​ Dos Equis,” Walter said,​​ like the beer—Spanish for two Xs?​​ That’s right,​​ maybe you​​ don’t have Dos Equis​​ over here.​​ But​​ yeah, youre​​ kind​​ of​​ right. We—I mean shebooked this trip before we broke up,​​ then we broke up,​​ then​​ she died, and then​​ I still came​​ . . . I’m sorry,​​ can you just ignore me right now? I’ve​​ gotten maybe an hour or so of sleep in the last​​ twenty-four​​ hours​​ and I’m​​ starting to​​ go a little haywire.”

The girl looked afraid to speak.​​ “Um… yeah,” she said.​​ “So here’s everything you need for the room. Lemme go get your sleeping bags—I mean sleeping bag,​​ just one sleeping bag.”

“Sleeping bag?”​​ he asked.

“Yeah. You won’t need it here, but​​ for​​ some of the hostels you’re​​ staying​​ at​​ during​​ your trip. I’ll be right back,” she said leaving then returning with the sleeping bag. “So that’s everything.​​ If you have any questions, or need some suggestions of what to do here in London just lemme know—I mean let us know, as in the Contiki staff. I obviously won’t be here all the time, but somebody will be . .​​ . Oh,​​ I almost forgot,” she said handing him a printout.​​ “Take this paper​​ to the hotel front desk to get your​​ keycards—I mean keycard because it’s just you​​ now, but you can get more than one still​​ too​​ . . .​​ I’m sorry,” she sighed sharply.​​ “I’m​​ still​​ new here​​ and​​ honestly the whole​​ dead girlfriend—or dead ex-ex-girlfriend​​ thing​​ is throwing​​ me​​ off​​ a little.”

“Hey,​​ it’s okay,​​ Amy,”​​ Walter​​ said reading her nametag. “You’ve been very helpful​​ . . .​​ Well,​​ if I’ve got​​ everything I need, I​​ guess I’ll​​ go​​ now.​​ 

“Yes, you’re all set​​ . . .​​ Hey,​​ I get it now.”​​ 

“You get what?”​​ 

“Your inside​​ joke​​ with yourself. It’s because your​​ ex-girlfriend—I mean, your ex-ex-girlfriend​​ is​​ d…” She stopped. “I’m​​ sorry.​​ I shouldn’t find that​​ kind of thing​​ funny.”

He​​ smiled.​​ “I wouldn’t have said​​ it​​ if I didn’t think it was funny myself.”

 

At his room door, Walter struggled to open it with the keycard​​ he’d been​​ given. Two jockish males dressed like they’d just come from a pool party​​ approached the door to his right.

“Contiki?” one of them asked in an Australian accent.

“Yep, Contiki,” Walter replied.

“CONTIKI!” they both yelled.​​ 

Down the hallway, two more jocks appeared, looking almost identical to the first two.​​ “Contiki?” one of them asked, also in an Aussie accent.

“CONTIKI!” the original two yelled again.

“Contiki,” Walter said after and apathetically.

“CONTIKI!” the other two yelled back.

“CONTIKI! CONTIKI! CONTIKI!” all the Aussie jocks began to chant.​​ 

Just what I expected,​​ Walter thought,​​ frat boys.

His​​ door finally opened after​​ jamming​​ his keycard into the receptacle innumerable times and ways.

“Where ya going mate?” the original Aussie asked.

“My room…” Walter said in a bothered tone.

“Put your stuff away and let’s go drink at the pub downstairs.”

“It’s still a little early for me to start drinking. I’m honestly pretty tired guys and just want to relax for a bit.”

“Ah, don’t be a puss bloke. C’mon, let’s go drink.”

“How about I join you down there later?”

“All right, but you better come. You heading out on Escapade tomorrow?”

“No, I think my trip is called European Horizon.”

“Ah, that’s a bummer; you won’t be with us.”

Thank God, Walter thought.​​ “See you​​ later guys,”​​ he​​ said, and closed his door.​​ CONTIKI, CONTIKI, CONTIKI...​​ they began chanting from the other side as they marched down the hallway.

He​​ set​​ down​​ his bags and stood by the​​ room’s​​ window​​ which had a​​ partial view of the London skyline. Below him, bubble-shaped taxis went down the wrong side of the road and London’s iconic red telephone booths littered the streets. He felt like he was dreaming and the abatement of sleep only heightened it, like the glass in front of him was not a window, but a television screen. Everything on the other side​​ looked​​ like a movie set.​​ Something about it didn’t feel real.

A wave of fatigue​​ then​​ came​​ on​​ again and the bed​​ began​​ tempting him.​​ Must not sleep,​​ he thought.​​ I have too little time here.​​ He then remembered seeing a coffee pot in the​​ hotel​​ lobby​​ and​​ headed there.

The​​ coffee pot, which​​ was​​ left over from that morning’s continental breakfast,​​ had​​ just​​ enough​​ left​​ for​​ a​​ good-sized cup.

“Damn, is that the last of it?”​​ he heard​​ a female Australian accent​​ ask from behind him​​ just as he​​ was about​​ to pour.​​ 

“I think so,” Walter said. “Looks like they​​ already put everything else away. But we can split it.”

He​​ turned around and was met by a girl about his age, but​​ the​​ majority​​ of​​ the hotel’s guests were​​ about his age.​​ A tomboy, she had dark, shaggy, moptop hair, and wore a baggy, black​​ shirt under a plaid flannel. Her face was warm and makeup-free with large​​ pea green​​ eyes and a charming Koala-like nose.

Females are friends​​ only.​​ Females are friends​​ only...​​ Walter​​ chanted​​ to himself.​​ He sort of had a thing for tomboys​​ and​​ was finding​​ her very attractive.​​ However, since​​ this​​ was supposed to have been​​ him and Amber’s trip,​​ he felt a strange obligation to​​ be faithful to​​ Amber​​ during it. But​​ also, he was determined to​​ learn how to​​ keep his blood flow balanced around attractive women, what he was realizing was the root of many of his problems.​​ 

The girl’s​​ mouth suspended open​​ upon seeing him,​​ and suddenly​​ she​​ became nervous. “N-no, that’s okay,” she said. “Take it.​​ There’s not really​​ enough for two cups anyway.”

“No, really,” he said, “We can make two cups out of this.”

A guy with​​ shaggy hair and baggy clothes like​​ hers​​ then came out of​​ the​​ nearby​​ lobby​​ elevator.​​ “Did we miss​​ breakfast?” he asked​​ the girl.​​ His stoney eyes drooped lackadaisically, and he had a permanent and slightly​​ crooked smirk.​​ They looked like​​ they could be​​ relatives, but his accent was distinctly American, twanging​​ somewhere between a meow and Tom Petty.

Woah,” he​​ said noticing Walter. “I see you made a new friend​​ Kourt.​​ Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

Walter tensed.​​ The first American he’d encountered on the trip and already he was recognized.

“Actually,” she said. “I haven’t even introduced myself​​ yet.”

“Why not? You’re​​ his biggest​​ fan.”

The girl reddened.​​ “I just... I just​​ figured this wasn’t the​​ best​​ time for that,” she said looking at Walter. “But anyway,​​ I’m Kourtney,​​ and​​ this is my brother Curt.”

“Just like...”​​ Walter​​ started to say.

“No, different spellings,”​​ Kourtney said.

“I see.​​ Well,​​ nice to meet you.​​ And​​ I’m just Walter now, in case you had me confused with Quinn Quark.”​​ They laughed.

“Yes,” she said,​​ “and that’s why I wasn’t going to say anything.​​ I figured you didn’t want to be reminded of Quinn Quark​​ right now​​ . . .​​ However,​​ since I have the opportunity, there is something I’d like to ask you related to music.”

“What’s that?”​​ Walter asked.

“What tuning is ‘The MagPi Song’ in?”

“You know about ‘The MagPi Song’? I only uploaded a demo to SoundCloud.”

“Like Curt said,” she smiled bashfully at him,​​ “I’m​​ probably your biggest​​ fan.​​ It’s the only song I haven’t been able to learn​​ on guitar​​ and it’s driving me crazy.”

Friend only, friend only...​​ Walter​​ repeated to himself.

“Um, it’s​​ DGCGCD,” he said, “I borrowed it from ‘The Rain Song’.”

“Ah, that​​ makes perfect sense,” Kourtney said.​​ “How did I not think of that myself?​​ Thank you. So,​​ are you here with Contiki?”

“Yeah.​​ I’m leaving on the​​ European Horizon tour​​ tomorrow.”

“Us​​ too.”

“Wow, and​​ here​​ I​​ was under the impression​​ Contiki​​ was​​ only for partying college kids.”

Kourtney laughed. “What makes you think we aren’t?” she said. “That’s their reputation, which is somewhat earned, but also somewhat exaggerated.​​ It’s really just a great way to travel cheap. This is my second one and I still have friends from my first I talk to all the time.”

“Hey,” Curt said,​​ “Don’t mean to intrude, but either of you going to drink that coffee?”

“You can take it,” Walter said. “I was going to see​​ if​​ they can make a fresh cup at the hotel pub.

“Thanks,” Curt said and poured​​ out​​ all the pot’s contents into​​ a​​ cup.

“Guess I’ll be getting some coffee at the pub too,” Kourtney said to Walter. “But after​​ that,​​ if you don’t have plans,​​ Curt and I are​​ taking a bus​​ to Stonehenge in an hour​​ if you want to join?​​ Tickets​​ are​​ super​​ cheap​​ because of​​ the Pageant. Also...”​​ she brought her index finger to her lips,​​ “...we’re bringing a few joints to smoke there.”

 

On the bus ride​​ to Stonehenge,​​ Walter learned Curt and Kourtney were technically half brother and sister and had spent their​​ whole​​ lives​​ living​​ a part​​ on separate continents. Their​​ father​​ had​​ been a roadie for Dire Straits​​ on​​ their 1986​​ Brothers in Arms​​ tour​​ and​​ impregnated Kourtney’s mother​​ on​​ a stop​​ in Sydney​​ after he told her he was the​​ band’s​​ bassist.​​ But being a rather active groupie in the eighties,​​ by the time her mother realized she was pregnant, she​​ was unsure who the father​​ was, so​​ Kourtney spent most of​​ her life without one. However, after taking an at-home DNA test the year before, she was matched to Curt, and with the help of their parents​​ and the internet, the pieces of the story were connected. Contiki, though, was the siblings first opportunity to acquaint themselves in-person.  ​​​​ 

Once​​ arrived,​​ Stonehenge was nowhere near as exotically isolated as it looked​​ in pictures. Instead,​​ it was surrounded by ropes, a walkway, parking lots, and of course a gift shop, but the​​ trio​​ was able to find​​ some​​ solitude atop one of the many surrounding burial mounds that sprouted up from the countryside like lumpy land warts.

“How’d you get weed on the plane?” Walter asked Kourtney after she pulled out a joint.

“In tampons,” she said.​​ “I could’ve waited until Amsterdam, but I wasn’t going​​ to​​ go to​​ Stonehenge​​ and not get stoned.”

After sparking up,​​ they leaned​​ against the land wart​​ to smoke.​​ Passing the joint, they sucked in the​​ verdant​​ expanse of English​​ countryside​​ speckled with sheep​​ in front of them​​ and the​​ endless quilt of cloud​​ above them.

“This is some really great shit,” Walter said​​ taking​​ a toke.​​ “I’m so​​ glad I met you guys.​​ Fate’s​​ been dealing me​​ a lot of shit hands​​ lately, but​​ just in time it deals me Curt and Kourtney.​​ It​​ kind of​​ reminds​​ me​​ of​​ something from this book​​ I’ve been reading called a karass.​​ It’s​​ when​​ a group of people are​​ cosmically​​ connected​​ for a purpose, but they may never know fully what that purpose is or everyone involved.​​ I just feel​​ like​​ I’ve known​​ you​​ guys​​ much longer than I have.”

“I know that book,”​​ Curt​​ said,​​ “Cat’s Cradle​​ by Vonnegut.​​ It’s one of my favorites.​​ If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons, that person may be a member of your karass.’”

“Of course you would​​ know it,” Walter said​​ smiling. “You’re a​​ member of my karass! It was also a favorite of a close friend of mine’s​​ who’s​​ sort of ​​ the reason I’m​​ on this trip.​​ That’s why I brought the book along with me.”

“I guess that means I should read it too,” Kourtney said.

“Don’t worry,” Walter said. “I should be done soon and I can give you my copy.​​ Man, this is going to be a great trip. It already is.”

 

When they returned to the Royal National Hotel that evening for their​​ pre-trip meeting​​ in the Contiki Basement, however, Walter’s great​​ trip​​ was rained on.

“Hey, it’s Quinn Queer!” a short American serviceman—judging by his crewcut—shouted as​​ Walter​​ entered the basement. “Where’s your dress?”​​ He,​​ along with two other servicemen he was with, then​​ erupted in laughter, but in Walter’s mind it was everyone in the room.

He​​ tried to laugh it off, but inside he was drowning and the laugh came out sounding like a gag for air,​​ then​​ tears began filling his eyes​​ uncontrollably.​​ His European safe harbor was collapsing.​​ 

“Are you crying?” the serviceman said, and began laughing harder. “Oh my god, you really​​ should be in a dress.”

“Okay enough!” a female Contiki representative barked like a​​ British​​ drill sergeant​​ as she went to the front of the room. “I know the meeting isn’t supposed to begin for another couple minutes, but let’s make something very clear upfront; there​​ is​​ zero tolerance for disrespect.​​ And maybe you’re not offended by the name Quinn Queer,” she said​​ directly​​ to the serviceman,​​ “but​​ as a gay woman,​​ I am.​​ And if​​ I hear you say that name again or make​​ any other​​ derogatory remark, it​​ will be my absolute pleasure to send your ass packing.​​ Got it?”

“Yes ma’am,” the serviceman said soberly as his friends chuckled under their breaths.​​ 

“Thank you,” she said. “Well, with that out of the way, let me introduce myself. My name is Anna,​​ and​​ I am your tour manager,​​ but​​ not your babysitter. Before we start roll​​ call, there’s a few things you​​ should​​ know. Our bus,​​ along with another group’s bus,​​ will be leaving from the hotel courtyard at eight a.m.​​ sharp​​ tomorrow, but you need to be there no later​​ than seven-fifteen so we have time to weigh everyone’s luggage. Please keep this time in mind if you go out drinking tonight. Also, hopefully you already weighed your luggage at home as the European Union requires all bags to be under twenty kilos or forty-four pounds each. After weighing the luggage, both buses will then travel together to the channel ferry in Dover, then once we arrive in France, our bus will continue to Amsterdam…”​​ 

“Hey man,” Curt whispered to Walter, “once this shit’s done, Kourt and​​ me are going to Camden Town. You in?”

“I guess,”​​ he​​ said.

“Come on, cheer up. You’ll love it. There’s a reggae show tonight that’s rumored to be 420-friendly. You know another joint and some music will get you smiling again.”

Walter’s face was able to make a half-grin until…

“Amber Evans,” Anna said​​ calling roll. ​​ “Amber Evans . . . Is there an Amber Evans here?”

Unthinkingly,​​ he​​ stood from his chair and ran for the exit.​​ 

 

Outside on the street,​​ Walter​​ began pacing and breathing heavily like a disorientated drunk, bumping into people and tripping over his toes. His mind felt like a sock in a dryer, unable to orient its spinning surroundings.

Almost by accident, he​​ then​​ stumbled into one of London’s famous red phone booths and fell to the floor. There he huddled into his knees and​​ stayed​​ until Curt and Kourtney eventually found him.

“I’m sorry,” Walter said as they opened the door. “I think I might be—may be-be-be—having a mild to severe anxiety attack right now. I’m not sure. I just don’t know what to do. I want to run away, run away back home, but I can’t. Back home is even worse. I just want off this planet right now. Is it too much to ask to have one place in the world where nobody knows you, where I’m not Quinn​​ fucking​​ Quark? I hate this! I fucking hate this! I don’t want to be here anymore—”

“Stop it!” Kourtney​​ said​​ and​​ grabbed him forcefully by the shoulders. “What are you getting so worked up about? No one’s out to get you, calm down. You’re just famous, not at war. And that guy back there is a complete asshole and everyone knows it. You are a good, kind, extraordinary person, and anyone who can’t see that isn’t worth your worrying, okay?​​ They’re probably just jealous or insecure about themselves,​​ and it’s not your responsibility to make them feel better.​​ Now, we​​ already gave Anna your name for roll, so you don’t have to go back.​​ So what​​ do you say​​ we get​​ some music and weed in you, then see how you feel once you’re thinking straight?”

Walter smiled at her. She smiled back.

“I love you,” he couldn’t help himself from saying. There was a brief​​ pause,​​ then they all erupted in laughter.

“Come on,” she said helping​​ him​​ to his feet.​​ “I love you too Walter,” she said hugging him. “I already did as an artist, but now as​​ a​​ friend. And...” she gave him a knowing eye as if his hug had told her something he wasn’t willing to say “...just​​ as friends. I know I don’t need to, but something tells me I should​​ let you know I’m gay.”

Walter exhaled, partially relieved, partially​​ disheartened. He then smiled and said, “The good ones always are.”

 

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 11

Chapter​​ 11

A Garage is No Place to Write a Book

 

 

“Walter…” his grandmother Mary tried to​​ gently​​ nudge him from his trance. He was staring​​ intensely​​ into a digital camera at the end of a black PVC tube. At the other end was​​ one of​​ her​​ garage’s​​ fluorescent lighting fixtures.​​ “Walter—”

“Shhh…” He waved up his index figure. “One sec Grandma . . . Ah, got it!​​ I​​ did it!” He jumped up and down looking at the digital camera screen.

“You did what?”​​ she asked.

“I built a spectrograph​​ out of one of your leftover PVC​​ tubes.​​ Come check​​ out​​ how it works.”​​ He waved her over​​ to the instrument.​​ “This end has a​​ rubber cap​​ on it​​ with a thin slit​​ that​​ focuses the light​​ coming​​ in​​ from the fixture,” he said​​ showing her,​​ “then​​ a holographic​​ insert​​ inside the​​ tube​​ diffracts the light, and this camera captures the result.​​ See those green and blue lines?”​​ He​​ pointed to​​ the camera screen.

“Yeah…”

“Those are​​ mercury​​ electron footprints!​​ They come​​ from the mercury​​ vapor inside the​​ florescent​​ bulb.​​ Electrons can only occupy certain orbital​​ paths within an atom,​​ so​​ in order to​​ jump​​ up to a higher orbital path,​​ they get​​ energy​​ by absorbing light,​​ but only specific colors​​ of light. Then when they jump back down, they emit​​ what​​ they absorbed, and that’s what you see here, a​​ partial​​ mercury​​ emission spectrum. Every element has a unique one​​ and it’s how​​ we​​ identify​​ what something​​ is made of, even​​ faraway​​ planets​​ and​​ stars.​​ It’s like these little electrons are saying...” he continued in a high-pitched voice, “Hey,​​ I might​​ be small, but I still play a big role in your world.

“That’s great,”​​ Mary​​ said unimpressed, “but I asked you to fix this light fixture two days ago, not​​ turn it​​ into a science​​ project.​​ How much weed have you been smoking?”

“None Grandma. I​​ promise.”

“Well,​​ when’s the last time you showered or went outside​​ in the daylight?​​ I know I said I wouldn’t intrude, but​​ you sure​​ you’re​​ okay?​​ You’ve hardly​​ left this garage​​ the last​​ two weeks.”

“Yes,​​ just trying​​ to avoid the paparazzi,​​ that’s all.”

“They haven’t been around for a​​ while now. I think they moved on since you stopped wearing dresses.”

“Well, still, I’ve been making some progress on the novel​​ finally,​​ and I just​​ want to stay​​ focused​​ on that.”

“So this science project has something to do with​​ the novel​​ then?”​​ Mary asked.

“Yeah, research. The main character is​​ kind of​​ a science enthusiast,​​ and I was thinking about using it for a scene.”

“Really…” she said.​​ “Have you figured​​ out​​ what the book is going to be​​ about then?”​​ 

“I’m getting there.”

“I see . . . So​​ what about the​​ trip? It​​ might give you something to write about.​​ It​​ leaves tomorrow in case you forgot.”

“I know​​ Grandma,​​ but​​ after a lot of thought,​​ I’ve decided​​ not going is best. I’m just starting to get​​ a​​ grip on​​ my mental health​​ again​​ and​​ the stress​​ of a trip​​ might​​ make me lose​​ it​​ for good, and I sure don’t​​ want​​ that to happen in​​ a​​ foreign​​ continent I’ve never been.​​ Also, although I do want to go to Europe someday,​​ on​​ a bus tour​​ is not the way​​ I want to see it, nor did Amber in her heart.​​ So for myself,​​ and in respect to Amber,​​ I’m​​ staying​​ here​​ until​​ the​​ novel is​​ done.​​ This garage will become to me what Thoreau’s​​ cabin was to him.​​ I need​​ to​​ isolate myself from the​​ world and​​ journey within,​​ not​​ be vacationing​​ in Europe on someone else’s dime​​ on a trip that​​ was​​ never​​ truly​​ mine.”​​ 

“Well,​​ no offense,” Mary said, “but​​ you don’t seem to be​​ making much progress​​ ‘journeying’ within​​ from all​​ the​​ noise​​ coming out of this garage​​ lately. Sounds​​ more​​ like​​ learning​​ the drums​​ and building science​​ projects​​ to me.”

Walter laughed.​​ “Like I said,​​ I’m​​ just starting to make​​ progress​​ with the novel. Then during breaks, yes,​​ I’ve been taking advantage of Mom’s old drum set.​​ I’ve also been sharpening my French​​ too.”

“For​​ the trip?”​​ she asked

“No, so I can finally read that copy of​​ Candide​​ in French​​ I’ve had on my bookshelf forever. I’m also giving​​ Swann’s Way​​ a shot. Amber always wanted me to read it, but it’s proven even more difficult​​ to do​​ in French.

“Hm,”​​ Mary​​ said eyeing him skeptically.

She then​​ began walking around the garage, a virtual maze of​​ open​​ boxes and crates​​ crowded around​​ the​​ drum set​​ and Walter’s​​ injured​​ camping​​ cot​​ he’d set up​​ for napping.​​ His​​ grandfather’s old​​ woodworking​​ station​​ had also been cleared off​​ for​​ science experiments and aspirations​​ of​​ a novel​​ one day​​ arising​​ from​​ his​​ sporadic and​​ sloppily-written​​ journal​​ entries, what he​​ was​​ counting​​ as​​ “progress”.

“You​​ found​​ your mother’s old records,”​​ Mary said looking​​ into one of the​​ open boxes. “Where​​ were they?”

“Up in the rafters where I found​​ grandpa’s hat.”

“I still don’t understand your fascination with​​ that ugly thing. You look like a construction worker​​ you know.”

Walter and the​​ absurdly bright orange fedora​​ from his dorky dad costume had become almost​​ as​​ inseparable​​ as his bellbottoms. Like his bellbottoms, the​​ hat, which was in antithesis to everything rock star,​​ had​​ taken​​ on​​ a​​ denotative meaning being​​ that it​​ demarcated the death of Quinn Quark​​ and the beginning​​ of​​ the search for himself. But​​ also​​ like his bellbottoms,​​ the hat​​ concealed a part of him he didn’t want the public seeing: his face. However, in regards to​​ passing​​ cars​​ on his evening walks, he was more visible than​​ ever,​​ the most important tip he’d taken away​​ from​​ recently​​ reading​​ Stephen King’s​​ On Writing.

“Oh my, look at this,”​​ Mary​​ said pulling a​​ framed​​ photo​​ out of​​ another box. “My little​​ boy​​ scout.”

“I wouldn’t​​ call him​​ little,” Walter said looking at the picture of his younger​​ self.​​ “Looks like he​​ ate​​ another boy scout.”

“Oh,​​ that​​ was just baby fat.​​ You​​ were​​ just a late bloomer, that’s all.​​ This must’ve​​ been​​ taken a few months after​​ you​​ moved here. Look at those pudgy cheeks and your always perfect​​ uniform you ironed yourself.​​ You’ll always​​ be​​ this​​ chubby​​ little​​ boy​​ scout​​ to me.​​ I think he’s who you​​ should​​ get back in touch with. Remember how happy you were?”

“Because I’d just been​​ wrenched​​ from the clutches of hell,”​​ Walter said.

“And​​ here you​​ are again,” Mary said,​​ “yet​​ now​​ you’re refusing to be saved.”

“What do you mean?”​​ he​​ asked.

“Do I really have to spell it out?​​ You​​ may be brilliant​​ Walter,​​ but​​ sometimes​​ that​​ brilliance​​ blinds​​ you​​ of​​ what’s most​​ obvious.​​ If you’