The Silver Year: Chapter 19

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Chapter​​ 19

The Mask Maker

 

Walking​​ past the polished and posh storefronts​​ along​​ Salizada San Moise,​​ just​​ outside St. Mark’s square,​​ Walter​​ saw​​ her​​ face​​ swimming toward him​​ in the crowded passageway.​​ As​​ it​​ drew closer,​​ however,​​ it​​ subtly shapeshifted, then​​ evaporated​​ like a mirage.​​ There were no cars in Venice.​​ The city’s​​ web​​ of alcoves and narrow​​ footways​​ could never accommodate them.​​ The buildings,​​ many unchanged for hundreds of years,​​ were​​ so close​​ and twisted together​​ the streets were in a constant murk,​​ and​​ shadows can​​ play tricks on the eyes​​ Walter​​ reasoned,​​ because​​ there was no reason​​ to be​​ seeing​​ Amber’s face​​ here.

Before​​ the​​ apparition,​​ his​​ thoughts​​ had been​​ wrapped up​​ again​​ in Amsterdam​​ and whether or not fate was​​ ever​​ going to give him a sign.​​ Although​​ his night​​ there​​ never escaped his mind,​​ it was the first time since St. Goar he’d been​​ truly​​ left​​ alone to reflect on it. Over​​ the​​ past few days​​ he’d​​ been​​ distracted​​ by his deepening friendship with​​ Curt and Kourtney,​​ but also the​​ siblings’​​ widening divide.​​ The further the trip progressed, the less they​​ wanted to do​​ together,​​ and increasingly​​ he​​ found himself​​ stretched between museums and intellectual ventures with Kourtney​​ during the day, and​​ pubs​​ and nocturnal escapades with​​ Curt​​ in​​ the night, leaving sleep the only time​​ he​​ got to​​ himself, but even that was mostly​​ done​​ with others​​ on the bus.

While​​ Walter​​ hadn’t​​ expected to partake so much in the​​ nighttime revelry,​​ Curt had an almost supernatural, easy-going charisma that made him not only the most popular person on the bus, but​​ at​​ every bar, beerhall, club,​​ or pub they went. Evenings with him always ended in unexpected places with unexpected people, and through him, Walter was again​​ finding his own​​ charisma and confidence he thought he’d​​ lost to​​ Quinn Quark.​​ Also,​​ with the exception of the serviceman,​​ he​​ was​​ discovering​​ no one in their tour group really cared who he’d been before the trip, and those who did felt mostly privileged to party​​ with​​ a former rock star.

But​​ as much as​​ Walter​​ enjoyed and​​ was​​ benefiting​​ from​​ his time with​​ Curt,​​ his time​​ with​​ Kourtney​​ held much more significance. Through her​​ he was discovering a whole new intimacy of friendship​​ and​​ learning to​​ be vulnerable with someone again​​ without worry of judgment or duplicity,​​ and​​ he​​ permitted​​ her the same.​​ Their​​ fucked up childhoods​​ and​​ constantly​​ nagging insecurities and anxieties​​ gave them a lot of common ground, and​​ it seemed​​ when one of them went out of whack, the other​​ always​​ knew​​ how​​ to bring the​​ other​​ back in place.​​ For two people who were loners at heart, it was​​ strange​​ to have a friendship that felt so effortless.​​ But loners aren’t​​ loners so much for the sake of being alone, but being alone with their thoughts, and usually that’s impossible with someone else, but not them. They​​ could spend hours together​​ only speaking​​ with​​ their eyes. If they came across a painting in a museum or​​ an​​ interesting​​ historical fact or artifact, it only took one look to know what the other thought.

However,​​ being​​ proud​​ loners,​​ there was​​ also​​ a sense of guilt about enjoying the company of someone​​ else​​ too​​ much, so after​​ their introductory walking tour​​ of Venice, they decided​​ a day​​ apart​​ was​​ needed.​​ But​​ now​​ Walter​​ was​​ greatly​​ regretting that​​ decision.​​ Venice was a living museum and he wanted his museum partner.​​ Remaining relatively the same for hundreds of years, history bled​​ easily​​ through the​​ skin of the​​ city,​​ and it took no monumental leap of imagination to travel to the past. Thus,​​ after​​ only​​ fifteen minutes​​ of​​ separation,​​ he​​ had gone​​ looking​​ for​​ Kourtney, but​​ so far was only finding ghosts.

Continuing​​ on​​ in his search,​​ letting his​​ gut​​ guide his feet,​​ Walter​​ passed over a​​ footbridge crossing the​​ Rio di San Moise​​ canal,​​ went​​ past the cursed​​ La Fenice,​​ an​​ opera house famous for burning down three​​ times, weaved​​ through progressively tighter​​ streets until finally​​ reaching​​ a​​ deserted​​ dead​​ end.​​ On​​ the​​ wall​​ of a building​​ in front of him, someone had spray-painted​​ I JUST DESIRE TO TOUCH THE SKY. The words​​ captured​​ him, and he stood​​ trapped, trying to translate​​ a​​ meaning, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a phantom flicker.​​ He then​​ turned​​ around, and there she was,​​ Kourtney,​​ contained in​​ a​​ tiny​​ shop​​ window​​ he hadn’t noticed being there before.

Going inside the shop, however, he discovered like​​ Amber’s face,​​ Kourtney’s​​ too evaporated,​​ and in​​ her​​ place was​​ a woman​​ about the same age​​ with​​ bangs,​​ long,​​ dark brown hair,​​ and​​ large,​​ golden​​ eyes, made more striking by her​​ black​​ eyeliner.​​ She wore a bright red headwrap,​​ not unsimilar to a pirate or gypsy,​​ which was​​ the same color​​ as​​ the lipstick on​​ her full​​ and​​ pouty​​ lips. The body beneath was​​ gracefully drawn-out​​ like a dancer’s,​​ draped​​ in​​ a tight-fitting​​ black​​ tank​​ top​​ and​​ a​​ light​​ and flowing, tan​​ bohemian dress.

Buon pomeriggio signore,” she said smiling. “You look like a​​ man in search of himself. What identity would you like to try on today?”

“Huh?” Walter said.

“What kind of mask were you interested in?”

“Oh,” he said​​ noticing​​ the shop he walked into was​​ a​​ mask shop. All​​ around, on the walls, cluttering the shelves, and hanging​​ from the​​ ceiling,​​ were ornate carnival masks, some​​ with long noses,​​ others​​ adorned with​​ stunning arrays of​​ feathers, beads,​​ and​​ gems.​​ 

“Actually, I am in need of a mask,” he replied.​​ Contiki had a themed party almost every night​​ and for Venice it was a masquerade ball.​​ “However,” he said examining​​ a​​ price tag of a mask​​ near him, “these masks might be out of my price range.”

“That’s okay.​​ I​​ don’t charge to try​​ them​​ on, and I do have some more reasonable options in the back.​​ But​​ there is​​ a mask​​ I think would look​​ very handsome on you.​​ I made it with a face like yours in mind.”

“You made all these masks?”

“I am the mask maker.​​ Beatrice Mezzosesso. And you​​ are?”

“Walter Huxley.​​ Pleasure to meet you.”

“No, no. The pleasure is mine, that is if you don’t mind trying on the mask?

“Why not?”

Perfetto.​​ Come​​ signore, have a seat here,” she said pulling a chair in front​​ of​​ an antique-looking full body mirror.​​ As he sat, her long fingers felt over the contours of his​​ head,​​ face,​​ and​​ neck​​ like​​ a tailor​​ sizing someone for a​​ fitting. “Oh yes,” she said staring him straight in the eyes, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you.

She then​​ danced​​ more​​ than walked​​ across the small store in elegant,​​ metered​​ movements​​ to some waltz she was​​ lightly​​ humming. She went​​ to​​ a​​ shelf​​ holding​​ several​​ wood and glass display​​ boxes​​ and took one down made​​ of expensive-looking​​ mahogany with​​ a​​ red satin bedding. She opened it​​ and removed a​​ bone-colored​​ mask with a strong brow​​ and​​ aquiline nose​​ in a​​ stern facial expression.​​ The mouth had no opening but the chin protruded forward​​ far enough to fit a hand in for eating and drinking.​​ She then went​​ to​​ what looked to be her workbench, selected a spool of thick black ribbon and measured a strand from memory. With two quick snips, she then cut what she measured into two equal strips which she threaded through holes on the side of the mask.​​ She then​​ returned​​ to Walter​​ and​​ placed the mask on​​ him​​ from behind, tying the ribbon​​ snuggly. The mask​​ clung to his face as if it had been​​ custom​​ made. ​​ 

Yes,”​​ Beatrice​​ said​​ staring into the​​ mask’s​​ eye sockets. “I knew it. Just perfect . . . You came in here​​ searching​​ for something,​​ didn’t you​​ Signore​​ Huxley?”

“Someone actually,”​​ Walter​​ replied. “I thought​​ you were them, but I was mistaken.”

“Yes, looks can be deceiving, but often what you need is not what you were thinking.”

He looked at her funny. She gave him a puckish smile.

“You fell in love with someone you weren’t supposed to,” she said, “or more so they​​ weren’t supposed to​​ have​​ fallen​​ in love with you, and​​ now it’s cost them their life.”

“Do​​ you​​ know​​ me?” Walter asked.

She smiled again.​​ “That depends on your definition of​​ knowing,” she replied. “A face can tell me​​ a lot about​​ what I need to know about​​ someone, and yours​​ has death​​ and love​​ written all over it.​​ Thats why I​​ chose​​ the​​ death mask​​ of the world’s greatest lover​​ for you. Don’t​​ you know who you are?” she said pointing​​ to the mirror.​​ She then leaned into his ear​​ and said in a whispered scream, “Casanova!

Walter laughed​​ awkwardly. “You’re funny,” he said. “And​​ a good salesperson.​​ But seriously, you read the Rolling Stone article​​ about me​​ or something,​​ right? Yep, you​​ got​​ me.​​ Quinn Quark, the new Casanova I​​ guess.”

“No,​​ I don’t have you​​ yet…”​​ Beatrice​​ said picking up the spool of thick black ribbon​​ again​​ and cutting​​ another long piece. She then stood behind​​ him​​ and​​ gently​​ wrapped​​ it​​ around​​ his neck, then pulled it​​ down​​ his​​ chest, making his​​ hair and​​ nipples​​ stand on end.​​ He​​ gasped​​ and​​ his​​ breath deepened​​ while his eyes closed in arousal.​​ Then​​ in a flash of an instant​​ she​​ had​​ his wrists​​ cuffed​​ behind the chair with the ribbon.​​ “…but now I do,” she said.

Walter​​ bucked​​ up​​ in surprise, but​​ Beatrice​​ pushed him back into the chair​​ with the weight of her body. Straddling over him, her​​ hand​​ then​​ reached​​ under the​​ mask’s​​ protruding​​ chin and​​ softly​​ slapped​​ him.

No more games Giacomo,​​ Le Chevalier de Seingalt,” she said. “I​​ saw​​ you in there​​ peering at me through this man’s eyes. But who’s in there with you? So many voices. You must be a very troubled man​​ Signore​​ Huxley.”

“Huh?”​​ Walter said,​​ slightly afraid​​ and​​ still slightly​​ aroused.​​ “I know the article made me out to be a womanizer,​​ and maybe there was some truth to that, but​​ seriously,​​ I’m no Casanova.​​ Not even close.”

Beatrice chuckled. “You still don’t understand,” she said.​​ “Casanova! He is inside you. All he needed was a body and yours is an​​ open​​ gate​​ for​​ the spirit world​​ to communicate. You are living amongst the dead, and the dead​​ can whisper through you.​​ You must know this.​​ Haven’t​​ you ever felt​​ like the voices in your head aren’t your own?”

“Many times​​ actually. But I’ve got a rather eccentric imagination I don’t​​ always​​ trust.” ​​ 

“Well, what if I told you your body​​ is​​ nothing but a​​ fleshly capsule Casanova​​ is trying to​​ make love with?”

“To you?”

She chuckled again.​​ “Oh how little you’ve learned in almost three hundred years​​ Casanova,” she said.​​ “Don’t you ever want to find​​ divine​​ love? Don’t you ever want to free your name of​​ womanizer and instead​​ be recognized​​ for the great writer​​ and mind​​ you were? Or​​ will your soul always be caught in​​ the​​ powerful​​ tempest of your lust?”​​ 

“I’m​​ so​​ lost,” Walter said​​ shaking his head.

“Just let go and play along,” she whispered​​ into​​ his ear.

Certain she was crazy,​​ he​​ decided to play along,​​ partly​​ out of fear,​​ partly​​ because he was​​ still​​ turned on,​​ partly because​​ he​​ was​​ also​​ crazy. And the more he thought about it,​​ maybe​​ Casanova’s ghost​​ was​​ inside him.

“Okay,” he said. “Um…​​ what do you mean someone fell in love with me that wasn’t supposed to​​ and​​ now​​ it’s​​ cost them their life?”

“The answer is right in front of you,”​​ she said pointing​​ at herself in​​ the mirror.

“You?” he asked.

She smirked. “Not exactly, but you’re getting closer.”

“Then why do I feel more lost?”

“Just think about it.”

“Amber?”

Beatrice shrugged and smiled, but said nothing.

“Well​​ either way,”​​ Walter​​ said to the mirror,​​ “if Amber​​ is​​ listening,​​ she should know she did nothing wrong by falling in love with me.​​ It was​​ all​​ my fault.​​ I gave up on someone who really could’ve been my ‘one’. I just thought I was looking for perfect, but I was too blind, too selfish​​ to see I didn’t need perfect. I needed love. And​​ no doubt, with the exception of my grandmother, nobody loved and believed in me more​​ than​​ you, yet how little​​ belief and​​ true​​ love​​ I​​ gave​​ you.”

Tears began dropping from beneath the mask onto his lap. “Maybe this was why​​ you​​ gave me this trip,” he went on,​​ “to understand​​ your suffering; to find love, then​​ have it violently ripped away.​​ I used​​ your​​ love​​ and​​ offered hardly any​​ in return​​ because I was too​​ busy loving myself. I’m so sorry Amber. I’m so sorry.​​ I​​ don’t​​ deserve​​ to find love.​​ I had it and threw it away because​​ I didn’t know what I was​​ looking for.​​ I​​ was​​ too in love with myself.”​​ 

Beatrice put a hand​​ on​​ Walter’s​​ shoulder. She then​​ removed the mask​​ and unbound his wrists.​​ His​​ face was​​ a glazed doughnut of tears and sweat.​​ 

“No,” she said somberly, “you deserve to find love. Everyone​​ does. But​​ first,​​ you need to forgive yourself, but before you can, there’s​​ someone else​​ who needs forgiveness, someone​​ very much a part of​​ you​​ whether you want them to be or not​​ . . .​​ your father.”

“My father?”

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“Because​​ if he dies​​ unforgiven​​ you​​ will​​ never forgive yourself. Your guilt​​ will outlast your​​ hate.​​ Didn’t Squids​​ teach you that?​​ My father was an alcoholic too and the last thing I told him before he died was I hate you​​ and I want you to die. But I was just​​ an​​ angry​​ teenager, and his alcoholism​​ had​​ hurt me​​ a lot.​​ But now that time​​ has​​ dulled​​ some of that anger, I can see​​ he did love​​ me​​ in​​ many​​ moments​​ outside his drinking.​​ He​​ may not have been​​ the greatest father, but​​ at​​ least he was more of a father than the father he never​​ knew. At least he tried​​ to be a father, and so did your father.​​ He​​ fucked up​​ in​​ a​​ fuckup​​ nobody would know​​ exactly​​ how to fix,​​ a​​ fuckup​​ of his own doing, but nevertheless,​​ he​​ was younger than you​​ are now​​ when​​ it happened, and look how much you still fuck up.”

“Yes, but​​ fucking​​ up being a father​​ is much different,” Walter retorted. “A father doesn’t prioritize the needs of a monster over his own son. A father doesn’t allow his son to be treated like an unwanted pest for the first ten years of​​ his​​ life.​​ Yes, ultimately he did leave that monster for me, but he told me in the end how much I was really worth to him, about three rum bottles.​​ He deserves to die unforgiven.​​ Fuck him.”

“Forgive him,” Beatrice commanded. “Forgive​​ him and​​ your stepmother​​ if you ever want to be forgiven yourself; if you ever want to know​​ divine​​ love.”

“No.​​ Never.”

“Who​​ introduced you to​​ Metallica​​ then​​ took you​​ to your first concert​​ ever, a Metallica concert?”

It was his father but Walter stayed silent.

“Who taught​​ you​​ how to tie your shoes,” she continued, “and is the reason why you still bunny ear instead of loop and swoop?​​ Who taught you the habit of​​ ironing​​ your clothes,​​ how to​​ whistle, how to​​ blow a bubblegum bubble?”

He​​ suddenly​​ remembered it was his stepmother.​​ There had been​​ some​​ moments​​ when​​ she was more mother than monster in the beginning.​​ Agape,​​ Walter​​ turned​​ to Beatrice.

Who are you,​​ really?​​ he asked.

“Forgive them.”

“Okay, fine.​​ I suppose there were some moments​​ when​​ they​​ attempted to care,​​ especially in the beginning​​ before​​ the​​ drinking fully took​​ hold . . .​​ And​​ I suppose​​ you’re right.​​ There’s no way to​​ forgive myself without forgiving​​ them because​​ a part of me is them​​ . . .​​ I forgive you Dad. I forgive you L-L-Lilith.”

Walter shuttered.​​ He hadn’t uttered his stepmother’s name​​ in over​​ fifteen​​ years.​​ Once she stopped calling him by name, it gave him a reason to do the same, and his​​ names for her were just as bad if not worse​​ as hers for him:​​ bitch,​​ cunt,​​ the pretty witch,​​ mother monster. At times, he really did​​ everything​​ he​​ could to antagonize​​ not only her hatred for him, but​​ her alcoholism.​​ Now fault didn’t seem as easy to place. But blame is hardly ever​​ shared​​ alone and​​ sometimes just as much​​ in our control​​ as fate.​​ What we do have control over, however,​​ is forgiveness.

“I forgive you,” Walter continued. “I forgive you!”

“You are forgiven,” Beatrice said, and immediately​​ after a weight seemed to lift from his chest, a burden he’d grown so used to carrying he thought it was a part of him. Looking into her eyes with awe, he saw someone he knew he knew but he couldn’t explain why.

Now​​ will​​ you​​ tell me who you are,”​​ he​​ asked,​​ who you​​ really​​ are?”​​ 

“I am no one​​ because I am not one,”​​ she replied​​ still transfixed on the mirror. “However,​​ you can call me Fate​​ if you​​ would​​ like. But​​ truthfully, I’m just​​ someone who wants to help you find divine love.​​ However clever it’s been disguised,​​ it is waiting for you.”

“Where?”

“A​​ place​​ only you can reach​​ within your heart,​​ but​​ I’m here to​​ take​​ you​​ to​​ the​​ next part. But we must​​ go soon. Sunset is approaching.”​​ She​​ then​​ reattached​​ the mask to Walter’s face. “Casanova​​ must also come​​ along​​ though. And masks​​ must​​ stay on​​ until I tell​​ you​​ to take them off.​​ If​​ we’re not careful,​​ it​​ could​​ cost us​​ our lives​​ also.”

 

After masking herself​​ in​​ a​​ gold, long-beaked​​ “plague doctor” mask, Beatrice put on a black,​​ full-body,​​ hooded robe and had Walter​​ do​​ the same. She then took his hand and told him, “Don’t let go,” and​​ led him out of the shop to a nearby​​ private​​ dock on the Grand Canal. There, a gondolier​​ in a black toga she addressed as​​ Marcus was​​ waiting, standing​​ atop an all-black, dragon-looking gondola with an enclosed cabin, or​​ what Beatrice called a​​ “felze”.​​ Apparently almost​​ all gondolas used to have felzes before their primary purpose was toting around tourists.​​ Inside the​​ red​​ velvet-lined​​ felze, a bottle of​​ wine and a bucket of oysters were​​ waiting for them.

“Is​​ this​​ gondola always stocked with oysters and wine?” Walter asked​​ after they sat and​​ Beatrice poured him a glass.

“Oh​​ yes,” she said. “A gondola ride wouldn’t be complete without them.”

 “Well,​​ santé,” Walter said taking the glass, then began removing his mask.

“No, no,” Beatrice said stopping him. “The mask must stay on, even while you eat and drink. That is what the mask is designed for.”​​ 

“But you can’t​​ eat or​​ drink with your mask.”

“Because this​​ wine​​ and food​​ isn’t​​ for​​ me,​​ it’s for you, Casanova.”​​ 

“But what if you’re trying to poison me?”

“Well​​ I doubt it will make​​ a​​ difference.​​ You’ve been dead for​​ over two hundred years.”

 

After departing from the dock, Beatrice pulled open one​​ of​​ the curtained windows.​​ “Let​​ us​​ begin,”​​ she said.​​ “Do you recognize that palazzo out there?”​​ She pointed​​ to a three-story, cream-colored palace on the canal.​​ 

“Should I?” Walter​​ asked, still confused as to who he was supposed to be.

“That is the​​ Palazzo Malipiero, former home of Senator Alvise Malipiero, and site of your first seduction. The senator took you in as a fifteen-year-old protégé and taught you all the customs of high society until you were caught ‘exploring the differences between bodies’ with his seventeen-year-old love interest​​ and he expelled you out of the house…”

As they pushed down​​ the Grand Canal,​​ Beatrice​​ continued​​ filling​​ Walter​​ in on landmarks​​ and transgressions​​ of his possessor’s life​​ until​​ reaching​​ the Rialto Bridge​​ where they​​ turned around.

“More wine​​ signore?”​​ Beatrice​​ said, pouring without permission.

“I guess so,”​​ Walter​​ replied amused and red-lipped​​ beneath his mask. She’d already emptied half a bottle into him and mouth-fed him a dozen​​ or so​​ oysters. He’d never felt more lavished on in his life.

Coming out of the Grand Canal​​ and skirting along the Venetian coast, lined with​​ more​​ cream-colored palazzos​​ that were turning pink​​ in the twilight light, Beatrice​​ shouted out the window,​​ Marcus, prendere​​ noi sotto il Ponte dei Sospiri !

Si mama.​​ Summum virtutum.

“Sunset​​ is coming,” she said to Walter, aka Casanova. “Our date with fate is almost here.”

Turning​​ into the​​ Rio del Palazzo​​ canal, they sailed​​ under​​ the​​ people-packed​​ Ponte della Paglia​​ footbridge, then approached another much higher, ivory-white and ornately-decorated​​ footbridge​​ connecting two buildings.

The Bridge of Sighs...” Beatrice said​​ pointing to it as the boat coasted beneath it, joining a hoard of other gondolas,​​ ...our final destination and​​ one of the most famous sights in all of Venice. It connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace to the​​ palace​​ prison. And according to legend, as prisoners would cross, they would look out onto beautiful Venice one last time and ‘sigh’ before being taken to their cells.​​ In 1755, arrested for blasphemy, freemasonry, magic, and of course fornication,​​ you yourself walked across this bridge​​ Casanova.​​ But​​ instead of being put in the​​ regular prison cells, you were​​ instead​​ held​​ in a collection of cells called ‘The Leads’ directly beneath the palace roof. Because the roof was lined with lead slabs, these cells were very hot in the summer and ice-cold in the winter, and​​ also thought to be inescapable. But on the night of the 31st​​ of October 1756,​​ you proved that to be untrue​​ by prying off one of the​​ slabs​​ and escaping through the roof​​ in a tale that would later become one of​​ your​​ bestsellers.  ​​​​ 

You​​ then fled to Paris where​​ you​​ would later make a fortune by inventing the first state lottery, a fortune which would be wasted away like all​​ your​​ fortunes, to gambling. But being a prolific polymath,​​ you​​ always managed to climb​​ your​​ way back into status and wealth through a variety of occupations and​​ sometimes questionable​​ ventures. In​​ your​​ seventy-three years alive,​​ you were​​ an abbot, lawyer, officer in the Venetian army, theater violinist, diplomat, mathematician, spy, alchemist, Freemason, cardsharp, magician, faith healer, actor, a​​ famous​​ playwright, duelist, physician, and librarian.​​ You were​​ fluent in Italian, French, Latin, and Greek, and​​ proficient​​ in​​ German, English, and Russian.​​ You​​ discussed religion and philosophy with Voltaire, powered flight with Ben Franklin, taxation with Fredrick the Great, and bringing the Russian calendar in sync with the rest of Europe with Catherine the Great.​​ You were​​ also good friends with Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s favorite librettist, and may have served as the inspiration for​​ Don Giovanni, possibly even writing some of it​​ yourself. You wrote​​ forty-two books which included a history of Poland and the Venetian government, a modern Italian translation of Homer’s Iliad, a five-volume science-fiction novel,​​ Isocameron, which predicted the motorcar,​​ airplane,​​ and television, and of course​​ your​​ twelve-volume, thirty-five-hundred-page autobiography,​​ Histoire de ma vie, which​​ you are​​ most​​ famous and infamous for.

“Casanova, you​​ could have been an​​ Enlightenment​​ icon had​​ you not let lust get the best of you.​​ But​​ you always​​ blamed​​ your​​ insatiable sex drive​​ on​​ your​​ insatiable curiosity for human nature, reasoning​​ the bedroom offered no better view into it. Old, young, fat, skinny, royals, nobles, nuns, slaves, whores, virgins, even a few men and transvestites,​​ you​​ bed them all. But they weren’t all merely conquests.​​ You​​ actually fell in love​​ quite​​ easily and often.​​ You liked​​ to satisfy and be satisfied intellectually as well as sexually by​​ your​​ partners, and in a time when women were second-class citizens,​​ you​​ saw​​ them as equals.​​ You were​​ attentive and appreciative​​ in your lovemaking, and at times, supported​​ your​​ lovers financially and became a lifetime confidant.​​ 

However​​ Casanova,​​ your name​​ didn’t become synonymous with womanizer by accident.​​ Some of​​ your​​ most​​ notorious​​ exploits include: losing​​ your​​ virginity to two sisters at the same time; bedding and having a child with a castrato singer whom was thought to be a boy, but was in fact a girl using a fake penis; having a ménage​​ à trois with two nuns; sleeping with five sisters in exchange for saving their mother from financial ruin; and probably​​ your​​ most repulsive achievement, almost marrying​​ your​​ own daughter whom​​ you​​ unknowingly conceived with a former lover, only to later bed her and her mother at the same time, although​​ you​​ did say​​ you​​ left​​ your​​ virgin daughter ‘intact’ for whatever that’s worth.

“Casanova, you stand guilty of gluttonous lust, a lust whose winds have reigned over you for nearly three​​ centuries. But now​​ you​​ have​​ an opportunity​​ to​​ finally escape the slavery of your lust,​​ to find divine love, what you always sought but never found in life. If you accept this invitation, kiss me at sunset and your true love will be revealed . . . The time is now,” she said touching Walter.

“Time for what?”​​ he​​ said confused.

“To take off your mask and kiss me, that is if you’re​​ ready.​​ Love isn’t always​​ who​​ you think it​​ should be. Once in a while it’s in the​​ strangest of places.”

Walter’s head turned sideways pondering who was really speaking behind that golden bird beak.

“I’m not kissing you until you tell me who you​​ really​​ are and what’s really going on,” he said.​​ Plus,​​ I heard​​ being granted eternal love by​​ kissing​​ someone​​ at sunset under the Bridge of Sighs was just some bullshit legend told to​​ tourists.

“I told you​​ already, you can call me Fate.​​ As far as who I really am, you can only discover that by taking off my mask.​​ But yours has​​ to come off first.”

“Fine,” he said and​​ reached behind his head and removed the mask. Beatrice gasped behind her​​ beak.

“What?” he asked.

“It’s not for your knowing, just as what you see when you take off my mask is not for my knowing.”

Slightly trembling, his hands removed her mask only​​ to​​ discover​​ Beatrice​​ grinning. Although a part of him wished for Shiva, he was also relieved reality was behaving as it should.​​ Besides, Beatrice​​ really was beautiful, a beauty he could stand for an eternity​​ if that’s what​​ it​​ meant. But truthfully,​​ he had no clue what​​ anything​​ meant​​ anymore.

He​​ then​​ noticed​​ a​​ large gap between​​ her​​ front teeth​​ he didn’t remember seeing before, but​​ she hadn’t​​ spent a lot of time​​ full-teeth grinning​​ before then​​ either.​​ Regardless,​​ he leaned forward and lips met, then​​ tongues​​ began dancing​​ until​​ something bristly​​ began tickling his​​ upper​​ lip.​​ He opened his eyes to find​​ Beatrice had​​ grown a​​ mustache. Then as his eyes adjusted,​​ he realized it wasn’t Beatrice​​ behind that mustache. It was​​ Dug.

“Ah!” Walter screamed and pushed Dug back into the seat​​ across from him, but by then he had already morphed back into Beatrice. “Ah! Ah! Ah!” Walter kept screaming.

“You didn’t like what you saw I see,” Beatrice said straightening​​ herself out after being thrown.

“I’m sorry.​​ No, not​​ at all what I was expecting.”

“Often​​ divine​​ love isn’t what you expect.”

“But you don’t understand. I saw—”​​ She​​ covered his mouth.

“I told you,” she said, “what you saw is not for my knowing,​​ or anyone else’s knowing. You must keep it to yourself and only to yourself, otherwise​​ neither of us will find divine love. And believe​​ me,​​ I’ve been waiting a long time. Centuries you could say.”

“Wait,​​ are you—”

She​​ covered​​ his​​ mouth again and smiled. She then brought her index finger to her lips and winked.

“Just keep our little adventure​​ today to yourself,” she said.​​ “It’s in your​​ best interest and mine.​​ Not like anyone​​ will believe you​​ anyway.”​​ 

 

Back​​ at​​ the​​ boat​​ dock,​​ Walter and Beatrice shared​​ one​​ last kiss, this time with no mustache,​​ before she stepped back onto the boat. She​​ said​​ there was somewhere she needed to​​ be​​ soon, and so did he. His​​ ferry back to​​ the Italian mainland​​ where he and his fellow Contikians were​​ camped​​ in a village of mobile home trailers was​​ departing​​ shortly.​​ 

As the​​ gondola​​ withdrew​​ into the Venetian Lagoon,​​ from the bow of the black dragon,​​ Casanova’s death mask in one hand, the other waving goodbye and blowing him kisses,​​ Beatrice​​ shrank​​ into the​​ darkening​​ horizon​​ until​​ at last she touched​​ the​​ sky​​ and disappeared into it.​​ 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 18

 

Chapter​​ 18

I Heard My Soul Singing Behind a​​ Leaf

 

“Now repeat after me,​​ zum wohl,” their​​ tour group’s​​ German​​ sommelier said​​ as he raised up a shot glass of wine​​ at the other end of the long, candle-laden table.​​ 

Zum wohl,” everyone repeated.

“Zis is zee proper way to toast zee wine. It means to good health and zee way it has been done for​​ over four hundred years in zis wine​​ cellar,” he said gesturing to​​ the​​ underground​​ cylindrical chamber​​ lined with oversized wine barrels and soft lighting.

From​​ the low​​ chatter​​ patting​​ the​​ cellar​​ walls it seemed Amsterdam had made friends of everyone​​ in​​ Walter’s​​ absence.​​ Even Curt and Kourtney had new friends​​ they were conversing with​​ instead of​​ him​​ since he​​ had​​ gone out of his way to sequester himself​​ from them​​ since boarding the bus earlier​​ that day. Although they tried to talked to him, he told them he was too tired, then pretended to sleep or actually slept with his earbuds​​ in​​ for the entirety of the trip​​ from Amsterdam​​ to St. Goar.​​ He just needed time to find words again.​​ Everything felt different about himself. Not so much he’d been changed, but exposed,​​ and someone forgot to stitch the skin back on.​​ Now it was “real life”​​ that felt like a dream, while his night with Shiva​​ felt like the first time he’d actually been living.​​ There seemed no point to the trip now. It wasn’t about writing a book, paying tribute to Amber,​​ or any of the reasons he thought he came on this trip for. The reason was her.

So​​ why​​ didn’t he go on living​​ then​​ instead of choosing to remain dead​​ by continuing this bus tour?​​ Why​​ didn’t​​ he​​ turn himself into the police to be with her​​ instead of here where it seemed no one cared any differently​​ if​​ he​​ was there or not?​​ Even Curt and Kourtney had​​ moved on from him. But who could blame them for not wanting to be around someone they were constantly having to talk off ledges?​​ Maybe it was time​​ Walter​​ did the world a favor and just jumped.​​ The universe had given him his​​ one opportunity​​ for love​​ and he walked away because he was afraid. He was a coward. He was a sad and pathetic coward no one wanted to be around. The world was tired of Walter Huxley and his whining. He should​​ just​​ go down​​ to​​ the river, walk in and drown.

Silently boiling over​​ inside, Walter​​ excused himself to​​ go​​ to​​ the restroom, but instead went upstairs and out the​​ cellar door, toward​​ the​​ river.​​ 

 

From the​​ darkness of the​​ cellar, Walter emerged​​ into twilight​​ light​​ atop one of the many​​ steep and​​ narrow​​ brick​​ roads​​ of​​ the small German town of​​ St.​​ Goar.​​ Located in the lush and historic Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the​​ surrounding​​ slopes were dotted with​​ medieval​​ castles and​​ vineyards, and the town itself kept a​​ comparable​​ medieval, gothic​​ character. The streets​​ were​​ silent and vacated being​​ almost nine in​​ the evening before the Corpus Christi holiday.​​ All the shops were closed, and even most of the houses he passed on his way to the river were shuttered and abandoned​​ as much of the citizenry had left town.​​ 

Upon reaching the river bank,​​ Walter​​ hiked his pants​​ up​​ and waded into the water. In front of him,​​ passing​​ cargo ships plunged in and out of​​ the setting sun​​ wedging​​ itself​​ into the​​ wide river​​ gulch,​​ spilling​​ its​​ blood-orange​​ innards​​ over​​ the​​ storied and fertile​​ hills​​ that had been battled over since the time of the Romans.​​ Momentarily​​ forgetting​​ his​​ present-day​​ woes​​ in​​ imaginations of the past,​​ Walter​​ stayed standing in the river​​ until​​ it​​ swallowed the sun whole.​​ Then​​ when​​ the stars began opening their eyes,​​ he​​ returned​​ to the river​​ shore​​ to ruminate in them as​​ it’d been a long time since he could see and communicate with​​ so many.​​ But as his eyes adjusted to the light of the dark diamond sea, he noticed he was not alone in his stargazing. Up on a grassy​​ knoll​​ just adjacent to him​​ was Kourtney.

“I was wondering when you were going to notice me,” she said​​ as Walter walked over​​ and sat​​ beside​​ her.​​ 

“How long have you been here?” he asked.​​ 

“Oh about as​​ long as you. I​​ followed you​​ to​​ make sure you​​ weren’t​​ going​​ to drown yourself.”

He​​ laughed. “How’d you know?”

“Happy people don’t​​ isolate themselves from their​​ friends all day,​​ suicidal people do.​​ But​​ furthermore, last​​ night​​ you told me you were going to the ‘restroom’​​ then​​ disappeared for the entire night only to reappear on the bus today a completely different person.​​ So​​ either​​ the real Walter​​ got abducted by aliens last night and you were coming down here to go back to your spaceship, or, by the look on your face when you left,​​ you were​​ coming down here to drown yourself.​​ Either way, I’m not letting​​ you out of my sight​​ again​​ until I find​​ out​​ what happened last night, because​​ obviously something happened last night.”

​​ Walter took a few moments before responding.​​ “Yes,” he said,​​ “a lot happened last night, so much so I’m still trying to tally it all up​​ and that’s why I haven’t said anything. And​​ I'm not​​ really​​ suicidal,​​ I​​ just​​ sometimes​​ need to​​ idle insignificantly in​​ suicide’s​​ waters to​​ soothe​​ the desire. That’s​​ why I came down​​ to the river,​​ to​​ soak in​​ a little​​ perception​​ and find an explanation for what happened last night, because to be honest, it all​​ still​​ feels​​ unexplainable.”

“And the​​ soak​​ didn’t​​ help?”

“I no longer feel like killing myself, however,​​ as far as finding an​​ explanation,​​ no.​​ I was too distracted by​​ that​​ sunset​​ to think about last night, which is probably good​​ because I’ve been thinking​​ and worrying​​ about last night all day.​​ That​​ might’ve been the most beautiful​​ sunset​​ I’ve​​ ever​​ seen.”

“And to think we had it all to ourselves.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“At​​ the hostel’s​​ pub.​​ It’s the​​ only​​ place open in town.​​ Don’t know how they could​​ be​​ though with this on our doorstep. Plus, this is a lot better​​ view to​​ drink​​ to,” she said holding up a bottle of the​​ town’s exclusive ice wine their​​ sommelier​​ had been​​ pushing​​ during​​ their​​ tasting.​​ 

“Curt too?”​​ Walter asked.

“Yeah.​​ And to be honest, I needed​​ a little break from him​​ anyhow.​​ Not that we’re​​ not​​ getting along, I’m just used to being alone​​ more, where he likes to​​ always​​ be in on the action. While​​ we​​ might​​ be brother and sister,​​ I’m​​ discovering we’re​​ also​​ very​​ different people. Anyway...” she held out the bottle to him,​​ “...if​​ a​​ soak in the river didn’t​​ help​​ find an explanation, maybe​​ a soak​​ in​​ this​​ wine​​ bottle can.​​ Care​​ to split it and​​ talk​​ last night​​ over​​ with me?​​ Two heads are better than one you know.​​ Also I restocked on joints in Amsterdam.”​​ She then reached into her jacket pocket and handed him one.​​ 

“You always know the way to my heart Kourtney,”​​ Walter​​ said​​ smiling​​ as he took it. “And​​ I suppose talking to someone is probably a better way of going about​​ it.”

“Good,” she said as she began uncorking the wine. “Hopefully​​ you’re​​ okay​​ with drinking a sixty-euro bottle of wine​​ straight from the spout though. I didn’t bring glasses.​​ Wine’s more about who than what you drink it with anyway.”

Zum wohl​​ to that,​​ Walter said lighting the joint, then taking​​ a hit before passing it to​​ Kourtney​​ in exchange for the bottle.

“So...” she said inhaling a toke then exhaling it out, “...what the hell happened last night?​​ Curt and I were really worried​​ this morning​​ when no one had heard from you, especially since we ate​​ all​​ those​​ hash​​ brownies we didn’t know were hash brownies. But after that Flugel stuff the boat captain gave us,​​ we​​ all​​ kind of blacked out.”

“Boat captain?”​​ 

“Yeah from the canal cruise. You really don’t remember? Wow, you were as fucked up as you looked. We just thought you were joking.”

“I kind of remember the canal cruise now​​ that you mention it.​​ We went to a sex show after, right?”

“Yeah, where you​​ ate that​​ banana.”

“Yes, I definitely remember the banana. But everything after is a blank​​ until I came to at some rave.”

“Walter!​​ We were just a floor above​​ the rave.​​ Remember we went to that​​ three-story club​​ with​​ a rave on the first floor, a rock​​ club​​ on the second, and​​ a​​ hip-hop​​ club​​ on the third? That’s where you​​ said you had to use the ‘restroom’ then just disappeared. But you were​​ just downstairs​​ from us.”

“I don’t remember any rock club, but​​ I was looking for a​​ restroom​​ when I came to,​​ however,​​ security​​ kicked me out before I could​​ find one.”

“You got kicked out?​​ For what?”

Walter​​ chuckled.​​ “Um, pulling​​ my dick out​​ on the dancefloor,” he said,​​ “but there’s much more​​ to it than that...”

 

“Holy shit,”​​ Kourtney​​ said​​ after​​ Walter​​ spilled all the beans of the evening, every event, feeling, and fear.​​ “That’s one hell of a story and night.​​ And you have no way of getting ahold of​​ Shiva?​​ Not even​​ Facebook?”

“She’s not on any social media,”​​ he said.​​ “She​​ has to keep a low profile since she’s an illegal alien. All she had was a burner phone which I stupidly never got the number to​​ . . . I have to go back to Amsterdam. I’m​​ going to ask Anna tomorrow if there’s any​​ way​​ I can hitch a ride on another bus or​​ take a train back.​​ I’m not supposed to be here. There’s no reason for me to continue this trip.”​​ 

“Well, hold on. Don’t​​ throw​​ away​​ the trip just yet. I mean, she could be getting deported​​ as we speak. Then instead of being across an ocean from you, she’ll only be across a state​​ once you’re back home. Maybe just wait until​​ then​​ to find her. The internet’s a lot better place to find people than IRL anyway.​​ It’s​​ where I found my brother.​​ Do​​ you really think​​ going back to Amsterdam and​​ turning yourself into the police is a good idea?​​ What if you don’t find her, or even worse you get jailed and miss your flight home?”

“I know,​​ I know,​​ but​​ something’s​​ just​​ telling​​ me to go back. And as much as I never trusted gut feelings before,​​ as​​ I said,​​ with her​​ everything is​​ different.​​ I don’t know how to explain it.​​ As much​​ as​​ I thought people just brainwash themselves into thinking someone’s ‘the one’, I​​ totally​​ believe it now.”

Kourtney snickered.

“What?”​​ Walter​​ asked.

It’s just obvious you’ve never​​ really​​ been in love​​ then, otherwise you’d know​​ the one’ really is bullshit.​​ No one is meant for each other.​​ Only in poetry is love undyingly perfect. In the real world​​ it’s​​ extremely​​ complicated,​​ full of​​ sacrifices,​​ and most of the time romanceless,​​ but that’s​​ how​​ it​​ makes us better​​ people.

“How so?”

“Well, when you first fall in love with someone,​​ all you see is a​​ romanticized version of who they really are; you see their​​ best​​ qualities first.​​ It takes time to​​ chip away at this façade and​​ see​​ the​​ real,​​ imperfect person beneath, but that’s​​ when love’s magic​​ really​​ starts to work.​​ You’re​​ going to​​ have to​​ figure out​​ how to deal​​ with​​ someone​​ who’s not​​ completely compatible​​ with you​​ sexually,​​ emotionally,​​ and/or​​ philosophically, and they’ll have to do the same of you. But this friction​​ is what​​ strengthens​​ and transforms​​ you both​​ into​​ something closer to​​ those idealized versions of yourselves you both initially fell in love with,​​ because ideally,​​ you​​ both​​ don’t want to let the other person down.​​ Granted, there will be certain flaws you’ll​​ have to accept,​​ and you’ll need to figure out what and how many flaws are worth the price of love, but as weird as it sounds, balanced friction​​ really​​ is true love.”

“Sounds like you speak​​ from experience,”​​ Walter said.

“Not exactly, but​​ I​​ might’ve​​ let a few good ones get away because I thought I was looking for​​ ‘the one’.​​ Strangely, it’s​​ actually​​ been getting to know my brother that’s been the biggest reminder​​ love is about compromise. Although I’m​​ annoyed with him right now,​​ he has been​​ helping​​ me come out​​ of my shell more during this trip.​​ But​​ I guess​​ what​​ I’m trying to say is​​ love is not a one shot thing.​​ Life is filled with many shots at love. What’s more important​​ is​​ knowing​​ where to aim.​​ Not​​ to say​​ Shiva won’t​​ be your ‘one’​​ and​​ isn’t​​ worth fighting​​ for, but​​ I guarantee​​ you​​ another Shiva will​​ eventually​​ come along​​ if it’s not her.​​ Besides, if​​ she really is ‘the one’ and​​ it’s really fate​​ that’s​​ guiding your destiny,​​ it will let you know if you should go back.​​ Until then, I think you should​​ just​​ get some good sleep tonight and enjoy this trip​​ a little. After all, we’re only on the second stop of the tour.”

“You’re right​​ . . . I guess to fate then,” Walter said and took a​​ swig of the bottle before handing it to​​ Kourtney.

“To fate,”​​ she​​ said​​ taking a drink then putting an arm around him.​​ “But maybe I’m being​​ a little​​ selfish​​ too​​ because I​​ know I’d​​ miss you terribly if you left.”

“Really?​​ Someone you’re​​ constantly​​ having to​​ talk off ledges?”

“Well, it’s better than having a boring friend.​​ And talking to you has made me forget about my problems with my brother. So in some way, without even trying, you​​ also talked me off a ledge—or maybe just a small mound. But regardless,​​ friends like that are​​ hard to come by​​ because you can’t force that type of​​ chemistry.”

“Well,​​ I think the wine deserves some credit too...” Walter said shaking the nearly empty bottle,​​ “...but​​ I must be the luckiest person in the world​​ then​​ to have found you​​ Kourtney.” He​​ started to​​ put​​ his arm around her, but​​ hesitated.​​ “And​​ uh... I​​ meant​​ that in​​ the most​​ strictly platonic​​ way.”

She​​ laughed.​​ “I know that Walter,” she said​​ pulling his arm​​ around her.​​ They then​​ fell​​ back into​​ the grass and rested their heads upon each​​ other.​​ “But it​​ is really romantic​​ though, isn’t it?”​​ she​​ said.

“What is?”

“This:​​ the wine, the stars, the castles glowing like candles around us.”

“Yes, I suppose it is. Too​​ bad it’s being wasted on us​​ though.”

“Why? Romance can be just as equally appreciated between friends.​​ At least there’s someone to share it with. That’s the most depressing part of being alone. Life’s no different than a memory​​ and you can’t share a memory with anyone but yourself, just like you can’t share last night with anyone but Shiva.​​ That’s probably why you feel so crazy.​​ The only person who can confirm last night wasn’t just in your head is now gone. But at least you​​ know tonight​​ will never be​​ just a memory.”​​ She kissed him on the cheek. “I love you Walter.”

He kissed her on the cheek back. “I love you too Kourtney. What I did to deserve your​​ love​​ I’ll never know, but I guess someone is still looking out for me.”

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 17

Chapter​​ 17

Dancing Around​​ 

 

For the first time in his life​​ Walter​​ was happy​​ to see​​ morning. Not even​​ his​​ less than​​ three hours of sleep phased him.

The​​ horizon of consciousness​​ came at​​ what would usually be the​​ godawful hour of eight a.m.​​ to the​​ sound of​​ light rain​​ drumming​​ on the skylight​​ then the sight of​​ her​​ red hair​​ resting​​ upon the pillow​​ beside​​ him.​​ Whether​​ the color​​ was natural or not, he didn’t​​ care, it was the most beautiful​​ red​​ he’d ever seen​​ 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​​ Walter​​ could do​​ was​​ stare​​ at​​ 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?​​ . . .​​ Oh my God,​​ I’ve become​​ Billie.

“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,​​ “or​​ were you afraid you’d wake up and lose me?”

“No,”​​ he​​ said,​​ “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​​ 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 him confused.​​ “Or did​​ you forget I’m on a bus tour that leaves at​​ two​​ today?”

“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​​ smiling, “especially​​ a dream​​ that​​ keeps you so busy dancing​​ you​​ forget about the time​​ . . .​​ What’s your next stop?”

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

“Sounds​​ like an amazing trip.​​ What do you have​​ 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.

They were silent for a moment while their eyes played a brief game of tag and their smiles hide and seek.

“Well,” Shiva said, “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...”​​ Her​​ lips​​ sealed​​ to his​​ and​​ their​​ torsos​​ imitated, arms and legs​​ knotting​​ around​​ one​​ another​​ as​​ if​​ trying to stem the​​ flow of​​ their time left together.​​ But the harder they pressed, the more time​​ had something to measure itself against​​ inside​​ their chests as their hearts​​ hammered the bars of their ribcages.

“I’m sure​​ he​​ would​​ much rather hear​​ that​​ from you,” Walter’s heart​​ spoke​​ out loud​​ after their 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.”

She​​ said nothing,​​ but​​ in​​ her eyes a war of words​​ could be seen.

“I’m sorry if that sounded crazy,”​​ Walter apologized for his heart’s behavior.

“No...” she​​ replied, now unable to look him in the eye. Her body​​ also​​ loosened​​ its grip around​​ him.​​ “It sounds wonderful,” she said,​​ “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,” Walter’s heart continued in its ways.​​ “I’m sorry again if I sound crazy, but​​ how am I supposed to just walk away from the person every sign in the universe is telling me​​ to​​ stay with?​​ I mean,​​ you’re the only reason why I’m suddenly seeing reason in signs​​ now.​​ I could rationalize​​ everything​​ before you, but​​ suddenly my world makes no sense because of you,​​ and nothing draws me in more than a​​ seemingly​​ unsolvable​​ puzzle.”​​ 

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

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

Well...” Shiva​​ said,​​ “seemingly unsolvable puzzles can​​ also​​ be traps in disguise . . .​​ Walter, 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 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?”​​ he​​ asked​​ doing his best to cover his wounds.

 “Because I didn’t think I​​ would have to​​ when​​ I first met you,” she​​ 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​​ lately.​​ But​​ obviously you’re no ordinary stranger. 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​​ that song, along with the only tarot card I’ve ever given​​ away​​ from my mother’s deck,​​ and I’m not exactly sure​​ why I​​ seem to be​​ attaching​​ so much meaning to​​ you,​​ someone I’ve known for less than eight hours,​​ other than I’m under some strange spell. But my horoscope​​ did​​ say​​ 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 happened to appear the night after.​​ However, I never take horoscopes seriously, and​​ while I’m not exactly in a​​ happy relationship,​​ Mags​​ still​​ has a lot of my heart and​​ I’m​​ not sure​​ abandoning her 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 I suppose it’s now or never for you...

“No,” Walter then said after a short silence.​​ “My tour ends in​​ Paris​​ in a week. Meet me there if​​ you decide me.​​ 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 we’re still feeling our ‘alignment’ as strongly.”

“You’re right,”​​ Shiva 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.”

“You got that right. 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. Why not just go back home?”

“It’s​​ not​​ that I don’t want to go back, I just only have a limited time left before I can never travel again​​ and now is​​ my only time. I know that doesn’t make sense​​ probably, but that’s the​​ best​​ 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​​ there’s​​ a good chance they​​ will.”

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

“Basically.”

“I don’t understand. You’re twenty-two. What’s​​ so limiting in your life? What​​ else​​ are you dancing around Shiva?”

 She smirked​​ and​​ sighed​​ weakly. “You’ve also gotten​​ to know me better than our time together says you should,” she said.​​ Fine. But if you’re going to know​​ my mother and I’s secret,​​ you first need to meet my mother​​ . . .​​ The​​ morning before my first day of first grade,​​ I​​ discovered her overdosed on painkillers in her bed when I went​​ into her room​​ to say goodbye.​​ Although it​​ was a suicide,​​ she’d been suffering with​​ Huntington’s disease​​ my entire life, but she 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.”

Shiva’s​​ eyes began to glisten and her breath began to deepen. “The thing is,” she said, “one day I will be in the same situation.​​ Did you know that if you stretched your entire genome sequence 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 to their child?”

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

“Yes, I have​​ Huntington’s also. 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,​​ ...there’s​​ something​​ I​​ danced around’​​ last night​​ also.

A flash​​ of the banshee came over Shiva’s face.​​ “What do you mean there’s something you danced around?” she said.

“My​​ friend, Dug​​ . . .​​ 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, not​​ here.​​ The only reason I moved​​ to​​ Amsterdam was this was where I was told I was selling the most records.”

“It was in Paris, but then​​ 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​​ wouldn’t happen to be​​ Parisian?”

“Yes.​​ And she​​ moved​​ here​​ from Paris​​ two years ago. When did Dug move here?”

“Two years ago.​​ This may sound offensive, but how’s​​ Mags’s ass compared to other asses?”​​ 

“Best​​ I’ve seen,​​ hands down.”

“And​​ does she enjoy having​​ something​​ shoved up it​​ every once and a while​​ in order to get off?”

​​ “Not particularly,”​​ Shiva laughed, “but​​ her subs do.​​ Fisting is​​ kind of what she’s​​ famous​​ for.​​ Walter gave her a coy look.​​ I​​ said her​​ subs,” she​​ replied to his eyes. “Nobody wants to​​ be at​​ work​​ at​​ home​​ and that’s all​​ you need to know.​​ Why, did this Dug say something different about his girlfriend?”

“Yeah, but maybe he just wasn’t man enough to admit it was the opposite way around.​​ He​​ also​​ said​​ she​​ was​​ an​​ abstract​​ painter who​​ had an affinity for​​ mixing​​ her own vomit into the paint along with other​​ bodily fluids​​ like blood and semen. Does Mags​​ do any​​ painting?”

Shiva’s brows furrowed.​​ “Not​​ that I’m aware of,” she said.​​ “However,​​ where’s your shirt?”

“Here,” Walter said scooping it up from the floor​​ and handing it to her.​​ They​​ then sat up in the bed and spread​​ the shirt​​ out over it.

“Look closely,”​​ Shiva​​ 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 so obvious​​ looking at it​​ now.​​ His girlfriend​​ must’ve been the person who painted this.”​​ Shiva​​ then​​ looked​​ suddenly​​ as if she’d just been slapped​​ repeatedly​​ in the face.​​ “Oh my God.​​ It​​ all​​ makes sense, but also doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“What does?” Walter said.

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,​​ the tall guy in the blue shirt​​ out there.”

“How​​ do you know him?”

“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.”

Shiva waved through the porthole at her handsome-looking beau, who waved​​ back​​ awkwardly. His bald and mustached and much shorter father then turned and​​ began yelling at​​ Shiva’s​​ beau,​​ turned back to the door,​​ kicked​​ it​​ a few times, yelled at​​ her beau​​ again​​ a few more times, 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 not tell me after you knew what that bastard did—what he took from me? It​​ 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 little​​ white​​ lie hurts a​​ whole​​ lot less than​​ a​​ fatass​​ half-truth.”

Shiva 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 both charged forward, catching​​ Shiva’s beau​​ behind it​​ off-guard​​ and​​ knocking him​​ to the floor. They​​ then​​ jumped​​ over his body to an applause. A​​ crowd​​ had gathered​​ on the bank​​ to watch​​ the spectacle, clapping​​ 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 as Walter​​ leapt​​ back onto the deck and​​ circled in a standoff​​ with​​ him.

“I’m very sorry,” Walter 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 Shiva. After waiting a five second​​ eternity, he ran back out into the street. She wasn’t there.

“Shiva!” he screamed. But the quiet street gave no response. “Shiva!”

Walter 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. He​​ then​​ ran to the window only to see the car pull away.​​ Tears​​ began waterfalling helplessly as he ran​​ out​​ of​​ the flower shop and back​​ onto the street​​ in hyperventilation.​​ He 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 16

Chapter​​ 16

The​​ Guinea Pig

 

Es-tu prêt?” Shiva said coming out of​​ Maloe Melo’s​​ restroom after changing into​​ her street clothes,​​ a​​ burnt orange​​ 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,​​ he​​ 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.”​​ 

“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?”

“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,​​ ” she continued on,​​ “the cabaret was​​ originally​​ built as​​ an underground​​ nuclear fallout center.”

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.

At the other end of the table-stage was a small platform carved into the wall 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 the audience members who were also dancing on it.​​ Shiva​​ said the song​​ was​​ a local​​ soccer​​ favorite,​​ “Blood, Sweat and Tears”.​​ 

While not perfectly fluent​​ in either,​​ Shiva​​ 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​​ it​​ 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​​ in 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​​ 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 some 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. I want​​ to be serenaded with​​ the cheesiest love song you know, Bowie’s cheesy love songs​​ excluded.”

Luckily​​ he​​ knew such a song, the first song he ever learned on piano actually,​​ “November Rain”.​​ So​​ he​​ began​​ bellowing and playing​​ the​​ nearly nine minute​​ ballad—guitar solos and all—but only in the style of Axl Rose at impromptu moments just​​ to​​ make Shiva 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,” Walter 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?”

“No, alone. On a houseboat.”

“Your houseboat?”

“Don’t​​ ask questions. Yes or no?”

Walter smirked.​​ As long as it’s​​ only​​ dancing​​ we’ll be doing,​​ he​​ said.

“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, Walter 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​​ almost​​ full moon​​ peek​​ in.

Come hither Mister Huxley,” she said,​​ 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’ in the moonlight? 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—actually, last night during the full​​ moon would’ve been​​ a little more fitting, but​​ I’ll take​​ a slightly waning gibbous.”​​ 

“Well, your guinea pig is waiting.”

Suddenly she​​ 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​​ Shiva 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.”​​ Walter 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, she accepted his 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, immediately​​ 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

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 from much of the music he listened to, but​​ remarkably​​ he​​ had​​ never​​ actually​​ 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​​ 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 again 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​​ him​​ 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,​​ 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 flawlessly, but​​ without​​ 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.”

“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.”

“No way​​ . . .​​ I​​ have so many questions​​ for you—”

“And so do​​ I, like who’s your friend and where did he get that shirt?”

“My friend…”​​ Walter​​ hesitated, not sure what he should reveal.​​ “My friend, well, I only met him tonight. I’m visiting from California and this is my only night​​ in Amsterdam.”

“California? Where in California?”

“Orange County and L.A. Right now I’m kind of​​ in between.”

“Hm…​​ I’m from San Fran myself.​​ I​​ moved to​​ Amsterdam​​ on​​ a​​ student visa​​ thinking​​ luna hunny​​ had a larger fanbase here​​ than in the States.​​ Come to find out​​ later​​ though,​​ 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.​​ That’s why I want to know where you got that shirt,​​ because​​ I assumed no one had​​ them except​​ the​​ asshole​​ who ripped me off.​​ Sound​​ anything​​ like your friend?”

Inside, Walter began freaking out.​​ If​​ she was to be believed,​​ clearly​​ Dug was this asshole. No wonder he 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.​​ 

“I’m not sure,”​​ he​​ said.​​ “It’s possible.​​ Like I said, I only met him tonight, so I really don’t know him that well. But​​ he didn’t seem like that bad of a guy.​​ I was​​ pretty​​ fucked up​​ earlier​​ and​​ had made a​​ real​​ mess of myself,​​ but​​ he went​​ well out of his way to help me​​ even though I was​​ a​​ stranger.​​ He​​ even​​ let me clean up​​ at​​ his​​ house​​ then gave me some new clothes to wear,​​ and that’s how I got this​​ shirt.​​ We​​ didn’t part on the greatest terms​​ though.”

“Why’s that?”

“I wrecked his​​ tandem​​ bicycle​​ we were riding so he​​ got angry and​​ left​​ me here—or more so I chose to stay.”​​ 

“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 some edibles​​ and​​ thought 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 stay in Amsterdam I see…” she said,​​ scanning him over, searching​​ for any hint of fabrication, which none of​​ it​​ was, he just​​ omitted​​ the most​​ damning details.

“What’s your friend’s name?”​​ she asked.​​ 

Walter​​ swallowed nervously. He wanted to lie, but somehow felt she would know. “Dug,” he​​ answered.

“Doug?”

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

“Where did he live?”​​ she asked.

“God if I know.​​ Some​​ apartment on some canal.​​ We​​ went​​ a​​ secret​​ route​​ only he knew​​ here,​​ and​​ I was on the back of the bicycle so I was​​ just​​ along for the ride.”

Her​​ brows​​ furrowed​​ and she became silent.

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

“What?”

“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.​​ They’re lyrics from one of my songs.​​ The inspiration​​ was​​ a​​ birthday​​ I​​ spent alone in​​ a place called​​ Pacific Grove​​ in​​ northern​​ California to​​ see the​​ monarch​​ butterflies​​ that​​ gather​​ in the trees there during their​​ annual migration. And as I watched​​ them take flight to continue​​ their​​ journey over thousands of miles, a journey they wouldn’t live long enough to complete, 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 complete 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. “That was​​ just​​ beautiful.​​ I also just cry easily​​ nowadays.​​ For the longest time I never let myself cry, 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.​​ Crying is​​ the most beautiful thing a man can do. I cry easily too. I used to​​ also​​ not be that way, but​​ now I find myself needing​​ to​​ just to feel balanced​​ sometimes.”

“God, me too,” Walter said.​​ “Is the image​​ on the shirt​​ yours​​ also?”

“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?”

“Nope. I​​ wiped​​ luna hunny’s​​ recorded music​​ from the earth​​ and the internet​​ because it​​ became nothing but a​​ painful humiliation for me. And no,​​ I’m not going to play the song​​ myself​​ for you. I know​​ it​​ sounds melodramatic, but​​ the whole experience​​ gave me a breakdown I almost didn’t recover​​ from.”

“No, I​​ actually​​ completely understand.​​ So there’s nothing​​ left of​​ luna hunny?”

“All that’s left of​​ luna hunny​​ that I know​​ of​​ is your​​ shirt. I did my best to destroy everything. In​​ retrospect,​​ maybe​​ it​​ was an overreaction, but​​ I​​ was an​​ artist​​ going through an identity crisis, and artists​​ can be​​ overly​​ emotional​​ sometimes.”​​ They both began laughing,​​ then​​ were​​ interrupted by her lizard-looking guitarist.

“Hey Shiva, you okay to go back up​​ yet?” he asked​​ in​​ an​​ Australian accent.​​ “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​​ to Walter​​ 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,” he said.​​ “This is my first time hearing the Dead—or I​​ think​​ it​​ is. I keep having this feeling like I’ve been here before.”

She​​ smiled.​​ “The Dead’s music can have that effect on you,” she said. “That just means the magic’s working.​​ You don’t know what you’ve got yourself into.​​ Second set hasn’t even begun.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, let’s just say​​ anything can happen during​​ a​​ second set of​​ the​​ Dead—even if it’s​​ just a tribute​​ show.”

Shiva​​ then​​ eyed his​​ bright orange​​ fedora, the only article of clothing​​ to survive the urinal. “I like your hat,” she said.​​ “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​​ said. She seemed very content with that.

 

In her​​ long and​​ breezy dress, she​​ 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 the 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​​ like the first flaps of freshly-budded butterfly wings​​ off​​ Shiva’s fingertips.​​ The house lights began casting warm​​ rays of​​ red​​ and​​ orange​​ as​​ her​​ lips​​ neared​​ 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”. After that,​​ someone named​​ “Bertha”,​​ then someone named “Althea”,​​ then a song about women being smarter, and then​​ an​​ acoustic​​ and palliative​​ encore about a place called​​ “Brokedown Palace” just to send everyone​​ off equalized.​​ 

Shiva took a​​ humble​​ bow in front of​​ the small​​ sea of​​ roaring adulation​​ after,​​ 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 his hat​​ for longer than seemed necessary​​ until it was​​ seated​​ just​​ to her liking.

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

“Thank you, but you hardly know me . . . Perfect,” she said taking her hands from his head. “But let’s change​​ that. Come with me to the bar.” ​​ ​​ 

 

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.​​ I also 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​​ Walter​​ should.​​ He​​ 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.”

“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 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,​​ whos 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​​ Mags’s ‘career’ started taking off,​​ so​​ it​​ really became my love child after that, and since I grew up listening and playing the Dead all my life,​​ I came up with​​ the idea of a​​ tribute​​ with some musicians I knew in town.​​ ​​ 

That​​ Diamond Dogs​​ cabaret show​​ would’ve​​ been​​ awesome though.​​ David Bowie is my favorite​​ artist.​​ We’re your parents​​ Deadheads?”​​ 

“Bowie is​​ Mags’s​​ favorite​​ too.​​ Yes, but more so my dad. My mother always liked Neil Young more. I cant fault her; Neil Young is second​​ only to the Dead for me. Neil and the Dead were all I heard growing up.”

“Really?​​ Neil Young has some significance for me too.”

“How so?”

“It’s a lot to explain and unload.”

“We’ve got time.”

“It’s not a fun conversation.”

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

Walter shook his head in disbelief. “‘See The Sky About to Rain’ was my girlfriend’s favorite song,” he said.​​ “She​​ passed​​ away last year, but it’s because of her I’m even here.​​ I’m on a European trip she bought for my birthday that we were supposed to take together.”

Shiva​​ nervously nipped​​ her beer. “I’m sorry I pressured you,” she said.

“It’s fine,”​​ Walter said and began nipping too. For a brief moment they were silent.

“It’s also strange​​ though,​​ don’t you think?”​​ Shiva said.​​ 

“What?”

“All the alignment between us?”

“If you mean coincidences, yes, I’ve taken notice of that​​ too,​​ more than you know. My mother also died when I was young. She died giving birth to me. I also have a​​ ‘musical identity’ you could say​​ back home I’m trying to run away from.”

“You’re songwriter also?”

“Currently​​ on hiatus, but yes. Funny enough, I was also in a tribute​​ band, Guns N’ Roses though. But​​ regardless,​​ 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.”

“What​​ system​​ do you believe in then?”

“Reason, and reason says​​ alignment is nothing more than​​ our exceptional​​ human​​ 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?​​ 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.​​ 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?​​ 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.​​ And it’s not everyday the universe sends me someone wearing my past​​ on​​ their shirt.”

She​​ 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 don’t mind if I do a reading for us?​​ I’m sure​​ ‘reason’​​ says​​ you have nothing to be afraid of.”

“No,​​ I suppose this should be fun​​ if anything.”

Shiva​​ shuffled​​ 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.​​ “The Fool,” Shiva​​ said.​​ “The Fool is number​​ zero​​ in the​​ Major Arcana​​ deck​​ so he can be placed at the beginning or end of it.​​ Because of this, the Major Arcana is often considered the Fool’s journey.​​ As you can see​​ on the card, he’s​​ 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​​ . . .​​ The​​ Fool​​ kind of​​ reminds me of someone.”

​​ “I’ll admit,” Walter said staring​​ uncomfortably​​ at the card,​​ “the Fool and I have some​​ uncanny​​ similarities. Okay, you​​ now.”

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

“What’s the Tower mean?”

“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 like the Tower?”​​ Walter asked.

“I did​​ come to Europe on a​​ ‘tower’​​ of false premises,​​ 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​​ for several seconds, then nearly simultaneously asked:

“How’d​​ your mother die?”

“How’d​​ your girlfriend die?”

“Um, you first,” Walter said.

“How about we just answer at the same time​​ again?”

“Okay . . . One, two, three…”

“Suicide,” they both​​ said.

“God, I just got chills,” Shiva said. “Suicide is only half the story​​ in my case​​ though.”

“The same can be said in my case, or really any case involving suicide . . . How?”

“Overdosed on pain pills. Your girlfriend?”

“She hung—I ​​ mean,​​ hanged herself.​​ Please don’t ask why.”

“I​​ won’t. My mother’s why is​​ also difficult to discuss​​ because it​​ may make you see me completely different.”

“Well, that’s the same reason I don’t want to tell you . . . Maybe that means we should.”

“Oh, so you’re finding meaning in this​​ suddenly?”

“I don’t know what to believe right now.​​ There’s just something… something I need to show you, but I can’t unless you learn first.​​ Do you have a phone with internet access?”

She handed him her phone and he brought up the Rolling Stone interview and handed​​ it​​ back. “There,” he said.​​ “That’s who I really am, and that’s​​ where you’ll find​​ why​​ my​​ girlfriend killed herself, although at the time of the interview​​ I didn’t know. I thought she had passed away​​ from a​​ seizure.”

Walter​​ then watched fretfully as​​ Shiva​​ began filling up on all of his most intimate secrets​​ over the next several minutes. 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, then at last she set the phone​​ down​​ and sighed.

“Your name is Walter Huxley?”​​ she​​ asked.

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

“Your name sounds​​ like a bad penname​​ you know, and your stage name isn’t much better. Quinn Quark?” She​​ smiled​​ unexpectedly. “Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said you had a musical identity back home you were running away from, and I was totally oblivious that anything in rock was still going on back in The States​​ . . .​​ But​​ um,​​ Amber...​​ I’m still not understanding.”

Walter explained​​ everything.

“Oh,” Shiva said after. “I see​​ now​​ why you didn’t want to tell me.”

“So does​​ it​​ change your mind about me?”

“I don’t know. I’ve hardly known you long enough to form an opinion. But​​ everyone has that one secret they don’t want anyone to know, yours unfortunately just became frontpage news.​​ And if you think accidently killing someone makes you a bad person, then I’m​​ just as guilty.​​ Before my​​ charity​​ was a charity​​ for human trafficking victims,​​ it was​​ really​​ just​​ robbery​​ for human trafficking victims. Mags,​​ myself,​​ and some other friends—some formerly trafficked girls​​ 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​​ personally​​ to her, but not before taking double​​ the money she​​ would’ve cost otherwise. We’d then give​​ it​​ to the girl to pay​​ her loverboy and pay herself just as much, that is until one night when a loverboy became wise to​​ the​​ scheme because I got too drunk and was sloppy​​ about​​ the hand off of the money.​​ He took it out on the girl and put​​ her​​ in​​ a coma in​​ the hospital, where​​ she​​ died two weeks later.​​ Her name was Maria, and only one person outside of you knows about​​ her.”

“I guess​​ Death connects us​​ in more ways than one,” Walter said​​ agape.​​ “Outside of Karen, I didn’t think I could​​ share that​​ kind of​​ guilt with anyone. There’s​​ also​​ something else​​ though. A connection I’ve been trying to rationalize all night,​​ even before I met you,​​ but alignment keeps working against me.”

Walter​​ then​​ reached into his wallet and removed​​ a​​ small​​ plastic bag with​​ a​​ note​​ inside.​​ “Amber’s suicide note,” he said giving it to her. “You only need to read as far as the first sentence of the second paragraph to​​ understand​​ what I mean.”

Shiva​​ read​​ then​​ gasped, unable to continue or speak. She then read it again, and again, unable to take her eyes from it.

“‘What value does a life have without meaning?’”​​ Walter said. “‘To​​ say​​ life has no value is not to say it has no meaning.’​​ Sounds like​​ something from the​​ Tao Te Ching, right?​​ So,​​ what’s your take?​​ I’m still new to all this occultist stuff and​​ this​​ is​​ just way​​ too much alignment for me. Honestly,​​ I’m​​ expecting to wake up any moment now.​​ Something about this whole night doesn’t feel quite​​ real.

Shiva handed him back the note, then took his palm and pressed​​ it​​ near her sternum. “Does that feel real to​​ you?” she said. “Do​​ you feel how fast it’s beating? Yeah, I definitely think the universe is trying to say something. Maybe instead of trying to fight reality with reason, you should​​ just​​ listen to reason​​ even if you can’t reason it.”

“Well, until I wake up, it’s not like I have any other option anyhow. So, since you know about my girlfriend now, are​​ you​​ going to tell me about your mother?”

“She was just very sick and in a lot of pain and had been for a long time before she killed herself,” Shiva said. “And honestly,​​ in the same situation I might’ve done the same. But that’s all I’m going to say. Sorry, but everyone​​ gets​​ one secret to themselves,​​ right? And​​ that secret’s between my mom​​ and​​ me.​​ Besides, it has no relevance to us.”​​ 

“However,​​ our​​ future​​ card might,” Walter said.

“That’s right, I almost forgot.​​ Do you want to do the honors?”

Walter​​ flipped​​ it.​​ “The Ace of Cups,”​​ Shiva​​ said.​​ “A​​ chalice​​ is​​ overflowing with five streams of water,​​ representing the​​ subconscious​​ and the five​​ senses, indicating you are a​​ deep​​ vessel for love​​ from the universe​​ as it pours​​ into you and​​ out into the​​ rest of the​​ world.​​ Below the overflowing chalice​​ is a sea covered in lotus blossoms,​​ representing​​ an awakening of the human spirit​​ from​​ this love, but only if you​​ accept the​​ universe’s​​ invitation​​ for love​​ first,​​ an invitation few actually ever​​ do,​​ for​​ divine​​ love always​​ looks like​​ certain madness​​ in the beginning.​​ However,​​ peace isn’t​​ sewn without passing through the eye of insanity first.”

Shiva brought her hands to her face and sighed.​​ “Now this is starting to become too much alignment for me,”​​ she said, then​​ put the cards away​​ except for the Ace of Cups. “Here,”​​ she said handing it to​​ Walter. “I want you to keep this as a reminder of​​ us because I don’t know what’s going to happen to us after tonight. I would never think to give away any card in this deck because​​ it​​ was my mother’s, but if I’m not there, I don’t want you to forget there’s still a chalice in you.”

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Neither do I completely, but​​ that’s what​​ alignment​​ is​​ telling​​ me​​ . . .​​ How about​​ a change of atmosphere?​​ Patrick’s closing up soon anyway.”

“What about your gear?”

“I keep it here.”

“All right. Where to?”

The only place I know to go this late at night, a​​ place unlike no other in Amsterdam​​ where​​ we can practice our French,​​ dance to​​ music, and see some titties:​​ La Lune Rouge.”

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Madcap Laughs

 

“Stand up . . . stand up​​ . . . stand up mate! You’re sitting​​ in a fucking​​ pile o’ piss!” Two tattooed arms forklifted Walter to his feet.​​ He​​ staggered to​​ a​​ nearby canal​​ where he​​ again collapsed to the ground. He crawled on his belly to the​​ canal’s edge,​​ 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. “The locals​​ don’t take lightly to tourists chundering​​ in their​​ canals. That’s what these dunnies​​ and rubbish bins are here for. You’ve really got​​ your head on backwards don’t cha​​ mate?”​​ He​​ went over to​​ Walter.​​ “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here before the police find you.”​​ 

He helped​​ Walter​​ to his feet​​ again.​​ Walter stood​​ like a​​ wobbly​​ fawn.​​ The unknown Aussie put an arm under him for support.​​ “Holy shit​​ you reek,” he 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.”

Walter’s head​​ was​​ still spinning from his nosedive​​ back​​ into reality​​ from inner space.​​ As his vision stilled, his rescuer​​ came into​​ focus. He was a mustached man,​​ about 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​​ black​​ flannel sleeves revealed an extensive collage of horror​​ movie​​ figures,​​ obscure metal bands, and​​ bizarrely, more​​ Ohio​​ sports teams.​​ He was part clown,​​ truckdriver, and​​ bum.​​ There was something​​ frightening​​ about him, yet also​​ congenially welcoming as if he was​​ a​​ chimera stuck between two​​ orders​​ of character.

“Do I know you?”​​ Walter asked.

No you don’t, but now you do.​​ I’m Dug,​​ Dug DeMargo. And that’s spelt​​ D-U-G. You can thank my illiterate mum for that.”

“Okay…” Walter said still confused. “Then why are you…”

“Saving​​ you? Don’t know exactly myself. I’m a​​ wee​​ drunk, but it seems the right thing to do.​​ I’ve never laid down in the bottom of​​ one of these​​ dunnies, but​​ sure​​ felt like it​​ many times.​​ It was so dark I​​ almost​​ pissed​​ on ya​​ until you suddenly started talking​​ to yourself—or​​ somebody. Whoever it was, ya had me in stitches mate.​​ The least I can do​​ is help you out for the entertainment.​​ So how ‘bout it?”

Walter stared at​​ him​​ questioningly.​​ 

“What?” Dug said. “You afraid I’m going​​ to take you home and pull some Buffalo Bill shit on you?​​ Ha!​​ No, I just​​ wanna take that​​ purty​​ face of yours​​ to​​ bed.”​​ Walter’s eyes widened. “Sorry, just kidding. Never mind me. I’ve just got a sick sense of humor I​​ suppose. But really, nothing​​ nefarious, just one mate trying​​ to help another​​ mate. Just adding​​ to my collective of karma​​ you could say. Never know when you’ll need a withdrawal.​​ Plus, I don’t think you’re in any shape to be on your own. You can barely stand and you’ve​​ got​​ puke and piss​​ all​​ up and down ya.”

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

“But your choice,” Dug said.​​ “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.”

With​​ a broken​​ cellphone,​​ no clue where he was, and no recollection of the hotel he was staying in, Walter was desperately in need of a savior, and indeed Dug was a savior for the desperate. All points of logic advised against going to some stranger’s home in an​​ unknown​​ foreign land. However,​​ cluelessly​​ combing​​ the streets​​ covered​​ in excrement​​ didn’t​​ seem much better. And​​ a shower did sound​​ so​​ nice.

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

Walter?​​ What are​​ you​​ a seventy-year-old man?​​ I’m gonna call you Walty. And don’t mention it.​​ It’s been a​​ shit​​ night​​ anyway, so​​ I’m willing​​ to throw the dice​​ on​​ a dose of different. C’mon, this way,” Dug​​ said and​​ skipped away.

“So you like the Indians?” Walter asked, seeking to learn more about his​​ new friend. “You don’t sound like you’re from Ohio.”

That obvious, huh?​​ 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 them and all American sports.”​​ 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. “Naturally, all​​ of​​ Cleveland’s teams became my favorite​​ . . . So​​ lemme guess, you’re from​​ Cali-for-nee-ya?”

“Is it that obvious?”​​ Walter said.

Yes, all you​​ Cali-for-nee-yans​​ look and sound like people in the​​ movies.”​​ Dug​​ paused​​ in front of an upscale Victorian apartment complex.​​ 

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

“Yep. Not a bad little shag pad,​​ huh?”​​ Dug​​ said, then​​ waved an electronic fob over a sensor on the entrance to the foyer. He then ran his fob over another sensor​​ to​​ the elevator, and they​​ took​​ it​​ to the top floor, then went​​ to a door at the​​ very end of a​​ long​​ hallway, where Dug waved his sensor again to​​ unlock​​ it.​​ 

When the door opened, 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.​​ ​​ From a windowed​​ balcony​​ door, the Herengracht Canal was visible,​​ and the lighting of an overpass below cast the room in a charm​​ that one could​​ only compare to Christmas—even if you weren’t a fan of it. ​​ 

“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 you.​​ We look about the same size…” He​​ then​​ looked Walter over puzzlingly. “Shit, now that we’re in the light, you​​ actually​​ look like you could be my brother​​ or something.​​ But what’s up​​ with​​ those hideous flares mate?​​ You​​ go to​​ a throwback party​​ before this​​ or something?”

“I’ve​​ always worn​​ bellbottoms—or​​ ‘flares’,” Walter said. “Many have tried to get me out of them​​ Dug, but​​ bellbottoms​​ are just a part of who I am.”​​ 

“Ha, right! Probably because they’re so​​ goddamn tight.”

 

The​​ shower was a​​ renewing​​ lift,​​ just enough of home to help​​ Walter​​ find the rest​​ of​​ his mind. After, Dug​​ showed him the guest​​ room—or as he called it, the “Box​​ Room”. Dug​​ ran a small indie record label and it was chocked full of boxes of records, shirts, and other paraphernalia.​​ Boxes were stacked neatly three to four high along every wall of the room. Other than a queen-sized bed and a small nightstand, the boxes were the room’s only inhabitants.

“It’s nothing​​ big,”​​ Dug​​ said​​ of his operation. “Just​​ a grassroots type of thing. You probably never even heard​​ of​​ the bands,​​ real off-the-wall​​ metal stuff, jazz,​​ hard house—stuff no one listens to.”​​ 

“Seems more than a grassroots type of thing​​ to me…” 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​​ you could say​​ . . .​​ But 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 boxes here, but only these​​ ones,” he said​​ pointing​​ emphatically​​ to​​ four boxes​​ of band shirts​​ on​​ the right-side​​ wall.​​ “Anyway,​​ I’ll leave ya be​​ now.”

The pants Dug gave Walter were highwaters​​ like his. While​​ he​​ wasn’t fond of​​ them since they showcased his cankles instead of hiding them, his bellbottoms were​​ irredeemably soiled.

For his shirt,​​ he found​​ one​​ in the box of mediums​​ with a​​ woman​​ and words​​ painted on it​​ which​​ stirred​​ his​​ imagination​​ as to the band behind it.​​ The woman​​ was​​ feral-looking​​ and​​ blue-skinned,​​ with​​ wild​​ red hair​​ and​​ four arms​​ centered between two​​ encircling,​​ orange butterfly wings.​​ She​​ was formed​​ from a chaos of splashed paint and organic matter which​​ looked to be​​ swirled into ten-thousand​​ more, tinier worlds of chaos and organic matter.​​ Her​​ eyes seemed​​ to follow​​ his​​ as​​ his head​​ moved​​ back and forth​​ over the shirt.​​ He​​ then​​ faintly heard music in his head and a​​ voice​​ he imagined was her. She then began singing his thoughts into lyrics​​ as if​​ she was reading​​ his mind.

He put​​ down​​ the shirt.​​ 

He​​ took a few deep breaths and​​ shook his head.​​ Perhaps it wasn’t completely cleansed of bad chemicals yet. He then​​ picked​​ up the shirt​​ again and​​ read the​​ all-lowercase​​ Sanskrit-like print​​ ringing​​ the image:

 

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. Amber’s suicide note.​​ 

 

“Who is​​ Luna​​ Hunny?” Walter asked Dug as he came out​​ of​​ the room. Dug was in​​ his​​ kitchen, behind an island counter,​​ pouring​​ himself a beer from a tap​​ built​​ into​​ it.​​ 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 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. However, 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…” a​​ large, Jack-Nicholson-like grin overcame his face—however​​ not​​ quite as sinister since he had that gap, “…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?” he offered​​ to​​ Walter.

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

“Wasn’t planning to.” Dug​​ poured a pile onto​​ the countertop,​​ chopped​​ it into two fat lines, then​​ dove into them 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 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.​​ “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. He grows it​​ for​​ himself and only shares it with​​ his friends—never sells it, but​​ I​​ managed to get a​​ couple of​​ ounces​​ by trading​​ him​​ some rare records.”

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

“Hey, I’m not forcing​​ you, but I guarantee you won’t regret it.​​ Let’s go enjoy​​ it​​ on the​​ balcony​​ though.​​ View’s​​ much better.”

 

Dug’s​​ weed was good—almost too good. But Walter had a better grip on the steering wheel this time​​ and a companion in the passenger seat​​ as​​ he​​ cruised​​ through the celestial orbits​​ of his​​ thoughts.​​ 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​​ said.​​ “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.

“Yeah, maybe so​​ . . .​​ Either way,​​ this is​​ great​​ fucking​​ weed.”

“Walty, I don’t do anything​​ but great—or I​​ at​​ least​​ always​​ try. God knows I’m far from perfect​​ though.”​​ 

“At least you’ve never managed to end up in the bottom of​​ a​​ urinal​​ talking to yourself covered in piss and puke.”

Dug laughed.​​ “Well, while I’ve​​ never managed that​​ in a literal sense,​​ I sure have​​ plenty of times​​ in a metaphorical sense. I’ve really gotten myself deep in my own shit.”

Dug momentarily lost his loose posturing and fell into straight sternality​​ as he lit a cigarette.​​ “My life’s full of fuckups,” he said​​ after​​ exhaling his first puff, “great,​​ giant, donkey-dick​​ ones. But​​ it comes with the territory of​​ trying​​ to​​ live​​ in the moment; of trying​​ to live the​​ most exciting​​ life I can.​​ And​​ I’ve learned​​ over​​ the years,​​ that​​ my​​ troughs,​​ detours, and setbacks​​ are just​​ as​​ important as the​​ termini​​ in life,​​ because​​ there’s no peaks without valleys​​ if you know what I’m saying?”

Walter somewhat did, but conversing with Dug was like a game of​​ philosophical​​ charades.​​ 

“I’ve​​ learned to​​ treasure​​ my mistakes,” he continued,​​ “because otherwise they’ll lead your life​​ astray from the moment. I see it all the time, and it usually has one or a mixture of three​​ flavors: 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 ourselves.​​ 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 again, I’m far from perfect, so what the fuck do I know?”

So what ‘navigated’ you to​​ Amsterdam?” Walter asked​​ genuinely wondering what kind of life​​ created Dug.​​ He​​ couldn’t pinpoint it, but he​​ felt​​ an odd​​ sense​​ of chirality​​ to​​ him.​​ ​​ 

“As​​ trite​​ as it sounds, a girl,” Dug replied. “But she was just the ending of​​ a​​ long​​ journey and the beginning of​​ a​​ much shorter​​ one.​​ I originally​​ came​​ to​​ Europe to study mathematics at Cambridge.”

“You studied​​ mathematics​​ at Cambridge?”​​ Walter said surprised.​​ ​​ 

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

Soon after​​ that,​​ I​​ met this​​ beautiful​​ Parisian​​ girl—and when I say beautiful, I mean​​ damn near​​ perfect.​​ She​​ also​​ had the best ass I still have ever seen.​​ Anyway, she was​​ a​​ cabaret​​ dancer, but her​​ true​​ passion was paintingreal abstract shit. She’d​​ mix​​ her​​ vomit into the paint, along with some other things at times:​​ semen, blood, pissit seemed the​​ weirder the better, and that​​ was also her philosophy in bed​​ too.​​ I mean,​​ sometimes she’d have me​​ put​​ four fingers​​ right​​ up her​​ bumhole​​ just​​ to make her cum properly.​​ Dug​​ held up his right four​​ fingers and spread them. “I’d​​ have to​​ spread​​ ‘em​​ nice and wide too!”​​ He​​ lit​​ off​​ a firecracker-like laugh.

“Anyway,” he continued,​​ “she was the freak​​ of​​ freaks.​​ And I’m not gonna lie,​​ 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 as​​ an​​ artist she said she needed a ‘change of scenery’ for​​ new​​ inspiration,​​ and 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, and​​ I​​ haven’t seen her for almost two years now.​​ Not sure if she even still lives​​ in the city, but despite everything, I ended​​ up really liking​​ Amsterdam,​​ a lot more than Paris,​​ so I stayed.”

Dug took a long toke of his cigarette, then blew out a perfect smoke​​ ring​​ before snubbing it out in an ashtray.​​ “Anyhow,”​​ he​​ said,​​ “been passing​​ out enough pieces of me.​​ What’s your story​​ Walty?​​ What​​ was​​ your​​ journey to the bottom of an Amsterdam dunny?”

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

Dug began laughing. “Ah, you came on​​ Contiki,” he said. “Explains a lot. There’s hordes of you idiots running​​ around Amsterdam, but I don’t mind. Can’t tell you how many one-night stands I’ve returned to Hotel Nieuw Slotania.”

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

“Jesus, 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. I’m glad you found me​​ Dug. It’s weird, but I feel like​​ I know you​​ from a past​​ life or something.​​ I was​​ actually​​ a physics major at UCLA.”​​ 

​​  “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 obviously a much more leisure activity for me nowadays.”

“Physics is for me too.​​ Mind if I throw some stuff at you though?”

“Of course not!​​ I hardly ever get to​​ talk shop​​ anymore.”

“Me too!”

And so 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. Fuck, 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.​​ Okay.”​​ 

“That’s the spirit mate. We’ll keep away from the Red Light District for now;​​ go to a locals’ sector. There’s a great lounge I like. But first, shall we partake​​ of another bong rip before we get on the bike?”​​ 

“The bike? What do you mean​​ the bike?”

“I’ve got a custom tandem bicycle—a beach cruiser from your part of the world.”​​ 

Walter let out a belly laugh. Nothing​​ could’ve​​ sounded better to​​ his​​ stoned mind​​ than​​ a​​ tandem bicycle ride through Amsterdam.

 

After pulling it out of his garage, Dug threw his leg over the beastly tandem. It was the gaudiest thing Walter had ever seen. It was more motorcycle than bike, 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 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. First, the bike​​ paths can be hairy, so​​ 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 is 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 said,​​ “…and on the count of three, we’ll take off​​ . . .​​ One, two, three!”​​ The bike had a wobbly launch, nearly tipping over.​​ By instinct,​​ Walter​​ tried to correct by steering. “Whoa! What’d I say about steering?” Dug shouted back.​​ “Never fails,​​ I swear.”

 

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.​​ Cool wind tickled every follicle of Walter’s scalp and stretched his cheeks 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 moon. People’s reactions to the bike were mixed; they either shook their heads at its ridiculousness, or chimed their bells with approval as they passed by. In the latter case, Dug would​​ shout, “Ring the bell!” and took a swig of Jäger from his bottle riding shotgun in the basket. ​​ 

They crossed over three major canals, then 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 . . . God, 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 noticeably frustrated. “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.​​ Can’t we just check it out?”​​ Dug ignored him and kept pedaling. “Dug!” Walter shouted. 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 did you do that for?!” 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 sorry Dug. I’m really sorry.​​ I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ll give you everything I have left for repairs. I’m so sorry.”

Walter’s beggarly face seemed to soften Dug a little.​​ “Oh fuck, it’s fine,” he said. “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.”

“It seems I never had that privilege to begin with.”

“Well, 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.”

Dug shook his head.​​ “Of all the bars in Amsterdam,” he said,​​ then pressed​​ the​​ pedal forward,​​ soon disappearing​​ into the night. And like that, Walter was alone again . . . alone again. ​​ 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 13