Too Much to Dream Last Night
Lloyd could count the parties he’d enjoyed on a snake’s hand. He’d never had a birthday party as a kid that hadn’t ended in his parents smacking each other around. As an adult, he just felt awkward and out of his orbit. You could only talk to the hosts for so long without seeming like a needy child, and if there wasn’t someone else he knew around the fondue pot, he was stymied for a pretext to start a conversation. Some parties, he’d come in the door, nod to the hosts, grab a smoky link and quietly exit the back door. Mr. Mumm regarding the world, aloof, bemused and lonely as hell.
And his vaunted luck with women? If they initiated a conversation, he had a fighting chance at being charming and glib. But even after wakening on several perfumed pillows, he never presumed the next woman would take any interest in him. Fortunately, he had a better face and physique than he deserved, so women did initiate conversations.
He hoped his face looked better than it felt now. A couple of his Cochise-adjusted teeth still rocked in their sockets when prodded. His lips were swollen from being head-butted, and from Audrey nibbling on them. His ear felt like he’d slept on a cheese grater.
“They say by the time a man is fifty, he has the face he deserves. You look as if you’re trying to get yours early.”
It was Ohm, who’d come up to his left from behind, free for now from the acolytes who had circled him like tongue-tied nuclei. He had a glass in one hand, a bottle of Kahlua in the other.
“I saw you seated with Mrs. Kane while I was bloviating, and I am sure you’re the man I’ve heard so much about.”
“There really isn’t so much about me.”
“You’re a man of rare sensitivities and good table manners, is what I’ve heard. You are her salvation, possibly.”
Ohm didn’t say that snidely; his words were compassion dipped in molten Oxford caramel. Lloyd knew from the FM band on his KLH that Ohm sounded just as warm and sincere talking to the ether. Still, it made his blood rush to hear Audrey had spoken of him with such regard, and nervous that she considered Ohm a confidant. From what he’d seen of Ohm’s roving eye, the man wouldn’t have minded being Audrey’s savior himself.
There must have been a line for the bathroom, because she’d been gone for several moments now.
Ohm up close seemed no less charming, but even more worn and pocked, like the Moon seen through a powerful telescope, a moon with driblets of Kahlua in its perfect goatee. Even well in his cups, he had a presence and upper-crust calm that Lloyd admired and envied.
“I didn’t mean to be rude,” Ohm continued, “but you do look to have been on the wrong end of the bat.”
“Beat up, and upbeat. That’s me.”
“A true stoic. Tell me, do you know what the Dalai Lama said to the hot dog vendor?”
“’Fuck you. I don’t eat meat.’”
Ohm burst into laughter at his own joke. Lloyd was starting to like this. Another beer and they’d be friends. He drained the rest of his 102. Wherever those two space gypsies had brought it from, it was still cold, and tasted like the rumors had to be true: that the brewing plant on one side of the 101 and the warehouse on the other were connected by tunnels beneath the freeway, flowing with Brew 102.
What was that college song? “On the 101 with a cold 102, Gonna drive ‘til I get a 502, It’s 1:02 a.m. and I’m feeling fine, Gonna go half-blind for a dollar-nine.”
The stuff tasted like Platformate, but he’d drink another. He was feeling something; the world around him beginning to flow like it was one of those backlit beer signs appearing to have a river rippling through it. Under his Jack Purcell’s, the footworn wooden floor thrumbed with the pulse of the bass from the stereo, while the 12-string guitar made pterodactyl sounds.
Still no sign of Audrey. He knew he shouldn’t be missing someone who’d only gone to the bathroom, but he was.
A couple of Ohm’s female fans approached, both lookers and neither giving a look in Lloyd’s direction.
“Sensei?” asked one, a pert, black-haired lass with the studied poise of a model. “We were hoping you’d talk about why you feel consciousness continues after death. Isn’t that what you told Time?”
“Only so they’d continue my subscription. “ Ohm looked at Lloyd like he expected he’d be the only one to get it.
“No, please. I’m writing a paper on death.”
“Alright, on the condition that you’ll mention in the footnotes how absolutely striking you looked interviewing me. “
Both girls blushed and if both wound up on a cotton pallet with Ohm later, it would not surprise him.
“Here it is, the Classics Illustrated version: the only reason the universe exists is because we perceive it. If there is no one to marvel at its vastness and plumb its secrets, it has no size and holds no secrets. We give it shape by observing it, and breathe life into it with our imaginings. Similarly, the only reason there is nothingness is because we conceive of it.
“If we did not exist, neither would nothingness, so if we were to cease entirely to be, there would be no nothingness because we’re not there to conceive of it. If there is no nothingness for our consciousness to vanish into, we are immortal. So we are trapped into being, into consciousness, and the only escape is to expand into greater consciousness, the end.”
The girl had pulled a pad from her tiny purse and scrambled to get his words down. In that pause, Lloyd asked Ohm, “Is that what you believe?”
“I believe everything while I’m saying it. It keeps one in the present.”
Here came Audrey, finally, still two rooms distant. He caught Ohm giving her an appreciative look, and didn’t appreciate it. He understood it, though. A man would have to be crazy and dead not to want her, Lloyd thought. It struck him that such beauty must be a burden to a sensitive person, to be desired by so many whom you can only disappoint.
“I met her errant husband once,” Ohm said. “He told me he didn’t get my shtick. Are you having any luck finding him?”
“I‘ve narrowed it down to him being wherever I haven’t looked yet.”
Just then Audrey stumbled over a wooden slat on the floor between the rooms. She recovered, not even spilling her drink, but in doing so, she spun about and bent over, revealing a bit of pantyhose-encased ass.
Ohm seemed to give the most glancing of nods toward Audrey’s posterior, asking Lloyd, “And we’re leaving no stone unturned, are we?”
And then Audrey was with them. Ohm spoke first, “I hope you’re all right, my dear.”
“I am. Thank you for asking.”
“Compassion is like a muscle: It’s fun to show it off.”
On top of every situation, Ohm seemed, but Lloyd also detected a sadness in him. Maybe his lonely burden was that Bartlett’s didn’t have someone following him at all times to preserve his great quotations.
Lloyd was getting the message from somewhere in his body that he’d been on his hind legs too long. Wouldn’t he feel more natural down on all fours? Part of him was tracking Audrey and Ohm’s conversation and making the appropriate noises, but part was outside chasing through the ivy, smelling the night. Pull it together, Lloyd.
The gypsy-looking Whisky guy who’d given him the 102 walked back into the room, like the comic relief entering from stage left. He was staring into a party-sized bag of barbecue potato chips with an agonized look on his frazzled face.
“Look! I have captured hell in this bag!”
“Let me see,” Lloyd found himself saying, and reached for it. The man seemed glad to be rid of the thing. Now Lloyd stared into the bag’s maw. Layers of crimson-orange chips appeared to be aflame and dancing with little soul-like specks.
He had no idea how long he’d stared into it before Ohm said, “Perhaps you can answer the age-old question: Is Hell flat or does it have ridges?”
Lloyd lowered the bag, and Ohm’s face was right behind it, his goatee now lending him a devilish look. Lloyd stared at him blankly.
Audrey took his arm and said to Ohm, “We need a little air, it seems. Please excuse us.” The mage immediately shifted his attention back to the young women still waiting on him.
Audrey led Lloyd out onto the deck. The world lurched with each step, as if he was Paul Bunyan striding across entire states. It didn’t take much effort at all. The sky was a riot of stars.
“Are you all right? You’re behaving oddly. I don’t want poor Alan having second thoughts about advising me to open up to you.”
“Sorry, I am a little light-headed. Didn’t eat much today.”
“Let’s take care of that. They’re barbecuing in the side yard. Then I’ll drive us home.”
The thought of having a home with Audrey excited and calmed him. They walked toward one of the fire pits. Pine cones snapped in the fire, throwing up shoots of vivid color in the fountain of the flames, but Lloyd was more conscious of its quiet roar. Back in the cave days, Lloyd seemed to understand, his forebears had heard the same low tune, the work song of living flames consuming once-living matter.
A guitar strummed, played by a man in a Renaissance tunic seated on a log to one side of the fire. The firelight rippled over his face. Lloyd recognized the guy, as evidently did the several people there fawning over him. He was dressed like a boy king, evidently some sort of rock star now, though a little chubby for the part. Lloyd couldn’t recall his stage name, but the one on his driver’s license was Harve Plunkenshack. Lloyd remembered him without the hair, when he’d busted him two years earlier, smoking dope in a camper truck with a 14-year-old girl who gave Lloyd the finger. Not his favorite bust. Back then the guy was in a square preppy folk band that wore matching blue slacks and polka dot shirts. They were called the Folkadots, and had some chirpy hit about crossing de wide ribber to beulah land.
Now, Plunkenshack was telling his admirers, “Here’s a song, a sad song, about a girl who found herself in the family way, and finding herself without the requisite family, sought a tragic yet common solution to her dilemma. It’s called, ‘I Left My Placenta in La Crescenta.’”
Lloyd would have stayed for the chorus, but Audrey tugged him along toward the barbecue grill. The moon was rising over the canyon ridge, and Lloyd rose an arm to greet it. It was a dozen arms, through, hovering in the air like they’d been caught in a strobe photograph. Fuck. Ohm’s turned me into a Hindu god, he thought.
“Audrey, do you see this?”
“See what?” she said, obviously seeing nothing.
“I have more arms than I’m supposed to.” He wiggled his fingers for effect.
Audrey lowered his arm for him, and grabbed the other one as well, facing him squarely.
“Tell me—think—what did you eat or drink tonight?”
“Just a beer from your Greek beatnik friend.”
“Oh dear,” she said, the first time he’d heard her sound like the farm-state girl she was. “Welcome to your first LSD trip.”