“I know all the fags who know all the lawyers,” said a rugged-looking man who nodded pleasantly to Charlie and lounged past them across the huge balcony, sighting down the barrel of an imaginary rifle. He squeezed off an imaginary round. “Squirrels,” he said to a gorgeous woman who glided by his side. “I like to sit out by the pool and shoot squirrels while I write.”
“You’re sure in an exciting business, Charlie,” said Chester. He peered in the great blistered windows, looking for his brother.
“My business is a great big pile of steaming horseshit, Chet. You ought to know. You got the hell out of it.”
“That’s because I wasn’t any good at it. I never made any money at it, like you, Charlie.”
“That’s because you’re smart.”
“Smart? Are you kidding? I’m the guy who fell into the giant mushroom. I’m the guy who nearly killed himself. How smart can I be?”
Charlie looked quickly at him. He was not used to being talked to in this informal a manner by people whom he considered his inferiors. Then he laughed. He had forgotten what an oddball Mitchell’s older brother was. The guy had always been like that. He punched Chester in the shoulder and he had to aim up to do it.
“I heard different. I heard you could predict the future, that you’re the Big Beaver Man, Chet.”
“I heard that too. It’s going around.”
“I hear you’ve got a gift. I hear you’ve got the answers. I heard you were going to take Mitchell up north, Chet. It’s not good, it’s not a good thing. He needs to stay here and work.”
“I don’t know. He looks like he could use a rest.”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah. No. I don’t think so.”
“It’ll do him good.”
“No, it won’t.”
Out over the Pacific there was a sudden leaden rumble of thunder and a huge puff of eerie pink light blew up inside the otherwise yellowish giant clouds that were hovering off the coast. A wind began to blow straight at the city now in a decisive manner that portended no good. Light suddenly flashed behind them like the lightning itself, but it was just the lights of “Amusement Now!” The knot of the camera crew was focused on someone who was talking and moving toward Chester and Charlie.
“Ooooh, I just love the rain. We could use the rain,” said a woman’s voice and it was quickly apparent that the voice was that of Amber Bernstein. Her big hat was suddenly nearly blown right off her beautiful head with its huge mane of hair. She reached up to grab it and her bare arms and shoulders and big half-revealed breasts were lit both by the lightning that raced around the clouds and the portable lights of the “Amusement Now!” crew. She looked as beautiful and desirable as it was possible for a woman to look, thought Chester to himself.
“Look, there’s Chaaarlie,” Amber Bernstein trilled. Her famous voice coiled around her adorable half-glottal lisp. The combination of this voice with that chest must have broken a calculable billion of hearts over the years, thought Chester.
“Hi, baby,” cooed Charlie and he kissed her on her famous lips. “Isn’t it weird out here? It makes you miss the East Coast. Oh. Amber, this is …”
“God, I know who this is. You don’t remember me, Amber. I’m Mitchell’s brother,” said Chester, holding out his good hand to her.
“Ah. Chester Honeyacre. Of course. I know who you are. You’re scum,” she said, peering up at him. “I know who you are and you’re scum. You’re worse than scum, if there is any such thing. You’re the froth on the scum.” She held onto her big hat in a gust of wind, glowing in the light, the camera rolling. “I don’t care to talk to you, even if you are Mitchell’s brother. You are a Not Person. You are a persecutor of Smoattle. My eyes are full of tears for him,” she said, addressing the imaginary audience of “Amusement Now!”
“You would cut the Ancient Forests. You would rape the land. You’re scum, Chester Honeyacre, and what are you going to do about it? I would guess that the answer to that is a resounding nothing at all.”
The wind almost whipped her hat away from her little hands. Ah, he realized. A Believer. She must have come into Shirley Anne and Chief Smoattle’s clutches sometime after he had freed himself from them. He had heard there were fresh movie stars in the Silver Circle and Amber Bernstein must certainly be among the current Chosen. For a moment, he wished he could pull down Amber Bernstein’s little dress, slowly and carefully, as she held onto her hat, her beautiful face framed by her adorable bare underarms. He thought that he would like to see her breasts revealed and then feel her big chest pulled up into his. She glared at him, seeing only a large balding man with a strange smile and one hand and one foot each in a cast, wearing a tuxedo that was obviously too small for him, at least on the side that was slit to accomodate his various casts and bandages.
“Well, I wish you’d be a little more forthcoming about your feelings. You don’t want to hold things in,” he said as sarcastically as he could, given the fact that he wanted to give himself to her. She was a little woman and she was physically out of proportion in ways that men – and some women – found very exciting indeed. Like so many film stars, she was a small person with a huge, photographical head. She turned her bare and beautiful shoulder so as to subtly erect a wall to exclude Chester, to signal to him that hers was a purely private conversation, even though it was being filmed for the benefit of millions. She had already rejected one Honeyacre and she could easily reject another. Through all of it, she managed to address the camera. A man in lizard cowboy boots with a notepad crouched under the snout of the camera, asking her questions.
“Well, because it’s so exciting here tonight,” she gushed. “There’s certainly a lot of talk about what’s next for Mitchell.” She chattered on, letting drop that there was talk swirling around the party that – and she guessed no one would mind if she just said it - that Mitchell and Charlie’s next project was something called “The Drifter,” that it was very big and very Western, you know, and very special and that people, interestingly enough, were very excited about it.
“Hey, hey. C’mon. You just let the cat out of the bag, baby,” grinned Charlie Christianstein, practically winking at the camera.
“Well, Chaaarlie,” said Amber Bernstein, “at least it’s a money cat.”
It went without saying that Amber Bernstein wanted badly to be in “The Drifter” although she would never say so directly. There was an amazing, almost psychic coincidence, however. Once the “Amusement Now!” camera and crew had gone back inside the main house, she let Charlie know that – by stunning coincidence – she was a practicing disciple of Shirley Anne Honeyacre and the prophet Chief Smoattle.
“And Shirley Anne – she’s so great – told me that Chief Smoattle himself had predicted that I was going to be in it! Isn’t that typical? Shirley Anne is just great!”
“Oh, yeah,” said Charlie. “She’s great.” He wondered what was it back in his memory that kept bumping at him about this Shirley Anne Honeyacre person. Then he remembered. The girl in the back seat. Chet Honeyacre’s wife of the time. A bad, bad girl, he remembered with sudden pleasure. The girl kneeling on the back seat with that other girl.
Once Amber Bernstein’s beautiful shoulder had shut him out from her conversation, Chester retreated. He backed away, trying to seem casual to any onlooker, of which there were quite a few, and crossed the vast balcony and hung his body out over the thin, enameled red iron railing and looked out at the faraway city and down at the crazy swimming pool below and fleetingly thought about jumping. He reached in his other pocket – the one without the rock in it – and felt for the bottle of pain pills. They were still there. He wondered if it was time to take another one. His hand hurt and his leg hurt and he decided it was, indeed, time.
Out across the twinkling little lights of the vast city, he could make out stiff fingers of fog in the farther reaches, as if a great grey hand were grasping at the sea-edge of the vast city. Nearer to him, another thunderclap boomed and the sky pulsed a dull blue behind the suddenly thinly outlined mounds of clouds. Below him, down the hill, a puff of warm wind blew palm trees inside-out, like umbrellas. The waves in the glowing turquoise pool jumbled and obscured the mosaic waves tiled on its bottom by the Famous Artist reputed to be somewhere in the crowd. For just a moment, Chester thought he saw a witch on a broom come flutter ing up out of the depths of air below him and he shivered, but he might have been mistaken. He was no real judge of accuracy or reality, he thought. It had to have been a crow or a raven or maybe two, lifting off from some disturbed perch.
“Hi ‘ere. Arnchew my date?”
“That’s me,” he laughed when he saw her. It was Karen Mae Petersunn. He had actually forgotten about her again. The minute he saw her, heard her, he regretting having ever been away from her presence. The wind blew her hair up into a dark red cloud. She was standing with a drink in each hand and what could only be a little stone pipe used for smoking marijuana clenched between her teeth and she suddenly looked so familiar to him that it brought him up quite short. She seemed so immensely appealing, in spite of – or perhaps because of – all his troubles. She stood up very straight for a tall woman and in her party heels she was certainly as tall as he. In fact, he had to admit that she might even be taller, especially since the heels she wore were those little nothing-at-all heels of the sort mistakenly favored by almost all tall women at one time or another. Personally, visually, he thought tall women should wear five-inch spike heels. They looked pretty impressive then. He did not like small women, he thought to himself, glancing across at Amber Bernstein as she yattered away at Charlie Christianstein. He had had way too much trouble with small women in his life. Here was a woman with some height to her, he thought with great satisfaction, as he looked at Karen Mae Petersunn.
She liked the way he looked at her and she thanked God she’d bought some decent clothes lately. A few months earlier, she might have had to dress in the insane way that just about any paleontologist might adopt if she were to live in a camper and have only one actual outfit in which to go to a bar to drink beer or to go to a string quartet recital – if someone asked her – in Wyoming, either of which was probably unlikely these days, she thought somewhat sadly to herself. On the other hand, she felt that she looked alright. She lately had begun to think that she was going to have to stock up on a lot of things before she left California. To Chester, she looked comfortable, which was something you don’t often see in tall women. She had on a long velvety crushed and ruffled skirt that went nearly to the floor and a long formal vest and under it a lowcut, offshoulder something. Her hair was to her shoulders, when it settled down from the wind. She was not out of place among the million-dollar outfits and jewelry on display at this party, and she didn’t look as if she were wearing a corny cowgirl costume as did Rosie Everlasting, for instance, or so it suddenly seemed to him. She handed him one of the drinks she held and asked him if he liked vodka as if she assumed he did and he said that indeed, he did. She carefully lit the pipe with a little brass lighter and then inhaled from it and passed it to him without asking him anything.
“The thing I hate is gin,” he said. He swallowed the pain pill with his first sip of the vodka.
“That’s because gin is flavored with juniper berries and tastes as bad as you’d expect, though not as bad as scotch, which seems to be tinctured with corrugated cardboard soaked in ancient rainwater,” she replied, holding onto the sweetish smoke in her lungs as best she could while still talking.
“I hate scotch, except at Christmas.”
“Yeah. Uh, huh. I know what you mean. I used to have some Croat friends in Tacoma and their mom would bake cookies at Christmas and they would have scotch in them.” She exhaled smoke. It was a burnished blue color, the smoke. “The cookies,” she explained.
“That’s sort of what I was thinking, except it had to do with my father. He always drank scotch and he hated Christmas.”
“That’s Bud Honeyacre for you.”
“Don’t let that go out.”
He inhaled from the pipe. The pot was excellent, it seemed. He had not smoked any in years. He wouldn’t have smoked it at all except that she had a look in her eyes that made him want to. She came from some different planet than busty little Amber Bernstein, he thought, and he wanted to kiss her, even if he might have to reach up a bit to find her lips.
“Look, Karen Mae,” he decided to say. “I know I must seem distracted and a little crazy to you, but it may have to do with something about a guy named Baxter, if he gets in my way, that much I know. He’s inside there somewhere. He’s from Midden. It’s a long and complicated story, although it’s only really only about two days old.”
He handed the little pipe back to her. It had gone out and she refilled it with sticky, fragrant marijuana from a little beaded bag that she had in her purse and lit it and again inhaled carefully from it.
“I don’t think I’ve met him. Baxter,” she said. “But then I’ve met so many people since I’ve been down here in California that it no longer makes much difference to me who they actually are. Everyone I meet here is just more important than I can imagine. What is in your pocket that you seem so fond of?”
“It’s not what you think.”
“How do you know I think of such things?” She laughed in a sexual manner, exhaling smoke.
“Hah. You were thinking that.”
“Yes. Of course I was.”
Their eyes met in an overwhelming way. She looked at him as no woman, not Lorene Supplemeir nor Rosie Everlasting nor Amber Bernstein, had of late. He was drawn to this Petersunn woman, that was for sure. She seemed a haven, a port of call, a safe harbor, a cove, a big beautiful person with a hint of graying hair and a full-lipped mouth that he suddenly wanted to kiss. He should kiss her, he thought.
He kissed her. His hand stayed in his pocket.
She kissed him carefully, not swept away. She kissed him frankly and invitingly. She almost had to lean down to do it. She liked him. She had liked him all afternoon and now into the night, she still liked him, crazy as he obviously was. She had felt that he did not really want her at all and so she was surprised when he kissed her.
He kept one arm around her, holding her close and on impulse pulled his hand up out of his pocket and opened it and showed her what he held so dear.
“Oh, look!” said Karen Mae. “It’s a little skull, kind of. It’s like the skull of some little thing. Is it stone?” She seemed delighted, albeit a little shaky. “It looks to be smiling. Let me see it,” she said in an authoritative manner. She was, after all, a scientist. He let her take it from his hand with a great shiver. He had not really looked at it yet himself. They remained touching each other. He wanted to kiss her again and he did, on the cheek, tenderly. She felt as if she were curled up in a cave in which there was a little fire whose smoke was not dense enough to quite obscure the stars.
“It’s hard to tell if it’s a rock that looks like a skull or a skull that’s petrified into rock,” she said, nuzzling her head into his. She laughed. “It could be a prop from the movie, in fact. There’s a scene of baby dinosaurs inside eggs and these people in Hollywood are so clever that I’m damned if I can tell just looking at it.”
He had an odd feeling about her, as if she were the woman in the Adjacent and Additional World and he hoped to hell she would not suddenly change into something else and do something crazy like fling his rock away down into the wave-tossed pool below. He needed that rock. Something pushed against his leg. There was a dog down below him. The dog looked up at him with a familiar face. It was not the dog from the Adjacent and Additional World, but it was a dog certainly, and it was an ugly dog. It was the ugliness itself that seemed familiar to him. He wondered if he should tell her exactly what had been happening to him. He did not take the rock from her hand, although she held it loosely enough.
“You know,” she said gently, kissing him a little on the neck, “I was wondering what this Giant Beaver thing is all about.”
Over on the other side of the portico, Charlie Christian stein half-listened to Amber Bernstein as she yammered away about herself and “The Drifter.” Charlie was trying to attract the attention of his dog, who seemed to ignore him, which was the usual case, he thought. His dog seemed to have become attached to the Honeyacre brother, he noticed, and did not respond to Charlie’s gesturings. Typical, thought Charlie Christianstein. Even my own dog hates me.
“Your hair looks really nice long, Chaaarlie,” said Amber Bernstein, with some inspiration.
“You think so?”
“I do. Uh, huh.”
Charlie’s hair was indeed quite long but he wore it coached back into a fashionable ponytail so that from the front he looked the way his mother and father had always liked him to look and from the side he looked like something that should be ridden. His face was lined now, quite pouchy really, and the ponytail was thin, and Chester, seeing him out of the corner of his eye from across the expanse of portico, realized that pretty much everyone he knew was getting old.
A white-jacketed girl braved her way out into the stormy air and handed around little folded foods from a tray and Chester loaded up on them but declined a drink because he liked the one that Karen Mae had brought him. The wind was getting stronger, but its uncanny warmth made it seem unthreatening, almost tropical. The drink she’d brought him had grapefruit juice in it – fresh, she said. He leaned out on the chromed barrier and asked her about her work on the movie, about mushrooms – particularly the one he fell into – and she asked about how he was and so forth and they remembered people they knew in common back in Beaverteeth, which seemed eight million miles away. He said he’d explain about the giant beavers at some point, but then he was too embarrassed to do it. He hung his big upper body out over nothing. They were adults and they did not discuss the kiss they had kissed and their immediate or long-term futures. They kept their hips and shoulders pressed together, however, and Karen Mae felt that surely there would be some sort of big sex episode to come. As if tied together, each at once turned around and bent down to pat the ugly dog, who snorted and writhed his head around to make sure that they rubbed his ugly ears. Overhead, there was a huge clap of thunder and Charlie Christianstein, from the other side of the portico, suddenly laughed loudly.
“What the hell,” he snorted. “I guess that’s your dog now, Chet.”
“What’s the dog’s name, Charlie?”
“I don’t remember. You name him, Chet. He’s your dog.”
The dog had, indeed, snuggled onto Chester’s big feet and arched its head back and stared up at Chester with what must have been love, although Karen Mae thought that it was most probably a desire for a nice party poo-poo. A light whip of warm rain flicked at all their faces.
“Well,” said Chester, “it’s an ugly dog, but a nice dog.”
“Nice doggie,” said Karen Mae, in spite of herself.
“Hey, Chet? Remember back in the Seventies when Rosie decided to live outdoors with those hippies over at the Ranch?” Charlie began to walk toward them, dragging Amber Bernstein unwillingly with him. “I had some really good hash that little Dutch guy brought back from Amsterdam. Remember that guy?”
“The Mosquito,” remembered Chester and Charlie laughed the way people do at a high school reunion.
“They called it ‘The Farm,’ not ‘The Ranch,” said Chester, to explain to Karen Mae. “It was over in Dark Canyon, just below the Hollywood sign.”
“You know,” said Charlie expansively, “Rosie’s going to do a project for me.”
Amber Bernstein’s magnificent body stiffened noticeably.
“Oh, great,” said Chester.
“I love Rosie,” cooed Amber Bernstein, not too convincingly.
“Yeah. You know, I was actually pretty in love with her that year back then. Remember? The year she decided to live outdoors.”
“Outdoors. And that’s where we are now,” said Amber Bernstein gaily. She seemed to have completely forgotten that Chester was scum, and so forth.
“I thought it was real, you know? That’s how naive I was. I didn’t see the product. I thought that things in real life were as real as they were in books,” said Charlie.
“The Mosquito had a nose ring, first one I ever saw,” said Chester. “He used to say; ‘It drags me, man.’” He laughed like a loon. So did Karen Mae. It was funny, actually.
“No, I mean I thought things were real between me and Rosie,” said Charlie.
“It might have been the hash,” said Chester helpfully.
“No. See? I didn’t really understand marketing then, you know? I didn’t see what the product was. I didn’t really understand that she was using me, that she was conceiving an album and was planning the cover photography and the liner notes to match her made-up life at the time and she needed good business people to get it all done and that I was useful to her in order to make it happen.”
“God,” said Chester, trying to change the subject. “I remember that hash. ‘Torquemada’s Balls’ they called it.” With his eyes, he tried to involve Karen Mae in the conversation. “Some times, when I think about it, I think that I never did wake up from that stuff.” In fact, the thought had only lately occurred to Chester. In fact, it was only just this minute.
“Anyway, Rosie and I smoked some of that stuff one night up in the teepee at the Ranch …”
“Yeah, and I had some coke from Bolivia, too. She had that awful incense going and her twelve-string was warping because it rained so much that year, remember?” Chester remembered. He didn’t want to hear anything about Rosie Everlasting in those days, now that he thought about it. There was a sexually erratic side to Rosie that he had never really wanted to face.
“I remember,” he babbled. “An El Nino year. I never saw so much mud. Mitchell was trying to shoot ‘Killer Cycles’ out in Ridgecrest and nearly drowned half his crew.”
“Yeah. I didn’t go out there,” said Charlie glumly. “I stayed here and fucked his wife.”
At the exact moment Charlie uttered this horrible and momentous and unnecessary statement, a great shriek of laughter burst out from inside the mansion. Chester’s head snapped around and he saw that Jim Rook was up on his feet now and that the room’s attention seemed centered on him and on something he must just have said. Chester could see Rosie Everlasting looking up at the big guy with a contented, proud smile that made Chester wonder what had happened in the little interim since he had seen her last. To his dismay, he saw Baxter, who seemed to hover down around the knees of Jim Rook.
Of course, Chester was shocked to hear Charlie say what Charlie had just said. He had known at the time that it was true, so had Mitchell, so had all their friends, but still – at the same time – it shocked him now, years later, to not only hear it but to realize that Charlie was still thinking about it. It seemed obscene, somehow and Chester wished that he hadn’t heard what he’d heard. Suddenly silent, Charlie stared out straight ahead and the rain began to hit his face and the wind blew his ponytail straight back and a huge thunderclap banged again and another roar of laughter rushed up from inside and for a moment Chester thought he saw Jim Rook rise and float back to earth, encircled and adored by movie stars. The sky lit up from inside itself with a muffled implosion, an inside-out explosion in slow motion. Palm trees below them cracked in the wind. The lights flickered all over the vast city as well as in the house itself and then the streams of rain began to form themselves into solid sheets that sluiced up, out of the gravity, crawling up the house toward them, rolling right up over the fashionable railings.
“Well,” said Amber Bernstein, brightly, moving toward the doors, “I think it’s really fucked that you would have done that, Charlie. I mean, everybody knows anyway about you and Rosie and about how Mitchell forgave you, so what’s the big deal? Chief Smoattle says that all our pasts curl around us like as if our penises had coiled around us and were just choking the life out of us.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” growled Charlie. “You don’t have a cock, at least not that anyone’s ever seen.”
“You just didn’t look, Chaaarlie.” She smiled at him archly.
“Blow it out your ass, Amber.”
“Oh, that’s nice. That’s a nice thing to say,” she laughed.
“Listen, Amber,” said Charlie in a more reasonable tone of voice, “Do you really think any of this Chief Smoattle stuff is true?”
“It’s as true as true can be, Charlie,” she said, holding the door open, a bit set back by this abrupt turn in the conversation. “It’s the truest thing that ever was and you can see it happen in front of your eyes. He’s real.” She stared straight at Chester. “He comes right into Shirley Anne’s body. It’s so scary and its so wonderful and thrilling. And the things he says are the best things you’ve ever heard. All about why everything is the way it is and how it could be. About how just fucked we’ve made everything and about how wise the Indians were to understand the twinings and twistings of the Natural World. It’s very pro the environment, you know.”
“Listen, Amber,” Charlie looked pensive and determined, “maybe I could investigate this?”
“Maybe you should. You haven’t any real moral fiber left in you, Chaaarlie. It’s well known.” She hoped that she wasn’t ruining her chances to be in ‘The Drifter,’ but she had to say what she had to say. She was right, and everybody in town knew it. Charlie Christianstein had lost it. Morally.