Previous: Episode 7
But I don’t blackout. Or I realize, finally, that this is all Holly and Ivy’s doing. These are not dreams where they meet me. It’s someplace else. Not a place in my mind or theirs, but someplace else.
I can’t tell which one is speaking. One twin says, “You don’t have to be afraid.”
The other twin says, “Open your eyes and see.”
I open my eyes and we are at Camp Shalom. Holly, Ivy and me. I’m wearing terrycloth shorts and an OP polo, brown sandals with tarnished brass buckles. I’m still in the body of my adult self. I want to ask the twins a question, but too many crowd my mind, and I don’t think they will answer anyway. This experience is their answer.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I tell them. “It’s not safe.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Ivy says. “Never should have.”
“But we have made it safe,” Holly adds. “We have cleaned this place.”
This is the hole inside of me, the empty space, the spot where nothing ever holds, and everything else falls through. We are at the edge of a glacial depression, a little hollow fenced in by aspen and hunks of red sandstone. It was the place Jordan Fischer called the Boys Club. Jordan Fischer, the guitar playing counselor with his black wavy hair and rock star face, was the crush of all the girls at camp. And for the boys, most of them, he was an ideal to strive for, the cool guy they all wanted to grow up to be. For the ten days I spent at Camp Shalom, the summer I turned ten, me and four less fortunate boys had secret meetings with Jordan Fischer in the Boys Club. It was the last time I ever wore terrycloth, shorts or sandals. I never said anything to my parents, but somehow they knew. My dad pulled me out of Hebrew School. He stopped making me go with him to High Holiday services.
Being here with Holly and Ivy is relief. The shame is rinsed away once and for all. If I’ve ever felt this way before, I don’t remember. I want to hold my nieces.
But then things change, just like in a dream. Holly and Ivy are on the other side of the Boys Club. They are dressed in black, chitinous armor, like ants.
“What is it?” I call.
“You,” they say.
I realize we are not inside me; inside me it is still unclean. I look at myself expecting to see a stain, the secret beneath my secret. Instead, I blink, and when my eyes open, I see the ammolite pendent and then its wearer as though the abstract mosaic of a kaleidoscope could focus into a concrete image.
“You alright?” The tall, black woman squats beside me, stroking my outer thigh with her long fingers. I’m on a couch in their trailer.
“He alright?” I hear her man call from outside.
“I think so.” She delicately smooths the side of my head. “Did you say you’ve been drinking?”
“No,” I say. “I’ve been stressed.” I sit up.
“Don’t push it, Mr. Dupree. I just laid you down and I don’t want you hitting your head.” She sits down with an arm around me, contorting my head to her perfumed collar. “Can I get you something to eat? You diabetic?”
I relax against her, scan the compartment which is all domesticity, no business. “I’m good now, thank you. Thank you so much for helping me.”
“You don’t worry about it.” She kisses my forehead. “You don’t weigh much more than a fried peach pie, besides.”
Maybe she thinks we can still work out a deal; which is fine by me, because it’s going to be a deal I strike.
“Are you and your man vendors? Or just…”
“Rock people? That’s what we are. Just rock people. This is how we spend our vacation. Meeting other rock people. I do make jewelry, though, as you were admiring before you had your little nap.”
“That…ammolite…is the most interesting stone I’ve ever seen.” I peer at it riding the left side of the deep trough of her cleavage. I’m looking into the eye of the primordial world incarnate. It speaks to me in lines and curves of luminance and I agree with what it says.
She lets me go, pulls the artifact over her head and hands it to me saying, “You know those critters? Ammonites? Look like a squid and a hermit crab got it on? That’s what ammolite is.”
I absorb the full power of the gemstone the instant is touches my fingers. Either the gem flickers red and green light, or it’s me. “May I?”
“Oh, please do.” She winks and smiles and puts it over my head. There is a veil on her eyes, a gossamer carapace only I can see.
“This is mine, now.”
“Of course,” she says. I feel no guilt, which is a new sensation. Or absence of one. I leave a little pile of cash on the counter, because it is the right thing to do. Before I leave the trailer, I bend over and kiss her lips in gratitude. I’ll never know her name or her man’s, and they’ll never see me again, but they will survive: me, Rayne, the whole episode. In fact, they’ll be just fine.
A guy in a plaid shirt much like mine, but with the sleeves ripped off, arrives as I step down beside the man in the wheelchair. Through the smacking of his gum he says, “Two daddies?”
“Just me, baby,” I hear from behind. She passes by me like I’m not there, like she can’t see me, because to her and her man I’m not. Never was.
Everything is truly—for lack of better words—crystal clear. My senses, thoughts, and purpose are heightened. I’m waiting for the side effects to manifest, because they surely must; I try to anticipate what they might be, aside from the obvious overconfidence. But even the keening the jewelry sings in head is soft and soothing.
I reenter the hotel lobby without disruption, physical or otherwise, and even my journey up the stairwell is quiet. The pendent renders a faint track to the other geologic object I pursue. At the door, I mark the electronic lock with a gesture of my thumb and forefinger, a random glyph that grants me entrance. Dupree looms in the space between two queen beds, watching a cooking competition on the television. It twists the barrel of its body to me, its baby-doll head. “Oh, hey,” it says with the voice of a rusted music box.
“Hey.” I wave and climb over the nearest bed to the red and green glowing nightstand. Does he think I’m Rayne? Halfway over, it occurs to me that this is too easy. Perhaps the ammolite itself is a trap. The chunk of amber is loose on the nightstand’s bookshelf, its blue strangely deeper and brighter against the dark faux-wood. I look at the hairline cracks on the back of Dupree’s head. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t give a shit at all. I grab the amber and roll on over the bed.
I don’t dare look back, but as I open the door, Dupree says, “Later.”
I’m holding the amber like I think you hold a football; clutched to the left side of my chest, my right arm free for defense, offense, whatever. What I’ve been expecting the ammolite to do—to do to me—it never does. It even erases its trail of color. Or it’s stopped working. But I’m not stricken with the bladder pain. I stride down the hall, past the elevators and to the opposite set of stairs. The stairs exit almost directly at Penny’s car. And I know it has to be too perfect.
I’m getting into the car when my phone rings, which I never look forward to hearing. It’s going to be Bergdorf or Cruz. Or worse: Penny. It’s going to be Rayne, explaining to me how this was her design all along, part of the ritual she is surely conducting, gloating over what a good little pawn I am.
“Mr. Kos, this is Thanh at Serenity Manor.”
I want to throw up. I sigh instead and say, “Okay.”
“I’m calling on behalf of your father.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Yes. Yes, that’s him.” It feels like the car is being compacted around me.
“Your father says he needs to speak to you.”
“What?” Now I am going to vomit.
“Yes. He says he needs to speak with you as soon as possible. He says to hurry. He wants me to tell him if you’re on your way.”
You hear about this, about how sick people improve right before they die. “Okay,” I say.
“Okay? So, you are on your way now?”
“Um. Yes. Tell my dad I’m on my way. Is he…” The call ends.
Instead of vomiting, I drive through red traffic lights and stop signs to the nursing home. Maybe I can puke there.
In the short time my dad ceased talking, I’d forgotten what his voice sounded like. I try to imagine it speeding to the nursing home, think about his stock phrases, his one-liners. I only conjure Bergdorf’s voice. I’d forgotten a lot about my dad, how and who he used to be. He was so different now, as though he were already dead and what remained at Serenity Manor was a B-movie prop hauled out from a flooded storage unit.
I think for half a second about hiding the amber under the seat. Instead, I dig in Penny’s glove box and seat pockets for a plastic bag or something, but her car is pristine. There isn’t even an old blanket or t-shirt in the trunk. I hold it in my arm like a thick book.
They’ve changed the access code on the ward door again, and since it’s after hours, I have to wait for someone to let me in. In the stark light of the nurse’s station, I notice the ammolite is dead and gone, a used battery hanging around my neck. It looks like a scrap of aluminum foil scorched with too much animal fat.
“Hey, man.” The ward assistant opens the doors with his key card.
I thank him and we slip through quickly. There are voices in my dad’s room—two men.
“Is that right? Sixth Corps, huh?” one says.
“Hell, yes! I spent Christmas Eve with this broad in Sélestat, after we liberated the area. You ever get one of those French broads?” I recognize this other voice as the Colonel’s.
“Ah, no, sir. I was in Italy.” The voice is not my dad’s roommate.
“Were you? I love Italian girls.”
“Hi, Pop.” He’s in his wheelchair, but his eyes are bright and he’s wearing his old, gap-toothed, Ernest Borgnine smile. The Colonel sits on the empty bed of my dad’s roommate.
“Hi, Abe.” It’s as if my dad had been a captive, a P.O.W. of the frontal and temporal lobes of his brain. “George, I appreciate you coming by, but my son is here and we have to discuss some business.”
The Colonel looks at me and says to my dad, “My God, your son is the Captain? You must be so proud to have a young man serving his country, instead of the bullshit, card-burning, communist my boy is.”
The Colonel stands up, salutes us and says, “Gentlemen, I’ll see you at Reveille.”
Before the Colonel is in the hall, my dad asks, “Close the door, will you, Abe?”
I close the door and sit in the chair by his bed, the fossil in my lap.
“Man, that guy drives me nuts. Nice guy. But he won’t leave me alone about helping him tunnel out of here.”
“What happened there?” I thumb to the empty side of the room.
“Died.” My dad shrugs. Then he says, “That’s it, huh?” He points to my lap.
I look at the blue luminous stone. “Pop, is this how you’re talking?”
“Who’s to say, my boy? Who’s to say?” He motions, palms up, that it’s out of his hands, in someone else’s’ control. Not only can he speak, but his reasoning and discretion are back. He is mostly the man I’d known nearly all my life. “My body’s weak. Elsewise, I’d have met you in the front lobby. May I see it?”
I pause. I look at my dad. Really look at him. The pressure of tears threatens to pop the eyes from my skull.
Penny and I were close, like big brothers and little sisters can be, but if there was anyone I ever considered a real friend, or a thing like a friend, it was my dad. To have him back was overwhelming. It goes without saying, I was a lonely kid—as lonely as I am an adult. All because Jordan Fischer killed me when I was a boy. But my ghost lingered, grew, was educated. My ghost spent alternating weekends with his parents, sometimes with a little sister who was alive and vibrant. My ghost had acquaintances, played Nintendo with the male ones, eventually dated two of the female ones. My ghost worked at the Cherry Creek Mall, waiting for the right time to apply to graduate schools. One day, my ghost received a letter naming him a recipient in a settlement from a class action lawsuit against Camp Shalom. The shame, after all those years, made my ghost want to die; made me want to join my innocence. My mom died instead. And my dad got sick. If this was Bergdorf, or another associate, or Rayne for that matter, I didn’t deserve that kind of cruelty.
“Pop, are you, you?”
He opens his mouth to speak. He looks to the window and the darkness. And I’m afraid it’s all over, I’ve wasted the moment, I’ve ruined the boon. My father and I are Eurydice and Orpheus.
“Abe,” he says, “It’s me.”
There are so many things I have to tell him, so many things I have to ask, but all I want to do is crawl onto his lap. Instead, I put the blue amber there. He runs his wide fingers over the rough and polished edges, peering at the thing at its center.
“Now listen,” he begins, “you know this can’t last. So let me say what I need to say and then, God willing, who knows? Okay? Here we go. Holly and Ivy have been to see me. They used to visit every night. You know what I’m talking about. But they quit coming a few nights back because we had an argument. Over you. Now, I love those girls, but they’re weird, Abe. Getting weirder every day. And because we share no blood, I have no obligation to them. Understand? They said you were in trouble—more trouble than usual. And then they showed me a picture, something they drew. This. They wanted to know if I knew what it was. I do, Abe. I know because my brother Sy had the same associates. I refused to tell the girls anything. They’re good. Good little girls. Good in their heart, but don’t trust them.”
“Pop,” I start, but he waves me off.
“They came back last night demanding I tell them… Said for the sake of…” My dad’s cheeks flush, his eyes bulge. “Take it, Abe. Hide it. Now. Let me…” Then he starts to drool. He tries to stand up, but his hands and legs are trembling, and I realize it’s over. His mouth slacks, but he’s able to stretch one finger, pointing to the door.
At the door is Cruz’s grandmother, accompanied by two ward assistants whose eyes have rolled up into their sockets so all you see is veiny whites.
“There you are, puto,” she says, pointing her own finger at me. Or maybe the amber.
Next episode: June 3