Dave had been through Bastrop a dozen times on his way from Austin to Houston. Just outside town the land suddenly rose up and there were pine trees everywhere. The red dirt turned brown with fallen needles and the air became cool and sweet. The Lost Pines, they were called, because there was nothing else like them for a hundred miles in any direction.
He'd spent a weekend with a girlfriend in Bastrop State Park. They'd rented a log cabin and had sweaty sex in front of a fireplace with the inscription "Clever men are good but not best."
He didn't know about the federal prison there until he ended up inside it.
The Bastrop Federal Correctional Institute was a few miles north of the main highway, surrounded by forest. There were no signs until the last turnoff. During his six months there Dave learned a number of things. He found out that the prison's main products were military helmets and life rafts. The government paid for them with surplus khaki uniforms for the inmates. He learned not to make eye contact in the yard, and how to sleep no matter what went on around him.
He also learned that his life, or anybody's, was like a piece of soft wood. He could shape it to a certain extent, but it could also get dented or even broken beyond repair.
Most of the people Dave got to know there were drug dealers. Some were high enough up in the business to wear tinted gold-rimmed glasses and have manicured nails. They ate better than Dave and they landed the trusty jobs. Then there were the repeat offenders, with slurred voices and eyes that didn't quite focus. Not to mention the prisoners waiting for trial at the federal courthouse in Austin. They were thrown in with the general population, regardless of what they'd done. It was hard for Dave not t~ feel sorry for some of them. It was also dangerous to feel. very sorry for anybody, himself included. Dave seemed to be the only tax dodger in there, among the pushers and kidnappers and serial killers. The IRS had, in short, hung Dave out to dry.
His parole came through on October 15, 1988. It was a Saturday, nine days before his fortieth birthday. There was a prison bus headed for Elgin, Bastrop, and Austin later in the day. Dave had elected not to wait around.
"Who's picking you up?" the gate guard asked him.
"My ex-girlfriend." Dave sat on one of the blue plastic chairs in the waiting room. From there he could see out into the parking lot and the surrounding hills. The grass was still a parched yellow from the last days of summer. He could see the road all the way out to the perimeter fence where it curved to the right and met Highway 95. "Haven't seen her since we split up. That was back before I got busted, more than a year ago." Dave looked at his watch again, like he'd told himself he wouldn't do. On the phone she'd said she would be there by ten-thirty. Here it was nearly eleven o'clock.
"Maybe she's got fond memories," the guard said.
"Yeah," Dave said. "You got to have hope."
He'd thought about being free so long he'd milked all the emotion out of it. There was nothing left but nerves.
If he turned around he would see the twin chain-link fences, woven with razor wire, that surrounded the prison yard. He didn't want to ever see them again.
A red Camaro roared into the visitors' lot. Dave felt like the guardhouse floor had dropped a couple of stories. He grabbed his cardboard suitcase and headed for the door.
"Good luck," the guard said.
That was when Dave saw the man sitting next to Patsy in the front seat.
"Thanks," he said. "I may need it."
The Camaro squealed to a stop in front of the building, rocking slightly on its shocks. Patsy had never been intimidated by the presence of the law. Dave walked up to the passenger window. Inside he saw a lanky cowboy in a straw hat that was stained and creased from too much handling. The man wore a black Jack Daniel's T-shirt and jeans with no knees left. He hadn't shaved in a couple of days. The hat was pulled low over his eyes and one hand held a Budweiser peeking out of a can-sized paper sack.
Patsy got out of the far side of the car. She looked the same as ever. Her blonde hair swept back in wings from the sides of her face and curled down her shoulders. She had on a red T-shirt stretched tight over her breasts and jeans scuffed white across the rump. "Dave, this here is Marc with a C."
"Mucho gusto," Marc said with a Texas accent, and poked his hand out the window.
Dave shook it. Apparently Patsy was not going to say that he was just her younger brother, in town for a surprise visit, or that he was just her mechanic and would be taking the car on into the shop. Instead Marc said, "Honey, get your ass back in the car and let's get this old boy where he needs to go. I'm horny as a three-peckered billy goat."
Patsy shrugged at Dave and said, "Love is blind, don't you knowj'"
Marc seemed disinclined to move, so Dave got in on Patsy's side. He could smell her perfume and the sun on her skin and the hot vinyl upholstery.
"How long was you in for?" Marc asked. Patsy hit the gas and the car took off on smoking tires.
"Six months," Dave said. The acceleration pinned him to his seat.
"So tell me. Did big black guys fuck you up the ass in there or what?"
"Now Marcus," Patsy said. "You behave yourself."
"No offense," Marc said. "I did a little time in the slam myself. Just a couple weeks in county jail. They had to no-bill me. Wouldn't have been there at all except 1 couldn't make bail."
"What did they get you for?"
"Arson. Hell, they should of give me a medal. Sumbitch went straight up, burned to the slab in seven and a half minutes, didn't touch a damned thing on either side. Took every bit of evidence with it."
Dave turned to watch the prison recede behind him. The grass, he had to admit, looked good. A nice, even green. He'd spent seven hours and fifteen minutes a day, five days a week, working on it. He didn't think he'd miss it.
"So what's this job you said you got?" Patsy asked. She slowed briefly for the stop sign at Highway 95 then spun the wheel hard over and hit the gas. Dave's suitcase slid the length of the seat and tumbled to the floor.
"It's in Surfside," Dave said. "On the coast, just down from Galveston. I'm going to be caretaker."
"We ain't driving you all that way, are we?" Marc asked.
"No," Dave said. Patsy was clearly a lost cause. "In fact you could let me off just up the road, where the Greyhound stops."
They passed the first houses Dave had seen in months, tiny one-bedroom shacks. A couple of them had red storage buildings shaped like miniature barns, Dave saw a toy tractor and a Chihuahua not much bigger than his hand.
It was like the entire world had shrunk while he was in prison.
"Caretaker," Patsy said. "I can't feature you going all the way to Surfside just for a job."
"This is not your everyday kind of job. You ever hear about those rich old ladies that leave their money to their cats? Fred's got one down there that just died. I mean, I never thought about it before, but somebody's got to feed the little bastards and clean up after them and all that."
"I can't feature you with all those cats," Patsy said. "How many are we talking about here?"
"Twenty-three," Dave said.
"Lord. You never liked them one at a time."
"Maybe I'll get used to it."
"You mean they're going to pay you for that?" Marc asked.
"Marc here isn't a big believer in jobs himself," Patsy said.
"Work ain't natural," Marc said.
"Amen to that," Dave said.
They turned east on 21, away from the main part of Bastrop, away from the HEB grocery and the Wal-Mart and the road to Austin. They climbed past an old white frame church with a high steeple. A moment later they were in the trees and Dave could smell pine sap and fallen needles. Patsy pulled in to the Hilltop Express Lane Grocery and Exxon. She put the car in park but didn't turn the motor off.
"I'll just walk him in," she told Marc.
Dave bought a ticket to Galveston for $23. It was nearly half the fifty he got when he left prison. Patsy kissed him on the cheek and then dabbed the lipstick off with a crumpled Kleenex from her purse. "I still think about you, you know ... every now and again."
Marc, waiting in the Camaro, tapped lightly on the horn. Dave waved goodbye as they drove off, then bought himself a sandwich and a 7-Up. "I can't sell you no beer," the woman at the counter said. She was in her fifties, with long, dirty red-brown hair, and she barely came up past the top of the counter. "Not if you're on parole."
"That's okay," Dave said, alarmed that it was so obvious. "Just this stuff."
"Fine," she said. "I just can't sell you no beer, that's all."
He sat outside under a stand of pines near the old lady's trailer and waited for the bus. Inside his cardboard suitcase was a Walkman they hadn't let him have in prison. Some of 'the more resourceful convicts, it seemed, had learned to sharpen the capstan posts and convert them into tattoo machines. In a minute he would take it out and put the headphones on. For the time being it was enough to listen to the wind move through the trees.
Dave had spent a lot of time in the prison library. It reminded him of primary school: the long Formica tables, the dark green metal shelves, either against the wall or no more than waist-high, the expressions of fierce concentration focused on Dr. Seuss. For some reason there were dozens of travel books. They'd left Dave with a powerful urge for motion. One of them had quoted Pascal, saying that human restlessness was a result of innate human misery. That if human beings weren't constantly distracted they. would sink inevitably into despair.
Dave found this hard to swallow. It seemed to him that there were important pieces of knowledge, things that he needed to complete himself, scattered all over the planet. It was his sovereign duty to go around and pick them up.
His parents, misreading the same impulse, worked endless jigsaw puzzles, settling for a less emphatic click.
When they did travel they were armored with cameras and baggage and suntan lotion. They never made it through the membrane. Behind the membrane was where the locals lived, where the good stuff was hidden.
Greyhound buses went to the other side. They were full of men with sideburns and shirts buttoned to the throat, and fat young mothers with squalling kids. They stopped at the Hilltop Grocery instead of the Hilton. Dave was satisfied to be where he was, making good time down 1-45 out of Houston, nearly forty but on the verge of a fresh start, a free man, open to possibility.
Out the right-hand window he got his first glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico. It had crept slowly in toward the highway from the southeast. First there were boats parked in the driveways, then canals between the houses. Then, in the distance, the ocean itself. After that came Tiki Island, on Jones Bay, with its A-frames and condos on stilts, then, over the next rise, the mile-and-a-half-long causeway to Galveston.
From there Dave could see Galveston itself in the distance, a cluster of marinas, a red-and-white checked water tower, a multi-story hotel. Off to his left was the old causeway from the turn of the century, low arches of concrete that barely cleared the water, with a permanently raised drawbridge in the middle.
As soon as the bus was on solid ground again the median sprouted palm trees and oaks and shrubs that looked like eucalyptus. Palm trees had nothing but good associations for Dave. They were a universal visual code for beaches and good weather and no work.
Fred wasn't at the bus station, even though Dave had called ahead from Houston. There was no answer at the office or his apartment. He was about to try the phones again when he saw the faded yellow Porsche jockey toward him through the traffic. It swung out in front of a semi and skidded past him to a stop. Thin white smoke chugged out of the tailpipe under a bumper sticker that said "Shit happens."
Dave opened the door and got in.
"Ça que c'est, homme?" Fred said. He was six three, well over two hundred and still gaining. He was big all. over but deceptively light on his feet. He had a thick mustache to compensate for the front half of his hair being gone.
He wore expensive Italian sunglasses with a safety pin through one elf the hinges.
"You hear they've quit using rats for experimental animals?" he asked, burning rubber as they pulled away. Dave tried to remember if he had any friends that drove at normal speed. No names came to mind. "They're using lawyers instead. Three reasons. One, they're easier to come by. Two, you don't get so attached to them. Three, there's some things a rat just won't do."
Dave put his hand on Fred's shoulder and squeezed it hard. "Man," he said, "I am so glad to see you." He had to blink the sudden moisture out of his eyes.
"Yeah, well, we all missed you too. Listen, that's too bad about Patsy, what you were saying on the phone. I always liked her."
"Sure you did."
"She was cute. Fabulous magumbas. But if what you need is to get laid, I could maybe set something up. There's a massage parlor pretty close to here where I got three or four clients. I can get you a discount."
"Whatever. I guess we should go see your parole officer, anyway. She's staying late just for you."
Fred parked at a meter in front of the main post office. They were on Rosenberg, a block south of Post Office Street. Also known as 25th Street and Avenue E, respectively. Fred had tried to explain. The grid system had come first, dating back to the Galveston City Company in 1838. People got tired of it and subverted it. Eventually the common names went up on the street signs alongside the letters and numbers.
The old post office had actually been on Post Office Street.
The new one was built in the 1930s from carved yellow stone, with brooding eagles over each of the two entrances. As Dave walked under the eagles he saw they had started to crack. He and Fred rode an ancient elevator up to Room 504.
Dave's stomach hurt. "Do we have to do this now?"
"C'mon, Dave. It's the law. You got to check in within twenty-four hours, and she didn't want to have to come down here tomorrow."
The office was empty and dark except for shafts of orange light from the setting sun. "Mizz Cook?" Fred said.
A gray-haired woman in her fifties appeared next to the maze of cubicles in the middle of the room. She wore a gray polyester pant suit, gray shoes, and a gray satin blouse with a bow. Her silver cat's eye glasses glinted as she looked Dave up and down slowly. Finally she nodded and held out her hand. "David," she said.
"Call me Dave. Please." "Very well. I'm Mrs. Cook." "Hi," Dave said.
"I understand from Fred that we shouldn't have any trouble with you."
"Come on back to the office."
The room was barely large enough for a gray metal desk and a pair of filing cabinets. She had a cat calendar on one wall, and, behind her, a poster of a cat clinging to a horizontal wooden pole. Puny letters across the bottom read, "Help me hang in there Jesus." Dave caught Fred's eye and tilted his head at the poster. Fred shut his eyes and gritted his teeth. Dave sat down. Fred stood in the doorway with his arms folded, looking off into the hallway.
He had his lips pursed, feigning a nonchalant whistle.
"You have a job waiting for you, is that correct?" Mrs. Cook asked.
"That's right," Dave said.
"Is something funny, David?"
"I see. Well, we won't go into details today. I'll stop off Monday and take a look at your place of employment, and then we'll have you in, let's see, how about Thursday? During the day?"
"Uh, that would be fine, I guess."
"Let's say Thursday at eleven. In the meantime, let me remind you of the conditions of your parole. You are required to not associate with criminals, or anyone on probation or parole. You are required to not frequent places of a disreputable character, or places where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed, or places where illegal drugs are sold or consumed. You are required to report any criminal offense in which you are involved, even a traffic ticket, within forty-eight hours to me personally. Do you understand?"
The poster didn't seem very funny anymore. Dave nodded. "I expect this seems very harsh to you. Experience has taught us that we cannot allow any leeway in the enforcement of these rules. You have to understand that the law has made us responsible for your well-being. We intend to take care of you and keep you on the straight and narrow. Is that clear?"
Dave nodded again.
"We'll get to the rest on Thursday. Mostly I wanted to take a look at you, make sure I could count on you to do your part. I can count on you, can't I?"
"Yes ma'am," Dave said. "Could you speak up?" "Yes ma'am."
"Very good. The address I show here is 403 North Beach Front, Surfside, 77541. Is that home or business?"
"Both. I'm going to be caretaker there."
"Caretaker." She made a note on her page. Dave thought she looked skeptical. "I'll see you there on Monday."
"Yes ma'am. What time on Monday?"
She looked up slowly. Dave couldn't see her eyes behind the glasses. "We'll just let that be a surprise."
"...so the lawyer jumps over the side of the lifeboat and starts swimming for land. The priest can barely stand to watch. The two sharks head right for the lawyer and then, at the last minute, they veer off, like this, one on each side, .and away they go. The priest says, 'Praise the Lord! It's a miracle!' But the doctor shakes his head and says, 'Just professional courtesy.'"
"That fucking poster," Dave said. "Can you believe it?"
"Well," Fred said, "at least it shows she's got a heart. Of some kind or other."
They were on Seawall Boulevard, headed south. The streetlights had come on even though it wasn't fully dark yet. Off to the left was the Gulf of Mexico, as far as the eye could see. At the moment the water was dirty brown, but in bright sunshine it would reflect the sky in shades of deep crystalline blue. They passed the Pleasure Pier, with its shell shops and fast food, and the traffic started to thin out.
"It's not that big a deal," Fred said. "You convince her you're a good boy, then it's down to once a month, a onehour meeting. How hard can it be?"
On the sidewalk Dave saw a middle-aged guy on a skateboard, being towed by a Labrador retriever in a bandanna and sunglasses. The guy wore nothing but white shorts and carried a beer in a coozy cup. The top of his head was sunburned bright pink.
"Did you see that?" Dave asked.
Dave shook his head. Another of the books he'd read in prison said travel was the search for a magic place, where the traveler would be transformed. This seemed too good an omen to put into words. "Never mind," he said.
Dave watched the girls along the seawall. Six months. The only women he'd seen in the flesh had been in the visitors' room, and they were there to see somebody else. Usually crawling all over them, too, doing everything two people can do without taking their clothes off.
These women, though, looked like they didn't belong to anybody. It put Dave in the grip of powerful yearnings. There was something sexy about the town itself. It" was the palm trees and the salt air, even the look of the houses. They reminded Dave of New Orleans, all the three-story brick buildings with wrought-iron balconies on every floor. There was a sense of history, of things having settled in. The convenience stores and fast-food joints were tucked in between nineteenth-century gingerbread houses. The city was like a blonde with dark roots, sitting on a barstool, a line of empty glasses in front of her and an afternoon to kill.
He absolutely had to stop thinking about sex.
"Listen," Fred said. "There's something I should tell you. It's no big deal or anything. It's just, there's a couple of other people interested in the house."
"What do you mean, interested?"
"Well, what it is, they're trying to break the will. Listen, calm down. They haven't either one got a chance in hell. The first one runs some kind of UFO church on the local cable. Strictly a nut. The old lady used to give him some money, is all."
"And the other one?"
"Even less of a problem. Her name is Nixon, widow, early fifties, thinks she's nineteen. Dyed blonde hair, tight clothes, it's ridiculous. Keeps coming up with these forged documents to prove she's related to the old lady. I mean real pieces of shit. Looks like she got kindergartners to finger paint them."
"If it gets to be something I should worry about, though, you'll tell me. Right?"
"Oh, sure. Absolutely."
They passed a short brunette in a red two-piece bathing suit and matching high heels and sunglasses. The sun glasses were pushed up onto the top of her head, California style. She had a dog too, a shaggy gray poodle on a red leash. The dog robot-marched along, head down, the collar pulling its ears forward at an angle. "This is nice, here," Dave said.
Fred checked the rearview mirror. "Easy, bro. You're just a little pussy-crazy right now. These here are mostly a bunch of college assholes that drink themselves stupid and throw up on their shoes. Galveston is a wonderful town, but they aren't the reason, okay?"
"Whatever you say."
The right side of the highway was an endless row of condos. They were lined up like dominoes, with sliding glass doors and balconies full of furniture that faced the ocean. "What happens," Dave asked, "if a hurricane comes through here?"
"Some insurance companies take a beating. The seawall works, though. It's thick at the bottom and then curves, turns the big waves up when they hit. And hell, people got to live somewhere. You got any idea what those babies sell for? About a hundred grand per bedroom, that's what."
Dave looked at him. "You've got money in some of these, don't you?"
"Is that a crime? You're going to have some money left over with what you're making now. Maybe you should put it to work for you. I can set something up, whenever you're ready."
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful," Dave said. "But you know you're wasting your time."
"Listen, compadre. You're forty years old."
"Thirty-nine. But who's counting?"
"I'm worried about you, okay? Not just me. Anson and Mad Dog were up here the other week and they're worried too. I'm only saying this because I love you, man."
"I know, I know. I wish you'd relax. I'll be fine."
"You always say that. And look at you. You ended up in Bastrop FCI."
"My ass. IRS went after you because you wouldn't play ball. You cheated on your taxes, for Christ's sake. It wasn't like you actually hurt anybody. It was your attitude."
"My dad used to ground me for my attitude. It was because he couldn't think up any other excuse. Look, I'm sorry. You guys came to see me in the slam, and that means a lot to me. You guys and my mom were the only ones. I love all of you. But don't ask me to start buying real estate or playing the market. Have a little respect."
"Okay. But have a little respect for me too. This caretaker gig is a sweet deal. Don't get so proud you feel like you have to fuck it up."
The frenzied overbuilding ended where the island did, at Red Fish Cove: a fully planned and zoned community (under development). A toll bridge led back to the mainland, followed by a rough stretch of two-lane blacktop that passed through the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the west side of the road was salt marsh, full of razor-edged grass that was never quite the right shade of green. What houses there were all sat up on stilts.
Fred opened the Porsche up once they got off the bridge. They covered the twenty miles to Surfside in less than fifteen minutes. Fred had already started to brake when the headlights caught something off to the right. It looked like a cross between a French chateau arid a fairy castle made of melting ice cream.
"What the hell was that?" Dave said.
"It's called Fonthill. Some old guy built it back around 1910. You get a lot of nuts in this part of the world. The entire thing is made out of cast concrete. I mean stairs, desks, ceilings, everything. Had to put pilings down to bedrock to keep the thing from sinking. Forty-two rooms. It's condemned now. Nobody can afford to fIx it up."
"I thought I saw somebody on the roof."
"In the dark?"
"They're crazy. You can't keep them out. Every couple of months they cart another one off to the hospital, all busted to shit from falling off."
They were coming into something like civilization. In the distance was a high bridge over a barge canal. On the left they passed a bar with a hand painted sign that said BCI #2. The parking lot was full of Harleys. Down the street was Beth's Surfside Inn, a motel done up in weathered gray lumber and stucco. They all had yellow portable signs out in front. Fred hit the brakes again and the Porsche fishtailed as it slowed. "Here we go," he said. He pulled into a rutted dirt road that led toward the ocean. At the corner was a frame building painted bright purple, one of the few not on stilts. The portable sign in front said "Kitty's Purple Cow" and "Burgers." Coming up in the headlights was the Cedar Sands Motel, two stories of whitewashed cinderblock.
Fred turned left into the driveway of a beach house across from the motel. It was up on wooden six-by-sixes, with a double carport underneath. The house itself was two stories, approximately square, with a balcony that faced the Gulf. Fred parked next to a late-model band-aid-colored Dodge K-Car. As soon as he shut the engine off, Dave heard cats yowling. He looked at Fred. Fred shrugged
They got out of the car. A strong breeze blew off the water, making Dave's short prison haircut stand on end. A set of wooden stairs led up the inland side of the carport. Fred went up first. The cats seemed to hear him and screamed even louder. Dave hung back, the heart suddenly gone out of him.
Fred looked down. "What's the deal? You said you liked cats."
"I lied," Dave said.
"I'm not phobic or anything. I just never liked the little bastards, is all."
"This is a hell of a time to tell me."
"If I'd told you any earlier I'd still be in jail."
"Can you handle this or not? I mean, late as it is, I'm going to need some kind of final decision from you here."
Dave grabbed the two-by-four banister and pulled himself up the steps. "I can handle it. Like you always say, how hard can it be?"
Fred worked the deadbolt then put a second key into the handle. "Careful," he said. "They're supposed to stay inside. It's in the will."
He opened the door.
"Oh Christ," Dave said, gagging. Fred shoved him through and slammed the door behind them.
"Clean-up man hasn't been here in a couple of days," Fred said.
"Let me get a window."
Fred got a window open and they stood in it together.
Dave inhaled the aroma of salt and dead fish and marsh grass and thought it fine as imported perfume. He filled his lungs and turned around and blinked the tears from his eyes.
Across the room from him was a six-foot round window that looked east onto the Gulf. The living room was open for the full two stories. Stairs on the south wall led up to a walkway and closed doors. Cats sprawled everywhere. Dave counted a half-dozen on the living room furniture. Two more circled his shoes, sniffing at them and then hissing at each other. One sat on the black-and-white linoleum in the kitchen doorway, one dozed on the breakfast bar, and he could hear another crunch dry food inside the kitchen itself.
"The sooner we get started," Fred said, "the sooner that smell goes away."
"Hey," Fred said. "How hard can it be?"
They opened every window in the house and cleaned all ten litter boxes, one for each room plus an extra on the second floor landing. The used litter was black and greasy and filled two Hefty Steel-Saks. It took three 25-pound bags of Tidy Cat 3 to refill the boxes. When they were done Dave put the garbage sacks on the porch and washed his hands in the kitchen sink. He could see the waves come in from where he stood and they nearly hypnotized him. Finally he went back into the living room. Fred sat on the edge of the bureau under the big round window.
Dave threw a chubby gray kitten off the couch and sat down. All the furniture was covered in bright blue cotton and the walls looked freshly painted. "Nice place," he said. "Even before you compare it to where I've been."
"It's worth a quarter mill easy," Fred said. "You got screened-in front porch and a second bath upstairs--hell, you could put four or five couples in here every weekend, no sweat."
There were doilies on every flat surface and framed photos on the doilies. Dave picked one up. It showed a plain young woman with a 1940s hairdo. "I thought you said the old lady didn't have any relatives."
"She didn't. She cut all those pictures out of magazines."
"Weird. Well, nothing says I have to keep them around, right?"
"Wrong, Dave. The will says everything is to be kept exactly as it is. Exactly as it is. If the lawyers for the saucer nut or the widow Nixon find a picture frame or a cat out of place, we're in probate court the next day. I get fired, they become trustee, their client gets the house and salary."
The small gray cat jumped back on the couch and got in Dave's lap. It began to knead his crotch, lifting its front feet head-high with each stroke. It purred audibly. A black cat with some kind of skin problem on its nose got up on the back of the couch and sniffed at Dave's ear. He fought not to react to its cool, damp touch.
"That striped one over there is called Greaseball. The one looks like he's got nothing in him but sand? I don't know too many of the others' names..."
"Does the will say I have to call them by name?"
"No," Fred said. "But it might help your attitude, you know?"
Dave held up his hands. "I'll try. Okay?"
"That black one is called Morpheus. He's got a fungus on his nose there that you need to medicate every couple days. The salve's in the kitchen with a copy of the will. Everything you're supposed to do is written down in there."
A huge black and silver tabby wandered over to look at Dave's shoes. It butted them with its forehead and rubbed them with the sides of its face. Then it rolled onto its back and grabbed at Dave's ankles. Dave could feel the ends of its claws like tiny tweezers picking at his skin. He sat perfectly still, uncomfortably aware of his hands as they lay at his sides.
He caught Fred sneaking a look at his counterfeit Mexican Rolex. "Hey,': Dave said. "You don't have to babysit me, for God's sake. If you've got a date or something, go ahead on."
Fred stood up. "As a matter of fact ... " "Anybody I know?"
Fred shook his head. "I barely know her myself. All I know is..." His hands turned palm up, fingers bent. He looked from one of them to the other. "She's got...such..."
"Yeah," Dave said. "I know. I know."
"Listen, Mad Dog brought up all the clothes and stuff you left at his place. I put them in the guest room upstairs. "
"You got everything I own in one closet?" It struck him as a little sad.
"Most of it was cassettes. What the hell, at least he didn't have to rent a U-Haul. You can even move the stuff up there around if you want. You should do okay. It's not so flowery as the old lady's room, which she didn't want anybody sleeping in anyway. The car downstairs goes with the place. It's got maybe a hundred miles on it. Here's the keys to everything." He set them on the coffee table, in the narrow space between two of the pictures. "Oh yeah. You probably need a little capital to get started." He took out a money clip. There was a twenty on top and a thick wad underneath. "How much you need?"
Dave's eyes bulged. "Forty or fifty would probably be fine."
Fred pulled the clip off. The other bills were all singles.
"Twenty's fine," Dave said.
"Sorry. I'll have the checks for you in a day or two. Can you think of anything else?"
"Not a thing," Dave said. He tried to shove the cat out of his lap. It hooked its claws into his pants and he had to pry one leg off at a time. He stood up, holding the cat awkwardly around the middle.
"Listen," Fred said. "Let me call and cancel that date. This is ridiculous. 1 can't just go off and leave you on your first night back."
"I swear to you it's not a problem."
"It could be. This is a crisis node for you."
"Forget 1 said anything. We'll go into Freeport, get a couple burgers, take in a movie or something."
"Fred, goddammit, I'm fine. I'll bring home a few groceries, kind of putter around for a while. It'll be good."
"Well. All right. But tomorrow night we cruise for burgers."
It was after eight-thirty. When he checked the refrigerator Dave found a very old carton of yogurt and something that had once been an apple. The other shelves were empty except for nine mason jars containing homemade jam, jelly, and preserves. Dave waded through the cats and went out the kitchen door and down the stairs. The air was still warm, though the last of the sunlight was gone.
He crossed a low rise and there was the ocean. He took off his shoes and socks. The sand at the waterline was the same dark khaki color as his trousers, drying to perfect cream in the dunes where he stood. The water was murky green and it flashed blue in the starlight as the waves curled into the land. Out to sea the drilling platforms made islands of harsh white light. Closer in, Dave saw the running lights of a barge headed for Freeport.
There were a few cars parked by the water, no more than six or eight between where he stood and the pier a mile to the north. Somebody had a jam box playing rap. All Dave could hear of it was the thud of the drum machine and an occasional raspy cry. He stood and watched for a while. Then he closed his eyes and listened to the tide rumble toward him and hiss slowly away.
A six-pack, he thought. Maybe a can of Planters Cocktail Peanuts and a hot dog with mustard and relish. A couple of cream-filled chocolate cupcakes with white squiggles on top for dessert. The thought of it almost made him pass out. And a Playboy and a Penthouse that he could read without anybody looking over his shoulder.
He walked to the highway and put his shoes back on.
Off to his left, two blocks away, it intersected a second highway that came from the general direction of Freeport. The second highway had just come down off a high bridge. Red and green lights hung underneath the bridge and, below it, squares of light shone in the windows of the A-frames ,and stilt houses that lined the barge canal.
There was a 7-Eleven on one corner of the intersection and a much older grocery across from it. Dave headed that way, keeping to the gravel along the edge of the road. The town of Surfside, such as it was, seemed on the verge of drying up. Next to Kitty's was Evelyn's Seafood and Steaks, now closed. The block after it was empty except for an abandoned white stucco convenience store.
Dave cut across the highway to the Surfside Grocery. It was a long, low, frame building, light blue, with a couple of gas pumps in front. The inside smelled of yeast and sugar. It was a smell 7-Elevens never had. The counter ran along the front wall to the right of the door. An old wooden magazine rack stood in the left-hand corner and from the doorway Dave could see they had an extensive selection of off-brand skin magazines. It didn't matter, though, because the woman at the register was so young and good-looking he was embarrassed to buy them from her.
Dave got a twelve-pack of Bud and some 7-Ups and looked through the junk food rack in the middle of the store. Gimme caps and bandannas hung from a clothesline overhead. Dave pretended to examine a bandanna with a skullfaced biker and flaming letters that read "Highway to Hell."
The girl leaned into the counter, talking to a man in a volunteer fireman's cap. Her hair was black and cut so that it stuck straight out all over. She wore a black T-shirt with the sleeves ripped out. The front of the shirt showed a skull between the words "Suicidal" and "Tendencies." It was the name of a thrash band that Anson had talked about. Her lipstick was the color of arterial blood and her eyes were outlined heavily in black. A single black tear was either painted or tattooed below her right eye. A toy dagger hung from the opposite ear. She might have been five or ten pounds overweight. Dave was not inclined to criticize.
"Got to go," the fireman said.
"See ya," the girl said. The fireman eased out the door in a Texas walk, big steps taken very slowly.
Dave put the drinks and junk food on the counter and asked for a hot dog. She rang up the rest of the groceries while it cycled through the microwave. "Can I see some ID for the beer?"
She had a soft voice with no discernible accent. Now that he was closer he could see her hair had grown out light brown at the roots. It gave her an odd, half-finished look.
Dave nodded and got out his wallet. He already had the license on the counter before the absurdity of it hit him. Jailhouse reflexes, he thought. He still did what anybody told him to.
"This license is expired," she said.
"Oh come on. I'm forty years old, for God's sake. Are you seriously not going to sell me that beer?"
"Maybe I just wanted to see what your name was." She showed him the edge of a smile, then rang up the beer, five beeps and a whir. "And it says there you're only thirty-nine."
"Okay, I confess," Dave said. He put his elbows on the counter and leaned closer. "I'm fourteen. The license is a fake."
Her eyes cooled. "Radical," she said. The microwave chimed. She put the hot dog in a bun and the bun in a foil bag. "That'll be nine eighty-three."
Dave paid her. As he put his hand on the door she said, "I bet they call you Dave."
He hesitated. "That's right."
"Good night, Dave."
He was outside before he realized he hadn't asked for her name. What a moron. But then she was just a kid. Much too young for him. And some kind of punk besides. Did they even have a minimum age for selling beer in Texas?
Drop it, he thought.
On the northeast corner of the intersection, across from the 7-Eleven, was the tourist information center. It was a beige portable building that looked long abandoned. Beyond it the road dipped down to the beach. The wind had come up and Dave could hear the waves going off like muffled explosions. The spray glinted briefly as it hung in the air. West of the building, lined up along a rutted dirt lot, were four historical markers. There was nothing else but low marsh grass anywhere around.
Dave stopped to read the markers by the light of the 7-Eleven. They talked about the city of Old Velasco. The first battle between Texas and Mexico had been fought there. He found himself oddly moved. He'd let himself forget about history. Places, like people, were the sum of the things that had happened to them. Surfside hadn't always been there, and it hadn't appeared out of nowhere.
The same could be said for Dave. Once he'd been a high school student, on scholarship at St. Mark's School of Texas in Dallas. It was where he'd first met Fred and Anson. Mad Dog had come later. Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, soon to become rock stars, were only two grades ahead of him. Their band, the Marksmen, had played at his sophomore dance. His senior year he'd been in love with a girl named Alice. Her image-short, dark, head cocked at an angle-had become the symbol of all his adolescent longing.
They didn't teach Texas history at St. Mark's. The students were expected to already know it. Dave had transferred from out of state and had never picked it up. Standing there at the edge of the highway, listening to the tide, smelling the salt flats, Dave felt disconnected. Like he was just visiting. The brown cast-iron markers told him that the love of the land, like any other kind of love, was something he would have to earn.
He took his dinner home and sat on the front porch to eat it. The cats got in the windows and rubbed their entire bodies against the glass and screamed. The hot dog was mostly cold and tasted long dead. The Budweiser was sour and gave him an immediate headache. By that time he'd lost interest in the cupcakes so he put them in the refrigerator with the rest of the beer.
He stood for a second and looked at the red-and-white cans against the bare metal shelves. Mrs. Cook had said no booze. Surely, he told himself, she wouldn't care if he kept a few beers around for visitors. And if she did, well, to hell with her.
The thought of this day, of being out of prison and by himself again, with a comfortable place to live and enough money to get by, was the only thing that had kept him going for the last six months. Now he wanted somebody to blame for the way it was turning out.
He went upstairs to look through his stuff. Most of it reflected the useless knowledge he'd spent his life accumulating: books on neurology and Japanese calligraphy, the table from his homemade animation stand. A decent turntable and tape deck, a crummy amp, some headphones, no speakers. Enough clothes to go a couple of weeks without doing laundry, plus a suit for weddings and funerals. A couple of hundred homemade tapes.
He took a handful of cassettes downstairs. The shelves under the staircase held a 24-inch TV, a VCR, and a stereo with surprisingly hip components: Akai, Kenwood, big Advents, even an equalizer. He put on Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey and cranked it up to where he could feel the backbeat move against the out-of-key horns. That was better already. He picked Greaseball up under the armpits and danced him around the room. The cat stared at him with mild contempt as he hung limply from Dave's hands. "Relax," Dave said. He decided he would have a 7-Up.
On the way back from the kitchen he turned the TV on with no sound. In Bastrop FCI the TV had been on constantly. The prison officials knew the true opiate of the people when they saw it. Dave had learned to tune it out, but it really got under some people's skin. One of the guys Dave knew used to talk about fucking a TV set. Say a black-and-white portable that he could carry around with one hand. He wanted to go to a sex shop for an artificial vagina and have a TV man install it directly into the picture tube. Then the next time one of those models got up there and started to come on to him he could put it right in her mouth.
Dave knew how the guy felt. So many heart-stoppingly beautiful women, and all they wanted was to sell him minipads or cars or mutual funds. It could get the idea of sex all twisted around in somebody's head. Especially with no real women there to straighten him out again.
The old lady had the full package of cable, including movie channels. Dave went through them all without finding anything to hold his attention. He looked through the video tapes on the shelf under the TV. None of them had labels. Dave put one in the machine and fired it up.
The Army recruitment ad on the screen went blank and a grainy, taped image fluttered into place. It showed a young man with brown hair past his shoulders, a mustache, and tinted fighter-pilot glasses. He stood behind a stainless-steel pulpit engraved with two concentric circles inside a square. The same symbol had been painted on the wall behind him, below three-foot-high letters that read AASK. The letters looked to be made of Styrofoam covered with Reynolds Wrap.
Dave turned the stereo down and the TV up. "--st potent of all the unconscious symbols," the man said. Dave leaned closer to see the man's tie. It was not just the unusual pins pot lighting. The tie was clear plastic and had red lights that blinked on and off. "It is also a symbol of the unconscious itself in Jung's work, representing the psyche. Thus when combined with the square, representing earthbound matter, we have the image of wholeness."
The man had a nice voice, Dave thought, deep and smooth, like a late-night FM OJ. He also had remarkable eyes. They seemed to focus, in turn, on specific people in the audience and burn into them. He was clearly getting worked up. "And is this wholeness not the very thing that spiritualists have always sought? Have not mediums throughout history been greeted with the same words, 'Adonai Vasu,' that the Visitors use to greet us? And have not spiritual seekers through the ages met with the same repression when they got close to the truth? Madame Blavatsky encountered Men In Black--whom she called 'Brothers of the Shadow'--just as Albert Bender or Morris Jessup did."
The camera turned to pan across the audience. They seemed to be exclusively women, few of them below fifty. Their eyes were unfocused, as if the content of the lecture had failed to penetrate.
"Their weapons are always the same. Whether they are the telaugs of the deros or the white sound produced by Auralgesiac devices, their end is repression, withdrawal, denial."
Dave's own eyes had started to glaze. He hit FAST FORWARD on the remote. The man on screen waved his arms furiously. There was another shot of the audience. Dave slowed the tape. "--page 82 of Man and His Symbols, and I quote, 'In order to sustain his creed, contemporary man pays the price in a remarkable lack of introspection . . . His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food-and above all, a large array of neuroses.'"
Dave skipped ahead again. "--through the healing powers of the Visitors. For they can bring our conscious and unconscious selves together. And we can bring the Visitors to us through the power of our belief, the power of our desire for wholeness, for cosmic vision." He pointed to the letters on the wall behind him. "Americans Awaiting Saucer Kidnap. AASK. Ask and it shall be given you! Wishing does make it so! Adonai Vasu!" The audience burst into applause. Superimposed letters appeared on the screen, reading "Make checks payable to Bryant C. Whitney," followed by a Freeport PO box number. Dave hit STOP.
So this was the saucer nut that wanted to crack the will.
A little flaky, especially in his choice of ties. Still he was more widely read than necessary to please his audience of lonely, aging women.
Dave turned off the TV and finished his 7-Up. Now that the litter boxes were clean the house had a lilac-and-facepowder smell that seemed to come out of the very walls. It told him on an animal level that he was not on his own ground. He changed into an old pair of jeans, a clean white T-shirt, and moccasins. He was, after all, a free man. Anything could happen. Adventure might be just around the corner.
He switched off the stereo and went out into the night.