Rituals

The last of the second bottle of wine is in Josie's glass. The first, anunlabelled bottle of the house white, was a disappointment consideringthe reputation of the restaurant. Pirate called the waiter over, butnot daring to send the wine back, ordered a French Chardonnay. This wasmuch more of a success, everyone complimenting him on his completelyrandom success, and they were even inspired to finish off the firstbottle, which didn't taste so bad after all.

Time seems suspended for a while, everyone lost in their own thoughts,subdued for a change, silent. Josie holds her glass up to the light,gently swirling the wine and watching the candle through it. Piratein turn watches her, as the flickering rays refract back through theamber liquid to dance about her face. Much later, he will mark thismoment as the turning point of the evening, the start of the fallfrom grace. She notices his attention and, eyes steady on him, drainsthe glass with a flip of her wrist, breaking with this casual gesturethe fragile truce of her last night in town.

Eight days ago, she called Pirate long-distance to say she was comingin on the morning flight and would it be all right if… of course,said Pirate, puzzled by the sudden request, but grateful for the excuseto ignore his senior thesis for another week. He drove his two roommatesto the airport for their trip out, lounged idly in a hard plastic chairfor an hour until her flight landed, met her at the arrival gate, collectedher luggage, drove her back to the city, gave her a few minutes to freshenup, and swept her off to meet his friends.

It was the final day of classes before reading week, and everyone leftin town was doing their best to be elsewhere. Each hour brought afresh wave of traffic, as students released from their last obligationsleapt onto all available modes of transportation and headed for beaches. The cafés were thronged with people having alast cappucino for the road; Pirate found his group at an outside tableof a feminist dairy bar called Mother Courage.

"Gentlemen, this is Josie. Josie, these are – in clockwise order – Schnell, Sven, Boswell, Old Blind Nick – known to his friends as Nickless – Marxman and Dervish." There was a pause, two beats precisely, and they all laughed together, Josie included.

The same group now encircles a large table at the best Frenchrestaurant in town. There are others who could be there: roommates,hangers-on, other foils and sycophants, but there are merely bitplayers; these six form the heart of Pirate's world. The maitre'd iseven now regretting the choice seating he gave them. He may beexcused, for it takes only a slight blurring of vision, a momentarysquint on the part of the casual observer, to see them perhaps asundergraduates at Oxford, between the wars, escorting a music-hallstar to dinner, conversing with just the right blend of youthfulinsouciance and premature worldliness. Undergraduates, yes, but therethe resemblance ends; for they live in a plug-in world, a culture ofplastics, wonder drugs, electrons whizzing at the speed of light, andhave fashioned from it a scythe under whose gleaming edge the weeds oftradition fall even before they have a chance to sprout. The namesare just the beginning.

"They're not nicknames," insisted Pirate, "they're legitimateappellations. People change constantly – why shouldn't names?"

"Punishment to fit the crime," said Marxman.

"I got the idea from, um, Pirate's letters," she said, "but not theexplanation."

"Take Sven here, our pale Nordic ice-surfer. Merely because of somemarriage not at all reflected in his genes, he was saddled with someWelsh monstrosity of a name. See, he blushes at the very thought of it."Sven hadn't been blushing, but that set him off – an old trick, thoughhe's learning to deal with it. He spoke softly.

"Sometimes I've written you notes in those letters, here at this verytable."

"Ah, yes," Josie smiled at him, "the coherent parts. Okay, some of thenames are obvious, but 'Schnell' – you aren't German?"

"It means 'fast'," said Schnell. "I wasn't called that until a fewweeks ago, when I developed tendonitis," holding up a cane.

"That's terrible. What were you called before that?"

Schnell frowned. "I don't remember."

"Philip Mazzei," volunteered Marxman, "after the guy on the postagestamp."

"It's pronounced Mah-zee," retorted Schnell, "not Mau-say."This had been a recurring argument the month before last, althoughneither of them knew what the hell they were talking about.

"Mau-say!"

"Mah-zee!"

"Graf Spee!"

"Sashay!"

"I can't call you any of those," protested Josie. "What did yourmother call you?"

"Ah, my dear departed mother, saidto me -"

"Nicht so schnell," interrupted Pirate. "The forms have to be observed."

"Fascist," observed Marxman. "Appellation controllé."

Form is important, these days. They have a theory to explain it all,suitable for exposition in cafés, bars, and small seminars. Ithinges on vague aesthetic groupings called "concepts", originally intendedto be impromptu impositions of structure on chaos otherwise difficult todeal with, but used increasingly to justify outrageous behaviour. Thusthe all-purpose excuse: "It's a concept." It was a concept when Boswelland Marxman, ran off small stickersthat, properly applied, converted the bus company's request to"HELP COMBAT VANDALISM" into "HELP COMMIT VANDALISM". The casualacquaintances and lesser satellites who are frequent victims ofsuch concepts often complain that, far from imposing structure,these acts seem designed to subvert it. That, the theory holds, iswhy they are lesser satellites.

"Three years is a bit much for a name," said Boswell, sippingat his milkshake, "but he's sodreadfully dull that we can't think of anything new to call him."

"Heave to, ye mouth-breathing vowelmonger," snarled Pirate, "ere I shanghaiyer sister for a session of rape and pillage."

"Recall where we are," whispered Boswell in mock horror, tippinghis head towards the large portraits of suffragettes in the windows, "a No-Rape Zone. However, pillage her if you like."

"I've seen your sister," said Sven, "he'd be a pillage idiot if -"and the rest of the sentence is drowned out by violent protests.The banter does not always follow this abbreviated, punning fashion.At times, especially when world-weary sophomores are within earshot,they tend to go off on long, convoluted narratives in which fact andfiction are interwoven past anyone's ability to unravel them. Pirate, in an economy of style, would often take elements from theseconversations and knit them into the oblique constructions of hisletters, doing multiple drafts to smooth them into the overall scheme.Only Josie, out of all his correspondents, would never remark on his creative efforts. She confined her replies to gossip about mutual hometownacquaintances, with only an occasional reference to the moreobviously factual of Pirate's statements. This was probably the reasonhe had continued to write her.

"If you gentlemen will excuse me a moment," said Josie.

"Inside, at the back," said Schnell. "The door marked "SISTERS"."

"I'm beginning to see why you guys hang out here," said Josie, noticingthe disapproving stares of the waitresses. "What's the men's washroomcalled?"

"There isn't one."

Josie raised her eyebrows impishly, slung her purse over her shoulder,and went inside.

"Well?"

"Well, what?"

"Who is she?"

"She's a friend from high school, goes to the state collegeback home. I found out she was coming only last night. Doyou think there's no straws here because they're consideredphallic symbols?"

"She's quite beautiful," observed Sven. Pirate was startled.He had never thought of her as beautiful before. They all lookedback after her; she had stopped to talk to one of the counterattendants, who had taken the opportunity to warn her about theboys' attitude.She glanced over, saw them watching, and smiled, a full, honest smilethat blossomed like the glow of sunlight though an opening door.

"Yes," said Pirate, "I suppose she is."

Most of the senior class left town during reading week, disregardingassignments and papers,snatching one last intense bit of communal recreation before thewhirlwind blows them all away. Pirate and companyhung around, conserving their funds for the obligatory post-graduation trip to Europe.Already there is a map tacked up in Nickless' bedroom, coveredwith multicoloured arrows in an attempt to let everyone make their individualpilgrimages — Pirate's art museums, Boswell's libraries,Schnell's pretty women — in a manner that maximizes their Combined Assault onthe Continent.

As if in preparation, they've spent the last week on a scaleexercise with Josie, a miniature blitzkrieg through the localsights at a breakneck pace, fuelled on manic energy, each daya different set of guerillas in different uniforms off to a differentpoint of the compass. Josie, once she stopped worrying for her life,realized that her role was that of audience, halfway between innocentbystander and active participant, and learned to ignore the frowns ofmore conventional tourists.Not even the restaurant tonight was immune; only Josie's protestsprevented them from taking full advantage when they learned that thewaiter's haughty Gallic attitude hid a lack of knowledge of French.At times therepartee came so fast and furiousthat it would prove impossible, post-mortem, to figure out exactly who saidwhat. Always some phrase too silly or obscure would bring thewhole shooting-match to a halt, the offending remark hanging in the air, noone willing to claim it.

The waiter brings the bill and there is brief discussion aboutwho had what before justice is abandoned in favour of simple division.Nickless and Dervish are off to a Hitchcock double bill, but Josie's hadher share of catching her breath in little repertory cinemas this week,waiting for the rain to abate. Outside, Sven offers his arm to her,but Marxman grabs it before she notices, and the two of them gogoose-stepping up the avenue at a furious pace. Pirate, Josie andBoswell hang back to escort Schnell, hobbling along cheerfully. Eventuallythey all wash up at Wholly Korova, a trendy little spot decorated with ajumble of old advertising trinkets, stained glass, stuffedanimals of dubious taxonomy, highway signs and faded Persian rugs.A claim is staked to a table under a moosehead that stares at themwith dolorous eyes long since crystallized to glass.

The bar boasts an extensive cocktail menu, complete with cute illustrationsand improbable names. Josie tries to order a tongue-twister of indeterminatecomposition; she has to take three passes at its name. Marxman dismissesthe menu and orders something he calls a Screaming Fascist, though he hasto write out the recipe on a napkin for the waitress.Pirate decides to fulfil a long-standingfantasy of going through the whole alphabet, ordering a drink for eachletter. Disdaining the traditional A's, he orders an avocado daquiri.No one believes such a beast exists, but there it is on the menu, oneof twenty-nine flavours offered.

A party of young collegians file by their table, exuding after-shave and confidence, wearing sweaters with theirfraternity name embroidered in restrained letters on the breast.They are escorting women who seem to be manufactured out of something smootherand cooler than ice, who pass through their surroundings payingthe least amount of attention necessary.Pirate's motley group falls silent as they pass, watching with amixture of curiosity and disgust, as if struck by a nagging feeling,deep down, that those golden youth possesssomething that they should desire. Not until they are outof earshot does Sven has the presence of mind to whisper, "Eugenicsparade," which sets everyone off on a round of preppy wisecracks.

"I swear, they look so damn happy," says Boswell, "they should havean inspirational motto on the back of those sweaters. Something like 'Form overContent.'"

"Ignorance is bliss."

"Bliss is ignorance," ventures Josie.

"No," muses Pirate, "'is' doesn't mean equivalence, it's an implication.Ignorance implies bliss. The logical meaning is 'not-ignorance or bliss'."

"Same objection — the English "or" doesn't work like the logical one.You can't make the transformation. All you can do is take the contrapositive, turn it around. Not-bliss is not-ignorance."

"Pain is knowledge," paraphrases Sven, cutting cleanly to the heart of it.

"Cute," says Pirate. He pauses for a moment,then adds dryly, "I hate cute." They all laugh;but only Pirate knows how close Sven's remark had come. He'svulnerable to aphorisms like that; he has to pull them off, likeleeches, before they sink their teeth in.

The waitress brings their drinks. Pirate looks at the green viscousconcoction placed before him and has to remind himself that it's a concept.Marxman's mysterious cocktail is revealed to bea pretty pousse-café with layers of red Cherry Heering, white cremede cacao and blue Curacao. The bartender, who looks like a moonlightingdeputy sheriff, is giving them suspicious looks. Josie's drink, like allthe drinks with amusing names, is a frothy mixture of rum and fruit juices.Pirate raises his drink – not without some difficulty, for it isserved unfashionably in a large martini glass so that the contentscan be coaxed out – and announces, "A toast,to someone special to all of us."

"Garibaldi," says Marxman.

"Marcel Proust," says Boswell.

"Jessica Lange," says Schnell.

"Susie Sorority," says Josie.

They've been remarkably together this week, considering theirdifficulties are more often a problem than a blessing. Noneof them are in the same department; they live separately, andmaintain their own circles of acquaintances and colleagues, the onlyway to ensure that they never become jaded, that they remainchallenges to each other.Whether the European campaign will work is an open question, whether they will haveany sort of cohesion away from the ever-changing environmentof school. Faced with a weight of tradition beyond manipulation,might they not slip into a dogma much like that of the uglyAmericans they abhor, creating small replicas of their native habitatthat extend no further than their hotel walls?

Pirate remembers well the last time they braved the vast, unnoticingface of nature.During theirsophomore year, someone organized a week-long backpacking tripinto the interior. Most of the current group went along,though under different names, of course. The first night out, Epididymis, a slender,rather neurasthenic chap – this was just before he got religion – brought out from his pack a cappucino-maker, screwed on anintricate steam-tube attachment, and set it proudlyon the fire. Pirate tried to throw it in a ravine.

This led to an unhealthy row, one screaming about desecration and the otherabout hypocrisy, and finally they had to be pulled apart. The days were too hot, the nights cold, the mosquitoes infernal; Marxmanwas trying to teach them all political correctness, Pirate went aroundwith a grim, forced cheerfulness, and Schnelldislocated his shoulder — he was still mobile, thank God, or theymight have left him for dead. Only Sven,calm and deep as the mountain lakes they hiked around,managed to holdthem all together and deliver them safely back to civilization. Allexcept Epididymis, who stomped off to join the Rosicrucians, orsome equally appalling fate. Just as well, said Pirate; he never had a senseof when to let go of things.

"What happens to old concepts?" asked Josie, as they sat sippinglattès in the Café Louis XVI. They were at a tableby the front window, the brightest seats in the house, away from thesmoky, cavernous interior pierced only by the single great shaftof light from the overhead skylight. "Is there some sortof committee decision to kill them off? Do you put them out on icefloes, like Eskimos?"

"Inuit", corrected Pirate, "and you're anthropomorphizing. Everyone realizes when one has run itscourse. We let others take them over, if it comforts them, makesthem feel trendy. Butthere's no sense in our being too comfortable. You remember thatlittle drugstore two blocks from campus?One day they put out a box of old wraparound sunglasses that had probablybeen in the storeroom for years, and priced them at a couple of dollars.We all went and bought a pair, plus extra to give to friends, and startedwearing them to school, being careful to not be seen in large groups. Atfirst everyone laughed; but within two weeks the store was sold out andhad to procure more, which they put on display at a much higher price.At which point we gave away all our glasses, and sat back to watch the fun."

"Your turn to laugh."

"We weren't being malicious."

"It seems just as trendy to me."

"No – that's the point! We don't wait for things to become trends.There's such inertia in people – if an idea wins mass approval, it'stime to forge ahead. It's the act of creation that's important."

"But can't you take time out to enjoy what you've created?Surely you can't always have change, never being sure…sometime you have to retreat to a place that's safe, surroundingsyou can trust."

"There's no place for trust. No, that sounds paranoid.What I mean is that it's not necessary."

"Not necessary?! That's the whole point of civilization: Conqueringour instinct to be selfish, because we needn't be continually on guard.I can walk down the sidewalk because I know the cars aren't going totry to run me over. Trust is the basis for security – for all ourrelationships."

It sounded like a litany to Pirate."It isn't, not any more, not in this age. It's an enforced trust, with something more fundamental beneath it."

"Which is -"

"Fear."

That was going too far;Josie pulled her wrap tightly about her and watched thestreet. The week is littered with conversational deadends likethat, paths in a maze, and as Pirate looks back over his shoulderhe sees all the branchings not taken, walled in by a pretension onhis part that evenhe finds astonishing, bricked over by Josie's unwillingness,wisely or blindly, to continue them. Some of these arguments Piratehonestly believed,some of them were extemporized in an effort to provoke her, into what he did not know, an involuntary comprehension, a tellingrage. Some were meant exclusively for Pirate, for he too must move down hisown cul-de-sacs, finding reasons to turn back.

Pirate is bidding adieu to the D's, represented proudly by an elegant glassof Drambuie which promises to return many hours later reincarnated ina Rusty Nail, when he notices Sven and Boswell conspiring at one endof the table. His efforts to find an alternative to theinevitable Eggnog are cut short by their announcement that they are tired of the beer here andwant to move on. "That's what you get for drinking beer," says Pirate."Besides, all the other places are isomorphic to this one."

Josie's head is cocked, listening to a distant beat. "I know,"she says brightly, "let's go dancing!"

"God, Josie," groans Pirate, "after that meal? We'llperish in violent convulsions."

"It'll help you digest."

"What about Schnell? He can barely walk, let alone dance."

Schnell waves off this objection. "You folks go ahead. I wasplanning to go to bed early, anyway."

Pirate's not convinced. He wants to continue his alphabetic journeythrough the menu. Josie turns to Sven. "Sven, do you want togo dancing?" she pleads. "Oh, Sven…," clutching at his sleeve,"…damn, I can't call you that… what's your real name?"

Sven considers, leans over, whispers in her ear, one hand comingto rest casually against her right shoulder. She beams. Pirateis annoyed, for no good reason – she knows Pirate's name, thoughshe hasn't used it once this past week, and everyone else knowsSven's – but for one frozen moment it seemed like their secret,knowledge withheld, a conspiratorial betrayal of form… Afterthat there is no question of resistance. Josie gets directionsfrom the bartender, bids farewell to the moosehead and to Schnell, and they step out into the evening.

Pirate's head is a picture-machine tonight. He has this flashimage of a culture that buries their dead vertically, facingnorth. Their territory lies in gently rolling terrain, and thegraveyard is in a sheltered valley, by the side of a stream thatnourishes a canopy of great trees. But in the winter come torrential rains. The creek swells intoa river; trees are uprooted, markers wash downstream. There is no one to tend the gravesites – where have they gone?The sodden grass gasps, drowns,loses its grip on the earth. The soil is gradually eroded away,and the dead emerge in perfect formation, hands at their sides,staring sightlessly ahead, an army of the night…

The moonless sky is ominous… who looks at the goddamn sky? They'reall scuttling along like waterbugs in Josie's wake. This is her territory,now. The club recommended by the bartender is just a few blocks upthe street, hiding behind an anonymous door, betrayed by adull, thumping vibration leaking through.It opens onto a long, narrow, low-ceilinged roomin the early stages of pandemonium. Tables and chairs arescattered at random throughout the smoky gloom;a bar lines the right wall. In the narrow space between the stage and the tables, a score ofdancers move unenthusiastically. Josie and Marxman attempt to inspirethem, while the others take up residence at a table near the back. Eventhere, conversation is difficult; Pirate cannot hear what Sven is saying.

"What?"

"I said, do you want to be left alone with her?"

"Good Lord, no… she thinks we're all interchangeable, you know."This was a corrupted summary of a conversation that had taken placejust that afternoon. Josie had decided to do some last-minute shopping.Cutting across the deserted campus, they plunged into the brushlining the main campus road, ducking under stray branches,moving through dense vegetation on a path barelydistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. "Why didn't we justfollow the road?"

"Well, this is a geodesic of sorts – nearly level, no sense in climbinga hill only to descend again -"

"Lazy bastard -"

" – and, somewhere around here, we come upon–" as they emerged into aclearing, an oasis of space flanked by half a dozen eucalyptus trees,clothed in peeling bark, their indifferent scent permeating the air.Sunlight filtered through jagged leaves to dapple the rich moisttrampled floor. A chapel — no, a devolved cathedral, returned throughtime to its primeval state, with a rude wooden benchfor worshippers, onto which Pirate and Josie sank gratefully. Overhead,birds conversed in staccato pipings. The wind stirred theleaves, changing the winking patterns of light and shadow that fellall about them.

Josie closed her eyes blissfully, revelling in the warmth of thelate afternoon. Pirate glanced at her, recalling a childhoodobservation of how much more angelic people looked while asleep. Suddenly hefound himself stricken with the desire to lean forward and brush hislips across her forehead. It was a surprising thought, comingcompletely out of the blue, and for a while he sat perfectly still,trying to decide how to deal with it.

The day wore on; the sun inched its relentless way towards the horizon.Pirate felt the wind blow fresh across his face, and tried to hold timeback by sheer force of will.At length he saw what would happen if he yielded to the impulse–

"I'm sorry-"

"I didn't know-"

"I wouldn't have-"

– no, it could have been done years ago, but too much time had passed,they had aged in all the wrong ways. He knew then with certainty what hadbeen true all along, and what this place meant to him, knew with a futility that descended likea premature nightfall.As if on cue, a cloud passed over the sun, and she spoke.

"This is where you really belong, not in those cafés. All thisjaded cynicism you exhibit — it's just a pose. You haven't lost yourability to wonder."

"Careful," said Pirate. "I might be acting."

"You're always acting," she replied. "There's so many layers there thatI'm surprised you can find yourself under them all."

"No layers. All of them are me. New names, new faces, new personas."

"But you don't assume them; you just wear them like masks. You keepthe world in flux so you can be in charge, so the game's always playedwith your rules. But you have to feign detachment because you can'tcare about anything for very long."

"Except cappucino."

"Be serious. I think you really do want to care. This urban sophisticationis an artifice, a product of this city and this university. None of youare really like that."

"Saw through us in a week, eh?"

"Now it's your turn to be careful; I'm not just another smalltown girl.I saw through you a long time ago. The others — well, you're all justprojections of the same concept."

"I didn't mean–"

"No, I know. Pirate, I do appreciate your suggesting books to read, ortaking me to obscure films. I know you're not trying to condescend –but I'm capable of some invention, too. I can even get some of theliterary references in your letters. I just choose not to constantly do the things you do."

"I'm sorry," said Pirate.

"Forget it, we're friends. I understand. But there's a lot of peopleout there who are also capable. They're not leaders, but they're notreally followers. They've maybe found something they like and want tostick with. They may not understand. What if you push them too far andthey start to push back?"

Pirate had no answers; it would take too long to justify his notcaring about all those "people out there", and at any rate he had suddenlylost interest in the conversation. "The stores will close soon; we'dbetter get going. Do you want cute, picturesque, or politically correctsouvenirs?" They rose, stretched, and came out into the concrete complexityof the city, the hubbub and noise smothering the moment.

A round-robin arrangement evolves under which Josie is kept continuouslybusy on the dance floor, which gives the boys a lot of time withtheir drinks. Pirate, not at all impressed with the creativity of themixed drinks offered, has opted for a more classic, simple style. This initially takes theform of Scotch-on-the-rocks, which he modifies to neat Scotchupon returning to whiskey-flavoured water after a particularly long version of "Louie, Louie".

Tumbler in hand, he makes a survey of the other patrons, and issurprised to realize that none of them are students. A few of themen are even wearing vests, their jackets left behind at their tables,discreetly mopping perspiration from their brows with white handkerchiefs.These are locals – businessmen, salesmen, university employees, juniorclerks, tipsy receptionists, girls from the steno pool, sneaking intothe students' unguarded territory for a last fling before the hordesreturn. Or is this their territory? They keep coming in — the placeseems familiar to them…

None of them have been dancing for years. Pirate remembers the earlyyears of high school dances, which were nothing like this. No smoke.Nothing stronger than pop – at least, not inside the building. And noone would dare go out on the dance floor alone. That was for losers.It was in the era just before disco, and everyone would go dressed intheir usual clothes, to jump around to the old familiar tunesthey had heard on their radios that morning over breakfast. Pirate would go with Jimmy, Alan, Stu, the whole gang. Josie would be there,with her little clique of girlfriends, all chewing gum, wearing a little toomuch makeup, laughing a little too loudly. Pirate detested them all, theirprattling, their painted faces.Had Josie not been his main rival in English, he might never have spokento her.

The night would be filled with juvenile intrigues, who liked whom,getting up the courage to dance with that special one, dedications andrequests, periodic strategy conferences in the washrooms, awkwardattempts to dance to those songs that kept changing tempo, rumours,backbiting, hearts mended and broken. Around eleven the teacher-chaperonewould announce the last song, to a chorus of boos, and the action wouldmove to the local ice-cream parlours. Gradually the silliness woulddie down as people departed, tired and happy. Pirate wentto every one of them, he and the gang, until disco broke, and peoplestarted dressing stylishly and learning the Hustle. But by that time,they had discovered alcohol.

At some late stage Pirate notices that Josie appears to havereturned permanently to thetable, outlasted by the band, who seem incapable of ending their set.She and Sven are talking by putting their mouths to each others' ears,and gesticulating a lot.The noise has gotten worse as the place becomes crowded; tables andchairs have lost their affiliations to each other, and the servicehas become impossibly slow. From time to time the sound of breakingglass heralds the downing of a waitress.

The banter at the table has taken on a cutting edge; they are talking about women.It's the subject they are least qualified to talk about, not for lackof experience, but because they have no female friends in common; thereare none in the group, only in their "otherlives" — women met in their classes, or through their hobbies, friendsof friends of friends. From time to time one of them disappears fora few weeks, popping up suddenly at Mother Courage one day, the only explanationfor his absence a sheepish smile, and the others are left to ferretout the details of the pursuit. Pirate was well aware of this when heleft them in the dark about Josie, that very first day.

"I think you should try meeting some of these," says Marxman to Pirate, referringto the apparently unescorted women out on the dance floor."It's been a while since what's-her-name."

"You don't mean Miss Ann Thropic, the ice maiden," says Boswell.

"I can't imagine whoyou mean," says Pirate haughtily.

"The senator's daughter… the one who gave you the vote of no confidence."

"Tabled your motion."

"Vetoed your budget."

"I never knew anyone in politics. That's more your style. I seem toremember a certain visiting scholar–"

"Don't evade the subject. You have not explained how you could fallfor someone whose views you consider dangerous."

"I wasn't going to vote for her – or her father, for thatmatter. Call it a failed covert action."

The foils are off; some of these barbs are capable of drawing blood. This is the type of treacherous ground Pirate reallyenjoys, where gaps in knowledge are patched over with a blend of facts, deductions, and inventedmemories. There are no worthier opponents than my friends, he thinks.His blood sings. Josie watches quietly from the other side of thetable, her face betraying no opinion.

"Those two over by the bar. Pick one. Or take two, they're small."

"Talk about dangerous views. Look at these folks, living for the weekend,partying it up, swilling this stuff that passes forScotch, sunk in the delusion that their workaday world is a prisonwhich they must return to on Monday."

"And you know better," says Boswell, baiting him.

"What they do during the week isn't work – it's guaranteedcomfort. They don't have to think at all; it'll all come if theyput in their time, the suburban home with the filled two-car garage,the wet bar and the wide-screen TV in the finished rec room. They'll never realize that there are three layers to society,just as in Marxman's fascist drink. They're in the upper layer;their success is certain. The lower layeris guaranteed unhappiness; there is no way they'll ever make it. They're as dead inside as these poor souls. It's only themiddle layer that is truly alive – and yet they are to bepitied, for they are doomed to uncertainty, without destiny, suspended, trapped in theMittelwelt – "

"You're really on a German kick these days," says Josie. "Isn'tEnglish good enough for you? Why not just call it the Middleworld?"

"German is more precise. Those long compound nouns, harsh gutturals,clicking consonants. Ach du Lieber. Blut und Eisen. The sonority of these terms is important,the cadence, the prosody…" His train of thought keeps getting derailed.The atmosphere is viscid, crawling in and out of his throat with eachbreath.

"And which layer do you inhabit?" asks Boswell, to get him backto the subject, though the answer is now obvious.

"I'm here in the middle," sighs Pirate," with no one to blamebut myself. Struggling against an uncaringworld — ow," he complains, as he is hit with a showerof pennies, kept in the pockets of the others for occasions suchas this. No one's ever going to pity Pirate except the oneperson who shouldn't, namely himself.

"Come, old bean, it's better than being down in the red layer withthe peasants," says Marxman.

"But their misery is not their fault. They at least have theconsolation of knowing their fate. They have their champions: Jesus Christ,the Statue of Liberty, Superman…" Pirate trails off. Thesemythologies, so simple on the shelves of his mind, always soundfoolish when he gives them voice. He begins to realize that he isn'tgoing to get out of this one.

"Really," sniffs Boswell, "we must teach this boy to stop talkingin Capital Letters."

"You're romanticizing," says Josie sharply. "You think there'ssomething desireable about being poor and sick? There's no gloryin starvation."

"Not glory," says Pirate, though he senses that she will neverunderstand. "Grace. A state of grace."

"Blessed are the weak," intones Sven, who seems to have materializedout of the darkness behind Josie's chair, something cool and wetin his hand. Pirate barely glances at him.

"And I say there's nothing graceful–"

"You're missing the point. Concern about the lower layer is just a wayof taking the heat off the upper layer. They're the ones we shouldbe concerned about."

"I recognize this analogy," says Marxman. "Didn't Orwell mention threelayers, with revolutions being just an exchange of the top two?"

"No, no, Orwell was talking about politics; this is social. And noone's interested in exchange. These people need some shaking up.This sanitized chaos of theirs – these Saturday-night rituals,co-opting the fun without the danger, ready to drop it all in the nameof 'responsible behaviour' at a moment's notice -"

"When they do it for fun, it's contemptible," Josie bursts out, "butwhen you do it seriously, frightening people, maybe even hurting themin the name of some social ideology, then it's all right? Your Mittelwelt -"

"Yeah, your Mittelwelt," interjects Sven deftly, tryingto defuse the situation, "I got your Mittelwelt right here,"mugging, grabbing his upper thigh.

"'s true," mutters Pirate. "You do. I concede. Forget thewhole thing. Let's dance," this lastfor Josie, who is staring at him with an anger that will not beeasily placated.He drains his drink — a lot of thatthis evening, very theatrical gesture – and stands up. It is a mistake.Suddenly the band is plugged directly into the base of his skull. A cymbal crashes and he winces. Josie glances at Sven — what is that lookon his face? Pirate wants none of it –and rises, turning away into the crowd. Pirate follows.Sven is shouting something about "theMittelwelt champion", most uncharacteristic behaviour, but of coursehe'll apologize tomorrow.

Josie stops, looking for a hole in the mass of people; Pirate leansover from behind to whisper in her ear. "We've never gotten drunktogether, have we?"

She is remote. "I was on one of your taco expeditions. The oneyou called the bombing run."

The bombing run… it was in their glory days, years and years ago,when they were seniors in high school, and the world was circumscribedby suburban boundaries. They would gather insomeone's basement on a weekend evening, music running strong, lending backgroundto discussion of wine, women and song, not necessarily in that order,punctuated by the explosions of beer cans being opened. The TV wouldalways be on, silent, its effect transmuted into flickering monochrome shadows,its visual idiocy occasionally drawing catcalls and thrown wads ofnewspaper. Around midnight someone would inevitably suggest a trip topick up tacos, still a novelty then. One by one, each participantwould deny the ability to drive – and so it was always the last oneto respond, the one too drunk to even lift his tongue off the floor ofhis mouth, who by default had his inert body dumped in the driver's seatand his hands wrapped around the steering wheel.

Picking up anyone who could be commandeered without parents being thewiser, they would careen through the deserted streets at highspeed, miraculously avoiding the cops. The night of the bombing run, Jimmy had a couple of cases of brew in the backseat of his Dodge. The late-night shift at the taco stand would look the other way if you wanted to supply your own beverage.On the way back, someone ditched an empty bottle outthe window. That started a general run of target practise on mailboxes,telephone booths, and fire hydrants.Jimmy had to keep both hands on the wheel to keep from drifting ontothe sidewalk; butat the next light, he decided to join in the fun. He reached backwith his right arm, pulled a full bottle out of the case, and aimeda lob through the driver's window, which happened to be closed atthe time.

The bottle exploded; suds and shards of wet glass flew everywhere.For a few seconds everyone froze; the car stalled as the clutchwas let out. Then a primal sound roseout of Jimmy's throat. It was laughter… deep, full,uncontrollable laughter, in which everyone joined, unharmed, laughter withoutend, acelebration of invulnerability, of the clarity and intensityand boldness of youth.

Pirate's projector is jolted temporarily out of commission by an elbowin the ribs. The singer in the band is howling something about goinghome. It seems to be a popular sentiment; the dance floor is jammed,and most people are singing along. Everyoneis shrugging and twisting up and down in their own cleanly definedlocus… the standing dead,reanimated… those nearest Pirate are getting annoyed at hisinability to stick to his own space. Josie won't look at him. Nomatter: he always dances alone. He resists the urge to strike outrhythmically at those around him, and gives himself up to the music.

He was watching for her sullen presence,but he cannot remember it. Nothing in his memory corresponds tothis creature tracing intricate patterns before him with her toes.Not for the first time that week he thinks: who is she? and whyhas she come to haunt me? After four years of discontinuousexperience, going home during Christmas and summers to find her inthe same familiar environments, he had come to confuse the placewith the girl. Any number of substitutions could have been madefor the person he thought he knew, and he would not have knownthe difference. He had been proud of the convolutions in his letters,lies in the name of structure; did it ever occur to him that shecould also lie?

Say, where have Jimmy and the others disappeared to? Why has shesurvived, and not they? When did it all become so uncertain?Who took away that clean, breezy style,and substituted this murky struggle, this grappling in half-light withan assailant whose face remains unseen, between the shadows one dreadsand the light in which too much may be revealed… It is too lateto ask Josie these questions. There isfar more space between them than the dance floor willadmit to.

The dancers draw narrow patterns across the night, intertwining,combining and recombining. They all seem to know each other; the placeis on the verge of locking into one of those massive, complex piecesof group choreography that one sees in movies. Pirate suddenly feelsoutside it all; he tries one last time, taking Josie by the shoulders,hoping for the explanation he doesn't expect her to deliver. What hegets instead is that look she has been withholding, which causes himto recoil as if stung. Is it anger? contempt? triumph? Later he willremember only the intensity; it lasts too briefly for him to comprehend.

The band is winding up their song, to the cheers of the crowd. Eddies and currents form in the mass as dancers head for their tables, the bar, the washrooms.Josie slips into one of them and is past him before he has quitestopped moving. He reaches after her and knocks the lensout of someone's eyeglasses.By the time it is retrieved, sheis well ahead. Sven stands firm at what used to be the edgeof the floor, calling her name, as people flow about him. Incredibly,the music starts again. Bodies leap and jerk, can she hear? She raisesher arm, reaches out, their fingersseek each other across the narrowing gap…

Pirate is carried away and past them. He curses the crowd, thenrealizes that he's no longer in control.His legs are operating entirely on reflex, carryinghim roughly through the crush, towards the exit. Something at the base of his spine is directing operations. It'svestigial, he thinks, I'm regressing, reverting to form, becomingreptilian. He tries snapping his jaws like an iguana at a waitressas she glides past, but succeeds only in biting his tongue. Thepain brings a curtain down; tearsspring to his eyes and he brushes angrily at them. But they won't go away, though their salt taste changesto freshwater, flowing in all directions, up through his hairand over his ears. Eventually, he realizes that it's raining.He's outside, headed south.

The street sleeps upon the earth, itsbroad back an animated pointillist sketch created by thousands ofraindrops ending their brief lives in tiny splashes.Pirate tries to populate its deserted stretch with the carnivalinside his head, hoping to jam the picture-machine, which is sendingout cracked echoes of the dance floor.The street's having none of it. It tries to throw him off, bucklingand twisting like some massive sea-serpent. Pirate hangs on,riding it, a modern surfer on an asphalt wave, until it quiets down.Like a fighter who has tasted first blood, he bellows his challengeto the surrounding urban landscape. There is no answer.

Curse them all, he thinks, especially her. Does she know what she does,is she the last remnant of the old order come to destroy the new, or hasshe unwittingly hit some Achilles' heel that even Pirate overlooked?He has no clear idea of where to go next. The buildings turn theirbacks on him. Even the rain stops; all issilent, glistening under the streetlamps, waiting. Heis in an uncharted part of town. And here there be dragons.

Look! there, one approaches, belching forth fire into the darkness,searching restlessly through the mists that rise sluggish intothe air. See the malice in its yellow eyes andgleaming teeth; hear the murmur of its breath and the grindingof its bowels. It looks first this way, then that, stoppingto listen for your footsteps. Surelyyou are too small a target. But no, it has spottedyou, Pirate; it commences its run. The beast is upon you, and youwithout cape or sword, trapped in this narrow canyon. Where willyou hide now? Who is here to protect you?

The smell of death in his nostrils, Pirate grabs at the nearestobject, which turns out to be a lamppost.Dazed and bewildered, he clings to it as the last busto downtown roars by in a cloud of exhaust, the driver honking impatiently at him. Hislegs fail him at last, and he slides to the sidewalk in a soddenheap. In the distance a siren wails. Suddenly he has had enough.I must go back, he thinks, even if vanquished, I must go down fighting.

But which way is back?His mind only admits to two directions, but the streets, perversely,go every which way. At this point he couldn't find the way backif he tried, though he does try, down several sidestreets, weavinga most irregular search web. All in vain, Pirate, your responses arepreordained, there's no will within, only the will of God, whichHe reveals to the preterite on a need-to-know basis, in small slicesintended as object lessons… but the eyes of God are off himtonight, for a few brief hours he is nameless… they won't call mePirate any more, I wonder what they'll call me…

When he sees his house he gains a small understanding. They always leave you a way out; there is no sanctuary, butthere is escape. He accepts the pro

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