Aboard her boat, away from her home docks, trespassing for the night in somebody’s vacant marina slip, Edith drifted toward being awake, tried to hurry it up, asleep but aware of her dog barking. Still immersed in an intense dream and reluctant to leave it, wasted a couple of seconds remembering, and then another wondering how that dream could possibly feel sweet.
Waking as she went, scooted out from under a thwart and yanked out the hitch she’d tied up with. Left the line to trail in the harbor, pushed her boat Candyass out of the slip, hurriedly began to backwater. Free of the dock, hauling on one oar and leaning into the other, spun the stout wooden vessel around in its own length and started making some distance as a man’s voice called, “Hey Edie! Gotta run? C’mon, you have to leave?” At dusk, Edith’s last fare had left her a half mile from her usual overnight mooring, a houseboat she was reluctant to tie up to anyway, with all the strangers coming and going there now. Unless she’d connected with friends, after some stage of the evening Edith preferred not to walk around town anymore, even to bedsheets and a warm shower in her bedsitter room. The dog left off barking and shook down its hackles and gamely assumed its station in the bow, lay posed like a miniature sphinx with lame hindquarters stretched behind.
Because of the men making it plain that they were watching, Edith thought she had somehow gotten crossways with organized crime or the law. There were a lot of possibilities for that, but she’d started noticing the various observers not long after taxiing a passenger to a little floating house that’d newly been towed within her preferred range.
As houseboats go, it was handsome enough, didn’t try for idyllic, a marginally well-kept thing that was two or three notches above shanty scow, an actual boat and not an inert platform. Anchored a hundred yards off the pier, having been repeatedly chased away from other free moorage, it was a sound, workmanlike, tiny Depression-era dwelling—low barrel roof, a box squatting in the bleached-out thirty-foot teak deck of a heavily tarred flat hull. A coat of pea-green paint on the cabin maybe the only touch of whimsy besides the boat’s name, Owly Cat.
Someone she barely knew had introduced the passenger as Anders, then maybe bragging, said that the feds wanted him. Assured Edith that he wasn’t much of a desperado, just hard to find for questioning, low priority, not worth much effort on the feds’ part. The man merely winced, raised his eyebrows at the woman’s breach of etiquette. Edith smiled at her, said conversationally, “Shut the fuck up, you moron.”
Rowing him out, by way of conversation, Edith said,
“Where you from?”
“Minneapolis originally. Most recently I am a drifter. Left a teaching job, prefer short-order cook anyway.”
“Yes indeed, better than any number of things I guess.”
“You don’t sound real romanticized,” she said, expecting a hint or two at a shadowy past, a hint by which he’d look guarded, possessed of deep ennui rooted in enigmatic experience—she’d invited the guy to sound cool. Took her aback when he just told her yeah, he’d been at loose ends since being ransomed from a Central American jail by friends and family back home. An able short-order cook who could play affable bartender as well, her passenger might find a decent temporary job anywhere, though teaching wasn’t any longer an option, schools justifiably scared off by his history.
She’d found him easy to talk to, and he’d without a thought shipped the second pair of oars. Turned out to be ten years older, and that they were related through an uncle or something. Edith nodded amused approval as Anders, possibly wanting to show off for her, grabbed a line from the houseboat’s deck and correctly cinched it at his end of her miniature whaleboat. She heaved out his pack and handed up his barracks bag, having been cautioned about a portable typewriter packed in with the laundry. Passed along her calm little gray-muzzled mutt, accepted a hand up for herself, and followed him inside for a cup of tea.
“Okay, so what do they want to talk to you about?” she asked.
Answering that he’d finished college on the GI Bill and taught junior high for a few years, then acting out of conscience, stupidly gone to Guatemala with another social studies teacher who spoke a little high school Spanish. Immediately got in a lot deeper than they’d intended, found themselves among an indigenous band of self-invented Marxist guerrillas carrying vintage rifles, bird guns, and cane knives, along with a few modern Soviet-supplied arms. Husbands and wives in the group, everyone was part-time in the war. Knowing their territory, the group had ambushed the disdainful and unshakably overconfident US-funded goon squads, and by those men’s murder armed themselves and other Indians. And after months of intermittent skirmishes, their village having been burned and family members’ maimed corpses left lying around, Anders’s group had been chased over the border, where that other country’s army was waiting for them. At the time still called the British Honduras Volunteer Guard, the troops killed the Maya outright, put him and the other gringo into Hattieville Prison, to be slammed around and interrogated at great length by white guys whose native language was American English. Guys who one day lost all interest in the insurgent schoolteachers and disappeared.
The perfunctory outline left her in appalled silence and sorry she’d asked. As Anders dug things out of the big canvas bag to make tea, he changed the subject to the dog’s prosthesis—a well-made, well-conceived contraption something like a big roller skate, upholstered to fit the animal comfortably. Edith stepped on deck into the mist, arranged for the dog to relieve itself over the side. Put up the canvas top on her boat, went back into the cabin, and settled in with
Anders for the night.
She ran into him renewing the weekly rent on a Sears fiberglass with an outboard, never to be taken out past the buoys.
“Hiya. You used the flag?”
“Yeah worked great, your boy Neil came out and got me. Couple of hours.”
“Good! Hired him because he can work bombed out of his skull. Find two or three more Sasquatch, I’ll expand the fleet.”
“Where’s your dog?”
“Parked her with a friend in the city, go get her tomorrow. I went to America for a week. You get done here, I want to talk, okay?”
Then standing below the quay among the boat rentals and gas pumps and overnight utility hookups, she said, “What kind of shit are you into, man? Somebody’s looking at me. They want me to know it.”
Anders shrugged, “Tell them anything you like.”
“That’s the deal, they never ask. Not like I go up and say excuse me sir what’s new.”
“Because they’d just deny it and because I’m not totally sure it’s not my imagination, is why. Who the fuck, Anders! Just . . . all kinds of guys. Suits, some just regular hourly
dudes, and one time a city streets crew, Chinese guys.”
“Oh. Think so?”
“Okay, sounds a little paranoid. Okay. Maybe not everybody that looks at me and I guess I don’t want to know what you’re into anyway. So. How’s life treatin’ you, man? Eating
right? Getting in your eight hours?”
Starting to say something, Anders settled for, “I’m nobody, seriously. Marxist guerrilla, but feds would’ve just picked me up. I think.”
“God damn it. Man, do you know where you are? Get serious, people’s hero? Hey, prof? Look, man, you’re boss. Do some agitprop out here, organize some organizers? Or some really weird shit too, it looks like? I mean you know, God knows who-all’s looking at you, and now your cooties rubbed off on me.”
Pause. He said, “Lesson taken, but they wouldn’t advertise that you were, you know, surveilled. Surely. I think. Funny thing, in this neighborhood I’m a little angel. I like
you. Come visit?” Thumped his chest and leapt five feet down into his boat, looked up at her, grinning, to see how that went, pressed the electric starter. From the rental office
above, someone bellowed, “Hey! Hey!”
Among the things carried around her neck on a soft woven band was a waterproof Timex for keeping any prearrangements. At first, an Ansafone machine had taken a few calls
a week, but dockside check-ins were a time- and calorie-expensive nuisance, and ConTel had traced and confiscated the bootleg phone anyway. Some of the walkie-talkies she’d handed out were occasionally used, passed around in the out-anchored community, batteries even replaced. People shouted from piers and boats, hailed her taxi, or passed along messages to her—Edith wasn’t so much needed as enjoyed. The most reliable call method was a signal flag system she’d invested in, sewing squares big enough to be obvious within any distance she’d want to row, chartreuse with the black image of a whoopee cap in the middle. The two-
part emblem was a pictograph of her uncle’s Depression-era grease-monkey’s cap, the kind made from an old fedora cut zigzag and turned up, like a beanie with a shabby cartoon king’s crown around the bottom. Struck her as right for a heraldic device, right for an ensign, silly enough.
Full of fresh coffeehouse chatter and on the way back to his boat pleasantly anticipating writing it up for distribution, her passenger was giving her a taste. Edith said, “So you’re saying it’s whoever’s stenciling up all those little black deals? I heard about ‘black light’ acid, you mean it’s with that whole thing? Something ’bout weird-ass health problems but anyway of course everybody’s looking for it—I got that from the same head that told me about ayahuasca. So the new shit plus the graffiti are a thing. The wholesale people don’t put up ads, Albert. Fans
“Gotta mourn the passing of the dealer’s traditional customs, but ballyhoo aside, the groundbreaking said-to-be product or service—ain’t that a bite? Consensus of rumor says it is nonfiguratively killer shit. Nonfigurative and literal, presumption of mind-expandingness obviously, as well as lethality. And I don’t know any of the, like, volunteer subjects to ask, nor do I know any credibles who claim to know firsthand of any such heads, but then you wouldn’t know if you did unless they died. So does one ingest, inject, inhale, absorb, get irradiated? No say. ‘Intangibles’ is the term gaining vogue, as you’d buy a matchbox of intangibles. Absent
definitive word on the matter. Edie, love, your flag logo kind of looks like the graffito,” said her passenger.
“Yeah I know, all of a sudden and no goddamn fair. Fad, Kilroy Was Here, school kids doing them anymore, means zero now if it ever did mean something. Or nine out of ten little black dealies aren’t the one and number ten’s it. You know it’s just a whoopee cap. My flag.”
“Yes! Recognized it. Younger son made one out of my hat, token of his regard. Fads past don’t presume the given age’s innocence though, for example your Kilroy. Kilroy psycho, nose over your fence, Kilroy’s eyes peering over your metaphor, his fingers hanging on your perimeter fence, well-chosen fad, love.”
“Albert, have we had this exact same conversation before? I know we have, it’s the weirdest feeling.”
“Lovely to be remembered but no, sorry, to my knowledge that was another me.”
“You never said any of this? But I think I never heard you mention your kid before, your son. Must be, what, forty, forty-something. Where is he?”
“Korea, I’d have to guess.”
“Oh God, Albert, I’m sorry.”
“Stops with you. Next!”
“Jesus. Wow, sorry,” she said.
“Next!” he said.
“Okay uh . . . But so you have the idea it’s the juju thing with the bad dope,” said Edith.
“That hearsay swirls around the adherent-less stencil cult’s proprietary dope or not-dope, yes, but I do not have the idea myself, we gotta take as gospel the word of the drunk that confided it to me. But then it started being one of those with the, like, bidden ones evaporating? Going away. Pfft! You heard that part?”
“No. How do you mean? That’s . . . wow, you mean roll the dice then you die or, or you get snatched away to uh, to heaven or wherever?”
The passenger nodded, “Except the revolver’s mostly loaded, just one empty chamber when you spin. Or draw lots if that’s the game, oh look you—no not you, Chuck Fool—you yes you behind buster Fool and the rest of those sick people, you of the lot get to board the bus! Nirvana-ville! ’Board! Yer on! Arise arise from your wailing heap of fellow culties, many of whom are desperately ill, receive epiphanic enlightenment and float off like a fart on the breeze. Very cool, haute, like, very hip rapture. Ah, here’s one pertains to you—Boorham, you met him?”
Edith said, “Albert, we have said this before, this has happened before.”
“Love,” he said gently, leaned forward as she rowed, “That would come as news to me. I’m just now getting here. Are you alright?”
“Yeah. Sorry, go on.”
“Kid came up to me asking about local culture, more specifically the one mystical conman has Neil by the raisins. Young Boorham’s not sound. Both hands to keep his lid on.”
“He’s starving himself, for one thing.”
“Oh. Given the choice, the Buddha chucked that in favor of, like, Buddhism . . . So the kid went with your boyfriend Neil and his wife up the coast. Comical, nonplussed the lad so, his running into me—down here we’re in context in little buddy’s reality, now relocate my context to karmic bedlam! Ha! That confounded planet of mine was here somewhere, he’s thinking, left it right here I swear! Finds himself in the Sunday funnies, Little Buddy in Hieronymus Bosch Land.”
“Yeah. Well. Hang in there buckaroo, good luck. But hey, Albert, dammit, my boyfriend Neil? Oh right, bullshit! That is such a load of horseshit and I am getting goddamn irritated with it, listen, man, I do not do interspecies sex! Yuck! . . . Wondered why Neil quit showing up for work.”
From Driving Lessons. Used with permission of the publisher, Deep Vellum Publishing. Copyright 2022 by Tim Coursey.