Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Untitled Short Story Part 2: no journey in the well-decked ships

So I, my friend, must purify myself, and for those who offend in the telling of stories there is an ancient method of purification, which Homer did not understand, but Stesichorus did. For when he was deprived of his sight because of his libel against Helen, he did not fail to recognise the reason, like Homer; because he was a true follower of the Muses, he knew it, and immediately composed the verses:
This tale I told is false, There is no doubt:
You made no journey in the well-decked ships
Nor voyaged to the citadel of Troy.
Plato, Phaedrus.

Sandro was driving a Candy Apple Red Shelby GT 500 - the last model Carroll Shelby had ever made with Ford, gifted to Sandro by some crazy Hollywood people in the summer of 1970. It was just after dawn, and he was driving through Pandora Avenue, Westwood, past the sloping lawns of Art Deco/Mediterranean-style mansions and the security perimeters of gated communities that seemed to hum like electronic bee-hives in the early morning. He felt a strange impulse to try to burgle one or other of the mansions - the absence of people and the pristine quality of the dawn light made the Westwood villages look like an absurd world of brittle doll-houses, with sleek European sports cars and brightly coloured trampolines the only outward sign of habitation. Sandro had stolen out at first light, leaving First Priestess snoring in his bed, Second and Third sleeping in their dorms, and a small group of visiting witches sprawled out in sleeping bags around an eerie Caribbean totem on the coffee table in the den. He had received a summons from don Lorca - a summons which was not to be taken lightly, if for no other reason than the fact that don Lorca was, to all intents and purposes, a figment of his imagination.

It had all started at a Geyhound bus depot in Yuma in the summer of 1960. By all subsequent accounts, Sandro had been hovering up and down the border towns for a month or two, researching local Indian customs and beliefs relating to medicinal plants and hallucinogens. Which was true, up to a point, but on that particular weekend he was in Yuma to catch up with a married woman he'd been carrying on with back in LA. Jackie Sloane was twenty years his senior, and married to a failed rancher who worked as a high-school janitor and sold vacuum cleaners door to door in places where people had no carpets and didn't give a shit. Jackie came out to California one weekend to visit her modish little sister up at UCLA, and that's how things got started with Sandro. Sandro coming down to see her in Yuma was more or less how they ended.

And they ended badly. Jackie was half-drunk when she arrived at the station to pick him up, and they drove mostly in silence to a motel called Geiger's that had a stylized neon motif of a gamma counter swinging back and forth at the top of its tall cylindrical road-sign. Sandro taught it looked ominous against the haunted panorama of desert skyline, like a sober truth mockingly spelled out in skid-row architecture. (He experienced the same eerie feeling a couple of years later when the Outer Limits started showing on ABC, and each week a grim voice seemed to issue from the hidden depths of the American technocracy: "We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.")

When they got into a room, Jackie said she wanted to talk, so they both got drunk on bacanora tequila. Then she adopted a very grave expression, and told Sandro she'd asked him down to Yuma to see how serious he was. She said if her husband didn't kill her, she'd kill herself, and she was going back to California with him to have a real life. Sandro told her it was impossible, but she insisted, clutching his shoulders and looking at him in an intense way that suggested both obligation and inevitability. Sandro struck her twice in the face, and then lurched onto his feet and backed away from the bed, as though he himself had been slapped. Jackie looked stunned for a second, and then went into a weird catatonic trance. He woke up intermittently during the night, and every time he looked she was still sitting at the edge of the bed, the back of her head illuminated each time the gamma counter sung back in the direction of the motel window.

The next morning she gathered her stuff briskly, and when she paused at the door to say goodbye, she never turned her head. Though Sandro would do much worse things to people, particularly women, in the course of his life, his mind often returned to this incident. It was only that image of the back of Jackie Sloane's head that instilled in his otherwise unyielding nature the vague, perhaps wholly superstitious intimation of having done an ineradicable wrong, of having blotted a ledger that couldn't be hidden or forged. He could never fully reason it out, but he suspected that the memory had become coloured by the subsequent events of that day - a day suffused with a sense both of destiny and severe personal judgement.

Weaving recklessly in and out of the past, Sandro drove slowly down Ocean Avenue, past decaying tourist restaurants, palm trees, and strange geometries of pastel apartment towers to the east, and Palisades Park to the west, with its yin and yang of jogger and tramp greeting the morning in their respective fashions. The traffic on the roads had been steadily increasing since about seven, and Sandro, who had not driven for many years, was struck again by the oddity of automobile culture. You had to constantly remind yourself that every car that whizzed by was another person, was the intersection with another world as dense, complex, and significant unto itself as your own. But the highways and their ceaseless traffic nullified everything; the great dream of speed and freedom eradicated individuals and histories, and transmuted the people of this land into a river of blurring vision and snarling sound. Sandro used to study traffic years ago. He watched it until its familiarity ebbed away, and the endless renewal of vanishing automobiles became a perfect abstract of every impulse and predilection of the modern world. Studying man-made things was a valuable exercise in order the dismantle them, to divine their secret purpose. But it was not the same as looking at trees, rivers, or mountains. These things belonged to the order of the ineffable; if they had a secret purpose it was beyond our ability to fathom. Sandro believed that there were beings on earth who didn't distinguish in their vision between man-made and natural things. He remembered that they had once spoken to him in the desert. They told him that they saw the highways as rivers that carried swarms of shiny beetles to buzzing colonies of beehives in the west. He thought he had spoken to them; but maybe it was just another of the many stories he had invented.

A group of long-haired teenage boys, clad in baggy shorts and tee-shirts, emerged from the park. Their eyes followed Sandro's bright muscle car as it sailed alongside. The boys carried skateboards - decorative wooden boards equipped with wheels - under their arms at the waist. Sandro had heard about these boys - they prowled like alley-cats through the rear-gardens of palatial homes in Mar Vista, Brentwood, and along Ocean Avenue, searching for drained swimming pools in which to perform their brief miracles against gravity. Held up in traffic, Sandro glanced at the youths, and was struck by how otherworldly the Californian look was becoming, like a breeding experiment overseen by Third Reich pederasts. It seemed unsurprising to him that many of California's mystics and channelers were having visions of Aryan extraterrestrials coming down from the skies in glittering discs. The aliens were their own children, wondering starry-eyed through the vacuum of all their parent's botched and incomplete experiments. Sandro was surprised that Leary wasn't among the kids, a tie-dyed skateboard clutched under his dessicated arm. He flipped the boys the bird, and eased his foot on the accelerator.

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