A SLUG TRAIL OF GOOD CHEER
He might have been made of polished mahogany except that when he moved, he moved like liquid. The stage lights reflected green and red off his bald head as he swayed on the stool and teased the strings of a blond Stratocaster with the severed neck of a beer bottle. His name was Catfish Jefferson, and he was seventy, or eighty, or one hundred years old, and not unlike Roberto the fruit bat, he wore sunglasses indoors. Catfish was a bluesman, and on the night before the night before Christmas, he was singing up a forlorn twelve-bar blues fog in the Head of the Slug saloon.
Caught my baby boning Santa,
Underneath the mistletoe (Lawd have mercy).
Caught my baby boning Santa,
Underneath the mistletoe.
Used to be my Christmas angel,
Now she just a Christmas ho.
"I hear dat!" shouted Gabe Fenton. "Sho-nufF, sho-nuff. True dat, my brutha."
Theophilus Crowe looked at his friend, just one in a whole line of awkward, heartbroken men at the bar, rocking almost in rhythm to the beat, and shook his head. "Could you possibly be any whiter?" Theo asked.
"I gots the blues up in me," Gabe said. "She sho-nuff did me wrong."
Gabe had been drinking. Theo, while not quite sober, had not.
(He had shared a toothpick-thin spliff of Big Sur polio weed with Catfish Jefferson between sets, the two of them standing in the back parking lot of the Slug, trying to coax fire out of a disposable lighter in a forty-knot wind.)
"Didn't think you muthafuckas had weather here," Catfish croaked, having sucked the joint so far down that the ember looked like the burning eye of a demon staring out of a cave of dark finger and lip. (The calluses on the tips of his fingers were impervious to the heat.)
"El Niño," Theo said, letting loose a blast of smoke.
"It's a warm ocean current in the Pacific. Comes up the coast every ten years or so. Screws up the fishing, brings torrential rains, storms. They think we might be having an El Niño this year."
"When will they know?" The bluesman had put on his leather fedora and was holding it fast against the wind.
"Usually after everything floods, the wine crop is ruined, and a lot of cliffside houses slide into the ocean."
"And dat because the water too warm?"
"No wonder the whole country hate your ass," said Catfish. "Let's go inside fo' my narrow ass gets blowed back to Clarksville."
"It's not that bad," said Theo. "I think it'll blow over."
Winter denial - Theo did it, most Californians did it - they assumed that because the weather was nice most of the time, it would be nice all of the time, and so, in the midst of a rainstorm, you'd find people outdoors without an umbrella, or when nights dipped into the thirties, you'd still see someone dip-pumping his gas in surfer shorts and a tank top. So even as the National Weather Service was telling the Central Coast to batten down the hatches, as they were about to get the storm of the decade, and even though winds were gusting to fifty knots a full day before the storm made landfall, the people of Pine Cove carried on with their holiday routine like nothing out of the ordinary could happen to them.
Winter denial: therein lay the key to California Schadenfreude - the secret joy that the rest of the country feels at the misfortune of California. The country said: "Look at them, with their fitness and their tans, their beaches and their movie stars, their Silicon Valley and silicone breasts, their orange bridge and their palm trees. God, I hate those smug, sunshiny bastards!" Because if you're up to your navel in a snowdrift in Ohio, nothing warms your heart like the sight of California on fire. If you're shoveling silt out of your basement in the Fargo flood zone, nothing brightens your day like watching a Malibu mansion tumbling down a cliff into the sea. And if a tornado just peppered the land around your Oklahoma town with random trailer trash and redneck nuggets, then you can find a quantum of solace in the fact that the earth actually opened up in the San Fernando Valley and swallowed a whole caravan of commuting SUVs.
Mavis Sand even indulged in a little California Schadenfreude, and she was a Californian born and raised. Secretly, she wished for and enjoyed the forest fires every year. Not so much because she liked watching the state burn down, but because for Mavis's money, there was nothing better than watching a burly man in rubber handling a hefty hose, and during the fires, there were plenty of those on the news.
"Fruitcake?" Mavis said, offering a suspicious slice on a dessert plate to Gabe Fenton, who was drunkenly trying to convince Theo Crowe that he had a genetic predisposition toward the blues, using some impressively large words that no one but he understood, and periodically asking if he could get an «amen» and "five up high," which, as it turned out, he could not.
What he could get was fruitcake.
"Mercy, mercy, my momma done made a fruitcake look just like that," Gabe howled. "Lawd rest her soul."
Gabe reached for the plate, but Theo intercepted it and held it out of the biologist's reach.
"First," Theo said, "your mother was an anthro professor and never baked a thing in her life, and second, she is not dead, and third, you are an atheist."
"Can I get an amen?!" Gabe countered.
Theo raised an eyebrow of accusation toward Mavis.
"I thought we talked about no fruitcake this year."
The prior Christmas, Mavis's fruitcake had put two people into detox. She'd sworn that it would be the last year.
Mavis shrugged. "This cake's nearly a virgin. There's only a quart of rum and barely a handful of Vicodin."
"Let's not," Theo said, handing the plate back.
"Fine," Mavis said. "But get your buddy off his blues jag. He's embarrassing me. And I once blew a burro in a nightclub and wasn't embarrassed, so that's saying something."
"Jeez, Mavis," Theo said, trying to shake the picture from his mind.
"What? I didn't have my glasses on. I thought he was a hirsute insurance salesman with talent."
"I'd better get him home," Theo said, nudging Gabe, who had turned his attention to a young woman on his right who was wearing a low-cut red sweater and had been moving from stool to stool all night long, waiting for someone to talk to her.
"Hi," Gabe said to the woman's cleavage. "I'm not involved in the human experience and I have no redeeming qualities as a man."
"Me either," said Tucker Case, from the stool on the other side of the red-sweater woman. "Do people keep telling you that you're a psychopath, too? I hate that."
Tucker Case, under several layers of glibness and guile, was actually quite broken up over his breakup with Lena Marquez. It wasn't so much that she had become a part of his life in the two days he had known her, but that she had begun to represent hope. And as the Buddha said: "Hope is merely another face of desire. And desire is a motherfucker." He'd gone out seeking human company to help dilute the disappointment. In another time, he'd have picked up the first woman he encountered, but his man-slut days had left him lonelier than ever, and he would not tread that lubricious path again.
"So," Tuck said to Gabe, "did you just get dumped?"
"She led me on," Gabe said. "She tore my guts out. Evil, thy name is woman!"
"Don't talk to him," Theo said, taking Gabe by the shoulder and unsuccessfully trying to pull him off his bar stool. "This guy's no good."
The young woman sitting between Tuck and Gabe looked from one to the other, then to Theo, then at her breasts, then at the men, as if to say, Are you guys blind? I've been sitting here all night, with these, and you're going to ignore me.
Tucker Case was ignoring her - well, except for inspecting her sweater cakes as he talked to Gabe and Theo. "Look, Constable, maybe we got off on the wrong foot - »
"Wrong foot?" Theo's voice almost broke. As upset as he appeared, he appeared to be talking to the woman in the red sweater's breasts, rather than to Tucker Case, who was only a foot beyond them. "You threatened me."
"He did?" said Gabe, angling for a better look down the red sweater. "That's harsh, buddy. Theo just got thrown out of the house."
"Can you believe guys our age can still fall so hard?" Tuck said to Theo, looking up from the cleavage to convey his sincerity. He felt bad about blackmailing Theo, but, much like helping Lena hide the body, sometimes certain unpleasantries needed to be done, and being a pilot and a man of action, he did them.
"What are you talking about?" Theo asked.
"Well, Lena and I have parted ways, Constable. Shortly after you and I spoke this morning."
"Really?" Now Theo looked up from the woolly mounds of intrigue.
"Really," Tuck said. "And I'm sorry things happened the way they did."
"That doesn't really change anything, does it?"
"Would it make a difference if I told you that I absolutely did not harm this alleged Dale Pearson, and neither did Lena?"
"I don't think he was alleged," said Gabe, slurring at the breasts. "I'm pretty sure he was confirmed Dale Pearson."
"Whatever," said Tuck. "Would that change anything? Would you believe that?"
Theo didn't speak right away but appeared to be waiting for an answer from the decolletage oracle. When he looked up at Tuck again he said, "Yeah, I believe you."
Tuck nearly aspirated the ginger ale he was drinking. When he stopped sputtering he said, "Wow, you suck as a lawman, Theo. You can't just believe a strange guy who tells you something in a bar." Tuck wasn't accustomed to being believed by anyone, so to have someone take him at face value...
"Hey, hey, hey," said Gabe. "That's uncalled for - »
"Well, fuck you guys!" said the woman in the red sweater. She jumped up from her stool and snatched her keys off the bar. "I am a person, too, you know? And these are not speakerphones," she said, grabbing her breasts underneath and shaking them at the offenders, her keys jingling cheerfully as she did, completely defusing the effect of her anger.
"Oh - my - God," said Gabe.
"You can't just ignore a person like that! Besides, you're all too old and you're losers and I'd rather be alone on Christmas than spend five minutes with any of you horn dogs!" And with that she threw some cash on the bar, turned, and stormed out of the bar.
Because they were men, Theo, Tuck, and Gabe watched her ass as she walked away.
"Too old?" Tuck said. "She was what, twenty-seven, twenty-eight?"
"Yeah," Theo said. "Late twenties, maybe early thirties. I didn't think we were ignoring her."
Mavis Sand took the money off the bar and shook her head. "You were all paying her proper attention. Woman's got some issues when she's jealous of her own parts."
"I was thinking about icebergs," said Gabe. "About how only ten percent of them show above the surface, yet below lies the really dangerous part. Oh, no, I got the blues on me again." His head hit the bar and bounced.
Tuck looked to Theo. "You want some help getting him to the car?"
"He's a very smart guy," said Theo. "He has a couple of Ph.D.s."
"Okay. Do you want some help getting the doctor to the car?"
Theo was trying to get a shoulder under Gabe's arm, but given that he was nearly a foot taller than his friend, things weren't working very well.
"Theo," Mavis barked. "Don't be such a friggin' wanker. Let the man help you."
After three unsuccessful attempts at hefting the bag of sand that was Gabe Fenton, Theo nodded to Tuck. They each took an arm and walked/dragged the biologist toward the back door.
"If he hurls I'm aiming him at you," Theo said.
"Lena loved these shoes," said Tuck. "But you do what you feel like you need to."
"I have no sex appeal, a rum-pa-pa-pum," sang Gabe Fenton, in spirit with the season. "My social skills are nil, a rum-pa-pa-pum."
"Did that actually rhyme?" asked Tuck.
"He's a bright guy," said Theo.
Mavis creaked ahead of them and held the door. "So, I'll see you pathetic losers at the Lonesome Christmas party, right?"
They stopped, looked at one another, felt camaraderie in their collective loserdom, and reluctantly nodded.
"My lunch is coming up, a rum-pa-pa-pum," sang Gabe.
Meanwhile, the girls were running around the Santa Rosa Chapel, putting up decorations and preparing the table settings for a Lonesome Christmas. Lena Marquez was making her third circumnavigation of the room with a stepladder, some masking tape, and rolls of green and red crepe paper the size of truck tires. (Price Club in San Junipero only sold one size, evidently so you could decorate your entire ocean liner without making two trips.) The act of serial festooning had taken Lena's mind off her troubles, but now the little chapel was starting to resemble nothing more than the nest of a color-blind Ewok. If someone didn't intervene soon the Lonesome Christmas guests would be in danger of being asphyxiated in a festive dungeon of holiday bondage. Fortunately, as Lena was moving the ladder to make her fourth round, Molly Michon snaked a foot inside and pulled the chapel's double doors open; the wind from the growing storm swept in and tore the paper from the walls.
"Well, fuck!" said Lena.
The crepe paper swam in a vortex around the middle of the room, then settled into a great wad under one of the buffet tables Molly had set up to one side.
"I told you a staple gun would work better than masking tape," Molly said. She was holding three stainless-steel pans of lasagna and still managed to get the oak double doors closed against the wind with her feet. She was agile that way.
"This is a historical landmark, Molly. You can't just go shooting staples into the walls."
"Right, like that matters after Armageddon. Take these downstairs to the fridge," Molly said, handing the pans to Lena. "I'll get you the staple gun out of my car."
"What does that mean?" Lena asked. "Do you mean our relationships?"
But Molly had bounded back out through the double doors into the wind. She'd been making more and more cryptic comments like that lately. Like she was talking to someone in the room besides Lena. It was strange. Lena shrugged and headed back to the little room behind the altar and the steps that led downstairs.
Lena didn't like going into the basement of the chapel. It wasn't really a basement; it was more of a cellar: sandstone walls that smelled of damp earth, a concrete floor that had been poured without a vapor barrier fifty years after the cellar had been dug and so seeped moisture and formed a fine slime on top in the winter. Even when the stove was cranked and an electric heater turned on, it was never warm. Besides, the old, empty pews stored down there cast shadows that made her feel as if people were watching her.
"Mmmm, lasagna," said Marty in the Morning, your drive-time dead guy in the a.m. "Dudes and dudettes, the little lady has certainly outdone herself this time. Get a whiff of that?"
The graveyard was abuzz with moldy anticipation of the Lonesome Christmas party.
"It's highly inappropriate, that's what it is," said Esther. "I suppose it's better than that horrible Mavis Sand woman barbecuing again. And how is it that she's still alive, anyway? She's older than I am."
"Than dirt, you mean?" said Jimmy Antalvo, whose faceprint was still embedded in a telephone pole on the Pacific Coast Highway, where he'd hit it at age nineteen.
"Please, child, if you must be rude, at least be original," said Malcolm Cowley. "Don't compound the tedium with cliche."
"My wife used to put a layer of hot Italian sausage between every layer of cheese and noodles," said Arthur Tannbeau. "Now, that was some good eatin'."
"Sort of explains the heart attack, too, doesn't it?" said Bess Leander. Being poisoned had left a bitter taste in her mouth that seven years of death could not wash away.
"I thought we agreed not to talk about COD guilt," said Arthur. "Didn't we agree on that?" COD was shorthand of the dead for Cause of Death.
"We did agree," said Marty in the Morning.
"I do hope that they sing 'Good King Wenceslas, " said Esther.
"Shut the fuck up about 'Good King Wenceslas, would you? No one knows the words to 'Good King Wenceslas, no one ever has."
"My, my, the new guy is cranky," said Warren Talbot, who had once been a painter of landscapes but after liver failure at seventy was fertilizing one.
"Well, it's gonna be a great party to listen to," said Marty in the Morning. "Did you hear the constable's wife talking about Armageddon? She's definitely taking a cruise down the Big Nutty."
"I am not!" shouted Molly, who had come down to the basement to help Lena clear space in the two refrigerators for the salads and desserts that they had yet to unload.
"Who are you talking to?" said Lena, a little frightened at the outburst.
"I think I've made my point," said Marty in the Morning.