Chapter The First
In Which Our Hero Attempts to Return Home. Trophies and Medals. A Perfect Record. The Therapeutic Value of Giving Up. Churches Without Roofs. Wishing for a Script.
Just as I'm nearing the turn that will lead to safety, the second moon appears before me, hung low over the Cape Fear River at the end of Market Street. I pretend I don't see it, look left, and steer my Ford into the alley. Up ahead I can make out the yellow light on my deck, and I'm almost bold enough to hope for the impossible: Today's plan might work. A crackling A.M. voice from WAOK reports that the evening will be clear, mild temperatures, no rain -- news I instantly take as omen. This will end up as just one more fine day in a life that's fine. On the seat next to me sits a box of Domino's pizza and two rented videos: The Green Berets and True Grit. From here on out, the plan is simple: get up off the street, bolt the door, unplug the phone, forget the moon, and spend the night in a world where things make sense. It won't be like last year.
I pull to the side of the alley, kill the headlights, and turn the key, bringing silence and calm. I loop the strap of my gym bag over my shoulder and grab the pizza and flicks. From the floor I pick up the final element for tonight's mission -- a two-liter bottle of ginger ale, which doesn't remind me at all of champagne or the tink of forks off glasses. This morning I dumped a six-pack of Bud Light into my kitchen sink, transforming my apartment into the alcohol-free zone it's supposed to be these days.
Taking the steps that lead up to my apartment's deck one at a time, I envision the comfort of the brown couch, the security of the remote control in my hand. As I climb, I'm aware of the urge to turn and face downtown, peek at the second moon haunting the sky. Of course it's not the second moon that bothers me, it's what I can't help picturing in its shadow: Alix, taking risks she doesn't need to for money she already has.
So I focus my eyes down at the faded wood of the steps that lift to the faded wood of my deck. The yellow lightbulb illuminates the Map-of-the-World welcome mat I apparently ordered from QVC in a drunken haze. $29.95 plus shipping and handling. I step up to my door, one foot in the Atlantic and one crushing China. On top of the world.
Hugging the soda inside one arm, balancing the pizza and tapes, I dig for my keys in my pocket. Five seconds from the vault, I sense movement to my right and turn. The fact that it's just Dr. Winston in my hammock barely registers before my eyes leap to his feet and the golden, knee-high sneakers. I drop the pizza box, which flips once and splats. John Wayne clatters to the ground.
Dr. Winston swings free of the dirty white netting and steps into the yellow light. "Dr. Cooper," he says. "We'd almost given you up for dead." He shakes my hand, a practice he insists on every time we meet. His shaggy black hair, knotted with dirt, drapes his bearded face as he checks out the upside-down pizza box. I'm staring down too, but my eyes lock on the boot-length gold sneakers I haven't seen in four years. On the sides are tiny black horns I painted myself, though now they look like little dark wings.
"I don't believe it," I say.
"Indeed. The generosity of my fellow citizens gives me great hope." His teeth, though straight, are the color of mustard.
"Goodwill?" I ask.
"Second Chances," Dr. Winston corrects me, naming the homeless shelter four blocks east. They accept donations from the public, recycle them to needy folks like Dr. Winston. I picture Trevor, climbing into the attic on Asgard Lane, ripping open the dozen cardboard boxes I double-sealed with packing tape. But this doesn't bother me. I have the life I want.
"Is that pepperoni?" comes down from above, and I look up into the grinning face of Dr. Gladstone, on all fours leaning over the rain gutter. He's wearing the battered baseball cap Alix gave me when Brook was born that reads WORLD'S #1 DAD.
"Pepperoni and sausage," I tell him.
Gladstone drops off the roof and studies the upside-down box, then flips it over. Melted cheese stretches from the cardboard lid. "This is completely salvageable," he decides.
Dr. Winston lifts his chin. "Dr. Cooper, we need your help to join the information age."
"We're gonna watch TV," Dr. Gladstone beams, peeling free a limp slice. "Remember Welcome Back, Kotter? Happy Days?"
I step back a few feet, scan the roof for the third member of the Brain Trust. Dr. Bacchus's rounded form leans onto my chimney, one hand gripping the 1950s-era antenna bolted to the brick. He looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy silhouetted against the deep cobalt blue of the June sky. "There's no way this will bring in the premium porno channels," Dr. Bacchus reports.
Gladstone giggles nervously. All this time I'm concentrating on ignoring Winston's boots. I focus on where I am and say, "You need more than an antenna to get a clear picture." My logic sounds like bad Bob Dylan.
"Already taken care of," Winston announces, bending into the darkness beneath the hammock. He stands up holding the black-and-white twelve-inch Sony that Alix and I bought when she was working on her master's thesis at UNCW. I take it from him, hold it in my hands like a sacred artifact. In the mornings before she left for class, while I spooned Brook breakfast, Alix would turn on Cardiac-Attack and kickbox aerobically. Or aerobically kickbox. I never could figure. Like the boots, like the baseball cap, this TV belongs enshrined in an attic uptown. Some nights, with Brook barely asleep in the bedroom crib, with Letterman smiling at us from this very screen, Alix and I would make love on the couch.
"Ancient history," I say. "It can't still work."
"Believe it," Winston says. "The altar's got juice. We discovered a live outlet in Jesus's feet."
Overhead, Gladstone nods. "It's a miracle. Like on Touched by an Angel."
I glance across the alley at the Salvation Station of the Holy Redeemer, formerly Most Precious Suffering of Christ the Genuine. The city's been threatening demolition since Hurricane Fran collapsed the roof and the near wall. But the other three walls survive, and the rickety steeple still stands, stretching for heaven. Above the steeple now, the true moon rolls on its back. I cannot see its false twin from here, blocked by trees and downtown buildings, but I'm angry at myself for being tempted.
I turn back to Winston, hand him the TV before it explodes in my hands. He says, "We'd hoped you might consider donating your antenna."
"Our cause is just," Dr. Bacchus shouts, still at the chimney. "Plus it's tax-deductible."
"Take it," I tell them. "I got cable." Forty-four dollars a month for soap operas and late-night anesthesia. "There was a cape with those boots," I say to Winston. "A golden cape."
"Sure thing," Dr. Bacchus says, now at the roof's edge. "Had a black cow on it."
"It was a bull," I explain.
With a full mouth, Dr. Gladstone mumbles, "One of the Princess Street crew got it."
"How did you know about the cape?" Winston wants to know. But I don't answer. For a moment my mind gets away from me, and I imagine driving to Second Chances, finding the table where volunteers have set out the relics of my former life alongside broken blenders and board games with missing pieces. I shake these images from my head. My life is a fine one.
When Dr. Bacchus jumps down onto the deck, the whole thing rattles. His hair is combed, his face clean. He may shower at the shelter. Bacchus hunches over with Gladstone for a sloppy slice. "Flippin' bolts are rusted shut. And that steel is old school -- the real deal." He stands with the droopy piece of pizza and chucks my shoulder. "So you got a hacksaw or what?"
Head down, I'm trying not to picture Trevor digging through the boxes I left behind, turning the worn pages of the Bull Invinso scrapbook. And then it occurs to me that like Alix, Trevor is probably working tonight. Out of the house. I raise my face. "I got a better plan."
After I make the left onto Oleander and take my place in the evening traffic, I look over my shoulder at the boys, huddled around the pizza like a campfire. They insisted on staying together in the bed of the Ford. On WAOK, The Family Man is trying to sort out Frank from Jacksonville's problem. He wants to know if he should buy his daughter the breast implants she's demanding for her sixteenth birthday. I'd change, but my radio's jammed, locked into this one station. A Volkswagen Bug putters ahead of me with a license plate that reads C841KME. I'm convinced it's one of those vanity plates, but I can't decipher its clever message, so I pass fast in the right lane.
Distractions like license plates and The Family Man have been part of my battle plan all day, staying in the here and now of my fine life. This morning I ran Greenfield Lake. Then I changed the oil in the Ford. Had lunch at Whitey's. I limited myself to one hour of afternoon soaps -- Waves Will Crash -- and went to the gym for a late workout with Hardy. Before I hit Video Galaxy, I drove over to Wrightsville Beach and took a few laps in the Atlantic. Today, I've been working hard to keep my mind where it needs to be.
But as I near the light at 16th, I glance into oncoming traffic and boom -- here comes our limo. It rumbles past me like a ghost ship, and in the tinted windows I catch a flash of my reflection. This should be no surprise. It's almost nine o'clock after all, and it's time we were on our way downtown, heading for O'Leary's, a club that's been out of business now for five years.
"Red means stop!" Bacchus shouts through the window.
I stomp on the brakes and feel the weight of the truck hunching up on me. Bacchus gives me a dirty look in the rearview mirror. Behind him, I can see our limo trailing cans and I turn away, face the red light.
Across the street a Quicky Chicken spins its orange bucket, and I consider scrapping the new plan, hitting the drive-thru instead and picking up some extra greasy and then a case of Bud Light, sharing it with the boys back in the collapsed sanctuary they call home. Making the right I have in mind will send me down the memory gauntlet of 16th. I'll have to pass Shipyard. But after all these years, there's not a street in Wilmington that isn't lined with flashbacks, perched like rooftop snipers. If I make a left here, I'll pass the Dairy Queen where I used to buy Blizzards for Alix when she was pregnant as well as the intersection at Market where the Subaru died. If I go straight, I'll encounter the Planet Foodville from which I've recently been banned.
When the light goes green, I make the right, barely clipping the curb. We pass the looming lights of New Hanover Hospital, where they brought Snake the night his truck found that phone pole and where Brook spent a week when she was eight for what the doctors would only call "observation." My face is known by the staff up on seven.
A quarter mile later, gravestones rise from the grounds of St. James Cemetery. In the back, beneath a sycamore tree I can't see in this dark, are the side-by-side plots Alix bought one rainy afternoon from a telemarketer. Typical Alix, always overplanning. I've wondered some nights, if Trevor gets my grave now too.
Closing in on the crossroads at Shipyard I brace myself for the strip mall. It's got a Wendy's and a florist and a beauty salon called Skin Deep. Once upon a time it was home to Tae-Kwon-Do for Tots -- give Alix credit for the snappy name. She had more for the little groups we formed: Ninja Niners, Assassin Eighters. As I pass, I can't keep my eyes from roaming over, expecting somehow to see Alix through the huge glass front, leading the kids through their piercing side kicks and double thunder punches. Instead I see the painted puffy white clouds that are supposed to be popcorn. Our old space was rented out to people who sell gourmet varieties. Bolstered by a six-pack buzz, I went in there one night. They have the display case I built loaded with exotic flavors: cherry, cinnamon, jalapeño. Once we kept our trophies there. Our trophies and our medals.
But those were the days before Trevor and ReelWorld came to town, the days when things felt certain. Between bouncing at O'Leary's and the spot work as Bull Invinso, I was bringing in decent money. Alix got a part in the community playhouse's Camelot. At just seven, Brook was set to test for her green belt. Martial arts were hot, and Alix was talking franchise. We bought the house on Asgard and everything was perfect.
My life is perfect now too. I wouldn't change a thing. It's just a different kind of perfect, that's all. Since the split with Alix I've lived a pressureless, failure-free existence. No stress, no doubt. Because I'm not Bull Invinso anymore. Nowadays I'm the Enigma Warrior from the Isle of Wykoki. I'm Agent 17 and AKA Rat. I am the Grave Digger and the Widow Maker and Ivan Sputniski and Deadbeat Dad. Some nights my face is too hideous to show in public, an acid burn or a bear attack, even radiation from Chernobyl. I've been wanted by Israeli counterintelligence, in the witness protection program, believed to be dead by high-ranking members of the United Nations, and on the run from a wife who's sworn to shoot me for withholding child support. In the ring, under the mask, I just follow the script, and I can do no wrong.
The strip malls and fast food joints behind me, I slide across the four lanes of College Avenue, invading no-man's-land -- suburbia central. If the Ford had a stealth mode, I'd engage it. Officially, I have no business in this quiet development, making this left onto Valhalla, this right onto Asgard, except every other Saturday when I get Brook for an overnight. That's when I pull up to the curb -- not the driveway! -- and honk just once. Twice is making a big deal out of it, according to Alix. But tonight, as I slow to a stop, there's no need to honk. I'm not here as part of some court-appointed visitation.
I shut off the engine and the Brain Trust piles out. Gladstone wipes pizza grease onto his tattered jeans. Winston kneels to tighten the high laces of the golden sneakers, eyes up the dark Colonial. "How many bathrooms?"
"Two and a half," I answer.
He nods his approval. I have no emotional reaction to seeing the house. It's just another address. I point to the living room window, partly obscured by azaleas that Trevor hasn't kept trimmed. "Here's the deal. Inside that room is a forty-two-inch Trinitron. You'll have to hop the fence and come in through the sliding back door. The lock's been busted forever. Go through the kitchen, then head for the stairs. The Trinitron's on your right, can't miss it."
Gladstone adjusts my baseball cap on his head and smiles. "Mork and Mindy, na-nu, na-nu."
"Breaking and entering," Bacchus states for the record.
I make hard eye contact. "That TV is mine. We're not stealing anything. This is a rescue mission."
"If it's yours, you save it," Bacchus says.
The food in his stomach, or the ride in the open air, has sobered him up some. He has a good point. But it's been four years since I walked out of that house. "If you want the big screen, get it. Otherwise, we go hacksaw hunting."
The three of them huddle. When they break, Winston flashes his mustard smile. "We choose to accept the challenge."
Bacchus steps into me, pokes a chubby finger into my thick chest. "We'll still be wanting that antenna."
"Fine with me," I say, and the three of them shuffle across the lawn. They climb onto the air conditioner and clamber over the wooden fence. I get back into the truck, knowing that in a neighborhood like this, suspicious characters bring cops in a hurry. And these days, I absolutely qualify.
I tilt my wrist, see that it's nine-fifteen. At this moment, downtown, we're crashing through the doors at O'Leary's. They've queued the jukebox to play "Celebration." Our guests -- my fellow workers at the bar, Alix's grad school pals, some friends we had from the Y -- stand up and applaud like we're movie stars. Champagne waits on the tables. Alix's hand feels warm and fragile.
A car horn blares and the bar disappears. I look up into the headlights of an Aerostar, rolling slowly toward me. It pulls alongside, driver's side to driver's side. With an electronic hum the window eases down, and I recognize the familiar face of my former neighbor. "Buddy," she says. "How you doing?"
"Every day my life gets better and better."
Marlene raises her eyebrows. "You know you shouldn't be here. I'm not sure I should let Brook out."
On the far side of the Aerostar the door rolls back, and a moment later the lanky form of my daughter rounds the rear of the van, my old gym bag slung over her shoulder. Long auburn hair, the same shade as her mother's, is bunched up behind her head. She leans into the open window of my passenger side. "Hey, Poppa-San. It's not Saturday."
"Hey, Bird. You get a good workout tonight?"
"Jhondu helped me get my half tuck," she says. "It's bullet sweet."
I smile, as if I understand. Brook likes dancing, but she confided in me during one of our Saturday night dinners at T.G.I. Friday's that she misses kicking people.
"Seriously, Buddy," Marlene says. "I really think you should be somewhere else. You're in enough trouble."
"We're missing Buffy, Mom." This comes from the depths of the Aerostar.
"Tell you what, Mar," I finally offer. "You take care of your family, I'll take care of mine." At a Fourth of July neighborhood picnic back in the day, Marlene slid up behind me while I was making a pitcher of margaritas and nibbled on my ear, then told me her laundry room was empty. In the here and now, she huffs once, then pulls away.
Brook squeaks open my cranky door, climbs in. "She's, like, such a pit worm."
I have no idea what this phrase means. "Don't use language like that."
"How's the Kentucky Horror?" she asks.
"Terror," I correct her. "And great. Got crushed in Greenville on Monday night. I'm at the Civic Center on Friday."
"Against Hardy," she says. "I saw the commercial."
"Your mother doesn't want you watching SWC."
"Just a commercial. Besides, Mom doesn't want a lot of things. Anyway. Good luck Friday. Hope you win."
We both laugh, this one of our favorite running jokes. The truth, as everybody knows, is that about twelve minutes into the match on Friday, Hardy Appleseed, the All-American Dream, will flatten me out so the ref can beat the mat three times. The Dream will live on, retain the Supreme Victory Belt of the Southeastern Wrestling Confederacy, and my record will go unstained by success. In the four years since I traded the gold cape for a mask, I have a perfect record, 0-186.
When Brook was little, Alix would bring her to my matches. They'd sit ringside, Brook's tiny voice screaming "Go Bull! Go Bull!" as I sprang from the top rope. Back at home after we got Brook to sleep, Alix would massage my shoulders and share her professional observations, theories from her graduate courses in drama -- what the crowd liked, ideas for the next match. Even then, she had a talent for choreographing chaos. Sometimes her fingernails would bite into my muscles, but I never told her to stop. Nowadays Brook is barred from my matches because during the divorce proceedings Alix insisted that as a minor Brook be protected from "the inherently violence-fostering atmosphere of professional wrestling." What didn't come up in court was that on the Monday night I left the house, the alpha of all this omega, Alix smashed a commemorative Star Trek plate over my head and stabbed me in the ass with a shard.
I realize we've fallen into a silence and I ask Brook one of my standard I'm-a-really-good-father questions: "When are you dancing again?"
"That benefit," she says. "Day after mañana? I left it on your machine."
"Right," I say. "Absolutely." It's some deal arranged by a group Trevor belongs to. Generally, I avoid these competitions.
Again, we're quiet for a few moments. Brook angles her face at her feet and takes a long breath. "I was, like, going to call you when I got in tonight."
I ask her why.
She shrugs. "Just wanted to know how you were doing with the day. I've got a calendar too, you know."
For thirteen, there really isn't much you can get past her.
"I'm doing fine," I tell her. "Really." And this is the absolute truth. Since first donning a mask my life makes more sense. Giving up that Rocky Balboa crap was a one hundred percent therapeutic decision. When you embrace defeat as a way of life, it's hard not be successful. "Bird," I say. "Everything's cool. My life's good."
She wipes away the auburn bangs from her eyes. "Then how come you're here, Dad?"
I'm stumped for a moment, honestly just wondering this myself. Then the front door bangs open and Drs. Winston and Gladstone stumble onto the steps, struggling to keep the giant Trinitron from falling.
Brook sees them and looks back at me.
"That TV is mine," I explain, both hands up. "Ask your mother."
"She'll call Kowalski. You know she will."
"Let her," I say. "I've been hoping for a chance to renegotiate the terms of my surrender." These words escape without editing, and I regret them. Brook's put up with too much already. I inhale, exhale, and tell her I'm sorry for what I said.
She nods and says, "I'll tell them the TV was gone when I got home. I'll tell them I saw a green van."
"No. I don't want you lying to your mother. Or Trevor. It's important to always tell the truth."
"Whatever," she says as she turns away.
I climb out and meet the boys as they reach the truck. I hoist the TV from them, lift it over the sidewall, and set it down gently in the bed.
"Show off," Winston says. Gladstone folds in half, sucking air. At 280, I weigh about as much as both of them combined.
I'm about to ask where Bacchus is when I hear his voice at the house. He's talking to Brook on the steps. She disappears inside but doesn't close the door. Bacchus ambles down the lawn, and as he comes closer I see he's carrying one of Trevor's Wild Turkeys, expensive bourbon in bird-shaped bottles.
"There was a whole flock of them in there. And this." He pulls a dinner plate-sized satellite dish from behind his back. "It was on the roof of the toolshed. It's a sign. God wants us to have the porno channels." Looped in the same hand is a long coil of dirty cable, ripped free of the earth.
"Put those back," I say.
"You did designate this as a rescue mission," Winston argues.
Frozen in a standoff, nobody moves. Behind them, two houses down, I see a dark figure in Marlene's kitchen window. She's looking this way. Alix and Trevor both own cell phones, and I'm calculating the odds of a call when Brook reappears, hopping down the steps and crossing the lawn. Without comment, she hands Bacchus the remote control and a cable guide with Mel Gibson on the cover. Half his face is blue.
"I appreciate this," Bacchus says.
She looks at me and shrugs. "No sweat."
Together, we all watch her march back inside, close the door. Dr. Winston says, "She handled all that with remarkable dignity and aplomb."
Gladstone simply says, "Neat kid."
Dr. Winston wasn't joking about the power behind the altar. The second we plug the Trinitron into the outlet in Jesus's feet, static bursts to life on its screen, casting a strobey static glow onto the weeds growing down the center aisle. Sitting in the first moss-covered pew, Dr. Bacchus struggles to read from the cable guide in the haze of the screen's snowstorm. "Nine o'clock...Angela's Ass: an Irish girl...arrives in New York...with only her wits to survive."
Over the altar, I say, "You sure it says wits?"
Next to his pal, Dr. Gladstone giggles and takes a drink from the beheaded turkey. Then he asks, "Are we gonna get Nickelodeon and Comedy Central?"
"Man," Bacchus says, "we're gonna get it all."
Dr. Winston has disappeared into the steeple, trailing the cable along with him. He's decided to mount the dish in the bell tower for better reception. I offered to help but he explained that his Ph.D. in physics best qualified him for the installation of a satellite dish. I found it hard to argue.
I wish Brook knew the truth about how well I'm doing today. Like right now. Standing behind the altar, looking out over this fallen church, I'm not thinking about that other church and the ceremony at all. I'm not thinking about how Alix winked at me from beneath her veil. I'm not thinking about how when Father Callahan gave us the all-clear to kiss, Alix simply hugged me, a desperate squeeze that seemed designed to crush us into one body.
I turn to my apartment, beyond the pews, past the rubbled remnants of the wall that Hurricane Fran collapsed. Above the alley, the yellow light shines. The church wall to my right still stands, housing weary stained glass windows shattered by rocks from the neighborhood hooligans. During the day, they shine like Technicolor shark teeth. Behind me, the spire rises into a sky darted with stars. All churches, I decide, should be open to the heavens.
A shadow shimmers on the outside of the steeple, what looks to me at first like a giant dark spider. But then I see the spider has golden feet. "Winston!" I yell.
Bacchus and Gladstone stand. Bacchus pulls a DayGlo green cell phone from his back pocket and says, "Should I summon the fire department?"
"Where'd you get that?" Gladstone asks.
Bacchus smiles. "It got rescued too, man."
I sigh, but a clatter turns our attention skyward just in time to see a slate spin from the darkness and crash to the marble floor. Winston clings to the side of the steeple.
"Don't move!" I shout up -- good advice in any crisis. I sprint into the sacristy, duck through a crooked doorway. Charging blindly up the twisting steps, I bounce off dark walls. Something skitters past my feet and disappears below. At the top of the steps I find an empty room with wind, maybe bats, snapping in the open cone over my head. There is no bell. A two-by-six is absent from a huge boarded-up window, and through this opening a slim rectangle of moonlight shines on a pile of ashes and what could be tiny bones. I jam my head outside, look down, see no body, and yell, "Dr. Winston!"
"Here," he answers, as if this were roll call. His voice comes from around the side of the steeple.
I snap two more boards free so I can fit through, then step out onto the thin ledge, keeping my eyes away from the ground. Winston's hand is off to the left, about ten feet up. Embracing the steeple myself, like some prodigal son filled with joy at returning to the church, I shuffle around until I'm beneath Winston. On his foot hangs the satellite dish.
"I thought we could reach the cross," Winston explains. "But I ran out of cable."
"Shimmy down," I say.
"If I move, I'll drop the dish."
From below us, Bacchus shouts, "One hundred seventeen channels. Five HBOs and Sexcitement Plus. Do not -- drop -- the dish."
"I'll catch it," I say.
"Absolutely." Here's one thing I'm sure of: You can always apologize later for broken vows.
I lay my hands out, a wide receiver ready for a touchdown pass, a father waiting to be handed his baby daughter. Winston lifts his foot, and the dish skitters down the slate. It kicks out away and cartwheels into the air, but I reach for it, snatch it from disaster, and only then realize I'm teetering on the brink, sixty feet up. Below me, the blue glow of the TV makes a pond I could high-dive into. I find my balance, pull back in, and lay my face into the slate. Its coolness feels good as I hug the sides. Scant cheering breaks out from the two-man congregation. Winston scrambles down and scoots along the ledge, back to the safety of the bad mojo room. I pass him the satellite dish and he says, "Maybe we'll just set it up inside." But before I step in, my head turns on its own and my eyes take in the full view of downtown. And there it is, that undeniable second moon, staring at me from just over the Cape Fear and pulling at me with a gravity all its own.
Winston and I emerge from the sacristy to find Bacchus and Gladstone bathed in the Trinitron's aura. "Good job," Bacchus says, "but bad news." He points to the screen, where a CNN correspondent is explaining that amateur astronomers in Borneo are reporting what could be a rogue asteroid on the distant fringes of our solar system. We are shown a grainy star field with a menacing circle around a gray dot.
"I've been telling you guys," Gladstone says. "The sky is falling."
"Please, people," Bacchus huffs. "Consider the source. This is Borneo."
But Winston is unconsoled. Gazing into the constellations, he shakes his head. "I suspect that NASA has known for some time. Those arrogant fools would never listen to me."
When the story ends, the screen fades to black for a moment and then fills with a blond woman with too much mascara.
"Jackpot," Bacchus says.
The blond bats her eyes, pouty with invitation. She says, "The tree of life is rich with possibility when you call Carolina's own, Psychic Sidekicks."
A gypsy appears, hands floating over a crystal ball. "Yes, Brenda, I can see that you're pregnant. You're going to have a healthy son, and he's going to be a writer!" A smiling black woman lays cards on a table. "It's a happy day, Charlie. Those tech stocks are going to rebound." A man with blue sunglasses says, "She still loves you, Estevan. Go to her." Here's one thing I'm sure of: Reliable prophecy is rarely all good news.
The number on the screen, 1-800-ILL-KNOW, doesn't make any sense until you realize the apostrophe is missing.
Another mystic appears on the screen. This one's a redhead, but her face is covered with a black veil. All you can see are her eyes, and they are green and penetrating. "My mother had a vision of Reagan being shot. My sister knew about Bhopal. The one true gift flows in my veins. I know your future's truth."
"Change it," I say. The truth is not something I need to be reminded of.
But the commercial is clearly coming to a close, and Winston lets the redhead deliver her final pitch. "I'll be waiting for you. Decide now what one question you would want answered."
"Will the asteroid end life as we know it?" Winston says.
Gladstone asks, "Did my father mean what he said?"
Bacchus grumbles, "Which channel is porn?"
They turn to me in my silence, wanting to hear, I suppose, the question at the center of my heart. I picture two moons. "I need to go," I say. "Good night."
Dr. Winston shakes my hand. "Your contribution will not be forgotten."
"Sure thing," Bacchus says. "Thanks."
Gladstone runs a ragged sleeve under his nose. "That pizza tasted really good."
I walk to the rubbled wall. Before climbing over, I pause by the holy water repository and consider blessing myself. But after a second I just walk away. It's only rain, after all. I look up at the yellow light and consider the safety my apartment offers, but I move no closer to the stairs.
It's just after eleven. Soon, we'll be leaving our own reception early, eager to be alone. The Hilton. Room 341. We'll eat hot wings left over from O'Leary's. Any minute now, somewhere in the beautiful yesterday, Alix and I will be making love, so excited that we rush things and end up, by accident, creating the best part of our lives: Brook.
Somehow I find myself wandering down the alley, though I don't recall making this decision. When I step onto Market, I turn and face the Cape Fear and bang -- the big perfect moon is right where I left it, out over the river. Head down, hands in pockets, I walk west, passing Keenan Plaza without looking at the stone turtles squirting water in the fountain. Once I cross 3rd, I can see the crowd's a mix of UNCW students up too late and the usual downtown groupies, corralled by a few local cops and ReelWorld security. As I move closer, past the support trucks and the rumbling generators, I get a good look at the crane atop the Jacobi Warehouse that's holding the false moon in the sky like a silver medal.
When ReelWorld first came to town it was a blessing. The cash Alix made as an extra kept Tae-Kwon-Do for Tots afloat and helped us keep the house on Asgard. Then one fateful day she improvised in midtake during a catfight in High School Hellions, and the director -- he couldn't believe her skills. He had her rechoreograph a few action scenes. One thing led to another, and a few months later the studio hired her on as an assistant stunt coordinator. Alix was a quick study, and it wasn't long before my wife was spending her days slamming motorcycles into parked cars, being set on fire, charging from buildings seconds ahead of the bomb's detonation. Of course, like any good husband I worried about her, despite the hours of calculations, the precautions she always took. "Buddy," she told me one night in bed, "there's a huge difference between danger and risk." Her eyes were sad when she saw I didn't understand. This was toward the end.
A couple of the crew wear T-shirts that read THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND TOMORROW, so I figure he's the reason we're all gathered here. I step into the back of the crowd, and somebody yells "Quiet on the set," and then a moment later "Action." I freeze. Three stories above us, along the rim of the Jacobi Warehouse, my wife leaps onto the ledge and starts running. My ex-wife. She's wearing a blond wig, but I know it's Al. Her feet lift and plant so cleanly along the edge of disaster.
What looks like an eight-foot-tall cockroach has appeared in Alix's path. For the camera, it turns and looks down, pumps all four of its twitching arms in the air to appear menacing. Instead of running away, Alix charges, delivers a vicious spinning side kick to the critter's head. This maneuver sends them tumbling out of vision, back onto the roof, and I feel the old tug. I have a good life. But I want to be up there. This is a fight I want to be in. I start shouldering through the crowd.
When the creature reappears, he's carrying Alix in his arms, like a bride about to be brought across the threshold. Silhouetted by the false moon, the creature steps up onto the ledge. With a heave, he hoists her limp body over his head. My eyes drop to the sidewalk ahead of me. There is no air bag.
I wish I had a copy of the script. To know for sure if this is part of Alix's plan.
The creature roars, and it's a sound that terrifies me, something wounded and hopelessly lost. It seems impossible that a human being, let alone an actor in a cockroach suit, could make such a noise. That demon might be the real thing.
My fears are confirmed a moment later, when the creature heaves Alix into the open air. Legs pump me forward, and I charge through the crowd of statues. These people are petrified by fear of catastrophe, by the awesome feeling that everything has gone terribly wrong. I'm accustomed to this. Alix's wig trails behind her as she plummets. Her body spins end over end, like the satellite dish I plucked from the sky. A security guard's eyes widen as I approach, and he lifts one hand like a crossing guard. I plow past, spilling him sideways, then burst out into the lights, and it's just like in O'Leary's basement thirteen years ago. I can feel her fragile hand in mine. My bride is falling from the heavens, but this is a catch I know I'll make. This is why the moon pulled me here. We're about to step back into our lives together. And they'll have it all on film. Alix will look at it for years to come, and Brook too. The night Dad saved Mom.
It's a power cable, or a curb, or fate, that catches my foot and drives my jaw down into concrete. My tumbling wife is stolen from my sight and pain flashes white in my mind. One heartbeat later, I wince at the dull thud not five feet away. I would've made it. I wait for the screams. But instead, people start laughing. Someone, maybe Trevor, yells, "Cut." Someone asks, "Who the hell is that?"
I lift my head and force my eyes to my wife's corpse. The rubbery face yells at me, ruby red lips painted in an expression of horror, like it's still falling. The dummy is undamaged, and reminds me of the Tony Tough Guy figure Alix and I used to practice karate on at the Y. I roll over, flipping onto my back like the appointed time has come for me to be pinned once again. Above me, the false moon rises over the top of the Jacobi Warehouse, and next to it, Alix and the Creature from Beyond Tomorrow lean over the ledge.
When I get to my feet, for some reason the people stop laughing. No one tries to stop me. Quite the opposite really, they back out of my path, press into each other to be clear of me, so I walk off the set without incident and head up the hill, back to my apartment. Thirteen years ago, at this moment, we were lying arm in arm, spent. Alix fell asleep first, I remember, but I stayed awake for a long time that night, listening to her breathing, planning the beautiful life ahead of us.
Copyright © 2004 by Neil O'Boyle Connelly