nude woman, black veil, seated on the stairs
she uncovers her face
she sees me.
— from The Scooby Doo Impasse by Peter Beall
I got the call two weeks into the New Year. It didn’t surprise me. I felt empty as the Arizona deserts of my childhood. Peter, when we were older — teenagers, smoking hash and reading Burroughs and probably both wondering if we were gay to like it (William S., not the hash) — would gesture at me and offer these koans, like:
Our mother, pouring dirty water into a tub.
And I would nod like that made sense. Fucking hash. I recalled that one now. No one pours dirty water into a tub. You uncork the drain. Goodbye soap suds and grime. But I guess that was Peter’s point with the image.
“Mr. Beall?” the voice on the phone said. Hispanic. Female. Curt.
“Sorry. Yes, I can be in Austin by this evening. Okay. Yes. I understand.”
Hung up. Looked out the window. I’d lost my contract as of the 31st. Nowhere to go, no one to explain to. No one to tell, to make uncomfortable, who might speak condolences for me and mine. There was no mine.
During the recession, five months into my first bout of unemployment, the ex-to-be had issued a final, relief-filled fuck you and closed the door on our happy union.
The intervening years had been kind enough. Until a few days ago I’d been employed. Wanted for nothing. Or: needed for nothing. I had my Lucky Jeans and my BMW and my Apple everything. Evenings with friends. Life of the party. Yoga sessions at work. Volleyball league, touch football, karaoke room nights, vodka and cranberry juice at dinner, bellinis for breakfast. Slim Dallas singles, keeping score. I make good money, I do fine, I thought. Then I corrected myself: Made, did.
I spent an hour trying to cry. I loved my little brother. Born two years apart, there was a time in our teens when we’d been best friends, when I’d known that we’d have each other’s backs, like a big dog, forever. It’d been a good feeling while it lasted.
I can’t remember if it was Mom walking in on Peter masturbating and the subsequent door removal, or one too many nights, dinner growing cold as Mom and Edward had our hands gripped in a circle around the table while they attempted to pray the gay away. One of us had sided with ol’ Willy Burroughs after all. I don’t recall how they found out. Sometimes wondered if Peter had as many blanks as I do. Probably more. Because I was older and whatever it was, one too many parental pronouncements, punishments, prayer circles … I left.
“You know why I don’t believe in God?”
That shut their mouths. I don’t remember the words that came after, just that it blossomed quickly into a high-pitched argument and I packed what I could into my white Nissan Sentra and left their house for good.
These days I’ve chilled on the criticism of the religious believer. Given this world, it fits perfectly that there’s some vengeful deity waiting to let us know how we messed it all up and to exact eternal torment. Yeah, legit as hell.
No combination of memories, good, bad, indifferent, allowed me to cry. So I stood up to call her. Now my hands shook.
“Mom, it’s … Telly. Have you heard?” I waited. She had that tone in her voice. If I talked with her too long she’d start asking me to tell her she’d been a good mom. I wondered where she was in her cycle, edging toward complete mental breakdown. It’d be long nights on the porch with Natty Lights a-go-go, Virginia Slims, and bitterness. For her, the prayer circles had been a means to an end. Edward, contrariwise, meant his devotion.
She wasn’t wasted yet.
“Mom, listen. It’s about Peter.”
I stayed on the phone for several minutes after telling her, saying I know and I know. Gave a Yes, Mom, he knew you loved him, in response to her good mom shtick. Hated myself for it, but it’s in the blood. The children of selfish, unstable trash are inflicted with bad compassion. Not the breed that lets you put yourself in the other’s shoes. The kind that makes you wear the other person’s shoes for them and walk for them and get their blisters for them because … Mommy loves you.
Mommy loves you.
“I have to go. I’ll take care of everything.”
Now I felt sick because I knew on a certain level that I’ll take care of everything was another Yes, you were a good mom, but this was for Peter. He was my brother. My friend. I loved him.
I still couldn’t cry.
My unemployment insurance hadn’t started yet, but I had savings plenty enough for hotel, gas, food, etcetera. I packed, loaded the car, left before rush hour clogged the Dallas highways.
On the way down, I called his dad.
His dad, because though he’d adopted me, he’d later made it clear that it’d been a mistake. No story. That’s word-for-word how the exchange had gone. Don’t write. Don’t call. I hope you find Jesus.
One might forgive my ambivalence toward the Power and the Glory Forever, amen.
I dialed, listened to the sunspot buzz and then the ringing. The sun melted on the horizon, setting the high, thin clouds ablaze, spilling shadows across the interstate. The car smelled of pork rinds and gas station coffee.
Funny how years pass but a voice sounds the same. The man who taught me to be amazed at the grandeur of the universe. The man who taught me I wasn’t good enough to love. The years pass, but the fossils remain, drying in the desert.
Hang up, you motherfucker. Hang up and, if they didn’t track you down, you won’t know Peter is dead.
“Telly,” he said, voice rising at the end. Surprise or delight, I wanted to interpret. I’ve learned not to trust myself in these matters.
“Have you heard?”
“Heard what, Telly?”
And now we were getting real. His voice flat. He, too, knew Peter. Knew this wouldn’t be good. He did a weird thing after I told him. Started to reminisce.
“I think about that house in Avondale. If we’d stayed there, how different things would have been.”
I wanted to reply with some snark, but I’d just told the old man his son was dead, so I laughed without mirth and said, “Yeah. We were still happy then.”
“I’ve had a good life, Telly. But maybe we could have had a good life together.”
“Stranger things,” I said.
“How are you, Telly. Can you do this?” He was old, older than Mom both chronologically and in terms of his circumstances. Tennis-balled walker, Life Alert, meds, home health nurses. I knew this only because Peter had related those details. Austin wasn’t in the cards for him. Mom could have come if she’d had the will. But Natty Light, Virginia Slims, the porch, and bitterness.
“I’m fine. I have it covered.”
“I’ve always thought of you as my son,” he said, and all I heard was I was a good mom, wasn’t I? Same shit, different would-be parent.
“I need to do this, for Peter. Then I’ll deal with the me part. I wish …” but I didn’t know what I wished.
“You’re still searching. That’s good,” he said. It pissed me off.
“I’ll let you know how things pan out,” I said and hung up.
This is what crying feels like, I thought. But I still couldn’t do it.
Welcome to the Home of Idiot Children. An unknown woman pursues you. You run in circles.
—from The Scooby Doo Impasse by Peter Beall
A woman, hard, Hispanic, and probably lesbian — I felt instantly attracted to the detective. I had a thing for the unattainable. Gender and orientation could suck my cock. So to speak.
“Mr. Beall?” she said. Dark hair tied back. Dark eyes. Olive skin. Jeans, badge at hip, white button-up, assessing glance.
“Detective,” I said. Offered my hand. “What are we doing here?”
“This is where your brother’s body was found. Right there,” she said and pointed at the median. We stood on the sidewalk near Neches on Sixth Street. Alan Parsons Project blared from a headshop and across the street I could hear just enough of a pop country song echoing from the Loathsome Wolf saloon to make them both sound like garbage.
“I thought you needed me to ID his body?”
“I have questions about your brother. Peter.”
I waited. Most civilians, at this juncture, were telling her their life story. I don’t know that, but it’s what I inferred from her demeanor. I lacked time, inclination … Well, that was a lie. I had all the time in the world. But if she wanted more from me she’d have to drop the tough cop routine.
“Do you know what time he was found, Mr. Beall?”
“I only know what you told me. Not much. Telly.”
“My name. It’s Telly.”
“Bice. Rhymes with peace.”
I laughed. Imagined she said it both for clarity (I thought she’d said ‘beast’ at first) and out of a sense of irony. She didn’t look like a peaceful woman. Hard living, hard-working, hard playing. She had a bead on life and intended to make the most of it.
“Pleased and all that. So why is time of death your question?”
“Friday night, closing time. He was found, dying, in the middle of Sixth. Nude. Mutilated. No one saw his arrival. He was in great pain. Would have been brought there.”
A dry desert, wind across dunes. Peter.
A curdled stink tainted the breeze. I heard the beep and engine churn of a garbage truck in a nearby alley.
“Look, I want to see his body. Make arrangements. See him laid to rest and be done with this.”
“That’s not going to happen quickly … Telly.”
“Your brother is one of a series of victim found murdered in this way. The medical examiner and forensics are doing their thing.”
The word struck like a bludgeon. Murdered.
“I want to see him.”
A quiet drive to the morgue. Tell me about your upbringing, Mr. Be — Telly. She was on the clock and this was part of the job. I forgot my earlier reticence, and I told her all about Peter and me and the fundy funhouse that was our childhood. CliffsNotes version. We arrived. She showed me the way inside.
We were able to see him right away. Uncovered his face. Yes, it was Peter.
“You don’t have to look further,” she said, the examiner watching us.
“Go on,” I said.
She showed me the mutilations. Feet, then groin. My stomach crawled into my throat. Copper and bile pooled there. The world heaved and turned. I held on to the table until it settled.
“Was he alive when this was done to him?”
She nodded, demure but watchful.
“Burned his feet, then castrated him?”
The antiseptic smell was betrayed by the stink of burned hair, charred meat.
“We believe the damage to the groin occurred first. Then the feet. That may be chemical. Forensics is unsure. The reason they are holding the body for an extra day. Cause of death was this cut to his inner thigh. Blood loss. This is unique among the victims.”
“The full tox screen takes time, but he wasn’t drunk.”
“I’ve seen enough.”
The drive back: quieter.
“Where are you staying, Telly?”
“Down Sixth. I walked from the hotel. The old one. Nice.” I couldn’t recall the name. It’d rained in my desert, enough to wrinkle the dirt-clod skin on the ground, but no more.
“The Driskell,” she said.
“So …” She thought I could help with her investigation but I guessed her reluctance was a learned courtesy. I distrusted my instinct. Technique would be more worthy of Bice rhymes with peace sounds like beast.
“Just ask. If I can help you stop whoever did this —”
“You talked about your parents. The extreme religious element of your home. At what point did Peter start dabbling in the occult?”
“What? He didn’t. He was an atheist, like me. Probably from about age twelve.”
“How do you account for his book?”
I shook my head and raised my hand. Recalled that she wasn’t Peter. Peter would have read a dozen thoughts in the gesture.
“Was he found with a book?”
“You don’t know about his book? The one he wrote?”
“Peter never wrote a thing in his life. He’d recite these poems, but never wrote any down that I recall.”
She pulled to the curb beside my hotel. The car idled. At the corner young men with dreads laughed at a woman dressed like the statue of liberty, keeping Austin weird.
“He did. It’s become a local bestseller even. Go grab yourself a copy in pretty much any store on 6th. If you get a chance to read it, I’d be interested in your thoughts.”
“You want to join me for drinks later, detective? I don’t know anyone. Appreciate the company.”
She gave me a look.
“Company, Bice. That’s all I’m suggesting.”
“You can find all the company you want on Sixth,” she said, tone suggestive of a smile though her face remained smooth, noncommittal.
I nodded my thanks and got out of the car. Walked along the street until I found a shop where I would get a copy of this book of Peter’s.
There are six of us on a raft in a river. you, Father, I, Mother, the veiled woman.
—from The Scooby Doo Impasse by Peter Beall
Thirty seconds after she pulled away from the curb and I strode down the sidewalk, I called Bice.
“You said Peter was found dying. He wasn’t dead yet?”
“Did he say anything? Before he died?”
“We have two witnesses. Story corroborated. He said ‘Regard her alone or something will be breached.’ ”
“I guess he was in a lot of pain by that point.” His withered feet. Charred flesh flaking away from the curled bones.
“He may have been quite lucid. Shock, adrenaline.”
“Let me know if anything relevant comes to you,” she said.
I found another head shop cum tourist trap, filled with smoking paraphernalia, glass cases of studs, spacers, gauges, and rings, and walls decorated with tee-shirts. Black concert shirts and a smattering of lewd slogans. Skinny Puppy. Mercyful Fate. I’d tap that. The obligatory Misfits shirt, sloppy skullface. The kid behind the counter had oily, pink hair that matched the acne-scarred ruin of his cheeks. Boredom. Clothed in black, more rings on his fingers than a mafioso in a Scorsese flick. Distended earlobes stretched over metal bangles I might have fit my whole hand through. He nodded at me, no eye contact.
“You got a book? Peter Beall’s the author. Impasse something or other?”
“The Scoob,” the kid said and smiled. His teeth looked like bleu cheese. He pointed at a display.
A pile of a dozen copies of the book. The one on top leaned in a cradle and I read his name below the title, The Scooby Doo Impasse. I cringed at the font. Comic sans in lurid red. The illustration, a cartoonish drawing of a man beside a hand grasping to rip the rubbery mask from his face. The book felt slippery and hefty enough to slide from my grasp. I held on to it like holding onto a last remnant of Peter. Took it to the register. Patchouli and cigarette mingled in the stale air. A sludge rock anthem blared from the sound system. Sounded like Black Sabbath but wasn’t. A headache constricted my temple.
“You gotta two-si-two if you gonna make it in the benny clossam tonight,” the kid said. Crumbly teeth bared in a grimace or a smile.
“Oh never mind. You gonna enjoy this book.”
“Thanks,” I said. Accepted my change and left.
Chilly and damp out. I didn’t want to go to my hotel room. Didn’t want to be inside. Found a restaurant on the strip with some tables in an open air area and got a drink and a couple tacos. Diced beef, corn tortillas, fresh onion, cilantro, salsa. I leafed through the book between messy bites.
Table of contents. Saw it had an afterward. Turned there first. Peter, you sonofabitch.
Hi, Telly, it read. I knew you would read this first. You always read the last chapter first. Let me explain why everything before this makes sense. I’ve cracked the world wide open. I hope you’ll be proud.
I read the end of his book.
“Detective. Yes, it’s Telly Beall again. Listen, I’ve been reading the book — No, we need to meet. Of course not. I do think it’s important. Yeah. Yeah. Ok.” Hard ass bitch.
She wouldn’t see me until the next day.
Veiled as if for funeral. Chthonic frolicker in empty spaces.
You step near.
— from The Scooby Doo Impasse by Peter Beall
I had a couple drinks at a sports bar on the strip, ate dinner, then headed back to the hotel to put this day behind me. Couldn’t sleep. Turned on the tube, but everything was inane and grating. I got up and, seeing the time was short of midnight, thought I’d see what was open. Blow some time.
Saturday night. By this time the heart of Sixth is blocked to traffic and cliquish herds surge from bar to bar, taco stand, pizza counter, food truck. Too many frat boys, Cowboy fans, self-aware blue collar heroes, alt-scene betties, and gangbanger poseurs. Here a too-clean neo-yuppie in his sports jacket and thin white girl in black dress at his elbow. There a line of college-age ladies in boots, daisy dukes, tank tops, and cowboys hats, bottled beers daintily in hand.
Didn’t realize you could walk around with drinks in Austin. Hmph. Bored cops watched the crowd from street corners. Bouncers hawked the attractions of their club or sat, reluctantly allowing entry. Homeless oldsters in beards and backpacks smiled from doorsteps, sometimes-buskers with guitar, harmonica, or spouting incoherent poetry.
Top forty radio rock, country, and douchebag post-grunge filled the air. Smelled like trash and funnel cake. I walked the middle of the street, taking it all in when I first spied one of the processions. Thirty feet ahead of me, the crowd parted, opening into a bubble. I thought a car drove there, so I edged to the side. When the edge of the empty space reached me, then swallowed me, I stopped in stunned silence.
It seemed that all the laughter and music fell under a shawl of mystery, like voices in another room. Even the light dared not fully penetrate this dark bubble. Around the edges, forming the rough circle that defined it, traipsed women in veils. Nude. And in the gloom between them scampered a creature. Body dark, humanoid. Head vast, twice the height of the body, covered in curlicues. Garish colors. It reminded me of something I could not place.
Still, the thing passed me, dancing like the god Pan, then one of the veiled women grazed me and I saw that she wasn’t quite naked, but wore a flesh tone bikini. She said a word, her eyes full of night. Ah-son-noot-li. Something like that. I thought I heard someone screaming. The bubble was closing around me, passing beyond me. In moments I would re-enter the crowd.
Then the world tipped, and the surface of the universe raced to smack me in the face.
You hold your totem and confront the tyrants of toil and reward. Neos Therion,
thirsting deicide, let these not be
—from The Scooby Doo Impasse by Peter Beall
Awoke, gasping for breath. The world pointillist, then a monochrome edge detection, resolving back into real. I could feel the dampness at my crotch and smell the piss. Coherence slid into place, and I wondered at the trio staring down at me: a cop, a lady in a big, puffy baker’s hat, and a young chick with buzzed head, goth makeup, but otherwise sunny disposition.
“You okay, dude?” she asked. Eyes sparkled. Smile. Distrusted her on instinct.
While the baker helped me up, the cop said:
“Have a bit too much to drink, buddy?”
“I have seizures,” I said.
We talked. He took notes and maintained a stern expression, expecting cracks.
“Do you know about these … processions?”
“The women in veils, walking in a circle —”
“Yeah, the Scooby Dooers,” he said, as if that made sense. Nice, Pete. You got others doing it now.
Once he was satisfied I wasn’t bullshitting him he sent me packing. Smelling of piss. The baker had left while we were talking but the girl had lingered and followed me as I left. A block on, I turned on her.
“Just thought someone should make sure you get back to your hotel —”
“No,” I said. She squirmed under my gaze. People could smell the urine as they approached on the sidewalk and our own little bubble in the crowd had formed.
“I … wondered what she said to you?” she said. I wondered how old she was. I felt so far from youth that anyone under thirty could be any age.
“What?” I asked.
“The veiled lady?”
“Don’t know. Maybe an Indian word.”
“Dot or feather?” she asked. Her shoulders hunched against the cold.
“Native American,” I said, chiding tone.
“One spoke to me once. Said ‘Do you have love in your soul that can grow?’ Ain’t that something?” She smiled. Despite the buzz and the heavy, dark makeup she was cute. But she had that damaged goods cast to her eyes. Please like me — I’ll help you to like me. Normally, I’d take the opportunity, but right now it was one more thing for which I lacked inclination.
“I’m reading the book, too,” she said. “I’m gonna follow the steps —”
“Throw that book away. Stay away from those people.”
On the way up to the hotel room, I kept thinking she followed me. Sensed a woman at my back. Heard the staccato tapping of heels in my wake. Every time I turned around I was alone.
Telly, I mapped it all. From the Cambrian Explosion to 9/11. Every supposed supernatural incident in every holy book or mythology, every weirdness (Roanoke, the Marie Celeste, etc.), and events of historical significance, from the invention of the printing press to the completion of the pyramids. Then I tracked Earth’s passage through my dataset of all those events. A topology of the fantastic emerged. From it I can infer those fantastic events born of truth and those that are mere fancy. I can infer the religions linked to beings on the other brane. I have inferred that we have been in a century-long emergence from that other brane. In another few years we will pass from it completely. Even now it touches the globe in about a dozen locations. Among those, there are maybe three deities—beings from that other brane—we might communicate with. Herein are instructions for how to do it.
—from The Scooby Doo Impasse by Peter Beall
“Almost a third of the book is devoted to rationalization of the form of the local deity —”
“The deity of Austin?” Bice asked.
“I guess, yeah.”
“Of course,” she said, glancing around the Loathsome Wolf. Early evening, deserted but a cluster of frat boys talking up one of the bartenders. Bice and I sat at the far end of the bar, each nursing a beer, empty shot glasses near. Our bartender was a black girl with a huge afro who wanted to chat with us but had taken the hint with pantomimed disappointment. Cute. She’d made us both smile. “And?”
“What’s the form of the deity?”
“I don’t think he knew. In his rationale it was super-important. And in turn, the whole totem thing mattered because it gave the seeker form to be understood by the deity.”
Bice nodded. The sort of nod that signals nothing.
“He favored the beaver as his totem. Did he have a beaver figurine on him?”
She took a sip of her drink. “In fact he did. Thought that was odd. Little pink-purple toy. Probably goes to some cartoon.”
“So, he chose the beaver because it isn’t a predator — predator would send the wrong message — but it builds dams to hold back one of the great elemental forces. So it is not without power of a sort. There’s other details I think would have mattered to him. Here’s the part that will matter to you.”
My turn for a sip. Hops, foam, bitter and sweet. “You Don’t Have to Call Me Darling” played on the jukebox.
“He didn’t say as much, insofar as I’ve read, but I’d wager some kind of drugs have been involved in these ceremonies.”
“I can confirm that some but not all of the victims have traces of krokodil and so-called new LSD. 2C-E, smiles, n-bomb.”
“Someone said the phrase ‘two-si, two’ to me.”
“Yeah, drugie lingo. Who said it?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. She didn’t like that, so I added, “Kid in a head shop.
“So here’s the thing. Think about how those drugs interact with someone. I’m speculating. He was really caught up in this idea. And it’s a compelling idea. Basically a way to hold on to a soft atheism while also allowing for a rationalization for a spooky history filled with gods and demons. You know: all the stuff that most people believe but have to have faith in because it just doesn’t exist. Anymore, Peter would say.
“But he made a bad choice. A bad recommendation to his readers. They all used this beaver totem. If they did just a bit of research … Wikipedia, so forth … they would have known about this story about beavers once had been hunted for their balls. That beavers understood they were being hunted for their balls and would rip them off and throw them at the hunters so they could escape.”
Bice choked on her beer.
The bartender heard me says ‘balls’ and saw Bice’s reaction, and now stood listening. I cocked my thumb to the left and mouthed ‘beat it.’ Exaggerated pout, but she walked away. I shook my head.
“It’s bullshit, an old wive’s tale, but doesn’t matter. The seeker — Peter’s readers, at least the ones found dead, and Peter himself — went through the ritual. They created this Bene Classum: a holy space created to honor the deity. Then they would spend a day meditating on the deity and their totem in relation to each other. Finally they’d do the holy space ritual again and meet the deity.”
“Telly, I’m not making connections. What am I missing?”
“So Peter was high as a kite on this LSD stuff and thinks he’s faced with this god from another universe. Gets spooked. A bad trip. Believes this deity wants him. And in his mind all his power is rooted in this beaver totem. The only way to get away —”
“The groin injuries,” she said.
“Self-inflicted,” she said. “Holy shit.”
“I imagine at the end, Peter realized his mistake and cut his thigh to speed things up.”
That visibly hit Bice, who lean back in her chair. Exhaled.
She waved the bartender over and paid the tab. I left the tip, irritated she’d beat me. We walked out onto the sidewalk. It was chilly. I wanted to put my arm around Bice. Wanted to feel a body next to mine. I’d not realized I drank enough to get buzzed. Bice lit a cigarette. Took a drag.
“The burned feet? What did he use to cut himself?”
“Hell if I know,” I said. “And I don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter. You look far enough, you’ll find out. But my participation ends here. I’d rather think he was on to something a tiny bit legit — a real pattern throughout history at least — than that this was all just mild schizophrenia.”
People moved past us, on the sidewalk, in the street. Odd, so early in the week.
“It’s crowded,” she said. “These are all his followers.”
Sure enough, I watched the steady procession of the myriad tribes of Austin, and in their midst flowed the periodic voids where the paper mache-headed dancer pranced, surrounded by naked-looking women in black veils.
“Creepy shit,” I said. “The big-head thing … He must have referenced it, but I haven’t read that part yet.”
Bice watched the procession.
“I don’t want to believe that his dad and our mom destroyed him,” I said. Wanted to say more but my mouth only gaped. Bice put her arm around me. I bear-hugged her in return.
Consider foliar theory. If all flower parts are leaves, might all people parts be minds?
—from The Scooby Doo Impasse by Peter Beall
This is the craziest thing that happened over these crazy days tracking down Peter: Bice and I running through the crowd of Scooby-dooers, laughing. We shoved through the mass of bodies, against the tide, rude and loud, breaking every Bene Clausum, ruining the solemnity of the veiled ladies as we bumped them from their perfect circles and then tripped the idiot with the giant paper mache head. I heard curses in our wake.
We ended up in front of a pizzeria and I bought us a couple slices and more beer and after we finished I wondered if we might end up together at the end of the night, but I soon realized this was my overactive libido. She expertly deflected my come-ons and of course I ruined the mood to have made those advances. It’s that stupid Tom Hanks romcom idea that men and women can’t be friends that leads a dumbass like me to pursue someone like Bice, because if we’re hanging out and having a good time, she must want some Telly. Yeah. Or as Bice said: Yeeeeeaaaaah.
Hard as she was, Bice had poise and she didn’t bolt but stayed with me. We sat at a table on the sidewalk and drank some more beers, had more shots. Scooby snacks. I laughed at that, getting more drunk than I intended, faster than was wise. Bice kept pace, but held her alcohol better than me.
“We should get you back to your hotel, Mr. Beall.”
“Telly, Bice. Telly. We’re friends now,” I said. I wanted to say more, but didn’t. I didn’t want to be a jerk. It came naturally, though. And I was drinking to excess out of a feeling of loss and the thing that grounded me was thinking about our mom and Natty Lights a-go-go and I didn’t want to be like that. Didn’t want to be like her. I already felt so bitter. Add the drink and I was almost there.
We walked through the crowd, stumbled, entered the passing Bene Clausum. I passed near one of the veiled ladies and she turned a baleful glare my way. I smiled.
“Hey, baby,” I said.
Bice pulled me back on course.
“Sorry, sorry,” I said to her, then looked up and found the man-shaped thing with the huge head in our way. It startled me. I felt my brother so near to me in that moment. I smelled hash and heard his voice, speaking one of his koans. For a split-second I imagined myself in some vast desert, pouring out a bucket of dirty water.
I held my arm up, finger pointed to the sky.
“I have a totem better than your fucking beavers.”
Anger flushed my face. I felt it. My expression, hard like a mask. Then I glanced at Bice and we exploded with laughter.
The formation had fallen into disarray so that as we continued on our way, we remained in the Bene Clausum.
“What is it?” Bice asked. “Your totem.”
“Peter. My totem is my brother Peter.”
She saw me to the lobby.
“Take care of yourself, Telly,” Bice said.
“You, too. And thanks.” Kept it simple. I didn’t want to slur.
The lobby felt still. Sound from the distance distracted me. A song I recognized. The desk, unattended. The lounge chairs and settees unoccupied. The conditioned air too cool. Texas luxury. As I walked past the hall toward the lifts, I thought I saw a woman at the end but when I glanced up I was still alone. Heard distance laughter, chatter, base. From the lobby behind me came a tapping, stiletto heels and hurry. I mashed the button, shunning company. Come on. The tapping stopped. Started. Stopped again. I felt frightened. Didn’t know why. The door opened with a chime. I stepped in and pressed for my floor. Listened to the rapid tapping, but the door closed before I saw her.
I took the elevator to my floor. Walked down the dim hall. I turned, thinking someone walked in the hall behind me. A momentary fantasy played in my mind of Bice, coming after me. Only the dim hallway and the hum of the hotel. Distant voices from the street. The smell of aged architecture.
When I turned and walked toward my room I noticed a line of women walking past at the far end of the hall, and moments later, that one of them remained. My impression: she stood watching me. I shook my head, knowing this silly and refusing to look up to confirm. Most odd, I noticed an old song in the distance. Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Summertime.” Odd for Sixth Street any time of night.
I slid my keycard into its slot and entered the room. Behind me the door slammed shut. Fumbled in the dark, walking further into the room. Turned on the light.
I saw Her.
The veiled woman, standing so tall over me. Naked except for the veil. I felt Her dark eyes and smelled Her breath: Virginia Slims and fruity carcinoma rot. Breasts bulbous, areolas vast, pubis a tangled mass. These are what I noticed because it is my nature to notice these things. The walls quaked and I knew how flimsy they were. Demarcations of a dream.
When I turned I saw that the door shut behind Him. I felt how it slammed and I knew it was His doing. I thought about doors. Dirty things done behind closed doors. Doors taken away because I was dirty and bad. He towered above even Her and His face loomed like a thunderhead. He looked at me and knew all that I was. Every last faggot bit of me.
He towered, filed a sky apparent beyond the wavering walls. His head loomed, party colors arrayed across his countenance, fun furls of tissue paper wafting in the breeze and the song.
The veiled woman touched my back, fingers grazing me like a plaything. If I looked up I knew I would see Her pubis again, the folds of Her belly, Her breasts compacted into Herself, Her mouth, parted. Wind roared past, smelling of her rot.
A part of me felt aroused and I pulled off my clothes. I knew this the wrong reaction. I did it anyway. I felt the world shift and discerned a desert landscape. Endless horizon. Heat. Between the two deities, I stood naked. With my clothes dissolved in the dust at my feet, the walls peeled fully away, faded into the haze mirage of heat and distance. Arroyos and endlessness. I still heard Billie Holiday singing:
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy/ fish are jumpin’/ and the cotton is high ...
These things, whatever they intended, if intention were even possible, could only understand me through the vehicle of my totem.
I recalled the look on his face when I left that night in the Nissan. He stood in the driveway, crying. Don’t leave, he’d said. Don’t leave me. He’d have no more protection from the tyrants of toil and reward.
I’d left him. Our relationship: one episode after another of us leaving each other, over and again.
At my back, the tears and moaning. In front of me, the anger and storm lit up like carnival candy. The promises of eternal love, barely containing the wrath.
“I love my brother,” I screamed up at them. “You were the ugly ones. You were the badness. Peter was … perfect. He was my little brother.”
I stood in a desert vast as a solar system. The rainbow-spackled thunderhead loomed like a planet falling, a paper mache countenance that began to crack. Behind me, the wall of the veiled woman wept. I felt insane, small, vulnerable.
Damn them. But the thought felt weak. More than anything … I pitied them. They missed out on him. I remembered the best part of his koans: the smile he’d flash afterward.
“I’m growing, brother,” I whispered, eyes blurring.
It tore the brane apart.
The pinata-headed deity burst as a vast school of shimmering fish flew from it, raining down. I gawked at the sight and shielded my head as the first of the lumps pummeled me. Most of the silvery lumps fell upon the plane before me or I would have been crushed. Then they slid toward me like a rising tide. The mass tinkled and hissed as it flowed toward and then around me and I found myself wading in layers, not of fish, but cans. Beer cans. They bore a symbol fashioned after the Natty Light logo, but the letters spelled out Ah son I thought at first and then saw the whole name: Ahsonnutli.
The ground. I felt it growing hot beneath my feet. I understood the shimmering in the distance as the literal heat haze of the bizarre landscape. Between me and the dying deity a mountain of cans was growing and I climbed the unsteady pile of beer cans, fleeing the burning landscape. I found that I could crawl upward if I spread my weight. I fled the burning below me. I felt it, horrified at the heat. I didn’t want to be cooked. Telly, boiled in beer and eldritch horror: maybe the last thought I had in connection with my totem. My connection with Peter.
The beers below me hissed and popped —
I heard screaming. Heard toppling architecture. Looked up to open sky and stars. Constellations I understood no other human had likely ever spied. One quadrant of sky was bruised with a nebula or other such formation. I thought, the sight filling my eyes, that this would be enough, to behold this, climbing still higher. The landscape of cans flowed and I slid and fell.
Screamed. Knew the hard landing and heat about to hit.
I tumbled down into my hotel room, half-filled with beer cans. Alone. Alive.
Do you have form in your self that can grow?
—from The Scooby Doo Impasse by Peter Beall
“What happened here, Telly?” Bice asked. Beer dampened the carpet to either side of the hallway and beer cans spilled from my room. I’d found my pants and stood sheepish and bare-chested. A popping sound interrupted us and Bice glanced through the doorway. Cans submerged the room’s furniture and I could hear the slow hissing from some of the punctured ones, see the familiar stars where the wall and ceiling once stood, smell the skunky hops of warm brew.
I shook my head. She gaped at the mess. She’d related the injuries across downtown as beer cans with odd labels fell from the sky.
We settled on silence, for a time.
“Your parents both called the station. What do you want me to tell them?”
I wanted to offer some epic response about their sons killing gods. Instead I made a face like a desert ripe with flowers after rain. I smiled. Realized Peter had colonized my brain well enough, even before all this.
“I’ll call them,” I said. “And — let’s keep in touch, detective. I need more female friends.”