It meant more to me, I think, when I was alive. Now it's just one more road to travel, one more trip to take, thumbing a ride from the post-Beat era of my death to the edge of millennia. From Marilyn to Madonna, from John Lennon to Kurt Cobain, the whole span of my afterlife has been a road unfolding before me - '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s crossing like numbered highways, odd and even, across America.
But what of the next decade, the one that starts with a 2, the one everyone wonders will even occur? That knowledge is not permitted me, and I find this troubling. I can look at any person and trace their path into the future - but none past the year 1999. It's as if that future has not been decided yet - or perhaps it has, but it doesn't include plans for any of us.
In the middling months of 1994, I seek clues to that future, by looking at those who will first walk the vast numbered highways of the next century. These people are already among us, infiltrating American society in vast numbers, all but unnoticed, unheeded as they squall in their cribs in East L.A. and Harlem and Pittsburgh and Fargo and Fort Worth and East Anywhere, Indiana. An army of infants, marching on America in ever-increasing numbers: citizens of the next century. The next age of humanity. The end and the continuation of our existence. They mean all this and more: but who are they?
You know them. Some we have seen already: like Rose, Lucinda's daughter, sitting now in a playground swing and telling her gathered friends about the lady who went crazy at the Full Moon Festival last spring.
The other kids listen, rapt, as the five-year-old unfolds the story in earnest voice. My stilled heart swells. They hang on her every word. In an age of pushbutton thrills, Rose all unknowing (and all but unnoticed) is a natural storyteller. She could well be the one who keeps the Beat alive in the next century. If this is the future, we might have a chance.
"And then what happened?" asks Darren, boy in blond crew-cut, at 9 almost twice Rose's age. Beside him are Lacey and little sister Chimera, distracted from their play by Rose's intent eyes. She shares those eyes with her mother.
"She ran away and we never saw her again," says Rose, with the grim finality of a fairy tale: And Baba Yaga's house collapsed with the evil woman in it or Then Rumplestiltskin fell to the center of the Earth. The others nod with the implicit knowledge of a moral conveyed.
Lucinda does not often call Rose's friends "children," preferring instead the phrase "little people." (It might not be more empowering, but it couldn't hurt....) She also would not be pleased to know that Rose is sharing stories of her pagan ceremonies. Little people are notorious for not noticing that others are not like them, but big people are all too aware of it, and Darren in particular could cause serious problems by telling his schoolboard stepmother that Rose's mommy worships trees and stars and sky.
But none of this occurs to Rose, naturally: and that innocence, for however long it lasts, offers another chance of hope for the next century.
Another young person of some importance - another glimpse at the future - is Maya, about to be cross paths with our old friends Harlan and Tracy.
You came to me embraced by shadows
Hand extended, holding hope
Demanding nothing, offering all
Your body, embrace, your red heart hair
You came to me
Innocent, lustful, full of dreams
You came to me
And awakened my spirit
You came to me
Our itinerant ex-programmer is dipping his toe into the hot tub of hippiedom, and finding he likes the temperature. Having an alluring and experienced hippie-chick lover as his guide doesn't hurt. Neither did the past ten days of Dead shows in Sacramento, Seattle and Eugene. Neither does the worn paperback copy of Desolation Angels the lovers are reading to each other as they head down that ever-lovin' American road.
So it is that Harlan, umemployed X weeks and literally having left his entire life behind in Texas, comes to the officially-sanctioned hippie fair in the heart of Eugene known as Saturday Market. The next Dead show isn't until tonight, and they don't have tickets, but that shouldn't be a problem.
Harlan wanders a city block crammed with canvas stands of handmade jewelry and avacado-sprout sandwiches (no gross greasy fried-rat-on-a-stick here, it's all "100% organic"). He passes through gentle drifts of incense smoke, scanning shelves of folk-art pottery in search of Tracy, who set off some time ago in search of something (probably beads and pot). When he finally tracks her down, she's sitting talking to a large woman in a black t-shirt with a dragon design. The woman is tossing wheat-bread crumbs to a big black crow at her feet.
"...and there he is now. Harlan, this is Joy."
Harlan extends a hand. "I hate to interrupt, but there's something you might wanna see, Tracy."
"What is it?"
"There's this girl, she's doing...not exactly psychic readings..actually, I've never seen anything like it before."
The crow plucks a crumb with a beak like black shears and regards Harlan with a single gleaming eye. Tracy says, "Tarot?"
"No. I know what the Tarot is...."
He frowns. "That's not it either. I'm telling you, you've gotta see this."
"Joy and I are still talking. Why don't I meet you over there? What is the name of the booth?"
"It's a wordplay, like Minah Eyes or something."
She looks surprised. "Maya Eye?"
"Yeah, that's it. You've heard of her?"
Tracy gives him an inscrutable smile. "I've heard of her," she says. "Go on ahead. I'll be there in just a minute."
So Harlan rejoins the crowd around Maya Eye's booth. A faded but functional blue tarp overhangs a tiny folding card table, protecting the people around it from the perpetual Oregon drizzle. At the outer edge of the tarp is a witch's kettle of black plastic.
Seated at the table are a large Pakistani man, a smaller, thinner man, and a girl of 11 or 12. As young as she is, her face is head-swiveling beautiful, with eyes like new pennies. Harlan hardly notices a twinge of déjà vu as he looks past the girl to the fourth person in the booth, an attractive older Hispanic woman in a tie-die blue muumuu. The woman stands over the seated people, facing the crowd.
She is speaking to the Pakistani man, but her voice is clearly meant for those watching. "Where do you live, Jamil?"
"And I'm from Eugene," the other man says. "But you're sure we know some of the same people?"
The woman nods. "In an area that small, it's certain."
Jamil says, "Small? Seattle's 250 miles away."
She nods. "That's small, as the human family goes."
Maya speaks for the first time. "10 years ago...you worked at a convenience store, and the manager's name was Sam. Sam Watts."
Jamil looks at her strangely, but he says, "...It's true. I'll never forget that hardass."
"Sam's ex-wife Nancy worked as a psychiatric nurse in Portland. One of her patients at the treatment center was Fred's sister June."
The other man gives a nasty start. "My sister was in treatment for two years. How the hell did you know that?"
Maya shrugs; she really doesn't know how she knows.
"But I visited her every week. Every week. I knew all the nurses. I would have remembered if there was one named Watts."
Maya shakes her head. "Not Watts. When she got married she kept her maiden name...Vasquez."
The crowd murmurs approval as the two men leave the impromptu stage. A few drop dollars in the kettle before walking on.
The woman steps forward, addressing the crowd directly. Her voice is strong, and she has a real sense of showmanship that instantly puts Harlan on his guard. Her long dark hair flows out behind her, lifted by the wind as she addresses the crowd.
"How many of you have ever met a stranger...and learned later that you were somehow connected to them? Sometimes you can know a person for years, and then one day you find out their grandmother was best friends with your wife's aunt, or that you both went to the same Stones concert in '76. Unless you find out by accident, you might never know what connects you to the stranger next to you.
"But Maya knows.
"She can look at two people and see the connections between them, as easily as you or I see the ropes that tie this tarp down. I didn't teach her how to do this. It's a gift she was born with. Perhaps there are others like her. Perhaps this ability is something we'll need to survive the next century."
Maya is calmly looking out into the crowd as the woman speaks. As she meets his eyes, she smiles, and Harlan returns his friendliest smile, meanwhile thinking There's got to be a trick.
The woman says, "Anybody else want to give it a try?" Harlan raises his hand.
And I want to find out what it is.
"What's your name?" the woman asks, so Harlan goes through all that again. Maya simply nods as if she already knew the whole story, and in that moment he becomes the Amazing Davidson, debunker of bunk, bane of phony psychics, determined to reveal the man behind the curtain. As he sits down at the table he notices Tracy, back in the back of the crowd, smiling. He gives her a wink.
"Now, if you'll choose someone else from the crowd..."
"I choose...you." Harlan points at Maya. "How are you connected to me?"
Maya doesn't reply for a long, silent moment. Harlan glances at the woman, to see if she expected this maneuver, but her face is expressionless.
When Maya finally speaks, there's no hiding the confusion in her voice. "Well...you're Tracy's lover."
Cartoon question marks and exclamation points appear over Harlan's head. Not boyfriend but lover - as if she knows not only Tracy's name, but the level of their intimacy. And just how did she know...
"Okay, that's right...but how are you connected to her?" Harlan is annoyed to hear the same tone in his voice as Fred had.
The beautiful little girl is unmistakably perplexed. As the crowd looks on, Harlan wonders if he has, indeed, stumped her. Then she simply says, "She's my sister."
"Tracy!" Maya shouts.
Smiling, Tracy steps forward through the crowd. The woman notices her for the first time, and the surprise and joy on her face is genuine; this is what wins over the crowd in a hurry. There is laughter and applause at Harlan's astonished face; he remains seated, watching, as the girl jumps from her chair and rushes out to wrap her arms around the embracing women. None of them notice the musical jingle of money landing in the plastic cauldron.
"Harlan, this is my mother, Maria."
Maria hugs Harlan like she's known him all his life. "So glad to meet you. You've made Tracy very happy."
They all have a good laugh at that one. "Do you want to stay for dinner? We have plenty."
So Harlan and Tracy decide to blow off that night's Dead show.... As the day wanes and the Market closes, they help Maria and Maya take down the tarp, bringing it back to Maria's truck.
"How cool," Harlan breathes.
Piggybacked onto her ancient pickup is the most wonderful old camper - not prefab plastic, but built of dark wood, with real windows and a door, and even a peaked - and shingled? - roof. All along the edges and corners are carven designs, exquisite, intricate designs - mermaids, lions, eagles, zodiac and Tarot figures. The shape of the camper seems familiar, and after a moment Harlan recognizes it: Dumbo. Maria's truck resembles nothing so much as an ancient circus wagon on Goodyears.
Over dinner (vegetarian tacos, hummus and cherry cobbler) Maria asks Harlan, "So what do you think of the Dead?"
"Well, it's interesting...I've heard about the band for a long time, of course, but I never understood what was so great about 'Truckin'' that would make people follow them around like gypsies or something."
Maria exchanges an amused glance with Tracy. Harlan's just getting warmed up: "I mean, there's got to be a reason people don't follow, say, Whitesnake in the same way. It took me a while, but I think I've figured it out."
"Who's Whitesnake?" Maya asks.
"It doesn't matter. What sets the Dead apart from other bands is that they don't just do three-minute songs on stage. They do extended sets, one song flowing into the next, as if they were all part of the same piece of music...they play for a long time, and sometimes it seems like they're just making it up as they go...they're obviously not just there to play a few sets and encore with 'Touch of Grey' and collect their checks and split. They're actually there because they love the music. In the old days, Bruce Springsteen - you know who Springsteen is, Maya?"
Maya rolls her eyes heavenward.
"Springsteen was once regarded the same way, and if he hadn't become a fuckin' superstar, he might still be playing that way to a small, fanatic following.... instead, he fills stadiums with screaming teenagers who can't tell him from Wham!."
"You must have been hell on Santa Claus," Maria says.
"What do you mean?"
"Shh, Mama," Tracy chides. "She means you're taking all the magic away. But alchemists made magic too, Mama. Science makes its own magic.... You're on the right track, Harlan. But there's something else you haven't noticed yet."
"The Dead don't just play, they jam. They improvise a great deal. Each concert is a once-in-a-lifetime experience - and that is what sets them apart. There are people who tape each concert, and some of them can recognize each individual set, and remember the day and place where it was played. Each concert date becomes a unique event in their lives."
"I can see that," Harlan says. "But -" he gestures at Maria with a cobbler-caked fork - "what did you mean by magic?"
The night is cool when they say their goodbyes, but the drizzle has finally stopped. Tracy grips her mother in a long embrace. Harlan, watching, is moved by their tenderness.
"I wish there was enough room, Tracy," Maria says, "you could share the bed with Maya like you used to. But you're both too big now." There are tears on her face; Harlan's not surprised. Moms are moms.
Tracy laughs. "That's okay. Harlan found a place for us to stay. I love you."
"I love you."
"'Bye, Tracy!" Maya shouts from the camper. Tracy blows her a kiss and they walk away into the night....
"So, how much did you pay those people to impersonate your family?"
"I had no idea they were here! Wasn't that wonderful? We don't get to talk much because we are always on the road."
"I think your mom likes me."
"I think so too. It's a good sign. I've never known her to be wrong about anyone. Where are we going?"
"There's a hostel a few blocks from here. We can actually sleep in a bed."
"Oh good. I claim the shower."
"No fair, you got it first last time."
"We'll take turns."
"I've got a better idea...."
A turn of the dial sends fills the stall with steam and hot sweet water. When they have agreed on the temperature, standing naked and excited next to each other, they get in. Washing off the grime of the road, sliding soapily against each other, they can hardly keep from touching, caressing, playing. Hot fingers of water rinse off the soap, leaving them clean and naked and next to each other, so comfortable with being next to each other.
"Keep doing that."
"No. That lifting thing. With your hand."
"Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm-hmmmmmmmmm." She flattens, gasping, against the door of the shower stall. Her nipples paint wild surrealist patterns on the wet glass. She reaches down for him with one hand, finds him there, hard and waiting. The clear hot water rains down on their entwined bodies, making little rivers that flow along the curves and crevices. As they move, the water moves with them, a rhythmic dance on the shower floor, spinning down the drain into oblivion.
You came against all expectation
Surprising in your eagerness, and
Surprising again in your shyness
Together we travel 10,000 miles
Without moving an inch;
The world will spin on and
We will spin off and
Nothing of us will remain but
You make me glad that I have these few moments
You make me write valentines to the moon.
Later, their cooling bodies coil together under the sheets, feet fumbling and arms intertwining, lips and tongues speechless saying all. Again he marvels at her tenderness, how she can convey so much with the gentle touch of her fingertips. He watches her copper eyes; she sees him watching and smiles and says nothing.
"Why are you so quiet?" he asks.
She laughs. "I'm afraid if I say anything, I will fuck it up."
"If it's really natural...."
He says, "So who's your friend Joy? I never really got to talk to her."
"Plenty of time for that. She is your new boss."
"Boss?" Harlan realizes he hasn't had a job in months. The money in his savings is holding out, for the moment, but.... "You found me a job?"
"Both of us jobs. Man does not live by Dead alone."
"It's not in programming, is it? I don't know if I can do that again for a while."
She smiles and kisses him. "More like counter-programming."
Meanwhile: on the World Wide Web:
System GREETER: "c2" has entered the room Sparky: hey c Sonic: hi whats goin on c2: hello sparky Sparky: have we met before? c2: yes but you don t remember Sparky: not surprising, with all the people I've met on the Web Sonic: that's what I was just saying: the Internet's capacity to make connections etween people is what's going to change history Sparky: I still think you're overestimating the Web's importance. I mean, not everyone has computers. Sonic: but they WILL Sparky: maybe in 25 years, when today's kids have grown up and got jobs - but too many of the current generation are terrified of computers - and with movies like "T2" who can blame 'em? Sonic: you're half rite - young people will be getting computers, but they're not gonna wait til they grow up Sparky: how are they going to get the money? how many parents are gonna want to spend that kind of dough just so their kids can play "SimEarth"? Sonic: you underestimate the persuasive power of kids Sparky: come to think of it, you're probably right. Sonic: from what I've read, I'd say most people will be on the net within three years Sparky: within three years of what? Sonic: now Sparky: you've been reading Bill Gates' press releases again, haven't you? Sonic: dont underestimate the persuasive powers of bill gates, either Sparky: oh, come on - if the net explosion DOES happen, it's gonna be apple Sonic: Sparky: i mean, it's obviously a far superior system Sonic: Sparky: right? Sonic: you don't get out much, do you? Sparky: I don't get OUT much? haven't yu got that reversed? I spend so much time on the road I'm only on the computer once every blue moon. YOU, on the other hand.... Sonic: point taken Sparky: the net at best will be a great educational + scientific tool - it's not gonna change the world Sonic: what do you think, c2? System GREETER: "c2" has exited the room Sparky: some people Sonic: we'll have to continue this conversation in 3 years and see if I'm right Sparky: it's a deal. you remember when everybody thought Beta VCRs were going to be the next big thing? Sonic: I think that was before my time Sparky: that was around 1985 Sonic: well, I was only 3 then Sparky: three? how the fuck old are you, lion? Sonic: 12 Sparky: 12 YEARS OLD???? I'VE SPENT THE LAST 2 HRS TALKING COMPUTER THEORY WITH A 12 YEAR OLD? Sonic: they say i'm gifted Sparky: yeah, well, yer beyond gifted, kid. Little Stevie Wonder was "gifted." if yer really 12 - and i have no reason to doubt you - Sonic: trust me, i'm 12. my parents won't let me forget it. Sparky: maybe I should reconsider what you've been saying Sonic: "little" stevie wonder? Sparky: never mind.....
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