Anyway, drifting through fog toward the shrouded shore, I was at first unable to fish new details of the dream from memory. But then I realized that in the vision, Annamaria had not worn the clothes I had seen her wear in life.
She had been pregnant, as in life, suspended in the air above the luminous and crimson sea, a tempest of fiery clouds behind her.
As I stood on a beach crawling with snakes of light, she floated toward me, freed from the power of gravity, arms folded across her breast, eyes closed.
I recalled her garment fluttering, not as if billowing in the winds of a cataclysm, but as if stirred gently by her own magical and stately progress through the air.
Not a dress or gown. Voluminous but not absurdly so. A robe of some kind, covering her from throat to wrists, to ankles.
Her ankles had been crossed, her feet bare.
The fabric of the garment exhibited the softness and the sheen of silk, and it hung in graceful folds; yet there had been something strange about it.
I was certain that it had been white at first. But then not white. I could not recall what color it had subsequently become, but the change of color hadn’t been the strange thing.
The softness of the weave, the sheen of the fabric. The graceful draping. The slightest flutter of the sleeves, and of the hem above the bare feet…
Scissors-kicking, the heels of my sneakered feet bumped something in the water, and an instant later my stroking hands met resistance. I flailed once at an imagined shark before I realized I had reached shallow water and that I was fighting only sand.
I rolled off my back, rose into night air colder than the water. Listening to the outboard engine fade in the distance, I waded ashore through whispering surf and a scrim of sea foam.
Out of the white fog, up from the white beach came a gray form, and suddenly a dazzling light bloomed three inches from my face.
Before I could reel backward, the flashlight swung up, one of those long-handled models. Before I was able to dodge, the flashlight arced down and clubbed me, a glancing blow to the side of my head.
As he hit me, he called me a rectum, although he used a less elegant synonym for that word.
The guy loomed so close that even in the confusing fog-refracted slashes of light, I could see that he was a new thug, not one of the three miscreants from the pier.
The motto of Magic Beach was EVERYONE A NEIGHBOR, EVERY NEIGHBOR A FRIEND. They needed to consider changing it to something like YOU BETTER WATCH YOUR ASS.
My ears were ringing and my head hurt, but I was not dazed. I lurched toward my assailant, and he backed up, and I reached for him, and he clubbed me again, this time harder and squarely on the top of the head.
I wanted to kick his crotch, but I discovered that I had fallen to my knees, which is a position from which crotch-kicking is a too-ambitious offense.
For a moment I thought the faithful were being summoned to church, but then I realized the bell was my skull, tolling loudly.
I didn’t have to be psychic to know the flashlight was coming down again, cleaving fog and air.
I said a bad word.
CONSIDERING THAT THIS IS MY FOURTH MANUSCRIPT, I have become something of a writer, even though nothing that I have written will be published until after my death, if ever.
As a writer, I know how the right bad word at a crucial moment can purge ugly emotions and relieve emotional tension. As a guy who has been forced to struggle to survive almost as long as he has been alive, I also know that no word—even a really, really bad word—can prevent a blunt object from splitting your skull if it is swung with enthusiasm and makes contact.
So having been driven to my knees by the second blow, and with my skull ringing as though the hunchback of Notre Dame were inside my head and pulling maniacally on bell ropes, I said the bad word, but I also lunged forward as best I could and grabbed my assailant by the ankles.
The third blow missed its intended target, and I took the impact on my back, which felt better than a whack on the head, although not as good as any moment of a massage.
Facedown on the beach, gripping his ankles, I tried to pull the sonofabitch off his feet.
Sonofabitch wasn’t the bad word that I used previously. This was another one, and not as bad as the first.
His legs were planted wide, and he was strong.
Whether my eyes were open or closed, I saw spirals of twinkling lights, and Somewhere over the Rainbow played in my head. This led me to believe that I had nearly been knocked unconscious and that I didn’t have my usual strength.
He kept trying to hit my head again, but he also had to strive to stay upright, so he managed only to strike my shoulders three or four times.
Throughout this assault, the flashlight beam never faltered, but repeatedly slashed the fog, and I was impressed by the manufacturer’s durability standards.
Although we were in a deadly serious struggle, I could not help but see absurdity in the moment. A self-respecting thug ought to have a gun or at least a blackjack. He flailed at me as though he were an eighty-year-old lady with an umbrella responding to an octogenarian beau who had made a rude proposal.
At last I succeeded in toppling him. He dropped the flashlight and fell backward.
I clambered onto him, jamming my right knee where it would make him regret having been born a male.
Most likely he tried to say a bad word, a very bad word, but it came out as a squeal, like an expression of consternation by a cartoon mouse.
Near at hand lay the flashlight. As he tried to throw me off, I snared that formidable weapon.
I do not like violence. I do not wish to be the recipient of violence, and I am loath to perpetrate it.
Nevertheless, I perpetrated a little violence on the beach that night. Three times I hit his head with the flashlight. Although I did not enjoy striking him, I didn’t feel the need to turn myself in to the police, either.
He stopped resisting and I stopped hitting. I could tell by the slow soft whistle of his breathing that he had fallen unconscious.
When all the tension went out of his muscles, I clambered off him and got to my feet just to prove to myself that I could do it.
Dorothy kept singing faintly, and I could hear Toto panting. The twinkling lights behind my eyelids began to spiral faster, as if the tornado was about to lift us out of Kansas and off to Oz.
I returned voluntarily to my knees before I went down against my will. After a moment, I realized that the panting was mine, not that of Dorothy’s dog.
Fortunately, my vertigo subsided before my adversary regained consciousness. Although the flashlight still worked, I didn’t think it could take much more punishment.
The cracked lens cast a thin jagged shadow on his face. But as I peeled back one of his eyelids to be sure that I had not given him a concussion, I could see him well enough to know that I had never seen him before and that I preferred never to see him again.
Eye of newt. Wool-of-bat hair. Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips. A lolling tongue like a fillet of fenny snake. He was not exactly ugly, but he looked peculiar, as if he’d been conjured in a cauldron by Macbeth’s coven of witches.
When he had fallen, a slim cell phone had slid half out of his shirt pocket. If he was in league with the trio at the pier, he might have called them when he heard me swimming ashore.
After rolling him onto his side, I took the wallet from his hip pocket. Supposing he had summoned help moments before I had come ashore, I needed to move on quickly and could not pore through his ID there on the beach. I left his folding money in his shirt pocket with his cell phone, and I took the wallet.
I propped the flashlight on his chest. Because his head was raised on a mound of sand, the bright beam bathed him from chin to hairline.
If something like Godzilla woke in a Pacific abyss and decided to come ashore to flatten our picturesque community, this guy’s face would dissuade it from a rampage, and the scaly beast would return meekly to the peace of the deeps.
With the fog-diffused lights of town to guide me, I slogged across the wide beach.
I did not proceed directly east. Perhaps Flashlight Guy had told the pier crew that he was on the shore due west of some landmark, by which they could find him. If they were coming, I wanted to cut a wide swath around them.
AS I ANGLED NORTHEAST ACROSS THE STRAND, the soft sand sucked at my shoes and made every step a chore.
Wearing wet jeans and T-shirt on the central coast on a January night can test your mettle. Five weeks ago, however, I had been in the Sierra during a blizzard. This felt balmy by comparison.
I wanted a bottle of aspirin and an ice bag. When I touched the throbbing left side of my head, I wondered if I needed stitches. My hair felt sticky with blood. I found a lump the size of half a plum.
When I left the beach, I was at the north end of the shoreside commercial area, where Jacaranda Avenue dead-ended. From there, a mile of oceanfront houses faced the concrete boardwalk all the way to the harbor.
For its ten-block length, Jacaranda Avenue, which ran east from the boardwalk, was lined with ancient podocarpuses. The trees formed a canopy that cooled the street all day and shaded the streetlamps at night. Not one jacaranda grew along its namesake avenue.
Wisteria Lane boasted no wisteria. Palm Drive featured oaks and ficuses. Sterling Heights was the poorest neighborhood, and of all the streets in town, Ocean Avenue lay the farthest from the ocean.
Like most politicians, those in Magic Beach seemed to live in an alternate universe from the one in which real people existed.
Wet, rumpled, my shoes and jeans caked with sand, bleeding, and no doubt wild-eyed, I was grateful that the podocarpuses filtered the lamplight. In conspiracy with the fog, I traveled in shadows along Jacaranda Avenue and turned right on Pepper Tree Way.
Three guys were hunting me. With a population of fifteen thousand, Magic Beach was more than a wide place in the highway, but it did not offer a tide of humanity in which I could swim unnoticed.
Furthermore, in my current condition, if an alert policeman spotted me, he would be inclined to stop and chat. He would suspect I had been the target or the perpetrator of violence—or both.
I had no confidence in my ability to convince him that I clubbed myself over the head as punishment for a wrong decision I had made.
I did not want to file a report regarding the gunmen at the pier and the assault at the beach. That would take hours.
Already the three goons would be trying to determine who I was, describing me to people working in the commercial zone near the pier.
They might not get a lead. Having been in town little more than a month, having kept to myself as I waited to discover why I had been drawn there, I had remained a stranger to almost the entire populace.
Even an accurate description of me would not help them much. I am of average height, average weight. I have no distinguishing scars, birthmarks, tattoos, moles, warts, or facial mutations. I do not have a chin beard or yellow eyes. My teeth are not dissolving from meth addiction, but I also do not turn heads as would, say, Tom Cruise.
Except for the paranormal gifts with which I have been burdened, I was born to be a fry cook. Tire salesman. Shoe-store clerk. The guy who puts handbills under windshield wipers in the mall parking lot.
Give me an accurate and detailed description of at least one of the many fry cooks who has whipped up breakfast for you in a diner or coffee shop over the years, one tire salesman or shoe-store clerk who has served you. I know what comes to your mind: nada.
Don’t feel bad. Most fry cooks and tire salesmen and shoe clerks never want to be famous or widely recognized. We just want to get along. We want to live quietly, avoid hurting anyone, avoid being hurt, provide for ourselves and for those we love, and have some fun along the way. We keep the economy humming, and we fight wars when we have to, and we raise families if we get the chance, but we have no desire to see our pictures in the newspaper or to receive medals, and we don’t hope to hear our names as answers to questions on Jeopardy!
We are the water in the river of civilization, and those fellow citizens who desire attention, who ride the boats on the river and wave to admiring crowds along the shore…well, they interest us less than they amuse us. We don’t envy them their prominence. We embrace our anonymity and the quiet that comes with it.
The artist Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes, and he implied that they would hunger for that fame. He was right, but only about the kind of people he knew.
And as for the guys who put handbills under windshield wipers in the shopping-mall parking lot: Man, they have totally got the anonymity thing right; they are as invisible as the wind, as faceless as time.
As I made my way through shadows and fog, along back streets more than main streets, I worried that the yellow-eyed man might have more muscle on his team than just the pair of redheads and Flashlight Guy. Depending on his resources, he could have people searching not just for me but also for Annamaria.
She had known my name. She must know more than that about me. I didn’t think she would willingly give me up to the hulk; but he would break her like a ceramic bank to get at the coins of knowledge that she held.
I didn’t want her to be hurt, especially not because of me. I had to find her before he did.
BY AN ALLEY I ARRIVED AT THE BACK OF HUTCH Hutchison’s house. A gate beside the garage opened to a walkway that led to a brick patio.
Glazed terra-cotta urns and bowls held red and purple cyclamens, but the bleach of fog and the stain of night left the blooms as colorless as barnacle shells.
On a glass-topped wrought-iron table, I put down my wallet and the one I had taken off the agitated man with the flashlight.
Toe to heel, I pried off my sand-caked sneakers. I stripped off my socks and then my blue jeans, which were crusted with enough sand to fill a large hourglass. With a garden hose, I washed my feet.
Mrs. Nicely came three days a week to clean, as well as to do the laundry and ironing. Her surname suited her even better than my first name suited me, and I did not want to cause her extra work.
The back door was locked. Among the cyclamens in the nearest bowl, in a Ziploc pill bag, Hutch kept a spare key. After retrieving the two wallets, I let myself into the house.
Fragrant with the cinnamony aroma of chocolate-pumpkin cookies that I had baked earlier in the afternoon, brightened only by the golden glow of string lights hidden in the recessed toe kick of the cabinets, the kitchen waited warm and welcoming.
I am no theologian. I would not be surprised, however, if Heaven proved to be a cozy kitchen, where delicious treats appeared in the oven and in the refrigerator whenever you wanted them, and where the cupboards were full of good books.
After blotting my wet feet on the small rug, I snatched a cookie from the plate that stood on the center island, and I headed for the door to the downstairs hall.
I intended to go upstairs with the stealth of a Ninja assassin, quickly shower, dress my head wound if it didn’t need stitches, and put on fresh clothes.