The Oceanic Express
by Jack Alcott
|part 2 of 3|
Garth, for his part, casually accepted her love as though it was his due — and I could have killed him for that. But Garth was killing himself, anyway, and probably taking his perfect lover with him.
You see, he was a heroin addict of the most seductive, charming and dangerous variety. He was also a devilishly talented, professional-level guitarist who could blow you away with his lyrical playing. In short, he seemed to have already won life’s lottery, and even his willingness to throw it all away on drugs and debauchery had a certain tragic allure.
Sir Francis held the book out to them like an offering in both his preternatural hands.
Garth took it and scrutinized its flaking, ancient leather cover. “Jesus, how old is this?” he asked and then without waiting for an answer, read the gold-lettered title aloud: “The New, Improved Atlantis.” He laughed. “What is this? Some kind of joke?”
“Not at all,” came the answer from our inscrutable visitor. “It’s my book; I’ve been writing it for years, decades even.”
Garth gave him a glance, and opened its pages. They were made of thick, homemade-looking paper and were covered in a flowing script in a language that was definitely not English, and frankly looked more like an otherworldly symphony.
The title was vaguely familiar, though, and a fuzzy memory surfaced from one of my college classes; I realized it was a riff on the original — that is, the “real” Francis Bacon’s book on Atlantis. I was becoming ever more convinced that our guest was a ’60s acid burnout from the nearby Haight.
“It’s about my distant travels and the future that awaits us all,” Francis said without prompting. “A utopia far better than this dysfunctional time and place.”
As he was speaking, someone bumped me from behind, spilling beer on the back of my shirt. I turned quickly to find Mark Summers standing there and mumbling apologies. He was already hammered and was bobbing and weaving where he stood, the whites of his eyes gone pink with corpuscular hemorrhaging.
I always hated to see young Mark so wasted, I mean he wasn’t even 21 yet. He was a runaway who’d spent his first couple of weeks in Frisco sleeping in Golden Gate Park until he’d run into Ray, who let him stay in his one-room dive at the Elite Hotel over on Clement.
The hotel was anything but elite, of course, and Ray had filled the room with sour-smelling laundry and wall-to-wall piles of arcane poetry books. I’d heard him complaining earlier that Mark, who he said slept on the floor, had kicked over a pile and ruined the covers on a couple of early City Lights numbers. He’d almost thrown Mark back on the street, but couldn’t bring himself to banish the kid to sleeping outdoors.
Mark was a real hard luck story; he’d left home after fighting with his stepfather, an insurance exec up in Seattle. They could not get along, and his step-dad picked on him so much that Mark said he had to leave because he might kill the man. Mark was a big boy, fullback size, and when he drank you could see glints of anger gathering like ice splinters in his slanty blue eyes.
He wasn’t angry right now, though, just dazed. “Sorry, man, sorry,” he said, and promptly spilled more beer on me.
“Don’t worry about it, Marko, “ I said. “I consider it a baptism by beer; thanks for saving me.”
I could see he wasn’t sure if I was kidding or what, and his eyes were going in and out of focus. I was going to tell him there was a seat open on one of the couches and he should just kick back and I’d get him another brew, when Francis piped up.
“You should drink a lot less young man. It’s going to catch up with you faster than you realize — you want to make your next birthday?”
Mark’s eyes snapped back into focus and fixed on Francis; I could almost see the ice crystallizing in his blue-gray irises.
“Who’s this guy?” he asked. “Governor Moonbeam? Listen mister, my birthday’s tomorrow, all right, but you don’t know me from Adam. So why don’t you just shut up and mind your own business, all right? All right?”
“Take it easy, Mark — hey, there’s a seat open on the couch, grab it, man.” I gave him friendly nudge in that direction. I could see he was having trouble standing and wanted to sit down, and he went for it.
Garth was now in front of Francis and he had the “Atlantis” book open in his hand.
“Hey, this doesn’t look like any language I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Looks more like musical notation, but I don’t recognize any of these notes, or whatever they are. What is this stuff?” He was genuinely puzzled — and curious.
“You’re quite correct, it is a kind of music — a universal language. I see you’re a musician yourself, which means you probably already know how to read this notation; you just need a refresher course, and I’m willing to teach you.”
“Huh? I don’t know about that,” Garth said glancing up from the book. “But it does seem to have a certain rhythm going on.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Jean. “Like one of those illuminated manuscripts created by Irish monks.”
“Thank you,” Francis responded. “But religion has nothing to do with my treatise.”
“So what’s it about then, what’s the theme?” Garth asked.
“Everything,” Francis said.
“Oh c’mon, everything?”
Our visitor smiled and took another drink from his black pint of ale. “Everything, young man. You and your lovely companion are both part of my book.”
“You mean you’re going to include us in your next chapter?” Jean said with a playful smile that I wished she’d turn on me every night for the rest of my life.
“No. You’re in there now. That’s the way it works.”
“What? How’s that possible, dude?” said Garth. “You’re screwing with us.”
The idea of already being in the book excited Jean, though — or maybe she was just tipsy and humoring the guy.
“We’re characters in your book? What are we doing, what’s our role?” she asked in her breathy, Dixie accent.
Garth was staring at him now, too, not sure where this was going. Behind them, a few partygoers were swaying to the beat as Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” came pounding out of the stereo speakers. I saw that Bruce had put down his guitar and was now pulling albums from the rack in front of the bay windows, which were crowded with shadows in the apartment’s dimly reflected half-light.
The sweet smell of cannabis drifted across the room and the evening seemed to visibly shift into another gear, as though a tiny earthquake had just ever so gently rippled through the building... Oh, wait — it was an earthquake; a low-grade temblor that built in intensity for a few moments, shaking and bowing the windows and rattling the bones of the old building.
Several guests, including Garth and Jean, looked around in panic, and scaredy-cat Ray even managed to plant himself firmly in the doorway to the hallway, as advised in all the quake emergency guides. A number of the guests were unfazed; either because they’d been through it before or they were too zonked to notice the earth had moved. Mark never even opened his eyes as he nodded on the couch.
Throughout it all, Francis stood fast, calmly surveying the scene. Then the building stopped groaning and a few sirens started up in the distance. Somebody asked to turn on the TV so we could find out what magnitude it was, and somebody else turned it on to a NewsCenter 4 update, where the anchor said a minor 5.5 quake had just rumbled through — not a real big deal in the Bay Area.
The TV was off again, Boz Skaggs was suddenly on the turntable, and everybody went back to what they were doing: drinking, smoking, bullshitting and trying to pick somebody else up. The world was restored at least for another day.
Mark woke up on the couch startled, and jumped up. The quake was long gone, but he was just now registering that something weird had happened. “What was that?” he slurred. “Was I dreaming? Felt like everything was moving, like I was floating around the couch.”
“It was a quake, Mark,” I told him. “Don’t worry — it’s run its course.”
“Oh, man, I’ll never get used to those things. Don’t like it when the ground turns to Jello.”
“You’re okay, young man,” Francis said. “For now.”
I didn’t like the way that sounded and thought to myself it was time to get our strange visitor out of there.
Mark was staring at him hard again. “Hey!” he said with a dawning surprise. “I know where I seen you! Down at Powell and Market, at the cable car turntable with the tourists and all the other crazy-ass street preachers. You were reading your raggedy old book and shouting at the poor rubes. What a freakin’ circus.”
Francis was silent. And then in a spooky, sibilant voice barely audible over Boz, he said, “I saw you there, too, Mark. You caught my attention.”
He said it like it wasn’t a good idea to catch his attention, like Clint Eastwood speaking to the psychopath in Dirty Harry.
Mark was too far gone to pick up the message.
Francis smiled, showing tiny little white teeth. I only got a quick glimpse, but there sure seemed to be a lot more than normal. He had now switched to a mood of slight amusement.
“The Powell Street cable car is my main means of transportation. That line goes a lot farther than most people realize. You ever notice how, as it crests the California Street hill at twilight, it’s silhouetted against the sky for a split-second? And then whoosh — it disappears? Where’d it go? Did it just drop down the other side of the hill — or is it just gone?”
“Gone?” Mark repeated, his hard-bitten baby face a mask of incredulity. “Whoa! You are on some serious drugs, man — I want some.”
“You don’t need any stimulants,” Francis said. “Not anymore.”
“What? You’re sounding like my old man now,” Mark said, getting his back up again.
Thankfully, Garth and Jean appeared from wherever they’d skittered off to when the temblor hit. Garth still had the ancient book in his hand.
“This stuff is amazing, man,” he said, indicating the Druid-like scribblings. “I have no idea how to read it, but it looks great. I mean, it’s art, man. You’ve created a work of art here.”
“You said we’re in your book,” Jean said. “What’s it say about us? Good things I hope?”
Francis took the book away, opened it and thumbed through a few pages. When he stopped, a barely perceptible grimace flitted across his face and then changed into his usual tight little smile.
“It’s not all bad,” he said, raising his eyes from the text. “But hedonism has its price, and it will be paid.”
Garth frowned. “What the hell’s that mean?”
“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?” Jean asked, pulling Garth closer.
“It’s only this guy’s book,” Garth said to Jean, sensing her unease. “Some rambling impressions he’s jotted down in his own obscure secret language. It’s not real, honey.”
“Why don’t you tell us what’s real then, Garth?” Francis said. “Heroin isn’t real; or at least where it takes you and your beautiful friend isn’t very real, is it?”
Garth took a step back, as though he’d been struck with a fist.
“What the hell are you talking about? You don’t know me, man. What gives you the right or even the balls to say something like that to somebody?”
Copyright © 2010 by Jack Alcott