From: Killing Time with Strangers

byWilliam S. Penn

Chapter One


Life may be a record of failure.

Take Palimony Blue, for instance, or his father La Vent. Their failures, which have been mostly failures of the heart, might not rock the western world on its foundations, but they sure do keep me busy. I suppose that means that death may be a record of failure, too, since after all is said and done, I'm dead. Or you would think of me as dead. And right now, at this moment, I am working very hard to overcome the limitations imposed upon me by my failure to help Palimony Blue bring into his world the Am anda he has always dreamed of, the one lasting love that Pal's mother Mary would dream into existence for him, if she could.

Dreaming is a powerful but very personal activity, however. And so as good a Dreamer as Mary Blue may be, she cannot dream something like love into her son's life. He has to do it himself. The best she can do is call on me and then imagine the circumstances in which I might for once succeed in helping Pal dream fully and properly the Amanda he so needs to complete his world. So far I, like Pal, have failed.

I've come close, though.


Perhaps I need to explain. When I said I was dead, I wasn't being exactly exact. I was never alive in the sense of having been born by a mother into the world of human beings. I have never been a human being. But I have been imagined as existing by a human being. As difficult as it may be for you to accept, that makes me more alive than many of the people walking the western world in a sort of nightmare of consumption and bumper-sticker opinions. Why just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said "Children should been seen, and heard and (in ROY-Gee-BIV rainbow colors) BELIEVED." I like kids, but really, who did the printer think is father to the politician but the child - - and human beings are supposed to believe them? Even when their intentions are good, and most of them begin with good intentions, their abilities to modify their perceptions as though they were eggs of Silly Putty is astonishing. So even if you argue that children are in an early and only slightly tainted state of grace and innocence, the adult asking them "What happened?" is already blinkered with expectations and fanciful notions that will define what they see and hear. It's like some old people who are both deaf and blinded by age which, though unexamined, they like to call experience, leaning on the truth of experience like the tubular aluminum and wheels of their walkers.

You may take it from all this that weyekin are somewhat the curmudgeons and I guess that's one way to put it. I call it attitude, though, and every time I've tried to modify my attitude, speak in ways that make what I think best-seller comfortable and palpably pallid, I end up feeling queasy with lying like I've just eaten tomatoes stewed in pesticide. Worse, I end up with a whole lot of people thinking they're my friend and I'm interested in the tarnish of their day-to-day. When that happens - - as it did just last month - - I reinvent my attitude as even more curmudgeonly than I am, say things in not merely direct but also nasty ways, and isolate myself from all but the very determined. Determined people are complicated, at least, and therefore interesting. Gradually, though, my nastiness is tempered by solitude and then I'm back to my old honest and direct self which only seems curmudgeonly to, well, to those nice bumper-sticker folks who believe what they believe they should.

I digress? Not entirely. But anyway, as I was saying before I was forced away from linearity out of consideration for you, as one who is not really dead but who can be fully alive, I am made to be alive by a human being imagining the circumstances in which I may effectively operate. I am a weyekin, a spirit-guide. I am something like art, like a painting which, in order to be understood, must be more than simply seen. It must be studied over time; it must be lived with, certainly for more than the average thirty seconds a gallery - goer is willing to give to look at "Guernica." I take the shape given to me by the combination of a dreamer's power and my own success, relative to that dreamer's definition of what success would be. In other words, if I fuck up, then the next time the dreamer calls on me, I may be re-imagined in a lesser shape. Sort of like Eastern Indian concepts of reincarnation where a lucky man may come back as another human being with the same work to continue and a better man as a cow, I have been everything from compadre to the corpse of a washed up Math professor, from hobo to seagull.

Seagull? "As in bird?" you ask.

Yep. And believe me, if you've ever imagined yourself as a seagull, imagined the screech and cry that comes from eating all that garbage and all those washed up scraps of fish, imagined following the Q.E. II back and forth and back again waiting for the stewards to dump tons of waste into the ocean - - waste you have to pick through quickly before it sinks - - you will know how little any weyekin wants to be a seagull. It's boring, if nothing else. Communicating with people is nearly impossible. And you live with perpetual diarrhea and heartburn with only the joy of dark suits or fancy hats to smear with seagull glop, a joy that is hardly joy-full as all you can do about it is cry. You can't share it with other seagulls the way human beings, if they develop the capabilities, can share it with others of their kind. (Although given the way I've heard some people utter sounds, I do sometimes wonder if my seagull's cry is not clearer and more descriptive than the grunts of their morphemes. But perhaps I am too harsh. Perhaps I am, as a weyekin, growing old and stodgy, huh? Perhaps I have grown too used to the screech of garbage - - and that is all you, dear listener, should take the nastier and more mean-spirited of my words to be).

So I have taken many shapes and been many things. I was dreamed into existence by Mary Blue, and I have been called by her time and again lately as a weyekin for her son, Pal. The last time I nearly succeeded. It wasn't my fault, really, that I failed. If Mary had called me sooner. Or if there were less titanium garbage floating around in space making the journey as slow as a cautionary tale. But she didn't. And there isn't. I arrived to nudge Pal onwards just seconds after Amanda - - the very Amanda he had been dreaming of for what seemed like forever - - had pulled her car back out onto the highway and driven away.


Fitting himself to his name, Pal had been on his way home from spending the night with Tara Dunnahowe. Tara was his former girlfriend. At least, she was the girl he had imagined was his girlfriend. I never did quite convince Pal that a girl like Tara, raised with all the Dunnahowe privilege and possession, could never live up to the image of steadfastness that Mary Blue had given her son by means of the stories she told him as he was growing up. Tara was not entirely to blame for the fact that she could not be true. After all, someone who has all she had and all she was given is forced to keep at least one eye out for the things she does not have but which she will get. In Tara's case, it was cars. And clothes. And, well, yes, men. Smooth men. Ridge-bellied Roundheads, my friend and fellow weyekin Tom Yellowtail calls them. Suits is what Henny Penny calls 'em. (Oh, yes, Henny Penny, like Chicken Little, is one of us, though she's one of us who services white folks. In fact, she was one of the original angels dreamed up by Dante Alighieri and condemned to hang around singing Hosanna, stuck like a bee to fly paper on the multifoliate rose until the day God died. Chicken Little, well, you know who Chicken Little is). But though "suits" would be accurate in most cases, with Tara's flirtations being declasse, the suits were usually cotton Dockers with corduroy jackets (and, in the most extreme cases, suede patches on the elbows). Men with beards. Well-trimmed beards. Or mustaches. Or long faces grayed by serious investigation and the lost ability to talk to human beings without sucking air in through their pursed lips. Hands and lips palsied by frustration at trying to teach a sea of youngsters inured to thought or feeling by rock and roll. In plain language, college professors. Though, in Tara's case, they were Community College professors, men who are overworked and therefore pride themselves on teaching. Pal, though neither a suit nor a Ridge-bellied Roundhead, was Tara's main experiment with racial declasse-ness and, timid as she really was (though Pal never saw that) she had wanted a black man, settling for Pal's Indian umber tan. To be blunt, however, Pal was nothing more than an interlude to Tara between an assistant and an associate professor, and the idea that she would give up fucking her teachers to remain steadfast and true to Pal was as absurd as him imagining that she would give up her high grades or her convertible sports car that looked like a bright red bar of soap. Pal, however, had been raised on stories and when he imagined Tara, he made her steadfastness part of his story. To convince him otherwise was simply impossible, even for the best of weyekin in the best of dreamer dreams.

Now it was over - - he had at long last recognized a certain chill in Tara's attitude - - but again true to his naming he had remained her Pal. Which meant that when she needed him, she called him. He'd even spend the night with her, sleeping beside her, holding her, his erection squeezed between his thighs so as not to give offense or seem too pushy or male, comforting her and calming her worries.

Presently she was consumed by her fear that her newest lover might cheat on her. Her Mr. History (he was an associate professor of contemporary thought and events at Ohlone Community College) had gone off for the weekend to elbow others of his specie at a convention on the Manifest West and the Future of Frontiers. He presented his paper, "Whose Only Son Will Be Given Now?" at eight a.m. on the opening day, and then stayed around to lounge in hotel bars, flipping through the hundred page directory of pap ers and sessions pretending to be interested while watching women out of the corner of his uncornered eyes.

Based on her unarticulated sense of her own fecklessly recreant character, Tara was just sure that he might get a little tipsy. She worried that then he would try to ball one of the cocktail waitresses or some female historian with breasts the size of apricots - - a change from Tara's breasts, which were so large as to be not only unmanageable but also the first thing other women noticed about her.

Had I been with him, I would have tried to get Pal to see that Tara deserved to worry these worries. That her fears that Mr. History would cheat on her were based on her willingness to cheat on her boyfriends. "Including you, Pal," I would have whispered in his ear. The mere fact that he hadn't come down with crabs or worse in this age of AIDS was largely miraculous, given the number of men Tara had slept with while Pal was imagining her steadfast. Indeed, for some months she had starved herself into youthful though mottled thinness so she could pick up high school boys and fuck them two and even three at a time in the acrobatic seats of her red convertible soapbar.

For those things alone, Tara should spend the rest of this life and the next travelling through the hot places of unproven suspicions. For the hurt Pal felt when he finally admitted that he was unworthy of her, that of course someone like him was insufficient as a friend or lover for someone as wonderful as Tara Dunnahowe, she deserved far worse.

When she dumped him - - actually, she never really dumped him, she just forecast the end and then let him realize it - - I had tried to tell him all this. But Pal didn't want to hear it. He doesn't have a mean beam in his floorplan. Even now he lacked the heart to describe for Tara the vision he had of Mr. History, naked and perverse, walking from hotel room to hotel room, waitress to historian, apples to apricots, his banana out and admiring himself among his permutations in the highly polished mirrors of the Banff Springs Hotel. Instead of laughing at the sight he whispered, "Ssshhh. Sleep now." Instead of telling her that her kindness to strangers had set his heart back two generations, he put his arm around her like a clichˇ, tucked her head into his shoulder, and squeezed her gently in what he imagined was a Pal-full, brotherly way.

"You're being silly," he said softly. "You're worrying too much. I'm sure he misses you as much as you miss him."

"You're so sweet," Tara said. "Sometimes I think I should never have let go of you." She yawned. A big yawn. A gaping yawn. "Goodnight," she whispered. And then she was gone into the land of what she called dreams.

"Let me go?" Pal wondered. He lay there in the darkness holding her, trying hard not to want to make love to her even though the press of her buttocks against his genitals made him want to howl like a coyote. "Let me go?"

He stared at the ceiling. He could not help but admire the way that, as worried as she had been not fifteen minutes ago, she could sleep so soundly so quickly. He wished Joe Manifest had kept to his professorial office and that he had not stepped out of his historical time and into Pal's. His arm went to sleep. His shoulder began to ache. Still he didn't move. Not until the dullness became painful did he even consider moving for fear of waking Tara and making her angry at him for having disturbed her. But finally the pain was too great even for him, and he risked slipping his arm out from beneath her neck. Her head bounced heavily on the pillow and he held his breath while the feeling returned to his arm. As soon as the circulation was enough to let him, he edged his legs out of bed and got up, dressed in the dark, and let himself out of her apartment. He paused to watch the moon, which he could feel in himself was almost but not quite full, slide through the outreaching branches of the Black Walnut in the courtyard. The water rising to its rest and falling into the well of the fountain was the only sound he could hear. "Safe swimming," he said to the goldfish that paused and then flickered in the water. He opened the wrought iron gate of the mock-Spanish villa and let it close slowly behind him.


Old Paint waited patiently for him beside Tara's soapbar. Though the driver's door to the army-green microbus creaked loudly as he opened it and climbed in, he failed to notice the engine's complaints as he left Los Gatos and began driving Highway 17 up the east slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains. He felt a complete failure and the feeling made him deaf to the sound of Old Paint's Corvair engine struggling to fire on all four cylinders. As the upgrade stiffened, Old Paint lost power and slowed and Pal downshifted. For a mile or so, Paint seemed fine. After all, he'd been complaining more often, lately - - not so much like an old man who needs your attention and fears losing it so he complains to make sure he knows why he's lost it, but more under his breath like that old man's more cheerful friend who is living with pains he'd rather conceal. Wherever he could, Pal took Paint out of gear. Sort of gave him his head and let him coast, trying hard not to imagine rockets and sprockets shooting out of the engine block to light up the pre-dawn sky with the fireworks of yet another failure.

Pal wondered how he could have been of more help to Tara. He hoped when she woke up in the morning - - this morning, not long from now, given the absence of owls and night-hunting mammals from the hills around him - - she'd feel better. He wished he could do something for her and somewhere deep down inside himself he resented wishing it. But anger and resentment were not the way; anger only got in the way of thought and feeling like violence gets in the way of significant action.

Abruptly, the engine lost power again. Pal let Paint slow to a crawl, double-clutched, and down-shifted to second gear. When not much farther he had to stop to shift into low gear, he began to realize the significance of the noises Old Paint was making. At last, trusty Old Paint could barely lift his head high enough to limp to the roadside.

I might've known what the problem was. I'd been around, after all, since the Model T - - in fact, since the internal combustion engine and even the first rolling wheel. I knew enough about cars and trucks and had such good relations with them that I can hear even a faint noise, cock my ear and identify the problem, pull off the road with you, and help you fix it without even the risk of getting your shirt dirty. But for Pal, lamebrained as he was, to fix was to cure. And so, when Paint pulled up lame and refused to go farther, although in the thinning darkness he looked into the engine compartment with a medicinely air of authority, about all he could do was to jiggle the spark plug and distributor wires, stroke Paint's fender like the haunch of his horse, and stick out his thumb, depressed by the thought that before the sun again reached where it now stood, his dear companion would be stripped and his carcass burned by the night-riding younger brothers of former amigos.

The sun rose and traffic over the mountains picked up. He adopted what he imagined looked like a non-threatening pose beside the road, He hoped that one of the urban explorers crossing to the coast might actually stop and give him a lift, and he followed car after car with the arc of his thumb as they passed.

It was still cold, the warmth of the sun lagging an hour behind the light of its rays. He was forced to lift his feet to encourage the circulation of blood, first one foot, then the other. His head bobbed. It became a dance in the crystal morning, something he hadn't done much of since he was a kid and La Vent took him over to the Indian Center on Saturday afternoons.

It began to feel good to dance. Typical for him, it made him happy in his failure. It made the cars that passed him more frequently as the rush to the Costanoan beaches grew seem all the same car, passing him over and over again, circling the mountain afraid to stop or park in his neighborhood. All of them driven by the same Mr. Plaid talking sideways to his Missus, both of them rivetting their eyes to the road before them as though in his steering and her riding concentration neither noticed him standing there beside the road waving his thumb at them. He felt as though he were becoming invisible.

The morning passed into afternoon. Still he danced, pausing to rest against the capless hubs of Old Paint's wheels. His feet felt lighter, his knees lifted higher, and he began to circle and turn.

Mr. Plaid, goaded on by Mrs. Plaid, began to accelerate when Pal came into view. He no longer rivetted his eyes to the road, staring down the distance, but straight at Pal as though his thumb were an insult, an outrage, a glaring immorality that made him angry that this crazy man would ask such a thing of him, Mr. Plaid, of all people. Mrs. Plaid, equally offended, began to point him out to her children: "Lookit Baby Check. Look Tartan. Look Kilt."

Checklet, Tartan, and Kilt stared out the window at him as though he were an exhibit of old bones they were passing by on the monorail at Disneyland, or a crocodile at Steinhardt Aquarium at which they wanted to throw quarters, aiming for the eyes and nostrils, trying to make the crocodile mean.

By time I arrived, he looked dejected with this ridiculous look of hopeful disappointment on his face. It was a look most people would have called blank and unemotional. A look that was motionless because it contained all the failure as well as the ultimate success - not - yet - come of generations believing that patience would eventually win out over history. A look that seemed placid because it was stirred by conflicting emotions that, once spilled, would flood out and drown one's identity in the turbulence of them. It was a look akin to Mary Blue's face when she was dreaming, though a look still stupid with fantasy . A look more like his father La Vent took on when he began to sermonize innocent passersby from the back deck of his old taxi and the people pointedly ignored the neediness of his preachments.

I watched him for a few minutes. Dizzied by the morning light beating relentlessly down on his dancing, he lost himself in fancies which I offered him, fancies of hot-wiring urinals so Mr. Plaid and Tartan would get 220 volts up their floorplans the next time they peed. As time passed, he cared less and less. He began to hear voices. La Vent's, telling him to repent. Mary Blue's. Mine.

"They're afraid of you," I told him. "Remember that the Plaid family needs to make you into dinosaur of deficiency in order to moralize their love of rape and pillage and plunderous pollution."

"I know," he replied. His face momentarily stirred with emotion. "On top of that, there're those murders."

There had been several ritual killings around Santa Cruz in the past few months. Grunged teenagers with plugs in their tongues who worshipped something smaller than Satan, driving their daddies' Four by Fours out into the hills to sacrifice little brothers and sisters they picked up after school.

His attitude annoyed me. He was excusing the Plaids for their lack of human kindness, as though he might ever have been a murderer or rapist. Jesus, he was so far from being a rapist that even his girlfriends could never be sure if he wanted to have sex.

"You asshole," I said. "When was the last time someone like you was a serial killer?"

"True enough," he said. He laughed at my calling him an asshole. He was used to it. "Nevertheless . . . ," he began.

"No nevertheless about it," I interrupted. "It's usually some well-to-do white guy who likes to cut up thirteen-year-old boys and eat them after sodomizing and torturing them."

"I know. You think it's in their blood," he said, taking a breather from his dancing.

"It's in their stories," I said. "Maybe their religion, too. People like you just kill themselves."

"That's in the blood," he said.

"Nah. It's in your desire. Like La Vent."

Pal began to dance again, slowly, thoughtfully, cautiously. Suddenly, there she was. Amanda. His Amanda. The very Amanda he had been trying to dream since he had heard Mary Blue first tell the story of steadfastness. The Amanda he was dreaming last night as he tried to comfort Tara, and all the nights and days before when she'd gone by different names.

She pulled her car up on the shoulder of the road. The passenger window rolled down. She leaned across in front of a friend in the passenger seat to ask Pal where he needed to go and from the first hint of her smile I knew it was she. I was certain. So certain that I closed my eyes and began to think of taking a long vacation, maybe spend some time with Henny Penny or Tom Yellowtail and do some fishing out beyond Arcturus.

When I heard her car start up, I waved even before I opened my eyes.

"What are you waving at?" Pal asked.

"What in heaven's name are you doing here? Why aren't you in that car?" I pointed frantically at the disappearing car as though I could draw it back, my visions of fishing gone to images of seagulls or worse. "What happened?"

"Headed to Watsonville," he said. "I need to go north."

"She would have taken you north. She would have driven you home."

"Maybe. Except for her boyfriend. He didn't look too happy about her even stopping."

"Fuck her boyfriend," I shouted. "The hell with her boyfriend. That was Amanda. Don't you know that? That was not just any Amanda. That was the Amanda! You idiot. You know what this means?"

Pal just ignored my shouting. He turned and looked up the road at the spot her car passed over the rise and out of sight beyond the redwoods and spruce that lined the shale cliffs out of which the road had been blasted.

"I think maybe you're right," was all he said. Realizing yet again how out of place he was in this world, Pal hung his head in frustration and failure and, hearing the growl of a logging truck down-shifting for a grade in the distance, tried not to cry.

From Killing Time With Strangers, University of Arizona Press
© 2000 William S. Penn

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