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I took the afternoon off and persuaded Rudy to go fishing. We bundled up against the cold, bought a twelve-pack of Iron City and dropped our lines in Kempton's Pond, a lopsided period stamped into the half-frozen ground a couple of miles east of town, punctuating a mixed stand of birch and hazel—it looked as if a giant with a peg leg had left this impression in the rock, creating a hole thirty feet wide. The clouds had lowered and darkened, their swollen bellies appearing to tatter on the leafless treetops as they slid past; but the snow had quit falling. There was some light accumulation on the banks, which stood eight or nine feet above the black water and gave the pond the look of an old cistern. The water circulated like heavy oil and swallowed our sinkers with barely a splash. This bred the expectation that if we hooked anything, it would be a megaladon or an ichthyosaur, a creature such as would have been trapped in a tar pit. But we had no such expectation.
It takes a certain cast of mind to enjoy fishing with no hope of a catch, or the faint hope of catching some inedible fishlike thing every few years or so. That kind of fishing is my favorite sport, though I admit I follow the Steelers closely, as do many in Black William. Knowing that nothing will rise from the deep, unless it is something that will astound your eye or pebble your skin with gooseflesh, makes for a rare feeling. Sharing this with Rudy, who had been my friend for ten years, since he was fresh out of grad school at Penn State, enhanced that feeling. In the summer we sat and watched our lines, we chatted, we chased our depressions with beer and cursed the flies; in winter, the best season for our sport, there were no flies. The cold was like ozone to my nostrils, the silence complete, and the denuded woods posed an abstract of slants and perpendiculars, silver and dark, nature as Chinese puzzle. Through frays in the clouds we glimpsed the fat, lordly crests of the Bittersmiths.
I was reaching for another Iron City when I felt a tug on the line. I kept still and felt another tug, then—though I waited the better part of a minute—nothing.
"Something's down in there," I said, peering at the impenetrable surface.
"You get a hit?" Rudy asked.
"How much line you got out?"
"Twenty, twenty-five feet."
"Must have been a current."
"It happened twice."
"Probably a current."
I pictured an enormous grouper-like face with blind milky-blue globes for eyes, moon lanterns, and a pair of weak, underdeveloped hands groping at my line. The Polozny plunges deep underground east of the bridge, welling up into these holes punched through the Pennsylvania rock, sometimes flooding the woods in the spring, and a current was the likely explanation; but I preferred to think that those subterranean chambers were the uppermost tiers of a secret world and that now and again some piscine Columbus, fleeing the fabulous madness of his civilization, palaces illumined by schools of electric eels controlled by the thoughts of freshwater octopi, limestone streets patrolled by gangs of river crocs, grand avenues crowded with giant-snail busses and pedestrian trout, sought to breech the final barrier and find in the world above a more peaceful prospect.
"You have no imagination," I said.
Rudy grunted. "Fishing doesn't require an imagination. That's what makes it fun."
Motionless, he was a bearish figure muffled in a down parka and a wool cap, his face reddened by the cold, breath steaming. He seemed down at the mouth and, thinking it might cheer him up, I asked how he was coming with the comic strip.
"I quit working on it," he said.
"Why the hell'd you do that? It was your best thing ever."
"It was giving me nightmares."
I absorbed this, gave it due consideration. "Didn't strike me as nightmare material. It's kind of bleak. Black comedy. But nothing to freak over."
"It changed." He flicked his wrist, flicking his line sideways. "The veins of pork.… You remember them?"
"They started growing, twisting all through the mountain. The mineworkers were happy. Delirious. They were going to be rich, and they threw a big party to celebrate. A pork festival. Actually, that part was pretty funny. I'll show it to you. They made this enormous pork sculpture and were all wearing pork pie hats. They had a beauty contest to name Miss Pork. The winner…I used Mia for a model."
"You're a sick bastard, you know that?"
Again, Rudy grunted, this time in amusement. "Then the stars began eating the pork. The mineworkers would open a new vein and the stars would pour in and choff it down. They were ravenous. Nothing could stop them. The mineworkers were starving. That's when I started having nightmares. There was something gruesome about the way I had them eating. I tried to change it, but I couldn't make it work any other way."
I said it still didn't sound like the stuff of nightmares, and Rudy said, "You had to be there."
We fell to talking about other things. The Steelers, could they repeat? Stanky. I asked Rudy if he was coming to the EP release and he said he wouldn't miss it. "He's a genius guitar player," he said. "Too bad he's such a creep."
"Goes with the territory," I said. "Like with Robert Frost beating his wife. Stanky's a creep, he's a perv. A moral dwarf. But he is for sure talented. And you know me. I'll put up with perversity if someone's talented." I clapped Rudy on the shoulder. "That's why I put up with you. You better finish that strip or I'll dump your ass and start hanging with a better class of people."
"Forget the strip," he said glumly. "I'm too busy designing equipment sheds and stables."
We got into a discussion about Celebrity Wifebeaters, enumerating the most recent additions to the list, and this led us—by loose association only—to the subject of Andrea. I told him about our conversation at McGuigan's and what she had said about the outbreak of creativity, about love.
"Maybe she's got a point," Rudy said. "You two have always carried a torch, but you burned each other so badly in the divorce, I never would have thought you'd get back together." He cracked open a beer, handed it to me, and opened one for himself. "You hear about Colvin Jacobs?"
"You mean something besides he's a sleazeball?"
"He's come up with a plan to reduce the county's tax burden by half. Everybody says it's the real quill."
"I'm surprised he found the time, what with all those congressional junkets."
"And Judy Trickle, you hear about her?"
"Now you're scaring me."
"I know. Ol' Juggs 'R' Us Judy."
"She should have been your model for Miss Pork, not Mia. What'd she do? Design a newfangled bra?"
"Lifts and separates."
"You mean that's it?"
"You nailed it."
"She's been wearing a prototype on the show the last few days. There's a noticeable change." He did a whispery voiceover voice. "The curves are softer, more natural."
"I'm serious. Check her out."
"I got better things to do than watch AM Waterford."
"I remember the time when you were a devoted fan."
"That was post-Andrea…and pre-Andrea." I chuckled. "Remember the show when she demonstrated the rowing machine? Leotards aren't built to handle that sort of stress."
"I knew the guy who produced her back then. He said they gave her stuff like that to do, because they were hoping for a Wardrobe Malfunction. They weren't prepared for the reaction."
"Janet Jackson's no Judy Trickle. It was like a dam bursting. Like…help me out here, man."
"Like the birth of twin zeppelins."
"Like the embodiment of the yang, like the Aquarian dawn."
Rudy jiggled his line. "This is beginning to border on the absurd."
"You're the one brought her up."
"I'm not talking about Judy, I'm talking about the whole thing. The outbreak."
"Oh, okay. Yeah, we're way past absurd if Miz Trickle's involved. We're heading toward surreal."
"I've heard of five or six more people who've had…breakthroughs, I suppose you'd call them."
"How come I don't hear about these people except from you? Do you sit in your office all day, collecting odd facts about Black William?"
"I get more traffic than you do, and people are talking about it now."
"What are they saying?"
"What you'd expect. Isn't it weird? It must be the water, the pollution. I've even heard civic pride expressed. Someone coined the phrase, 'Black William, Pennsylvania's Brain Capital.'"
"That's taking it a bit far." I had a slug of Iron City. "So nobody's panicking? Saying head for the hills?"
"Who said that?"
"Andrea. She was a little disturbed. She didn't exactly say it, but she seemed to think this thing might not be all good."
He tightened his lips and produced a series of squeaking noises. "I think Andrea's right. Not about head for the hills. I don't know about that. But I think whatever this is, it's affecting people in different ways. Some of them emotionally."
"I.…" He tipped back his head, stared at the clouds. "I don't want to talk anymore, man. Okay? Let's just fish."
It began to snow again, tiny flakes, the kind that presage a big fall, but we kept fishing, jiggling our lines in the dead water, drinking Iron City. Something was troubling Rudy, but I didn't press him. I thought about Andrea. She planned to get off early and we were going to dinner in Waterford and maybe catch a movie. I was anticipating kissing her, touching her in the dark, while the new James Bond blew stuff up or (this was more likely) Kenneth Branagh destroyed As You Like It, when a tremor ran across the surface of the pond. Both Rudy and I sat up straight and peered. "T. Rex is coming," I said. An instant later, the pond was lashed into a turbulence that sent waves slopping in all directions, as if a large swimmer had drawn near the surface, then made a sudden turn, propelling itself down toward its customary haunts with a flick of its tail. Yet we saw nothing. Nary a fin nor scale nor section of plated armor. We waited, breathless, for the beast to return.
"Definitely not a current," said Rudy.
EXCEPT FOR the fact that Rudy didn't show, the EP release went well. The music was great, the audience responsive, we sold lots of CDs and souvenirs, including AVERAGE JOE dogtags and JOE STANKY'S ARMY khaki T-shirts, with the pear-shaped (less so after diets and death marches) one's silhouette in white beneath the arc of the lettering. This despite Stanky's obvious displeasure with everyone involved. He was angry at me because I had stolen his top hat and refused to push back the time of the performance to ten o'clock so he could join the crowd in front of the library waiting for the return of Black William (their number had swelled to more than three hundred since the arrival of the science team from Pitt, led by a youngish professor who, with his rugged build and mustache and plaid wool shirts, might have stepped out of an ad for trail mix). He was angry at Geno and Jerry for the usual reasons—they were incompetent clowns, they didn't understand the music, and they had spurned the opportunity to watch TV with him and Liz. Throughout the hour and a quarter show, he sulked and spoke not a word to the audience, and then grew angry at them when a group of frat boys initiated a chant of "Skanky, Skanky, Skanky.…" Yet the vast majority were blown away and my night was made when I spotted an A&R man from Atlantic sneaking around.
I was in my office the next morning, reading the Gazette, which had come late to the party (as usual) and was running a light-hearted feature on "Pennsylvania's Brain Capital," heavy on Colvin Mason quotes, when I received a call from Crazy Ed in Wilkes-Barre, saying that he'd e-mailed me a couple of enhancements of Pin's photograph. I opened the e-mails and the attachments, then asked what I was looking at.
"Beats me," said Ed. "The first is up close on one of those white dealies. You can get an idea of the shape. Sort of like a sea urchin. A globe with spines…except there's so many spines, you can't make out the globe. You see it?"
"Yeah. You can't tell me what it is?"
"I don't have a clue." Ed made a buzzing noise, something he did whenever he was stumped. "I assumed the image was fake, that the kid had run two images together, because there's a shift in perspective between the library and the white dealies. They look like they're coming from a long way off. But then I realized the perspective was totally fucked up. It's like part of the photo was taken though a depth of water, or something that's shifting like water. Different sections appear to be at different distances all through the image. Did you notice a rippling effect…or anything like that?"
"I only saw it for a couple of seconds. I didn't have time to get much more than a glimpse."
"Okay." Ed made the buzzing noise again. "Have you opened the second attachment?"
"Once I figured out I couldn't determine distances, I started looking at the black stuff, the field or whatever. I didn't get anywhere with that. It's just black. Undifferentiated. Then I took a look at the horizon line. That's how it appeared to you, right? A black field stretching to a horizon? Well, if that was the case, you'd think you'd see something at the front edge, but the only thing I picked up was those bumps on the horizon."
I studied the bumps.
"Kinda look like the tops of heads, don't they?" said Ed.
The bumps could have been heads; they could also have been bushes, animals, or a hundred other things; but his suggestion gave me an uneasy feeling. He said he would fool around with the picture some more and get back to me. I listened to demos. Food of the Gods (King Crimson redux). Corpus Christy (a transsexual front man who couldn't sing, but the name grew on me). The Land Mines (middling roots rock). Gopher Lad (a heroin band from Minnesota). A band called Topless Coroner intrigued me, but I passed after realizing all their songs were about car parts. Around eleven-thirty I took a call from a secretary at DreamWorks who asked if I would hold for William Wine. I couldn't place the name, but said that I would hold and leafed through the Rolodex, trying to find him.
"Vernon!" said an enthusiastic voice from the other side of creation. "Bill Wine. I'm calling for David Geffen. I believe you had drinks with him at the Plug Awards last year. You made quite an impression on David."
The Plugs were the Oscars of the indie business—Geffen had an ongoing interest in indie rock and had put in an appearance. I recalled being in a group gathered around him at the bar, but I did not recall making an impression.
"He made a heck of an impression on me," I said.
Pleasant laughter, so perfect it sounded canned. "David sends his regards," said Wine. "He's sorry he couldn't contact you personally, but he's going to be tied up all day."
"What can I do for you?"
"David listened to that new artist of yours. Joe Stanky? In all the years I've known him, I've never heard him react like he did this morning."
"He liked it?"
"He didn't like it.…" Wine paused for dramatic effect. "He was knocked out."
I wondered how Geffen had gotten hold of the EP. Mine not to reason why, I figured.
Wine told me that Geffen wanted to hear more. Did I have any other recorded material?
"I've got nine songs on tape," I said. "But some of them are raw."
"David likes raw. Can we get a dupe?"
"You know…I usually prefer to push out an album or two before I look for a deal."
"Listen, Vernon. We're not going to let you go to the poorhouse on this."
"That's a relief."
"In fact, David wanted me to sound you out about our bringing you in under the DreamWorks umbrella."
Stunned, I said, "In what capacity?"
"I'll let David tell you about that. He'll call you in a day or two. He's had his eye on you for some time."
I envisioned Sauron spying from his dark tower. I had a dim view of corporate life and I wasn't as overwhelmed by this news as Wine had likely presumed I would be. After the call ended, however, I felt as if I had modeled for Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel mural, the man about to be touched by God's billionaire-ish finger. My impulse was to tell Stanky, but I didn't want his ego to grow more swollen. I called Andrea and learned she would be in court until midafternoon. I started to call Rudy, then thought it would be too easy for him to refuse me over the phone. Better to yank him out of his cave and buy him lunch. I wanted to bust his chops about missing the EP release and I needed to talk with someone face-to-face, to analyze this thing that was happening around Stanky. Had the buzz I'd generated about him taken wings on a magical current? The idea that David Geffen was planning to call seemed preposterous. Was Stanky that good? Was I? What, if anything, did Geffen have in mind? Rudy, who enjoyed playing Yoda to my Luke, would help place these questions in coherent perspective.
When I reached Rudy's office, I found Gwen on the phone. Her makeup, usually perfect, was in need of repair; it appeared that she had been crying. "I don't know," she said with strain in her voice. "You'll have to.… No. I really don't know."
I pointed to the inner office and mouthed, Is he in?
She signaled me to wait.
"I've got someone here," she said into the phone. "I'll have to.… Yes. Yes, I will let you know. All right. Yes. Good-bye." She hung up and, her chin quivering, tried several times to speak, finally blurting out, "I'm so sorry. He's dead. Rudy's dead."
I think I may have laughed—I made some sort of noise, some expression of denial, yet I knew it was true. My face flooded with heat and I went back a step, as if the words had thrown me off-balance.
Gwen said that Rudy had committed suicide early that morning. He had—according to his wife—worked in the office until after midnight, then driven home and taken some pills. The phone rang again. I left Gwen to deal with it and stepped into the inner office to call Beth. I sat at Rudy's desk, but that felt wrong, so I walked around with the phone for a while. Rudy had been a depressed guy, but hell, everyone in Black William was depressed about something. I thought that I had been way more depressed than Rudy. He seemed to have it together. Nice wife, healthy income, kids. Sure, he was a for-shit architect in a for-shit town, and not doing the work he wanted, but that was no reason to kill yourself.
Standing by the drafting table, I saw his waste basket was crammed with torn paper. A crawly sensation rippled the skin between my shoulder blades. I dumped the shreds onto the table. Rudy had done a compulsive job of tearing them up, but I could tell they were pieces of his comic strip. Painstakingly, I sorted through them and managed to reassemble most of a frame. In it, a pair of black hands (presumably belonging to a mineworker) were holding a gobbet of pork, as though in offering; above it floated a spiky white ball. The ball had extruded a longish spike to penetrate the pork and the image gave the impression that the ball was sucking meat through a straw. I stared at the frame, trying to interpret it, to tie the image in with everything that had happened, but I felt a vibration pass through my body, like the heavy, impersonal signal of Rudy's death, and I imagined him on the bathroom floor, foam on his mouth, and I had to sit back down.
Beth, when I called her, didn't feel like talking. I asked if there was anything I could do, and she said if I could find out when the police were going to release the body, she would appreciate it. She said she would let me know about the funeral, sounding—as had Gwen—like someone who was barely holding it together. Hearing that in her voice caused me to leak a few tears and, when she heard me start to cry, she quickly got off the phone, as if she didn't want my lesser grief to pollute her own, as if Rudy dying had broken whatever bond there was between us. I thought this might be true.
I called the police and, after speaking to a functionary, reached a detective whom I knew, Ross Peloblanco, who asked my connection to the deceased.
"Friend of the family," I said. "I'm calling for his wife."
"Huh," said Peloblanco, his attention distracted by something in his office.
"So when are you going to release him?"
"I think they already done the autopsy. There's been a bunch of suicides lately and the ME put a rush on this one."
"How many's a bunch?"
"Oops! Did I say that? Don't worry about it. The ME's a whack job. He's batshit about conspiracy theories."
"So…can I tell the funeral home to come now?"
Peloblanco sneezed, said, "Shit!" and then went on: "Bowen did some work for my mom. She said he was a real gentleman. You never know what's going on with people, do ya?" He blew his nose. "I guess you can come pick him up whenever."
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide