by Jody Schiesser
Something was leaking out for I had to stop the emotion in my throat.
I shook him. He lowered his beer.
“We have to be clear tonight,” I said.
“Dude, I am.”
I slowed and pulled off Alt. Highway 17 onto a gravel path, the tires of my aging Cadillac spinning dirt as they caught and shot us beneath live oak limbs and Spanish moss. The road swept through the Savannah Wildlife Refuge, alternating its way between copses of trees and open wetland. Fog crept ahead of us, and condensation wouldn’t leave the windows even when I cranked the defrost and turned on the wipers.
I nudged the plastic Jesus on my dashboard and the waist jigged, the arms raised and waving in prayer. “Do you think there’s any chance the beer in your hand was brought to you by the Lord?”
“Shit.” Ben swiveled the bottle to peer at the label. “I don’t think so, with all these warnings.”
I needed him tonight. Usually I didn’t depend on anyone. But tonight I wanted another nearby, someone I could trust, or at least someone I liked. Big, lumbering Ben and his solid face would stand with me through anything.
He laughed and swallowed the rest of the beer, then tossed the empty bottle by his feet.
At the farm gate a tiki torch burned, a quiet flame licking the wick above the cracked bamboo. Ben hopped out, unhooked the open lock, and swiveled the gate into the saw palmettos and oat grass. I drove through, stopped, and he closed the gate behind us before hopping back in.
A Gospel-tinged psychobilly song about two chickens and a clown crunked from the car stereo. I lowered the volume as the track cascaded into an extended surf riff, and I peered through the mist, seeing rusty cages in the trees, leftovers from Mark’s outlandish Halloween party the previous night.
Mark’s house was a cross between a log cabin and a pieced-together fisherman’s shack. Statues of black Jesuses and Marys peered from sheet plastic windows. Cactuses sat on sills yearning for light. In one window, a velvet Elvis and a Nigerian shaman-god perched. Mark believed he was jacked into the vibe and vortex of Savannah, a weaver and traveler of its myth. In my mind, he did too many of the mushrooms he wanted to sell us tonight.
Ben and I swung open the Cadillac’s wide doors and got out.
Mark hadn’t been to sleep since the day before, though a few of his party friends lay as unconscious hulks around the smoldering fire. I remembered the chainsaw-carved witch spire that had been stuck pointing up in the flames during the party. The log was gone now. Mark was still in costume, dressed as a milkman with his gray suit cut open in the front to expose six plastic breasts. His girlfriend, Kate, hadn’t changed either and was garbed as a white goddess with strands of silk and wire attached to her white flowing dress. Butterfly-like petal cutouts hung from spots of perfect concentration.
“I’m the Dairy Queen,” Kate admonished Ben, and she inclined her head. Dairy Queen=Faery Queen, I got it.
“Follow me to the milk of human kindness,” Mark said, motioning. He led us to a small shed and pulled open the wooden door. Six rectangular plastic cases, the kind used to hold two liter soda bottles, rested on sturdy oak shelves. The cases were red, scripted with the white words Coca Cola, and filled to the rim with Psilocybin mushrooms.
“Lif,” Ben said to me. “These are, like, mushrooms.”
“What do we want them for?”
“People pay money for these,” I said. “Mark finds them….” I stopped as Mark had a finger to his lips—he didn’t want me to let on that they grew from cow patties in the field beyond his house.
Ben reached for one of the golden-white mushrooms. He held it, twirling it by the stem, bemused.
Mark laid a hand on his shoulder. “Have you ever eaten any?”
“No,” Ben answered. “Do they taste good?”
“Oh, yeah.” Mark grinned. “Why don’t you try a handful before you guys load up?”
I thought about warning Ben, but he was already chomping. So much for him sober.
“Lif?” Mark inclined his head to the mushrooms as Ben sampled, fungal flesh sticking to lips.
I shook my head. They would be good for Ben, but I needed to stay connected with reality.
“These aren’t bad,” Ben said.
“Just wait,” I advised, “they get better.”
I pulled my leather money clip from my jean pocket. I counted out a thousand dollars and handed it to Mark. Now all I had to do was get the mushrooms to Kelly in Savannah and I’d more than triple it. I’d never sold drugs before, but last night Mark had convinced me that these things grew naturally and it was no big deal to pick them and get them to the people who wanted them. No different from harvesting peaches, peanuts, watermelons, or apples, all things I’d sold at one time or another from the roadside stand my uncle set up in the summer.
Though shit, we’d have to be careful, as the law didn’t see it that way.
“Without access to chaos we’ll never have true peace,” Mark said, as we loaded the six crates into the Cadillac’s roomy trunk. “I can’t thank you enough,” he rambled on. “It’s good to get these out to the community.”
“You sound as if you’re doing missionary work,” Ben said.
“In a way I am.” Mark laughed.
“Tweaking and freaking good ole southern boys and gals. I love it.” I shook his hand, nodding thanks, and we got in the car.
I rolled the Cadillac’s steering wheel between my thumbs, backing up and then creeping along the narrow rutted dirt track. Ben had his window down and was waving at the Dairy Queen. She stood with one hand against a massive live oak trunk, Spanish moss dripping around her and framing her in its tendrils. Her other hand was raised in goodbye. I flipped on the car’s cd player and Eucharist rock began to thump from the speakers.
Halfway out of the swamp I slowed and leaned up out of the car, having Ben hold the wheel as I wiped the fog and dew off the window with a rag. I sat back, the road only a tad more visible. “Damn.”
“I feel kind of tingly,” Ben said, and rubbed near his mouth.
“That’s no surprise.”
“What are these mushrooms going to do?” he asked.
“Come on, Ben, what do you think?”
We drove in silence for about fifteen minutes, making it out to the highway and starting our return to Savannah. The old Flamingo Bingo parlor zipped by. The lavender-colored building used to be pink and filled with video poker machines. Now strippers swung from a steel pole which plunged from its cavernous ceiling to a center stage and lap-danced with patrons in the small nooks off to the side. When gambling went illegal in South Carolina most of the video slot machine and bingo dens had converted to pandering female flesh.
“Man.” Ben covered his eyes and forehead with a hand. “I’m not sure I want to go back to Savannah yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s stop at the State Line for a while. So I can ease into this before we have to deal with downtown.”
“Let’s just get the mushrooms to Kelly. I won’t leave you hanging; we can drive somewhere after, anywhere you want to go. Maybe the beach?”
“Seriously, Lif, I’d rather not go too much further at the moment.” He rubbed at his jeans. “My pants feel weird.”
A floodlit billboard and neon sign with “XXXstacy - Open until 5 a.m.” appeared ahead on the right. Shit, we could stop for a half hour or so. Sunny would be there.
I slowed the Cadillac, pulling on the big steering wheel to park us between a Ford pickup and a Honda Civic.
We got out and Ben looked longingly at the trunk. I could tell he wanted the beer. But he didn’t ask me.
“We’ll bum some, it’ll be safer.” I wasn’t about to expose the mushrooms.
We paid the hefty woman at the door and climbed the steps to the main room. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand the motives behind social decay and noise. Country voice and southern guitar flowed from the jukebox as two round whirling lights rotated a variety of colors across the stage and the girls and the tables. The stage consisted of a simple raised platform with a steel pole in the middle and a trapeze bolted to the mirrored ceiling. Drunk people, mostly men, kicked back with coolers by their feet. One girl who wasn’t a dancer put a dollar into the garter of a bare-skinned female who was one.
I ordered a Coke from the bar. They didn’t serve alcohol. It was bring your own. Ben asked for water.
A young kid, maybe eighteen, sat at one of the middle tables with a girl stripping for him. She had removed her bra and looped it around his neck. Holding the straps loosely, she undulated her torso, swimming her other hand in a spiral, down, then up.
To either side of the kid and the girl sat an older couple. They looked at least fifty. Man and woman.
I poked Ben. “I think the kid’s parents are buying him table dances.”
Ben nodded. “He looks uncomfortable.”
The boy shifted in his seat and stared at the belly of the dancer. Maybe he was afraid to watch her openly with his parents next to him? She slid her panties down her legs and pulled them free. The kid didn’t seem to know where to look, then finally gave in and stared at her breasts.
Sunny came out from the changing room, and I waved to her. She waved back, but didn’t come over right away, instead stopped to talk to a couple of boys—either college or army—who touched her arm or side as often as they could then gave her money.
When she arrived at our table I pulled a stool over for her. Sunny had long, curly black hair and short fingernails with lavender polish. Her bright yellow bumblebee T-shirt, one of those tight baby-doll kind, clung to her breasts. Three curved tribal tattoos marked her left arm.
“Hey!” she said, and punched me in the shoulder, kissed Ben on the cheek. “What are you guys up to?”
“Nothing,” Ben answered.
“We stopped, then realized we didn’t have any beer to carry in,” I said. “Any chance you could snag us a few?”
“You guys, without beer?” Her eyebrows arched.
“It happens,” I said.
Ben stared off, though not at the dancers. He was watching the lights. “It seems there are patterns all around, and in strangers’ faces I see people I already know.”
Sunny waved a hand in front of his eyes and he jumped. “You guys are acting weird tonight,” she said. She wrinkled her nose and hopped up.
“I’ll be back,” she said.
She walked over to a group of three
men near the bar. I saw her hold a cigarette to her lips while one
of them lit it. Then she smiled and started talking. She was probably
telling one of her quirky stories, for she was soon dancing and taking
her clothes off for one of them.
“I’m really good at that.” Her mouth half-smiled and her lips had that shiny wet look.
“Thank you.” Ben popped the cap from one and sipped as if the bottle contained the antidote for a devil’s poison. “That’s better.” He wiped his brow with the hand that held the beer.
I stretched my legs and boots beneath the table, smiling at Sunny. She smiled too, the edges of her deep brown eyes widening, narrowing, maybe trying to figure me out in the same way I was figuring her. I think there was a separation between us because of her work, the trust issue thrown out of whack because I was here as a customer, she was here to tease money from me, and though I think we’d become friends, that truth intertwined with our every interaction. Hanging with her away from here—such as the night she and I had drunk far too many pitchers of Moon River brown ale at Creole Red’s—had done little to compensate.
I opened my mouth to speak, but my words halted on my lips as the jukebox went silent and started again.
“I’ll be back,” Sunny said, and she walked to the stage, held the hand of the dancer who stepped off, and then Sunny stood up in the lights. A smoky, bluesy tune filled the room.
She skinned her bumblebee shirt off over her head, arms stretched straight, her breasts releasing in a smooth down and up. The size of two fists, they pushed against each other, impossibly malleable yet keeping shape as she moved, her nipples hard, aureoles about the size of a quarter. She leaned to her left and one white breast swayed, her hair falling to cover her face; then her hands touched the stage floor and she let herself down to her knees and looked up, and my soul was burning.
“What’s inside a girl?” Ben asked. The mushrooms had him musing. “Beneath the perfume and the makeup, the truth unfurls. They keep it wrapped up so tight. I’d like to know.”
“We all would,” I said.
Ben watched Sunny. “It’s good to feel love. Sometimes I hide from it and I only remember what it feels like.”
I stared at him. “I’m going to remember all the stuff you say tonight.”
Someone threw Sunny a cowboy hat and she tipped it over her saucy eyes. Her bare feet stomped. Sleek delicious astonishing legs and knees, and then she kicked her panties beside the mirrored wall behind her.
When she left the stage, she took me for a private dance in the little alcove in the rear of the club. She only charged me $20 unlike the $40 she asked from everyone else.
The couch I sat on was colored with checkered brightness. I looked for Sunny’s tattoo of an Om symbol and lotus petals in the small of her back. When she faced away from me, leaning, her hands on my knees, I touched this Om lightly with a finger.
“That tickles.” She laughed.
I noticed a spiral of lines on the edge of her hip that I’d never seen before.
“Is this new?” I asked.
“Yeah, from two weeks ago. Do you like?”
I also liked that she didn’t wear high heels like many of the other girls here. She lifted onto her toes, and she spun, all of her beauty dealt before me. I breathed fast.
Another dancer ran into the alcove.
“What?” Her eyes turned away from me.
“One of your friends is lighting fire rockets off the deck.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sunny said, straightening.
“Come on,” said the girl, and grabbed Sunny’s hand.
I ran fingers through my hair, then followed.
Outside on the back deck, Ben knelt by a line of fireworks tubes, lighting fuses. His eyes bled fever, the irises blown wide.
“I need a little joy.”
A tube whoomphed, and a ball of fire shot up and exploded. Another one, then one more, a shower of stars going boom.
“Ben, fuck.” I put a hand on his shoulder.
He looked up at me, smiling.
“I didn’t make a deal with the devil,” Ben rambled, “so I know he’s not waiting for me to die.”
One of the club’s heavyweight bouncers rushed onto the deck. I felt a deep desire for another beer.
“Don’t worry, Jeff, I can handle this.” Sunny put a hand on the big guy’s arm. Jeff eyed her, then twisted his knuckles against one another and went inside.
I rubbed an eyelid.
“Wow, it’s beautiful tonight,” Sunny said, raising herself on her toes as she gazed out on the marsh. “Even with you crazies around.”
Ben laughed and lit another rocket. Whoosh! White light boomed, silver sparks swizzling down around us. Sunny ducked, bare arms over her head.
“Beauty is fleeting,” Ben said. “There’s no sense to it.”
“Oh, yeah?” Sunny made a face. “Come see this.”
She walked to the dark half of the deck, Ben and me trailing. A figure materialized out of the shadows, and I thought it was a person at first. Then I heard Ben’s quick intake of breath.
She was a jointed wooden manikin, with a mask for a face, the red bottom lip pierced by a steel ring. The limbs and body were scraped and battered, a mix of skin-colored paint and bare wood. The eyes shone vacant, void, nothing behind them.
“Watch. When you push this button she whirls around,” Sunny said.
The arms began to lift and rotate, while her head tilted. It was a kind of robot, some type of animated golem.
Ben stared, swaying on his feet, took a step forward and staggered. I caught him by an arm.
“She’s a goddess! Right here in this place, I don’t believe it.” Tears began to streak from his eyes.
“Ben, come on, man.” I tugged on him.
He looked at me, his eyes wet. A mushroom-induced universe swept through his brain. Maybe something was leaking out for I had to stop the emotion rising in me. I reached and pressed the button on the manikin’s throat.
Her limbs halted with the small skid noise of wood on wood. One dangling hand rocked, then was still.
Ben shook his head and walked back inside the club. Sunny winked and followed him.
I stayed out on the balcony for a while, moving over to the railing, where I drummed my fingers on the wood. Beyond in the marsh the sweet rot of organic slush stirred. The smell always made me hungry; I don’t know why. Tonight’s stars hung low in the sky. I watched my future from the edge of the night, smiling at what the mushrooms had brought out in Ben. He was a true companion.
He was sitting near the stage when I went inside. I joined him, wishing again for more alcohol.
The girl slinking in the lights was half-blonde, bare labia, her nipple falling out of a pale blue bra. She wore combat boots and laughed at the shocked ones, just because she could. She wanted to be sexy and almost succeeded.
She hung upside down from the trapeze bar and squeezed her arms along her abdomen, her eyes green and frightened. I think it was her vulnerability that was seductive rather than what she was trying for.
I wanted to tell her to take off the shoes.
“Lif, do you know what that stuff in your trunk is worth?” Ben asked.
A guy in a dark shirt next to us who had been folding a dollar over and over glanced our way.
“I do, but I’ll tell you later.”
“I mean, do you really know what it is?”
The stage dancer slunk over to the dollar guy, and she had his attention for a moment, then he was looking at us again. Something about his eyes and his black silky shirt made me lean closer to Ben.
“Let’s talk about it another time, okay?”
Ben nodded. A minute later, he nudged me. “I’m wondering if you could do me a favor.”
“Can you go out to the car—”
“Ben, I told you, we’re not going to get beer from there.”
“I’m having trouble holding on to who I am. Could you get my Braves cap? I need it, Lif, I need it, and I don’t think I can go out there myself. There’s Jesus blood in my eyes.”
“There’s something in your eyes.”
“Come on, man, please.”
I decided to do it to shut him up. I stopped in the bathroom on the way out. As I was washing my hands, the fellow with the black silk shirt came in. Our eyes caught.
I dried my hands on the dirty white pull towel. When I glanced, he was still staring.
“Pretty hot babes here,” he said. “Though a guy’s got to have money to play.”
“Yeah.” I nodded and left.
I was halfway down the outside steps when Sunny cried, “Lif!”
Okay. Think mission. Get Ben’s hat. Get back to Ben before he freaks out or blows the place up.
I waved to her and strode across the gravel lot, past a white limo, and then I was unlocking my Cadillac.
As I scooped up Ben’s Atlanta Braves cap from the passenger seat, thin female arms slipped around my waist. She really was sunshine, light as light as I swiveled and pushed her away. I started for the club.
“Aren’t you going to grab some beer?” She sat on the Cadillac’s rear fender. Before she’d come out she must have slipped on her sneakers.
I walked to her. “No.”
She leapt off my steel beast. “I know you have something in there,” she said, circling and bumping me up against the car with a leg shimmying between mine. “Beer, liquor, you always have something iced down in your trunk.”
I leaned in and kissed her open mouth. Soon enough her happy little tongue came fluttering forward, her hand fishing in the front pocket of my jeans for keys. I pulled her arm up and she laughed and licked my nose.
Sunny and I turned. The man with the black silk shirt stood a few feet away. I jerked when I saw the small pistol he held.
“I’ve a funny feeling about what’s in your trunk,” he said. “Why don’t you do what your girl’s asking and open it?”
It’s weird how people look different from all sides. In the club he had seemed clean cut and smooth shaven, while out here beneath the floodlight his face was haggard. I edged away from Sunny, holding my hands before me.
“You really don’t want to do whatever you think you’re doing,” I started to say.
“Open it.” He waved the gun. “Now.”
I wasn’t sure if the guy was a cop or some ambitious fucker who had overheard us earlier and figured he could make a buck from whatever we had. I rubbed my jaw and he blinked.
“You’re nuts,” I told him. Maybe by standing up to him I could diffuse this.
The pistol cracked a hole in the world, a sharp bang that split my shoulder with the white-hot taste of death. I flew back against the trunk, whipped over its side and landed in the dirt.
A wash of black crashed heavy upon me, and I was afraid.
I fought to keep my eyes open. Light from one of the club’s tall outside poles streamed down. Clean and two-dimensional rays spread where my fingers chafed in the gravel. I clenched a small stone, flung it away. The world slowed to a static motion display. I could see particles skittering in the rays of light. Soft hues of orange and red splintered through Sunny’s hair as her face rushed over me, mouth moving, eyes scared, hands on my face, but I heard nothing, barely registered her touch. Just saw light about a cascade of female skin in thin cloth. She stared into my eyes, shouted and stared, and shouted again over her shoulder.
A strong hand pulled her away, and Ben crouched by me, slipping an arm beneath my good shoulder and helping me to sit up. I cried out, and heard myself.
“Stars and lizards just fluted out of his head,” Ben said, sounding as if his voice was coming from the bottom of a barrel. Whether formed by the light or the stars or the bullet that had hit me, a deep and delicate silver halo surrounded him.
“I’ve been shot.”
“I know.” He held me. “We should get out of here.”
“I don’t think I can drive.”
“Don’t worry. Sunny!” Together they helped me upright.
The guy with the gun lay face first in the gravel, bleeding, a broken beer bottle by his head. Sunny left me for a minute, and I sagged into Ben as she kicked the bottle, ricocheting it off the man’s body.
Somehow I slid into the back seat of the Cadillac. My head was twisted at an angle against the door rest and I kept reminding myself to breathe. Fuck, this hurt.
A million years later Sunny moved me, putting my head in her lap. “Jeff and Blake will get that asshole out of here.”
“Good,” I heard Ben say from the front seat.
The car rumbled to life, spinning gravel beneath its wheels as it pulled out.
We were climbing the tall suspension bridge over the Savannah River when I remembered the magic mushrooms.
“Ben, the stuff in the trunk, what are we gonna do, gotta go to the hospital.” I rambled. I touched a hand to my shoulder and jerked it back. I peered at my palm and fingers, bemused with the blood.
“I have an idea,” he said.
I blacked out.
When I woke, I still lay on my side. Light flashed into crooked shadows. Something smelled sulfuric, maybe paper mill.
A truck horn sounded and the fabric and ridges in front of me grew into the familiar seat back of my Cadillac. With a grunt, I pushed open the door by my head, cringing as pain spiked up my gunshot arm.
Big, lumbering Ben sat in the middle of the asphalt as cars flew by honking, with one red crate of mushrooms in his lap. He was eating them.
“If I eat enough of these I’ll be able to heal you.”
“What the fuck are you saying, Ben?”
Ben glanced to the low, concrete balustrade near the car. Beyond, the sky fell toward the Savannah River.
“She did not!”
“She’s an angel you know.” He ate another mushroom. “God’s inside me, Lif, I can feel it.”
Sunny came around the back of the car. She hadn’t jumped, or worse, been pushed off the high bridge. I couldn’t believe I was thinking that anyway.
“Lif.” She knelt by me. “I want to see what will happen.”
I shook my head. Still, she helped me from the car, and together we moved over to Ben and sat.
“What is God like, Ben?” I asked.
“Chilled pear wasabi, salted tears, a soap bubble that smells of peanut butter.” His eyes shone black and deep, no bottom to them, and I almost believed him. He walked over to the driver’s side of the Cadillac and leaned in through the window to yank something from the dash.
Bright white and yellow flash and another horn. Face illuminated in a two-dimensional instant in the window, mouth zeroed, dark eyes, black female. Gone.
I slumped half-over, hands touching the white line on the road. Ben knelt by me, and the plastic Jesus—probably made in China—wobbled in his fist, arms raised to the divine.
I screamed when Ben flung his hand to my shoulder and gripped. But there was no pain. His fingers moved, and my bones, or something even deeper, reshaped. I was released.
My shoulder numb, I stumbled to the Cadillac. I couldn’t think, couldn’t understand.
Ben, with white-lettered Coca Cola case, circled around to the passenger side and got in. I peered at him through the open window of the driver side.
The case of mushrooms rested in his lap.
“You’ll have to drive to Kelly’s,” Ben said. “I can’t see anything but blinding color anymore.”
I opened the door and Sunny slipped in next to Ben.
“Come on, Lif,” she said.
I got in and gripped the wheel, staring through the windshield. Don’t think. I slid the Cadillac into drive and the tires squealed before catching the pavement. We coasted down the steep bridge, exiting upon Oglethorpe Street straight into the brazen lights of Savannah.