The Brick 10. Embarcadero
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This is part of a serial novel written by Mr. Stegall, published weekly here at Über. You can find more of The Brick and several other serialized novels at Serialtext.
San Francisco somewhere: I no longer know where. We pass two checkpoints.
The first is a pacifier sucking, oversize t-shirted line of raver kids twisting pig tails and counting pills in open palms. The bouncer nods to Topher and opens the steel door. Inside the warehouse-size club, I see Topher squinting against the haze of artificial fog and the cacophony of drum 'n bass. Searching for someone or annoyed, I can't tell.
I look up at wire rafters supporting the ceiling of this manmade cavern. Time is segmented by a flashing strobe lamp. Kids in mid-leap, -dip, -kick. Some look ten, others forty.
We pass through a set of swinging double doors into a dim world of store aisles and fat clothing trees and I realize what we have entered is not a warehouse, but a Wal*Mart through a fire exit, into its backstock. Now the main aisle of the closed store, bodies gyrating in the gray air like hieroglyphics on walls, slashed by frenetic lasers searching through the music, smoke.
Everywhere: Yellow Happy Faces winking at black numeral prices and displays. Topher leads the way into the surge of people.
The ceiling is lost in smoke. The music is like a jungle we're fighting through, following machete-weilding squad leader Topher.
An outflung arm catches me and I turn with its momentum. Suddenly a girl in a puffy nylon vest is tight against me, pushing an index finger into my mouth. Her skin tastes like sugar. She gives me an anonymous smile with blue raspberry lips.
She says what sounds like "Sickened Masses," and drags her finger roughly across my tongue, then inserts it in her own mouth like a popsicle. The crowd takes her.
Dennis has his hand on my shoulder. He passes me the brick, looking at me carefully.
The second checkpoint is another set of swinging doors, flanked by men in black suits who seem familiar. We pass between speed racks heavy with cardboard boxes of product to a back corner where a portion of the floor is not concrete but steel doors thrown open to reveal stairs leading down. Another pair of guards nods to Topher -- in fact their deference makes him seem important, high-ranking -- and we follow him down the stairs to a concrete hallway where the music thuds hollowly and echoes, a ghost of itself.
I catch Cam Gozar muttering to himself, practicing whatever speech he'll say, stroking his Van Dyke. I face forward, searching for Topher. Although we've left the strobe lamps far behind, I have the feeling in this tunnel -- connecting nowhere with nowhere -- that time has become unnatural. I wish the music were stronger to fill the silence.
Abruptly I realize what the girl was really telling me. The second hand on my watch is chopping me into sixty different people a minute. I close my eyes.
This pilgrimage has only begun, Dennis says. I didn't hear him. I don't know if I've imagined the statement. My eyes open to a broad bowl of a chamber lined by seats filled to capacity, a u-shaped table in the center. We've passed another set of doors into a tide of sound. Everyone in the room is standing, one fist raised to enunciate their chant:
"Forty! -- Million! -- Daggers!"
The words repeat and build. As hard as I stare, I have a hard time making out the faces of those in the room. I could be anywhere. Some wear flannel shirts, others ties. I see turbans, baseball caps, a sombrero. I see a woman with red hair in a fur-lined cape. I see blue jeans and v-neck sweaters.
"We want -- two states!"
"Ahh--" and the sound builds -- "two states!"
We find seats. Topher continues on toward the floor with Cam Gozar loping down the steps behind him. Jenny of the Purple Hair sits beside me. She takes my hand, asks me if I have any idea what this is.
A subterranean basketball game.
Five bodies have appeared at the u-shaped table. Two are black suits, one in robes, two in t-shirt and shorts. The man in robes raises his arms and the chanting dies down. His voice projects up through the bowl.
He recaps the history of California, of native fishing peoples, Mexican rule and eventual statehood. He describes a new state divided by the Tehachapi Mountains, a Southern half defined by beautiful weather, orchards, and a promise of new beginnings that gradually developed into a cancerous worship of non-stop modernity.
"They never asked if it was 'right,'" he says, pausing. "'Only if it was 'new!'"
He then describes the Northern half of the state, ravaged by gold-greed and earthquakes, a people who learned to honor and respect nature, who languished under an agrarian economic model, until the gradual development of Silicon Valley and all things dot com, the great internet equalizer.
"No longer will we suffer under the capriciousness of So-Cal Seekers!" he shouts. "No longer will we be associated with the fantasy vacuums of Disney Land, Hollywood and Irvine. From San Fran to Sacramento to Stockton to Crescent City and Weed. We will have two states!"
The crowd screams its approval. Mention of Irvine sparks memories of General Dennis, and I wonder what he might be doing. I think of his daughter. Then I look carefully at hitchhiker Dennis. He sits huddled down in his sleeping bag, asleep.
I lean forward, doing my best to make out the faces of those at the table. One of the black suits shifts into focus and I recognize Charles Xin, black hair perfect and shiny under the sharp lights. None of the others have meaning.
Topher moves to a podium before the table and speaks into a microphone, introducing Cam Gozar. His description of Gozar's affiliations and reason for being present are drowned by the roaring crowd, who seem to be screaming for momentum now.
I listen vaguely as Gozar speaks. I see heads nod and hear people shout in response and then more people shout in agreement or annoyance. Bodies stand and sit down. I wonder if this is what real democracy is like. It seems police should burst on the scene at any moment.
Dennis is snoring now.
I see a lot of people wearing t-shirts with the words "Forty Million Daggers" and "Two States" emblazoned across them. I think it would be fun to ride the BART into Oakland and back, under the bay, under Alcatraz. I love the name Embarcadero.
It becomes clear they're talking about a civil war.
Later we flood back down the tunnel on a crest of bodies. The throbbing music above swells faintly, and then Topher's leading the way down another tunnel, a set of steel doors and then a room that looks like a refrigerator sales display. Only the humming white boxes aren't refrigerators, they're computers, a kid with black glasses is explaining, using words like backbone, devoted, t-this and t-that.
He reaches for the brick and I break his glasses with the heel of my palm. He staggers. The room is neon-white, clean and pale. Everything seems hospital pale. Dennis is soothing me, urging me to pass the brick to him.
It seems to me this stupid thing is all I have. It's hard and real in my hands. I hug it against my stomach. I can't give it up. But I do.
I've given up everything before. I can do it again.
Now the kid with glasses has two black eyes. He says he's never had his nose broken before. He seems grateful. He's fitting some kind of cable into the brick.
He's turning on the computer.
James Stegall is a publisher's wet dream