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Authors: Armistead Maupin

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BOOK: The Days of Anna Madrigal
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This was another term that sounded clinical and old-fashioned to Shawna's ears. “These days,” she said gently, “it's more like a private deposit.”

“A friend or something?”

“Yeah. But I haven't asked him yet, so . . . it's nothing definite.” She thought it prudent to refrain from elaboration. “I do know
where
I want it to happen.”

“Where you want
what
to happen?”

“The Eurovision Song Contest . . . Dad, c'mon! Are we on the same page here?”

He was squirming a little, she realized. “You've picked a place for your insemination?”

“Yes! And you've been there!”

“Well . . . that's a relief.”

She laughed. “You're no fun! C'mon, guess!”

“This is not my idea of a parlor game.”

“Well, it's not much of a parlor either. C'mon, one guess. There's a big fire involved. And it's very flat and dusty.”

His answer, when it came, was equally flat and dusty. “Burning Man.”

“Awriight.”

“No, not all right. That's a terrible idea.”

“Why? You've been there yourself! You couldn't stop raving about it. You said it was a deeply spiritual experience.”

“Six years ago! It's completely out of control now. It's a fucking mosh pit in the desert! It's gonna be eighty thousand people or something.”

“Sixty,” she said. “And this year's theme is Fertility 2.0. It's perfect!”

“Perfectly unhygienic.”

She sighed noisily. “It's a conception, Dad, not a delivery.”

Her father tilted his head in defeat. “Whatever. You're right.”

“I want to mark the moment, that's all. I want my child to know that it was—you know—completely intentional. And there will be friends around, so—”

She was interrupted by the
whack
of an opening door. The woman who climbed into the RV was fiftyish and luscious in a blowsy Wife of Bath kind of way. Her gray hair was gathered into a ponytail, her waist cinched with a wide green belt that caught the color of her eyes and hoisted her ample breasts into full display.

She wasn't especially fat, but she wasn't thin either.

“I'm Wren Douglas,” she said, extending a small, pink-varnished hand to Shawna, “and you're my new favorite writer.”

Shawna could feel herself blushing. “Well . . . thanks.”

“And guess what?” Brian blurted. “She's gonna make you a grandmother.”

Shawna glared at her father with teen-style indignation until simple astonishment won the moment. “You're
married
, you mean?”

“Last week in Santa Fe.” Wren waggled a finger wrapped in a turquoise-and-silver ring. “He wouldn't put out until we made it official.” She laughed throatily. “He said, ‘If you want it, then you better put a ring on it.' ”

Her father's grin was sheepish but without shame. “That's sorta true.”

“So you're pregnant, huh?” Wren had moved on jauntily without missing a beat. “That's great! What a gorgeous child you're gonna have!”

Further elaboration would have been much too intimate with this stranger, so Shawna just widened her eyes in mute appreciation.

There were times when she seriously wanted to clobber the old man.

Chapter 4

DARKWAD

“S
o what's the book about?” Ben asked pleasantly without lifting his eyes from his sewing machine.

It already seemed like “his” machine, Michael realized, though they had bought it only yesterday at Serramonte Mall, and Ben had never sewn so much as a trouser hem in all his forty years. But that had not stopped him from leaping into the mysteries of bobbins and threaders with the same bravado he'd no doubt brought to outboard motors and snowmobiles in his adolescence.

Michael, by contrast, was still intimidated by the Kindle in his hands.

“A bunch of high school girls,” he answered, describing Shawna's new best-seller. “It's all done in text messages. So far, they're nasty little shits.”

“Doesn't that get old?”

“Well, yeah. Nasty little shits do.”

“I mean, the text messages.”

“Oh—you'd think so, but . . . you get used to it. It becomes its own language. The cruelty is more pronounced because everything's abbreviated.”

Ben just murmured, absorbed in his sewing.

“It's creepy as hell,” Michael added, “but it's hard to put down.”

“They kill one of their classmates, right?”

Michael winced and rolled his eyes. “Not. That. I. Know. Of. Betsy Ross. Thanks for the spoiler alert.”

Ben grinned, exposing the gap between his two front teeth. “Sorry. Just read it in a review.”

“That's why I haven't read the reviews.”

“Shit, fuck, piss!”

Michael checked to make sure this outburst of Tourette's had not been directed at him. Ben, to his relief, was addressing his sewing machine, thereby validating the possessory pronoun. He and Mr. Singer were having their first fight.

“This fucker is supposed to be heavy-duty. The clerk told us it could handle EL wire.”

There was nothing useful Michael could add. He had only just learned about EL wire—electroluminescent wire, the magic plastic filament that made clothing and bicycles dazzle like Christmas trees. Ben was sewing a coil of it on the back of a patchwork jacket they had bought at a Tibetan shop in the Castro.

“It's this cotton,” Ben added in a calmer tone. “It bunches up, and the needle gets stuck.”

“You know,” Michael offered, “I like the jacket on its own. It doesn't need anything on it. And I could wear it after Burning Man.”

Ben wasn't buying it. “You have to be lit, baby. It's dangerous otherwise. It's pitch-black out there on the playa.”

“But won't all that stitching fuck it up?”

Ben looked up. “It'll fuck
you
up if you get run over by an art car.”

Michael had already seen enough photos of Burning Man to imagine himself being mowed down by a disco bus full of half-naked hippie chicks—reduced to a grease spot on a vast Nevada alkali flat. He could see that quite easily.

“You don't want to be a darkwad,” Ben added.

“A what?”

“That's what they call people who don't light themselves.”

Michael cringed inwardly.
Darkwad.
They had
names
for their miscreants, just like at summer camp or on
Survivor
. This temporary city of liberated souls, for all its “radical self-expression,” had rules out the ass. Some of them made sense, like Leaving No Trace (cleaning up after yourself) and Decommodification (not selling things to each other), but Michael sensed a creepy expectation of allegiance. It was like school spirit back in high school. He didn't have it then, and he didn't have it now. To him, the biggest advantage of being queer was being queer.

“Come,” said Ben. “Try this on.”

Michael followed orders, holding his arms akimbo while Ben adjusted the wiring. The jacket was tight around the waist. He felt tubby and preposterous, like Wavy Gravy being suited for the Fourth of July parade in Bolinas. Ben, of course, had looked as smart as a tin soldier when he tried on his metallic silver jacket at a retro shop on Haight Street. Get over yourself, thought Michael. He's always going to be younger than you. Have eight years of marriage taught you nothing?

“That looks so cool,” said Ben.

“Does it?”

“Here, check it out.” Ben led him, tethered, to the hall mirror so he could see the amber mandala glowing ecstatically on his back. It
was
cool. And all the more so because Ben had made it for him, toiling for two nights at this genteel sweatshop on the crest of Noe Hill. “That's amazing, sweetie.”

Ben studied his handiwork, skimming his hand across the top of his sandy brush-cut head. “It's not bad, is it?” He handed Michael the controls, a small oblong box. “Keep it in your pocket. You can turn it off and on or make it blink.”

Michael was now preoccupied by a niggling, high-pitched sound, like a mosquito keening in his ear. “What's that?”

“What?”

“That noise.”

“Oh. You won't hear that when you're there.”

“Why won't I hear it when I'm there?”

“Because it's kinda . . . noisy. A lot of the camps play music all night. The sound of the EL wire will blend right in. You won't even notice it.”

Swell, thought Michael.

“I've bought us earplugs for sleeping. And we can take the wave machine with us.”

The wave machine, with its faux-oceanic lullaby, made its home on Michael's bedside table. That's where it belonged, he felt, forever and ever. Why should they have to import the sound of crashing surf to the middle of the Black Rock Desert?

“Will I have a place to plug it in?” he asked feebly.

“It works on batteries too. Why are you being so grumpy?”

“Have I said anything?”

“Yeah. More or less. You have.” Ben caught his eye in the mirror. “I thought you wanted to do this?”

“I do.”

“But?”

“I dunno . . . it sounds more and more like a party I can't go home from. I've never liked an all-nighter, Ben, and this is . . . an all-weeker. I get tired of people and noise. Even when I was young, I went home early to Barbary Lane.”

“You said you left the baths at dawn sometimes.”

Michael shrugged. “That was different.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“It wasn't noisy.”

Ben laughed.

“Not in that way,” Michael added with a smirk.

Ben slipped the jacket off Michael's shoulders like a tailor done with the fitting. “It's really peaceful on the playa. We can ride our bikes out there and be totally alone. It's like being on the moon or something. Just the two of us.”

The image was seductive, except, of course, for the bike part. Michael hadn't ridden one in years, so he was already concerned about looking clumsy on the pink clunker Ben had found for him on Craigslist. Add to that the presence of large menacing vehicles and thousands of other bikers who assumed he knew what he was doing, and you had a recipe for abject panic. At least it'll be flat, he told himself.

“Which reminds me,” said Ben, returning to his sewing machine. “We should go on the Naked Bike Pub Crawl.”

All Michael could manage was a snort.

“Seriously, honey. Wouldn't that be fun?”

“No. It would not.”

“Why not?”

Michael returned to his armchair before composing his answer. “Okay, first of all, naked—my flabby white ass on a bicycle seat. Second of all, pub crawl—
drunk
on a bicycle, right? Naked and drunk on a bicycle. Tell me when we get to the fun part. I'd kill myself, honey. In a hot minute. I'd die an ignominious death.”

Ben smiled. “I bet Shawna will do it.”

“Oh, well, there's a safe enough bet. She'd do that in the
city
.”

“You sound like a prissy old uncle.”

True enough, thought Michael. He had known Shawna since she was a baby. He had become a sort of coparent, in fact, when his old friend Mary Ann made a single dad out of his old friend Brian. He and Brian had doted and fussed and fretted over that child—and later the teenager—to such a degree that the fretting had never stopped. Ben regarded Shawna simply as a hip woman less than ten years his junior. The thought of her naked on a bicycle didn't make him nervous in the least.

“As I recall,” Ben added, “you used to get naked all the time.”

“When?”

“You know . . . at the nude beach. Devil's Slide. With Mona. You told me so.”

“That was before you were born . . . practically.” Michael felt a pang at the mention of his old roommate. Cynical, loyal Mona, with her rusty Brillo Pad hair and thrift shop finery. Mona who took no shit and took no prisoners. She'd been gone for a dozen years, her ashes scattered on a Cotswold hillside, but she was right there in the room with him, breathing taunts in his ear, wondering how he'd turned out to be such a scaredy-cat—
such a fucking pussy—
in his twilight years.

“It was Mona who got naked at the beach,” he said, correcting Ben. “I wanted a tan line.”

“What about three years ago in Tulum?”

“What about it?”

“You got naked then.”

“That was around the pool.”

Ben grinned. “So a body of water is required for your nakedness?”

“An absence of
family
is required, Ben. Shawna is family. It feels . . . borderline somehow.”

“We'll have our tent. We'll have privacy. Anyway, Shawna has friends in at least three other camps. We'll probably never see her.”

Michael looked down at the Kindle aflame in his hands, considering its twisted tale and the bright young woman who had somehow brought it to life.

It made him proud and nervous at the same time.

I
've been thinking,” said Ben, later that night in bed.

Michael's gut clenched. “I've been thinking” was often the preamble to change of some sort, and Michael didn't much care for change. He had his life the way he wanted it, more or less. He was happily married; he was still surviving the plague that had wiped out half the people from his past; hell, he was still surviving the meds that had given him a future. He didn't want that messed with. At all.

“Don't leave me,” he said, hoping that his darkest fear could convincingly masquerade as total flippancy.

Ben chuckled, pulling him closer. “This bed really sucks.”

“What do you mean? It's a Tempur-Pedic.”

“I know what it is, and I know how much we paid for it, but it's just not cutting it, honey.”

Thank you, Jesus. It's the bed. It's not me.

“What's the matter with it?” Michael asked. “It's memory foam. It's comfy as all get-out. It molds to your body.”

“It molds to
your
body.”

Michael still didn't get it. “And yours too, right?”

“Yeah, but . . . when people cuddle all night the way we do . . . and when one of them is—no offense—heavier than the other . . . it forms, you know, a trench that the other one sort of . . . falls into. It's not a good thing.”

There was so much about this explanation that Michael found charming, but he went for the obvious: “
No offense
? Like I don't
know
I'm fatter than you are?”

Ben chuckled. “Well, yeah, of course you do, but . . . I didn't know if you were aware of—”

“The Trench,” said Michael, capitalizing it for extra drama.

“Yes.” Ben grinned. “The Trench from Hell.”

“Damn. That bad?”

“Pretty much.”

Roman, their Labradoodle, loped into the room and sprang onto the bed between them. He knew their nightly routine as well as they did, maybe even better. Michael scratched him behind his ear, where dense charcoal hair, despite their best efforts at grooming, was clumped like an old fisherman's sweater.

“You don't feel a trench, do you, Mr. Dood?”

“Give Dad a kiss,” Ben told the dog.

Still standing on the bed, Roman accepted this assignment with quiet resignation, dragging a broad pink tongue across Michael's ear. How and when Ben had taught him this trick was lost in the mists of time, but it still retained its charm. Roman knew exactly who “Dad” was (at least in this instance), and he'd been known to bestir himself from a comfortable chair across the room, stopping only for a downward-facing fart, before planting a single perfunctory kiss on Michael's face.

“We can't afford a new mattress,” said Michael.

“I know,” said Ben.

Of course he knew. Ben was the one keeping them afloat, the one who had stalled foreclosure on their mountain property in Pinyon City and footed the bill on Michael's recent dental implant. Ben's furniture company, thanks to a lone Twitter executive with a passion for
tansus
was their most reliable source of income. Michael's gardening business wasn't exactly belly-up, but it wasn't thriving either. His younger partner Jake Greenleaf had done most of the grunt work lately. Gardeners aged better than athletes, but their bodies betrayed them the same.

“Can you handle the trench a bit longer?” Michael asked.

Ben smiled sleepily and pecked him on the mouth. “Long as it takes, bambino.” He pushed his foot through the sheets, across the very trench itself, twiddling his toes against Michael's in an act of reassuring monkey-love.

“I'll lay off the jam in the morning,” Michael told him.

Ben chuckled, then fell silent until he suddenly remembered something. “Oh—did you get the message from Shawna?”

“No. On the machine?” Lately, like everyone else he knew, Michael had lost the habit of checking the landline. “What did she want?”

“Dunno. Just said to call her. I figured it was about Burning Man.”

This didn't seem very likely to Michael. “Why would she call me? You're the boss of that.”

BOOK: The Days of Anna Madrigal
3.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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