Sunday, July 8, 2012

To the Underworld

Ceri wasn’t in the mood for a party the night she met Al Detwinder. And she’d loaned her daughter the car, so they would have to bike/train. But she’d told Hermione they’d come, and was curious to meet Al, so when the hour approached, she dutifully pulled on her party clothes, including the pocket bra with the fake breast inside.

It was going to be a Doofus Party, which meant they were supposed to bring stupid gifts to exchange. “Don’t spend any money” Hermie had said in her evite, which featured a picture of a bum rooting through a dumpster. “Just find something in your drawers that you don’t want.” So Ceri wrapped up the salad spinner Stu had bought when they had moved to the City six months before.

The spinner was supposed to replace the washer/dryer they’d left in the suburbs. After researching online, Stu’d gone out and bought the spinner, a big puke-pink plastic bucket, and a cheap toilet plunger in Chinatown. Then he’d cut little triangles and diamonds out of the rubbery red cup of the plunger with an X-Acto blade. “This will help the water circulate,” he explained.

Ceri could see right then that it wasn’t going to work out, but she didn’t like to discourage him, and Stu kept at it for a week or two, creating customized hangers he could load with wet clothes and deploy in the bathroom, the tiny kitchen, and the extremely long hall, until the whole place started to smell like mildew, and the windows in the front room were slimy and wet on the inside, dripping tears.

When he agreed to stop, Ceri agreed to do his laundry. She was only working part time now, so it seemed fair. And besides, she liked sitting in the warm laundromat with the dryers spinning, listening to the low hum and swish of the machines. Sometimes other patrons would join her on the flimsy white plastic lawn chairs, or stand at the counter folding clothes, but no one attempted conversation. Mr. Bubbles was a chapel in North Beach; the patrons were supplicants, praying for clean clothes.

For their second gift, Ceri chose a factory-knitted article of clothing that her mother-in-law had sent home with Stu. It wasn’t a sweater, exactly, and it wasn’t a shawl. It was some kind of bastard offspring which went over her shoulders and hung down to her knees like outsized priest’s vestments—a swal, maybe, or a shwetter—big and bulky and unflattering and so bright white it was blinding, something someone religious might wear to a funeral. She was glad to get it out of her small closet, where it was taking up too much room.

When it was time to leave, Ceri donned her talismans: her helmet, with the bright lights Stu had rigged up on top—blue in front and red in back; her fluorescent-yellow vest over three layers of clothing; her fluorescent Velcro leg straps to keep her pants out of the teeth of the chain; and woolen gloves with the fingers cut out, to provide an extra layer of skin if she fell. Stu approved of all the protective gear, though he liked to pretend that nothing would hurt her—that she was the same woman now as she’d always been. And he didn’t wear any of his own.

They left the flat just as it was getting dark, riding down Columbus past the neon-bright strip clubs dotting Broadway on the left and the honey-hued City Lights Bookstore on the right; sailing by the coppery-green, triangular Zoetrope studios building owned by Francis Ford Coppola, and skirting around the base of the big, white Transamerica pyramid, which gave the San Francisco skyline a magical appeal.

Stu was the better biker by far, but Ceri had improved over time, and liked the picture she made flying down Columbus with her yellow vest flapping, efficiently steering her steed. Even so, she followed Stu’s lead about when to take a lane, where to position her bike in the rank of cars at a stoplight, when to cross the street against the light, and when to wait.

They arrived at the station with just a few minutes to spare, and hoisted their bikes up onto the bustling bike car. The trip to Mountain View was long, and Ceri dozed in her seat, dreaming first of her daughter, driving Ceri’s car through the desert; and then of the view from the surgery table—that scorching disc of white light.

When they finally got to their station, they tumbled out of the car and hurried down a busy street until they found the entry to Mors Park pathway. It wasn’t lit, and the night had become black and impenetrable and freezing cold in the hour they’d spent on the train. There was a short chain link fence on each side of the path, and two walls of black trees which curved together to form a ceiling overhead. Ceri could barely see a few yards in front of her, and was reluctant to enter the tunnel of trees. Then her headlight blinked out. Fear skittered up her spine.

“Wait for me! Wait up!” She scrambled closer to Stu, so she could use his headlight to see. When a dry leaf scuttled across the path, she gasped loudly. Stu laughed.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” she complained.


“Fuck. My hands are freezing!”

“You should go down to Chinatown and buy some gloves like mine. They’re really warm.”

“You should let me wear them.”

“No way.”


Ceri laughed in spite of herself, secretly glad that Stu hadn’t wanted to keep her cloistered in a car. She was sick, yes. Her prognosis was poor. But that didn’t mean she wanted to be treated like an invalid.

As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she was awed by the night landscape. The black shadows pushed against her like an enormous cat, demanding attention. She felt awake and alive in a way that she wouldn’t have in a cozy car. But when they reached the end of the path 15 cold minutes later, she was also glad the ride would soon be over and she would be safe inside.

They continued slowly down a dark road lined on one side by large, ranch-style houses, and on the other by a vast, empty field. Every so often, they stopped to peer down a driveway to try to locate an address. Then Ceri saw a face in a small patch of light.
“Hold up. I think that’s Hermie in the window,” she called out to Stu. “Yes, it is. We’re here!”

Hermie came out to greet them when they clattered down the driveway. “You made it! Welcome! You can park your bikes in Al’s REI room,” she grinned. She opened the door to an enclosed porch lined with shelves that were stuffed to overflowing with brightly colored ropes and carabineers and lanterns and snowshoes and sleeping bags and fishing poles and much, much more.

“You can return these at any time, you know,” Stu joked, referring to official REI store policy. Hermie laughed.

Seven pairs of ski boots of various sizes lined the top shelf. The smallest pair was sparkling pink. “Look at all those boots,” Ceri marveled. “Does Al have a daughter?”

“I don’t know…” Hermie’s voice trailed. “I know he has sons.”

The party was in a remodeled garage, with sliding glass doors leading onto the driveway. The room was overflowing with music equipment and people. There was an electronic drumset, a keyboard, three congas on stands, two giant mixers covered with dials, speakers hanging from the ceiling, and an old stand-up bass leaning regally in a corner.

One counter was piled with wrapped presents. Ceri put hers on top. People stood together in clumps. An alcove held a small refrigerator with a stock of wine and beer, some snacks. There was a couch and two chairs arrayed around a coffee table. Every chair was occupied. There was nowhere to sit.

“This is Al, our host,” Hermie introduced them to a very thin man with a very long nose. He had a smooth face framed by wispy brown hair, and pearly white, nearly translucent skin. He was wearing a floppy hat, jeans, and a tie-dyed t-shirt.

“Hello,” Al held out his hand, and Ceri took it.

“Thanks for hosting Hermie’s party at your house,” she said. Al smiled and nodded. Ceri liked him right away. “You have so much musical equipment here. Are you going to play for us?”

“Yeah, that’s the idea—later, when some of the crowd clears. There are some very good musicians here, and more coming. I think we’ll be getting a vibraphone in here later, and more guitars. It gets pretty crowded. That gentleman over there—Doug—is an excellent sax player. He teaches over in Oakland. Do you play?”

“No, not really. I’m trying to learn to play the piano, but I’m not progressing fast enough.”

“Sounds like me,” Al’s mouth curved up at one corner; a dimple sprung in his cheek. “Here, let me hook up the keyboard for you.” He put his hands lightly on her shoulders as he maneuvered around her to get to the instrument, then leaned over it carefully to extract a fat cord from a big tangle on the floor.

“Don’t bother. I really can’t play. I just fool around.”

“Fooling around is fine. That’s all any of us ever do here—fool around.” He plugged the cord into the back of an amplifier. He had long, slender fingers with oversized knuckles, clean nails.

The party was much bigger than Ceri and Stu had envisioned. They knew very few of the other guests. They squeezed over to the alcove with the refrigerator, where they each grabbed a beer and met Luis, a guitar player from Brazil, and Ceri overheard Doug the excellent sax player talking about their host.

“Al’s famous, man. Can you believe that? I was reading this article about some archeologists using a new technology to photograph hieroglyphics, and it said Al Detwinder had invented it. His name was right there in the magazine!”

Ceri glanced over at Al and saw him pulling the door to the driveway closed, to keep the noise down for the neighbors, she supposed. He hovered around the equipment, showing a novice how to use a keypad to manipulate the synthesizer. Ceri wanted to touch him. What was it that compelled her? He was different somehow, set apart: very thin, very quiet, very self-contained—an ascetic. She saw him reach into a bowl of nuts and extract a single almond, place it between his front teeth.

When a chair opened up by the door, Ceri quickly maneuvered into it, and Stu followed. Their roles were reversed in social situations—Ceri led. The wall on that side of the room was covered with pictures printed out on plain computer paper, including one of Al with two boys in fishing gear, standing up to their waists in a bluegreen lake, and another of him standing stark naked on a snowy mountaintop, looking out over an impressive vista of mountain peaks.

Luis began setting up his acoustic guitar and amplifier in the corner behind them, arranged a microphone for singing, and began to softly play. Doug appeared at one of the conga stands and added a beat. When another man joined him on a second conga, fumbling a little, Doug moved to the keyboard, his fingers confidently sounding the keys.

Hermie started the gift exchange part of the party, with its particular rules. Names went into a bag, names came out, gifts were selected and opened. One man got a hula outfit with coconut breast cups and put it on. Hermie got “You Go Girl,” a funnel that would let her pee standing up. Al got a plastic dinosaur bone on a necklace chain. “Is this real?” he asked. Ceri squeezed past the drumset to get into the bathroom. She pulled her iphone out of her pocket before dropping her pants to the floor. Settling down on the toilet, she googled Al Detwinder’s name.

Here was a picture of him in a white lab coat, with a long list of the projects he’d worked on, all with arcane and mystical-sounding names like “Modeling with Gaussian Thread,” or “Decoding the Basic Field-Theoretic Function of the Canonical Partition.” So he is a guru, she thought, an interpreter of mysteries, a traveler between two worlds.

And here was a story from nine years prior, still proclaiming the “news” on the internet: Mountain View neighborhood reels after tragedy…

Ceri quickly clicked the link to see if it connected to Al. A school picture of a darling girl appeared on the screen. She looked a little like Ceri had in kindergarten: curly black hair framing plump pink cheeks; a big, wide open forehead; sparkling brown eyes. She was smiling into the camera with the tiny rounded teeth of six-year-olds, the wine-dark lips.

Ceri’s thumb raced to the first paragraph of the story. “Al Detwinder won’t condemn the teenager who struck and killed his six-year-old daughter in a remote neighborhood of Mountain View yesterday.”

Ceri gasped and pressed the iphone to her chest, heart thumping.

She read the article about the death twice, lingering over the strange comments Al had made to the press. She read another about the teenage driver, whose blonde hair was cropped short above his puffy white face, who was a regular attendee at Bible study and a junior in high school—until he went to jail; and still another about the eight-hour sentencing hearing, where Al’s wife had worn black lace covering her face.

Al’s wife—what had happened to her? She wasn’t at the party. Had she left him? Did she blame him? He had been there, after all. He had failed in his primary responsibility as a parent: keep your child alive. Someone pounded on the bathroom door. Ceri quickly zipped up her pants and returned to the party in a daze, envisioning the accident right outside, on this road.

Al had been riding his children to school on their bikes—two boys and a girl. They were all wearing helmets; they were following the rules. Little Flora was in front, and pulled over when Al stopped to fix her brother’s chain. Then Al heard an explosion.

He must have run!

He must have dropped his son’s bike to the pavement and run. He must have knelt in the roadbed, gravel gouging his knees, and lifted her limp body…

The teenaged driver rushed out of the car screaming, pulling his hair. Two cars slowed as they passed without stopping. Al put his fingers in Flora’s mouth, scooped out the blood so she could breathe...

Ceri dropped her iphone with a clatter. Partygoers turned to look, wondering if she was drunk. Stu gave her a quizzical look from across the room. Had she harmed him? she wondered. Had she invaded his privacy by reading his story? Nine years later, and still shrieking on the internet.

How did he do it? Ceri wondered. How did he speak softly, play music, eat a single almond?

When she got back to the chair, Stu told her it was almost time to leave. CalTrain cut service from the Peninsula at 11pm. She saw Al’s thin legs receding up the narrow stairs to the main part of the house. She squeezed Stu’s shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere. Just a minute. I’ll be right back.”

The top of the stairs opened into vast darkness. The room was plush black. A thick couch to the right sank deep into pile carpet. Every inch of the east wall was covered with artwork—100 frames. The back wall was all windows looking onto the roadway, the tall trees, the empty field. The only light in the room came from a small glass bar to her left. Al was bent over it, lit eerily from below. Ceri heard a slight tinkling as he stirred a drink with a glass stick.

Al looked up. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Ceri. We met downstairs.”

“You’re not supposed to be up here. The party’s downstairs.”

“I know.”

Al bunched his eyebrows and walked over to her, stopping too close. She smelled the gin and olives in his glass. She smelled marijuana.

“Why are you here then?” he said in a low voice. She couldn’t tell if he was angry. “What are you looking for?”

When she didn’t answer he extended his face closer. His breath was rich, intoxicating. He took one of her hands, started to squeeze. “Hmmm?” he pressed.

“It’s about…” Ceri tried carefully to extricate her hand. “It’s about…your daughter.”

“What?!” Al dropped her hand and jumped back.

“I’m sorry!” Ceri cried. “I googled your name. I was so intrigued by you! I read about the accident…”

A groan began rumbling through him like an approaching tsunami. Ceri tensed to flee. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. But I was thinking you could help me...”

“Help you?!” His voice was a sharp rock bursting on pavement. “Help you?! What the fuck are you talking about?”  There was a thud as he threw his glass to the carpet. Ice and alcohol sprang and wet her shirt. “What do you want? What does this have to do with Flora?”

“I have cancer!” Ceri blurted. “And I thought you knew something…about Death, and acceptance. Something that could…”

Al’s hands were on her shoulders, gripping hard. He swung her to the wall and slammed her back against sheetrock.

“You think I know something about Death?” he seethed. “You think I have some secret?”  His voice was a low rasp, hauled up from his bowels. Flecks of spit leapt from his mouth and stung her cheek. “Well I don’t. I don’t know anything about it! And as for God, if you see that Motherfucker up there, bring Him a message from me, okay? Okay?” He shook her roughly.

Ceri nodded.

“Tell Him to suck my dick!”

Al let go of her shoulders, then. All his energy rushed away. He hunched over before her, hands on his knees, making strange gulping noises.

She wanted to put a hand on his back, to comfort him. She wanted to smooth his thin hair, but she was afraid. She slid deftly to the top of the stairway. “Okay, Al,” she whispered. “I’ll tell Him. I’ll tell Him what you said.”

Out in the driveway, Ceri re-donned all her talismans: her helmet, her vest over three layers of clothes. Doug came out to dissuade them from leaving. “If you want to stay for the jam, I can put your bikes in the back of my station wagon and drive you home later.”

“That’s nice of you—thanks.  But I think we’d better get back.”

Another musician was unpacking his gear in the driveway. “Looks like it’s going to be a good jam tonight,” he said.

“Yeah, pretty good. But that guy on the congas, he’s no drummer,” Doug complained.

“It doesn’t matter,” the first musician batted his hand at the air.

“Yes it does. He has no business playing.”

“C’mon, man. It’s a party. It’s all good.”

“No it isn’t!” Doug puffed out his chest. “He needs to admit he’s no musician and step back. Like our host. He’s a good guy and all, but he’d be the first to admit that he’s no musician.”

Ceri swung her leg over her bike and pedaled up the driveway. As she turned onto the road, she noticed a sculpture in the yard—how had she missed it before? A red light flickered in a glass bowl, like a mouth full of blood.

“Wait up!” she called after Stu, wanting to peer into the center.

But Stu had already started off into the darkness, and she had to hurry. She had to hurry to catch up.


TIP JAR: Yes, this story is free. But if you want to express your appreciation, you can find it on Amazon here:
  • To The Underworld
  • and then a) buy a digital copy for 99 cents, or b) leave a review, or c) search for the title and then click on it to move it up in the rankings. THANKS!

    Cover art is a Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpture depicting Pluto abducting Proserpina. It can be seen at the Borghese Museum and Gallery in Rome.

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