Yet there are occasions when Mac is not driven by the hounds that insist upon the company of others. To the regulars of his acquaintance this is not a likely thing.

Dominating the night scene are three or so major clubs. Outside any one Mac can be seen, a lone and obscure figure of uncertain intent. In truth he is often content to just watch, listen, feel. The sound of bass pushes heavy against air laden with the fragrances of skin-lotion. Doors incessantly open and close, people going in and out. The sound, their voices, are fragmented yet steady, like invisible curtains whirling somewhere around him. The eye is a steady rover, catching things not particularly meant to be seen.

Of nights he will drive from club to club, a secondary circuit arranged within his regular patrols. In each succeeding season one of them is always the newest, and Mac out of sentiment will drive past some site of past glory, now out of favor, shuttered and dark-hulking, stray papers cast across the empty lot by winds of some unimpeachable authority.

He likes to check out the vehicles as they come in. He theorizes these people are never seen in unglamorous daytime. The sheen of streetlights on hair. Mac hates to sleep, hates to miss anything. Lexuses, Infinitis, Jeeps, purchased out of town. By people who go out of town. Not that there are not Jaguars. Or Porsches.

Even Freddies, of strictly college freshman patronage, hosts exotics--Range Rovers and Mazda Miatas. Freddies is where he listens closely to the passing conversations and picks up current phrases--when he can decipher them--that he will later use among people he knows.

The music heard is not that which is played on radio. It is a special music, he thinks, music that is not allowed elsewhere than these oases of the night. Were it for sale it would be the only music of his recollection he would be tempted to purchase. Some nights he is disappointed if he does not hear a favorite, and is late getting to other sites of the city on his rounds. His heart holds dear that low shattering wave through the club's open door he does not recognize as being synthetic, microchip-produced.

His vantage points are the dark corners out of neonsign reach. Tangy scents of female hair. The broad odor of certain liquors. The inside overhead light when the passenger door opens, suddenly revealing blue fabric seat coverings. New car smells. The laughter of women upon the approach to the club, still buoyant before actual circumstances inside, all promise and possibility still alive. Calculated curves in carefully researched high-tech costumes. Heads back, laughing. And when over there is still somewhere else to go. He could stare for a thousand years.

In the highspirited entering and leaving the nightcreatures largely do not see him. When they do it is as if a deception has been uncovered. Startled and slackmouthed they encounter a figure they swear was not there a minute ago. A polite hello and quick move past. Mac returns the greeting, completely composed, distant, not gregarious at all. Not him. He is just watching. Sometimes at night when you say nothing at all people will see you and regard you as if you were another traveler and acknowledge you and that will be all. That will be enough.

They would not believe this, the ones who know him. And in actuality it does not hold. Pretty much largely ninety nine percent of the time it does not hold. Mac's best intentions are skewered. Instinct overrules. Some new element intervenes and leads to ruin. As tonight.

He'd heard the radio advertisement that afternoon for Freddies. Some kind of night, maybe semester opening night. The lot was jammed. He was forced to park at McDonald's (of the newspapers) on Eighteenth, two blocks down.

Freddies had taken the place of a carpet store in a small strip shopping center that dated to the early 1960s. He stood under a canvas awning for a while, watching the kids. They arrived tightly parked in backseats with loud, hoarse voices. Their clothing harkened to some earlier decade, things Mac's sister wore then. He remembered the fat back side of Connie's head, babyish and exposed by pulled-up hair.

Pink was an item of popularity among girls.

Two young men came out of the club and eyed him, isolate and out of place before the travel agency display window. They left in a Celica, saying nothing to each other. Their slot was filled almost immediately by a dark blue Challenger, a few years too old to be in synch with the other vehicles, Mac senses. The girl who got out moved quickly, peering once through the car window for anything essential left behind.

She carried a large strapless purse in a single downward handclasp. She spoke up as if she'd expected him to be standing there all along. "Is it crowded? Of course. My baby sister calls me up and tells me how bored she is. She's inside this place, she says. Like I can't hear the music myself over the phone. I'm just off work and I'm a little steamed, so I tell her I'm thinking maybe I'd just come over. 'Ooohh,' she goes, 'It's really like for a younger crowd." She faced Mac resolutely and opened her purse. "I'm twenty three. Shit. How old are you?"

Mac stumbled, voiceless, finding himself asking her to guess, as he can't really remember right off. Inattentive, she looked through the purse and produced a glitter-coated cigarette lighter. There's something about this girl. Mac watched her face watching the door, hardly aware that he's staring hard. Her face in the electronic lights was dusty, but round, pretty. Curled hair, feminine blouse, mid-thigh loosish skirt--somehow out of place. The nose. Something about the nose. Mac perceived her blackness like a doorbell chime. Not a black girl who is a black girl, but one not aware that she's black. Like the lone non-caucasian in a TV sitcom.

"Listen. Twenty three is not old." She walked away toward the door as abruptly as she'd approached him. Mac battled it for five minutes, wanting to be outside, watching, satisfied, but it was finally too much, like a phone ringing that no one will answer. The door checker gave him a single glance and in accepting the cover charge did not prompt for ID.

Mac reached back for his pocket. "It's OK, man. Go on in." Mac fumbled with the wallet, flustered, trying to find the card. "Forget it, man." Mac found himself shoved through. Around the dance section was a rail flanked by miniscule tables, toy-size to the crowd using them. He made a couple of complete rounds, lingering for a while by the girls' restroom, but ultimately the twenty-three year old was lost. He made a few stabs at spotting her sister in vain correlation of facial features, but there was no one black in there. At all. Then he found an unoccupied table by the dance floor step-down.

A waitress asked his order briskly. "I don't want anything."

"You have to. Itís a cover. I know you paid but you have to order two. Too." Mac randomly pointed at a girl with a thin glass in her hand--one of those. The waitress was pregnant. Big pregnant. Looks accumulated all around. Surely he was an errant father come in to wrench his daughter from certain fate.

One unthin redhead with abundant qualities of plastic jewelry returned his gaze. Mac ventured a smile, receiving as reward her outright mirth. It was soon taken up by a host of boyfriend companions. Mac received his drink with flush face and concentrated upon the dancers.

One taste of the Vodka Collins and he wished he hadn't skipped supper. Nearby objects were already unsteady when he received the tap on his shoulder. He had only time to see that she was darkly brownhaired before being pulled to the dance floor. Not the black girl but someone different altogether. In the gyrating crowd his awkwardness felt minimized. She was not tall, but such a face to produce mythical remembrances.

In propriety she looked everywhere but directly at him while they danced; her gaze carried an earnest detachment from her surroundings. She spoke once during the song, a sweet twang, thick even for the rural parishes around. He had to ask her to repeat herself. "I thought you looked sad there by yourself."

By the time Mac had collected himself sufficiently in the curious views of those around him the song was over. She dragged him to her table, that of a bangled spike-hair. Their party was in the act of rising to leave as his girl sat down, yanking him beside her. The spike-hair was indignant. With a straight face she accused the belle of being drunk. Even Mac knew it was with no excess of sobriety that she tried to construct a conversation, yet it was genuine and miraculous enough for him.

He learned that she was a freshman at the college and had just finished a big test. The talk didn't last long. Her party was insistent upon leaving. The attendant boycrew were haggling with the pregnant waitress over payment and the spike-hair was lifting the girl by the elbow but when Mac asked her name she shook hands with him and only said "Thank you. Thank you all so very much."

Under enforced motion she waved goodbye and laughed heartily at the spike-hair, who demanded "Don't give him your name!"

"Beatrice," she called to Mac in about five syllables. "Bee-ahh-ae-tree-chay," he repeated. She broke away from the spike-hair. The boycrew giggled. She crossed half the space from them to him. "No!" she said. "No. Helen."

"Hel-uhn." Mac looked around as if for something to write on, then to his open palms. High, shrieking laughter from her. "Jooo-liet!"

"Can I call you?"

"Yes! Yes! By all means, yes! Here it is---" She recited a local phone number. The spike-head clapped her hard on the left ear. "That's my number, bitch!" The sweetgirl swung back ineffectively; one of the boycrew yanked her back, arms flailing, toplike, comical. Another helped subdue her, then another. They carried her outside, grasping whimsically in inappropriate body zones. "Hey, stop that!" she shrieked.

Mac, for a moment lost, soon knew he had no choice. He tucked his head, slowly trudged behind. Dutiful. "Hey, uh hey. Don't do her like that . . ."

The boycrew soon had Mac splayed on the sidewalk, one rough boot on his neck, two others on his wrists. His shirt ripped more readily than he would have imagined. "Get in the car," they told the wrestling girls. As the main boycrewmember departed he dragged a rubbersoled boot over Mac's chest, pulling hair quite uncomfortably.

In the back window he saw framed her hysterical face being driven away, soundless and frozen. In later times Mac would pursue the path of a dogged philosopher in reasoning his failure to somehow salvage the situation. It was necessary to prove to himself she hadn't been laughing at him.

He had a hint: the college--she was a student. And the retinal image of her features. Clues to some universal answer he was almost afraid to uncover.