The house was to his right every time he turned from Riverside on Forsythe in front of the park. Every single time. Not that he noticed so much, but having passed it tens of thousands of times there was some submerged consciousness of the two-story plate glass ediface, dense vegetation, the twelve-foot high brick wall around the back--all taking up half a block. Something like he would have seen in the Garden District, had he ever been to New Orleans.
Walking with Coop, when Coop's truck was sick and he made Mac park his car at the tennis courts because he didn't want to be seen in a bomb--or so he said: a bile-green 1973 Plymouth Fury, anachronistic in an age of econo-compacts, vast amounts of hollow space in the wheel wells and back seat--perfect for some moderate-sized homeless family.
It's in the vicinity of 2:30 or 3 AM, Coop strangely silent as they walk, unsatisfied, hands in pockets. They've been along the levee, in the park, on sidewalks, in residential areas, Coop watching, watching. Mac a half-step behind, mimicking Coop's tromp and swayback stances, staring at people in cars passing, people sitting in the park in cars, people getting out of cars. As if looking for some specific person or persons, but he denies it every time Mac asks. "What 'cha see Coop, who're you looking for." Coop like a hunter, intense, ignoring the yapping of his hound.
It was strange that Coop had asked to hold Mac's car keys.
Not that Mac didn't know, because he knew. Not why or when, but that Coop would borrow the car at some point, and the mystery was how could he know, and not react any other way than to unprotestingly let Coop have it? To see it coming, and not have a plan to stop it. Without saying to himself, Cooper is going to take my car. He couldn't even say why he didn't want Coop to have it, but he would really prefer if he didn't.
All of this quite out of the routine for Mac, who usually gives everything possible away.
Mac was nervous moving around on foot. The cops slowed down and looked at you and weren't friendly when they talked to you.
"Mac. Hey." "What, Coop? What is it?" "I bet you got a nickel." Cooper stopped on the sidewalk by the brick wall behind the glass-front home, somewhere around the eighteenth time they'd passed that spot. Above the wall angled the glass roof of a hot house.
Mac eagerly searched his pockets. "I got a dollar, and some pennies." "Naw man, that ain't no good." "It's a lot of pennies?" "Uh-uh. It's got to be nickels." Mac, distraught.
Cooper displayed a sly smile.
Mac bright again, catching on: "You got any nickels, Coop?"
"You bet I do. I got a hell of a lot of 'em, Mac. Now all we got to do is get over this fence." "Huh?" "Cross your fingers down here, Mac. Give me a stirrup."
Cooper pantomimed the action for clarity; Mac slowly copied him. "Hoomph!" Cooper was straddling the foot-thick wall, reaching down. Soon Mac was up with him, gasping, shoes scuffed from wild mis-steps. "Man, you pretty bad out of shape. You ought to start working out."
"I would, but it makes me tired."
Mac looked down at the other side of the wall, away from Forsythe Avenue. The back yard of the house was vast, dark. It made him a little dizzy. He couldn't quite see anything. Coop leaped down, feet stomping a narrow concrete walk. Mac felt abandoned. "Come on." "Uh, Coop--" Coop disappeared around another brick wall, one encasing the glass-roofed hot house. Mac had no choice. He closed his eyes and jumped.
When he opened them he was sprawled, looking up at a jungle. It was black, spooky, full of various-smelling plants. Coop? He was walking away in the direction of the house, a blur. Mac scrambled up and followed.
"Hey Coop. Where'r ya going?" Coop was stopped at a brightly lit Coke machine, the box humming, glowing--some sign of civility, the real world in this wet smelling dark place.
"Look here. You can buy cokes for five cent apiece." "How can that be?" "This house here is some kind of museum for the guy who invented bottled Cokes. You buy this tour and they let you have colas cheap. Back of it where we are is like some famous garden. But all you got to do to get here is hop the wall."
Cooper plugged five cents in; then came the usual reassuring clunks of a six ounce bottled coke. He popped the top in the slot, took a long, slow four ounce swig. Mac watched hungrily. "Man--I swear to God they make these little ones different. It's a thousand times better than canned shit. This is real Coke, Mac." Cooper finished the remaining two ounces very slowly, tauntingly. Mac swallowed, dry air visibly filling his throat.
"Want a nickel, Mac?" "Yeah, sure do, Coop." Cooper magnanimously dug into his jeans pocket, handed one over. Mac had his bottle in a flash. "That was great." "How 'bout another?" "That'd be decent. I'm awful thirsty." Cooper handed him three nickles. On the last Mac slowed enough to sip.
"Pretty good, huh."
"You got that right. Thanks a lot, Coop."
Cooper took a deep, telling breath. "Man, I have got to go somewhere."
That feeling in Mac's stomach. "Oh. Where you going?" "Mac. I really got to see somebody. By myself." "Who, Coop?" "Can't say. I'm gone bring your car back, buddy, I swear to God. By day break."
Mac's heart sank. Coop patted the keys, which were of course already in his possession.
"It's a bomb, Coop, you said."
"Huh? Hell no, Mac. It's a fine car. I'd buy it from you if I could."
Then he dug out a fistful of nickles and let them rain into Mac's palm. "You can stay right here in this garden--take a nap. These'll take care of ya if you get thirsty."
Then Cooper was gone again around the corner of the hothouse, over the brick wall. Just like that.
Amidst the occasional cars passing along Forsythe Mac heard the engine of the Fury start up and rattle off. Gone.
He drank five more cokes, couldn't finish the last. Something bothered him about the nickles, as though they couldn't be used for anything else, or at any other time. His stomach hurt.
He was walking a little along the blank wall of the hothouse, in dim light reflected from overhead clouds, and then he was on his knees, retching at the base of some rubbery, door-sized leafy thing. After a while he lay back. The plant seemed to be growing before him, finding sustenance in the rejected Coca-Cola.
Mac was on his side, looking around at the structured jungle. The last thing he would be able to do now was go to sleep. As he lay he could hear some traffic on Riverside and Forsythe, but it seemed irrelevant and far away. Everything was dark. There were lights from the streets, but it was dark.
Vegetation sprawled. He knew there were walls around this, a rectangle; he'd seen it from the outside in its entirety. But he couldn't see them. The space seemed infinite. All was black greenness.
Tentatively, he stood up. There wasn't anything to do. Coop had his car and he didn't know how many long hours it would be until daylight. He could jump the fence, but the cops would just see him alone, walking . . . he could feel it inside his bones that he didn't have his car.
He smelled smells. Moist, warm, between fruity and dog poop. What was before him was like a painting he couldn't understand--shapes and shadows that didn't add up, but were there nonetheless, real.
There were brick walks, short alleys, plant-choked areas, vine-strung man-built structures. There were small places where they kept the grass cut real short and didn't grow anything. Nothing seemed connected to any plan. Above all, there were textures, strange textures.
He bent to examine the base of a tree-like plant from which the leaves were thin, long, unremarkable; but the trunk was composed of hundreds of small triangular puzzle pieces, the apices angling slightly downward, armed with needly points. Behind it a dark wall towered, only over a space of time revealing itself to be a bush of some kind. The size of it made Mac move back, want be hidden from it behind something.
He got up to walk forward, became dizzy from the smells. A neatly edged walk, with the constituent bricks in patterns of cross-angles. Every step brought perspective on some part of the garden he hadn't yet seen. Shadows, sprinkler hardware, tucked-away corners of leaves the size of small homes. Knee-high mounds of sticky material with an odor reminiscent of farms and animals.
Ahead, on the walk, some trellis-prefaced gazebo with benches inside.
Venturing forth, it wasn't long before Mac instinctively doubled over into an haphazard guerilla crouch: sudden spirals of sound. Music, kind of. His head twisted, looking. The flowery notes came from nowhere at all. Very scary. Music heading downward. A harp scale descending, actually, mixed with waterfall effects. But it just started as he passed through the gazebo altar, like there was somebody just waiting to flip the switch.
But there was nobody.
He stood in the center of the gazebo, unwilling to move. Several moments later the soundtrack to his unease stopped as abruptly as it started. Startled as he was, its absence made it feel as if somethung had been taken from him.
He didn't know what next. If there was a sky beyond the reaches of foliage here it was blank, featureless, dim. On the other side of the gazebo the brick walk led further away. He tentatively went forward--what else was there to do?--half expecting a further serenade, but there was none.
In the grass he found a rock, a stone--smooth, with chiseled letters running deep and neat: September 21, 1998. An impossible future date. He had no idea. He placed it gently where it had lain.
The walk ascended slightly and became enclosed on either side by rising brick walls with hollow troughs filled by further varied vegetations, some of them spidery, hairy, almost moving. It curved to the right and became darker; here were larger trees, thick with leaved branches, sucking in what little light might be allowed there.
A tunnel. Mac halted. He wasn't sure. No, he was sure. He didn't want to go there. It wasn't a real tunnel, just some limbs (which trees did they belong to?) But nevertheless.
He turned sharply right off the brick path, snaking breathlessly past two tight trunks with spiny projectiles that pulled at his shirt.
There he came upon an open plaza of manicured grass. How had he missed it, in the middle of all this suffocation? Open air! Mac gravitated naturally toward clear space. Toodling along, then
Mac's head hurt. Time passed before he realized he was sitting down on the grass. A narrow brick column with a concrete platform stood before him, poorly illuminated. He was disappointed he hadn't seen it. His head wouldn't be bothering him so much now.
He staggered up. After a few moments it appeared that his face was inches from somebody's bare feet upon the square of concrete. "Uh, I'm sorry, I didn't--mean to-- " His stomach rolled with fright, as if he were caught at something, which he was, knowing he wasn't exactly supposed to be here. "This friend of mine, I was riding with him, wait, well, he was riding with me, he had to use my car. . . " Mac's eyes slowly glided up.
The body was naked. It was female. His neck popped audibly from quick aversion. "Yow I'm sorry I'm sorry I really really am . . . I didn't know . ." Mac scrambling, caught--but at which thing he wasn't sure, trespassing, or, well. . . trespassing.
He turned his back definitively and crossed his arms. "Ma'am, I know I'm not supposed to be here and I aint supposed to see you like this, which if I wasn't in the wrong place to begin with I woudn't be doing, but if you'd just tell me which way to go to get out of here I'll just go on, if that's okay."
Mac could feel her staring at his neck, hating him, at a loss for words. A complete loss, apparently, as he waited and waited and she didn't say anything. He began to shake, a little.
"You could call the cops. I mean, I know a few of them, but that won't matter to none of 'em. They'd just take me on out of here, down to the station. Like they ought to."
Mac's eyes darted around the plaza, for an open gate or something. It wasn't like he'd never thought about being in jail, especially when Meyer was slow to pay and pork 'n beans got old, but this way would be a little too . . . involuntary.
As he talked his way around how this situation came to be, he realized he saw three other figures standing still in like ways to the first, facing in toward the empty grass, up on these blocks. The muscles in his calves flinched, frightened by being so badly outnumbered. But the figures didn't break into motion. Nobody came at him, yelling. They stared straight ahead--least of all looking at him.
Even while the realization came upon him he kept talking. As if reluctant to admit to himself.
"Lot a' people get caught in places they're not supposed to be, let me tell you. All the time. Including me. Especially right now."
He crossed his arms, tapped his foot soundlessly on the half-grass half-soil space he found himself in, still reluctant to face the nakedness of the statue at his back. "Though you gotta admit, it's not a bad thing to know there's a place at night you can be in if there aint no other place. Even if it's as scary as hell. Especially if you aint even got your own car to park somewhere and sleep in the back."
Mac was aware of the sound of his own voice, suspended in the mossy silence. Also of the fact that he was being listened to, in a sense. Insofar as the listener wasn't turning heels, making excuses.
Occasional sound of a car passing down Second, soft, as though slipping lightly through the hallway in the sleeping hours.
And no other noise. At all.
Just the eerie plants on the perimeter growing visibly larger with each passing moment. And this standing figure, going nowhere.
"My sister, she lives out north, I ain't seen her in a while . . ."
And on. Elsewhere in the neighborhood water trickled through loose toilet fittings, resonating on raised plank flooring. A cat moved in swaying celerity, anticipating garbage morning. Bedroom doors creaked. Tugs drifted with the river beyond the levee. Mac's voice, softly conversational.
And when in the open spaces outside of the garden--the park, the river--day began to bring its ever-lightening shades, the garden remained dim in its dense over-coverage--nightlike.
So it was still dark to Mac when he was interrupted by a sound. He looked around; it came again, but like from somewhere else. An indecipherable sound.
It spooked him. For a long time, nothing. Slowly he turned back to the statue. "That was 'cause. . ."
Then something definitely. Leaves moving behind him. But he couldn't see it. What the hell?
From within the precise arrangement of leaves on the limbs of bushes that made a wall before him he was suddenly leapt upon. Mac screamed. The residue of every TV-show moment of fright gathered in one seat-soiling moment.
"GOTCHA! Hey, ol' buddy." Mac clawed Cooper's grasp off his arms before realizing. Coop steps back, arms raised high.
"It'sjust me. Hey now, don't be riduculous."
"Caught you, yeah huh?" At what? Cooper looked up. Mac's jacket was draped over the chest of the statue, covering her chest and almost to the knees.
"Aint you cold Mac?"
"Jusf needed a place to hang it up while I'se waiting on you. We can go now. My car out there?" Mac yanks the jacket down (not looking) and headed for the wall where they jumped.
"I can't believe you weren't cold, Mac. And who did I hear you talking to?" Cooper antically looked around. "I don't see anybody, I don't think."
Cooper tried to keep up with Mac. "Hey, who's this Connie?"
"Shut up. Now. Are you going to put your hand out to get me over this wall? Cause if you aint I'm just gonna jump it. Shut up, Coop."