Most tourists came from the loose archipelago of gated communities in and around the Los Angeles area, and didn’t spend much time off their islands. It was clear from the way they walked among the makeshift booths of the indigent Arivacans—haltingly, anxiously, but not without a certain brazen amazement—that they felt as distant from this world as from a lucid dream. The dreamers weren’t comfortable, but knew they’d wake up soon enough, so while they were here they might as well poke and prod.
Jo watched from the shade of a tall sandwich board advertising the times of the Busk Ceremony’s main events: it was to begin at 10:30AM, directly after the first run of the day. There was to be a concert at 1pm, followed by a talent show at 3 (both acts were listed TBD). Jack would then be granting Ben his battle name. The organized events closed with the arrival of the second tourist bus, but there was bound to be continued drinking and revelry well into the evening.
Jo wouldn’t be here for it.
According to Micah, she’d be beside her son’s bed by midnight, after the drive to Phoenix and the quick air hop to L.A. Jo felt ahead in time. She felt toward the point of leaving, toward the drive north and the westward flight. She felt her way into Alex’s small room at Children’s. She hadn’t meant to blurt it out so inappropriately, but she’d meant what she said: she did in fact miss Jack. She could tell this even now by how difficult it was, while imagining tomorrow’s reunion, to achieve clarity of emotion or vision. She knew that even by her son’s side she’d be distracted by what she’d left behind. To her right, a tall woman wearing a leopard print pantsuit and bright green sunglasses examined a bone wind chime held in the air by Del while his wife waved a big wing of corrugated steel to create some breeze. The thing rattled dully against itself and the woman pulled out her purse. Then the bus horn blew.
The tourists formed a line at the bus door, where the driver checked tickets and bags, then let them crawl on. Once the bus was loaded, Jo signaled to the bus driver, waving him forward, and started calling out, to no one in particular, “make way,” and “bus coming through,” until it passed the threshold of booths and was on its way up to the road. She imagined tourists looking out at the tribes gathered across the road and seeing yet another wondrous and strange yet fundamentally undifferentiated element of their visit, of their dream.
When the bus had turned onto the road Jo turned back to see Jack and his crew filling the tables at the Double Barrel. Angel was sitting at the other end of the table and, though the rest of the group was alive with drink, sat motionless, staring off beyond the lot to the south.
Micah came up beside her, his face dirty and dripping with sweat.
“I think they have the right idea,” he said.
“Are you trying for honorary Arivacan?”
“Who knows? Maybe I’ll retire here.”
Jo looked up at Micah’s face, and was amazed to find it in shameless consideration of this absurd notion. They walked to the Barrel through the slackening activity. Jo noticed Jack marking their approach, but she was still embarrassed by their last interaction, and so passed by without meeting his eyes. She found a seat across from Angel.
“Buena tarde, señor,” she said.
He gave her a weak smile, finished his drink, and waved for another. “Are you drinking, Mrs. Lightning?” Angel was a little drunk.
When the bartender brought Angel’s drink, Jo ordered water, and watched him slowly drain his glass. She’d never seen him drink, and it was slightly unnerving. His full body swayed slightly, and his eyes were watering.
“Are you alright, old friend? Will Mateo be joining us?”
Angel shook his head. “So,” he said, “tomorrow is the big day.”
“Looks like it’s grown a lot since last time I was around for it, too.”
Just then the crew erupted in cheers, and began to stand. Over their cries of “freedom,” Angel corrected her. “No, no, no, mi cacto suave. A big day for you and your child, I mean.”
He stood up along with his crew and held his cup high. “Freedom!” he yelled.
Momentarily stunned, Jo looked up through the raised arms of the men and women who worked for Jack. Their shirts were soiled: those with sleeves were rolled to the elbow; those with buttons were open, revealing smooth, brown, hairless chests. Everyone was laughing, and what hands were free of drinks appeared around their neighbors’ shoulders and waists. Above them the sky was putting on its peerless evening display, as if joining in the sudden celebration.
When the waitress brought her a glass of water, Jo grabbed her arm and motioned toward an empty whiskey cup.
“One of those,” she said.
The dreaded woman scuttled off, and soon most of the crew had dropped from their feet. Angel was distracted, joking with the young man who’d given her and Micah masks that morning, but Jo couldn’t tell whether or not he was intentionally avoiding her. She waited for him to continue their conversation. At the other end of the long table, Jack waved to her, waved her over. Angel laughed and laughed, and as he reached for his glass she grabbed his wrist.
“What is it, Mrs.—”
“Don’t you dare call me that again!”
The man’s smile disappeared. She’d managed to get his attention, but now she wasn’t sure it was what she wanted. Did she want to know how, how he knew? Did she want to know whether it was just another instance of his uncanny clairvoyance, or a sign that he, too, was involved? His situation was similar, after all: the loved one in need, the access to Jack’s trust. But did she want to know?
Jo let go of him and watched, sadly, as he returned to the attention of his young coworker. She felt suddenly detached, abstracted from the revelry around her, and she saw Angel’s laughter and drunken movement as though through a telescope. By signaling that he knew about Alex, about her true intentions, he’d only succeeded in making her feel more alone. And if she felt alone after such exposure, perhaps she hadn’t truly accepted where she was. She hadn’t accepted her place.
Perhaps she, too, was dreaming.
The bartender brushed by, leaving Jo’s drink on the table beside her, and Jo knocked it back in one swallow. Then she walked to Desmonda’s food booth. She felt dry, hollow, and a little tipsy. Desmonda was sitting with her son at a small table under an umbrella made of bed sheets, and their pattern of small blue spaceships hovered overhead like an invasion. Jo sat down beside Prince, who sized her up.
“Hey, Jo,” he sang.
“Still looking good, I see.”
Desmonda made the sign of the cross and shook her head. She’d long since stopped scolding her son outright, and had moved on to accepting his flaws as her own. It made her the right person to be with, Jo felt.
“I’m so sorry about what happened last night,” she said.
“Are you kidding?” Prince said. “We got a FEMA trailer out of it. You know what those things are worth?”
“My criminal son wants me to be homeless.”
“Mama, we can get you two houses for the money we’ll get for that in Texas.”
“He wants to take it to Texas! And I live meanwhile with his puta.”
“Tracy ain’t no whore,” Prince protested. Then he wagged his thumb at his mother, saying, “She wants me to get married before I can even afford a ring.”
Desmonda spat. “I don’t want you to marry that woman.”
“She’s a good woman, Mama.”
Jo looked up at the softly billowing spaceships. This wasn’t exactly the conversation she thought she’d be having here, but at least it was a diversion. “Is this Tracy from the video?”
“That was a mistake,” said Prince. “She didn’t know she was being filmed. Hey!” Prince rose from his seat and waved to Jesse’s son. “I’ll be right back, Mama. There’s some business I gotta take care of. Catch you later, Jo.”
The short man skittered across the lot with surprising grace, and Jo watched him lead the kid to the far side of the tables Gramps had stood on end. There were two of them, and each had a target scrawled across the uneven, rotting boards.
“I hear Ben’s been getting into trouble.”
“This whole town is getting into trouble.”
“Well, what else is new, right?”
“What is new, yes.”
The two women sat in silence, each with their own burden. It was cooling off, and a breeze stood Jo’s arm hair on end, inducing a slight shiver. Jo had barely registered the chill herself before Desmonda pulled a small blanket from beneath the table and held it out. It was this kind of attention to the tiniest, barely noticeable needs of others that she’d always hoped would come along with motherhood. Jo accepted the blanket and draped it over her shoulders.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’m going to forgive this Tracy and pray my son comes back from Texas in one piece.”
Was this realism, fatalism, or just love? Perhaps, thought Jo, the later was a mixture of the first two. “What about the motel?”
“Who stayed there? It was a burden. Better that it burned.”
“Oh Desmonda, you can’t mean that.”
Desmonda looked at her with no humor in her eyes, then resumed her set-up for the following day—some kind of Frito-pie that could either be seen as a terrible defeat or an act of triumphant resourcefulness—and Jo considered helping, but decided to leave her alone.