From “Street Life”
Labor of Love
Ed Banks wandered up the street, shifting his sea bag from his right to his left shoulder. The street proved to be one of the cul-de-sacs with children's toys cluttered around the bulb end, though the children themselves seemed to have vanished. It was too early to play. Banks had arrived at dawn before the village came to life, and even after all his wanderings through the village, it was barely breakfast time for most people -- though he could perceive the first stirring of life within some of the houses.
Banks glanced down at the paper in his hand, a page from the phone book he had torn out for lack of a pencil with which to copy the address.
It was not an address he had recognized from spending his youth and had had to stop at a gas station to inquire where it might be.
"Oh yeah," the bottle-necked figure said, squinting at the page. "That's one of those new developments on the northside."
"The northside?" Banks said, recalling no such neighborhood when he had lived here.
The attendant pointed with a grease-stained finger in a direction where the mountain formerly was, that part of the landscape that where the woods descended to the edge of the village, a landscape where he and his friend, Phil Levet had spent a great deal of time, looking for a niche in the land, a cave or something that they might use as their headquarters, away from the glaring eye of the village sheriff. They had found plenty of niches, but never one that served them permanently, none which the sheriff failed to find over time.
It did not take long for him to realize how much of the past had vanished to condos, construction doing its best to rid the village of as much woods as possible, putting up egotistical hovels in their place. The section in question was a series of circular streets and cul-de-sacs, ranch style houses that no more fit in with the lay of the land than the Empire State building would have.
At the house -- which looked just like all the others -- Banks found a small Beemer, a BMW sports car with its engine running in the driveway, the machine sputtering as it gasped for air. No driver could be seen. Banks eased into the driver's seat and pressed down slightly on the gas pedal, giving the machine a little more fuel, to which it responded hungrily. Then, Banks eased out again, closed the beeping door behind him and examined the warn path from the car across the law to the front door. No other part of the lawn seemed nearly as well used, though all of it was well trimmed, even around the roots of the full maple tree.
"It's all too neat," Banks thought eyeing the lawn and building. "It's like a Christmas gift professionally wrapped."
Banks followed the imprinted path across the law, up the three steps to the porch, but just as he was about the ring the bell, the door yanked open and a bustling figure rushed out, bumping straight into Banks' chest.
The eyes behind the now-tilted glasses looked confused as if not completely comprehending what it was he had run into, as if telling himself nothing was there.
The figure's hair was wet, as if from a hurried shower, combed across the top of his head with rushed imprecision. The man had dressed as hurriedly as well, tie still loose, jacket and pants slightly wrinkled, with a section of his shirt still untucked.
"Hey!" the man complained. "You're in my way. What do you want anyway? If you're selling anything, I don't want it."
And making the adjustment for Banks presence, the man stumbled to one side and hurried around Banks, missing his usual path across the lawn, his brief case dangling from his free hand, while his other hand and its arm clutched a substantial stack of papers to his chest. He dumped everything onto the passenger side seat then climbed behind the wheel.
The man now seated went through what appeared to be another daily ritual, checking his pockets for comb, wallet and other things, checking himself out in the mirror, straightening his tie, brushing his hair, and when finally arranged, sat back as if intending to leave when he took notice of Banks again, who had come down off the porch to stare.
The man behind the wheel squirmed a little. "I thought I told you I didn't want to buy anything," he said stiffly.
"Which is fortunate for you because I'm not selling anything," Banks said, dropping his sea bag onto the little used walkway from the drive.
The man fidgeted, and peeled at the AAA sticker he had in the corner of the front windshield. Other stickers decorated the side and rear windows offering support to various organizations from American Veterans of Foreign Wars to the Little Village's Little League. And those groups left out with the sticker parade, the man had managed to honor with bumper stickers, front and rear supporting the local police, NRA and a local church.
"You've certainly come a long way since we last met," Banks finally said, drawing up a deep frown from the man.
"I know you?"
"You used to. We used to be friends."
"Friends?" the man said, in a tone that claimed he absolutely refuted any connection with anyone who looked remotely the way Banks did, black sea shoes to the sun-faded wool cap. Then, finally, and for the briefest moment, the man's grey eyes seemed to grow less dull.
"Eddy?" he said.
"And you didn't even need a second guess," Banks said, with a gleam in his own eye.
"You want to know where I've been, right?"
Levet looked over his shoulder towards the street as if seeing a map of his daily route unraveling before him, some distant time clock ticking out his life.
"It's been so long," Levet mumbled. "With no word from you, I thought you were..."
"Dead or in jail," Levet said. "Gauging by the way you used to be."
Overhead, a bird few. Banks didn't see the bird, only the shadow of its movement across the ground, and following his movement, he gaze was draw towards one of the old houses on the hill, an isolated farm house where some of the old timers fought a rebellion of their own, a few stout souls struggling against the influx of city people dragging in a city way of life, against neighborhoods like the one in which he now stood.
"Those people remember when this place didn't have all these boxes," Banks thought. "They knew when this place was about people."
Banks had come back for those people, but had wandered around the central square for hours after getting off the bus unable to find one. Then, finally in a fit of desperation, he had plunged into one of the few remaining phone booths, as much a relic of his previous time here as the old building on the hill or some of the downtown shops. It even had a phone book in it, and remarkably, the book was not much thicker than Banks remembered, as if the total number of people in the village had not increased as dramatically as the buildings would indicate. Starting with the A's, Banks had worked his way through the names, his forefinger running down the list until he found one that stood out, something that struck him as familiar: Alexstan to Blake to Cafari to Daniels to Everett and so on, many of them leaping out from the thousands of times he had heard them during his years at school, read off from an attendance sheet rather than a phone book. Each formed a picture in Banks' head, though most of the names he found recalled boys, not girls. Most of the girls would have married, he thought, or moved away. He stopped at the L's.
The most familiar name of all leaped off the page at him, a name he should have come up with without the help of a book, a name that had meant more to Banks than parents, town or even his own -- at the time -- impressionable self.
A flood of teenage antics flowed into Banks's consciousness, like a memory dam suddenly broken, releasing an assortment of things he had not remembered for years, bursting into an torrent of emotion-filled scene, each of them bearing more and more significance as if untouched by time, each almost complete in its singularity, as lack of time's revision made them seem that much sweeter.
Phil Levet! Of course.
Phil and Ed were long the terror of the town, the revolution itself contained in the body and relationship of these two beings. The policed called them a gang. People who knew better called them buddies. Banks used the word "team," two beings in perfect communion, a perfect communism that allowed no competition between them.
But Phil Levet had left the village, taking his earliest ticket out after high school graduation when the first signs of change began to show. Levet merely said he was going off to college, but could not explain why he didn't return during any of the breaks. Banks had felt so lost and so empty without his traditional buddy, he had to find the wide seas to fill the gap.
And yet Phil's picture came less readily to Banks' mind, far less distinct than the faces of people with whom Banks had spent less time or expended less energy, as if a cloud had come over his old friend's feature, the dark smudge of someone's thumb blotting that portion of the old photograph. He could remember pieces: the nose, the ears, the hands and feet. But the man himself seemed to escape detection, and the more Banks pressed himself, the more indistinct the features became. Suddenly Banks felt the urgency to make those features clear again.
That path had led him here, to this address, to this man, to a Phil Levet Banks almost didn't recognize.
"My God!" this Phil Levet yelped when he glanced at his watch.
"I'm late for work!"
"But what about us?" Banks asked as Levet shoved the car into reverse and began to fly out of the driveway.
"Come for supper!" Levet shouted.
"And meet the wife and kids?"
"I'm not married yet," Levet shouted again as the car spun around to face the direction he wanted, at which point he shoved the gear shifter into a forward gear. "But I'm engaged. We'll talk later."
And with a spin of his wheels and a flood of smoke, Levet vanished.
Villagers, particularly the old Sheriff, had called Banks and Levet trouble-makers, seeing their games and antics as something evil, when it was really a way of staying sane in a world so confined.
What Banks missed now, he had hated then.
Parents constantly worried over the influence these two boys would have on the more normal population, little seeing the massive change that would alter their life so completely and make whatever damage these two could have done moot. Many parents prohibited their children from playing with the two, at first making celebrities of them, then later, outcasts, as punishment for violations became routine.
They found themselves outside the boxes in which other people lived their lives and were glad for it, claiming they would show the world what a mistake it was to live so rigidly.
Yet as Banks sat down on the stoop and stared at Levet's house and neighborhood, it occurred to him that his old friend had found a box of his own. Up and down the street, clones of his friend popped out of their houses, many of them scrambling all the more faster because they were all the more late for work, jumping into cars and roaring off to some distant destination that Banks could not imagine as important. Out of the windows left open, babies cried, and TVs sounded, both fading over time as the overpowering silences of the mountain retook the neighborhood, reclaiming while the men were away the place where the trees once stood.
Banks thought to try the door of the house, then changed his mind. He hadn't come back to sit inside a box, he had come back to look over the place of his birth. So he picked up his bag, carried to the garage -- and finding this unlocked -- put it inside, closing the door behind him.
Fifteen years had not been long enough away from Little Village, a thought that had struck Banks earlier that morning when he'd first stepped off the bus.
It wasn't the place had changed so radically on the surface but the place no longer fit nearly into the frame he had built for it inside his head over the year, the shape of the place, the map of its streets he had walked down in his mind nearly every night, no longer fitting in with the reality.
New condominiums stood where once he had envisioned a store, a strip mall in the place of an empty lot. Buildings, in fact, had begun to encroach on the hills to either side -- such as the one in which his friend now lived, eliminating the lower part of the wall of green that had once marked the village's boundaries. One large white scar on the mountain side showed where the quarry had expanded to keep up with the demand for construction materials, while the darker, older, farmed-out quarry where he had walked as a kid now bore the slanted roofs of more homes, devious developers filling in each of cheap earth for increased profits.
In some ways, standing as he was on the foothills this side of the small valley, Banks realized that the Village of fifteen years earlier no longer existed at all, except in his head, the babyboom and its echo boom of babyboomer kids now pushing the walls out so as to convert this village like other villages into a small town.
"Too many people," he'd thought, that stern inner voice like an old friend, the only companion he had been able to trust over the last decade and a half.
He tried to count the buildings by their roofs, then lost count after a hundred with double or triple that for him to still count.
He had seen it coming, he had just not seen it coming as far as this, having it stripped of personality totally.
Even before Banks had gone, a change of population had started, the closing of the mills and factories just over the lip of the mountain causing a kind of desperation to come over the village elders, many of them to look for some new direction to take the village after so many years as a sleepish, valley world.
Rents went up. The working men and their families -- unable to afford the rents or mortgages with the low-wage jobs they inherited in the highway fast food places -- moved out. The paint of the buildings peeled and porches sagged until a spur of the thruway was built, and the mall constructed, and a whole new population moved in, professional men and women wearing business suits or stockings, rushing to the bus or the train in morning, leaving the downtown parking lots near the train station cluttered with SUVs.
In the 1950s, people called such places "bedroom communities" in which a principle part of the population spent little time except to sleep. Banks remembered standing downtown one morning to watch their flight, the rush of strangers charging the ticket counters, their faces grim and desperate as if they dared not get too late a train or arrive too late in the office, their thinking on some completely other track than Banks, or any of the older population unable to escape to greener pastures.
A jingling bicycle bell stirred Banks from his thoughts as a small troupe of children crossed over at the other end of the street, very young children, one only slightly older than the next in ascending order, led by an adult apparently taking them to the local park.
Some blocks now had sidewalks where muddy shoulders had existed before, over which Banks himself had trooped as a child back and forth from home to school, raising the dust in dry weather, leaving his trail in the mud in the wet. New houses had gone up along Main Street, too, filling in the spaces that had always given breathing room the town square. The bus station, in front of which he stood, had undergone a modernization, too, a face lift that had converted the previous two garage doors and the Cherry Cola sign to a stucco-sided box with narrow windows and "No Loitering" posted at even intervals around its middle.
Banks shivered. Autumn was in the air, though too few trees nearby showed the impact of changing leaves, the way those trees had in the past -- one of the sad changes that had come with the construction of houses. He had to look a long way towards the hills to get a glimpse of flowing changes of color that had once dominated an area where houses stood now.
A few people out tending chores stared at Banks, echoing reactions he had received earlier at the bus terminal, part of some culture shock, as if Banks had stepped straight out of an unwelcome past, his long pig tail and bell-bottom jeans too ragged to even be fashionable among the up-and-coming jetset, and his leather jacket and scruffy unshaven jaw giving him a somewhat sinister air.
They did not comment as he nodded and grinned and continued his journey down Main Street towards the very heart of the village, his legs wobbling a bit, yet not nearly so bad as they had in Australia during his long wait for his flight home, sea legs unable to bear the torment of solid ground for long.
Over the years, he had come ashore a few times, testing the water -- so to speak -- and disliked the feeling so much he fled back to the relative safety of the sea. The rigidness of the earth always annoyed him. He liked the give and take of the waves, the never too-solid sense of floating which in the old days before the sea had saved him he had gotten via a pouch and a pipe of weed.
Now, as each foot struck the earth, he found himself craving that old solace, the town and its rigid surface pounding into his feet like nails.
Banks had taken to sea because he was sick of the anti-war movement of the late 1960s early 1970s, a movement that had turned out to be as violent as the movement against which it protested.
Out in the water, Banks believed he might find a cause that was absolutely "good," where shades of grey did not taint the issues for which he thought to fight.
"The Ship," as they all called it, was his savior. "The Ship" did not throw rocks at cops or taunts at soldiers, but sailed the high seas in order to keep bad men from killing whales and dolphins.
Yet each time he thought of the sea now, his head filled with the sound of sudden explosion and visions of the jolting ship, hundreds of environmental explorers falling from bunks and bulk heads, most screaming in pain or panic: "They've bombed us! They've sunk our ship!"
Every face on every deck flashed with the memory of Kent State or Chicago, those same painful images coming back to haunt them all after each believed they had escaped those violent times by setting sail, flames roaring up through the metal the way it might have paper, people coughing in the smoke, dragging the unconscious along the corridors then up the stairs to the open air, where the panic was worse, where fools leaped over the side into the shark-infested water, some struggling to stay afloat, screaming for a life preserver, which of course were already on fire.
Downtown -- which some people used to call it because it was the heart and soul of the village -- looked largely the same as Banks remembered it, the same small shops, the same ongoing sales, though the names of most of the places had changed, perhaps numerous times, since his last visit: shoe repair shops had turned to gift shops, the Army & Navy into a Gap Jeans, the Luncheonette into Seattle coffee bar.
Yet right in the middle of one of the blocks stood the most appalling aberration Banks ever saw, one that struck him as viciously now as it had during his daily occupation of this place, the huge, red brick face of the laundry around which the village had built itself, the institution that had provided the jobs by which the locals could live, long after all the other factories had ceased.
Seeing the building brought back the dreary memory of his own time employed there, a time in which he had felt more like a slave than a wage earner, when his fingers blistered from hanging sheets still steaming from the machines, each pin prick from the hooks growing infected despite the soap and water.
The factory huffed and puffed as it always had, billowing steam from its two large stacks -- now, no doubt, perfectly within federal environmental law, yet as frightful as a scene of a Dickens novel.
Banks veered away from it, as if he feared his old boss would stick a head out the door and spot him, demanding he come back to work -- in just the same way the boss had whenever Banks played hookey.
That building and his memory of its interior still shook him, and made his weak sea legs seemed even weaker, incapable of dragging him out of the heavy gravity the building exerted. It was the darkest element in his memory, and one, as he studied the building from across the street, that evaporated somewhat, as if his memory had made it more terrible than reality had, endowing the subtle towers at each corner with a insidiousness bright sunlight now denied.
For a long moment he stood there and stared across at the wide green doors, sixteen foot high, double that wide, and the great white and gold sign above the door, notifying the world of what went on inside.
A hum sounded, grew, and encompassed the world, forming the base of sound upon which the rest of the day was built, vibrating in the sidewalk and the street, carrying its message across the valley to the very foot of the mountains.
At that moment, Banks could envision the whole village vibrating in sympathy, from the toaster in the kitchen of a house at the northend to the fake teeth of some old geezer living in senior housing on the south end.
In some ways, that vibration, that deep sound, seemed like a voice, just as the bellow of fog horns at harbor had to Banks on those days when "the ship" had stood in port, a voice calling to him, a voice asking for him to rejoin the community he had abandoned years ago.
And quite without intending to, Banks made his way towards the home in which he grew up, following the same predictable path he had taken hundreds, maybe thousands of times during his childhood, to and from the candy store, to and from school, to and from various houses of friends who lived on the opposite side of the village square.
It took a moment to locate the house again, partly because the new owners had ripped up the picket fence that had made the house seem distinctive to Banks, and had painted the house a different color, from a hazy tank to something close to a stark pink, with winter green shutters. In the driveway sat two cars, a BMW and a Lincoln utility vehicle. A young child's bicycle -- complete with training wheels -- lay sprawled on the lawn, abandoned in the rush to reach the house.
Banks' mother and father, he knew, lived in a "retirement village" on the hill side of the village, one of those modern, planned communities that had done its best to undo everything the 1960s had brought, insisting upon rigid codes that kept every home looking largely the same: no unapproved colors on the houses, no odd lawn ornaments, no fish shaped swimming pools.
Rules, not so different from those Banks had encountered upon "the ship," as if communes and upperly mobile communities had taken their start from the same book of rules, stripping people of individuality to give them a common standard, in "the ship's" case, erasing class distinctions, in "the retirement village" building walls of class distinction that made everyone just as superior to the outside world as everyone else inside.
Seeing the house painted as it was, seeing himself as a child charging around and through it, a manic child in love with the fury of his own activity, brought back a wave of nostalgia Banks had not counted on, that bitter sweet chill that said he wished he could go back yet knew he could not.
Finally, having seen all he was willing to see of the civilized parts, Banks sought out some of the remaining mountain paths, which too, showed signs of extinction, trees bowed over under the blade of a bulldozer making new roads for future development. He had to climb significant high to free himself of their influence, up to the ragged face of the cliffs themselves where he and Levet had often taken to, to get high, to stare down at the lights of the village a night, to talk and dream of things to come.
He found one of the old places without trouble, and the beer cans and cigarette butts suggested it was still used as a refuge. Here, he sat, staring down at the village that was not his village any more, waiting out the day so he could return to his friend.
As the sun sagged, he saw the wave of warm metal mounting the busier roads, filling the highway and its exits, spilling into the street, huffing and puffing smoke that soon bled into darkness, headlights marking their passage home. Many of them came over the mountain, following pathways that had first been used by the Native Americans, and later by the white man's wagons moving west. Finally, when the flood of headlight subsided slightly, Banks figured he had waited long enough and made his way back down the mountain into the blaze of street lights.
Even Levet's street was ablaze, the bright street lamps and front porch lights removing as much sense of darkness as possible, as if each homeowner still suffered the same fear of darkness as they did as kids, but now had wealth and influence enough to keep lights on all night.
Banks climbed the path to Levet's door, and saw Levet through the window seated at a large and cluttered desk, pencils and papers and cups of coffee surrounding him as if in attack.
Banks rang the bell -- an annoying buzzer that drew his friend's head up with a jerk, and drew the man himself to the door, where with the flip of a switch more lights exploded, to expose all the dingy details of the porch.
Levet looked shocked when he opened the door, and puzzled, as if he had forgotten having met up with Banks again that morning, and started to say something about not needing to purchase anything, when Banks spoke up.
"You told me to come back, for dinner, remember?" Banks said.
Levet stuttered to a stop, blinked, and then remembered. "Yes, Eddy, I do remember. But it's been such a day, such a day, I'd have forgotten my head it's been so busy, and with me getting to work so late and my boss having a fit over everything, telling me I have to have my report on his desk tomorrow morning or I might not have a job tomorrow night..."
"Can I come in?" Banks said.
"In? Sure, of course. Where are my manners. I'm just writing up the last of the reports. Come in. Come in. Sit down. I'll have supper on in a minute or so. Let me just finish up. I won't be more than a minute, honest..."
Levet led Banks into the house.
It had the foot print of an old style house, with a small reception area just inside the door, a closet for coats to the right, a stair leading up just after that with a door straight through to a kitchen at its foot and another door to the left that led to what should have been a living room, but which Levet had converted to an office, the flood littered with crumpled paper overflowing from the trash receptacle near the desk. This room had another door to the rear that led to a dinning room, which in turn had a door leading back to the kitchen in a rough circle -- the first floor bathroom somewhere near the rear as was the door to the yard.
The air smelled stale, full of paper and dust, cigarette and coffee, sweat and worry. It was the kind of air one found in an office, not a home, and Levet had apparently made a habit of carrying the office home on his back every night.
Banks didn't mind bad smells. He had lived too long and too closely with other people to object to much. But the scents he encountered on the high seas seemed more honest to him. This place smelled too much like a box or a jail.
"You live here alone?" Banks asked, as Levet led him to the kitchen, the huge space also strange to a man like Banks who had lived elbow to elbow with other people, he thinking he could drown in a space as large as this and no one would know.
"For now," Levet said. "The coffee is on the stove. Help yourself."
He pointed to a glass container, not on the burners, but in between, something Banks knew as a "french press," a nasty twist cast at him by fate, he thought as he grabbed up a cup and poured himself some. He drank it black. It tasted fantastic. Unlike the mud he used to get on board the ship that always had the slight after-taste of petro, as if the cooks had used oil as part of the recipe.
Banks followed his old friend back to the front room as Levet settled behind his desk again,, stirring up the papers with his movement.
"You work too hard," Banks said.
"I'm getting married next year," Levet said. "I have to work this hard. The engagement ring alone cost me $5,000. The wedding is going to cost another $20,000, and that doesn't even count the honeymoon."
Then Levet launched himself back into his columns of figure, his fingers alternately moving between the computer and a calculator, part of some modern day ritual Banks did not understand. He understood computers. He understood numbers. He had seen both used to excellence in calculating their position on the high seas. But this "work" as Levet called it, seemed to have no other purpose than the numbers themselves, through from the importance Levet seemed to place upon them, Banks guessed the numbers somehow connected to someone else's money or stock.
The process grew boring and he began to investigate the box more closely, especially the room which should have served as a living room. Under the piles of paper and boxes, a decent set of furniture hid, all of it covered with a thick plastic.
"You expecting rain?" Banks asked, drawing up a puzzled expression from Levet. "The plastic, on the furniture?"
"That's my fiancee's idea," Levet said. "She says it keeps the fabric from wearing."
"It also keeps a man from getting comfortable," Banks said, shifting a papers aside to make room to sit, and once seated, unable to find a position in which he could keep the plastic silent, crackling with each breath he took. "Mind if I look around upstairs?"
"Be my guest," Levet said, and returned to his calculating.
Up the carpeted stairs, Banks found similar conditions, clothing, some of it clean, strewn about, draped over furniture, newspapers abandoned, jewelry, shoes, brushes, and other implements sitting in odd locations, on coffee tables and end tables, sometimes in the middle of the floor. He found a pair of water skis sitting in the hallway as if someone had just stepped out of them and would momentarily return for another engagement. He also found a golf bag, with most of its clubs missing, and these he found leaning at various points in the two upstairs bedrooms and the overly large bathroom -- where two sinks accompanied a shower and a bath, with a door out to what Banks thought at first was a deck, then discovered was a bath tub, (one of those multiple-people models with moving water) the windows of which looked down off the mountain at the glow of the village, thousands of twinkling lights filling the valley like stars.
The upstairs was also a contradiction in tastes, cheap art work -- as if won at a board walk game -- on the walls, while scattered on various flat surfaces was an assortment of expensive jewelry and colognes, watches worth more than Banks' yearly salary, colognes important from the finest perfumeries in France, all dumped as if unimportant. Even here, computer readouts stretched across the floor like poor man's confetti, even across the bed, making Banks wonder if his old friend read out reports as he made love.
"Eddy?" Levet called from downstairs.
"Coming," Banks yelled back, then took one more quick look around before making his way down the stairs, fingers collecting dust from the banister as he reached the bottom.
"What were you doing?" Levet asked. "I thought you went and disappeared again."
"Studying the creature in his native habitat," Banks said.
A suggestion of a grin touched Levet's face, hinting of the childhood friend with whom Banks had hung out as a kid.
"And what did you conclude?" Levet asked.
"That you work too much," Banks said. "Don't you ever stop?"
The grin vanished, and a much more weary expression took its place, as Levet sagged.
"It seems like a tread mill," he admitted. "The more I work the more work there seems for me to do. But let's forget all that for a moment and get something to eat."
Levet led him back into the kitchen and cleared away space ont he paper cluttered table, and pulled two chairs out for them to sit.
"So you're going to cook?" Bank asked, glancing at the stove, which not only seemed unused at the moment, but unused for a long time.
"Who has time?" Levet asked. "I just called for pizza. Why bother when someone else can deliver it to my door just as easy?"
Banks eased himself down into one of the chairs, plastic crinkling under his bulk. Its sticky touch made him feel dirty as he sometimes did cleaning out bilge slime when it was his turn on the ship. Except bilge and sea weed and other items of that kind had a natural under tone, even if disagreeable. But this, the plastic and the paper clutter, seemed far too artificial to him, a man-made distaste that seemed without real purpose.
In the other room, the door bell rang -- that buzzer sound announcing the arrival of the pizza. Levet jumped up, grabbed his wallet and ran to the front, while Banks sagged deeper into gloom.
"This isn't what I expected," he thought. "I wanted things to be the way they were before I left."
Levet returned carrying a grease-stained box which he placed carefully on the table.
"Eats!" he announced.
"Anything to drink?" Banks asked.
"Would I be without a brew or two?" Levet asked. "Surely you know me better than that."
"I suppose," Banks said, as Levet opened the refrigerator and removed two bottles from one of the cases. The appliance held beer and only beer.
"Hey, stop being so dour," Levet said.
"I'm not being dour, I'm just, well, rather surprised."
"About how you ended up. I remember once you talked about walking on the moon, in fact, cursed up a storm that Summer Armstrong beat you there."
"That's all day dream," Levet said. "You can't expect anyone to take that seriously."
"Then you were a fool. We have to be practical. We have to do things that will help us survive. This is a cruel world after all, and no one's going to give us anything for nothing."
Banks stared at his old friend, then slowly shook his head.
"You sound like all the people we used to hate," he said.
"Maybe I do," Levet admitted. "Maybe my eyes have been opened and I've come to realize those people were right and we were wrong."
"Wrong? About wanting to build a better world?"
"No, about it being possible."
"You're turned into a regular cynic," Banks said, taking a sip on the beer, one of those European brands so popular with the younger set, tasting slightly sour.
"I'm just being a realist," Levet said, opening the box and drawing out a slice of grease-dripping pizza. "I have the future to think about."
"The only thing I see in your future -- working like this -- is a mental breakdown."
"Eat, Eddy, and leave off the commentary."
"I'll eat, but I'll talk, too," Banks said, and drew out a slice for himself, the hot oil stinging his fingers.
"That was always the trouble with you," Levet said around a mouth full of pizza.
"Your commentary. Did you ever wonder why I was so glad to get off to college?"
"And why I didn't write?"
"I needed to escape your influence," Levet said.
"Now you're talking like your parents did, blaming me for all the ills of the world."
"Not all the ills, just the ones that affected me."
"You mean you're blaming me, too?"
"I wouldn't have gotten into half the trouble I did if you hadn't talked me into it."
"Oh, so I brainwashed you?"
"I didn't say that. But I admired you back then, and believed what you said was true."
"And then suddenly you decided I wasn't telling the truth any more?"
"No, I never said that. But I knew that your kind of truth would make me end up living a very unproductive life."
"Like this is any better?" Banks asked, waving a hand towards the mess around them.
"I make money."
"Money isn't everything."
"It is enough. I know what it would mean not to have it."
Banks stared hard at his old friend, searching the man's overworked face for some sign of a joke and found only the same weary acceptance he had seen on the faces of others who have given up the cause, many of them crawling out of the water after his ship had sunk, their eyes saying this was the last battle and the last cause. Before that, he had seen the same look a thousand times during that period when the Sixties came to a crashing halt, when the love and peace generation came head to head with oil shortages and other changing signs of the economy, each soul deciding to grab what he or she could before there was nothing left.
"I'm so sorry for you, Phil."
"Don't be, I'm not."
"But you can't be happy with your life."
"Who is? Are you? If so, what are you doing back here?"
It was an argument against which Banks had no reply.
Levet seemed unaware of the impact of his statement, sipping his beer and eating his pizza as he grew more relaxed than Banks had seen him since returning, the shoulders easing down out of that permanent hitch to which they seemed to have grown, like a man carrying something heavy on his back, invisible to the naked eye, but there and growing heavier with each step.
"God, Eddy, you don't know how good it is to see you after such a long time," Levet finally said.
"You didn't seem so happy earlier."
"Well it was a shock you showing up at my door like that," Levet admitted. "But I've thought a lot about you over the years. Especially how we fell out."
"You left. What falling out. The conflict seemed on your side. I didn't know how you felt until tonight."
"I know! I know! I should have explained."
"I'm not sure I would have understood," Banks said. "I'm not even sure I understand now. I don't see you having gained much out of all you've done, besides the small things like that BMW of yours, and maybe all the electronic gizmos you've got hidden under piles of trash."
"The pay off is coming," Levet assured him.
"I've heard people say that on line to buy a paycheck's worth of lottery tickets every week."
"Things will change when I get married," Levet said.
"You really think that?"
"It's why I'm working so hard now," Levet said. "I'm banking everything I can now so Grace and I can relax later."
Banks studied his friend's face, the lines of weariness that made him look much older than he was, like a man edging in on sixty, not forty. Even Banks' own sun beaten face did not bear that same testimony to tension, and he had worked hard on the ship, coming off his shift so weary some times he simply collapsed in his bunk. But it was a good weariness, one of those lessons in labor that went to each muscle, tested each part of him, and left each part of his immensely satisfied, so that sleep overcame him with such completeness that when he work -- except for a few aches here and there -- his body had no memory of the work, and was ready to begin it all over again.
But Levet's like of labor lingered on, like something insidious and dangerous, its influence working on in the blood and along the nerves even as he fitfully slept, there, stronger and more powerful in the morning than even when he'd gone to sleep at night, filling his head with nagging things left undone, and worries over future, as yet unrealized disasters. A man like Levet working like he never really rested until the grave.
"And your future wife approves of all this?" Banks finally asked.
"Sure," Levet said. "Grace is a wonderful woman."
Levet seemed to misread Banks's reaction, and stiffened a little again. "No really, she is. She works at an attorney in one of the biggest firms in Manhattan, and if she keeps up as she is, she may even become a junior partner by the time we're married."
"Does she work as hard as you do?"
"Oh, God yes! She says that we can never have enough money if we're going to live right."
"What does she mean by right?"
"Well, to begin with, we certainly won't be staying here after she gets her promotion. We'll need a bigger and better place, closer to Manhattan."
"You would live in New York?"
"Well, neither one of us could afford Manhattan itself. But we've looked at places in Brooklyn Heights and Hoboken. We could afford to buy a place in either place."
"But aren't those cargo ship ports?" Banks asked.
"Where have you been, Eddy? Hoboken hasn't unloaded a piece of freight in 20 years. It's an up and coming community, these days, much this town could be if the locals didn't fight condominium development so vigorously. Both places are mostly housing now, high rises and brownstones, people taking over to take advantage of the ferries and the trains in and out of Manhattan."
Banks moaned. He had seen such a blight in other parts of the country, on the Delaware River, on the Columbia and Williamette rivers leading into Portland, Oregon, a new breed of city erasing an old way of life, the white collared and short-sleeved men of the office spreading out like roaches to invade and take over the traditional working spaces of men who actually broke out in a sweat as they labored.
"Soon there won't be any more of my kind left," he thought.
"So what do you do for fun?" Banks asked Levet in an abrupt change of subject.
"Fun?" Levet asked, something of a surprised note in his voice, as if the word hadn't translated well, or he hadn't used it in any conscious context in years. Perhaps, at college, he had learned a new kind of fun, that drinking, whoring kind so typical among American males, one more privilege enjoyed on the way to earning a degree. But like such males, the concept faded over the years after college, Levet and others clinging to the pickup bars until work made the alcohol release more important than women, by which time the first true signs of middle age began to show.
The deeper meaning of fun Banks had meant seemingly long forgotten, that exploration of self that caused so much trouble for the local authorities, especially the old sheriff who had pursued them up and down the mountain and around the village streets, wondering what they were up to, and why they couldn't just do the predictable things.
Fun like painting a peace sign on the face of the quarry cliff during the height of the Vietnam War; fun like running naked through the park in the rain, laughing at the shocked faces of the sunday morning church worshipers; fun like planning trips around the world to see all those things they considered important, monuments of time such as a pyramids, or places where important people like Walt Whitman were buried; none of these would have registered in the consciousness of a man like Levet, who couldn't get off the treadmill long enough for a vacation, let alone a trek through life.
"Well, I do get my pizza and beer," Levet said after a long time.
"I have no time for anything else. But I will."
"I know, I know, once you get married."
"I do see Grace three times a week, provided she doesn't have an important case."
"What do you do?"
"What do you mean?"
"You see her, then what?"
"Oh, we take in dinner and a movie, maybe a Broadway show."
"Do you listen to music?" Banks asked, unable to recall seeing any sign of record or CD, though he did recall seeing a television buried under a pile of papers in one of the rooms.
Again, a thick crease formed between the eyes of his old friend. "Music?" he said.
"Not even on the radio?"
"I mostly listen to talk radio these days, you know, investment advise."
"But I thought you went to school for music," Banks said, recalling how much important music had played in their earlier relationship, talking about it, listening to it, trying to imitate everything they heard, from the earlier American jazz and blues to the British imitations, classic rock, classical, even bubble gum, as if some great secret to life was contained between the notes, needing only the proper translation to uncover.
Levet had a remarkable ear and ability to imitate nearly anything he heard, singing on the streets, his voice shaping the instrumental parts as well as the vocals, able to get the essence of any instrument in nearly any range. He could sometimes imitate whole simple symphonies, as well as some of the complex arrangements to Beatles presented. Sometimes, he even created scores of his own, dedicating them to the deaf and dumb people of the village he was hoping to enlighten, sometimes simply dedicating them to the mountains and the trees which he said he hoped would remain unchanged forever.
Levet shrugged. "I started out taking music," he said. "I really loved the feel of piano keys, how cool and smooth they seemed. I used to look at them and laugh and know that every note and every possible connotation sat there before me, waiting for me to discover them. Now I'm lucky if I can punch the right buttons on a computer to get the latest stock quotes. Some come down, eh?"
Banks said nothing, struggling to read the tone in his old friend's voice. It was not bitterness he heard so much as thinness, as if the years had ruined his dreams in the same way sunlight through a car might ruin a leather interior, causing it to crack in places, causing it to wear thin.
"I guess I've changed," Levet said, feeding the silence.
"I would say so," Bank agreed. "The question is what made you change? As I remember people thought you were very talented."
"Talented, but not salable," Levet said. "Sinatra was saleable. The Beatles and Stones sold, too. But to make money playing classical music takes years and then sometimes even that isn't good enough."
"So you stopped entirely?"
"Look, Eddy," Levet said, pushing himself up from his chair. "I still have a lot of work to do tonight. There's a big meeting in the morning and I have to prepare for it. If you like, you can stay here a couple for a couple of days. There's a spare bedroom upstairs."
Levet was actually blushing.
Perhaps the alcohol had brought the blood to his face, or perhaps the memory of those times. Banks had seen his own face flushed in that very same way when he made his way from his bunk after the explosion had rocked the ship, the honking panic siren calling for everyone to get off, his face not so much frightened as caught in between dreams, the reality and the fiction clashing inside his head, as water bubbled up around his feet.
Banks stood up. His sea legs had taken over again, and the earth seemed to roll under him. Perhaps that, too, was the beer. He had not drunk much over his years at sea, defying the sailor's stereotype.
Meanwhile, Levet turned back towards his living room office, glasses down, a frown creasing the space between his eyes like a scar.
Banks did not go upstairs as instructed, but eased himself down into one of the plastic covered armed chairs near where Levet was working, the papers sticking to his sweaty arms, print outs from some other now defunct project. Banks sat for some time watching Levet peck at the computer keys, each part of his body moving with the repetitive motions of a robot, fingers, eyes, head, even his hips -- straight off one of the modern Detroit assembly lines. Finally, Banks could bear it no more.
"I left my bag out in your garage, you mind if I go get it?" Banks asked.
Levet grunted. Banks eased out the front then down the walk, avoiding the path in the grass that Levet had left in his morning ritual. Then, after feeling around inside the dark garage, Banks recovered his bag and carried it back into the house. Levet took no notice as he passed him and climbed the stairs. Again, Banks swayed as he reached the top, the land seeming to move under him the way the sea once had.
"It'll take time for me to readjust," he thought. "Let's hope it doesn't take another ten years."
The bed didn't feel right either. He was used to the sea rocking him to sleep. Now, he felt the hard earth under him, as if laying on a slab of stone. For hours, he listened to the echo of clicking rising from the floor below, computer and calculator dueling with the eventual victim his ex-best friend.
And what for?
A photographer had died during the sinking of the ship, one of the few people Banks had grown close to over his time at sea, a man who had traded Madison Avenue for pictures of whales.
"Why? Banks had asked on one of those long sea-bound sunny afternoons when each had exhausted themselves over duties and just hung out on the deck, acting as if living on a cruise.
"Why what?" Bentley asked, a burning cigar butt propped in the corner of his mouth.
"Why are you here instead of making the big bucks?" Banks asked. "I can understand about me and most of the other people here. I'm not much good for anything else. Many of the other people took up environmental studies and got stuck. But you had a choice."
Bentley puffed on the cigar a moment, squinting up at the sun. He hadn't shaved in days and looked as grubby as a bus station bum, wearing ragged, jeans torn at the knees to make shorts.
"I don't know exactly," he said. "I just got sick of feeling like a rat."
"In the trade -- as we called the advertising business -- I was sort of taking pictures of things that really didn't exist, shaping the perfect image so that some sucker on the other end of the ad will go and buy it. If it was a hamburger, the photograph made it look like the food of gods. But when the poor fool unfolded the wax paper, he got a slab of meat, melted cheese and a wilted bun, looking nothing like the picture. I kept thinking that people all over America kept blaming me."
"Because I shaped their expectations. I used my talents to sell them something that wasn't real."
"So you came to take pictures of whales?" Banks said. "That seems a long way to go to find something that's real."
"Perhaps not far enough," Bentley said.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the world has a way of catching up with you."
"Out here on the high sea?"
At the time, Banks had thought the remark only odd, but since then has looked back at that moment with a kind of embarrassment. Now he could see something missing from that perfect picture. Their innocence seemed too complete, floating on the surface of the world's water without apparent care, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Fynn let loose to wander the way Odysseus had. While Bentley seemed wiser at that moment than Banks, knowing something -- if not precisely what -- would go wrong, neither man had seen the deeper political agenda beneath the surface of their own ship, manipulating their love of whales the way the New Left had manipulated kids fear of war for another, deeper, insidious agenda.
"We had no business seeking out that nuclear test site," Banks grumbled as he turned in his sleep. "Right or wrong, that's not what we were supposed to be doing."
Sailors for a thousand years knew who the real enemy was, and it wasn't the French or its nuclear bomb, it was that ever expanding base of humanity that consumed as it spread, spoiling all it touched. Against that, how could any poor ship of fools hope for success? How could he and that crew stop that six billion headed beast from wading into the water when it wanted, spoiling it as it had all the waters inland?
The sea itself had powers itself, one wise old sailor once told Banks, a man with whom Banks had spent an evening drinking in a Burmese port, he and the grey-haired man the only English-speaking people in the pub, two men clinging to the bar rail as strange music wailed around them, and sailors from a hundred other countries sang and drank and whored.
"What do you mean?" Banks asked, his head fogged by weariness and by the noise, years before the ship's sinking.
"I mean the sea is a lot bigger than people think," he said, jaw clamped tightly around a well-worn pipe, smoke drifting around his wrinkled face like a second beard. "It rises up when it gets riled, and shakes things up. When we push it too far, it'll come after us."
Banks doubted the old man's words, and said so, claiming that one man alone didn't have much a chance at killing the sea, but with all the machines, with all the poison human kind could produce, nothing was safe. He had seen whole coral reefs crumbling. He had seen whole schools of fish floating belly up. He had seen oil stretched so far along a beach that the whole world seemed black.
"None of that matters," the old sailor insisted. "The sea will take care of itself."
For years, Banks thought of that conversation, and grew more and more convinced that his own doom would come at the hand of the sea, the first strike in a long-awaited retaliation. He became convinced the sea would kill him, plotted to kill him, and -- oddly -- he didn't care.
It was the thing that would finally give his life meaning, an inevitable conclusion he could count on, leaving people to see him as having a legacy.
"The sea was Banks' music," he imagined them to say. "The man couldn't abandon them, and died trying keep them safe."
The explosion cheated him of that, rocking him out of his bunk to the wail of sirens.
Banks rolled out of bed, bare feet striking the soft carpet of Levet's spare bedroom. He staggered out into the hall, then down the stairs, coming upon the still-working Levet at the computer.
"Phil, I have to talk to you..."
"Not now," Phil said, waving one free hand in the air, while he continued to click the keys with the other, his myopic gaze locked onto the screen. "I almost have this damned thing done..."
Banks slammed his hand down on the computer monitor. "I want to talk, NOW."
Phil's red eyes peered over the lip of the computer. "What are you trying to do to me?" he bellowed. "I gotta have this done by tomorrow. The boss needs these figures for the presentation."
"Tell him to screw off."
"You're killing yourself, Phil."
"What?" Levet said again, this time with a disbelieving laugh. "What are you talking about?"
"About all this work you're doing. It's killing you."
"That's bunk," Levet said. "All young executives go through this. It's part of the dues. Like internship at a hospital for young doctors. Once I've proven myself, then I can lay back and take in the bucks."
Banks sagged and sighed. "Everything isn't about money," he said.
"It has to be."
"I'd rather go fishing," Banks said. "Why don't you blow all this off and come fishing with me in the morning."
"I can't," Levet said, not so much angry now, as weary, and not weary at his work, but at having to explain himself again. Banks had seen similar expressions on the faces of tourists, who for all their best efforts, could not make the natives understand their pigeon English, thinking the natives stupid on that account.
Somewhere deep inside Banks another explosion sounded, and the ground beneath him shook again, as screaming voices for lost things filled his head, the agony of a vanquished innocent past finally reaching into him.
He should not have come back. He should not have hoped to fill the hole in him left by the sinking ship in these hills. It was as if he had stepped out onto another planet, full of alien beings, confronted by a culture he could never understand, or live in.
"Fine," he said finally. "Do what you want. I'm going up to sleep."
"...WE GIVE YOU THE WORLD IN TWENTY MINUTES!" the clock radio roared out of Levet's room the next morning with the volume of an explosion yanking Banks from his sleep.
Banks heard Levet curse and then a series of slaps that suggested he was seeking blindly to hit the snooze button but missed numerous times before the radio blanked.
Even then, the spell of sleep was broken and Banks rose, grabbing his clothing from the back of a chair.
His back hurt, the bed leaving ridges in his spine that would take months to mend. He had woken earlier, partly because he was used to early hours, but had drifted back into slumber after listening to the whispered sounds of the mountain outside, the life that continued on in secret while the masters of the planet slept.
Levet stumbled to the door and looked in, his face wrinkled with creased from a sheet or blanket, his eyes squinting as if still struggling with sleep.
"Up, up," he mumbled, peering blindly into the room at the bed, seeming to mistake the crumpled covers for Banks.
"I am up," Banks said from a few feet away, both legs deeply engaged in putting on his pants. "I was up hours ago, but took a nap waiting for you."
"God! You should have gotten me up," Levet moaned. "I'm late as hell."
"Maybe it was all that clicking you did last night," Banks suggested.
"Clicking?" Levet asked, looking puzzled only for a moment before he vanished again in his head long plunge towards the bathroom and a morning shower. "I'm afraid you'll have to make your own breakfast," he called out as the water came on.
Then, it all was a blur, as Levet stepped back into the role Banks had seen him in the previous morning, a mad man making a mad dash from one corner to the next, grabbing up clothing, brief case and paper work, as he gulped down coffee before fleeing towards the door.
It was like watching a comic movie in which the film was suddenly speeded up and the main character thrust into insane silly situations, confronted with lost keys, a string of papers that wouldn't fold evenly into a brief case. Then, with the slamming of the front door and a over-shoulder-good-bye, Levet was gone, charging across the lawn to the car.
Behind him, Banks sat in the aftermath of the whirlwind, more than a little dazed, searching out his own breakfast in the sudden silence, wrestling with the largely unused appliances in the kitchen. He found coffee, a coffee dripper and a jar of creamer. He put water on to boil, then sat down heavily on one of the kitchen chairs, listening to the sounds beyond the house the way he had during the night, though now clearly listening for a particular sound, nodding slowly when the whine of a starter ended with the slamming of a car door and a sudden pounding of footsteps in the front hall.
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" Levet grumbled as he appeared at the kitchen door.
"What's the matter?"
"My car won't start."
Banks stood slowly and cross to the kettle which had just then started to whistle. "I know."
"You know?" Levet growled. "What do you mean you know?"
"I removed the distributor cap."
"You what?" Levet said, still caught up in his morning daze not to completely understand. "Well, put it back. I don't have time to appreciate your humor in the morning."
"It's no joke," Banks said. "I'm trying to save your life."
Levet started, then glanced around the kitchen. "Where did you put it? I'll reattach it myself."
"I threw it in the river."
Levet sputtered for a full minute before he was able to get any words out, and then strung together a series of curses that might have made a sailor blush.
"Now I'm going to have to catch the bus," he said in a panic. "And I'm sure to miss the meeting."
"Don't start that again, Ed," Levet complained. "I have to go. It's my job."
"Get another job. Come fishing with me."
"I'm not going fishing with you, damn it."
"Then how about bowling or hiking or camping. I open to suggestions and you need the rest."
Levet threw his hands in the air in a gesture of despair. "I don't believe this. I was doing just fine until you showed up. I was doing my job, building my future. Then all of a sudden, you're knocking on my door, bringing in all these strange ideas. Are you crazy?"
Banks smiled. "Some people might think I am," he said. "So what's so important about this job of your anyway that you have to kill yourself doing it."
"I'm not killing myself. It's just what I do"
"And it would be so bad if you were to do something different?"
"Shut up, Eddy!" Levet growled. "Just shut up."
Levet made his escape again, charging out the door with Banks on his heals, jabbering at him the whole way down the drive way to the side walk.
"What the hell are you doing now?" Levet demanded when he noticed Banks' pursuit.
"Just walking with you, Phil. Is there something wrong with that?"
"There's been something wrong since you showed up," Levet said, but made no effort to chase Banks away as they wormed their way through the twisting turns to one of the main streets where New York-bound buses traveled.
"How about we sing a song?" Banks asked. "That'll make us both feel better."
"Sing a song?" Levet said, glaring at Banks.
"Why not? We used to sing all the time."
"We were kids, Eddy. We'd look like weirdos if we started that now. Sometimes I think we looked like weirdos back then, but at least we had the Summer of Love crap to cover our weirdness."
"I'm sorry to hear you say that," Banks mumbled. "I always thought the world was a little too serious and that we were doing our bit to make it better."
"We didn't make anything better," Levet said, spitting out the words as if they tasted badly.
"We stopped the war."
"Did we? Or did we just make life miserable for a lot of people while the war came to its own conclusion."
"Damn it, Phil. You can't be so serious all the time. It's not natural."
"Survival is natural," Levet said. "That's the point we missed back then. You and I, we spent all our time believing that we could make the world a pretty place, fill it with flowers, make everyone love one another, when down deep, it is nothing more than a rat race, people struggling to get something for themselves before somebody else gets it first."
"You believe all that?" Banks said.
"Is that why you gave up your music?"
"Perhaps," Levet said. "After the oil shortage, I started to think about things, reevaluate my priorities. I couldn't fit the music into what I needed to do with my life. I just didn't see where it could help me get anywhere. Maybe if I was a rock star, it might have made sense. I could have made a lot of money, then retired into doing something else. But half way through school, I saw myself as out of touch, and decided I wasn't going to be one of those poor fools playing violin in the subway."
"Boy, Phil," Banks said. "You're in worse shape than I ever thought."
Levet to Banks thinking had completely crossed the line into that other world. When young, Banks had divided the world in half, into those people in a particularly practical mind-set out of which wars were waged and people were let to starve, a no-point attitude that shaped that part of the population into stone-hearted souls without a care for their fellow man. He had never quite understood how such people were able to live with themselves, though once he got to sea, he began to understand it a little better, witnessing the primitive mentality upon which such people drew their ideas, that Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest mode that made them all something little better than animals.
What made human's human were qualities beyond those Levet struggled so hard to maintain, love of music, love of life, and a sense that the world could be a better place if each worked hard enough and struggled long enough to shape it into something better. Levet's love of music back then had made him a powerful warrior for the love of life side, and now that warrior had changed sides, less powerful in his impact since he had no significant place in the survivorists' army, but a staggering loss to those who believed life was good.
Levet halted at the bus stop, stepping to the end of a line of people who looked much like him, wore the same panicked expressions, checked their watches frequently. A few gave Banks startled glances, but seemed too preoccupied in their own problems to look at him long.
Then, finally, the bus arrived, and they like robots climbed aboard. Banks climbed on as well.
"Manhattan," Levet said.
"Make that two," Banks said, drawing a startled glance from Levet, who did not notice the driver taking both fares out of the twenty he had handed him.
"What are you doing?" Levet demanded as they worked their way down the aisle towards the rear of the bus and the few remaining vacant seats.
"What does it look like?"
"Are you following me?" Levet asked, finding a seat and sitting himself down on the aisle said.
"Move over," Banks said.
Levet folded his arms. "Stop bothering me," he said. "I don't want you around any more."
Banks sighed, then settled into the seat across the aisle. The bus started, then stopped again to pick up more passengers, a regular parade of men and women who dressed in the same grey suits and same dull dresses, who bore the same, weary yet desperate expression that Levet did, as if all had been shaped by the same cookie cutter, and filled with the same faulty assumptions about the world.
It was a fright! Especially with Levet, whose gaze seemed to find comfort in the close proximity of fellow beings, he and they desperate to fit in with each other, to keep from allowing anything that will make them look too obvious or outlandish in their bosses' eyes.
They called it survival of the fittest, and yet to Banks it seemed just the opposite, each giving up an essential part of the inner beings in order to qualify for this club. None truly capable of doing anything that was a risk. None of them could have survived a day on the high sea, even in the calmest weather, despite weekends jet skiing or riding off-road vehicle through woods full of terrified wildlife.
Of course, the others in the bus stared at Banks. The only two who didn't were the driver and Levet. They frowned and shook their heads, the way they might upon seeing a homeless person sitting on the bus stop bench. None spoke to Banks. None sat next to him, for fear of catching something. But all looked, some peering over the tips of their newspapers or into the reflections of the glass, all of about the same age, all displaying the appropriate distaste.
Levet, whose face had grown red and stayed red, started out the window, his mouth moving as if saying something to himself, perhaps hoping that this was all a bad dream from which he would soon wake.
Once the bus reached the highway, it stopped picking up additional passengers and the interest in Banks waned, as the group opened up their brief cases all at once and began to work, clicking on calculators and computers the way Levet had the night before, all of them frowning over the results, as if each one had an important meeting to attend that morning to which they were expected to bring various details and diagrams.
Eighty people bent over their work like clones, tap-tap-tapping out the whole ride towards the Lincoln Tunnel.
"God, doesn't it ever stop!" Banks shouted, as he jumped up and grabbed Levet's brief case, the calculator and computer still inside. He yanked open the window on his side and tossed it out onto the highway.
"BANKS!" Levet screamed. "What the hell did you do that for? Are you crazy?"
Banks stayed silent. People in the rest of the bus stared at him again, this time with open hostility, the kind of look Banks and Levet had received at school, clicks as diverse as the pocket protector crowd to the jocks hating everything Banks and Levet stood for or professed. They sought to put Banks back in his place with hateful stares, hoping to shame them into acceptable behavior. Banks had always resisted and often caused himself unnecessary violence from the more macho element who were willing to go much further than stares to make their point.
The bus driver had heard the crash and glared back at Banks in the rearview mirror, nose twitching and red with rage, but not so enraged yet as to take some kind of formal action. After all, he, too, wanted to fit in, wanted the waves to cease. He did not relish making waves of his own.
"I can't believe this," Banks finally said, staring around at the flock of hapless beings that were rapidly inheriting the earth. "Are you all fucking sheep? How can you do this to yourselves?"
Banks jumped up and performed one of his old, crazy dances, the dances he and Levet had used at various demonstrations to mock the suit and tie clean cut pro-Republican groups that always showed up in support of the government.
"Can any of you do this?" he shouted. "Do any of you dare?"
"Hey! Sit down back there!" the driver roared. "This ain't no circus."
But Banks had gone too far already, winding himself up, feeling for the first time the full impact of the years leading up to that moment, the failure of the 1960s to live up to the ideals they had exposed, the failure of his ship to avoid the scalding waters of political intrigue. He glanced at the upturned faces of the commuters, and though he knew none of them except Levet, each one could have been any of those poor fools he had seen when young, all struggling with the same issues he had, trying hard to make a significant mark in the world, only to fall so short as to become some of nameless masses whose energies became absorbed in the insane industrial machine, each believing they were still pursuing their dreams when in reality those dreams were more illusive than ever.
"Answer me!" he yelled at them. "Why are you doing this to yourselves?"
The bus driver slammed on the breaks, bags and computers falling off the rack above the passengers' heads or off their laps to shatter on the floor. Up jumped the driver who continued to glare.
"That's it!" he said, his voice nearly lost to the blaring of horns of angry automobile drivers who had skidded or slowed to avoid the bus as it skidded to the shoulder. "I want you off my bus this minute!"
Banks stared, his outrage evaporating as he tried to make sense of what the driver was saying. "What?"
"You heard me!" the driver said, marching half way down the aisle. "I want both of you out. I don't need your kind of headaches this morning."
"Both of us?" Levet said, nearly falling out of his seat with shock. "Why me? I didn't do anything."
"You brought this weirdo on my bus, you can get off with him," the driver said. "Now both of you off, or do I have to flag down a cop?"
Levet sagged. It was as if someone had poked him with a pin, letting out all the steam that had been building up inside of him, his shoulders falling, his chin falling to his chest. He shook his head slowly and mumbled something no one could hear. Finally, he sighed and rose, and slipped out into the aisle with the driver and Banks, and turned towards the front of the bus.
"That door's closer," the driver said, pointing to the rear side door.
Levet shuffled down the rubber covered stairs, shoved at the door handle and slipped into the cool air outside.
Banks, however, made no move to leave, glaring at the driver and the others as if the entire thing was part of some great conspiracy that he should have seen unfolding.
"Well?" the driver said. "Are you leaving? If I have to call a cop both of you will wind up in jail."
It was an old threat, one Banks had heard over and over again since he was a kid, and yet one that still held the same dread, as if he knew he could not possibly survive long behind bars, not just from the possible danger imposed by the other inmates and the vengeful guard, but from the sense of confined space. On the ship, he always countered the close space with the limitless horizon available on deck. In jail, no such horizon existed.
"All right," he said. "I'm going."
And he did. Following Levet down the stairs and out the door, where the cold greeted him, as well as the enraged Levet.
The bus door hissed closed behind him.
Both men looked under dressed beside the yellowed tall grass of the Meadowlands. Giants Stadium floated like a large UFO on the other side of the highway in a parking lot sea, both inaccessible to them where they stood.
Banks could smell the brackish water, and was suddenly struck for an unquenchable desire to find the sea.
The bus pulled back into traffic. Horns blared. Drivers in the other cars stared at the two lone figures on the shoulder of the road.
Levet looked devastated, caught between rage and despair, staring after the bus as if he was his only hope, one quickly shrinking as it rose over the Hackensack River bridge on its way to the Lincoln Tunnel. Then, he glanced back up the highway and gasped, rushing to the ruins of the computer Banks had tossed out the window, paper readouts flapping to the rush of traffic.
"Damn!" he said, leaning to pick up the wreckage, lifting it as if it was a stricken bird, clutching the frail pieces as if they still held secrets he might later access. Then he glared at Banks, the rage winning out in his eyes. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"I'm trying to save you from yourself," Banks said.
"Save me? You're fucking ruining my life. That's not saving me."
"We'll see," Banks said, taking Levet by the arm. "Let's try and hitch a ride. We can probably get back to your place by noon and still be on the road before too long."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Levet asked, yanking his arm from Banks' grasp, pieces of his ruined computer clattering on the ground.
"We've always talked about going to California. This sounds like a good time to do it."
"Go to hell!" Levet screamed, though the volume was lost in the open air. "I'm not going anywhere with you. I have a career that's about to vanish before my eyes, and I'm going to try and save it."
"Ah, Phil, now whose talking nonsense. Why don't you take the day off at least to think about things, and calm down."
Levet turned, hot coals glowed in his eyes. "I need more than that," he said so viciously he didn't sound like himself. "Seeing you again, I forgot all about the trouble you used to get me into when we were kids. I guess I wanted everything to be pleasant, and thought maybe the years had made you into a different, better person. But now I see nothing has changed and you're still the same bastard you were back then, dragging me into your scenes as if I'm supposed to stand still for it. I won't. I'm not your Sancho Panza, even though that's what you wanted me to be. If you want to go tipping windmills, that's your problem, not mine. Frankly, we're both too old for that kind of behavior."
Banks didn't know what to say, he was so shocked. Never before had Levet spoken in such a way, or stirred up such doubt in Banks. Was his own memory of the past so flawed that he had missed his friend's growing resentment? Was that why Banks had not heard from Levet again once college had separated them?
Traffic whizzed by as Banks bent himself to the task of recalling a more specific memory of those times, working out the details from the hazy grip time had placed over them. He seemed to recall Levet complaining even back then, protesting each time Banks thought up a new adventure for them to do, calling Banks crazy, expressing his fright at what the church or school or family might say if they got caught.
Those wanderings in the hills outside the village were as filled with argument as with adventure. The singing, the songs of peace, all that came early on, before something between them changed and growing up began to make them view the world differently.
Banks sagged, his head bent, slowly shaking as he mumbled ill things about his coming back to this Godforsaken place. Levet, still cradling his broken computer, waved down the next bus that miraculously pulled over for them. Both climbed into the crowded interior, Levet again paying for both their fairs. Both had to stand the whole ride through the Lincoln Tunnel until the bus spat them and the rest of the passengers out into the belly of the Port Authority building, at which point, Levet quickly lost himself in the mass of human flesh flowing down the escalators and into the heart of Manhattan.
Banks ignored the stares of the secretaries as he existed the elevator on the 35th floor, just as he had ignored the questions of the security guards downstairs, waving them all off as it to say he had important business inside.
"I've come to see Phil Levet," he told the receptionist, whose stare was no more complementary than the others, but was the one person in the building that could most immediately help him locate his childhood friend.
The 35 stories of steel and glass seemed to shake under him, more volatile in its unpredictability than the sea ever was, mistaken for solid and secure, when it was not. Banks kept having to look over his shoulder or grip something to keep his nerve up. He could not remember the last time he had ridden in an elevator or climbed higher than the three decks to the captain's quarters. The rush of the express elevator had left him breathless, and in need of air. Banks felt cold, too. The air-conditioning and lack of windows made it difficult for him to breathe.
"Boxes," he thought. "People actually work under these conditions?"
He could feel the heat, but not any sense of an open window. Windows did not open in such buildings. The air breathed in such places had been breathed before and frequently, often by the person standing inches away.
At least on his ship he had a round portal out of which he could draw fresh air when foul weather or assigned duty kept him below decks for extended periods.
This felt wrong, and deadly, despite the illusion created by the thick carpets and fancy desks, and banks of computers designed to inspire confidence.
"I'm sorry," the woman said, sharp red nails clicking impatiently on the desk top. "Mister Levet is in a meeting. Can I help you?"
But her cold glare said he would never see Levet if she had her way.
"I told you, I want to see Levet."
"But you don't have an appointment."
"I don't need an appointment," Banks said, glancing passed the woman towards the door behind her which led to another series of corridors, and another group of robots then passing the door's window on some foolish paperwork mission that did nothing for anyone but create more paperwork.
It was like being inside an ant hive, with only some distant board of directors aware of the reasoning behind the various actions, a board who preferred keeping the masses ignorant, and therefore on the treadmill, keeping them living in boxes, working in boxes, believing in the box-like mentality. Somewhere in that maze beyond that door, Banks' friend Levet was in one of those boxes, unaware of his own danger.
"Never mind," Banks said, moving around the desk. "I'll go find him myself."
"But you can't," the woman said. "That door is..."
Locked? It would have been, had Banks not timed his move to coordinate with a man just then coming out, a man too caught up in the paperwork he carried to realize what the secretary's yell meant and too weak from pointless office work to possibly bar the way of a man seasoned by years of real work on the high seas. Banks brushed passed the man without problem, sending the man's pile of paper work fluttering to the floor.
Beyond the door, Banks found himself in a hall that ran along that whole side of the building, with doors opening on both sides and in both directions, an endless line of boxes to the right or the left, with dozens of men looking as weary as his friend, Levet, wearing the same kind of suits with the same slightly disheveled shirts and pants, suggesting each and every one of them had stayed up the night working on some report to submit this morning. The women with their skirts and their blouses looked like clones of the photograph of the woman Levet professed to marry, they little more wide awake than their male counterparts, all -- men and women -- glancing up at the sudden appearance of someone who clearly had no place in their world, a suntanned, bulky figure who few suits would fit had he even thought to seek one out, a man stumbling from door to door to peek in, asking for Levet by name. Many of the workers here were too stunned to respond, or managed only a gesture as if to say: farther down the hall.
At some point, word from the reception area apparently made its way through the building, and some of the men vainly attempted to halt Banks, men whose muscles had been toned at the local health club, but whom lacked experience as to how to use them, pushing themselves in Banks' way, only to have Banks' dispatch them as quickly as they came, shoving each aside as he made his way from door to door.
Banks knew he had a limited amount of time. The secretary's panic would lead her to call security and the police. Even now, he thought he heard the thud of boots somewhere down the hall, as security came to evict the intruder. In an era of mad right wing fanatics, would they hesitate to shoot?
Banks remembered how kids were beaten when they protested at Columbia, in April 1968, a foreshadowing to the worse slaughter in Chicago, later that summer, and the final insult when the National Guard shot four people at Kent State two years later. He realized that if people protesting for peace could be targets, security and the police would hesitate far less these days, perceiving him as a mad bomber, who would make a symbol out of their business office the way others had done with the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma Federal building, seeing him as a ghost of Waco or Ruby Ridge.
Banks rushed forward, shoving men and women out of his way. He had to get Levet out of this place, had to get them both back to the sea or to the mountains or to any place away from the piles of meaningless paper work over which the police would so effortlessly kill.
Banks remembered his own experiences, how he and Levet had launched themselves into the protest movement little realizing just what they would encounter, travelling by bus to the local campus only to find the police waiting with dogs and horses, and how, when it dawned on Banks, how he had to drag the more naive Levet away, cutting down through some field, then woods, and finally escaping down a dirt road that ran through someone's farm.
Was that all a mistake? Would it not have been better to have stayed and let the police beat the man, let Levet get a taste of what was really going on?
Maybe then, Levet would have avoided what later befell him when he shifted his career from music to business. Maybe the man would have turned his talents towards a more socially productive career.
Like Banks had?
Banks paused, the hall way going crazy around him with people seeking a way to escape him, he standing as if in the middle of a hurricane, calm, thoughtful, reflective, now more subtly pissed off, as if he suddenly found himself without a clue as to what direction to take next.
He still wanted to rescue Levet. Banks simply didn't know what to do after that, where to take him?
Out to sea?
The French had spoiled that?
On the road? What would they do for money?
They could sell the house and the car, but that would not last forever. They needed to set something up for themselves, perhaps find a bit of land upstate, a farm of their own, set up a private kind of commune where people of like minds could gather.
With this settled, Banks moved on again, going from one door to the next, peering in to make sure Levet was not behind it, going onto the next until, at last, he came to the room where Levet sat at a table.
A group of men in suits and ties sat around him, papers spread across the table top, a set of plans clipped to a chart board in the corner. None noticed Banks at the door at first, since their attention seemed focused on the plans. But the open door and the chaos outside slowly turned their heads, Levet among the last.
Levet's eyes grew wide, as if he didn't completely believe the sight of Banks standing in the door.
"No," Levet moaned. "Not here, too!"
"You know this man?" a grey haired figure at the head of the table asked.
"No, no, no," Levet moaned.
"I've come to get you out of this place, Phil," Banks said.
"Look, sir," the grey-haired man said, with a slight hesitation on the "sir." "This is a private meeting. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"I just need to talk with Phil," Banks said.
"Mr. Levet," the grey-haired man said. "Would you mind taking your friend out of here."
"Phil?" Banks said.
But Levet only shook his head, seeming an attempt to clear his head from some nightmare he had thought he'd left behind.
"I don't want you hear," Levet said.
"But I'm only trying to help."
"I don't care. I want you to go. I want you to go back to wherever it is you came from. I didn't ask you back into my life. I didn't want you back. Maybe if you'd changed some, shaken this idea of saving me, it might have been different. But you're still leading that silly life of yours with no sense of future, and I don't want any part of it."
"But I do have a sense of the future. I was figuring we could get a farm and..."
"If you don't go, I'll call the police and press charges for harassment. I mean it."
Even as Levet said this, uniforms appeared down the hall from where Banks stood at the brink of the door.
"There he is!" one of the security people yelled and pointed at Banks "That's the son of a bitch."
Banks glanced at them, then back at Levet, half expecting some sign in his gaze that regretted this sudden divorce. But Levet's eyes looked blank, as if inside his head, he had already gone on, the way the photographer on the ship had, seeking some deep mystery in the deeps of paper work, Banks could not fathom.
Banks sighed, but it was not a long sigh. The weight of the building pressed on him and the thud of policeman's shoes sounded on the tiles too close to him.
It was time to find his own peace, he thought, and then, fled down the hall, police shouting for him to stop as he slid into the stairwell and raced down the stairs, leaping down the flights to the lobby as he had once leaped down decks to his ship, finding police here, too, but not yet aware of him.
Banks slowed, took a deep breath, and ambled out the door to the street, took a sharp right and kept on walking, leaving Levet, the old town, and even the memory of the ship behind.
He was thinking of that farm. Maybe, just maybe, he could find a way to make it work.