With such luck as this, he rode the beast in the jaunty way that she deserved, back north, seemingly back from Mexico, pulling up finally at an outlying bar-ex-saloon (they had covered the old adobe face with knotty pine, substituted big stone matades for the cuspidors) and having brought her wrecklessly this far did not park her in the little parking lot but in front of the church next door. They had lifted that face too and neonized, but it did no good, they seemed to know they had no chance against an older god, their doors were closed. Thus one could join the pagan worshipers with a self-righteous shrug, through latticed doors.
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They looked so familiar that for a moment Claude feared he had doubled back to Mrs. Merritt's city, until a sudden wave of water blinded his wipers and drove him along with everyone else to the curb, where the crackling radio reported an old man had just now been swept from his backyard by a cloudburst, the latest in a series deluging Tulsa. Clinging there to the side of the hill, no hand brake, Claude rode out the storm, stuffing blankets into the cracks under the doors, watching overhead drips as best he could with the babyseat. When the car next in front crept away from the curb, Claude followed as far as a gas station. There he wondered aloud what lay ahead, but the attendant couldn't say, having swum to work just five minutes ago. Now as Claude pulled away the rain suddenly ceased, it seemed from exhaustion, and for the next hundred miles he spun his dial to catch the latest reports: that old man was still missing, he had last been seen floating downhill toward the river, he had been found, he was dead, he was dying, he was still missing... Claude turned off the radio, for he was beyond range of Tulsa, and Joplin had not heard the news yet. He raced in silence toward the night which he knew already had begun not far ahead.
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Beside him Mr. Harris folded his morning newspaper and held it out to Claude. "Seen this yet?" "No." "Don't read it, " Mr. Harris said, folding the paper once more and sliding it under his rear. "It will only upset you, son." "It's a wicked paper... " Claude agreed, but Mr. Harris was overspeaking him. "It's the big black words that do it. The little grey ones don't matter very much, they're just fill-ins they take everyday from the wires. They concentrate their poison in the big black words, where it will radiate. Of course if you read the little stories too you've got sure proof that every word they wrote above, themselves, was a fat black lie, but by then you've absorbed a thousand greyer ones, and where and how to check on those? This way the mind deteriorates. The best way you can save yourself is not to read it, son." "No, I... " "That's right, if you're not careful, " Mr. Harris went on, blue-eyed, red-faced, "you find yourself pretty soon hating everyone but God, the Babe, and a few dead senators. That's no fun. Men aren't so bad as that." "No." "That's right, you begin to worry about anyone who opens his mouth except to say ho it looks like rain, let's bowl. Otherwise you wonder what the hell he's trying to prove, or undermine. If he asks what time it is, you wonder what terrible thing is scheduled to happen, where it will happen, when. You can't even stand to be asked how you feel today - he's probably looking at the bumps on you, they may have grown more noticeable overnight. Soon you feel you should apologize for standing there where he can watch you dying in front of him, he'd rather for you to carry your head around in a little plaid bag, like your bowling ball. There's no joy in that. Men aren't so very bad." Mr. Harris paused to remove his Panama hat. Water seeped from his knobby forehead, which he mopped with a damp handkerchief. "I've offended you, son, " he said. "Not at all, I entirely agree with you." Mr. Harris replaced his hat, folded his handkerchief. "I shouldn't shoot off this way, " he said. "I read too much." "No, no. You're right...
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family men, Claude." "Then why aren't they home with their families?" "You haven't been listening to me, Claude. It takes lots of honey to raise a family these days... " No, it isn't even that, these teddy bears don't like honey as much as they think they do. They think they're supposed to like it, the way they're supposed to like women and children. They think they're supposed to act like real grizzlies, but they don't feel it. You can't blame them, they just don't have it inside them. What they have, what they love most, is their memories: how the Coach used to shout niceworkpal whenever they caught the big ball or somehow hit the little one, how Dad used to wink when they caught one of his jokes, how when they repeated them he almost died laughing, so they told them and told them - if they told one really well he might do it. They memorized all the conversations verbatim, that about the pussies and the coons, the homers and the balls, the cams and the bearings. They're still memorizing. You can see them almost anytime you're out driving, there in the slow car just ahead, the young man at the wheel, the old man talking, the young man leaning a little to the right in order to hear better, the old man pointing out the properties, the young man looking and listening earnestly, straining to catch the old man's last word, the last joke verbatim, the last bit of know-how about the deals and the properties and the honey. When he thinks he's learned all he can from the old man, he'll shove him out of the car. You watch, next time you're out driving. "... these are the cream, Claude." These are the all-American fairies.
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They were mostly French, a few Arabs, and despite their uniforms they didn't look very important any more. Later I learned that if you watch men die, especially if you've known them at all, they still look important afterward no matter what you have to do with them, but I was inexperienced then.
At the high school a pretty girl strolled across the parking lot to her black stallion, let her cigarette dangle from her lips while she put on her helmet, adjusted her goggles. Throwing a slender white leg over the side she jacked her little backside up and down a few times, exciting the steed. Now she came down on his back and he squatted, moaning to the soft squeeze of her hand, then at her sudden clutch shot out fast between the press of her knees. Claude looked down at his shoes as they passed, having seen nothing. But he glanced up in time to watch them glide off under the next streetlamp, the gleaming beast appearing almost languid with release, very pleased with himself and with the girl who clung to his back, small and stiff and unsatisfied. She had been noticed: everywhere along the way the leaning people looked after her as though wondering if the new week had finally begun, then they looked at one another, then back at nothing.
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Come on, Princess, " he called to the bench, and Carlotta bounced up. She was wide like the rest of them, but no man could fairly say she was too wide. The most that could be said was that she did not have much further to go before she would have to start squeezing it in and strapping it up, which she clearly did not do now. She let it hang where it was, and it did very nicely by itself. As she passed among the boys they looked her over with unconcealed envy, as though they knew she had something they didn't have but were not quite sure what it was. One thing was certain, she got more exercise than they did. The next to be noticed were her braids, they hung forward over her terrain, ignoring as much as possible her contours, like two shiny black meridianal lines demarking her longitudes as far down as the equator. It was not hard to imagine oneself spending a long lifetime on that bare little island alone, with no plan or ambition, too overcome with the heat to continue on south to the pole, far less return to the continents. Nothing productive could ever be accomplished there, but there would be comfort such as few men have known, there would be torpor. The body swelled with such thoughts, the mind shrank from them, and the longing eyes traveled finally up north, to where those meridians came together at a point above a bland white area vaguely charted, with few landmarks, no doubt sparsely inhabited. There the imagination halted.
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Whether or not, he felt very much at home in this state. It was to places like this that they had sent him all over the world in defense of New York, until he had come almost to believe that the concrete caverns and towers he seemed dimly to remember, the pale people themselves, were no more than childhood fantasies he had dreamed for himself. He had felt little urge to try to find them again. Hopefully he had followed the Cat out to the new coast, only to find there the same grotesque imaginary cities already erected and fanatically maintained by old children. It was his loss alone that he could not play at their game with them, but he could not. He had been born in New York, taught the rules in New York and New England, yet it seemed to him that he had been holding his breath until he reached Arivada, New Africa. Here the dream cities, no matter whether adobe or gold, had long ago been abandoned, thus had collapsed, and all that remained was the earth. It spread around him as drab and coarse as an old army blanket, inviting only those weary with fighting or dying, overlooked by the children. If still in one piece the whole world would look like this in old age - Arivada was ready, but could Manhattan support mesquite?
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Twentyone is too old to go anywhere alone, you know that. I want to go with someone. I don't mean as a bride, I'm not so gauche as that, but as a mistress or paramour or concubine or companion or friend or pal or anything else. I just don't want to be left alone! I want to get out of here!" She said it again for all the wide-faced flowers to hear: "I want to get out of here!
Outside he hurried again, for he had several blocks to walk and the beer turned out to be no more than cool. He told himself he would remember next time to deal from the bottom - but the civil sirens sounded, surprising him with his silly private thought. That's what they blow them for. Thought is a national product, issued, like survival, on a day to day basis. There you go. Until tomorrow. When he understood this would be a long one today, he hurried on.
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Pete offered tobacco and paper, but Claude brought out his cigarettes and they both decided to try those. Pete provided the match. When he had their cigarettes burning strongly he turned to look back at the road, then straight up ahead. "We'll get there for supper if we get there, " he said, and Claude laughed. Pete was a young man, but had a wild old grin stretched all out of shape in the corners and punched full of holes.
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He died of a breaking heart, " Pete said, making a stout log fence of his hands around the glove compartment and leaning forward to peer at the luminous clock, "but he was an old man. He was the king of his Yaquis down there and he couldn't live any more when they took the land away. He couldn't live up in the mountains that way. He hid all the treasures - you understand treasures? - in the mountains down there and he died. Now I'm the king of my Yaquis and someday I'll go down there and dig up the treasures again - maybe soon if they don't catch me too much. Then I buy the land back and we will live in the future like in the past only better." Pete let the fence fall, and sunlight showed the clock to be hours wrong, if not years.
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He found the building in front of which he had stood in the sun all day waiting to be discharged, in which the crazy doctor had suggested that he stay over another day to let him check that heart again and it had taken precious time to persuade the man that joy alone made it beat so wild. Perhaps someday he would die of that.