Radial Symmetry (3 of 10)
Tentacle 3: Fury
"My French is a little rusty," the tidy little bald man said, "But this," he pointed to the message, scrawled on the back of the Giant Squid's chessboard, which teetered against the crushed ruin of Hazel's trailer, "Isn't very good French." The hand he pointed with clutched rumpled, discolored papers which nodded in the stiff breeze, limned in the gold light of the late autumn afternoon.
Rob looked past the man, squinted at the message—Concédez ou elle meurt—and sighed. He did not speak French. He didn't speak anything. He'd always meant to learn something—Spanish maybe, Spanish was cool—but he never found the time.
He dug the heels of his palms into his eyes and rubbed hard, shaking his head. It was always something, he wondered, always another monkeywrench, always one more ball when you were already juggling four. When dealing with the Giant Squid nothing ever came easy. It reminded Rob of this time in high school when he had bought a new game for his PC, and then realized he needed to upgrade his RAM in order to play it, but once the RAM was upgraded he needed new drivers for some reason, and then his graphics card had gone out, and he'd had to buy a new one, and upgrade drivers again, and the new card wouldn't work with his motherboard, which he then replaced, too. It had cost far more than he had planned and taken three weeks to get working. The game had sucked, too.
Rob desperately needed to get Lord A to Spider and Devo as soon as possible, so that Devo could patch up the Squid's environmental suit enough for him to survive until they could get him into a proper salt-water tank. Rob had no time for another weird segue and tangent, but since he was at a dead end to track Devo or Spider further, it all seemed immaterial. He was frustrated that he wasn't moving along, and more frustrated knowing that he had nowhere to go.
"It says, Concede or she dies," the little man said, out in the darkness behind Rob's palms. "What have you done to my daughter?"
Rob snorted a little laugh, still rubbing his eyes, head hanging low and heavy. "Nothin', holmes. Who is your daughter?" Rob was legitimately curious.
"If you don't know who my daughter is," the little man said precisely, each word flawlessly etched into the cold steel of the trailer park's autumn air, "then how do you know you haven't done anything to her?" The man's pink face was taut and unreadable, like unmolded Play-Doh.
Rob dropped his hands, and there was fire in his eyes, an inferno raging in a derelict house, "Because the last lady I did anything to wasn't anyone's daughter," he hissed, even more quietly than the little man spoke. The fire in his eyes spit and sprayed madness across the pebbled driveway.
The little soft pink man stared at Rob as though Rob were a sudoku with two threes in the same row.
Ivan and the Squid's trailer-park buddies were still sitting in the cab of Ivan's dually, watching silently. In the truck's bed, the Giant Squid muttered and sang snatches of Christmas carols, oblivious. He tried to wave his tentacles in time to the music, but they only shrugged and shrieked.
Not even Halloween, yet, Rob thought to himself, and already I'm hearing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
"My daughter, Melissa Zywicki, lives here." He looked back at the trailer. "Lived here." Rob caught a glimpse of the bald man's papers, and saw that the top one, at least, was a xerox copy of a bill—either a credit card bill or a phone bill for someone really chatty—that had been shredded, then meticulously pieced back together and taped.
"Melissa?" Rob asked. He heard the various doors of the truck's cab slam, and turned to see Donny, Mohammed and Ivan trotting across the gravel to join them.
"Do any of you live here?" the man called to the group with a voice clearly practiced at getting information from teenagers.
"Yeah, I do," Donny replied.
"With my daughter?"
Mohammed interjected, grabbing the sagging crotch of his jeans. "Naw man, with deese nuts!"
Donny shoved Mohammed aside. "No, with my mom."
The neat little man stepped back and looked Donny over. He squinted through his glasses, "You can't be . . .," he said. "You live here?"
"Yeah," Donny said, getting nervous.
"Here?" the bald man repeated, his voice rising an octave. "Here?" pointing at the ruined trailer, "You live here, in this trailer, with my daughter?"
"No, I live there," Donny pointed across the gravel court, "with my mom. He," he pointed at the truck, "lives here with Hazel."
"Hazel?" the man asked, and in answer the Squid shifted in the bed of the truck and moaned back a fading echo:
"My god," Hazel's father gasped, stepping past the group to get a better look at the truck, "Is someone buried in that scrap metal."
"Yeah," Rob said, "The Ex-president of the United States."
"No," Rob said, "Lord Architeuthis."
"The Giant Squid?" Hazel's father asked. He took off his thick glasses, and rubbed each lense with a pinch of the front of his button-down shirt, "That's ridiculous; everyone knows he was killed in some sort of decompression accident in the Oval Office, a bad leak."
"Wait," Ivan said, "President Molly isn't president anymore?"
The bald man squinted through his thick glasses, "Of course not. Don't you boys watch the news."
"We've been busy," Mohammed said vaguely.
Rob grabbed a ragged scrap of mangled tin, torn from the trailer's carapace during the Squid's freak-out, and hurled it into the wreckage. "Shut up," he said quietly, and then louder. "Everyone just shut up!"
Everyone was quiet, and Rob looked up. They were all waiting for him to speak.
"I'm not ready for this. I'm just not—I mean, I'm the fucking janitor-" Rob took a deep breath and straightened. "You, um . . . Little bald dude, you wanna meet the 44th President of the United States? I don't know how much longer he's gonna last, so today's probably the day."
The bald man—Hazel's father—nodded mutely, and Rob waved him over to the truck. They crossed the gravel drive, "Hey Lord A.," he called as they approached, "I've got this guy you wanna meet."
A week passed before Rob made any headway on tracking down either Devo or Spider. In the trailer park the Squid stewed and sang under his blue tarp, his lilting voice growing weaker, shifting up and down the register chaotically and atonally. He had isolated sparks of lucidity, but these were few and unpredictable.
All things being equal, Rob could have lived without finding Spider—he liked Spider, and even sorta missed seeing Spider everyday, like back in the old days, but he also knew that Spider didn't have the know-how to get the Squid's suit back to even minimal functionality. Devo could, but Rob didn't even know Devo's last name or where he was from or where he would go. He'd worked with the guy for years, and knew so little about him, Rob mused. But he did know Spider's last name—even though he didn't know Spider's legitimate first name. He hoped it would be enough info to track him down.
After two days of cold calling every Ramirez in the Macomb, Wayne and Oakland county phone books, Rob's hopes had sank somewhat. There weren't that many Ramirezes, but none of them claimed to have ever known a "Spider," or any guy who dated a guy named "Devo," or anyone gay in their families who might know a "Spider" who dated a guy named "Devo." Rob knew that some of them were lying, that they were assuming he was a bill collector, and no one would budge. Some demanded he "take them off his list," others pretended not to understand English by the second call back, and by Tuesday night no one was picking up when he called from his folks' house or his cellphone, even if he *67ed it.
Rob was sitting in his parent's kitchen eating a bowl of Cheerios and drinking a Labatt's. It was midnight, and so dark outside that the window was a perfect mirror reflecting everything accurately, but darkly. He watched himself chew, and wondered what the fuck he was going to do for his friend, who was basically suffocating in his own shit in that crippled aquarium suit. His cellphone vibrated, startling him and he dropped his beer, which foamed and gushed across the spotless floor. He dug his cell out of his pocket, glanced at the little green screen, and saw a number he didn't recognize, not even the area code—419? Who the fuck lives in 419? Rob decided not to answer the call, then flipped his cellphone open with his thumb out of habit.
"Shit," he muttered.
"Hello?" he heard a tinny voice ask politely from the earpiece.
"Shit." Rob brought the phone to his ear, "Um . . . yeah. Sorry; you must have the wrong—"
Rob's blood went cold. Strange callers who know your name and call at midnight are never—as a rule—a good sign. "Uh."
"It's Henry Zywicki—Melissa's father."
The man grunted, "That's funny. You call her," and the man paused as if fishing something distasteful from the back of his mouth, "Hazel."
"How'd you get my cell number?" Rob asked.
"It doesn't matter. I've been looking for my daughter for a year."
"I can't help you," Rob lied. "I don't have a clue where she is."
"Your friend, the Squid President, he does. He says she's in Port Chippewa or Ojibwa; can you tell me where that is? It isn't in my atlas and I get lost every time I drive into Michigan."
Rob gritted his teeth, "My friend is ninety-nine percent dead, choking on his own fecal coliform bacteria in his fucked up little fishbowl, and he's gone crazy with it. There's no such place as Port Sioux or Port Indian, or whatever. I can't help you." The silence spun out on the line, and Rob waited for Hazel's father to take the bait.
"But he can help me? The Squid?"
"Well, yeah, once he gets decontaminated and cleaned up and shit. But we can't do that. We know fuck-all, the lot of us. We're such fuck-ups as saviors, we can't even move him again; when we winched him down from Ivan's truck, the stress of sliding off the gate was too much." Ivan had been right that the old door Rob had leaned against the bed to act as a ramp was too weak, and when they'd ratcheted the Squid's suit past the tipping point, it had slid onto the door and simply snapped it in half, crushing two more of his operational legs, and fracturing the safety glass of the anti-bathyspheric dome, which crackled across its surface with a disconcerting, crazy spider's web. The squid looked out through it with his enormous, optically-perfect eye like a carp trapped under thin ice. They'd pushed Hazel's shed off its little concrete pad foundation to block a view of the wreckage from the gravel drive, and then stretched a blue tarp over him to conceal the mess. The Squid hummed Amazing Grace through it all, or something to the tune of Amazing Grace, but with words so garbled that they sounded like backwards Latin or like a bawdy rendition of the Gilligan's Island theme. Rob had the song stuck in his head for days afterward. "If we move him again without major repairs, he's fucked. His dome will crack and open up and he will explode like an astronaut in deep space. Like in that one movie with Tim Robbins. You see that shit?"
Henry Zywicki sighed, and the sigh was wet and heavy, and Rob knew it was the kind of sigh that is all tears inside.
"Listen," Rob said, jigging the line, "I know this cat that can fix him, though—fix him enough: Devo. But to find Devo I need to find a guy who used to work at the lab, back in the day. Devo's boyfriend, a guy named Ramirez."
"Wait," Henry said, suddenly professional, and Rob could hear him scrabbling around for a pen and paper.
"OK, tell me again, what's his name."
"Ramirez." Rob went to the fridge and got another beer, stepping over the spill on the linoleum.
"OK. First name?"
"I don't know. Back in the lab we called him Spider."
"OK. Um, address."
"I don't—If we had that I could find him!"
"An old phone number? Birthdate?"
"I don't know. Just that he's Spider Ramirez and he worked at the lab back when I was there, and he drove an el Camino. A yellow one."
"I'll call you right back."
And then the line was dead, and in the window Rob could see that he was smiling.
As it turned out, Spider Ramirez's first name really was Spider, but the real key to finding him was the el Camino: in 2006 there were fewer than 20 yellow el Caminos registered in the entire state of Michigan, and only two in Detroit. Rob waited until the next morning to call the phone number Henry gave him, and was surprised to discover it was a home number, and he was speaking to a middle-aged woman.
Having learned from his cold-calls, Rob tried hard to divest his voice of any shred of professionalism as he listened to the line ring. He practiced a variety of hellos, heys and yos. Engaged as he was in practicing his lines, Rob was caught off guard when the phone was actually answered, "Uhh . . .," he said, unable to recall what he'd been practicing saying.
"Hello?" the woman repeated, her accent neat and warm and precise. "Is there somebody there?"
"Yeah. Um. Hi." Rob cleared his throat, "Hi. Sorry, ma'am. I'm looking for Spider."
"Yes?" Rob heard suspicion edging in to her voice.
"I'm calling for Spider, um, because—" he tried to drop all pretense, "We used to work together last year and I've just gotten back into town and I was hoping to get in touch with him."
"Oh," she said. "That's nice. He's already at work," Rob felt his stomach dropping, "but he takes his lunch at 4:00. Would you like to see Spider for lunch? That would be nice. He needs more friends. He is such a nice boy."
Rob agreed that Spider was a nice boy, and that it would be nice to have lunch with him again.
Remembering Spider's fondness for fine home theaters—and his derision of Rob's hippie-christmas TV and garage-sale stereo—Rob wasn't surprised to hear that Spider was working at a Best Buy, although he was surprised when she told him it was the one on Telegraph Road, less than a mile from where he sat at his folks' formica kitchen table.
Rob couldn't believe his startlingly good luck. Four days earlier he had been convinced that he was going to have to watch the Squid suffocate in his own filth and now, in less than 12 hours, there had been a complete turnaround. Hell, before midnight the Squid would be ship shape, he could walk to the lab himself, tear Sang a new asshole for the fuckaround with his Top Model receptionist, and get into the tank. After that, he could make it up to Henry—Rob still felt a little guilty about milking him for whatever Ohio State Trooper connections he'd used to get Spider's number—and they could maybe get underway to catching up with Hazel. Rob had been through Port Huron a few times—that's where Hazel had said she was heading in her Dear John note to Lord A—and he knew it was a pretty small town. They'd find her. This would all be over and done with before the week was out.
Rob got out of his Honda, slammed the door, and just stood in the vast asphalt stretch of the Best Buy parking lot, breathing deeply. It was another queer Michigan autumn day: it had been near freezing when he'd gotten up to walk his mom's corgis that morning, his breath making the air milky before his eyes, and now it was not even 1:00 and the air was warm, the sun bright and gold, like the sun in an ad for a Caribbean cruise. He closed his eyes and put his face to the sun, and listen to the mellow thrum of the freeway; the concrete overpass arched over the divided expanses of Telegraph just in front of him, Detroit's own stab at living in the future, and beyond that the first big office buildings of Detroit's suburbs kicked the gold of the sun back at him, a searing and brilliant light, towers of fire in the electric blue sky. Everything was good and right. He'd touch base with Spider, dick around with the home audio stuff and video games for a while, maybe get something new to play on his Playstation 2, and then they'd go and chow down at one of the strip-mall restaurants across Telegraph. He turned and squinted, saw that there was a Qdoba, and thought that everything was good.
Rob wandered up and down the CD aisles for a few minutes, and then caught sight of Spider standing in the customer-service island, off in the corner. Rob smiled broadly when he saw Spider in the blue sport-shirt—the last time he'd seen Spider, Spider'd been wearing a mesh t-shirt with the nipples cut out, and he'd been riding on Devo's back—this was at a New Year's party Rob had held back in Detroit, back before he slid off the face of the planet for a year. Spider had shaved his head and lost some weight. He had a fake smile, a customer-service zombie smile, plastered across his face as Rob approached, but when he finally registered that he actually knew the scruffy white stoner coming up to him, the smile faltered. Spider took a half step back from the customer service desk. His eyes shifted away from Rob, then back, and Rob saw Spider force the corners of his mouth up.
"How may I help you, sir," he chirped.
Rob laughed, "You can stop being such a cocksucker," Rob smiled broadly, "—not that there's anything wrong with that—and greet a bud like a bud." Rob lifted his arms high in the air for a hug.
The smile drooped again, and again Spider locked it back into place.
"No more buds," Spider said. "I've kicked the habit."
Rob laughed, "Me too," he said, "I've been clean since, like, January. Well, I mean, now it's cigarettes, but . . . whatever. No more drugs, is all. How's Devo."
Spider smiled, but it was stiff, and his eyes were cold, "Shut the fuck up," he said pleasantly. "I've kicked all my old habits."
Rob blinked and shook his head, "What?" He smiled, confused, "Listen, I don't know about what you think I'd want—I mean, yeah, it isn't like old times, right? No more smoking buds with buds or any of that shit. We're all in a different place, but old Lord A is in bad shape, and I need you and Devo to—"
"If you say his name again," Spider said pleasantly, his customer service smile never wavering, "I'll cut your nuts off." Spider's smile finally came all of the way up and warmed him from chin to eyes, and Rob realized that it was a real smile, that Spider was really thinking about really cutting off his nuts if he said Devo again, and that idea made Spider happy. Rob felt his own face go slack.
"Uhhh . . ." Rob said. Spider kept smiling. "I, uhm, I don't know what's up, but I'd totally like to buy you a burrito, catch up a little, and explain this situation I've got that I need some help with."
Spider nodded once, and kept smiling as he grabbed the handset of his phone in one hand and pressed his thumb to the intercom button. "Security," he said into the mouthpiece, letting the earpiece hang far away from his ear, "Customer Service. We have someone exposing himself to children."
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