Gina and I laughed, sipping the clear, jasmine-scented liquid from a pair of gilt-edged, porcelain teacups.
My head exploded. A thousand golden tones whirled from eye to ear. A thousand sun-like sounds pulsed, mother of all African beats. Too much! I blanked.
I awoke. An opaque swirl of dust started me to coughing and gagging. The vibration of speed shook my eyes; to my left, telephone poles flew by in a blur. My outflinging hand struck the hard, curved metal of a wheel well. I was lying in the bed of a pickup truck. The living dust reached into my parched throat, choking me.
Gum-glued eyes opening, I checked my surroundings, marveling at the upspiral of whirling people and cars and unhappy shoppers returning dangly jewelry that really isn’t appropriate for the activity. A barking, toothy German shepherd hooked my ankle with his crook. Morph to canine. Woof.
My pounding the dirty glass of the truck’s cab. Oh, vibration. The driver turned and grimmed a funeral-parlor smile. He resembled my Aunt Nicky. Less bonny, more bony. He raised pincer fingers. “Come to me, rosy cheeks” they cried, yellow-stained teeth on cigarette duty. Nice glass, good glass.
A faint reflection. I spun.
Only a goldfinch caught in a downdraft. It winked and winged away.
The driver, the whirling of the world, the German Shepherd, the dismaying absence of Gina—my mind folded its hand, leaving shiny doubloons on the table. When the darkness knocked, I opened the door.
The next time I swam into the light, stain-sheeted bed had replaced truck bed. A new view greeted me: bare walls on three sides, something scratched into the green-painted cement of one of them. Green. I shivered in fear, remembering green smog, remembering tired walks enshrouded in a thickness that smelled of routine. Head shake to clear away putrid past. My fingers touched the wall. Traced the faint veins. With touch and sight, I picked out the letters: C I A. CIA? Cellophane Itches Atrociously? Committee for the Inheritance of Asininity?
A deep hum, bass bees in an all-male choir. I swiveled away from the wall to be confronted by a translucent barrier completing my cubic cage. It flickered like a dying fluorescent bulb, and then strengthened, normalizing to a bright glow. Complete Isolation Always? I got up from the dirty bed and made a 360° turn. The walls, the barrier, the letters, a single, straight-backed chair. I sat, kicking my heels up onto the bed.
They interrogated me for hours, their mad-dog yelping incomprehensible to me. The German Shepherd herded them toward a distant building. I have read that Californians have no accent, but if that dog wasn’t whelped on western sands, I would eat his collar.
My captors (Captors in Absentia?) escaped and returned, alternately milling about the rest stop at the side of the road and scratching at the separating barrier, unable to breach it. I cried. Salt tears cracked my lips. One of the two mastiffs peed on the barrier in frustration. The other poked out his own eyes with a Q-tip®. The Shepherd shook his head and grew huge. When he became my Aunt Nicky, I felt despair: What would happen to my cheeks?
After a week of six-and-a-half minutes, two of them—the Sheltie and the Malamute—prodded Gina into a chair placed opposite mine. Frowning, she pushed their snouts away. “You need to do something about those cold, wet noses.”
They would have said, “It just means we’re healthy,” but they were dogs.
She shrugged and turned toward me, pretending to lift a communication handset, and pointing at me to do the same.
I brought my hand to my ear. “You look good,” I said into my extended pinky.
“Dressed in my black miniskirt and wearing the pointed-toe kicking boots that you insisted I wear after my English teacher tried to caress my left knee? You bet I look good!”
“But your hair.” I pointed with my free hand.
She had her long hair up in a loose bun. “You promised that you’d leave your golden tresses free and loose ‘til you could wipe your ass with them.” At the passing of a semi, the loose strands danced the tango on her bare neck.
“It all keeps getting caught in the bill counter, and the banks are no longer accepting thousand-dollar keratin bundles.”
Women! I fumed.
“Be fair,” she said, “I stopped bugging you about your fun-filled nights of auto-erotic asphyxiation; now you need to back off about my hair.”
Reluctantly, I nodded. I still felt betrayed. A promise is a promise is a premise. I turned my head away from Gina.
Aunt Nicky leapt from a speeding tow truck, brushing drops of black gold from her dress as she approached. Her cigarette glowed and her face wore its normal explosion of impatient anger. I remembered her last smile, on the same day that Uncle Bud had kicked the bucket. She removed an electric cattle prod from her patent-leather purse. I opened my mouth to scream a warning.
Gina quieted me with a wink and a sly smile. At the first arcing stroke of the prod, I understood why and smiled as well. When the tip touched her skin, Gina melted down into a shining pool of gold.
Aunt Nicky barked commands and grew a great long, bewhiskered snout. The foot she stamped burst at the seams and brownish tufts of fur showed through.
Gina flowed under the door. “Don’t worry, lover,” she called back, “I paid the MasterCard bill.”
They released me (Confirming I’s Acquitted). Was it because I wouldn’t talk? Was it because I kept sending the soup back?
“No!” shouts Aunt Nicky through the æther.
This new world shone soft blue and vibrant red. Up was a daydream and time a pair of faded blue jeans. Shocked and numbed, my mind failed to compute and so rendered it all as a children’s playground. Alone, I played on the bars and the swings. I dug sand and defended castles. For all the days of the eternity I like to call “this afternoon,” I had my way with the world.
An old man carrying a guitar in one hand and a golden birdcage in the other sat on the pigeon-bombed bench.
“I’m in the wrong story.” His voice croaked, reminding me of a crow.
“Don’t be a cliché, old fella.”
Unheeding, he cocked his head. His grey-brown chinos looked as if they’d been dug out of a trash bin. His shirt was long-sleeved, and the French cuffs, lacking cufflinks, flapped gently each time he moved his arms.
The moat I dug filled with the dark smoke I like to call water. Now for the battlements.
“I’m supposed to be Jesus’s grandfather, but I got derailed on the story track.” He set the cage on the cement oasis surrounding the bench and flexed the fingers of his left hand, onetwothreefour. The guitar had a finish that shone bright in the thumbtack I like to call the sun.
“I have some lines. Would you like to hear them?”
I shrugged, pushing around the gold dust–impregnated sand.
A chord from the guitar shimmered across the sands like a mirage. I saw . . . something. And turned away to search the bordering pincushion I like to call a forest for sticks I could transform into the minions I like to call soldiers.
He cleared his throat and said, “‘Why is this cage gold, Sonny?’ Silly question. May as well ask why the world is blue and red.”
I forced my eyes to rest on the cage.
“There’s more: ‘And who do you think it’s for?’ A bit leading.” He struck another chord, which twisted itself around the cage’s golden filigree. Looking up from his instrument, his expression relaxed and expectant, he waited. As if for a dull child to understand that 2 + 2 is only 4 and nothing more.
It was for me? The cage? I tried the concept on for size. A little baggy in the butt, but— Yes!
His hands had so many bumps and wrinkles that I was reminded of the roots of an ancient tree. But life! The left one flashed up and down the neck of the guitar. Scales. I recognized the pattern his fingers made: e-sharp minor. A theoretical key. Onetwothreefour; theoretically. The right one crouched over the strings, flying at them in rhythmic swoops.
I turned my attention back to the cage. A chirp of joy escaped my throat, and I followed it into the sanctuary of my new home. Safe now, I warbled counterpoint with the escaped chirp, hopping until I could neither move nor utter another sound. The floor, covered with my own droppings, rushed up to greet me as I fell.
The old man was kind. Before finally taking to his wings, he let me go and gave me $100 and a new suit. His last words pecked at my heels as I reentered the world. “Remember your P.O.”
I wandered. Good road or bad, new or old, I made no distinction. I was searching. Searching. A goal. A gold goal. A gold gaol.
Gina! My melting girlfriend! I trudged in and out of jewelry shops, pawn shops, the Bursa Diamond Market. I toured Fort Knox, knocked over banks, and held Switzerland for ransom in my bathtub (proving conclusively that even a landlocked nation needs a state-of-the-art Navy). My golden girl, my golden girl. Not a ring nor ingot nor bracelet nor coin did I find that fit her description, though I did spend the night with a gold-leaf stair rail that deserves recounting someday.
The cage! ¡Ai mi madre! (Searching for Nazi gold in South America, I had picked up a language or two.) My haven! The old man’s words: Why is this cage gold, Sonny? he’d asked, though with editorial comment. Gina, she was my cage. Somewhen, she awaited me, a loving trap.
Back I ran. Miles of road, with the shining dust of old footsteps obscuring the way. Months of time, with the slow sand of seconds torturing my grit-filled eyes.
The old man stood in the same position, as if he’d just released me.
“Give me that!” I screamed, jumping over the back of the bench in my frantic desire. Pent-up frustration and rage bathed me in roiling waves of hot fire. So many months. So many plates of cold french fries. I could hardly contain my desire to strike out.
“Alright, son, no need to raise such a ruckus.” He handed me the cage and floated, glowing, skyward. The brightness of his guitar blinded me. Hot tears that I like to call the sea washed the dust and grit from my eyes. I fell to my knees and thanked him.
“Before I go,” he said, his lilting words soothing me like the sighing breeze of a cool spring day, “I gotta thank you for the diamond-studded prairie goat. He’ll go great with my other bedtime teddies.” He waved with his left hand, fingers rippling.
Gina climbed out of the recreational fine china and stepped to my side. She reached back and in to twist the key, silencing the motor.
I choked out a sobbing “Sure, dude,” and stood, turning toward the setting sun and taking Gina’s golden hand in mine.
Hailing from California, Bob Ritchie now lives on the lovely island of Puerto Rico, where he discovered, among other things, that wet heat is better than dry. He has a fantastic wife and as many as five kids. He does some editing, some teaching, some translating. Ritchie (as his wife calls him) is a musician who is fortunate enough to have collaborated with Jon Anderson. Bob (as he calls himself) is also a writer of stories. His work has appeared in Unlikely 2.0,Small Print Magazine,Prick of the Spindle, and other forums; two of his stories were nominated for the Pushcart prize. Bob recommends the Children's Literacy Initiative.