JUNE 8, 2008

It's been a quiet week on the Island, our hometown set here on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. Because of the murky skies, air quality index warnings, and the general state of conflagration in California, our messengers have had the devil of a time getting through to the Mayor of Lake Woebegon. In fact all of our messenger pigeons and carrier hamsters have been grounded and they have been grumbling in the back room there, playing cards and drinking far too much sarsparilla soda. And harder things, we suspect, for when the lockers got their fumigation, several empty bottles of Old Crow rolled out.

There began accusations and recriminations and it all ended in a terrible sordid mess with pigeon feathers flying everywhere. Javier wound up with a wound that looked suspiciously like a hamster bite on his ankle.

All we wanted to do was acquire Sister City status and grow old with grace and avuncular wisdom, dispensing elegant words of sage advice while inviting the worlds most talented folks to come do their thing. To go to work wearing bright red tennis shoes. To have beautiful Scandanavian women swoon at the sound of ones voice, perform little showtunes before adoring crowds and keep company with the likes of dashing Fred Neuman, Master of Sounds. To create a wonderful world filled with Wally's boat, Norwegian bachelor farmers, Pastor Inquist, the Krepsbachs and the entire Tollerud family inhabiting a sort of Yoknapatawpha County with Lutherans that would reach out across the grain-waved miles of Heartland to the dim and distant farmhouses of California.

Instead of all that and really making something of ourselves, something of which a mother could be proud, we just got old. THAT part we did all right.

Someone in the staff had a birthday inflicted upon him with cake and all the usual stuff. He even got a few presents. It was Javier. Since the surprise was actually part of a regular staff meeting, the most beautiful woman in the room simply left after her part of the agenda was through. So Javier, who is hypoglycemic, was left with melting ice cream and a plate of suger-rich German chocolate cake and pain in his ankles and nothing to look forward to that night.

Javier had gotten a bottle of Jack Daniels at the party, so Jose suggested they go out to the beach and drink it. Which they did. And it was very fine, digging your toes into the sand, the ocean a carpet of diamonds spreading out to the horizon where Babylon slung its own ropes of jewels over the sable hills. Jose had a roach and after a while it was great signaling passing UFO's with the lighter, as if one could inhabit a rock song by acting out all the motions and get all the emotions energetically secondhand.

That's when Occasional Quentin rambled along with a five gallon jug. The jug being heavy, and the road long and to what end no one knows, the three partook liberally of this new potion so as to lighten the man's burden.

And because he had been bereft of company, now he had some, and Quentin exhorted this act of companionship, for we do it all for Company, as the wise old Beckett once wrote.

For the world is hard and cold and cruel and full of idiots, but the sky at that moment was a backlit canopy, a black blanket with holes punched in it and they were living in a rock and roll song.

They wandered up to the porch of the Shambles Squat more or less ruled over by Marlene and Andre for a sofa reposed there upon the rotten boards that Mr. Howitzer had refused to repair for some years such that the sofa, an erstwhile bus seat -- had sunk nearly vertical to the floor level there. And there it was that Jose attempted to light the now long extinct roach without success until Quentin demanded of him this lighter and this roach. He managed but a brief inhale before the roach descended between the floorboards to the weeds and detritus below, there to glow like a patient mind or a cancer for a time and they returned to their wine of which there remained plenty and the hour nigh to witching.

Thus it was that the trio found themselves as the horses of the night advanced. "Lente currite noctis equi! The stars move still; time runs; the clock will strike; the devil will come . . ."

Suddenly, in the quiet watches of the night, Jose leapt up with smoking pants. The bus seat was on fire.

Frantically, they beat at the flames coming up from below with an old blanket, a burlap bag and hatfulls of sand carried by Quentin from the edge where Mr. Howitzer had let the ground cover revert to wild. The fire began to eat at the floorboards now with a casual industry, like a moderatly hungry man demolishing a steak to the door's threshold.

Quentin informed them that the back door was blocked by Mr. Howitzer's now somewhat redundant RV due to the current gas crisis. It was parked illegally, but this was California and Mr. Howitzer was the landlord.

If the fire took hold there, none of the fifteen people inside could escape. The lower windows all had exterior security bars bolted to them.

The three threw themselves at the fire with a will as the hours ticked by, hauling bag of sand after sand -- said RV had been parked on top of the garden hose deliberately so as to prevent watering the Recession Garden and potentially high water bills.

O Mr. Howitzer was a frugal man!

And right at that moment his house on Otis was on fire with only three misfits in rags fighting the effort. A blast of smoke laden with plastic ash hit Javier in the face from the coals of the former sofa, making his eyes burn and his throat contract, but he kept on at it with atavistic frenzy.

Smoke rose to the upper patio roof and leaked around the edges before ashes fell back onto them. If they didn't get this under control, the upper story would go any moment.

Javier ran down to the water, jumped in with the blanket, then ran back up the slope and to the astonishment of the other two lept into the middle of the blaze stamping his boots. Getting the idea, both Quentin and Jose ran down to the water to come back again and stamp about in the hissing smokes of the now dying fire. Their weight broke the structure of the fire away from the rotten timbers. There they danced the mad tarantella with fury, tromping and stomping on every coal so that embers flew up and singed their thighs in great sprays of fireworks worthy of any small town in the US of A.

Time and again they ran down to the water and ran back up again, carrying the precious water on their bodies, the blankets, and their increasingly tattered clothing.

As they worked the long minutes into the long hours, the smoke entered each stich of clothing, into their pours and their ears and their lungs. The smoke became them and they became it and there was nothing but the twisting spiril of work and labor and fire and nothing ever existed, nothing ever had existed before this and nothing would matter but this gritty particle air that had become themselves.

As the sun edged over the blood-red horizon of the Bay the three continued pouring sand onto the now subsiding embers.

Javier watched the sun rise with a throat like sandpaper, filthy as hell itself, covered with the nastiest of burns in every degree, his eyebrows entirely gone, sprawled in the hole that once had maintained the house sofa, now a tangle of wire springs and still warm metal frame.

His companions were not much better off.

So it was that a bleary Andre stepped out of the door and paused at the edge of a hole with his coffee cup in hand. He looked up at the darkened patio roof, which was not how he remembered it from the day before, and he looked down into the hole where Javier lay in battered, sodden, and ashy exhaustion -- instead of the sofa he clearly remember had reposed there before -- and at the blackened bodies of Quentin and Jose who lay like fallen angels in some distorted version of Milton's Paradise Lost.

Javier just lay there, thinking, are you not glad we saved all of your lives in terrible sacrefice?

He, Andre, poured the remainder of his coffee cup down into the hole and listening for a sizzle, heard none, shook his head and, closing the door, returned inside with a deep sigh.

"Another day older and deeper in debt," said Jose.

Javier looking at the beautiful sun, could only agree half-way. Some days its a victory just to be alive.

Happy birthday, croaked Quentin.

That's the way it is on the Island. Have a Zen week.