There wasn't a soul out there.
It was hot pink, bigger than a deep freeze and parked by itself next to a mound of black dirt. A casket. Sitting beside a dark cut in the earth in the front of a cemetery. There, ten feet from the feeder road by the interstate. Warren liked to spot things when he was on the road. To give him ideas to think about. Because if you didn't, then you died early. Maybe like whoever that was out there on the ground with nobody around to see her off. Her. That made sense, somehow. But he didn't want to think about that right now. First things first.
A casket, right out there, alone. He'd only just seen it, which is to say he could well have missed it. But he hadn't and that was at least one strange thing that'd happened that day. Even if it was a kind of morbid thing, that was all right. You could still feed off it. That was the word.
Warren knew these kinds of cemeteries. Flat as tables, each grave marked with a plaque level with the ground, with maybe an urn for plastic flowers. Awful cemeteries where everything seemed deader than death, somehow, the coffins alternately frying and freezing in the ground.
Not like the old ones, with fancy tombstones and cool mausoleums, marble angels and oval photographs on headstones. Places shaded with old trees where people could sit and look out upon a vista of eternal calm.
Warren's mind wandered into the blue shadows of the banyan tree. His banyan tree. That's where his mind always drifted when he thought of paradise, a place where you sat among the damp roots with other men and women. They wouldn't talk or look at each other. There was no need for that. Somehow the blue shadows spoke words like pink casket.
It was just before noon and Warren was driving home from a conference in that state's capital and the lady who'd wore the same pink dress all three days turned out to be a nut. The little world he'd built up about it all crashed suddenly the last night in the hotel bar because he'd finally gone and sat next to her at the piano.
She hadn't even waited for him to say anything before she said, "If you're not into Chinese astrology, then I'm afraid we have nothing to say."
"Chinese astrology. It's the way."
"Are you on drugs?"
The remark drew a brief, sarcastic smile. She wore that black lipstick women favor these days, which made her mouth look dead, or at least long unused. The piano player, a handsome young Filipino, said, "Hi there. Where you from?"
Then Warren realized he'd gotten in over his head, again. There were a half-dozen well-dressed folks staring at him from around the grand piano, all sloshed, waiting for an answer.
"Yeah, from. Like hometown? Don't you have one?"
"Chicago," Warren blurted, lying.
"Hey! My kind of town!" an older man yelled.
"Got a favorite tune?" the piano player asked.
"Everyone has a favorite tune," said the woman. Warren shook his head no.
"That's impossible," the woman called out. Others shook their heads. The piano player smiled, helped Warren off the hook. "Sure he does, and I bet I can guess it. It's . . ." And he floated off into some tune Warren had never heard and all the patrons smiled and nodded like it was quite significant. It was a nice enough tune, but Warren hated everyone still looking at him to see if he was enjoying it as much as he ought to be. Just as he was about to get up and go, the pretty waitress popped up and shook her hair and asked if he wanted another one.
"Sure he does," said the woman. "Hit me, too." Her pink dress was really violet and the fabric looked quite old. As if it'd been passed down through the family, several generations. Making it so soft and light that Warren imagined it would tear or fall apart at the lightest touch. Not that he was going to, not that he was plotting.
"So are you from here?" he asked her.
"Oh no," she huffed. "I'm definitely not from here."
"What's wrong with this place?"
"You're a mechanical engineer. Do you like the Blues?"
"This is very dull."
"This bar?" She gave a little shrug. "This life." Then she burped, and everyone heard her, but she only looked into her drink and shrugged again.
"You ought to do something about it," Warren said. She didn't seem to hear him. "Are you into time?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you think about time?"
"Not at all."
"You say that a lot."
"Because it's true. Everyone knows a song, everyone thinks about time. And everyone is so bored they can barely sit up. Look at them."
The others could hear her, of course. Knew exactly what she was saying, but just sat there like stupid cows with their big heavy heads, staring at her, or, rather, through her. As if she were some annoying puff of foul air that would dissipate soon enough. A couple of them looked at him, too, to see if he might be in agreement with her or something.
Warren looked at the piano guy, who smiled in a way that made you feel petty for whatever it was you were worried about. How could anyone be worried when there were such beautiful songs to be played? And sung.
"Barbara, will you sing for us?" the piano player called out as he rolled graceful notes up and down the piano, finishing a tune. "It's been so long. Pretty please?"
"Oh, yes!" said the man at the far end of the piano. "Please, Barbara! Just one!" Then he clapped his fat hands, making a wet, splatting sound. Barbara was the lady in the old violet dress. They all knew her, and they were all nodding to encourage her. She gazed back at them as if her cherished public had just appeared out the blue and batted her matted eyelashes and mashed her black lips into a tight knot, which evidently was supposed to be a sort of gracious smile.
Warren asked himself if he really wanted to be sitting there while this woman sang a song. But before he could decide one way or the other, the piano player reached into the piano and pulled out a microphone and handed it to her. She took it like you might a lollipop and brought it up to her mouth and held it there, shyly. There was no escape. It was getting late, Warren thought. Late for everything. Late in the evening, late in the week, late in the back end of the middle of his life. The song was awful, the piano player grinned and coaxed her on, the lookers-on swayed and let their mouths hang open slightly and their eyes droop lazily as verse after verse poured forth and the waitresses feigned reverence and the world froze into an idiotic pose from which it would never again be freed. How long could a song last?
Then he did it. Got up and walked away. Fearing, for the first few steps, that maybe she'd break off and shout at him, but quickly reaching the stairs down into the lobby and crossing to the elevator. Rushing up to his room and pouring a last one and drinking it in the dark on the edge of the bed and listening to a guitar twanging in a bar across the street. Whoever she was, this yodeling Barbara, she wasn't the one, and it was quite late. Too late for everything.
Just after noon now. Not two miles past the pink casket, Warren saw a green exit sign. He could turn off there, cross over, go back. Drive along the feeder road and see what that casket was about. Yes, it was getting late and so you made the turn, even before you knew you had.
What sort of impulsiveness had come over him? Warren wondered. But only for a moment, because that was the voice of the others. All those others all those years, chiding him each time he deviated from the path. Now, if anything, Warren knew that the path was a useless thing. All one had to do was imagine one already being there, wherever it was one wanted to be. There among the damp roots in the shade of the banyan tree.
There parked on the soft slope of the feeder road looking out the rider's side at the casket. Naturally, someone was there now. A tall, thin woman in a hot pink dress with long straight blonde hair that reached down to the ground and then some. A chimera, or such, Warren knew, feeling no alarm. Another imagined woman. Only this one was somewhat different, if not bizarre. For when she turned away from staring into the grave and looked his way, she disappeared from view. Only to reappear moments later as she turned again to look into the hole in the ground. As if she didn't exist in the required dimensions, was incomplete.
It was a quarter after noon, and in a little while she faded out altogether and that was that. Warren wished he had something to drink, not booze, but a cold bottle of pop. Any flavor, too, so long as it sent a quick spike of pain through your brow as you tossed it back and thought about whether you were going to get out of the car or not.
The steel flowed by on the highway as if there were no beginning and no end to it, no possibility of an eddy, a back-current that took you to an empty open grave and the high sun cooking a cadaver in a pink casket with no one around. No possibility at all. Unless you were kind of weird, or bent. And he was and he knew it and that was fine. The rest didn't matter.
Warren liked to keep things simple. Like the knock that came on his hotel room door a half-hour after he'd come up. He knew it was her and waited in the dark until she knocked again. Then he opened up.
"You could've at least said good night."
"You were singing. I didn't want to—"
"Horrible, wasn't it. I wouldn't listen to it either. Lights are all off, you in bed?"
"Come in." She came through the door with long, businesslike steps.
"I was testing you on the Chinese astrology stuff. You looked like the kind."
"Who might be interested in something I'm interested in. Too bad."
"Can I get you a drink?"
"Maybe we'll get along anyway."
"A drink?" She opened the balcony door, went out and looked toward the bar across the street. "All right, some vodka. Hear them Blues?"
Warren poured her drink, freshened his, went out to her. There were cigarette butts on the balcony and she began flicking them overboard with the toe of her blue high-heel.
"Damn pigsty hotel," she said.
"So how long have you been a mechanical engineer, Barbara?"
"What's that, Warren?"
"How do you know my name?"
She poked him on the chest. "Name tag, bud."
He saw he'd forgotten to take it off, and tore it away.
"Don't like your name?" she asked.
"I saw you at the conferences all week. I watched you."
"That was my sister."
"My twin sister. She's the engineer. And she's in bed. I'm the other one, and I'm not in bed. So what're we going to talk about?"
"You're not a twin. You're her."
"That's good, Warren."
"Pretending to be strong like that. That's a good thing to do once in a while."
"You need to relax, Warren, and just listen to the music. Can't we do that? Why is everything so difficult?"
"So you're not an engineer?"
"Not in the least. Does that matter?"
"I guess not."
"Here's to the night and the music," she bellowed, raising her glass. "And the Chinese New Year. Whew-eee!"
She started snapping her long fingers and bobbing her head to the rhythm. Warren gazed at her, not sure what to think, if anything.
Half past noon, or more. The slope of the shoulder of the road seemed to be tilting so that Warren felt like he was going to slide across the seat toward the drainage ditch. He held onto the wheel, frowning from the glare off the hood. What good did it do you to even try with women? Couldn't he just forget about all that? And why sit looking at a casket?
A heavy rumble of thunder brought a blast of gritty wind in off the far side of the endless cemetery, and looking that way, Warren saw a thunderhead, low to the ground like it was a road grader, rushing his way. How many times would these things sneak up on you in life? How was it you always forgot to suspect they'd come until the seconds after it was already too late? He rolled up the windows, waited for it to hit.
Blue flashes of lightning cut the air. Then there was that smell.
It looked like she hadn't washed her hair in days.
"I went to the fire this afternoon," she said.
"The substation fire. Everyone was there. What were you doing?"
"Balls of black oily smoke like you wouldn't believe. And a pretty fire fighter got hurt when something exploded. It was so sad." She sniffed slow and deep like she hadn't done so in weeks, setting off a laborious rush to catch her breath after. "I used to go to all the fires as a girl. Saw a six-story wall of red bricks topple onto another group of pretty firemen, killing all. Fires are . . ."
"Well, I didn't even know there was a fire."
"You were napping, no doubt. The heat is the thing that forces them into mistakes. They're very well trained, but the heat takes over their minds and then they do silly things. Like getting too close. Like being the hero. Sometimes they pull it off. Most times they don't and three days later everyone's forgotten."
Warren studied her lipstick again. It was no longer black, but white. And he realized he'd been mistaken thinking black lipstick had made her look dead. One's lips pale in death, don't they? Now, with this white icing upon them, she was definitely living death, or playing at it, something. He wanted nothing more than for her to leave so he could run a deep hot bath in the expensive tub and soak there alone, studying the blood-red marble tiles of the bathroom, hearing no sounds, no singing, no droning instructors, no violent wind.
"What are you looking at?" she demanded, her voice sliding low.
"No, you're not. You're looking over my shoulder. Is there something wrong with your eyes, Warren?"
"I'm looking at your lips. Your white lips."
"My white lips? Are you trying to be weird? It's not going to impress me either way, you know. Quit looking that way, will you?"
"Over my shoulder, I told you." She moved to one side, huffing. Warren followed her lips, white as paper, smooth as balloons. He would bite into them, have them explode in his face. There would be a little blood and then she would whine some. But it wouldn't last, and then she'd go her way.
"What do you see out there past me, Warren?"
"Quit saying that. Are you trying to scare me? It's not going to work, you know. As for the rest, I'm quickly losing—"
"I'm not trying to frighten you, Barbara. I swear it." She stared at him some more, relaxing a bit, the white lips parting, the dark interior beckoning. You could see streaks of lightning down in there if you looked hard. Warren felt the wind come forth and sting his face.
"Look me in the eyes," she demanded. He did, and then she yelled, "In the eyes, damn you! In the eyes! Can't you just do that?" He did, he swore he did, but then she picked up her shoes, not bothering to bend over and put them back on, and went to the door. Opening it, she stood there a moment, backlighted, all black. Like some insect, waving her appendages, speaking in a language of buzzings and hissings that brought the odor of fresh-dug earth and ozone.
"'You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss,' " Warren sang to her, the song she had sung in the bar.
The creature said, "Kiss? Get some help!"
Then she worked her way down the hall until she became a black point at the very distant place where the walls came together.
Of course, he'd lied. Warren always lied. He'd no more looked at her lips a second time than he'd looked at her eyes a last time. No, he'd intentionally gazed over her shoulder, or, rather, over her right ear. The better to annoy her, spook her, end it before it began. You couldn't engineer even a little joy, so no sense dawdling on the border of that mad country anymore. Better to stare past them like a madman. Better to be the one who spots the pink casket and goes back to see what it's all about.
Because if you are lucky, you find what you are looking for, out there. If you saw the banyan trees that is, the blue banyan trees carpeting the dead plain, suddenly. Great forks of colored lighting scattering this way and that overhead, and you and those like you, down below, under the towering canopy, resting among the huge water-soaked roots, listening together to the sound of water rushing through them and up into the limbs, giving life, blue life to the blue forest. Where no one ever died, or filled with pus, or choked on his own foul past, or suffocated from nonsense and stupidity. Where there were no pink caskets abandoned by a highway for the blind. In the end, the storm cloud didn't seem real. As if it had been whipped up by some aging contraption that had failed to complete the task. For halfway across the cemetery, the dark mass disbanded abruptly, the ragged remnants floating harmlessly away. As if a candle had been snuffed.
Warren brought down the windows again and listened to the scattered drops of rain hitting the dry grass with a sound like someone striking matches. Then he could heard rain thumping on the plump coffin, this time with a light squeaking sound, as if someone were moving a dry finger across a balloon. Across Barbara's lips. Across the damp leaves of the banyan trees, or the surface of his eyes.
Again, something was happening to the tilt of the roadside, and it was as if the car had fallen upon its side, only to rise slightly from the ground so that he could see the coffin from above and the cut in the earth going down and down until the walls met at a very distant point. Men in red pants and white shirts had arrived out of the last puffs of the storm cloud bearing shovels on their shoulders. One, inexplicably, carried a baby blue outboard, which he lay at graveside before leaning forward to check the depth. And to say something to the others. "Let's finish it now."
"But what about him," one of the red-panted men said, a tall one with a shock of bright yellow hair and large green eyes. "Anybody know him?" And then it was as if, well, no, the land hadn't tilted and kicked Warren into the air, nothing of the sort. He was just sitting there in his car with the windows down looking out at the goings-on. Men burying a pink casket. Men back from their lunch hour to lay the dead to rest.
"Are you kin?" the strange one called.
And, no, there wasn't any outboard motor lying there. It was just a big wreath of plastic roses on a wiry tripod that would be left out there a day and then taken back to wherever they store these things for the next time.
"Son of a bitch looks drunk," another muttered.
"You going to answer? Kin or not?"
"Kin," Warren whispered.
But they didn't hear him, and then it was time to get the damn thing into the ground.