By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
And that was the end of the conversation. Merry's back was to him, the spill and sweep of her hair that floated on its own currents, the white knuckles of her hands as she lifted cans to the shelves, sun pregnant in the windows, the potted herbs uncurling like fingers and a cat (a feline, that is) Marco hadn't noticed till that moment lifting its head from its perch atop the refrigerator to fix him with a steely yellow-eyed gaze. The silence held half a beat more, till it was broken by the super-amplified hiss of a worn needle dropping on immaculate vinyl and a manic blast of drums and guitar filled the house. Two beats more. Then he ducked his head and edged back out the door.
Outside, beyond the dirt lot where Norm had parked the van, there was a more-or-less conventional backyard, with a pair of lemon trees, a flower garden and an in-ground pool that flashed light as a single swimmer -- at this distance, Marco couldn't tell whether it was a man or woman -- swam laps with the kind of loopy tenacity you see in caged animals. Dark head, tangled hair. Back and forth, back and forth. He had a sudden urge to strip down and plunge in, relieve himself of all the oils and stinks of the road and the lingering funk of the sleeping bag, but he didn't know anybody here and he was tentative yet -- what he needed to do, before he got caught up in the rhythms of the place, was to decide where he was going to sleep for the night at least, and maybe beyond. Norm had pointed out a pile of scrap lumber behind one of the outbuildings as they came up the road -- "Build," he'd shouted over the radio, "go ahead, build to suit, and I'm not going to be a policeman, I'm not going to be mayor, you do what you want" -- and Marco thought he might have a look at it, to see what he might do. He wasn't exactly a master carpenter, but he was good enough, and aside from a couple of days on a construction crew in San Jose, he hadn't done any real labor in weeks. Why not? he was thinking. Even if he didn't stay, it was a way to pass the time.
He left his rucksack and guitar under one of the big snaking oaks in the front yard, then strolled back up the road to inspect the lumber. It wasn't much. A nest of two-by-fours weathered white, a couple of sheets of warped plywood, some odds and ends, most of it charred, and you didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that Drop City had lost at least one dwelling to fire. He was separating the good stuff from the bad when a man in his early twenties came rolling out of the high grass on lubricated hips, walking as if he was dancing, his head too big and his feet too small. "What's happening?" the man said, bobbing up to him, and Marco saw that he was balancing a spinning rod in one hand and a stringer of undersized smallmouth bass in the other. His eyes were glassy and fragile, as if he'd just shuffled out the doors at the very end of a very long concert. What else? Deep tan, choker beads, cutoffs, huaraches, the world's sparsest beard.
Marco nodded, and gave back the tribal greeting: "What's happening?"
The man stood there studying him a minute, the faintest look of amusement on his face. "I'm Pan," he said, "or Ronnie, actually, but everybody calls me Pan . . . and you're -- ?"
"Cool. Going to build?"
"I guess so."
Ronnie frowned, rotating the toe of one sandal in the dirt. "With this shit?"
"From humble beginnings," Marco said, and he said it with a smile. "Hey, Thoreau paid something like twenty-eight dollars for his place on Walden Pond, and that was good enough to get him through a New England winter -- "
"Yeah," Ronnie said, "but prices have gone crazy since then, right?"
"Right. This stuff is free. Talk about deflation, huh?"
But Ronnie didn't seem to get the joke. He stood there a long while, watching Marco bend to the pile of mismatched lumber, the fish already stiffening on the stringer. It was hot. A flock of crows sent up a jeer from somewhere off in the woods. "So what you building, anyway?" Ronnie asked finally.
It came to him then, and it took the question to elicit the response, because until that moment there was no shape before him. He saw the oak tree suddenly, the spread and penetrant shade of it, roots like claws, acorns, leaf litter, and beneath it, his guitar and rucksack propped casually against the trunk. He dropped a board at his feet.
"A treehouse," he said.
Excerpted from DROP CITY,by T. Coraghessan Boyle, to be published next month by Viking. Copyright T. Coraghessan Boyle 2003.
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