LEAVING BY WAY OF SECONDARY northbound arteries, staying clear of the coast. By car until dusk, until the tank runs dry, then by foot until dawn. A roadside diner. Just uphill to the east, among pines. Tin screen door flaps behind me. The waitress thinks she knows me from somewhere. Lowers her rifle and replaces it beside the register. The place is empty. I settle in at the counter and take out my notebook.

She brings me coffee, asks me what I’m writing. I mumble something evasive and change the subject. I ask her whether the term waitress is more or less derogatory than server.

She says, “Server is supposed to be nicer, but it always sounded meaner to me. I’d rather wait than serve.”

I agree. “I used to be called a busboy, even though I was a man. I didn’t care.”

Her name is Cathi. She’s been here only two weeks. Her uncle used to run the place, before he got stung. Cathi says her uncle was good friends with King John of Florida. Back on September 7, 2001, her uncle was in the room when King John signed an executive order giving himself the power to declare martial law. Four days later, Saudi nationals bombed New York and Washington, D.C., with heavily populated airplanes.

Cathi says, “We used to spend Christmas in the king’s palace, in Tallahassee.”

“What was that like?”

“The king did a lot of strange things,” she says. “The strangest thing was, whenever he’d talk to me, he’d look the other way.”

Cathi says her uncle was the last of her family. She lost the rest in the first sweep, same as me.

“Aren’t we the lucky ones,” I say. Cathi mumbles something evasive and changes the subject. She asks me whether the term writer is more or less derogatory than typer.

“A typer,” I say, “probably lives longer.”

Cathi’s laughter is the sweetest sound I’ve heard in months.

“What’re you typing now?” she says.

“A short story,” I say. “About a stolen rubber-band ball — a ball made of thousands of rubber bands. Someone stole a rubber-band ball as big as a basketball from this guy I used to know, this guy Fletcher.”

“That’s where I know you from,” says Cathi. “Fletcher — I know Fletcher.”

“You know Fletcher?”

Cathi smiles. Cathi says, “Why you do this to me?

FLETCHER AND I WORKED TOGETHER for a decade or so. Fletcher worked in Operations, and I worked in Art. Fletcher wielded power tools, I carried an X-Acto knife. Sometimes Fletcher filled in for the receptionist, which gave him time to work on his rubber-band artwork.

Why you do this to me?” Fletcher’d usually say when he saw me, in a nasal feminine voice. “Why you do this to me, Dimmy?” It was a line from a movie about Catholic fundamentalists called The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty. In 1950, Blatty was a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, You Bet Your Life. He won enough money to take a year off from work, during which time he wrote The Exorcist. Later, he wrote the screenplay as well.

In the movie, Jason Miller plays a character called Father Damien Karras. Vasiliki Maliaros plays his mother. She calls her son “Dimmy.” At some point, she says, “Why you do this to me, Dimmy?”

I never sat through The Exorcist. But when Fletcher said it, I knew that he’d allowed me into his tribe, because I understood the significance of his labors; he’d put his very soul into the rubber-band ball.

After the ball was stolen, Fletcher collapsed. He couldn’t work. His wife left him. He lost his house and ended up on the street one night after curfew. A swarm of Neoconazis stung him in his sleep, and he woke up on the train to Camp Laura Lynne, one of the newer Halliburton/Wackenhut internment camps, up by San Luis Obispo. Now he’s five years deep in slave labor, building high-rise coastal condominiums for Pat Robertson and Osama bin Laden.

That’s the last I heard. Six months ago, I stopped receiving his letters.

Cathi and I will be joining him soon enough.

CATHI OPENS A TIN OF CLING PEACHES in heavy syrup, and we eat from the can with chopsticks. She says she knew Fletcher back in Tallahassee. They went to high school together, at the school where all the kids got shot. That’s where he started making rubber-band balls.

Cathi says she heard about Fletcher’s monster-size rubber-band ball going missing. “I heard it was a guy named Willie who stole it. Willie worked undercover for the corporation.” Fletcher was suspected of misappropriating company office supplies for personal use — a newly declared felony. “Willie decided to fuck with Fletcher’s head, that’s what I heard. Did you guys work with any Willies?”

“Not specifically,” I say. “I worked with a Will, and some Bills. And a William. And I used to know a Liam.”

Cathi says she heard that the Willie in question used to go by Liam. Then he got married and changed his name to Willie.

I say, “Still sounds like a long shot. The Liam I knew was one of the most honorable people I ever met. He’d never steal another man’s rubber-band ball. But then again,” I recall, “after he got married, he sort of disappeared. We didn’t have a falling-out, but he stopped returning my calls. I left some messages, asking if I’d done something to insult him, but he never got back to me.”

The cling peaches are gone. Cathi pours the remaining syrup into two glasses.

“Jesus,” I say, lifting mine. “How much would someone have to pay a Liam to become a Willie?”

Cathi shrugs. “Not a question of how much,” says Cathi. “Question of why: Why they do this to us?”?

LA Weekly