There was a long line of traffic ahead of them, a long line behind, snaking down the desert road. Blair had one foot lifted to rest on the dash, his index finger tapping gently at his knee now and again. He eyed the traffic in front and then twisted to look out the back window.
“Looks like we got ourselves a con-voy,” he drawled.
“Looks like we do. Just don’t start singing,” Jim said, flicking on his turn signal, and wondering why he was bothering as the traffic kept turning in an automobilian conga line. If anyone was here on this flat ribbon of road they were obviously all going the same place as Jim and the multitude of vehicles around him
“That’s a ten-four, rubber duck,” Blair said, and got himself cuffed over the head. “Although, I could probably get away with it, you know. Singing I mean. Burning Man is all about the self-expression and the participation.”
They slowed to a crawl, and Jim indulged a mock shudder. “Chief, all the things that you’ve told me about this, and the one thing guaranteed to make me turn around right now is you threatening to sing.”
“Dick,” Blair said with no particular heat. “You’ve heard me sing before.”
“In the shower. And that’s why I’m begging you now - don’t sing.”
Blair shook his head and laughed. “Oh, man. That is like, throwing down a gauntlet. I have a good memory, I have a lot of songs tucked up in here.” He tapped the side of his head.
“Well, that’ll certainly give me something to look forward to,” Jim muttered.
There were dust clouds billowing along the playa in the distance, blowing parallel to the rows of parked cars and RVs and trucks. The walls of the tent that Jim had just put up flapped like sails in the wind.
“That’ll be noisy tonight,” Blair said. He’d tied a blue and white bandanna around his head in an effort to keep the worst of the dust out of his hair, having abandoned his fishing hat in the wind (or was it more that his hat had tried to abandon him, several times?). Jim simply jammed his Jags cap on more firmly.
“If it’s noisy it’s noisy,” Jim said, shrugging. “If you can’t sleep, there’ll be enough night life to keep you from getting bored.”
Blair nodded, his eyes squinting as he reviewed the long rows of vehicles and people. The bandanna and the narrow eyes made him look foreign to Jim for a moment. Blair, square-set in his shirt and jeans and bandanna looked frankly like a dead ringer for any number of men of bad repute that Jim had seen in his work, stocky, unshaven, dealing in drugs and stolen cigarettes. And then Blair grinned at him and became himself again.
“This is going to be so cool.” It was enthusiastic, maybe too much so, and Jim nodded. A whole tent city of neo-hippie witch doctor punks? Cool. Absolutely. Way cooler than the courses that Blair would be taking on their return to Cascade, to help set him up in the PD consultancy that Simon had wrangled him after Blair had protested that there was no way he could be a cop. There was music in the air as well as dust, heavy with a bass note, and not loud here, but at its source – loud and distorted.
Blair saw his glance towards the centre of this weird little city. “If it gets too much, it’s okay with me if you bow out. Hell, you could go wander Nevada if you wanted to, and just come and collect me on Sunday. Or else I could hitch to Gerlach or Nixon and join you. I bet I could get a ride no trouble.”
Jim shook his head. “Where would I stay? Easier to just camp out in the tent. We’ve done it before and I can probably ignore noise better than you can. What was the point of you teaching me the tricks of the trade if I don’t use them?”
Gratification soothed some of the trouble in Blair’s frown. “True.” He stuffed a water bottle into his backpack. “Wanna go for a walk?”
“Lead on,” Jim said, his hand gesturing towards the tented area in the distance, and they set off together into the playa twilight.
There was a young woman, dressed in what might have passed as bondage gear from a fantasy planet, fire-dancing in an open air arena created by the frame of a geodesic dome, her flaming baton leaving light trails in its wake. Blair and Jim watched for a while, Blair’s smile dreamily appreciative, before they moved on, Blair indefatigable in his wanderings. Occasionally he would look at Jim, checking on him, Jim realised, like Jim was a cranky kid who wouldn’t deal so well with over-stimulation.
“I’m not going to faint like some maiden aunt seeing tits in public for the first time,” Jim said eventually. Although if he had been a maiden aunt type, he would have hit the ground several times by now. Nudity taboos were imposed only by the temperature of the air. “Now why don’t you explain the deeper meaning of this to a poor philistine cop?” ‘This’ was a huge, pink ring flanked by sculpted legs, clearly a representation of an anus. Blair looked at the ‘art’, then at Jim’s carefully deadpan face before he burst out guffawing.
“We drove over six hundred miles so that I can explain an asshole to you?”
Jim crossed his arms across his chest. “Absolutely, Sandburg. Educate me as to the deeper meaning of it all. Plumb the depths of the metaphor. Take me down the chute of intellectual exploration.”
“Oh, you are on.” Blair pushed his palm gently but inexorably into the small of Jim’s back. “Come on. Let’s get up close and personal with the metaphor here.” Blair’s smile was wide and anticipatory and Jim decided that describing it as shit-eating to his friend’s face would only lose Jim the intellectual high ground.
They spent some of the small hours of the night in the big central tent, its panels noisy in the wind. Jim lay down on the ground, the bill of his cap shading his eyes, and let all the noise surrounding them flow past his awareness. The whistle of wind, the flap of the tent panels, the rattle of the nearby generators, the cacophonies of competing music, the rise and fall of human voices – Jim didn’t have to pay any attention to it, so he didn’t. One nearly middle-aged guy dozing on the ground was the least of things in the freak show around them.
He caught Blair’s voice, animated and bright, telling a young woman with a pronounced New York accent about how he’d attended the first Burning Man at Baker’s Beach with his mother. Jim had already heard this story, explanation for the single ticket that Naomi had gifted her son in an agenda that hadn’t fooled Jim and he was certain hadn’t fooled Blair either. He turned onto his side, his back against Blair’s hip and felt Blair’s hand rest upon his shoulder. He took a slow, steadying breath, catching Blair’s distinctive body odour despite all the distractions of the mass of people around them. The sense of rest and sleepiness was gone, and Jim pushed up onto his elbow before sitting upright.
The young woman that Blair had been talking to had plum-coloured hair, and wore jeans and a brightly coloured jacket opened nearly all the way down the front to show tanned, heavy breasts. The spaciness of recent sleep made the sight more startling than it would otherwise have been, and Jim flicked his gaze away, determined that he wouldn’t act like some perv. God. No wonder Blair treated this place like the best amusement park ever.
Blair smiled. “Waking up again, hey, old guy?”
“Not everyone is the Energiser bunny. You want to get some coffee?” Jim straightened out his rumpled sweater, and took off his cap to rub at his scalp. Miss Manners he wasn’t, but then this wasn’t that sort of place, and this wasn’t the sort of girl he’d try to impress anyway; she was way too young for Jim, and too young for Sandburg if it came to that. “Hi, I’m Jim,” he said to her.
“Hi Jim, I’m Nita.” Her gaze was speculative as she watched the two of them and Jim wondered if she thought they were gay, or was just figuring how best to cut Blair out from the herd. “I wouldn’t mind some coffee myself.”
Jim rose smoothly to his feet (old guy my ass, he thought) and the three of them wandered towards the coffee stall, Blair and Nita chatting away like old friends. Jim half expected Blair to smilingly make his excuses and leave with Nita, but by some social alchemy Nita went her own way, and Blair and Jim walked together into the desert darkness.
“It’s kind of ironic given that I’ve just downed a cup of coffee but I figure I could sleep now,” Blair said.
“Even you have to do it sometime,” Jim replied, while Blair rummaged through his backpack for his flashlight, which had apparently worked its way to the very bottom. “And as far as I can tell you have caffeine instead of red blood cells anyway.”
“You drink more of it than I do,” Blair muttered, before triumphantly exclaiming, “Got it!” The flashlight was dragged out of the backpack, and switched on, a guide for the route and a ward against the other night-owls walking and biking in the dark. “Worked up to your lifetime’s quota of weird shit, yet?” Blair asked, taking a moment to orient himself in the row upon row of vehicles and tents.
“I’m surprised at you being so judgemental about the counter-culture, Sandburg.” This got Jim lightly whacked on the upper arm with the flashlight.
“I can read you like a book, Ellison, and your pages are printed with, ‘what a bunch of weirdoes, what the fuck am I doing here?’” Blair said.
“And yet here I am,” Jim said.
“Yeah,” Blair said quietly. “Here you are.”
“Is that a problem? Because I’d hate to think that I was cutting you out of your chance at some action.” It came out snidely, and Jim’s heart jumped in irritation – with himself, not Blair, because Jim was here, walking the streets of this ephemeral city with his friend and he couldn’t keep his goddamn mouth of out of trouble. Blair was here with Jim, not with Naomi or with exhibitionist pretty girls with crazy hair, so why couldn’t Jim just enjoy the moment instead of implying that he was some sort of impediment?
Blair’s brow creased in an offended frown that sentinel sight easily noted in the dark. “If I’d wanted ‘action’ then I wouldn’t have asked you to come with me.”
“It’d take what, fifteen minutes tops?” Jim said. “You could leave me on my own for that long.”
“God, you’re an asshole sometimes,” Blair told him. Jim stopped short, surprised, because Blair wasn’t often that pissy, while Blair picked up his pace, making his way briskly along the makeshift road
Jim caught him up and put his hand on Blair’s shoulder. Blair wasn’t often that pissy, but then Jim wasn’t often that petty a jerk. “Hey. Hey, Chief. I’m sorry. I guess I’m just tired.”
“Then it’s a good thing we’re headed back to the tent, isn’t it?” Blair said evenly.
It was an odd mix of strange and familiar walking back to their tent. How many times had Blair and Jim walked companionably together, although the street wasn’t usually desert pan, and the lights above were generally sodium orange rather than astral pale. Jim walked the tiny perimeter of truck and tent, unconvinced that their gear had been left alone, but nothing bothered him except his own sense of being a jackass.
Blair was cocooned in his sleeping bag when Jim entered the tent. “Here,” Blair said, putting the flashlight between the two sets of bedding. “I left it on, I know you don’t need it, but it’s easier.”
“You want to stay for the burn tomorrow night?”
Jim shucked his sweater and his jeans and climbed into his sleeping bag in just his shorts and t-shirt. “I thought that was the point. Watching the burn?”
“Then we’ll stay,” Jim said brusquely. He tried to soften his tone. “Kind of stupid to come all this way and not stay for the big event.”
“It’s not really your thing, though, is it.” Blair rolled onto his stomach, cheek resting on his folded arms while he watched as Jim settled on the thin hiking pad. Blair’s arms were tanned after only a day or so in the sun, and the braid that he’d plaited his hair into against the ever present wind and dust curled neatly against the nape of his neck.
Jim shrugged. “It’s your thing, and you asked. I’ll survive getting a little culture, even if it’s not exactly the Boston Philharmonic.”
“Jim...” Blair’s voice roughened. “It doesn’t have to be quid pro quo. Any of this. Just because I start at the Academy soon....”
Jim turned off the flashlight. “Nobody said anything about quid pro quo, Sandburg. A guy can go on a break with a friend if he wants to. Go to sleep.”
Jim waited in the pitch-black for Blair to push the issue – but all that Blair said was, “Fine. Going to sleep now.”
Jim slept too, and woke to find that he’d looped his arm over Blair in the night, a habit that had started with him and Stevie when they were very young and that Jim had never managed to break, except with great effort and attention in the army. Somehow, if he had company in the bed or within hugging distance, he naturally gravitated towards it. He stealthily lifted his hand, but Blair turned and looked into his eyes with affectionate mockery. This had happened before when they shared close quarters. “Too late, man. Busted. Once a snuggler always a snuggler.” There was sleep in the corner of Blair’s eyes, and he was growing distinctly whiskery, and Jim knew a moment’s glowing epiphany that he’d be more than happy to be teased by Blair every morning for the rest of his life.
This realisation clearly didn’t show in his expression, because Blair stretched his arms out of the sleeping bag and then wriggled and kicked his way free of it. “Do you think it would be disgusting to use one of our grey water bottles as an emergency latrine?” His smile broadened at whatever crossed Jim’s face. “And the answer is ‘yes, Sandburg, that would indeed be disgusting.’ Okay, the long trek to the porta-potties it is then.” He grabbed his jeans and dragged them on. “Okay.” He deepened his voice portentously as he exited the little tent. “I may be gone some time.”
Jim flipped him off, and stretched out in the empty space, before he frowned, and got out of the sleeping bag to find his own jeans, and a half empty water bottle. Fluids in, fluids out.
He caught up with Blair at the queues. Not even the clear light of an early desert morning could soften the starkness of a latrine row, and the smell of them made Jim’s nose twitch. Blair lifted one eyebrow. “So much for the military bladder,” he said.
Jim gave Blair a head-tilted ‘not as funny as you think you are’ look, but otherwise restrained himself. “Here,” he said, and offered the water bottle.
Blair looked at the water, at the row of porta-pottie shacks, and then at the playa beyond. “It is a desert out here,” he conceded, and chugged the water.
Blair stared appreciatively at the simple sun shelter and circle of chairs, and men and women drumming. “Oh, now that is beautiful,” Blair sighed.
Jim nodded. “If you say so. Although beautifully loud is more like it.”
He kept his voice easy, the sarcasm joking, and was rewarded with an equally easy, joking smile from Blair, who leaned close into Jim’s space and growled, “Dial it down, man. Or else just give in to it.”
Jim looked at the circle of drummers. None of them was expert, but there was unity of rhythm there. “Always did want to be in a band,” he teased, and Blair grinned and found them a couple of chairs, with the cheap drums sitting on top of them. Blair started first, his hands steady, and Jim followed his lead, trying to keep his concentration in the overlapping layers of sound. It would be easy to zone on this, he thought, on the thud of hands against stretched leather and plastic, on the regular thump and tingle of his own hands against the drum, and he was half-startled when Blair began to speak in an intimate conversational tone that would be drowned in the drumming – unless you had sentinel senses.
“The heart chakra is called anahata, and I won’t bore you with the whole background, but one of the things it’s associated with is the action of the hands, and the sound of the celestial realm, which is why this such an amazing symbolism. So just take my word for it that this is something more than a bunch of people making a noise, okay?”
Jim nodded. Blair wouldn’t hear him unless he came close to shouting, but he wanted Blair to know that he was paying attention. They drummed for a while, then Blair said, “Chakras are part of the subtle body, beyond physicality but affecting it, and the idea of the subtle body is developed in any number of belief systems. Understand the subtle body and you control the physical body.” He grinned, smug suddenly. “Some people visualise chakras, some people visualise dials.”
They were in unison with their rhythm, Jim realised, and in unison with their mood, which was affectionate and amused. Blair banged out something that was more in counterpoint to the larger group, and Jim followed that for a while, enjoying the simple physical energy of strike and impact, like a two year old discovering his body. They drummed for maybe half an hour, sweating in the warm desert air, before Jim stopped, his hands thrumming. He put his drum down.
Blair smiled at him. “Go wander,” he said, in that same low tone. “I think I need a little while longer at this. It’s a meditation.”
Jim made a small, token wave of farewell, before wandering to the edge of the drummers’ space. There were posters pinned to the wall of the makeshift tent, printed in brightly lurid colours. The heart chakra, they informed him, was associated with ‘complex emotions, compassion, tenderness, unconditional love, equilibrium, rejection and well-being’. Jim’s gaze moved to Blair, who sat with his eyes shut now, immersed in the noise and rhythm of the drumming, and struggled a moment for his own equilibrium. Complex emotions? He and Blair, he thought, had plenty of those.
Fire incited emotion – flame could comfort, could destroy. Could excite, and certainly this crowd was excited, on edge with expectation and a wild energy as the burning man finally fulfilled its destiny. Heat radiated – that was basic physics back to Jim’s days at Cascade West middle school, but sentinel senses made it so much more than just a simple wall of heat. There were thermals; the way that the currents of warmth flowed around and over the crowd; the flicker of the light counterpointed by other, smaller fires; the roaring rush of fuel consumed.
“I think that the word is primal,” Blair said, his skin flushed with excitement and the warmth of the fire, even though they stood a fair distance back. It seemed that every man and woman present, in their thousands, was gathered around.
“Primal would fit,” Jim replied, fascinated and happy in his fascination. He knew that there was symbolism in the figure and its destruction, but the simple spectacle of it all drew him. The air was full of stimulus – heat and wind, the scent of burning and the ripeness of thousands of people together.
“Hey,” Blair said, “I want to go check out the other fires. I’ll meet you back at the tent – or else you can always track me down, right?”
“I can find you if I want you,” Jim told him. In this crowd it might take a while, but Jim knew he could do it, and so did Blair. Easy as falling off a log.
“That’s what I figured,” Blair said, and slipped away to investigate the smaller fires. Jim watched the burning man a while until it diminished into a smaller fire rising out of a bed of scorching embers, and then decided to go in search of Blair. He checked his watch, thinking that he might tell Blair how long it took to find him if the numbers seemed impressive in any way, and turned to scan the crowd, looking for one man, listening, scenting, and eventually deciding that screw the senses, Blair, with his appreciation of the primal might be at the next largest fire, and set out.
His instinct proved good, as he caught sight of Blair, silhouetted against flames. He was throwing something into the fire, Jim realised, and sight focused on it automatically. A heavy bundle of paper, letter sized, too thick to be rolled into a proper cylinder or tube. Just a rough ‘U’, bundled together with a row of rubber bands, it barrelled through the air with all the force of Blair’s good throwing arm behind it, to land in the middle of the fire. Blair watched it begin to char and burn with eyes narrowed against the glare and temperature, before he nodded, like something was settled, and turned away. Jim was still some distance away – close enough that he could see Blair, not close enough that Blair could see him, until he drew closer, waving and calling to get Blair’s attention.
“Fire-bugged yourself out?” Jim asked. He had an odd, hollow feeling in his stomach. He’d have bet a year’s pay that it was a copy of Blair’s dissertation that was sent to the fire, and he scanned Blair with casual ease. There was no evidence of distress except in Jim himself; an unsettled, anxious curiosity sat in his gut.
“Maybe. The vibe – it’s amazing, but it’s the whole point of burning everything – it’s a hell of a way of saying that everything has to end, you know?”
Blair gestured with widespread hands. “Everything in its time. Some things are just for a few days, some are for years.” He sounded relaxed, and Jim tried to relax in his turn. Blair examined ritual and symbolism, he understood it, his reasons for expressing himself through it didn’t necessarily relate to how he felt about Jim.
Jim pointed a thumb to the fire. “So what’s coming to an end over there?”
Blair turned his head to look into the flames. “The temple of the mind.”
“Jesus.” It came out in a low, involuntary mutter, and Blair shook his head.
“You saw me, huh? Don’t worry, man. I’m not crying into my coffee here, it was just a good opportunity to say something to myself. It was only a copy. The information, the knowledge is still there, and one day there’ll be a time for it.” He put a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “One day is fine.”
Jim took a deep breath through his nose, because his mouth was pressed shut against words. Either way he reckoned he’d lose. He’d come out with something whiny and remind Blair that he’d given up the work of half his life for some stupid shit-heel; or he’d come out with something noble and self-sacrificing, and Blair would take him at his word and go. In lieu of words, he turned liked a wind-up doll and pulled Blair into his arms.
Blair smelled of sweat and ashes and coffee, and his grip around Jim’s shoulders was surprisingly tight, as if he worried that Jim might be the one to walk away. He was the one to let go first, and he thumped a fist across the front of Jim’s left shoulder. “I’m glad you came with me, Jim. Okay?”
Jim nodded. If Blair still sought his company, if Blair still liked him, then he thought that they could deal together with that rough, obligated love forged in front of fountains and tv cameras.
Blair was driving the first leg of the trip back home, the truck caught in the vehicular current away from Black Rock. He’d started singing softly, after a quick, impish look at Jim, occasionally slightly off the note but not unpleasantly so. “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, it’s just a spring clean for the May Queen…” He broke off to mutter, “That asshole up ahead hasn’t tied his load down properly. He’s going to be dumping garbage all over Nevada. So much for leave no trace.”
“Want me to ignore the fact that I’m out of my jurisdiction?” Jim asked.
Blair grinned ruefully. “Oh, don’t think that I’m not tempted to open a can of Jim Ellison whoop-ass on him. But like you said. Jurisdiction. And he hasn’t actually lost any of his load. Yet.” Traffic slowed for a junction road up ahead, and Blair changed down, handling Jim’s truck with sure, careful hands.
It had taken Jim time to accept that – that Blair could be sure, and could be careful with Jim, and with Jim’s life. When everything had started, it had seemed to Jim that Blair didn’t always take Jim seriously. The sentinel? Sure; the sentinel was deadly serious business. But Jim, despite his years of seniority, his marriage (and divorce), the fact that he could and had killed people with every intention of ending them, had sometimes felt like a sulky boy under Blair’s hands, alternately coddled and ridiculed. That perception had softened with time and familiarity, but it had stayed on, an unwelcome guest.
Now, the two of them had no choice at all but to take each other seriously. Blair had started singing again; no rock god this, just a man whose wrists were a little narrow for the breadth and strength of his hands on the steering wheel, following the traffic heading out of Nevada’s wide and arid spaces.
Jim slouched down along the truck’s seat and, in a break in the concert recital, said. “Nevada’s impressive but I think I’ll be glad to see Washington again.”
Blair nodded. “It’s greener in Washington. That’s been one of the great things about this trip – seeing the vistas, being reminded that this is the continental United States.” Led Zeppelin was abandoned for Woodie Guthrie. “This land is your land, this land is my land….”
Jim held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Chief, I hate to say this, but if you plan to sing the whole way back to Cascade, then I’m going to have to shoot you.”
Blair turned his head, the smile on his face the smile of someone who knew he’d been pushing the boundaries. “You won’t shoot me. You love me, man.”
“I may love you, but I don’t have to love your singing voice.” Blair pouted in a display of small boy pique that was about eighty per cent tongue-in-cheek, and Jim shook his head and pulled the bill of his cap over his eyes, as if to shield himself. “Oh, for…. Go ahead, Mr Counter-Culture. Express yourself.”
Maybe Blair did know the words to a lot of songs, but he proved only that he knew all the words to ‘This Land’, surprisingly gracious (and quiet) in victory. Maybe his mind was turning to the serious business waiting on them in Cascade. That was a victory of a sort – Blair working with him, Blair willing to work with him, just as he’d been willing to spend this time with Jim. Jim was prepared to be gracious, humble even, in that victory.
“Since we’re still on vacation, I’m thinking something involving cheeseburgers and onion rings for lunch.”
“One day you’re going to keel over, and when they do the autopsy they’ll find ‘junk food killed me’ carved into your heart.”
Jim took that as agreement. Yeah. Victory was sweet.