Brad and Connie Spindler are browsing through books at an Oakland street fair when Brad finds Lips Stick: How to Throw Your Voice. “I read this when I was a kid,” says Brad. “I was thinking about it this morning. That’s been happening a lot lately.”
Thumbing through a Betty Crocker cookbook, Connie says, “Finding books you read as a kid?”
“No, thinking about things. And then they happen.”
“Then think about these Blueberry Peek-a-Boos,” says Connie, her eyes as blue as the berries. “I won’t have to make them.”
In May, the time of year when Connie traditionally scoops ants onto sheets of paper and ferries them from the kitchen to the backyard, there had been no ants. As May became June, Brad proclaimed, “A year with no ants.” That afternoon, an army of red ones marched past the sink.
The next day, as Brad was tossing a half-empty tube of tuna-flavored Ball B-Gone into the trash, he said, “Looks like we won’t be needing this, Chairman.” Not five minutes later, Chairman Meow coughed up a hairball.
And this morning, Connie had yelled, “Breakfast!” just as Chairman Meow yawned. It was as if Connie had thrown her voice to him.
“You remind me of a book I read as a kid,” Brad had told The Chairman. Now here the book is in Brad’s hands.
“This is the book I read as a kid! Look, here’s my name. Bradley Spindler.”
“Spooky,” says Connie.
“That’s what Einstein said.”
Recently, Brad had read the book Mysterious Universe at work between sandwiches. Brad and Connie own a vegan sandwich shop. Earth’s Crust. On a typical day, Brad makes a hundred sandwiches, give or take. It took him almost fifty to get through string theory.
Brad’s take on Mysterious Universe is that there are lots of spooky things going on. Wormholes, for one. Wouldn’t it be something to go into a wormhole and come out in another universe? Or backward in time?
Or take quantum entanglement. One particle on one side of the universe sends a signal faster than the speed of light to a particle on the other side of the universe, and that particle wiggles or whatever. Einstein called it spooky action.
As Connie nudges Brad toward a stack of vinyl records, Brad considers his ant, hairball, and Lips Stick thoughts. My thoughts are nothing more than chemicals oozing through my brain, right? Could my chemical particles have spoken to the ants’ chemical particles? Could my ant thoughts, hairball thoughts, and ventriloquism thoughts have triggered the ants, the hairball, and this book?
Brad is pleased to have been reunited with Lips Stick. But with the ants and the hairball, no way.
After returning Jethro Tull’s Songs from the Wood to the stack, it occurs to Brad that he had not knocked on wood nor stated as such after making neither his ant nor hairball proclamation. What if he had knocked on wood or stated as such? Would he have prevented the ants and/or hairball from happening? There was a lot to think about, for sure. But sensing that his thoughts have consequences, he’d better be careful. Or knock on wood.
“Look, there’s Donna and—what’s his name?” asks Connie.
Tall Paul, thinks Brad, who’d also read Forget It? Ten Steps to a Better Memory at work. “Paul,” says Brad.
“Hi, Donna. Hi, Paul,” says Connie. “Long time.”
Both Paul and Donna have blonde hair. Remembering their last name is a cinch. “Hi, Whiteheads,” says Brad.
Donna is also tall. And like Paul, thin. Standing together, the Whiteheads remind Brad of the number 11, each numeral wearing a blue mask.
“Long time,” says Donna. “No masks?”
“We’ve had our shots,” says Connie. “As long as we’re outside, it’s safe to —”
“Look what I found,” says Paul. “It’s a ukulele.”
“Sure enough,” says Brad.
“Didn’t you used to play guitar?” Donna asks Brad. “I used to think you were cute. You had the brownest eyes.”
Brad’s senior year of high school, he played bass guitar and sang in a rock ‘n’ roll band. The Marbles. Paul’s cousin Walt was in the band, too. One Saturday in June—the second Saturday, a week from today, Brad thinks, noonish—the Marbles were rehearsing in Mosswood Park for that night’s outdoor performance. But after playing “Brown Eyed Girl” and killing “Golden Years,” Brad and Walt disagreed over the key in which to play “Go Your Own Way.” Before either of the other two Marbles could intervene, Walt, still pumped from “Golden Years,” presumably, and with a dozen or so girls looking on, punched Brad in the nose.
The tension had been building between them. Before inviting Walt to join the band, Brad had been the frontman. “Besides Paul McCartney, name one bass-player frontman,” Walt, the new lead guitarist, had said.
“Oh, I don’t know. Sting. Brian Wilson. Roger Waters,” said Brad.
Though Brad knew nothing of wormholes at the time, he wished he were elsewhere. But suddenly, with his eyes closed and his nose in two pieces, he smelled lilacs. “Are you okay?” a nearby voice asked.
That day at Mosswood Park, as nose-blood dripped onto his bass, Brad grabbed it by its neck and rammed its head into Walt’s groin. The Marbles’ organist launched into “King of Pain.”
Brad had had his eyes on Connie Snodgrass for months. At Marbles performances, screaming on the front row with her friends, she reminded him of an exuberant Sally Field. The Flying Nun, screaming not for him, but for Walt, Brad had thought.
“More than okay,” said Brad. For Connie had flown to him.
The Marbles went their own ways: Brad to U. Cal Culinary; Walt to the Coast Guard, the last Brad heard.
Thinking about it now, it’s as if he’d traveled in time. One minute: girlfriend-less bass player playing “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Golden Years.” The next minute: in his golden years, a parent of two brown-eyed grown girls.
Brad rarely thinks of Walt. But the way tall, blonde Paul is holding that ukulele—knees bent, hips cocked—reminds Brad of tall, blonde Walt, holding his Gibson Sunburst.
Brad’s nose is throbbing.
“Whatcha got there?” asks Paul.
“A book on how to throw your voice. I read it when I was a kid. This book. My name is in it. Look.”
“What are the odds?” asks Paul.
“Not as great as you might think. According to quantum theory, strange things happen.”
“Do you know how it works?” asks Donna, looking down at Brad.
“No, throwing your voice. Can you do it?”
When other boys were playing trumpets, trombones, French horns, and sports, young Bradley Spindler practiced his bass guitar and ventriloquism. He and his mustachioed, Oakland A’s sock puppet, Rolly Fingers, finished third in their eighth-grade talent show.
It helped that the talent show was held in winter. Lips Stick had taught Bradley that, by allowing his lips to chap, he was less apt to move them. But when it came to throwing his voice, he had only to pitch it to Rolly, standing on the mound of Bradley’s knee. As for throwing his voice farther, it fell short.
Considering ventriloquism to consist of undetectable lip movement and detectable voice projection, Brad, with no lip movement, answers Donna, “Yesss and no.”
“Not ad,” says Donna behind her mask (the b sound is problematic for beginners).
Looking at Brad and Donna reminds Brad that Earth’s Crust opens at 11. After paying for Lips Stick, the Betty Crocker cookbook, and a rake-hoe combo, the Spindlers drive off in their Prius.
“What do we need this for?” asks Connie from the passenger seat, her hand on the rake-hoe handle jutting out beside her.
“You never know when we might need it,” says Brad.
“For what? The condo association takes care of all the yard work.”
“For protection. Like for what happened at Fifteen Flavorites.” The ice cream shop, kitty-corner to Earth’s Crust, had been robbed.
“You can’t be serious. They were just kids. They took a stack of waffle cones.”
“Still, something like that could happen to us, knock on wood,” Brad says, knocking on the handle of his weapon.
After enlisting in the Coast Guard, Walt Whitehead and three other Coasties formed a band called The Gulf Stream. Like its namesake, The Gulf Stream played up and down the Florida coast. Performing in a Tampa bar one night, Walt met Liz, a twenty-three-year-old first-grade teacher who’d caught his We the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful Coast Guard T-shirt after Walt, bare-chested, flung it into the crowd.
Fifteen years later, Master Chief Petty Officer Whitehead returned home early one night from a gig in St. Pete and found Liz bare-chested with a young Seaman Apprentice. A homonym, it would occur to Walt.
Liz once said that she had thirty children every year, and she had no desire for more. With nothing but the Gulf Stream to keep him in Florida, Master Chief Petty Officer Whitehead took early retirement and, with half of Liz’s and his savings, bought a Winnebago Rialto, named it Mary (as in “The Wind Cries . . .”) and left Clearwater for the uncertain road.
Six hundred ninety-two thousand, four hundred thirty-three lonely miles and two engines later, after visiting forty-nine states, fifty-eight National Parks, twenty-three former shipmates, and Graceland, Walt is parked in a Bangor, Maine, campsite the first Saturday in June, 1:40 Eastern, when his testicles start to ache. Followed by an urge to drive to Oakland, California.
Walt has learned to trust his urges. Thanks to one, he returned home early from a gig in St. Pete. Thanks to another, while aboard the USCGC Audubon, he ran up two decks, commandeered the helm, and steered to portside. A split-second later, he spied an uninjured manatee just off the starboard. And then there was the time he felt the sudden need to drive to Yellowstone, where he saved an errant toddler from a mud pit.
Walt’s fondest memories of Oakland are playing in a band called The Marbles. Girls would crowd the stage to hear him sing—one girl in particular, Connie Something. He’d found out her first name after she caught his shirt one night and asked him to sign it. Because of her, Walt had wanted to perform “Brown Eyed Girl” as “Blue Eyed Girl.” But Brad Spindler, the asshole bass player, said no one messed with Van Morrison. To this day, Walt regrets not asking Connie Blue-Eyes out. How different his sad, solitary life might be.
Walt hasn’t been to Oakland since his mother died five years ago. His father died when Walt was young. No brothers. No sisters. After rummaging through a list of phone numbers in Mary’s glovebox, Walt calls Cousin Paul.
“Hey, Paul, it’s Walt.”
“Whitehead, your cousin. I’ll be in Oakland a week from today. Is there room to park Mary at your house?”
“Mary? Oh, you mean your camper. Uh, I guess so. Hey, Walt, you know what you are? A solivagant, that’s what. It’s my word for the day. It means a solitary wanderer. And now you call. What are the odds? Oh, guess what else. I bought a ukulele this morning!”
“Wow. See you next Saturday.”
All week, Brad refreshed his ventriloquistic skills by reading Lips Stick: How to Throw Your Voice and executing its directives. Taking deep breaths through his nose, lifting his tongue to his palette, and squeezing his diaphragm to his backbone, he practiced. At home. In his car. At Earth’s Crust when only Connie was there.
Starting with groans and working up to “Help me!” Brad’s muffled voice inched outward. First to his hand. Next to the salad dressings. By Wednesday, the Kalamata olives were talking.
Fully vaccinated, and with a plexiglass shield running the length of the counter, Brad had ditched his mask. With lips properly stuck, a maskless face would make him more convincing. Contrarily, a masked customer’s lips might errantly be perceived as moving. The stage was set.
Yesterday, Friday, Brad jerked his head toward a masked customer at the end of the line and said, “Hurry the thuck ut, will ya?” with a muffled voice a mask might effect.
Brad had planned to answer himself with all the lip movement he could muster. But before he had a chance to say, Quality can’t be hurried, sir, a customer at the register turned toward the presumed malcontent and said, “Hold your horses, jackass.”
It had worked. But Brad now wished he’d tried things out on a smaller dummy. For this one, all six feet and two hundred pounds plus of him, was charging past the onions and the speechless olives toward the hothead at the register.
“Not so fast,” said Brad, hurrying around the counter with his sawed-off rake-hoe. “What say both of your sandwiches are free and leave it at that.”
With one customer eyeing the rake and the other customer eyeing the hoe, in unison the two men said, “Sounds good.”
Brad had to admit that his voice, his Distant Voice, despite his faulty f and p, had sounded good, too. He was ready for . . . whatever.
In a Rock Springs, Wyoming, campground, the nearby moans of young lovers reminded Walt of his own loveless life. Ten miles southwest of Winnemucca, Nevada, he shooed a recalcitrant rattlesnake off Interstate 80. Otherwise, Walt’s cross-country drive had been uneventful.
It’s Saturday, just before noon, when he arrives in Oakland. What would Cousin Paul think if I turned up now? considers Walt. Lunchtime.
Though tempted by an ice cream shop featuring fifteen flavorites, he sees a vegan sandwich shop across the street. Earth’s Crust. And there’s room enough for Mary at the curb. Snatching his yellow, smiley face mask from Mary’s rearview mirror, he climbs down from her cab.
Rye, sourdough, whole wheat, brioche, Walt reads from the bread wall at the end of the counter. There are two people ahead of him in line, an old man and what must be his grandson, a boy of ten or twelve. With no one in line behind, Walt is in no hurry. It also gives him more time to admire the attractive masked woman behind the counter. There’s something familiar about her, Walt thinks. Her blue eyes.
He’d had rye bread in Cheyenne and whole wheat in Omaha. What’s brioche? Walt is thinking, when the door to Earth’s Crust tinkles.
Whenever Walt hears bells, his first thought is it must be noon, time to check the USCGC Audubon’s emergency alarms and whistles. Eight Bells, the noontime ringing was called. As if to begin inspections, Walt turns toward the door. The clock above the door reads noon. Spooky, thinks Walt.
What strikes Walt is not so much the trench coat the man is wearing on a sunny June day. Nor is it the black mask or red MAGA hat. It is the combination of the mask and MAGA hat. You don’t see that every day, Walt thinks before turning back to the woman awaiting his bread choice.
Meeting the woman’s eyes with his, Walt thinks, Oh, my God. Could it be? “Connie?” says Walt, pulling his smiley face down to his chin, then pulling his smiley face up.
Turning to the man behind the register, Connie says, “Look who’s here, Brad. It’s Walt Whitehead!”
“’Sup Brad?” asks Walt, inadvertently palming his groin while noting the crook in Brad’s nose.
Under normal circumstances, Walt might have continued with his order, a Veggie Transport on whatever brioche is, he’d decided. But these are not normal circumstances. For one: Connie Blue-Eyes and Brad Spindler behind a sandwich shop counter. For another: a masked man wearing a MAGA hat and wielding a machete (that explains the trench coat) saying, “Enough with the chitchat. Everyone but you on the floor, Sandwich Man. Open the register. Then up with your hands!”
The register rings; Brad’s hands go up; Connie disappears behind the counter. “Out here where I can see you, lady,” says MAGA hat. Meanwhile, the young boy kneels beside Grandpa, and Walt flattens to the floor.
“Give him the money, honey!” shouts Connie, crawling from behind the counter before dropping beside Walt.
Lilacs, thinks Walt.
“I said drop, old man,” MAGA hat says to Grandpa.
“Not in these clothes, I won’t.”
Lying on his stomach, Walt cranes his neck to look at the old man. His clothes look nice enough—khaki slacks, a red-and-blue checked shirt—but nothing special. Looking at MAGA hat, Grandpa says, “Take the money and run.”
The Steve Miller Band, thinks Walt. The Marbles always closed with that song. But before taking Grandpa’s advice, MAGA hat whacks the old guy’s butt with the blunt side of the machete and brings him to his knees.
With MAGA hat’s attention drawn to Grandpa, Walt notices Brad lowering his hands behind the register. What could he have down there? A billy club? A gun? A Fender bass guitar? At that thought, Walt’s mind races.
Most bands performed “Go Your Own Way” in F major. But that day in Mosswood Park—same June Saturday as this, thinks Walt, at about noon—Brad had insisted on its relative minor. Same chords, different emphasis.
From that moment, one thing led to another. In Walt’s case: Coast Guard, divorce, manatee-saving, et cetera, resulting in a lifetime of lonely solivaganting. Now here he is at Earth’s Crust, where Brad suddenly jerks his head toward him as someone says, “Let’s see what you’re made of, Zorro.”
Zorro? wonders Walt. He’d wielded a sword, not a machete. And who had spoken? Not Grandpa. Too deep to be the boy’s or Connie’s voice. And Brad’s lips hadn’t moved at all. But wait. Didn’t Brad sometimes sing with no lip movement? Why is he looking at me?
“I’ll show you what I’m made of—and wipe that smile off your face,” says MAGA hat, looking Walt’s way.
It’s not so much the blunt side of the machete that Walt fears. It’s the sharp edges and pointy end that is coming ever closer. As he was taught the log roll in elementary school gymnastics, Walt rolls.
“Drop it!” a voice says.
This time it’s Brad speaking, no question. As Walt rolls to a stop, he looks up and sees Brad in front of the counter. He’s swinging what appears to be a short-handled rake. Or is it a short-handled hoe? This is why Brad had distracted MAGA hat with the voice thing. So he could come out swinging.
Walt jumps up, intending to help Brad while staying away from the flashing machete and the swinging rake-hoe.
Connie, rising from the floor, is screaming, “Be careful, dear!”
“Kill him,” yells the boy.
“Earth’s Crust. And make it snappy,” says Grandpa to his cellphone.
As if seeking higher ground, MAGA hat jumps onto a table and proceeds to whack downward at Brad. Brad swings upward with the rake-hoe. Clank. Clank-clank.
Given that about sixty seconds have elapsed since Walt decided on his Veggie Transport, he hasn’t had time to formulate a plan. The best he has come up with is to tip the table. But as Walt tips the table, MAGA hat falls. As he falls, his machete clanks errantly off Brad’s rake-hoe. With its pointy end, the machete goes through Walt’s heart.
Walt thinks it odd that everyone and everything has vanished. The roof to Connie and Brad’s shop, for one. Or has he risen through it? Broken through Earth’s Crust?
He has. And speed-of-light fast. In no time at all, the earth is a blue marble. And would you look at all those stars!
When Walt was a kid, Scoutmaster Kleinfeld chartered a boat and took his troop of Webelos on a nighttime cruise of Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco. Halfway through their trip, the captain turned off all of the boat’s lights. When Walt looked down, a biomass of phosphorescent plankton lit up like a night of shining stars. From that moment, he had wanted to become a sailor.
But now, a night of shining stars is lit up like a biomass of phosphorescent plankton. It’s as if the night sky is the sea, and he is drowning.
What’s that? thinks Walt. Some kind of hole in the sky. A sky-hole that’s sucking me in. Oh, my. It looks like Mosswood.
Connie Snodgrass has had her eyes on Brad and Walt ever since The Marbles, four boys from rival Fremont High, played at a Valentine’s Day dance at her school. Bishop O’Dowd. Since then, she hasn’t missed a single performance. She even attended some of their rehearsals. Like today in Mosswood Park, where The Marbles are wrapping up a Beatles medley on this second Saturday in June. There is something in the way they move, all right, thinks Connie, standing near the stage with a dozen or so girls.
There’s Walt, the tall, blonde lead guitarist singing “Brown Eyed Girl.” Before launching into songs by Jimi Hendrix, he always shouts, “Are you experienced?” One time he was looking at her! At the end of each show, Walt throws his shirt into the crowd. Two Saturday nights ago, she caught one. After the show, he signed his shirt, To Connie Blue-Eyes. She’d die before she washed it. It smells so . . . something. Now Walt’s singing “Golden Years.”
And then there’s Brad, the bass player with thick black hair she’d like to muss. Sometimes, he sings without moving his lips. One time he looked at her and sang that way. She’d imagined Brad’s lips pressed against her own.
After finishing “Golden Years,” Walt smiles and announces the next song, “Go Your Own Way.” In the distance, noon bells ring.
“Let’s try it in D-minor this time,” says Brad, plunking his D-string.
“No, let’s stick to F,” says Walt.
“Think about it. It’s a sad song,” says Brad. “You know, breaking up and shit. D-minor would work better. Same chords but sadder.”
“I said F,” says Walt, walking to his left.
“F you,” says Brad, walking to his right, meeting Walt at the drum set and Walt’s fist with his nose.
The drummer leaps from his drums. Connie jumps onto the stage. Look at all of that nose-blood, thinks Connie. Poor Brad. He needs comforting. But before Connie can comfort Brad, he rams the head of his bass into Walt’s you-know-whats. How could I comfort Brad now? Connie asks herself as the organist begins “King of Pain.”
With his hand cupping his you-know-whats, Connie goes to Walt. Thankful she had put on her best perfume (Lilac Lust), she looks into his eyes and asks, “Are you okay?”
Until now, Connie had not realized that Walt’s eyes are blue. As blue as her own. In biology class, Connie learned that a child born to both parents with blue eyes had a ninety-nine percent chance of having blue eyes. Looking deep into Walt’s eyes, Connie sees two blue-eyed girls. They’re wearing little Coast Guard caps. Spooky, thinks Connie.
“More than okay,” says Walt.