It had started
with one of those cards:
8:30 MAY 5, 1995
SANDY SHORE HOTEL
SANDY SHORE, NY
[MUNCHKINS ON THE
After ten years! For
the first half of the 80s this was the way Lang used to get
in touch with me, always with one of the cryptic postal cards typed
in capitals, announcing a mid-evening meeting weeks off in a pub
in some backwoods town Id I have to get the big state map
to locate. Never a return address or signature, but I always knew
who was behind it.
I can still see them.
The Lacona Hotel, Lacona, NY. April 12, 1981. Two whiskeys
Big Moose Inn. Little Valley, NY. 6:00 September 30, 1983.
A two-scotch wait.
You get the picture. That gave me, knowing Lang, a window of half
an hour. Once I got there fifteen minutes past it and the bartender
described what happened: A big guy. Sandy hair. Looked like
he had something on his mind. Sipped two bourbons, checked his watch,
and left without a look around.
There was never a way
to confirm or change the time; that seemed part of the plan, too.
The night on the card was the night. Lang would show up and one
way or another learn something that contented him, as if it made
a point about life or the world that only he could understand. It
was a ceremonial gesture, like that of the mysterious character
who drinks the toast at Poes Baltimore grave on every dawn
of his birthday. It doesnt matter if its object never knows
of it. That was another point with Lang: you did the right thing
because it was right. They talk about old souls; his was hard.
Something different this
time, though, besides the envelope and the halfscore gap. None of
the old cards had recycled the seventh-grade sillyspeak I thought
wed both forgotten. That alone should have been a sign. My
school chum must have figured that something extra was needed to
identify him after all the years. I thought back on them the two
hours on I-90 East that May twilight, the sky all yellow on my left.
Wed had a lingo
all our own, Lang and I. Our friends were exposed to it and some
even participated, but none escalated it like we did. It wasnt
really a language, even a dialect, just a series of the goofiest
possible words, phrases, and tones recruited for the situations
of school, summer, and suburban adolescence.
It would be useless to
revive it for you, but to explain the card: Hojo could be a personal
pronoun like somebody, but it was most often a generic
vocative, sort of a Hey, you. Topaz, I guess, was an
interjection, akin to a Behold! or Check it out.
Doubled, and accompanied by an antic gesture like a karate block
or a wave of the cape before the bull, it was an absurd third option
to the fight or flight instinct, something one might
woof like Curly at a startling situation - a sprinkle from a malfunctioning
faucet, or a scare from a porched poodle. (Once along the railroad
tracks hed called it at a pale beagle-cheeked kid dashing
by us on a bike who seemed to take up the game spontaneously with
an expressionless little squeal that sent Lang into hysterics: Meee-eeep!
That probably inspired the bit about the munchkins, one of those
non-sentences I cant remember all the way.) The jabber on
that 1995 card could mean no one but Lang, and no one but its intended
reader would know it. Perfect.
Once in college we were
sitting around high and I remember asking him about the dingbat-lingo,
then only a few years behind us. Id been studying literature
and begun to admire a pair of adolescents who could come up with
a system so much their own, as if it were part of some subliminal
Jungian-Surrealist code. Id hoped the two twenty-year-olds
they became might bring enough of it back for me to write it a single
time. A little could have brought it all. He disowned it like Peter
did Jesus. Its repertoire was so rhythmic, idiotic, and once so
grooved that it was hard to believe we could both forget every part.
I jogged him a little, got a back-off signal, and didnt push.
The sun that drove with
me that May twilight had turned apricot, driving its ruddy gild
onto every fixture of the interstate. I left it, dropping south
between the lakes, enveloped in green. Each bend through the little
towns seemed treed and lush, promising spring at its full and summer
to come, reminding me of every April night as it seems in my recollection
of those junior high years. It must have taken me farther back.
I couldnt remember
how wed met, but Lang and I had started hanging out in seventh
grade and were constant companions for the next two years. We werent
the alpha males in our environment; there was always
at least one echelon before us, at everything coolworthy a year
or two ahead of schedule. Their pursuits looked somehow valorous,
challenging, even sinister. Lang, though, had a spirit. He didnt
buy into his second-rank status, and the first-stringers learned
quickly that pushing him could get embarrassing.
Maybe that was another
key to Langs character; you dissed him, you paid.
We lost track of each
other when my family moved at the start of tenth grade, but a wedding
- his - can be a great re-introducer, and by the middle of our college
stints we were pals again. For a few more years I used to visit
Lang and his wife when they lived upstate. Hed studied journalism
and may have had visions of the Washington Post, but half of his
twenties he worked hundred-hour weeks for tiny upstate papers -
because he believed in them, in the press. Towns with names like
Speculator, Pulaski, Camillus, North Field. Mega-work and mini-money.
He edited, wrote, interviewed, took photos and sold advertising.
That was his bout with idealism. After the divorce he was hard to
find and I gave up trying, but the cards had made their appearance,
and thus Id hear from him for the next five years.
When we did meet in one
of those out-of-the-way bars, wed laugh, catch up, speculate...
it was always fascinating. I wouldnt call Lang a philosopher,
and he wasnt a scholar, but he was bright, thoughtful, and
widely-employed - boat-sales in the Caribbean, archaeology in Madagascar,
seaplane mail delivery in the Philippines. He knew an old Czech
- I think Lang had lived with his daughter - whod been in
STASI during the Cold War and told Lang enough about World War Two
to blow my mind completely. Another time hed fallen in with
an anthropologist in New Guinea and had remarkable insights about
life, religion, and folk belief in the South Seas.
Wed talk two hours
without a lull. Then Lang would figure hed said what hed
come to say, make his goodbyes, and walk out. Sometimes (till I
learned better) Id ask him what brought him upstate and where
he was off to next. I sensed the answer was the truth, but it was
hardly ever enlightening and always hard to get. Those details simply
bored him. He was never staying anywhere near the place we met.
I was welcome to follow him if I wanted a free sleeping-floor, but
it would usually make more sense to head home or start for some
destination of my own. At a school reunion his sister told me that
Lang and his ex-wife had joined the Peace Corps together at a relatively
old 30, and that was the last Id heard of him.
As I entered the town
of Sandy Shore, I realized that at every one of our eighties meetings
the sunniness had been longer gone. Clearly something Lang had never
discussed had affected him. He traveled so much that I suspected
he was with the CIA, or on the lam from something. I know he was
gambling at one point, and actually wondered if it could be dangerous
to be with him except at the times and places prescribed. The free-range
Lang remembered everything you
would expect about the boy, the college kid, the young journalist
and husband Id known, and sometimes could be charmed into
sharing a laugh; but when I compared them all, I conceded that there
were two Langs. As I pulled into the lot of the intended inn, I
wondered if there would be a third.
The Sandy Shore Hotel
was a white Italian Renaissance building that stood out in its small
block of duller bricks. Inside, it was typical of our rendezvous.
It had a fine red wood bar and might once have been a bank, but
sticky floors and tacky decor bespoke a high-school hangout. Leftover
Easter-themed beer posters - bunny nests with beer cans and Technicolor
eggs - never did it for me. An old-timer had a drink backing up
his first. A grey gal down by the TV whispered to the bartender,
a tall fellow - white shirt, bow tie, white mustache, sleek hair
- who looked and sounded too distinguished to be running an upstate
Animal House. I couldnt figure the place out. Maybe these
sorts of pubs in which we were possibly the only college graduates
were good for Lang to hide from something he resented. People werent
going to distract you with too many airs about themselves.
I sat at the brass rail
and looked at my watch. 8:28. Actually early. Two minutes. A lovely
touch fell on my shoulder, and an angel-voice sang, Mr. Watson?
I looked. A killer blonde whose nametag read Danielle.
Danielle. Wow. She made great eye contact. Her eyes were a smoky
shade of blue that was almost... purple. She was used to stunning
men, I could see that. Her elegant hand extended toward me, pink
nails bunched downward as she put something cool in my palm and
lingered. Your room key. Up the stairs and to the right.
Her accent was East coast, educated. I wondered how shed look
wearing nothing but candlelight.
I had the impulse to
ask (since I wondered it, too) what she was doing in a place like
this, but thank God something kept me from the idiot line. I was
so stunned I never acted on my second impulse, which was to stumble,
forget my friends little game (Holmes and Watson,
as in Sherlock, and Doctor...), and start
blurting out something like the truth - that my name wasnt
Watson, that I didnt have a room, that I was waiting for a
friend... This was probably good. The scenario had to be something
Lang had arranged, and keeping my cool was half the play. She parted
with a sultry wink.
Through the open porch
the lilacs came on so strong that the room smelled lavender. Someone
in a hat in a swivel-rocker gazed out into the second-story green.
He spun around and looked at me - Lang, dressed like one of the
heavies from Miami Vice: Hawaiian shirt, pastel suit, Hemingway
hat. A gold Fu Manchu draped his jaw, and curls clipped his collar.
He was tanned and a little heavier than Id remembered, but
it made him look rugged. He gave the air of succeeding at a between-the-lines
occupation, and the impression down to the dress of having flown
in for the hour from a tropical environment. I suspected that he
was selling drugs.
Lang! I said,
hand out, happy to see him but still foggy. Id thought I was
ready for anything but found myself wondering about his dress and
the room under the made-up name. Hed never been a hat-guy.
Little objects like fishing lures were pinned to the band of this
one, but a closer look showed them to be trinkets, beads, sprigs
of vegetation, and carvings like third-world totems. He always had
a surprise. Then I saw the bottle and glasses beside him. Hope
they keep the coffee on. This has the look of a rough one.
His big boned hand took
my own. Hows the bar?
I looked at him curiously.
A little odd. Country inn-slash-college frat house.
Make any new friends?
What? No, but I
wish. Knockout hostess. Blonde. Knockout.
Ah, he said.
Got a date?
to her, I smiled. Just gawked and took the key... Holmes.
He pointed into the greenery
outside the open doors. Go out that porch, down the fire escape,
and take your car back onto the road. Pull around to the left through
the second drive and park in the lot right under us. Come back up
the fire escape and well talk.
I did as he said, hoping
for an explanation for the espionage. So how you doing? Where
you living? What you up to? Hows Shelly?
said, rummaging in a locker bag, taking a wooden case from it, and
opening it under the table beside him. Shes gone, now,
he said with a steeliness that seemed to put sentiment behind him.
She was a sweetheart,
I said, hoping to get it over.
That she was,
he said. Always the adventurer, too. Always curious. Couldnt
stay put. Finding a life we could share that was adventurous enough
for her was an adventure in itself. That was part of the Peace Corps
thing. That was part of the... the woman thing. I shouldnt
talk about it, though thats what got us. She was curious about
you, too, he said, looking up with no trace of accusation.
Small and blue, his eyes looked odd against his tan.
I may have stumbled at
her name, but I remembered Sherri, a curvy redhead Id dreamed
about once and woke up with a major bone. During one of the separations
hed initiated hed offered me her phone number, but...
Too many complications. He clearly wanted her to be with someone
whod be good to her, whod be serious. Quite an honor,
but misplaced, at least the assessment of my seriousness. I do have
a sense of honor, though. Id always thought of her
and Lang as a couple,
and horning in on that would have seemed... sacrilegious. Besides,
shed been a great friend, one that would have been a shame
to risk for an affair. I was going to ask him about her when up
came the pistol, a beautiful old flintlock whose wood looked new.
He set it on the table before him, then brought up other pieces
and tools and started the business
of loading it, which became a solemn, familiar process like a Japanese
tea ceremony or an aging priests loving commemoration of the
Mass. It was fascinating. Id never seen those rangy hands
at such a task and had no idea such pains were in them, the broad
flat pads of whose thumb and index I last recalled noticing in their
younger forms, near-three decades back, mauling like putty an indigo
Dot, their habit with the rubbery otter-nosed confections
were popping them in the chops. My eyes must have glazed over following
He held the pistol up
admiringly and addressed it. We should think about predators.
After my double-take, I did.
Most people think
of predators as monstrous critters who kill their prey with muscle
and weaponry. The tiger, the T-Rex - Nature red in tooth and
claw, and all that. To some extent its true. Most predators
can whip most prey even-up. But one of the first things you notice
when you really study them is that predators are careful on the
stalk. Their prey is more numerous, often
physically bigger, and sometimes even dangerous. Some prey are predators
themselves. A predator that needs to eat once a week wont
last many weeks against prey that have a good chance of inflicting
injury, especially one that might make it impossible to hunt. No,
predators always attack with an edge - surprise, tactics, disguise,
I couldnt imagine
what this had to do with either his ex-wife or a flintlock pistol,
but he continued. You notice another curiosity, though, that
can seem quite contradictory. Many predators have a small menu,
sometimes even a single species to whose capture and consumption
they are tailor-made. They may be so specialized that they cant
catch or eat anything else. Take their prey away and they starve.
They may prefer only certain individuals among the prey species,
maybe feeding on only small parts and needing to feed often. Whatever.
So in many cases you get this odd combination of danger for both
species, predator and prey. Even when the situation is dangerous,
the predator can have no choice but to pursue. Theres a sense
of fate about it that even naturalists have noticed; the predator
and the prey seem to recognize each other at the moment of truth.
But were imagining animals here,
jungle predators, he said. Im talking about humans.
We humans presume
we have no predator. Of course all kinds of animals can knock individuals
off, but we dont know any that actually make a living off
us, at least for long. But would we know? Were a social species.
You have to compare us to other social species. I think insects
are the best. Lets take ants. They wage war, they form communities.
A type of beetle
lives in the nest of a certain ant and knocks one off when its
hungry. It doesnt look like an ant, but the ants dont
know its there. Ants are blind. Scent controls their communication.
The beetle makes itself smell like an ant. Sometimes the ants even
get a help signal from its victim and start to attack
the beetle, but it gives off more of its own OK smell
and they back off. It lives right with them and theyll never
get it. Its one step ahead of them. That one step is proportional
to their level.
Suppose we had
a predator living with us, picking us off one by one. Seems preposterous,
I know, but would we know it any more than those ants know about
the beetle? Think about that: perception. All you have to do is
fool the front-line sense.
We humans think
were so smart. We are pretty good when we get something into
a lab and study it, but were limited, too. Were visual
critters, big-time. If something just looked like a human being
for hours at a time it could go its way among us. Totally different
habits, thought-patterns, even biology. It would need to pick up
just a few superficial signals proportional to our level to lull
us into accepting it, lure individuals into private situations,
and zap. No survivors. The only ones that get it are the ones that
get hit, but they never talk. Makes sense. Natures faithful
to its own rules, when theyre understood, but they can be
so hard to understand that they
seem contradictory. Sometimes the joke is on us. He laughed
weapons, he said, nodding after a sip. A cayman - a
mini-crocodile - has an armored body and a big weapon - its teeth.
It should be lethal against a snake, which has a long vulnerable
body and tiny jaws. But the python gets a surprise shot in, loops
a couple of coils, and theres not much the cayman can do about
it. Thats one where string beats scissors. The important thing
to remember is that the weapons of the predator hit the chinks in
the armor of the prey. No matter what weapons the prey species has,
theyre the wrong ones.
Stay with that.
Whats a humans first impulse when threatened? Grab a
blunt object, an edged weapon, a gun; hit, stab, or, recently, shoot.
If we had a predator, those tactics would never work, and the true
defenses against it would seem crazy to us. Why? How would I know?
Ask a cayman why it cant whip a python. Ask an ant to explain
that beetle. Either one of them needs something
beyond the logic of its species. As he said that, he took
something from a small felt bag of what looked like pearls, popped
it down the barrel of the flintlock, and tamped it with a rod.
I said, beginning to get a picture, wondering if he could be serious.
You called me here for a vampire-hunt?
He looked up at me quickly,
almost merrily. Cant tell you why these work, or how
anybody figured it out. How did an archer fish learn to make its
mouth into a squirt gun and shoot bugs off a branch? Theyve
got that one seemingly imaginative gesture, but where did they learn
it? Think of the generations that would have starved without breeding
before they developed that move. But there we have evolution telling
us it can explain everything.
My question is
less with Darwin than with your plans for that weapon, I said.
He went on. You
have any idea how tough it is to shoot silver bullets? Unless you
know the Lone Ranger... You have to go low-tech, you have to go
back to an earlier time when the individual did more of the labor.
You have to make your own bullets.
You are planning
to shoot that, I said. I hear the old-timers could just about
see the musket-bead arc to its target the way Lang and I used to
track BBs through light and shade. Despite the fact that wed
just talked about his evidently ex-wife in connection with a potential
tryst between us, I had no suspicion that Lang was about to propose
a duel, but the thought of him missing
some other target nearby and pumping even slow metal into my soft
areas was remarkably creepy near at hand.
Think of the beetle
that lives with the ants, he continued, as if hitting the
high points of a speech. Do you think the beetle makes sense
to the ants? It gives off just enough signals to fool them. It shorts
their circuits. There would be ways to return the favor, if the
ants only figured it
out. But we can short their circuits, too. Just have to know how.
Their perception is limited just like ours.
As he said that, the
sight of Lang at one with the Panama made me think of Mad Bears
medicine hat, allegedly doctored to make the Western
New York medicine man and activist unrecognizable underneath it.
A writer felt different donning it, and this black, broad-brimmed
special was widely attributed with getting the famous Tuscarora
back and forth into Canada even though the border people were on
the lookout. Theres a story about one of them stopping a car,
holding up a photograph of Mad Bear, staring right at him under
the hat, and waving him through. Could Lang have meant that crazy
Done with the pistol,
he set it beside him near the bottle with a contented expression.
On a smaller table at the other hand he set a big dirk, a virtual
claymore with Celtic motifs on blade and pommel. It, too, may have
had some silver in it, and its carvings looked religious and runic.
An old Scot gave me this in New Zealand, he said, nodding
to the semi-sword. Always best to be prepared. Course you
hope this works, he said, lifting the pistol. You never
want to close with one.
I said with a suspicious smile, beginning not to believe we were
on the same wavelength. Were on a werewolf-hunt?
Even if he believed the
answer was Yes, I knew Lang would ignore it. He repacked his tools
in the case that held compartments for each of them and placed it
in the locker bag. Then he seemed to realize how rude it would be
to leave even a flippant question dangling.
Even there are
the signs that we havent got them right. The fact that the
lore surrounding the vampire and the werewolf... the rakshasa, the
chindi, the berbalang... is so cloudily similar is a sign that were
talking about the same critter, at least in respect to its aversions
- salt, garlic, crosses
- and its mortality - silver weapons, stakes through the heart.
Im not sure about the daylight. That one loses me, too, though
it is interesting to reflect that we humans have that instinctive
fear of the dark, as if we were conditioned to know that thats
our predators domain. Its the same critter, interpreted
by different cultures.
Sort of a Discovery
Channel vampire, I said, amused.
I hope youre
listening to me, though, because Im proud of myself for figuring
this out. Its really heady on the cutting edge. So few of
us ever encounter new problems. He cocked the flintlock, mighty
cool for someone who believed he was about to use it.
A light tap came at the
door. Mr. Watson? said a womans voice through
it. Her tone was bright and expectant.
I looked at Lang. You
stud, he mouthed. I had about five seconds with that on my
way to the door.
It was Danielle. She
put her arms on my shoulders, turned her back to the bed as if she
wouldnt mind being pushed to it, and backed into the main
room. Ill always associate her breath with those lilacs. I
was about to introduce her to my friend and ask if we could move
this to another night when I looked over her shoulder and saw Lang
coolly pointing the pistol at us through her back. It seemed like
an ugly way to tell her she was interrupting. I waited for her to
called Lang, and the hammer fell. In the space between the click
and the pop she seemed to get a picture she didnt like, and
I didnt like the look in her slitted eyes, but everything
happened so fast. Then she was hit, went stiff with a distinctly
unfeminine sound, and fell. Id jumped as if Id been
shot. Her arms had felt like guard rails.
Sherri, Lang said, as much to the form below him as to me.
Something human in outline writhed on the floor at our feet, but
with all sorts of changes - colors, patterns, vibrations - almost
as if its skin-surface was more electrical than material, like a
TV screen or computer-generated images. I thought of a chameleon;
of Proteus from Homers Odyssey; of the dying beauty in Arthur
Machens novella The Great God Pan. In a minute
the form was still and looked like a human that a spider had webbed
and drained, like a mummy with frayed wrappings. It began to steam
and powder away as if every bit of its water was being released.
Lang talked the whole
time. Another great thing about the flintlock. The ball goes
in and sticks, doesnt hit anything outside the target. A little
pop and a whiff of smoke is all that tells anyone there was a shot.
In a few hours
there wont be anything left but a couple tablespoons of grit.
They have their own version of spontaneous human combustion, in
this case I think Id say humanoid. Kicks in once
the lights go out. I bet that superspeed decay is a survival advantage.
If their deaths left any proof they gave away their relatives. Whole
clans would have been exterminated. Some regions
in the world have tradition about these things, but its always
mixed in with folklore. Its a whole new ball game now. Maybe
they arent even terrestrial in origin and none of this would
ever have made sense to us. Always amazes me to watch it, though.
Just once Id like to know what they really look like.
We studied the morphing
form, a human-like sand-sculpture becoming a mound of dirt under
invisible rain. If it had bones, they were going as fast as the
rest of it. Did we just commit murder?
Murder is killing
your own species, said Lang, but things will be so much
simpler if we avoid questions. They may have heard the shot. They
may have heard it fall.
What do we do?
What you mean we,
White man? he said, recycling the old Tonto joke. I
make sure nobody left anything, like fingerprints. You go out that
fire escape now, get into your car, and get out of here. If you
go home, dont go back the way you came. Half an hour out youll
have nothing to worry about.
He looked at me straight,
the hat off. For the first time all night I could see my friend
in this stranger, could see the shiny-haired stripling across the
net from me the morning wed met. Its best for
you not to know anything about me anymore. As far as this goes...
He nodded to the shuddering pile on the floor. Im sorry
to have to scare you. Think about everything Ive said tonight
and it may be easier. It will take time. But Sherri will be happy
it was the two of us. It means so much more that way. Ill
see you both in the next life. I wish you well in this one. Now
get out of here. Hojo.
I heard what might have
been some commotion in the inn as I spun down the fire escape, but
maybe I imagined it. I hopped in my car and shot south - the wrong
way to get where I was headed - then, miles from the hotel and in
sight of no moving lights, took a turn right, hopping hilly black
country roads steadily west and north. No one who hadnt seen
that first move and known my destination could have trailed me.
Scared sleepless, it took me forty minutes too long to get back
to the 20A, never daring to stop, turn, or think about asking directions,
even had there been the chance. Nothing was open. Thank God the
tank was full. I hated stop signs. Every roadside shadow seemed
to rush at me.
Relief swept me when
the sign named my town fourteen miles away and it seemed certain
that I would make it. That three-hour trek through the moonshadowed
countryside was beginning to seem the most meaningful journey of
my life, a sublime epic to which I owed full adulthood. A new dread
came over me, though, and I wondered if something would be waiting,
or someday coming. I sat minutes in my shaded driveway before daring
to get out. My hands shook on the wheel, and the blood in my forearms
seemed cold and white.
I feel like Im
a century old, like Ive been to the moon and back, like Ive
had enough adventure for a lifetime. Im almost sick to believe
that the world could hold such a horrible, alien thing that might
come at us from anywhere, any night of our lives. Im comforted
by the sense that my friend and powers aligned to him exist somewhere,
perhaps to intervene. Life
can no longer have the blissfulness of certainty, but maybe it can
HUNTERS Copyright 2000 Mason Winfield and
is published at feoamante.com and Feo Amante's Story Time with the