Numbers of the bEast: The One We Keep Secret
Almost all of this story is true. Or no, wait, maybe most of it is a lie. Either way, I’m not going to tell you which part is which.
So there we were, standing outside that bar near the Hollywood Theater–the one that isn’t the Moon & Sixpence or a pool hall, I can never remember the name. Pulver had stepped outside to smoke, and I had gone along to continue our conversation about jazz and improvisation and writing and how they all went together. Had I just met him for the first time earlier that day? I can’t remember now. It certainly wasn’t my first HPLFF, but I couldn’t recall if he’d been at the last one, if we’d been introduced. It was definitely the first time we’d talked at length.
I’d heard things about him, of course. Some people said that he was an actual wizard, and I knew that they called him “the bEast,” though I couldn’t figure why. He seemed cuddly enough, with his cookie duster mustache, like Wilford Brimley or a human Lorax. Of course, Wilford Brimley wasn’t so cuddly with that fire ax in The Thing, so I guess you never can tell, right?
Anyway, we were talking, expounding, improvising, when I noticed the shape. Not like the Shape, not Michael Myers or anything, but it was spooky. Just this person sitting on a bus stop bench across the street, like a clump of rags, but seeming somehow too dark in the gathering dusk. Pulver must’ve noticed me watching it, because he put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s not here for you.”
That’s the last part that anybody but me knows about; the last part that even I know about for sure. Here’s the rest, though, and you can make of it what you will. The last evening of the Festival, I was walking back from the Moon & Sixpence at the ass end of the night. My hands were jammed in my pockets because it had gotten damn cold, and I was walking fast, my shoulders hunched. I’d had a couple of drinks that night, which was unusual for me, so you can chalk it up to that, if you want.
The neighborhood was deserted by then, even the last dregs of the revelers having finally turned pumpkin-shaped and headed off to one bed or another. I was cutting across back parking lots and through dark alleys, making a bee-line for the shortest route back to my room at the Banfield, when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye.
It was in this dark crevice between two buildings–you wouldn’t call it an alley, not really, because it wasn’t wide enough for a car, barely wide enough for two people to walk abreast. The shadows in there were moving wrong, the humped, jerky motion of marionettes with twisted wires. And in the midst of them was Pulver. They were gathering around him, and they didn’t look friendly.
I thought about going to his aid–I may be a coward, but I’m not a complete asshole–but something stopped me, and it wasn’t just the memory of his hand on my shoulder, his reassurance that the shape on the bus stop bench wasn’t there for me. It was something about him, and it took me several skipped heartbeats before I realized what it was. He seemed to be growing, expanding. Like that guy in Big Trouble in Little China, but not funny. He was adding mass, adding height. Like he was drawing something up inside himself, like he was maybe eating the shadows that grew up around him. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.
My head spun, and I stumbled. When I woke up, I was in my bed back at the room, unsure whether I had dreamed the whole thing or what. I’m still unsure, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but I’ll leave you with this: I saw Pulver the next morning, while those of us who hadn’t left the night before were still straggling out of our beds and our cocoons. He looked just as he always did, nothing amiss, but when he spotted me across the parking lot, he gave me a wink.
For Joe Pulver