The Beast Has Eight Beats
In the novel The Monkey Tribe, life coach Benjamin Haas decides that the main thing plaguing his client, unemployed accountant Jack Teagarden, is an inability to see the full range of the possible lives he might pursue. In order to open up his mind, Ben takes Jack to a drum-circle party, where he orders him to smoke his first-ever dose of marijuana.
It seems to take forever for the pot to take hold, but just about the time that Jack is having this thought he realizes that he actually is stoned. It feels like he’s walking around underwater, without the need for oxygen – or maybe he has gills, how cool would that be? Every few minutes, he seems to punch back through to his normal consciousness, and each time he finds himself in a new physical location, as if he’s undergoing some kind of teletransportation. During one of these, he finds himself having an animated conversation with Constance over the idea of voluntary evolution, and he finds that his brain has separated into two discrete camps. One camp takes what Constance has said and spits back new ideas in complex, cogent combinations (“It could be that computerized intelligence is the ultimate tool that we have developed for intentionally advancing the mass intelligence”). The other camp appears in the form of a coffeehouse slacker, coolly smoking a clove cigarette and saying, “Dude! How are you even doing this? You are so stoned!”
“And then there’s this constant, individual search for identity. Are we really defined by our jobs, or the ways in which each of us cultivates our intelligence and, thereby, our spiritual selves?”
This is Constance. The tone of her voice is simultaneously soft and firm, a dichotomy that Jack finds intriguing. Did he just think the word dichotomy?
“I mean, look at your case. That is so fucked up that you have to go through all that stuff just because some cold-blooded corporation has to send another thousand jobs overseas.”
“Oh God! And the really screwed-up part is…” (This seems to be Jack’s own voice, which sounds oddly loose and vibrant, like a morning-radio DJ.) “…the fucking bastard who cost me my job got off scot-free. And now he’s letting me stay at his beach house while he’s off on vacation. But that’s only because I caught him cheating on his wife in Oregon. You ever hear of the Devil’s Horns? Or Multnomah Falls? In fact, this house has its own waterfall. Crazy, high-tech haunted mansion. Scares the hell out of me.”
“Dude!” says the slacker. He picks at the fresh rattlesnake tattoo on his arm. “Why the hell are you telling her all this? Was that a drum?”
Jack teletransports again, surfacing on an easy chair as a black cat purrs at his shoulder. The stereo is playing an African tribe before the big hunt, thin, coal-black men jumping around a fire in Picasso masks. To his left he finds the moon goddess Terra, one ear cocked to a round frame drum painted with an Irish knot. She holds a stick with bulbous tips on either end, shaking it back and forth across the skin to produce a rolling thunder. Above and behind her is Constance, wearing a focused expression as she works her hands over two standing drums – he believes these are congas.
Across the room, Ivan stands with a cylindrical drum tied around his waist, rolling his hands across the top. The rolls are incredibly rapid, creating high bursts of sound that ride the top of the rumble like a surfer at the peak of a wave. Sitting just behind Ivan is Ben, sipping calmly from a pint of Guinness. He sets it down, then picks up a dark, lacquered frog and runs a stick along its ridged back, producing a sound very much like a frog. (“Genius!” says the slacker.) Ben scans the room, one player at a time, mapping the sonic layout.
The front door opens, admitting a red flame with green cat’s-eyes. Willie jumps from behind his bongos to perform a greeting dance, gray goat’s hooves tied around his ankles. The red flame gives birth to a smile, and scarlet lips that kiss Willie on his plump cheek.
Jack looks down and realizes that he is holding a drum between his knees, a smaller version of Ivan’s. The drum carries a circle of dark fur around its rim, held tight by a fishnet of knots and strings. Jack follows the grain of the skin, swirls of butterscotch and chocolate against a field of sepia. The swirls are like words in a sentence; when he reaches the period, he thumps it with a finger. The drum gives out a hollow sound like black Peruvian coffee. The sound shakes all the way to his legbones, exiting out his toes, which are tapping to the beat of the tribe. He strikes the period with his palm and the sound nearly spills him from his chair. Jack smiles.
An hour later, they’re still at it. Jack’s hands begin to ache from the unaccustomed abuse. He scans the room to find his comrades intent on their work, their eyes settled on a middle space over their drumheads, driving the great rumbling beast forward. And yet, it’s the beast that’s truly in charge, like an enormous dog dragging its owner by a leash. Despite the physical distances between the drummers, they are closer in this conversation, this negotiation of rhythm, than if they were speaking face-to-face.
Jack’s hands are doing things that he really doesn’t understand; he has no idea where this ability might have come from. But on he goes, playing along the drumhead even as he finds the red flame directly across from him, seated on a low stool with a drum just like his. She flashes her green cat’s eyes, and appears to be sending him a message. It arrives in a single thump, and although Jack doesn’t get it, his hands do. He waits for the beast to circle back to that same place in time and sends the single thump right back. Flame girl grins, revealing a leftward quirk in her thick, pliable lips. She waits again on the beast and sends out two beats. (“It’s a djembe,” says the slacker. “You’re both playing djembes.”) Jack’s hands follow the circle and strike the same two. The two of them keep adding beats until they reach eight, and the beast can hold no more. The beast has eight beats! If you play two beats, you have to wait six more till the circle returns. If you play three, you wait five, four/four, one/seven. Numbers! No one told him there would be numbers. He sends the red flame a loopy grin, excuses himself from their tennis match and sets off into a roll, fractions too small to count, stirring up the blurred light with his fingers.
Jack hears an off-beat beneath the rumble and tracks the sound to the far side of the room, where Ivan sits behind a pair of white drums carved with Chinese calligraphy. He drives them forward with two padded mallets, stepping out of his pattern to hammer the two big beats. Jack’s hands are talking to him; they say, ‘It’s another message.’ The two beats begin to spread around the circle, making new converts, growing in volume, gathering silent space around themselves until they are sonic booms, shaking the walls. Ivan flairs the mallets over his head, a gesture that says, Get ready. The beast circles once more and down they come, followed by a hacked-off silence that sucks the air out of the room. The tribe answers with a thrilled chorus of laughter, shouting, Mexican gritos, a few stomps on the floor. Jack makes a sound like an overstimulated crow. The ruckus smooths out into a river of chatter: “That ending! What a I love that part where you Did you see Ivan dude! You were going off little clicking thing God! I’m so I mean awesome! I don’t believe we’ve met.”
A small white hand, palms red with use. He follows it up the arm to a porcelain face, cat’s eyes, red flame of hair.
“Hi,” says Jack.
“Yes you are. What’s your name, sailor?”
“No. That’s the dog.”
“No, no,” says Jack, then loses himself in a fit of giggling.
Ben’s face appears between them. “No, it really is Jack. Jack, this is Audrey, the bird lady of Monterey.”
“She’s fucking gorgeous,” says Jack, who is completely unaware that he has just spoken these words out loud.
“Ha!” Audrey laughs. “Smooth talker.”
“No, believe me, really,” says Jack. “Not talking smooth ever.”
“Okayee.” Audrey looks to Ben. “First-timer?”
Ben laughs huskily. “For everything: drumming, pot, hookah pipe…”
“Hookah pipe!” says Audrey. “Where?”
“Follow me,” says Ben. “You too, Jack.”
“Right,” says Jack – but Jack’s intentions are immediately derailed by the smell of egg rolls. He discovers an entire tray of them on the table, steaming with heat, and attacks them like a bear waking from hibernation. This causes a white flame of laughter from his left. It’s Terra, her face glistening with sweat from the drumming.
“I don’t know why the munchies are so funny,” she says. “They just are. After you’re done gorging yourself, young man, Ben says you should go back toward the car and you’ll spot him. And if you need some extra incentive, Audrey’ll be there, too.”
“Are those deviled eggs?” says Jack. “And sushi! Oh my God.”
After consuming an enormous quantity of food, Jack grabs a chocolate brownie and makes for the front door. The lawn is dark again, and two tall, gangly men are slashing at each other with light sabers, each of them holding a can of beer in his free hand. Jack spots the dull white ghost of Ben’s Miata and heads down the walk. Hearing hoarse laughter from the carport, he rounds the corner to find Willie and Constance roasting marshmallows over a trio of logs in a tiny barbecue grill. Beyond them is a shimmering blue light that smells like strawberries. It’s a hot tub, with three occupants: Ivan, Ben and Audrey. Ben calls out.
“Jack! Over here, lad. Have a dip and a smoke. Or a smoke and a dip.”
“Or a doke,” says Ivan.
“Or a smip,” says Audrey.
Ben inserts the tip of a long, thin hose into his mouth and releases a cloud of smoke. The hose trails back to a tall object on a nearby picnic table, looking like the kind of lamp that sometimes contains genies. The lamp wears a cap of aluminum foil, bearing two ash-gray bars with glowing orange hearts.
“Jack,” says Ben. “Is that chocolate on your teeth?”
“Yes!” says Jack.
“The brownies next to the deviled eggs?”
“I think so. Why?”
Ben taps a thoughtful finger against his cheek, then smiles. “I’ll… tell you later. So, are you coming in?”
“But…I don’t have a bathing suit.”
“Well that certainly didn’t stop us.”
It’s about this time that Jack notices Audrey’s breasts, small milk-white mounds with strawberry-colored nipples. He feels his face growing hot.
Ben takes another puff and hands the pipe to Audrey. He gives Jack a serious study. “I’m sorry, Jack. It could be I’m pushing you too hard. Lord knows, you have so far been a tremendously pleasant surprise. You were terrific on the drums.”
“Numbers,” says Jack. “It’s all numbers.”
“So it is! That’s marvelous, Jack. You are a certified public accountant of rhythm. However, I fear that you will miss out on this delicious feeling, of sitting naked in a hot tub with nothing but your friends and the stars! Let’s see, where is that switch.” He finds a dial on the side of the tub and turns off the underwater lamps. All that remains is a flickering light from the barbecue.
“Now’s your chance, Jack!” says Audrey. “Take it off, baby!”
Something about a gorgeous female commanding him to strip makes Jack laugh out loud; he decides to further the gag by pretending he’s actually going to do it.
“Okay. But only if everyone closes their eyes.”
“Fine,” says Ben. “But you only get ten seconds. Ten… nine…”
It’s a part of Jack’s corporate nature that he simply cannot resist a deadline. He tears off his jeans, shirt and underwear, then vaults over the side of the tub with such haste that he almost slips and falls. He settles into a space between Ivan and Audrey, submerging his private parts just before Ben calls out zero and switches on the lights. His tubmates open their eyes, snickering.
Audrey smiles in a most adorable fashion. “Where do you find these babes in the wood, Ben?”
“Coffeehouses. This one was eavesdropping on one of my sessions and found me simply irresistible. Now, my student prince. You’ve come this far, you may as well try the hookah. Are you sure it was the brownies next to the deviled eggs?”
“I think so.”
“Okay, now this smokes just like a cigarette, and it won’t make you cough like the pot.”
Jack accepts the pipe-end from Audrey, trying hard to keep his eyes on her face. He holds the end in his teeth and breathes in. It’s a sweet smoke, vapor chewing gum, and he realizes it tastes like strawberries.
“It’s a flavored tobacco,” says Ben. “Very smooth.”
“Dude! Check that out.” Ivan gestures over the back fence. A sliver of moon is creeping past the ridgeline, a silver cap on the dark east hills. Audrey leans toward Jack to say something, which makes him that much more conscious of his nakedness. But he has to admit, the nakedness feels good. It’s not so much a sexual thing as a sense that he has crossed a line and now is dangling off the edge of the world, utterly unfettered, in a terrified sort of way. He also can’t believe he’s just had all of these thoughts in the time that it takes Audrey to lean his way.
“I hate to admit that I peeked,” she says. “But I couldn’t help noticing that you forgot to take off your socks.”
In such close quarters, her whisper may as well be an aria. Ivan and Ben burst into laughter. Jack practices a rough yoga attempting to remove said socks without revealing his privates. He lifts them like a pair of used condoms and tosses them to the cement with a dull splop.
The laughter dies down; Ivan manages to ignite a joint and send it around the tub. Jack smokes it without coughing, and feels sophisticated. The talking dies down in the dance of fireflame, stars sprinkled like grains of sugar on a pitch-black table. Jack feels that his synapses have been lain open to the night, and a thought enters the stream like the taste of a strawberry: This must be something like what they mean when they say “happiness.” He feels Audrey’s fingers folding around his.
Photo by MJV