Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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When Jack walked into the Nite Owl Diner, I almost didn’t recognize him. He was heavier than the last time I had seen him, and his hair was cut short, but he smiled the same way he always had. He had this expectant look on his face, as if the counter, the register, the grill, the worn floors, the uncomfortable booths — all of it — were part of some elaborate surprise party set up just for him.
I had been coming to the Nite Owl almost every day, because it was the only place I could get my research done. It was nice of my sister to put me up in her apartment and everything, but living with her was making it difficult to continue looking for the Pattern, because her television didn’t work. I’d tried the electronics store, but they’d gotten wise to me real quick. The only place I could watch free cable TV for as long as I wanted was that diner where pretty much no one ever came.
So, even though it had filthy bathrooms and the coffee was so weak it made me sleepy, I would walk down there and spend the day spotting hidden configurations in the programming: Illuminati symbols in commercials, coded language in news stories, secret instructions in talk shows. I also flipped through stacks of magazines and newspapers that I had pilfered from waiting rooms and front porches. Evidence of the Pattern was everywhere, but I was looking for the big one. The smoking gun. The clue that would link it all together. I felt like I was close.
The TV’s sound was usually off, but that actually made it easier to see the symbols buried in the corporate logos and the hand signals they forced the actors to make. When I found something on television that lined up with what I was reading, I would make a note on the page, tear it out, and put it in a pile to be filed when I got back to my sister’s place.
I always sat in the same booth, to the right of the TV. The booth was stiff and bothered my back, but pretty much everything bothered my back: the energy from high-tension wires, the chemicals the government streaked across the sky, Democrats. The same waitress and short-order cook would always be there, grinning like they had some special, secret knowledge I didn’t. They would look at me and then whisper to each other in a language I was pretty sure was Spanish. I wondered how dumb they would feel if they found out I spoke Spanish and knew every word they were saying. I mean, I don’t speak Spanish, but wouldn’t it have been great to see the looks on their faces if I’d whipped out a little Qué hora es? They were always trying to get me to buy their terrible food and drink their fluoridated water, but I knew better. I just nursed a cold cup of coffee, rolled my cigarettes, and tried to concentrate on my research.
Then Jack walked in, looking tired but still with the appearance of a man who knew he deserved things. I wasn’t sure why he’d shown up. Had he traced me here because of what had gone down with Esther Shelton all those years ago? I was worried I would have to tell him I was sleeping on the floor of my sister’s studio apartment and still hadn’t snuck into the Bohemian Grove or kidnapped any of the children of the elite to prove they had reptilian blood or done any of the other things I had talked about doing. Jack smiled at the plump, acned waitress and told her he wanted a booth. He said it like it was his inheritance. Then, pretending he’d only just seen me, he came right over. I stood up, thinking he might hit me, but he just grabbed my hand and shook it without really shaking it. We stood there, gripping each other’s hands. I tried to squeeze harder than him. I felt like he had me in some kind of trance.
“Plato,” he said before he released his grip. “What are you doing out here?”
“Nobody calls me that anymore,” I said.
“I haven’t seen you in forever, brother.” He always called people “brother” for some reason. It made me suspicious. “The last time I saw you, we were on Eastern Standard Time. You lived in that place above the laundromat by the lake.”
“Yeah,” I confirmed, thinking about that apartment in Sherwood, New York.
“Do you still talk to Chaz and Lou?”
“Not for a long time.”
“How long ago was that? Like, five years?”
“Eight goddamn years?” He leaned back as if the information might tip him over. “Jesus Christ.”
“Have a seat,” I told him.
He sat down across from me with his back to an empty frame that used to hold a mirror. Someone had removed the glass, leaving nothing but an ornate rectangle hanging on the wall. Because the glass was missing, I could only guess whether Jack’s hair was starting to thin on top. I handed him the cigarette I had just rolled.
“Can we smoke in here?” he asked, looking toward the NO SMOKING sign near the entrance.
“You aren’t supposed to,” I told him, “but they let me.”
I lit his cigarette, and the waitress approached our table.
“You can’t smoke in here,” she said.
Jack said something to her in the same language she and the cook used to speak to each other.
“I guess it’s fine,” she replied and walked away.
I rolled myself another cigarette and lit it. I was near the end of the pouch of Bugler, so the tobacco was stale. Yellow flecks stuck to my lips and the side of my mouth and left a bitter taste on my tongue. I spit them onto the table while Jack hacked his way through the cigarette.
“I haven’t smoked one of these in years,” he said.
We coughed and tried to blow smoke rings, and I asked what he was doing in Illinois. He claimed to be working for a small PR firm. He said the job was supposed to be temporary, and that once he landed a gig managing a hedge fund, he and his girlfriend were going to get married.
“She used to be a model,” he said, “but now she’s getting into acting.”
“You’re a couple of thousand miles short of LA,” I said.
“There’s a lot going on in Chicago,” he explained. “A lot.”
We were a long way from Chicago, too, but I didn’t say that. I told him a little bit about my research. He seemed interested in it — almost too interested. I managed to keep the discussion vague enough that he wouldn’t find out how much I knew or how close I was to the Unified Theory.
“Can you believe we ran into each other?” he asked after I’d explained the connections between gold-backed currency systems and the assassination of public figures. “I mean, of all people, I never thought I’d see you again.”
“My life is full of mysteries and coincidences,” I told him, which was true. Then I said, “Nothing surprises me anymore,” which was also true.
“You are a total fucking trip, man,” he said and wiped his lips to remove the tobacco that was stuck to them. “Remember those parties we used to go to back when you lived by the lake?”
“Did we go to parties together?” I asked.
He didn’t respond. It was like he hadn’t heard me. He just started telling stories about the old days: “Oh, God. Remember how Chaz always got that insane weed?”
“It was pretty good weed,” I admitted.
“And that girl who was always around,” he said. “The mousy one.”
“No. That wasn’t it. The one with the stupid, round face.”
“Kim?” I asked, not sure who else it could be.
“The one with the short hair. The boy cut.”
“The only one I remember with a boy cut was Esther.”
“Esther!” he said and smacked his hands together. “That’s it.”
“You couldn’t remember Esther’s name?”
“I haven’t seen her in years.”
“Yeah, but you two were dating.”
“That didn’t keep you from trying to hit on her.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I had thought this detail might not be mentioned, but here we were discussing it. I knew he was lying about not remembering her name. I smoked my cigarette and tried to think what to say next.
“Did you ever hook up with her?” Jack asked, his face expectant. He was angling for something. He was going to ask me about what had happened at the lake the night before we tried to get into Club 137. He was going to ask me about the UFO I saw. It must have been the only thing he could think about from the moment he’d found me.
“I haven’t seen her in a long time,” I said.
“Right, right,” he said, playing it cool. “Hey, do you still have back problems?”
“Sometimes,” I said, “but lately it’s been great. I’ve been taking these homeopathic remedies, sucking on colloidal silver. It works pretty awesome.”
The waitress and the short-order cook continued to watch us as we smoked one cigarette after another and Jack talked on and on about that weird summer we’d spent in Sherwood. It actually would’ve been nice to reminisce about those times if I had been with anyone but Jack.
I have trouble remembering my past. Sometimes I remember something having happened to me, but my sister says it actually happened to my brother. Sometimes I wonder if she is working with them to try to abscond with my memories. Like the time one of us lost his shoes rolling down a hill, or the time our dad rescued a goose from the median of the highway. Ever since the accident it’s been like that. Everyone wants to move my memories around. But I remember everything about that summer in Sherwood when Lou and Chaz and I saw those flashing lights in the sky.
Sherwood is in upstate New York, the armpit of the Adirondack Mountains, beside some train tracks that lead to a hollowed-out turbine plant. We all loved the place, and we also wanted desperately to leave it.
We’d all grown up in town, but I was older than Lou and Chaz by a couple of years. They were in the same graduating class and talked about high school as if they had been in Iraq together.
I was stuck in Sherwood because my band, Suicidal Child, had taken off for California without me. The guitar player had thought he could sing, and I guess he’d decided to find out. It’s not like I still hold a grudge or anything. I mean, I get it. But I don’t have to like it.
So I was still in town with the rest of the burnouts. The three of us moved in together, into that place above the laundromat. Lou and I were the first ones in, and then Chaz agreed to take the third bedroom. The place was falling apart and smelled, but it was also within walking distance of the lake where we went swimming.
I liked Lou because he was a film buff and knew all this trivia about how a certain movie was different from the book and who was originally supposed to be in what role before “creative differences” necessitated a change. Lou talked a lot about going to film school, but he got sad anytime you asked him about it. “I need to make my films outside any kind of system,” he would say.
Chaz was a schemer, always trying to worm his way into something or other, but he was a good guy when he had to be.
We swam in the lake all summer, so we didn’t have to shower. None of us brushed our teeth or combed our hair either. We wore sunscreen instead of deodorant — until I found out how much oxybenzone the government put into it. We stole cable from the neighbors, and I was just starting to recognize which pop stars were using ritual magic to hypnotize us all and which ones were trying to break away and tell the world the truth.
Sometimes Lou and I would wander around the campus of the nearby college, the one none of us could afford to attend. All the buildings were adorned with ancient occult symbols, and I would tell the oblivious students what the letters and characters carved into the cement really meant and how the place had been built on secret societies and black magic. When it was too hot to do anything else, we would spend the day in the air-conditioned university library, hunting through the stacks. I would steal books that had been donated by esoteric groups to see if I could find clues to their master plans encoded somewhere deep in the texts. Lou would use his fingernails to peel the electronic security tags from the books to help me smuggle them from the library, and I would add them to my collection back at the apartment.
Lou, Chaz, and I used to sneak onto the public beaches at the lake after hours, dodging the cops on their ATVs, slipping into the water undetected. We’d climb the lifeguard chairs and get high and stare out over the water. Some nights the moon and the stars would be so bright that I could read the books of poetry I always carried with me. I would read them aloud and memorize verses so I could try them out on girls. Other nights the sky was so black none of us could see anything. Those nights we would tell each other every secret we could think of, speaking them into the darkness.
Lou loved the water the most.
“Come on, Plato,” he’d say to me. “Let’s go down to the lake.”
I’d agree, and we’d try to get Chaz to come along. It was difficult to convince him to go. He always wanted to stay and mess around with Kim, the hot chick from upstairs. She would come down to our apartment all the time. We had this poster on the wall, the kind that looks like a random pattern until you unfocus your gaze, and an image appears. We would tell Kim you could see an airplane if you looked hard enough, and she would say, “Oh, yeah. I see it,” and we would laugh, because really it was a shark. Then we would watch a Stanley Kubrick movie, and Lou would tell us how the movie was different from the book. Sometimes, when the lights were out, Kim would give Chaz a hand job right there in the living room with everyone. The rest of us acted like we didn’t know it was happening. It was awkward, but I didn’t care.
I didn’t care about much that summer. Even the break-in didn’t bother me: We came home from the lake one day to find the place an even bigger wreck than usual. There wasn’t much to steal, but they did get their hands on some documents I was hiding under my mattress. I’m pretty sure the documents were the reason for the break-in. My copies of Covert Action were gone, along with my books on the new evolution and my CDs on freeing yourself from media mind control. The fact that they were stolen proved I was on to something. Up until the B & E, which the cops did fuck-all about, I’d been lying to myself about man’s essential goodness and the benefits of Marxist communal living, but after those buzzards broke in, I couldn’t believe in that stuff anymore.
I didn’t mourn the loss of my childish innocence for too long, though. As a matter of fact, a week after the break-in, we threw a pretty kick-ass party. We couldn’t afford a keg, but we got a case of beer and some liquor. Lou played bartender, and I made up names for all the drinks, like an Illuminatini, which was a mudslide but with gin instead of Kahlúa, and Chaz tried to teach everyone dance moves they already knew. It was a good time, but most importantly — from my perspective, at least — Esther showed up.
I was in the kitchen, sipping a watered-down drink Lou had made, when I heard Kim explaining the poster to Esther.
“It’s an airplane,” Kim said.
“I don’t see it,” Esther told her.
I was watching from across the apartment, trying to think of something to say to Esther. She didn’t talk a lot, but I could tell by her eyebrows that she had an opinion about everything. People always talk about the eyes being the “windows to the soul,” but really it’s the eyebrows. Hers twisted into crazy formations whenever anyone said something dumb. I felt like we were both suspicious of things others took for granted, and maybe we should talk about that.
She would never admit it, but Esther had been a Goth in high school, complete with black makeup, torn fishnet stockings, and Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirts. She’d grown out of it, of course, but she’d never lost the somber look that went with all the vampiric posturing. It was that look — resigned to disappointment but still fed up with all the bullshit — that captivated me. It was like she knew the world could do better but had gotten used to seeing it fail. She also still wore these round eyeglasses that I knew were fake.
I made my way over to them, making it impossible for Kim not to introduce me.
“Do you know Plato?” she asked Esther.
“We went to school together, right?” Esther said to me.
It was like being asked if I drank water and ate food.
Kim floated away, as she was wont to do. I tried to be cool about being alone with Esther, but I wasn’t. I even tried out some of the poetry I had memorized. She didn’t seem impressed, but she didn’t seem to mind either. I’d seen her around a lot with Jack, but maybe she was sick of that smug grin and perfect hair, those high-school-quarterback shoulders. Maybe she was looking for something else.
We talked for a while. Esther seemed sad even though she was smiling.
“You know any place to go besides here?” she asked.
We snuck away without telling anyone. It was an overcast night: no stars, no moon. When we got to the lake, we looked down at the water’s flat surface, but we couldn’t see our reflections. We took off our clothes and swam together, and everything changed. She smiled a little bigger. I could smell the pheromones the trees were sending to one another. I could sense what Esther was feeling because the water connected us. My back even stopped hurting.
When we swam to shore, I let Esther get ahead of me so I could watch her climb out of the water. Her body looked as shiny and smooth as the lake, and the blond highlights in her hair were like the tips of waves. She acted like she didn’t know I was watching her even as she let me watch her.
“Why do they call you Plato?” she asked when I sat down next to her on the wet sand.
“Don’t ask me,” I replied. “That’s Lou’s thing.”
She laughed. I knew she was forming an opinion about me, but I trusted her. That’s what the night was doing for us.
“So, what’s up with you and Jack?” I asked, feeling like we had reached a point where I could ask her that.
“Let’s not talk about Jack,” she said.
We lay on the beach and stared up at the starless sky. She had taken off those fake glasses and put them next to her clothes, and she didn’t pretend to squint or struggle to see. That, too, made me trust her. I’m pretty sure she left those glasses there on the beach.
“I know why you didn’t go to LA,” she said.
Everyone knew how the other members of Suicidal Child had left without me. “Who wants to go to LA, anyway?” I said. “That place is gonna slide into the ocean.”
“No,” she said. “I mean I know about the accident.”
“Yeah,” I told her. “It really put me in a predicament. But my back is feeling a lot better lately. I am doing these yogic breathing exercises that are really great.”
We stopped talking, and I thought about kissing her, but I couldn’t remember how to lift my body into a position to do it, what muscles to use. I continued to think about this until I could tell it had been too long since I’d spoken, and it would be weird to kiss her after such a long silence. We stayed until the night got too cold. (For a while I hoped irrationally that it would warm up again.) Then we returned to the party, which was still happening but with new people, new ideas, new problems.
Lou and Chaz looked at me different now, as if something had shifted. They were both kind of pissed that I’d taken Esther to the lake at night, because that was our secret thing. They tried to give me a hard time when I told them nothing had happened between me and her, but I didn’t listen to them. Just because nothing happens when you are out swimming with a girl, it doesn’t always mean she doesn’t like you. Sometimes it means she does.
I told Lou and Chaz they were being bitches, and they acted like they let it go, but I knew they thought I had betrayed some unspoken pact.
The night we saw the UFO, Chaz had been trying to get us to go to a bar. It was near the end of summer, and we were worn out from sun and parties, so Lou and I didn’t want to go, but Chaz was insistent. Lou told him he would go if we stopped by the lake first for a quick swim. We could still get to the bar by 10 PM, he said. “Plato will come, too,” Lou promised, as if throwing me in to sweeten the deal.
“I’m doing research,” I said, fast-forwarding through several music videos I had taped off of television.
“Come on,” Lou said. “The weather’s only nice for like six weeks every summer.”
I followed along with them while Chaz complained about everything: the temperature, Lou’s smelly jacket, the break-in, the fact that I had brought Esther to the beach. He even got pissed at me for how I was walking: “Would you stop limping? It’s your back that you pretend hurts, not your leg, remember?”
“I’m not pretending.”
We walked down the sidewalk against the crowds of people heading for the burger place, the bars, and Club 137, the one dance club in Sherwood. All the people on the street seemed stupid to me, so busy obeying the rules. Their lives were meaningless.
When we got to the lake, I was glad I had come. We took off our clothes and jumped in the water. I can’t remember if we were high or not, but I remember the lake wrapping around my body like a cool hand, and I knew we had made the right decision.
That’s when I saw it. We all did — the glowing lights hovering above the water, casting no reflection in its surface. They moved in unison, like a constellation that had been torn from the heavens and was being dragged across the lake. No one spoke. Then the lights were gone. They disappeared.
None of us remembered swimming back to shore. We just found ourselves standing on the sand, dry and fully dressed. We left the beach and discovered the town was empty, as if everyone had given up on getting drunk or laid and gone home. There were no cars double-parked on the street, no music pouring from the open windows of apartment buildings, no packs of well-muscled boys, no musicians with guitar cases flopped open. The bars were all closed. Lou tried to call someone, but his phone was acting weird. Finally we found a drunk guy talking to Kim. He thought she was a hooker, but I knew she was only trying to pick his pocket.
“What time is it?” we asked.
“Time to take a walk,” the drunk guy said to us while he tried to sniff Kim’s hair.
Kim said it was 3 AM. We had somehow lost the whole evening to the flashing lights in the sky. We looked at each other as Kim walked away with the drunk guy, her hand tucked into his back pocket.
The next night we were at a party. Lou had told me that Esther would probably be there, and she was, but Jack was there, too, lurking nearby whenever I tried to talk to her. That was the night we all tried to get into that stupid dance club, the 137. Jack said he knew someone who worked there who could get us in. We stood in line watching while Jack joked around with the bouncer, who he allegedly knew from prep school.
I wanted to go to a dive bar where we could eat day-old chicken sandwiches and play foosball.
“I don’t see myself in a place like this,” I told Esther. “Let’s go to Donavan’s.”
Esther didn’t say anything. She just folded her arms to protect herself from the chill and watched Jack talking to the guy he knew. We could hear him tell the guy that we had girls with us, which was true, sort of. There was Esther, and this girl who was a little overweight, and Lou had his arm around a girl whose teeth were messed up. It would have been nice to have Kim with us. They probably would have let us right in if she had been there. But she and Chaz were somewhere else — probably hooking up back at our place.
“We won’t have to wait out on the sidewalk at Donavan’s,” I told Esther.
“What about Jack?” she asked.
“I think that guy is giving him shots while we stand here freezing.”
“We can’t just leave him,” Esther said.
That was so like her. She had a big heart.
Jack came back and told us the bouncer was working on getting our names on the list. I could smell the booze on his breath. He turned and started talking with this loud guy in line behind us, as if he knew him.
“I told you he was getting drunk,” I said to Esther.
“We’re all drunk,” she said.
I leaned close to Esther and whispered that she should come with me to the lake.
Jack turned around. “Are you hitting on my girl, brother?” he said, and he laughed like nothing had any value, like everything was a joke. It made me want to punch him or kick him in the side of the knee. (I never did learn to fight.)
“Meet me at the water,” I told Esther, not whispering anymore.
“Where you saw the UFO?” Jack said.
“How do you know about that?” I asked.
“Because you haven’t shut up about it all summer.”
“It only just happened yesterday.”
“You can call me tomorrow,” Esther said to me, hoping to end the argument.
“I can’t. My phone has been pretty much ruined since we saw those lights. You have to meet me where we went swimming. Do you know where I’m talking about?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Be there in thirty minutes,” I said, and I turned to leave, feeling like she and I had already tugged each other’s clothes off; like we were already postcoital and laughing about some shared joke, maybe the look on Jack’s face when I’d told her to meet me at the beach. That’s how sure I was that she was going to be there.
Then the guy Jack had been talking to in line stepped in front of me, blocking my path, as if he wanted to speak to me. I don’t remember being drunk or high, but that’s the only explanation I can come up with for why I didn’t see Jack circling around to my blind side to punch me in the spine. It felt like he used an energy weapon on me. I don’t know where he would have gotten one at that time, but he must have known someone who knew someone, because the pain wasn’t localized to my back. I could feel the electric current in my teeth. My tongue tasted like it had been crop-dusted with metallic fibers. I hit the pavement and heard everyone in line laughing. I was sure Esther wasn’t, but I didn’t want her to see me like this, so I rolled into the alley to catch my breath and assess whether paralysis might set in.
The next thing I remember was stumbling through the streets toward the beach where Chaz and Lou and I had seen the flashing lights. When I got there, the cops were waiting for me. It was like the buzzards knew I was coming. I tried to sneak away and warn Esther that it wasn’t safe, but they got me. They told me I was “acting erratically,” which I definitely wasn’t, and that I was not responding to their commands, which I totally was. Then they smashed my face into the sand.
“Been drinking tonight, sir?” one cop asked. He said “sir” like he knew I would rather he had called me “dirtbag” so I could feel morally superior. I wanted to come up with some awesome response like “Just doing a little bird-watching,” but instead I told him my back hurt as he clicked the handcuffs around my wrists.
They made me wait in the car forever, and then they took me to the station and processed me. Eventually they charged me with trespassing and some other nonsense.
I wondered who had told the cops about the UFO and what they had hoped to find at the beach. I’m sure they turned up nothing. Space aliens know better than to get caught by stupid local cops.
“Remember that time we went to the beach and saw that UFO?” Jack asked, studying the menu in the diner.
Every once in a while I would look up at where there used to be a mirror and expect to see my reflection in it, but then I would remember there was nothing there but an empty frame. I wished they’d just take the damn thing down.
The waitress stood near the coffee machine and watched us. I wasn’t sure where the cook had gone, but I was sure he was watching us, too.
“UFO?” I said to Jack.
“You gotta remember the UFO. It was crazy.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but you weren’t there.”
“What are you talking about? We saw it together. My phone never worked right after that.”
I wondered what his angle was. Had Lou or Chaz sent him to find me? Was he freelancing for the Feds? Working for someone far more nefarious? Had they shown him the file they had on me? Did he really believe he had been there that night?
“Yeah,” I told him, finishing my coffee and snuffing out a cigarette that I hadn’t rolled too well to begin with. “That UFO was crazy.”
I thought about Esther. The last time I’d seen her was standing outside that club.
“I did hook up with Esther Shelton,” I told Jack. “We hooked up the night you were trying to get everyone into Club 137.”
“Oh, shit,” he said. “That club was crazy.”
“You know, it’s good to see you doing so well. I know things were hard for you after the car accident. All that medical stuff, not to mention the legal stuff.”
“Then don’t mention it.”
“Hey, brother, I know it was an accident, even if the guy’s family couldn’t see it that way.”
It was then I decided that he had been in on it. He had too much info not to have been in on it. He may have even set me up to cause that accident. He was certainly the one who had kept me and Esther apart. I wondered what he’d done with her. I wondered if he was the one who’d broken into our place. He must have contacted the Feds and had the police cordon off the lake that night. They had probably sent him, all these years later, to figure out what I knew and maybe to tie up loose ends. Why else was he so far from Sherwood?
When the waitress came to check on us, Jack spoke to her in a language that was definitely not English, and might not have been Spanish either. It may have been Latin. I let him buy me lunch, because I figured if I was being tracked, I might as well get a sandwich out of the deal. We talked and smoked cigarettes for another half-hour while I tried to get as much information from him as I could. I figured he was so dumb that he might reveal the whole plan to me, but apparently his handlers knew how unreliable he was and had wisely kept him on a need-to-know basis. He tried again to ask me about the accident, but I just fed him some lies of my own; it was hard to tell if he fell for any of them. He told me this unbelievable cover story about these meetings he had started going to that had helped him come to a lot of realizations, and how he was sorry for some of the things he had said and done to me back then. He asked for my number and said he was going to call me.
We shook hands, and I left. As soon as I was out of sight of the Nite Owl, I started to run. While I ran, I tore up all of my research from that day and left it in shreds in the street. If I’d had the time, I would have burned it. I knew my sister’s apartment would be the first place they would look for me, so I turned down an avenue I had never seen before. I hustled through the streets until my lungs hurt and my legs threatened to give out. I wasn’t sure where I was, but I didn’t care. I could see the Patterns in the way the houses had been built and in the shapes of the bushes; in the names of the streets and the position of the moon. It was all there, just waiting for me to figure it out.