Ammonia Saccas had worked at Video Mania a bit over two months. It stood between two walled in, sunken parking lots near the Westport neighborhood and had been in pre-digital years the area’s premier adult entertainment sales and rental location. Trade was still brisk owing to an expansion into novelty playthings of sundry caliber and wattage. Ammonia, 20, wandered in off of Darlington Ave. only a few hours after also joining up with nearby Sumac-Burns Community College. Hired on the spot by the entirely gay management in no small part for her more than passing resemblance to a clammily naïf young Bridget Bardot, as well as her pronouncement while tendering her paper application that living in the United States of How-much-does-that-cost? in the early 21st century, this wouldn’t be the first time she brushed up against the sex industry. Ammonia took the job in stride.
Handled a lot of title requests without tittering both over the phone and, more valiantly, in person. Chased cruisers of all shapes and sizes out of the wire-rack shelving with discretion and vigilance. Checked stacks of discs for purported skips and stalls amidst hours and hours of rough trade, gag reels, cuckold scenarios and foot worship. Tidied the shelves. Sliced open cardboard boxes on delivery days full of rubber cocks, glass cocks, silicone cocks and vaginas and buttocks and mouths, all in both non- and bearded versions.
Most of her downtime was spent examining some of the more massive lifetime-of-account balances in the customer database, all of them racked up over time, most all in one flavor, but some an admixture of various subgenres of straight porn, gay porn of either persuasion, bi, furry and specialty porn branches, many of them starting decades ago; Video Mania had bins full of slippery video cassette tapes for sale, and the price stickers were always falling off. Reapplication could be an all-day task. Ammonia knew all the regulars by name, outstanding fines, and whether they loudly, occasionally or did not ever discuss their proclivities at the register.
Plenty of ladies came through the store, a few of them very regularly – one was Tonya, né Antonio, who liked to collect bi feature films, esp. ones with semi-emerged soap opera stars moonlighting in what constitute in most cases that actor’s best performance and last decent paycheck. Tonya couldn’t get enough. Was in three nights out of four.
She had been born a younger son in an autobody repair empire, had been a favorite to follow the same path as every other chingon in his family before him. He didn’t like cars, thought they were dirty. Preferred showing off his moves at the clubs. Then at 27, and she must’a learned something about being careful what you pray for, reluctant Antonio of Concepcion Repairs got hit with the cancer. Right in the dick.
“Who’d have thunk it,” she had asked her doctor earnestly, bewildered, blind-sided. “What luck, huh, Doc?” Figured it was as good excuse as any. It was time for everything to come out. Fashionista, artista, bitch Batista. Lover of nature and day spas alike. Tonya let the fullness of her creativity finally speak through her body – after all the locus of her transformation. Body spoke by thumping her feet. Popping and jumping with those legs, twisting in the air. Tonya was a liberated dancer. Hoofed her way through a bootstrapped performance degree. Taught step and tap to children, gave classes in canning, pickling and computer literacy to adults, and practiced yoga, lived a peaceful life. Bought buckets of old porn.
Tonya – a porn purchaser, not renter – eschewed what she called “the lifeless contemporary stuff,” and she was always hectoring Dan, the store manager, with her special orders. As soon as a classic re-release was announced on disc, it was Tonya on the telephone. Relied on Video Mania for her weekly lube run, too, buying in weight from the area’s only bulk tribocopæa. And she made a point on lube visits to helpfully recommend the better toys out on the market to Ammonia, who had been replying with polite little, beet red ‘thank you’s and extra heaps of rental coupons in the black plastic bag until she did get a little toy – one Tonya on several occasions identified as “the best for syrup-stitches stimulation, you know, when you gotta have it; girls your age need lots of play all day” – as a promo from a vendor and it worked and she was pleased to have gotten all the free consumer reports advice, and she then began answering with questions.
But most of the shoppers and all of the highest grossing renters were guys. The most regular-looking dudes always had the weirdest tastes, but Ammonia could see from their accounts they came in sporadically, bought in quantity. The accounts that showed the most serious regimentation were invariably the most deranged-looking of the clientele.
Take that old trucker, Bill “pick ‘em up a title at eight and return it by nine-thirty” Turnbull. Every Monday through Thursday and then again on Saturday, going on forever now, just check his account, you could set an atomic clock by it. Came in. Browsed a minute. Paid. Came back wearing his roughneck’s uniform, but you barely saw him longer than it took to drop the box in the return slot at one end of the front desk. Had this scar like an older francophone’s little wrinkled moue above his lip that made Ammonia think of the character actor on PBS. His eyes twinkled when he said thank you, and that made Ammonia think of him as a kindly but misunderstood storybook monster.
It wasn’t just that Bill was heavily into the 408-volume-and-growing “Petite Penny’s Plumbers School Presents: Pliable Pipe-happy Coeds” series, although it was widely recognized as one of the finest examples of artistic reclamation of the schoolgirl genre, wresting the idiom as it did from the coarse smut peddlers’ reductionism of female educational aspirations to an image of nothing more than a sexual possession. The premise of the Petite … Coeds series, on the other hand, was equitable access to vocational degrees and the tiny amount of scripted dialogue breathlessly praised both the female orgasm and birth control. It was a beacon of sophistication and taste in the porn consumer that for Ammonia marked her opinion of Bill from the first.
There was something else about Bill that spoke to Ammonia. She had gone out on her own for a bit after high school, scratching at the itch of destiny – first there was the scheme her slightly schizophrenic friend cooked up to run some diamond mines in South Africa, which involved some months of half-informed waiting, a binder of semi-stolen information and a big downtown bank where Ammonia and the friend sat staring down an investment toad with hangover stubble and a smug smile but who also couldn’t stop asking to look in the binder one more time. Then there had been a year-long, extra dramatic relationship with a drunk who had been either a rodeo clown or a roadie, she never could figure out which, the aftermath of which was a meandering trip to New Orleans where she passed out handbills for bars and light spankings to drunks. This led to a brief stay in a cam-house operation in Miami, but she was back home before getting too deep in the webshows-for-tips scene. It was there she learned about the virtues of Bitcoin. Ammonia came around to facing the feeling that, although she might not know what she wanted to do, she had gotten a glimpse of some of what was wrong out in the world and she wasn’t going to fix any of it with an undistinguishing high school education and feet gone a’roaming. So she checked herself into the system – and into a job down the street at the same time, for good measure.
So it was because of this spirit in her that Ammonia first picked up on Bill’s similarly restrained restlessness. Bill “oh, they must’a made a typo; what’s ‘Guano-Tanamo’?” Turnbull. His regularly offered commentary reflected equal parts pith and powerlessness, sometimes landing squarely on the newspapers and magazines she brought with her, accoutrements of life at Sumac-Burns where she was enrolled in a number of introductory accounting, psychology and journalism classes with fuzzy older winos and determined-looking women with patchy hair. On one evening, a cover story described a new bid from a suburban police force for some kind of amped-up surveillance gear. Up to the front desk stepped old Bill “pays with a twenty every single time, n’ drops a penny in the change tray, too” Turnbull.
“Last thing we need is more federal bucks to cops. Better to starve ‘em and see which precincts are crafty enough to make it.” Re-sheathed his membership card. “Or at least get a trade-in going, one piece of RadioShack equipment for one piece of that military-grade hardware…” produced the bank note always folded in quarters, “.. wouldn’t be so bad I guess, them having a listen, I mean if it keeps ‘em from ‘knocking on the roof’ like those IDF boys with Unca’ Sam’s imperial toy box…” Snorted, dropped his penny. Ammonia was startled at how incorrect he was on so many levels, and how little that seemed to matter to the force of his manifold and contradictory convictions. Found it downright humorous, she did.
Ammonia couldn’t resist it and baited him. “Is that what you think,” the stingy half of a question mark in there reprovingly.
He stared back for two seconds. Replied, “No, you’re right. They’re playing a valuable role thinning the herd.”
Ammonia laughed like a horse and Bill’s face cracked into a big, sharp smile that said, oh, you’re alright, old soul.
Then there was the customer appreciation potluck. Ammonia wore a t-shirt that day with a bit of anti-Peron propaganda from 1946, a poster featuring a motor parade with throngs of admirers on the streetside, hanging from balconies, clustered on stairwells, wishing El Presidente well with ticker tape, massive floral pediments, signs inscribed with laudations in Spanish for Juan – who is unfortunately caught in what looks to be a sieg heil salute, and above this image a marquee slogan, “The Argentine Hitler is Hated by his People.”
Bill had a bowl of chili balanced on the top of his evening’s porn selection. Looked down and saw the shirt, must have been the chili made him punchy, he sang right to the shirt, “Don’t cry for Heeet-ler,chen-TEEE-NAAAH!”
‘Ah-ha, thanks. Just my sister’s idea of a tradition: gifting each other images of South American political folk-heroes co-opted by the North’s consumerist tat peddlars. Last year I gave her a Tickle-Me Che Gueverra.’
Bill smiled. Lapsed into a pantomime of a government mouthpiece: “Foreign policy, policy? There’s been no intergenerational collusion of business interests here … why don’choo look back at the birdy…”
“Yeah , right,” Ammonia gamely burst in, “‘not been arming anti-democratic guerrillas in the name of an extractive coups against Blind Justice Herself. Certainly not.’ Funny stuff, Bill.”
“You think so, huh?” Bill wised-off as he swatted around for his wallet. It was the first time she had called him by his given, and he was a bit embarrassed by it. Also, her pinned-on nametag identified her, and Bill was fairly sure erroneously, as Birdgit BarDough. He remembered that name for some reason, out in the periphery of his aging memory. “How many fascists we gonna’ teach to project instant, machine-driven, horizon-leveling violence,” Slapped the quartered twenty on the counter, “it’s like we’re turning the barbarians into franchisees … this time it’s not the gates of the city with battering rams – they gonna’ be bringing down golden arches.”
“Couldn’t be any worse for our health than glazed ribs on buns made of sugar and lies. See you next week.” Ammonia Saccas was on Bill’s wavelength, alright.
Needless to say when Bill “ten minutes lecturing with a discrete black plastic bag in hand” Turnbull hadn’t shown up for their usual Monday evening bullshit session covering the Sunday morning talk-show circuit, Ammonia Saccas was on the case by early the following Tuesday. Spent a couple hours between morning classes and her Video Mania shifts sniffing around his place on the third floor, writing down addresses, names from membership cards, postcards tacked on the fridge, pieces of mail… a regular Jessica What’s-her-name.
Hanging back near a rear stairwell of Bill’s apartment block, a baby-poop gray building roughly the shape and smell of an old bread box set on one side so all the yeasty crumbs collected as gravity saw fit, Ammonia got a chance to size up a few of the other tenants. A few single mothers mixed in with some unsavories, uniformed laborers of all shifts with name tags, sewn-on name patches, toolbelts slung at their shoulders, and of course an elderly couple or two crocheting their knees into a noontime stroll. A drunk swinging a six-ring of ale propped the door. She was in like a lightning bolt and upstairs pushing a marker under his door with a wooden ruler in no time – if the strip of card was moved later, she’d know the door had gone so she wouldn’t inadvertently barge in or get caught picking her way – when as she knelt there cracked forth a hale tumbling, shaking the floor from the far end of the hall – a few bookcases falling down on each other?; a wall of improperly stacked logs?; a summer lightning storm consisting mostly of bowling pins?; someone large jollily rolling a sofa along for sport?
Ammonia started at the sound. As she rose she banged her head into Bill’s apartment door, then fell back on her duff before finally shooting upright. Her head throbbed momentarily. The Banging clamor was joined by strangled, gurgling laughter, weird, transfixing Ammonia for just a moment longer than her flight response was comfortable indulging … the tall door to opposite the stairwell kicked open and clapped into the wall spilling an avalanche of horsehair plaster, and a figure – sour, greasy, filling the frame and squat, breathing chaos and a fume of liquor – ejected itself out into the hall. The laughter boiled over into rolling, wet coughs and gags. Phlegm was suddenly everywhere, and the bubbling mass seethed all manner of unhygienic fecundity.
Ammonia found the wall and pressed her back into it, putting her faith in the shadow as some kind of catch-all protection. It didn’t work.
The troll figure swiveled a slab of a head and looked right at Ammoina. An instant of regard struck Ammonia sick to her stomach with dread, and the mass advanced in a lurch it seemed right for her. It was down the hall in an instant. The gurgling gave way to a voice, the jingling of keys.
“Get away from That Door. Jabba yabba dab DOOR!” Troll Thing shook a cane menacingly in Ammonia’s direction for one moment, two. Sweat and phlegm was raining off of the figure in giant droplets … the figure seemed to move about in the manner of a few sacks of something viscous and heavy. But astonishingly quick. Ammonia had only a second to take in bits of the scene, which she was certain with a kind of cool, detached disappointment would be one of her last. The thing was knocking more plaster off in a gritty hail as parts of it dragged along the walls. There appeared to be two little feet padding along under the mass. On the other side from the cane-wielding arm, another oddly angled appendage held a black plastic sack of wine bottles.
The Troll Thing hovered over her, belching out “AN gedda WAY from MY WAaaaay, too! …”, before it mercifully stank away further along the hall, now mumbling “ya’ foreigner … !”, stooping to steal newspapers and poke at refuse bags here and there. Ammonia half lobster-crawled backwards with both claws covering at her mouth and nostrils. Clambered, life or death, for the egress. Opened the firedoor only to face the gusting aromas harbored in the stairwell, and taking one last gulp of semi-fresh hallway, she tried to run for it. Made it nearly two flights before the noxious clouds of vermin-loving metallic green flies no longer bothered her, prostrate and supine on a crud-tacky landing as she was.
She awoke in the dawn’s pale light of the outer courtyard. Cane Troll had rescued her, dragged her down the stairs to the exit and then on to outside air, more safely laced with mere smog. “Omigod, I am so sorry I had misapprehended you; I really thought the worst of you at first!”
“I’m a human being, too.”
“I’m so grateful…” Ammonia exchanged names and pleasantries with Bill’s titanic neighbor, John Dribblepiss. John would let her in the building on subsequent visits.
On all subsequent visits, she would wear a well-perfumed bandana.
She eventually did pick the lock. Bill hadn’t come in or gone out in a few nights, and Ammonia “beginning to get a little too invested in surveilling the elderly porn consumer” Saccas felt this gave her justification to check for an autoerotic asphyxiation victim. She did this four or five times in the following days. Each time inside Bill’s place, she could hear a kind of chanting next door, or one of the neighbors above or below – it was definitely through a wall, Ammonia thought. One of these walls…
It sounded like an asthmatic repeating: “We must hum. Commanding clay, the stone, from terra; her pulsing fields, magnetic rays; she’s dust, she hums, we speak.” She listened out in the halls, glasses up against doors and walls, and while she heard all manner of weird and disturbingly fascinating things, she could not detect the sound from anywhere else in the building.
This seemed to match the tenor of the search for Bill. Ammonia would get a good break and no juicy trail to follow. The first such move was tracking his cell signal. Gained access to his webmail – piles of account data lie around most people’s homes – which gave her access to corporate services that led her right to a GPS coordinate. Learned the trick ages ago. Great for locating sulking boyfriends during her teen years – she had been fond of the cute, sensitive types back then, and while she never could commit to any particular one, she nonetheless contrived the right to pick among them at will. Ammonia had tended to a flock of so many broken hearted artists.
The phone in this case was of course not attached to Bill’s person. It was however located in a wooded grotto near a rocky outcrop far, far from the woods where his Dodge had been recovered empty earlier in the week, as she had learned from a local wrecking service. They couldn’t tell her anything about who came to collect Bill’s old truck other than they seemed very irritated about everything. Examining Bill’s phone yielded an unsurprisingly small amount of information about the preceding 96 hours, nor did it have any record of the path it took to the comely spot where it rested. In the end, Ammonia left the phone after programming her number into the nearly empty phone book – the only other entries being various County Departments and auto shops. Seemed easiest, best, just to let it lie where it was.
One afternoon at his apartment, Ammonia was struck by the realization that, as a committed observer of the female form, Bill would likely be missed in other places as well. Checked in on them all as surreptitiously as she could manage. All-night theaters near the industrial areas on oily roads out of town. Greasy gentleman’s bars up and down alcoholic’s row. Ammonia even put in an “all-points” with the Old Park Lechers Network, the ones that spent their days behind sunglasses not reading on benches, neglecting shabby mutts, driving over-slow and swerving into and out of the runners lanes, trying to drink in every single jogger’s butt. The Network knew Bill, alright, and provided heaps of information on some of his other usual haunts. But Bill was at none of them.
Ammonia gleaned from his mail that he was also an amateur observer of celestial forms, and she smacked her head when she saw the telescope, packed away in its little traveling case in a closet. She dashed out of the baby poop beige building and down to the observatory on Simmons Ave. at the big hill. Bill failed to materialize.
Two weeks passed. Patience and the joy of playing detective soon ran into distraction at work and class. Taken together, Ammonia ought to have had all the information she would need to zero-in on Bill Turnbull. But no dice – not on this planet’s possibility wave. She began to imagine that he had slipped off into some other reality, that Bill must be no longer in the same universe.
Bill woke up with dirt in his nostrils, his mouth. Little dirt pads damped the sound of the world. Finally made worm’s meat, certain that whatever had happened had been his own doing.
He began excavating his mouth, his eyes with his finally-freed arm. Couldn’t remember anything at first. Felt like a lawn-mower blade was embedded in his temple.
Lifted himself out of the rut he was in. Aware then it was not the same rut he had been in… here was where the memories poured back over him. The wreck … the dead kids … the extra-dimensional talking alien fungus … ?! … and this followed by the angry question, where was his fucking Dodge?
Bill was not very pleased with the state of things. He was certain that everyone at County, and the County’s bosses, and whoever worked for daddy warbucks, well they were all going to have a nice, tall piss all over Bill’s life. Real soon. And he lost his truck.
Bill figured, well, if this is just a matter of time, he was either going to wait here in the dark with nothing going on except maybe a mushroom monster or get on to somewhere else where inevitability might seem not so close at hand. He chose somewhere else. As soon as he started walking – on ahead, not back the way he had come, he started to feel better. Noticed the waving in the canopy of the trees above the road. Heard the crickets. Smelt the night. Bill walked.
Soon dawn broke and he came to a town. Walked to one end, didn’t see a soul; went back to the other with the same results. Came up to a nice white house, went right up the front steps to the door. Knocked. Bill knew no one would answer. Planned a good couple lies though, just in case someone did.
After a few knocks, Bill tried the knob. No one inside, alright. Bill decided he would wait in the parlor, left the front door open for the breeze.
He sat in a white wicker chair. Sat and waited for the house’s owner or caretaker to come home. For the phone to ring. A knock at the window from the milkman, a postie. The backdoor to yield to shoulders, boots, shouting men to wrestle his bought-and-sold sack of shit self to an end on the meagre pile of the corded rug, the colonial parlor’s only carpeting.
No one came. Nothing happened. Sun rose, set. The trees outside the window changed season four hundred times, non-oaks died and were replaced, and Bill saw nobody. Waited. paralyzed with the certainty that someone was going to come.
Bill eventually registered one day just how remarkable this would all sound if someone else were describing it to him before he was here, living in it. It felt like last week to look back at that before, like four centuries of last weeks, which made enjoying now a strange and elusive thing. The sunlight began to cross the floor and walls with an exaggerated quickness, and the night’s constellations came out and flew past the window with a similarly growing momentum; the next intervals seemed even shorter, and before too long things got wound so fast that there was an effect like a flashing on and off of lights happening. Bill willed his finger out at the end of an extended arm and pointed out the window, and he could feel himself riding atop of this wobbly ball that was rolling forward on one side as it whipped through space around the sun he had long only inferred would give his skin a burn if he were to invest a half hour’s exposure at the right time in the journey. Bill considered it only momentarily – going outside – and this he weighed against the prospect of remaining sat in the dust of his rocking chair, caught in a cosmic loop, and he suddenly found inaction disgusting and unbearable.
Bill started from his chair. It creaked and splintered into a heap as he made his way across the parlor floor and through the front door, which fell out of the jamb as the hinges crumbled into oxidized powder. He walked down the street with resolve as the wind picked up and things got cold. Approached the corner store, now badly dilapidated by time’s rigors. Leaves blew off the trees in shocks. The mostly steel doors were mostly intact, over the floor grown through with vines and lush piles of moss. Bill went inside as a sheet of snow fell and ice grew on all the features of the land. He apprehended the register, and stopped. His brain snapped audibly as he took in the scene. There he stood, looking at himself – another Bill – standing, wearing a name badge, a fresh uniform, this big dumb welcoming smile on his face.
“Hey, buddy! You got up – great.” Bill – our Bill – felt heavy with a profound sense of dumbness.
Not our Bill went on: “It’s time to stop putzing around over in this here, Bill. There’s something we … you need to go and face up to already. For us.”
The realization that nobody had spoken for a long time cut through the dumb. Our Bill felt his throat splitting apart a dry log over its knee. Playing a violin with a bow whose rosin long ago lost its worth. Nonetheless emitted the major thrust of what he needed to know in that moment of eternal expanse, “For who? Like … who’s us?”
“Well, us, Bill. I mean, you. You are me, here, and you are me five minutes from now. And that Bill – me in five minutes, well he is you just as much as I am. We are the ‘Us’es everywhere. But you, Bill; you have to finish the circle. So we came to direct you to your hero’s task.”
Bill blinked. None of it especially astonished him. He had, after all, read a little Terrence McKenna, had taken all manner of psychotropic drugs in his youth, his early adulthood… and on through his middle age, as recently as last month; so he was, he felt, rather too open minded to be dazed by some hypothetical situation like this. He kenned on that he was in a radically new reality matrix than the one to which he was used, but it was proving hard to wade too deeply in any one direction. Bill let the tumbler stop on the most essential query.
“Will I know what to do?”
“Oh, you have already done it, Bill, yeah, you’ll get it when you see it.”
Our Bill turned around. Dazed as all else, he had to go out for some air just to process for a moment.
He walked back outside. The trees were rich with foliage again. Under the strobing sunlight, there was another person moving onto the scene. Bill Turnbull squinted; it was another him again. Walking right up the other end of town towards the little intersection where he stood by the corner store.
“Don’t worry, Bill. I can also tell you, you get through this.” Bill could tell this iteration of himself was nowhere near the truck driving beer-addicted porn consumer that was his own cast in life. Bill could also tell straight away this other him was pregnant with smugness. He thought he knew something Bill didn’t – and Bill “knows fucking everything” Turnbull thought quite differently. He immediately dubbed this Bill “Smug Bill.”
“I saw you do it.” A little pause then while Smug Bill pulled out a sachet of some kind of massive cheroots. Lights one up ostensibly using only the back of his thumbnail. Little puffs of artillery smoke burst around his head, narrow misses. Our Bill, dumbstruck with fascinated skepticism and a growing hatred of one his better, could just watched.
“Care for one?” Smug Bill holds out and our Bill accepts a dirty red cigar.
“Oh but that’s right…” our Bill starts to hear Smug Bill say and then disorientingly finds his mouth is making the sounds.
And suddenly he was staring at himself, but like, the Bill that he had just been – our Bill suddenly was the stuck-up, quietly arrogant version of himself that he had just been ridiculing out of insecurity and repressed homoerotic impulses. Now here he was inhabiting the total perspective and point of view of this other, whose thoughts he caught up to in media res judging his erstwhile own’s sodden coveralls, thinning hair and desperate, gargoyle-like appearance. Esrtwhile-now-smug-him then addressed our Bill in his place.
“Have a puff, I forgot you can’t light yours without tools and you don’t seem to be carrying any of the necessary accoutrements.” Fall turned to winter again as smoke wafted up in coils, caught on the breeze.
Our Bill the roughneck held Smug Bill’s cheroot in Smug Bill’s hand, gazed at it with Smug Bill’s smugly keen, glittering eyes. Roughneck Bill marked all the thoughts, feelings and impulses that were floating through Smug Bill’s nervous system. There were the patterns of being that had worn grooves in to the electrochemical guck in Smug Bill’s head and spinal column by repetition and usefulness. Roughneck Bill beheld everything through an experience so familiar and completely foreign.
He managed this arm up to this face, used some lungs to inhale through the tube of dried-smoldering-something, had a moment where he could sense every fibre of Smug Bill’s meat thrill to the introduction of the smoke at the same instant that his own judgment of the effects were neutral to disgusted – what an impression of being both caught in the middle of and also the agent producing such perfect interference! – and found himself unable to stop Smug Bill’s body from blowing the smoke dismissively right at Roughneck Bill’s person. That body spoke suddenly: “There you go.” It was every time he had looked in the mirror and imagined his reflected body moving on its own. Roughneck Bill was beginning to shift from feeling disoriented, depersonalized, to feeling just plain imprisoned. He could not quite summon a feeling of ire or a single frustrated impulse, and at this awareness the ultimate sense of disempowerment washed over our Bill.
And then he was back in his own roughneck’s head. Felt his old congested arteries, his old porn- and substance-polluted mind and instincts. Smug Bill was again in front of him, smiling.
“Ah, Bill. You will sort it out once you get started… keep that cheroot, old buddy.”
The sun stopped, dead center of noon. Sprouts had barely appeared from the ground. Buds stood just a few trembles away from bursting. And Bill Turnbull, retainer to the county no more, was again alone in a deserted backwater town with two intersections. He tucked the cigar in his pants pocket. He considered which direction he would take out of town; how momentous his next step felt to him then – like nothing he had ever done before in his fifty-odd years.
Getting from one universe through the infinite possible universes of infinite possible combinations of dimensions to your home universe is not as difficult as the uninitiated might think it could be. It is, as Bill Turnbill found out, simply a matter of pushing through layers of possible situations until you breach the next, like wading through bubbles. They aren’t on top of each other, more like hidden both behind and inside of each other, but they are prismatic and slippery looking, which is great for fans of bad ‘60’s art. Bill did a good deal of heaving and shoving through all manner of permutations on the world he had come to expect as his day to day reality.
He would look around himself at situations that were sometimes just mostly but mostly all of them nearly the same as his origin reality. As soon as he noticed something off kilter – where he felt too heavy, too warm, or where there seemed to be no color orange, or more noticeable differences like he was tiny and other people were almost giants or vice-versa; every misstep sent Bill grunting along again. But in every here-and-now he stopped to sound out for home, he always noticed the same kind of mushroom growing in a corner somewhere. On a few occasions it was the only recognizable thing about a situation, every other feature alien to his senses, ungraspable. Remarkably persistent species, Bill extrapolated from its appearance in yet another permutation of the here-and-now. On to the next possible universe. There had been a television show when he was young where the opening sequence was a pulsating tunnel that was supposed to be what traveling through space-time looked like. Now Bill knew it was not anything that flowed, that instead dimensional configurations just kind of unfolded each one out of the others.
With the patience of a Rubik’s cube solver, Bill Turnbill found his way back to the here and now where we first met him. Once he was in it, it was just a matter of sticking to now.
Later, over a plate of bad stripmall hoisin duck, he would describe it to Ammonia like this: “The first few hours here, I was rather unsettled. Suddenly it would happen that I was falling through the tiny spaces in the middle of things. I look at my watch, note the time, and I’m Zeno wading through eternity in a hall of mirrors, in between some fraction of a second in between another half of that, and half again, and I’m also back here, in now, and in my restroom reaching for a hank of toilet paper squares, then slipping in between the fibres and finding nothing but vast tracts of nothing in between each nucleus of each constituent atom in a complex wood sugar hydrocarbon chain or two. Then I used the toilet paper to wipe off the slightly spattered rim, lidded the bowl, and flushed.”
When Bill finally felt firm enough in the right now – where he’d been thoroughly used to loathing and hating being a roughneck for the county, before an intelligence from beyond time turned him into a dimension-hopping explorer – he appeared in a clearing. This would have been the same spot where Ammonia had tracked Bill’s phone, and he found it a little while after exploring the area.
Bill contemplated what to do. He was still kind of afraid of someone trying to get rid of him due to his involvement in the kerfuffle with the politician’s son. He might have needed to worry, were there anyone out looking for him other than Ammonia. But, in fact, the politician, who had initially made such a ruckus with the bureaucrats, when he heard of Bill’s disappearance, having had only intended to disappear him anyway, decided the cheapest option had been achieved and had turned to other matters, and hence all persons and groups intending Bill harm found the situation already optimal so long as Bill remained absent presumed fled. But Bill didn’t know this, indeed he had just been told he was going to face a great adversary, so he was nervous. His phone at hand, out of habit he thumbed through the call log. Saw dozens of calls from a number matched to Ammonia’s new entry in his contacts list. Strangely, he knew she had been searching for him and had programmed it in so he would know she was looking. Bill gestured to his phone to dial Ammonia’s number.
She picked up, ecstatic and more than a little curious. They agreed to meet at the stripmall foodcourt in case either or both of them were being tracked. There, over bad Chinese, Bill told Ammonia the story about the wreck, the mushrooms, being unstuck in extradimensional possibility. She was pretty sure there was a real chance that Bill might be putting her on. He did kind of look like a trucker whose medication had run out, but she was eager to squash the tiny doubts she could sense developing in her. Ammonia brought out a few comic books from a rucksack, rolled her eyes.
“Look, that’s basically the plot of this here,” thrusting them into Bill’s hands. “There’s even a YA trilogy out last year that has the same thing about the talking fungus. Probably you fell asleep with the movie version playing on Nickelodeon or something?”
But Bill insisted. Blabbered as evidence that he has, if not mastered, at least figured out how to travel between universes. The boundless, pandimensional set of possible universes surrounding each other, linked to all. The spores activated his Gold Card, coated him in time-Teflon, whatever, he became a free agent. Some cosmic wind must have pushed him across universes before he was able to control things, and he “came to” and “got stuck” in the same place, where he had been immortal, blissful, ignorant. Ammonia stared, arms crossed, one foot tapping.
To this taste of Ammonia’s sharp, peevish incredulity Bill didn’t respond well, saying she looked as though she wanted him to bring her back some proof. Bring her an impossible shape, or something. But that he would do better. “Alright then … Birgetta Bar$$$ – I know you know what I know.”
He told her her life’s story. Nutshell-sized recap. Explained that when he bumbled back into this here of his origin universe, he first poked his head in about two decades prior to the right now.
“It’s not a science, this dimension travelling, it’s tough to fine-tune the whole time.” While the now he appeared in matured to the now he had broken away from, he found himself aware of how all things were developing. Out of all of which things he found himself focused on the people he had been connected to, and that tellingly included pretty much only Ammonia. Bill didn’t have a lot of relationships with people who liked him, either, so naturally he was drawn to consider her life especially. Her story he held in his mind as the memory of an engrossing novel or, more fitting to Bill, a film franchise. The litany of major character shaping events made her jaw drop.
“You saw all that…” Ammonia was wilted over in her seat and blushing red. She knew that she might be one of the only people to ever come to the moment in life where one has no secrets. “You must have seen other things, too, then.” Like her stay in the camming house, strip-teasing for tips from overseas customers on encrypted websites. She always thought she would be insulated from the land where Away From Keyboard and Far in the Future overlapped. Here she was in it.
“It’s okay, Ammonia.” Bill sat with a level gaze. “I knew I had recognized the name before. It’s a nice bit of wordplay.” Ammonia’s mind raced. Had he been one of her tippers? How had he known to mask his IP address? For how long had their lives been intertwining? Bill was starting to look kind of like a balding, stained work shirt wearing Buddha to her. Suddenly remembered where she had intended for the conversation to go.
Ammonia’s embarrassment quickly transmuted itself into an opportunity for reproof, she said righteously, “If that’s all for real, you can do this crazy shit, then why don’t you use it to find out what happened? Why this happened to you?”
Another one of his blank stares where he looks like he’s figuring out why someone is asking him questions, why it makes him feel so vulnerable… he answers her finally. Decides he’s going to test her a bit. “Let the CIA figure it out, let Mulder and Scully go at it. Let someone else go put their snouts out for the why’s and what’s.”
Ammonia’s face fell and then lifted, and she chimed in, “Of course, but people like us see that’s no way out. We are not content to live under the shadow of, if not truth… the shadow of knowledge. We always have to investigate – it’s our nature!”
Bill Turnbull was always a pretty smart person just with all kinds of sass and too many cynical vices corroding him. Here in front of him, chirping at him about the freedom of enlightenment; here was someone who was going to move herself towards really doing something, become an agent of change – Bill could see it clearly.
He considered the fullness of Ammonia’s youth radiating from her face, and let it wash over him, bringing him the full information on the young woman who had taken pains to seek him out, to check on his well-being, to care for his connection to this place and time. He knew he could trust her, fill her in on what lie in store for him. For her part, Ammonia was just getting to the part where she thought she was going to start offering to help.
“Listen, whatever happened, happened to you, Bill. You are allowed to feel things about that – you’re allowed to have an opinion and get inquisitive and wonder if you have been given a gift, you know, what way are you supposed to use it?”
“Ethically. You want me to consider my next steps … as a gratitude thing?”
“No, dummy! As a puzzle thing. As a game. Embrace the absurdity of it all… I think we should figure it out. I’ve been snooping for a few weeks, now. We could start snooping together.”
Bill couldn’t take it anymore. He would have to let her know. He leaned in over the strip mall food court table.
“I’ve got a pretty good bit of help in you, young lady. And thanks for looking for me.” Bill took a breath. “I can tell you the why, the parts I’ve been leaving out.”
Now Ammonia leaned in, her voice an aspirated squeaky whisper. “What parts? What did you already find out – was it something you saw while you were also … investigating me?”
Bill waited a beat for effect – he couldn’t help himself. It was all so dramatic suddenly. Then he let her have it as concisely as he could muster.
“It’s a fight of ages. Of a bygone age and one upcoming – a titanic struggle, Ammonia!” People in the food court turned to see who was so excited. “The end of the plant age – our species, a lens for consciousness, raised here by the Sun and our electro-magnetic dynamo; and we must now take our vessel into the next age partnered with space-travelling fungus …
“The visitors win this one. We have to make sure the human race sides with the fungus; we have to make sure the Sun God dies. And the God of the Void prevails.”
Ammonia’s eyes might fall out of their sockets. Little red capillaries are turning fat as the moisture dries from the whites. Bill finishes off his admission.
“I have seen the victory, the new age, and I came back to tell myself to, well, get involved.”
“That’s … way more fucked up than anything I was thinking of.” Ammonia straightens up in her seat. Now she is nearly screaming. “Holy smokes! I thought,” regains a bit of composure and quiets herself considerably, “I thought it was some kind of mystic cabal entrenched in the local government, you know, like mind control and hypnosis or some shit … holy smokes!” she repeats this a few more times.
“No, Ammonia, I’m afraid this has next to nothing to do with late-Corporate Capitalist Homo sapiens materialism. Our species has merely been enabling brewers yeast – a one hundred-eighty thousand year old organism taking care of a far older one, a fungus that is only another lens for consciousness – been enabling it in response to some deep knowledge that it will be able to shepherd us…”
“To where?!” then more self-shushing.
“More like ‘to whence,’ Ammonia. You said I should go and explore my part in this mystery, and you would help… well?” Bill Turnbill stands up at the table in the food court. Throws his napkin on the paper liner on his tray, slides his chair in and holds out his hand to Ammonia Saccas. “Are we doing this?”
Bill Turnbull: roughneck for the street department, recent astronomy enthusiast and longtime IBS sufferer, sat at a long conference table facing a row of lined, dusty civil servants outfitted with a multitude of towering paper coffee cups and the same amount of neck wattles. Bill hadn’t remembered to put on his clean coveralls and that had been yesterday morning. He could smell the crotch when he held his head forward just a little. It was Bill’s turn to introduce himself.
“My name’s Bill. I drive the truck what makes the potholes, out in the country. My route covers most of the B roads.” A few clucks, the scritching of a few notes.
Wattles flapped. “Thank you for meeting with the Committee at short notice, Mister Tuh… ah, Bill. We appreciate you taking time out of …”
“We expect total candidness and compliance here, mind you,” interrupted a ruddy bulldog face. “No faffing about. You’re the company man your boss here,” one of a set of chins motioned at the frizz-headed middle manager at Bill’s left, “touts you to be, then goes without saying the Committee’s time out-values your own; let’s get to the meat of it, already, Ms. Grinkhauer…”
Ms. Grinkhauer stared at the wall behind Bill. A blink so tight her eyelids were momentarily identical to the surgical scar of a mouth midway down the blanched spam of her face. A tiny, phlegmy swallow. “We want you to tell us what you’re going to do to, ah, help the present situation.”
The scowling crease at the far end of the table appended with a wheeze of cat’s urine breath over the stained white lid of his potted oil slick, “kuh-heeping in mind you’re the only one who suh-haw it happen.”
“We can make this disappear one way or another,” the bulldog slurped through his own paper appendage. A mien of satisfaction fell about his chins and glistening head.
Bill Turnbull developed the immediate suspicion that this guy took every opportunity to casually shove a neat threat into someone’s guts, as uncreative as they might prove to be. Practicing the words, the gaze he would use in the mirrored reflection in the backs of elevator doors, unconsciously kneading at a retracted scrotum through the super-blend fabric of trouser pockets, shuffling around jerk-off booth tokens and safety deposit box keys. Bill took in that image inwardly. Sure did make it hard not to laugh at the gas bag.
“Well, I s’pose I’m going to go and see about recovering the wreck.”
Bill’s supervisor reminded him, “and removing signs of the incident…”
“Right, right,” Bill picked up, unable to decide if the middle manager was more scared of being demoted or buried, the consummate worry for an unambitiously bent teamster, “I’ll be putting holes in where the skid marks was, set fire to the stand of pines it barreled through, all that stuff. Haul the kid’s car back here to the … ”
A cup clacked on the table. “And you bring anyone you find snooping straight to us.” Chairs scuffing backwards on the lino. Chitter chatter, the rustling of carbon-copy paperwork in folders barely concealing a parade of surreptitious farts and bodily noises. Bill turned his head in perfect sync with the pneumatic hiss of the door’s swing arm and looked at his supervisor for validation.
Eyebrows up. The ‘Mr. Obvious’ tone. “You’ve got three hours until sunrise.”
Bill stood, ridden not for the first or last time today by a desperate need – never amounting to more than just a need – to shit.
There’s no good reason I stay on with this lot, Bill ruminated during his trip back out to the site. The converted Dodge trailer cab, cranky as ever at 25 yrs old next Tuesday, flagellated herself rustily over roads full of last month’s work, last week’s work, closing in on ground zero. Bill bobs up and down, comp’ny man, errand boy, going to clean up after some never-happened whoopsie, involving the ever-intelligent combination of a venture capitalist-cum-politician’s over-entitled progeny with an underdeveloped moral compass, too much loud German engineering, and twenty-three ampules of amyl nitrate up his nose, one for every bone he broke against the granite slab that killed his passengers when he drove them into it.
Bill didn’t want to stop to look when he saw the ruby lights on the road ahead swerve and tilt. Why go and get complicated into extra paperwork right at the beginning of his shift. But he stopped despite the comforting laziness. He should have liked to have stayed in the truck, just listening, he told himself. Some cosmic tilt put his curiosity suddenly into a roll, he gravitated out of the Dodge, towards the blinking red lights, right up over on top of a mostly wounded yuppie shithead half crawling, half dripping out of the smoldering heap. When the kid gasped at him, “no ambulances, no kuh-hopsitals,” and later, the response he got on the radio from dispatch when he told them the kid’s name – he started to get a sense of how much this was going to hurt.
Bouncing along, Bill continued to belabor himself idly. Why be here, doing this, when there must be a hun’erd municipalities that could use an experienced driver. Pounding holes in the road, so’s someone else can fill them back in. Being in turn pounded into his own kind of chuckhole by the only government office with a processing clerk for Accounts Ouroboros.
Maybe he really was the masochist they said he was. What exactly an ounce of self-pitying reflection was doing mingling in with his usual greener-pastures-rag, Bill couldn’t fathom. He reached over and snapped the ashtray open, turned up the radio. Lighted himself a skinny, wrinkled joint he had found in the crack of the bench cushion. Everybody’s gotta talk, he muttered to the rear view.
He never believed any of those stories. The ones his friends told to other friends about how he would demand to be driven around, black-out drunk, starting fights in bars, turning up the next week to find he’d been banned, phoning up lots and towing garages to find his car, waking up with a mouth stuffed full of bloody cotton and a busted tooth or a broken jaw, abrogated relationships and credentials – just looking to get upbraided for being alive and not too ambitiously. That’s what they said, and he didn’t know why they would need to try and make themselves feel better that way.
“Don’t I beat my own self up just fine?” he thought out loud through a puff of murky cannabis smoke.
Bill stepped down out of the truck near the crash site. Looked down one lane of the road, then down the other at the lights blinking on the road blocks he set up. Circling around the front of the Dodge, he disengaged the winch and, hook in hand, started out to finish what he started a few hours earlier. His boots crunched the salt grit for a few steps, then a soggy sucking sound for a few steps, then dead leaves and pine needles, the rasp of his breath, the gas can sloshing back and forth.
He turned his eyes up to the inky firmament. Sirius twinkled in Canis major. A bit of cloud partly obscured Orion’s belt. They are already dead in there, Bill reminded himself. Closed the last fifty feet to the crumpled automobile. Set the gas can in the mud. Secured the hook on the presenting axle.
“There’s sure to be a raise in here somewhere, if you can try not to spend it all down at the titty bar, Bill.” He worked with a little prybar on the passenger door and the bodies slithered out like so many sacks of shit.
Standing still. Watching the corpses. On the verge of recognizing something in himself, his nature at this moment. Feeling the same way he had when he was eight and the neighborhood kids all took turns firing BB-guns at a still-fresh squirrel one of them had found curled up under their porch. Just a few more moves left out here.
From some distance came a crashing in the undergrowth, snapping. Electricity jolted through Bill’s prostate, up his belly, sending his heart into his throat trying to chase after the yelp that half escaped as his body landed a yard from where he had been standing.
He felt like a squirrel often looks while alive: frozen in fear, beady eyes darting back and forth over a rapidly panting ribcage. One hand was wrapped around a folding pocket knife in the back pocket of his now-damp coveralls; it made no attempts to reemerge. I’m caught-I’m caught-I’m caught, said his breath to the hollow, metallic feeling behind his eyes.
He stopped breathing. Silence. Another snap, another startled leap, and then a growing … well that’s a rumble. A rumble?
Bill looked up the hill. There was a mound of mossy ground, lurching forward a few yards at a time, followed by a snaking trail of crumbled soil behind. It could have been Bugs Bunny on a wrong turn after lawd-who-cares-it’s-coming-right-down-here …! His knees knocked into one another as his body made dumb attempts to pinion its legs into something like escape. Bill pitched over, chin pointed at the sky, one hand still jammed in a back pocket, the other adding spin to an already confused trajectory. Bodies in motion; bodies at rest.
Mud in his eyes. Tin foil taste in his mouth. Camel colored work boots kicking and scissoring, looking for some purchase and being declined in every shop on the strip. Panic has never felt like such a great course of action for anyone as much as it did for Bill right then, when the mound had seemed to halt right at the edge of the scene, only to be suddenly pushing up new earth only ten feet away, now a yard. His flailing turned into flapping. A merman having a fit.
It was when the real estate immediately in front of Bill’s nose in the pitch black kicked up a burrow of fat worms and hairy roots and soil and stones that rolled up and slapped Bill on the cheek that he lost his shit. As he finally opened his mouth to once and for all scream out some mortal terror, fecund piles of dirt fell in to meet his moist, coffee-stained articulators.
Bill choked. Spat. Gag-screamed, which is never as cathartic as the real thing. He pawed and scrambled and almost managed half a crabwalk backwards.
Then the mound swelled up, taking a breath to show off a joke belly.
Bill Turnbull passed out cold and wet as your doormat any given rainy October weekend, so he missed the encore, which began with another rumble, and then finished with a noise straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon: a bright, rapid burst of PlopittyPLOOP! PloopityPLOP! PlupPLUP!, each one revealing hundreds and hundreds of cream colored mushroom caps in what must have been the most forceful entrance for a fungus in recent memory.
The fruiting bodies plumped, opened, swayed about on their stalks. A soft, unrushed rustling of gills followed. The rippling gathered momentum, got a little windy whispering going after a minute or two. Whispers Bill could just make out into words over the pounding surf in his skull when he woke back up. “We came a long way to find you,” he almost thought one of the whispers kept saying to him. Then the murmuring of a thousand-odd score of mushrooms came together in one rattling, undeniable chorus: “The universe has put us together.” A gust of spores fell out of the underside of the mass, kicking up into a dust cloud that billowed up and rolled out over Bill. The whispering became wet inside Bill’s head.
“Your brain is an electrically conductive organ. Every molecule is like a key; certain amounts in your neural soup allow certain circuits to obtain, conducting novel, otherwise ignored information streams … the conscious oneness of all things never did figure out how to make these chemicals in your form, but it was able to do so in this fungal form. So here we are.”
“Breathe in and we will share our keys with you.”
But Bill was already breathing.
Lucy was up all night. Her dance partner would not leave her head.
This was the 29th time or so that one of these fantasies had welled up out of her libido, beads of honey that would roll tracing a slick trail from her forehead to her pudendum. Couldn’t control it. Didn’t want to.
When she came, she felt her arched back being pushed up through a door of light into a new reality where everything had been upgraded, including herself. An over-riding sense of space surrounded her, wrapped her awareness around the globe, the whole solar system. Lots of room to grow. ‘Well done,’ she smiled. Her quim quivered.
There had been a time she thought she might never meet someone who would stir these kinds of feelings. The kind her friends had been reporting since adolescence with men, with women, with anyone they could get their hands on. She hadn’t ever imagined it would be like this, like … a circuit, crackling with delicious energy.
Her legs twined under the cotton sheets, still yearning for the pomp of the dance floor/dance floor like a choppy voyage – she couldn’t decide which.
Then an aftershock even more intense than her previous two dozen climaxes. She felt it pop. Existence popped. Lucy breathed in. Everything breathed in. The wind heaved itself against the ungained walls and the windows wheezed.
Lucy liked to dance. Her dance partner, too. What’s more, he liked the way she liked to dance.
But Eddie also liked to tell secrets. State secrets.
Eddie had a very pissed-off security intelligence apparatus scouring the earth for scent of his hide, which it intended, if found, to skin and then serve to the hand what feeds it.
Don’t worry about Eddie, though. It’s all about the size of the hump in the dog, not the size of the dog in the hump.
Don’t misunderstand, he was in real danger. The Imperial Braintrust – for whom secrets were as much a necessary feature of life as paying off palimony suits and disappearing dead hookers – wanted to kill him. Did they ever. They would talk it out constantly.
“It’s like getting your dick bit off and having to pay the carpet cleaner’s bill – we can’t stand for this!” said one of them, waving a cigar.
“You get what you pay for, why do you keep having to prove it,” lectured a man whose goatee was pasted atop a double chin, “…a G.E.D., for chrissakes?”
A thin, constipated-looking one said in a fury, “it’s just one guy! Until he or anyone else goes to someone outside, they are just one person. We can crush one person.”
Discussion inevitably swung around to compartmentalization, incentivizing loyalty. This got traction. The Braintrust felt very strongly about apprehending Eddie. The goatee chins spoke once again: “Well, good thing for us, this asshole just wandered into the most corrupt country in the world.” The room laughed hard at that one. There was a heady smell of farts and white wine, the sound of air whining out of a taut balloon.
This cadre of closet-submissive, woman-hating, racist plutocrats wanted to put just enough fear into the thousands of individual potential security risks they called employees. But they couldn’t hope to hit the kind of success rates they needed unless they could put the screws on Eddie. Direct-like. The Imperial Braintrust eventually cobbled together a plan. Got confident. Sent the C.I.-this and the M.I.-that and every other goddamned spook into Russia for a holiday. Maybe they find him, they mused in gilded salons while their bought-and-sold talking-heads parroted their sentiments via establishment media outlets. After all, they said in unison, he is only one person – he cannot hide behind anyone in Moscow.
Except Eddie had never gone to Russia.
He had set it up to look as if he had been on a flight to Cuba, and he also made sure it appeared as if he had been in Hong Kong. Where Eddie had been on the day authorities tried to grab him was on an extended cannabis-tasting visit to Vancouver. He hadn’t wanted any of his employers to know about his high holiday, so he set up the competing claims as to his whereabouts to baffle anyone who cared to inquire after them. While he was in Canada, he met Lucy at a club. Took her to a bar the next night, then dropped her off outside her place. She went upstairs and jacked off, and he did the same back at his hotel.
Little did he know that the people he worked for had found out about all that shit he had downloaded, decrypted and shared. All of that confidential, classified shit.
When Lucy saw the news that next morning, she gasped. “Wow!” Sat rocked up on her knees in her panties and pajama tee and mused in the glow of the television. “A dancer and a pirate.” When she answered her entryphone and saw Eddie on the screen, she fainted. When she woke up in his arms on the floor of her foyer, he confessing that he didn’t believe in privacy and property rights, saying he couldn’t stand himself for the years he’d served an unjust security state; that he was starting a new, simpler life and begged her to join him; she knew she was finally in love and that it was with a real pirate. “You may be a slightly dorky-looking doofus,” Lucy told him, “but you’re the prince of the dorky doofuses.”
After that, it was South America-way. Island hopping around Chiloe, Guamblin, further by the week and no hurry about it. “They say the Indians came down the western coast of the continent,” Eddie sermonized. “Down past Alaska from Russia, down to Puerta Arenas.” He smiled, dumb in his square plastic frames.
There they lived in bucolic peace and splendor for 17 years. And then fate once again picked out Eddie Snowden.
Strolling along the Pampas one day with Lucy, Eddie turned to face the woman who was his life’s companion and deepest love. Her eyes had a few more lines around them, but not many. “Lucy, someone has got it in my head that… well,” and he slipped into a reluctant pause that Lucy recognized with a dull, benign annoyance. She took in his pause with familiar uncertainty as to whether what might follow would be positive, negative, heart-warming, -wrenching … she had for the longest time sought to encourage him to feel comfortable enough just sharing, to overcome his reluctance to communicate whatever was on his mind.
She counted to seven. “Yes, babe?”
“… well, what if there was a way to go to Russia … without flying or taking a boat. They say… some of the tech guys around Jules all the time, they say there is a way to get there. A way to get in front of President-for-life Putin without revealing my whereabouts to the Braintrust.” Eddie looked embarrassed enough by whatever he was trying to say. Lucy knew he probably wasn’t joking. She just couldn’t find any other way to react yet. Belched out a whole-body horse laugh. “What do you mean, like a big fucking tunnel or something – did those goddamn Rusk dig a giant tunnel to Cuba? Is Kennedy down there?”
‘No.’ said Eddie.
And then he said something that changed the game very much so.
‘I can have my mind – from my body, here – sent via secure datalink to control a robot in Moscow. They call it interfacing.’
Lucy squinted. ‘Interfacing, huh?’
With that, the muscles around Eddie’s eyes relaxed. His thin lips spread into a smile. He loved being able to share his nerdy, technical stuff with Lucy. And if she didn’t like the idea of it right away, she was eventually persuaded that the whole idea sounded “Kind of pioneer-y: launching the mind into well cybernetic space. Totally pirate-y,” she was able to giggle in a bit. In the mean time, Lucy held Eddie’s hand as they walked. The process seemed to revolve around the ingestion of a couple cups of custom-fabricated nanobots. Just like plugging chips into a board, only inside out. The chips find their spots in the conductive broth in between neurons and effectively turn the host’s nervous system into a network node. Theoretically, the whole system had been worked out for nearly a decade; Julian’s tech man told Eddie that it had just been a matter of waiting for the nanotech to develop.
‘A bit like when Bell was going after the phone that first few times. Knew it was possible on paper. Found him a wire to shout down right in time to burn his bollocks off – first step on the route to cybernetic consciousness was no more than a call about ol’ Dick.’ The tech man, still twinkling from his little joke, got back on task. Told Eddie, ‘they say jamming your pan into this, uh, machine-neural interfacing stuff, that the first few milliseconds, it’s like a bath of cold humming metal.’
Once he had the green light from Lucy, Eddy got to work. Leaving his body – the first one he had known – was going to prove to be very hard. He started by reading a lot of manuals, then ran through a heavy battery of biofeedback training and nootropic cocktails. He learned, using only brain waves as input, to code and compile in several programming languages. He designed, plotted on a 3D printer and programmed a kind of UAV. Then he learned to pilot it in a sensory deprivation tank while on heroic doses of psilocybin; after a while, he stopped flying by camera feed. He navigated by radar: sending out tendrils of sonar waves, conscious of every microsecond and stoned into the next universe.
After three months and two days, Eddie was solid. Already looked more like a tin-can. Shady-looking good ole’ boys came around to the ranch. Jeeps. Large field supply containers. Lots of forward base equipment marked in Cyrillic. They claimed to be Armenian but spoke primarily in Portuguese. Two of them set up the satellite channel to a very sneaky cross-Pacific datalink cable hidden under a continent of plastic-goo; another one, slightly better-scrubbed and visibly under the effects of strong hashish, set up a life support rig alongside the neural-interfacing table where Eddie’s old body would be laid out for a time; and then all three of them, most important, set up watch as a security detail (just in case, que Deus ajude a mia mae).
At around 9:30 a.m., Eddie closed his eyes on his safe-enough, comfortable home and his squishy, water-soaked sack of a body in the mountains between Argentina and Chile.
When he opened his eyes, he didn’t actually open any eyes. More like Eddie started processing and analyzing a data feed from his optical sensors, which were attached atop a poly-fibre frame with articulation points in a limb array that were familiar enough to his otherwise reeling mind. It was nearly happy hour. He knew so because the Russian President-for-life just encoded this information in some audio signals, and fine membranes registered changes in air pressure around the poly-fibre body which Eddie’s consciousness now seemed to similarly waft through, around.
Time for cocktails, apologies that Eddie won’t be able to indulge without a human body, let’s toast to enlightening the world and liberating the future from tyrants, from slavery – the octagenarian oligarch vomited on and all Eddie could think was, how the fuck is this fleshy politician ruling over anything next week? Me and whoever else can do this. Us. More of us would mean we. We will crush these bastards.
“I’ll toast to you any day of the week, Komrad Lexy”
Eddie had never felt such a liberating, counter-intuitive misanthropy.
The hash-pummeled Armenian pan jammer, Tzemis was his name, just before the maiden interface had been filling Eddie in on some of the dirtier points of the technology’s history. Told him nearly every person he had helped to interface reported that, freed from the restraints of the form inherited of terrestrial evolution, they just felt … more in control. Told him the only thing anyone could yammer about after interfacing was an urgent desire to get more people free of their inchoate meat-selves. Trade in the old robot for the real deal. He had been in robotics before? No, but something similar. Involved with file sharing. Same kind of thing, Tzemis says. Information. Traveling great distances and back again, as data packets. Instruction sets. Controlling, becoming robots.
All over the world, a few people here trained hard enough, a few people there acquired the right cocktails of nanobotic components. A smattering of networks arose, mainly straight lines, mainly overnight or for a day of solid and heavy battering storms over the south pole, when a massively-arrayed convoy of ships would lay out thousand-mile cables without fear of being spotted through the cover by satellite.
Cybernet interfacers at first ran their robots into bank heists, rescues, assassinations, basically being some variant of criminal or vigilante. Then they started coordinating. Three robot platoons took down the entire Israeli intelligence apparatus in an hour. The strategy was not particularly elegant or novel. It just happened to be carried out by robots, though, and nobody had really expected that.
‘You see,’ Tzemis switched from mere descriptive to provide some context for Eddie and Lucy; ‘this is likely to be remembered as one of the singular instances in modern human history where civilian innovation will have beaten military desires to the punch,’ flips a switch, consults a busy-looking clipboard. ‘War-inspired, competition-oriented design concepts will be proved fatally to have been more limited than sharing-oriented ones. This will be where Marx foresaw the superstructure give rise to its own antithesis!’
In the whirlwind of that first year, with governments still completely in the dark as to the existence of the fusing of developments in nanobotics, datalink, neural interfaces, let alone the successful parallel uses of such technologies – a corporation did get ahold of the idea. ‘But you know the meganationals, if a tree falls in the forest and it doesn’t lead to higher stock prices, nobody fucking hears of it, eh.’
‘These megacorp pigs send out exactly no press releases, ad copy or investor publications, so nobody – nobody – except a few of the most senior and corrupt figures in the world is actually aware of anything. And that’s the only reason why the filho da puta Braintrust hasn’t already taken over o mundo inteiro.’
One positive externality of corporate entry had been that, with concentrated R&D funding, it achieved a reliable wireless datalink quite quickly. It also predictably perverted the technology overnight into a slavery program, one where prisoners were forced to interface with and run gigantic drilling and boring machines across broad swaths of Africa, Afghanistan and the North Sea. The hard-labor cybernetwork’s chief exploits in those areas were to be diamonds and coltan, lithium, and natural gas, respectively.
Within two months of corporate co-option, the first rough-hewn industrial machines had been piloted into Liberia, the Congo, the mountains of Helmand and deep-sea Holes, Pits, and Ridges from Norway to Iceland; and in all cases by roughneck death row psychos hooked up to even rougher and more disturbing wetware. Often times it stole their minds, left a slurping, shitting pupa behind in the real world. More times than that, the bodies rejected poorly-fabricated nanobotics, literally puking up a prisoner’s consciousness onto the floor. Lack of PR effectively covered up awareness, buried reports; the world remained ignorant of the technology’s existence.
Within four months, the same corporation had suddenly made huge contributions to right-wing political candidates in twelve countries and stealthily launched a long-term program to begin mining diamonds from a moon of Saturn, under the guise of experimenting with deep-space communications possibilities.
Everything that Tzemis had told them had described a mixed bag of vaguely awe inspiring, vaguely menacing envelope-pushers. Opportunists. Explorers at all costs. Nothing out of the ordinary from any other human pursuit.
But when Eddie Snowden interfaced his first time; when the notion, the impulse to do whatever it took to broaden access to the technology that allowed such a transcendent impulse to manifest, well it just so happened that Eddie – or rather, the robot with which he was interfacing – was standing in front of a veritable cyst of a world leader, entrenched since the days of the KGB, who could make really big things metastasize.
And they did.
When Putin employed the full mineral resources of his fiefdom and built the Russian Interface Network Infrastructure in under 90 days, it was in the name of industrial efficiency. When he and his genius group of mad computer scientists connected it to the existing internet, Holy God! – what an amazing shift in the dominant beings on the planet began.
Interface Protocol overtook internet(work) protocols in months. Reality shifted within five years from the world of human sensory organs to a world laid bare by ever-more sophisticated sensors allowing in vast amounts of heretofore unconsidered and unknowable data. Full-scale uploading of the person’s consciousness – rendering it for all anyone knows immortal – was commonplace within a decade. By 2041 CE, no new information was appearing in human-understandable forms; written and spoken languages were on the verge of disappearing. Eddie always thought that disappearing into the cybernetwork would be the best kind of getaway. Lucy sensed it was a very important step in a very long process of … something.
She figured it was just evolution.
Global Enkhata – the civilization prior to, yet grand enough to be later aped by both the Egyptians and Mayans, had a spectacular grasp on entheogenic pharmacological technologies, especially hallucinogens. Their insights cured disease and stopped the onset of death for the select few who were made into gods.
Thanks to highly regimented training and the effects of their potent distillations, these deity-regents were capable of wielding a powerful telekinesis. Mountains were moved in the blink of an eye. Nations were commanded with a single gesture. Each man, woman and child working to the strain of their full potential, worried like to robots. This was the origin of the word, robota, and these slave armies were the technocrats’ hands that shaped the earth, itself carved from one area by as equal an obsequy. The technocrats’ will was the whole of the law.
Eventually, strong and clear visions came to the oracular priestesses: the world here does not survive the future, and the next ones so far afield. So very far.
The technocrats seized the moment, developing a simple space program and time travel experiment in the process. The psychedelic godkings would be rendered to pure, vibrational energy by ministration of the compounds obtained from manifold botanical essences, and this energy-being would explore the galaxies for a suitable earth-place to which to move, cultivate and reign over in turn humankind and all the rest of the Earth’s great treasures.
But when they return nearly thirty thousands of years later, not only do they find humanity enslaved to a far inferior magic; the ancient astronauts have only to report that rather than find the new garden they had sought, instead they have come face to face with an equally advanced race of beings on the planets surrounding Sirius – from whence the progenitor elements of life on Earth originate, carried on intergalaxy-bound asteroids. Like burrs in a woodland animal’s coat, the diaspora of life rode almost on piggyback, exploiting the currents of the still-new universe.
Unfortunately for some of its branches such as the earthlings’, some stars have longer to burn while some are destined to sputter out in shorter order; some planets are better engineered systems while others have faults and tempestuous cores and electro-dynamos all adding to instability; some life evolves a positive consciousness while other branches result in ego-centric selfish beings. It’s all just a lottery, really.
The beings in the Sirius system, they see the incursion of energy being, explorer-pharaohs – and the sun system from whence they come – a curiosity.
The energy beings, returning to the stone of seas and mud and rainstorms, they have their curiosity as well – the beings on Earth.
The beings on Earth, they have gotten away from really seeing. They are not equipped to recognize the similarities between their returned ancient ancestors who would bring them news of extra-terrestrial intelligences; the self-same extra-terrestrial entities now investigating this neck of the galaxy; and the human being’s own potential as a galactic species. They have gotten … self-regarding and weak.
The beings on Earth, they put machines to work for them now, employ groveling, gurgling Rube Goldberg assemblies all jacked in to the wall or the ginny, all slurping away at some guttering chunk of ofal, itself gouged from the earth, comprised after all of lots of trapped sugar from the sunshine. Back when sunshine was new and fashionable. The slick compost of their dead biological ancestors: akinetons, palm cycads, pulse-less reptiles, pollen, feathers, pond scum, corals, trilobites and sickness itself.
Back in the way back when, the godkings took their sugar far more rare. Put their commands to the people direct. Humanity reduced to a tiny, squalid trickle quartered by the technocrats’ will.
The pharaohic magicians put their command direct to the earth, too. Never mind thin rivulets of this metal, tiny beads of that compound. Back in the way back when, a godking’s dwellings would be made of great unsophisticated, elemental blocks bade by equally monolithic desires; but aren’t the current lot of beings on Earth as equally unimaginative? Never mind the delicate lattice of contrivances what this inferior modern magic engenders; the ends are identical. A crushing, indelicate, deliberate hand, one finger pointing the way through the folly of existence… for no one in particular, but no matter.
But just think! – might be that the godkings perhaps come to recognize that they had been, after all, piloting the ship of state from within a material situation inherited most recently from mammals. What works for that lot is populating aggressively. A survival strategy does not offer a requisite level of success for the human being; perhaps realizing that in fact it was this very predilection of our forebears to overbreed that caused them to use great power to propel the human spirit forward into space … while also bowing to the consequences of a deep-seated, over-riding and ultimately no longer biologically necessary need of the meat. Not of the will.
But perhaps the old pharaohs will appreciate that they at least had been adventurous and creative enough to try and deal with the situation; to turn to the unknown and surveil it. Bring it into the eye’s gaze and transfigure reality, incorporate their designs, the idea, the word. To speak it. Those who do
this are necessarily Gods by definition. When they also wield a high magic based not on ornate methods of cheating the natural order, which is a priori misunderstood; based instead on the power of coincidental possibility within a natural chaos, which can be understood a priori; well, maybe then the whole of the law shall be Do as Thou wilt.
The two worlds have everything to teach each other… and the third, too.
‘It’s basic economics, mes petites-souillons. If the American people allow a private bank control over the issue of currency,’ so Wilhelm Reich tongues the clitoris of his dinner guests’ politics, ‘their children will surely wake up homeless on the very continent their fathers had only lately conquered.’
The laity piffles. Paris, ’24.
‘Naturellement, I have no faith in the American. Morons of the highest degree. Miracle they haven’t yet been conquered by a tyrant.’
All at once, the attendant smatter of social scientists – cherry, virginal and also intellectually lazy; stinking of Veuve-Cliquote, loaded with cocaine, torsioning spent ends out of slender cigarette holders; multilingual, pansexually liberal, hypothetically socialist and not a one out of their 20’s – clank silver to crystal, enrapt. Wilhelm titters.Nearly one hundred years later. A late spring. Wilhelm masturbates on his back porch sort of saluting Lake Maxinkuckee in the wee small hours. Steaming cup of coffee set on a railing. A wing of geese light and wheel, spreading seagreen shit cigars. On the far shore, candycane tape seals off another foreclosure around the lake. The sheriff’s face one big squint as he yawns. The wholeness of the routine is singular. Far too charitable a word, ‘moron’, the ancient psychiatrist and sometime charlatan, Dr. Reich, thinks to himself. Far too charitable.
The lake is some kind of cool steel blue this morning. It looks cleaner, right to the sandy bottom. All the prolonged freezing and thawing while tiresome definitely killed most of the worst stuff in there. The weeds and algal mass will start to grow back in a matter of days, but right now: it epitomises fresh. Herr Doktor Reich lusts to drop his aged seed into the water and continue his morning toilet.
The positive energies of the Universe are tied together, and coming brings it through the person.
A tautology both occult and dangerous, Wilhelm had at one time thought about helping the world to it. Promulgate the discovery’s regenerative power. His name would sail into the forever of infamy. How ironically prescient. The swine locked him in jail for a time, enfeebled by their own insecurity, he thinks dimly now.
Cardinals chirp from the maples. Pretty pretty pretty. A gentle fap-fap-fap of self-abuse. At the waterline, a muskrat flops and plunks. Orgasm teeters on one foot, a trick of perspective that has it retreating or approaching dependant on one’s optical mood. Of course such a stasis will always be upset. Nature’s truism.
The telephone peals. Only too timely, but unstartling to such a stout practitioner of art and wielder of science as Wilhelm. His more dextrous hand continues to piston while his left methodically pulls on the loose skin of his scrotum. The regular self-inspection for testicular cysts. Untouched by such a manly cancer, he fondly informs dinner guests – of which there seem to be unending droves following his recent, spectacularly successful base jump from an International Space Station cargo capsule on its return trip to Earth; informs them the results of his examinations. ‘Found a new mole near my anus, best alert NASA,’ he will pronounce over soup. ‘The old taint was quite rigid this morning, but clean as the air in Kathmandu,’ he’ll quip at the vienneta. Occasionally a returning guest will ask for an update. Normally, though, his pendulous prognoses come unbidden.
The base jump, the foolish trick of gravity and Kevlar that saved Wilhelm from obscurity. Yeah, everyone loves that toss.
Eventually the phone tires of its unrequited rattling. Answering machine takes over, servos click, tape spools. His publicist and assistant, Sandra, can be heard identifying the number as that of Herr Doktor Reich who may or may not beregrettably indisposed, directing the caller to Be a lovely dear and leave us your contact credentials, and you will be rejoined in due course. Ta. The precocious young thing is not even English, though she is quite fond of putting on accents when making recordings. She fancies it makes them sound more official.
Sandra joined Wilhelm when he came to the Midwest some four years past. She had been one of the literature grad students through the region hand-picked as candidates for the vernerated doctor’s personal assistant by faculty familiar with his mission. Wilhelm was most smitten with her button nose, so she got the job. On introduction, her youth belied an underdeveloped wit and temper that people tended to regret taking for granted. Sandra often took the advantage.
Shortly into their first meeting, the would-be candidate rounded on him. ‘Oh, orgone or whatever,’ in a doe-eyed sneer, ‘just like that Karl What’s-its-name, from the late-night commercials,’ putting on one of her voices, ‘Don’t get scammed by copycats and fakes! Insist on being scammed by the original, genuine liar who invented this pile to steal your money!’ She stood. Walked to the door. Breezily turning, a sparkle of muted hubris as her lashes fluttered at her presumptive interviewer. Her voice dropped back to normal. ‘I don’t work Sundays or Mondays, and you can’t ever comment on my clothes or hair – and don’t ask me about my shoes. I don’t often wear them.’ A big smile. ‘And don’t you ever dare get your prick out in front of me. I’ll start next week.’
From that point forward, she took complete control of his affairs. Wilhelm is not even certain of the amount she takes as a wage.
The answering machine’s tape receives some unashamed obsequy or another. Some cub reporter, some regional news source. Some clap-trap about the base jump. Cocksuckers, Wilhelm spits through the screen door. These same mindless taste-makers who only seventy years ago would have been discrediting his scientific pursuits now seek to laudate such an imperilling mendacity as donning a wingsuit and falling through the stratosphere from a supersonic hunk of metal.
The speaking fees pay the bills again, true – the first time in decades. He shouldn’t complain. But Wilhelm feels this late celebrity is making him soft.
In terms of his edge, he is as sharp and terse as ever. But he is also half flaccid in his parchment-and-rope hands this morning. The afflatus of his ego, teased and sucked by a fauning public, disgusts him past his own physical arousal. Fucking moron America, lying down to die in a shallow pile of conceited filth, self-centeredness decentralised by mass media, social media, multimedia consumer experience, her spirit of constant self-invention being co-opted by the fascists. The ancient psychiatrist pumps away irrelevantly. Sets his long-false teeth.
Being sold choice. Buying freedom. Shopping for the corporate sanctioned alternative. How the fuck else could Goldman Sachs pillage then go sit on a screw-daddy administration and claim to be un-fucking the things it had fucked up in the first; describe a system with obscured underlying mechanisms and oblivious operators. Cowards and whores. There it goes – rage puts some lead back in his prick. Salivating, he reaches for his cup of coffee with one hand.
Only a small rebirth. The past month or so, his dream journal features a lot of zombification. His mind simplified, body learning to subsist on a foreign and sometimes abstract element – one night it was raw ethyl alcohol, the next it was the shame of his transformation, peeling off skin and picking veins from his arms; another night, dream-Wilhelm fed on the self-inflicted misery of those around him. Not vampirism, because he fed without cunning or thought or care. And not sadism, because he derived no enjoyment.
Is it a kind of ennui, he wonders. Maybe embracing it would be therapeutic. That is after all how he ended up in the wing suit falling at thirty-two feet per second per second. He was addressing a fear of heights. Not half as deadly as the cure, no doubt. But entropy is different, is an honest disease. So many people get depressed, find drugs, get to the bottom, find their way back, or ascend to mania, end up dead or – even worse – find religion. His coffee goes back all in one go. Wet ring on the rail and a new one started just near it under a cup suggesting If your wife drives you to drink, have her drive you to the Bear’s Den.
It is at this opening that Sandra clears her throat. Now Wilhelm seems to startle. Hadn’t even heard her automobile pull in. One of those hybrid whatevers. Still, his perfunctory onanism continues. Addresses his lone staff member: ‘Well I might have sworn I relocated to this lake for a bit of undisturbed peace.’
These last few years, Sandra’s girlhood has stood aside to the full, beaming energies of womanhood, a blush of utter certitude awakening in her cheeks, a totality of self eclipsing all other previous iterations of her powerful beauty. From a bag, Sandra produces the bound folio containing the day’s agenda.
‘There’s no peace in a place named after the people from which it was stolen, Herr Doktor. Now finish up, there are matters… at hand.’ That dimpled smirk. The rolling meadow of her chest as she pushes past to the kitchen.
The self-abusing Austrian notices the fabric holding her breasts is thin today; meagre offerings to some Verbius who would clash with others for the Kingly rights to suckle on their life; to some Hippolytus to shun the worldly pairs of pink nipple meat for the divine cleavage displayed.
‘Doch, liebchen. Peace is impossible. I was more ruing the dearth of privacy around here.’ Sandra rewinds the tape on the answering machine. Starts the steam arm for an espresso. Checks her mobile device screen. The ex-psychoanalyst continues his thought as the vain often do, oblivious.
‘Privacy disappeared from this culture ages ago.’ Fap fap fap. ‘Secrets, too. No one desires either of them anymore … a secret is a very lonely luxury, so virtually null value. And privacy is so cheap – secure shopping, online anonymity, PIN numbers – that its ubiquity elicits disgust from the chic and the common yearn for a more conspicuous stuff … nobody’s buying, so we have none.” His assistant’s eyes are glazed when he seeks them through the screen door. And Wilhelm realises he’s gone mostly soft again.
And just as well, he thinks to himself. A long time ago Wilhelm reasoned that as scientific inquiry, itself woven of our thoughts and concentration, stitches up the causes of all things, it is less likely that we retain an inner life. This outer world both prevailing on and created by the inner, the imagination, the idea machine that pries further into our thoughts, ironically laid bare by them. Will it finally dispel the jealous curses of displaced insecurity, duplicitous promises to loved ones, the perfect fetishes and desires that go unnamed, unrealised, leeching out instead, rampantly mutating, pinning us to the ground. Lies. Self- deceit. Repressed sexual impulses and violent energy. Will we finally redefine morality? Imagine no tension or contradiction between the invisible world of our imagination and the everyday world of sensate interactions … just a constant coming on of wind. Just like falling.
And we’re back to the base jump from the International Space Station.
As we were saying before, Wilhelm has been experiencing dream inertia. Before the zombies, the dominant theme was heights. Dreams where he was at the top of a very high tree, or pole or building’s façade, with no obvious safe way to retreat. He knew getting down would require double the bravery it took to climb or scale or however he gained the spots he found himself. He was mortified. Often the dreams would lurch forward or fold back on themselves and there would be the ground, but he could never take action. Weeks and weeks of this. The ‘character’ Hardy wrote about just failed to manifest time and again. It was during this spell that he met Jeb Corliss.
Jeb has at some point in twenty years of throwing himself off of cliffs and whatnot, accordingly broken all the bones in both his legs, seen friends dash their lives out against mountainsides, and has come to find swimming with toxic jellyfish relaxes him. Quite a visceral conduit of the conscious universe, totally sociopathic and balding. Of course he would find the Doktor somewhere along his journey.
The two men were at the same bar in some well-heeled end of some dirty city on perpendicular speaking tours when they happened to meet in the toilet. The withered Austrian insulfating narcotics off the ceramic sink-edge and the other one politely asking after the soap dispenser. Invited to a snort and a toot of his own. Sharing stories, convincing a member of waitstaff to bring drinks in. Only natural, once he learned the other’s profession, that Wilhelm would ask if Jeb could teach him to overcome what was an apparent fear of heights. He accepted, partially due to the instant artificial bond cocaine lends, but also partially out of respect for the antiquarian bad boy. Sandra offered no objection. Said it might be good for some publicity.
They were the oddest couple for the next few weeks: the one beyond elderly, deflective, fond of abortion as a primary method of birth control; the other a thirty-something adrenalin junkie, sometime clothing designer and maybe contributor to deaths-by-mountain-smashing, promoting such activities as recreational instead of suicidal as he does. It was a harmonious mismatch.
Jeb suggested base jumping from a crevice in a gorge; Wilhelm said let’s. Jeb told him he would take a free-fall from the peak of an inactive volcano in the Southwest; Wilhelm begged to join him. Jeb phoned and introduced the possibility of a jump from the moon. Wilhelm thought a short moment and said why not. No better way to deal with dream-vertigo than with a waking 400,000 kilometre base jump. Sandra would shortly come to inform them that without gravity there is no such thing as jumping, falling, wind, etc. But they were committed to do something, ahem, spacey.
After much brainstorming, the pair decided to trek to the International Space Station; hitch along on a re-entry capsule of equipment and samples; eject themselves from this hunk of man-made debris at the first possible altitude where they will be drawn bodily toward the ground. There would be the question of oxygen, and then of friction – nobody wants to burst into flames unless they are affecting some kind of punk rock posture or making a statement entrée on Top Chef or whatever. Sandra would handle the press. Days of planning. Meetings. Jeb seemed tireless. Wilhelm focused on the frenetic hum of those around him; the higher the tension of a situation, the more energy available to tap into.
The jump itself was calming.
Plunging through the atmosphere, the earth coming closer by intervals too slow to register, a vicious wind lifting one’s person back out to drift, resisting the infantile effort to get groundward, back home; the wind seemed to question, but what is home to you, plummeting ape, was it not your choice to come all the way out past the Van Alen belts into the radiation of open space to perch atop a capsule aimed at the pulsing electric dynamo below, to try to cheat it in every other way; to give a thumbed nose to gravity, thumbed nose to home, to crushing pressure changes; a middle finger to the whipping winds of the upper troposphere, to the static discharges of the cirrus boiling with icicles and rupturing typhoons; thumbs at ape noses as if to claim that this ape fabric cannot be ribboned, these ape bones no mere balsa-braces carrying newsprint sails. Chutzpah. An utter cheat. Pfoooh. Back out to space with you.
But of course, they fell and fell and coasted along and then deployed their ‘chutes and eventually landed in the green, green grass of home. Iowa, actually, but you know what was meant. Back on the ground of Earth, in one piece: home.
A veritable field of press coverage was waiting, everyone’s sensors and lenses and instruments pointed skywards during the preceding three hours. The whole thing documented. Two Kevlar flying squirrels in jetpilots’ black-domed bee masks and oxygen tubes speeding unnaturally through the sky, growing somewhat larger, slowing, seeming to grow smaller, softly touching down. A wave of applause for miles. People sat up in barstools and Barcaloungers, reverent, inspired. Sandra gave Wilhelm a kiss on the cheek. Pinched Jeb’s butt. A beautiful sunny day in the corner of the world where they landed. And the 24-hour press cycle kept on pushing the angle, celebratory at first, until it resembled a cat kicking dirt over its month-old shit.
Back in the kitchen, the back porch by an awakening Maxinkuckee, Wilhelm has given up on masturbating himself. He pulls his robe shut. Joins his administrator inside the pale blue of the tiled kitchen.
She sips at the crema on her Illy shot. ‘There you are; down to business. You have a junket in Detroit, we fly out at one; before that, there’s the Town Council BZA luncheon where you take an honorary At-Large appointment, and you need to get some pants on pronto, Doktor.’
‘Who was that on the answering machine?’
‘It was your dead, tart mother for all you care. Now stop avoiding it and get a move on, old man – there are a billion things to do today!’ His erection stirs.
We fell in love; she died in childbirth.
She had said: There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a thick Russian novel in the winter when the roads are all black ice and gusty.
She also said: You have to dance every day.
I’ve been gardening. It’s keeps me from crying in the house. Instead, I’m all over the property, restoring order, selecting what will continue to propagate, what dies with exposed root systems under the punitive sun, the wicking wind. The old novels went in the mulch pile.
We bought it to raise a family in. It’s a new-ish house on an old plot of land, one of the ones that’s actually above street-level in the neighbourhood, so the sump pump isn’t working overtime and the yard isn’t leeched through with decades-worth of slurry and other such run-off. A little bloodmeal, some bone and other organic material, maybe some mycorrhizal mycelia for good measure, and this place will be raging. A rival to Eden itself, I think.
My first foray out beyond the garage, on the south side of the property, something wonderful presents itself. There is a stump of a well-established rose bush in the middle of this bramble patch. An indiscriminate mat of thorny fronds crowd the otherwise well-kempt plant. The care that had gone into trimming it back for its first five or six years is clear. Then it was swallowed by the wild blackberry, the Rubus armenias brought over as a cultivar by the braggadocio, foolhardy Europeans, but which quickly went native, out-flocking the local flora. Carried in the guano of birds across the continent, extremely efficient burls dug in and deep deep racemes stretched out. Seeing it all laid out there on my property, bloodlust, pure and unrefined, wells up in me. I set to besting this botanical beast in battle directly.
If your environment beats on you, tries to wear you down for ages, yet still can’t manage to deal the final blow; well, then you kind of deserve to have someone help you fight back. Oh, it’s cold, pulling on finger gloves and hacking away at the brambles. And I get cut up a bit. But I’m doing the work that God let fall by the wayside.
I feel like a very important individual. Reviving an empire despite the barbarians.
Like Colonel Sanders – he once owned a hotel, ran it as a five star accommodation specialising in the little extras. Shoe shine service, laundry, two meals inclusive. One of the dishes the place served to guests was fried chicken (apparently the steak was also excellent.) After some time though, the adjoining arterial road was changed to a highway miles away from the site, and travellers were no longer regularly driving past, getting tired, stopping for respite, no matter the fabled quality of the repast.
The doors might have shut, but the Colonel decided to commodify his chicken recipe, selling the breading mix and cooking techniques to area restaurants. He took orders and delivered the stock in person. He grew older. Looked for a legacy. Ex-Governor Brown of Kentucky came forward and bought out the sales business, only to resell it at great profit to a large company who turned what had been at its most basic stage no more than a recipe written on a bit of grease-stained card into a national restaurant franchise.
Some small time later, sales were suffering and the company sought out the Colonel as a quality control agent. He whipped kitchens into shape everywhere the beleaguered conglomerate sent him. The bombastic nature of the cane-toting old codger was soon recognised, and he was installed as a spokesperson for a product he no longer owned. The role filled him with the frustrated pride of the truly screwed, and sapped his energies.
Now he’s in a nameless grave near an Indian cemetery on the edge of Wahawnee County. Caesar is dead; all hail Little Caesars.
There’s a university around the land where the grave’s rumoured to be, a college. It’s run by nuns; the nuns farm; there are artisan cheese-makers, organic pastures for the antibiotic-free cattle herd, a brewer with forty-foot tall pylons of hop vines, bookbinders and others of the requisite hemp-faithful, a stray pack of Amish candlers tallowing near the banks of the Tippecanoe River, and unsurprisingly a group of women who refer to themselves as the world’s first and only lesbian ant farmers. They get on fine with the nuns who run the college, everyone being free of male penetratives and all. The ants are sold via sundry mail-order catalogues, ads in the backs of comic books, word of mouth at the VFW and the like. Very old-fashioned.
It is through one of these catalogues that I receive the call: INTERNSHIP AVAILABLE. Tend and feed productive vegetable patch. Experience helpful. Apply in person to Lesbian Ant Farm, AncillaCollege, Wahawnee Trail, IN 45666.
I respond to the ad immediately, firing up the old Dodge to rattle along the B roads to the college’s property. Pick my way down the paths to the lesbian’s array of tipis on the eastern edge of a barley field. Hold up the bitty square of newsprint. Oh, look, a man to order around, one remarks. They hire me with a modicum of questions. Get out of the desolate atmosphere of my abortive bridal home for three days a week? Help to support the world’s most important source of beneficial ant species? Share a tipi with a few hairy-legged women? Yes, please!
Celebrating means leaping in through the doors of the local honkey-tonk after I return home. I change a fifty dollar note into quarters for the jukebox. Merle Haggard gets a royalty check.
When I’m nice and drunk on wine and beer, mescal and rye, I like to throw my glass on the ground, you know: to show how happy and rich I am. The next day I call work, which has been giving me time off anyway, and inform them of my new past-time. My boss says it sounds therapeutic.
Three weeks in to the internship, I decide I could save on gas by not going home on my days off. Help out instead with some of the other farmers. Seven weeks in, I get a phone call from my sister-in-law:
‘You left?’ ‘Yes, I’m gone for a month or so by now.’ Silence. Irritated breathing. ‘Well, when are you coming back?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘That’s a lie – you know you’re dying to come back, you just want to, I don’t know, feel isolated… it’s pretentious.’ I count to five in my head. The air smells fecund. ‘No, it’s a lie because I don’t want to go back. I’ve already come back, I don’t want to go back.’ I hang up.
I guess I’m kind of annoyed after this conversation, pent up restlessness leads me to drink. Seeth away my clear head. In my battle against negativity, I had seemed to have prevailed, but, huzzah! – how the alcohol seems to clarify my rage to a point on the horizon that I can squint towards, personify and spit at. For weeks I had been facing life in a better way, fully regimented: every morning, a cup of gritty coffee and a shit. Read a half chapter of this bad zombie story I checked out of the college library. Shower in the faucet stall set up by the Amish. Go out to the fields and put my sweat into the ground, alongside the others who preceded me in the internship; the sharecroppers before them, and the homesteaders before them, and the millennia of Indian terraformers and cultivators who started it all rolling. Just a breeze blowing over the farms now, because I want to fucking hit someone with my empty bottle.
So I go on a walk. Blow off steam.
Look, there’s the spot one of the lesbians told me they buried Colonel Sanders.
The barley fields to the east have been blown over by the wind. A storm coming on soon. The corn, just two feet high in the adjoining land to the west, rustles in a convincing mimicry of polite, excited whispers before a film screening. Being angry and full up with spirits, I dance off through the rows, immature fronds slicing at the backs of my hands. At the centre of the field, there is a clearing and I trip over something. On my hands, I’m in a depression three times wider than that between the tilled rows. And at the centre of the depression is a trapdoor that I have only narrowly avoided splitting my forehead on. No joke, when I tug on the dirty iron ring that serves as its handle, I kind of feel like a Goonie. There’s a spiralling stairwell cut into the moist earth. The walls are lined and buttressed. I go down for a while. Then a passageway. A few torches here and there, pitch on linen and they put out a reek that cuts right through my own boozy stench.
Why I walk so long before I get scared, I guess I can blame on the alcohol. But, yeah, I get acutely, childlike scared when I feel the dry breeze that brings a smell worse than the torches, like a stroke victim’s mouth. And when I see someone running towards me, I do piss right down my pants.
It’s only Liz Carmouche sweeping up the tunnel. A Marine by trade, she’s trained as a mixed martial-arts fighter for the last handful of years and has only recently come off a closely-called fight in the UFC against none other than Ronda Rousey. I am surprised to see this woman, and not just because we’re in a corridor cut from the limestone and clay about forty feet below a corn field; also, I recognise her. We had attended the same primary school until her family moved to another country when we were seven. Used to kick the hell out of me at tetherball, football, every kind of ball. Everyone else, too. She recognises me too, and gives off a very protective air after the initial look of friendly surprise flees her face. Pulls me aside under one arm. In a hushed tone:
‘Jesus fuck, Keith – what are doing down here?’ Snuffs her nose. ‘You’re sodden drunk…’ then she pushes her weight on her back foot, holds up a mean-looking black shank of a combat knife. ‘Were you coming to help with the feeding?’
I can’t say anything. My mouth is very dry, I feel the wind in it, feel it kind of try to work at rubber bands. She relaxes a bit.
‘No, the nuns would never let a man in on the secret.’
My tongue and lungs grab a second’s worth of traction and I make a rusted-gate sound, “Secret?”
A momentary stone-hard look that decides a lot about me, my character. I’m surprised how much of that little girl is still in her face after all the conditioning she’s gone through. She turns around and faces further down the tunnel. ‘It’s a farm for bodies.’
‘The whole operation above is a front that helps the underground here… helps them feed the living dead.’
Incoherent. I remember once being so high on psilocybe mushrooms that I felt the words rolling along each of the articulators in my human throat and face one by one, but could not coordinate them in a way that assembled actual words – here it is again. I guess this makes Lizzy impatient, because she smacks me, hard, on both cheeks. I let it all out, terror, confused boiling fear: ‘… the FUCK are you HERE!? … are YOU doing … here!? — the Living WHAT!?’
‘Keep your voice down. I’m not one of those sick zombie farmers. But I am a lesbian. I’ve infiltrated the cult. I’m here to take out their demonic leader. The lynchpin.’ She turns her head to face me again, and it’s only then that I realise I have been following her in a crouch down the corridor.
‘It’s Sister Catherine.’
‘The head nun!?’
‘The head fucking virgin; she’s the totem for a cult of sex-pervert murderers and the custodians of the undead. You civilians call them “Catholics.”’
Okay. The Holy See… has at least one branch of clergy… who farm organic barley, apples, and human flesh… It makes less and less sense the more Liz tells me. But I feel more and more certain of its truth the less I resist the idea. I reflexively try to piss myself again, but I’ve already done that so nothing comes out. I start feeling like I might vomit.
‘There are zombies deep under almost every cathedral in the world, including the one in the chapel above us at Ancilla. Don’t totally freak out,’ but I’m already ready to totally freak out, and her asking me not to doesn’t help one fucking bit. ‘The sacrificial wine that is poured over the altar, it isn’t wine. It’s blood. And it’s not enough to keep the zombies satisfied for long.’
There’s a scratching sound ahead of us. Liz halts. So I halt. She says it so soft I swear she’s only thinking it loudly. ‘I’m going to stop all this. Don’t you worry.’
Then the torchlight goes out. I hear the ex-Marine helicopter pilot grunt as she springs ahead into the tunnel, and I feel very, very alone in the darkness. There are loud wet smacking sounds, and horrible smells, now even worse than before, rush at me from ahead. I turn, too quickly, crack my head on the cold limestone wall, things go viciously orange, I crumple. I hear screams. Novel screams. Combat screams. Screams of death. I pass out.
I wake up by the opening with the trapdoor. The storm is here. I cannot move.
As I lie in the mud, rain thudding into my person, rivers of earth washing around my face, stinging my eyes, running into my open mouth; I’m a worm. The worm sees this man. Trudging through the sucking field in high rubber waders. His feet have left huge puddles in the mud that describe his path back to a truck near the far end. The worm can follow this path forward, sees that it will lead to the furrow with the stone set in it where the lesbians say the late, fabled patriarch of Kentucky-style fried chicken slow cooks his way through eternity.
He walks straight up to the undistinguished hump of earth and takes down his umbrella; goes first onto one knee, then prostrates himself, gushing; the worm’s ears may be concussed by gravity and water, but he can just make out the supplicant’s words:
‘I have been waiting years to stand before you, to get here and tell you: all the women who had hurt you, scorned you, used you – I found them all. Tracked them down and seduced every last one of them. I came in their mouths, spat whiskey in their eyes and told them your name had been avenged. It took me decades and no small fortune.’
And then, still kneeling before the little flat gravestone, he puts his head in the mud and begins to shiver with sobs. He keeps repeating one phrase.
‘I just hope it was enough, Colonel.’
The car whipped around the bend in front of the frozen lake. A steep slope down from the town’s only stoplight, the Dodge pressed into the graded bend. All treacherous fifty-five degrees of it. Cradled by a ten foot drop and about seventy yards of playground equipment, footpaths and some beach, then it’s just the cold, thirsty bitch of Maxinkuckee. A wrought-iron fence, a 20 m.p.h. zone. None of it would really help. We’d been drinking between five and eight beers an hour, chased with Jameson’s and highly charged in-fighting, for the last four hours. Nonetheless, Glen’s Dodge whipped ‘round the bend… right into a small patch of ice. Precision correction that only manual steering can provide, the cassette in the dash rolling out Ummagumma’s flatulent psychedelia, Glen bellowing tangily in his momentary invincibility. And then we slammed into the deer, two or three big, wet heavy thumps all at once. Pushing the vehicle’s rear-end into the air almost as high as one of the tawny sand-bag beasts. A near perfect illustration of inertia. I spilled my drink as my forehead spider-webbed the windshield.
It all started at the Central City Building twenty miles away in what is affectionately referred to as the County Seat. A squat, baby-poop brick edifice just off the jailhouse, it houses every single office and department within the district. There had been a zoning ordinance up for amendment concerning wind farms. Drought-stricken land owners have been seeing rents decrease now that insurance claims have dried up, and the utility developers have been watching prices. Some prospectors came through a couple years back. Two viciously opposed factions of concerned citizens have been bloodying the country lanes ever since. This afternoon’s meeting marked what both side had been hoping would be the death-knell for the others’ appeal. The County Plans Commission ended up tabling the amendment due to riot.
I was attending in a journalistic capacity; I have been freelance at a couple of the daily papers that get thrown past the porchswings, stuffed into lonely roadside mailboxes, and stacked in the stagnant truckstops of the backwater hamlets that dot the farmlands around this county, itself a quilted lump of stolen Indian land snuggled down between interstates. Glen is my appointed camera man, not on account of any apparent talent, but merely down to his possession of a serviceably professional-looking kit and a cleaner driving record than anyone else on the payroll. His massive ‘80’s era Dodge picked me up about five. When I jumped in, he motioned to the back seat, which was almost entirely taken up by one of those tape recorder rigs with the big reels, the olive-drab satchel, the microphone. ‘She’s a beaut, ain’t she!’ ‘Tell me you didn’t pay money for that.’ He told me this would mitigate any untoward effects of the ridiculously strong marijuana we were about to smoke. Quite a few submissions in the last six weeks have carried the mark of chemical amnesia. ‘Pretty smart, right? And not as heavy as she looks, either!’ ‘I know you certainly don’t give a shit. You’ve got to be the laziest cunt alive.’ ‘Hey, green’s your colour, man,’ Glen said with a cough, and passed me the reeking joint as he put the Dodge into gear.
County Council meetings are usually a big thing around here. The bowling alley has a cheap pitcher deal and half-price lanes going on the first Thursday of every month, but it’s not until eight o’clock. Council meets the same Thursday at 6 P.M., and anyone who cares to talk can speak directly to the young stenographer with red painted nails, who takes down every word without breaking that smoldering gaze of hers. The men wear their best western shirts and bola ties. She was out with the flu this particular night, but the room was packed anyway, hundreds of yokels out of the farm towns and mud holes that comprise the county district. The place was a sauna. Glen and I were ridiculously high. I couldn’t help menacing a few of them, making eye contact, accosting them, ‘you ain’t from around here! Is you!’ pushing the microphone up into their face. Glen would snap a few shots on the Canon. If things got lopsided, he’d unsheath that massive Bowie knife of his and wait for the Sergeant at Arms to restore order.
When the gavel cracked the meeting roared straight into the jowels of hell. The factions – one calling themselves Concerned Landowners, the other Citizens for Truth – wasted no time at all dumping reason and facts into the garbage. One corpulent side blubbers the turbines are an eyesore, a threat to health and wildlife, and invite foreigners in to the county to ‘take our jobs.’ The other expectorates that federal tax breaks are going to expire soon, and now is not the time to be choosy. Ad hominem attacks, appeals to ignorance and passion, and other rhetorical flourishes quickly prevailed. Heading up either side were one of two brothers, Duggan and Jarvis Blaire. The sons of a local tractor supply magnate, they have been estranged from each other for nearly two decades after various mutual allegations of bestiality, larceny and criminal trespass; a protracted squabble notably inclusive of arson and an appearance on Jerry Springer. There in Room 2A of the Central City Building, whatever cooler heads might have been in attendance were not merely prevailed upon, they were cleanly caved in.
The Sergeant at Arms called in a brace of bailiffs and still only barely got the place under control. For our part, Glen and I just kept our backs to each other, pointing the recording equipment at whatever moved, kicking at lungers and staring down the rest. This is democracy, the rule of the mob, in all its beautiful, violent, instantly reactive truth. The hastily pronounced motions, seconded with a raspy blood bubble and some spat-out teeth, to adjourn. The gavel clacked. Of course they would have to clack the gavel again. Everyone not being apprehended by law enforcement felt entitled to a deep, heavy drink. Mullets and steel-toed boots went down the block to the lanes. Those with active bans from the alley had to make do with the cash and carry or follow us to the watering hole adjoining the City Building.
Yes, there is a bar next to the jailhouse. Why the fuck not. It’s there mostly to loosen up the clerks and pages and paralegals and government accountants and other such ‘professional’ clock punchers, overworked and kept just under the threshold for 401k contribution, so that none of them become spree-shooters. Any weekday afternoon you can catch a few handfuls of unattractively drunk civil servants trying to bang the stenographer, the comptroller’s assistant, the barmaid’s kid sister who’s a nurse’s assistant but just can’t seem to pass the boards to become registered. We piled in tonight mainly because most of the real trouble-makers had been arrested at the Plans Commission riot for violating concealed-carry without a permit. Also, it was next door. Also, being paid by the word for copy, I was desperate for a longer story.
Fortuitously, the reel-to-reel recorder was still going, and was listening in on sundry conversations. Later, after the accident, I would sit transcribing the lunacy, wondering at it all. What passes for civilisation some places. If God speaks through the Word, the harrowed utterance and shaped breath of Us, His Exalted Beasts, then here is some of the undistilled truth:
‘Explain to me again why these injun tribes are getting checks for $500?’
‘Whatever. It just don’t make sense… they signed these treaties to leave, they went to the new land, and then some shithead politician in the State House wants to gain a seat in the 7th District and cuts a deal? Aren’t the injuns just getting screwed over for being screwed over?!’
‘Well, they’re being paid a token value, not land or time, you know…’
‘As a token of what?’
‘You see, those first ones, them short-pants-and-pantyhose politicians, what they had the injuns sign… that didn’t mean it was a law… it also didn’t mean that no price had to be upheld forever an’ ever, plus interest and amen, either. What they shook on was a deal.’
‘Right, and them wig-wearers’ word was bullshit.’
‘Right. But the law now is like, you know, talk is cheap an’ all that.’
‘So this settlement the taxpayers are shelling out for…’
‘… is a token way of saying “we’re sorry,” without paying for what we were sorry for doing.’
‘Thas’gotta’be worth a more than five bills.’
”Well, that’s one opinion, and it’s your round, Ansel. I’m’a take a leak.’
‘Tommy, this is about fucked – we wanted the windmills ‘cause what the Rural Electric Co-op would save buying local, all the jobs, all the shit the counties around us have been getting out of their fucking deals… we let these assholes push us around on this amendment, we’ll be a little square hole in the middle of a money field.’
‘Look at the thing, read it. It allows the companies. Just with the setbacks and rules and whatnot. These rednecks are still voters, Duke. You got to let them feel like they had themselves a good fight about it!’
‘A mile setback from a lake? You can’t take a piss without hitting a goddamn lake around here! We put it through with these rules on and no company’ll have any fuckin’ room to build anywhere and, well … and nothing for us!’
‘’Come on, man. Thems want to do it can still pay to do it. Breaking rules is all about paying, Duke, you know that – ‘member that extension you wanted on the house, what didn’t get the go-ahead from your subdivision association, and you built it anyway and paid the fine?’
‘Yeah, but, I didn’t have any other house to build it on.’
‘… and what with all the time we put in showing them company folks around to the land holders and the bosses at the State Farm ‘surance, they feel right at home here, Dookie. Trust me.’
‘I don’t trust no people like you, Thomas Aquinas Fuller, and that’s why I kept what I done got so far.’
‘Well. Fuck you, too, then, and beer that hand up.’
‘I’m telling you, the fucking sheriff took that! He wants you to go and try to get it back so he ken arrest yee!’
‘Bullpussy, that’s theft. I’ll call the state police on the fucker. I’ll get him to come to the next county, where he’s out of jurisdiction! Are you sure you ain’t lying to me – I won’t care by this point. I just need to know so’s I can get started on a new one.’
‘I swear I ain’t lying! I didn’t take it. You just need to have another look for it. I’m sure you probably just put it somewhere while you was drunk.’
‘I thought you said it was definitely the pig what took it?’
‘Yeah, or the sheriff.’
Feels a bit like reading tea leaves or the bloody, warm entrails the mystics used to augur the fate of men and nations. Lamentably, it’s all in hindsight.
Glen and I were playing nine-ball and the umpteenth pitcher of the house cheapest was on it’s very last sudsy leg. There’s a torrent of racist jokes from someone at a booth. Just as I’m sighting up a shot in the middle of run on the table, this stout lady with short gray hair sneaks up and claps me on the side of my head in a not exactly timid manner. ‘You them reporters, eh, you them?’ she squacks at me as I swivel around. ‘I’m Captain Rita. Ex-Navy. I’ll break your fucking arm with your own pool cue if you don’t listen to me right now, you snot-nosed faggot.’ Glen recognises her. Says she drives around in a giant diesel pick-up with a snow blade attached to the front. ‘You city slickers?’ she asks. ‘We’re just local boys,’ I reply. ‘Glen here even works… over at the Medellin cabinet factory.’ ‘Well,’ her tone drops, taking me into some kind of yokel confidence, leaning in: ‘I got an angle on this whole thing you ain’t going to hear about in no fancy City Building.’ She looks back and forth, her candor verging on comical, and continues. ‘Them boys that Duggan runs, they don’t give a shit about no water fowl or migratory patterns. What they is, is they’re spooks, military boys, every one of them – and they’s hiding something in that lake.’ Glen pipes up and says, ‘what, like UFOs?’ Silence. Gives us a glowering squint as she takes a few slow steps backwards, and then goes about face and hustles away in her clomping rain boots.
For a second I think that we have blown her off, ready to go on with the game. Then she’s back all at once with a tray of shots and a couple fresh pitchers. One she pokes a long straw into, the other she sits right on the felt. Glen and I look at each other. We look back at the Captain, who sucks at the pitcher with a dour face for a full minute. There is a slurping sound just audible on the tape. And it is here that she lets loose this hushed, frenzied steam of paranoid vomit: ‘… the reason them kooks didn’t want no digging around the lake,’ and now in a slurred stage whisper, ‘is because of them aliens.’ I don’t know whether to laugh or run away or both. I get a little chill as she continues.
‘Started when they shot Kennedy. Found out about all this technology him and his brother was using against the commies, came from Mars or whatever. From the UFO they found. They had to put somewhere. Them ships are under the lakes – and the bodies! There’s a bunch of sailing wrecks down there from the old days, and mixed in between them are the UFOs the government don’t want nobody to find with those goo-goo maps or whatever. Obama comes in himself every three weeks to check on the new death ray that’s going to win this war against the towel-heads. Yep, and that’s why all the countries hate the US, ‘cause of them UFOs under the lake.’
Utter. Incredulity. In a daze, I call a safety meeting. Glen and I walk through the dirty slush to the dumpsters around the back of the bar. Silently light up another joint. ‘It can’t hurt to at least check up on a lead.’ I can’t believe what I’m hearing myself say. Glen looks at me for a moment, then hands me the Bowie knife. Says he’s got another in the glove box in the Dodge, says the Captain is probably harmless, but you know. Better safe than sorry. Wade back around to the front of the bar. Now Rita has Duke with her – remember Duke? He’s going to point out the best spot. Of course. We’re all going to get in the car and rush down south. Impetuous drunkards. And Captain Rita says she gets to choose the music. Of course. Chooses Pink Floyd’s least enjoyable album, and puts on the least understandable half of it. We all have a moan. This is where the reel-to-reel cuts out. Then it was just the ride down frozen State Road Whatever.
Rita and Duke. Me and Glen. The deer. Smashed dead. Stagger through the snow. Bleeding.
She’s halfway down the snowy verge, facing the edge of the lake. One hand up like a hunting dog.
And then I saw it, too.
‘There! Look there! The light pillars coming out of the lake – it’s the way the ships communicate with the other, up in space! It’s like a homing signal, even though them aliens have been dead for years, the ship is still looking for them! I told ya! I told ya!’ I look back at the wreck. Duke hangs halfway out one of the back windows, his hand still closed around a can of domestic. He’s gesturing at the lake with it. ‘There’s a more … better view … around the other side …’
Up at the front, it’s a mess of twitching bodies. One under each front wheel. Glen is knelt down in the road cradling a smoking, huffing bulk of stiff hair, blood flowing over him from the broken thing, trying to dial 911 on the touchscreen of his phone with his nose. ‘This one’s still alive,’ he’s screaming. I can’t find my breath to answer. Those two crazy fuckers are right – there are lights shining up out of the lake, beams straight into the night sky, significance unknown, source unknown, recipients … beyond our group of barely compos mentis drunks and a pile of corpses, unknown.