DEAD TYMES
IN THE FOREST OF MANY VOICES

•   •   •

A little ways north of my house there is an old cemetery. It is the size of a city block. It is heavily forested and surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. There are four entrances, one on each side, and they are never locked. As many times as I have been there, always at night, I have never seen a sign that indicated to me that I was trespassing. Near as I can tell, the city of Portland doesn’t care what time you feel like escaping the land of the living to go hang out in the land of the dead.

Sometimes, in the deep dark, when I’m feeling rotten or bored or lonely—or all three, a real strange brew—I’ll walk there and find a place beneath an old tree to sit and listen for a while. I’ll hear crickets, and sometimes little frogs. Though the cemetery is surrounded in every direction by houses and businesses, it is perfectly still and black in the center. And it is there I stay, within the darkest point, so as to be as far away as possible from cars and pedestrians, and drunks and other idiots, and human life in general. I figure I have at least that much in common with the people sleeping beneath my feet.

Last night I put on my jacket and grabbed a half-drunk bottle of terrible wine and got to walking. I had nowhere in particular to be, so I thought I would poke around the cemetery until the sun came up. I entered through the 26th Street gate and quietly walked down the asphalt drive until I came upon a sort of small gathering taking place on one of the larger tombstones there. People were laughing and drinking and smoking. I didn’t say anything to them and they didn’t say anything to me. I was dressed in black and, silent as I was, and drunk as they were, I figured my existence hadn’t even registered with them.

I kept walking until I found a cluster of black tombstones engraved with Bible verses written in Russian. I felt compelled to sit down next to the biggest tombstone. It was huge and ominous. Dimly I saw that there was a long coffin-shaped rectangle of dark soil stretching out from the tombstone. The other graves were covered in grass, had been covered in grass for many years. The soil here was loose and soft. Moonlight cut through the trees and shone on the tombstone, and so I inspected it, seeing an epitaph written in Russian, and the likeness of an old woman’s head haloed ghostlike above it. It appeared to be some sort of drawing. The woman was wearing a shawl around her head. She looked tired. She had been born in 1923, and had died in 1999. I wondered for a moment what it meant that a woman dead for almost twenty years had a freshly-dug grave. It didn’t scare me. I decided I wasn’t the least bit afraid of dead people. I was much more afraid of the ones who were still alive.

And then somewhere in the western corner of the cemetery I did hear the living: a woman cackled menacingly, and then several men did as well. I squinted my eyes and saw their shadowy outlines gathered near a tree. They were smoking cigarettes.

I was amazed that I could see them so clearly. For weeks I had thought I was going blind in my left eye, and never went out after dark anymore because my night vision had gotten so bad. Everything was a big swirling mass of neon colors. I got real depressed thinking that I was losing my vision. I love being outside at night, because everyone is gone and you can be alone in a quiet place that is not your bedroom. There is less psychic noise, and you can feel calm and think about things . . . or better yet, think about nothing at all. Had I gone walking after midnight in the weeks before, I would have been lost in the dark, and all I would have thought about was how my retinas were being fried from the inside out, and how I would never be able to drive a car again, and how I would have to get shots or take pills forever—and maybe even longer than that. . . .

But I was in the cemetery now and feeling all right, knowing that my vision was perfectly fine, and that I had other problems I could focus on feeling depressed about. Most of my problems seemed spectral and dreamlike now, like I could ignore them if I wanted, even though I probably wouldn’t.

I drank some wine. It wasn’t good. It was bitter and spicy. It didn’t bother me. I had cost me all of five dollars, and would do the trick. I thought, hell, that’s all I really need to know about anything anymore.

•   •   •

A week before, at a retina clinic in Northwest Portland, I sat in a black leather chair in a dim examination room while an ophthalmologist shoved a quarter-shaped magnifying glass into my left eyeball. He was making these sort of arcane observations while his nurse typed them into my medical file. Having no knowledge of how eyeballs work, his words sounded grim as hell.

In a heavy British accent he said something about “yellowing near the optical cord” followed by a series of numbers that meant absolutely nothing to me. I hoped the numbers were good, but I figured they probably weren’t. I gripped the armrests and my heart beat loudly against my chest. I squirmed as he shoved the magnifying glass deeper and deeper into my eyeball, shining a white-hot bulb into the dark depths of my skull. I prepared myself as best I could, thinking I had about thirty seconds before the doctor laid some heavy news on me.

He switched to my right eye and repeated the same procedure. He listed off more numbers. I couldn’t remember the previous numbers, had no idea if these new numbers were any different. And then he said something to the nurse that made me feel sick: “Mmm. Freckling around the retina, right side.”

The good doctor spent a long time poking around my peepers. Then he leaned back and sighed, saying: “I see absolutely nothing remarkable in your eyes.”

I said, “Sheesh, Doctor. That’s one way of putting it.”

“What I mean is, there’s nothing wrong with them. I’m still going to have you do a series of tests, just in case there’s something I may have missed.”

“So I’m not going blind?”

“You are not going blind.”

He eyed me up and down. It made me feel uncomfortable. The guy had no bedside manner. He was cold and suspicious of me. It seemed as though he regarded me as some sort of burnt-out loser.

“Do you inject drugs?”

“What? No.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

He handed me a piece of paper. “What do you see?”

“I see a piece of paper.”

“Is it blurry?”

“It seems blurry, yeah. But I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t.”

“But—can you perceive words on the page? Do you see a sheet of white paper with black text written on it?”

“Well, yes, of course.”

He twisted his mouth and scanned me again. “There really is nothing wrong with you. I can’t think of what this could possibly be. A passing rash, or an infection that has recently cleared up. Whatever it was, it is there no longer.”

I thanked the doctor. I stood up and shook his hand. He lead me to the waiting room, which was filled with sleepy octogenarians. I was the youngest person there by at least fifty years. It made me feel weird.

“Someone will come for you shortly,” he said. “We have to take a lot of pictures, and you’ll do some vision and color tests as well.” He gave me a phony smile and walked the other way. I sat down next to an old man who was leaning on his cane. Slowly he turned and met my eyes. His eyes were cloudy with cataracts. I wondered if he could see me. He smiled. It was a real smile.

•   •   •

An hour later, a technician called my name and lead me to a lab room in the back. There were strange white instruments hanging from the ceiling, and more bolted to the floor. The technician said she was going to take about a hundred pictures of my eyes, and then switch over to a more advanced camera that uses radio waves to take about a hundred more.

“It won’t seem like I’m taking that many pictures though,” she said. “I’ll take them so quickly you won’t even notice.”

Another technician examined my skull from across the room. “Looks like it’s gonna be tough!” he said. “This guy’s got deep-set eyes.” He laughed. “You got a low brow, dude.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess I do.”

The first technician gently touched my chin and had me turn my head left to right. “Hm. You really do have a low brow-line. Well, we’ll figure it out. What other choice do we got?”

“Does that really affect anything? I mean, surely this happens sometimes?”

“Yeah, it happens. Just, one of the cameras is kind of finicky because of how precise you have to be with it. This’ll make it just a little tougher—but that’s OK, man.”

Inside my head I thought: Hell, who knew?

“We gotta dye your veins,” said the other technician.

“What?”

He produced a syringe filled with a crayon-red liquid. “For the pictures. It’ll make your veins show up better.”

“Oh. Like a radiotracer?”

“Kinda, yeah. Are you afraid of needles?”

“I am not afraid of needles. I did a lot of clinical trials in college.”

“Thank God!” he said. “Can’t have ya passing out on us, ya know? We work with a lot of elderly people, and boy, lemme tell ya, they do not like needles.”

The first technician was swabbing my vein with alcohol. “Your vision is going to look strange for a few minutes. You might see colors, and the room might turn red, among other things . . . but it’ll clear up quickly.”

“And your urine is going to look like Mountain Dew for a day or two,” said the other technician.

“Like engine coolant?” I said.

“It’s going to look nuclear, man.”

“Nice.”

“I’m going to dilate your eyes now,” he said, and he handed the first technician the syringe. He held up a little plastic dropper. “I’m tellin’ ya right now, these drops are hardcore. Your eyes are going to be dilated for probably five whole days. Hope ya got some sunglasses, dude!”

“Nuclear piss and huge black pupils? Man, heck yeah. Bring it on. It’s not like I was going to get laid anytime soon, anyway.”

“Hey, you never know,” said the second technician. He tilted my head back, held my eyes open ‘Clockwork Orange’ style, and dilated my eyes with a clear liquid. It stung for half a second, and then instantly went away. Meanwhile the first technician inserted the butterfly needle into my left arm and let it stay there. I felt no pain at all.

I liked these people, I thought. I felt like I could say stupid stuff to them and they wouldn’t care. I also thought that they had a lot of weird chemicals at their disposal.

The first technician was typing some numbers into a computer. With her left hand she held the syringe, her thumb on the plunger. I examined the liquid inside again. I knew that soon it would be inside my blood, and later, my urine.

“OK,” she said. She turned to me. “I’m going to need you to lean into the device. First your left eye, and then your right. Have you done this before?”

“Oh, yes. My optometrist had me do this. That’s how I ended up here.”

Seemingly muttering to herself: “Optometrist, huh. I worked for an optometrist once.”

“She was really concerned by what she saw.”

“We’re the top of the food chain,” she said. “There’s a big difference between what we do and what they do. I mean, no offense to them.”

Holy lord, I thought. Who knew these two camps had it out for each other?

“Lean close,” she said. I leaned close. The machine made an error noise. “Son of a bitch.” She grabbed my shoulder and maneuvered my head around. “You really do have deep-set eyes.”

After what seemed like a great deal of adjusting things, my body included, the machine finally made an agreeable noise. “Hold it—hold it right there. Do not move.” She typed something into the computer.

“OK.”

“So, man, I need you to be monk-like here. Can you do that?” She was still clacking away.

“Yes.” I slowed my breathing. I tried to picture something nice and, failing to do so, pictured a void. I felt my heart rate begin to slow.

“Good. We got this. We’re doing this. Fred, can you—“

The other technician dimmed the lights further. The room was cavelike now. It was, in my opinion, lit the way all rooms fit for human habitation should be lit.

“Right there.” She squeezed my shoulder. “Riiiiight there.”

Inside the machine a solid blue dot came into focus. It hung there in the center of a big black nothing. I heard dozens of little ‘clicks’ as the software calibrated itself to my eyeball. A field of thin horizontal lines appeared, filling the blackness. The lines were blue as well, but fainter than the dot.

“Do you see the dot?” she said.

“I see the dot.”

“I want you to stare directly into that dot, and don’t look away. Do not blink, if you can help it, or else your eyelashes will end up in the pictures.”

“OK.” I focused on the dot. She kept typing. The thin blue lines wavered and shuffled around in patterns, and then they shuffled randomly. They grew dark and lighter, wavered here and there, sometimes disappeared.

“I’m going to inject the dye. When I do, we have only a small window to capture these images, or else we’ll have to dose you again.”

“OK.”

“I’m injecting the dye.”

“Do it.”

I felt my vein surge with a foreign chemical. A hellish red splotch appeared in the center of my vision and quickly blossomed outward. Now inside the machine the dot and all the lines around it looked sinister. I strained to keep my eyes open. The technician was taking dozens and dozens of pictures. It was like a psychedelic light show—a real epileptic nightmare. I imagined I was being tortured in a futuristic gulag.

“These look good,” she said. “You can rest for a minute.”

I pulled away from the machine. My eyes pulsed. The whole room was red. I looked at both the technicians. They were red too. I waved my hand in front of my face. Every movement produced a surreal neon shadow, like an acid trail.

“Weird, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Almost done. One more eye.”

We did the other eye.

•   •   •

I was lead back out into the waiting room. The nurse suggested I use the restroom, since I had a few more tests coming up, and those would be time-consuming. She pointed to a glass door on the other side of the room and smiled. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went through that glass door and was immediately swallowed up in a labyrinthine office building that hadn’t been updated since 1982. Blindly I stumbled through an art deco dreamworld to find a toilet. I found one, though it ended up being very far away from the office. And in my search I had discovered that the entire building was virtually empty. I found no other businesses other than the ophthalmologists’ office. I wondered why that was. I hadn’t slept the night before, and my body was loaded with chemicals, and my eyeballs ached, so I was prepared to believe anything.

In the bathroom I stood over the toilet and unzipped my pants. On account of my dilated eyes, any object less than ten feet away from me was an undefined smear. I looked down at the undefined smear that was my penis. “Huh,” I said, and began urinating. A thick arc of nuclear yellow liquid firehose-blasted from my body and into the toilet bowl. It did not look like any urine I had ever seen in my life. It looked like science fiction. It poured out of me like an exorcism, stained the inside of the toilet, and would not quit. I screamed.

I of course figured it out quickly: the dye from the syringe had made my urine look like an engine leak. Still, it was spooky stuff. I stood up on the counter to get a good look at it, since the distance between my face and the toilet was the only way I was going to be able to make it out. Yes, there it was: a pond of my own radioactive piss. It seemed to glow. God help me, I took a picture.

•   •   •

Over the next five hours I took what a nurse told me was “just about every eye test available to modern science.”

They gave me an eyepatch and put my head into a dimly lit white bubble to test my peripheral vision. I stared at a black eye with a yellow iris in the center of the bubble. Faint white dots appeared on every side of it, one at a time, and I was to push a button on a little clicker whenever I saw one. They tested both eyes. It took a long, long time, and it strained my eyes like hell.

The nurse went over the data on her computer. She said, “Your peripheral vision is excellent.”

Afterwards I had to complete a rainbow gradient test. They gave me twenty colored dots and had me line them up in a row in the correct order. One end was purple, and the other end was blue. In the center it was red and yellow and green. Outside of the obvious color boundaries, the similarly-colored dots were nearly indistinguishable. The difference between Purple 1 and Purple 3, for instance, was hardly any difference at all. I did the test twice, wearing an eyepatch on a different eye each time.

The nurse examined the results. She said I got it right with both eyes.

Downstairs, in the examination room, I met with the same ophthalmologist from before. Now he had a mountain of photographs and tests scores and data at his disposal. He went over the results with his nurse while I sat in that same black leather chair in that same dim little room.

The doctor had me cover my right eye and read from a letter chart reflected in a small square mirror in front of me. Then he had me do the left.

“You have twenty-twenty vision,” he said. “And your test results . . . and all these pictures. . . .“—he scrolled through them on a computer—“well, they indicate that absolutely nothing is wrong with you.”

He stood before me and crossed his arms.

“What’s your diet like?”

“I mostly eat cabbage and fruit.”

“Do you exercise?”

“I do a lot of pushups in my basement after my roommate goes to sleep. And sometimes I walk to the cemetery that’s by my house.”

“Are you taking anything? Any medications?”

“Lamictal.”

“And you take this for. . . ?”

“Bipolar disorder.”

“Hm.” He looked down at his shoes. “It’s rough, isn’t it?”

“It’s a godawful nightmare is what it is, Doc.”

He regarded me suspiciously as he had before: “And nothing intravenously? Nothing recreational?”

“No. None of that.”

Days later, after getting a physical and an STD test and a series of vaccinations from a downtown clinic, a doctor would tell me that shooting up is a big problem in the Pacific Northwest, which I knew about, and that really did answer a lot of questions about someone’s health—if you could get them to admit as much. To me this at least partially explained the ophthalmologist’s repeated attempts to determine what sort of illicit substances I put inside my body. Or maybe I just looked tired and dirty, and maybe haunted and burnt-out too.

“Probably just stress, then. Or some sort of placebo effect. Or as I mentioned before, an infection or a rash that is quickly on its way out.”

He asked to look inside my eyeballs again, now that my pupils were black holes big enough for a jumbo jet to fly though. I said, “Yeah, all right.” He pulled down some sort of machine from the ceiling and placed it over my face. It illuminated my face and eyes. The doctor got in there real deep, looked around for a while, found nothing. His calmness made me calm.

“What about the, uh . . . well, I heard you mention something about freckling a while back.”

“You have freckles in your right eye.”

“Inside my eye? What does that mean?”

“It doesn’t really mean anything. The freckles are nonspecific, and benign. I’ve encountered them before. Probably other people in your family have them too.”

“Oh. Uh. OK then.”

The doctor sent me to the receptionist after that, told me to come back in eight weeks. He assured me once again that I had the eyes of a perfectly healthy twenty-eight-year-old man, and that my optometrist’s suggestion that I was perhaps suffering from some sort of systemic infection was “total nonsense.” He seemed to roll his eyes when he said this, as if the stupidity of this assessment was offensive to him.

I went to the front desk and checked out. I had been there for nearly seven hours. “You put in almost a full workday!” said the receptionist. She looked into my absolutely unremarkable eyes. “Is someone picking you up or did you drive here?”

“I drove.”

“Whoa! Your pupils are huge. You’re gonna need sunglasses, man.”

“Yeah, I have some in the car.”

“That’s good!”

I could barely see her face. I could barely see anything at all. I wondered how I was going to drive through downtown Portland and across the Hawthorne Bridge to get back to my house on the other side of the river. It was rush hour. Everyone was heading home too. It was the worst time of the day to be blind and to also be operating a motor vehicle.

In a haze I somehow wormed my way out of the northwest hills and back into the downtown area. Before hitting the bridge, I stopped to get a sandwich. I was inside for all of five minutes. When I returned I saw that I had accidentally parked in a handicap zone. Frantically I searched the outside of the car, knowing that a ticket would ruin me financially for a long-ass time. But I could find no ticket—or at least I didn’t see one, which admittedly didn’t mean a whole lot just then.

I shrugged and got into the car. I drove east. Whenever I saw the amorphous shape of a pedestrian standing on the curb, staring at their phone, dumbly placing one foot into the street, I would mutter to myself: “Watch your step, baby, ‘cuz right now daddy’s fuckin’ blind.”

When I got home I decided to block out all sunsight—decided to switch my house into a sort of “dive mode,” like on a submarine. I went around the house shutting all the thick wooden blinds. In the dark I could finally see, though not much. Dante came into the kitchen and rubbed against my leg. I leaned down and pet the fluffy grey smear that was my cat.

“I’m good, dude,” I said to Dante. “I’m blind today, but I ain’t going blind.”

Dante blinked. He yawned and made a weird guttural noise.

•   •   •

Back in the cemetery, in the here and now, I stretched out on top of the coffin-shaped rectangle of dark soil. The ground was very soft. I put my hands behind my head and looked at outer space. I really did see a shooting star. And I wondered if it was rude that I was lying on top of someone else’s final resting place.

“Hell, I sure as shit wouldn’t care if someone took a nap on my grave,” I spoke to the human remains beneath me. “That being said, please do not haunt me. I have enough problems as it is.”

I shifted my body, got more comfortable on the grave. Elsewhere in the cemetery I heard people laughing and carrying on like a bunch of assholes.

“And anyway,” I said, “I don’t know you or anything”— I pointed in the direction of the noise— ”but I’d pick you over them cheese-eatin rat bastards any day of the week. Now that’s gotta mean something to ya, doesn’t it?”

I sat up and took a big gross gulp of my gas station wine. “Lord,” I said. I gagged. I was drunk. “You don’t want none of this, sister. Trust me.”

I twisted around and attempted to decipher the lettering on the huge black tombstone. “Man, I can’t read fuckin Russian. I don’t know what your name is, and I feel awful about it.”

Laying down again: “Whatever your name is . . . Surely you must be happier being dead. I mean, c’mon, it’s gotta be pretty nice. . . .”

Mumbling in the dark: “Did they take you out of the ground recently? And if they did . . . for God’s sake, did they put you back?

Silence, then: “Hey. I’m going to close my eyes and pretend to be dead for a few minutes.” I closed my eyes. “They work, by the way—my eyes. I’m not going blind, just so you know.”

A firecracker exploded somewhere. A few seconds later, I heard someone burp.

“Me and you, sister,” I said to the dead Russian woman whose grave I was fond of. “Just a coupla creeps in the cemetery. Hell, why not.”

FRAILTY AT THE EDGE OF OBLIVION;
or, “SYMPTOMS MAY INCLUDE
VISIONS OF THE GRIM REAPER”

•   •   •

Yesterday I took a piece of lint-covered gum out of my pocket and ate it anyway. I don’t even care anymore, man. My diet consists entirely of spinach, cabbage, and gruel. I have lost seven pounds in the last month. Despite working full-time, I have negative money left over at the end of the month. What a fine time to be an American citizen!

My left eye twitches every few seconds, and the center of my vision is blurred just enough to drive me insane. My right eye, which is my good eye apparently, attempts to compensate for this new abnormality, but this only makes it worse. I have never in my life had vision problems before. I have taken to wearing an eyepatch until I can afford to fix myself, which might not ever happen, given that no matter what I do I can’t get anyone to give me health insurance.

I have called dozens of 1–800 numbers, and have talked to dozens people about it, but no one can really tell me why my health insurance applications were denied. One guy said that I “failed to provide proof of income.” I told him I had never received notice. He said a letter had been sent to an address I have never lived at. I wondered aloud, to myself and maybe to him as well, how I could have possibly done anything about that. I asked if I could still enroll anyway—that I had a paystub in hand, and could at a moment’s notice get it to him—and he said he wasn’t sure if it was too late or not. I felt really sad just then. I told him my eye hurt and that I needed to see a medical professional of some sort, possibly a few of them for different reasons, and I imagined him shrugging as he referred me to yet another bureaucratic nightmare that I don’t have the mental fortitude to deal with right now.

I walked over to my bed and put on a sleep mask. I had only been awake for five hours, most of that time spent on the phone trying to get someone to care about the state of body, but I went to sleep again anyway. My eye was hurting too much and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I thought that maybe if I was asleep I wouldn’t feel so bad anymore.

I had a dream. It is a dream I have been having a lot lately. In this dream my right front tooth breaks while I’m eating or staring at it in the mirror. In real life, my right front tooth is a crown, and I really did break it when I was in high school. I have this constant fear of it breaking again. I’ll wake up from a dream, and touch my hand to my tooth to make sure it’s still there. I have been doing this for ten years.

•   •   •

This next part is not a dream, though it may as well be:

Ten years ago, I was a senior in high school. I was a two months away from graduating. At that point I was hardly ever going to school. I was too busy driving around late at night, and avoiding authority figures, and sleeping in my car in parks and behind gas stations while I was supposed to be completing my final coursework.

I knew a girl named Megan. She was my good buddo. I had a big ol’ crush on Megan, though Megan didn’t have a big ol’ crush on me. I don’t think I knew that yet. At any rate she seemed to like having me around, and I liked being around her too, so I went over to her house whenever she asked me to.

One night, on a school night, I was at Megan’s house with a few other creeps I knew around that time. We were jerking around in her basement. We were laughing like hell about God knows what. I do remember putting on her mom’s high heels, and clacking around on the hardwood floors. At some point we all got on the trampoline. We were having us a good old time that night.

And here is a crucial point in this story: All of my friends had big ol’ crushes on Megan too. She was real pretty, and she was real funny too—which, as any fine American will tell you, is a dynamite combination. That night one of the creeps I was with was my friend Brent. Brent was not immune to Megan’s Megan-ness either. He had a crush on her too.

Brent was laying it on thick. He really wanted Megan to know he liked her. I don’t know whether or not she liked him back. After we got off the trampoline she stole his shoes and ran around with them so that he would have to chase her. Maybe that means she liked him. Or maybe she was just the sort of person who got her rocks off stealing other people’s shoes.

In the darkness of my mind I remember her mother telling everyone they had to leave, on account of it being so late. We still had to pretend like we cared about getting up and going to school the next day, and so we pretended to.

I can see Megan standing on her porch. She is waving and asking me to do my impression of Marty McFly one more time. I say, “Doc, are you telling me you built a time machine out of DeLorean?!” She laughs. Brent and I start walking to my car.

And then something stupid happens: Brent, who was larger than me, jumps on my back with no warning—maybe to impress Megan somehow, who is now already inside. I don’t have time to brace myself and so I lose my balance right away. I fall to the ground, into a grassy slope in her front yard, with Brent on my back. His weight pushes my head forward into a pipe. What in God’s name is the purpose of this pipe? I wonder later. What was this damn thing doing in the middle of the yard?

I fall face-first into it. I feel no pain. I push Brent off of me and call him an asshole. My mouth is numb. I reach for my front tooth but it is missing. I have already swallowed more than half of my tooth, which had been immediately pulverized by the impact, and turned into dust. I taste blood in my mouth. The dust is coating my tongue. This image and that feeling will haunt my dreams for the next ten years of my life.

I turn to Brent and ask him if I have a front tooth, and he makes a horrible face and tells me it has broken. I run over to my car and flip down the visor mirror. I have one perfectly normal front tooth and one jagged vampire fang. There is blood splattered all over my face. I shriek. I tell Brent that the least he can do is drive me home. He gets in and does just that. I stare at the tooth in the lighted mirror the whole ride back. When I get home I sink into a deep depression and force myself to fall asleep.

My dentist didn’t have any openings the next day, so I hid in my father’s basement for a week. I practiced talking in the mirror and looked like a bumfuck yokel. I covered the windows and wrapped myself in a blanket and tried to disassociate. I wanted to forget that I had a body, and that a part of it that I liked was broken. I was stupid and vain and dramatic about the whole thing. I was also a teenager.

I saw my dentist the following week. He had worked on my teeth since I was in elementary school. Now that I was eighteen he inexplicably started talking to me differently. He found a way to insert “fuck” and “shit” and “ass” into nearly every sentence he spoke. He told me his new dental hygienist had a great ass. I supposed this was what it meant, to him at least, to “talk like an adult.”

He had me open my mouth. He examined the serrated stalactite that was once my tooth. “Aw hell, this li’l fuckin’ thing? Shit, man. This is nothing. I’ve seen way worse, trust me.” He took out a little plastic wrapper that had a tooth inside. It was whiter than my other teeth by far. It looked like a Chiclet. He told me I would have to wear it for a month while my permanent crown was made by “some hippie dudes down the street.” Then he took dozens of pictures of my perfectly intact left tooth. He said they’d mirror it and make it match. No human eye, he said, would be able to detect the difference between the two.

I said, “All right then.” He glued the Chiclet into my skull. The dental cement, he said, was strong—but not strong enough to withstand a whole lot of wear. He told me not to eat with it. I told him I wouldn’t. He held a mirror up to my face. I grinned menacingly and saw the fake tooth. It was like a spare tire in my mouth—like a little donut wheel: ugly, and unlike the rest, but hopefully only for a short while.

A month later I got a call from my dentist saying my crown was completed. I drove to the office where the “hippie dudes” had made it. The place was being renovated so the guy met me at the door. He was in his forties and was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. I suspected that my dentist considered a guy like that to be a non-square, and thus, somehow, lumped him into a great big nebulous sub-category of humans that were superficially different than him.

The hippie dude lead me to the back and showed me my crown. It really was a perfect copy of my left tooth. He told me that making a crown involves more artistry than science. He gave me the crown and said my dentist would set it for me. I thanked him and drove to my dentist’s office.

My dentist removed the Chiclet. He cemented the hell out of the new crown, cemented it right into my skull. He held the crown in place by creating a sort of vice grip with his gloved hand. Soon it became part of me. His hygienist, the one with the great ass, handed him that little hyper-laser tool they use to lock in sealants. He fired it up a few times. It made the inside of my mouth glow blue. He set it down and picked up the drill. I protested, but he said it was necessary to sand my bottom teeth so the crown would fit properly. It made a violent, terrifying noise. I screamed inside my skull. It didn’t last long. The whole process, from start to finish, took maybe ten minutes.

I asked him if I was set for life, pending some horrible accident, and he told me I’d get maybe ten or fifteen years out of the thing. “Though, by the time you go to get the next one, dental technology will likely have advanced to the point where you can keep that shit till your dying day. In fact I’d bet on that happening.”

A week later I was at a restaurant with my girlfriend. I had started dating her in the time between the incident in Megan’s yard, and my new crown being created by some cool dudes in blue jeans. I didn’t like her at all, and she didn’t like me either. That day we were joylessly eating sandwiches. We were hanging out in a sort of sad perfunctory way. I bit into the toasted bread and felt the bottom of my crown hit something hard. It licked it and it felt off. I asked my girlfriend if anything looked any different. She studied it closely. Listlessly she said: “It looks like maybe it chipped a little.”

I went back to my dentist. I told him a sandwich had chipped the bottom of my brand new, very expensive crown. “That’s crazy. There’s no fuckin’ way that happened.” He had me open my mouth. “I don’t see anything. It looks fine to me.”

My tooth was definitely chipped. It wasn’t a big chip. When I slid my tongue across it I could feel the smooth little break line. I didn’t do anything about it. It would have been too expensive to fix something so minor, so it stayed that way for a decade.

•   •   •

TEN YEARS LATER

Alone at night, and miserable as hell in a city three thousand miles away from where I was born, I sat in the darkness of my bedroom wondering about my life. I had just made a sandwich. I had toasted the bread and everything. I was very excited to eat that sandwich, because it would be my only meal that day. I was, and still am, consuming less than a thousand calories a day. It felt good to put something inside the great big emptiness of my body.

I took one bite. I felt something hard in my mouth. I spit it out onto the plate. It was white and glassy. I figured some foreign object had ended up a stowaway in my sandwich. I picked it up and held it up to my desk lamp. I knew right away that is was half of my front tooth. I put my hand up to my face and felt around for my crown. It was sharp and jagged. I walked into the bathroom and smiled into the mirror. I groaned. My tooth was broken. It was a perfect diagonal break. I wondered if I were dreaming. I decided I probably wasn’t dreaming. Mentally I added the event to my growing list of things that are rapidly making my life less and less worthwhile.

With great sadness I returned to my room and attempted to eat the rest of my sandwich. The little vampire fang, newly exposed to the world for the first time in ten years, was extremely sensitive to even the smallest change in temperature. Breathing made it ache. On top of that, I couldn’t eat without my front tooth. It was too severe a break. I threw the sandwich away and sedated myself so I could fall asleep.

Next day I called four or five dentists in my neighborhood. All but one refused to cement my crown back onto its brother, who was living a lonesome life inside my mouth. They told me it was “impossible.”

The dentist who did agree to see me said it was no sweat. They fit me in at three p.m. I drove over a half hour before my appointment and filled out a single page of paperwork. I handed it to the receptionist. She said, “How are you, Ryan?” And I gave her a hideous toothy grin, saying, “I think you’re looking at it.”

A nurse lead me to an examination room. She took a look at my tooth. “We can fix this,” she said. “It may not be permanent, and it may not be super strong, but we’ll get you all fixed up.”

The dentist came by a few minutes later, asked me to smile, and said the same thing. He said mounting shards of a broken crown was like “trying to fit two pint glasses together,” but that a quick and dirty job would buy me at least six months if I was delicate with it.

“I can make you a new crown—a real good one, even.”

I inquired about gold: “I heard gold is tough as hell. Could you make me a gold tooth?”

“Like . . . like a straight-up gold tooth? No porcelain veneer over it?”

“A solid gold tooth.”

“Sure. I could make a green tooth if that’s what you really wanted. I can make it whatever color you want.”

“I want a gold tooth.”

“If you’re not concerned with the appearance of a gold tooth in your mouth, then sure.”

“I’m going gold.”

“I can make it. You just let me know and I’ll make it.”

“Uh, give me a few weeks to get health insurance.”

I took out the tooth shard, which I had stored in a little plastic container in my pocket. The dentist held it up to the light. “It really is a perfect break. You couldn’t have hoped for a better way for your tooth to split in half.”

He glued it back into my skull. He used the little laser tool to seal it. He reminded me about the gold tooth, said he’d make it whenever I called him up. He was very friendly. He shook my hand and stepped out of the room. I heard him tell the nurse to only charge me for the procedure, and not the X-rays, and to give me a discount. Well, gosh. There you go. It still cost me $130 that I didn’t have.

•   •   •

A week later the vision in my left eye had got progressively worse. Or rather the blurriness stuck around, whereas before it had appeared intermittently, and was ghostlike. Mysteriously, there was also a dull ache in my left testicle that wouldn’t subside either. And then I experienced what I have determined was something resembling a UTI, which apparently is pretty rare in men. I weighed myself and found that I had lost seven pounds in thirty days. My body was conspiring to destroy me.

And so: with failing eyesight, and phantom testicular pain, and a possible urinary tract infection, and a duct-taped-together tooth, and the diet of a fifteenth-century peasant, I set out to solve my health issues one at a time, in order of importance. I started with my eyes. With no health insurance I made an appointment with an optometrist in St. Johns, near the Cathedral Bridge. I told them I was uninsured, and they said to come on in anyway.

A few days later I showed up in St. Johns. I was twenty minutes late. They were very kind to me at the front desk anyway. The three women working there were covered in tattoos. I immediately formed crushes on all of them. They gave me a cup of coffee and had me fill out a single page of paperwork, which was just a health background. I wrote that I had no chronic illnesses, and there were virtually none in my family either. My current bout of bad health, I told myself quietly, was due to my near-constant state of poverty, and the fact that I lived in a morally-bankrupt country where money and material possessions, and the rabid desire to obtain as much of both as possible, outweighed the human lives that were casually discarded in doing so.

I turned in my paperwork. One of the nurses took me into an examination room and performed a few tests on my eyes. She numbed them with drops, and then did a “puff test.” She asked me when was the last time I’d seen an eye doctor, and I told her it had been over twenty years. She refilled my coffee and left.

The optometrist came in thirty seconds later. We shook hands. She saw that I was holding a cup of coffee. She asked me how I took it, I guess to make small talk, and I said: “Black, just like . . . uhhh, my heart.” I cleared my throat. “Actually, I think I’m just kidding about that last part.”

She did a few more tests. I read big letters and tiny letters with my God-given eyes, and then she put a huge machine over my face, and I read a few more lines of random letters while she doubled and tripled my vision. She told me I had 20/20 vision with no need for corrective lenses. I then had to distinguish on what side of a white light a thin red laser appeared. I aced this too. She told me I most likely didn’t have a brain tumor. It was the best news I’d heard in months.

She dilated my eyes, saying it would take fifteen minutes for my retinas to fully open. “It’s going to get very bright in here for you,” she said. “I have some sunglasses if you need them.” I said I was all right, fine like this, and so on, and she left me alone in the room to feel all jittery and tripped out in semidarkness that would soon become brighter.

Gradually the light in the room did indeed become vaguely uncomfortable for me. I lost focus of things close and far away. I got up and looked into a mirror on the wall. It looked as though I had ingested an entire cauldron of ayahuasca. My pupils were huge empty zeroes.

When the optometrist returned, she wheeled out yet another machine. I rested my chin on a plastic platform and she looked into my eyes. She turned on handheld light and shined it into my pupils. It was excruciatingly bright. “Your pupils turn into little pinholes when even the smallest amount of light enters them, my friend.” Well: there you go. That explains my need for dim lighting, and my sensitivity to oppressive overhead lighting, and my great love of darkness and nighttime.

“Some people have a lot of pigment in their retinas, some do not. It seems you don’t have much pigment. That’s perfectly normal.”

“All right then,” I said. “Hasn’t bothered me yet, and I’ve been here for almost thirty years.”

And then she looked deep into my retinas—all the way to the very backs of them. And she told me she saw something odd there. She had me go into another room where she took a series of photos of my retinas. I had to focus my eyes on a blue target. When it turned red, I had to pull back. I needed to make the target green. I figured the correct placement of my head, and she quickly took the pictures. We went back into the first examination room and studied them under various filters.

“You see here,” she said, pointing to a cluster of white flecks inside the deepest layers of my eyes, “these are abnormal. In fact, I’ve never seen something quite like this, especially in someone so young.”

She showed me a picture of a normal retina. It looked different than my retinas.

“You have some sort of inflammation going on in there, more on the left than on the right.” She circled some gelatinous globes of eyeball-stuff with her finger, which was fortified by a spiderweb of thin veins. “See this? This looks a little off.”

“Um.” I didn’t know what she meant, but I took her word for it.

“It could be nothing, it could be something. You’re going to have to see someone who specializes in retina imaging.” She leaned in close, and, in a low voice, perhaps to cushion any embarrassment I might feel from the words that she was about to utter, said: “You should get health insurance before you see them. That’s going to get expensive very quickly.”

“Oh, OK. Man. So you have no idea what it is?”

“I really don’t. And I don’t want to give you false hope, or scare you either. So I can’t say for sure. All I can tell you is that you need to see someone about this just to be sure. I’m just general care. A specialist is what you need.”

“Yeah. I gotta do that.”

“Have you seen a doctor recently? When is the last time you had a physical?”

“Probably over three years ago. I’ve been trying to get a physical for that amount of time, actually. Even in California, my insurance wouldn’t cover something as simple as a physical. I’ll tell ya, this country sure don’t care if you die.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty bleak, huh? Still, you should get blood work done. The inflammation might be caused by something like a systemic virus. There’s no way to know for sure today.”

“Whoa, baby. OK.”

“Don’t freak out, just see these guys whenever you’ve got coverage.” She wrote down a phone number on a Post-It note. “I’m going to tell them you’re coming, and send them the images of your retinas. They’ll be able to tell you exactly what it is.”

“Man. This blows big time. Though, hell, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. But then when is that not the case?”

The optometrist lead me to the front desk. In a low voice she told the receptionist to only charge me for the visit, and not for the retina images. The visit and all the tests cost me $140. I put it on my credit card, and groaned big time internally, knowing it would probably take me three months to pay it off.

The receptionist printed out a receipt for me. “With your eyes dilated like that, it’s going to be a weird couple of hours.”

“It’s . . . hell, it’s going to be a weird rest of my life, man.”

She laughed. “Yeah, tell me about it.” It was the best response I could have hoped for.

“Do you need sunglasses?” said another receptionist. “We have disposable ones.”

“No, I’ll be fine. I have some in the car. Though, hey, if you see me walk into a lamppost, or get hit by a bus, feel free to call 911.”

I stepped out onto the sidewalk. If it was a nice day, I had no way of knowing. For me it was a sun-blasted nightmare. It made me nauseous, having my eyes filled with all that godawful light. Blindly I walked across the street. I looked around. It was a great big blur. Nothing looked familiar. I figured I had gone the wrong way. I crossed the street and returned to where I had just come from. I forgot where I was and why I was there in the first place. I closed my eyes. I stood there for a long time. I took a piece of gum out of my pocket. I held it up to my dying eyes. It was covered in lint. I put it in my mouth. I crossed the street to get back to where I had already been.

LIGHTS OUT FOR
LITTLE STARSAILOR; or,
“THE BIG BUMMER STRIKES AGAIN”

•   •   •

Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way: I need you to make sure they get my epitaph right. I have plans to have a tombstone that is twelve-feet high . . . though at this point I don’t reckon I’ll ever have enough money to afford that much primo stone. I have a backup plan. Any hard, semi-permanent surface will do. Hell, just go ahead and carve this into a rock:

RYAN STARSAILOR
1988–20??
☆ミ
FOR GOOD OR ILL,
HE WAS AWARE
OF HIMSELF.

. . . anyway: I am back from Oakland. I wasn’t there very long—just thirty-six wild and terrible hours. Here’s the thing about driving from Portland to Oakland and then back to Portland again in thirty-six hours: it’s rough as hell. Do they tell you that? No one told me! I’ve done the drive a dozen times at this point, though before I was never budgeted for time. Back then it was a free and endless resource. I was alone, and had a few bucks in my pocket . . . No one was expecting me anywhere, and no one knew where I was. It was good and beautiful.

But that’s not what happened this time. See, I had two other humans in my care, and both of them could only swing a weekend in the Bay Area. And if I’m being honest, I couldn’t be away too long either, on account of having to get back to Portland to do something or another, some of it involving a tradeoff of my time for a little bit of someone else’s money.

And that is how our story begins: With me earning a laughable hourly wage in a part of town that I absolutely despise. It was a Friday night, and I was alone on Division Street peddling food to unremarkable people. The place was crawling with these creeps, which always confuses me. Do these people have nothing better to do than walk around eating novelty food? I sit there and I think bitterly: “Really, is there anything more boring than food?”

I got off work real late, which meant my crew, my partners and me—we didn’t end up leaving till eleven p.m. I’m certain that right from the start we all felt awful for our own special reasons. I myself was fairing a particularly dark and stormy period of utter self-loathing, which I did so as quietly as possible inside my own mind. As for everyone else: Who’s to say. If they didn’t tell me, I didn’t ask. I figured it would have been rude. We talked about a whole lot of things, and if our demons came up, we dissected them vaguely. Sometimes that’s all you can do amongst good and honest people who mean you no harm.

I drove and drove, on and on, twisting every which way through Oregon till we got to its final outpost, which is Ashland, and God knows I like that place. I guess it’s a nice place to stop and walk around for a little while, and sometimes that’s just what the god darn doctor ordered. Plus I know of a gas station right off the interstate where you can get some super-charged black coffee, and though no one has ever explained to me why, it is also free. . . .

This is precisely what I did on our long journey: I drank me a whole bunch of this delicious potion. Ten minutes later I was wild on the stuff, and feeling half-insane. I told Ella, who was my co-pilot, and who was undoubtedly feeling the fear as well, that I was certain we would get to Oakland much quicker if I pulled the car over, picked it up, and hurled it toward the Bay Area. And afterwards, I said, I would get a running start, and launch myself in the same direction. Lord almighty, I sure was a cuckoo for Coca Puffs right then and there. I was a freewheeling maniac on wheels—a real Looney Tune!

It doesn’t hurt to mention here that we were totally alone on the highway—save for a Hummer, which we had been following for hours, ever since passing through Salem, and this Hummer had attached to its rear bumper a big swinging pair of truck nutz. Imagine watching those awful things sway hither and tither on all those menacing turns through rural Oregon!

We got to the food checkpoint on the California border, the attendant there asking if I had any Oregon-bought fruit in the car, and me replying right away: “Sir, the only fruit in this car is me.”

The road smoothed out from there, became straight and flat, and the truck nutz stabilized, and we all felt a little better, now freed from their hypnotic undulations. . . . Continue reading “Lights Out for Little Starsailor; or, “The Big Bummer Strikes Again””

IN THE FOREST,
IN THE CATHEDRAL,
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

•   •   •

I went down to the Fred Meyer on Hawthorne and bought a bunch of apples and a five-pound bag of rice. Lord knows how long I deliriously wandered those aisles in that huge fluorescent warehouse. I had only been awake for fifteen minutes or so . . . I was slanted as hell, feverish, and on a lot of cough syrup. It was the end of the night and the only people in there were sad people. They were hungry and alone, and I was one of them.

When I returned to the parking lot I sat for a long time in the car that I’m borrowing. I watched the lights flicker on the Bagdad Theater. I heard nothing. I put on some music. I went back to nothing.

It may have been a half hour or more before I decided to get moving . . . It’s hard to say for sure on account of the ocean of dextromethorphan flowing through my veins. At any rate I was probably just beyond the limit of safely operating a motor vehicle but I ripped out of the parking lot anyway. Back on the streets, all empty, I neglected to go right in the direction of home, and instead kept going straight. I drove for a mile or so to Reed College, where I knew I could do a lot of walking in the dark, and where no one would stop me from doing so.

Parked on the street and headed into the campus, mostly deserted. As I neared the dorms I heard a sort of pulsing. In my state I knew it was something resembling music. I drew closer and saw red and blue lights pouring out of a cathedral-like building, and a white hearse parked out front. I approached the building and went inside. There on a low stage were three dudes getting heavy with their heavy stuff. It was some sort of doom-y operatic sci-fi sludge . . . and it wasn’t necessarily good, but I dug it anyway, mostly because of the cough syrup, and also because they were performing for all of three people. You’ve got to respect something like that. I stayed there for a while, standing in the back in the shadows, and watched this strange scene, thinking it was pure and beautiful.

My throat was shredded on account of my head cold so I went searching for a water fountain. Outside I found a large courtyard populated by maybe thirty people. In the grass was a bounce house. Mysteriously there was a big inflatable happy face with arms and legs affixed to the side. The happy face was bouncing up and down because people were bouncing up and down inside his bounce house. I made a mental note that I would return to the bounce house later, after I had been properly hydrated. It seemed like a good place to make friends, or at the very least do a little bouncing around.

There were a lot of people standing around and smoking. Some of them were swigging beers. Their faces were soft and round. As I passed through them I heard little scraps of their conversations. I could tell their lives were mostly unburdened from any real responsibility. I figured maybe it was some sort of end of the year party for the freshmen, which would make me nearly ten years older than them. God dang it, I thought, that’s a riot. That’s really something else.

In a dark field beyond a dorm shaped like a castle, I saw little clusters of adult-aged children chain smoking and talking in quiet voices. I approached a ring of five and bummed a smoke. I don’t even smoke cigarettes, and I still had not done anything about my throat, but I took the thing anyway. In my experience an itinerant loner is just slightly less creepy if he’s smoking a cigarette. He may not be doing much, but at least he’s doing something.

I phoned my roommate Matt. I cued him in on my discovery, told him he would dig it. I was in bad shape, I said, but I was determined to have fun with it anyway, and wouldn’t he like to do the same. He said he’d be right over, and that he would bring a bottle of red wine with him.

I cut through the cathedral to get to the side with the white hearse. There were still just a handful of people in there dancing around in their own little worlds. I really did respect that. I kept on going. I kicked the side door open and stepped outside into that dark, dark night. There was a little red chair near the entrance and I had me a good old fashioned sit down . . . I took a pack of matches out of my breast pocket and lit it up the cigarette I had stowed atop my left ear. I read the lettering on the side. It was a Camel Turkish Gold. It tasted like cardboard and sawdust. I would burn through it in less than five minutes. With the cheap stuff you always do.

A girl came out of the cathedral looking spooked as hell. She was breathing heavily. She said the air was suffocating to her and that she needed some of the fresh stuff before she plunged back into it. I reminded her she was standing next to a trash can. She said, “Well, you know what I mean!” We talked about the white hearse for a long time. It was five feet away from my chair. I told her a hearse was a sensible vehicle for any fine American to drive, since you never really know when someone’s going to drop dead. She said, “You could drive around with your own coffin in there. Y’know, just in case.” I thought that was great. She asked for a drag of my cigarette, inhaled deeply, and took off somewhere.

Matt arrived with wine. It was wrapped in a paper bag. We passed it back and forth, as you do, and made our way to the bounce house. The two of us kicked off our shoes and slid beneath the big smiley face’s legs and through the low opening. Inside there were eight or nine fresh-faced freshmen sucking on whipped cream dispensers and making out. They were killing their brain cells with nitrous oxide. It looked like a screaming good time, if you were into that sort of thing.

One of them, a girl in a black pineapple-print button-down shirt, got real close and asked us who we were. We said something, I can’t remember what, but it was good enough for her. She asked if we did whip-its and we said we had no interest in them, since there were more interesting ways to get loaded. She bounced away.

There was a ramp on the far side of the bounce house with a sort of ladder attached. I climbed it to see what there was to see. It lead to an opening, which lead to a slide, which emptied you back out onto the lawn. In the center of this opening was an inflatable uvula. An overweight kid was clinging to it for dear life. He was sucking on a whipped cream dispenser.

“You want some of this, man?”

“I’m good. I like dumb stuff like that, just not that dumb stuff specifically.”

“I hear ya. This shit is so dumb.”

“Some other time, maybe.”

He pointed to his friends, still writhing on the floor of the bounce house, their brains temporarily obliterated and their bodies temporarily useless. They were all sucking that stuff down, and immediately making out with the person nearest to them. I have no knowledge of this sort of thing, but I reckoned that maybe you could “share” the high through a kiss . . . or maybe it just felt nice to be brainless like that with someone else. God only knows. I saluted the dude sitting next to me and threw myself down the slide. My body felt terrible but I was having me a good old time anyway.

Matt followed me down the slide. I told him about the dark field beyond the castle dorm and we got to walking. The little clusters were still clustering so we ran through them. Near a rain-soaked couch in the middle of the field we found an inflatable raft. There was a soft slope near the baseball diamond so we took turns surfing down it on the raft.

Hearing our glee, a girl with a shaved head approached me in the dark and asked if she could give it a shot. I told her she would be crazy not to and she handed me her phone and her keys and made several attempts at it, laughing like a psycho the whole time. Eventually she got good at it. She thanked us and I returned her things and she skipped away.

The field began to clear out, and soon we were alone. We sang a few Elvis tunes as loud as possible, probably waking up the castle dorm people. Having exhausted our lungs we returned to the other side where the bounce house resided. The courtyard too was deserted. Mr. Happy was all that remained . . . and of course we went right up to him and started punching the son of a bitch in the face. Matt grabbed his inflatable leg and tugged at it hard while I whaled on him big time. The novelty wore off right quick and we decided to call it a night.

On our way out we passed through the campus radio station. It was a small room lit by dark blue lights. There was godawful music blaring inside and no one was around. We sat down. We sat there for some time. Eventually the DJ returned. I was sitting in his chair. He passive aggressively asked me to move. I moved to another chair. A girl who had been dancing in the cathedral came in and flopped down on the couch. She was far gone on something. Her eyes were like plastic and she was spaced the hell out. I looked at her and she gazed darkly into my eyes. No one said anything. The room was loud with hip hop and Mario sound effects. Matt left the room. I stayed in the room. The girl and I stared at each other for a long time. Neither of us blinked. She nodded along to the music and made waves with her hands. I was still floating on a fever dream, dead tired, and half mad on orange syrup. We kept staring at each other. It was late. It was nearly three in the morning. I decided I wanted to be alone. I slapped my hands on my thighs and stood up. The girl’s eyes followed mine as they went higher into the air. I broke away. I kicked the door open and disappeared.

OLD FRIENDS
AND NEW FREAKS

I left Texas in June 2013 and moved to the Bay Area. I already knew a lot of people there. I ended up meeting a lot of new people. Many of them were fine and interesting people. I am going to write about a few of those people.

•   •   •

[M]

M found me in the beer aisle of the grocery store across the street from Golden Gate Park. I told her I was surprised they stocked Lone Star, which I used to drink all the time when I lived in Texas. We decided to get two huge beers and walk around the park brownbagging it. She said she didn’t know much about beer and I said I didn’t either. I said I only knew what tasted good to me and what didn’t.

She had me pick something out for her. I grabbed a bottle with a demon on it and handed it to her.. I got something with a high alcohol percentage. I was thinking economically because I was so broke. I wanted to get as twisted off five dollars worth of beer as I could. Continue reading “Old Friends and New Freaks”

“IT ENDS BADLY!”

•   •   •

“Mary, fearing abortion, refused to have sex with her crummy boyfriend.”

This sentence twinkles into my disintegrating brain as my bike tire rolls over a dead squirrel. The squirrel is flat as a pancake now. (I am old enough to remember what a pancake is, you see.) The whole body is crushed. Even the skull is a millimeter thick now, where it was round before, and full of brain. The little twitching nose is gone, never to twitch again. . . .

I turn down a dark street and think about Mary a little more. She is a character I have just created by accident, and all I know about her so far is that she might be crazy.

Not that being fearful of abortion makes someone crazy. But that it would scare someone into lifelong celibacy is crazy, or at least totally irrational. I haven’t had sex in forty years, mostly for religious reasons, and even I think this lifestyle decision is absurd. No, this can’t be a realistic character. I cannot create her. I destroy Mary. As she vanishes and becomes nothing once again, I realize I miss Mary just a little bit. Maybe she was all right. Maybe Mary could have used a friend. Lord knows I could.

When I start to think about it more, I doubt anyone would be able to relate to Mary. No one has children anymore, after all, and they probably wouldn’t know what an abortion even is. And anyway there isn’t anyone to read this trash in the first place, or to not have children, or to not know what an abortion is, because near as I can tell everyone is dead.

Mary doesn’t exist long enough in my brain to have an opinion on the dead squirrel I have just run over, or any dead squirrels at all for that matter. Maybe she wouldn’t have given two shits about a dead squirrel.

It really is a shame about the squirrel, though. There was no dignity in that death. No proper burial or anything. I’m serious. I say this as a man who lives half a mile from a mass grave filled with corpses from the last horse flu pandemic.

Anyway when I was in high school, many decades ago now, when there still were high schools and children and so on, I would bury cats and dogs I found on the road. It was a thankless job. I did this too many times to count.

I remember one summer, when I was just a boy, and the world wasn’t what it is now, which is to say a nightmarish planet-sized tomb for everything that ever was—well, one summer there was a little dog that had been left out in the sun so long he burst. Truly, his little stomach became a pressure-cooker of hot gas. He exploded like a pimple.

Needless to say, by the time I came upon him there wasn’t much to bury. I scooped up that sun-seared alien flesh with my teenage hands and got to work. I did what I could.

Someone is going to say that, because squirrels weren’t selected to accompany needy human beings tens of thousands of years ago, they feel as though a squirrel burial is “beneath them.” I suspect that’s what most people would say. That or, “I don’t drive around with a shovel, for God’s sake.”

To which I would say: Why not? Plenty of things need burying. Are you going to use your hands? And anyway there is no one around to ask these questions anymore, because of that thing that happened to the Moon, and because everyone is dead.

I don’t like seeing dead animals at all. I hate that it makes me so soft, but there it is. And I’m including animals who aren’t covered in fur and have cute little faces.

A dead starfish! Can you imagine?

As I think about it now, I don’t know why I was so critical of people who don’t drive around with shovels. I haven’t had a shovel in my car for a long time now. Hell, I don’t even have a car. Or even a clean pair of underwear, for that matter.

I feel rotten as hell, by the way, now that I’ve dredged up that image of the exploded dog. You’d think with all I’ve seen these last twenty years, an old man like me wouldn’t be so shaken by a single death. Hell, I don’t know. I’m high as shit right now. I get all weepy.

Or maybe I just feel rotten as hell for every reason there could possibly be.

Can you blame me? Hello?

•   •   •

My hair is almost completely white now. It is mangy and awful and full of moth wings and dried cough syrup. If the sun starts setting any earlier, I think I’ll pull it all out.

“Wheeler, fearing love, fed his electric guitar to a trash compactor.”

I write this on the back of a pharmacy receipt for tampons and M&M’s. Oh, Lord. They’re never going to let me write another romance novel—not after my last three flopped. But then they flopped because no one bought them, because no one reads anymore, because everyone is dead.

Why are my protagonists always afraid of things? Who the hell are these damn people? Poor Mary. Poor Wheeler (such a good name). I myself am not afraid of anything, except maybe losing my other testicle. Though I think this thing’s on its last leg, and should be taken out behind the woodshed, and pumped full of buckshot, so to speak. Or perhaps literally, but I ain’t got a gun. I wish to keep it for sentimental reasons only. It’s not like it has any use to me anymore. You should see the witch’s brew this little egg-shaped juice factory pumps out. It looks less appetizing than that pink slop that bubbles up out of the gopher holes near the old bowling alley. Nobody knows what that shit is, man. But then I reckon just about everyone is dead.

I heard a knock on the door just now and so I threw on my housecoat (had been naked before) and waddled through the darkness to answer it. I tucked my penis between my legs before I opened the door because Lord knows nobody wants to see that gnarled old branch anymore than I do. But anyway it was a wasted effort because no one was out there. Thought it was one of those cocksuckers who have been stealing my garden gnomes (there are hundreds of them in my yard, and every night I dutifully count them). But no, it was a visitor from another time. This happens every now and then. He or she (or it—or whatever—God knows these visitors might not be human after all) left a parcel on the doormat. It was wrapped, as they always are, in an old nudie mag. Ancient stuff. Lots of lens flare, lots of bush. Tasteless really. Anyway I opened it. And yes, of course, it was another newspaper from the future. I won’t spoil anything for you, but every time I get these things, which is frequent enough for me to have an opinion on them, I have the same damn thought. See, as near as I can tell, just about all of it ends badly. And by “all of it” I mean . . . well, I mean all of it.

I read the paper for a long time. I read it twice, and then three times more. I don’t practice acupuncture anymore so it’s not like I have anything better to do. I was boiling a huge sweet potato I had found lodged in a gutter, and holding the paper with my free hand I thoroughly scanned its contents. I made a lot of noises with my throat to indicate to the spirits who haunt my house that I was indeed pondering the news I had been given. You see I have been afraid that these spirits think I am a moron. Which I am. I just don’t want them to know that. Anyway after I had absorbed everything into my sad, tired old brain, I used the newspaper to wipe my sad, tired old ass.

I am divorced. My son is dead. Actually my wife is dead too, since just about everyone is dead, but the fact remains that we’re still divorced. My cat has been missing for six years, maybe longer. In this eternal night it is hard to say what day it is, or what month it is. I certainly don’t know what year it is.

My only friend is a pair of women’s underwear that I have named “Charlie.” Trust me, I would be wearing Charlie if Charlie fit me. My left testicle, who is alone now (his brother is in Heaven), stretches like grey Silly Putty down to my knee, and swings all over the damn place, knocking knickknacks off low-hanging shelves, and generally just getting in my damn way. Lord knows it’s impossible to find underwear now, so I tried to make do with what I had, which was a pair of women’s underwear that I took off a mannequin someone had chained to a football goal post out behind the old high school. Anyway Charlie didn’t fit, so I have since bungied my testicle to my leg with a gross sock, and have made a new friend in the process.

I read when I can. Mostly I read manuals for air-conditioning units, or health brochures about gonorrhea. I take what I can get, you know, to keep my mind sharp. My only hero is former President Jimmy Carter, and maybe Neil Armstrong. I also greatly admire whoever invented the Roach Motel, and, if I’m being honest, the buttplug. (Maybe it was the same dude.) Mostly I am naked. Other than Charlie and the ghosts, I am alone.

I haven’t slept in years, not really, but the other night I did slip off for a little while. I figured it was from the drugs though I’ll be damned if I can remember which one finally gave me some much-needed Z’s. Probably something I made with Drano and peanut shells. You see I make my own stuff. I haven’t quite figured out which chemical does what to me, but then I am using a chemistry textbook that is intended to be read by elementary school children. It is seventeen pages long and there is a place in the back where you can color.

Anyway so this dream was beautiful and wonderful. In this dream I was taken up in a great silent storm with the downtrodden and the perfectly melancholy. I was in their eternal kingdom of gloom. It wasn’t so bad. Nothing hurt as far as I could tell. It was like Sheol or Hades, just a mass of spirits, green and luminous, swirling in a shadowy haze. No one knew who they were anymore. Maybe they were no one. I called them Brother and Sister anyway. I don’t know that they heard me. I don’t think they could hear anything anymore. But then the vision faded, and I heard the hum of my junky old space heater. I returned to my definitions just as the kettle reached a boil. It was screaming in the kitchen. I was heating up some water for a bath. It takes about an hour to do this, given how small my kettle is. The water is yellow and foul and smells like elephant diapers.

It is from behind dead eyes that I write these words to you tonight. I am mostly blind. I have cataracts and my spectacles are made from two kaleidoscopes I tied together with baling twine.

“Bernard lit a match on a witch’s ass and danced merrily into a swamp.”

I have just rushed from the bath with these ideas still in my head. It is the most amount of energy I’ve had to do anything in probably ten years or more. The hernia, which I had to fix myself by the way, and I did a damn sloppy job I’ll have you know, has really taken all the zest out of life. Also my one ball aches all the damn time. It makes these awful noises. It sounds like a first-generation Model T.

And anyway, it really is difficult to will yourself to do anything at all ever since that thing happened to the Moon. It’s a real damn shame what happened, no joke. Hell, I think about that all the time. I can’t imagine how anyone on Earth, which may just be a few dozen of us now, is able to think about anything else. You look up at the night sky and you say to yourself, from behind a layer of Drano and peanut shells, “I’d hate to be the poor sucker who has to fix that.”

Sometimes I hear this certain sound, it is in my head of course, and it is a beautiful sound and I love it dearly. I can’t describe it. If I were some asshole I suppose I would say it sounds like a bunch of drunk-ass angels singing some old Sammy Davis Jr. tunes in sea cave. Lord does it bring tears to my eyes to hear that. And I thought only a chainsaw cutting through a tin can full of baked beans could have that effect on me. Hell, I don’t even know why I’m bringing this up. I’m writing this on a roll of toilet paper by the way.

I really wish I could tell you more about the future. You know, what was written in the newspaper and all. The paper is handwritten. It always is. I know it’s actually from the future though because it is always dated fifteen years from now. The author’s penmanship . . . hoo doggies! It’s fucking chicken scratch is what it is but why wouldn’t the news itself be true? l suppose I’ll find out for sure in fifteen years. We all will.

. . . But then let’s face it, we’ll all probably be dead in six months. What’s left of us, anyway, which I am convinced is no more than fifty or sixty love-starved soul-drained psychos.

Hate to say it but they never do get around to fixing the Moon. Whoops!

•   •   •

Buncha neon and perfume, man. A great big smear of it. That’s all this thing is. A spiraling multicolored light show for idiots. Thank God it’s almost over. My pacemaker exploded inside my chest last week. I often wonder when it’s lights out for me, like it was a few years ago for all those people who are currently stinking up the mass graves next to the old Chuck E. Cheese.

At this point I would be content to ask Satan for advice. I don’t like the guy one bit but I’m sure he’d know what’s up. Hell, he probably masterminded the whole thing. He’s laughing in the deep, I can hear him now. And anyway there ain’t nobody else around ‘cept Satan, that’s for damn sure. Last time I saw someone was probably two years ago. Some dude in a trench coat and a cowboy hat was whacking off in the crumbling parking lot of what used to be my favorite pet store. Even after all the terrible things that have happened to Earth, and to the Moon, bless its heart, and even after all those people perished in flames . . . and after all the bombs, and all the screaming, and all the government-issue cyanide tablets in the CDC suicide tents . . . well that perennial symbol of mankind stubbornly persists: the guy in the trench coat brazenly whacking off in public. Musta been seeing pictures in his head because the only thing in his line of sight was a diseased crow chewing on a dirty marshmallow inside a Chef Boyardee can. Now that’s some kind of imagination!

My father, God rest his soul, used to call my mother Chef Boyardee. Everything she ever fed us came out of a can. I can’t think of anyone who was less interested in cooking. These days it’s a necessity. Who else is going to cook for you? Everyone is dead, and what little food there is left you gotta grow yourself. If I weren’t a vegetarian I reckon I would have eaten that poor squirrel, who, by the way, I did eventually scoop up off the street. He was so flat he fit between two pages of an old phonebook I had in the attic. That phonebook is crammed with roadkill, man. There must be thirty animals in there. I figure next time I find a shovel I’ll just bury the whole damn book, say a prayer, and get on with my life. Hate to resort to a mass grave but that’s the name of the game in the new world. I mean hell they’ve got about a billion pounds of human debris sardine-packed into Mother Earth a half mile from here, out by the old Chuck E. Cheese. They managed to fill an entire quarry for God’s sake, back when there still was a “they.” (Almost everyone is dead, you see.)

I still occasionally hang around that Chuck E. Cheese by the way, now that it doesn’t smell so bad anymore. All the flesh has rotted off those many millions of bones, and now it’s all silence and skeleton dust. Some fucker stole all the balls from the ball pit and even had the audacity to replace them with a hundred pounds of rusty screws and broken crack pipes, so I can’t play in there anymore. Though who am I to bitch, really? I’m the shameful sack of turds who stole the entire animatronic Chuck E. Cheese band right off the stage. Set them up in my basement and everything, and programmed them to play “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” The whole gang is there just as they always were, except for Mr. Munch, who I skinned so I wouldn’t freeze in the winter. He is now a horrifying, spidery, googly-eyed keyboard-playing mecha-skeleton, and I now have an overcoat that is made of purple fur. The old boy still tinkles the ivories as well as he ever did though. Guess the fur had nothing to do with those magic fingers of his, which, just to be clear, are now steel rods with razor-sharp tips. Stay back!

On the back of a receipt for Drano . . . “Alexandra caught sight of her reflection in the toilet bowl and slowly reached for a weapon.”

I think it was more than just loneliness that prompted me to steal the animatronic Chuck E. Cheese band. See, I had an unhealthy obsession with that place, and I needed to cut down on how often I was going there. That’s why I don’t go there much anymore. Once, a few weeks after that thing happened to the Moon, I went scavenging in the employee break room and, of course, there were about a dozen corpses in Chuck E. Cheese uniforms huddling in the corner. Maybe I shouldn’t say this but I did take one of the uniforms. I won’t get into the details. It was a long night and I’m not proud of it. But I wanted that damn uniform and, by God, there were a whole bunch of them ripe for the picking. I found a guy who was about my size and laundered the uniform as best I could in a stream behind my house, but then you know all the water is yellow toxic waste now, so I didn’t do a very good job. I did the best I could with what I was given, man. I am old and tired now you see, and the world actively hates me.

Anyway for months I would return to Chuck E. Cheese, even in the middle of the summer when the mass graves were really stinking up the place big time (I had on an old WWI German gas mask), and I would be wearing that uniform. My name tag said “Burt.” I loved that. “Burt.”

Poor Burt. He’s in Heaven now. I gave him a proper burial. Had to use my hands for that one. Very difficult. I swore after that day I would never dig a grave with my hands ever again. I had dirt under my nails for weeks, and I accidentally tore into a waterline that, of course, started spraying putrid yellow water all of my god dang yard, killing my beloved crop of purple pumpkins. . . .

So anyway I would show up at Chuck E. Cheese every day, and I would clock in as though I worked there. I had always wanted to work at Chuck E. Cheese, you see. But I am an old, old man, and they don’t hire old, old men. Well: They don’t hire anyone anymore, because everyone is dead.

So I would show up and I had all the employees, now skeletons, propped up in different places throughout the restaurant. There was a skeleton behind the salad bar, a skeleton working the popcorn machine, a skeleton behind the prize counter, and so on. I even had a skeleton wearing a clip-on tie in the office, sitting behind a computer. He was the boss skeleton. I’d clock in and say, “Morning, boss. Another day, another dollar, huh?”

You know come to think of it I don’t know what gender any of these skeletons were when they still had meat on them. Most of their names, which I read off their name tags of course, were gender-neutral. That killed me. Though hey, it doesn’t really matter what they were, because you see once a human is reduced to its bare infrastructure, we all become the exact same thing. Death, the greatest equalizing force in this doomed dimension of ours, eventually has his way with all creatures. He takes our souls and leaves the rest behind. I have seen a lot of death, as I’m sure many of you have, if you’re not already part of the big tally yourselves—and let me tell you, it’s all the same damn thing, man. A big rubbery carcass, then a stinking pile of fluids, then a no-bones-about-it skeleton. No more faces, no more voices, no more names, no more nothing.

And listen: I apologize if this story sounds strange but you see I’m very lonely and I thought maybe what I did wasn’t such a bad thing, having all these skeletons doing what they were doing in that Chuck E. Cheese, which is to say exactly what they would be doing if that damn Moon thing hadn’t happened, and all the water wasn’t yellow toxic waste, and if the mass graves weren’t stacked mile-high with all of God’s little children.

Skeletons, if you’ve never spent a lot of time around them—and I can’t imagine how you haven’t, unless you’re dead and thus a skeleton yourself, in which case you’re probably surrounded by skeletons anyway since essentially everyone is a skeleton now, except maybe the ones who have turned to bonemeal, or have been eaten by those terrifying new hybrid animals that I’ve heard screaming at night. Well anyway skeletons are cheery sort of fellows. Hell I love those things. I’ve got a few in my basement wearing fine pinstripe suits and fancy dresses I once stole from the ruins of a J.C. Penny. And they’re sitting there holding their empty martini glasses, some with their legs crossed, some of them wearing hats or scarves, and they’re smiling forever at the animatronic Chuck E. Cheese band, perfectly intact, except for poor Mr. Munch, who I skinned so I wouldn’t freeze to death in the winter. It’s a great big spiraling multicolored light show. They love it. They’re grinning like hell, those rotten bastards, and will keep on grinning until they turn to bonemeal.

Anyway so my coworkers, God love them, were hard workers. They were at work twenty-four-seven. I would say to the boss, “Gee, would it be such a bad idea to give Jesse a raise? He or she has been working the salad bar for eight months, and I’ll be damned if he or she has never once complained about it.”

As for me: I spent a lot of time mopping the bathrooms, and stocking the display cases with prizes. Most of those prizes were shit, man. You know that “Made In China” crapola, back when China was still a country and not a ruinous pockmarked killing field, dead as the surface of the Moon, back before that awful awful thing happened to the Moon. . . .

Aw hell, my sweet potato is ruined. I fell asleep and the damn thing is mush. It exploded like a pimple. It’s all the same though, I reckon, since I have just discovered it had a colony of red ants living inside it. I know this because there are about a thousand of them floating on the surface on this foamy yellow water. I hate to say it but I might get into the roadkill I’ve got in that old phonebook. I haven’t eaten in weeks you see. Never had squirrel before, and I’m not sure I’d like it anyway, but then I guess I once said the same thing about boiled footballs.

A knock at the door. Another newspaper from the future. It doesn’t look good. And then, what’s this . . . written on the back in what looks like chocolate: “Mary, fearing abortion, laughed at the Moon.”

What was I saying?

What the hell is Mary’s problem anyway?

PHANTOM LIMB IN LIMBO

Note: This collection of short essays, originally published in January 2016, included a fifth part, which was part four. I have since removed it because the story could have been misconstrued as a sort of passive-aggressive jab at an innocent person, which wasn’t my intention, but hey: it’s gone. The rest, for good or ill, is untouched. Were I to subtitle ‘PHANTOM LIMB IN LIMBO’, which is just about the best title I ever gave anything, I guess I would say something about it being a series of quiet tragedies and miseries.

•   •   •

[01]

I had a sad friend in Los Angeles. She was sad and she made me sad too. She made me sad because I didn’t want her to be sad. She was smart and pretty. She was funny. I liked her a whole lot.

She didn’t like herself. She said was hopeless and futureless. She didn’t want to be alive anymore. She didn’t see the point.

We made a suicide pact. I don’t know if it was a joke. It was the tenth or eleventh suicide pact I’d entered into in my life. I didn’t know if those were jokes either.

She asked me how we’d do it and I told her I’d heard the garden hose in the tailpipe method is the way to go. My father had seen a lot of suicides like that at work. He said it looked like they had just gone to sleep.

Months later I was in Los Angeles for a writing assignment. My friend invited me over. She was housesitting in Echo Park. When I got there she was wearing a kimono. We drank two bottles of wine in the kitchen and smoked a lot of cigarettes out back.

At three in the morning we were smoking on the patio. She was sitting on a bench and I was standing in front of her. She looked at me in a certain way and I looked at her the same way. I asked her if I could kiss her and she said yes. She grabbed my shirt and pulled me towards her.

We went inside. It was a long night. She had a beautiful body. Her skin was very soft. I felt vaporous and ghostlike in comparison.

In the morning I had to go write about something for some people who were paying me to write it. I didn’t care what I was writing about. I was broke. They were paying me and that was good enough for me. They never ended up paying me.

I told my friend I was leaving Los Angeles that night. I didn’t want to leave. I had to leave. She was upset that I was leaving. She thought that maybe I was leaving because of her. I don’t know why she thought that. I told her I would rather stay with her than leave. I wasn’t lying. She didn’t believe me.

She stopped talking to me after that. I wrote her a few letters and told her I wanted to see her again. She didn’t write me back for six months. Continue reading “Phantom Limb in Limbo”

This piece was originally commissioned by Scottish writer Cara Ellison to appear as a 500-word blurb in Paste Magazine. It did not end up appearing in Paste Magazine—mostly because the author was an absolute God damn mess as a result of being submerged in the psychedelic fever dream called “Los Angeles” for way too long. Deadlines were missed, calls went unanswered, and absolutely no one cared. 

The following words, all twenty-five thousand of them, were written in dark places and at late hours with a sort of manic desperation not previously thought possible. In all likelihood this is probably the worst thing anyone has ever written. We present to you now a coffin filled with spider parts—a rotted ugly mindscape where no good thing grows. Its existence, though awkward, is pure and unedited. Please enjoy.

PART ZERO:
GOIN’ DOWN TO SKELETON TOWN

The Doomsmobile rolled onto Sunset Boulevard at exactly midnight, the two of us strapped inside, my partner and me, feeling like hell and looking it too. For six hours and three hundred seventy miles we had rocketed down that dark empty California highway, guzzling black coffee from mason jars and smoking dozens of cigarettes and popping little pink pills till our nerves were useless. And finally, by God, we had arrived in the city of Los Angeles, scarcely understanding why we had come in the first place. . . .

I was slumped over the wheel, mindlessly steering that fat bitch up and down the street as tears of exhaustion collected under my drooping eye sockets. My brain was slushed to hell and I was vibrating past reality big time. I absorbed external stimuli as it came to me—the palm trees, the stupid billboards, the lights in the hills—and then, like a radio transmission from the moon, I endured the few seconds of dead air before the noise and the lights were received at mission control.

Only I knew there was no one at the switchboard . . . just a frightening room full of blown circuitry and sparking wires dangling from the ceiling. Flickering fluorescent lights and static on every monitor. Maybe a distant scream from down the hall followed by an eternity of silence.

The Doomsmobile’s headlights carved through the stillness of Silver Lake as I swerved erratically in the dark, thinking that maybe we would be dead soon enough. There was no doubt about it: we were food for the Reaper. Yes, it really was only a matter of time. . . .

I didn’t say anything about this to my partner. He was silent in the passenger seat, his eyes hidden behind cheap sunglasses and layers of caffeine and speed. The poor bastard was blissfully alone inside himself just then. No sense telling him he wasn’t long for this world.

I turned down a side street and parked next to an overflowing dumpster. I killed the engine and sat there for a moment, fooling around with the FM tuner. “Don’t Stop Believin’” was playing on three separate stations, each of them about thirty seconds apart. There was bug shit all over the windshield.

“I get this town,” I said finally. “I get these people. Holy lord, I like it here. What a strange thing for an animal to build.”

Hearing my voice, Jack was ejected from some nightmare inside his head. He opened his eyes and stared blankly at the one outside of it. “You talking about Los Angeles?”

“Yeah. Hell, I just like it here. You know? You can be the biggest fucking wasteoid on the planet and no one cares. That’s beautiful.”

“I suppose it’s a place people like.” He leaned the chair forward and looked out the window at the dumpster. It was inches from his face. “Seems about right, parking here.”

“Yeah. I like it when they make the metaphors easy like that.”

“Saves us all some time.” He yawned. “Maybe we should crawl inside the thing and go to sleep.”

“Listen,” I said. “I called my friend Amy when we passed through Santa Clarita. You were still asleep. She wants to go to a bar with me. I told her I would, and now I’m going to do it. I’ve got to. I’m sorry. I’ve really got to see that girl.”

“Now?”

“Yeah. I’ll have a few beers and that’s it. And then together you and I can plunge into this God damn thing like brothers and see what happens.”

“Hm. OK.”

The kid wasn’t getting it. He was still staring at the dumpster. I switched to my serious voice to amplify my desperation: “Jack, baby—I need this. For God’s sake, the rest of the week is going to be miserable as hell. Jesus, the rest of my life. . . .”

“Then go see your lady friend, man. I’ll find something to do. Plenty to get into in this city, at this hour. I’m sure of it.”

Jack reached into a paper bag at his feet. It was filled with a week’s worth of rations we had brought with us from Oakland: nuts, carrots, cabbage, tangerines, wasabi peas, a loaf of sourdough. He took out a little Gala apple and tossed it to me. I caught it with the numb fingertips of my left hand. The amphetamines had destroyed my circulation. I couldn’t feel the apple, but I trusted it was there.

I took a bite and started the engine. It idled smoothly—a fine sound. Eyeing the illuminated panel I saw that we still had half a tank left from our fill-up in Lost Hills. Probably wouldn’t last long, I thought, not in this town . . . but then neither would we. And anyway we both knew it was all for nothing—all that gas, all that time, all that poison taken in through our gills. Our health, mental and otherwise, was circling the drain. We’d been there less than five minutes and I already knew the assignment was a total bust.

In the rearview mirror I watched a silver Prius stop near a row of cars. A man was driving. A woman got out of the passenger seat. She waved to the man and took out a set of keys from her purse. She used them to unlock another silver Prius that was parked nearby. The first silver Prius drove off. It was one of the most ‘California’ things I’d ever seen. I laughed.

“Well!” I said. My chest ached just then. I supposed I was bleeding internally. No more words came to me.

Jack leaned the seat back and rubbed his forehead with his hand. “Take us there, wherever there is,” he said. “And then I’ll vanish for a little while so you can see your friend.”

•   •   •

PART ONE:
AMY AT THE AKBAR LOUNGE

I drove to Amy’s house, which was less than a mile away. Her street was lined with sick and crooked palm trees fifteen feet high. The street lamps were dim. Every house was dark. I parked the car by a gutter and got out.

Jack slid across the gap between the two front seats and planted himself behind the steering wheel. He had taken his off his sunglasses and now I could see that his eyes were spiderwebbed with pink veins. I hovered over him in the doorway as he placed a cigarette between his lips.

“Do something about yourself,” he said. “You smell like a bag of garbage.” There was a little glow coming out of his brass-plated Zippo. He held his cigarette up to the flame. The fire revealed the creases beneath his eyes. He snapped the lighter shut. He’d been twenty-three years old for less than three days.

“I am a bag of garbage,” I said. “Didn’t I tell you? Lord, if only you knew the extent of it, you’d scream. . . .”

“Yeah, well. Maybe she’ll be into it.” He reached for the door and I stepped back. He slammed it shut and rolled down the window to let the smoke escape. “Some of them are, you know.” The Doomsmobile glided away, taillights glowing red like the eyes of some sad and ancient animal. It turned a corner and was gone from sight.

Amy was standing on the sidewalk when I spun around. Her skin was glowing white. She was wearing red lipstick and a faux leather jacket and a black dress that looked like a huge T-shirt. I felt something in my body twist and turn. It was a good feeling. God knows I hadn’t had one of those in a long time. I wanted to walk over and kiss her, thinking it would be kind of neat, and not altogether terrible.

But I didn’t. I just stood there in the dark not saying anything, partly because I was a screaming black hole disguised as a cartoon character, and I figured kissing something like that must feel absolutely awful. The other part of me was too tired to move.

“Hi Starbaby,” said Amy. “Did you just get here?”

“Hi Amy. Yeah.”

“How was it? The getting here?”

“Oh, it happened.”

“Well, here you are. And now where should we go? There’s a place around the corner called Akbar. It’s mostly filled with middle-aged gay guys. Also, it’s shitty and dark. That’s what you said on the phone, yeah? That you wanted to go someplace ‘shitty and dark’?”

“Aw, hell,” I said, “I love shitty and dark. I only ever want to be around shadows anyway. Especially right now. God, I certainly don’t want to have to see any faces. . . .”

I stumbled over to her. I stood on the street, still in the shadows. Any closer and she would have seen the grease and sweat in my hair and the cigarette ash on my denim jacket. She would have seen the complete lack of anything going on behind my eyes—just a bunch of sawdust and shredded newspaper spinning in the void. She would have smelled me.

“Jesus, lady,” I said. “How many times you gotta pray to Satan to look like that?”

I was delirious; I was mad. I had no idea what I was saying or why I was saying it in the first place. Pray to Satan? What in God’s name did that even mean? Amy was a knockout, though. I knew that much. Maybe Satan really did have something to do with it.

“Every night for a decade, Starbaby,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Amy lead the way. Together we snaked through the haunted alleyways off Sunset Boulevard. Left here and right there, swirling colors, patches of complete darkness, and plenty of cruel, sad places in between . . . finally cutting across the Taco Bell parking lot, past little clusters of chewed and mangled nobodies—those poor ugly souls who have nothing to do, no place to be, and none of the powers of youth to convince the world otherwise. They leered at us with dilated pupils. I wondered what lived inside their heads.

In minutes we arrived at a dimly-lit building that I hoped was a portal to the afterlife. Amy dove into the thing and I flopped around behind her. Once inside it took a moment for my eyes to adjust. This was a dark, dark place. And looking around I saw that there was no sign of judgment or eternal rest. There wasn’t a single pit of flames. It was just another bar, and I was just another jerk.

“You got I.D.?” said an old man in a vest and a conductor’s cap. He was sitting at the corner of the bar eating ice out of a highball glass.

Amy took out her wallet. The man waved her away with his hand. “Forget it, sweetheart,” he said smiling, probably because Amy was Amy. “I was talkin to the kid behind you.”

I placed my index finger to my chest and mouthed “Me?”

“Yeah, Mr. Cool Guy, I’m talkin bout you.” He rolled his eyes and sucked down an ice chip.

I handed him my driver’s license. I’d gotten it a few months before at a DMV in Oakland. In the picture I looked tired. I hadn’t slept the night before. My hair was greasy and my skin was bad. There was no denying it was me.

He pointed a flashlight at it. He moved the light across the surface of the card. It shone through a little dotted bear stamped between the plastic on the right side. It was an outline of the California bear, the same one from the flag—a security feature I had never noticed before.

“Yeah all right,” he said, handing it back.

Amy was already at the bar. She was ordering a gin and tonic when I walked over. I thought about how much I disliked gin and tonics, how sick they had made me whenever I drank them.

“I want to get your drink,” I said to Amy. I didn’t mean for it to sound cavalier. I hoped she hadn’t interpreted it that way.

“Are you sure? Didn’t you tell me recently that you were broke?”

I called her “baby.” I didn’t mean for that to sound cavalier either. I call everyone “baby”—including my own father. But maybe she didn’t know that. Probably she didn’t.

“Baby—” I said, and I really let that pause sink in. “I’m broke as hell. I’ve been broke my entire God damn life. Probably always will be broke, too.”

There was a sort of grinding in my brain. Language and time and memory slipped away from me, fell down a hole somewhere. The lights dimmed and the machinery halted. All I could do was breathe. A dozen or so lifetimes passed. Actually, less than a second had elapsed in the Here and Now—in the world that Amy and everyone else in the bar presumably still inhabited.

“But anyway,” I went on, hoping Amy hadn’t noticed my temporary insanity. “I’d like to get your drink. My expenses are covered, so don’t worry about it. Hell, I won’t be.”

“What do you mean your ‘expenses’?” she said. It was a valid question. Even I hardly understood what I had meant by that. I also didn’t have much of an answer. I tried anyway:

“The Scottish writer who was living on my couch in Oakland—the one who sent me here for the assignment. Well, she gave me some fun money. She said, ‘Go ahead and have a few drinks, if that’s what you feel like doing.’”

I was losing it. Too much spook smoke from the ghost chimney. Too many pills on the ride down. Fun money? Expenses? Cara Ellison hadn’t said any of that. I was fairly sure she hadn’t. But then I couldn’t hear myself talking. Not clearly, anyway. I wasn’t in the Akbar lounge on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California—I was hundreds of thousands of miles away, drifting soundlessly through a starless vacuum and feeling only the faintest traces of my earthly body. Little pinpricks of pain all over—like ants on a beast which has fallen for good but still beats on anyway, though not for long. . . .

“That’s nice of her,” she said emptily. “Why is she doing that?”

“Well, see, I did her a series of dark favors.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Weird stuff. I can’t talk about it right now.” I looked around the room. “I don’t know who’s listening. We could have been followed.”

I turned to the bartender. I slapped my hands down on the bar. “What’s the cheapest crap you have? Is anything here two dollars?”

He made a face as though he didn’t like my shape. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t like my shape either. “Anchor Steam on draft is three.” he said, and it seemed to pain him to have to talk to me.

“God, yeah, I guess I’ll have one of those,” I said. Anchor Steam was made in San Francisco, that rotten place, and I wanted nothing to do it. I had an assignment; I was on the job. I had come to Los Angeles to work, and to get away from San Francisco. I didn’t want to drink its beer. But I had no choice. As I said to Amy and the bartender and anyone else who was listening: “I mean, Jesus, if it’s three dollars, what can you do. . . .”

“Here you are,” said the bartender. He placed a foaming glass under my nose. It was filled with a molasses-colored liquid. He held up both hands and displayed nine fingers. “With the gin and tonic that’ll be nine bucks.”

I handed him my debit card and tried to remember how much money I had in my account. I was sure it was more than nine dollars, but not much more. Those terrible numbers—that whisper of a promise! None of them were real, and yet they governed my fate.

I really did ponder my fate, right then and there: Two drinks now, I thought, but surely there would be more later. And bars were for fools and suckers, and I was a fool and a sucker just then. How in God’s name was I going to afford to do anything after this? How would I complete the assignment? What was the assignment? When would I bathe next? Where would I sleep? How would I afford to eat? And on and on.

Older men with mustaches and haircuts they had definitely paid for were all around us, laughing and kissing and talking in low voices. The bastards had taken all the good seats too. Amy and I were left with an obnoxiously tall table across from the bar. There was a bench on one side and two stools on the other. Amy sat on the bench, and I sat next to her to avoid having to use the stools, which were at least four feet off the ground.

“What kind of asshole wants to use a stool like this?” I said. “Why do they do this to us?”

“I don’t know!” said Amy. “But they are dumb. The stools, that is. Hella dumb.”

I had lived in California for over a year, and “hella” was still a flaming plastic flamingo in an otherwise immaculate yard. It was a peculiar thing to behold whenever it passed through my brain. Amy had taught me “hella” on the first day we met—back in The Mission in San Francisco. That was a year ago. We went to a corner store and I bought her a beer, a Racer 5 IPA, saying, “Do you like these?” And Amy had said, “Those are hella good.” I must have made a face when she said that, because she quickly explained that she had used “hella” ironically, since “only fifteen-year-olds say that.”

I had heard plenty of people much older than fifteen unironically use “hella” since then. I wondered what that meant.

Back in the present, in Los Angeles, an Amy one year older than the Amy I once knew moved her body closer to mine. She whispered, “You hate this place, huh? It’s OK if you do, Starbaby. Maybe I hate it too.”

“I don’t hate it more than any other bar, I reckon, or any other place on planet Earth for that matter. I’m shredded and beat-down and rotten from the inside out. I just feel strange is all. Who cares about the window dressing? That’s all it is. I don’t even know what day of the week it is most of the time. I don’t know what day it is now.”

“It is strange, sitting here,” said Amy. “Everyone can see us. Our backs are against the wall but I still feel exposed.”

I wanted to say to her: Sister, my back is always against the wall, if you know what I mean. And I always feel exposed, if you know what I mean.

But instead I said this: “My favorite seat in a bar is the one all the way in the back, in the corner. Where I can watch all those cockroaches squirm in the dark.”

“That’s a good seat, Starbaby. I like that seat too.”

“It sure is, yeah. I’m glad that seat exists. Maybe that seat is the only reason I ever go to bars in the first place.”

Amy spun the ice in her glass with a little red straw. A few seconds passed. They were silent seconds. They were not awkward seconds. I liked sitting there with Amy. I could have sat there like that for a long while and been perfectly content with the circumstances. But then finally she did say something, probably because it was the question on everyone’s mind whenever I am around them: “Wait, so, what are you doing here again?”

“I really don’t know,” I said. “Bearing witness, I guess. Creating waste. Watching the sand fall.”

“But what about this Scottish writer you mentioned?”

“Oh, the Scottish writer is a woman named Cara Ellison. She’s, uh—she’s from Scotland. And she wrote things that became popular on the internet. Eventually her writing became so popular that she realized she could do it anywhere, and people would pay her for it. So she came to California for a while to write about my friend. Some stuff happened. Man, I don’t know. You know how that goes—when stuff happens. Anyway, she promised me a hundred bucks and a little bit of fame if I came down to Los Angeles and wrote a piece about some expo that’s happening at the Convention Center.”

“What kind of expo?”

“Something about video games. Billion-dollar companies showing us the future—or anyway the future according to some cheese-eating white dudes who wear argyle socks.”

“Well,” she said, “I feel like the whole world is over but we’re all still here anyway. So I don’t care what the future looks like.”

“I don’t care what it looks like either. I reckon I’ll find out tomorrow. Whatever it is, I have a feeling it’s pathetic and sad. And everyone is going to have to suffer through it whether they want to or not.”

•   •   •

For the next half hour I told Amy how I had wrapped myself in a blanket and collapsed in the back seat while Jack took us south to Los Angeles in that old police car of ours . . . how he could be a gorgeous creature when he abandoned inertia and got to moving fast . . . how we had stopped at a terrifying gas station thirty miles outside the thimble-sized census-designated strip of nothing called Lost Hills, where the reptiles who run everything had managed to fill a thousand square feet with camouflage cowboy hats, hot-pink beer koozies, lighters shaped like handguns, and all that other flashing, shrieking, useless plastic garbage they keep next to the cheese- and jalapeño-flavored sawdust.

“There was this cologne dispenser in the restroom. You wouldn’t believed it. Put a quarter in, turn the knob to your desired scent, all of them bad, hit the metal pump and this poisonous chemical labeled ‘sandalwood’ comes shooting out of this godless machine and onto your hands. A foot away, I kid you not, was a condom dispenser. So the idea is to get all greased up and then buy a condom. That’s a hell of a math equation right there.”

We kept drinking. There was no sign of stopping. Like a drunken moron, I kept telling Amy, “It’s on the company card! It’s all taken care of!”

But there was no company card. The card was mine. The company was me. The company was fucked!

In my brain, which was sputtering and backfiring like hell, I attempted to do some elementary arithmetic in the name of self-preservation. At the rate we were pounding drinks I would be completely broke within the hour. Already I had burned through my gas money and the pittance I had allotted for food and coffee.

Oh, God! My mind raced. It considered the consequences of my recklessness. Amy might have sipped at her drink and imagined wonderful things for herself, but I all I could see was self-annihilation. Yes, and after my funds had run dry, I would be stranded in Los Angeles forever. The story wouldn’t get written and no one would ever kiss me again. My car would explode, or be taken into the sea. My clothes would fall off my body, and alone I would roam the beaches at night, pale moonlight on pale flesh, feeding on garbage and whatever alien vegetation washed ashore. . . .

I’ll have to give her some bogus excuse, I thought, to get us out of the bar. Something about a nightly drink limit . . . Too much of the sauce and I’m useless in the morning . . . My people are counting on me; it is important that I am sharpand aware; there is work to be done; my work is important. And so on.

All jokes, of course—and screamingly hideous ones at that. In reality I was a futureless degenerate sinking in the swamp of my own terrible brain, a hack writer with no credibility. I had come to Los Angeles to write a story, but really I had come there out of boredom and loneliness. And in the span of an hour those two things had finally bankrupted me.

I was floating on a moonbeam, I thought, weightless and cold. I was alive because they hadn’t killed me yet. It would all come crashing down soon enough.

•   •   •

Amy’s eyes got cloudy. She must have been greatly affected by her gin and tonics. I felt almost nothing. “Smoke with me, Starbaby,” she said. “And don’t judge me.”

Amy took my arm and lead me outside. She sat me down on a low wall near the entrance and stood in front of my legs looking hotter than the flames of Hell. We had a couple smokes and talked about nothing of consequence. It was great.

I was sitting there thinking that I would be happy if nothing ever happened to me again when a man in a cheap leather jacket and a red baseball cap perched himself beside me. He crossed his legs and watched us with amusement.

“You two are cute as fuck,” he said after a few seconds.

“Oh yeah?” I said. And then I looked down at my own shoelaces, suddenly interesting, thinking that as long as I didn’t make eye contact with him, maybe he would go away.

“Yeah. I noticed y’all in the bar earlier. My friend did too. But he’s in the bathroom, probably jerking off. Hah! I told him to join us when he gets out. He loves cuties—maybe even more than me.”

“Who doesn’t love cuties?” said Amy. She flicked the ash from her cigarette.

“Cuties are pretty cool,” I said.

“What’s your sign?” he said to Amy. I rolled my eyes real hard. At least now I knew for sure it was OK to abandon whatever vaporous fumes of optimism were left inside me.

“Leo,” said Amy.

He snapped his fingers and looked pleased with himself. “Knew it. Fixed sign. I could feel it when I came over here. You vain little bitch. I love it.”

“Yeah,” said Amy, still puffing on a cigarette. She stared vacantly at the rows of stoplights that went on for miles down Sunset Boulevard, cycling through their colors for absolutely no one.

The man in the cheap leather jacket touched my shoulder with his hand. I looked at it. I had to admit to myself that it was a beautiful hand. His fingernails were flawless. This son of a bitch had recently had a manicure. “And what about you? You’re definitely a fixed sign too. There’s a lot of strange energy coming out of you, Mr. Stubborn.”

“Uhhhhh,” I said, wondering why I was Mr. [Something] to everyone that night. “I’m an Aquarian.”

“Uff!” He fluttered his fingers wildly. “The Water Bearer! Shoulda known.”

“Yeah, I like water. I’d bear some, I guess, if it came down to it.”

A man in Egyptian-looking clothing and shoulder-length hair exited the bar. He looked side to side, smiled artificially, and approached us with the unnerving gravity of someone who has zero self-awareness. I groaned internally. I knew who he was without having to be told. It was the man who loved cuties. He said his name but I didn’t hear it—either because the sound didn’t reach my brain or I immediately didn’t care.

“I see you’ve made friends with the cuties,” he said. “We thought you two were so cute. He’s like my brother, this guy. Did he already read you? He’s good at it. I’m OK, but not as good as him. I find the cuties, and he reads them.”

The Egyptian motherfucker pulled Amy aside. “I see something in you,” he said. “So many colors!” I heard that much. They walked down the sidewalk a little. I watched them in my peripheral vision, thinking that at any second I would have to get wild. I would have to run full-speed with my arms locked like horns to send that bastard to the ground.

“So what’s your deal?” said the guy in the cheap leather jacket. “I mean, what are you doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what your own deal is? Or what you’re doing?”

“I sure don’t.”

“Hm.” He licked his lips. They were coated with some sort of shiny balm. He tilted his head down and eyed me darkly. “Do you wanna see a picture of my cock?”

“Are you asking me if I want to see your penis?”

“Yeah.”

“All right.”

He took his phone out of his pocket and swiped through dozens of thumbnails. Inside the thumbnails I could see little fleshy penises. Oh God, I thought. Oh lord.

I looked at his socks. They were black and glittery. His dress shoes were iridescent. I thought that was neat. I decided in my own mind that I didn’t really want to see a picture of his penis. I could just look at his shoes until it was time to leave.

“Pretty good, huh? The shoe and sock combo? Not an accident. Just eff-why-eye.”

“It’s a good combination, no doubt about it.”

“You know what they say about shoe size, right?”

“I’ve heard my share of rumors.” I shrugged. “But you know how rumors go.”

He rolled his eyes playfully. He batted his eyelashes, which were glittery. “Oh, please. Don’t be coy, Mr. Aquarian. Like you don’t know. Anyway, would you like to see a picture of my cock?”

“Man, I guess.”

He smiled mischievously and held his phone up to my face. It was at maximum brightness. On the screen was a picture of an erect penis in a well-lit room. Behind it, on the other side of the room, was an open laptop with the default Windows XP wallpaper. It made me sad to see that—to see the laptop with the default Windows XP wallpaper, which was a rolling green hill under a blue sky with little cotton-puff clouds. Why hadn’t he bothered to change it?

“What about this one?” he said. He swiped his thumb on the screen. “You can see my balls better in this one.”

“Those are some good-ass balls you’ve got there.” I was sincere. Sure enough, he really did possess a fine pair of testicles.

“You seen a lot of balls?”

“I’ve seen my fair share of balls.”

“And how exactly have you seen so many balls?”

“I used to go to a Korean bathhouse in my hometown. There were balls everywhere. You wouldn’t believe it. Hell, if I sat down and thought about it, I’ve probably seen thousands of balls.”

His eyes flashed when I said “thousands of balls.”

“Balls, to me, are like feet—” I went on. “They’re either gross or they’re OK. Baby, I’m telling you, you’ve got some balls on you.”

I decided then, on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California in the year 2014, that I was definitely never going to be an old man. And that time didn’t affect me in any meaningful way. And I would never say “I love you” again. And I would die alone in some faraway place where no humans or animals would ever want to go. My skeleton would roast under the sun or be buried under snowfall, never to be seen again.

Ol’ Sparkle Socks was still showing me pictures of his hook-shaped mushroom-cap penis and his perfectly decent testicles, but all I could do was envision the Los Angeles Convention Center and how I would have to be there in less than twelve hours. I didn’t care about being there. I didn’t want anything to do with it.

“Let me show you a more recent picture,” he said, somehow blind to my expression of absolute indifference. Based on the thumbnails alone, I guessed there were hundreds of pictures of his penis on his phone. I began planning my escape.

Briefly I considered calling Jack to say the whole thing was off and that we should get out of town as soon as possible. But I was broke, and I figured I didn’t have long to live—and hell, I thought, why not do something with the time I had left? Plus that hundred bucks from Cara Ellison would go a long way for me once I got back to Oakland. I’d be able to buy so many loaves of bread.

My head ached and my fingertips burned. Amy was still talking to the other twerp and I could tell by the look on her face that she wanted to die too. Do I do something here? I wondered. To stop this? I kept on wondering. I kept listening too.

“Amy, Amy!” the cutie-finder was saying. “You gorgeous animal! I see so many colors!”

•   •   •

We managed to ditch the creeps after I told them I had to get up early the next day to meet with my probation officer. Amy and I linked arms and walked in the wrong direction to throw off our scent. We wandered beneath the long skinny shadows of palm trees. The moon looked huge and insane. I had already phoned Jack for evac in the Doomsmobile.

“Starbaby, Starboy,” said Amy. “We’re in agreement that everything they said was total bullshit, right?”

“Those boys were feeding us trash, yes.” But then, I thought, show me someone who ain’t.

“Yeah, I just sort of nodded along because it seemed easier than laughing in their faces.”

“The guy I was talking to asked for my number.”

“What? Really? Did you give it to him?”

“I did. I have no idea why. I told him my name was Star Sailor. Just ‘Star Sailor.’”

“He’s definitely going to try to call you.”

“Yeah.”

“Where are you staying tonight?”

“In my car somewhere.”

We were standing at her front gate now. I was thinking that Amy’s half birthday was my birthday, and that my half birthday was her birthday. What did that mean to the universe? What would the guy with the sparkly socks say about that?

“I would invite you in, but my roommates don’t like me.”

“Aw, hell. Don’t worry about it. I’ve got to sleep, anyway, or at least try to. . . .”

“Well, good-night Starbaby.” She flashed a peace sign and disappeared through the gate.

I stood alone on the sidewalk. The temperature outside was the same temperature inside my body. At least it felt that way. I ran my fingers through my greasy accidental pompadour and felt stupid for being in Los Angeles, or anywhere.

The sound of an eight-cylinder engine ripped me out of whatever spiraling nightmare I had crawled into. I saw the headlights and the white roof and the spotlights on either side and knew it was time to crawl into another one. Jack pulled up beside me. He rolled down the window and a plume of smoke escaped and became nothing in the outside air.

“I found a place where we can sleep.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Silver Lake. The Silver Lake. The one this whole trash heap is named for. It’s just a reservoir. Ugly fucking thing. It’s not far. I found it by accident.”

I walked around the car and got inside. Looking over at Jack I saw that the blackness around his eyes had gotten worse and his skin on his face was shiny and bad. We were going to have to lay low. If any taxpayers saw us, we would most certainly be incarcerated.

“You look horrible,” I said.

“I’ll bet,” said Jack. “Shit, I don’t even know what I’ve been doing for the last two hours. Just kinda driving around. Looking at stuff. God, looking at nothing. Hearing things. . . .”

“Let’s go sleep by that Silver Lake and hope no one calls the cops.”

Jack hit the accelerator. The huge engine roared. We were flying down Sunset Boulevard now like two corpses chained inside the cockpit of a rocket ship headed straight to the center of the sun.

“There’s colors on the street,” said Jack, looking haunted. “Red, white, and blue. People shufflin’ their feet. People sleepin’ in their shoes. But there’s a warnin’ sign on the road ahead. There’s a lot of people sayin’ we’d be better off dead. Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them. So I try to forget it, any way I can.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I see a woman in the night with a baby in her hand. Under an old street light, near a garbage can. Now she puts the kid away, and she’s gone to get a hit. She hates her life, and what she’s done to it. There’s one more kid that will never go to school. Never get to fall in love . . . never get to be cool.”

“You can say that again,” I said.

“I’ve been listening to this song for hours and I still have no idea what the fuck Neil Young is trying to say.”

“I have no idea what anyone is trying to say.”

“I know you like this one,” he said, and he put on “Celluloid Heroes.” We sang along, my partner and me, just barely, with voices strained and ragged—voices connected to brains cursed with one absolute certainty: that no matter what happened, it wasn’t going to end well.

•   •   •

PART TWO:
AND THE ELECTRIC SEA GAVE UP THE NEON DEAD WHICH WERE IN IT

I awoke in the trunk of my own car. It was completely dark but I knew where I was when I couldn’t extend my legs. The walls were made of millimeter-thick carpeting. I felt them with my hands and feet. My body was sticky and warm. The whole place smelled like pneumonia. And anyway this wasn’t the first time. The sensation wasn’t alien to me.

Sitting up I bumped my head. With no other choice I curled into a ball and waited for a sign that I wasn’t dead. Outside several cars drove by, making the Doomsmobile rock on its cushy police suspension. I heard birds shrieking and people talking in that upbeat and chipper way that I’ll never understand.

“Jack?” I said to the suffocating darkness. “Are you up there?”

The suffocating darkness groaned. It yawned. It spoke through six inches of fabric and steel: “God. Yeah. I’m here.”

“How was the back seat?” I said.

“About as good as you’d expect,” said Jack. “How was the trunk?”

“Oh, it was all right. Terrifying place to dream, though.”

“A-yup.”

“Did I make any noises? Did I scream in my sleep?”

“Nah. Actually, I figured you’d died.”

“If I’m dead then you’re dead too. And we’re both in the place where dead people go.”

“Then the dead go to Los Angeles.” He yawned again.

In the dark I groped for the plastic eject handle. It was neon green. It glowed faintly. I yanked on it hard. The truck door attempted to fling itself toward the sky. I grabbed it with my other hand and pulled it back down, creating a sort of peephole through which to peer out at the bright world beyond. I imagined exiting the trunk of a decommissioned police car would be a sure-fire way to get an authority figure involved. And see, I had to be sure there were no squares around.

It is wise to assume that almost everyone you see is a square, and if there’s one thing to know about squares it’s that they need to feel safe and comfortable at all times. To them, a disheveled man with no place to sleep registers in their brains the same way as, say, a cockroach infestation does. So they call the exterminator. When you’re dealing with human-sized cockroaches, that means the police.

Two cyclists, both squares, rode past in the bike lane and were gone. I scanned the street for other signs of life and, finding none, let the lid fly the hell open. I sprang up as if I had been trapped in a coffin and hopped out. My feet hit the pavement and I felt as close to being alive as I ever feel.

The world outside my trunk-womb was the color of paper. Every surface was sun-blasted and overexposed. When I had last seen it, it had been dark and dreamy. I had forgotten there would be a different version of everything when I woke up in the morning.

Jack was leaning against a nearby tree smoking a cigarette and tying his shoes. “I heard some people talking this morning,” he said, not looking up, “mostly people walking their dogs, but no one tapped on the window or anything.”

“I didn’t hear a damn thing. It was as if the car had eaten me, along with all my senses and memories. God, it was fantastic.”

“Did you see this fucking thing?” Jack laughed and pointed across the street to the Silver Lake, to the ugly reservoir surrounded by twelve foot fences wreathed in barbed wire.

“Hell of a thing,” I said.

“Hell of a thing,” Jack said.

I coughed. Everything was strange and dumb just then. The future was uncertain.

Miles away, I knew, in downtown Los Angeles, games journalists from all over the world were leaving their hotel rooms, which had been paid for by media conglomerates, so they could fill their stomachs with food, which had also been paid for by media conglomerates.

And there we were, my partner and me, leaning against a beat-up old police car on a residential street bordering a scum-filled concrete hole, brushing our teeth with lukewarm water from a Thermos and swilling down whatever day-old coffee was left in the mason jars while joggers and mothers pushing strollers gazed upon us with confusion and disgust.

•   •   •

We found a coffee shop a few blocks away and took turns washing our hair in the bathroom sink. I flirted with the barista for a few minutes. I got a bagel and a huge cup of a coffee and ate it on the hood of the car while Jack bought a pack of smokes from a nearby corner store. Once we were fed and washed and properly stimulated, we got on the highway and sat in traffic for forty-five minutes, headed downtown.

By noon we were parked outside a cafe on Hope Street, a few blocks from the Los Angeles Convention Center. Jack stood guard outside the car puffing away while I changed my clothes under a blanket in the back seat. I put on my maroon corduroys and a black T-shirt with a gold tesseract in the center—and my black denim jacket affixed with a little cat pin. Because of all the grease and wax and oil trapped in my unwashed hair, I was able to use my fingers to form it into a sort of oily black soft-serve ice cream swirl. Wrapped around my head were a pair of big white jerkoff sunglasses I use to repel all that is good and wholesome.

“It is a fine day to repel all that is good and wholesome,” I said to Jack, knowing full well neither would be present. I thrust my legs into my pants. “Let’s get out there and shake those bastards up.”

Jack went around the side of the car and popped the trunk. He took out a little Tibetan incense box that I had emptied and filled with drugs back in Oakland.

“What’s the flavor of the day?” he said. I saw him inspecting the goods in the rearview mirror.

“I reckon we should stick with the amphetamines for now. Get our God damn blood pumping, you know?”

I slipped my feet into my shoes, which were resting on the sidewalk, and stood up. Suddenly I was out of the car and in Los Angeles again. Now I was part of the thing. Now there were rules I had to pretend to obey.

“Here,” said Jack. He handed me half a pill. It was pink and chalky. Jack was holding the other half in the center of his palm. We each stared at them, wondering where they would take us, and then gulped them down.

The stuff hit my brain instantly. It tingled and went supernova. I saw vapor trails and ghostly rainbows emerge from every solid object around me—from skyscrapers and postboxes and dogs on leashes; from the Doomsmobile; from Jack’s face. And then time compressed into a single gorgeous moment. It stayed like that for less than half a second before expanding into the same endless corridor of bullshit it always was.

“Whoa,” I said. I shook my head. “They’ve finally done it, haven’t they? They’ve finally made something that works.”

Jack was far away. His eyes were huge pale zeros.

“Ready to mix with the animals?” I said.

Jack was returning to his definitions. He was coming back from outer space. He opened his mouth: “Lord, no, but let’s do it anyway.”

I locked the Doomsmobile and put four dollars in quarters in the meter. That gave us roughly three hours to get the story and get out. Mostly I just wanted to get out.

“How do we find E3?” said Jack.

“We just follow the noise,” I said.

“What noise is that?”

“Whichever one sounds the worst.”

•   •   •

We were insane by the time we arrived in whichever circle of Hell contains the Los Angeles Convention Center. I guessed it was the Third Circle, that big underground garbage dump where sinners worm around in the icy muck.

We wormed around too, wormed in the muck, my partner and me, no better than the rest of them. Some of our senses were accelerated and others greatly dulled. My eyes spiraled behind tinted lenses. Exhaustion weighed heavily on every miserable bone in my body, in every screaming cell that gave me my shape. I looked over at Jack, who looked spooked as hell.

And who could blame him? All around us was the worst kind of fakery: an island of concrete infected with Satanic architecture and palm trees flown in from God-knows-where; terrible music shrieking into the terrible sky; trailers and buses wallpapered in advertisements for culture-destroying anti-entertainment; an enormous robot sculpture sprouting up from the dead earth below while an amorphous mass of feel-nothings squirmed and scuttled in its foul shadow. . . .

I saw there on every sidewalk and crosswalk and slimy place in between, a deluge of dough-boys holding plastic bags filled with plastic toys . . . others were journalists in baggy flannel shirts and Chuck Taylor knockoffs. Their faces were hardcoded with a sort of off-the-shelf banality that made me feel as though they were made of flesh-colored paste. Thousands of them, I reckoned, had been squeezed out of tube and fitted into a human mold only hours before, then set free to flap their gums and bite their tongues under the skeleton-frying sun. Some of them were even walking incorrectly.

The whole thing taken together was ghastly and violently idiotic, was bone-chilling in its perfect hideousness. In all my life I had never seen so many bad things corralled together in one place. As this was the twentieth Electronic Entertainment Expo, what I was witnessing had occurred nineteen times before in about as many years, though I was sure this was the apex of its awfulness.

Jack and I were silent as we trudged further into the thing, still unsure why we were at the Los Angeles Convention Center instead of home in Oakland. We had no games to present, no developers to interview. We didn’t have even passes to get inside. We were imposters and intruders, floundering there in the deep. Our presence was even more absurd and meaningless than usual; the thought of even pretending to wave the flag of journalism made my stomach churn like an ocean of oatmeal.

Surely they could all smell it on us. In that vacuum of hatred where the creeps roamed free, we were the most worthless mammals of all. One wrong move, I thought, and they’d take us down and tear our flesh into ribbons, leaving nothing behind for the vultures to pick at. It was a feeling that was not unfamiliar to us.

“I wanted to go to E3 so badly when I was a kid,” I said. “I wanted to be here more than any other place on Earth. Can you imagine that?”

“Looks like a God damn circus nowadays,” said Jack.

“Witness this madness! I mean, look at it!” I grabbed Jack by the shoulders and rotated his body three hundred and sixty degrees. My eyes were wild. “My God, open your eyes, man! Point your peepers at this flaming dog turd in space! Feel something, why don’t you!”

In the midday haze we darted across what seemed like hundreds of lanes of traffic, dodging massive tour buses piloted by bloodthirsty psychos until we reached the main hall, which was festooned, like a bad Halloween costume, with a Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare advertisement.

What a stale thing to behold: another featureless white guy with a buzzcut crouching and holding a machine gun, waiting to run and shoot at strangers until they were fucking dead . . . only for those strangers to be born again moments later, fully formed in fatigues and armed to the teeth, awaiting death a thousand times more until it stopped being fun—if it was even fun to begin with. . . .

Below it was a crass and empty marketing line that I’m sure sounded pretty cool to the idiots whose job it is to ruin the world:

“POWER CHANGES EVERYTHING. 11.4.14”

It sure does, I thought. I stood there on that terrible fake grass sweating like hell and imagined how power had changed everything—how it had created, over many dozens of centuries, the sad pocket of existence I was gazing upon that very moment.

November 4th, 2014 will roll around sooner or later, I thought, and on that day a cultural orgy will surely unfold all across the United States of America. The game will of course sell millions of copies. The straights and squares will go nuts. In the Midwest it will be celebrated in dark and quiet places, and with clammy palms and dead gazes. And then we will inch, all of us, a little closer to the finish line which is called “Death”—where we will be eaten by flames while Lucifer strokes it real hard.

But there were still six months to go before an interactive picture-show would bring upon the end of Western civilization, and so onward I went—to crawl inside that black and ugly heart that dwelt at the center the nightmare world I had willingly cast myself into, if only to say I had seen the God damn thing with my own two eyes before the men with gas masks and machine guns took my own little black heart from me.

We flopped down the sidewalk like a couple of waterlogged dildos toward the shapeless cluster of connecting halls and structures of the Los Angeles Convention Center, all of them plastered with garish ads for Assassin’s Creed: Unity and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and some godforsaken thing called Evolve, which I knew without knowing anything else about the thing would enable its players to do just the opposite.

Jesus, I thought, who gives a shit about any of this. My mind was reeling, seeing all those reporters and all those news vans, and the all those schlubby twerps with their pocket recorders. And then there were the blameless bastards who looked so lost and confused . . . the ones who had travelled all the way from the Midwest or the East Coast just to feel like they were a part of something, no matter how grotesque and godless that thing was.

I was making a mental inventory of everything that needed to vanish from planet Earth in order for humans to carve out a few more centuries of precious Existence when our half-hearted forward momentum lead us to another strange and frightening place. Behold! the Staples Center . . . from the mouth of which poured hundreds of the same clay-faced wastrels we had seen schlumping around the main entrance.

“Get a load of all these pasters,” I said, referring to the gelatinous clump of paste-colored faces and arms and legs headed straight for us.

Behind the Staples Center was the worst skyscraper I had ever seen. It tore out of the ground like a witch’s finger, hundreds of feet tall, made of mismatched glass, and in the shape of no natural thing. It took up space in the sky, was contemptuous of the world below. I supposed it was a hotel. “And will you look at that God damn superstructure up there!” I screamed. “Can you imagine how many eyeballs were on those blueprints? How many signatures were required to bring that thing into being? Jesus lord in Heaven!”

“It’s certainly not pleasant to look at,” said Jack. He mumbled something else but I didn’t hear it.

I took a joint out of my denim jacket. I lit it right there on the sidewalk—right there under the sun, in front of all those people, in front of the Almighty Himself. And I inhaled deeply till I saw little stars twinkling behind my eyes. My heartbeat increased. My mind cooled.

Now I was badly twisted and several layers above or below reality. The spooky smoke and the stuff from the snuff box was really juicing through me. Switches were flipped. Knobs were turned. The ugliness of the world was amplified tenfold, and so too was my horror of it. Every passing moment was another psychedelic assault on all five senses. If I opened my eyes wide enough I could see the planes merge and separate over and over again; they wavered like a lullaby.

“We’re trapped in an issue of SkyMall,” I said. “What a cruel joke. And not a funny one, either.”

I snapped my fingers. I had an idea. It wasn’t a good one: “Holy lord!” I said to Jack. “Do you still have that tape recorder? We’ve got to show the good people of Earth what this terrible dream sounds like. Not that it’ll make the faintest God damn difference. They don’t care. This is the world they wanted, after all. Still, I reckon we can file all of this under ‘personal research.’ We might even be able to write it off with the IRS.”

Jack took a little black recorder out of his bag. It was ancient and beautiful. He pushed a few buttons in vain. Nothing happened.

“She’s dead,” he said. “For now, anyway. We’d need a couple triple-A’s to get her going again.”

“Then let’s get off Shit Island and find some batteries. There’s got to be an honest merchant left in this city.”

Jack pointed to a deserted street on the other side of the Staples Center. Skyscrapers loomed overheard. I figured it was the downtown area. We adjusted our sunglasses and lurched through that artificial wasteland in search of toxic electrochemical cells. I closed my eyes. I saw ghosts, saw the Founding Fathers weeping softly from the greyness of non-existence. I saw too the infinite rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

I looked back. The Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare ad was billowing in the empty LA breeze.

My God, I thought, just look at what we’ve done.

•   •   •

Our trajectory toward total annihilation lead us to a subterranean mall a few blocks from the Convention Center. We stepped onto an escalator and rode the damn thing a hundred or so feet below the city. At the bottom it was cool and damp. It was a world forever hidden from the sun.

Behind us was a woman filming a video with her phone. She wanted to make a record of her voyage to that great beacon of commerce beneath the surface.

Unfortunately for her I was there, raving at all the phony plastic people in their phony plastic kingdom. The tiny microphone on the bottom of her phone had no choice but to record the idiotic diatribes of the sulky, ill-tempered white man in front of her:

“Oh, hideous demons! Beautifully compacted garbage! Ravenous faces frozen in horror! Purses and T-shirts and belt buckles bearing the copyrighted emblems of faceless millionaires!”

The two of us nowhere-nothing nobodies approached the black gates of the third-largest discount retailer in the United States. Unfeeling sensors attached to automatic doors read our movements as we neared. They did not see our hearts; that was not their job. Instead they obeyed their simple programming. The doors slid open and we were swallowed into it.

Inside was a funeral home the size of a football field. I saw hundreds of decisions that had been made under fluorescent lights in the top-floor board rooms of mile-high skyscrapers. I concluded that the psychos who had designed the rat’s maze we were in felt nothing but hatred for their customers, for the very people who would continue to make them rich.

Over the PA system I heard the faint tinkling of something that I’m sure someone could argue was music. It was a cover of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” sung by a chorus of elementary school children. This answered a question in my brain that I did not know existed, which was, “Is it possible to somehow make ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ exponentially worse?”

Jack and I ceased to be journalists. Now were wounded animals encircled by a gang hyenas disguised as mothers pushing strollers. They wore leopard-print yoga pants with neon jogging shoes.  Their skin was clear and smooth. They were made of pizza dough from an alien planet.

“Jesus!” I screamed. “What a mindjob! They’ve got us now—they’re never going to let us go!”

“This way,” said Jack. He grabbed my arm and we raced past the crowds and through the grocery section to a wall of flat-screen televisions at the back of the store. The televisions, dozens of them, were displaying the same catastrophically bad fifteen-second video. The video was on loop. It was an ad for an album created by four people who appeared to belong to the Aryan race.

I opened my mouth to scream, but before I could utter a single strained note, Jack again grabbed my arm, and again we swooshed through the place at a thousand miles an hour. Soon we were alone in the toy aisle. Some of the walls were pink. Others were blue. Curiously, some were yellow.

“Yellow walls!” I said. I figured it out immediately. “I reckon this is where they put the toys that can’t be easily categorized—toys that are intended for boys and girls. What the hell kind of message is that? All of the walls should be yellow. . . .”

We had escaped the main throughway and were hiding in an aisle populated by doe-eyed baby dolls. I took one off the shelf and examined its packaging. On it was brainless nonsense—the hieroglyphics of a dying species.

“Bitsy Burpsy Baby,” it said. And below that: “Burping time is full of cuddles.

I read on: “Burp cloth changes color when wet. Feed her the bottle. Change her diaper when she wets.

“Get a load of these,” said Jack. He pointed to a row of dolls sealed inside little canvas backpacks. The backpacks were shaped like coffins. There was a thin layer of transparent plastic where the doll’s face peered out from.

I had imagined we would find peace in the banality of the place. Instead we had uncovered the same timeless horror as before, only it was wearing a different Halloween costume. The thing was truly inescapable. Civilization had failed. We are doomed, I thought, all of us. Not one spared.

God knows how long we stood there examining those hunks of smooth plastic molded to look like human children, which cost $40 a pop and burped and farted and threw up at the press of a button—but at some point a seam inside me burst, and my disastrous personality poured out from a small hole, filling the warehouse-sized room with a sort of spooky muck that could only be perceived by the hyper-sensitive and the super-depressed.

Jack perceived it. He knew I was in a bad way, that my mind was at its most fragile state. Before I could dismantle myself or implode or whatever else, he ushered me to the battery aisle. There I grabbed a pack of triple-A’s and we raced to the door, away from the burping babies and the minstrels of the Master Race—away from “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” To hell with giving these creeps any money, I thought. I stuffed the pack inside my jacket and breezed through the security sensors. The automatic doors scanned my shape and parted in the middle. I stepped through them and became a criminal.

Outside the air was cool and thin. I hallucinated birds chirping. The sun was still aching to get to us.

“Smelled like God damn death in there,” I said. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. My constitution’s all out of whack. My mind is long gone, never to return. . . .”

“Let’s find a quiet place,” said Jack. “It would do us some good.”

On the way back to the Convention Center we found an open gate between two brick buildings. The gate was shiny and ornamental, which meant only rich people who lacked self-awareness were intended to pass through it. We laughed like hell and passed through it as well. At the far end of a long corridor was a sort of courtyard. There we found marble benches and a small trickling fountain. Sunlight climbed over the low wall in the back.

We weren’t alone in the courtyard. We saw nicely-dressed middle-aged white people here and there, and young men in fancy serving uniforms as well. The men in uniforms were not white. I guessed they were catering some event. Everyone was talking quietly or smoking alone.

Jack and I sat down on one of the marble benches surrounding the fountain. He lit a gold American Spirit. “These damn things are shredding my throat,” he said. “Gotta switch to the blues if I want to make it to old age. And maybe I don’t. . . .”

“I sure as hell don’t,” I said. “Not if it’s going to be like this.” I still had half a joint left in my coat pocket. I lit it and took a few long drags just to scramble some shit around a little.

I ripped the batteries out of their plastic cradle and handed them to Jack. He loaded them into the recorder and turned it on, hoping to pick up some ambient noise. I gave an impromptu speech on how the new American century was built upon thousands of layers of dog feces. Someone coughed. A bird cried out in the sky. I heard teeth gnashing and pigs squealing and demons weeping deep below. I wondered if the recorder heard it too.

“We can never let the CIA get ahold of this tape,” said Jack.

•   •   •

PART THREE:
BEARING WITNESS

I half expected the Los Angeles Convention Center to have burned to the ground in the hour or so that we were away from it. “Prepare yourself,” I told Jack en route. “Those freaks will be rioting on the crater rims of great smoldering fires when we return. There will be madness for miles—beheadings, torture, fornication in the streets—you name it. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve already wheeled out the guillotine. Damn thing’s probably lopping heads off in front of the Staples Center as we speak.”

I closed my eyes and had a vision of the fifteen-foot-tall plastic robot sculpture from earlier. Hung around its neck were the lifeless bodies of games journalists and PR drones who hadn’t been fast enough to outrun the mob.

“Strangled with Call of Duty T-shirts!” I screamed. It was part of a larger conversation going on inside my head. “Swollen legs wrapped in argyle socks and bootcut jeans, just a-swayin’ in the breeze!”

“Get it together,” said Jack. He had the recorder in his hand. “We’re getting close now. You brought us here, you fool. Now let’s do what we came to do.”

“Yes!” I said. “You son of a bitch, you’re right. There is work to be done. We’re on the clock, God damn it. Paste Magazine isn’t going to pay us for the tape alone. No, they’ll want words too.”

It was time to slink in and get the story, whatever it was, and then get the hell out. Climb aboard the money-go-round and cling to the railing as long as we could. But we had to keep a low profile. There was no telling what those pimps and marauders would do to us if they discovered we were journalists. Sure, we were all destined to be bulldozed into mass graves, but not yet. The story had to get written first—even if the story was worth less than a sheet of toilet paper. They must know of the conspirators of their doom, I thought, of the architecture of their sad and whimpering end. They must!

Jack flicked on the recorder as we neared. We were ready to do battle with great evil. He would capture the funeral toll of a dying world, and I would write down every paranoid delusion I had in a notebook.

But soon it became clear that absolutely nothing had changed. The sidewalks weren’t slicked with blood, and no one was screaming. E3 was still the somber constellation of micro-tragedies it had been before. If anything it appeared more lifeless. I heard a few scattered laughs and that was it.

“Damn!” I said. “We must have missed it. They’ve already carted off the bodies.”

“Maybe we should try to get inside,” said Jack.

“Ah—yeah. We should. They’ll stop us, though, I’m sure. We don’t have badges. In fact we have no credentials at all.”

“Paste didn’t send you anything?”

“Hell no. Are you joking? They don’t even know who I am.”

“What do you mean?”

I shrugged. “This was Cara’s doing. I think she was trying to throw me a bone, God bless her. She wants to augment her own piece with whatever I send her. If we can’t get inside, then I have nothing to send her.”

“Well, shit. Let’s try to sweet talk our way in. And if they don’t go for it, we can always storm the place and hide somewhere till the heat cools.”

The main entrance looked like the most promising way of getting in. There were four security guards in baggy suits standing near the automatic doors. All of them looked bored as hell. People were coming and going so quickly that even a half-assed sneak-in seemed feasible. I figured maybe we could bribe a small group of badge-toting twerps to let us slip by with them—perhaps if we stayed on the outside of the group, or hovered in the warm center.

As we glided through the concrete hell surrounding the Convention Center, we passed independent game developer Nina Freeman. She was sitting on alone on a bench. I had spotted her pink hair from a half mile away. I snapped my fingers. I pointed at her. “Nina Freeman!” I said.

“Hi!” said Nina Freeman. She waved to the pale and grease-slicked stranger who knew her name.

We kept walking. “You know her?” said Jack.

“Not really, but I sure wish I did. I met her at a party in San Francisco during the Game Developers Conference in March. Tim and I demoed ‘VIDEOBALL’ in the living room of this house she was staying at. She probably has no memory of this. There was free beer, so I was drunk as hell. I can’t imagine I said or did anything memorable once I got sauced. In fact I think I offended a lot of people there.”

“Offended them how?”

“I don’t know, just by talking.”

I saw a tall man in a pink T-shirt and black blazer standing outside one of the side exits. He was alone. It was John Legere, the President and CEO of T-Mobile. I snapped my fingers and pointed at him. “John Legere!” I said.

“Hey man,” he said. He looked up from his phone. “How you doing?”

“Ah, baby, I’m all right. Sad to be here, but here nonetheless.”

“I know how that goes.”

I walked up to him and extended my hand. He locked his hand with mine and gave it a firm pump. “You’re a cool dude,” I said. I meant it. John Legere really is a cool dude.

“Thanks!” said John Legere.

Now we were moving again toward the shoreline of that bleak cosmic ocean called the Electronic Entertainment Expo; now we would force our way in. I scanned the entrance. Jack stood with his back to mine, watching the rear. “There’s a tank behind you, and in front of me,” he said. I cocked my head back. Sure enough, there was an honest-to-God blow-the-shit-out-of-everything tank parked on the sidewalk. Women in camouflage bikinis had their arms and legs draped over the turret. They were posing for photographs. Their paychecks, I knew, were signed by the same foul reptiles who had dreamed up everything around us.

I peered inside the Convention Center. Nothing but a few security guards and a smattering of bread-faced burrito-filled humans wearing messenger bags. But further inside, I knew, was the whiz-bang dick show that people traveled far and wide to see—that great orgy of light and sound raging in the depths of the main hall. I had to see the cruel circus for myself—from behind big white sunglasses and several layers of uppers and downers—and, like John of Patmos, record what I had seen and heard.

What awaited us in the main hall? I wondered. The black throne of Satan? Ritualistic suicide, maybe, and animal sacrifices. Those bastards were probably in there wearing goat skulls and black robes. All the moaning and chanting! This was going to be a sight to behold, no doubt.

“Who do we know at the New York Times?” I said. “If we’re going to risk our lives for this, I want front page coverage.”

“Huh?” said Jack.

“Never mind. Let’s get in there.”

“Security looks tighter than I thought.” Jack squinted his eyes. “We’re going to have to be stealthy. Look for patterns, routines—anything. The guards are bound to slip up at some point.”

“Forget that. Even if we did get inside, we’d still be badgeless. There are dozens more of those ghouls inside. If they catch us without the mark of the beast, they’ll put us in front of a firing squad.”

“We could beat up some kids and take theirs.”

“Yeah. It may come to that. But I’ve got an idea. God damn it, man, turn that recorder on and follow my lead.”

We approached the most dimwitted guard of the four. “Sir,” I said. “I realize you’re busy keeping this place safe, but could we trouble you for a moment?”

He narrowed his eyes. “What’s up?”

“Baby, listen. The two of us, see, we’re reporters for the Toronto Star. And we’re in one hell of a pickle. We’ve got to get into this building—” I pointed to the molten hellscape behind him. “But we don’t have our badges. A couple of rotten bastards mugged us in North Hollywood this morning. Real crooked fuckers. Took our passports and everything. Can you believe it?”

The guard tensed. He shook his head. “Can’t do it. I have no say in—”

“The LA office is out for the day. They’re inside the Convention Center already, getting the story that should by all rights be ours. What am I going to tell them? That I came all the way to Los Angeles to cover the convention from the parking lot? I can’t go back to Toronto with nothing.”

He kept shaking his head. “There’s nothing I can do. I have no connection to the convention itself. We’re just hired to secure the building. They told us, ‘Badges get to go in.’ So if you don’t have a badge, you can’t go in.” He must have seen the agitation on my face, because he smiled awkwardly and added this: “But hey, Red Bull is hosting a free party across the street. You don’t gotta have a badge for that.”

I knew which party he was talking about; we had walked by it earlier. Everyone within a five-mile radius had their senses held hostage by its mere existence . . . all that horrible music, all that strange laughter. It was a freak show on wheels—a broth of human wreckage. I wanted no part in it. I clenched my teeth. “You expect me to flail around with those degenerates?”

“Man, look, I can’t let you guys in if you don’t have badges. Those are my instructions.”

“‘Those are my instructions’? Is that really what you just said? Man, are you going to quote the entire Gestapo handbook, or is this all we get?”

To this the guard said nothing. He looked away from me. I knew there was no getting through to the son of a bitch. I signaled to Jack. We pulled back from the entrance and retreated to a shady column on the far end of the promenade.

“This is useless,” I said. “Those jerks. Those pigs! They want us marked, damn it, and there’s no way we can fake something like that on short notice. And to hell with trying to get press passes. The deadline was probably weeks ago.”

“We could call in a bomb threat.”

“In a post-9/11 world? Good luck with that. I’m putting out an APB. Someone we know has to have a badge they’re not using.”

I sent messages to my friends in the quote unquote industry—to Tracey Lien, the journalist, and to Brandon Sheffield, the independent game developer.

Tracey wrote back immediately saying the badges were more or less photo IDs. Neither of us looked anything like Tracey, so that was out of the question. We aimlessly shambled around the sidewalk until Brandon replied, but it was more bad news. He said he actually needed his badge because he was doing a series of interviews. He graciously invited me to a “barcade” later that evening, but I declined. I told him I didn’t trust portmanteaus. He apologized and wished me luck, but I knew we were fresh out of the damn stuff.

“They’ve got this place sealed up tight,” I said to Jack. “We’re wasting our time out here.”

“So it’s over then?”

“I reckon so.”

We stood there for a few minutes, my partner and me, gazing at the great big nothing in the sky, not saying a word. My face was grim as hell. I had my hands on my hips. Jack was sucking down another cigarette and rewinding the tape recorder. It made a mad, jittering noise.

“Welp!” I said finally, and began walking away from the sun-blasted nightmare ruins of the Los Angeles Convention Center. The drugs were wearing off and the story was dead. The reptiles had won. All that was left to do was go home and get old.

•   •   •

PART FOUR:
HOPELESS ON HOPE STREET

Jack and I shuffled back to Hope Street where the Doomsmobile was parked. There was another hour left on the meter. We sat in the back seats and puffed on cigarettes and read from a Chinese newspaper I’d taken from a coffee shop in Oakland a few weeks before. The hateful sun beat down on the roof.

“How much was Cara going to pay you?”

“A hundred bucks. And man, let me tell you, I really could have used that hundred bucks. I have no idea how I’m going to pay my rent next month. I . . . Jesus, I took off work a whole week. I think I may have even dumped a girl to come here and write this damn thing. I told her it was important, when it most certainly is not, and never was, and never will be, now that there’s nothing to show for it anyway. . . .”

“Hm.”

“Hell, this whole ordeal is going to end up costing me money. Should we even bother looking at the ledger? It’s going to be awful, seeing how much cash we’ve blown for no good reason.”

Back in Oakland, Jack had agreed to be in charge of numbers and data—and anything involving having to have a normal conversation with strangers, particularly squares. I had failed miserably at my tasks—securing press credentials and lodging—but I knew Jack was keen on getting the job done.

He took a little notebook out of his breast pocket. He flipped through a few pages until he found a list of our expenses. He scanned it up and down, twisting his lips. “I haven’t tallied it up yet, but it definitely ain’t pretty,” he said.

“Just lay it on me, man. I’m ready.”

“Well—it looks like we’ve already spent over three hundred dollars.”

“Holy lord.”

“Yeah.”

“We’ve been here for less than twenty-four hours. Where in God’s name did the money go?”

“That’s what everyone wants to know. . . .”

“Do we drive back to Oakland? This expo thing goes on for another three or four days. We’d be hemorrhaging money the whole time.”

“We could leave now, I suppose.”

“Yeah . . . but we’d be stuck in traffic till midnight, maybe. Hell, it would take us two hours just to get out of Los Angeles at this point. These fuckers have got us pinned against the wall.”

“We could always stay another night. See how it goes. Park somewhere nearby and stay put till morning. Don’t forget, we’ve still got those mushrooms in the snuff box.”

The mushrooms! I had forgotten all about the mushrooms. A friend had given them to me the previous month, saying he’d eaten way too many on his thirtieth birthday, and as a result of all the strange and terrible things he’d experienced that night, he had to offload them as quickly as possible—before he ruined his mind for good.

“Strange and terrible” was an irresistible combination to me. We had enough caps and stems in the box to have a real wild time. But where?

“Do you remember the observatory from Rebel Without a Cause?” I said. “The one on top of that hill?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s Griffith Park, which is a few miles north. We could go there right the heck now and get twisted.” I slapped his thigh as hard as I could. “Jack! Baby! Can you imagine looking through that telescope once we’re all doped up and stupid? Picture the moon! For Christ’s sake, picture Mars!

His answer came swiftly: “Lead on, you gorgeous son of a bitch. Lead on. . . .”

•   •   •

PART FIVE:
THE WOMAN OF SILVER LAKE

The 101 was backed up for miles, one great big parking lot in Hell, so we sped onto I-5 headed north towards Griffith Park. Jack revved the Doomsmobile hard and heavy while I navigated and did an inventory of our rations. A cursory inspection revealed that most of the fruit and vegetables had wilted in the heat. The brown grocery bag, once brimming with delicious vitamins and proteins, was now little more than dead weight. In a P71 Police Interceptor, gas mileage is everything, and we really needed to make those miles count. And so, to lighten our load, I began tossing dozens of pale, rubbery carrots and celery stalks out the window at about ninety miles per hour, watching them flop to the ground and bounce up to hit the windshields of the poor souls behind us. A real freakish scene unfolded in the sideview mirror as cars weaved left and right to avoid making contact with our rotten produce.

“We need supplies before we poison ourselves—before we turn the inside of our brains into a beautiful psychedelic amusement park.” I rattled off the necessities: “Fruit . . . coconut milk . . . sunblock. God damn it, we’ve got to have it all. Especially the coconut milk. I don’t even want to think about not having coconut milk with us tonight. It is the key which unlocks the superhighway of the mind and—Lord, I can’t believe I’m about to use this word—maybe also to the soul as well. . . .”

Jack spotted a Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake, just off the highway. Despite our speed, he took the exit nice and smooth, and parked the Doomsmobile in a prime spot near the front of the store. We flung the doors open and hopped out onto the sidewalk. We had to be quick; the sun would be setting soon, and I wanted to be on the big ramp-up to total insanity before all that fire plunged into the ocean, leaving us sinners to rot in the dark. . . .

Once inside the store we split up to hurry the process along. I volunteered to collect the fruit and sunblock. Jack was on coconut milk detail. I walked to the back and got a little baby cup of coffee from the sampling kiosk, downed it quick like a shot of whiskey, and immediately went to work loading my arms with bananas and clementines and Gala apples. On my way to the register I scooped up a tube of sunblock.

The place was crammed with mutants of every kind, and so there was a cashier stationed at every register. As a worthless son of a bitch who often has nothing better to do, I am a veteran when it comes to turning little errands like this into something else entirely. Gazing at the long row of cashiers in their colorful Hawaiian T-shirts, I tried to pick out the most interesting one to talk to. It would be a short conversation, and one of hardly of any consequence, but you never really know where these things might take you until you embrace the weird mystery of it. At least for me, to play the game is to win the game . . . only then because I had already lost everything else.

At one of the express lanes, I caught sight of the back of a young woman’s head. Her hair was the color of Mars. She had a tattoo of a sinister multicolored butterfly on her death-pale bicep. She had the complexion of a ghost. She was wearing high-waisted jeans. I couldn’t see her face or look into her eyes to determine if she was a Feeler or a Feel-Nothing, but I myself had a good feeling. I walked across the length of the store and got in her line. I dumped a pile of fruit onto the register and stood back.

When I did look up at her, I got nervous as hell. I don’t usually get nervous around anyone. Lord! Those cat eyes! That beautiful face! Those high-waisted jeans! Those witch rings! I thought to myself, “Sweet baby Jesus, infant savior of this cruel Earth!”

What I said aloud was this: “Uhhhhhh. Lord. Hello.”

“Hi!” she said. “You have a lot of fruit. . . .”

“Oh, God, yeah. I came all the way here from Oakland on a rotten assignment. It . . . ended up being a total bust. So now I just need a safe place to hang out and eat these here bananas. I guess I’m going to the Griffith Park Observatory to do that.”

“It’s really cool up there! There are paths leading into the hills. You could eat the fruit up there.”

“Yeah. I’m definitely going to do that. I’m going to pay my respects to James Dean, too.”

“There’s a memorial for him by the observatory. Like a bronze bust of his head.”

“That’s where I’ll go first. Probably give that dude half of my banana. Maybe have a smoke in his honor. Other than that I just want to see some stuff, you know?”

She handed me a receipt. “Well, good luck to you.”

I read her name tag. It said “Danielle.”

“Good-bye, Danielle,” I said. “I’m going now, I guess. And I’m sorry I just used your name. I know that’s annoying when people do that.”

“It’s OK.” She smiled. It was a hell of a smile. God, that smile! I was beginning to get sentimental, seeing that smile, so I forced myself to walk away. I turned around and gave her a sort of half-hearted Elvis lip curl. I was holding a bunch of fruit. My skin was inflamed from too much sun. I felt like a fool. I kept moving. I stepped through the automatic doors and pointed myself toward the Doomsmobile.

Jack was reclining in the driver’s seat wolfing down pretzels when I returned. He was laughing to himself. I opened the truck and took out a notebook and a fine-point pen. I got in the car and began writing a letter to Danielle.

“You see the cashier in there?” he said. “The one with the red hair?”

“Yeah. That’s who this letter is for.”

“Really! Did you talk to her?”

“I did. I said some stupid crap to her and she didn’t even seem to mind. Man, she was wearing a bunch of rings. She, uh—she had stuff going on behind her eyes. Someone was tending that light, if you catch my meaning. That’s so cool. I gotta know this girl.”

I went to work. I used my finest handwriting. The note said this:

Danielle, who has red hair and a butterfly tattoo—

I saw your butterfly tattoo and got in your line on purpose. I hope that’s OK. Though I guess it’s too late to do anything about it now.

Listen: I’m going to Griffith Park, and then I’m probably going to sleep in the trunk of my car somewhere. After that, if I survive, I’ll go back to Oakland.

If you’re ever in the San Francisco Bay Area, go right the heck ahead and say hello. San Francisco sucks a whole bunch, but Oakland is cool as hell, and that’s where I usually am. I come to Los Angeles all the time, mostly to do what I’m doing now, which is not much of anything. Maybe we could be friends or something. I would definitely be your friend.

Take this and do whatever you want with it, even if that ‘whatever’ is ‘nothing’: [my phone number].

And now I go into the hills to visit what’s left of James Dean, for whatever that’s worth.

—Ryan Starsailor ☆ミ
(The guy with the black pompadour, who looks like he hasn’t bathed in a long time.)

I told Jack I would only be a moment and headed back into the store. Danielle was still standing behind the register. There was no one in her line. She was staring at her shoes. I went right up to her and placed the note on the counter. She looked up at me and did a little “Huh?” thing with her eyebrows. I shrugged, sighed, said, “Man, I don’t know,” and walked away.

The worst that could happen, I thought, is that she balls up my letter and forgets all about me for the rest of her life. This was the outcome I expected. I was just a stranger, passing through. I was gone now. The power to bring me back or keep me gone forever was entirely hers.

Jack was idling the engine near the entrance. I got in and leaned the seat back. He slammed on the accelerator. The back tires spun so fast they shredded a thin layer of rubber. I could smell it burning as we ripped out of the parking lot and headed toward the highway. In no time we were cruising along, not saying much of anything. Neil Young was on the radio, saying he was searching for a heart of gold.

•   •   •

PART SIX:
AT THE TOMB OF THE REBEL KING

To get to Griffith Park we had to cut through rows and rows of million-dollar homes with Spanish tile roofs. It was one of those old-style neighborhoods from the 1950s, the kind of place that had always defined Los Angeles in my brain, long before I had ever come there to suffer. The sun was going down now and the streets were empty . . . no squares in sight. Jack took the old police car slow on those immaculate roads just to be safe. We were in possession of several controlled substances and we smelled like a combination of dog food and fermented cabbage, which I knew wouldn’t bode well with any authority figures or respectful members of the community we were invading. All we wanted to do was get out of sight and get loaded. In the meantime it seemed wise to keep a low profile.

Eventually we discovered we were on the correct path. It was one of the few times in my life when I felt that way. A wooden sign welcomed us to Griffith Park. I looked, but I didn’t see Cerberus or Charon. Jack coasted for a bit as we read the various posted signs on the way up. Roosevelt Golf Course, Bird Sanctuary, Greek Theatre . . . Observatory ahead, right lane only. I was digging the place already. It looked like a fine spot to carve out a few molecules of enlightenment, or at least escape the horrors of the world for five or six flavor-blasted hours.

Somewhere in that alien terrain was a list of rules. I planned to ignore all of them until I read that the park closed at ten. Damn! That was no good. We had foolishly been snacking on the ride over, so there was no telling how long it would take for the mushrooms to get inside our bodies and go to work. And what a bummer it would be to have to leave midway through the great journey, still spooked the hell up, only to realize the gate was barred shut, and a park ranger with a flashlight and a chip on his shoulder shows up and sees the bad portals in our eyes. . . . “What are you boys up to at this hour? Didn’t you see the sign? And why is the kid in the passenger seat laughing so damn hard?”

“It’s almost six,” I said. “Hell, we should’ve eaten the whole bag in the Trader Joe’s parking lot. I’ve driven on mushrooms before, even on the come-up. We would have been fine. But now—now it’s too late. We’ll still be peaking by the time they give us the boot. We’ll be on a different planet, my friend, with our bodies trapped here on Earth. And there’s nothing worse than having to disguise a thick, whopping high from someone who uses a mustache comb. I don’t know if I could handle it, you know? Playing it straight like that. I have enough trouble as it is. . . .”

“We shouldn’t risk it, then,” said Jack. His face was grim.

“Well, let’s get up there and look around anyway. We’ve come all this way. After that we can figure out where to blast off.”

The drive was a short one. The road snaked around hills of brown dust, cars parked on each side, and I began to have a bad feeling about the whole thing, thinking that on a night as beautiful as that one, there were bound to be hundreds of people squirming around the park. It didn’t take long for my fears to be confirmed . . . at the tippy top we were funneled into a parking lot that was cram-packed with automobiles of every shape and size, and absolutely no lit-up red taillights. These bastards were here to stay. Worse, there was no escape now. We were trapped behind a procession of cars about a mile long. The only way out was to wait in line until the path looped back around in the opposite direction.

I was sitting there thinking, hell, if this isn’t a metaphor for the whole damn thing, I don’t know what is. . . . But then a car did back out, right the hell out, almost slamming into the front of the Doomsmobile, and swooped into that swollen tube of traffic headed down the slope. There was no questioning it—that spot was ours.  It had been given to us by God, or Satan, or whomever else, and so Jack cut the wheel hard and in we went. I got out and popped the trunk to retrieve my canteen. The air was dry and my throat was shredded from all the dust. We both took a long drought and, once satisfied, headed toward the observatory. It was a beautiful thing to see, having been surrounded by so many ugly things for so long. Its golden domes gleamed from the spotlights and the rest was perfectly white, looking like a flattened, child-size version of the Taj Mahal. I saw it as a holy place in some sense, a church where one could come to worship the planets and stars, or at least stare into the black void till the world dropped away. . . .

The twinkling lights of Los Angeles loomed below. They shined upward from the the crest of the hill. We were so far up that the noise from the city couldn’t reach us. The sky had become a melted haze of blue and purple, a thin band of nuclear orange tying the whole thing together. It was gloriously huge and surreal. We wandered around for a bit, listening to people’s conversations and watching children scurry up and down the stairs leading to the mounted binoculars. There were several first dates taking place as well. Their posture and enthusiasm gave it away.

Los Angeles! That sprawling fortress of endless summer! That factory of beautiful illusions! That strange, sad dream. I loved the hell out of it all. I had no idea how anyone lived there.

On the vast promenade I finally saw it: the silhouette of James Dean’s bronze head atop a white obelisk. I walked over to it. There was no one else around.

Yes, and there he was, the Rebel King himself, gazing at the concrete sidewalk below for all eternity with empty black eye sockets and a sad, twisted facial expression. I stood under him; now he was gazing at me. I wondered how anyone could be near this unearthly monument and feel anything but dread. James! You poor fool! What have you done to yourself. . . ?

About a hundred feet away was where the famous knife fight scene had been filmed. And next to that was the planetarium, where Plato had asked Jim Stark, “Do you think the end of the world will come at nighttime?”

Jack crept up from behind and handed me a lit cigarette. He had one of his own burning hot in his mouth. “Let’s send the old bastard some smoke, wherever he is,” he said. We synchronized a long drag in honor of The Rebellious One. The smoke lifted into the air and was carried away by a breeze to the dark hills beyond. Neither of us spoke.

We got through a single puff before a man in a starchy blue blazer ran up to us and wagged his mutant finger in our faces. “Don’t you know?!” he said. “Smoking in a California national park is subject to fines of up to $750! You guys got $750 to throw away?”

“Relax, brother,” said Jack. “We were just paying our respects to a great man.”

“Yes, well, that doesn’t change the law!” he said.

Did this guy have any authority? I scanned his jacket and found no visible badge or photo ID. I figured maybe he was a shapeshifter—a reptile. But probably he was just a guy who had an NPR bumper sticker on his car and subsisted on purée brussels sprouts.

“We’ll put em out,” I said. “It’s no big deal. We’re leaving anyway.”

“I really would appreciate that!” he said. “Wildfires are a big deal, as you can imagine!”

“Oh, I can imagine,” I said. “Thank you for doing your job, whatever that is.”

I watched his mouth, hoping to catch sight of a long forked tongue. But before I could witness him slurp a fly out of thin air, the man darted off toward the fountain where some children were attempting to climb in. We killed our cigarettes with the heels of our shoes and placed what was left of them next to Jimmy’s head on the stone column. If his ghost came shuffling around later on, he’d have two smokes waiting for him. It was the least we could do.

“Bureaucrats,” said Jack. “It’s always fuckin bureaucrats.”

It felt unnecessary to comment on the irony of breaking the rules in the name of a man who wanted nothing to do with them, so I simply shook my head and let a thimbleful of sorrow pass through me and become nothing. The world was dead! It had been dead for a long time. What else could we do other than shake the coffin around a bit every now and then?

Not wanting to waste any more time thinking we were the reluctant coroners of a spiritually- and culturally-bankrupt world run by a cult of cold-blooded used car salesmen, we immediately endeavored to get away from everyone. Under a canopy of trees we took a dirt trail into the hills like Danielle had suggested. In the dark we ate fruit and drank from my canteen, and smoked plenty of cigarettes. We made our way to the Hollywood sign. I told Jack about a young actress who had jumped to her death from the letter “H” back when it still said Hollywoodland. I remembered her name. It was Peg Entwistle. How many people still remembered Peg Entwistle’s name?

“Hell of a way to go,” I said. “Hell of a statement. If it had been me, I would set my sights on the ‘W’ for sure. But then I reckon the ‘H’ was the easiest one to climb, now that I look at it. . . .”

When we got back to the parking lot, a couple of rangers were kicking the squares to the curb. We climbed into the tomblike interior of the Doomsmobile and quietly slipped away. I told Jack it was time to “screw it on” and “rip the thing apart” and we agreed that the Santa Monica Pier was the best place to do just that. It was twenty miles west, all the way to the coast. The beach, as far as I knew, was open all night. And if the monied jerks who controlled Santa Monica did tell us to get lost, we could always walk the sand till we crossed over to Venice Beach. God knows if there’s one place on Earth where a couple of freaks can show up blasted out of their skulls on psychedelics, it was Venice Beach. . . .

The tires squealed and we got to moving fast. Elsewhere, I knew, Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo were wowing journalists and game developers with bad music and free hooch at rooftop press junkets disguised as parties. But that wasn’t on my mind. I was thinking about a young man from Indiana who had died more than half a century ago on a lonely stretch of highway three hours north of Los Angeles, and how all that was left of him was a haunted chunk of bronze wrought in his likeness.

And, Lord help me, I thought about Danielle too.

•   •   •

PART SEVEN:
SPOOKED UP IN SANTA MONICA

Jack and I were drifting along now toward Santa Monica. Across the great length of the Doomsmobile my partner was listless and stony; I couldn’t read the guy at all. I let him alone and put on some of that good music, singing along, feeling mangled from the long stretch of bad days leading up to our ill-fated excursion.

Back in Oakland, I had told Jack I reckoned the thing I always wanted was on the verge of happening . . . I’d been given a real, honest-to-God assignment, and there was an audience waiting for me at the finish line. There were going to be eyeballs on this thing, I said. Cara Ellison, God love her, was giving me a break. I saw those beautiful words lined up in my brain:

With additional commentary on the unmitigated disaster called E3
by An Adult Who Calls Himself Ryan Starsailor

But now, less than twenty-four hours later, we were two worthless jerks with a hundred bucks between us, stranded in Los Angeles and prowling the streets for a friendly place to get loaded. We had come all that way just to stare menacingly at the white-hot sun as it went through us, burning every good thing inside till there was nothing left.

Pondering this for a moment I realized there really wasn’t much left anymore. Hadn’t been in some time, either.

I thought of all the little tragedies that had lead me to Los Angeles. How I owed my alma mater fifty dollars, how I thought I’d loved a few women, how a few women had thought they’d loved me too, how I’d been a sad sack loser in Baltimore and a deadbeat stoner in Austin—how, twenty-six years after I’d been born on a snowy day in Virginia, I was a miserable failure in California who had absolutely nothing to say anymore. I was a goner, no doubt about it. It was a short ride for me. Not long now . . . that’s a wrap, folks. It was a cute idea, trying to be alive. Reaper ought to be coming around any day now. No clue what’s taking the bastard so God darn long. . . .

Jack had one hand on the wheel and an American Spirit burning between two stained fingers on the other. While my fate lay in the void, I still had hope for him. His skin was pink; his eyes were illuminated. He could feel things deeply when he wanted to, and often did. Though he’d fashioned himself into a man of sorrow, the truth was that he really was all right. He could control himself for the most part, and could love and be loved. The son of a bitch could even dance. Sure, he got mixed up sometimes, maybe more than most people even, but that was nothing an occasional high-speed midnight drive couldn’t fix. . . .

I imagined a conversation Jack might have someday:

“Oh, sure, I knew Starsailor . . . we buried him a long, long time ago now . . . in ol Mount Terror. Now, that’s a volcano there on Ross Island, in Antarctica. Beautiful day. Crisp as hell and bluer than any blue thing you ever seen. Strapped his body to a motorcycle and let it rip . . . as stipulated in the will, of course. Damn thing exploded on the way down. He would have been screaming with laughter if he’d been alive to see his own funeral. It was a real spectacle. But then so was Starsailor.”

This trip of ours was the first time I had seen Jack in weeks. He’d moved out of our old Victorian house on that blighted street in Ghosttown and into a cramped brown-carpeted studio in North Oakland—the kind you’d find in Paris in the 1960s, when the world still had a big swinging set of testicles dangling out into space . . . before the squares and the sociopaths had conspired to destroy those big balls in order to sell a couple more cans of Coca-Cola. He told me he’d been reading and writing and even playing saxophone again. Good for him, I thought. The kid really was going to be fine.

The Doomsmobile landed smoothly in Santa Monica. Jack cruised onto Ocean Boulevard, taking it slow and steady. The windows were down. A breeze sailed through the car. Sam & Dave were on the stereo. It was a live recording of “Soothe Me,” probably from the mid-60s:

“Thank you . . . We’re from Stax out of Memphis, Tennessee, and they call us Sam & Dave. My name is Sam . . . and this is Dave. So we want everyone to come on, clap your hands together, ‘cuz we gonna have just a little fun . . . Bring it down, Al, let’s get a thing going . . . I wanna do ya like that. You like it? . . . Come on everybody, clap a little louder than that . . . Make me feel good, won’t ya? I like it like that, ha! . . . Al, I like this song, and god darn it, I want you to do what you want to do. . . .”

It was a nice enough place, Santa Monica was, even if it did look like the kind of town that would encircle a Barbie dream house. Mostly it was a place of commerce; a big stinking monument to high-end designer trash and overpriced coffee. You couldn’t smoke anywhere, and I imaged that every night they rounded up the homeless population and bulldozed them into an enormous wood chipper somewhere on the edge of town.

Once, while hopped up on codeine, I went into a Louis Vuitton showroom there and, with my hands on my hips and four days worth of black facial hair poking out of my grease-slicked face, loudly asked the staff: “Hey uhhhhhhhh, what’s the cheapest crap y’all got up in this here joint?” After a few seconds of dead silence, the woman behind the counter sheepishly answered: “Um, we have a leather keychain for two hundred and sixty-five dollars. . . .”

Driving down the long, long strip by the beach, I saw that the whole place was deserted. It looked like we were going to get away with it after all. Eat the stuff somewhere nearby and head down to the sand before the light show erupted. Together by the water, alone in our brains. All that beautiful silence, and all that beautiful dark.

Jack scored a terrific parking spot on the main drag, right across the street from a pedestrian walkway that arched over the empty freeway and lead down to the beach below. I laughed, looking out the passenger-side window and seeing that we were parked near a row of very expensive homes—all the while knowing we intended to eat mind-altering substances just outside of them, which were no doubt owned by grey-haired, legs-crossed, Sunday-newspaper-reading white people in oatmeal-colored cable knit sweaters and baby-shit brown penny loafers.

A bundle of stapled papers came a-rolling down the street. I jumped out and grabbed them before they blew away. Hand to God, it said this:

“Wouldn’t YOU love to own beachfront property in Santa Monica? . . . The good news is you can . . . There has never been a better time to purchase the home of your DREAMS, right here in beautiful Santa Monica . . . Luxury homes with luxury features . . . Isn’t it time you got the relaxation you deserve? . . .”

It was so cartoonish it almost seemed like it had been scheduled to arrive there at that precise moment for me to discover. What malevolent spirit had sent this thing my way? Whoever it was, they were hilarious as far as I was concerned. Pure comedy, all of it—the idea that the ultra-wealthy are spoken to like kings and queens, like oversized spoiled children, just so the scum-sucking realtors can entrance them into funneling a little green their way. And there it was, the word “you”—something that had always bothered me, the way they hijacked it like that—forcing the weak-minded and the Empty Ones to imagine they are being communicated to directly—and that they had shamelessly followed it up with the word “deserve” made my blood boil . . . as if any human being is ever automatically deserving of anything outside of, say, the right to exist, or at least the right to be left the hell alone. . . .

There were pages and pages of this trash. Pictures of whirlpool bathtubs and master bedrooms larger than any house I had ever lived in. I decided to keep it for research. I stuffed it under the Chinese newspaper on the dash of the Doomsmobile. (Curiously, both would be stolen from the car months later along with a small plunger and a copy of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, when the the entire car was taken from a well-lit street in West Oakland and left to die in the parking lot of a senior retirement complex a few blocks from the Port of Oakland.)

Jack went to work dividing up the bag of psilocybin mushrooms while I raced across the street to fill the canteen at a water fountain. Mushrooms of this variety are as dry as beef jerky and have a foul, foul taste. Without water, the little bits get stuck in the teeth, the dust creates a film on the tongue, and it’s a long, painful journey from the mouth to the throat.

“Lord, eating this stuff is the worst,” I said, returning to the Doomsmobile. “But it’s the price you pay, you know, to have a real good time with yourself. Too bad, though, cuz baby, I just wanna boogie. . . .”

“Actually, I kind of like the taste. I don’t even need any water.”

He handed me three yellow caps and a couple of pencil-thin stems. It wouldn’t be enough to make a wormhole appear over the Pacific Ocean, but I knew it would grant me a certain oozing lightness as well as remove the restrictor plate from deep inside my brain. Those gorgeous thoughts would be set free and maybe I would catch a glimpse of something huge and weird, either inside myself or otherwise. I was beaten down and used up . . . broken and useless. A failed writer with a dead project. But what awaited me was a dreamlike voyage away from all that—a sip from the River Lethe! One last pinwheeling freak show before we shouldered our regrets and gunned it hard all the way back to Oakland.

“Cheers,” said Jack. “To bad craziness.” He held up a wilted mushroom cap.

“To Neil Young,” I said. “To Sam & Dave. To . . . Oakland.” I clinked one of my own caps against his. We swallowed them whole like brothers, and then quickly gobbled down handfuls of whatever was left, mostly stems and strange dust. The taste was horrendous. I spun the Thermos cap open and chugged a liter of water to send the rogue pieces straight down to the hell in my stomach.

And now the countdown had begun; the madness was on its way. Soon all sorts of concepts would become distorted in our brains: time, money, color, love, death. . . . Reality itself would drop its veil, the charade dematerializing before our eyes, the lens opening wide, leaving behind a smear of perfume and neon. The stars! The sky! The ocean! There would be no fear, and no pain, just a beautiful farewell to the status quo, and to life, that great big bummer. . . .

For a while we sat in the car talking, letting the breeze pass through the open windows. Warming up our brains, our lungs, listening to the crackling of the static on the stereo. And then suddenly out of the white noise there came a voice. It was a familiar voice. Who was it. . . ? I turned the volume knob and listened:

“Here it is, ladies and gentlemen: the year two-thousand-and-fourteen in the U-S-of-A. It’s what you wanted, and now it’s yours. Yes, and it’s just what the doctor ordered, and the doctor is dead. . . .”

“Oh no,” I thought.

What I said aloud to Jack was this: “Did you hear that? The voice?”

He was gazing out the windshield. His eyes were pointed at the ferris wheel on the pier, way the hell down there. It was spinning and spinning. God only knew what that son of a bitch was thinking just then.

“Huh,” said Jack. “You say somethin?”

The voice on the radio went on: “You’re broke and you’re miserable, aren’t you? And lonely, too. Hell, you’re every bad thing there is. But listen here, you rained-on sack of vampire turds: You’ve got your skeleton and all the things trapped inside it and draped over it. Don’t you know? That’s all there really is to have! No matter who you are, you are all you’ve got! The only proof that you’re alive is the circuitry in your head, saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes’ till there is no sound of anything anymore, no nothing in the long forever, and then we begin our journey elsewhere. . . .  Isn’t that beautiful? Don’t despair!”

“Weird,” said Jack. “Sounds kinda like you.” He flicked his ash out the window.

“Imagine this, friends,” said the voice, “you are awake and free and running naked through a ghostly field under the glow of an oversized moon and many millions of stars in a land where no further creation is necessary, where no new thing is born. The universe and everything in it is complete, and all that is left to do is be amongst these beautiful things, these luminous things. . . .”

“Speaking of luminous things,” said Jack. He punched the radio and it went dark. “Look—up ahead. See that? That’s the pier, and the ferris wheel spins there in the center. We’re close now; we made it. And that’s something. It certainly isn’t nothing.”

It is difficult to say what exactly happened next. We must have gotten out of the car, but I have no recollection of it. I blinked, or dozed, or floated out soundlessly through the window . . . and in my next moment of consciousness I saw that we were standing on the beach. The wind was chilly. The ocean was black and restless. Jack was saying, “Whoa, man . . . whoa man. . . .” while I paced the sand with my head in my hands, my fingers earthworming through my hair, which felt like an oil-slicked superhighway. Everything, all of it, was terrifically weird and dreamy.

And then came the melding of the lights, and a thick pressure in my chest; my body was slow and rubbery and prehistoric. Everything that I was or had ever been was compacted into a little glowing nucleus the size of a golf ball and tossed into the dark broth boiling inside the vertical cavern of my body. I knew then for sure what had always been true: that I was a small thing piloting a larger thing from the center of a chemical bath. The pointed pitchforks of self-pity vanished from my brain, were wiped out in a flood of glittering silt. Ryan Starsailor, the rotten bastard, became vapor and escaped through my nostrils; I waved good-bye. Now I was nameless and weightless, was devoid of the great burden of ego and personality and personhood. I had no need for any of it. Who has time to be a person? I thought. Not me! Not now. . . .

“Glorious darkness!” I screamed. “Sweet midnight! My oldest friends!”

Jack was balancing on one foot. “We’re wizards, you know,” he said. “In case you were wondering.”

“I had always suspected that was true, I just never said it aloud. Good to hear! God damn it, yes! Glad to be a wizard. Yeah! We have different powers, though. We can do different things, I think. That’s . . . a nice thought. Maybe it’s an important thought too.”

“I dig the earth, and you dig the stars. Something like that, anyway.”

“Jesus, we sound like we’re on drugs right now.”

“Yeah.”

“I mean we are on drugs, so I reckon any dumb things we say to each other are fine.”

“Totally fine.”

Without even realizing it we were walking slowly in strange patterns toward Venice Beach, helplessly drawn to the flashing neon ferris wheel that spun endlessly in the center of the pier where fifteen feet below the ocean met the sand. The great lighted wheel hovered over the water like a cartoon UFO, casting its rainbow-colored glow onto the murky dreamworld below.

I waved my arms around, jumped up and down, twisted my neck and spine. “I feel like I have the skeleton of a bird right now,” I said. “I can’t feel anything but the blood in my veins. This is fantastic.”

“I never told you this,” said Jack, “but I think you have a good skeleton. You’re like a skeleton who has been through some stuff, even if most of it was bad, you know?”

“You once told me I was a really good driver.”

“I did.”

“I think other than that, that’s got to be the nicest compliment you’ve ever given me. Thanks, dude. I reckon I like my skeleton too. I mean, Lord, if you don’t like your skeleton, what the hell are you doing with yourself? Can’t do nothing about it. Ain’t no surgery to change the thing—not yet anyway.”

“Bones, bones, bones. . . .” said Jack.

“Bag of bones on the sidewalk,” I said.

“Bag of bones in a box,” said Jack.

“Bag of bones in a space station,” I said. “Bag of bones on the bus.”

“Does the sky look pink to you?”

“Pinker than hell, man. Hella pink.”

“God.”

“Yeah.”

“So good.”

“So damn good.”

•   •   •

Onward to the Neon Kingdom! . . . to the seaside paradise for children, to the temple of peculiar ideas of what it means to have fun. We had taken off our shoes and were feeling that delicious crunch of cold sand beneath our feet. As we neared the ferris wheel, we passed through a few small clusters of humans, all of them doing or saying something or another. “Let’s piss into the ocean,” said one man. Someone mumbled a noncommittal reply. Someone else laughed. There was a family throwing a frisbee around. It felt OK to be around them. They meant us no harm. We meant them no harm either. And it occurred to me then, as we wandered amongst these strangers who very likely were in unaltered states, that one normally operates within the parameters of a particular mode: I am this person, I am in this place, I am doing this thing, I am thinking this thought . . . and on and on.

But on mushrooms there is no mode—there is just the world. Oh, the world! Walk up to something and look at it. Touch it. Hang out with it. Hell, talk to it if you want to, even if it won’t talk back in any language you’ve ever heard before. . . .

I was a brainless dandelion spore floating through the whatever. Every stray cat was a friend. Every star was a twinkling nuclear furnace. Every unlocked door was a portal into some weird God damn universe where I could discover either the secret truths of the universe or a rotten bag of garbage and hardly know the difference between the two.

There were no doors here, not on that night; the beach was vast and open. The only barrier was the ocean. The pier was getting closer now. A few more steps and we would be on the precipice of whatever came next. The great beyond, maybe—the journey through Death. Or maybe we would simply end up in Venice Beach. There was no telling what the Reaper had in store for us.

Light from above shone through the cracks and faintly illuminated the crashing waves which passed between the wooden stilts keeping the whole thing up in the air. I turned to Jack in slow motion: “If we go under the pier, we might never come back out again. I’m OK with that. I’m ready. We’re wizards, God damn it. . . .”

Jack’s face oozed. It shifted. Finally it settled on something that looked familiar. He opened his mouth and this is what he said: “No turning back now.”

“It’s not even a choice at this point. . . .”

“No choice.”

“Onward!”

“It’s the only way.”

“Death!”

“. . . or its distant cousin.”

“Bones!”

“Bones, bones, bones. . . .”

Friend! If only there was a way to transcribe precisely what it is we saw there in the gloom beneath the ferris wheel, where the tide crawled through the sand to reach our bare feet, all those strange lights, and the many human voices and little bits of laughter that echoed in the void. I saw the phantoms of the sea and forgot all about everything else. I stood between two worlds, belonging to neither,  awaiting a skeletal hand to lead me through the starry tear.

Jack and I exchanged no words. Words were useless. The ocean rolled and crashed, saying nothing. It was the oldest song there was. All we could do was listen to its ancient groan.

And then we passed over. We were in Venice. The light was different. The sky was warmer. In that new frontier I saw a campfire near the bicycle path. We parted ways; Jack lurched toward the sea; I aimed myself at the fire and got to walking. There were a handful of people gathered around it. Their faces were lit up by the flames. They watched me curiously as I approached.

“I saw the fire and walked over,” I said. “I just wanted to say hello.”

“Hello,” they said in unison, somber but not unfriendly.

I kept moving.

Onward!

I stepped onto the concrete bicycle path. It felt wrong. I stepped off again. I walked in circles in the sand. The sky was pulsing. It was swirled with little pink storms. The street lamps repelled me. I wanted nothing to do with artificial light. I turned away from them and walked toward a lone dark figure in the distance. I guessed it was my partner—my wizard brother. I stumbled in the muck. I put my hand to my face. My flesh was soft. I looked around. Swooping shadows and dim apparitions hung in the corners of my eyes. I blocked out every thought. There was only light and noise. I didn’t think about how little money I had or the last time I had spoken to my family. I didn’t think about my assignment. Sorry Cara, I thought. I wanted something huge and friendly to make all the decisions for me. I wanted a nice person to put their head on my shoulder and vibrate their throat in a single-note hum till the sun set one last God damn time.

I heard my own voice: “The world is turnin; I hope it don’t turn away. . . .”

“Friend!” said the dark figure from a hundred feet away. So it was Jack after all. “Friend! Join me by the sea! The wet sand at the shoreline is incredible. . . . My God! You’ve got to taste this sand with your feet, man!”

I began running. Running felt good. That was my modus operandi, I decided: if it felt good, it had to be OK. If it felt bad—well, it was time to get the hell out of there. Right then I couldn’t imagine anything better than running to my friend. Lord! The cold sand! How delicious this sand was when I got moving. I was blazing through it, light-footed and springy. A skeleton on rocket skates; a glorious assemblage of bones riding on the back of a shooting star!

“The star sailor!” shouted Jack, laughing hysterically. “Down by the sea!”

“Baby, here I come!”

We collided into each other. It was a soft landing. Jack grabbed my shoulders and lead me down to the water. A wave crested and broke. Foaming black water snaked up the beach and slid over my ankles. It was cold but not unpleasant. The water pulled back. Jack was standing a few feet away, watching a boat bob on the surface about a mile out. It looked like a ghost ship.

“I feel no discomfort,” I said.

“That’s the most positive thing I’ve heard you say in months.”

“I feel good. This is good.”

“It’s a good one, all right.”

“Earth is cool. Too bad about everything else.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to lie on the sand a little ways up? Just above the shoreline?”

“I don’t see why not.”

We found a clean patch of sand nearby and had us a good old fashioned sit down. I put my hands behind my head and laid my body to rest. I went into a trance, watching that mad, mad sky, so pink and so cloudy, boiling and turning and rolling like the contents of a witch’s cauldron.

In the ether I saw strange things, and heard strange voices and strange music too. I wondered how much of it was pure invention; my switchboard had been jumbled around. Nothing was reliable. Was I tuned into some new frequency? Like a mushroom sprouting up in someone’s living room, had some part of me appeared out of nowhere in a new land? Could the entities there see me? Hear me? I laughed like hell. It felt so good to laugh. Jesus! That terrible practical joke we all endure! And how hilarious it could be . . . especially if one knew the damp undersides of bridges where magic fungi grew, or at least had some friends who weren’t afraid of what lived on the other side, and were willing to part with their own stash. . . .

God only knows how much time passed. It may have been an hour or more. Probably it was ten minutes.

“I just had a conversation with something,” I said finally, “though I’ll be damned if I know what that something was.”

“Me too. And whatever it was, it didn’t say no. . . .”

“It has never said no, as far as I can tell. I mean, we’re still here.”

I sat up and watched the ferris wheel. There were neon flowers and neon fireworks and neon explosions made of dotted LED lights dancing frantically on its steel beams, all of it synchronized and perfectly mathematical. The machine slavishly obeyed its programming; it could do nothing else.

“It’s kind of sad seeing that thing,” I said. “I don’t know why, but it makes me feel weird.”

“It makes you feel weird because it can’t feel time,” said Jack.

“Man, this beach, though. This God dang ocean. They sure knew what they were doing when they put this place together.”

“They sure knew how to buy it, anyway.” We laughed like a couple of dirty junkyard dogs.

Jack said his throat was drier than hell, so we stood up and made our way into town to find a corner store. We walked past a long row of beachfront houses till we got to the “VENICE” archway, near the mural of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The whole place was deserted . . . no freaks, no dopers, no burned-outs anywhere . . . just two twisted losers in search of cold beverages, and a clean, well-lighted place where we could procure them.

Crossing back over into Santa Monica I saw fluorescent lights flooding out of a store. I pointed to it and in we went. Jack grabbed an enormous bottle of water from the back and approached the counter to pay. Briefly I considered doing the same, but upon taking out my wallet and examining the plastic cards I had in there, I decided that a money-for-goods transaction seemed too complicated for me to handle in my current state, and so quickly I abandoned the idea. For God’s sake, I thought, I don’t want to have to deal with money right now—or what it would mean to have very little of it, and to suddenly have slightly less of that very little.

“There’s a playground up ahead I want to show you,” I said, back on the street. “I remember someone telling me it was designed by a bunch of assholes or something. Anyway it’s probably empty. Let’s climb on some stuff and stay a while.”

We zigzagged through various dead structures on Main Street and headed south toward Ocean Avenue. A telegraph was sent from my bladder to my brain. It was urgent; the message was an hour late. My stuff was screaming hard, so I picked out the most hideous overpriced apartment complex I could find and, whipping out the artless device between my legs, took aim at a frosted glass window and let it rip, emptying my insides of whatever liquid poison I had living inside me. I prayed that a hidden security camera was capturing the whole thing. It was a beautiful, stupid moment. “This’ll show those rotten bastards,” I said, knowing full well that my actions would have all the effectiveness of a pistol fired at an asteroid.

Jack was pointing at a sign while I zipped myself up. “Tongva Park,” he said. “That the place you were talking about?”

“It is!” I said.

We broke into a run just for kicks. I sucked in lungfuls of that delicious nighttime air as we galloped through the streets. We were slapping our thighs and laughing and shouting, “Come get us, you sons of bitches! Just try it! You’ve already got everything else! . . .”

In no time we were descending upon Tongva Park, two badly twisted freaks cartwheeling into the place in a fit of psychotic laughter. Live from the city of Santa Monica! . . . a Republican’s worst nightmare, in vivid technicolor, in three dimensions. I almost wished there were families around, or at least a whole host of yuppies and squares and straights on their lunch breaks so we could rattle their skeletons around a bit. But we were deep into the night and alone in a park that was lit like a magician’s bathroom and straggled every which way with alien flora. My mind began to drift to a scary place when I pictured all the blueprints and spreadsheets and boardroom presentations that had lead to its creation, with clean-shaven white men in button-down shirts describing the playground equipment as having a “Dr. Seussian aesthetic.” Such thoughts were worthless, especially then, and with a wave of my hand I made them dematerialize, made them become nothing once more.

The path before us split. Jack took the higher route to examine the elevated parts, and as usual I took the lower route to get as close to the ground as possible. He disappeared behind a row of trees. I discovered a ziggurat’d wall with water slowly trickling down it, and plenty of steel structures fashioned into asymmetrical skeletal domes with gaping mouths. Well, I thought, someone somewhere thought this was cool, and here I am, thinking precisely the opposite. . . .

“Up here!” shouted Jack. He was scaling the yellow cavity of a children’s play-thing. He got to the top. There was an opening. He jumped inside, landing on a spiderweb of rope that hung in the center.

There was nothing interesting around me, and a good, tall vantage point seemed like the best place to perch. That way we could spot trouble, be it reptilian or otherwise. And with that I opened my mouth and let out an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers scream before scrambling up the swooping forested slopes leading to the top of the playground. Jack was cocooned in the rope-web having a smoke. I approached the bizarre structure and climbed it to get to him. I couldn’t feel my muscles at all. I had what seemed like an endless amount of energy. I could have climbed for hours.

“You hear that?” said Jack. “Or is that in my head?”

I heard a fiddle.

“The fiddle?”

“Yeah.”

“Either someone’s playin the fiddle, or you and I are sharing the same sort of paranoid fever dream. Though I don’t reckon it’s impossible that both are true. . . .”

“Look—” Jack motioned toward two men who were making their way along the same path we had taken only seconds earlier. The first man was dressed like Genghis Khan. He was chugging a bottle of wine and humming along to the sound of the fiddle, which was being played by the long-haired man in shabby clothing behind him.

“Play, my friend!” said Genghis Khan. “God damn it, don’t quit!” He was laughing now, and singing sea shanties. The fiddler played on.

We watched silently as they toured the park, dancing in fountains and on benches. They hadn’t seen us. God love em, they thought they were alone. And as I watched them from the spider tower I noticed there was something familiar about them. The thread which went through us went through them as well. That’s all I knew for sure.

“If breakthroughs keep occurring,” I said aloud, “let them in.”

“You know that time is all we’re made of,” said Jack.

“The world will keep on spinning; let it spin. . . .”

“Ahoy!” said Genghis Khan. He waved. We had been spotted. “Ahoy, ahoy!”

I left the formalities to Jack. He waved back. “Greetings!” he said.

Khan and the fiddler climbed over a series of concrete walls and dance-walked over to our tower. I was hanging on the side with one arm. Jack was still kicked back in the web. I could see the whole park, and a good deal of Santa Monica too. I watched the city while Jack did all the talking.

“Do you mind if we join you, brothers?” said Khan. “I will tell you right now though, that we have drunk a lot of wine, and are on mushrooms. . . .”

“We are as well!” said Jack. “It is a fine view from where we sit, and the air is nice. Come up!”

“I am a charro,” said Khan. “A Mexican cowboy. Or something like that, anyway. And he—the man with the fiddle—he is my Sancho Panza.” He took a swig of wine. “We are world travelers. We have been all over. And tonight we are in Los Angeles, though don’t ask me why . . . this is just where we ended up. Keep playing!” He slapped the fiddler’s arm. “We need that fiddle, man! Now more than ever, God damn it! . . .”

“I don’t know what to play,” said the fiddler. “At this point I’ve played it all.”

“Anything will do, you bastard! Anything at all!”

“I just get self-conscious is all. . . .”

The fiddler began playing an upbeat tune. The charro danced beside him.

“Yes, yes!” said Charro Khan. “I am happy tonight. A woman I know in Tokyo tells me I have a daughter! But it will be some time before I see the two of them. . . .”

“Cheers to that,” said Jack.

The charro drank what seemed like half the bottle. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his old patchy jacket. “Thank you, my friend! And what brings you here?”

“Same as you,” I said. “We’re just looking at some stuff. This seemed like a good enough place to do it.”

“I suppose,” said Khan, “that this is the sort of spot someone on mushrooms would end up. That is why we’re together, isn’t it? We had the same feeling. That feeling lead the four of us here.”

“Initially we came to Los Angeles on an assignment,” said Jack. “We failed. Now we’re doing this, whatever this is.”

“Ah!” said Khan. “And why were you on this assignment?”

“Well,” I said, “you’ve gotta do something.” It would be the last thing I said.

Khan responded with a sentence someone on mushrooms would use, and though I didn’t disagree, I still cringed anyway: “True, true . . . I don’t like that word: why. My apologies, brothers. I shouldn’t have used it.”

“Quite all right,” said Jack. He took his pack of Spirits out and offered them to the mushroom travelers.

“Thank you, thank you!” said Khan. He plucked two from the box, placing one in the fiddler’s mouth and one in his own. He lit them both. Now puffing away, the two danced wildly at the foot of the tower while we watched from above.

“Rah! Rah!” said Khan. “Yahhh-eeeeee!”

“Do you guys know the story of the weeping Buddha?” said the fiddler, who was dancing and fiddling and smoking a cigarette at the same time.

“I do not,” said Jack.

“Then you have to hear it,” said the fiddler. “I’ll do my best to get it right.”

I said nothing. I reckoned it was time to tune out. If I listened to the story of the weeping Buddha, my hellbroth-dipped cynicism would take over and probably I would end up killing myself. So in the name of self-preservation I folded my arms and squinted my eyes and scanned the horizon instead, trying to see the ocean. Finding only blackness I went into my own brain and stayed there while everything else outside of it continued on the way it had before. It would be fine without me, I figured—the world. I would only be a minute.

I was good and spaced out, thinking about whatever I was, wherever I was. It had been a mad time, all those many months in California. I had come for no real reason. I was there because I had been everywhere else already. I had been married in a sense, a long time ago, in Baltimore, and now I was three thousand miles and nearly a thousand days away from all that—from those people and those places. I didn’t feel sad about it. I could run pretty fast. My skin was OK. I could parallel park a car pretty much perfectly. There was always that, if nothing else. . . . Ah, Santa Monica—ah, Los Angeles. And E3 and Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo and all that other horse shit. Notebooks full of total insanity. An old police car filled with drugs and cigarette ash and deflated balloons and dead glow sticks. But hell, ya still have it in you to write letters to young women in grocery store check-out lines, don’t you, you rotten bastard? Jesus, Starsailor. You’re too hard on yourself. Lie down. Take it easy. Smoke a joint, why don’t you. Read a book, you fool. Take a bath. Watch the city. Watch the sky. No one hates you, not anymore. . . .

Another strange, windy night. A real weird one. Well, I thought, I guess I can expect this sort of thing for the rest of my life. I shook my head. The Here and Now appeared before me once again. I must have been dazed for some time.

Jack reached up from the web. He lightly squeezed my arm. “You OK, partner?” he said.

“Fine, finest,” I said. “Pristine.”

“Our friends left. I thought maybe we should get moving, too.”

“They left?”

“Gone. I gave em a few bucks for beer.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah.”

I was still clinging to the side of the tower. My head was tilted. I had been lying on my arm. I raised it. Blood flooded into my head. It had been empty before. I could sense that the mushrooms had depleted every ounce of serotonin from my body. There was a sort of dulling in my brain. The world had lost its luster. I alerted Jack: “The stuff’s wearing off, and the sun will soon be up. We have to get out of here—out of Los Angeles—before the reptiles wake up and see what we’ve done.”

“It’s fading for me too.”

“Hell, it’s all gonna fade sooner or later.”

“Yeah.”

“And that’s when you gotta really hit that highway. Get to going fast.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“I mean what else are a couple of sorry sons of bitches like us gonna do with our time here, you know? Hell, I’ve probably still got fifteen years of this at least. May as well rocket down a few highways while I still can.”

“Can’t argue with that.”

“Let’s get back to our precious baby—to the Doomsmobile. God, man! Those artificial leather seats! And our worthless empty bodies reclined on top of them! I can hardly wait!”

•   •   •

PART EIGHT:
ESCAPE TO OAKLAND

The Doomsmobile was still parked on Ocean Boulevard. In all the time we had been away, it hadn’t moved a single cocksucking millimeter. I walked over and hugged it. “My baby,” I said.

I got behind the wheel. I reached into the grocery bag on the floor and took out the carton of coconut milk. I unscrewed the top and ripped the aluminum seal off. I glugged the whole thing down like a kleptomaniac on fire.

“You good to drive?” said Jack. He slid into the passenger seat.

“Who knows, man. I mean, I ain’t seein no funny colors or nothin. Grim Reaper vanished from my sight hours ago.”

“That son of a bitch giving you grief again?”

“Nah. Just saw him dip into our plane a few times on the beach. He was polite as always. Kept his distance. At any rate, I reckon the hallucinations have stopped. I can pilot this chariot of doom as good as ever. I can get us back to Oakland.”

Jack repeated the word with great reverence: “Oakland. . . .”

“Yeah,” I said. “Beautiful Oakland. Remember that place? Hoo, boy! It’s gonna be a hell of a thing—to get back to Oaktown, the ‘Go Ahead And Put That Anywhere’ capital of the world.”

“Hope it’s still intact.”

“You never know. In this world, who does? We might be driving into a war zone. Baby, you’d better get some rest while you can. There’s no telling what new terror has been laying waste to our sacred metropolis while we were jerking around here in LA. That was probably the plan all along, you know? Keep our eyes on the circus while they trash the place from the inside out. But then I guess that’s always been their plan.”

I didn’t tell Jack, but when I said “their” I was referring to the reptiles who rule the world.

Jack leaned his seat back. He took the grocery bag and put it over his head. He folded his arms. The bastard was out cold in seconds.

I put the key in the ignition and gave it a good turn. Our precious baby howled. It was alive again. It was ready to kill somebody. “Time to feed the baby,” I said to no one but myself. “Time to get this girl some meat.”

The streets and sidewalks were deserted—but I knew that wouldn’t last long. We had to get the hell out of there. Uninhibited by the miserable awareness of history and tradition, I focused only on our escape. I stomped on the accelerator. The back tires spun. We launched onto the street and tore down Ocean Avenue at sixty miles an hour.

Under the hood, the Doomsmobile’s massive 4.6 L modular V8 engine inhaled oxygen and swilled down gasoline in monstrous death-gulps. It was a train wreck in reverse. And there I was at the helm . . . a train wreck in every sense, no matter which direction you played the tape. Townes Van Zandt was on the radio, dead for seventeen years but sounding more alive than ever, saying something about being tired of the same old blues and the same old song. I nodded my head. “Amen,” I said. It was the only thing that made sense to do.

I was laying my foot down hard, navigating that huge black police car onto the interstate. I took the Santa Monica Freeway all the way to downtown Los Angeles and hooked onto Interstate 5 headed north. As we roared past Dodger Stadium I saw streaks of orange light creeping into the twinkling purple sky every which way. There wasn’t much time. I wanted to be outside the gates of that neon nightmare before the sun held us accountable for all the sins we had committed there in the dark.

The highway was empty. I drifted between the lanes. It felt like I was driving a cloud. My mind was blank. I felt gorgeous and empty and dumb. I watched the moon slowly vanish from the sky as we whipped past palm trees and nail salons and burger joints.

I checked my phone for the first time in six hours. There was a single message from a Los Angeles area code. The message said this:

“I wanted to say hello earlier, but I just realized I had put in the wrong number. I think this is the right number. How was the James Dean statue?”

It was the woman from the grocery store. It was Danielle.

Bones, bone, bones. Jesus, what a world.

Los Angeles was behind us now. It would be a long, mad dash back to Oakland. I needed something to jolt my senses. I took a roach out of the ashtray and lit the badly scorched end. I sucked in just enough spooky stuff to stir the dust around a bit, to dull the big bummer a little while longer.

The Doomsmobile feasted on asphalt six inches beneath my feet. My partner snored beside me. The money-go-round spun invisibly in every direction.

It was almost dawn and the sun was rising over the hills. It illuminated the skeleton riders on horseback who had gathered in the thousands there on the summit. I knew they were on their way to the Los Angeles Convention Center. I flashed the brights. I honked the horn. I cheered them on.

One of the riders approached his superior. He pointed to the Doomsmobile, the only car on the highway. “What do we do about them?” he said.

The skeleton commander watched a trail of smoke flood out of the open windows. He heard music. “Let those poor bastards go for now,” he said. “They’re just two freaks who had enough sense to leave the city. The one driving is laughing like hell, and I’ll be damned if I don’t admire that sort of thing.”

THE GREAT DUCK MURDER; or,
“YOU’RE GOING TO BE JERKING OFF
ALONE ON THE MOON FOREVER”

jerksonthejob

•   •   •

My partner was pacing the hall while I did pull-ups in the bathroom doorframe. I was thinking about Satan and a girl I used to love. The subjects were unrelated. I flipped between them effortlessly: Satan here, the girl there. I felt bad for Satan. I hardly cared about the girl.

An hour earlier we had loaded our bodies with miserable chemicals and I knew that soon enough we would be twisted, slobbering freaks. Already the blue Christmas lights strung up on the ceiling were vibrating and swirling in my head. It wouldn’t be long until we were a couple of psychos with nothing to lose. And then things would get really ugly—and they were ugly already.

Satan, the poor bastard. He was all I could think about. Everything else dropped out of my mind. I eased my feet onto the hardwood floor and put on my purple cardigan. I took a mug from the cabinet and stood by the stove, waiting for the kettle to scream out like a toothless whore. I needed a hot beverage in me if I was going to make it through the night. For an instant I considered dumping it all over my balls. Probably would’ve felt better than anything else that’s happened to the damn things.

“Are you depressed?” said Detective Sunset, still pacing. He didn’t look at me. “You seem a little depressed is all.” Continue reading “THE GREAT DUCK MURDER; or, “You’re Going to Be Jerking Off Alone on the Moon Forever””

“THE BEACH GIRLS
AND THE BROKEN-HEARTED”

Years ago I wrote this stupid thing called ‘THE STARSAILOR NEWSLETTER’, which was a sort of unsolicited newsletter I emailed to all of my friends once or twice a month. I have no idea what my original intentions were, but I sure did go ahead and write a whole bunch of those things anyway. Mostly they were just little stories I wrote in the middle of the night that I fully admit years could not possibly have been interesting to anyone on Planet Earth. It was just something to do is all.

Anyway: It went like this for a couple of years, me pumping these things out with increasing length and complexity and torturing my poor friends with them, until one day I just stopped doing it. I got bored, or tired of it all, or whatever, and thank Our Heavenly Father for that.

Below is Issue 20—the final “issue”, which is about a trip I took to Los Angeles, and which is probably the only halfway decent one (and even then it isn’t very good). I will stop insulting my own work now and leave you to it. This was originally published on December 7th, 2012, when I was broke as hell in Texas, and all of twenty-three years old. Please keep that in mind as you read two or three paragraphs and then close the tab and never think about it again.

—Ryan Starsailor
18 September 2018
Oakland, California

•   •   •

I woke somewhere over the Midwest and remembered that I didn’t have a job. John was drinking coffee in the seat beside me.

“Aw fuck,” I said. “I had almost managed to forget about the job thing.”

“That bothering you?” said John. He looked tired as hell.

“Yeah. Damn shame. It was a good job, as far as those go.”

“Mmhm.”

“I’ll find a better one.”

“You will.”

“Yeah.”

Two days earlier we had been whacked out and twisted in Hyde Park with our shirts off, looking for the starry white reindeer skeleton that lived in my front yard. It was lit up from the inside, wrapped in Christmas lights. A man we knew, who resembled a satyr, had earlier lead us to the top-floor balcony of an old apartment building where we watched lightning streak across the sky. We waited for a storm that never came. The blood-orange clock tower illuminated the bottoms of the clouds and we sat dumb and dead, taking the whole thing in.

“That storm is waiting to happen,” John had said. “Any minute now.”

The four of us—there were four of us—sank into the cement walkway and stewed, suffering—hoping with every boiling molecule to feel that rain come crashing down on us. But after a fruitless half hour, a dark breeze whirled us from our tombs and sent us running. The rusted railings clattered and shook and the elevator went swooping down. On the ground we were free to breathe again. The satyr lead and we followed.

John had told me, earlier that night, to take my shoes off and get a taste of the rocks behind my house. I buried my feet into the mass and wormed around a little. And he was right: the ground was real good. It was as brand new and delicious. It had been too long since I had taken my shoes off and done anything with my feet.

Then there was the pack of matches from the “STOP IN” gas station convenience store, which I kept in my pocket. John told me I couldn’t lose them—they were mine and no one else’s. I would light a match and think about chimeras and men who had feet made for running.

I would find that matchbook a month later, rain-soaked, in the middle of the night, and it would spook me half to death. It meant that day had really happened. I had gone on believing, up until that point, that it had been a dream.

Back on the plane I was sloppy-stupid and dumb-sober. I was a big dumb idiot. I wanted to open my mouth and scream until the doors blew off and sucked everyone into the troposphere. It wasn’t a nice image. And anyway, why should I punish everyone for the misery I felt regarding my employment? I killed the thought and began writing on the little napkin that had come with my orange juice. There was a map of the United States printed in blue ink. I put an “X” over every state I had visited. I counted thirty-two. Thirty-two. That wasn’t a bad number. There were, after all, only fifty. I was more than halfway there. I wondered when I would make it all the way there.

I had been to California twice before. I was going again. This time, I didn’t have a job. The time before that I did. The time before that I didn’t.

A stewardess walked by, smiling, the top button on her shirt undone. I thought, hell, and she placed a drink on my tray. It was a glass of orange juice. It had come out of a can. It had four ice cubes in it, which I thought was a rough ticket, but I didn’t say so.

“What time do we land?” said John.

“One-thirty i think. Will Megan be there when we touch down?”

“Yeah.”

“And she doesn’t mind that I’m coming?”

“Not one bit.”

Megan was supposedly a very beautiful young woman who had many talents—and who, John told me, had come from a shitty town in the middle of nowhere, and who had had nothing her whole life. And now she was building and designing things in Los Angeles. She worked on movies.

John coughed. “Check out this desert.”

“Man. That’s a hell of a desert.”

“Oh, you bet it is,” he said. “You bet it is.”

•   •   •

An hour later, there we were in Megan’s car, rocketing down the interstate. There were palm trees everywhere and the wind was real nice. John cracked the window and smoked a cigarette. We were on our way to North Hollywood—on our way to Toluca Lake.

And she took us through North Hollywood, where everything was sun-blasted and silver and terrible. I felt, maybe in my brain, maybe in my testicles, that Los Angeles was a place where humans lived, and where it was seldom cold, and where, given the right circumstances, not now, but maybe later, I could count myself amongst the swarms of good people who lined every sidewalk and filled every godless street.

Megan’s apartment smelled like my grandmother’s apartment. John pointed this out. She was dismayed to hear this, saying, “Thanks a lot, guys”—but we told her, no, listen, that’s probably the best damn compliment you’re ever going to get, cuz our grandmother is a fine lady who, after eighty-five years of being confined to this awful planet, had developed a complex and refined mastery of her olfactory senses. She knew the difference between a good smell and a bad one . . . and her home, which was and always had been a safe place for loopy-weary stupid grandchildren, was a testament to this fact. The place smelled of potpourri and baby powder blended with some expensive Austrian perfume.

“No, Megan,” we said, “your apartment smells real good, dude.”

John and I smelled like hell so we took showers. He went first and I went last. I sat on Megan’s leather couch with my computer writing god knows what. I designed business cards for John and me, stamped “VIII Nothing”. I told John, when he was soggy and damp, having just gotten out of the shower, that I would assign a random occupation or state of being following the two titles that were, to some degree, true, being “Writer” and “Editor”, to wit:

RYAN STARSAILOR
Writer, Editor, [Absurd Other Thing]

I would choose three, I told him, to be randomized. A third of the cards would say “Insane Loser”, a third of the cards would say “Jerk”, and the final third would say whatever the hell I wanted. I hadn’t thought of it yet. Sixteen, seventeen, seventeen: fifty cards in all. Who knew which card would be one less than the others. I hoped, secretly, that it was “Insane Loser”. I figured that might confuse people. . . . What does it mean to be an “Insane Loser” anyway? It sounded completely meaningless. Maybe that was cool though.

John liked that enough. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, his hair dripping and dangling down. Hands on his hips, he said, “Sounds great, man.” This was intriguing to him, and maybe dumb as hell. But it would be a crucial step in forcing ourselves to be Humans Who Have Purpose. We could hand them out all over the place—and say, look, you fools, this thing exists, and we want you to see it, and by the way, should you ever need to contact me, lookit here, there’s an email address containing my first name, followed by a lowercase “A” with a circle around it, and then the address “viiinothing.com”—our weird dumb website.

Alive and awake in Toluca Lake, Megan opened the sliding glass door connected to the living room “Are you guys going to work on your website all day,” she said (John had opened his laptop), “or are we going out there?”

It was true: Los Angeles was waiting outside, ready to eat us alive. It was littered with porn stars and personal trainers—and dog-walkers and dream-eaters. All we had to do was step outside and let the sun shine down on us. If we moved our legs, we would begin walking. When we stopped, that’s where we’d be.

We moved our legs in the direction of a frozen yogurt joint.

•   •   •

I had a problem with frozen yogurt because I liked it way too much. But I wanted to pull that lever and let the soft stuff come on down, floating almost, and have it coil at the bottom of my cup like a frozen pile of candy-colored dog shit. And then, aha, cover it with fruit and crumbled cookies and little chocolate chips. And when the whole dumb thing was assembled, I wanted to stick a plastic spoon into it, scoop it all the hell up, and shovel it into my mouth until I died.

Megan, God love her, made that happen, waving us on vaguely toward the neighborhood Ralphs where, if you looked without much effort, you could make out the faraway scorched-dead hills rising out of planet Earth. Those were California hillsThey were weird alien things. I wanted to fly to them. But instead it was Ralphs, Southern California’s answer to the question, “Where will people buy their groceries?”

And there it was, Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt, resting for all eternity in that little dingy stripmall, multicolored sign inviting the world to come on in, baby, it’s always cold.

“I could go for a pack of smokes first,” said John. He pointed to the enormous grocery store to the right of us. “Guess I can try to get some there.”

Ralphs. For God’s sake: Ralphs. Looked like a real freakfest in there: the urine-yellow light, the dust, the cart-pushing losers; men with suspenders attached to sweatpants and Vegas grandmas well past their expiration date. Weird vibes all around. Los Angeles for breakfast, and Los Angeles for god damn lunch. Fuck dinner.

John bought a box of the spooky stuff and Megan got an armful of bottled water. She said we’d need it later. I didn’t ask why.

Finally: yogurt. I mixed strawberry with blueberry and, using a black ladle, covered the fruity coils with all sorts of satanic shit. And: I did as I had planned, a large spoonful here, then another. It sank into my stomach and I felt all right.

An attractive young woman was there with her son. She looked a little lonely and a little sad. I thought, hell, man.

•   •   •

That night we went to some Irish pub and I got some shitty Irish beer. Megan and John and I shuffled around the place until we found a good table. We started on the second story, which was loud and smoky and dimly lit, and then to the bar where John bought another beer (“Just turned twenty-one, huh?” our bartender had said), and finally I spotted a table by the window. I thought it looked nice enough. We sat down and I watched in horror as a folk band strummed and clapped and sang loudly on the other side of the room. Between songs they clinked their glasses together, saying, “Here here!” Lord, was it miserable.

I had a few beers and was feeling pretty good. My head was filled with stars. What made me come crashing down was this: three young men knocked on the window where my head was resting. I looked up. One of them waved. They looked like nice enough dudes. Megan sat up in her chair. She announced that these were her friends. I was maybe a little intimidated. I felt like an interloper being there. Megan knew John, and John knew me. Now three other people connected to Megan would come in and my connection to them would be tenuous: Why is this guy here? Why is he with Megan? Who the fuck is John?

In five days I would be out of my mind on a midnight train to San Francisco. All I could think about was the Bay air and making eyes with people on the BART and Thai food. Thai food was so good, man. I remembered there was a lot of it in the Mission. I wanted to be there, just then, thinking about it. I didn’t want to feel awkward and unwanted. Being on a train would be nice, too. I could read a book or sleep or close my eyes and imagine my own funeral.

In Los Angeles, in the Irish pub, I wasn’t aboard public transportation, and I wasn’t eating Thai food.

I was a freewheeling maniac just then. I shook hands with Megan’s friends, was introduced, felt stupid. They ordered food, all kinds of it, and I sipped some honey-flavored beer that I didn’t really care for. I didn’t like the brown color or the foam floating on the surface or the flavor or anything. I didn’t want bubbles in my throat. I sneezed. The little folk band kept playing. They slammed their hands on the table for percussion. A waitress asked me if I wanted anything to eat and I said no.

I wondered what my expiration date was.

Sitting there, ignoring the world, I figured it was this: “BEST USED BEFORE THE END OF THE WORLD.”

In three months I would endanger myself in the name of A-R-T. I told myself that. I would lower the amount of medication I put in my body to clear the chemical fog.

Three months before, in that booth, warped on Lamictal and Abilify, I was given names: Jeremy, Adam, Corey. I decided I liked these damn guys.

They said they worked on movies—the “real ones” they said. Gosh. These people were doing something they wanted to do. I was unemployed and broke. I was a real loser. But I liked these people. I thought maybe I could learn something from them if I didn’t talk too much.

After a few beers and a plate of fries, the trio stood up and left. They told John and me that if we wrote something, they would film it with us. We said sure. And what should we write? Anything, they said. Come up with a treatment, they said. Write a god damn thing, why don’t you.

John and I shared Megan’s enormous bed that night. We promised each other we would wake early in the morning and put our brains together and will something into existence. We would write a god damn thing. I put a little white pill in my mouth and fell asleep.

•   •   •

In the morning I was psychedelic candy and translucent neon plastic. I was flushed and stupid.

John was cooking eggs when I stepped into the kitchen. He was shirtless. I told him I wanted to see the Hollywood sign and he told me he felt the same.

“We need to write that treatment, man,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Except I have no idea how to write a treatment.”

“Me neither. We can just write down some ideas and see what happens.”

“Right on.”

Megan warned me not to use her roommate’s expensive eggs because she didn’t feel like replacing them. I ate cereal instead. I didn’t drink the milk when I finished. I never have. I don’t like milk. I think it’s a weird thing for a human to drink.

My father told me, long ago, that I wasn’t breastfed as a child. I refused to do it was the rumor. And I have always read that breastmilk is just about the best thing a baby can put into its little body, because of all that good honkin nutrition. Instead I was bottle-fed. Anytime I’m feeling a little insane, a little sad—I wonder if that’s the reason why. I probably needed that stuff. And because I didn’t get it, my brain is full of sawdust and snapping electrical wires, dangling an inch above a pool of oil.

I poured the milk down the drain and ate a handful of pills that I trusted to suppress the monstrous parasite that lived inside my brain.

•   •   •

Jeremy and Corey and Adam were in good moods when we arrived at their apartment. They didn’t have a refrigerator. I had brought them pizza and tea as a sign of friendship. I figured, you know, you give a guy some pizza and he has no choice but to be your friend.

It was suspiciously cheap pizza. My buddy Zak “Delicious” McCune had once told me that these pizzas, which were advertised as being both Hot and Ready, were squeezed out of a gigantic cookie tube and cut into that familiar disk shape by a masked man wielding a scimitar. I said that to my new friends and they laughed. It didn’t sound improbable.

John whipped out his computer and showed Jeremy the treatment we had thrown together earlier that morning. We had two ideas we felt were relatively OK.

The first: “Conspiracy Theory” Kyle, wheelchair-bound and insane, approaches two men on a walk and rambles on about ridiculous government cover-ups surrounding World War II, 9/11, the pyramids, and so on. He drinks kerosene out of a milk jug.

The second: A man with anger issues stands on a Mars-red dirt hill and screams for several minutes at someone/something off-camera. Then the punchline appears. The end.

Jeremy, who I believed was something of an alpha male, liked these ideas enough to spend a whole day bringing them to life.

So we walked down to some lonely stretch of road and filmed the first video. Airplanes flew overhead and cyclists rode by with confused looks on their faces. Why is this guy vomiting fake kerosene in the street? is what they seemed to be thinking.

After Adam changed out of his bum clothes (he was “Conspiracy Theory” Kyle, after all), we drove to Sunset Boulevard. The sun was, yes, setting when I noticed the “Elliott Smith wall” on the 4300 block. It was badly vandalized. Jeremy parked at the strip mall across the street. John and I walked over and snapped a few pictures. I figured the wall was only going to get worse over time. Better take a damn picture of it looking like this than have nothing to show for it at all.

•   •   •

Soon we were snaking into the Hollywood Hills. Our destination was the Hollywood sign. Jeremy said there were plenty of copper-colored dirt hills up there.

We hit a straightaway and I could see the nine-letter word way up ahead. It was surreal. I had seen it so many times in pictures and movies that I had decided somewhere along the way that maybe it wasn’t even real. But there it was, right the hell in front of me, and we were headed straight for it. I asked Jeremy if we could get close to the letters, and he said there was some sort of crazy surveillance system in place to deter would-be vandals from spray-painting dumb bullshit on the iconic sign. So nuts to that!

Jeremy parked the car on a dusty slope and the four of us got out and made our way up the road a bit. The sky was sad as hell and we knew rain would soon come. There were families everywhere. I heard a bunch of different languages. I guess the whole world wanted to see those letters. Not us: we had come to film something stupid. Specifically, I had come to scream at those letters.

I found hidden paths leading up to hidden hills. I tried them all until I found the best one. John and Jeremy and Adam followed. A family who said they were from Spain was there taking pictures of the Hollywood sign. It was a good place to do that. From there it was a clear shot of the thing.

We waited for them to leave, and then quickly went to work. Jeremy surveyed the land through his camera and told me where to stand. Then we did a few test shots. I screamed at the city of Los Angeles while Adam and John watched on.

All in all, we did six or seven takes. Jeremy told me to get really angry. My fake anger wasn’t enough. So I sucked in a lungful of air and let my voice roar over palm trees and the red dirt and the sun-baked skyscrapers: “You took my cats and left me for dead!!!! What am I supposed to do!!!! Why did you do this to me!!!!”

“Whoa,” said John. “Maybe, um, you shouldn’t be so autobiographical about it.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I reckon not.”

We took some pictures on that hill—with big-ass “HOLLYWOOD” looming in the background. I took my shirt off and put on my big stupid white sunglasses. John unbuttoned his shirt and put his hands on his hips. We told ourselves this was work, man. We were creating a thing for VIII Nothing. The message was this: Where there are cities, we will go to them . . .and  when we get there, we will temporarily ruin them.

Through the amber tint of my sunglasses, I could make out a group of preteen girls and their two chaperones coming towards us. They had English accents. Both of the men escorting the girls had grey hair and wrinkles. One man looked like a pirate. He was heavily tattooed and looked rough. The other man was a walking cartoon. He looked like the stereotypical English butler. He had on a cardigan, herringbone pants, and his arms were folded behind his back.

Jeremy was still taking pictures when they approached. The preteen girls, thinking John and I (still shirtless) were of some celebrity, however small, began taking pictures of us as well. They tried to do so as secretly as they could, hoping we wouldn’t notice. I felt dirty after that and put my shirt back on, knowing that my pale chest was now stored on the memory cards of a bunch of poor bastards who didn’t know any better. God only knew, I thought, where those damn pictures were going to end up.

Before we left, I looked up at the letters one last time. I remembered once reading about Peg Entwistle, the twenty-four-year-old actress who had jumped off the letter “H” in 1932, back when it still said “Hollywoodland”. I thought that was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. Dang. Poor Peg Entwistle.

We drove home as the storm clouds swelled overhead. The rain came shortly after.

•   •   •

Jeremy and Adam dropped us off at Megan’s apartment after dark. Megan was drinking a beer on the balcony when we got in. John joined her outside. I sat down on the couch and swallowed three pills, two blue, one white, that made the nightmare of living go away for a few hours.

“Join us, jerk,” said Megan, through the screen door.

“Yeah, OK,” I said. I slapped my thighs and stood up. My head was ping-ponging with weird thoughts. I told myself if I ever again got the point where I couldn’t tolerate existence, I too would jump off the letter “H” and hope the fall would send me to Heaven. I guess I stood there thinking about it for a long time.

“Ryan,” said John. “Are you coming?”

“Yeah.”

There were purple-grey clouds far north. Megan took a sip of her beer and watched as a bolt of lightning zigzagged beneath the waxing moon.

“I’ve been here six years and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen lightning in LA,” she said.

“No kidding?” said John.

“Nope. First time.”

•   •   •

In the morning we met up with Megan’s boyfriend, a guy named Joe. Joe was great. He had a nice apartment in the western part of Los Angeles near Venice Beach. Our mission that day was to go to Venice Beach to see the circus freaks on the promenade. We left our bags at Joe’s and drove a mile until we could see water in the distance.

I alone wore pants and tennis shoes. Everyone else had on shorts and sandals, which I would sooner die than wear, on account of my warped and childish principles. Megan warned me that I would likely get sand in my shoes. I shrugged. I told her, man, I had been to the beach a few times in my life, had never worn anything other than tennis shoes when I went there. I was used to a little sand getting in there, I said. It didn’t bother me one bit, whereas wearing sandals would send me tailspinning into oblivion.

Venice Beach was hilarious and awful. It was a never-ending cavalcade of dopeheads and burnouts and freaks and weirdos. There were artists and fortune tellers and skateboarders and coked-out psychopaths screaming about God and drugs. Pretty blonde girls in hospital scrubs were holding up signs advertising medical marijuana cards. Behind them were men and women in lab coats. “Weed Doctors,” they called themselves. Lord!

A man I had seen earlier near Joe’s apartment was shouting at the top of his lungs on steps leading up to a beachside townhouse complex. Earlier he had been brushing his teeth. Now he was making absurd demands: “I want me an apartment,” he said, “a white woman, a thousand dollars worth of weed, and a big-ass electric guitar!!!”

I can’t say I understood the man’s methods. Maybe some rich fool would approach him and give the man everything he desired. Or maybe nothing would happen, and the man would go home empty-handed. At least his teeth would be clean.

•   •   •

It sucked and we got tired of it pretty quickly. It was a two-mile trek to the pier with the ferris wheel, but we stopped short and walked out onto the beach. John and I sat down under a palm tree while Joe and Megan shared an enormous and terribly overpriced cup of lemonade.

Megan asked John and me what we planned to do with the rest of our day. I told her we were meeting up with our new friend Alex, who read our website and who we had never met, and who was in Santa Monica. She agreed to drive us there, but only if we gave her exact directions. Megan wasn’t the best driver, as evidenced by the scrapes and scratches on the exterior of her car. She wanted to avoid getting any more. So to know precisely where her car was going meant minimizing the risk of that happening (such was her thinking). I sent Alex a message and asked for an address. He told us to meet him at Santa Monica Place, which he said was an open-air mall not far from the exit we would be taking to get into Santa Monica proper. I told him we were at Venice Beach, and would be there soon.

“Venice!” he said, “It’s a charming place, isn’t it? Where art meets crime?”

Joe drove. We got on the parkway and made the three-mile trip to Santa Monica in no time. I wouldn’t learn until much later that the ferris wheel we’d seen at the end of Venice Beach was actually the start of Santa Monica. So much for that. We could have walked.

John and I got out of the car at a busy intersection and promised Megan we’d be finished in a few hours. We then walked a few blocks to Santa Monica Place where Alex was waiting.

Santa Monica was ritzy and flashy and full of rich jerks. There was high-end stores every which way. I didn’t see a single homeless person. After having spent the afternoon in Venice Beach, it was a blast to the brain. We had just left the Kingdom of the Weird, and were now sloppy and badly out of place in an upscale district of Los Angeles.

I had always been told LA was a “fake” place, but I didn’t get a sense of that during my time in North Hollywood and Toluca Lake. Santa Monica, on the other hand, felt like someone had cranked the dial all the way up to Barbie Dream House. I didn’t blame the people who lived there. Hell, I figured it was probably a pretty nice place to live, if you really thought about it. But as a human whose annual income had never exceeded $10k, I felt deeply uncomfortable.

I pulled out my phone and shot Alex a message: “Just look for two freaks with mustaches.”

Alex quickly replied: “Walk a block west on Broadway and make a left towards the mall. I’m the freak sans the ‘stache.”

We did as we were told. It wasn’t hard to find Santa Monica Place, which we quickly realized was quite nice. The fair weather was able to pass in and out of the mall. There was no ceiling. The sun shined down. I could feel the heat inside my head.

To the monied dopes inside the mall, we probably looked like a couple of lowlife jerkoff losers. We scanned the faces and didn’t see any familiar ones. I remembered I had no idea what Alex looked like. So we stood there, quiet and stiff, until our mustaches gave away our identities. A man sitting in a chair suddenly stood up. He was wearing a button-down shirt and expensive jeans cuffed at the ankle. He had on a pair of brown boots. He looked at me like he knew who I was. It was Alex.

Alex knew of my existence because he had once felt apathetic about his own existence. That’s my guess, anyway. So he turned to the internet, hoping to find an answer to his listlessness. He’d had enough. It was time to get out of the hole he was in. So he typed in the phrase “enough of this ennui”—perhaps looking for answers, perhaps looking for like-minded people. Instead he somehow got me. I was the only person in the history of the internet to have assembled that phrase in that precise syntax.

The essay Alex had stumbled upon was from a website I used to run called Octonaut. It was one of the last entries I ever wrote there, and was about my frustrations with writing. I couldn’t do it at the time. It was rather difficult for me, since I was so damn sad to be living in Maryland. (I wouldn’t write again for another eight months, when I began working my terrible novel.) Here is what Alex read on that fateful day:

“Perhaps [my inability to write stems from] this idea I have in my mind that is stuck there like a barb or a splinter: I am leaving. How eternally grateful I am to go where I wish to go, live where I wish to live. I don’t want to be in this place any longer. I have got enough of this ennui and this stagnation. It’s time to leave—and so soon! Maybe that’s what keeps me from writing anything down, that I have hope that these thoughts in my head will soon enough vanish for ever and ever. I don’t want them there.”

When Alex typed in “enough of this ennui,” he likely meant it in this way: “Enough is enough! I’ve had it up to here with ennui!” I had meant that my capacity for ennui was full—I had all I could possibly store inside me. My admission was a somber one. I wasn’t pushed to action . . . action would soon take over me! That is to say, I thought I was moving away from Baltimore—away from the doom-metropolis, and away from, what Alex would later call, my “muse of misery”. Moving, I thought, would cleanse me. Then I would care maybe about life again.

If you’ve read anything that I’ve written in the last year, then you know that I (foolishly) stayed in Maryland for another year. Some of that time was spent traveling around on what I believed at the time was a suicide tour , but regardless, I was still there a good amount of time, still living, barely, in that abhorrent godforsaken place.

Alex, God love him, found my email address. He sent me a long message the day before the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center atrocity, saying he had read everything I had ever written on Octonaut, and that he appreciated my musical recommendations (which I sometimes sprinkle in my writing I guess)—that he lived in California, could see the ocean, and had spent $80k on a worthless education.

For the next twenty-four hours I tried to figure out if someone was fucking with me. I asked all of my friends if they had created Alex as a way to trick me, but none stepped forward. The only thing people really said was that “he” (whoever he was) had a writing style strikingly similar to my own.

After I ruled out the fact that he was a cruel invention, I decided I liked him a great deal. Here was an English-speaking, American human who was my age, and who existed in the same century as me—and who, by some miraculous coincidence, possessed a brain that had strung together that precise phrasing, which he then tossed into the endless ocean of the world wide web, hoping to find another human to feel a connection with. Out of the black miasma came a fool who happened to be me. And he held his hand out firmly, saying, “I exist! I exist!” Once I acknowledged him (“I, too, exist!”), there was no way we could ever go on living in the same way again.

So acknowledge him I did: I responded the next day with an enormous email. Among many things, I said this:

“I will now write the rest of this letter under the assumption that this was a well-intentioned email sent to me from the void—from California—simply because one soul felt something for another, and wished to tell that other soul just what it is he felt. I’m assuming you are a man. I don’t know why I think that. It’s just a feeling. Why the pseudonym, friend? I am Ryan, but I am not yet a true Starsailor—but maybe someday I will be. I intend to die a Starsailor, even if I couldn’t have been born one. What’s your name? As I have said, you are my friend already. I have accepted you. If you write always like you have here, then you are of my friend, and so I am happy with your arrival into my life: Hello! You are my equal.”

I spent the next several days writing to Alex. He told me he hoped things got better for me, and I told him that was a nice thing to hope for someone. I was in a bad place back then . . . I was hungry and tired and completely alone in my apartment . . . my cats and my girlfriend long gone!

At the end of our ten-month correspondence, after I had moved my home 1,500 miles away, after I had been snatched from the claws of death—the man I knew in words alone was standing twenty feet away. I knew it was him because he knew it was me. He had a little smile on his face when he approached us two mustached freaks.

“Ryan Starsailor,” he said. He held out his hand and I shook it. He turned to my cousin. “And John Blacksher.” He shook John’s hand too.

“Nice to meet you, man,” said John.

“John, I just want to tell you that ‘Ranger’ is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in some time,” said Alex.

Alex asked us if we were hungry, to which we said yes, and so he lead us around the mall in search of a place to eat. We passed on a Japanese grill on account of the whole damn thing being meat, and ended up at a place that had floor-to-ceiling windows and an extensive beer selection. An overly enthusiastic waiter would show up at our table from time to time—his favorite phrase was “Excellent, excellent, guys!” (Jesus!)—but otherwise we were let alone to talk about the end of the world.

The menu was intimidating as hell. A grilled cheese sandwich cost $12. That’s cheese and bread. It must have been some kind of cheese and and some kind of bread to add up to that, I thought. I did some math in my head and realized this meal was probably out of my budget. Everything was, now that I thought about it. I was, after all, recently unemployed. If I skipped a meal, I could justify it. So I wouldn’t eat breakfast the next day (I told myself just then).

Yes, and I ate my fucking fuji apple panini (with melted provolone), and drank my little iced tea. And I shoveled cold quinoa salad into my mouth, and nodded along when John pointed to me and said, “And Starsailor here is working on that novel of his, which he says is charmingly awful. . . .”

When the check came, I reached for the booklet, but Alex shook his head and took it into his hands. “Please,” he said, “this is the least I can do.” He pulled out his credit card and placed it inside.

“Well gosh,” I said, “Thanks dude.”

•   •   •

Alex lead us to the pier with the ferris wheel. We slipped between enormous clusters of people in hopes of seeing the big stupid thing up ahead spin and flash its lights. There were carnival games and clowns selling cotton candy, and plenty of children and tired-eyed adults connected by the arm.

And then we walked on the beach. Alex and I looked like a couple of weirdos as we traversed the sand with our jeans and shoes.

“Why didn’t Jason come?” said Alex. There was something magical about that: this dude knew the name of my roommate/best dude friend, even though he’d never met him! He knew about Jason because I had written about him and Alex had read it.

“Jason just started a new job. I guess he thought it would look bad if he immediately went out of town.”

“In your writing, you make him sound like a . . . like a dweeb.”

“Nah. He’s not really a dweeb. He’s just conservative and quiet.” Then: “Yeah maybe Jason is a dweeb actually.”

“Look, over there—” Alex pointed to a row of pastel beach houses directly ahead. “Let’s walk towards those houses, hideous though they are.” The three of us collectively sneered at the invisible opulent tenants of those multi-million-dollar mansions.

The afternoon was gone by the time we ascended from the beach near the highway. Alex told me he had seen Deer Tick a few months before—on the same day Adam “MCA” Yauch from the Beastie Boys had died. He said lead singer John McCauley dedicated a song to his memory, and then proceeded to play it.

“Oh, yeah. I think I saw a video of that. They played ‘Fight for Your Right’, or something.”

“That’s it.”

“How’d that go?”

“Well, I saw John McCauley’s penis that night.”

“Yeah. He does that. I’ve seen him play his guitar with his penis a few times now.”

“That doesn’t sound pleasant.”

“No, I’m sure that doesn’t feel very good. But you’ve got to admire how stupid it is. The guy’s about as unpretentious as they come, so he’s all right with me.”

Alex lead us back to the intersection where Megan and Joe had dropped us off hours earlier. We were expecting them any minute. Megan had told me to be ready to jump in the car as soon as it pulled up.

The three of us, now buddies, stood with our backs against a brick building near the bus stop. We watched the crowd and watched the sky. We watched the crowd watch the sky. John suggested we take a picture together. I took my phone out of my pocket and squinted at the screen. I heard the squeal of car brakes and then a human voice: “Getingetingetin!” It was Megan’s voice. I looked up and saw her waving us into the back of the car. I turned to Alex and gave him a hug. I then dove into the backseat. John followed suit. The light turned green and we sped off in the direction of Toluca Lake. As we turned the corner, I saw Alex standing alone. I slapped my hand against the window and watched him smile from far away.

My phone vibrated when we were soaring down the parkway. It was Alex: “It was real as anything can be.”

•   •   •

That evening, Megan let John and me borrow her car. Leila Wylie, the best person I knew, was in Los Angeles for work. She was doing ethnographic research for a major pharmaceutical company. She had some time off that evening and wanted to do something other than sit alone in her hotel room. It also happened to be her twenty-fifth birthday.

We got Leila, who had on a striped shirt and these really nice red pants, from the Hilton near LAX and drove all the way to Hermosa Beach. “My dad said it’s really nice there,” she said. I shrugged. It sounded like just as good of a place to go as any. And anyway, it was Leila’s day: she was the birthday bitch. I was prepared to take her wherever she wanted to go.

Hermosa Beach ended up being an all right place. It was a sort of tourist destination, but the air was nice enough and you didn’t have to walk far to see the ocean. There were little apartment buildings and shops, all of them worthless to us, because all we cared about was eating. I told Leila to pick a restaurant and we would go there. It was the least I could do for the birthday bitch.

The three of us walked down to the pier, which I figured was a quarter of a mile long. There were no smoking signs everywhere, but John dismissed them and put a cigarette between his lips anyway. With each exhale, the by-product of his terrible Homeowners Association-hating sin floated out of his mouth and soared across the ocean until it dispersed and became nothing.

The sun was sinking into the ocean and the sky was pink and orange and cloudless. John snapped a picture of me at the end of the pier. I looked pretty sad in the picture. I wasn’t really sad. It was a long-running joke of mine to have people take pictures of me looking glum and vaguely disappointed while standing in front of famous places: Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Central Park in New York City, the Stille Nacht Kapelle in Oberndorf, Austria where “Silent Night” was written, and so on. And now I was standing before a beautiful beach at sundown, looking like I’d sooner put a pistol in my mouth than spend another second there. I told John when I am old I will compile a scrapbook, and the joke will be complete, and then I can finally die.

As John prepared to take a second picture, Leila dashed across the length of the pier and wrapped her arms around me. I thought about it for a minute and realized it was the first picture of us together. That was nice, I thought, because now people would know that the person I talked about all the time was in fact real.

A man tourist approached us. He held out his expensive DSLR camera and asked John to take a few pictures of him standing at the end of the pier. John took three or four shots and then handed the camera back to the man. He looked at John’s work and turned to Leila and me. “These . . . pictures are . . . not so good. Pretty bad. Can one of you do it?” I took the camera from him and tried my hand at it. “Yes,” he said, “these are OK.”

The beach was dark time we made our way back to the promenade. We decided to get Mexican food for dinner. Most of the Mexican restaurants in the area had dumb names (“Sharkeez”, for God’s sake) and were loud and full of chain-smoking tourists. Eventually we found a place called La Playita, which was near the pier. Leila made a reservation with the hostess. She said she had to use the restroom and went into the restaurant. John and I waited outside on a bizarre artificial land formation that included snaking sand paths separated by grassy mounds and palm trees. John puffed on a cigarette and I told him a secret that I kept locked up in my head. I realized after I’d said it that it was the first time I had uttered it to another person.

Leila returned and said our table was ready. We stood up, dusted sand off our clothes, and followed her inside. La Playita was a no-bullshit place. It felt like being in someone’s house. Our waitress brought us chips and salsa and John and I told Leila we were going to San Francisco soon. Throughout the meal, I thought that, had my internship not expired, it would have been nice to buy Leila’s dinner. I told her that at the end of the meal. Leila shook her head and told me all her meals were paid for by her employer anyway. I shrugged and thought, hell, all right.

•   •   •

I drove Leila to her hotel in Woodland Hills. It was dark and the highway was nearly empty. We passed a sign for a strip club called Jumbo’s Clown Room, which was the best thing any of us had ever heard of. There was a brief, serious discussion about maybe actually going to the Clown Room, mostly because we wanted to catch a glimpse of Jumbo himself, who we hoped was a huge gross sex-peddling clown, but ultimately decided not to, fearing there would be an enormous cover charge. That and John and I had an Oakland-bound train to catch at 1:45 a.m.

We got to Leila’s hotel at midnight. Even though it was late, I could still see people seated at the bar and walking through the lobby. Leila got her suitcase out of the back. She stood there on the curb, all tall and lovely and shit, in her striped sailor shirt and her red pants. I felt gloomy, knowing it would probably be another six months before I saw her again. She said good-bye, and leaned down to hug me. With my left hand I parted the black hair that hung over her cheek and kissed her.

John and I sped off as Leila pushed her way through the glass doors of the hotel. We made our way back to Megan and Joe, who drove us to Union Station.

From Los Angeles we traveled to Bakersfield, and then transferred to a northbound train headed for the Bay Area. We slept on our suitcases, and in the morning shared truly terrible coffee at a plastic booth in the dining car. We met up with Tim Rogers and Zak “Delicious” McCune and accompanied them, on almost no sleep, to a 3 a.m. showing of The Dark Knight Rises. We talked to strangers on Powell Street, and had Thai food in the Mission. We took another train to Sacramento and then to Davis to see John’s brother, the physicist-genius called Ned. Together with Ned and John’s parents, we scaled a mountain overlooking Lake Tahoe and hiked into Nevada.

There was a clearing at the top and I looked out over the trees and watched a huge streak of sunlight waver on the surface of the lake. I tried to think about what it would be like if I was the third son of my aunt and uncle, like a fraternal twin to Ned, maybe. Standing there in my stupid Starsailor uniform, I felt that maybe it didn’t matter anyway. I was tired of the whole damn thing no matter who I was.

In twenty-four hours I would watch from an airport terminal as the sun set on Las Vegas. I would see the city lights in the dark desert sky. And I would think about that weird secret I had, the one I had told John about, and wish it didn’t exist. And I would admit to myself that I really was a jerk and a fraud. And as I picked up my bag and stepped onto the airplane, I would remember the smell of Leila’s hair.