ELECTRIC HEART, NEON NIGHTMARE: THE STRANGE, SAD DREAM OF LOS ANGELES; OR, OH! YOU MISERABLE MUTANTS!
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
• • •
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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
• • •
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.”
“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.
• • •
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.
• • •
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. . . .”
“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.”
“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?”
“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. . . .”
• • •
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.
• • •
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.
• • •
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.”
“I mean we are on drugs, so I reckon any dumb things we say to each other are 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 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.”
“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. . . .”
“It’s the only way.”
“. . . or its distant cousin.”
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”
“Gone. I gave em a few bucks for beer.”
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.”
“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!”
• • •
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.”