Seated on foam padding bursting through blue upholstery, you recoil from a moldering mass grave of soda cans, candy wrappers, and strata upon strata of fast-food containers. Like anguished spirits unable to enter the next realm, fierce vapors linger, the ghosts of these mortal remains. A black tube lies across your lap; another half-pint fills your hand. Accepting a ride from these littering marauders seemed like madness until a free beverage entered the equation. To the relief of your long-suffering ears, the passenger ejects a cassette.
“Kid, I was gonna rewind that. Buddy Rich is a gem.”
“Kid, Buddy Rich is the emperor of ice cream, but we been listenin’ to him all day.”
Toothpicks impale the loaves of flesh protruding between their shoulders. The change from concrete to gravel levitates the three of you along with the moveable burial ground. Beneath a cloud whose tentacles dissolve into membranous nubs, broken glass glitters on the hills and recesses of a serpentine road. Even at five mph it’s clear the wagon’s suspension is in the same state of dilapidation as its upholstery.
Two boys wearing black and gold hockey jerseys throw rocks at beer bottles lined atop a doorless refrigerator. They stop and stare as though frightened on your behalf. One runs a finger across his throat. The side-burned blobs sneer in unison. “What the hell you lookin’ at?” says the driver.
“Go ask your ma where babies come from,” says the passenger. “Tell her to show you. It stinks worse than any stork.” The boys dutifully trudge inside a trailer.
Disassembled cars suggest a village of aspiring mechanics. A black cat peers through reeds of long-neglected grass before darting in front of the wagon. You lean back and smile. Right to left means good luck. Then the cat risks its life to run back, double cursing you. Just as Bobby and Jerry played the same songs differently night after night, Chaos and Entropy are doing a wild jam with the trailer cars. Any individuality stems from unique states of disrepair. Tiny and sparsely allocated windows look like the holes a child pokes on a box before confining a frog in it. Partaking of the knowledge that it’s five o’clock somewhere, men uniformed in flannel pretend to ignore the wagon.
After rounding a sharp turn, the homage to corrosion stops in front of the last trailer on the road. Sprawling vines of poison ivy almost hide a barbwire fence. Which design is crueler? The driver pulls a cassette off the dash. Like a genie trapped in a plugged bottle he writhes his way out of the car. The silver chain connecting his wallet to his jeans could constrain King Kong. The car rises two feet after the passenger emerges. While comparing them you remember a principle regarding the identity of indiscernibles. Or was it the indiscernibility of identicals? Their grace on land suggests the front seat is their natural habitat.
“Kid, where’s the other tape?”
“It was right here, kid. If you lost it again the Kangaroo will go berserk.”
While four mitts turn the car inside out you pretend to sift through layers in the landfill.
“Kid, this igit was sittin’ on it.”
“Thanks a lot, cockbreath. Here, you carry ’em.”
In loose-fitting clothes they would look intimidating, retired power-lifters enjoying la dolce vita. In tight undershirts the show’s over. Meaty inner-tubes jiggle and jangle beneath the flimsy cotton medium. One runs his knuckles across a homemade wind chime made out of five lacquered cans of Olde Frothingslosh ale. They wait. Rotund shadows pool at their feet like pits of tar swallowing prehistoric beasts.
A girl with cinnamon skin and one black eye opens the door and steps out, ferociously beautiful, skinny like a famine survivor medevaced in the nick of time. The breeze lashes long dark hair against her shoulders. Wildly arching eyebrows send a lupine fury cascading down her face to break on pouty lips. She takes a drag off a cigarette, revealing scars like disorganized crop circles on her stringy forearm, and blows smoke at your escorts as they enter. Thimbles threaten to pop through the planar surface of her green tank-top.
The queasy shame of a man denying the allure of Balthus’ nymphs compels you to look away, to peek around the corner where a satellite dish points at the ground. Behind it stands a gaunt man in his third trimester. “You got business here?” he says, clutching the wrong end of a .454 magnum like some deranged judge preparing to declare order for the last time.
You hop back to the cinnamon girl, who shuts the door behind you. Cardboard shades banish all rumors of the sun. The lambent glow from a TV illumes a pyramid of milk crates jammed with walkie-talkies and assorted gadgetry. Handcuffs and a cattle prod are not the most conspicuous. Empty popcorn bags litter a kitchenette counter like conches washed up on shore.
Standing in front of a narrow door one of the twins clears his throat. “What is the difference between an orange?”
“Just go in,” says the cinnamon girl.
“What … is the difference between an orange.”
“This is so lame.”
“If I have to say it again.”
In one long groan she says, “A bicycle because a vest has no sleeves.” She stands beside him and they both put a key in the door.
“Turn it,” he says.
“I am, you fucktard.”
“Try it again. Turn now.”
Nothing. He takes a step back and lands a savage kick, opening it. You join the brothers inside a closet lined with Pabst tall boys. Next to a dangling bulb their faces look like freshly-waxed cars on a drizzly day. One turns around. His flabby arm pushes you into the absorbent mass of his cohort. He selects a beer at eye-level and carefully pulls it to a ninety degree angle.
“It ain’t that one, kid.”
He tries the one next to it, and the next. “This’ll be the death of me.”
“What the hell, kid. Any day now.”
“Kid, it’s one of these.” And for the next ten minutes he pulls cans in the general area until the closet makes a terrible grinding noise like buckshot in a blender and begins to descend. A whiff of burnt oil acts as a desperately needed air freshener.
“Kid, don’t forget which one it is.”
“You ain’t no better at findin’ it, kid.”
After a prelude to eternity the closet jerks to a stop, rises a few feet, and squeals with a pitch and volume that has to be audible to every pooch in the Northern Hemisphere.
The door opens to what looks like an old submarine. You follow them into a dank room and take a seat at a picnic table. Along a wall nourishing barnacles of rust, silver keyholes fail to correspond to lines, recesses, or anything indicating the presence of doors or compartments.
You place the tapes on the table. One of your hosts taps it with both hands, doing a percussion version of “Kilimanjaro Cookout.” His twin joins him for an inspired take on an old favorite before veering off into tribal drumming.
A walking affront to the proportional standards of the ideal masculine physique enters the room. Atop shoulders too narrow for everything beneath them, an oily leather face droops off a cylindrical head tucked into a Packers cap. Mighty gray tumbleweeds cover his cheeks.
“This week on the Home Remodeling Show, the house that Pabst built,” says one of your hosts, pointing to a bulge taxing the seams of the Kangaroo’s bib overalls.
“Shut your pie hole, Remus,” he responds in a quavering voice.
“Yeah, Remus,” says his brother, doing a pitch-perfect impression.
“I’ll bitch slap you, Romulus.”
The Kangaroo pulls a key from his overalls and turns it in one of the shiny holes. A section of the wall ascends like a door sliding open on a concession stand, revealing a red panel where silver knobs descend incrementally in size from a softball to a penny. Above them a yellow grid subdivides a green screen. Four speakers descend from the ceiling. “You fellas get anything on tape?”
“Signed, sealed, and delivered, chief,” says Remus.
“You fellas sure you know how to use the tube?”
“Piece of cake, boss,” says Romulus, handing him one of the tapes.
The Kangaroo inserts it in a slot. Scraggly white lines dance across the screen and static explodes from the speakers. You cover your ears. He adjusts knobs like he’s playing Tetris. The lines on the grid become less jagged, almost parabolic. “That boy is a natural born scrambler.”
“Scramblin’ like a cook at George Webb,” says Remus, drumming his fingers on the table.
“Whose tape is this?” says the Kangaroo.
Like some inquisitive beast discovering a mirror in the ruins of an abandoned town, the twins eye each other amid a pantomime of shrugs and grimaces. Though capable of one basic expression they make the most of it with virtuosic skill. Romulus hunches his shoulders and throws up his hands. “The big fella?”
“Travis something,” says Remus. “Something Polish.”
“Kid, what’s the difference between a Polack security guard and a bucket of shit?”
“A bucket of shit can feed a Polish family?”
“No, the only difference is the bucket.”
The Kangaroo puts the other tape in the slot. “Looky here, looky here. This boy is one king-hell scramblin’ man.”
“That’s from the chess doofus,” says Remus.
“Chief, are you sure you’re usin’ this new shit right?” says Romulus. “They’re always scramblin’.”
“The likes of you two will not be tellin’ me how to do my job. These are the fellas the Mantis led you to?”
“His job performance needs improvement.”
“He was failing to accomplish tasks with a sufficient degree of sufficiency.”
“In English,” says the Kangaroo.
“He was barfin’ like Linda Blair.”
“Has he been drinkin’ again?”
“He’s been drinkin’ all the time. Somethin’ purple.”
The Kangaroo strokes a cumulonimbus sideburn. “What’s up with him? He’s been actin’ weird lately. You’d think he’d consider boozin’ to be a dereliction of his sacred duties.”
“He no longer demonstrates a proficient sense of pride in the organization.”
“Long as he gets the job done a little hootch ain’t gonna hurt. Good thing we’re trainin’ another, just in case.”
“I don’t think Zelda’s got the right stuff, chief.”
“She got a mouth on her, boss. Her cussin’ could take the paint off a wall.”
“Her cussin’ could knock flies off a turd. She uses swear words I never heard of. It ain’t right for a girl to talk like that. She’s violent too. Kneed me in the balls just for lookin’ at her. Romulus was thinkin’ this guy here might have what it takes.”
“It was Remus’ idea.”
The Kangaroo looks in your general direction and shudders. “Quit bringin’ rummies down here. Does this look like a flophouse? Stop fartin’ around. This location is secret and your jobs are serious. We ain’t workin’ for the CIA or FBI no more. Give Zelda a chance.” He ejects the tape and sits beside you. Suppressing your gag reflex you watch him roll a wad of syrupy chaw juice over his bulging lip while adjusting a huge black mound of snuff. “You boys sure these fellas are full-time third shift?”
“These guys are hardcore third. Drunk or not, you gotta trust the Mantis. He’s like a dividin’ rod for findin’ guards.”
“These fellas ain’t rent-a-cops, are they?”
“No way. Lodestar’s a classy joint. These guys are in-house.”
“Keepin’ tabs on rent-a-cops is like tryin’ to keep track of migratin’ deer,” says the Kangaroo.
“It’s like trackin’ meth sluts.”
“Kid, you could implant a chip in their ear while they’re knobbin’ you.”
“I got us a hee-uge contract lined up,” says the Kangaroo. “We take good care of this client and we’ll be eau de bologna.”
“Are these two gonna be the containers?”
“They’ll make top notch containers. They both got some serious aptitude for scramblin’, specially the first fella. Now it’s a matter of matchin’ the initiation process to each one’s specific profile.” The Kangaroo spits a dark stream over your head. Some of it lands in a puddle on the floor where many have preceded it. Most of it does not. He pounds his fist and points between the stout twins. “A few of our other clients is less than satisfied with the services provided. You fellas can’t be blabbin’ about the secret key.”
“I never said nothin’,” says Remus.
“Am I supposed to believe the containers heard it on the news?”
“It wasn’t me,” says Romulus.”
“Well it’s gotta stop. Word of mouth is our only means of advertisin’. I don’t think the brochure was one of Duane Callahan’s finer ideas.”
Pretty boy Duane,” laughs Remus.
“Sweet Jane Duane,” says Romulus.
“What in tarnation is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothin’ chief. Your cousin’s a good guy.”
“Duane’s fine by me, boss.”
The Kangaroo cracks his knuckles and stares at the table. “I regret to inform you that due to the new technology we have acquired and successfully utilized we will no longer be needin’ the doses of William Werzinski.”
The brothers bellow like tenors in some ungodly opera. “He’s practically family,” pleads Romulus. “Nobody gets better acid than William.”
“You can’t replace William with a tube,” says Remus. “He’ll take it hard. He ain’t exactly stable.”
“He’s a sensitive genius, chief. You know how they are.”
“The LSD method wasn’t workin’ for shit and you fellas know it,” says the Kangaroo. “He ain’t gonna starve. If I ain’t mistaken, him and his wiener dog still live at home.”
“William says Maestoso is a quantum mechanic.”
“Kid, how could it fix anything with them little hands?”
“There’s somethin’ special about that wiener dog, especially when you’re dosed.”
“Kid, I wouldn’t worship him like William”
“I sure as hell wouldn’t mess with him. You see the way he watches you, like he knows what you’re thinkin’ and he ain’t impressed.”
“Let’s make sure things go smoothly,” says the Kangaroo. “Good containers is hard to come by. I’ll need all the usual details about both loads. I mean guards. Then, I swear, if their uploads don’t go right there’ll be hell to pay. We never had a Jawa for a client before.”
“Ain’t they those grubby little critters from Star Wars?”
“Even worse. Now give this dirty rummy some free drink chips and get him the hell out of here.”
On your back in the alley behind Straight Flush tavern you stare at the speckled canopy above, no more lost than anything else up there. Visions of Zelda dance through your mind: reflections on the contradictory conjunction of her frailty and fierce demeanor; 1,001 inferences based on several seconds of observation, the notorious first impression to which everything else is an appendix; longings that feel awkward even here, as though some prohibitions are not the excrescence of bureaucratic fiat but etched in the tablet of existence. Maybe you’re tasting the bitter fruit harvested by recluses and misfits throughout the ages, the discovery that we remain attached to the fabric of humanity simply by being alive. An invisible strand keeps us connected to this web, which has no statute of spatial limitations.
The stars, are they not confetti? There is a direct relation between the number of them and the triviality of you. Squint your eyes. The constellation of a long slender hound appears, marking the heavens more objectively than dippers or crabs or bowmen. Trace it with your finger. The dog glares as if perturbed by your discovery.
Perhaps the ancients didn’t name him for a reason, or only spoke the name during ceremonies where his guidance was sought, his wrath placated. They looked to the stars and the stars looked back. What became of them? Survival was not among the blessings from this deity.
Close your eyes and seize the earth. So solid. So flat and stationary. Your senses are liars and fools. The hound in the sky continues to scowl, as he did before you were born, before all men were born.
When the next great historian writes of the decline and fall of our Empire, I will have no difficulty in pinpointing its zenith.
Few mourn their passage. Few know what has been lost. Perhaps the Truth swims too deep and fast to be caught in the flimsy nets of most men. What ennobled this period in history was neither our knowledge nor the opulence some enjoyed.
What merits striving? What should be sought? Fame, a function of herd contingencies, is obviously worth less than nothing. A mate can bring joy, but they are plentiful like stars and as different from each other as Tuesdays from Wednesdays. The best that can be said for the pursuit of riches is that it distracts from the grievous uncertainties of Existence, assuming, as you should, that most would crumble if confronted with the ultimate puzzle.
Posthumous glory, dependent on the beliefs of those yet to be born, is the most senseless of all. If the imbecilic estimations of the mob currently wandering the earth are to be ignored, how much more so the ravings of the brutes who will follow? Indeed, a wise man will shun renown like death itself. In this world of flux and woe, does anything warrant pursuit? Is anything intrinsically good?
Quietude, of course: a state of mind tranquil and serene, yet confident and affirmative of life despite its precarious nature. The courtship of Truth is long and austere, but it spares one from countless delusional allurements. Despite a paucity of honorable men, the pursuit of honor may seem a fool’s errand, but aren’t ideals unattainable by definition? Are they not the stairway from the swamp of our beastly nature? Dignity and heroism certainly merit striving, but intertwined with them, inseparable from them, is a man’s car. But not any car will suffice.
If a wise man were called upon to demarcate the epoch when the automobiles were most magnificent, he would, without hesitation, name the Golden Age between the decession of Johnson and the inauguration of Carter. The cars were colossal and solid, forged from the purest sheet metal. Powered by the blast furnaces of the gods — the grandest V-8 engines — they had no peers in strength. In homage to Euclid, all the great four-doored ones exemplified rectangularity: the Cadillac Fleetwood and Sedan DeVille, the Lincoln Continental Town Car, the Pontiac Bonneville and Catalina, the Buick Electra and Chrysler New Yorker. And, of course, the Caddillac Talisman. These glorious bricks blessed the concrete seas with their majestic bearing. And by 1980, darkness fell. The Great Ones were desecrated (“downsized” was the coarse euphemism) with puny bodies and feeble engines. What is there for a man to do but cover his eyes and weep as he beholds the degradation of what was once mighty and proud?
The elegant lane shifts, the Renaissance curls of their turns, even the smooth course down a straightaway, are these not calligraphy flowing across the pages of the road. Or syllogisms necessitating every coordinate on this perfect line. Though hurling through space at 120 miles-per-hour, one experiences it not as motion but the exaltation of surfing a tsunami in a luxury liner. Brush your toe across the landmine gas-pedal. The ravenous hood devours the road and the distinction between you blurs. “You” become the rational faculty of a mythic being: half car, half man.
As if mocking the distinction between transcendence and immanence, the soul of this latter-day satyr neither exists apart from you nor is it pantheistic. Though the product of a synergy, it cannot not be equated with any sum. When the dichotomy between you and your car collapses, when you attain oneness, the coalescence becomes irreducible — not like an elementary particle in the dusty attic of Physics, but a Necessary Unity in the basement of Ontology. Something infinitely greater than man’s powers of reckoning absorbs you. More cannot be said. Some experiences cannot be contained in the cheap Tupperware of language. You cannot take a shining star from the heavens and place it in a meatloaf dish.
Appropriated* from the Adventures of a Hero
Zelda’s confrontation with the mirror reveals that her collarbone is diminishing like a treasure abandoned to sandstorms. She has one stick of celery instead of three and pops two Provigil. In her room an army of PEZ dispensers overlooks piles of clothes discarded like shed snakeskin. On two framed pictures she stands beside the stone altar at Monte Albán with her father. His Summerfest shirt and her gap-toothed grin neutralize the morbid ambience. Would those butchered there have found comfort or despair from knowing it became a tourist spot? She sits on the floor and powers up an old laptop. On a site filled with pictures of stick-figure models and celebrities she checks her latest entry:
they say u hav a disees. Maybe its cuz THERE AFRADE OF UR POWER AND WANT 2 CONTROL U!! ur ability 2 eat how much u want gives u TOTAL POWER and they hate u 4 it. they want 2 keep u trappd in a JAIL of FAT! Are u sik or R THEY JELLUS? stay strong thru Ana!
Covered with shingles instead of vinyl siding, her house would not have appeared out of place in an ancient time. She locks the door and runs to avoid intermittent downpours. Thunder growls like some deity provoked and silver veins pump life to the gray hide wrapping the world. Under a bus stop canopy she savors a head-rush complete with tingly feet from the first Newport of the day. Then it’s all downhill. She runs through alleys and across a field and with the precision of an insect climbs a fence where a section of barbwire is missing. Through puddles reflecting the bright garages of a U-haul storage facility she splashes like some urchin traversing a blood-soaked battlefield. She pokes her head around a corner and looks both ways and pounds on a door.
“Agent Alpizar, you’re late,” says Rolando. If his greasy pompadour isn’t the result of a genetic snafu, surely the faculty that chose it is. “Don’t wait for it to open all the way. Dive under.”
“Maybe tomorrow. Tell me again why I have to get up this early. Those slobs don’t get up before noon.”
“What happened to your eye? Who did that?”
“Who do you think? One of the fat fucks.”
Illuminating walls where the main event, Rust vs. Metal, was decided long ago, portable lights dangle from plastic shelves crammed with files held in place by cement blocks and cans of soup. From the roof water drips into three buckets, a coffee can, and two Tupperware bowls. A beanbag-shaped woman with gray and auburn hair pecks at a word processor. The motion sends waves rolling across the subcutaneous seas covering her arms. Zelda stares at the tidal pattern and rubs her triceps as though dispelling goose bumps.
“It’s not because they suspect you, is it honey?” the typist says. “You can’t stay there if they suspect you.”
A sheen of rain and sweat glistens on Zelda’s face. “They don’t suspect nothing. I kinda kneed one in the balls.”
Rolando straddles a folding chair and rests his hands on the back and his chin on his thumbs.
“It was an accident,” says Zelda.
He waits for her to look at him. She doesn’t. “What kind of recruits do they have?” he says, picking at a mole that bisects his thin mustache like a cow blocking a railroad track.
“I said they were losers. When do I get paid?”
He wraps his knuckles on the chair. “Are they third shift guards?”
She lights a cigarette and inhales deeply, chasing the dragon of the first. “Look, they’re gonna show them to me, okay? I only know what I hear.”
“Why is it always watchmen? Why couldn’t a delivery man be a secret container, or a retired senior citizen?”
“They need someone with special mental conditioning, like in a trance or something. Most of these dipshits are half- asleep. And they’re the easiest to sneak up on. And you can always find them again.”
Wild with yearning, Rolando’s eyes harvest light from the halogen lanterns. “Is that your theory or is that what they say?”
“What they say? You wanna know what they say?” She drops an octave and talks out the side of her mouth. “Kid, Omega gyros ain’t half as good as Aristotle’s gyros. Kid, let’s score some doses. Kid, smell this fart. Kid, kid, kid, all day long. They’re total fucktards.”
“Do not underestimate them. And you’re not there to judge. You’re there to observe and report.”
“Judging from the shit they say that isn’t about food or acid, the secrecy of who’s a container is important. The containers don’t even know they’re containers.”
“I, too, read their pamphlet.”
“Then why do you keep asking me?”
“What about the man in charge, the Kangaroo?” whispers Rolando, as if saying it too loud would cast a spell or summon forces he dare not provoke.
“He did something for the government. They fired him for being an arsonist.”
“You mean isolationist?”
“Something like that.”
With the reservation of a man inquiring about his wife’s fidelity, Rolando says, “And the big guys, the terrible twins, Remus and Romulus?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Are they mantises?”
“More like mana-tees.”
“Agent Alpizar, you need to learn everything about the hierarchies within their agency. What is the significance of a mantis? According to the Greeks it resembles someone who is praying.”
“This one should be praying for a clue. He’s so out there. A mantis hunts guards. That’s what they’re training me for.”
“What technique is used?”
“He goes from building to building and looks in the window. If anyone in a uniform is passed out in the lobby he’s found his man. Then Remus and Romulus make a note of it.”
“They haven’t made any uploads yet, have they? It’s essential that you’re there when they do them.”
“We still have to get profiles of the containers. It ain’t easy. We can’t just walk up and do a survey.”
“The most important thing is to get the key to the containers. It should be a phrase or a sentence.” Rolando stands and scratches his chin and watches crystal drops fall from the ceiling. “It could be a single word. I suppose a number would work, or a tune they hum. It could even be a noise they make.”
“Thanks for narrowing it down. Is there anything it couldn’t be?”
“You need to turn your memory into a magnet. Ask lots of questions. Tell them you want to be the best mantis you can be.”
“Don’t whatever me. Why can’t you be nicer? It’s easier to infiltrate if you’re friendly. They probably wouldn’t have hit you if you weren’t sulking all the time.”
“Are you saying I deserved this, you bumblefuck.”
“Shhh, there’s families living in some of these garages. You were smarting off again, weren’t you?”
Her glare emits waves of sullen hostility that threaten to melt the feeble metal structure. “Following cheating husbands was easier.”
“There’s too much competition.”
“Why don’t you start your own agency? Why are you copying these dorks?”
The typist chuckles. Her pointer finger circles before landing on the letter G. “Honey, if I had a nickel for every time I told him that.”
“I don’t pay either of you to tell me how to run things. I know nothing about uploads or scrambling. They make it look easy. Don’t be fooled. And how do I get their clients? Those are some of the most dangerous men on earth. Agent Alpizar, you need to remember what you learned from your training films. Always ask WWPGD.”
“I know,” she groans. “What would Pussy Galore do?”
“Also study the example of Anya Amasova.”
“I’ve watched all those stupid movies. The guys after Sean Connery are wussies.”
“James Bond is not your role model. After you observe an upload and get the key to the containers we’ll run them out of business. But it’s all up to you.”
Zelda practices letting smoke float out of her mouth and into her nose. She feels her eyebrows for signs of asymmetry. She examines her chest for signs of its appearance.
“I heard you. Get the key to the containers.”
“And you need to keep sabotaging the Mantis. Once he’s gone you’ll be the only replacement. Then you can divert their clients to us. What is his current status?”
“I gave him the secret message that the only way to protect his thoughts from being intercepted is to stay drunk all the time.”
“Good work, agent Alpizar.”
Excerpted from Schrodinger’s Dachshund
Most Art by Jacek Yerka
*Who else could write about Zelda and her heroic (if Pyrrhic victory) over the Sentinels of the Chandelier? If only one writer was there only he can tell the tale. ‘Cultural appropriation’? Bullshit! The only freedom of speech we don’t have is cursing G-d.