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.