The city looked like a motherboard, gutted from a giant computer.
J. Ronald Nixfeld surveyed the scene unimpressed high in the tower above. 3,333 feet high above. His blurred eyes spun like slot machine wheels scanning the sprawling grid, taking Southbridge down to Chipset, turning left on AGP, right on ATX. The ball bouncing in his spinning brain landed on a number.
“Eyes On Those Neighbors,” he said on speaker phone. “The Price Of Liberty Is Service. Resistance Is The Real Slavery. Are you getting all this?”
From overhead speakers came the voice: “Yes sir.”
“Difference Is Failure. Your Next Life Will Be Better—Buy Now. No, wait, scratch that. You'll Get Your Life Later—Don’t Be A Freeloader! Exclamation point.
“All right now, put those out there. I want those slogans everywhere. That's all for now.”
“Yes sir,” the voice from above replied.
J. Ronald Nixfeld didn't use cell phones. “They cause cancer,” he often said, and knew whereof he spoke because he owned several cell phone patents and manufacturing plants. Same thing with soda pop. He didn't ever drink Punch Drunk. That was only something he owned. Most of what he owned caused death, one way or another. Of all his possessions, the tower was the most tangible, dominating the sky. Most tangible, and most visible. A crack whore once asked him if he wasn't afraid of a plane hitting the tower. J. Ronald Nixfeld responded by saying nothing, only letting a long wide grin crack across his face. Then the smile became a giggle. And the giggle became a laugh. He had walked away, laughing.
Languid crack whores in the next room were calling out to him. J. Ronald—J.R. to his intimates—had already voice-activated another call. “Have him sit down for the interview with the microphone receiver in his ear, away from the cameras. I'll tell him what to say. He'll look like he's thinking for a moment while he waits to hear what I tell him. Got it?”
“You've already provided the interviewer with the list of questions?”
“J.R....come on, baby....”
“Hold on, baby,” he called back to the crack whores. “Now listen, I want you to look into interactive graves.”
“Pardon me, sir?”
“You know! Didn't I tell you? The thing where you pay and a projection of the dead person appears over the grave and answers prepared questions or something. I can make more money off people when they're dead than I can when they're alive. Death lasts longer. You really widen your market base that way.”
Interactive graves was actually an idea from Wanda. So was the one where people pay to participate in actual virtual war. She got the idea of people paying to push the button that fires the gun from the drone at people on the other side of the world, in real-time, while she was smoking crack. The ability to safely and comfortably participate in actual warfare, paying to press the button and see on a big TV a village get bombed by an unmanned drone was not yet an available product, but J. Ronald Nixfeld was working on it. And again, it was Wanda the crack whore secretly responsible for the color coding of the political parties.
High as a 3,333 foot kite, J. Ronald Nixfeld, giggling uncontrollably, had barely managed to say, “What colors should we use?”
And Wanda the crack whore said, “Oh, fuck! I don't know! Red and blue!”
“Which color for which party though?”
“It don't matter, baby. You own ‘em both, anyway.”
Wanda and Trixie called out for J.R. again.
“I'll be there in a minute, baby,” he croakingly cooed, then resumed with the overhead speaker as he turned from the grid of the city spread before him in the slanting morning rays. “A friend of mine in the pharmaceutical industry came through for me, so call in a favor with that guy who owes me at the lab. And don't worry about catching anything. It'll be pigment specific. Tell the heads of the mortuary industry they all owe me another one now, by the way.”
J. Ronald Nixfeld’s stubby pud started to stir. So much talk about death and debt seemed to help the Raisex. The same company was coming up with an equivalent product for women not yet available for market, to some extent because it caused cancer. Knowing that, and still providing it to his crack whores, gave J. Ronald Nixfeld a little extra thrill.
The crack whores were probably peaking about now. J. Ronald Nixfeld ended the call and as he headed into the next room and took a last look at the giant motherboard glinting in the rising sun.
Phil Stein put his writing implements away. It was not yet seven o'clock in the morning, and he had gone for a quick run in the Carata Community Forest, in anticipation of having to sit in the car all day driving. He paused now and again, sometimes jogging in place, sometimes turning slowly about taking in the full view of the forest around him, which seemed to leap from the place of myth and dream. And when he did, the oneness that he shared with the source of myth and dream seemed to have a life that grew and subsided as well, and troubled him greatly the more he considered the permanent trap of transition in which life is caught.
Also Phil found burdensome having to see a movie to review for the paper on Sunday night, because that meant he wouldn't have time to sleep on it. He'd have to dash it off as fast as he could after hustling home. (“Home.” It felt strange to apply that word to the attic apartment he rented. Vaguely he resented that.)
Then his thoughts came around to the car, and the exultation of possibility quickened his pace. Even when his mind seemed necessarily and efficiently occupied with a few details of the quick road trip, there percolated a giddy effervescence attributable to the Pinto.
An hour later—ready as he was, it took him a good twelve minutes, even booking, before he got indoors, sixteen to shower, five to get dressed (everything was already laid out), twenty-one to eat and six to dither around—Phil had the car packed with the big box of videos in the back, back seat folded down to extend the hatch space, and tossing in an overnight duffel and a paper Co-op bag for books. Food and drink he kept at arm's reach in the passenger seat.
His plan was to head out of town at eight, roll into Las Vegas by seven, stay in a hotel outside the city, and leave at seven Sunday morning to get back into Carata around six.
It was just after eight now, and Phil was surprised to find a vocal presence of protesters and counter-protesters lining both sides of the street so early and near the farmers’ market. With the weather nice, Phil had the windows down, and wasn't about to try to stretch all the way over to the handle on the passenger side and chance cranking it up just to avoid hearing from the horde seething to the right.
“You don't even know history!” he got to hear. Also, “Next time check the facts!” and “Good answer, good answer!” Plus, “You hate money so much, but you sure go ahead and use it!”
On the other side, through Phil’s other open window, which he wasn't about to crank up, could not help but be heard the reply, “You hate air so much, but you go and breathe it!” And, “We are planet Earth! We are planet Earth!”
“The people who have done the least harm to Planet Earth are the ones who are worth the most,” said a guy standing outside Phil’s window. The lights were slow. Traffic crawled. “Yeah,” Phil said, elbow poking out. “I know what you mean.”
“What we're saying is, the more you've done to harm this planet, the more you're going to pay.” Now the guy gave Phil a sad look that said, “Sorry, love to help, but there's nothing we can do for you,” and he physically tapped Rozinante's roof, adding, “The bigger the crime, the bigger the time.”
Meanwhile, back on the other side of the street it was: “Look at them over there, they sure ain't on our team,” and, “I heard they got at Wall Street Mart them This Just Ain't Our Time t-shirts or whatever,” and, “You don't even know facts!”
Some young people nearby on a corner were tapping out the rhythm of the morning on African drums. On the car in front, all the way out of town, Phil had to see Why Dance Out Of Step? stuck on one side of the bumper and We’re Judging You stuck on the other.
Phil Stein was the kind of a guy who spent a great deal of time by himself. Wondering aloud, he found, helped sharpen his thoughts. A profitable way to pass the time. He talked aloud therefore to himself while driving—looking on doing so over long distance as valuable therapy—but was keen that no one else should see him blabbing to himself in a moving box. He would actually preempt tunes to do this.
“I like puffed language,” he said to himself aloud. Many of his most real experiences, some of the most profound, memorable, defining moments of his life, came about from the sense of clarity he felt defining his experience in existence vocally to himself. Most people, he came to believe, were also most themselves in the innumerable moments alone, defined by the same limits of space and time in finite form. “Notice: I didn't say inflated. I said puffed. I could have said inflated if I wanted to puff my language up a couple syllables. Right there I could have said two syllables instead of a couple. But I chose to say a couple because I wanted to take up your time.” (He knew there wasn’t anyone else in the car, and spoke to his existential you.) “That’s my prerogative. I could've said choices instead of prerogative, but didn't. I like puffed language because a tremendous number of individuals do not.
“Has anyone ever really been in a conversation? What do people talk about? Who listens? Are the best discussions we ever have when we're talking with ourselves? Conversations with eternity. Bingo. That's it, right there. Conversations with eternity. After all, when has communication ever really happened? Do people pretend to listen if they think that looking like they’re listening will somehow get them something out of it? When is there ever the genuine sharing of ideas?
“Impoverished. There's a word we have to get rid of. Why not simply say poor? We should burn the word impoverished alive. Too many syllables, can't have it. Must have final solution. All words more than one syllable are wrong. But not syllable. We keep that one. Or maybe call it syll. Or, Syl. Yes. Less is more. Must have less. And less sentences. Whoops. I mean, word things. Communication bad. Whoops. Talk bad. Pare down. Less more. I mean, les mor.
“If it's a time issue, wouldn't it take less to let the word impoverished stand without taking the time to complain about it having more syllables than the word poor? Yes. Yes it would. And if the issue is trying to cut down on pretension, isn't it not only more pretentious to criticize using the word impoverished instead of poor, but also hypocritical? Yes. Yes it is.
“Everyone wants to get respect, but nobody wants to give it! That's it, right there! Not unless it's patronizing. Not unless they get something out of it. And that's not respect at all. I mean, give me a break.
“Now, everyone in my dreams is only some aspect of myself. It's clear to me that that is a physical principle of life. We can't help but dream because that's a smaller version of the bigger picture. Matter being merely solidified thought. Life is a romanescu cauliflower, geometrically composed of the same principle within us all. We're only one part. The need to attribute personal agency over it all is so impossibly infantile, words can never express it. ‘Whitey in the sky.’ Holy fucking shit. Could an oyster possibly understand what I'm saying now? No. To oysters, I'm God. So does that mean I created everything? Nope. Existence extends greater than human beings can comprehend. Does that mean there's some personal version of us watching over us, everything we do, and really giving a shit? Nope. If you have to create a god, how in your story do you explain how God was created? Why not just say that existence came out of itself? Better yet, why not admit that existence extends farther than we can see? I know exactly why. It's because monkeys want to control each other. It's a power issue. It's fear. It seems easier to try to control others than it is to control the self. Everyone wants to get respect, but no one wants to give it.”
Phil clammed up as a car went by. He let the car pass a half a mile ahead before resuming.
“Those people in that Mustang pretended not to be talking about the Nature of Existence. They're no different from me. They're exactly like me in every way. I shan't be the one to ruin the game. No game ruiner, I. They, also, know exactly what I was doing, and still am. Right here in good old Rozinante.” Phil tapped the dash. “Brilliant, kind fellow travelers. No different from me at all. A wonderful game.”
The Mustang burned off in the distance. A dude stood at the side of the road. With his thumb out, Phil had seen, too, before the hitchhiker noticed the Pinto bearing down the hill. Seeing the guy get passed by immediately spoke to Phil. He doubted a big dark dude's chances of catching a ride for lots of reasons out there.
“Hello, part of my dream,” he said slowing down, hating the wear on and smell of the brakes that he tapped, but pleased with the look of relief and joy on the face of the hitchhiker. “Hello, version of me in the same story. Hello, I won't kill you.”
“Humbaba became a county –”
“No, no, no....”
“Humbaba became a county –”
“My friend, my friend, my friend, hey, listen –”
“Humbaba became a county sometime in the –”
“You're right. Go ahead. I apologize.” The hitchhiker, Pete, whose friends called him Haka, extended his hand for a soul grip which Phil met squinting. “No, hey,” he said, and coughed. Then said, “Oh, right. So it became a county sometime in the 1800s. The exact date goes disputed
(Did he just sound like Jeff Spicoli?)
“but it seems some guy in a semiofficial capacity, drunk on homemade beer, screwed up the name of the county for registering it on the records and everything, either by accident or on purpose, we don't really know.”
They looked at the trees for a bit.
“Which is actually pretty remarkable either way because, as it turns out, Humbaba is—in the world's oldest story, the epic of Gilgamesh—a monster.”
“Where is this from, again?”
“Sumerian. The Land Between the Rivers. The Cradle of Civilization. The oldest civilization in the world, and birthplace of writing, the wheel, agriculture. There, also, probably by accident, beer was invented. Which is strange.”
“Because Humbaba has the highest per capita alcoholism of any county in the country.”
“We should probably get going,” Haka said, getting up from the log.
“Right on,” Phil agreed, brushing himself free of debris and looking at his watch, determining that the fifteen minutes of break taken still squared with his time frame quite comfortably.
“Well,” he Phil, returning to his conversation as they drove off, “all I'm saying is, image over substance is the danger. The face of the politician is a product being pushed. Recognition of the name brand, recognition of the face, is some sign that advertising works, but it's still not even in the same ballpark as actually implementing a good idea.”
Haka nodded, tapping his thighs, checking out the view of passing trees. “I agree with you, bro. You’re saying that if people quit TV, the candidate, or, product, with the most money for ads and media slant would no longer be the most bankable winner. And I agree with you. But would that mean that people would be reading more, and making up their own minds, in a democracy, based on the substance of ideas?”
“Absolutely. But, I mean, games today on TV are seen as reality. Entertainment is a total diversion, of course, but on TV you get the Roman spectacle of might—theater as reenacted history. And, same as with Rome, we have a majority slave population unwittingly witness to the depletion of natural resources, the demise of conquered cultures, and meanwhile games are seen as truth. Meaningless spectacle diverting attention from the real problems that keep the audience in slavery, with all the values of the vampire elite held in high esteem.”
Haka had already put on some Frampton, and at this point started sticking out his tongue way down all bug-eyed and intense in the manner of the Maori famous worldwide for busting open barrels of intimidation, and he was getting all into it during the signature Framptone parts of “Do You Feel Like We Do?” Therefore Phil saw fit to not belabor the point, and instead got into the groove, with the sunlight casting shadows of the shifting trees on the winding road and on the hood of the car, trusty Rozinante, valiant steed.
They were in mountainous inland country now, breezing around corners where great bright boulders loom, boulders looking as though lifted directly from Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. Not too far ahead were a couple of little towns, Bandon and Hope.
Suddenly a red Mustang suddenly came tearing up; it tailgated a little, then tore off. And it was the same one.
“Those chickenshits,” said Phil.
Haka nodded, tapping. “Same fucking ones, yeah?”
Gassing up in Bandon, Phil paid a woman inside at the counter, a woman so skeletal and wrinkled, she must have started smoking when she was nine. Her name was Sharon. Haka started to go for his wallet, but Phil said the gas and the snacks were on him.
Back on the road in the car, the Pinto’s sound system promptly screwed up. It was the CD player, not original with the car of course. Still, somehow it figured.
Phil slammed the heel of his hand on the steering wheel, barely restraining in order to avoid causing more damage and not look like too much of a dork. “Goddam,” he said. Forcefully, but restrained.
Haka tried the radio. All he could get was some scratchy Styx. He turned it off.
The scenery was nice. Haka waved the bag of French Onion Sun Chips Phil’s way.
Taking a crunchy handful himself, Haka said, “I remember after the surprising, and what you might call organic, popularity of ‘Star Wars,’ cartoons on Saturday mornings were filled with commercials for ‘Star Wars’ action figure toys. All of that made so much money, more and more movies followed suit. Then came the corporate merchandising tie-ins that anticipated popularity. After that came the ad campaigns, all tied tight to the movie, which forced phony financial phenomena.
“And like they say, things fell apart.
“Three days after Mt. St. Helens erupted, the first ‘Star Wars’ sequel was released. This was in 1980, the year John Lennon was murdered, and Ronald Reagan, a former actor of B-movie fame, got into office by making a closed-door deal with the oil nation enemy of the day. So the empire had struck back, yeah? All those things were made part of a system bypassing organic requirement, and the production of film, merchandise, and politicians became fully operational.”
For a long time Phil nodded, smiling. “Think of the power we would wield as a people if we stopped the number one source of the trick simply by not watching TV. I'm not even saying anyone needs to not want anything ever. I'm saying commercials are poison, propaganda proliferates, TV pushes dehumanizing messages, it distracts people from serious issues, desensitizes, trains us to respond to complex issues with color-coded oversimplifications favorable only to the multinational corporations that own it, irresponsibly playing with propaganda at global human cost, always pushing lies harmful to humanity, lies about religion, lies about money, lies about the natural world, lies about life, all based on the petty pointless greed of a tiny minority trapped in fear of losing the criminal and unearned privilege which threatens all life on this our only plant in this the only life, and that, with minimal effort, anyone will easily be far better off by doing without TV altogether, and that the more who do that the better, and the fewer who do that the worse, and if all of that is so incredibly difficult to accept, you should ask yourself why, because the world in fact is under attack, someone's running it into the ground, and the more real research you do on your own, the more you'll find, cutting the cord isn't an end, it's a start.”
“Shit, bro. You've got to take it down a notch, yeah? Hey what's all this back here? Books? You’re a reader, yeah?”
“What do you have? Ulysses? The Waste Land, The Hollow Man, Heart of Darkness. What, no Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Shit bro, these are all Ivory Tower books. That's your problem.”
“Problem? What problem?”
“Crazy? Me, crazy? I'm not crazy. It's my mission that's crazy.”
“And what do you see as your mission, bro?”
“I'm on a mission to the heart of money to pick up a TV.”
“You're still crazy. Crazy from too much Ivory Tower.”
The ground was opening up around them, green fields spreading off with trees dotting. On low hills against the sky white windmills of a wind farm spun. Haka turned the tuning dial on the radio and they listened to John Fogarty, Robert Plant, Paul McCartney. Phil thought this was odd. He was sure he had heard Creedence Clearwater Revival, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles back in the Shire.
Haka flipped through Phil’s copy of Ulysses. Appraising the fluttering pages of the book as though he were looking up its skirt. Then he set it down. “I'll grant you Joyce has a structure in mind. No doubt about it. In his obscure way, he has a loose, dim version of Homer’s Odyssey. But it has to be explained. By people who had to have it explained. No offense to Joyce, but why should I give him the time? I can get great emotional depth, and character insight, and lyrical language, and you name it, from clear stories with direct action. Trying to hold up Ulysses is like trying to hold up batter and call it a cake, yeah? And I could go for a cake right now. But you're up there in your Ivory Tower. Look at this, what's this, Frank Zappa?”
“Frank Zappa will always be one of the greatest recording artists of all time.”
“I think he was a great guy. You've probably listened to him on YouTube?”
“Sometimes there, yeah.”
“I like to hear him talk. But most of his music, what I’ve heard anyway, it’s not for me. I would need a musician to explain it to me all the time. Or a team of musicians maybe. And Edgar Varese here. I see you actually have an Edgar Varese CD here. I wish your CD player worked.” Haka turned up Paul Simon. This seemed odd to Phil. He was certain he had just been listening to Simon and Garfunkel back in the Shire.
“Did you know,” Phil said after a while, interrupting a long silence, “that only four percent of people are redheads?”
Haka did not reply.
“It's true. One study found that redheads are the people who are hardest to sedate. We actually take up to twenty percent more anesthesia.”
“Sure, there have been good shows.” They had parked at a rest stop and were getting out now. “Not most, though. And with Netflix, no commercials. So, if you want to watch M*A*S*H, fantastic. Put it on your queue. Select from the season you want. You choose the episode. You choose the time. No slaving your schedule around the tube. No having to get stuck watching some crap you don't even like. You can pause it, back it up, pay attention, actively participate, ask questions, study, learn. Hey, where you going?”
Haka turned around. “Who? Me? Oh, I gotta get going.”
“You mean like, to the bathroom?”
“Why do you have your bag?”
“Oh, this? My luggage, right. Because I wouldn't want to leave it in your car.”
“Who? Rozinante? Isn't she great?”
“Hey, take care, man. This is where I needed to go.”
“I thought you said you’re going to Las Vegas.”
“Well, I'll get there someday, yeah? You take care, bro.”
“All right,” said Phil. “So long.”
Parked next to the Pinto was a greasy-looking guy with a belly and a broad and a sloppy kid with a dog with no leash. The guy was sweating, the broad complained of insomnia and the kid apparently suffered wild mood swings. Outside of Humbaba, Phil noticed, apparently everyone suffers from withdrawal symptoms. The sticker on the back of these people’s car said Life Is What You Have To Urn! The dog threatened Phil as he tried to stretch his legs before getting back in the car, then suddenly darted after a squirrel, zipping across the ground like a spaz.
He was a Third World dictator trying to turn the profits of his country's labor back into his country's people. It wasn't good enough, the beer the frat boys brought. The “honor.” The “prestige.”
Jordan: “Go ahead and get liquored up there, champ. Then you show us how it's done.
Sampedro: “You wan’ me to show you?”
Jordan: “That's right, champ. That's right. Drink up. Time to get rough. Get all rough-rough. You ready for some rough-rough?”
“Can you say rough-rough? Say rough-rough, rough-rough!”
He had put a hand on Sampedro's shoulder that day and put a stop to it. It was an active naked rebellion, and he was a Celtic chieftain, organizing the disarray, workers under the industrial yoke.
And the awareness was weight, and he lifted the weight with wide grips on the days he was hitting his lats.
Tidal power, wave power, solar, wind, geothermal. Pooro contemplated power as he lifted old car parts and cranked out crunches.
Profit First equals death. Was the system corrupt, or corruption the system? Where were the Berkeley activists, where the real fighters? In the structures of political power, where was folk music? Was the spirit of revolution he felt in the air a coalescence, or dissipation? Without the true grass roots cause, who then left to oppose the rapid escalation of war? Who left to question, keep democracy alive, without a thriving counter-culture?
And he did not say it, but he wondered these things, wondered from the toes up, awash in waves of power, the bone-deep memory of a surging lift in the social tide, he wondered the fate of the world as he trained, without any home, without any money, but not without purpose, and the pain that he caused when he fought was his voice, and he spoke in a language that he alone could hear, but did not yet understand...
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