You may believe that knowing smile that materializes on my face out of nowhere is directed at a transparency within yourself that I can only see. You may even perceive that slight, intangible moment when my skin touches yours, while returning your change, as proof that I am there. I am not here….”
by ron gibson, jr.
The night is slow. There once was a time when we could alter its tempo with pills, fuck the constraints of convention, rip off the conductor’s wand, stick it in the globe’s longitudinal bicycle spokes, derail continuity, and become roving Greenwichs unto ourselves—a fighter squadron of zeroes, tanked up on saki, diving headlong into the night, running so hot, so volatile that we combust upon touch into fireballs of technicolor chaos. No matter how hard we accelerated, though, nothing alludes time. Bodies, mountains, civilizations. Second hands continually hack away, eroding cell after cell, until night dissipates and we collapse to dream feverishly among its detritus. Then, one day everything changes. You wake up in the hairy arms of what you hope is an eco-girl, we has dwindled to I, future has become past tense, and the only thing that feels emptier than your soul is the bladder you unknowingly evacuated in your sleep. Time is a perpetual hangover, now. Working graveyard, perspective is lost. Night is a treadmill. The only thing distinguishing one from the next is customers, and sometimes even their faces blur into uniformity. I am your local cypher. I sit in my claustrophobic cubicle of light, a beacon in the night, catching drug-resistant tuberculosis, ebola and cholera from uncoiled, crystal meth-granulated currency palmed over in exchange for gas and smokes. I am your poison peddler, with the neon-advertised corporate insignia to prove it. Our motto: “If we don’t kill you one way, we’ll kill us all with the next.” Dinosaurs died for our fun, North Carolina farmers killed more humans than dinosaurs. Gas and smokes; they are mutually advantageous. Fossil fuels run out, you plant dead smokers for future harvest. In a 150 million years, it’s win-win. That’s called vision, my friend. And what do I get in return for such invaluable foresight? $7.01 and nine-tenths an hour, a godawful case of piles, and the honor of being a living, breathing bullseye behind Plexiglas for any stateline-blazing hold up artist with a William Tell complex. With incentives like that, any Mexicali ragpicker would think they had died and gone to the fabled Big Rock Candy Mountain if they were me. What can I say? I am an Anglo-American. Rights were created for the sake of bitching and bilking. Cigarettes don’t grow on trees; they are bought tax-free from Indian Reservations and sold for double by me. Gasoline doesn’t flow in streams—well, judging by oily rainbows swirling on the surface of salmon habitats, maybe it does—the first ten gallons of every new shipment flows straight into my gas tank, replaced with water from the garden hose. Hear that ping? Feel that hesitation? That’s me saying, reality is a bitch.
It’s enough to drive a man to drink, Crazy Saul once said.
That it is, agreed Ray.
Then what are you waiting for? asked Saul. Start pouring!
(cymbal splash, canned laughter)
Reality is I am not here. When that need for a nicotine jag pulls you away from a Newhart rerun at 3 a.m., that newfangled dashboard bongs to let you know you are running low on fuel on your way to Denny’s after a rave, that cell phone battery goes dead and you are forced to use the public telephone to coordinate with fellow street racers, you may believe I am there. You may take my silence in response to your offhanded comment, Nice to deal with someone that speaks English for once, to be leftist and ironic. You may believe that knowing smile that materializes on my face out of nowhere is directed at a transparency within yourself that I can only see. You may even perceive that slight, intangible moment when my skin touches yours, while returning your change, as proof that I am there. I am not here. I am a figment of perception, a trick of the light. I am behind this curtain of molecules, a time capsule. Crazy Saul is alive. Ray and I are marauding the valley as one. Civilization never arrived. Demographics never changed. Corporate parks, strip malls, mega-apartment complexes have reverted to wetlands. The wilds are still wild. The bogeyman still exists, Chuck Barris is God, and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine never left the stage. Everything is eternal, everything is the same.
Crazy Saul died in an old folks home on Bastille Day. I was there. The home was prison enough for me to see the irony of its timing. We were listening to an episode of Life with Luigi and splitting a fifth of Crown Royal, like the old days with Ray, when this nurse pissed on our party. She confiscated the booze and cassette player, stating that I was not only endangering the life of Saul, which was in its final moments of being strangled by cancer, but I was also disrupting the deaths of other residents with a little old time radio nostalgia. Defeat swallowed the room. A warm breeze parted flimsy curtains, a shaft of sunlight separated us. “Oh, cheer up, Luigi. Shmile,” said Crazy Saul, eyes glowing cataract-blue. “Remember to be true to your teeth or they’ll be false to you.” I smiled and sang six verses of, “America, I love you. You like a papa to me,” before his eyes closed and I went home to feed his bull terriers, Benny and Rochester.
Ray, on the other hand, may as well have died. One day he just disappeared. My best friend since birth, my brother in arms, my other half of the 4:20 toke. Gone. Maybe I should have saw the signs. Instead of hanging out, he became withdrawn. When Bowly or Crazy Saul asked where he was, I made up excuses. I thought he was with Megan. The cardinal rule among men: Never intervene between a man and his pussy. That remained the same until she came to me asking if I had seen him. I learned she knew, for the most part, as much as I did. Usual family dysfunction, restlessness, despondency. That stuff was old hat. What gutted me was that he had shown her Rambo’s last letter from prison. The hurt struck quick and deep as the shiv Rambo had met with. For even though we had both been raised by our fathers, Ray and I always latched onto surrogate father figures. Granted they were never the best choices: drug dealers, drunks, addicts, scam artists. Then again, we were never the best kids. People shake their heads with disdain when a girl succumbs to an abusive boyfriend, pimp, photographer, strip club manager. To a kid, youth is not a commodity, it is an affliction. When something lacks, you fill the void, you settle for the first opportunity that presents itself. Teachers and parents could preach from dawn to dusk until doomsday on the ills of society, demonize chemicals and guns and premarital blowjobs, attempt to guide youth down the right path, and every time a certain number will still aim that hood ornament straight into a head-on collision. Rambo was a mess, but he was our mess, our father. We were the only ones to attend his funeral—a plot nearby the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, unmarked spare his Purple Heart, a gram of Matanooska Thunderfuck sprinkled over upturned dirt, and a picture of his mallard duck, General Westnoland, flying away against gray skies. That was special, that was us. I couldn’t help but feel betrayed that our world included others, now.
Despite it all, Megan and I worked together to scour the valley. We found nothing, except the sketchy connection that Rambo’s last letter and Ray’s last conversation with his porn-addled brother both included the Bhagwan Rajneesh. The Bhagwan was a con man and homeland terrorist under the guise of spiritual leader and rich man’s guru. He and his followers essentially took over the town of Antelope, Oregon and transformed it into Rajneeshpuram. Back when we were kids, Rambo would tell us the story of his lost weekend in Rajneesheeville. Rolls Royces, drugs, all-night orgies, mansions that piped in laughing gas—a veritable Disneyland for the depraved and brainwashed. Ray and I couldn’t wait for the day when we could have our way with a big-breasted cult victim, too. Years passed and wet dreams dried. Unless it was some insane tribute to Rambo, I couldn’t envision Ray rekindling the desire to go there. I also couldn’t envision him leaving without as much as a goodbye. When you are desperate, you suppose any possibility is possible. Why else would we drive hundreds of miles nonstop to confirm what we already knew? He wasn’t there. Either was the Bhagwan and his followers. The Bhagwan had long since been deported and dead, his followers reprogrammed to resume their lives as trophy wives and businessmen, the Rolls Royces were auctioned off, and Rajneeshpuram, ironically, was transformed into a white bread Christian youth camp. As soon as we mentioned the Bhagwan to a camp counselor, he regarded us warily and threatened to inform the authorities that we were trespassing. Maybe the counselor could smell gak permeating off my clothes and automatically drew the conclusion that we were unsavory.
The drive home was silent. Dusk was coming on. Combines were still threshing tirelessly in the Williamette Valley, double-long semis rushed toward deadlines, Megan was softly snoring. Knees to her chest and head against the passenger window, she looked like the personification of life. I wondered if this is what Ray saw, too. Maybe we had grown up in the shadows of the valley so long that our eyes had become dark-adapted, the faintest glimmer seeming bright from the bottom. Maybe what Ray was after was light, something more vibrant than even Megan. Maybe he knew it was a suicide mission and that I would follow. Maybe he was protecting me. Maybe he knew once he emerged from the depths, his body would be seized by the bends; pressure constricting so tight that his eyeballs bulged and his body bloated with trapped air. Maybe, then, he was protecting Megan, as well. Maybe he loved her. Maybe he loved me. Maybe he loved us both. We would never know. All we knew, after all, was that we loved him.
In the end, you could say that I loved him more. While Megan moved on and married the lead singer of a Shonen Knife tribute band, I stayed behind. Even as civilization systematically uprooted the valley and diluted the night with prefabricated light, I continued to search. While others found solace in reinvention, I continued to stagnate. Even as the world died in its sleep, I continued to stand, a witness.
(illustration: john richen)
Ron Gibson, Jr. resides in Kent, Washington, has previously appeared in publications such as Exquisite Corpse, Word Riot, The Whirligig, The Paumanok Review, Thunder Sandwich, etc, has had fiction and poetry included in various anthologies and has been nominated for a Pushcart and Zine Yearbook nominations.