My uncle once said that God’s recipe for West Texas was to take stupidity, crude oil, and rocks, and put that under the broiler for six thousand years.
My uncle once said that God’s recipe for West Texas was to take stupidity, crude oil, and rocks, and put that under the broiler for six thousand years.
Now that we were driving across it, I could see what he meant.
You know how it is when you’re driving from MacArthur to La Verja, and there’s like nothing to see but sun-baked dirt? Billy and me were gonna be looking at that for like 6 hours, so despite our better judgement, we decided to try out the stuff we scored from Felipe’s friend when we were in MacArthur this weekend.
I took one — and I don’t know why the fuck he did it — but Billy grabbed three.
A sign said the next truck stop was like the last place to buy gas for like two hundred miles or so, so we decided to stop. I bought some ridiculous plastic sunglasses, two bottles of grape soda, four packs of smokes, and then eight packs of gum.
I could tell the stuff was starting, and it was strong. I don’t get hung up on weird number shit like only buying things in powers of two unless the stuff is really strong.
We got back in my car, and of course five minutes after we leave the truck stop, we get pulled over by a state trooper.
“Billy! Look at me!”
He had pupils like a cave fish.
“Put on these sunglasses. Your eyes are gonna give us away.”
I watched the cop walk up. Christ, the slower he walks, the higher I’ll be when I have to talk to him. Not good.
He even had those reflective sunglasses.
“Billy — get out a textbook from my backpack and put it in your lap and act like you’re reading it.”
“What — why?”
“Just do it. I come off like a nerd, but you’re like a walking encyclopedia of burnout druggie stereotypes”.
Billy grabbed my “Principles of Econometrics” textbook.
“Just keep on those sunglasses. Christ, you got pupils so big I can see your brain through them.”
Anyhow, I don’t want to go into all the details, but the cop told us he pulled us over because my car matched the description of a stolen vehicle. Bullshit. My car was a Delta 88 from nine years ago with a huge dent in the side. He was just bored and hoping we’d trip up somehow.
I realized Billy was really playing the role well while I answered the cop’s questions. Billy even got out a highlighter and was chewing on it while intently staring a page showing some math proofs.
After a really unpleasant conversation about nothing, he told us to be careful. The cop said the weatherman said there’s storms coming through.
I must have said “thank you sir” a hundred times. Then I gripped the fuck out of my steering wheel and waited as he walked back to his car and then I watched him drive by us.
I finally opened my hands. They were sticky. That old car’s steering wheel was leather, and it would get really sticky on hot days. I yelled as loud as I could.
“The fuck man! You scared me!” Billy said and threw my books in the back seat.
“My heart is pounding. I don’t want to be in this car for the next six hours.”
As I got back on the road, Billy got out the map and said there was a small town with some state park off the highway.
We got there and found the park. Not much of a park really. But there was a spring here and we saw the first plant life we had seen in hours.
We sat on the grass and I drank one of my grape sodas.
“You hear something?” Billy was moving his head around.
There was a junior high band concert in a covered pavilion.
We walked over and listened to it. People were sitting in white folding chairs that had been set out in neat rows and columns.
There was school band underneath a big covered shelter. We stood by a tree at the back. I started counting the chairs and seeing if the ratio of rows and columns matched the golden rectangle. And it did!
Whoever set out these fucking chairs was a boss. A kindred spirit.
Less than half the chairs were filled. Those that were filled had old people in them or clearly bored parents of the musicians.
Billy walked up to the front row. He didn’t sit though, just stood there in front of everyone, bobbing his head, then swaying his whole body with the music.
It’s a stupid cliche to talk about how you can see music when you’re frying. That is not exactly right. It’s more like you can hear every instrument separately and then you can also hear them all together at the same time, and you can hear the notes in the order they’re played, but then when a song repeats some melody, you can remember the first time you heard that melody as if it were playing again.
Saying you can see the music misses the point. It’s more like you can experience the music from outside the strictness of time and space. It’s hard to explain, but if you know what I mean, then you know what it is like, and this was one of those times like that.
At some point this concert felt like more like the soundtrack to a battle between good and evil. The kids were mediocre technicians, but when they played, it was so fuggin’ beautiful.
I could hear the notes this one clarinet kid played, and somehow I also knew the notes that he was supposed to be playing.
The two streams become two magic beautiful snakes. Or maybe two sine waves. Sometimes they were together in pitch and in time, and other times, they would diverge, as the kid got further and further off the rhythm or off the correct notes. And the gaps were something that took on a different colors the further they diverged. Scary dark noises. And then somehow that little warrior on the clarinet managed to get back on key and back on rhythm and everything would relax.
It was almost like the errors were not errors as much as like improvisations.
I saw Sisyphus pushing that boulder up that hill. I saw Samson destroying the temple of Dagon. I saw a seed germinate and sprout after being being buried for a thousand years under a glacier.
Finally the song ended. I realized I had been hunched over forward in my chair, with my hands on my head the whole time, pumping my legs like the world depended on it.
I opened my eyes wide. Yeah, I was high as shit. I couldn’t look at the stage. The children were all so complex and innocent. Just observing them would transform them.
So I stared up at the sky. The sky was full of those snakes, except now they were storm clouds and they braiding around each other, and they were in some kind of frenzy.
The band wasn’t playing another song yet. I needed them to start because I was feeling this creeping sense of dread coming over me and only that badass clarinet kid could save me.
“No! Don’t stop!” Billy yelled.
I looked down from the sky and looked around. I guess Billy and I were the only ones out there. I realized it was raining on us. I realized water was running off my head. We didn’t care.
“Keep going!” Billy howled again.
Then I heard somebody up on the stage say “That’s the spirit! The show must go on!” It was the band director.
It was now pouring rain. But the music started again.
Everybody else had run away but Billy and me listened to the next song while out in the rain and I swear it was majestic.
Then the music stopped and the rain stopped and Billy yelled out heroically and dropped to his knees and clapped his hands. All the kids on stage clapped for him. Now, looking back, I think that Billy probably looked like some kind of developmentally disabled person. We probably both did.
Billy and I stood there like idiots and watched the band kids pack up and it wasn’t until we were by ourselves that we realized the concert was over.
“Maybe we really are R-words” I said aloud.
Billy ignored me.
The concert was in the town square. I looked around us. On one side was something like an old stone courthouse. Then a boarded-up movie theater. It still had posters from a movie from years ago.
I remembered those pictures I saw of Pripyat, where classrooms had been evacuated, and years later, the chalkboards still had writing on them. Everybody says Chernobyl, but that was the name of the reactor, not the town. The town nearby was Pripyat. God, stuff like this always makes me feel so alone.
I wanted to know what the inside of that theater looked like. Maybe there was still candy in the concession stand. Maybe movies still played automatically and generations of roaches inside had grown up inside and they had adapted their circadian clocks based on the movies. And in a million generations, eventually those roaches would evolve to a level of intelligence where they would understand the movies, and they, unlike us, would know there were other intelligent species in the universe with them. Or at least there had been intelligent species. What is worse… feeling like you are alone in the universe, or that other people were like you once, but now they’re all dead?
While we walked, I tried to explain this stuff to Billy but it went nowhere.
“There’s no way there is still electricity in there.”
“Yes, I know, but it is fun to imagine, right?”
We stood in front of the empty box office. The times of the last movies were still mostly up on the black sign with white letters.
“You know what this is like, Billy? The goddamn voyager space probe. They put those gold discs on that thing and blasted it out into deep space. Those discs had like an introduction to the best parts of humanity on them.”
“The roaches in there, they’re gonna find these two shitty movies, and that’s gonna be how they’re gonna think of us.”
“They’re gonna think we’re a bunch of freaks because the only movies that we’ve got to show them about us is Exotic Dancer 2 and then a movie about a monkey that played baseball.”
Then next door, I saw a storefront with a sign out front.
PALM READINGS FIVE DOLLARS
I looked at Billy and nodded and he frowned. I went in. I figured I’d find him later.
I pushed open the door and I heard a bell ring.
“Be right out!” A woman’s voice called from the other side of a dark curtain across the room.
The inside was dark. It reeked like incense, but I loved it. Of course some weird world music playing softly.
I sat on a really soft couch. A cat immediately jumped up on the couch and I could hear it purring.
The room felt wonderful. The psychic harmonics were perfect.
I looked up as the curtains moved and I saw the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
“You’re here for what?” She asked me and I could tell she was suspicious.
“My palm getting read!” I tried to say it casually, then did the opposite.
So we go behind the curtain and there is a small round table, with like three different layers of tablecloths on it. There was all sorts of stuff everywhere on the walls and there were shelves of books too. I focused hard just on her. Otherwise I would have gotten lost.
I sat on one side and she sat on the other.
She leaned forward. I leaned forward.
Her eyes were this golden honey caramel brown. I swear I can still feel them looking at me. The warmest sunniest feeling I could describe.
We sat at that weird table on the dark room. My mind was just racing.
“Hey, buddy” she said it in a flat affect. “You need to take your hand out of your pocket if this is gonna work.”
I put both my hands on the table and felt stupid. She grabbed one, turned it palm up, and just stared at it for a while.
Then she looked up. “There is something wrong.”
“Well, I’m left handed, and you’re looking at my right hand.”
She frowned a tiny bit.
“Shouldn’t you already know that?”
She ignored me.
Then she traced the lines on my hand. I swear it was the most intense sensation I’ve ever had.
“Still. There’s something about you that’s bad.”
“Bad? Let me see your palm!”
I grabbed her hand. She wore rings on almost every finger and had tons of bracelets too.
I could see tats on her forearm too. Not images, but text written in some other alphabet.
I stared at her hand, her wrist, her forearm. Beautiful olive color skin.
“We knew each other before this a really long time ago. I was an astronomer and you were a concubine for the emperor.”
She rolled her eyes at me.
“OK, do you want me to stop?”
“No, keep going… this is going to be good.”
She had some kind of accent. I couldn’t tell where from. Not Mexican. I glanced around the room. No clues.
“Ok, yeah, so, we had a secret affair, you and I, and it went on for years.”
I don’t know where this shit was coming from, but I could tell she was digging it by how she half smiled at me.
“Yeah, this was a really long time ago. Like before Jesus. We lived somewhere where they were polytheists… you know what that is?”
“Yes, I know what polytheism is, skinny boy”
“Right, well you and I would meet in my observatory where I would record the position of the stars. I was a slave from some other nation and so were you.”
“This next part is really sad…”
I traced her hand while saying this.
“When we were discovered, we both knew it would be certain death by horrible means. So I gave you a vial of poison I hid in my room in a statue of the snake goddess of wisdom.”
“I saw you close your eyes, but before I could drink the poison, I was captured. It was terrible. I was blinded, flogged, and then locked up in a hollow bronze bull and then a fire was built underneath and I was roasted alive.”
“Tell me about the goddess of wisdom, skinny boy.”
“Oh you think I’m just making shit up? Well, I’m not. She was the queen of snakes. She was like a mermaid, but not a fish bottom half, instead a snake half.”
I looked up from her palm. She was crying. She pulled her hand away. She rolled up her sleeve, and beyond the text, there was a tattoo of a woman, but from the waist down, she’s a snake.
It was like 90 seconds later and we were fucking like rabbits that just got out of prison.
Then she kicked me out! Her husband was gonna be home any minute and she said he would kill the both of us if he found us.
She said something like “you found me once! Find me again!” And shoved me out the door.
“No I found you twice!” I said.
It was raining again.
So I played some skeeball, because that’s what you do after you meet your soulmate from a previous life.
I guess there was some travelling carnival at the same park as the jazz band concert. And sure enough, there was a tent with skeeball.
I tapped the ball and listened to it. I could hear vibrations from deep inside. I swear I could see the forest this wood grew up in in my head. I rolled it and it was perfect. I hit every ball perfectly.
I must have played for an hour. I was on fire. Let’s put it this way… I got ALL the tickets out of two different machines.
A bunch of children were watching me. After every game, I ripped off the tickets and handed it to whatever kid looked the sorriest and saddest.
You know how everybody gets good at pool when they’re drunk? It was like that x 1000.
Kids were all whispering around me.
“Nobody say nothing!” I yelled at them and then kept sinking balls in that 5000 point spot. It was unworldly.
Then I realized I hadn’t seen Billy in a long time.
I walked out of the skill games tent. I saw Billy.
He was at the top of a Ferris wheel, holding a bullhorn, and naked. And really erect.
“I AM THE PROPHET OF THE CIRCLE GOD”
He was screaming that over and over again through a bullhorn. And hanging by one hand off the side of the top of the wheel.
“This sacreligious wheel will turn NO LONGER!” He growled while he spoke. He spat when he said “sacreligious”.
“THIS IS IDOLATRY!”
There was a security guard and a bunch of people standing around watching him.
Then lightning hit the ferris wheel. There was an explosion. Everyone around me ran.
When I looked up, Billy was gone.
I could hear sirens.
I ran to the ferris wheel. The top was twisted in a sick-looking way and all the different cars were now burning.
I couldn’t see him. It was raining hard now. I saw firefighters dragging hoses and I saw cop cars.
So I walked back to my car. I needed to figure out what the hell I was going to do. I sat inside, listened to rain hit the roof. I dug out a mixtape from the trash in the backseat. Started playing it. Cranked up the volume loud.
“Billy! what the fuck man?”
I banged my head against the chair headrest.
“Why are you so stupid?!?”
I got out a notebook and started writing shit down. Either I had a psychotic break, or my friend just died. From the way I could see the individual fibers in the paper, and how I could see the ink flowing out of my pen into the gaps between the individual fibers in the papers of my notebook, I knew both things were possible.
Somebody knocked on the car window and scared the shit out of me.
It was Billy, covered in mud and straw and leaves, from head to toe.
I got out of the car and I hugged him and hugged him and held on until the smell hit me. And I realized he was still naked and I was now smeared in whatever was all over him.
“I fucking teleported man! Teleported! TELEPORTED! T. E. L. L. A…. ported! I just got here by crawling out of that tunnel” — at this point, he pointed at a storm drain.
I realized after hours of being under the effect, I was coming back down.
And Billy literally smelled like shit. Time to get the hell out of here.