I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
Downtown Philadelphia | June, 2000
It was a dry spell from hell. Never seen anything like it. The holy grail of friendly, stocked dealers who promptly returned their pages and weren’t crazy were suddenly impossible to find. In desperate times wishes for dealers both friendly and prompt were abandoned in favor of those who lived nearby and didn’t own a large gun collection and perhaps did fail to take their medication, but even these fleeting ghosts were not to be found throughout the dark months of April and May.
Marcus’s dealer Jules came back to town on Memorial Day weekend, and within days we were back up to our tits in apple buds, the way God intended. Marcus had to help his mom move that Friday, and I had to work, but neither of us had squat to do that weekend. We hadn’t smoked up in months, so our tolerance was way down. Shit was about to get ridiculous.
We set our alarms. We actually set our alarms for that Saturday morning, because we wanted to smoke as much weed as was humanly possible in one weekend. So, at eight o’clock in the morning on Saturday the 24th of June, the year of our Lord 2000, the two of us showered, dressed, and coffeed up as fast as we could, and were in Marcus’s hand-me-down brick-red ‘93 Buick LeSabre and on the road by nine. We had a day’s worth of apple buds (check), my steel pipe, freshly cleaned and with a brand new pack of filters (check), two lighters (check), two coolers filled with three twenty ounce bottles of lemon lime soda (check), a grocery bag filled to capacity with enough preservative-filled junk food to kill a small animal (check), a copy of the daily paper to look for weird things to do (check), a box of old cassette tapes (check), and Annie the blow-up doll keeping shit under control in the back seat (check).
Our first stop: glazed donuts from Nick’s Gas Station, which were warm and gooey, if you got there early enough. Then it was off to wake and bake in the old Nelson’s parking lot just off the Delaware, the perfect spot to watch planes take off and land to a soundtrack of Bjork and Massive Attack. Whatever came after that was up for grabs. There were dozens of ways to find Stoner Paradise, which usually came in the form of winky retro arcades or pizza parlors or amusement parks or mega-screen movies at the science museum or basically anything that transmogriphied us back into childhood versions of ourselves.
The New Age expo was my idea. A half-page ad buried deep in the metro section caught my attention. Marcus was fully game, even though it was sort of outside our normal sphere of doings. And as I said before, when it comes to finding Stoner Paradise, anything goes. Trapped in the Philadelphia convention center with ten thousand crystal-gazing hippies sounded like the best idea we’d had since stopping and turning the fuck around for Nick’s donuts.
And so we drove, we parked, we smoked even more, and now our asses are in line for tickets. We’re temporarily struck dumb with sticker shock (thirty bucks each!), but manage to regain our composure and hold steady the mission: we are going to get some prime time freak-show-on-the-dance-floor action at New Age expo city or bust.
It’s clear within five seconds of stepping into the auditorium that this is one of the best decisions of our young lives. I mean, don’t get me wrong—it’s a conference like any other—lots of people, overly air conditioned, blurry audio smear of many voices talking at once, the smell of new carpet—but this one has a little extra awesome around the edges: women in rainbow dresses swirl and clang tambourines or hold tea candles in shot glasses, children with flowers in their hair run in all directions, stunned conference-goers hover at cafeteria-style tables covered with endless books, cassette tapes, candles, flowers, crystals, and I don’t know what else. Giant signs hang from the ceiling to indicate which flavor of crazy is on display where (UFOs! ASTRAL TRAVEL! AURA PHOTOS! GUIDED MEDITATION!). Endless greeters and well-wishers shake hands with new arrivals, welcoming us to partake in the spirit of the new millennium. Someone hands me a plastic bag into which I dump the dozen or so pamphlets and flyers I find myself holding.
“Oh my God.”
Neither of us can believe what’s just happened: we nailed Stoner Paradise to the motherfucking wall.
We agree to split up. I walk endless rows of cafeteria tables lined with palm readers and crystal sellers. Incense smoke swirls and whales sing on tapes, making my stoned version of time slow down even more. A girl in a pink and gold sarong gives me the I know you’re high look, or at least I think she does. Maybe it’s just a flush of jealousy, a wish to not be working this event but experiencing it as I am, completely lost in the stoney flow of it. A shiny green gemstone winks at me from her forehead. I wink back.
An old woman with a giant cardboard sign on her table that screams TAROT CARD READER! offers to help me find my life’s true direction. Next to this a shirtless man lies face-down on a massage table getting his back worked by a dude who looks exactly like our old gym teacher.
Shuddering, I move on.
I listen to the ocean through large shells, smell essential oils, fondle sequined capes, and turn down multiple offers to have my fortune told. I have very, very little confidence in my ability to form coherent sentences at this point, and anyway my mouth feels like a dried out sponge. I find a beverage vendor giving away free samples of freshly squeezed mango juice. I down three of those and buy a bottle for six bucks. (Worth it.)
Next I come upon a small group of people huddled in a corner muttering to each other and smiling at everything. They’re all dressed in white. I turn around to snicker with Marcus before remembering that we’d already split up. One of the freaks in white spots me and walks over. He smiles, hands me what looked like a playbill, and extends his arm in the direction of a pair doors that someone else is opening.
I wandered into a small lecture hall, unable to stop the flow of whatever’s happening. I manage to glean the words Van Zorn off the playbill before the last shard of light is swallowed behind me.
Takes me a second to see in the dark. It’s much quieter than the main convention, and only about half full. Maybe a dozen people. An older, well-dressed man is on the stage, probably the Van Zorn promised by the handout. I take a seat. The stage guy just stands there, hands behind his back, waiting. I’m a dot in the exact center a painful silence sphere.
“Anyone? No one? Not even our new friend?”
Veins throb in my vision.
“It’s quite all right,” he laughs. “I was just asking, through a show of hands, how many people in the theater today consider themselves to be Christian.”
The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.
“Does Satanism count?”
Everyone laughs, including the man on the stage. My face is a furnace.
“That’s very clever, my young friend. No, I’m afraid I mean something a little closer to the mainstream.” Then, to the rest of the audience: “Am I to understand that in God’s America, there isn’t a single Christian among us today?”
What the hell kind of lecture have I stumbled into? I think back to the white-clad people outside. Jehovah’s Witnesses? Mormons? Latter-Day Saints? I suppose it isn’t completely outside the realm of possibilities for religious nuts to crash a New Age convention.
A man to my right cautiously raises his hand.
“Ah! Please, keep your hand up. Now. Who here considers themselves to be of the Jewish faith? Currently?”
Two more hands go up.
“How about Muslim?”
No hands go up. Also zero hands for Buddhism. Wait, no—one.
“So here, in one of the most populous of American cities, a man can walk into an auditorium filled with people on a fine summer’s day, and find not more than a tiny representation of the four great religions of our era? What’s wrong with this picture?”
The silence after this is long enough to cause considerable discomfort, but no one gets up to leave. What the hell is this guy selling? Everyone here is fucking selling something, even the bright-eyed mystics in the auditorium.
The man claps and leans forward. He looks as if he’s about to dive into the audience.
“We live in a remarkable age. Jesus Christ walks with us today, in this city, here in this very room. How do I know it? Because I just invoked him. Whether we like it or not, He is one of the biggest gods of our era. We define ourselves by our gods. Three thousand years ago I could have invoked the same visceral reaction by uttering the name of a different prophet.”
He paces the length of the stage, weighing invisible objects in his hands.
“This connection we have to the divine is beyond the words of men, beyond the names invented thousands of years ago, in a futile effort to describe the impossible. For it is the impossible we seek, no? It is the impossible which walks with us every day, not Jesus or Buddha any other god, but the impossible represented by the invention of those names that tug at the backs of our thoughts, that invite us to imagine what it would look like if we could really, really do all of the crazy, irresponsible things that exist only in the realm of our dreams.”
It comes to me, now that I am seated, exactly how stoned I am.
The man on the stage turns on his heel to face the audience. “Now. Let us face evil. Why were there Nazis?” Someone groans. The man on the stage ignores it. “This is one of the most intriguing questions of the twentieth century, but it’s never asked in quite the right way. We humans have exceedingly keen insights into the mysterious nature of existence. We create mind-bogglingly beautiful works of art, yet we are also extremely efficient mass murderers. This is the issue that drives the idealists crazy: humans are the only animals that torture. Why are we so horrible to each other? I tell you this: the influence is not human. It is an alien one.”
“Whoa,” I gasp.
I’m angry at my own reaction. Even within my fizzling skull I can tell I’m being manipulated by cheap rhetorical tricks, yet somehow it works. I’m being reeled in. I’m also like 40% sure the room is rotating.
“A being of immeasurably higher consciousness and possessing what seems like impossible technology would appear to us as a god, or a demon, or a space alien, or a ghost, or any other supernatural archetype you care to think of. But this is not true of just individual beings; an entire race of advanced lifeforms can influence the course of human history in ways not even imaginable. What do you think inspired our technology? Why do you think we were able to split the atom and leave the planet not four hundred years after the figurative apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head? These advances should take tens of thousands of years, not hundreds! It’s no wonder we’ve used these gifts both as a blessing and a curse. Leave the planet, drop a bomb.
“The technology we think we’ve developed is not our own. Oh sure, some of it is. Two world wars honed it to a great degree, but make no mistake: the original technology which allowed us to win World War II was not our own; we found it. Whether it was thrust upon us or accidentally stumbled upon, we cannot say. But I have shown, through extensive, exhaustive research, that there is no possible way our race could go from the wheel and agriculture to quantum mechanics and black holes in less than ten thousand years. Mark the progress of any other species and you will see that there is something rather curious about our evolution that sets us apart, and I’m not just talking about the nature of self-consciousness. Something happens around the Bronze Age that speeds us up, accelerates us to greatness, a greatness that flourishes with the ancient Greeks, but is squelched by politics, war, and religion, and doesn’t emerge again until the Renaissance, and has been flying along at light speed ever since, in who knows what direction.”
Shiny noises behind me. Someone is sliding around at the back of the theater. Why do I care? We came here to have fun, but I’m suddenly serious. And Jesus, why the hell isn’t Marcus here to see this guy? He’d be on his feet, stabbing the air, calling the man a charlatan. Talk about fun.
“And then we come to the nineteenth century. Oh my goodness, what have we here? Another newcomer? Welcome, welcome! Please, sit. Yes, and what happens in the nineteenth century but enormous advances in mathematics and physics, and then a collapse of logic which is reborn the next century in a flash of brilliance that was the invention of the first computer, in tandem with the shockwaves sent through the system by the birth cry of quantum mechanics, not to mention the theory of relativity. Now we’re on to something; you might even say we went from an evolutionary walk to a sudden sprint. Why?”
He wags his finger at us, eyebrows dancing. The newcomer settles in. The room falls back into another thick silence.
“Nobody cares why. Now we can really get some good work done. Only what do we do? We use it to break war codes and develop command and control hardware which leads to the unleashing of the first atomic bomb, all the miracles of modern science working together to harness the power of the atom, not to power our lives but to destroy them. But, hey! At least we got the Walkman out of it.”
Jesus Christ, I’m nodding. I look like an idiot, but I can’t help myself.
“Now, I’m not anti-science and I’m not anti-technology. Far from it. But isn’t it curious that we evolved into the ultimate killing machines, and it’s each other that we’re killing? For the first time in history, the biggest threat to civilization is itself. Given what we’ve seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom, over the last billion or so years of evolution, does this make any sense? Did we have any help? And if so, from whom? And why? This is the thrust of my research, and it is the subject of my latest book.”
He gives another loud clap and turns to face the audience, eyes closed. His face, beatific, raised to the heavens.
What was that accent—German?
“Thank you for your attention. I will be available for more questions shortly, and—shameless sales pitch—you may purchase any or all of my books in the main auditorium. You’ve been a wonderful audience. Please enjoy the rest of your weekend!”
It’s over. Most people shuffle away, some offer mild applause. The man shakes hands and smiles with members of the audience near the stage. It seems like I should get up too, but my ass feels frozen in place.
“He likes strong opinions. He’s going to want to meet you.”
I turn around. A chubby guy with a long black ponytail and ‘70s programmer glasses gives me a sneer. He is, like the people outside, wearing a white T-shirt.
“Those your friends out front?”
“You could say that.”
“What else could you say?”
“Come with me.”
He stands up and, for some reason, I follow him out to the main auditorium where he blends in with the rest of the Mormons, or whatever the hell they are. Heaven’s Gate 2.
“So, what are you guys selling? UFO abduction insurance?”
“Answers.” She’s good looking, not weird like the others. A little tough thing. Short black hair and a red heart pendant throbbing against a white blouse.
“Hi. I’m Mandy.”
I find Marcus at the concession area a few minutes later. My head is still spinning from the lecture. Meeting Ford Van Zorn was a singular experience that I’m not quite ready to talk about, as if someone put much smarter words to what I’ve been feeling for years. It’s like I have a shiny new toy in my pocket that I’m not ready to share with anyone.
I punch Marcus’s shoulder, desperate to hear what magic worlds he’d discovered.
“Nice, huh? So what do you think?”
We wander over to a seating area with a good view of the rest of the auditorium. I slam three hotdogs and a giant Coke.
Marcus doesn’t eat. Doesn’t say anything either. Just kind of idles.
“What’s up? You OK?”
His eyes are heavy, coming up with effort, then falling back to the table.
“Yeah, just… I dunno.”
I burp, scratch my ass, and get up to return my tray. When I come back he’s standing, hands in his pockets, nodding at the entrance.
“Are you high? We just got here. Get it? Are you high?” I think it’s funny, but Marcus doesn’t laugh. He’s leaving, clearly with or without me.
The car ride home is unnecessarily quiet. He drives. Won’t even take a hit off a freshly packed bowl. I turn on some music and smoke myself under the table.
Once home I climb into bed and stare at Mandy’s business card. Has a website on it. I think about Ford, try to pinpoint that accent. Not German. Dutch maybe?
“Ford Van Zorn. The fuck kind of name is that?”
Professor Waffles bleats in agreement.
I waggle my toe, but we were all done playing assassinate the sock monster now. The Professor rearranges himself into an impossible shape around my feet, a pair of sleepy, purring slippers, and squints at me.
Christ, I acted like such a dick to those groupies back at the expo. When Van Zorn came over to me right after his speech, the first thing out of my mouth was, “Aren’t you guys going to be late for your UFO?” He laughed and shook my hand. Put his arm around my shoulder. Come with us, kid. Didn’t see that coming.
“I’m Ford Van Zorn. What’s your name?”
“Bolero! How amusing! Like the Ravel? One of my favorites. So nice to meet you!”
“So where are we going?”
Mandy smiled too. She and Ford and the rest of the suicide groupies couldn’t have been happier.
“Just ice cream?” Felt anticlimactic somehow. Made me nervous.
“Sure, why not? I just finished a big speech. Weren’t you impressed? I know you missed some of it, but believe me—it’s a big deal. And I always get nervous before going onstage. The thought of a delicious chocolate ice cream cone is sometimes the only thing to get me through it. Come along! It’s on me. Consider it my reward for keeping me on my toes up there!”
I was wearing all black. Ford and the Van Zorns were more or less wearing all white. I was like, somebody take a fucking picture—this is my album cover!
Mandy spoke next.
“We’ve got time to take in the rest of the convention, Ford, if you’re not too tired. Or we could head back to the hotel.”
“I think the hotel would be best. Where is Willow? Ah, here we are! The ice cream stand. My, this is a long line. And worth it!”
So there we stood, eating ice cream like idiots, blinking and smiling at each other. It was actually kind of awesome. The dude with the ponytail asked me a few questions, where I was from, what I was into. He invited me to join their book club. Said he was the local treasurer. I was going to ask them what they were reading, but thought better of it. (This guy’s book. Of course they’re reading this guy’s book.) I agreed to go.
Van Zorn high-fived a groupie. Mandy gave me her business card. Ponytail dude offered me his number. I asked him what his name was, and this is the strange part: he hesitated. Who hesitates when you ask their name? Unless they’re in trouble, I guess. But he was relaxed, smiling. Daryl. He said his name was Daryl, but I swear to fuck. I swear all to fuck he had to think about it for a second. Like his eyes kind of went up and darted around a little, then back down to me. And mind you, this was all within a split second, but the clear message was this: hang on, accessing…
I took the card. Then I came to look for you, oh space cadet. Yes, you. You of the recently robbed of speech. My roommate, my lifelong friend. You, who couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there and hightail it home. You of the never getting paranoid, no matter how much we smoked. Never seen you so freaked out, man.