Northwest Philadelphia | Sunday July 30th, 2000
I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I may have just killed a man with a ray gun.
I’m running through the trees. Marcus is somewhere behind me, I think. Not sure. Last I saw he was out cold. Jumped over him to get the fuck away from whatever the hell. The path ends and I’m hacking my way through a hot green nightmare. My run slows to a walk, and the tunnel of forest around me changes into a wall. My fist is wrapped around something small and hard but my brain won’t let me think about what it is. Just don’t let go for fuck’s sake is the only thought getting through to the surface, and so I shove the thing in my front pocket. The underwater part of my brain registers that Marcus could be really hurt back there, maybe bleeding to death or who knows. I promise to go back for him. I just need to get a little space—OK, a lot of it—between me and that path in the woods. Just for now. Not OK, not OK, not OK echoes in my head.
To my left I see what looks like a wire fence, not a very high one. I make my way in that general direction, barely able to clomp through the twisting pile of logs and mud underfoot, and sure enough—a fence. More for looks than security. I jump it and come out into a clearing. I see acres of fresh-cut lawn and far-away people in white pants. It’s a golf course. Middle of the day. Sunny and hot. I duck back into the trees, up against the fence. Just gonna wait here a minute and catch my breath.
A few minutes later I’m up and haunting the perimeter of the course, hopefully in the direction of a club. Fucking golf courses always have clubs, right? With hopefully cold water and a bathroom and maybe a vending machine.
I walk for about twenty minutes, hugging the fence, and eventually find myself across a gargantuan parking lot from what must be the club. It looks like a big tan house, and there’s people sitting and eating in a patio on the side facing the grass. Or the course, I guess. People are coming and going through a door on the parking lot side. Cars and babies and old people, all rich and white. I suck in a dry lungful of air and go for it, quite sure I look every bit as crazy as I feel, but somehow I’m wrong—looking down I see that I’m actually wearing a respectable button-down shirt, dark jeans, and not the worst pair of sneakers I own. This is an accident of it being well beyond laundry day, and these are my department store clothes that I never wear and are usually reserved for family events that involve churches and relatives. And laundry day. My fight with the woods has left me more or less unscathed, although a small cut in the back of my neck is starting to smart. I futz with my hair in a car window and see a small crowd about to walk in. A family. I fall in just a few steps behind. Absolutely no one notices me.
The bathroom is stark white, empty, and mercifully cold. I suck down fistfuls of water in the sink and do more futzing with my hair in the mirror. I duck into a stall and let loose the knot of acid in my gut. I see an open door to a busy kitchen on my way out and decide not to try to steal some food. I’m not that hungry, and it would only produce another acid knot anyway. On my way back out I’m rehydrated and refreshed, and would just give anything for a car.
I’m walking down the side of a suburban semi-freeway, one of those freeways that aren’t really freeways because they have stoplights, and I’m not even thinking about hitchhiking. It occurs to me that I could have used the phone back there at the restaurant or the clubhouse or whatever. Not sure how that would have gone down, actually. And anyway the walking feels good now, but where the fuck am I. Nothing but freeway and sky. Literally no idea where I’m going.
Another twenty minutes go by and I see a gas station off to the right. I start to run. I see a payphone in the parking lot and run faster. I’m out of breath as I fling myself into the booth, pick up the receiver, and slam my thumb into the zero key. Need to make a collect call. I’m trying to remember how that works, then I hang up because hello, I have change right here in my pocket (under the thing, a part of me whispers to myself). I’ve also got Mandy’s number in my wallet and so I take that out and I’m dialing. It’s ringing. There’s a giant horsefly in the phone booth with me. I open up the door to let it out. The line rings and rings. It’s like a sweat lodge in there. All the sweat that the wind had been blowing away is now pouring down my face. The sun lights up the sweat beads on my eyelashes.
The ringing stops and starts up again: the call is being forwarded. My eyes are closed but the sweat still finds a way in. The traffic outside is loud. I close the door so I can hear, hoping the monster-sized fly has found its way out.
Mandy’s voice mail picks up. It’s her cell. I manage to get out most of what I need to say and hang up. I feel like I did a reasonably good job at hitting all the salient facts of the situation. The giant fly is still thumping around the top of the phone booth. I’m looking down at a tiny silver tray under the receiver meant for the setting down of small things during calls. The tray is clean except for a single red dot. No, two. Three. I put the back of my hand to my nose and it comes away bloody.
Mandy’s dispatched Daryl to pick me up. She’s in the middle of welcoming newcomers in Chicago at a fête similar to the one I attended, and won’t be back in town anytime soon. Daryl sends her apologies, and offers a few himself for making me wait almost three hours while he finished up his shift at work. I tell him not to worry about it. We’re in his car driving down the not-freeway-with-stoplights, going absolutely right to Willow’s downtown apartment. He tells me not to worry. They have food there, lots of stuff. And I can take a shower and a nap there if I like. Crash for a few days, even. Whatevs. That’s what they’re there for, he explains. For when life just cuts us out, hands us a raw deal. Makes it difficult to focus on the truth. And hey, what happened back there? Mandy made it sound like I had quite the little adventure.
I’m glad he’s the one Mandy sent to pick me up. Haven’t seen him since the big night at Willow’s, with the waiters and the giant fireplace and the burnt marshmallow leather couches. Which was a bit of a mess, and I’m still kind of embarrassed about how I acted that night. Sort of. In my defense, Mandy asked for it:
“Balero, why don’t we start with you? Tell us a little about yourself.”
“Yeah, hi. My name is, uh, Balero Toomey. Real name’s Francis, but yeah. Just call me Balero. I’m here because I believe a really big chunk of the universe is a lie.” I waited for a chuckle but didn’t hear one, only the soft tink of fine dinnerware. “I’m, uh, what the modern world perceives as not a game day player. This has bothered me since I was a little kid. Why do we just assume things are what they appear?” I started out mumbling but was getting loud fast. I saw something close to concern in Mandy’s face, but she didn’t interrupt. “We’ve known for just decades now that it’s bullshit, but nothing’s really made a dent in our culture. I guess the hippies gave it a try, to wake us up, but they were just repeating what was by then common knowledge, and was already being ignored: that the universe is a computer program running short on memory. We’d gotten too smart.” I was actually yelling at this point. “We could poke holes in reality with the fingers of math and physics and yet we just kept shopping and fighting and pretending like it all still meant something. It doesn’t mean a damn anymore, not since the ‘20s. Like I said, this has bothered me since I was a kid. So you can imagine how glad I am to finally be able to talk about it. As in why—why the fuck don’t we care about this? I mean, or besides warping these winkles in our reality into things like bombs and nuclear waste. What’s wrong with us?”
The room had gone completely quiet. The library doors were open and more people were looking in (late-comers?) and even the help was listening, rapt.
“I read Thucydides in one night. It was like I’d travelled into the future and written it to explain every crazy thought I’ve had since I was a little kid and sent it back in time to the present me, to keep me from going crazy thinking I was the only one who couldn’t stop thinking about these things. Guys, this is a real problem: the jig is totally up. Has been up for almost a century now. We knew we’d get there eventually, but we never thought of what we’d do once we did, or that it would come so soon. Heisenberg. Bohr. Gödel. Einstein. Planck. Schrödinger. Born. Schwarzschild. Hawking.” I jabbed fingers in the air at each name. “The. Fucking. Joke’s. On. You. Reality. We’ve got your number, and it’s imaginary.”
Whoever the other newcomer was that night, the girl, she sat down. Clearly her turn to be introduced wasn’t coming anytime soon, but she wasn’t mad. In fact she was smiling. She was getting comfortable so she could take in the show. I looked over at Mandy and she was smiling too. Actually fucking lifted her wine glass to me during the pause I found myself in the middle of, having not quite emptied myself but not quite sure how to continue.
“And another thing.” I spouted on about poverty, religious persecution, space travel, government experiments with psychic powers and psychedelic drugs, civil rights, particle accelerators, musique concrète, sensory deprivation, remote viewing, time travel [the real kind, with spaceships hovering just beyond the edge of a black hole to leap thousands of years into the future from Earth’s perspective (yes, theoretically possible)], and I don’t know what else. I sort of lost control of the rhetorical bus at that point. Even when I bore down particularly hard on a point about the absolute necessity of creative freedom in the teeth of economic despair, which I’m sure looking back caused at least a few winces in a room full of really convincing replications of nineteenth century art and furniture, no one interrupted me. And no one clapped. Oh, thank Jesus no one clapped when I finally finished, falling exhausted in a heap on one of the burnt marshmallow leather sofas. The feeling of no clapping was such a relief that I actually cried. My words just hung there in the air and everyone was still. Not even a cleared throat or rustle of clothes. It was magic, and it went on for a good five minutes. (This is no small thing in a room full of people—even five seconds of silence feels like four too many.) Mandy finally broke the silence with a short but appreciative speech about inspiration that I was too zonked to really pay attention to.
So anyway I’m flying through the suburbs in a red Toyota with greasy young Daryl here, from the book club night, the windows down, his mug aimed in my direction a little too much. He’s smiling. Wants to talk but doesn’t want to bother me. Is broadcasting fanboy on all channels. My thoughts turn back to Marcus, but only for a split second. It’s too close to what happened, and I guess I’m not quite ready to think about it. (It’s funny the way my brain is trying to control what I can and can’t think about, and how some other detached part of my brain can see this process happening from an outside perspective. My brain’s pretty smart when it needs to be.)
I sit back and sniff at the humid air rushing in through the windows and close my eyes so that I might return to book club meeting for just a few more minutes. I’m not going to lie: I really felt like I went up a few notches in life that night. And after the post-speech silence I was different. People came up to me, one after the other, to pay their respects. They wanted to relate, every one of them. They all wanted to pull me aside and do the whole yeah me too thing, but they kept it polite. There was an understanding that I was one of them but also not. Somehow I’d bypassed something, jumped over several circuits to the powerful end of the motherboard without really trying. Mandy gave me a look I guessed only peers give each other, a mix of respect and polite triangulation. I was a prince in an hour.