It's a typical motel room: bed, table, sink, cheap towels and little bitty bars of soap wrapped in wax paper. It's familiar, not familiar in the sense that you know this particular motel room intimately, but familiar in the sense that this particular motel room could be any motel room anywhere. The guy on the bed scans the room for signs of something, anything recognizable. Howthefuck did I get here? is the first thought that comes into his mind. That his tongue feels like the inside of a snakeskin shoe is his second thought. The guy closes his eyes-electrical storms. Bad circuitry. It's several seconds before the actual question "Wherethefuck is here?" crashes in on him.
He snatches a matchbook from the ashtray and reads, "BOB'S A- BAR, Island Park, Idaho-Where the Hell was I last night?" okay, that makes two of us. Two of whom? An attack of "whothefuck am I?" He checks his jacket pocket. No wallet, no ID. Just a crumpled credit-card receipt scrawled with a name, "Eliot."
Coffee and memory are tied together in a way yet unexplained by the science of biochemistry. So this guy who thinks he might be Eliot stumbles down narrow tilting limegreen stairs to find some coffee- CoffeeCoffeeCoffee. Downstairs is a country bar. Red leatherette, pedal steel abandoned on stage.
"We ain't open yet."
Full moustache, round wire glasses, pushing a broom. Jeez, it's Richard Brautigan. But he's dead! I must be fuckin' dead and goddamn Heaven is a motel room. Well that figures.
"We don't open till eleven thirty for lunch."
"All I want is a cup of Coffee. You gotta have some Coffee."
"Make it yourself." Brautigan nods toward the Bunn-O-Matic.
Fuckin' great. The middle of downtown Heaven and you can't get a decent cup of black.
Eliot stares at what must be the River Styx. Couple of guys, look like doctors, out in rubber pants up to their dicks in rapids. The river sounds like a single stream of piss-like Coffee from a Bunn-O-Matic. Oh yeah. The second sip enters the arterial framework around his temples. Skin tightens. The crud in his nose softens to snot. Things become a little less hallucinatory.
All right, thinks Eliot, so I was wrong about being dead. And the river probably isn't the Styx. More coffee. Things are fading in now like when you stand up too fast on the habafrops. But not enough. There's only so much medical science can do. At the risk of sounding stupid-start off obliquely, Where amI? would probably draw cops-"What river is that?"
Brautigan, who tums out to be Brad (the real Brautigan somehow reassuringly remains dead), keeps sweeping.
'The Henry's Fork of the Snake." Eliot looks blank. "Idaho."
Idaho. Not good. Not good at all. What happened to New York?
"You okay, buddy? You were hammering it pretty hard last night. You and the lady."
'The lady?-the girl, the woman, the Goddess!" It hits him like a spinning Willy. The whole board lights up. Dials go crazy!
Brad sits down asking, "Goddess?" and hears a testimony that will change his life. Seized by devotion, he transcribes like Stang Himself.
Eliot: "I was home. Out ofwork-again. No big deal in my business. I'm a Ireelance director. An independent producer. A writer of cable TV shows, promos and propaganda in all markets in perpetuity throughout the universe. After a while you don't get too twisted up about being out ofwork. It happens at the end ofevery job. ClientProductionUnitLunch, Baby!
"But it was a long dry spell and I found myself in off moments gripped by that 'I'll-never-work-again' fear, hallucinating Dry Bones-grinning cartoon skeletons in top hats dancing: 'De shoulder bone connected from de arm bone, de wrist bone connected from de Stark Fist....'
"The light changed and the Mercedes behind me was honking. I'd been granted my 1.3 seconds of lag. I guess I was in surface shock. You know how it is. You're zipping along the freeways in drift-time, driving in theta, hit the off-ramp and suddenly you're on surface streets, still danced out. I accelerated across three lanes of angry traffic-back on the grid. I think the wind had everyone spooked.
"I was pounding pavement in blistering heat. The cassettes on the backseat were warping into greasy little pools of plastic sweat.
"I'd pitched a show that day: 'hundredsomething.' An ensemble show set in a nursing home in the year 2050, aimed at junior geriatric Pinks. The netexec said HE. was comedy and didn't handle drama. I told him it was comedy. 'It can't be comedy,' he said, 'it's an hour and comedy is always a half hour.' It was hopeless. It was time to retreat. Go home.
"Home. Multiple suns curled brittle chips ofpaint owmy rented house. The water in the dog's dish gone to white powdery rings. Gunmetal hot. Fire in the hills. Fine ash rained across Los Angeles like a hot dry snow."
"I'm a sane man. But even so, there are times one has to take matters into one's own hands. Any savage knows that.
"The Elvis decanter stared back at me from the altar. Eyes glazed, arm cocked, fist gripping the ceramic microphone. I yanked his head off and poured a stiff one. A libation, an offering to the gods. The first sip I sprayed back at the altar from my lips like a perfume atomizer. Little Eau de Beam droplets on Elvis, Pachuco, the Lava-line, the '"Bob"-head and white-rimmed pipe. The second shot was for me. I tossed a quarter in the bowl and prayed. Not for wealth, not for fame, not even for a quivering starleb-just survival.
"I looked at the clock: two thirty. Chinese dentist. I couldn't know what I'd done. If I had known, I might not have done it.
"Two thirty-two: the phone rang."
"The voice on the phone was familiar. A colleague from years back when I directed documentaries for a pay-cable network that dropped me into some of the strangest scenes on the North American continent: snake-handling cults in Tennessee, bounty hunters in Houston, swingers in Orange. . . . Victor had been an editorial assistant, now he was a producer of corporate hoopla.
" 'You busy?'
"The job sounded interesting enough-reate the world's largest Videowall for the world's largest corporation. I mulled it over as I inched through the clogged streets of Burbank, Alameda to Olive, past Don's Burgers, into the Camaro-choked intersection of Victory itself. ' "As I walked into the lobby I caught a glimpse of a man disappearing into an office. A ring of pipe smoke lingered in the air after him. Victor rushed to greet me at the door. Said the executive producer, Bob, couldn't talk to me right now, but he would fill me in on the details. Money was no objecb-this was the world's largest corporation, after all. Could I be on a plane tomorrow moming for Detroit? Okay, I know what you're thinking-sure, the boss' name is "Bob." I get it. But I swear, this is true.
"Eight A.M. next moming I'm flying Northwestem to Detroit, first class. Ten thousand dollars in cash in my bag. Praise "Bob," I'm thinking. I read my notes. Life is good.
"Landing, I can see wreaths of flowers on the planecrash overpass. Twinge of deathfear. I unconsciously try to clean the blood from under my nails. What am I doing? Nobody's ever attempted a Videowall this big: 240 monitors stacked like bricks. Corporate docuprop to enhance a sagging image on Wall Street. Me, working for WLC?
"Why me? I'd asked Victor. 'Because Bob thinks you're good with real people, getting them to say things-things they might not know they think they believe.'
"But Bob doesn't even know me.
" 'Oh, he knows you. I told him. So thank me, pal.'"
'The guy had ears, you know? That was the first thing you noticed about him, then the haircut and the skimpy little moustache and the brown hairy suit and marring shoes. Alter that, I realized he was holding a sign with my name on it. I took it from his hands and folded it up. 'I'm Chuck Cyberski. From WLC.'
"I gathered fmm our conversation into Detroit that Bob had called ahead to inform the PR guys at WLC that I was a god. That a shaft of golden light from Heaven had broken through their dark corporate clouds and I was on it.
"I felt pretty smug. The car rolled through security at the corporate gate. I got my plastic badge.
"I was taken immediately to meet Jack Kraft, head of corporate PR, the man behind my money. 'Please Kraft, if you please no one else,' Victor had told me. 'WLC execs don't know what they want, so give 'em what they need, and the only guy that knows what they need is Kraft.' "Kraft was small and wrinkled. If anything displeased him, his face twisted immediately into an expression suggesting hot gastric juices squirting into an open bleeding ulcer.
"He took me by the arm to tell me we were going into an important lunch meeting ofthe top executives of WLC. The men who headed the five divisions and whose blessings I'd need to get anything done. I wasn't to talk, I wasn't to say a word, just sit at the table and he'd introduce me at some point and explain that I was there from God and that it would make the Chairman very happy if they would cooperate with me. 'You don't have to prove yourself. The fact that you're there is proofenough. You are the chosen one. For God's sake, don't say anything that might ruin the impression. Don't say anything at all!' He eyed my hair and I could hear the sizzle of Tabasco eating through his hepatogastric peritoneum.
"The janitor unlocked the executive dining room. WLC is a museum to post-atomic architecture. Imported teak inlaid with steel honeycomb hexagonals, aerodynamic sweeps ofwood and metal, hard lines and soft contours. Even the china on the table was original fifties. I started to sit at the table, but Kraft shook his head. The chair I'd picked was the unmarked favorite of the Lord of Design. That's how I came to see these executives: lords, dukes, each with his petty fiefdom to defend-each jockeying for position with an eye to the Chairman's seat. Which would be his successor?
"They filed in, all smiles and dagger-bellies out. Here were the top executives of the world's largest corporation, tmly movers and shakers who affect the lives of the world, not merely the eight hundred thousand employes (sic) of WLC. And they all wore shoddy glen plaids or rumpled worsteds. Six-figure salaries wearing the same suit every day buttoned over aggressive bellies. Moving in a group, in a herd-first to one side of the room, then the other. Odd. All except the Lord of Design who breezed in late wearing light Italian silk with a contrasting pocket pouf. His white hair combed straight back, slender. He always stood in opposition to the others. Wherever the herd paused to graze, he would move around to face them.
"Chuck Cyberski and I stood at the rear while Kraft performed a spider dance. He was everywhere, talking, dancing around the lords, explaining how this wonderful show would tum around the grim Wall St. analysts who'd been hanging crepe over WLC'S image and dragging their stock price down. If this show could raise the price of stock by one poinL-ONE POINT-WLC'S value would increase over a billion dollars. All they had to do was change the minds of the most jaded New York stock and industry analysts.
"One lord commented that they would be crying wolf. Hadn't they banged their chests before? Every quarter some high executive held a press conference and announced great things. Why would they believe them this time?
"Because this time there wouldn't be some high executive promising great things. This time there would be real people from WLC, 'workers, engineers, designer-the tiny people. . . .' Kraft danced around the group, invisibly touching the cheek of each division chief.
" 'A sample from each division: Design, Engineering, Manufacturing, Sales, Support. It's like Star Wars. We loved the rebels and hated the Empire because we could identify with the warm human rebels, not cold plastic robots.,The rebels could've been squid-suckers for all we knew about their philosophy.'
"The lords fell silent and contemplated the extravaganza laid out before them. Twenty million dollars worth of hoopla designed to sucker a few Wall St. flacks. Its centerpiece, the Videowall. The Lord of Manufacturing spoke up. 'But-aren't WE the Empire?'
" 'Not That's where we fool 'em. We show 'em regular people revealing their hopes and fears, sincerely singing the subtle praises of WLC. We've hired a genius-Bob _______. And Bob has sent us a master of emotional engineering, a consummate docu-propagandist, a man with the knack for extracting unrehearsed truths from the mouths of ordinary folk-Bob's handpicked genius. . . .' And I heard my name. "The lords all looked at me and Kraft's admonishment not to speak leapt forth to block my throat. I meant to just nod, look cool and professional, competent and mature, aloof and slightly intimidating, but there it hung-'Bob's handpicked genius....' I couldn't help it. I grinned a big goofy grin and said, 'Aw, just a SubGenius, really.'
"I could smell the bile boiling into Kraft's pyloric sphincter all the way across the room. The lords muttered furtively, eyeing each other to see who would commit first. Do we like it or not?
"Then I felt this msh of wind as these ears passed me. Cyberski waded to the center of the room and began an expository rant. He couldn't msist it, surrounded by royalty, the men who could mold his career-Cyberski made his move. I mean, there he was, this middle- management flunky, stepping out into the circle of Big Boys, puffing out his chest and swinging blindly at the pifiata of success. 'It's a brilliant ideal Wall St. expects glitz, but this time the curtain goes up on some Tool & Die talking about how bad press is scaring his family.' '?he lords backed away from Cyberski-physically backed away, creating empty space around him. But he kept on.
"'I work here. I know we make a good product. We've found a way to beat the Japanese. Sure things were bad, but now they're good. . . .' The lords moved back in. I feel like I've been transported back to the tribes. This wasn't sophisticated corporate strategy, this was the caves."
"'But what about the Goddess?" asks Brad.
"Yeh, yeh. I'm getting to that. So, it's all a big success. The dukes dig the idea. Cyberski saves the day. We eat lunch at this round table with abuilt-in electric-powered lazy Susan. Every time one lord starts to make a point, his rival hits his button and "RRrrmr!' the lazy Susan winds around distracting everyone. 'Sorry, Marv, just needed another radish.'
"Kraft fires Cyberski fight after lunch. Takes his plastic badge on the spot. Then tells me we're going out to celebrate-to the Windsor Ballet.
"Kraft is this old fart, but he gets all pumped up in his champagne Corvette and we drive south to Canada. I'm resigned to an evening of culture. Minutes later I leam that the Windsor Ballet is a street lined with strip joints.
"It's a huge room filled with men in suits. Rock music. Women in bikinis parade through the crowd carrying apple boxes on their heads like native porters. Hold out a bill to one ofthese women and she plunks down her box, stands on it and dances out of her bikini for the duration of the song. The song ends and the women wriggle back into their suits. Give them Another five, they do it all again. Big thing in Canada.
"Kraft and I sit against the wall. He's rubbing his hands together. I drink a Cinci Cream and watch the show. We're next to two Garys from Indianapolis who monopolize this one dancer for an hour, which means she's also dancing right in front of us for free. 'Hyuk, hyuk, yew sure are beootiful. Kin yew change a hundred?'
"'Mais oui,' sez she. And the Garys hyuk again. One slaps down a picture of Ben and I watch silently as Geneviève counts back a hundred bucks Canadian. With that exchange rate she just cut herself a twenty- five-dollar tip.
"'Nice counting.' She flashes me a conspiratorial look and starts to dance. Like a whip. By now, Kraft is beside himself and neither one of him looks too hot. He's having trouble getting his lips and his glass in the same area. 'I want to put my feet on youl' he cries suddenly.
"Geneviève smiles sweetly. 'Thank you.'
" 'I'll give you ten thousand dollars!'
" 'Ten thousand dollars? That's SO romantic!'
"The two Garys get indignant and start to shove. Kraft is oblivious to everything but pulling his socks off. I see two lumbedacks in tuxedoes shouldering their way toward us.
"'Whoopsl Time to go, pardner.'
"As I drag Kraft away, Geneviève levels a look at me and says, 'I know you.'
"'No, probably not. Don't mind us. Just groping, thanks.' I was out- side before I realized her French accent had gone.
"The woman at the border kiosk looked down stemly. 'Purpose of visit?'
"Kraft leaned out the window and waggled his tongue, 'The sweet smell of sick sex.'"
"That's it?" Brad put down the pen. "You promise a goddess and all I get is a phony French stripper?"
"No. There's more. It was the way she said,'I know you.'It haunted me.
"Kraft never mentioned the evening again. We did the job. And it was beautiful. Great interviews. Line workers spilling their guts. Tears. Touching shit in Hallmark setting-all shot in one week. Impossible. We did it.
"But post was Monster. Everything I'd feared and more. Two crews, 240 monitors, three tracks of one-inch video, fifteen controllers, two CPUS, two di&erent time codes for Christsake! A battery of technicians from Germany had to be flown in to program it. Nasty petty-bourgeois little fucks who wouldn't work. I'd go out to Mattie's for ribs to keep them happy and these assholes wanted pizza!!"
"Cool out, man," says Brad. "You want a beer?" By now the lunch crowd was gathering. Waitresses doled out plates of chickenfried. But Eliot was distraught.
"See? Don't you see what was happening?" His voice squeezed down to a hiss.
"We were working eighteen-hour days, seven-day weeks in a cold drafty warehouse in Detroit. The only place big enough to set up the wall. It was three days before Christmas and we weren't gonna make it. The pressure was intense. And Kraft keeps dragging executives in to see the show. I told him to stop, that we wouldn't make deadline. But he says he can't refuse his superiors. The show's hot and every executive at WLC wants to see it before New York, so every hour it's another dog and pony show. The Gerrnans are grumbling, taking passivelaggressive ?fee breaks every ten minutes. I tell him there won't be a New York. 'lfyou make it, there's a bonus.' So we start working twenty-hour days."
"So what'd you care? I mean, if this guy Kraft screwed it up, it's no skin off you."
"It was the bonus. -That's what I'm trying to tell you. A month before I was paying my rent with Mastercard, suddenly I'm rollin' in it. On expense account. If I go to the dmgstore for a fuckin' tube of toothpaste, WLC pays for it. Meals, laundry, bar tabs, new clothes when the weather turns cold. I'm driving down Maple in Birmingham wearing a new leather flight jacket, driving my own rental Corvette with a cellular phone. Chicks are turning their heads. Somehow I don't notice that every other Pink on the street is wearing an identical jacket. I stop for espresso and go back to make the crew work till three A.M. Get it?!" Everybody in the place is staring.
'There are theories that we are just lay-on-the-ground animals possessed by alien intelligence."
"I've heard that," says Brad.
"Or maybe a vims destined to infect the whole universe. I'm a little more optimistic. I like to believe we're the crawling larvae for a new specie-that eventually we'll get better. At any rate I was just another helpless hominid seized by fruitless ambition.
"We finished the show at seven thirty A.M. on the morning of the last possible day. At seven forty-five the gorillas were packing the wall into crates for New York."
"I'm in an expensive new suit midtown.
"The Grand Ballroom ofthe Waldorf-Astoria is packed with people and product and displays. Dominating the room from the stage is the enormous Videowall. All 240 monitors flashing with images and music. Everybody loves it, even the fucking New York press corps applauds and they don't do that. All the executives are running to grab their Wall St. Urinals each moming before the show to see how much the market price is up. The Lord of Design comes up to me on the floor and pumps my hand, tells me he likes my suit. Flashbulbs and canapés. I need some air.
"A black woman in a fur coat grabs my arm and offers me a blowjob. No thanks. She wants to know why not and opens her coat enough for me to see that she must be trying to earn money for the rest of a wardrobe. I pull away and walk.
"I'm tired. Another woman huddles with a cup in a doorway. It's been a week of six-hundred-dollar expense-account dinners that end at two A.M. with empty lldmy bottles on the table. Cab rides that are drunken blurs of steam and slush and blue police lights.
"I lay in bed at the Waldorf and watch channel 23. Geisha-to-Gc. Al Goldstein flipping the bird at the camera and glowering 'Fuck you.' Room service Haut-Brion 1970. Four hundred fi%y dollars. Who cares? Money's no object. It's the world's largest corporation. Page one of The New York Times runs a big article about the fabulous show. Page seventeen of The New York Times runs a tiny article about another WLC plant closing in the Midwest. Belt tightening. Streamlining. Line workers spilling their guts. Tears."
"Kraft was on the phone. 'We did it, Eliot. Big success. Wait till the Wall St. analysts see it, tomorrow. We'll be home free. Let's celebrate. I know a great little spot,'
"Great little spot. Times Square. Fifteen bucks to get in, dank, dark, smoky, smelly-hard to tell ifhalf the dancers are male or female. Not that I really cared. It was one of those places where a narrow runway cuts into a sea of hollow sallow somber faces.
"Kraft hung twenties in front of our seats and immediately started slamming scotch. By the fourth dancer he was on his fifth drink. The dancer noticed the heavy currency and the determined drinking style and began to hang close. Dark and pale she strutted along the rail. She made deep eye contact with Kraft and he began to sweat. She squatted down in front of him so he could see it all. I noticed a pimple on his neck oozing into his tight collar. She leaned forward so her breasts dangled an inch in front of his face. He inhaled and I could feel the rush that shuddered him.
" 'What's a matter, sweetie? It's no good tryin' ta drown your troubles.'
" 'I'm NOT trying to drown my troubles,' said Kraft. 'I'm just hosing them off.'
"'Yeh, a lot of people are having heavy aspects now, but that's the way it goes.'
"A couple ofbikers hollered that they were paying money too, and she took her bruises down to their end of the rail-a one-woman rendition of'Stags at Bay.'
"'What a babel' exulted Kraft. 'You think I'd be crazy to see if she wants to come back to the hotel with us?'
"'No, no, I don't think you're crazy. I think you're outa your fuckin' mindl' That drew a look. I'd never spoken to him like that before. A client, an older man. He decided I was joking and laughed a laugh that sprayed spit and scotch.
"The Beam was kicking in and I was experiencing one of the seven warning signs of confusion. I'd come to the belated conclusion that I really didn't like this guy. Kraft was a manipulative pig and I was doing his bidding. So fuck me.
"I don't want you to get the idea I'm above this sort of thing. I got the dog in me. I got the hound. I like money and I like women. But I'm not indiscriminating. I was feeling sorry I'd done this job. Sorry I'd helped the Conspiracy. I should have stayed pure and lived like Diogenes under a tub in the street. But no, they suckered me and I suckered Wall St. Hey, that's what chumps are for. Bring on the BIG TIT. Who am I to give Kraft shit over his taste in women? Or his ruthless abuse of my crew to ensure his own secure standing with the corporation? I cracked the whip. Like that mercenary I interviewed in Scottsdale said, 'I have no home, no family, no principles-what else would I kill for but money?'What am I crying about? The world's my fucking oyster . . . the world's my clam.
'"I was about to suggest we head over to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central when I looked up and saw her. The next dancer. She wasn't the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, but there was something about her. Something that made me want to invest more than a dollar on the rail. -One of those high-heeled, low-risk Municipal Blonde-yet she seemed curiously familiar.
"She strutted the rail through the first song, wearing a filmy negligee. I'm thinking, Intimate apparel/imminent peril-mere coincidence? Her second number was a hard rocker and she started to dance-like a whip. Geneviève! I hung a twenty over the rail and she danced over like a trout drawn to an elk-hair caddis. 'What's your name?' I asked. "'Heather,' she said and started to dance away.
" 'Not Geneviève?'
"She turned and leveled her look at me. 'I know you.'
"Kraft wasn't getting this. He'd been too drunk in Windsor and he was too drunk now. She strutted off, the pink light molding her haunches like peaches by Monet.
"When her set was over she went round to pick her dollars off the floor and rail.
"Kraft was all over himself, a slavering railstalker. 'Look at the bitch-naked, groveling on her hands and knees picking up dollar bills.' "I dunno. For some reason that just rankled my ass. That was it. 'And what do you think you do for a living?'
" 'Come on, you think that what we do is any different? You and me, Kraft, on our hands and knees pickin' up the dollars. At least she knows it.'
"'You sound like a man who doesn't like his job. Maybe you should just trot on back to Hollywood now, Mr. Videowall. Your work's all done. I think we can handle it just fine without you. I guess you just didn't want that bonus.'
"'Oh, no, not the bonus again-the bonus contendae. You've been hanging this bonus over my head for weeks. Why don't you just shove your bonus up your bone-ass?' And I shoved oft into a cold drizzle."
"I went over to 47 St. Photo and spent another wad of worthless currency on a spiffy new Casio color television about the size of a Chihuahua's dick. I was walking down the street watching Lloyd Lindsay Young when the power went out all through my head. I felt the street go soft beneath me. The B-big R-rubber Hammer came down.
"The next thing I remember is somebody saying, 'It's down already, but you might have to kick it a little.' Big Fucking Hammer. Somebody was going through my pockets.
"Somebody was trying to pick me up. "Are you all right?' she was asking.
"'I dunno,' I said. 'I might have some trouble dancing.'
"I felt like the winner of the Mr. Physical Wreck contest. It was dark and the drizzle had matured into a freezing rain. She held me under her left arm as we walked down the street. I was aware that she smelled really nice. She helped me into a comer deli and sat me down. It wasn't until she turned back to me with a cup of coffee that I recognized her. 'Geneviève-I mean, Heather!'
" 'Connie.' She smiled sheepishly. 'Where are you staying?'
" 'The Waldorf.' I put powdered whitener in my coffee and it set like plaster.
"'Let's go,' she said. 'We can walk.'
" 'Let's take a cab.' I reached for my wallet, but it was gone. 'Oh yeah. Hey, where's my tie? I don't believe it, they stole my fucking tie.'
"We walked to the Waldorf in needles of freezing rain. The grand lobby was full of Spanish tourists in gold lamb and big men in plaid coats. Tonight's show was for the dealers. That's right, tomorrow's the big event, the Wall St. jocks. Make it or break it time. People were staring at us. Connie didn't look that out of place in her black leather micro. Half the Spaniards were dressed the same way. I caught a glimpse of myself in the Sulka shop window. One eye was swelling shut and blood had soaked into my collar from where I'd been sapped. Nice. I went to the concierge's desk. 'Room thirteen-oh-three, please.'
"The concierge checked her list. 'I show that room vacant.'
" 'No, that's my room. I'm with the WLC show.'
"The manager arrived on velvet soles and whispered to me that I'd been checked out and my bill settled. I could pick up my luggage from the bell captain.
"'Well, I'm sure there's been some mistake,' I said. 'As long as the room's still vacant let's just put it on my credit card for tonight and we'll straighten it out in the moming.' I reached for my wallet and . . . 'Oh, shit. Look, as you can see, I've just been mugged and they took my wallet. I don't suppose you could...'
"'No, I'm sorry,' smiles the manager.
"'Oh, wait. I've got cash in my suitcase. Let me just get it.' But the bell captain needed to see some ID. The wind was so strong that the revolving door was tuming on its own. I'd come up against a wall of solid jackson.
"Connie lived in SoHo. We took the subway and trekked up to her ten-by-ten-foot flat. She tried to cheer me, 'Up and down, up and down, life is like a toilet lid.'
"John Lennon was dead. And the strangest part was that I heard it from Howard Cosell. That's how strange things are. And it only took eight years for it to bum me out.
"She tried to be sympathetic. 'Lots of great artists die young. Ludwig Schnorr Von Carolsfeld. He was a German Wagnerian tenor who died at the age of twenty-nine.'
"'He probably strangled introducing himself.' She looked cmshed. 'I'm sorry. I've been an asshole for the past few months, I guess I can . stop now. -How come you left Canada?'
" 'They wouldn't let me play my records at the ashram.'
" 'Ludwig?' She nodded. 'What kind of ashram was it?' Why did I ask that?! Oh, no! Now I was going to have to listen to hours of kook theories and join in strange chants and listen to lectures about how I should never again go to Kansas City and eat ribs at Rosedale's because the karma of my ancestors would never get clear. How was I going to justify my belief that the basic structure of human culture is binary (thus potentially digital) or, as the Rev. Buck Nakid had so clearly stated it, US vs. THEM? I gritted my teeth.
"'I was in the Cult of "Connie's" Panties. That's where I took my name. -You want a beer or anything? I've got some Hope in the fridge.'
"I was stunned. She returned with a frosty glass of the rarest brew out of Rhode Island and sat down next to me.
" 'Y-you're SubGenius?'
"'Bom in Dallas. Rocked in the cradle of the cult. You're kind of cute,' she said leaning near. 'How do you feel . . . ?'
"'Spontaneous remission is my middle name.' We met in a lip- twisting kiss that seemed to last for hours. The end of her nose was moist and pink when we surfaced.
"The sleet drilled mdiments on her window all night. Straight rolls, paradiddles, ratamacues and flams. I could swear it was double-stroking flamadiddles in the wee hours. I didn't care. We had a rhythm section all our own.
"At nine o'clock we were at Dante's trying to figure out how to get my suitcase back over doubles. I still felt bad. 'I guess I thought I'd earn enough on this job to not have to worry about being such a suckwad the next time. Do my own work. I expected a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.'
"'Maybe when you reach the rainbow's end, you just find out the rainbow's over.'
" 'Yeah, maybe. But it still bugs me. I helped those guys pull the wool over America's eyes. Especially today. They're going to screen my show for the Wall St. heavies this morning at ten and . . . Hey, what time is it?'"
"We caught a cab uptown. I still had my security pass for the show. The financial press and market analysts were just filing in when I made my way up the back stairs to the mezzanine where all the equipment was. 'They think they're cmisin'. They think they can run this without me. They don't know just how complicated this is.'
"I made my way through a maze of cable to the control area. There was no one at the CPU keyboard. Let's see. If I delete the primary sequence on the A track, everything will drop out of sync across all fifteen control units. Chaos. In one stroke, I could achieve both liberation and revenge.
"I was just about to type in the initializing commands when I heard Kraft. 'Stop that man!'
"Oh shit. I banged my shin hopping over the chair and wiggled through the heavy brocade curtains that lined the mezzanine balconies. A security guard came up behind me and another one through the next set of curtains. There was only one way to go-ver the balcony. I slid down the heavy drapery onto the ballroom floor where several other security guards were converging on me. I headed for a side door into the Crystal Room, through the rehearsal for the Intemational Debutante Ball where young men in Confederate gray were goose-stepping with the Stars and Bars while rabbit-toothed belles in crinoline giggled and tapped their fans. Into the Orchid Room where a lavish Italian wedding was in progress. The three security guards were close behind. I ran downstairs and slammed through double doors into the kitchen and ducked behind a prep table. A long-haired chefs assistant was sharpening knives behind me. He stared down at me and I said, 'Shhh.' He was wearing a red SubGenius T-shirt with a smiling "Bob." Man, did that look good to me. 'Help me. I'm a reverend in the Church. You gotta help me get back upstairs, then call the Pope of New York, tell him what's going on. He'll know what to do.'
"He pulled a laundry basket of dirty towels over. 'Get in.'
"I could feel him wheeling me down the hall. I heard the service elevator whirr. The doors opened and I was wheeled out. I heard him say. 'He's in here.'
"The towels came of and there were Kraft and three apes. A Pink is a Pink-no matter what his T-shirt says.
"The show started as scheduled. I was in the back in a chair surrounded by five goons. Two of them had a hand on my shoulders. The Chairman got up and welcomed the guests in his high-pitched Elmer Fudd voice explaining that the show represented the latest technologies of WLC. They had come out of their slump and were ready to face the future with 'world-class products. But don't take it from me. Listen to the people who build 'em. The tiny people that are so important to WLC.'
"Yeah, I thought. Like those thirty thousand'tiny' people you laid of in Ohio the week before Christmas while you and your cronies took profit-sharing bonuses.
"I had no one but myselftc blame. I'd done my job too well. Emotional engineering. Swell a chord, cut away to the kid. Men and women smiling on the assembly line. I'm scum.
"The lights went down. The music started. Pow! That big attention- getting hook followed by a crystalline ascending arpeggio. And images, moving, flashing, tuming. The press corps was rapt. Next it would mellow into a moving human tale. Only it didn't. There was a loud buzz and the next facial close-up had the guy's eye in the middle of his chin. Then it was all eyes, then all chins. The signal scrambled the images everywhere. Then another buzz and the screens went black. All 240 of them, except for number 64 which was flickering green. A spiral of blue smoke rose.
"The Chairman was doing half pirouettes on the dais muttering, 'Sorry, sorry, sorry.' Kraft tumed to me and said, 'If you're behind this I'll make sure your great-great-grandchildren will still owe us money.' "'I'm sure they will anyway.'
"A technician ran up to Kraft. 'What is it?'
" 'We're not sure, but it looks like a power surge in the line from Con Ed. A fifty-megawatt spike showed up on our meters.'
"The Wall St. guys were starting to fidget.
" 'How long?'
"'I don't know, sir. It may need to be reprogrammed. The disk was fried.'
"'Eliot.' He tumed to me with true fear in his eyes. 'Can you?'
"'Ich kann nicht Englisch sprechen, muthafucka!'
"'Please, Eliot. I'll give you the bonus-five thousand dollars.'
"'And . . . ?'
" 'What? Anythingl How soon can it be up?'
"'Another ten thousand in cash and two first-class tickets to L.A. Before I work.'
"The Chairman was striding over. 'Kraft! What the hell is going on here? If you can't . . .'
"Kraft looked like a boiled shrimp. 'A power surge, sir. An unavoid- able accident. B-but Eliot can get us back up in . . .'
"'Oh, yes. The famous Eliot. Bob's genius.'
"Kraft threw me a pleading glance. 'I need my bag.'
"Kraft snapped his fingers and one of the goons raced off to fetch my things from the bell captain. Another ran off to the concierge for my tickets and cash.
"'Gentlemen, er, and ladies,' the chairman was saying, 'we've experienced a power surge from Con Ed and regretfully will have to-from no fault of our own-reschedule your screening till this evening.' "The midday crowd of shareholders was filing in. Old spinsters and pensioners, geeks from the outback and their rickety families all gawking at the space-age displays.
"I looked down on them from the control balcony as I rummaged through my bag. There it was, the backup program disk I'd made in Detroit. I guess the Germans never thought of that. Their technology was infallible. 'Why waste time making a backup?' Gunther had asked. 'It's in the hard disk.' Con Ed, that's why.
"It was too brilliant. I could see the hand of "Bob" in this. Kraft handed me the bonus check-five thousand dollars-then the airplane tickets, then the cash-ten thousand in tens.
" 'How long?' I could hear the acid sizzling in his gut.
" 'I dunno, Jack.' I peeled five thousand off the roll of cash and slipped it in my pocket. 'How long does it take a Nazi to shovel snow off the driveway to Hell?' I ripped up the bonus check. His eyes bugged. 'Hey everybody!' I shouted to the crowd of stockholders. 'Extra dividend! Pull the wool over your own eyes!' And I heaved the wad of tens to flutter to the floor.
"Pandemonium! Even the goons jumped the rail. 'Look at 'em,' I said. 'Pickin' up those dollars off the floor.' Kraft stared at me in tom fury, then he too went over the rail.
"I strolled out to Connie on the street and the doorman hailed a cab. But before I climbed in, I took the backup disk and Frisbeed it into an updraft; it sailed down Lex."
"We went to JFK. I don't remember anything past that."
Brad paused from his transcription. The lunch crowd had gone. "Like I said, last night you were hammering the Dant pretty hard. You were ranting about the Stars and Bars being the new American swastika, and the Conspiracy, and the bleeding sword of Islam, and how television is the big butter knife that spreads a poisonous peanut butter of smooth homogenous culture across the U.S.A."
"Is that all?"
"You said that three separate lone assassins converged coincidentally at Dealey Plaza. That 'Show 'em what they've won, Johnny!' ought to be in Latin on the dollar bill. You kinda spooked the customers." "But you said I was with a lady. What happened to her?"
"Well, you had a bit of a disagreement. And she hit you over the head with a bottle and left."
Behind him. "Because you were a ranting assaholic and the Blackjack Jesus told me to."
Eliot turned on his stool. "Connie, you came back."
"Of course I came back. I missed you. I had bad dreams. -We're in grave danger."
"Aw, dreams don't mean anything. When you're asleep your brain goes out of control."
"Not for me. A Connie's dreams are admissible as evidence in a court of law. -How's your head? I'm sorry I had to hit you."
"I'm okay. I feel a whole lot more like I do now than I did when I got here. You had lunch?"
She shook her head.
And they sat down to big ol' chickenfried steaks with cream gravy and mashed potatoes. And Eliot wondered at how the good ones always leave bits stuck between your teeth and how beautiful Connie was backlit in the river light and he wondered about the trout, those big Snake River cutthroats lunkered down in mysterious currents in the undercuts and he marveled as he realized that not only were his sins forgiven but that he had the SLACK to sin again.
"So why did we come to Idaho?" he asked her.
"That's what my dream was about. I dreamt I had a new hairdo-a flaming flattop. You said the spirit of the Conspiracy lay at the heart of the Aryan Nations. That Nazis guard the entrance to the Hollow Earth. I am to be a torch to light the way-I mean, my hairdo is. You've come to summon the trout manitou to aid in their destmction." Eliot stared at the river. One of the doctors paused in his casting to relight his pipe. "I was afraid it was something like that."
But that is another story.
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