Friday, February 15, 2013

Black Box Chapter 5


Chapter Five could probably use more editing; sometimes, you're never happy with a piece of writing, no matter how many times you've rewritten it. I think I'll publish up to chapter seven on the blog.
Chapter Five
My evening routine was simple. I’d put on some Tom Waits or Nick Cave, and pour myself a glass of mostly Jack with just a little bit of Coke, which I’d take to the sofa and sip while thumbing through a collection of pornography Art had let me borrow. Maria had forced him to get rid of his magazines, and he’d dumped the enormous library on me, saying that he’d retrieve it after a while, “when it’s safe.” I didn’t know what that meant, and I was half-tempted to throw his big box of smut into the garbage, since it was my aim to keep my apartment relatively classy for any female visitors. But I’d been unable to throw the stuff away, and for some reason perusing the collection while moderately intoxicated was just the relaxing experience I needed after a mad day’s work. After the whiskey was finished, I’d have a beer and smoke some dope. Then I’d turn off the music and do a little reading until I started to nod off, which meant it was time for bed.
My dreams have always been very vivid and bizarre, and the purpose of my routine was to alleviate any distress they caused. Ever since puberty, my sleeping mind has taken trips through extraordinary and terrifying dimensions, viewing images pieced together from disparate nightmares, one horror leading to the next, with no logical progression or pattern discernible. I’ve dreamt that I was back in high school, pantsless and with the face of a pig, withering beneath the harsh laughter, only to find myself seconds later sinking deeper into a fathomless abyss, the stomach of some planet-sized creature. In another dream I was alone on a raft in the middle of the sea, cool tropical air billowing all around me, when I spied a shapeless monstrosity growing enormous below, all tentacles and lunar eyes. I’d never seen the sea, yet it was often a prominent player in my dreams. Horrors were dredged up from its depths, monsters incapable of description, terrors primal and alien like the kind H.P. Lovecraft pulled from his dark subconscious.
I dealt with my nightmares by sleeping in two to three-hour segments. I didn’t even have to use an alarm, since my body soon adjusted. Using this strategy, the dreams occurred rarely. R.E.M. sleep was seldom achieved, but that was a price I was willing to pay. Sleeping pills produced a similar effect, but they were pricey and addictive.
After coming home the evening after confronting Rodrico, I went about my normal routine. A quarter of Jack Daniels was consumed while listening to Grinderman’s first album. Like Cave, I had the no pussy blues, and combined with the dark turn of events at work, my romantic malaise was frustrating. I thought about Maria. There were other girls out there, not in this dying town, but in the world around. But I never ventured outside the city limits. I wasn’t a commuter and had no desire to become one, so I was left lusting after a taken woman, although it didn’t seem like she’d be with Art for much longer. He wasn’t intellectual enough for her; that was it. I was into art and literature; my library was extensive and eclectic, filled with classics and pop bestsellers alike. I followed the news out of habit, even though I was apolitical. I was the VP of Operations for the world’s most successful video game company, for chrissakes. Between Art and myself, there was no contest.
I thought about calling her, but then I thought about Art and decided against it. She never used her cell phone, I remembered. She was behind the times, according to my friend, which made her more attractive in my eyes. Modern society was draining me; Luddism had taken me in the past few months. Maybe it was simply Rodrico’s reclusive and secretive behavior, but something had soured regarding my attitude toward work. We were no longer just making games, and even if that were our only purpose, would we be contributing to society? Like Rodrico, as an adolescent I’d found a refuge in gaming. I’d discovered a way to escape my nerdy, awkward self, and in the process also discovered a career. With The Game, I’d reached the pinnacle of achievement; there was nowhere else to go but down. The psychology behind it all depressed me, and the fact remained that I no longer enjoyed what I did. I didn’t want to provide people with escapism. Somehow, it felt dirty.
“Well, what do you want to do?” I said to myself. I was on my first beer now, my whiskey glass containing just a shallow layer of melted ice. “What do you want to do with your life?” I could continue on to the dope and maybe get an answer. Maybe it wasn’t wise to view things in the grey area between black and white.
There was a pomology book lying on the table next to me. Perhaps that was the path for me. Apple, pears, and peaches. Rodrico’s unclaimed legacy. Farmers’ markets and the company of the Goon.
I dialed the number of the Angry Bear.
“Gordy,” I shouted into the phone. “I’m afraid I’m in love with Maria.”
            “What are you doing drinking alone?” he said. “You’re supposed to be supporting a local business.”
“I’m not quite a local, but I’m no outsider either. Are there any decent-looking women currently drinking in your establishment?”
“Define what you mean by ‘decent-looking.’”
“That’s right. I can’t trust your own standards. I want someone who’s at least five-foot seven, thin but not skinny, with gorgeous eyes and long flowing hair who can carry a conversation.”
“If I lie will you still come down here every once in a while?”
“I was serious about Maria.”
“We’re all in love with her, Louie. Welcome to the club.”
I hung up on him. A small part of me wanted to go down to the bar and hit on any willing female, but my chair was too comfortable. Out came the pipe, and after finishing smoking, I eased into a deep sleep.
 My method should have worked, as it almost always did, but when my dream started, I knew something was very different. This was not one of my vivid excursions in surrealism; this wasn’t like a dream at all, except that the normal rules that governed reality were being bent and annihilated right before me. I was dirt; I wasn’t entombed, I was the actual grains and bits of organic matter that make up topsoil. Worms crawled through their soft tunnels, and I felt their movements like one feels one’s own fingers. It was like being able to stick your hand into your chest and pull out your heart. I felt the white roots of grasses taking in my nutrients; a light drizzle began, moistening my contents. Grubs curled up inside little pockets, and I kept them safe while moles dug blindly through my innards. I had no bones; I was dark brown skin and liquesced flesh. My organs were the tiny life-forms churning my wheels, furthering my processes. It was a new way of life.
Then I felt myself becoming a man, piece by piece. Bones were rendered from the earth; they came together from microscopic grains of sand, each grain fitting alongside the next perfectly, forming a white solid structure. My nervous system came from the grass roots, and all the roots that wove their tendrils through me. They grew together and created a labyrinthine maze of feelers, and then the circulatory pathways emitted out like tree branches, each a twig growing leaves and swelling fruit. Muscles came next from the dark earth; their darkness drained into the fluid that soaked into my fresh veins, leaving behind layered levels of red meat.
When skin had clad my exposed flesh, I started to walk. I was in an orchard; apple trees hung heavy with fruit, and off in the distance, I could see the soft-ball sized shapes of Asian pears. The trees I was traveling in-between had massive trunks, and I knew from my experience with Pasteur that they had to be very old. The apples looked like ornaments; they were large and rotund, waxy and purplish-red like a fresh blood bruise. I reached out and grasped one in my hands, and it came off gently from the tree. On my shirt I shined it and then proceeded to bite into the fruit.
The taste was like nothing I’d ever experienced. There was a rush of sweetness and saltiness, followed by a tart tanginess that caused my taste buds to shrivel and then expand to absorb the cold, refreshing juices. The flesh was crisp in my mouth, and every chewing motion brought forth new sensations. It was like consuming every delicious fruit one after another, until the final bite unleashed a climax of flavor surpassing any eating or sexual experience one could ever have.
I fell to the ground with the core in my hand, the pleasure writhing through my naked body. As I lay there, I heard something crashing through the orchard, something ponderous and graceless, inexorably pressing forward.
“Good, isn’t it?” a voice said, its cadence smooth and quiet, so unlike its approaching cacophony. “We know how to make a fruit.”
I was paralyzed, so the speaker remained anonymous. “What is it?” I managed to mumble through near-catatonic lips.
“The fruit of knowledge, of course,” replied the voice. “Do you not feel enlightened?”
“I feel pleasure, to the point where it’s almost pain.”
“That’s what you’re working toward,” said the voice. The words came out deep and resonant, layered like multiple persons speaking together.
“You, and almost every single human on earth, desires to obtain a lifestyle of satisfaction. You seek to amplify your personal pleasures. You want to sleep with a beautiful woman or man, you want to have the perfect job where you’re responsible for the lives of many people, and you want to live in a perfect house, with perfect children running about. Maybe you just want the first two, or just one of the three. You want to accomplish things on multiple levels, all while having the best of times. You want to feel like you’ve conquered the world. Are we right?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, my lips moving more freely. “I don’t give a shit about the job anymore, and I’m not sure if I want the girl.”
“Yes, yes, because what then will you want? Do you realize that you’ve been engineered to never find contentment? You’ll never be satisfied, not one-hundred percent. Evolution couldn’t succeed otherwise.”
“Evolution? Don’t you mean intelligent design?” The voice sounded like God, after all.
“Fuck intelligent design. We mean, what the hell, of course there is an intelligence behind the evolution of life. But if mankind was meant to know what was going on behind the scenes, we would’ve made it a bit more obvious.” The voice sounded tired. “We don’t desire worship or respect. The Old Testament has it wrong: there is no jealous God. Hell, there's not even really a God."
"What do you mean by that?"
"There's no sky wizard sitting atop the clouds staring down at mankind, striking down the wicked and uplifting the honest of heart. It's a little disingenuous of us to claim that there isn't a God, but there really isn't, in the sense that there's one entity guiding creation's progress. The superior being is more like a series of beings and their decisions. Think of God as a decision tree where every tree has its own limbs, and these limbs have their own limbs, and so on and so forth. God is sort of a composite being, that is, if you chose to think of God as a singular person/place/thing. You get what we're saying?"
 "So God's a committee? A congress? His Will is basically the result of some democratic vote by angels, or whatever?"
"Yeah, kind of, we guess, although determining the Will (nice term, by the way) is not quite a democratic process. The stronger opinions survive, is what we're saying. There is no vote, except the vote of force."
"God's Will is decided by force?"
"Uh, well, uh...maybe the decision tree analogy was a bad one. God is sort of like a cosmic immune system, with various bodies being responsible for tending to the heart, the brain, the digestive organs, etc. Everything is interdependent and if one organ fails, then a stronger one takes its place."
"That's not how organs work. If my heart fails, I die."
"Well, yeah, you're right. Let's just accept that the system is hard, if not impossible, to explain to such a crude creature as yourself. Which leads us back to our original point: Why would we care how humanity viewed us? Do you care how the ants consider you? What about your cat? Your dog? We were before you, and we will be after you have vanished from existence.”
“That’s not very comforting,” I said. "Are you going to continue to refer to yourself as 'we'? Because I'd prefer it if you didn't. It's kind of discombobulating."
“Fine. I it is. Your response is evident of my big fuck-up. You’re a little too independent, you humans. You think everything’s about you, which isn’t true. Yes, you’re pretty important, I wouldn’t have given you god-like powers of reasoning if that weren’t true, but you don’t have to go and destroy the planet just because I’ve given you too much freedom.”
“We can destroy the planet?”
“No, you can’t. You can destroy yourselves, but after you’re gone, the planet will heal itself. It’s pretty resilient.”
“Well that’s kind of a disappointment. I’d like to think that everything will cease after we’re gone.”
“You selfish motherfuckers.” The voice was hushed. “You’ve taken off and formed your own gods. I suppose such behavior was inevitable. You think of Plato and the cave, and you believe that reality functions dependently upon you.”
“Reality is an illusion,” I said, beginning to recover my feet “That’s what I got from Plato.”
“Well I want you to know something, Louis Arlington. A piece of us, me, whatever, he/she/it is currently on your planet. He/she/it is evaluating the situation, and if need be, he/she/it will end the world. The apocalypse has to come at some time, you understand. Perhaps you can talk him out of it.”
“Why me?” I wasn’t the most dependable of persons.
“Because this project your boss has started, this YETI, it can bring about the end of the world. Do you think life can function while people are held captive by virtual worlds? Do you think you can take another fascist system? With your internet and your cameras, and your cellular phones sitting snug in your pockets, such a development would be fatal. Democracy has already proven to be a complete failure. If I see another despotic regime, I swear, it’s over. The whole shebang.”
“If you’re so pro-democracy, why has a representative government been such a rarity throughout human history?” The writhing had ceased, and I was becoming philosophical. “Why don’t you give us a little helping hand, a small push in the right direction?”
“I really don’t interfere with human development, despite what half of the idiotic populace believes. I’ve stepped in a couple times, I’ll admit, but only for big-picture stuff. I helped you during World War II, and my actions consisted of a bit more than a ‘small push.’ But the apocalypse would’ve come too soon, and the subsequent cultural changes, the vast technological jumps...you proved me right. Things were getting interesting. There was promise of progress, of real transcendental change. You were built to be a social species, but for so long all you did was trample over each other. There was brilliant change after World War II. But look where you are now. The global economy is crashing. Oil is running out. Environments have been ravaged. Sea levels are rising. Nuclear weapons will be launched. Plague, famine, approaching asteroids. Billions will die, and the remaining people will call a moonscape home. The last thing I want to see during this period of crisis is a good portion of the population placid and uninvolved because of the hypnotizing effect of mass entertainment. Do you get what I am saying?”
“Don’t you love destruction? Isn’t history and life full of death and bloodshed?”
“No. Entropy is the force that wears down the universe. Life is designed to combat it. That’s why there have been extinctions and meteorite impacts and particle decay, and yet, life still exists.”
“Then why end it?”
“What do you mean by ‘it’? I will end you, not life itself. Humanity is but a speck on the geological time scale. The dinosaurs did a lot better than you. Man was a different approach. I can try again and again and again, until time and space have reached their limits and everything becomes estranged in the cold void of the cosmos.”
“So you don’t have control over entropy or time. And you think that entropy will triumph through the actions of mankind, and you can’t bear to let that pass. I don’t know if I buy your reasoning. Sounds like you want us to quit the game before it's really over.”
“I don’t want that to happen, Mr. Arlington, I really don’t, which is why I am appearing to you. I...”
“Why can’t I see you?” I blurted out.
“The image would melt your soul,” it said quietly. “In some respects, the ancients were correct. But anyway, the entirety of us is simply not able to be seen by one set of eyes. I don’t want to appear as a flaming bush or a blinding light obscured by four-headed angels. I’ve already reduced my speech to your crude vernacular.”
I was silent for a while. My body was beginning to fade back into the earth. Time was running out.
“So what am I supposed to do?” I said, my mouth becoming full of dirt and grass. My bones were becoming their pale white roots.
“You have to find the piece of me and convince him/her/it not to bring about the apocalypse. He/she/it will want solid reasons. Convince he/she/it that you can turn yourselves around.”
“But don’t you know the future? Won’t you already know if we truly can save ourselves?”
“Yes,” said the voice, as orchard started to fade. “I know what will happen. But you don’t. Oh and one more thing: every night, until you find he/she/it, you will suffer through visions of the next world, the creatures and designs that will inherit the scarred fragments of your planet. If you try to avoid these visions by neglecting to sleep, I'll send my emissaries to haunt you. Just a heads up. Now, I think it's time for you to wake up."
“Gordy,” I stammered into the phone. “I just spoke to God.”
“Louie, it’s two-thirty here and I’m about to shut down...”
“It was a bizarre vision, I was the earth and I ate an apple that gave me one hell of an orgasm...”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s great Louie, that really is. I don’t really need to hear about your wet dreams.”
“He gave me a mission. I have to find him on earth and convince him not to end the world. He says Huerto’s current project will bring about the apocalypse.”
“Why would you want to stop it then?” I could hear the yells of a woman in the background. “Art will finally have a reason to keep stockpiling canned food. He’ll go fucking berserk if you tell him the zombies are coming.”
“I didn’t say anything about zombies. I’m talking about the end of the human race.”
“I’ll be right there honey, just give me a minute. Uh, sorry Louie, I got a customer to take care of.”
“This was not a goddamn dream, Gordy. I’m fucking sincere here. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Go back to sleep. I had a dream once where I sodomized all the Care Bears. One by one they came, and I serviced them. I did it mechanically. They stood in line and waited like they were at the BMV. What I’m saying is, I’m as sane as anybody else, all right? We just have weird dreams every once in a while. Did you smoke any weed?”
“I did, but that...”
“Mystery solved. It was the pot.”
“It works the other way, Gordy. I hardly ever dream after smoking pot.” I sighed tiredly. “What I want to know is, do you think it’s possible for somebody to talk to God? Is it possible without being insane?”
“How is it possible that Max Payne wasn’t the highest grossing movie of all time? Did you ask him that?”
“It was a horrible movie. A great video game, but a horrible movie.”
There was silence on the line. I’d criticized the work of the great Marky-Mark.
“I’m sorry, Gordy, I didn’t mean that. You know, Boogie Nights is a great movie, one of my favorites. It really is. Can you answer my question?”
“You know I’m religious.”
“I know, that’s why I’m asking you.”
“And to lie about speaking to God is blasphemy.”
“I’m telling you what I believe.
“If you believe that you spoke to God, then maybe you did. That’s all I can say. You’re not crazy, as far as I can tell.”
“Thank you, Gordy. But I still don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t make any decision based solely on what I’ve said. Yeah, I’m coming! Get in the car! Talk to somebody else. Hey, I gotta go, got somebody to take home tonight, all right? You try to get some sleep.” He hung up the phone.
I got up out of my easy chair and went to the bar and poured myself a tumbler of whiskey. I was still feeling that particular mental lethargy that comes with smoking pot, and tiredness weighed me further down, but I still wasn’t sleepy. Did I fear another conversation? A nightmare? As I’d done so often before, I turned on the TV.
“Well tonight folks we have a very special guest!” said the big chinned late-night host. “You know him from the smash hit reality show ‘People Watching People Watching People,’ as well as his diverse and brilliant musical endeavors. Let me introduce Mr. Mitch R. Singer!”  The audience roared with genuine applause. Singer appeared, waved to the camera, and sat down next to the host.
“Thanks a lot, Shay,” said Singer. “‘Diverse and brilliant musical endeavors.’” I don’t think anyone’s ever complimented my work quite so well.”
“I am a big fan,” said Shay with a show-biz smile. “Now you have a very distinct musical voice. I must admit, the first time I heard you, I thought ‘What the hell is this? Why’s this guy caterwauling?’ But it was different, you know, and different is good. You put a lot of attention into your lyrics. You songs aren’t about love affairs or partying. They’re about the darkness in the world, the evil, rotten heart of things. They’re seductive in their own way. Now, you’ve been accused of nihilism and misanthropy. Do you consider yourself a nihilist?”
“I think that’s lazy criticism, Shay, I really do,” said Singer. “I love people. I’m a people person, all right? I love life also. But I think there are certain truths about the human condition that folks have to come to terms with. I wouldn’t host a show like People Watching People if I didn’t have an agenda. It’s fun, sure, to watch people debase themselves for the promise of cash. But different people get something different from the show. I think many are disgusted. And that’s fine as well, although my producers probably don’t want me saying that. I want people to know that integrity is an imaginary thing. I want them to know that they’re surrounded by three-hundred million people that will do anything for money. I want them to know that society is a thing that will eventually go extinct. In the afterworld, we’ll be like beasts. I think we might be more successful that way.”
“That’s pretty nihilistic, Mitch, I have to say. So are you saying that you expect there to be some sort of apocalypse?”
“We’re already in one, Shay, we really are!” said Mitch, his glasses nearly falling off his face. “Resources are running out. Economies are depressed. People don’t know what to do with themselves, and there’s no technological messiah coming to save things. People are going to look to more primitive methods. They’re going to try to talk to God.”
“You know Mitch, we have a lot of viewers of faith, I don’t know if I approve of your wording...”
“I mean no offense, Shay, I really don’t. I myself am a person of faith. I’m a red-blooded American Christian, believe it or not. I believe in God, guns, and virgin sacrifices.”
The audience erupted with laughter.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that from your work,” said Shay. “Well, maybe the virgin sacrifices part. Well folks, stay tuned in, Mitch is performing a number from his recent hit album. I...”
I turned off the TV. Singer must be prescient, and the fact that a person like him knew what might happen disturbed me. Maybe he had dreams; maybe his nightmares were even more horrible than my own.
I kept drinking whiskey until I fell asleep. 

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