Galveston, TX – 1929
Gerald Molo listened to the crash of the Gulf of Mexico rushing away from him; a great vacuum drawing the final moments of a dismal year into salty, humid oblivion. He sat in his ’27 Ford, on the seawall, nearly 20 feet above the narrow beach, gritty and grey with moonlight. The man-made embankment stood to defy the elements, to protect the island’s inhabitants – righteous and debauched alike – against hurricanes or other manifestations of nature’s brutal forces. To Molo, it seemed like a futile effort. A storm of bad fortune had overcome his soul, and left a bare, eroded shore, bereft of hope.
He owned precious little besides the machine, a loaded Iver-Johnson in the passenger seat, and a portion of contraband rum. The latter he had obtained from the Bali Nights. Molo was parked down the boulevard from the bustling night club, regarding it with brooding contempt. It perched on groaning pylons, like great insect’s legs, over the roiling, black water. It thrummed, over-stuffed with revelers, vibrating with clamor. Music and cheerful voices reverberated over the churning waves. They counted down to a new year, a new decade. A neon sign flashed “Hot Music – Cold Drinks”, silhouetting Molo in crimson as he drained the little bottle of Cockspur, and tossed it to the ashy swath of sand below.
He could not abide the thought of a new year, or even a new hour. Each minute brought nothing so much as a fresh opportunity to fail. He considered his life; brief, yet already sullied by despair and misery. He had imposed a choice on himself. This broken young man had committed himself to decide, this very night, whether to continue his woeful existence – or not. The waves ebbed once more.
Portillo, TX – Present
I am Kyle Blyte. My stepdad Darrell owns Contemporary Paint & Body, on Center Street. I stand in front of the modest establishment, a double-Quonset with four garage doors, a small office, a filthy john. It looks like two soup cans pushed together, or a giant pair of robot knockers. A failing neon sign blinks temporary Body. Appropriate, I suppose. A car dies, turns to rust, and the driver moves on. Ashes to elbows. We help keep the car and driver together, like prolonging a bad marriage.
A block down, across the street, there is a loudspeaker mounted on a pole. It looks like a beehive, and sounds like a horde of crispy insects attempting human speech. The weekly homily of the South Coast Safety Committee begins:
“In the event of crisis, heed these words. There is a plan for all to be saved.”
“aved-aved-aved,” responds the echo.
Each Thursday, the public announcement system is tested, the same message. There is more, but I become focused on the Air Today plant, at the end of Center Street, across the freeway. A flare is burning high into the purple sky, from a tall stack. It makes the whole place look like a humongous dragon, reclining on its glittering mound of booty, blowing off some plumage just because he feels like it. Or maybe he can’t help himself. The truth is, it’s the plant burning off waste product. Seems like it could use some privacy for that. The sun is setting, and the bright pillar makes everything down to 15th street all campfire-colored.
Danny Momus is late. I called his beeper 30 minutes ago. He’s a bud, we’re in Spanish together right now. We have el asunto, a trade, to discuss. He finally arrives in his ’86 Mazda. It’s not new, but it still looks pretty tight. I guide him through Door #3 and roll it closed.
“You’re late, Nemo.”
“Yeah, sorry -”
“En Ethpañol!” I goad, in the Profesor Dawson voice.
“Lo siento,” he replies with unusual competence. That phrase, he knows.
“Pinche’splendido!” I roar in my basso AM-radio-announcer voice. This usually evokes the subtlest twitch at the corner of El Capitan‘s pout-cleft, but he exhibits no reaction. Less so than usual.
“So, J. Danforth, what you got for me?” I say, getting manos a la obra, and literally rubbing my hands together.
He steps out of his mini-truck in that awkwardly practiced way, almost concealing the clear fact that he is too tall for this stylishly petite conveyance. He rises to his full height – slouching height – but still a pounder of Tecate over me.
“I’ve received a message,” Nemo says.
I wait for more, but that appears to be the full comunicación. In the silence, I percieve that he’s serious. More so than usual. The air compressor kicks on, clearing its throat. Just as I attempt to advance the conversation, with befitting gravity, he pushes a rumpled sheet of paper at me. It’s last week’s Spanish exam, an F in Dawson’s baligrafo rojo slashed across the top of the page, like he’s some kind of dickhead Zorro.
“Hmm, I believe it says that you are failing Ethpañol.”
Nemo flicks the paper, grunting with agitation.
“El ocho lado”
“El otro lado” I correct him, finally understanding, flipping the page over, “you said ‘eight’, bobo.”
The reverse bears a crude sketch, something like a sideways bicycle fork, with a couple of florid accents. He doesn’t wait for me to ask.
“Last weekend, I was real DeMoLished. I saw this…it came to me. Like a message.”
“Mensaje del sueño?”
“Una visión EXTRAÑA?”
“Yes, it was very – muy extrana!”
I crack up at him pronouncing it like Montana.
“Look, I’m not here for like, frickin’ tutelage right now, just let me tell you this!”
“You got extraña, that’s on the quiz next week.”
Nemo seethes at me, and I raise my hands.
He seethes a little more, then continues.
“There is a stream. It diverges, here.”
Danny points at the forked part, a thinner line splitting from the broad primary one. He indicates the thicker line.
“This stream has flowed, and will flow. It persists. This is where we are.”
He points now to the lower line.
“This stream is brought into existence, in parallel, a reflection. Some people who are here, with us, are there as well. The room is the same, but the furniture is arranged differently. This line goes on, but it must end.”
The thinner fork terminates with careful pencil shading, fading to the white of the paper.
I trace a yet thinner curved line, “And this one?”
“A projection of will. A needle of pure volition, stabbing backward. It is the cause, and the divergence is its effect. The snake bites its tail. The effect is recursive, but this line, it must end.”
“Whoa,” I say, raising my hand, “now you’re repeating yourself.”
Captain Nemo just got too deep for me. He needs to lay off the Dims. I give up on trying to understand the drawing, and instead begin to see it as negative space between strips of masking tape; a graceful filigree rendered with my airbrush. I consider its placement on the side of the Mazda. It’s simple enough, a fair trade for what I’ve been promised.
“So you want this on your truck, like we talked about? One color only.”
“Yeah, um, I have this.”
Nemo brings out a baggie containing the agreed currency. His mom is some kind of New Age shrink. Her compressor and paint gun are fruity crystals and a little beauty called VDML. We call it Viddy, or DeMoLition, or a half dozen other cute names, because young folks are just so goddam clever. Nemo snags the stuff while he cleans Momma Momus’s office, after hours.
“This is a little less than we talked about, Capitan,” I say, shaking the baggie.
“This stuff might get scarce pretty soon, ya know? It’s a fascist state, man,” Nemo shrugs.
I accept the scant requital. No hay problema, it’s not really my thing. In fact, I’ll probably reserve most of it and try to slag it off later on some desperate Dim-heads, maybe even Nemo himself. He mistakes my contemplative pause for haggling, and brings out something else, which really gets my attention.
“I got the new Viddi Moliddi, it just came out. You can have it.”
“Pinche’splendido!” I exclaim again, this time with the desired result. Nemo obliges me with the faintest reaction, the line above his chin angles slightly, like his jazzy little Mazda starting over a speed bump. I hand him a roll of tape.
“C’mon Nemo, help me mask these windows.”
I jam the cassette into my boombox, and press play. The new album from the greatest pop duo in the world pumps out; it does not disappoint.
Portillo, TX – Sunset
“Gerald Molo first found success in the oil business with a great discovery in East Texas. The legend goes that he was shown the location in a dream, while sleeping in his car, on the Galveston Seawall.”
RJ had heard this sentence read a dozen times. He had directed the voice-over recording session. He had captured the B-roll shot of the commemoratory painting, in the lobby of MoloChem. The huge chemical refinery loomed over the end of Center Street. MoloChem’s Safety Manager, Dennis Cantura, was reviewing the employee orientation program. RJ had been commissioned to produce the work, and with Dennis’ approval, it was now complete.
They sat together in the dark editing room of Vid ‘Em All, of which RJ was sole proprietor. He offered a complete range of video production services, at reasonable rates.
Dennis was silent as the video played. Several revisions had already been made, and RJ was certain this would be the final edit of Wel-Chem to our Plant. It was boilerplate orientation material – entry requirements, hazardous chemicals used on-site, protective equipment. It would be exhibited, compulsorily, to day laborers half-dozing through its familiar contents.
“In the event of crisis, there is a plan for all to be saved” the narrator droned on.
Finally, the video ended. The Vid ‘Em All logo appeared, and dissolved to black. RJ awaited the final verdict. Sweat prickled under his coppery mustache. Dennis swiveled his chair toward RJ, who rose to flip on the lights.
“Great work, consider yourself approved!” said Dennis.
“Consider yourself invoiced!” RJ replied, producing a neat dot matrix column printed on a sheet with perforation-stubbled edges. He held it just out of reach of his client. Dennis’ eyebrows raised behind thick safety spectacles; his olive brow creased. RJ, standing, kept eye contact with Dennis, still seated – a power position. He paused for drama, ensuring Dennis saw the amount, then he brought his other hand to the corner of the document, and, with a flourish, tore it neatly in half.
Dennis understood immediately the meaning of the performance. RJ intended to forego payment, in lieu of a greater consideration.
“A very generous gesture,” he acknowledged, coolly deflecting RJ’s attempt at bravado.
“I want in” RJ said, weakening, focusing not on Dennis’s eyes, but on a glint on the edge of his shatter-resistant lenses.
They faced each other wordlessly, for a long tense moment.
Dennis rose and extended his hand.
“I’ll see you Sunday,” he said, with a tone that offered much, but promised nothing.
Portillo, TX – Present
Heather Slown knocked on the oak door of Momus Holistic Wellness. The office was a garage apartment, with metal spiral stairs leading up to a small landing. An A/C unit sweated and hummed in a large window facing Highway 225. She waited, gazing listlessly at the reflection of a giant column of flame emitting from Air Today. The image distorted with the vibration of the condenser fan, and Heather imagined the entire works tumbling apart in the midst of some great tremor.
Diane Momus appeared, welcoming, “How does this day find you, Heather?”
They entered and were seated, conversed for a polite interval, and commenced with the evening’s business.
“This work is like sculpture, Heather. You are a whole, beautiful person trapped inside a block of marble. We have been chipping away, freeing you from your past, your fears and insecurities. The work is quite far along; we’ve progressed from broad and inelegant whacks to a high fidelity of detail. You may, however, be aware that one of my tools might be taken away soon.”
Diane handed her an article clipped from a recent Portillo Observer.
“Yes, the DEA is pushing to place Vidimol in Schedule 1. I’ve been following the hearings.”
“Of course, your vocation gives you a particular insight into this development. I wish you were Daniel’s teacher, he might be making better marks.” Diane said with a stiff chuckle. The comment did not register, as Heather intently scanned the article.
“They’re talking about invoking an emergency ban,” said Heather, half out loud.
“It could take effect in a matter of weeks.”
“The process usually takes much longer,” said Heather, alarmed, “the agency was only granted that power a few years ago. Our own Senator Boyd pushed for it.”
“It’s all over the nightclubs in Dallas, like candy. There’s growing abuse among teens as well. Such a shame, it has the potential to help so many people,” said Dr. Momus.
The drug was essential to her improvement, Heather could not deny that. She was troubled that something so beneficial would soon be forbidden, looked down on. She had partaken regularly for over a year, under professional supervision, of course. If she had to stop, would there be withdrawal effects? She was troubled by a budding compulsion to seek out Viddies on days between the sessions. She craved the marvelous feelings they gave her. Once she found a source, could she risk forming a habit? These flickers of curiosity were swiftly dowsed by doleful shame. Dwelling in the shadow of undue shame was a significant component of her condition. When Dr. Momus gave her the treatment, it was like the lights getting turned on. There were no shadows. Every room, every corner could be investigated without fear.
The doctor continued, “What I practice, in the psychological realm, the art of medicine, is to take your projection of belief and reflect it back in a way that increases the possibility of healing. Vidimol is the mirror, and soon I might not be able to use it anymore. I have other methods, but your response has been strong. You are so close to being well.”
She took Heather’s hand.
“We need to prepare you for a special session. A larger dose. One last attempt while we still have this option. If it doesn’t work, we can explore a different path, but I urge you to take this journey.”
Heather was frightened by Dr. Momus’s intensity. She knew the power of the drug, and feared the effect of its absence. She had trod the icy shore of oblivion, and wished not to return. Dr. Momus had guided her back with the help of her shining chemical beacon.
“Is it safe, the amount you intend to try?” Heather asked.
“Your usual dose is quite weak. When it’s used recreationally, they start with at least twice that potency, often much more. The mortality rate, as far as it can be ascertained, is surprisingly low, the Senator’s ‘epidemic’ be damned. All that said, you may not want to work the next day. Are you available next Friday?”
Heather, pensive, did not reply. Diane caught herself, tempered her zeal.
“If you agree, naturally, that this is the right course of action for you. I am confident you will be quite pleased with the results.”
Heather remained silent, absent in her rumination. Diane gave her a moment, walking to the medicine cabinet. She was troubled to find the door unlocked.
How could I be so careless?, Diane asked herself. She retrieved Heather’s usual dose, and returned to her seat.
“The accelerated method has proven successful at the Sunbeam Concern. I’m sure they would be delighted to share the results of our experiment.”
Heather winced at the last word. She did not care for the Doctor’s affiliation with the Beamers. An extra-scientific research institution, mostly defrocked university faculty, the Sunbeam Concern had been the most vocal opponents to the current action on Capitol Hill. Dr. Momus was unorthodox, but worked within the bounds of sane and ethical alternative medicine, as Heather reckoned. The Sunbeam Concern operated from an enigmatic compound in the Chihuahuan Desert. They toiled, it was rumored, on the murky frontier of extreme pharmacology, and arcane psychospiritual theory. The Doctor’s admiration for this cadre of hippie pseudo-physicians was disturbing, especially so at this juncture of her own treatment.
In a moment of terrible lucidity, Heather realized Dr. Momus, this devious aspirant, wouldn’t hesitate to crack her head open like an egg on a greasy countertop, and for no better reason than to gain cachet with the insidious weirdoes of the Sunbeam Concern. This dark notion curdled into paranoia, dread born of deleterious self-aggrandizement.
Heather got a hold of herself. She had to trust Dr. Momus. She was willing to go down this path, to let Dr. Momus guide her, as she had all along, but the next session would be her last. She had to dislodge herself from Dr. Momus’s orbit. At last, Heather emerged from her deliberation. She looked up at Dr. Momus, who bore a kind aspect in her eyes.
“I’ll do it.” said Heather.
“Wonderful!” said Dr. Momus.
As they proceeded with the evening’s session, Dr. Momus modified her procedure, referring to a sheet of slick, curling fax paper bearing a letterhead formed around a stylized sun. A few extra steps were implemented, to make the next one less abrupt. She began, conversationally.
“Have you seen Rex this week, spoken to him?”
“No. He’s been on my mind. Not that I miss him, so much, just that he’s been really down. He hasn’t found another job yet.”
Heather and Rex were not seeing each other, not for several weeks. He had been a light in her world, like the treatment, chasing the shadows, though casting certain other ones. He was skeptical of the Doctor, calling her credentials dubious, her methods dangerous, her fees excessive. As a teacher, she could not deny the latter charge. Heather had not considered her livelihood in this matter. She was subject to drug testing at work. If Vidimol was criminalized, and she kept using, her career would be at stake. As the portion she had presently ingested gained influence, she had an insight. Empathy unfolded like the bloom of a luminous orchid. Rex’s incredulity came from a place of concern for her. He did care for her. She needed to give him another chance. If she could, for once, be fully present in her own life, she wondered how their relationship might evolve.
As for herself and Dr. Momus, and her wicked little mallet and chisel, this was the beginning of the end.