Galveston, TX – Afternoon
A dusty ‘69 Ford F-100 rolled to a stop on the seawall. Two passengers debarked from the bed, their hair tousled from the windy ride down I-45. Davis stuffed a flattened Jim Beam carton, with “Galveston or Bust” printed on it in smudgy china marker, into a trash can. O’Neal stepped to the driver’s window, addressing their benefactor.
“Thanks mister!” O’Neal said, whacking his palm twice on the roof.
“Via con Dios,” said the driver, waving as he rolled forward onto the boulevard.
They both stood for a while, looking out at the beach below. Galveston was the homely sister of other Gulf shores, not fine and white like Pensacola or Tampico, but coarse and bland; an apathetic tone which cared not if it was brown, yellow or vaguely green. It baked dully in the waning sun, like a commissary steam tray of dressing, and the brown water like gravy, lapping turgidly. They stared out for a long time, saying nothing. Davis said nothing most of the time. O’Neal finally breached the silence.
“Now…we done split the money, and we agreed that once we got here, that’s it.”
“That is it.” said Davis.
A gull cawed.
“You got a crossed wire, man. You’re a cracked machine,” said O’Neal.
Davis squinted out at the Gulf, silent.
“No good’ll come o’ that…and I ain’t gonna be a party to no good,” said O’Neal.
Davis nodded efficiently. The waves writhed and hissed, a rippling nest of snakes. O’Neal extended his hand. Davis, disrupting his intent gaze, replied with his own. They shook stiffly.
“Well, that’s it, buddy,” said O’Neal, “like the dude said, Via con Dios.”
“I’ll find someone to go with,” said Davis, facing the shore again.
O’Neal walked quickly away, praying he would never see Davis again.
Davis stood unmoving, staring for a long while; then he sat down on a bench and stared some more. The sun dipped low. The movement of the waves kept hissing. Long black snakes twisted around each other, crawled up the beach, up the slope of the seawall. They crossed the threshold to street level, wriggled across the sidewalk, up Davis’ legs, into his ears, entering there. The snakes coiled and thrashed in his belly, echoing inside him.
Another sound interrupted this; a briefer hiss, the sniffling of a child. Davis looked up to see she moved slowly his way, on the sidewalk.
“You lost, little girl?” Davis asked.
As he rose, his pale shadow fell across her.
Portillo, TX – Present
REX JANNETER – CAMERAMAN would be official now, according to 500 iterations in embossed Caslon. He had placed his order at the Portillo Office Barn; the cards would be ready in two days. For several weeks he had not left his apartment before The Price is Right was over — and most days not at all — but this sunny Monday morning, he was propelled by an uncharacteristic vigor. The wedding shoot had actually been pretty fun, and Doug gave him his split of the job in cash, at the end of the night. Additionally, Lydia Scotch-Bonnet had called his beeper, and wanted to see him that very day. Rex entered the Air Today parking lot and pulled his Crown Vic into a designated VISITOR space.
He approached the guard shack, and knocked on the top half of a Dutch door. The square panel opened inward and Thibodeaux Parer stepped forward.
“I am Tib,” he said, sticking out his blue-sleeved arm. His Cajun accent was obvious even in those three syllables.
“Uh, hi, I’m Rex Janneter.” CAMERAMAN, he imagined one of his as-yet-unprinted business cards smartly completing the introduction. They shook hands heartily. “Your business, sir?”
“I’m seeing Miss Scotch-Bonet. I’m here to receive -”
“Before you enter,” Tib cut in, “there are measures to be observed.”
“But of course, in the event of crisis -”
“There is a plan for all to be saved,” said Tib, spreading his hands to emphasize aaalll. “The escape plan, yes, I see the poster.” Rex pointed to a schematic of the plant site, displayed on the wall. Red arrows illustrated paths of egress; green circles indicated points of assembly.
Tib, a head shorter than Rex, ducked, disappearing behind the bottom half of the Dutch door. He raised again, his arms full.
“Take these, they must be worn,” said Tib.
Rex hesitated, “are you sure? I’m just picking up -”
“None shall enter without them,” Tib said, with austerity.
Rex hesitated again, not sure which item to don first. Tib offered no further instruction, but merely smiled and proffered the stack of gear. Rex pulled on the safety goggles, tightening the elastic strap, then the yellow plastic hardhat, with “AT” stamped on the front. Next was a blue jumpsuit, wrapped in cellophane.
“Your size?” Tib asked.
“Never worn one,” said Rex. He opened the package and stepped clumsily into the fire-resistant garment, feeling unduly gauche about dressing in the open. He pulled on the sleeves and zipped up. It tugged a bit at the crotch, when he stood up straight, but it would suffice.
“One thing more.”
Rex looked up to see Tib holding a disposable razor and a travel-size can of Barbasol. “Truly, I’m just here to -”
“Regulations, sir. In case you should require a fresh-air mask.” Rex rubbed his furry, russeted chin, pondering the scrum of pipes and vessels and machinery standing beyond the entry gate.
Rex’s “Visitor” badge flapped against his blue, zippered chest. He had proceeded less than 100 yards into the facility. He could still see his car in the parking lot, and yet, all that fuss. A pungent garlicky odor pervaded the plant. On certain days, this smell spread halfway across the town. The smell of money, people liked to say. Rex stepped onto the covered slab porch of Building 8, and regarded himself in a pane of wire glass, set in the thick metal door. He looked better without the beard – more professional – without a doubt. He corrected his posture, then stooped just a little, for the fit of the jumpsuit.
Lydia met Rex at the door and brought him inside. She wore a similar jumpsuit, and her hair was styled identically to the night before. He wondered if the severe coif qualified, on its own, as head protection.
“Mr. Janneter, we’re delighted to be working with you.”
“Rex, please. Did you enjoy the wedding?”
“Oh, so beautiful, Rex, the Warwicks are dear friends of mine. Those kids are honeymooning in Barbados this week, can you believe it?”
Rex was not usually given to such chit-chat, but he abided. After Heather’s visit, and the wedding, he realized how cut off he had become from other people. Also, he hoped he might be forging a connection, business-wise.
The conversation gradually arrived at the purpose of his visit. Lydia opened a desk drawer and brought out a small plastic cylinder. Rex identified it immediately as a filmstrip container. The cap bore a yellowing label identifying a production company called Shine Films, with the “E” styled like projected light rays. An A/V enthusiast since junior high, he had assisted many a teacher in threading up the old projectors. Lydia handed him the little canister, and he drew out a length of the film, inspecting it against the overhead fluorescents. His neck prickled with a powerful wave of nostalgia. He noted the title frame: Dangerous Pressures.
“So, you can do this for us?” Lydia asked, after a moment. “Absolutely,” said Rex. They discussed his rate for the job, and Rex assured he could have it ready in two days. He left Air Today feeling better than he had in months. He drove too fast down 225, with his radio turned up way too loud.
Rex awoke Tuesday morning to a Texas-style tantrum of a thunderstorm. He didn’t care. He was full of positive feeling, an atypical optimism. He opened his blinds and stood at the window, watching the cleansing rain. He felt inspired to follow suit. Heather had, in the course of a delicate phone conversation, agreed to secure a filmstrip projector from the Portillo High School library, and bring it by after work. The timing was a canny move on her part, too early for the conclave to segue into any kind of dinner-type situation. Still, after the previous stolid weeks, this was like going steady again. Rex prepared for her visit, attacking his apartment with singular rigor. He began with the living room, a stratified midden of food waste, neglected mail and sundry dreck. He gathered his laundry, disturbed by how infrequently he had changed clothes of late, and shoved it in a closet. He cleaned the bathroom, disgusting himself afresh.
By the time he got to the kitchen, he was ravenous, but found his options limited. That he had half a box of spaghetti, and an unopened jar of Classico among his meager provisions, Rex took as a most felicitous omen. Setting a pot of water to boil, he carried out two large bags of stinking bachelor refuse. The storm had passed, and the air was cool and fresh; as much as it ever was, near the corridor of industry across the highway.
When Heather arrived, Rex was showered, shaved and clad in a clean, but casual t-shirt. Anything with buttons, or collar, or collar-buttons, would have tipped his hand. Rex helped Heather bring a projector and a collapsible screen inside.
“I had to make some space,” said Rex, downplaying the improved state of his dwelling. His camera was already set up across the room. The projector would go there, and he would record the image directly off the screen.
“Look at the working man,” she said, touching his clean-shaven cheek. The gesture was simple, but charged with a certain electricity they both directly retreated from.
“They made me do it, to enter the plant. Ya know, regulations,” Rex shrugged.
“Whoa, just like Urban Cowboy!” said Heather.
“You bet,” drawled Rex, tipping an invisible black Stetson.
They laughed. Rex moved on to business, before Heather had a chance to take the lead. “The old Dukane,” he said.
“There were a half dozen of them, crammed in the back of the A/V closet. Haven’t been used in years.”
“It’s the same one, look!” Rex showed Heather, on the back of the projector case, in tidy faded ball-point capitals: RJ WAS HERE.
“You must have been such a nerd back then,” Heather chided.
“Yeah, but hey, look at me now,” said Rex.
Again, they laughed.
“I was a totally different person back then. I had so many choices ahead of me,” said Rex.
For the first time that day, he felt sad; a little birdshit of dread smacked on his windshield. Time to work. He heaved the projector.
“I got this, can you set up the screen?”
“Sure,” said Heather, crossing to the opposite end of the room.
They worked separately, silently. Heather unfolded the base, standing the frame upright. She rotated the main tube, and locked it into a perpendicular position. Rex set up the projector on two plastic dairy crates, stacked as a makeshift pedestal. He plugged it in, aimed it, switched it on.
A white cone of light emitted, striking Heather’s back. He admired her, as she stretched the projector screen into place, like hoisting a tiny mainsail. He imagined the light penetrating her, displaying her insides on the white vinyl surface. Heather was translucent now, and he observed her lungs and heart, her agile bones. He longed for this, to see her this way, for them to see each other this way – all revealed, nothing hidden. Within, he experienced this moment for a gorgeously languid interval. Heather turned toward him, a shimmering angel.
“Damn!” she hissed, shielding her eyes.
Rex snapped off the projector. The illusion spoiled, he extinguished the bridge of light which briefly connected them.
“Sorry,” he said, as she squinted. “Thanks so much for this.”
“Anytime. It’s good for you to be working, I’m glad for you.” She blinked, agitated. “I should go now.”
“This won’t take very long, you sure you can’t stick around?” He knew how lame the next part would sound, but proceeded. “I made spaghetti!”
“I have a lot of papers to grade,” Heather said, rubbing her eyes with one hand, waving her glasses at him with the other, “truly.”
“I remember the day Mr. Barbeur visited my store. He saw the sign in the window: Everything Must Go! I had decided to move on to another line of business, and was selling to the bare walls. He inquired about a coin-operated kiddie ride in front of the store, a miniature Model-T. It still worked fine, sorta oscillated up and down, like they do, and had a curly brass bulb horn, which the kids loved to toot. It could seat two children, or a single adult, a limber one I suppose, which I got the impression he had in mind to try, but jedem das seine, you know. A spirited discussion ensued, regarding the price, and he was very persuasive. I practically let him walk away with the machine, plus a case of Krylon Gold Metallic. He was such a character, I couldn’t help but truckle. Whether he intended to use those together, I have no idea.”
Former Proprietor – Happy General Mercantile
From Light Reading – The Newsletter of The Receivers of the Shining Message
Portillo, TX – Day of Rest
RJ had reached the end of another typical week, and sought his usual spiritual repose at the Receiver’s Hall. A small crowd stood in front of the entrance this morning, which was unusual. Once again, Sis. Evelyn was displaying her rhinestone-adorned BB gun, dinging the bike bell. Joining her, Sis. Donna had mated a starter pistol and a desk bell with aluminum tape, all lacquered with gold fingernail polish. Sis. Jocelyn had embellished a squirting plastic Colt with a dense application of champagne glitter, and three large jingle bells. Shiny little flecks fell away as she shook it, along with the other ladies, in their strange demonstration. Sis. Sue joined in as well, having taken a handbell, tuned to F, and attached a sort of grip, wrapping the whole thing in butter-yellow ribbon, with ornate twists and braids. Each person who approached stopped to observe the festive babel, and a considerable assembly was forming. RJ approached, and stood a minute observing this, when a hush fell on the bystanders. Bro. Alton himself appeared in the group. “Good morning ladies,” he said in his faltering rasp. The quartet ceased their dinging and clanging and jingling. “We made our own Instruments!” said Sis. Evelyn, brandishing her handiwork.
The other three sensed something from Bro. Alton, and kept their trinkets obscured in their hands. Bro. Alton gestured for them to step closer to him, smiling, and continued speaking, in a lowered voice. RJ and the rest filed into the building, taking their seats as usual. He knew Bro. Alton, in his gently eloquent way, would address the ladies firmly, but with respect.
Perhaps he would express his appreciation of their fervor, then remind them of the proper way they had been taught to gain instruction, and to prepare themselves for the time they each were chosen to receive it. Patience and humility, above all.
RJ had felt a little foolish himself, with his rash attempt to compel Bro. Dennis. RJ looked at the floor when he and Bro. Alton finally stood on the dais, before the smiling congregation.
The four sisters took their places as everyone rose for the opening hymn. Bro. Jeff shared a stirring account of how he joined the Receivers, and the solace he was blessed with, after spending years grieving the murder of his young daughter. The story had become something of a folktale, a caution to children about straying from their parents.
Bro. Alton spoke briefly about purity of instruction, admonishing the gathered faithful to seek enlightenment only from the one true source. RJ admired his manner of addressing them, with love and concern evident in every word.
Next, Sis. Denise took her turn, entering the gate, as the congregation observed a meditative silence. A sequence of questions occurred, indistinct behind the partition, then a bright light, the whirring sound of something electric, and finally, the Golden Report, that sweet tolling of the bell. At that point, Sis. Denise would be imparted with her message, a personal revelation to guide him in his life’s path.
Sis. Denise stepped back through the gate, the congregation stood and applauded. Another hymn was sung, a benediction offered, and the brothers and sisters turned to leave as Sis. Karen played an uplifting postlude.
Bro. Dennis approached RJ, and took him aside. As they shook hands, RJ realized he was being passed a coin, gold with a stylized sunburst imprinted on the face.
“Me? Next Week?” RJ asked, in awe.
“Yes, my brother. Your turn at last,” Dennis said, smiling at him.
“Stay in the light,” each said to the other.