“All men are hunters of something, and all men come home to die.”
From Grizzles Don’t Come Easy! by Ralph W. Young
The sun diffused through hueless afternoon overcast. A cold breeze stung the old man’s cheek. He dreamt often of this moment. He crouched, with his guide, in a stand of alder bush and devil thorn. He watched, via telescopic sight, as a magnificent brown grizzly dipped its jowl in the silvery blur of a river’s swift current.
Bracing his Weatherby against his shoulder, taking final aim, he saw a different figure rise up on the riverbank. Through the crosshairs, he saw himself staring back, standing where the grizzly had been, a salmon flopping wetly in his human teeth.. He stared and stared. It flopped and flopped. Molo’s comrade was not privy to the absurd manifestation of existential defect, the portentous twin. It appeared for just a second, but afflicted Molo like a hellish hour. Terrified, he squeezed off a .300 round, with startling efficacy. The report stung his ear. For a moment, he could hear the Gulf crescendo against indifferent sand. He lowered the weapon from his smarting shoulder to see merely a bear, collapsed in a furry heap, the ultimate trophy of his hunting career.
Portillo, TX – Friday Night
Gerald Molo had come back around the circle. He had come into the world in a clapboard house in Portillo, very near the place he was now arriving. He had grown up through humid summers and lean years, leaving home at a young age to find his fortune, and just as quickly lose it. He came back stronger, parlaying his east Texas oil discovery into a veritable empire. The failure of a venture in Alaska’s North Slope had incited diversification into less glamorous venues in the subsequent decades. MoloChem was among these modest, but profitable, enterprises. Molo was borne to the Portillo Fairgrounds under the cackling chop of rotors. The impudent drone invaded his fitful dozing, transmuted to the sound of a flopping salmon.
He regretted coming. An unseasonably cold afternoon harassed him as the open-top town car crawled through the parade. The folding chairs on the grandstand were uncomfortable. A sulfurous miasma emanated from the belching MoloChem plant that nourished the town, and smothered it all at once. The Smell of Money assailed his nostrils. Likewise, his ears were abraded by the teeming crowd, the braying brass, the keening terror-delight of carnival atmosphere. His eyes were next for punishment, as searchlights blazed and whirled in anticipation of the fireworks and laser extravaganza. This vexation was merely prelude for true suffering – the hot, undiluted wrath of a pensive figure, who had ensured himself a seat behind the venerable founder.
RJ stood at his position, next to the audio mixing console on a production platform, surrounded by the gathered citizenry. His camera was trained on the grandstand, and the aged guest of honor. A pale shroud of fog was settling over the vast multitude, augmenting the vast and complex array of lights installed for the MoloChem High Energy Event. It was as if the entire population of Portillo, together here, united as single giant organism, which clamored for lasers.
Kevin, the sound engineer, was explaining the details of the show to RJ, as they waited for the grand finale to begin.
“I run the audio here, the lights are controlled over there, and the pyro guys are way back there,” said Kevin, gesturing, and flicking ash off his Newport simultaneously.
“That’s a big board,” said RJ, observing the mixer, “how many channels for the band?”
Kevin looked around, and leaned in conspiratorially.
“The band’s not really playing, it’s horseshit, an act. It’s all coming from here”, Kevin said on a low voice, pointing his nearly spent cigarette at a reel-to-reel tape machine.
“The humidity was playin’ hell with their equipment. That’s what they said anyway. I got the easiest job here tonight.”
He put his hand to a headseat he wore and nodded.
“Here we go!”
Kevin pressed a button on a the tape deck, and moved a single fader on the board. The reels turned, and he settled back against an upended equipment case. He shrugged at RJ with a goofy smile, and took a final drag. A synthesizer note droned, and a spotlight appeared on Rory O’mega, who wore a flamboyant cowboy hat only someone as cool as him could get away with. The crowd cheered; the show was under way. RJ waited a few minutes, and climbed a short ladder down into the crowd, leaving his camera behind. He would not need it after tonight. With effort, he made his way through the enthralled mass, toward the parking lot.
The bearer of the strange videotape, abandoned in his lobby, had never returned. The image of Molo’s grave marker had infected him. He had become convinced that this was his message. Somehow it was true, even though the man himself sat framed in the viewfinder of his camera. He would prove this, by returning to the Receiver’s Hall, and performing the rite again, alone. Bro. Alton had gotten it wrong, in one small detail, and RJ intended to verify his revelation, while the town was distracted by the spectacle.
The strange synthetic music increased in volume and complexity. Likewise, the light show was building; more lights, more motion. Molo would have dozed off, if he were not so irritated. The first Crosette bombardment crackled in the Prussian Blue twilight; an alchemy of gunpowder and magnesium, iron and cyanide. A searchlight swung across Molo’s face, throwing his shadow on the crowd below. His head twisted away reflexively. He studied the absence of light before him, but could discern no shape. The rigid form looming behind him did not gaze up to the exhibition, nor squint away from the rude beam of the searchlight. He stared ahead, eyes as steely as wood could be. A cluster of Peonies thundered overhead, illuminating the crowd and eliciting cheers and raised hands; all attention was skyward.
In RJ’s orphaned camera, Molo could be seen to join the crowd, effecting an ecstatic rictus, frail arms waving with atypical enthusiasm, but in truth, he vainly clawed towards his age-humped back. The Hatchet Man had taken his moment. His reliable steel cleft rib and vertebra, corrupting a withered lung. Waiting for the next demi-climax, the awed crowd took ease, lowered their hands. Molo’s stayed up, arching back to that spot he could not reach.
A bank of lasers fanned out in ethereal green, synchronized to Rory O’mega’s pre-recorded accompaniment. He moved his hands over an elaborately staged organ, with neon manuals, but it made no sound. The MoloChem logo strobed on the side of a storage vessel, in vibrating red. All were distracted from the vicious vengeance, the futile flailing.
The Hatchet Man found himself unsure how to complete the act; whether to strike again or wait for the certain failure of traumatized systems. He contemplated the jagged defacement he’d wrought, as an opening, not to let out the coursing blood and gurgling breath, but to allow him back in, to that place he was forced from, so long ago. Nostalgia washed over pain. He thrust forward, gently reuniting with the old man, nestling in that fleshy pit. The immaterial permeated the corporeal. The visceral enfolded the vaporous. They reveled in this brief interval of communion, the bliss of wholeness. The column of cedar, now inanimate, toppled on them, driving the blade deeper. The commotion and music surrounding them softly transformed into crashing waves, and a shadowy refrain of When You’re Smiling. Molo’s breath ebbed like the brackish tide, and ceased.
RJ approached the Channel Breeze Shopping Center. The city was empty. He had left everyone behind at the fairground. He could see the fireworks erupting in his rearview mirror, amplified by the fog, which had gathered to an astonishing density. RJ entered the Channel Breeze parking lot, and he did not slow down. The Econoline burst through the facade of the Receiver’s Hall, a massive self-propelled brick. Folding chairs scattered as the van skidded to a halt. RJ shoved his door open, scattering more chairs, kicking them aside to make a path to the little gate. He stopped, frozen with doubt, looked back, observing the violence of his entry, and realized he was committed to completing his blasphemy.
The fog followed him into the building. It seemed to transmit the light and sound from the fairground, pulsing and droning. RJ pushed the gate aside, violating the sacred space. Guilt and fear tore at him like the fangs of some vengeful beast. He pressed on, spotting the box in which the Instrument was stored, below a set of switches. He flipped them all, and the golden light shone from above, spreading through the amassing mist, like a sunrise.
Seeing the Vehicle illuminated, RJ realized the gold coin was in the hands of some other congregant, one who would never return to this place. All would reach its end this night. Stepping back to his van, he bent in and rummaged the ashtray for a quarter.
RJ opened the box and took up the gilt gun. He climbed into the miniature Ford, leaned over awkwardly, and deposited the quarter in a slot in its side. RJ saw himself in the big mirror, bobbing with the motion of the car. The whir of the motor was almost drowned out by the strangely present ambience of the distant celebration.
Here, RJ made the critical diversion. He raised the Instrument, his arm not straight but bending. He took one last look in the mirror, closed his eyes, and pressed the barrel to his temple. He squeezed the trigger, and as the hammer struck the bell, it reverberated in his skull, like a tuning fork placed against a violin. The Golden Report registered in all his senses at once. The amber light penetrated his eyelids, intensifying in brightness and purity, until he was immersed in white. RJ was no longer in his world, and his world had ceased to be.
Portillo, TX – Present
Rex surveyed the Air Today plant, from his post across the freeway, summoning his courage and conviction. Time to work. He opened the trunk of the Crown Vic, and gathered his protective equipment. A light flashed, as if headlights were very close, and he heard a loud whooshing sound, then a clatter. Rex spun, seeing no vehicle, but his tripod lay on its side. Also, a man knelt next to it, setting the rig upright. “Oh, this thing is on,” he said, touching the REC button to stop it.
Rex scrutinized this interloper, noticing his familiar red mustache.
Rex and RJ faced each other. In place of what should have been surprise, or terror, there was simply a silent understanding, a surrender to an inscrutable greater force, as one submits to weary slumber. Rex held up the safety gear, and his new companion took it, smiling at him. Rex helped him put on the jumpsuit, hardhat, goggles. They stood together under the street light, Rex holding up the image of the valve wheel, instructing, ensuring the goal was clear.
“I will go, you stay with the camera.”
“So I guess I’ll be shooting myself.”
They nodded at each other, shook hands, and Rex pointed across the freeway.
“The rest is silence.”