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FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF
(First Copy Excerpt)
PRELUDE: FEAR ITSELF
Let’s just say it: fear is a product of childhood. It first occurs, really occurs, when respected adults tell us something in stark contrast to the world we insofar know – a monster in the woods, a ghost in the attic, the devil, the Easter bunny, take your pick. If they tell us a story like that when we’re of the age that is unable to differentiate between fact and fiction, then we believe them, at least in part. Why wouldn’t we? It was, after all, the utterances from those very same trusted lips that we were taught everything else we know about the world; the foremost wellspring of nurtured understanding. To the ears and mind of a child, the fantastic and the horrific are just as probable and possible as the existence of submarines, rocket ships and far away planets. It’s all the same shit, all the same “wow” factor, wherever it comes from. It is within our youthful imagination, mouth open wide with gullibility, that fear plants its foremost seed. Now, I’m not talking about just any old fear – we have quite enough rational ones to contend with as adults: rent, bills, the job, gas prices, blood pressure, diet, fucking cancer, GM food, you name it. I’m talking about real fear, the kind that most of us have been weaned off of just like Santa Claus. Or at least we’d like to think so. I’m talking about the kind of fear that makes you doubt the nature of the world around you, or the reliable filter of that world: your own mind. If Santa Claus were to actually visit a child then she would at least have the reinforced belief to shield herself from the sheer terror of it all. If on the other hand Santa Claus (the real deal) were to visit an adult, then he or she would either collapse under the pressure or view the intruder as a madman before snatching the nearest weapon. Our beliefs are not only what make us who we are, but
they serve as precious insulation perchance the truly unbelievable ever actually occurred. By the averse, faithful Christians and other similar sects tend to use this mechanism towards a mirrored benefit. Nobody likes to think about dying, and wouldn’t it be great if we could just construct a belief that all of a sudden took that dreadful fear away? Hey, it’s 2000 years old, and anything that old just has to be true. For example, my grandfather was older than me, and he was convinced that you could keep meat in a freezer for ten years without it going green. He was also a Freemason and alcoholic, but moving on. Real fear is that which makes us doubt the consistency and stability of reality and our lives. It is something that cannot merely be explained away by any rational or scientific process. Hell, it flies in the face of any such cherished, civilized anchors and screeches “just try and wrap your head around this, I dare you.” I tried to wrap my head around it, but I don’t think my head is all that elastic for such a wide and overbearing girth. Maybe if I tried to wrap it around my head instead, though I don’t think my skull could take sort of pressure. I know they expect it to, but hey, tough luck. No matter what they expect or don’t, I still find myself driving up route 101 after receiving the invitation four weeks ago. And wouldn’t you know it, the sky is pouring. They must have checked the weather – real spooky. The drive hasn’t been a killer so far, except that now I’m in redwood country where the only thing separating state parks you can get lost in from civilization are a few patchwork signs along the way. They told me it would be removed, but this is ridiculous. The next muddy turn comes along and I put the truck in gear, driving faster than I ought to past the old
drenched giants in some faraway corner of the great California Redwood National Park. We’re at 60. I turn up the track that the random shuffle of fate allows, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and speed through the rain, thunder and mud into darker forest, just looking for the right sign. I think I understand fear. I guess I never really believed in Santa Claus, but I think I know why some kids do. It’s the same reason why some adults continue to believe in Hell or Heaven or God. It’s the same reason I was invited out here. They all believe in those things because they can’t adequately grasp the truth, and the truth is really scary. We’re at 70 now and the mud is hitting my backseat windows. Everyone has their own version of the Bogeyman. They all have those painted masks they desperately try to balance on the face of it all, as if to humanize the devil. But the devil hasn’t got a face, and neither does God. In the end, it’s all the same shit – but the truth? I press my foot down. We’re at 80 now. The truth is that there is none. And that, without a doubt, is the most terrifying thing of all. Except for the rare occasion when a suicidal deer bolts in front of a truck that’s pushing a cool 85 MPH down a straight twelve mile road in the middle of nowhere; just to prove a sloppy point. The point is that fear can be controlled with the right sort of mindset. That it too, just like everything else, can be rationalized and explained away. It’s our ability to do this that separates us from the animals. It couldn’t separate me from this one. I guess we crash now. As the Idiot King of all God’s creatures dismembers in a supercharged piñata explosion of red chunks and fast spray, my airbag deploys. I don’t necessarily panic – I’m a very good driver. My initial reaction after the first few
milliseconds of disbelief is to stomp the break and keep the wheel straight. The airbag is squeezing the circulation out of my fingers and it feels like there’s a bit of my prescription glasses that’s found its way into my left eye, but I keep her steady. The truck manages to avoid a redwood face-plant and eventually slides to a complete stop after a brief but profound adrenal release. Quick as an inhale of breath, it’s over. James Hetfield repeats on the skipping CD player, “Exit li-, exit li-, exit li-, exit, exit, exit, ex, ex, ex.” I smell leaking gas, so I take James’s friendly advice and grab the nearest exit. The door pops open and my front hands meet the cold graveled mud below in a hard splat. My glasses fall off with the impact except for that one percent in my left eye. Muscles are sore, bones are shaking. The crash must have taken more out of me than I thought. Crawling I can manage, so long as I’m away when the fireworks go off. It’s not all mud, either. Despite my poor vision, I can still make out definite shapes and colors. As one hand lands on a bit of chunky fur and the next on some sticky red tube, I become well aware that I’m crawling through the warm uneven gravy that used to be my unfortunate guest. Halfway towards the woods, hands stained and nails polished, then there’s a crack with heat from behind. But it’s not the truck. Quick as an exhale, my head lands in the tangled mess of cherry soup below, and I’m out. We’re off to never-never land.
So say you’re crawling in the rain through a trench of mud and gut confetti, and then you feel something strike you in the back of the head with enough force to knock you out. What you see when you look down at your hands is a pool of blood and brains, little bits of bone, and your first thought (or last, as the case may be) is either that you’ve caught a bullet from some illegal hunter out there in the woods, or that your truck exploded and sent a giftwrapped piece of shrapnel screeching through your pineal gland. In my case, it was neither. As a matter of fact, it was all just a big misunderstanding. Even if it really, and I mean really hurt. It was Bob who struck the blow with a branch, and Bob who mistook me for one of those aforementioned hunters; poachers, according to him. I guess no one ever told him that gamesmen prefer their deer intact and not in the form of ground beef that’s been put through the shredder of a speeding vehicle. A simple man, more bicep than brain, but to his credit, Bob was also the one who recognized me, brought me into the campsite on his shoulder, treated my wounds and cooked up a hot stew of rabbit, potato and fiddlehead ferns that some others had found growing nearby. It was good. I thanked God it wasn’t venison. I might never eat that shit again for as long as I live after tonight, but shit will happen no matter how in control you really think you are. That’s a rule. I guess I owe you some explanation at this point. I’m really not one for backstory, but these were the people I was trying to find, the ones who sent the invitation. It was to be “a night of food, wine and fear.” The fear part is what got me going on that road; it was the fear part I understood. Despite the events that took place just a few hours ago, I still think I do. After all, I write those kinds of stories for a living. I used to.
Now, I could trek off into a sad story about writers block and self-doubt right now, I could let you know everything there is to know about my divorce and the titanic of a fling after that, I could make it a real sob story full of the same clichés and pathetic bullshit we’re all used to; the shipping, handling and delivery, but I won’t. It’s not that I’m prideful or walled off from my feelings. It’s not that the mere mention of it would turn me into a blubbering child. It’s that I simply don’t give a fuck anymore - about any of it. What I do care about is finding the spark again, whatever it was. I’d like to get rid of this stale numbness I’ve been nesting with the past two years, but what I really want is to be afraid again; just one more time would be enough. I don’t ask for much, and even that’s cutting it a bit too close to the sap. There it is. I think you’ve heard all you need to, and I’ve already said more than I planned on. Besides, Bob’s swing is still ringing in my head. What I can tell you is that this is no ordinary gathering in the woods, nor is it some snooty writers retreat or off-brand California wine tasting festival. I’ve been to a few of those, and by off-brand they almost always mean moonshine. No, this was something different, something that had to be tucked away from the rational world of cellphones and taxes and the sheer normality of it all. Although there were office drones and retail managers scattered throughout the camp, those lives were left behind as soon as they entered these grounds. For them, it served as the shedding of that itchy skin we call cultural identity. For me, it was an initiation. This was a gathering of the A.A.O., a small collective from across the country that specialized in the art of getting lost. Lost in thought, in dreams, in art itself, I didn’t really know. They called it a specialized style of thinking, something that was either passed on or inherited but never
really taught like arithmetic can be taught. As for any specifics, believe me, I asked, but they said it would be revealed in the meeting when everyone had arrived. As any rational person might, my first thoughts were “bullshit, through and through”, but whether it was the fact I was unabashedly desperate or had just emerged from a brush with death, I placated the cryptic response. Hey, I’d dropped acid before, and I could “groove” with it just as much as the next guy. There wasn’t any next guy; I was the last to arrive, and so the meeting began. At first it was just the senior members. I could see them sitting on shortcut felled logs in a circle, faces illuminated by a central fire. The fresher of us weren’t allowed in there just yet. For all the pageantry and silly ritual, I went with it. I could flow with acid in my youth, I could flow with this. The juniors and me loitered around the back of a thick set of pines a few good feet away from the fire and drank beer or wine, some smoking joints or cigarettes. Some looked just as confused as I did. “Want a puff?” asks a young guy with dirty dreadlocks. What the hell. “Sure, thanks”, I say. He passes it along. “It’ll help to calm your nerves, always does. I heard you had a run in with Bob on the road. He told me everything, man, that’s intense.” “Sure is.” I reply, inhale and hold. My head suddenly feels a little better. “No, I mean, the deer. It was the deer, get it?” says the hippie. “No,” I exhale the pungent herb in a cloud, “I really don’t.” “What I mean is: that’s your totem. The deer represents subtlety, it’s a guide. When you explore the
place of wild things inside of you tonight there’s got to be a good intention.” The hippie takes the joint from my hand. “Sorry, man” I maintain an air of obvious kindness “but I think if that thing meant any good intention, it wouldn’t have run into the front of my truck. Bob wouldn’t have cracked me; I would have made it here alright. I’d still have a vehicle, for fucks sake… man.” “Nah, the truck is alright. One of them owns an auto repair, free of charge.” fumes the smoking hippie. This was either beginning to make a lot more sense, or the smoke was of a particularly potent strain. I myself, unfortunately, am prone to paranoia. Then again, I haven’t smoked since I was a dishwasher at the age of twenty two. My contemplative face must have given it away. “Man, I know what you’re thinking, but that’s not the deal.” The joint is passed. The hippie continues as I suck deep, “No connections, no mob, no affiliation with the Bohemian Grove, no giant carved owl or virgin sacrifice. This isn’t about connections or money, it’s about you.” “Me?” I ask; smoke expelling from nostrils in rapid stream. “And me, too.” says the hippie. “What about us?” I stonedly inquire. “It’s about everyone.” says the hippie. “And what do they have to do with me?” I respond. “Uh, everything, I guess.” the hippie gestures, “hey, pass it, don’t cash it.” I relinquish the smoldering stick. How long was I holding that joint? Maybe it was the wet forest air or the sheer profundity of events so far, but I was beginning to feel a little, you might say, looped. “So what’s it stand for, the A.A.O.?” I ask. “Well, we can talk about “a this” or “an that”, I guess that’s the first letter. Then we have to think of a subject,
and “A” is the first letter in the alphabet, so it’s the first thought you have, you know, the golden thought. Then we use that to fill up the hollow space, and that’s the “O”. It’s our minds, man. We have to fill them up with ourselves and not all that other crap.” says the hippie. “And what does that mean to you?” I ask. “Shit, I don’t know man; it was just off the top of my head. This is some good stuff, right?” “So what is it then, a cult, an artist’s community?” I ask. I hear a hooting owl in the distance. “Add an O to the front of that first one, and you’re close.” He responds. “Oh?” I say. “So this is owl country, isn’t it?” The joint is passed. “And I guess another C after that. Nah man, like I said, there’s no owls to speak of.” says the hippie. “Alright, I see.” I toke and exhale. The hippie laughs. “Yeah man, and an “I” in there too. It doesn’t mean anything without that. You really get it, man. You’re alright.” I nod at him and pass the hot clouded toothpick. I’m running it all over in my head: “I see an O”, “O, I see, but no owls to speak of”, “What on earth am I thinking?” The back of my brain starts to hurt again when Bob comes up to our complacently stoned corner of the forest campsite and looks at me with stern apologetic eyes, “You ready for it, soldier?” I can only dumbly agree, so we leave the smoking hippie behind as Bob guides my stumbling steps over root and stone into a makeshift hut they must have set up early this morning. Inside, Bob takes a seat on the dirt at one corner and I on the other. There’s a small fire lit between us, and because I suddenly find my parched mouth unable, Bob begins speaking.
“Beautiful out here, isn’t it? All this is unspoiled, has been since forever. I mean the meetings, not the trees, but these giants are even older. We’d like to keep it that way, on both sides - the natural and the not so much. Really sorry again, John, it’s the first time that’s happened, the first time we felt the need. It didn’t used to be like this. Just went with my gut, is all. It’s not just poachers, either. We have a source that says some others are trying to get in here and ruin the old fun.” The raw smoke isn’t doing anything for my dry eyes. Bob’s face looks like an overweight Sinatra in the dark shadowed hut. “Is it the cops?” I mutter. Bob waves his large hand in refute, “Oh no, no, no. We got the sheriff right here, over there with the seniors. It’s someone else, another group we’ve been meaning to deal with. You could call them a parent. Most of us who’ve been around long enough were either involved or had a run-in over our years. It’s become a tricky situation.” I suddenly regain some needed sobriety, “Why did you bring me out here, Bob? I didn’t see any others being taken off in private. Aren’t there rules?” “The rules might not suit us anymore” Bob lets out a long sigh, “If there really were any to begin with. We’ve known each other for a while, John, but it wasn’t me who sent out that invitation. I’d suppose you’d want it straight.” My realist cynicism punches through the soft veil of THC and gulps down the spinach of Bob’s latest sentence. The intellectual boxing bell rings, and I come soaring back. “Yeah, Bob, I think I would like to have it real fucking straight. That burnout over there was barely legible, and so far, all this reeks of just another Burning Man wannabe or an excuse for corporate management to pretend like they’re Indians for a night. The trail of tears is over, Bob. We aren’t them, and we have no reason to be. God bless
their dying, alcoholic, gambling hearts, but we’re Americans, and we’re owned by America Inc. You know what I came in here expecting?” Bob groans and leans back. “Maybe a job connection, a business deal, I don’t know, maybe even a publisher. It would be nice to have something going beyond the ordinary shithole of the working class default. I’m talking chain stores, Bob, chain stores. Is that any place for someone like me? It’s been almost two years since Christina left me, and what now? I’m back at ground zero. The last thing I need is to become just another lost boy on an island of lost boys. There aren’t any coconuts here. There aren’t even any goddamn owls apparently. Fuck Peter Pan.” Bob leans in, “Is that it, then? Got any more?” I sit for a moment and think. “So who did send the invitation?” I ask. “Oh, you’ll be meeting him soon.” Bob says. “It’s not up to me to tell, except that he’s a big fan. He spoke very highly of Barbara’s Belt.” My interest is piqued. “You mean the dominatrix thriller about a pervert New York City lawyer who becomes addicted to the dungeon lifestyle? There were only 500 copies in circulation. The guy must really like shitty fiction.” “He likes your ability to suck the reader into a different world, John. Just look around you with clear eyes, breathe it in. You wouldn’t have been invited if they didn’t see that. It’s what this is all about.” Bob responds. I sit in contemplation for a while, thinking this might very well end in a business opportunity after all. I mean, they’ve already got the sheriff, and who knows how many cops, A&R representatives, publishing scouts, hell, even politicians. Whatever it was, the bond was strong enough to allow the sort of deadbeats I smoked a joint with earlier.
Acid heads and policemen mingled. Some even dropped a tab or three. College professors drank and vomited ayahuasca while discussing fucking string theory. Whatever it was, paycheck and status be damned, they were all the same after passing through the gate. Even if it was just for one night, everyone was equal. Everyone was free.
(First Copy Excerpt)
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