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BLACK HELICOPTERS

EPISODE 36

SATURDAY the EIGHTH - 10:08 PM

          Santo's Lounge... Anne was pleased to discover... still had its old killer jukebox - all shiny wood and chrome, even a holograph of spinning vinyl that covered the compact disc machinery. Heavy on classic Motown... "Baby Love" fading into "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted", then "What's Goin' On". There was also a fairly interesting collection of 60's photographs and posters on the wall - some even autographed.  But as Anne and Andy watched the not-so-young, not-so-dark professionals on the dance floor flailing away like bit players in some blanched, geriatric Soul Train special from their vantage point in a corner booth, self-recognition crept into and diluted their amusement as inexorably as ice in their half-finished cocktails melted.

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          "Never thought shit would turn out like this," Andy reflected. "You know? Used to make fun of my parents with their Lawrence Welk and Guy Lombardo... now look at us! Everything on the fuckin' jukebox sold to sell something, the Beatles, the fuckin' Clash!... and nobody cares. Laurie Anderson!  Johnny Rotten!  Bill Withers dies and WalMart jumps in to pick the bones.  Fuckin' Saudis signed up those old New Doors for their propaganda, light my fire with OPEC. Advertising... it killed the fuckin' Revolution! That - and the Jesus freaks, country music, Scientology... just recycled as Q-Anon…”

          "All the smart people are dead, too," he added. "I mean... could you imagine the real John Lennon or Hendrix in a place like this?  Well, maybe if they were very, very wasted, tampon hat – drown in your vomit wasted.  Still don't believe they let me in after I told that doorman I wasn’t on Lockedin, or whatever they call it.  Went by three or four times back when it opened, two years ago when the Sanctuary was paying me a salary and I was thirsty, and it was always like, sorry man..."

          "At least you're dressed for the occasion now," Anne pointed out, fingering the Conk necklace that had gotten them past the bouncer. "Shabby, but making an attempt to look respectable - you're like some associate prof from the U.  English, maybe, or history. Working his way up through the University politics, writing monographs on Chaucer or Grover Cleveland for little journals nobody reads, denouncing Confederate monuments along with the rest of the herd, taking sides in academic arguments like for the symbolists or deconstructionists or multiculturalists. Poor, but aspiring to tenure. Speaking of which..." she opened her purse, "Glenn disappeared with all my plastic and personal checks too – couldn’t tap the bank, but I've found my Coalition expense account checkbook... how much was that dinner? And the tip to the doorman here.  Don't object, you already told me that money wasn't yours... it was supposed to go to people at the demo... and Glenn and I can well afford it. He was just playing with our heads. Do you know how much the CNC pays us, not to mention this expense account?"

          "No! And I don't want to hear about it... I've seen those vans of yours picking up kids, dropping them off in the burbs with their coffee cans and Catfish catalogs and Rayna’s Modes propaganda, signing up Conks or selling lipstick..."

          "It works," she silenced him, signing a hundred dollar check, "like the President’s overpriced hats do.  The payee's blank... make it out to anybody you owe money to, or to yourself. Keep the change.  It's almost Sunday but it'll clear Monday, promise! How do you get by, anyway?"

          Some depressing mid-70's power-anthem from an inspirational movie hit the turntable and Andy winced, took the check, folded it, put it in his well-worn wallet and put that back in a side pocket of his jacket, still bulging with the paper bag of what remained of Pinhead's cash settlement. "You're asking me? When we were getting funded by the block grants, I'd be making, like, two bills a week… that’s hundreds. Not thousands… and I still had money saved up. Feds cut us off, so I sold the car... that money lasted awhile, but a mistake, coulda slept in it rather than pay rent.  Then Pinhead cuts us off, too. Don't have many expenses, just my own hotet, ciggies, beer... figure I'll move into the shelter for keeps after this blows over, then I don't know... ghostwrite term papers for the jocks, plasma factory again.  Those people tried to kill me two years ago, after I complained about their giving out special debit cards only good in a few places instead of cash… accidentally on purpose stuck their needle into an artery instead of a vein.  Or vice versa, one of those… you know, they’ll need a lot of plasma for those new modulated high definition TVs..."

          "Not your kind, Andy. If you believe in the Sanctuary, why haven't you been staying there all along?"

          "Because I'm not a bum!" he bristled, "not yet. I’m a failing social justice warrior, not a failed one.  Yet.  Poverty doesn't make the spirit noble, just tired and confused. There's not one damn thing heroic about lying on a floor with fifty other stinking derelicts, babbling and watching the insects and the time crawl by. Only men ever went from the outhouse to the statehouse were Nixon, Clinton and Hitler... and look how they turned out! Fact is… I'm already living like a nigger. Word! And if nothing's going to come of it, I'm tired of living like a nigger!"

          Even though he’d lowered his voice, a sort of electric current rippled through the minority of the minority patrons and the politically sensitive of Santo’s, antennae quivering like bugs sensing the opening of a can of Raid.  Anne recoiled.

          "That's an awful thing to say. You're no... well, Jack says 'nwords', and you’re no Hitler, just a hypocrite, like all the rest of us. The next step is to step up from being a low-life hypocrite to being a high-roller hypocrite. Look... you do more time for sticking up a Burger-Jack than you would for floating half a billion in junk bonds. Lay off a few mil on the politicians, open up a bank account in the Ukraine, and you'll even get a Presidential pardon! So finish your drink and let's get out of here. This music is starting to suck!"

          "Hey... I warned you," Andy said as she gathered up her belongings. They pushed their way to the door, where the bouncer was turning away some students with their mouths and IDs hanging open.

          "Yeah, I know the law says you can drink at 21, but our insurance company says nobody under 25 gets in. Go talk to your law professor, if you want, but beat it!  Come back on a Tuesday or Wednesday.  Spoiled kids’ night."

          The slummers slipped out into an urban fantasist's wonderland of cobbled streets and fake gas lamps shining on the little shops carved into the old, rehabbed brickwork of a long-dead mill.

          "God, this Oldie City crap is awful!" Anne admitted. "So many franchises!  What happened to the Hays Room?"

          "Rehabbed into a childcare center."

          "Well at least that’s something.  Graceland?"

          "Gay."

          "Brook's?"

          "Fire, eight years ago. Finally got torn down, along with the whole block, our beer and porno strip. Now it's a Burger-Jack parking lot."

          "Sick!"

          "That's just survival. Or progress," Andy said, "take your pick. World ain't ending with a bang, even a whimper or a cough... just fizzling out with the sizzle of a patty of diseased rainforest cow, served up by overqualified psychotherapy majors... piss-tested middle-aged, trainee sub-minimum waged surplus Americans... to dolts on rent stamps..."

          A voice quivered up from something huddled in blankets in the doorway of a Shoppe featuring nothing but stone cats smiling inscrutably behind their steel-gated, security-stickered window...

          "Spare change?"

          "Fuck off!" Andy slid his arm through Anne's elbow protectively. "Most of these downtown people won't even come to the Sanctuary for the free food, even those who can't stand Malik's sermons. We don't have money for much more than stews with spoiled dumpster vegetables from the bodegas – the chains have been arresting divers for trespassing and the City whacks them for six months - and the bread that gets tossed from the day-old store goes straight to Malik... this University egghead testifies against us at Pinhead's last budget hearings, says begging for change to eat at a Whopper at McDonald's is supposed to be their way of maintaining a last link with the American dream..."

          "Well don't you believe in the American dream?"

          "If it covers up sordid reality?  These guys just want to fuck things up for everybody, lower the whole world into reflections of themselves, their personal disease. It's not the money, it's contamination. And recruitment... they touch you and your soul catches the disease, brings you closer down to their level. Spiritual Covid.  Making a spectacle of yourself to disgust the world... the last permissible form of protest.  Like Buddhists with nothing left to do but set themselves on fire.  That’s why they call the social disease media going viral.  Remember George?"

          "Jack Parnell's brother? Oh no... right, George from the astronomy department... Crazy George," Anne remembered. "Discovered that comet, but they named it after Dr. Probst.  I thought he died!"

          "Yeah, finally... about two years ago. Took long enough! At least he got his revenge on the U. for rejecting his thesis and denying tenure fifteen years back... crawled up the ventilation system in that shabby old Planetarium over spring break, cut his wrists and, by the time they found him a week or so later, they had to close it down for months until the smell went away. Wanted to be a scientist without working for Halliburton, but couldn't hack the necessary grant money, so he found a way to use his own organic biology to get back at people, make them uncomfortable for a little while. Now that the age of social swarming is back, everything winds down to random retaliatory acts of meanness..."

          "Washington's full of that!" Anne agreed. "You can't even go outside for lunch in the spring without a posse of angry white lesbians demanding you make a fist to support whatever black person the police shot last, or else some mentally disturbed ragbag staggering in, touching and spitting at all the plates, saying they're looking for scraps.  Guess it’s no better here.  Ratso told me how Fanio's closed... they got tired of throwing these people out, having them come back and the police doing nothing because they all were black and Pinhead had cut some sort of deal with Malik. So all the black people working at Fanio's lose their jobs and have to go out on the streets too... which is why Jack's involuntary commitment and microchipping laws will put a stop to all that!"

          "You really believe that Catfish shit?" Andy guided Anne around a particularly ripe aggregation of garbage at the curb... some of the plastic bags were ripped and bleeding filth; cats or surplus Americans having gotten to them. "All he brings is a new rug to sweep the problems under. Remember the Half Moon? It's a Houlihan's now."

          "What a great place! Those people from the Maiter Band played there before they got famous, a lot of people did..."

          "Yeah, and by the time you and Glenn moved on, they were playing on their way down after becoming unfamous again."

          "Well it's still a bar," Anne squinted, looking across the street to where the green and deep purple neon flickered among the Shoppes crowded between a BlockHouse music and video download box on one corner, always open, a Gap on the other end, closed and For Rent behind its fence. "Is it a chain? Houlihan's... sounds like one."

          "Probably. Upbeat though... only one allowed per town, that sort of thing. This sleazebag Morrow bought up that whole block across the street where the used textbook stores were, turned it yup..."

          "Watson Morrow?" Anne stopped so quickly that Andy's arm was jerked out of hers. "He's Mayor Potter's patron in the Coalition... they have this business together, Cato Consulting... like the Libertarian think tank?  After some Roman, I think…"

          "Morrow's a Conk?" Andy shook his head. "You are up to the knees in it. Let's go in... I'll show you the future after Parnell's revolution. I thirst, Coalition pays."

          They crossed the street and a spectre straggled from out of the shadows of boxes and dumpsters in the alley next to Houlihan's. "Spare change? Spare anything, man... a quarter, nickel, a penny..." Andy shut his ears and bidened her shoulder with a protective hand; entered, finding the place a cheery replica of an ersatz Irish pub, ordered two pints and two whiskies and put his finger over Anne's lips when they came.

          "Now that we're in the heart of Conkland, no more politics! Talk baseball. No? How about the two of you... ever plan on making things permanent?"

          "Uh... not up to me," Anne replied. "There's always work. Work to be done. What about you?"

          "Oh... you ought to know by now. How did that go... mutts, sluts and nuts, that's Andy?"

          "Didn't I have a right to be mad?" she retaliated. "With a chaser of cynicism..."

          "Hard living makes for hard times," he said, wiping a mustache of porter away with his wrist. "And in case you haven't missed the fact, we're neck deep into these just-say-no years we thought would go away decades ago when you made your decision to go with Glenn and the respectable life. Instead, things just got sleazy. And drugs and AIDS and plague are just the tip of the Titanic... appetizers, if you will. No smoking under twenty-one in Massachusetts, no more alien religions... except if you have lawyers suing the town to rip down all their Christmas decorations. No spraypaint, no felt-tip pens... no this, no that and don’t you dare sing “God Bless America” at the ballgame. Touch me and I'll sue! Look at me and it’s microaggression.  Drink quick, before your Catfish makes beer against the law. Talk anybody up, sooner than later you'll get a bill of prohibitions; there isn't any logic to it except haters hating haters; everybody's on the watch for different things to ban except that they're united in their hatred of life and the implacability of their convictions... like the Moslems say: ‘we love Death more than you love life’.  Because our lot is a whole lot better than that lot of the Syrians, for example, even if we don’t love life either.”

          "And where does that leave Andy boy?"

          "Remember how we all used to worship crazy people... chicks who pulled their teeth out and put feathers in their hair, silver rings through their nipples? Guys who shaved their heads and quoted German poets?"

          Anne put her glass down, leaving a foam moustache. "God, I can't believe how stupid I used to be..."

          "But it was fun, wasn't it?"

          "I don't know, I guess... at the time. I can't... won't answer! Because if it was, then my thinking it wasn't means I've made a catastrophic mistake in life, and I can't afford mistakes. Good people don't make mistakes."

          "So if they do, they're not good people anymore? Mark... he certainly wasn't good people, whatever we might have thought at the time. OK... but his old lady that he chopped up did encourage him, all the way to the bitter end ... was she good?  Or what’s that word… enable him?  When he chopped her up the papers... even the Urinal! that hated everything he did... were full of how good and successful they used to seem together.  Fake news..."

          "You went to the funeral, I remember..."

          "Yeah... I knew the chick.  I’d have said woman but she was eighteen, after all, and Mark was thirty-three, back then.  Like Jesus.  Must have been hundreds there, a thousand maybe. Couldn't fit in Saint Phillip's... had to stand out in the street with loudspeakers. Closed off, no permit problems there, you may be sure. Hundreds of people like us. Nobody else like Cobb... except maybe hiding on the inside. So is the free spirit, one who acts on impulse, a hero? A tragic hero? Some sort of wife-beating American version of the Taliban?  What about the coward whose cowardice prevents him from ever becoming a monster... does that make him a good man? Or woman? Beats me! I mean... I was as self-righteous as anybody out in that street, but isn't someone bragging about how amoral they are just striking another pose..."

          "So if we get back to the subject, is it safe to say you're not alone... poor, unhappy, confused, maybe, but..."

          "I guess," Andy shrugged. "And you're unhappy too?"

          Anne rolled the proper Irish whiskey round her tongue, then raised her pint. "I'm satisfied... not necessarily happy, nor un-. If I were either, I wouldn't be doing the job. Got to be doing the job. The job is what makes a container that holds the person, body and soul, and keeps everything from spilling out, all over the sidewalk... slaintch,” she exhaled.

          And Andy lifted his glass in agreement. "Arbeit macht frei!" he toasted.

 

 

 

 

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