2 – The Crossroads

Slater found himself sipping the currently popular Blue Shooter. In a place called The Metro. He was sifting through some accessible memories. His mind was in a partial fog like the renowned city of Frank. The creeping mist had usurped his energy and left him in a relaxed state of fatigue.

He was attempting to measure the extent of his disorder. Had he landed, or had he technically crashed to earth? Or had he simply materialized in this seat at the bar? Being aware of molecular turbulence, Slater began to wonder about truth.

Could truth be told?

Noise from the bar was getting louder and competed with his ability to hear himself think. A decibel louder and it would reach the level of illicit fun. A waitress wearing a transparent amber dress came up to the bar. She sauntered toward him and paused to stare into his face. She surprised him by leaning close and kissing his lips. She then backed away and slapped him moderately hard.

Slater half-laughed. “What the hell was that for?”

“To know the sound of one hand clapping.”

He blinked as she mysteriously walked away. He stared at her shapely bottom and took another sip of his drink. He was intrigued. Who was she? Who was he to her? Who was anyone anymore?

Genesis 101.

His ancestral links were gone, buried in an atmospheric whiteout. Entities of the swirling fog. There was nobody left to tell the tales which were often fabulous distortions of the truth anyway. Yet, ages ago, before the firestorm that gutted his dwelling place, he had had scraps of evidence. Sepia and color photographs. Birth and death certificates. Newspaper accounts. Computer files.

Ashes to dust, atoms begetting atoms.

For a starter, both his parents had died before he was born. He used to enjoy the shock value it had upon the people he told. The expressions of disbelief varied. His statement was taken more or less as a given lie until he became famous and industrious reporters did some investigating. Exhuming records of a car crash on the Golden Gate Bridge. A cesarean birth. Raised by wolves.

Truth within lies.

His foster parents, in actuality, had resembled sheep. Especially his third father who had a fondness for sweaters, his third mother too. Both had wavy hair, his mother’s permed, his father’s natural. Royce, or Roy, as he like to be called, smoked a pipe, liked to see his dashing image in mirrors, wore a thin mustache and, on army reserve days, wore a uniform which dispelled the sheepish image. Roy had been a war hero. Confused by a melee assault of machine guns blasting and the deforesting airpower of friendly fire, his unit had stampeded in fright and accidentally collided with the enemy – not only surprising but capturing them. Roy had received shrapnel in the ass, was trampled into the mud and feigned death, for which he received a Purple Heart and proudly wore it on holidays, walked with a permanent limp, became a behavioral psychologist, played golf, and was perplexed that his eventual son, forgiving the missing genetic ties, had evolved into a different kind of animal.

Roy never came right out and told Slater what he thought he was, just: “We love you, Son, honest to God, but you’re a different kind of animal, that’s all.” Roy would say this while putting balls. He was constantly working on his putts, always trying to improve his game. His approach to life was passive-aggressive. He used his putter as a cane. An instructional pointer. He would compliment first, next debate his point calmly, before delivering a parting insult, even threaten the doorways and windows with his club. But never, during this anger, did Roy ever follow through. Unlike Heather, his mother, who was direct – slapping faces and throwing rocks through glass.

More like wolves, disguised as sheep, these third parents.

His second parents, Hanna and Paul, aunt and uncle (brother to his dead father), were the first to adopt him and had left a warmer impression. He recalled a home with comforting lights and the smell of cooking, laughter, and singing, a sense of security and normalcy, before his aunt died suddenly and his uncle fell under the spell of a rapidly progressive dementia.

Slater sipped his drink and looked around, noticing that the bar still provided live music. He watched as the band and crew set up their instruments. The drummer was rattling on a snare drum. One of the musicians was near the stage signing autographs. It triggered a rush of memories bound in cobwebs. Slater had learned to value anonymity. He was trying to blend in, becoming an unrecognizable nobody. It appeared, so far, to be working. Except for the amber woman to whom he had done something good or bad, it seemed.

A little of both, he guessed.

Slater’s career in music had lasted less than three years. He had barely been into his twenties. He was homeless for another delirious stint. Followed by the majority of his years in which he was busy raising a family, co-founding a business, and climbing the wobbly rungs of a corporation which delivered him like the biblical Jacob into a beclouded realm of corporate wealth and power. Yet even after a glorified arrest and global notoriety, it appeared his identity could not hold shape within the public’s short attention span and outlast detrition to memory caused by time.

Time had no use for inertia. Matter moved in and out of favor. Time sought complexity and circled it with devotion.

Before it all unraveled, faded and died.

Slater lifted the Blue Shooter to his lips to sip more of its nectar. He imagined himself an ancient mariner driven off course by severe misfortune, with loose ends flapping in the wind. At broken-down moments like these he was tempted to let go of the lines and sheets and let the wild forces take his vessel to wherever – some tragic end. His survival, considering the many harrowing twists and turns, came down to a willful nature and a preponderance of luck.

Or was it manifest destiny?

Slater had to laugh at the divine game plan of his conception. Genetically linked to religious fanatics. Biotechnically conceived by a cult of scientists and fools.

What did it mean to have life? To be human? To come from nothing and have this spark of awareness?

Slater regarded the cloth he was wearing. He was responsible for its inception. First envisioned in a dream. Even the blue liquid was his creation, in part.

Truth? No. It could not be told.

The blue liquid tasted vile but helped revive lost memories. It also numbed necessary instincts. He needed to be more attentive. The man on his right was seated upright, no slouch, staring straight ahead into the barroom mirror. Absorbed in narcissistic meditation? Or was he an agent of the NeverMind Corp? Slater broke the silence between them by asking:

“Did you come into this bedlam for the solitude too?”

Unfazed by Slater’s stab at humor, the man abruptly finished his drink, stood and exited the bar.

“Nice talking with you,” said Slater.

A bartender approached. He held a stainless steel container and tipped it toward Slater.

“Let him go, Mate. This place is full of lost souls.”

“Ah, the Proprietor of Truth?” said Slater.

“A mere employee. Care for another?”

“What the hell. Shoot me.”

“My pleasure.”

It was a wry litany both understood. The bartender’s eyes were as grey as the metal cylinder. His torso had a weightlifter’s physique, tightly bound in a black shirt.

“When’s the music start?” asked Slater.

“When you’re ready to listen.” He tapped his bald head, gave a smile of sorts. “It’s all up here, you know.”

“Right,” said Slater.

“What’s your excuse?”

“For being here?”

“Are you a music lover?”

Slater shrugged, noncommittal.

“Same here.” The bartender tipped his head and moved on.

No longer was Slater a musician nor did he consider himself to be one. He warranted no more than a paragraph or quarter page in Rock’s anthologies. He had become a Golden Oldie.

Wolfe, his friend and bass guitarist for their band, had laughed and shouted more than once during a performance: “This isn’t art— we’re a fucking demolition act!” After attaining success, and their band prophetically breaking apart, Wolfe said to him after a concert: “Don’t take it personal, bro, but you blew it. Savvy?”

Slater gazed into the thick blue liquid. It had a metallic quality. It pooled in the glass like mercury. Had this opening act of music been the overture to his entire life – a demolition act?

He smiled and muttered, “It wouldn’t surprise me.”

“What wouldn’t?” said a woman on his left. She was attractive, pursing her lips to show interest in his plight.

“Life…anymore.” He regarded her with a grin, then returned to the blue depths of his cocktail. He swirled the remaining liquid, making it rotate like a pliable planet around the bottom of the glass. He recalled his wife as it swirled, how she had playfully eviscerated him with words in front of a roomful of amused guests, “No, John, what you are is an ambitious, lustful, God-haunted wanker.”

She was being polite.

Reflected in the mirror was a woman outside, walking with two girls, beyond the glass, passing like phantoms. The mind was cruel, playing these tricks. It wasn’t his wife. He had lost her to the war. Both daughters too. Besides, if still alive, they would be much older. He was gripping the shot glass to hold onto their memories.

It took the Big One to shake him to the core. To force him to realize who he was – and who he was not. It was the earthquake everyone said would someday come but no one wanted to believe. It was the heartbreak lovers feared but never suspected until it was too late. It was the voice he heard and kept hearing in his head until the power of its persistence convinced him he was no longer part of the norm, but somewhere on the other side of sane.

Acts of God?

Glass from highrises had rained barbed hailstones down from a cloudless blue sky. Accompanied by sounds of metal wrenching and cars colliding. Beneath a stalled flatbed truck he dove and survived. Something compelled him to rise to run and help a woman trapped beneath a collapsed facade. Aftershocks buckled the asphalt like a carnival funhouse. Houses twisted off foundations – snapping gas lines – exploding into fire bombs.

Slater was looking far beyond The Metro into the past. He saw the fallen bricks and the opening of a cave he had crawled through. A collapsed elementary school where he heard the cries of children. Upon finding them, they clung to him, not wanting to let go.

It was hard to let go.

This was the unifying principle of science. This was what held the universe together. This…binding love.

Slater spun the blue liquid, watching it coalesce into a turning world held by transparent forces. Eventually everyone slipped away, losing their grip, succumbing to the revolving forces. Slater tipped back his head and let the bittersweet liquid roll down his throat.

To get his mind off the past, he swiveled around on the barstool. The bar’s glass front view showed a darkened city lit by fancy lights. Frank had undergone major reconstructive surgery. Architectural engineers, like born again Darwinists, had given rise to pyramids – this prolific new survival of the fittest design. They saw-toothed the skyline. Spires with external elevators zooming like space capsules, ascending each slope to reach revolving restaurants. And up above, sky-writing lasers beamed the night with advertisements:

Got S.O.U.L.? Have a BLUE Christmas. Do IT!

Was intelligence an inevitability, a consequence of evolution? Bacteria succeeded without a brain, possessing survival skills that rivaled their biological hosts. So why should a creature of higher intelligence expect to do better? Humans were on the verge of being replaced by their hybrid creations. How intelligent was that?

Pondering the notion, Slater rubbed his beard stubble, studying his fellow patrons as they mixed, interacting. Earth seemed to have a bipolar proclivity toward war and peace. It was a breeding ground for adversary. A world built on conflict and compromise from the micro to the macro. All cohabitating like mythological creatures – griffin, centaur, manticore. Or myxotricha paradoxa. Slater thought of this prolific swimmer. It inhabited the digestive tract of termites. A protozoan that devoured wood chips ingested by its host and had a flagellating tail – a composite of other life forms called spirochetes. Among them were organelles, embedded in both the protozoan and spirochete, keeping them bound as one in a free-floating bacteria cytoplasmic world. This elaborate symbiotic arrangement enabled the termite guest to sustain life and expel digestible remains for its host to build towers and proliferate communities.

Slater rubbed his aching eyes. He turned from the pyramids to look around the bar at his fellow imbibers. Protozoans, spirochetes, organelles and bacteria – commingling within the same biosphere. Did chance meetings bring about these relationships? Or was there intelligent design behind all this madness? Lurking in a laboratory, arriving by artificial insemination – as was his special case.

Why was anyone born? And to have vision. What was that all about? And these previews of soon-to-be-released sagas of reality – was he to welcome them as a gift?

As far back as Slater could remember he had been overwhelmed by evidence that kept piling up like junk he had no room for or had ever wanted, but could not seem to refuse.

Until one day he had a second thought:

He could profit from this gift.

His first thought:

God, help me.

Chapter 3