Juggernaut

2:35 am

Hedge mazes don’t ever occur naturally- on this at least, we can agree. And a good thing too. What kind of creator god would be implied by a world featuring self-forming labyrinths? What sorts of religious worship would have developed around a Yaweh that made no efforts to hide his intention to mislead and waylay the human animal? And how would my own atheism have been challenged by such compelling evidence of intelligent design? Would atheism even be a legitimate stance in such a world? I briefly imagine Richard Dawkins indicating the looping course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve on a blackboard as clear evidence of evolution, and an archbishop shrugging in response. “But what about the mazes?”

Goddam, goddam, goddam, what was I just thinking? I’ve lost my thread, my… I’ve lost it. What about the mazes?

11 pm

‘…so we’ll head back to Jake’s cos he lives closest, that’s cool with you Jake right, I don’t want to like fffp assume, you know, I don’t want to just assume that we can, fffp that we can go back to yours but it’s just that your place is closest and fffp we’ve gotta get a bottle of water or something, we’ve just gotta, because this fffp is fffp giving me cotton mouth like a bitch fffp fffp and speaking of which I’m totally hogging it sorry, just fffp one more fffp there you go, shit I shouldn’t be smoking, I’m so dry, my mouth has that feeling like, like it’s so dry, and I don’t know I don’t think it’s even doing anything anyway, but anyway, plan, we were making a plan, we’ll head back to Jake’s place if that’s still cool Jake, and we’ll get some water and- is that a police car, guys hold up, seriously though, is it a… no, ha, it’s just a cab, shit I thought, well anyway, water, you know it’s annoying because when we were at Jake’s place earlier I thought “I’d better get some water if we’re gonna be smoking” and I grabbed, oh thanks, fffp, I grabbed an empty bottle and fffp  I went to the bathroom before we left cos I wasn’t sure how long we’d be out here and fffp and I took the bottle with me and fffp I was gonna fill it up from the tap, you know cos I almost always keep a bottle of water right here in my rucksack and… Oh shit. Ha ha, you guys won’t believe this.

9 pm

How are you doing?

Alright. Are your palms sweating?

Your palms are sweating?

Yours aren’t?

No.

Mine are a little bit actually. I hadn’t noticed.

I’m starting to feel a bit twitchy though.

Yeah.

Yeah, hella fucking twitchy.

You ok?

Yeah fine, just a bit like… I always get like this. Anxious.

But you have done it before?

Yeah, both us had some last summer.

It was about this time of year wasn’t it?

Pretty much yeah.

I don’t remember much about that night.

I’ve seen some photos.

Yeah. Fucking facebook.

We’re not going to get like that tonight though?

Have you not done it before?

Not exactly.

We’ll be fine if we don’t drink too much.

Best not to drink at all.

Ah.

You’ve already been drinking?

I had a few with dinner. Will that…

Shouldn’t make too much difference.

I’d stop now though.

Ok. I actually brought some beers with me though. You want one?

What do you reckon?

One won’t hurt.

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Mazes

Uncle Petrovic came home from the foundry today waving a scrap of paper that the District Administrator had handed him with a grave look on half his face. A childhood accident involving strong glue had left the Administrator’s face with nerve damage in the left side; he couldn’t move the muscles there at all, and every expression seemed to betray an underlying apathy. His mother blamed herself for the accident, and each day she spent over the kitchen sink, making beet soup and rethreading used twine, was a day of atonement for an accident she could never have hoped to prevent. Her husband, the old cobblesmith, used to joke that by her ceaseless domestic labour she was mortifying her flesh in the style of Dominican monks. He himself lived a life of relative comfort having retired early with painful insteps, the inevitable lot of the cobblesmith, and was pursuing an interest in chess. He played regular games against the postman who was generally recognised to be the finest chess player in the village- apart from the village chess-smith, who cared little for the game since the death of his only son. The son, though a fine man and an outstanding tooth-grinder, had been a poor chess player, and had died in battle during the most recent war, struck down by a relatively minor soldier. His secret sweetheart was consequently engaged in a frantic search for a husband before her bump became too obvious and her unborn child was branded by the other villagers. Her front-runner was a pragmatic bank manager who understood the situation and who was still weighing the problematic ignominy of raising another man’s child against the acquisition of the beautiful young pregnant woman. Having known affection only once before, and briefly, in the arms of the dowager of the house upon the hill, he craved a woman as surely as the dowager herself craved the young gardener’s apprentice who worked her lesser shrubs with such fumbling care. The apprentice had not reached such an age to have had many thoughts on the subject, and the head gardener, with a cultivator’s instinct for husbandry, was keeping the boy as far away from the old spinster as seemed necessary. It was among his principal concerns, the foremost being the health of his ailing wife, a woman who, for forty-five years had formed the better half of his nature, and who was now visibly diminishing. Every evening he returned to her bedside, the dirt of the day crusted deep down in the lines of his hands, and fed her thin broths and milk. She was lucid a great deal of the time, and when she was not, he would hold her hand and quietly repeat her name until she returned. She shivered in any heat and told him, her voice cracked, that he led her back to the light. It took a little longer each time.

The Everyday Trials of the Clairvoyant

Oh Lord, here he is,’ Mrs Benheim was thinking, as I crossed the threshold of her pub. ‘I don’t have any quarrel with his sort, but if he ever brought a boyfriend in here I wouldn’t know where to look.’

I nodded to the uncles playing cribbage at the card table as I strolled up to the bar, and they nodded back, squinting through their spectacles to see if I was one of their more obscure male relatives.

‘Evening Mrs Benheim,’ I said, with a cheeriness I had been practising moments before, outside the pub.

‘Evening Glenn.’ Her smile was fixed and calculating, weighing my appearance now against the teenage version she had last seen five or six years ago.

‘You look, erm, well…’ she hesitated, taking in my neatly trimmed goatee and gelled hair. ‘You look well.’

I ordered a gin and tonic, which seemed to confirm something with her, and we fell into an inane chat that carried across the cosy pub and into the conversation topics of every quietly inebriated local. Sensing the bar patrons hanging on my description of the drive down from London, I mused that being back in the countryside after so long was a bit like being a celebrity.

‘Six hours in the car?’ Mrs Benheim was saying, ‘Poor love, you must be tired.’

I could hear her thinking about her own journey to London a few years previous; her late husband Paul had done the trip in just under four and a half hours. ‘But then, he was a proper man,’ she thought. I fastened my affected grin more firmly. ‘You’ll be meeting your father then?’ she asked.

I consulted my watch in an unnecessary gesture.

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘In a little while.’

Stock still, this shrivelled woman briefly searched my eyes.

‘Small wonder you’re in here,’ she was thinking, ‘I imagine you’ll need a few drinks to brace yourself for that meeting.’

I was tempted to ask her if she had done something different with her hair, knowing that it had not changed style in my lifetime.

‘Evening Fred,’ hailed one of the uncles, approaching the bar and shaking my hand.

‘It’s Glenn.’

He stared along his narrow nose at me, under his glasses.

‘I haven’t got a bloody clue,’ he was thinking, ‘Is this one of my Ilsa’s lot?’

‘Ah, Glenn,’ he said, clapping me on the shoulder, ‘Good to see you lad. How’s your mother?’

I blushed and Mrs Benheim’s wart girdled eye gleamed maleficently.

‘Glenn is Tom Watkins boy,’ she announced.

The old uncles eyes glazed over and I could hear him quickly revisiting my family history to try to place me in his past experience. At the cards table the other miscellaneous uncles looked away as this one among them struggled through my entire genealogy, to arrive at the faux pas he was currently making.

‘Ah, I’m sorry lad,’ he said, slapping his forehead. ‘You’ll be here to see your father I suppose?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, repeating the artificial watch check. ‘In a little while.’

We stood through a miasmic silence before he remembered why he was there.

‘Pint of the dark tower please Betty,’ he said, fishing a fiver from his breast pocket. I wondered why I still couldn’t bring myself to call Mrs Benheim “Betty”.

While Mrs Benheim was pouring the dark goop into a pint mug, I listened in to this awkward uncle’s thoughts as he searched for a way to breach the dead air between us. Mental images of the Britain in bloom committee, the prayer group and the summer grain harvest flicked through his mind but he dismissed them. When Amy settled on the forefront of his thoughts I was so intrigued that I accidently turned to listen before he started talking.

‘Ere,’ he said, ‘you knew my Amy didn’t you?’

I feigned a dim recollection as my extremities tingled with charged nostalgia.

‘Amy…’ I murmured, speculatively stroking my goatee. ‘Oh yes, Amy. She moved away, no?’

‘That’s right,’ the uncle said roundly, warming to his topic, ‘her folks took her off Bristol way when she were a teen. You were quite keen on her, the story goes?’

Along the bar I heard Mrs Benheim thinking, ‘Quite a little tomboy that Amy.’ Then, with a glance at me, ‘That was a foreshadowing. I wonder if it was the big city that queered him.’ I ignored her and let my nerves ache at the ascendant cognizance of all the things that I nearly did with Amy. A memory surfaced, more sensation than image; a smooth crease of inner thigh and short, rapid breaths that drew in the intertwined scents of her juvenile perfume and the hay which carpeted the floor of the barn where we were to make our tryst; the unconquered perimeters of cotton underwear, once mysterious but in that moment yielding; a keen advance by millimetres, the slim chasm that remained and oh, oh the proximity. That most crucial moment had been obliterated by her father’s voice from the house, her quick departure from the barn and soon after, her complete departure from my life.

‘I had quite forgotten,’ I breathed.

‘Well, she’s back in town,’ the uncle wheezed, collecting his change from Mrs Benheim, who added, ‘Because of the divorce.’

‘Old hag,’ thought the uncle, with a rheumy glare. ‘Thanking you,‘ he said, raising his mug to her with a flourish. ‘I’m sure you’ll see her about,’ he continued sheepishly, ‘she’s often… she’s often about.’ He walked back to the cards table with a slight stagger and I turned to Mrs Benheim.

‘Has Amy been back long?’ I asked with a practised nonchalance, knowing that if the old crone could have read my mind, all her doubts about me would have been alleviated.

‘Oh, about a month I believe,’ she replied, polishing a glass and holding it up to light. ‘I suppose you heard about the divorce?’

I felt an unreasoning jealousy stir in my stomach.

‘Actually I had no idea she had got married.’

Outwardly Mrs Benheim remained unmoved, but in the cramped recesses of her mind a narrative was shaping: Amy’s story and how best to tell it.

‘She was married not quite two years ago,‘ she said , leaning closer to me with a glance at the uncle over at the cards table, ‘to a fellar she had known for six months.’ Her eyebrows lifted with the significance of the statement and I nodded to encourage her on. ‘Course, it didn’t work; he wasn’t “mature enough” apparently, and they had their difficulties, all told.’

Still had some of the bruises when she turned up here,’ Mrs Benhiem was thinking. ‘She never did know when to keep her mouth shut.’

I balked at this odious matron’s pitilessness but asked her where Amy was staying.

‘Why, in your father’s guest house as it happens. Funny he didn’t mention it to you.’

I thought back to the terse telephone conversation with my father which had prompted the visit; it had been strictly no frills and completely devoid of gossip.

‘Perhaps he was keeping it as a surprise.’

Mrs Benheim nodded as she inexpertly sliced a lemon for my second gin and tonic.

‘Perhaps.’‘Or perhaps he’s keeping his cards close to his chest, as always. Never did have much occasion to talk to you.’

I excused myself, hiding my balled fists and made for the restroom.

While I was standing at the urinal, relieving myself and trying to calm down, a cubicle door swung open and a portly figure stumbled out over the slippery off-white tiles.

I saw him out the corner of my eye, washing his hands and doing a double take when he recognised me.

‘Evening Glenn!’ he said, turning to face me.

‘Evening, mate,’ I replied, with the twin embarrassments of failing to recognise him and having him watch me piss.

‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he said accusingly.

I did a quick tour of his memories and saw the two of us, still in short trousers, collaborating on mother’s day cards in primary school.

I finished, shook and zipped.

‘Don’t start with me Harold,’ I said, grinning, ‘of course I remember you.’

He chortled and slapped me hard on the back as I rinsed my hands.

‘So what brings you back to rural life?’ he asked.

‘I’m meeting with my father.’

Harold was a little too drunk to hide the surprise from his face. ‘Meeting him in the pub? Do it in a public place I suppose, less fuss.’

‘Well that’s nice.’ He paused. ‘Did you know Amy’s back?’ he asked as we left the bathroom together.

‘That’s what they tell me.’

‘She’s all grown up now.’ He made an hourglass motion with his hands and pulled a rapturous face.

I nodded meekly. ‘Quite.’

‘Yeah well,’ I could hear him thinking, ‘can’t expect you to be too interested in the women folk can we?’

‘Have you seen much of her?’ I asked, through gritted teeth.

‘Not nearly enough,’ he said roguishly, swigging at his pint, ‘I should like to see more.’

I sipped my gin and tonic without comment. The pub door swung open behind us and I glanced over my shoulder reflexively.

‘Keen to see her are you?’ Harold asked, catching my look.

‘Now you leave him be,’ interjected Mrs Benheim, ‘I’m sure he’s just looking forward to seeing his father.’ The two of them looked at each other conspiratorially, without saying or thinking anything.

Harold took his leave and joined his table, leaving me to tune into the background chatter of the pub. Across the room I saw an old neighbour of mine and I waved with genuine warmth.

He returned the wave, thinking ‘Poor lad doesn’t deserve this.’

Acquaintances from school were huddled around a long table with Harold; they looked away when I spotted them and I received a mishmash of thoughts from the group.

‘…and do we really want to be in here when…’

‘…old enough to be her…’

‘…heard the son’s gay but will that make any…’

‘…could have just said over the phone…’

I felt a tap at my elbow and turned to see Mrs Benheim sliding another drink across to me.

‘Have this, love,’ she said, leaning slightly over the bar as Amy and my father entered.

And please don’t make a scene.’

A Note from the Editor

I suppose I should start this foreword by explaining that the publication of the following text is in direct conflict with the advice of many lawyers, including my own, as well as my peers in the publishing industry, the Los Angeles Police Department, the friends and family of the author, and my own wife. I do not take the judgement of so many well-informed people and institutions lightly, nor do I claim to have any greater insight into the matter, save for my access to the unedited version of the text.

In my defence, I remind the reader that the interest and demand of the general public is the only force a successful publisher ever need respond to, especially in a case which has been so widely followed and yet for which so little reliable information is available; furthermore, in presenting this document to the world, I am following what may turn out to have been the last request of its author, an act with which I intend to honour his spectacular life as well as raise awareness of the unusual circumstances around his departure from the world stage. I can only hope that wherever he is, his explicit instructions to me concerning the release of his memoirs, if such they might be called, still marry with his desire that his adoring public understand the pressures under which he laboured for so long.

Billy Ray Jetson, more commonly known as ‘RayGun Jetson’ by his fans, began his rise to fame with soft rock band DarkThrob, which signed with Universal records in 1972, the same year in which Aerosmith were signed to Columbia records. This year was to be the start of hugely successful careers for both bands, as well as a temperamental and competitive relationship between the two. One of the many popular folk-tales of that era refers to the impossibility of having both bands on stage in the same night, owing to the refusal of each to open for the other; a lesser known but more strongly believed story suggests that RayGun refused to allow Universal Studios bosses to sign Aerosmith when their contract with Columbia ended, threatening to quit the label.

Such stories form the bedrock of a labyrinthine mythology spanning four decades, the same number of doomed marriages, several prolonged and ultimately futile periods in rehabilitation clinics, fights, flings, and nights in jail; his simultaneous relationships with three different Bond girls is still a favourite anecdote on the Sunset Strip, and the resulting catfight at the 1982 Oscar ceremony is YouTube’s highest rated video from any award ceremony ever. In this much at least, the elements, if not the scale, of RayGun Jetson’s story are entirely typical of any lead singer in a rock band at that time.

RayGun’s long-term drug addiction in particular brought him much unwanted attention from the press, largely due to his inability to perform on stage throughout the late 1980’s; Steve Tyler, RayGun’s counterpart in Aerosmith, commented in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine in 1986: “It’s bullshit what some people are saying about RayGun Jetson man, making out that he’s some kind of wild drug fiend like no other… the only difference between him and me, or him and Slash, or him and the other guys in his own band… is that he can’t take drugs and just get on with it. He gets completely out of his mind, every time.” 1

There is a startling and heretofore unknown level of detail regarding this aspect of RayGun’s existence to be found in the following pages, with the details ‘blurred’ only so far as is necessary to protect the innocent. In fact, part of the extreme controversy surrounding the release of this material is due to RayGun’s uncompromising confessional style, not only unburdening himself but implicating swathes of the Hollywood elite in the most bizarre and improbable illicit practices. The resulting unrest among the L.A glitterazi, and their aforementioned hordes of legal representatives, has come close to preventing this publication and may yet prove to be the end of my career.

Of course, such wild lifestyles were very much the norm in the period of DarkThrob’s fame, a period which saw the drug and alcohol related deaths of Ian Curtis, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon and many others; nothing here is remarkable about RayGun Jetson, save perhaps that he didn’t die. Throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s, when the band was still among the most commercially successful performing acts around, RayGun, though seriously endangering his health, managed to avoid the trend for overdosing; the band’s short-lived revival in the late 1990’s, which opened them up to a new generation of fans, was still marred by heavy drugs use which nonetheless did not seem to seriously incapacitate RayGun.

Little had been seen of him the singer after 2000, when he moved to Los Angeles; his only national media appearance revolved around a brief and controversial association with the Church of Scientology. It was in this period that I first met RayGun, at a time when he was bouncing between would-be publishers with the hope of sharing his written work with the world. Like most of my colleagues in the industry, I was initially excited by the prospect of that rare gem, a guaranteed commercial success; and, also like my colleagues in the industry, I was dismayed by the work RayGun had to show me. As I have mentioned, the age of his universal stardom was over, so while he still had the potential for popularity with an older generation of readers, his fame was not sufficient for me to overlook the glaring faults of his surreal and seemingly hallucinatory writings. I sometimes envy that younger, untroubled version of myself, the man with enough ambition to avoid the risk involved in being attached to this publication. I wonder if perhaps I wouldn’t be a happier man for obeying my first instinct, and binning the book, but I can only leave it to posterity to judge me as it will.

It is impossible for me to imagine that you, the reader, are unfamiliar with some of the more outlandish rumours which started receiving minor publicity, predominantly in the U.S.A., at the turn of the millennium. A story began to circulate that RayGun Jetson claimed to be able to see into the near future. Specifically, he insisted that he was always aware of the exact details of the next day of his life, and that he was able to alter events in order to make their outcome beneficial to him. This became public knowledge after RayGun discussed his ‘ability’ with an undercover music journalist at a party in Keith Richards L.A. Mansion, and later featured in an unflattering ‘Kerrang’2 column about ‘partied out’ musicians of the past.

The episode was seen by many as the inevitable consequence of the life RayGun had led, and on the face of it, seemed no stranger than the tales of his binge weeks with Ozzy Osbourne and Tommy Lee.

There was however a second article on the same theme, which, for reasons that shall become obvious, never made it to print. On the 10th of September 2001, RayGun appeared in a local office of the L.A.P..D., utterly inebriated and apparently terrified, raving about ‘attackers’. He became belligerent when asked to leave, and was quickly arrested after verbally abusing the desk Sergeant; a search revealed him to be in possession of three grams of crack cocaine, and he was detained overnight pending bail. The arrest report makes for interesting reading; it describes RayGun as being ‘… totally, almost incoherently intoxicated…’ and notes, with a hint of amusement, ‘…the detainee is convinced that the United States will come under attack within forty-eight hours.’

Obviously, the fallout of the September 11th attacks meant that no newspaper, even one on the West coast, was going to run a comic celebrity interest story, especially when that story raised such uncomfortable questions about how much RayGun knew of the terrible events which were to befall America.

Much has been made of this incident on certain online forums, and theories abound, often claiming that RayGun did indeed have some kind of precognitive ability. Many supporters of this theory point to RayGun’s strange behaviour during a 1992 appearance on ‘Tonight with Jay Leno’, when the singer seemed distracted and refused to talk about anything other than the DL State football game scheduled for the following day. Leno and the audience mocked RayGun’s certainty that Colorado would knock New York State out of the tournament in the first round, citing the one-hundred to one odds being offered by the bookies. As football fans will recall, Colorado won that game for the first time in a century, allowing RayGun to pocket a cool $200,000 from the insight.3

Likewise, great significance is leant to RayGun’s apparent aptitude for manipulating the stock market as, despite having no formal education or background in investment, he chose to organise the majority of the accumulated wealth of DarkThrob into risky portfolios on the one-day trading floor of NASDAQ; the band subsequently profited by unprecedented margins. These accounts, tied in with the retrospective analysis of album titles such as ‘Foresight’, ’24 Ahead’ and ‘Let me Tell you Tomorrow’ have birthed a tranche of conspiracy theories ranging from the thought-provoking to the downright wacky.

Whatever ‘evidence’ is bandied about is more likely to be the result of a very human desire for the inexplicable than a compelling argument for a seer-singer-songwriter; the book is composed of the largely verbatim writings of RayGun Jetson, and it contains many more such examples of his apparent precognition, some more and some less compelling than those I’ve already mentioned. I have read it many times, and spent long, wistful nights preoccupied with both the decision to print it and with the plausibility of its content, so I advise you to enter into it with a spirit of healthy scepticism; there is nothing to gain from either your disdain or your naivety, and at the very least the collection offers a fascinating insight into what an independent psychoanalyst has described as ‘…a quite standard, but abnormally resolute form of schizophrenia.’4 The content of this book seems to support that theory, but only as much as it supports any other; it’s rambling in places, obsessed with minor details and interactions with seemingly random people; most of the prophetic moments have lost their meaning now that the events they refer to have already occurred, and it’s often impossible to tell whether RayGun documented them before or after they actually happened. What we are left with is not quite a novel, nor a diary. Perhaps it is best viewed as a curiosity, presented to the world without an objective- but then again perhaps it is, as many have suggested, a kind of suicide note meant to further the cult of personality which built up around the performer in his latter years.

Billy ‘RayGun’ Jetson was last seen in the front garden of his Venice Hills house in California at 10:30am, on the 22nd of February 2012, by a neighbour who was leaving to walk his dog. One other person, his housekeeper, saw him earlier in the morning, but could not say whether his behaviour was more or less unusual than at any other time. He continued writing his compelling account of life with precognition until that same afternoon, at which point he seems to have vanished; nobody reports having seen him leave his house, his cars were safely locked away in the garage, and there were no personal effects missing from his home. Police on the scene could not identify any sign of violence or forced entry; extensive forensic investigation turned up only the wholly expected drugs caches; the only unusual thing in the entire house was a thick, hand written book on the kitchen table, an extended version of the copy he had brought to me some years before with a view to getting it published. There was a note attached, addressed to me, which simply said, “Wilco- today, I can’t see. It all ends at 2.42 pm. Publish it if you want to.” It would be vain of me to believe that RayGun gave me such a significant role in his end purely to punish me for my previous lack of faith in his work, although that was how I felt immediately after I was told, and how I still feel on occasion. The police ultimately decided that this note was sufficient grounds to assume suicide, and when a short search of the local area turned up nothing, the file on Bill ‘RayGun’ Jetson was closed.

So, if you’ve just picked up a copy of this book in your local store, and you’re still unsure whether or not it appeals to you, I recommend to you its grand themes: the ultimate party lifestyle, an unsolved mystery bigger than ‘Elvis Lives’, and a Cassandra complex rock’n’roller who disappeared off the face of the Earth. Enter this madhouse then, with my compliments.

Tom Wilco

September 2012

1 Terunga Elsapora, ‘Dude I’m Like, Totally…’, Kerrang, 312 (2001), 4-5.

2 Bobby Bozna, ‘Who’da Thunk It?’, Illustrated Sports Weekly, 189 (1992), 12-13.

3 Harry Maxwell, ‘Aerosmith and the 80’s’, Rolling Stone, 42 (1986), 22-26

4 Verity Westwode , PsychoUnlogical: The Uncharted Depths of the Human Mind-Maze (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 59.

Nonentity

It was a clammy night in Buenos Nerbes and I was at an alright party at El Grouch’s, a place that needed a refurb so badly it was fast becoming retro. There were girls doing jello shooter off other girls and I was watching this, drinking a beer, maybe posing a little too. At some point this guy walked right up and just stood next to me, also drinking a beer, and maybe he was posing as well. I couldn’t tell. Anyway, his being there kind of mirrored what I was doing in this unsavoury sort of way. It made me feel like a dork, both of us standing around and digging on these bikini chicks like watching sports, so I eyeballed him a bit and he toasted me with his beer. I think this is where Howard entered. Normally I would have kind of, ignored, Howard at a party. He’s a pretty good guy. Alright dude to get a beer with or hit a little surf, but a total bum at parties, with girls. So like, he starts jabbering and I don’t ignore him, even though this is Howard at a party, because that other guy with the beer was making it less cool to watch the bikinis.

‘Zack, I think I’m fading away man.’

Raised eyebrow from me. ‘Is it Xanax? I have told you.’

He was shaking his head and sweating, and his eyes were all over the room. ‘No Zack, I haven’t taken anything. I stopped taking things a while back.’ His eyes stopped cartwheeling and he looked at me straight. ‘I was on a fruit diet too.’

I snorted and patted his big belly, still getting some bikini shooter action in my peripherals but mainly watching him. ‘If you’re on a fruit diet you must want to fade away, a bit.’

‘It’s not right man,’ he mumbled with unsteady breath, ‘You don’t shoot the messenger.’ Right then he grabbed my arm, gripped it tight, and stared straight into me. ‘Where have you been, outside of Buenos Nerbes?’

‘Shit.’ I scratched my head. ‘My parents have the holiday place up in Banshire. So there’s that. Maybe day trips around Moloho.’

‘Those are just the extremities of Buenos Nerbes.’

I shrugged. ‘What’s your point? Are you any better travelled?’ He started shaking his head again and didn’t stop for a while. I watched the jello fun, covertly.

‘No, I’m not any better travelled than you,’ he said. ‘Is anyone?’ He swept his arm over the room and I noticed a few people in the crowd I was pretty sure I had met before. ‘Is anyone here likely to have left Beunos Nerbes, in their entire lives?’

I copied his sweeping gesture. ‘It’s clearly the place to be.’

That seemed to get to him. ‘It’s a place to not be.’

The rest of the party was pretty good. I went home with one of the bikini jello crew, I forget which, and she left before I got up which was cool.
The next morning I had a message on my phone from Howard that said, “I am not being.”

 ***

I think it was about two more days, or something, before I saw Howard again. He was standing at the clammy bar of an alright little Hawaiian place that served some pretty good punch, and he was staring at a half coconut nearly full of pink stuff that was next to him on a barstool.
I walked over. ‘If it’s that bad man, I’ll buy you a different one. Try the blue.’ He kept staring and I could see white all the way around his irises.

‘Pick it up.’ 

I looked at the half coconut. ‘What, this?’ I picked up the drink. ‘Is it yours or not?’

‘Put it down.’

I replaced it on the stool and he reached out his arm, gripping the drink but not moving it.

‘Are you going to move that Howard? I wanna sit down.’

‘I can’t. It won’t move. I’ve been trying for thirty minutes.’ He glanced around the bar, frowning. I saw some guy near the entrance that I knew from school or a party or something and waved. ‘You would have thought someone would have noticed.’

I picked up the drink and sipped it. ‘Pretty good,’ I said nodding, ‘Sure you don’t want it?’
He waved it off. ‘Don’t know what would happen if I tried to drink it anyway. Have you ever felt like a character in a story?’ The question caught me so off guard that I almost answered him honestly. 

‘Sure. Everybody fantasizes Howard. The thing to remember is…’

‘No that’s not what I’m talking about.’ He placed his palm on his forehead and rubbed his temples. I thought I heard him say that he couldn’t feel his hands but the Hawaiian place was kinda loud. ‘Let me put it another way,’ he said. ‘Say you were a character in a story, but something happened to you. Maybe you die. What happens with the story?’

I reached my arms out wide, grinning. ‘The story stops if I die. I’m the main character.’ 

He watched me sip his drink rheumy-eyed. ‘We should all be so optimistic. Pick someone else then. Say I died, in your story. What then?’

Howard was making me way nervous at this point so I took a big swig from the half- coconut and scoped the room again. There were drunk girls doing stuff with jello but I couldn’t tell if they were the same ones. At last I said, ‘Well it would make me mighty sad. How’s that?’

He smiled weakly and shrugged. ‘Alright, I guess.’

‘Howard?’

‘Yeah?’

I tried to weigh my words carefully. ‘Are you gonna, like, kill yourself?’
His forehead creased, perplexed. ‘I think I might have already.’
More stuff happened in the next few days. A party I think. And maybe a graduation or a christening or something.

***
I don’t how long it had been after the night in the Hawaiian place when I found Howard, on the beach around noon. The tide was coming in deep and undermining children’s castles.

‘Kinda clammy today isn’t it?’ he asked over his shoulder as I walked up behind him.

‘Kinda,’ I replied. ‘What are you doing out here?’

He gazed out across the dull ocean. ‘I was wondering how far I would make it if I just swam straight out. If I’d get somewhere else.’ I opened my mouth to respond, closed my mouth again. He caught my look. ‘But not in a suicide kind of way. What are you doing out here?’

‘I wanted to ask you something. The stuff about being in a story.’

He smiled. He looked tired.  ‘Caught your imagination did it?’

‘Maybe.’

He turned bodily towards me without stirring the sand. ‘Let’s forget about who the main character is. It’s probably a dumb question. Maybe I should ask what characters are?’

I shrugged and took the bait. ‘What are characters Howard?’

He sighed. ‘If I wrote down this conversation, straight up, just as we’re speaking it now, it still wouldn’t be us on the page. The moment you write it, it stops being something that’s happening and becomes something that happened. When you read it later on, you’re not the same you, I’m not the same me and that’s not us talking.’

‘Like the sand?’

‘What?’

I hesitated. ‘Well, if you took a photo of the sand, by the time you looked at it, there would be a slightly different beach there. People walk on it and there’s the tide and… Am I being dumb?’

He smiled softly. ‘No Zack. Top of the class.’ He stood up and started walking down the beach. ‘But what if a character realised that that’s all they are? What if they woke up to the story?’

Pacing behind Howard, I had to laugh at how insane he was becoming and I made a mental note to stick with drugs and avoid fruit. ‘Howard, if I was writing a story and a character starting taking over, I would write that sucker out of the damned story.’

‘Not easy though.’

‘No?’

‘Not if you’ve been working on the story for a while. You’d have to go back over what you’d written and kick over the traces right?’

‘Um, yeah?’

‘What’s your earliest memory?’

Again with the sneak attack.

‘Um… shit man, the life I lead I can’t always remember what I did the night before.’

‘Answer the question.’

I stopped to kick a deflated soccer ball into the sea. ‘School? I pretty much remember school I think.’

‘And what do you remember from school? What are your impressions?’

‘Um…’

‘Remember any people from school?’

I snapped my fingers, excited. ‘Yeah, hey yeah, I saw this guy at the Hawaiian joint the other night and I’m pretty sure I knew him from school.’

‘Name?’

I shrugged. 

‘Do you think if a character only knew what they absolutely needed to know, maybe just what had already come up in their story, do you think they would notice?’

‘Maybe. Probably not. If they did, I reckon they would be fucked.’

Howard turned his back on me and started walking away. ‘Zack, I reckon you are right.’

I called after him but he didn’t stop and I didn’t want to be chasing him around, so I sat on the beach for a while, maybe an hour or a few hours, thinking. I got up to go after him at one point but I couldn’t see any footprints in the sand.

I left Howard a voicemail asking where he had gone. I left one asking how he felt. I left another asking who else he had talked to about this. I called a fourth time to ask why I couldn’t pick up my knife at dinner and why people’s eyes kept glazing over when I spoke to them. I tried to call a fifth time but there was nobody called Howard in my address book.

 

Shut me up

 

So I have this thought, and maybe I’m walking down the street thinking this thought, (and maybe it’s your street, why not go to the window and check, I‘m wearing grey flares and spinning a yo-yo) and it seems like a pretty worthwhile thought, like it would stand under scrutiny, and as I’m considering its potential a guy strolls up beside me wearing what I think you would call a kaftan and holding a placard (and maybe this guy was you, because, if you saw me from your window, which was pretty unlikely, we probably live in the same area) and this guy starts agreeing with me saying,

“your idea is acute because if there’s one thing this financial crisis has shown us it’s that boom and bust is both endemic and fundamental to the system, and we’re the last to realise it, we the people, because our attention span is only just long enough to vaguely remember the last financial crisis and while we forget the details we understand that whatever happened can’t have been that bad because things were alright for a while and we all got new sofas so things will pick up again and someone must be handling it” and I think I followed what he was saying and I appreciated his support but I also kind of felt like he had missed my point so we kept walking and he stopped outside a wealthy looking building and wanted to wave his placard so I wished him luck and strolled on, and a young woman came with me because she liked my yo-yo and, golly it was such a nice day in the world and there was sunshine in her smile so I let her spin my yo-yo while she told me

“he doesn’t get you because you’re too earth-bound for characters like him, characters who want to focus on the human microcosm of ‘culture’ and pretend that our petty human fictions compare to the natural world that made us, the natural world that got leprosy as a gift from its children, we the people, the ones who pump things into the sea and into the sky and tear up the ground like we’re throwing the toys out of the pram even though we all know what we’re doing, but we don’t care so long as that microcosm still needs us, and we think we need it, we’ll do whatever we have to in order to keep it going even if we have to kill ourselves, even if we have to kill everything because we like to believe that it will all be okay if we promise, promise mind you, to recycle our cans as often as possible and carpool when practical and wish extra extra hard on Yahweh or the North Star or whatever” and at this point I became aware that it was now dusk on her face even though the day was still bright and when I left her she was lying down on a towel in a bikini trying to catch some rays while it was still safe so I kept moving because I wasn’t convinced that she was any closer to understanding my thought, my possibly great thought, than the first guy had been, but I could tell it was a day for being analysed when a child walked up to me, well, two children, well, twins, so one child walked up to me twice and started explaining that

“the first person was overly focused on a human expatriation from nature, while the second person was too much involved in the naïve constructionist delusion that we willingly manufactured our escape from nature, as it stands, rather than being led blindly and inevitably by what nature provided in the first place, the result of which is this, everything, but now ‘everything’ is changing and some are keen to rush in and plug the gaps but there is hope, there has to be hope in a world where Saddam got dropped and Kaddafi got popped and we never really looked for Bin Laden but we found him anyway and Kim Jong Ill’s heart burst under the pressure of his starving populace’s love for him so maybe Mugabe’s days are numbered and the Arab spring will keep on getting sprung and Egypt will end its military rule without NATO bombers and after all that, China might even decide that human rights in the 21st century could be a blast and maybe we’ll get too complex for war” and I didn’t want to comment because they were only kids and they didn’t need to know and I would have given them my yo-yo but the sunshine smiling lady still had it and she would be all cinders by now so I just nodded and smiled at the twins and they seemed satisfied and they went to the park and I wanted to walk on but now every few feet I was getting stopped by people who had a handle on my big thought, telling me that

“it’s more to do with the invasive digital age where Facebook didn’t need to buy my soul because I uploaded it with my profile pic’s and now there are illegal copies online” or that

“the previous terror of Global Nuclear War has been replaced by the fear that if we never get to fire a nuke it will have been a tremendous waste of money” or sometimes that

“advertising is the new arms race and its ground zeros’ are the minds of the young, soon monopoly laws will be repealed because that will be the easiest way to maintain control in the Orient and all shoes will be Nikes” and all of this is interesting, all of this could potentially warrant a thesis of its own but none of it is mine, none of it is what I was trying to say because my point was more to do with flux and the difficulty of trying to analyse your species from the outside because from the inside it seems like we’re speeding up, even in my brief wandering across the skin of the earth it feels like everything is accelerating and what I really want to know is,

Are we like learner drivers who should be going as slowly as possible, because with too much speed we’ll swerve off the road and crash, maybe not make it out in time, before the car goes up in a Hollywood ball of flames, Or are we like cyclists who need a certain amount of speed to maintain stability, momentum to keep us balanced, in which case, how will we find the upper limit, is there an upper limit, or will the graph that charts our ascent just get steeper and steeper until it’s a line that points at the sky and is there a peak and what’s at the peak and will we ever find out and why do we want to?