Oklahoma: Heartland, U.S.A.
Fifty years after Stark Fear: College football as religion, tornadoes, former sundown towns, toxic water, aliens, juggalos, slinging hot dogs, bad trips
By J. David Osborne
Reading time 41 Minutes
The spirits rise at night
The spirits rise at night from the red clay that lines the banks of Lake Thunderbird. First the red spirals up, then comes together as a stalactite, then features begin to form. Soon there’s a terra cotta-style army, all looking out onto the warm black water lit by the moon. The living drink beer and build bonfires and they do not see the wraiths. They tailgate and trade stories, weaving through the new forest of tall ghosts, unsure why they follow the paths they do. Some of these people will know each other for the rest of their lives, some only for the night. Mosquitoes bite. Mushrooms talk. Alcohol loosens. Small beads crushed in the filters of cigarettes, cool menthol snapping. Fingers get burnt. The dead reach for fire, for drink, slowly.
American flags on poles bolted to the beds of F-350s, new tires streaked with clay. Bumper stickers imploring the reader to come and take them, guns locked in the safety of their Pelican polymer cases, small keys clipped to carabiners next to bottle openers, other keys.
They hoot and holler. One long line of cocaine from college to retirement. Hard hands and blonde hair pulled back into ponytails. The night goes on, the dead relax, keep still.
One young man can see them. He scoots a plastic tub between the columns of spirit, ignoring the folks laughing at him, offering him beer, calling him names. Collects the clay with a small trowel till the tub is full. He squats and lifts the clay and waddles it back to the trunk of his Civic. He can feel the voices through his car, undead vibrations that rattle his trunk like two blown out tens.
He turns on his CD player and cranks The Body, high shrieks and subterranean fuzz drowning out the whispers and shouts and laughs coming from his trunk. He feels like a character in a noir, with someone tied up back there, banging to get out, calling for help.
Dark elm and hackberry line the side of the desolate road. A pair of headlights come up over the ridge before him.
There are so many toll roads in Oklahoma, which is funny because the roads are shit. They’re falling apart. I hit pothole after pothole on my way back from Tulsa. I stop at the toll station halfway to home and try to keep my eyeballs from spinning out of my head. The attendant is friendly enough, doesn’t seem tired at all. I wonder what they do all night.
The drive is boring. My date in Tulsa was a bust, but I’m still tuned up enough to make it home and maybe sleep before work tomorrow. I thought it would have gone better, and we spent plenty of time in her parents’ pool, but when it came down to it we were both trying too hard.
I get home with all four tires and I’m still a little wired so I sit on my couch in my otherwise empty living room and try to figure out what to do. There is beer in the fridge so I get one. I turn on Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.” I have listened to it about a hundred times in the past few days. It’s the song I put on when I feel like killing myself. I feel like it keeps me going. The downstairs neighbor hits my floor with a broom handle. I turn the bass down. I have good speakers, bought them when I turned eighteen with a Best Buy credit card. I ended up not making the payments, the shits ended up costing me three times what they’re worth, but I can listen to Robyn and annoy my neighbors, so it’s all good.
It’s four in the morning. I have to be at work at nine. I lay in bed and try to sleep. It’s 2011, and I’m twenty-four years old.
Okies are the nicest people in the world until you forget your manners. I visited New York City once to hang out with friends. I rode the subway from their place in Brooklyn to Manhattan. I sat in the car across from an Asian guy reading a newspaper. He had a cold, sniffling and coughing into open air. A big black dude with a shirt that read “SECURITY” came over to him and said, “I have to work for a living. If I see you cough one more time with your mouth open, I’m going to put my foot in it.” This blew my mind. In OK someone would’ve gotten shot for that. But it worked. The sick man covered his mouth.
Here, you don’t mention stuff like that. You smile and everything is “ma’am” and “sir.” You hold doors and move out of people’s way when they’re coming. I thought this was a good thing, until I made the connection that all those manners are held in place by a thin membrane, and when it breaks you get some fucked up shit.
I deliver furniture in the morning. I like it because I get to sweat out all the bullshit I put in my system the night before. My boss is this psychopath with glasses who drinks Monsters and hollers at girls when they drive past. We deliver a television stand to an old man who is all smiles until we tell him that putting his TV on the stand isn’t covered by our insurance, and he loses it, tells us to get the fuck out of his house. It’s that fast. Over and over again everyone is this close to going off, and these people have guns. I saw a kid maybe eighteen come into my second job at the restaurant one night, and he sat there eating his hot dog with a Glock on his hip. These people have constructed homes and are ready to open fire on any wind that comes through.
The toxins are out of my system by the time we get back to the furniture store, and of course we find out that people have purchased tables and chairs and sofas while we were out delivering the other tables and chairs and sofas and so we must go back out, and I’m okay with it so long as we’re done by seven, because I have to be at job number two at eight, and I would like to shower and drink a beer before I go.
Later that night at job number two, the college boys are so drunk and they slam each other through tables and one walks up to the register and asks me about the yellow door. Not sure if I hear him right the first time, I ask him to repeat. “The yellow door,” he says, a big shock of blonde hair and lumberjack t-shirt with the cuffs rolled up. I say, “Man, I’m not sure,” and from there on he’s cussing me until his friends collect him.
I wipe down the counters and collect the splinters of broken table. The music is playing; it’s the Dave Matthews Band.
The UFO crash lands on the Oklahoma prairie. The flying saucer sticks out of the hard dirt and a small grey alien crawls from the wreckage. His ship lights on fire. Well, I am truly fucked, the alien thinks, and begins walking across the prairie. He can see okay in the dark, his big black eyes scanning the flat landscape, a lone black gum on the horizon, a small house next to it, all that’s missing is that cut-out silhouette of a cowboy leaning against a tree.
He’d been tasked with seeding the present with a bit more future. Planned it almost to perfection; the alien’s art is a subtle one: abduction, hypnosis, transference to the astral plane. He feels seasick in linear time, feels his bones and his skin interacting with the air and his long-toed feet tramping across the grass. A dog barks from someone’s yard. The alien yogas his way through a barbed wire fence and spends an hour staring at cows, coming to like them after all those space years turning them inside out.
His race is fractal, used to moving through time and space as lines of code, but something went wrong, one of those minor hiccups you’re told to never worry about until it happens and you find yourself a walking hyperstition gifted with a body constructed from the archetypes of the mental plane upon which you’ve found yourself manifested. Would have rather been a bug. A big ugly bug, like a praying mantis. The alien prefers that, aesthetically.
A rustling comes from a hedge on the side of the road. A coyote is rummaging through a bag of trash. They’re everywhere, these wild dog scavengers, and the alien is taken with the creature. It notices him but stays back. It’s okay, buddy, the alien thinks, and it registers in the coyote’s brain translated. A few more poke their heads up from the tall grass in the field beyond the trash.
The alien has thin lips to smile. Hello, buddies.
It lies dormant in rocks and soil, released during the fracking process, fully contaminating the waste water that’s sent to treatment. The water is filtered of its bacteria and nitrates and sent back out to reservoirs where it’s pumped into mains. It’s released through steel production, paper mills, and it comes back through pipes and central plumbing straight down into the tap, and you run it into a cup and drink it and it’s carcinogenic, it will kill you. The small town in Oklahoma where I grew up had ten times the amount of hexavalent chromium in its water as the number two on the list. I’m not sure how much of it I drank. I think about it sometimes, how my grandfather told me he was coming to visit and then pneumonia hit him, three weeks later he was hooked up to machines, asking to die as best he could while a nurse wet the roof of his mouth with a sponge, all of this because of Agent Orange, he was exposed to it in Vietnam and it lay dormant in his body for decades with no signs until it killed him and dozens of others from his unit. I wonder about all the shit building up in my system and waiting, ready to fill my body up until it can’t handle it anymore.
“Twister”, the 1996 film
In Twister, the 1996 film starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, tornado chasers attempt to put a cheap looking robot in the center of a tornado for some reason. Martin Lockner watched this movie more than a hundred times as a child, the corners of the VHS case spiderwebbing down toward the center. The ominous cloud and finger of god dipping down to swallow two frightened people entranced him. He’d always found himself more drawn to the covers of movies than to the movies themselves. Got bored within a few minutes of the thing starting up. He got it, he got the three-act structure, knew that the heroes had to go on a journey, but he didn’t care about the journey. He wanted to watch people chase storms. The cloud going green. Growing up in Anadarko, he’d seen it plenty of times. Third grade kneeling by the lockers of his classroom, everything coming into focus, Steve Walden saying it looked like Star Trek weather, the tornado picking up the tree in front of the classroom. Hadn’t felt that alive since.
He read all the books he could on the subject, knew how they worked. When cold air meets hot air they go over each other and create an updraft. This meeting of opposites begins to funnel and before you know it people’s entire lives are uprooted. He liked the poetry of it, liked this little metaphor about what happens when difference collides.
His parents didn’t pay him any mind, they had to be at the bar, so he grew up with his own fascinations. Walking to the video store down the street, passing trucks with windows down tossing bottles at him, some of them hitting, others not. Talking to the dogs that pushed up against the chainlink fences he passed, lost in his own world, watching The Matrix over and over, watching Wishmaster IV over and over, and of course Twister. He could only watch those three. Everything else bored him. Just Keanu Reeves, a strange genie, and a force from the sky.
That last one really stuck with him, especially the final scene. Paxton and Hunt lash themselves to piping that goes way underground. The twister goes over them and they get to see the inside of it. Perhaps this is a metaphor, as well. No matter how many machines we create, nothing will ever beat tying yourself to a pole and allowing a tornado to sweep over your stupid dangling feet.
Martin always found himself analogizing things.
He’d chased storms for five years straight out of high school. Didn’t do much else. He lived in the van that he used to chase them, he microwaved his dinners at the Hop and Sack and smoked cigarettes with the back doors open. Parked out by Lake Thunderbird in a copse of elderberries, he’d read books and think about washing his hair and talk to the prairie dogs that poked their heads up.
He saved up money panhandling and used a post digger to get two PVC pipes about three feet under hard dirt. He knew that the storm would come over the lake, knew that it would wash over him on this very spot, knew it ever since he saw that strange man collecting dirt from the banks. It had come to him as a voice, and then many voices. He connected the two pipes at the top with more PVC and a drill. Got himself a strong belt.
He’d watch his stupid feet dangling in the eye of the twister, or he’d die trying.
Different nights meant different bands, but they were always the same. Monday night was for a one-man band who sang songs about drinking beer, Tuesday for a six-piece with a cello. You could dance to it. A shitty cover band was the most popular act we had, and they played every Saturday night. Got to a point where I could tell where I was in the week by who was playing at the Deli, sat between a guitar repair shop and an abandoned storefront. I lived there in the neighborhood surrounding, in that lonely apartment with a couch and a bed, which worked out well because I could stumble home.
A revolving door of familiar sounds and the smell of friendly stale cigarettes, the stone floor and the dark walls and the round tables under lamplight giving the room the impression of something inside a body, blood and gore, I would smoke and greet the faces I knew and if I didn’t find them I’d just sit there and listen and as the night went on I’d start to tilt.
One night I left the bar with a buzz still in my ears and wandered over somewhere quieter. Big mural of galloping horses took up a whole wall, and the corner where bands play was empty. A man played a slot machine for nothing in the corner, for fun, which I thought was weird until I got a phone. The weather report on TV forecasted bad storms for tomorrow.
“That’s gonna fuck things up,” said the bartender.
“They’ll still come out.”
“Oh they definitely will. It’ll just fuck things up.”
I talked with the bartender for a while longer. She was getting married soon and moving out of town which made me sad. I liked to go in there and just sit and listen to her talk to the regulars, especially the ones I couldn’t understand. A microwave dinged behind her and she took out a Hot Pocket and ate it. “That burned the shit out of my mouth,” she said.
“You ate it quick.”
“I was hungry.”
The bar didn’t serve any liquor so I drank dollar Natty Lights instead. I didn’t move furniture the next day. I’d be at the restaurant right there on Campus Corner, trying as best I could to deal with the tide of crimson T-shirts, squirting mustard on hot dogs and overhearing folks talk about Jones this or Stoops that. Thinking about the indignities of slinging hot dogs got me thinking about how I’d fucked things up while I sat. Pretty good at that, feeling sorry for myself. Of course I wasn’t sure what else I’d be doing, I didn’t like anything but reading and trying to meet women. The bartender told me to snap out of it and gave me a beer for free, which even though it was only a dollar, I still appreciated.
On the way back to the Deli I ran into my pal Tyler, who was on his way to the bar from which I’d just come. I told him there wasn’t any cover tonight and that I’d buy him a beer, being that I was flush from the dollar I’d saved. He thought that sounded all right, so we got over there and started getting trashed.
Tyler wore white t-shirts and ripped up jeans. Laughed a lot, never combed his hair. He got the most fucked up out of any person I knew, but always managed to keep it together. We’d sprayed streets with stolen fire extinguishers, climbed abandoned factories with no shoes, and talked each other down when we thought the bugs had gotten under our skin. It was easy to fall back into conversation with him. I asked him how his mother was doing, how the job working HVAC was treating him, all that. We joked around and he told me that he was selling a large duffle bag full of research chemicals to some tweakers the next day, and did I want to come along. He’d pay me. I thought on it for a minute. The band took a break and I went to buy a couple more beers. Waved at some friends. Jukebox came on lightly, Marty Robbins. The beers were cold. I went and sat down. Tyler was bobbing there, listening to some song only he could hear.
I never got into a single adventure in my life that didn’t have booze to thank for it, and I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad. I have stories now at least, like this one.
I said, “Sure.”
The Man Who Can Hear Ghosts pulls the tub of mud out of his closet and sets it out on his balcony. It’s a humid day, the day of the storm, clouds fading to grey in the sky then a muted orange when the sun comes out. The man scrapes the grit off his grill. Checks his birdfeeder. The clay is hardening.
He takes his time around the house, watering his plants. He can hear them, too. Succulents hiss like snakes. Hanging ferns hoot like owls. Spider plants laugh. He talks to them, tells them about the news, about what Bush did this time. He lights candles at his ancestor altar, leaves an orange out for the ghosts to eat. He goes online and shops on Amazon for books about farming.
He calls his mother and they talk for a good hour about her job teaching young kids. He hangs up and gets to work on the clay. He pours holy water over it and says a prayer. He kneads his hands in deep. Can feel the voices confused lighting up his fingers and wrists and his arms, then his whole body. This had been overwhelming the first time it happened, but now he’s built a memory palace, it looks like a large library, and up and down the rows he pushes his cart of eels, big yellow gloves on he places them on the shelves and whistles and pushes his cart until it’s empty. Sits down at the front desk. The library is quiet, all the lights are out but for the blue glow of the computer screen in front of him. Focuses on a question. The computer begins to run Norton antivirus.
Back in the world of the demiurge now, he goes to his closet and retrieves a broom handle. Pokes the clay with a stick. Over and over. When he has sixteen lines, he counts the holes and works up a geomantic chart. Studies the results. Frowns. He has an answer, and the clay is activated, no longer a teeming mass of screams and shouts. Focused. He puts a lid on the tub.
Things only become conscious once they serve a purpose.
The alien wanders the prairie with his new coyote friend. They come upon a ripped open bag of McDonalds. The alien eats half a cheeseburger, his partner eats the fries. They move further through the field. They eat paper cups, magazine pages, cigarette butts, used condoms, one of those inflatable dancing guys you see outside of car dealerships. The alien chews on a ripped-up truck tire. The coyote eats a field mouse.
Toward the end of the day they come upon a road. Large trucks speed by, a few of them veering slightly, the drivers wondering if they really saw what they just saw.
A dead coyote lies in the road, its belly flattened, tongue hanging out of its mouth. The living beast backs away, whimpers. The alien is confused and begins to scoop the rancid guts from the roadkill into its small slit mouth. After some time, his new friend joins in.
They set off down the road at a brisk pace, the alien crunching on a jawbone.
The sun comes up on the former sundown town, and this is before I knew the glory of milk thistle, or those pills you can buy at Sprouts that keep you from getting a hangover. I’m pretty sure this was before Norman even had a Sprouts. I powered through each morning trying not to die. Popped an Imodium immediately, I knew that as soon as food hit my belly it was over for me. I washed it down with toxic water.
The game started at noon, so I had to be at work at ten. That gave me about two hours to do my best to steady myself. It was at times like this that I thought about the person I’d promised myself I would never think about again, the person I’d tucked away somewhere in the back of my brain, who I tried to erase over miles and miles of trips to Tulsa and OKC and down the street, whoever would take me so that I didn’t have to think about her.
But I did, anyway. It felt good to let myself be upset for a little while. I didn’t know if it bothered me more that she had left, or that I had no one to blame for it but myself. There was something attractive about how upset the whole thing made me.
I turned on Robyn and took a shower. I cleaned myself with chamomile and it steadied me a bit. I knew that today would be rough, but that I’d make it through, collect my check, and start the whole thing over again. I just had to get to the next beer. Thunder from outside. I worried I might get electrocuted, so I washed off quick and got out of the shower.
Outside the storm had turned pretty bad. Rain pounded the window. I wondered if that would affect the crowd and knew that it wouldn’t. They’d already be parking, homeowners near campus pulling in their seasonal cash letting Chevys park on their lawns. Thunder hit again close and the computer shut off then turned back on again. No more Robyn. I dressed in silence.
Norman found itself pretty lucky, it was just south of Moore, which was in a kind of dip almost like a gutter in a bowling alley. Tornadoes tended to miss Norman and head straight for the dip. If they hit anything at all they tended to touch down out east, near Lake Thunderbird.
Martin sits on a fold out chair in front of the open doors of his van watching the sky turn green. Everyone has cleared out of the lake, first for the game and then the few who didn’t give a shit when the weather got dangerous. He’s all by himself. The whispers start up again, and he wonders if that’s the twister talking, if voices come from heavy pressure. The temperature goes from warm and humid to icy. He can feel the pressure drop. He has positioned himself well.
There’s a legend that a giant octopus lives in the depths of Lake Thunderbird. Norman’s own Loch Ness Monster. Swimmers have gone missing out there, most of them probably drunk. Maybe the octopus likes to catch a buzz, Martin thinks, then wonders if that would even work. Either way, when the twister comes out of the sky and begins to split the waters of the lake he can almost imagine it as a great octopus rising, sprays of lake water misting his face. The twister cuts south and decimates the earth, pulling up trees. It’s about three hundred yards out, and as it gets closer he can see it’s about as thick around as a small Walmart.
He ties himself to the poles he’s fixed deep within the earth and the wind whips his ponytail back and his glasses come off. He hopes he will see a cow flying through the air. He doesn’t.
The tornado approaches.
Oklahoma game day is like a country song playing over a beer commercial
Oklahoma game day is like a country song playing over a beer commercial. Think of the images that come to mind when you think of the most ass muddy truck blue jeans bullshit and that’s what manifests there in ruddy drunk hooting when the Sooners play. Hexavalent chromium moving through it all, line dancing with acetaldehyde metabolized poorly, flushing the faces of the men women and children showed up to cheer on their team and fight those brave enough to come into town wearing the wrong color, god bless their hearts.
I sling hot dogs like a man possessed. I pour cheese over nachos like I was born to do it. All thoughts of my life and the hangover are gone, I am a machine designed to stuff the faces of the hungry pigs gathered to worship. Cries of Boomerand then Sooner and all the red ballcaps and shirts over bad postures, they’re in this place made up to look like a baseball diamond, the floor is astroturf going sticky with ketchup and mud from the rain outside that has not let up, these wet dogs chewing and the music blasting, it’s Gloria Estefan. The girl at the register is cute and I do my best to say things to her any time I get the chance but I don’t have many, they need more Bud Lights outside and the cooks are back there in the kitchen with ten teeth between them listening to UGK and telling me to go fuck myself when I ask them where the burgers are, for the love of god dudes where are the burgers?
The game approaches, the crowd thins. The boss comes out to count his money, every inch the cartoon, almost chewing on a cigar, you can imagine it. Apparently a tornado touched down out by Lake Thunderbird, he tells us. I wonder aloud if that would cancel the game and the boss just laaaauuuughhhhs.
The Man Who Can Hear Ghosts stops whoever he can and asks them if they want to play with some clay. He’s doing an experiment, he says. He wants them to think of an animal, any animal. Then he directs them to the clay and tells them to mold it. He squirts the red with water from a spray bottle and some of them get to work, most say no. They mold an octopus, a horse, a turtle, a penis, a duck, a dog, a unicorn, a strange smiling face. Every one of them, when they touch it the ghosts inside the clay seep into their pores and converse with the hexavalent chromium lying dormant, the dead talk sense into the waiting death and convince it to dissolve with them into the stream, and by doing so the eels swallow the water and become nothing.
He tells the people passing by to write down why they chose the animal they did, then to draw a symbol out of the consonants. Project the corpses of the dead chromium out into the world where the air will eat it, where everything can be dead together.
When the game starts, he packs up his tub in a red wagon and sets off for home, his magic finished. The timelines meeting at a crunch point, a certain death pulling from the future lying dormant for now, pulled back into the past by the spirits of the dead.
It’s the most powerful thing he’s ever done.
He gets back to his apartment. He’s late on rent. He’ll have to get a job soon.
When the F5 clears Martin’s pipes, there is nothing to be found. Nothing left, not the copse of elderberries, not the white van, not the foldout chair, and certainly not Martin. Not a trace. The land is stripped bare and quiet. An octopus the size of a Civic pulls itself back into the lake.
I clock out and Tyler picks me up in his truck. In the small cab behind the front seats is a duffle bag. Five bricks of MDMC. I’ve rolled on it before, it’s a good RC, feels cleaner than some of the other ones. Tyler got them off of the silk road and is selling them for twice what they’re worth because apparently peckerwoods don’t know how to use the internet.
“You smell like hot dogs,” he says.
“You smell like beer.”
“That, my friend, is because I’m drunk.”
“Where’s it at?”
Like magic a Coors Light is in my hand. All tension releases with the first sip. The rest of the day had mostly been cleaning up. There were a few early post-game stragglers, but my shift had ended before that rush began.
Tyler says, “Pop the glove box.”
I pop it. Baggie of something.
“That’s mescaline,” he says. “San Pedro.”
“Fuck,” I say.
I root around for another beer. “So who are these guys?”
“I told you this last night.”
“I happened to have been intoxicated.”
“Oh, right. I dunno, some rednecks.”
“And you trust them?”
“I think they’re okay.”
We drive for a little bit. Tyler notices me drinking fast. “You ever read Dune?” he says.
“You should read it. Big ass worms in the desert. It’s cool shit. But there’s a line there, ‘don’t fear, fear is the mindkiller.’ You shouldn’t fear, man. It’ll be quick.”
It does go quick. We show up in what’s left of the camping area by Lake Thunderbird. Shit everywhere. Trees down, cars upside down. A real shitshow. We meet up with the rednecks behind an overturned white van. Two skinny mouthbreathers in Monster energy ballcaps and Insane Clown Posse jerseys. Stick and poke tattoos, the boys speaking in Oklahoma thick twang sprinkled with epithets already going out of fashion in 2011.
They make small talk like folks always do before buying drugs.
“Big ass storm,” says one.
“Fuck,” says the other.
“Hit the damn ass lake.”
Tyler and I eyeball each other. He’s better at this sort of thing than I am. Something changes behind his eyes. He is becoming juggalo, a true white trash skinwalker, fluid in their ways. “Fuck yeah, man. Crazy,” he says.
“This that shit you gave us last weekend?”
“This is that very same shit.”
“A whole bunch of it.”
The wind picks up a bit. The overturned van creaks like it might roll off into the ditch. It stays still.
“In that bag?” one of them says.
I hold up the bag as if to say, Yes.
The juggalos look at each other, nod. Each pulls a small pistol out of their jeans.
Tyler sighs. “C’mon, fellas.”
I am absolutely terrified. Sometimes in movies you’ll see people piss their pants when they’re scared, and while I can tell you that I do not wet myself, I feel my bladder pushing it out, ready for it to go.
One of them wiggles his gun. “Gimme that bag, pussy.”
I give him the bag.
“Quiet out here,” the other says. “Could blagow.”
“Dead and defiled.”
They begin rapping at each other about murdering us and raping our bodies. I don’t know if it’s a song already or not, but I have to hand it to them, the wordplay is good.
“Nah, just playing,” one of them says.
“Look at them.”
I don’t think we look that scared. It all happens too fast. Adrenaline pumping. Besides feeling like I have to pee, I don’t feel scared, per se.
“Don’t try and come for it, pussies.”
“Don’t even try.”
“Hey,” Tyler says. “It’s all good.”
With that, the peckerwoods back away with our duffle bag and disappear into the ruined woods.
Me and Tyler both breathe, sigh, and pull out our dicks to pee.
Without much else to do, we decide to head out into an empty field and eat the San Pedro Tyler brought with him. I take it out of the glove compartment and shake the Ziploc bag around, wondering at the powder inside.
“The mescaline isn’t distributed right,” he says. “So cross your fingers.” He reaches under his seat and lifts up a small plastic bowl “from when he ate spaghetti on the way to pick [me] up.” Dumps the powder in, pours the half of his Monster he’s got left, mixes the shit up until it’s this bright green paste.
“Wouldn’t the Monster fuck it up?”
“Gives it power,” he says.
I think about the juggalos and their hats. “I don’t know if I can drink this shit anymore.”
“I once saw a whole pallet of this get dropped while I was working for Coke. Burned a hole in the concrete.” He slurps up some San Pedro. “You’ll get through it.”
“I can’t believe that,” I say.
Tyler shrugs. “I can. It comes with the territory.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Sometimes you get fucking robbed.”
I eat the cactus. Like a slug down my throat. “And you brought me out here.”
Tyler leans his head back to laugh. “Yeah, man.”
I laugh too. “Fair enough.”
We wander through the ruined trees. I can hear them and see faces forming in the bark and the hollows. Stumps tipped over, the roots lifting up to heaven for some purchase of water like hands, fingers wriggling. It all becomes machinery. I don’t know where Tyler is anymore. In the distance I think I hear the juggalos howling. Patterns in the dirt arranging and re-arranging themselves.
I’m high as balls.
I go deep inside my head. Sounds echoing off the thin gel walls of an empty niacin capsule, and as the sound grows purple lightning twists like a plasma ball, each wisp of that energy a thought and you live inside those thin walls now a great echoing chamber with people hollering and lifting their hands to fog. The roots, the hands, all of it is reaching for something. I focus on what it’s telling me. I forgot to ask a question, but some things have a consciousness before they have a purpose.
Hands reaching in both directions.
The howling again, and I realize I’ve been deep in the mud, I think I am a warrior fighting a battle in dirt, and I can hear whispers from it, sadness, confusion. I can feel those whispers leeching something out of me. I pour my bottle of water over my head because I think that’s how you drink. A coyote watches me from inside a wrecked mobile home, standing on an upturned table, looking through trash. A small grey alien pokes its head up, its face smeared with blood, bones around its neck, a McDonalds bag on its head like a chef’s hat.
You are tripping the fuck out, I think. That’s all right. I’ve had enough bad trips in my life to know to stay calm, and let whatever happens, happen. The alien walks up to me, the coyote lingering back. I stare into its big black eyes. It seems real, and not real in the soul way, but real in the body. The alien places its hands together and pulls them apart, making a tornado between its hands and in that tornado spins the tiny figure of a man, his ponytail flapping in the dusty wind, his stupid shoes dangling off his feet.
Back home. Wandering from one room to the next, waiting for the high to come down, waiting for three things to become one. A stillness and emptiness in my bones. I eat some food and watch videos on YouTube, trying to make them make sense.
I can’t, won’t be able to for a while. I have the day off, and it will be a day with a sleeping mind. I’ll just have to walk through it. I open a beer and open up my bank account to see if I have enough money to make it to Tulsa.
I hop in my car and set off down the road, hoping for a better outcome this time. It won’t be. I won’t learn until much later.
One way to look at it is that the things you do in the past build up, and eventually there’s a reckoning. I tend to see it backwards though, those things that happen are fingers from the future reaching backward, infecting you, pulling you toward your eventual end. Could be that it’s both, and we’re caught in a choke point between an inevitable pulling and the push of the dead from behind, eager for you to join them. Either way I would wake up the next day, long before I knew the glory of milk thistle or even better, abstinence, and I’d repeat it all again. They say a ritual begins as soon as you choose to start it, and that game day set me away from all that badness. I could write about where I am now and how I’m grateful to have grown up on such an indifferent grimace of land, how it shaped me into someone that I’m proud of, but if you’ll permit me I’d like to write a bit more about that empty room where I listened to Robyn on repeat and how lonely I was.
NOTES ON THE VIDEO
Stark Fear was the only narrative feature that director Ned Hockman and writer Dwight V. Swain ever made, but — as professors at the University of Oklahoma — they were both responsible for many short instructional videos, mental hygiene films, and sponsored videos. One of the weirdest and most interesting of these is Oklahoma: Heartland USA, a tourism video commissioned by the Oklahoma Planning and Resources Board, which sings of Oklahoma’s greatness. Others include Mental Hospital, Time Out for Trouble, and Ulcer at Work, all of which — in ways large and small — play as sorts of companions to Stark Fear given Hockman and Swain's penchant for seeking to understand human frailty.
J. David Osborne is the author of Black Gum and A Minor Storm. He was the publisher-in-chief of Broken River Books, a fiction collective that released weird crime books. He grew up in Lawton, Oklahoma, and went to school in Norman. He now lives in El Paso with his wife and their dog. He likes the desert. Follow him on Twitter: @brbjdo