Drinkin' and Watching the Mushroom Cloud
This is Chapter Eight from my current work-in-progress (completed and circulating to agents and independent publishers), a novel called THE FAILED FESTIVAL. I post it here because I've recently discovered a cool album by The Library called Drinkin' and Watching the Mushroom Cloud. The title (as well as the music) resonated with me, and I felt it would be a great title to the chapter. I relayed that to Matt Long, @TheLibrary411, the band's leader on Twitter. Welcome! Here's a link to this fine, addictively beautiful album on bandcamp. Give it a listen and chuck some coin in his tip jar. Give mine a read and blast away—critique is the coin of the realm here.
Katy calls. In the thick of all the grief, she forgot she and Justin had been given passes to a Futurism conference. There are to be seminars and exhibitions and vendors on everything having to do with the future. The two of them went every year. She wonders if I would care to go in Justin's place. She feels like she needs to get back in the swing, she says. Get her life oriented back toward something resembling normalcy before she curls up into a ball and disappears. She wants to go, but doesn't want to go alone and doesn't know who else to ask. She and Justin were always somewhat insular, she says. Of course, the two of us would have to share a hotel room.
A couple of weeks later we fly out to the desert and Über to a massive hotel complex. I recoil as we drive into the sun. It glares angrily, unblinkingly, in a way it never does back home. The sky is stunning as well but in a different sort of way: the way of being beneath the infinite. I feel alien here, unwelcome and minuscule, as if I can never be a part of this landscape, this sky. Their vastness is as oppressive as the ocean.
The roads here, the infrastructure, seem newer, smoother, wholer, less prone to disintegration than those in my crumbling city. We exit the expressway at a replica of New York. Statue of Liberty, faux buildings façades, a roller coaster. The swarm of lights along the broad boulevard diminishes the distant, infrared sunset. Shames it somehow.
We miss the turn into our hotel but not for lack of signage. If anything, it's the opposite. The driver turns around the first chance she gets and then u-turns again to work her way back into the stream of traffic. We are forced to sit at each light several times before being able to u-turn again.
Katy checks us in at a crowded front desk and then again at a portable table downstairs. As she hands me my packet and my lanyard with its laminated ID badge, two men who look like they're working security for the convention walk up to us, look down at my name, and say, "Could we speak to you for a moment, sir?"
"Sure," I tell them, and we go off to an alcove away from the crowds around the registration tables.
They ask me if I'm Justin so-and-so.
"Of course." I'm not really that nervous. I call on my social engineering skills and act a bit curious though poised to be incensed. "Why?"
"We're from the FBI," they say and introduce themselves by their agent names.
"Oh. Wait. What's this about?" I look at Katy. She shrugs and curls her lip. "Well, actually, I'm not Justin, okay?"
One of them takes my badge and looks at it then at me expectantly.
"Look, I thought you were from the conference," I say. "Let me explain."
"Justin died," Katy interrupts. "I'm his sister," she holds out her badge for them to see. "I invited my friend to take his place. We'd already registered for the whole thing and I couldn't change it. I'm sorry."
I show them my real ID, and we clear things up. At least from their end. They weren't aware Justin had died. They have no reason to narc me out to the convention people, though it probably wouldn't matter anyway. Still.
They don't tell us why they wanted to talk to Justin, or why they chose this place to approach him, but ask if they can speak to Katy at some point in the future back home.
"The fuck was that about?" I say after they've gone.
I open the conference schedule on my tablet. The splash screen resolves into a quote:
"The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole." G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind.
Tl;dr. I rub my eyes and hit the space bar. The quote dissolves, and in its place appears a time-lapse, hi-def film of a bud on a peach tree branch as it explodes first into a blossom before morphing into its fruit phase. Blue Planet quality video: noted.
I tap the space bar again and again until the website information buttons appear. The convention has various sections. Everything from 'Scifi and Speculative Fiction' to 'Beyond the Ones and Zeroes: Surviving the Singularity,' from 'Longevity Studies' to something called 'Achieving Kardashev I,' from 'Coding AI: Hacking the Future' to 'Cyborgs Я Us.' I feel lost. I have no idea what any of this is. I don't know why I came.
Katy has her entire weekend planned out. She's excited to go to tonight's plenary session. The keynote speaker is someone she and Justin have heard speak at previous conferences. I promise to meet her afterwards at the mixer.
I get turned around in the casino. I can't remember which direction I came in. It's easy to forget where you are. There's this sense of dislocation, even dissociation. There are no windows. It must be planned, engineered: disorient the patrons, disinhibit them, to get them to part with their money. The sounds—sirens, clanks, bells, shouts—drown out my thoughts. The lights punctuate the darkness but provide no illumination. You have to be careful where you step. The overall sensation is one of a vast brown night filled with colored neon stars.
I hit on an exit strategy. I make my way to what looks to be an outer wall and hew to it on my right the way I would approach a physical maze. This way I will circumambulate the floor and, hopefully, be able to find my way out the way I came in. The decor of the outer room is supposed to be imitative of ancient Rome, but the walls, I discover, are fake—cheap stucco instead of concrete, plaster board instead of wood. It has all the faux elegance of a film set. Impermanent. Mere illusion.
The place is massive. Rooms and rooms off of rooms. Games I don't recognize. I find the poker alcove. I stop for a moment and lean on a railing to watch the players. Some are chatting and smiling and drinking, but their eyes are steel, predatory. I play poker online sometimes late at night when I can't sleep. I'm pretty good at it too. I usually win, often quadrupling my stake after a losing hand or two, but I suspect that's because of a seductive algorithm: instill a false sense of confidence in the online players so they'll feel overconfident, bring some newb cash to the real-money tables, and keep replenishing their losses with fresh stakes. I'm feeling panicky, the FBI and all, and opt not to take a seat that opens in front of me.
I keep walking, the boundary wall on my right, until I come to the sports book. It's an amphitheater where you can sit in a recliner just like you're at home and watch any one of what looks like hundreds of giant LED screens. Most of the monitors now seem filled with shouting heads. The room is dark and relatively empty except for group of guys about my own age gathered on one side of the room. They are shouting and exchanging hard high fives every few moments. Laughing even. I abandon my wall and move to where they're huddled. On one set of TVs, they are showing a compilation of head-to-head collisions in football. They are spectacular, in super slow motion, and accompanied by an emphatic soundtrack. The mic-ing of the sounds of the impact is movie quality and surrounds the entire room. Large, faceless men in cheerfully colored uniforms are being laid out by the force of full-speed, vicious assaults by other large, highly conditioned athletes. Mens' glistening helmets are knocked off. Men lie motionless on the ground. Men step on or over other men when they're down. Men taunt others whom they have just rendered senseless. Men are being helped off the field by other men or are loaded on the back of golf carts and wheeled off, their heads and necks stabilized, as the crowds applaud. Perhaps this montage was meant to shock viewers, alert them to the dangers of the sport, but the men here in the sports book arena find it marvelously entertaining. They cheer the crunching blows as if it weren't a real person whose brains and whose lives might be being destroyed in that moment.
The giant ballroom is dimly lit. Some sort of music plays above the drone of voices. As I scour the room for Katy amid the dark patches and the drifting lines at the many serving tables, I find myself keeping an eye out for the two FBI-ers. In their blue suits they would stick out in this room. I am relieved not to spot them. I do see Mr. V, my client, though, in the exact center of the room surrounded by a clutch of guys most of whom, like him, are in cargo shorts and expensive Aloha shirts. Must be a cult following or something.
Katy needs a drink. She's tired from the travel and the sessions, and we agree to grab a couple of drinks each at the bar table nearest the exit and take them back up to the room. A DJ jumps up on a podium and is unlocking a turntable stand and adjusting some lights. There's a general buzz in the man's direction, and the room seems to shift toward him. Some guys in front of us in line tell us he's locally famous and is often seen accompanied by a supermodel/actress whose name I'd heard but Katy hadn't. The two guys start to hit on Katy by feigning incredulity, but she turns to me.
"You want to stay?" She looks sad.
I sweep the room near and far. No one is looking at me as far as I can tell. "Not really. You? You'd be a hot commodity in this sausage fest."
To get anywhere in this place, you have to walk past the broad mouth of the casino. The lighting, the artwork, the foot traffic patterns, and the designs in the tile and carpeting and even on the ceiling all seem to funnel you back toward its clamorous womb. The banks of the elevators to the rooms are hidden around corners.
The din of the lobby dies when the elevator doors close but not its echoes inside my ears. We stand silently, drinks in each of our hands, watching the digital number display. Our room is down a long hallway and around a corner. I set my drinks on the floor, and after several tries my digital key card activates the green light and switch.
Our window faces away from the main strip though there are plenty of lights spotting the night. "Open or closed?"
"Close it, would you?" Katy says.
We sit on the king-size bed drinking. She regales me with a summary of her day as I scroll aimlessly through the television and movie menu options. We talk about some of the things we've seen before but nothing seems worth seeing.
She moves to me during the night. She has been silently crying. I am still awake, lying on my back in the broad bed. I sit up and bring her under my arm.
"It was too late to get separate beds. Justin and I..."
"No. You don't know. We always used to sleep together. Ever since we were little."
She apologizes about the FBI men in the lobby this afternoon.
"Yeah, what was that about?"
She's quiet. This was not the first time Justin had spoken to people from the government. "Maybe the NSA?" She closes her eyes. She can't be sure. Justin talked about them sometimes, she says. Talked about them bothering him about his work, but he never told her what exactly.
There are sounds in the room, but I can't be sure what they are or where they're coming from. Could be street noise. Could be building systems. Could be the accumulated din from the casino and the bar and all the people on all the floors below us filtering up through the concrete and glass. Could be the wind off the desert. It's late.
"We can, y'know, do sex. If you'd like."
I want to. I'm like that. But I don't answer. It doesn't feel right.
Her body tenses. She presses closer. I turn to face her. "You sure?"
Her lips are wet and light against mine. It's a gentle, tentative thing, unforced but not lazy. We explore and agree at satisfactory stopping points.
"Do you mind holding me awhile?" she says after.
"I would've held you anyway."
"That's sweet. He was like that, too. I'm not hurting your arm, am I?"
We lie together in a strange bed in a strange room in strange light in a strange floating silence. I can feel her unease. I think about pulling away, but I know once I move the moment will be broken. Perhaps she senses my disquiet, for it feels like she's resolved something. She looks up along the line of my chest toward my chin. "I want to tell you something."
The way she says it I don't think I want to hear it. I don't want this feeling to dissolve.
"I need to. I've never told anyone else. Please don't judge me."
I make a protesting noise. "Uh."
She tells me I'm only the second man she's ever slept with—technically, she says—and that she and Justin had been lovers since they were thirteen. Soon after, as if a massive weight had risen off her body, she releases me and rolls over and, from what I can tell, falls asleep.
The sun is not up. A sharp breeze blows up the avenue. I shiver and zip my sweatshirt to my throat and tighten the hood. I couldn't sleep. Couldn't just lie there. The twincest and all.
There is no traffic, no one else afoot. It's almost like I'm moving through some sort of intergalactic space between the giant resort complexes. The street smells like stale beer and fresh piss. A great clashing noise sweeps in on the wind and reverberates off the hotel vertexes. Several blocks up an enormous bank of lights is blocking the road.
A small crowd is pinned behind a stretch of metal barricades. They are pointing and gaping and laughing. A number of automobiles lie smashed in the intersection. Lights on high cranes beam down on the wreckage. A film set. There must be twenty or thirty cars in the pile up, some on top of others.
People are moving about inside the barriers. There's some shouting. Other cranes are moving into place. The filming seems to have stopped, and it looks like they're beginning to dismantle what looks like a massive sculpture of mangled metal. I watch as the sun rises and crews load the junked vehicles on waiting tow truck beds to haul away. Around this dwindling island of people the day is beginning for the early shift of casino and hotel workers. What feels like a parade of wiry, leathery faced women and wrinkly, graying men, many driving scooters, most overweight, all smoking cigarettes, stream from the casinos.
The streets here are straight and flat. Several blocks east of the main drag, amid all the strip malls and boxy office buildings, I come across something called the National Atomic Testing Museum. It's closed. I order a greasy breakfast burrito of sausage and eggs at a branded chain eatery across the street. Someplace called Jack in the Box. Hungover patrons wander in and out as I eat and check my email. No one ever seems to look up from their food. I drink awful coffee for an hour or so and scroll the Yelp! and TripAdvisor reviews of the museum.
I'm the first one in after it opens, and for awhile I have the museum to myself. It's a remarkably upbeat place—soft lighting, cheery fonts on the displays, corny consumer products. A movie robot greets me at the door, and a plaster "alien" welcomes me to the gift shop at the exit. There's an almost sacred sense about the place and its purpose celebrating the slide rule and the analog technology that ushered in the postmodern world. Exhibits champion the heroic brilliance of the scientists who first conceived and then figured out how to fission the most basic piece of matter.
I follow a winding ramp down into a mockup of a concrete bunker called Ground Zero Theater. Once everyone is seated on backless benches, the room and the movie screen go dark. A man's ominous voice counts down to a brilliant burst of light simulating the atmospheric detonation of a nuclear bomb. A roiling plume in hellish, shadowy colors unfurls on the screen as something like a gust of wind blows out of the walls. The shock wave is followed by rattling benches. This is supposed to replicate what it was like for the first people who witnessed an atmospheric test minus, of course, the radiation and fallout. There's a brief filmic history of the A-bomb tests here in the desert in the 1950s.
This was when tourism to the city first began to take off. People came to party while they witnessed the distant flashes and saw the mushroom clouds rising above the desert and felt the tremors which shook the ground for hundreds of miles. At the time no one anticipated the problems with radiation. Nuclear testing was moved underground until it was eventually discontinued altogether. Party!!
As I'm leaving the faux bunker I ask someone I take to be a docent what the atmospheric tests smelled like. Gunpowder maybe? Sulphur? He looks at me like I'm a moron and shrugs. How should he know?
The museum seems to make a great deal about nuclear power having deterred the Cold War powers from initiating an actual war. Something called 'Mutually Assured Destruction'—MAD, LOL—the firepower to destroy the population of the entire planet and everyone on it many times over. There's not so much in the museum, though, about the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and the radiation sickness that afflicted generations afterwards there. Nor is there anything about the radioactive waste from these nuclear programs and the controversies about their disposal in pristine wildernesses around the world. Yet for some reason there are several exhibits about purported aliens at Area 51 and the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center building on September 11, 2001—neither of which, as far as I can tell, has anything to do with nuclear weapons or atomic testing. I suspect this is because the folks who still wield these weapons would like to have the option to use them again if they deem it necessary, and it will be easier to gain the consent of the people if their fears about alien invasions and attacks by delusional religious fanatics outweigh their fears about a nuclear winter. They treat us like mushrooms, someone told me once: they keep us in the dark and pour shit on us.
As I browse the gift shop looking at the nuclear kitsch, I'm hit by a wave of frazzled energy probably because I didn't sleep any last night and I haven't taken my meds yet today. I remember reading somewhere online once about how some of the atomic pioneers worried privately that splitting one atom might trigger some sort of nuclear chain reaction that would rip a catastrophic hole in the fabric of space. But they figured it was worthwhile to get humanity's first glimpse at the pure radiant energy at the foundation of the universe. Of course it was fraught with risk. But what worthwhile thing isn't?
Everything around me, every book, every t-shirt, every cap, every model bomb, every shelf, every person, is composed of atoms. Multitudes of them. As is every brick in this building and every building in this city and every city in the world. And even the very air itself. And each and every one of those uncountably many atoms opens onto, or into more like it, a field of force so powerful even a glimpse of it can destroy an entire city. We were lucky, as a species, I guess, the previous generation didn't self-destruct us all back then.
My phone beeps a reminder that there's a session on 'The Singularity' I want to attend back at the conference this afternoon so I can talk more intelligently to Javy when I get back home. I buy a black t-shirt with a luminous blossoming plume rising from a bomb blast site for myself and a bio-hazard patch for Katy's backpack.
I'm feeling at once gassy and mildly nauseated as I hustle back to the hotel, and the dehydration and the high, hot sun don't help.