Dissolving Night: A True-Enough Tale
Perception is a blurry thing.
The day of the art walk was an odd pleasant one, and I strolled with abandon beneath the swirly painting of the Midwestern sky, a heart full of beauty and a head full of acid. I can't recommend the psychedelic addendum enough, as it complements the experience magnificently - as you browse the exhibits you'll find that you understand everything, even things that perhaps weren't intentional parts of said exhibits. You'll even be positioned to understand the patrons, those amateur art critics massaging their chins and tossing out the odd remark about contrast or symbolism in an effort to justify all the free wine and snacks they've been cadging. Consciousness being an illusion that the artist manipulates, those people are more a part of the exhibit than an audience, and you can appreciate them as the artist intended.
The weekend was on course to display weather as fair as the crowd was foul, for it was rivalry week at the local university. Surely you know of this fine old American tradition - two towns roiling with unexamined hate for each other have a sports competition, with the more luckless town hosting an invasion by the other. Everyone drinks too much, fights inevitably follow, and the dirty neo-hippie in you wonders why everyone can't just shake hands and go enjoy some soothing jazz and modern art. There were surely disguised barbarians in those galleries, pre-drinking as they waited for the proper hour to hit the bars, along with the faux-barbarians come to town to indulge in destructive debauchery that would be neatly blamed on others.
My plan for the evening was a simple one - wander through the galleries, take in an early show, retreat to my sanctum before the chaos manifested in the streets. But the plan seldom survives the opening volley, and the first shell for me was the Installation. I can't remember the name but oh, what a thing it was. Beyond the mere presumption of art, it was a transformation, an entire building turned from gallery into time machine. The Installation was a march through a strange alternate history, wrought in meticulous detail by a team of oddball artists and gifted to the general public. Such a work is bound to be controversial by its nature, invoking its fair share of "That's supposed to be art?" followed, perhaps, by a "Think of all the starving people they could have fed for what they spent on this" by someone jugging three thousand dollars' worth of redundant digital gizmos. But enter such a work with an open mind, and the rewards are ample – a brief glimpse into a new world that you couldn't have reckoned mere hours earlier.
The goal of the Installation was to create its own reality which, alas, is also the goal of the acid. An excess of magic does no soul any good. The first room, a loving recreation of a bookish child's bedroom circa 1967, was a temporal paradox of sorts. Maybe it was the rainy click of the beaded curtains behind me or the sounds of Jimi resonating from the shelves of vintage space tomes, but there was something that led me to ask myself that which we must all ponder at some point: "Have I actually gone back in time?" Of course I had not, and I laughed heartily at my own silliness.
I spent more minutes laughing at the Installation than I had planned, fast losing track of time (though this was bound to happen). When I at last returned to the real world outside, the sun was well into its descent, inviting the special strangeness of the night. Night in this part of the world could be a strange beast even when not chemically ensorcelled. It is a time of zombies, not those risen from the grave but those passing from hangover to hangover with brief stops at every bar in sight. It is a time of street magicians from parts unknown who may well be true wizards for what they can do with a deck of cards. It is a time for the freaks to show their true colors – for people like me to be proudly lost and confused by the whole mess.
Such was my bafflement that I didn't notice the girl until she had already approached and embraced me. In another time and place I may have shaken the creature off, but perhaps my escape from the vortex of time had given me a thirst for human contact. It wasn't until she turned me loose that I could size her up. She was a spritely one, barely five feet in height and not more than twenty, with mahogany skin and eyes that faintly glowed. She sported a modern take on an old peasant get-up, detailed enough that I could have sworn that she had followed me from the Flower Child era from which I'd escaped.
The girl shoved a massive stalk of some fragrant plant at me. "Do you have a light?"
"Sorry, I don't."
I thought the girl might cry. She was clearly in a state comparable to mine, at least if the dinner plate pupils and the magnified emotions were anything to go by.
"...But maybe I can help you find someone who will."
"You'll go with me?" The weepy demeanor shifted into a smile in a moment.
"Sure. No one should be out alone on a night like this."
And thus we walked off into the rainbow radiance of the Midwestern night, two primitives on a quest for fire. She was a gregarious sort, though it wasn't for me to decide if this was natural or chemical in nature. Both, perhaps - it would explain her urge to hug everyone she met. That was her opener to every conversation - a big hug, "Do you have a light?", a flash of disappointment when another stranger said no, with hope rising anew with each new face. Hers was a spirit that would not stay down, even as it struck the earth time and time again. Maybe that's why I followed her, to be in the presence of something I lacked.
One thing I didn't lack for, even that night, was focus. It's never been my nature to turn an ear from the march of time, at least not for long. If my eyes had ever drifted from my watch, then there was still the mellow hum of the street lights flickering to life and the hollow click of shop doors closing to remind me of the hour. The novelty of my chance encounter was wearing off as showtime drew ever closer.
So I turned to my traveling companion. "Would you like to come to a show? Folk music, if you're into that. It should be pretty good, and you'll definitely find someone with a light there."
"Come sit with me."
We were on some nameless side street, no benches adorning the neglected concrete. I hadn't time to ask the girl what she wanted before she flopped with brutal grace onto the sidewalk, seated in the lotus position. I think it was gravity that urged me to join her on the ground, or some other natural force, since nothing short of an action of the universal order could have moved me to sit in the middle of a public thoroughfare like that.
The girl didn't look at me, her eyes fixed skyward. "Isn't it perfect and beautiful? Isn't it a perfect moon?"
"Sure. It's a fantastic night."
"The moon always reminds me of my father. Always there, watching over me, watching over us all..."
The girl reached over and rested a hand on my calf, and finally her eyes returned to earth, half-lost in the saline mist. What could I do for this girl going through something I couldn't fully reckon? What could I offer but some cheap imitation understanding? But that's what I had, and that's what I gave.
I placed my hand over hers. "There will always be people out there who care about you."
"That's true. I think even the universe is looking out for me. It always provides what I need."
"Then you have the whole world."
"Have you seen my friends?"
She'd never mentioned being with anyone. "I don't think so."
"They always provide for me. They were here before."
"We should go find them, then."
As it turns out, this second quest would be a far shorter one. We did not make it a block before a car pulled alongside us, and my traveling companion's eyes lit up in a way that chemical enhancement alone could not explain. The passenger window rolled down, the glare fading to reveal a common face, the kind I may well have glimpsed and passed a hundred times without considering.
"Lucia!" said the new arrival. "Come on, let's go home."
"Home, that would be amazing," said...I guess her name was Lucia. "Can my friend come along?"
"There's no room," resounded another voice from the car.
"It's okay," I said. "I have a show to catch, but I'll see you around."
"Yes, yes we'll all see each other again. Thank you for going with me."
Indeed I would see Lucia again, but much later - a chance encounter at another venue, with both of us in much more level frames of mind. This is not a story of that particular evening, though, so we'll leave it behind for now.
I gathered up the remnants of my good sense and made tracks for the Biri-Biri Lounge. I've become an aficionado of dive bars over the years, and few joints do it right like the Lounge does. The detailing is just spot on, from the heavy metal artwork torn flawlessly from the sides of a thousand custom vans, to the superfluous disco ball suspended where it reflects no light, to the eerily toxic-toned concoction in the tank behind the bar - a specialty of the place, known nowhere else. Then there was the patio, a big open-air secondary bar adorned with redeemed wooden benches and illuminated by strings of Christmas lights and, when the weather deemed it suitable, the light of a large contained fire pit.
It was a rare treat to have a show on the patio - not that it had always been this way. The evening performance beneath the stars was once a fixture of the downtown stroll, but time had slain that pleasure. In its place was the club night, a money spinner whose appeal never quite struck me. I can't complain but so much - there is no question that the $3 live shows I love are subsidized by the burning cash of those office drones awkwardly bopping to canned music they don't like because one of their number read an article about "seizing life" and convinced the rest to go. It's a small price to pay to sustain my cheapskate lifestyle for a few more years. Even so, there is some little charm that we lost when we surrendered the cool embrace of the evening to the waster brats who'd already claimed ownership of the streets.
The Lounge had woken by the time I reached the place, energy and light oozing through the slats in the patio to grab hold of passers-by. The fire pit was alight to keep the encroaching chill at bay, her chaotic dance dislodging the tiny stars at her feet to join their brothers in the darkening sky. The joint was crowded already, flesh packed jowl-to-jowl, bodies muscling through the knot of people to purchase their pricey cheap beers and trendy shooters. It was not an expected crowd for a folk lineup, but it was a night for drinking, and such an event does not acknowledge the anticipated types.
Maybe I don't seem like the folk music type either, and you'd be just a breath off of the mark. My years in the local indie before-they-were-cool scene taught me to appreciate a lot of things I'd never have blasting out of my crappy car stereo. One of those new discoveries had seized the stage already - a van Zandt-type who didn't do a lot of formal shows. A familiar tune dedicated to someone else was just audible over the boozy din of the crowd, and that was enough to activate my ergoline-energized mind. I was reaching that stage if it cost me an eye.
Digging is never a pleasant pastime - rough enough when it's through dirt, but another trial entirely when trying to make passage through bodies. Plump arms holding bottles assailed me, their blind gesticulations narrowly brushing past my face every time I came up for sweet air. By and by it hit me that this was an older crowd than I was used to seeing at the shows - the faux-barbarians, out on one of those special nights when a binge is a social ritual rather than a social problem. "Binge" wasn't much of an exaggeration, either - these people had shown up nice and early with fattened wallets that were about to go on fiscal diets. No matter. I was happy to be out, I was willing and able to dodge a few flabby limbs to enjoy myself.
There was a gap next to the stage swallowed in a mystical serenity drawing me to its embrace. The dwindling technicolor rays of the smothered sun shone the path through the masses and I moved with it, adrift on pure instinct, passing without resistance. My eyes fell closed as I entered this sacred space and the music was the world - it was always good, sure, but for a time it was transcendent. There was no stage but the magic, there was no music but the magic, there was no world but what the magic made me dream.
That's when someone smashed into me - not an act of willful violence, or at least not an act of violence I'm familiar with. I think she was trying to dance, possibly with me. Is it customary to start dancing by slapping your belly against an unaware person's side? I can think of more delicate come-ons, and outside of the sweaty ritualized chaos of the mosh pit it hardly seems to be the best approach. Yet perhaps a drunk can think of nothing better, as one attempt was hardly enough. A moment later she again flailed her rotund abdomen at me, not speaking but wheezing fitfully, numb eyes fixed on some point approximating my location as she sought to occupy my space.
This second attempt at seduction was forceful enough to knock me off my balance and back into the fitful waves of the mob. It was a sensory blur, and I'm challenged to pick out details - all faces and arms and body funk and snippets of music and regretful tattoos and noisy gulps. I remember colliding with two people exchanging sloppy kisses as they imagined other people, spoiling their goggle-sotted fun for a moment before coming to a rest amid feet and bottles. Somewhere above me, a scuffle was breaking out between a pair of oversized prairie chickens, each one presenting his fiercest stance and awaiting his rival's retreat.
I remember that I couldn't hear the music anymore, not through the people replying to the lyrics or belting their mating lines across the patio. That was the worst of it. If I still had even a hint of that beauty, I would have been happy to lie on the ground and relish it. This seemed like a better time to leave.
The tale of my escape from the Lounge is an epic one, but it's not mine to tell. An onlooker could describe it better, and if I ever find someone who was on that patio and yet wasn't drugged beyond comprehension on rye and Pabst, then he can relay it to you. For me, it was a compressed moment of flight that could have taken an hour if it wasn't really five minutes. And then I was again in the open air - the same air as on the patio sans the vibe. I was in the open air, with the zombies about me already beginning their migration to their preferred embalming stations. For the moment, it was normal as it ever gets.
I felt hands on me, a steely yet feminine grip on my shoulder. Turning at the sensation, I found myself eye-to-eye with a rusted bombshell, perhaps my age in years but far more advanced in life, sporting the same get-up as the revelers inside. By the delicate hint of rye, she'd had some already.
"Hey there," she mumbled in a leopard's purr. "You having a good night?"
"I've had better."
"You got someplace to go?"
"Actually, I'm going to go home and wait for the acid to wear off."
"Sounds like a good party." She groped my arm like a neophyte nurse doing all the wrong things to find a vein. "You know, I'm from out of town, out of gas money..."
"I'm not interested."
"Now, I'm a lesbian, so I can only do head."
"Perhaps that makes sense to you, but I'm still not interested."
The lady had a mightier grip than her looks might suggest. It wasn't until the fifth or sixth firm twist that she got the hint and moved on in search of more gullible prey. Then it was just me, walking against the flow of collegiate zombies tripping through the muggy night air. Now, the undead are easily handled - steer clear of them as they shamble between bars, avoid excessive eye contact, never kiss one no matter how much she seems like she's into it. If all I had to contend with on my trek back to my hallow was an unusually large pack of the usual college drunks, I'd have counted the evening as an overall success.
But there was fury out that night, and that fury had spilled into the parking lot before my apartment. I knew they'd be there, heard a note of crimson a long moment before they came into view. There were a dozen - actually a dozen a side, the ones I could see sporting war colors. That was all I could see in the radiance of the inadequate security light glinting off the shards of glass sprinkled across the ground. Voices without word or sense, motion drawn by threads of anger – violence given form by Natty and football and testosterone. Even in the half-light, there was no question what was going on.
The barbarians had made themselves known.
The good news was that they'd left their axes and ceremonial skull-crackers at home. That was the only thing I could see to give me hope. They were between me and my sanctum, and much as I am the invisible man in most social situations, I had no real hope of slipping through the mob unseen.
"What the hell you doing?"
One of them spotted me. Too late to do anything but talk my way clear, or at least relax that tension. "Just passing through, friend."
"Bullshit. You come to help your pansy friends? You one of the losers?"
The word "loser" triggered an outcry from the yet-unseen locals that the barbarians had cornered, but no one made a move. The band stretched a little tighter.
"I'm not from around here. I don't claim a side."
"You making fun of me?" The guy staggered into the anemic security light - the bottle in his hand was no mace, but it was intimidating all the same. "You think I'm stupid?"
"Not at all, and I was just leaving. Have a good night."
I didn't have a destination. Home was between me and a pack of belligerent drunks, and I could only guess how much genuine bloodlust was flowing in those veins of theirs. Maybe they'd have a moment of civility and let me through to my apartment. Or maybe they'd start a war. I needed an alternate route.
The barbarian king wasn't going to make it so simple. "Don't you dare walk away! I still got business!"
"Say your town sucks."
"I'd rather not do that."
"Say it or you're not going anywhere! Say it's a shithole! SAY IT!"
I never had to SAY IT! because that taunt was the last straw for one of the locals. I didn't really see the fight start - I was moving very quickly in the opposite direction - and I only heard of the aftermath later. The brawl may have only lasted seconds before a police cruiser, one of the fleet of vehicles dispatched on all such nights to halt that headstrong breed of boozehound who insists on driving himself home, made the scene and all the rich kid psychos retreated into the night. There was less bloodshed than expected, more paperwork, and a lot of agitated people filing noise complaints about the yelling.
I spent the following hour standing in a nearby alley, staring at the smoldering hole in a mattress someone had dragged outside to let burn. It was not the most triumphant of come-downs, but it did give me a chance to ponder all that I'd seen that night, to process the lessons of the day.
Deciding that there was nothing to learn, I went inside and fell asleep. Sometimes that's how it goes. Sometimes it's even a win.