Excerpt from Divine Play, pp. 452-454
The waterfall extended for hundreds of meters perpendicular to the asphalt overlook on which they stood, but the frothy, bluish liquid that spilled precipitously into the chasm was not water and exuded caustic fumes into the slate-colored, frigid sky. Though diluted by humidity and rarefied by wind, the mist that enveloped them was stinging and numbing.
They’d been provided no protection but goggles and facecloths, which shielded them slightly. Also, a seamless white stone dam kept the fluid from the canyon directly below them, their destination. Gradually, the prickling skin and nausea abated.
“What is that?” Willie asked, her voice muffled by the mask.
“Smells like gas. Petroleum, I mean,” Alex ventured.
“What could possibly be the purpose of dumping thousands of liters of gas per minute like that?” Les asked.
“Maybe they know,” Emo said.
Clustered a few hundred meters behind them were a hundred or so men and women variously adorned in black, blue, or charcoal gray suits, pants or skirts, white shirts, pastel ties, scarves, high heels, wing-tips. They paced in evasive, intersecting paths, holding small silver cell phones to their ears or expostulating into the air within the ambiance of microphonic chips embedded in earplugs. Skittishly attentive, they brushed hair strands from their foreheads. Their tanned cadaverous faces exhibited a tension of self-consequence. Willie, Mikki, Les, and Coop approached them, but the executives disregarded them, and the four listened for a few moments to the conversations:
“I get this baby bundled on Monday; it’s a homeless whore by Wednesday.”
“They jetted in a frenesí to Cancún to meet with Sheila. Who they? Buddy from Omni, Sammy from Rama-Round. Of course, Sheila’s incomprendo now, but I will nail her ass through stainless steel, y’all!”
“Yeah, sokay, it was yuge. He piloted the deal. But that’s nine days now, φίλος! How long is his OCD?”
“I am completely mawooned, babe! But―you can handow him, Sven! Bobby’s gonna teww you it did ten biww on Fwiday, twelve on Saturday, but Sunday—fau. Only fau! That’s what I’m sayin’. Dead by Sunday! Dead by Sunday!”
“I tole you I tole you I tole you! No legs! Domestic gonna be death plus.”
“―at lunch with Stan at the Marquis Wednesday. He is freakin’ dying to do this. He musta said mebbe six times in a hour, ‘Incredible script―this is an incredible script.’”
“Don’t be dense, Toby! His ass is way into the tar on this ‘Son of Titanic’ thing.”
“―wearin’ this T-shirt that said ‛Lie to Me’! I am not kidding!”
“―nada mas till I get off this―the detox place . . . . Yes, I did mention it. Vershure I mentioned it! . . . Last week. At Tookey’s―!”
“Na na, Walda—not megadeal, not gigadeal―transcendendeal!”
“‘Just lunch’? No such thing as ‘just lunch,’ ziphead! He blowin’ smokaroonie rings up your—!”
“—pay or play—”
“—bag of snakes—”
“—paper the house—”
“—small and soft—”
“Excuse me,” Mikki announced, “but does anyone know when the next . . . thing arrives? Transport? When’s it due?”
The execs halted and stared at her for a moment, and then resumed their conversations.
“I don’t know. In pastel uniforms! . . . I am not kidding.”
“The gay marines must be recruiting . . .”
“―usually want money―”
“Thank you for your attention,” Mikki called.
“What are they doing in here, dressed like that?” Les asked.
“How can they breathe?” Willie wondered, waving her right hand before her face to fend off fumes.
“Something’s wrong,” Coop said. “They’re not ants, I don’t think, but they’re still . . . artificial.”
“Bergson’s definition of the comic, I think,” Emo observed. “Wasn’t it?”
“Right,” Vic agreed. “Bergson. ‘Something mechanical encrusted upon the living.’”
Sounds of sirens, turbines, screeching saws, and damned souls erupted from the earth. A long, narrow, black machine, shaped like a Viking ship but for the rodent masthead, arose out of the chasm. A row of
padded benches filled the craft. From its hidden speakers blared sped-up, rocked-out versions of camp songs, complete with hyperkinetic falsettos and/or croaking gutturals:
Areyoucryinglord areyoucryinglord? (blam-blam)
Old! Mac! Don—!—ald! had! a! farm, yo! Ee! Yi! Ee! Yi!
On! this! farm! he! had! some! ducks, yo! Ee! Yi! Ee! Yi!
The ship did a ninety-degree turn and alighted before them. The music stopped. The pilot was a huge, bearded, swarthy man with curly black hair and beard and ample chest hair growing over the top of his satiny white, sleeveless T-shirt. He wore tight green verrucated pants, simulating alligator hide, a black sport coat of crushed velvet, and a gold chain and scorpion-shaped medallion around his neck. On seeing the team, he held out his arms closely together, tilted his head back, and did a genuflection in the air with his right leg.
“There they are! There’re my little ones, my angels!” He bustled nearer.
“I am so thrilled to be your limo service to the eighth circus. My name’s Jerry Honnor, and”—pointing with nimble finger and supple wrist—“you are Vic Domismo and you are Willie Farina and you are Celestine Link and you are Cooper Voka and you are Emile Sogalet and you are Alex Strabis and you are Mikki Sanjuro!” He flapped the fingers of his right hand at himself, beckoning. “Suffer, little children, unto me.”
Meanwhile, the executives had folded up their phones, terminated their discourse, and hastened over en masse. They began their bargaining:
“You know, I have a life-or-death situation here—”
“I posilutely must be there in forty-five minuttoes—”
“—impossible unbelievable pressure here, Jerry! What can I get you? What can I give you?”
“Right now, Jer. A hundred and fifty people on the set right now waiting for me―at 25,000 bucks an hour―”
“I am so sorry, folks,” Jerry replied, his hands outstretched, palms flat against a mimed wall. “You’ve just been incredible to wait so patiently, but”—he lifted his eyebrows and shoulders slightly—“I have a teensy catastrophic emergency to deal with, which requires that I take these technicians down to the eighth circus, so if you could just please bear with—”
“Unfucking belie-fuckable!” screamed one.
“Knock-up-drag-down-slick-shot-shit!” a second screamed, more loudly.
The rest made various other angry noises as they simultaneously flipped open phones, thumbed handsets, and retreated in a slow, diffuse parade.
“You know,” Mikki said, “it’s really not fair for us to go first when they’ve been waiting so long.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jerry said. “They’re not going anywhere.”
“What do you mean?” asked Les.
“They’re prisoners,” Jerry replied. “They’ve been coming here every morning for years. They gather here, drinking medicated coffee, and then stand around ’til dark and go home, in silent lines like the living dead”—he indicated a clump of gray semicircular buildings in the distance—“to those geothermal huts, eat ‘proteinamin’ gruel, remove their disposable suits and paraphernalia, and sleep it off on bunk beds. Next morning they get up, do their showering and toilette, don disposable suits and paraphernalia, and return to this cliff for another day of waiting.”
“Don’t they realize they’re not getting anywhere?” Willie asked.
“No,” Jerry answered, “they had a little laser surgery on their temporal lobes—had the medial portions removed. You know, the parts with the hippocampus and the amy—amyg—I can’t ever say that word.”
“Amygdala?” Coop offered.
“Right. Their most recent memories are of being movers and shakers and dealers. They haven’t formed new long-term memories―about being convicted of fraud and embezzlement and stock swindles, and being sent to the slammer. They wake up remembering who they were and act it out all day—until it gets dark, and then they’re nothing: no will, no self, no place in this world—nothing but indoctrinated nullities.”
“So there’re no people on the other end of those cell phones?” Mikki asked. “The conversations are in their heads?”
“No, the phones connect to simple vocal processors that’ve been fed samples―the voices of coworkers, partners, spouses―plus enough data on each inmate that they can respond, react, and banter all day by selecting among thousands of words, tones, emotions, and rationales.”
“How can you stand to breathe this without a mask?” Les asked.
“How can they?”
“Ain’ no thang! We been fixed! I was a pulmonologist―until I started selling my medicinal arsenal. Anyhoo, think about it: The respiratory tract is just a bunch of holes to push air through. Do we honestly care what kind of air it is? Just remove some mucus-secreting glands in the nose, replace receptor neurons for smelling, tweak the alveoli to transfer new gases into the blood, change the blood to use the new gases, adjust the brain to use the new blood, and there you go!” He inhaled deeply through his wide nostrils. “Jus’ like flowers ‘n’ spring rain!”