The other traveler is young Jason Squamata, also a Boston native, also fresh from L.A., where he has just appeared for a fraction of a second in an anti-drug public service announcement, certain in his heart of hearts that millions will catch that fleeting glimpse of him on their TVs, wonder where he’s been all their lives, and decide unanimously that he should be famous.
Audio extra: Press play to hear Jason Squamata read “Fear and Loathing in Van Horn, Texas.”
Ironically, he went directly from the “just say no” shoot to an acid binge in San Francisco, summoned by his estranged girlfriend Chloe, who had moved there and transfigured herself into his ideal lover during their long separation. His first taste of the San Francisco lifestyle was like a fetish-frosted sex cookie dipped in LSD. A careening psychedelic super-hero fantasy, complete with tactile telepathy and secret identities. In a pricey candlelit garret on Masonic Avenue, Squamata was rainbow bombed by hi-res epiphanies. He was convinced that a decadent skintight sci-fi future was within his grasp, if he could maintain the fantasy long enough to reach Boston and get it all down on paper. He’d write a demented diary disguised as a flock of comic books that would warp culture while his PSA-launched acting career paid for a beach house and a satellite headquarters.
Basically, young Jason Squamata had taken just enough drugs to go nuts.
He committed to a long distance open relationship (whatever that means) with Chloe and connected with old homie Andrew in L.A., where they buckled up for the harrowing tedium of a drive across America. Wanting a vision quest too badly can turn such a drive into a miasma of bland disappointment, but when assessed in retrospect, every trip (from coast to coast or from corner to corner) is a road of little trials that changes you subtly, but utterly, forever.
ut from soft focus flashbacks to the car again, entering Texas, caked with road filth and a touch of speeding ennui. McKenzie looks like a ska hitman in his turtleneck and shades. Squamata looks like a full-on freak. Though the PSA script gave no indication that he should shave his head and eyebrows for the role, he took it upon himself to do so—so the wigs wouldn’t hurt so much when he pulled them off. The look was a big hit in SF. Very alien. Very “nowhere man.” But his bold style choice is likely to be received with suspicion (and/or xenophobic hatred) at other stops on the road before them, and he’s getting more self-conscious the farther from civilization they go.
They intended to properly christen their voyage the night before, at their first stop, in New Mexico. They pulled off route 10 to find a vast Hooters complex beckoning, inviting them to inaugurate their pilgrimage from nowhere to nowhere in a boozy fog of fried food and spray-tanned flesh. Squamata felt malnourished and unsexy. He needed a peptalk.
Andrew came up with the perfect cover story to make some sense of Squamata’s bizarre appearance. It had just enough truth in it for them to sell it with conviction. They would claim to be Hollywood hotshots, taking a trip across country in a junky car just for the hell of it, to bond (platonically) on the threshold of their careers blowing up way big. They would lure topless truckstop beauties back to their Best Western with wispy promises of contact with latent fame. Squamata would claim that he had just been filmed in a major role in the upcoming Matrix sequel. He was shaved from head to toe for his role as “The Symbiant.” He’d promise to be much more conventionally sexy on the red carpet.
They rehearsed the routine to perfection and went swaggering like avatars across the parking lot, only to find that Hooters had been rented for a private birthday party. Only under-eighteens were allowed. The travelers explained that age limits did not apply to them. They were “celebrities.” The hulking doorman called them creepy crackers and told them to go away. Suddenly humbled, they asked him meekly where they could go to drink and be merry, but they had stopped in a dry town, apparently. There wasn’t a libation for another seventy miles.
It was an inauspicious beginning, but Squamata had ten hits of LSD burning a hole in his pocket. Adventure in a bag. They were too exhausted after nineteen hours on the road to trip with impunity, but they made a solemn oath that a dark ritual of christening and initiation would occur wherever next they stopped. Whatever backwater settlement they rolled into would briefly become a temple to the wonders and hungers that drove them, impending triumphs in their chosen fields and the splendors of San Francsico super hero culture, which seemed so far way, then, amongst the normals. The next stop would be the foundation stone for a New Jack Babylon.
he next stop is Van Horn, Texas. Population 1,674, most of whom live just over that ridge. The town itself is four blocks long. A poverty-stricken oasis of quiet desperation in a landscape of frigid desolation. The worst possible place to discreetly but decisively invoke a second summer of love, perhaps. But these strange men have taken an oath, and such things seem to matter much when your brain is half-melted from last week’s revels and the landscape, however parched and sparse, seems to be a tapestry of serious signs and symbols. However haggard and hungry for hyperspace they may feel, Squamata and McKenzie are leading charmed lives. They’ve entered the lynch mob state in a cloud of pot-smoke. In their unseemly layers of West Coast clothes, they could not look more out of place. They’re pulling into a Dairy Queen and sidling out of their ganja-fogged hatchback like men in town to do some business, the rock steady assassin and the Symbiant. Men can go for decades without knowing how close to disappearing they’ve been at every turn in their journey.
Over microwaved chicken strips and soft-serve ice cream, oblivious to the flabbergasted gazes of the locals (old white men, young Native Americans, gulf war syndrome poster children, their disappointed wives and their screaming babies), they map out the components of the “experience” to come—what they’ll need. It helps that they can see the storefronts of every merchant in the town from where they’re sitting. There’s a Motel Six two blocks up. That’s where the ceremony will begin. There’s a Santeria-spiked novelty shop where they can buy spooky trinkets. There’s a breakfast nook for the morning after. There’s a supermarket where they can acquire supplies. There’s a shotgun shack of a bar where they will wash down their slop.
They are ready for adventure. Half-assed easy riders born thirty years too late, getting ready to storm heaven in the waning, withering days of the Clinton administration. Radios and overheard conversations everywhere are touching on the issue of our quantum president. The jury is still out on whether green and gooberish Gore or born again bumpkinish Bush would set the tone for America’s new century. But our heroes don’t give a fuck. They have partying to do in Van Horn, partying like Morrisons, like shaman priests, like it’s 1969 and the decades since have been a nasty, meaningless dream.
They check into the 6 and begin their tour of the town.
o call the bar a hole in the wall would be hyperbolic. It’s more like a shadowy ditch. Ten crusty and vaguely malignant men are growing like fungus at the bar itself, all in their shameful sixties or sinister seventies. Eleven stools. There’s a bartender in her fifties, with a sad, desperate way about her and a tattooed tear. She and her clientele seem to be sharing the same case of herpes, but that might be a trick of Squamata’s X-ray vision. The beer is tepid and flat. The blacklight pool table is too small and off balance. The mismatched balls roll every which way. The rafters are plastered with rain-stained penthouse centerfolds dating back to the eighties.
The greasy finger-smudged jukebox is stocked with generic eighties country western songs, and, strangely, what seems to be the entire oeuvres of Cameo and Kool & the Gang. McKenzie thinks it will be funny to play “Celebration” three times in a row. McKenzie is wrong. The first time is sad. The second time is tense. The barmaid unplugs the jukebox and asks them to leave. “Fuck that noise,” says Squamata once outside, “Reality sucks. Let’s do this.” They haven’t quite run their errand yet, but they’re restless and they can’t resist the urge to turn up the synaesthetic volume on their bleak surroundings. They both take a tab and hit the supermarket.
Four packs of cigarettes. They only have menthol. Five lighters. Various savory snackfoods. Bottles of orange crush. And for some reason, five cans of sickly sweet aerosol air freshener. The knick-knacks are bagged by a village beauty. Even with the acid shifting them inwardly, the travelers know she’s too young and they are too unusual to be looking, even in a generically friendly way. No gesture is generic for the Symbiant.
Nonetheless, exiting the market and approaching the Santeria novelty shop, they regret not flattering the girl and asking her name. For the fun of it. For the memoirs. By the time they cross the jingling threshold of that explosion of fragrances, talismans, and painted saints, the stuff is coming on a bit, and discretion is eroding at the speed of euphoris. There’s a black-shawled Mexican crone behind the counter. Despite the strangeness of these strangers, she seems ready to accept them and sell them things with a grateful smile.
But McKenzie asks her where all the high school girls are at. Where they go. What they like.
Again, he thinks he’s being funny. The crone doesn’t see it that way and no doubt is hexing them both under her breath. But she sells them incense and scary iconic candles. By the time they leave the shop, gravity has let slip its grip on their limbs and they seem to be bouncing back to Motel 6. Snow is starting to fall as Squamata locks the door and they begin to rig the room for hardcore psychedelic experimentation. Snow in Van Horn, Texas. It must be magic.
What goes down in that room may someday be dramatized in hieroglyphics and mystery plays, but the event itself is a time-skewering soup of bony moments. The TV flips between Missy Elliot dancing atop an imperious obelisk as it emerges from an ocean of black liquid latex and wonky, acid-smeared election coverage wherein a shot of “W” strutting up a flight of marble steps and winking with a “bang-bang” gesture at the camera assures the young mystics that the cat is in the bag. And the bag is in the river. A dawning Republican millennium harshes their mellow somewhat, so they unplug the cable and tune in a screen full of hissing black static. It makes for a much more futuristic ambience. Many prophetic conversations are had on the nature of time and space and culture. Many cigarettes are smoked, many sticks of incense lit, and there’s a wavering saint all aflame in every corner of the room.
Out in this lonely outpost where even the glow of commerce has dimmed by 7pm, the windows gape onto the deepest blackness two scrambled city boys could imagine. The only oxygen available to the fume-choked hallucinauts whistles through a cracked bathroom window. At a certain point five hours in, Squamata needs to be naked and he needs to be out there, in the world, tripping balls under what must be a riot of stars, howling the lyrics to “I am, I Said” in a raspy existential shriek. But McKenzie knows it’s snowing outside. It’s a blizzard, in fact. And Andrew is immersed just enough in 3-D space at this point to picture the naked Symbiant getting shot in mid-shriek by small-town cops in the parking lot. The Symbiant must be physically restrained for almost an hour before he settles down and slurps an orange crush. They have a boombox, but only one CD. Dreams Less Sweet by Psychic TV. Holophonic cult brainwashing music from the UK. Music to go crazy to, whilst murmuring in the static-frazzled dark.
Sleep comes to these holy men in a shattering crash of protein depletion and gnashing teeth.
n the morning, every physical thing seems grimy and askew. At some point in their reckless communion with eternity, they had made the bathroom their enemy. Squamata can vaguely remember tearing the shower curtain from its rack ring-by-ring to punctuate some crucial point of conversation. McKenzie shattered the ceramic lid of the toilet bowl, for reasons whose unpuzzling will be left to the critics of this scripture, the theologians who will build faiths from the blueprints these travelers have feverishly scribbled on napkins and Ho-Ho rappers. A revelation etched in sharpie scrawls and Funyun dust.
The sharpie had also marked the bathroom mirror with an invocational non sequitur that is said to unfix cats if uttered with reverence. The mirror says, “I didn’t know seafood was an emotion.”
They’re collecting their wreckage, disguising the damage, and stepping into the cloudy remains of that blizzard. The Motel 6 proprietor and his children must dig the strangers out of the snow. Meanwhile, they drag each other’s blurry carcasses to that breakfast nook to process the evening’s discoveries. They just want some eggs and some anonymity. It isn’t even seven yet. But the nook is full, full of customers and a decorative motif that the hallucinauts are unprepared for. They felt like gods last night, in fits and starts, but they have entered a temple to a rival divinity. John Madden, the burly football sportscaster, had apparently passed through Van Horn in 1975. He had consumed a bucket of hash browns in this very nook. And it was apparently the biggest thing that had ever happened here. Squamata and McKenzie, looking not at all like superheroes or even hitmen, take a table in the corner, averting their gazes from the melting faces of the buzzard-beaked early birds, and they order omelettes.
They are ragged and speechless as their pinpricked eyes flit from John Madden press clippings to John Madden bobble-headed dolls to a framed, autographed receipt for hash browns and doting service that Madden, according to the local newspaper, had dubbed “adequate.” This is the strain of celebrity that gets worshipped in Van Horn, Texas. Freaky future fetishists and shaman priests are surplus to requirements.
The travelers drive the next seventy miles in silence, feeling ten years older, like nothing necessarily means anything and a drug is just a drug.
At a truckstop Taco Bell late in the evening, the Supreme Court’s shadowy judgement on the presidency is announced.
The bumpkin emperor has been crowned.
Fade out on the dying nineties.
Jason Squamata is a Portland-based writer of pulp novels, comic books, and scandalous true confessions. His work has appeared in Stealing Time magazine, at afterbuzztv.com/afterblogs and pulpimpossible.com. His spoken word material can be sampled at http://soundcloud.com/jason-squamata. He blogs intermittently at www.orakuloid.blogspot.com. His voice is a controlled substance. Refrain from operating heavy machinery while reading him.