Doing my best to steer clear of a depressing situation left me standing alone in a convenience store checkout line one Friday night in the universe many years ago, a ham and cheese sandwich in one hand, and a large cup of coffee in the other. The radio behind the counter was playing an old Terrence Trent D’Arby song, one that I was surprised to discover I still knew the words to.
Ten minutes earlier, I’d been sipping beers with my peers; two broadcasters, a journalist, a videographer and a fellow photographer. I’m typically not a fan of the hops, but it was the only game in town. It’d rained earlier that evening, and the mottled ground beneath our feet was littered with the wreckage of cigarette butts and stomped bottle caps. The surface of the scarred aluminum picnic table around which we gathered was populated by three plastic lighters, two cell phones, one canvas cooler brimming with melted ice water, and an army of empty beer bottles. We stood around talking shop and telling jokes, just passing the night any way we could.
“Hey, I’ve got one!” The journalist spoke up. I didn’t know her name, but I’d been eyeing her for some time. She was a tall girl with striking features, short blonde hair and rectangular glasses. I’d felt a slight pang of attraction the first time I’d laid eyes on her, like the mysterious tug between two very small refrigerator magnets. I’ve always been a sucker for her type, but this was definitely not the right place to find Miss Right. Miss Right Now perhaps, but nothing lasting. Besides, she was getting way too drunk, way too fast. I tend to steer clear of those who cannot handle their sauce as a general rule.
“Why don’t they have any Wal-Marts in Iraq?” she asked in a cheerful, high-pitched squeal. (Dear Reader, I could scarce wait for the punch line.) All eyes were upon her, except for two drunken sets making leering lazy eights over the front of her tight t-shirt. One male, it should be noted, and one female.
“Because there’s too many Targets!” This brought forth more laughter than was genuinely deserved.
Perhaps a background explanation is in order.
This is S.I.N.F.U.L. (Stuff I’ll Never Fucking Use Later), a military media proving ground where each branch of the armed forces sends the geekiest of their geeks to learn the deadly craft of mass communication. Students attending the various courses fall in one of three distinct categories: (a) those who’d enlisted in the hopes of doing something altogether different with their lives, but who’d been sent here against their will to fill a shortage elsewhere, and despised their new careers with every fiber of their being; (b) those who’d chosen this field because they thought it a soft option in comparison to the hard-edged life of the infantryman or the bone-jarring drudgery of a supply clerk, and planned to return to the private sector post haste when their tour was up.
And then there was the third crowd, (c) those strange and special souls who spoke a language all their own; those who pray before the alter of twenty-sided die; who relate to cartoon characters better than real people; who wished they’d been born Japanese; who think nothing of spending five-hundred dollars on a realistic Darth Vader costume complete with voice box and working light saber; who own complete seasons of HBO specials, and orange crates full of pirated media; those whose pronounced thumbs, lightning fast hand-to-eye reflexes, and nervous laughs marked them as video game aficionados. These were the proud owners of anachronistically accurate suits of armor, architects of homemade arcade machines, fans of Mexican wrestling, and obsessively compulsive for anything that made a noise, lit up, or plugged into an electrical outlet. Yes, we were those people – too smart to be happy, and doomed to be lonely.
Standing on an isolated patch of land just three feet away from them, I removed the pin from a Conversational Hand Grenade and lobbed it into the crowd: “Doesn’t it seem hopeless, the way we constantly bombard one another with information, yet fail miserably to connect?” The remark was a notch or two above the current conversation shelf, taking them by surprise.
“Look at the way he’s dressed.” I gestured with my bottle toward the videographer, who sported a Nintendo controller across his narrow chest. “We transmit random facts about ourselves like walking radio stations on a non-stop basis. Think of it as ‘KWHO – All Chatter, All The Time.’ We broadcast our likes, dislikes, sexual preferences and pet peeves to everyone in search of anyone, or just someone, who can receive or interpret our signals and tell us that we’re OK. We nail our deepest personal revelations to the door of anonymous electronic churches, and tell ourselves what private people we are. The truth is, we desire to be decoded. We crave a fan base. We yearn for our listeners to call in. We require those pledges to keep us on the air. We dread being misunderstood just as we fear being completely understood, and utterly fail to comprehend that no one will truly ever know or love another.”
The broadcaster slowly nodded her head, grasping my meaning through the haze of alcohol. I winked at her, and continued.
“We’re stuck in this world with no way out but death, knowing so little of life except that it begins and ends. We want to believe that there is something outside of our collective watching over us, because we can’t bear the thought of being alone. We refuse to accept responsibility for our destiny, so we create the idea of an all-powerful Barry Gibb to watch over us, a parlor trick so utterly twisted we can neither prove nor disprove it. We aren’t the first civilization to dream up such a paradox, and we won’t be the last. But some day, the last human being will lay dead or dying on this world or another, victim of some final futuristic atrocity. Once that person exhales, there’ll be no one left to believe in anything and the retarded fucking folly of God shall finally pass.” I paused to sip my beer.
“Personally, I think most people are afraid to admit that they don’t really believe in God anymore. Attending church is just obligatory lip service paid to an outdated concept forced onto children by parents who probably never stopped to consider they’d been duped by their parents as well. Besides, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a cheeseburger. God has failed to evolve, and that which cannot evolve will perish. That’s just human nature.”
Some people like video games, or music. Others are into hard drugs, sports cars, or pornography. Those are all wonderful hobbies, but personally, I’m into heresy.
Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked.
I savored the circle of slack-jawed countenances staring back at me, the tiny red fireflies of their cigarettes marking their positions like navigation beacons. “Oh, wait. You were talking about sex, or fart jokes, weren’t you? Sorry about that. Guess I took you a little off subject. The end.” I finished with a sarcastic salute from my now warm bottle.
Presently, an awed voice spoke from behind the glow of a cigarette. “Wow, I never thought of it that way.”
“Yeah,” agreed another. “That’s PFM, man.” Pure fucking magic. It was meant as a compliment, but I’d kinda killed the mood.
Moments later, the journalist I’d found so appealing was being treated to an in-depth and exploratory backrub from the photographer, his hands disappearing beneath the skintight texture of her cotton t-shirt like some erotic street magician. She’d flashed me twice earlier tonight, each time revealing washboard abs and a decorative, feminine tattoo that peeked out above the waistband of her straight-leg jeans. Stabbing me in the face would have hurt less.
I stood by, casually shifting my weight from one mile-worn Chuck Taylor to the other, peeling the label from my bottle and listening as the conversation again regressed to fart jokes and thinly-disguised racism, at which point I developed a powerful thirst for coffee from the shop just down the road.
Ahead of me now in line, an elderly woman in a floral-print dress laid a withered five dollar bill on the counter to pay for a 40-oz. bottle of Old English, and no one raised an eyebrow. I turned to look behind me.
Yet another beautiful girl wore yet another perfect tan, tight blue jeans, and a t-shirt designed for someone much smaller. Jesus! Do they grow on trees around here? Her acoustic guitar curves did not go unnoticed by the group of twenty-something’s crowding close around her in a desperate knot.
As I looked each of them in the eye, I could almost tell what they were thinking. The stout Asian boy with the spiky hair wore a ‘Don’t Make Me Go Zelda On You’ t-shirt and a resigned look on his face, a four-pack of Red Bull in his hands. His friends had probably dragged him bodily from his room with promise of a good time, but he looked like he’d much rather be gaming. He wielded power there, more so than here. We were simpatico, we two, I knew it at once. We were not the sort of fun Guitar Girl was after. We could offer her nothing in the way of thrills, unless she was the kind of woman who listed ‘stimulating conversation’ and ‘philosophical debate’ among her favorite sexual positions (which, in and of itself, was a different part of the same façade; it has often been said that everything we do is done for sex.)
The remainder of her entourage were decked out in expensive athletic jerseys, flat-brimmed ball caps cocked to strange, purpose-defeating angles, and expensive leather marshmallows, the laces of which barely acknowledged their feet. The way they crowded close to Guitar Girl was evidence of their intent. They would posture, pose, and plot their way across this too-humid night like hip-hop hyenas in hopes of outlasting one another, waiting until such a time when She of Curving Hip and Straining Breast was drunk enough to fall prey to the winner’s fumbling charms, lowering her inhibitions, and permitting him to feed on her flesh like something from Animal Planet. Yes, I felt certain of that.
I paid my bill and walked into a night filled with even smaller, more irritating insects, whistling something slow and mournful by the recently-deceased Johnny Cash. As I pocketed my receipt in the glare of a street lamp, I noticed the cashier hadn’t bothered to ring up my sandwich. I guess he’d been busy watching Guitar Girl, too.
When I returned to the picnic tables, the journalist, her masseuse, and everyone else had gone inside. I sipped my coffee, devoured my sandwich, and submitted to the sleepless embrace of an alien pillow sometime around 3 a.m.
– 30 – ,