When we got to the land of Twain and other grifters I decided I needed a natural, literary high. I wanted to go to the river’s edge, to the little beaches down there. I wanted to see if there were any shells, or maybe just some rusted beer cans. I have one already, flat and fossilized that I found on the side of the road. It makes my traveling companion uncharacteristically nervous whenever I take it out. “Have you like, had a tetanus shot anytime in like, the last decade?” From now on we’ll call him Jesse James, as it’s a name as nearly ridiculous as his real one—a Hollywood name, given to him as the first of many unkind gestures by his porn movie producer father and actress mom. And although he grew up out there, he is somehow pure NYC, complete with a Brooklyn accent and a combination shrug/eyebrow raise that manages to deny everything. I told Jesse I wanted to collect driftwood, I wanted to see the stars come out and wait for the silver shine of the moon to appear on the tiny waves that moved in multiple directions at once according to the whims of invisible murderous currents, but as we made our way down and were nearly there, we were suddenly informed by a voice too loud to be good natured that the so and so hotel had seats for us at their outside bar. I looked up and saw LED lights wrapped around a thick rope meant to fence me out and lasso me in. On the tiny wooden table was a QR code revealing $15 cocktails and horseflies and a DJ in an open buttoned-down shirt nestled a little bit upriver beneath the remains of one of several mysterious large, wooden machines that resembled broken cranes.
What were these things? What was their purpose? They created shadows like dinosaur bones. This trip is laying bare the many things I don’t understand, like how wells work or the reasoning behind the epic state capital building back in Springfield, Illinois, so fancy and out of step with the rest of the slumped, faded place. Folks shuffled around like zombies with their shorts down around their ankles a block away from Lincoln’s soothingly modest and boring house that the placards repeatedly referred to as a “shrine”.
There used to be industry here. History used to be made. Things were built, things were shipped, things were brought ashore to package and sell to the cities huddled like vipers up and down the interstate.
In between these cities there are tiny towns, in which old men wearing denim overalls or suspenders gather maskless to protest their near non-existence at tables inside gas station minimarts where pizza is sold by the slice encased in microwaveable cardboard boxes. In these towns the biggest buildings are always the banks, with their ornate stone facades that radiate the evening sun as though lit from within. The OG name still graces the heroic entrance, carved out in tombstone font. Next door on either side are clusters of plain squat stores, the brightest and most active looking one inevitably being the brand-new weed dispensary with its garish hand painted sign promising herbal RELIEF.
I was thrown into a temporary tailspin by the prospect of drinking out there. It wasn’t the money, it was the sad, slightly embarrassed vibe of being in a place that had once been alive and moving and was now like a museum café serving stale sandwiches on pretty white plates for all of us who came to gawk at the remains. But not to worry! Jesse James had a cooler that said Made in the USA across the top. It’s our road trip mascot, filled with IPA’s, High Noon’s, ice, a container of vegan hummus and my bottle of Hawaiian spirulina that I took from my BK fridge at the last second and keep hoping to use.
In addition to this I had an ancient tote bag filled with only the best books that contained the teachings of the whole universe in the form of this or that singular mind.
We walked across town to our far cheaper, antiquated hotel, complete with a Lynchian front desk person who gave us a printout with the channel listings and a special deal for Pizza Hut. What else could we possibly need? Besides the river.
I told Jesse James I wanted to live within the cathedral of the sunset, beneath which all people are free.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said in his soft, feminine voice. The evening light made the ancient teardrop tattoo under the corner of his left eye look like smeared eyeliner.
Earlier we had tried another way to get to the fabled river. We walked out the back of a parking lot and followed a decrepit board walked path lined with graffitied anarchist slogans. This led to a dock beside a giant steam ship, which entered the frame quite unexpectedly. It was being loaded by people in blue polo shirts who were here and there across the different floors. The white paddles were stained brown and the whole structure seemed too light, too delicate. If not for the tiny blue dots, I would have thought it was just the part of a long-forgotten set, unused and empty on the water.
Two people, a lanky guy and a cute girl, also wearing blue shirts, came by pushing a cart stacked way too high with Pepsi and Red Bull. They made it a couple of feet before a case tumbled off the top, so Jesse and I trotted over, our steps light and graceful from the beers we just downed, and we helped hold the swooning baggage as they pushed.
It’s a week-long cruise, the guy said with a sing-song voice, it’s just restarting, and I don’t know if by this he meant it’s restarting after a year and a half of Covid or in the many decades since these kinds of boats were popular.
I asked them where it was going, but neither answered. I didn’t get the sense they were hiding information; it just seems so obvious--everyone besides me knows the places worth going to on this river.
The wooden path along the bank overlooked a steep drop down to the water. I thought of trying it, but it was so hot and where the water and the earth met was a funny shade of milky green and brown, a terrain I wasn’t sure I could manage in my flip-flops. So I looked up instead, studying the three floors of the ship. The layout was identical all the way across: there would be two windows and a door in between, with two reclining chairs on either side of it.
Look at that, I told my friend, both of us silently imagining sitting out there as the sunlight burned our skin like acid.
Reading and drinking and going nowhere fast.
Frank Ocean was playing.
The best song isn’t the single, I said, as I stretched out on the bumpy bed and waited.
He claims he’s a reincarnated Edgar Allen Poe who sees faces in the facades of cheap suburban houses and has yards of flow and killer high tops like a 90’s Missy Elliott.
“Like her I’m not a great rapper, but I make it sound good.”
Despite this appeal, he seems determined to get my musical input.
“You look younger than you are,” he said, “you could still be a star if you wanted.”
He told me that had he been good at school he would have become a politician instead. As a kid he was obsessed with stories of famous assassinations, and knew all the details of what happened in each minute leading up—he watched the political rally scene in “Taxi Driver” over and over, switching back and forth between thinking he was Travis Bickle with his mohawk and aviator glasses and the blonde, blue blazer wearing politician who was his target. He was captivated by the way the film seemed to speed up as the camera followed Travis in the crowd—he could never tell if it was just the nimbleness of his movements or an actual mechanical effect. He held out hope that if he could make it as a rockstar, he still had a chance of getting offed.
“I used to think I wanted it to happen on stage, but I think being shot down on the pavement is the way to go. Especially if it’s one of those wide white sidewalks like they have in midtown, which contrast so well with all the dark cars parked on the street. And when the sun hits there are all those sparkles in the concrete.”
I appreciate how he doesn’t push. It’s not about being high--we just both want to move after we smoke. It’s like resting and waking up at the same time. I know I don’t need this. A part of me would rather watch TV. A part of me would rather be at home. But this is the story I find myself in, this story about being a witchy bitch and bitchy witch following a trail of increasingly incomprehensible clues that I have to see through, so fuck it. I found someone turning and together we fit into the spot of right now.
I thought about my vision of the being and how I now felt a funny sense of peace every time I saw a toilet. I thought about laugh tracks. I thought about breakfast.
Later, when we were back in separate beds and watching TV he asked:
“So, are you in love with them?”
Although I’d been ready for it since we left the City, the question still came as a surprise.
“No, not them. But with the AI version of them from the future.”
It’s an image I have squirrelled away, of Odious in their oversized, grey and black handmade hoodie with an airbrushed ET holding up his glowing pink finger on the front. The artist inscribed secret messages in the form of numbers and symbols that looked like tattoos on ET’s fingers and collarbone.
“Look at this,” they said, pulling it off so I could see the writing on the inside of the hood:
“May all who touch this be healed.”
Image: Death + Milk, "Young God"
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