On a clear fall day in 1970, I leave Aldous House with a 50 lb. ruck and my best boots on. I’m 27, when most men are considered to be at their prime, and I don’t mind saying that, for an on-again off-again junkie, I’m in decent physical shape. Best of all, I know roughly where I’m headed… I have the map from the flyer. It looks like a map from a Tolkein book. For the premier time in my life, I have a concrete goal other than scoring.
As soon as I step off the wrap-around porch of Aldous House, it starts raining again, so I pull on my hat. It’s that scratchy type of wool but it’s a good cap and I can’t stand the feeling of droplets or cold on my freshly shaved head. I pass the usual burn-outs, spazzes and fellow nomads, nodding without saying a word. Ain’t nobody’s business where I’m going. I pass the Huntington and the bail bondsman, the adult arcade, the Woolworth and the BMV. Our elected officials try to make this city great but they’re doing it all wrong, all ass-backwards.
This city doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up.
I follow one cloverleaf to another, taking the berms, ditches and service roads along I-70. I daydream about the future, fantasizing about spiritual awakening… or should I say resuscitation? I’ve been dead inside for a while now. In my imagination, I’m making up all sorts of stories about the Templars- about their philosophy, their paths and methodology- based on my own wishes, mostly, followed by the flyer and this strange map. What I think they’re about is right up my alley and my alley apparently leads to their path. Of course… I know none of this for certain.
Just out of the corporation limits, there’re fields and woods in rotation for several miles. Like the worst circulating panorama ever. Boring. Worse than that: depressing. No painter in his right mind would ever paint these landscapes. On the fringes of the fringes is where the going gets interesting. At this point, I realize the crumpled, crudded map in my hands is so vague it’s useless. Eventually, it takes me off the main highway onto a two-lane dirt and gravel road.
A mile along, I recognize that I’ve truly branched off into nowheresville: a soggy stretch of swampland, signs posted claim it’s a protected marsh. But it’s ugly and slippery and smells of sewage and I wonder why anyone’d want to protect this gogforsaken place. The swamp gives way to an expansive poultry farm. This smell’s worse than the swamp: all chicken shit and death- these brutal rural outposts. The road inclines and I press on.
I get lost in my head cursing my poor sense. What am I doing? What am I looking for that I can’t get easily two blocks from Aldous House?
A car speeds over the hill behind me and I hop into a ditch. I realize the farmland has disappeared and the two lane road’s now flanked with forests. The road’s steeper here and I take a detour to piss behind some sort of service building a few paces afield. As I stand there, the steam of my stream rising in the slightly cool, damp air, I see several horses through a break in the trees ahead. I shake the last bits of dew from my stalk, zip up and mount the thoroughfare once more. I approach a stereotypical ranch; two mares standing at the fence line. Should I take a chance and hop one, since the walking is so miserable? Now, I’m not an expert equestrian by any means, at all, but I do have experience. I had one set of foster parents- the worst set- took me horseback riding all the time for the two years I lived with them. I think they liked watching the horses abuse me; I was such a frail, awkward kid. They insisted on making me ride bareback to ‘toughen me up.’ They also insisted on giving me the most recalcitrant equine in the batch. I spent the fall in traction- after that second horrible summer of fractures and abrasions- from being thrown by one very angry beast. After plotting this for far too long in the drizzle, I scrap the whole plan and trudge forward with renewed vigor.
After two hours of solid walking I’m feeling cranky in never-ending cycles of stark trees, crumbling farm ruins and brown hills. They roll like I imagine the dark, soiled waves of Cemetery Shores do. Ash falls from the sky; there’s a refinery nearby. It’s nasty, rotten, gaseous smell increases until it’s in view, a metal parasitic structure with its tick-head buried in the ground sucking. Flames pour from pipe grids amid teat-like structures in the unnatural clearing that truncates the hypnotic flow of rolling countryside.
I notice the amount and quality of debris increases the further I travel along this road. The booming auto industry sends all its cars out here to die, to spend the next two hundred years rotting into this semi-scenic setting- the wilds of the last coppices and prairies. Here, the animals have become un-domesticated. Rusted car frames fence the road to Cemetery Shores… if I am… in fact… going the right direction. Far away, a dog barks non-stop. A trailer, upside down, in a nest of limp Santa and snowman inflatables, plastic, plug-in candle lawn ornaments almost as tall as me, skeletal wreaths and X-mas shrubs with their faded red bows and tarnished bells. Cats sleep on the hood of a funky primered and dead Ford Station Wagon. Rust away, now, gently rust away. I imagine our planet as being someday so full of rust and foul, tanned emissions that we’ll look like Mars from space. I calm myself temporarily from that vision by saying, as if in mantra, “Everything must return to the woods.” Lean feral animals lurk in the brush, I see them summing up every ounce of the world with their accurate black eyes. Eyes unclouded by baggage. I hear them skitter through the waist-high weeds that border the dirt road. I listen carefully for cars, when they appear, often going faster than is sane, I say a prayer and jump into the weeds to let them pass. There are pit vipers out here: Copperheads, Cottonmouths, Rattlers, Moccasins. I wait immobile preferring not to walk where I can’t see- just in case one of the tubey predators is hiding there. I maintain a fear, ne, a hatred, of all things reptilian. As the vehicle drives by, I stand looking off into the tree line, or duck below the towering wild carrot and Palmer Amaranth so they can’t see my face. The fragrance of these is so strong, due to the recent glut of moisture, it’s almost overpowering. I’m a paranoiac and, although I’m not doing anything illegal, necessarily, I prefer to remain as anonymous as possible. Always. Besides, all my licensure is faked, so if a pig stops me out here I stand to be hassled quite a bit. It’s rained for the past two weeks and that’s why everything’s awash in hues of chocolate.
The smell of rotting leaves, mold and rain is heavy, finally replacing the refinery’s stench. Thank God. I look up and see three rainbows blooming in the sky, above where I think Cemetery Shores and Grant Dam must be, still so far away. More rain’s coming. I better pick up my pace if I want to get to my destination before a storm hits. I consult my compass; a compass that I found in a backpack left behind at the Greyhound bus station downtown. People are always leaving things behind at the station.
I see the dog, whose barking I’ve heard for the last twenty minutes, pulling at the chain that tethers him to the ground. He’s been there so long he’s worn a grooved circle in the ground. He’s straining the chain, pulling toward me, bloody black eyes bulging barking hoarsely as collar restricts airway. He’s a black dog, with traces of white around his muzzle. A demon of id, hungry for action, like the true me.
When I finally arrive at their compound… I guess it’s their compound because there’s the lake and I can smell that watery fishey odor. I see numbers nailed to five separate trees… one number on each tree… and I deduce the address on the map from them. Even this is a gogdamned puzzle. Upon entry through the massive wrought-iron gate, it’s bars forged into punctuation marks and seemingly random numerals (not the address), I’m surrounded by an absurd miniature graveyard. Diminutive tombstones and mausoleums built for babies or dwarves. In the distance, the graveyard itself simply slips into the water of Grants Dam which looms in the distance. To my left, there’s a series of dilapidated sheet metal buildings situated- almost reverently- around a leviathan mound of bizarre rubbish and junked, cemetery-specific oddments: like crypt fragments.
This must be where they meet, I think. If this isn’t some kind of a joke, I think.
I wander among the rusted, ramshackle structures, through clusters of vaults, ornate marble headstones and monuments; various unfamiliar Latin phrases are spray-painted or deeply scratched across the stone faces and the corrugated sidings of the buildings. Symbols and elaborate graffiti tattoos adorn the decapitated cement angels presiding, sightlessly watching over the site from the four corners.
The first building is a shed… the door’s pad locked. Another building, looks to be a moldy, plywood outhouse. I infer this because it has a moon on the door… actually a moon and a star, like the symbol for Islam. A large but fading Kelly Green 4 is painted on the Northernmost side; the paint matches the moss growing over the corrupted plywood so it’s easy to miss. A sudden pressure in my bladder arises, so I pull the door open; apparently I use more force than necessary because it nearly flies off its hinges. A guy, dressed like a roadcrew worker in sunglasses and a hardhat, is planted on the latrine. He leans forward, head down, holding the receiver of a grey phone to his ear, the coiled cord leads to a clunky terminal box sitting beside him on the toilet bench. It IS a bench… with a hole sawed into the middle and one of those plastic, cushioned toilet seats laid over top. The smeared, cracked cover bulges out beneath the rump of the dude. He doesn’t look up.
“Whoah! Sorry, pardner.” I say, trying maybe too hard to adopt the comport of a yokel.
He’s motionless, doesn’t even appear to be breathing. Oh man, I think, hope he’s not a stiff. I can’t afford to get tangled up into anything right now. Under the yellow safety-hat… ‘ET ALORS’ is emblazoned across the front in drippy, red script… I notice that his ratty blond hair is a wig, melted at the tips- full of cobwebs and spent insect carcasses wrapped up in woolen stricture, sucked dry by some grotesque arachnid long ago.
I lean lower to study the figure.
“Excuse me? I’m not a pervert but… can you tell me…”
When my addled personage finally realizes it’s a mannequin, I’m not nearly as relieved as you might think. But, I proceed to remove the badly scratched aviators, anyway, revealing the most realistic eyes I’ve ever seen in a doll. Maybe even more realistic than those of some of the people I’ve met. The left cheekbone is concave in a network of fault lines leading to a round impression: like someone hit it with a hammer; instead of blood, the scars spill plaster dust. The flesh veneer like puzzle pieces falling off. The odors of mildew and old urine hang lightly in the air as I take this display in. The receiver held in the mannequin’s four-fingered hand is connected to a filthy, dented Motorola Car Telephone Model TLD-1100, that’d definitely be worth some cash if it were mint. I’d never seen technology like it… but it had already been badly abused. It’d still be worth something. It looks futuristic enough. I start scheming. Lights blink above the dial pad on the phone’s cradle which is connected to a larger case. I’m assuming that’s the power source, although I’m not technically savvy, so I probably shouldn’t say. Old habits are hard to break, so I try to pry the receiver out of the dummy’s hand… maybe to lift the rig. To hawk. But the grip is surprisingly tight. Just when I think I have it, the dummy’s head snaps towards me with a pop and hiss. I fall backward. At this point, I spook easily… because I haven’t had a fix since morning… and I’m prone to being jumpy normally.
Presently, I decide to get the fuck out of here but get distracted by the thing’s eyes again. It was probably a spring loaded thing meant to go off if someone tries to pilfer the phone. I’m revolted by the amount of dirt and dead insects laying in the gulley of his overalls but that means that this dummy can’t move, hadn’t moved or been moved in a long time. I trace the legs up from the insect graveyard around his ankles. Faded hair’s drawn in patches of curly-cue and squiggle, with marker, on the thighs and knees, darker and denser traveling up the chipped, gouged legs. Somebody went crazy with marker hair in the crotch and on the butt. The face still grimaces at me, or seems to, with its hardhat, melted hair, caved in cheek and sparkling eyes. A quarter inch thick strip of dust crosses the plaid, flannel shirt shoulders settling in stratified bands down his back. The denim of his overalls pools over work boots thick with pale mud. Sheer black socks- secured by slackened garters and pockmarked with random insect parts and dustballs- peek over the bunched pants. I press its shoulder; the figure rocks and twenty or so spiders scurry out from under the haunches. It’s then I decide that if I have to relieve myself, I’ll go in the brush surrounding Cemetery Shores.
I hear movement beneath the floor. I curse aloud as the thought occurs that thing from the wall at Aldous House followed me. Fuck my life!
It moves again.
Whatever it is, it’s big- bigger than the wall slug, unless it’s grown since the last encounter. Whatever it is slithers across the ground, rattling leaf litter and garbage. As if sensing my awareness of it, the movement stops. The feeling of something listening to me as I’m trying to listen to it, in combination with the creepy gaze of the showroom dummy sends my imagination into overdrive. I’m already overstrung from the lack of inebriants, the day-long walk, all the garbage and Latin and headless angels and such. There’s a thump on the floor that makes me jump followed by the sliding in dirt and debris sound.
Now, I’m getting the fuck out of here.
In my haste, I pull the door off the outhouse as I exit.
I’m more than a little disoriented which is funny because my buzz wore off long ago and I’m a little wobbly because of it. In my struggle for bearing, the cement angel furthest from the entrance catches my attention; in my peripheral vision, it’s as if the arm waves at me. Ignore it… it’s a hallucination, part of the crash to sobriety. Its original head has been replaced with a rotting jack-o-lantern, a sodden, crimpled bowler tilted jauntily on top. I should probably leave, head back to the city. But better sense has yet to prevail in my life, not to mention that I cannot bear the long torturous walk back today. So I knock on crypts and mausoleums, on the sidings, windows and doors of dilapidated shacks, with my calloused knuckles and streaming face, saying ‘Hello hello hello,’ like some whack-o defective. Everything but the outhouse is locked and each ‘hello’ goes unacknowledged. In fact, it feels more personal than that… more aggressive… as if the wind, the mannequin, the angels and the unseen thing crawling under the outhouse are all whispering, ‘Fuck you… get your sorry black ass out of here!’
I can’t blame them.
The smells of motor oil, sweet rot of garbage, leaf mold, iron and ozone pool in the air adding to the heady atmosphere. I hear an immense crash followed by hostile exclamations: a fracas issuing from one of the larger metal shacks I hadn’t checked. I follow the curses and sounds of breaking glass.
The door is open but the small rectangular windows are covered with cardboard.
Upon entering, the first thing hits me is the stench. Unwashed hair, seething man-parts, a bit of bleach and something organic… more of that sweet, rotten garbage aroma. A giant man in an oversized Cleveland Browns parka. I suppose that was a practical move since the rain fell through multiple holes in the sheet metal ceiling; half a dozen large rocks- large enough to necessitate the use of two hands to heft each one- hang from it. They’re tethered by what looks like twine but might be dust corroded and rusted wire.
“It’s to keep th’ dag-gum roof fum bloren off.” The giant parka man says watching me standing there staring at the ceiling. I’m suddenly self-conscious of my mouth hanging open and promptly snap it shut. “Some folks just put ‘em up top.” A wry smile curls the corner of his thin-lipped mouth. There’s a diagonal scar slicing from his left eyebrow to his lower right jaw. “But this looks more art-seh.”
“Ok… ehhrrrr.” Is all I can manage, moving out from beneath one of them. It’s a big rock that’d more than likely put me down if it broke loose. It’s hard to find a place I feel comfortable standing in here.
“Oh. Don’ worruh… they’s seecure. Ben hangin’ like iss for near a deck-hed.” He waves his flabulent arm over a table, which is really a packing crate, laid out with an oversized kettle, tea set and a plate piled with some charred, bread-like objects. He picks up a rusted kettle unlike any I’d ever seen. It’s got a DIY feel to it, as if he forged it in some major trash conflagration. Both futuristic and anachronistic, it has a meter and a mass of coiled tubes looping on the top that pulse with activity. The kettle’s large enough he struggles to control it, positioning his hunched, twisted body just so in order to properly finesse the task. He has an enormous dowager’s hump beneath his tarpaulin-like raingear. It’s a brown mountain. “Ya seem ta beh lawst. I mean reeeeaalllly lawwst!” He erupts with something that’s either a laugh or a loogie. “Happens lot round shyere. That annna Gogdamned tourists… slackers n crusties… butchya ain’t one-a those.” He’s really concentrating on swirling the tea kettle around. I hear the contents sloshing thickly. “Well… make yahself at home… I jest finished up a batch-a my speshuh brew n I’ll gowahead n pour us sum. It’ll make yer feel real good… RE-laxed.” His tea-set is akin to something a Presbyterian grandmother might display in her curio cabinet.
“Phewww.” I sigh, and, without reservation say, “Sounds great. I’ve traveled a long way and…” But, my voice cracks when I spy what discharges from the spout of that quote unquote tea kettle: it’s the consistency of the heaviest weight motor oil you can imagine suspending congealed chunks of dark mother. He dispenses this with utmost inattention, into an effeminate, gold-trimmed tea cup. “ … I need to… I mean, somebody… er…” Now, he’s tilted forward, toward me, in cock-eyed anticipation. “Is there somewhere to make a BM around here?” Now, I don’t really have to poop but I need a moment to, I don’t know, figure out what the fuck I just walked into and maybe how to gracefully get out. I might not have to drink that nauseating elixir. But, then again, if it relaxes me- folds the edges- I AM feeling like microwaved dogshit right now. To be honest, I’ve swallowed down worse things.
“I c’n tell buh yer bloodshawt eyes an’ shaky han’s ya lahk spahked thangs.” He says ignoring my question in a big way. “This shyere is spahked.” Thick ebony gobs splash onto the surface of the crate that holds the tray. The ichorous substance bubbles through the tubes as the needle on a round meter bobs into the red. I hadn’t noticed the meter before; on closer inspection, I see that the meter uses alchemical or horoscopic symbols instead of standard numbered metrics. My guts are starting to bubble right along with the bouncing needle and throbbing tubes. A geyser of steam hisses just above the spout. He doesn’t bother lifting the kettle as he tilts to pour my cup which is across the crate; a series of sludgy, spreading filaments dangle and droop onto the tray. “Thet’s kwaht awwrahhht… I’m pre-pahred fer thet teww!” He says with an exuberance that makes the fine hairs on my neck stand up. “It’s commun, folks shettin’ theyselves ‘rand shere… with awl th’ sperret ektevettynwhatnot.” He picks up a cup with a ripping sound, a ring of strings still tethering cup to crate. When he turns, foisting the crockery at me, these thin and snap and until they’re a series of fine hairs dangling from the gold-trimmed base. “Heck… sumtahms I think th’ constunt smell-a gawbage brangs it own.” I’m suddenly not so thirsty or hungry as I should be.