That night, Mark and I drive across the Bay Bridge into the city. The hue that radiates across the late-evening sky makes it seem like the sun isn’t setting in any particular direction. It feels too bright for the hour. A strange calm reverberates from the traffic on the bridge. The pattern of the road against the tires. The San Francisco cityscape becoming more pronounced across the water in the distance. We’re headed to meet Jaron when he’s off work at nine-thirty.
Jaron delivers pizza for a place called Pizza Orgasmico. They mean like orgasm. It is San Francisco. The front of the building is one large window, with a cartoon superhero painted on it holding a pizza pie. “That’s right,” it reads in red letters on the window. “It’s that good!”
We’re sitting at a table in the corner of the narrow restaurant. Two normal-looking girls about our age pass by to leave through the open door beneath the buzzing glow of a neon sign.
“You and your fucking store-bought education,” murmurs a man sitting near us, alone at a table, beneath the brim of his tattered red trucker’s cap. He was directing his comment, however muttered, to the college-aged girls leaving the restaurant. Judging from his appearance alone, the man likely lives on the streets. His disgruntled mumbling and shifting stares (and his odor) confirm that suspicion—that judgment.
The man sits within fairly close earshot on the long bench that extends the length of the restaurant’s south wall. Continuing to cast his quiet aspersions, the man leans back against the bench’s padded backrest, a worn Styrofoam cup set on the table in front of him. The cup seems to be a sort of possession of his, as though he’s had it with him for some time, as though it is more or less a part of him. There are three sets of stools bolted to the tile floor across from where he sits on the bench, with tables between each set, designating three small dining spaces.
The confined arrangement does little to separate us from the muttering man, who sits maybe thirty inches down the bench to Mark’s right. I sit across from Mark, kiddy-corner from the man. The three of us form something of a triangle.
The man looks like he could be in his mid thirties, though his worn face and patchy beard make him seem older. His hair beneath his red trucker’s hat looks as though, when clean, it may be dirty blond, but that, because it has probably gone unwashed for some time, is a wood-grain brown and beginning to dreadlock.
Mark looks indiscreetly at me. I understand his look. Here is this man, muttering to himself—most likely a schizo—and we’re both wondering if this is what Derrick will be like ten years from now. Has our friend lost his grip on reality and will he end up just another crazy on the streets, muttering nonsense to himself?
I initiate conversation with the man. He looks confused that I’ve spoken to him.
“How ya doin?” I ask.
“Huh?” he replies. Still confused, he stutters. “Oh, you know,” he says, when he quickly realizes that I’m addressing him. “I’m just fine. Just sitting around, ya know? What are,” he hesitates “What are you guys?”
Mark looks at me with alarm as though I’d just broken the invisible bound between the sane and not, the homely and homeless, the here and there.
“What are we?” I try to clarify.
“Uh,” the man replies. “What are you doing?”
“Oh,” I say. “We’re hangin’ out, drinkin’ some beer, ya know?” Mark had purchased a pitcher of cheap beer that he and I now share while we wait for Jaron to get off work. The man looks thirstily at the pitcher.
“What were you saying to those girls?” I ask in attempt to continue the conversation in a direction self-serving. I’m hoping, I guess, to cast some flicker of understanding onto the shadow of what this man thinks in order to maybe gain some insight into the current mind frame of our potentially deranged friend Derrick. I don’t take the time to consider that I’m treating this poor man something like a frog cadaver in high school biology, splitting him down the middle and pulling out his guts to learn more about amphibian anatomy.
“Oh, you know,” he says again, then trails off, as if ashamed with his struggle to communicate.
“What’s that?” I ask, raising the intonation at the end of the phrase so he’ll repeat himself more clearly.
“I was just saying,” he speaks up, “that, you know, people are just very…” he trails off again, then looks away.
“Oh,” I say. “So you live around here?” I ask.
“Oh, you know,” he says, “just around. I’m from around here, you know?” Leaning slightly back and with a long blink, the man raises his left hand to point in five or six different directions, quick and frantic. “All around here,” he laughs, then reassumes his somewhat passive previous position: Arms crossed and muttering, sulking beneath his red trucker’s cap.
“Really?” I reply and look to Mark. He knows what it is I’m trying to do.
“We’re from the East Bay,” Mark finally interjects.
“Really?” the man replies. “Oakland?”
“Not quite,” I say, “but near Oak—”
“You know, I’m trying out for the A’s,” the man interjects eagerly. He means the Athletics, the professional baseball team in Oakland. Growing up I had been to an A’s game here and there, then more frequently in high school for dollar Wednesdays when tickets, beer, and hot dogs were just a dollar. The last I heard, prices had doubled.
“Oh, really?” Mark says with a slight laugh.
“The A’s, huh?” I say. “What position do you play?”
Mark and I don’t take the time to recognize that this could be Derrick some day. Will we laugh at Derrick when he tells us his delusions?
“Oh, you know,” the man replies. “A little of this and that.”
“So you’re like a utility player then?” I say. “Did you play in college or anything?”
“Well, I didn’t exactly feel it was absolutely necessary to subject myself to such, you know,” the man pauses to explain with his hand in gestural circles that he is searching for something. “You know,” he continues, “the confines of a totalitarian education, a so-called education system.” He creates quotation marks around the second education.
The man shakes with excitement and anxiety when he speaks. He rarely looks us in the eyes; when he does, he looks away quickly, scared or maybe ashamed. You almost get the sense that he knows what he’s saying about trying out for the A’s is a lie—and that he knows we know. His eye movement and awkward, uncomfortable demeanor make it seem like he’s continuing on in his thoughts, judging us and analyzing everything.
“If you think about it,” the man soon continues, “there really isn’t any factual evidence that would prove or even indicate you need to have a college education in order to play professional baseball,” he hesitates. “Or any professional sport for that matter. I mean, look at all the Porto Ricans and other South Americans in the majors. They’re comin’ off some shit farm-league gig haulin’ sugar cane half their lives. You know what I mean?”
“So you played farm league then?” I ask.
Jaron appears from behind the pizza counter, done with his shift, and approaches the table.
“Hey, guys,” he says with his usual nasal intonation, from his acute yet constant sniffles. Jaron eyeballs the man as though he immediately realizes the reason we would be in conversation with this man from the streets, who you can tell from the very first look of him that he’s on drugs or has some kind of mental illness, or both.
You see, since all of this with Derrick began—when we started discussing what we heard about him losing it again—it always seems to work itself into conversation. I am hard pressed to think of a time in the recent past that I’ve spoken with Mark or Jaron or Ian when Derrick hasn’t come up. It’s the sort of thing that is always on one’s mind, if only remotely at times.
“You wanna beer?” I ask Jaron—and instantly, as if the man had been awaiting the question since we began speaking with him, he reaches his Styrofoam cup directly at our pitcher of beer, standing slightly with eagerness.
“Sure, I’ll have one—” the man says as quickly as he can get the words from his mouth and then holds his breath.
He looks around the table after no one responds to the interjection of his Styrofoam cup. We have no intention of giving him beer. The man slowly, shamefully, withdraws his cup and then exhales, disappointed. An awkward moment passes and then he retreats slowly back into his seat on the long, metal bench. Mark slides left slightly in discomfort and to make room for Jaron to sit.
“So you grow up ’round here too?” I ask the man. Jaron pours himself a beer and looks strangely at me, as though he knows what I’m up to and isn’t sure yet whether or not he thinks it’s a good idea.
“Oh, you know,” the man begins. “I’ve been here and there, but where I’m from—” the man pauses to scoff at us with a half laugh, as though his statement to follow will be a thought unspoken but nonetheless understood, “—is something I can’t very well answer in any kind of concrete sense.”
“I don’t understand?” I say.
“You mean like God?” Jaron asks in his own quietly brazen way.
The man looks alertly at Jaron and then eagerly continues.
“God?” he laughs. “I’ll tell you something right now,” he says, not speaking directly to any of us, more to all of us and to himself. “God is the all-knowing puppeteer, yeah? That is what they say. You know, if I’ve seen Him once—and I have seen God,” he says with an excited whisper, leaning forward to emphasize its importance and subsequent secrecy, “there isn’t a Goddamned soul on this planet who’d believe it.” He nods once, satisfied.
“What do you mean this planet?” Jaron asks, growing perhaps quickly upset with the line of communication I’ve forced us into.
“Oh, you know,” the man replies. “I’m pretty certain that if we were able to communicate at speeds adequate enough to, you know, reach beyond our infinitesimal galaxy, if we could somehow, you know, communicate at a speed thousands of times faster than that of light, that they’d be able to tell us all sorts of things about God that you or I or anybody hadn’t previously been, you know, assimilated to.”
“So, you think there’s beings on other planets who might have, uh—” I search for the right words, “other ideas about God?”
“Do I think?” the man asks. “No, I don’t just think. I fucking know, you know,” he says half laughing again—at me perhaps. “I’ve been talking to them for years, you know. It’s just that these fucking people don’t give me the time of day and I’ll tell you right now that they haven’t got the slightest clue the information that I’ve been holding onto. If it just wasn’t right there, if they couldn’t have it, you know?”
“But you just said we couldn’t transmit communication signals fast enough to reach other planets,” Jaron interjects, the persistent voice of reason. I’m willing enough to go along with this man’s delusions, in hopes of gaining insight into aspects of Derrick’s madness (and maybe also for my own selfish entertainment), but Jaron has no intention of humoring any such conceits. He rarely does.
“Well, you see, that’s just the thing,” the man goes on. “We don’t, but I do because it’s not just what you say, you know, it’s how you say it. I’ve been holding onto some technology, serious technology that the government doesn’t want me to use because they know, they fucking know, its true potential, the potential it possesses. It’s like this technology that breaks a lot of the convention that they’ve been using, you know, because they understand how powerful it could really be, so they’ve been after me, but they haven’t been able to—I mean, they’ve tried and tried, and let me tell you—” He trails of at that point.
“You mean this communication technology?” Mark says, leaning across the table to involve himself more.
“Let me tell you,” the man explains. “It’s this highly advanced technology that they won’t let me use for fear that it would, you know, bring the human race too far along, too progressive, too fast and it isn’t something that they want common people to be aware of.”
“So, what’s the technology?” Mark asks.
“Oh, you know, it’s complicated, but it’s something that only I really have access to, because I invented it and now they’re trying to get their hands on it, but they haven’t been able to find me, because if I disappear, they know the repercussions—the, uh, you know, interplanetary implications it might have?”
“The implications what might have?” I ask.
“Well, you see, it isn’t something really that they’re prepared to deal with. It’s like they’ve been after me all these years and they can’t catch me because I’m constantly moving, you know, constantly changing forms and now they’re so fucking confused because they don’t know what to look for anymore. You know, they’re like searching for me, but because I look like this now, or I might decide that I’ve had enough of this and go into a different state, that they’re always looking where I was, not where I am.”
“What do you mean you can change forms?” Mark asks.
“Well, you know, it’s hard to explain, but it’s really mostly about inter-dimensional travel and it so happens that the technology I invented allows me to travel, if I choose to, through all of space-time and it isn’t something that anyone else can do at this point, at least not on this planet, but I know for fact that there’s elements to very basic, very general theories of quantum physics and mechanics that have been available for eons, only our minds don’t allow us to, you know, perceive the gap between space and time because we’re conditioned to this life, conditioned to follow only what we know to be true and concrete, when in actual reality—I mean, in universal reality, there’s more available to us than imaginable, more than our minds are even capable to, um, you know, fathom.”
Mark is looking at me with wide, astonished eyes. Jaron sips his beer, flabbergasted to the point of being mildly annoyed. This is a world-class rant indeed.
“But you can travel between dimensions?” I persist gleefully after a moment.
“I can indeed,” the man says, “and this form, as you see me now, is only the slightest fraction of my entire being. Look at yourself and tell me that what you see everyday in the mirror is all there is to this existence. Not just yourself,” he stutters, “not just yourself. Look at the media. Are you telling me that everything you see on television and the Internet, everything that they’re feeding you is a hundred-percent complete truth? Rupert fucking Murdoch?” he bursts out, in a tone suggesting he assumes we’ve never heard of the conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
“The truth,” he continues, “does not exist unless it is revealed in its entirety, you know, as a whole. John F. fucking Kennedy, man? Are you going to sit here and tell me that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK?” the man laughs almost uncontrollably for an instant, then gains composure to finish his point. “No fucking way, because let me tell you right now that JFK was killed, beyond any shadow of a reasonable doubt, by the fucking CIA so that the war in Vietnam could continue. Why? you ask. Well, let me tell you right now that war profits those in this country who make money from the war machine. Lots of fucking money. Ask yourself about JFK and ask who benefited.” He knocks his hand on the table to accentuate his point. It’s almost like he’s upset with us for being in on the conspiracy, even though we were born 20 years after Kennedy’s assassination.
“JFK called for an immediate withdraw from Southeast Asia,” he continues, whispering but speaking quickly, “but you know what that would fucking imply? No need to build bombs or helicopters or fucking F-4 fighter planes. Without war, our tax dollars, our fucking wages, wouldn’t be spent by the government on this machinery of war. Look at the fucking defense budget. We’re talking billions, even trillions. It’s not defense, it’s a fucking multi-trillion-dollar highly profitable industry; it’s a fucking corporation hell bent on spending our well-earned wages on instruments of death. Why? Because the individuals who benefit financially are the ones who call the shots, the ones who sign the papers that call for an additional trillion dollars of American tax dollars to go towards producing these fucking death machines. Democracy doesn’t exist, my friends. It’s all a fucking financially fascist regime under the guise of democracy set in place to make the rich richer and the poor closer and closer to being wiped off the face of this planet. The government, the fucking government, let me tell you right now…”
At this point, the man is so worked up that he’s shaking and a layer of sweat has formed on his cheeks and on his forehead beneath the brim of his trucker’s hat. He’s been speaking so quickly and with so many of his words reduced to murmurs that Jaron, Mark, and I don’t have any idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into. As the man rants, his head bobs in every direction and his eyes shoot about the room. It’s as though he’s expecting suited men to storm into Pizza Orgasmico at any moment to take him away so they can extract secrets from his brain.
“And that’s why they’ve been following me.” His tirade continues. “Because they know that I know the things I can do and they’re fucking afraid. They know I have the power to overturn this government, to provoke a positive change in this country, in this world, and their bank statements are riding on me being silenced. Let me tell you right now that when you boys see me on the fucking six o’clock news in a goddamned body bag, you’ll know right then and there that the government is lying and will continue to lie until we put in place our constitutionally provided rights as the fucking Declaration of Independence states that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to its ends, it is the Right—the fucking God-given Right of the People—that means you and me, man,” he says, looking me directly in the eyes for the first time and with a vehement sadness I can scarcely endure, “to alter or to abolish it, and to, you know, institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles as shall seem most likely to incur, and I mean positively effect their safety and happiness. Do you feel safe?” he asks the three of us. “Is this happiness?” He waves an arm in front of him, as though questioning whether pizza and beer and San Francisco bring us joy.
And then Jaron stands suddenly, apparently fed up with our experiment.
“We should get going,” he says calmly. The man sits back down, then leans across the space between our tables to look me in the eyes again.
“This is something we could continue,” he says, extending his crooked hand to place it on my knee. His eyes are distant and glassy. I stand abruptly to avoid his touch and to escape the look he gives me, which is more filled with loneliness than schizophrenia.
I cast a final glance at the muttering man as we walk past the glass front of the restaurant. Through the window paint and the sadness, I see the man give up. He crumbles the Styrofoam cup that had previously seemed so precious to him and tosses it against the opposite wall of the narrow restaurant. He throws his arms in the air in quiet renouncement and then leans back, extending them casually along the padded backrest behind him, seemingly without a care in the world.