It didn’t take much imagination to guess what the other kids had called Harry Schmittberger when he was a boy. Forty-some-odd years later, the nickname still hounded him.
Deep down Harry knew that if he had been born with a different name, his life would have turned out better. If not better, different. Brock Brannigan. Declan Fisk. Rocco Cabrelli. Brace Godfrey. Names of people real and imagined. Names that conveyed virility and strength and power. Names that affirmed manliness, if not greatness. But like the pitiless parents whom his birth had forced on him, his name was another entry on Harry’s growing list of life’s unfairnesses.
Harry approached the sometimes-nickname with equal parts hate and acceptance, a perennial throughout his life. As he had moved from school to school then job to job, there was always some jackass who thought he was clever. Some clever jackass who thought he was the first to coin the obvious.
What Harry couldn’t figure out at that precise moment was why someone was in his bedroom shouting that name at him. Had he riled anyone recently? Probably, but who could remember? He wanted to sleep, but the angry, loud voice wouldn’t let him. The angry, loud voice just kept screaming that nickname. Angrily. And loudly.
“Shitburger!” the angry, loud voice repeated. “Get the fuck out of my stall.”
Harry opened his bloodshot eyes to slits. He wasn’t in his bedroom. He wasn’t in his trailer. He was somewhere wrong. It was a small room. Not a room. More like a closet. He searched for clues. His eyes alighted on a childlike drawing of an enormous penis ejaculating onto equally monstrous breasts. Written beneath the drawing was a scrawl. “OOOH BABBY.” Not the work of a master, drunk-rushed and uninspired, but the anatomy was recognizable. It told him he was in the men’s room at the Horseshoe Lounge.
“I got other customers need to use the head.”
Harry’s predicament quickly revealed itself. Harry had passed out sitting on the toilet mid-crap, his pants at his ankles. If that wasn’t bad enough, he had thrown up into his own pants. Chunks of steak and bits of maybe-cauliflower pooled in the crotch of his underwear and spilled into his crumpled pant legs.
Harry mumbled, “I need to chew food better.”
“What?” The angry, loud voice grew angrier and louder.
“I don’t eat cauliflower.” Harry curiously flicked at a white chunk. “Potato?”
“You got like ten seconds, Shitburger. I’m done fucking around.”
“I need good, better pants,” Harry mumbled. His liquored confusion shifted closer to fear.
“What you need is to get the fuck out of there. The fuck out of my bar.”
Harry could not think of an out. He started to cry. Softly at first, but it quickly grew past mere sniffles. He didn’t deserve this. Why did stuff like this always happen to him?
There was no sympathy from the other side of the stall door. “You better not fucking be crying.”
“I’m not crying. You are.” Harry roughly wiped at the tears, stirring them in with the drool at the corners of his mouth. He reached for some toilet paper. The dispenser was empty.
Looking back at the drawing of the dong and boobs, he wondered if people had breast sex in real life or if it only happened in porno movies. He had once found a woman drunk enough to play along, but she had been so flat-chested that he didn’t consider it official. In fact it had been a complete failure, with Harry doing little more than dragging his rod across her dry sternum until the Indian burn made him flaccid.
The memory faded back to reality. The drawing in front of him pulsed. The stall tilted. Everything blurred. The ground accelerated toward him.
“Ooh, baby,” Harry said softly. And then passed out.
It was only midnight, but Harry’s night was over.
He woke propped up against the Dumpster behind the bar. It wasn’t the first time that Chico had thrown him out like a sack of garbage. It’s like the guy had something against him. At least Chico had left him sitting up. Not quite recovery position, but he wasn’t going to choke. That was the ceiling of personal service that the Horseshoe mustered for its regulars.
Someone had pulled up Harry’s pants. But from the way it felt down there, nobody had gone the extra mile and cleaned him up. Harry didn’t have any friends that close.
He shifted his hip slightly and the stew of semi-solids sloshed in his drawers. He could smell himself over the curdled sweetness of the garbage. It made him sick all over again. Luckily he was mostly empty and only drizzled stringy spit onto the front of his sweat-soaked shirt.
He shut his eyes and leaned back against the warm metal. The night was hot and sticky. He pressed his hand against the ground to push himself up and got a handful of cricket husks. He wiped them on his pants and watched the insect parts drift in the breeze.
Harry’s benders had grown progressively more destructive since going on medical leave from his job at the prison. His leg had been mostly healed for a month, but he wasn’t ready to go back to work. In fact, he wasn’t sure if he ever wanted to go back to Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. On most days it was hard to tell the difference between being a guard and a prisoner. Leaving work only to return to his empty trailer didn’t seem that much different than the loneliness of lights-out. At least in a jail cell, you didn’t have to walk the length of the trailer to use the can. The work wasn’t any different either. The mental gangrene of repetitive busy work ate away at the core of his being. Nobody had warned him that the bulk of the job was paperwork and data entry. He knew he was meant for more than the monotony of a life as a corrections officer.
Harry had gotten the tail end of the dog his whole life. A losing streak that began at birth. But that didn’t kill the thin sliver of optimism that he held on to. It was deep down, but it was there. Harry was due. He knew it. You can flip a quarter tails only so many times before heads finally lands. He was better than the other losers in Blythe. All he needed was his shot.
Belching acid, Harry decided that it would be at least an hour before he would be up for the three-block stumble to his trailer at Desert Vista Estates. He tried to manufacture the blissful cliff edge of an alcohol blackout, but was too awake after the commotion inside.
To pass the time, he read the bumper stickers on the trucks in the parking lot. SUPPORT OUR TROOPS. MY COLD DEAD HANDS. LET GOD SORT IT OUT. He counted the Jesus Fish: four. The Calvins Pissing: six. The Truck Nuts: two. Not one COEXIST in the bunch.
Conspiracy Todd’s ride was the tie-dyed sheep in the flock of mud-caked and lifted trucks. A Subaru BRAT covered in a psychotic patchwork of adhesive rambling. YOU SHOT JFK. 911CONSPIRACY.COM. THEY CAN HEAR YOU. A yellow ribbon, but instead of SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, Conspiracy Todd had replaced it with ANOTHER EMPTY GESTURE.
As if on cue, Conspiracy Todd’s voice erupted from the bar, spitty words seeping through the open windows over the whine of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” on the jukebox. Time for his nightly rant.
“Government in up to their ears, my friends. Government and the corporations and the media tangled up like pythons in a knot. An orgy of perversions. People don’t matter. Not the small people. Not the invisible. Not us, you and me.”
“Shut up, you fucking commie.” The Horseshoe Lounge’s equivalent of civil discourse.
“Such violent ignorance. The product of an American public school, no doubt. Commie does not mean un-American, my denim-clad brother. A Communist is a follower of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and so forth. I subscribe to no single belief. I am a true American trying to show you all—my friends, the small people, the invisible—the truth. The Communists, Fascists, Republicans, Democrats, Viacom, Fox, Amazon, the PTA, Major League Baseball, they’re all the same. Don’t allow ‘them’ to turn you into lemmings.”
Conspiracy Todd laughed loud and crazy, then stopped abruptly.
“I must call foul on myself. I referenced lemmings. When in fact lemmings—known for jumping off cliffs—never actually did such a thing. The kind of accepted lie I’m trying to unveil. We use that expression, ‘a bunch of lemmings.’ Animals don’t commit suicide. The reality is a Disney movie. A nature documentary. Walt Disney corralled the poor creatures off that cliff, my friends. Murdered innocent lemmings for the sake of the message. The power of mind control. Disney, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola—the corporations tell us what to think. Ironic that Disney’s head is preserved in a block of ice. Ultimate mind control.
“But maybe we are lemmings. Not because we blindly follow others off a cliff. But because we allow ‘them’ to throw us off it.”
There was no rebuttal. Harry heard only CT’s heavy breathing. Horseshoe regulars knew that when Conspiracy Todd hit that certain jag in his monologue, it was best to let him go. CT wasn’t your grandfather’s hippie. He was two hundred sixty pounds of tie-dye, yoga, and hurt. He was allowed to talk like he did because he was scary muscular and enjoyed giving a redneck beating. If the redneck was lucky. Go too far and you’d end up coyote food. Or so the rumors went. Desert paranoids were a prepared bunch: tinfoil hats and automatic weapons. Conspiracy Todd was their de facto general.
Harry tried to tune out the voices. He tried to will himself to pass out. Nothing doing. The purgatory of one too many, but not quite one enough.
Conspiracy Todd continued. “You let them control you. Let them spit in your face. Let them walk into your backyard and take a greasy shit on your dog. The cities are lost, and small towns are following. Right here in our desert, corporations stole hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of gold from the American people. And none of you even knew you had it.”
The word gold brought Harry to attention.
“Look it up. Google it. Early nineties, Congress passed the California Desert Protection Act. Sounds great, right? Protect our desert. What could be wrong about that? Everything. The government don’t do nothing without a back end. It’s always about money. Have you heard of the act? Read it? They know you won’t. That’s why their reports are ten thousand pages long. You can hide a polka-dot rhinoceros in all that paper.
“Here’s how they protected our desert. They made a land swap. In exchange for acres of worthless scrubland to expand Death Valley. A bunch of land that was no good to nobody. Wasn’t farmable. No resources. Butt ugly on top of it. The government traded that worthless land for the mineral rights to the Chocolate Mountains.”
In his drunken state, Harry was having trouble following the details, but he did his best to absorb the gist of what he was hearing. He wanted to hear about the gold. Gold was the kind of word that made you concentrate, even to the rants of a lunatic.
“Here’s the scam. Some corporation buys up a bunch of shit land around Death Valley. Then the government passes a bill that says they need those exact parcels. Instead of buying it for the ten dollars an acre it’s worth, the government trades the corporation for the mining rights to the Chocolate Mountains. Those mountains are made of gold, my friends. Used to be two hundred mines out there. They say there’s hundreds of billions-with-a-B dollars’ worth of gold still there. And the government gave it to corporations that I’m sure showed their appreciation to the politicians that drafted the bill in the form of suitcases full of nonsequential bills. That gold was the property of the American people. They legally stole it. That’s our gold.”
Conspiracy Todd rambled on about the government and the mountains and the gold. And every time Harry heard gold, he listened hard. Even when CT went on a long digression about how the CIA made the Star Wars franchise and George Lucas was their shill and possibly an android, he did his best to listen. He had no idea if he would retain anything the next day, but he knew he had to try.
“Our gold,” Conspiracy Todd repeated.
Screw that, thought Harry. That’s my gold.