Publishing a new book felt like shedding your skin. Once it came fully off, it was a dessicated shell of what you were formerly. All your hard work just a worn out wrapper, lying there. That’s how it had felt to Porkowski Styles the last several times, anyway. Maybe there was a delay before a writer could properly appreciate his own product. Those were his thoughts as he ran through the early morning streets of downtown planet Denver on the morning of his trip to New Mexico. “You know where the Greyhound station is?” he shouted to a gentleman leaning against the doorway of an office building in passing. The man gestured in the same direction Porkowski was already going. “This way? Thanks!”
Porkowski was going to Santa Fe to visit his friends Lamar and Luella and give a lecture and a public reading at the college where Lamar taught. He’d written down a lot of notes on his approach to craft, which was mostly intuitive and accidental, and had a lot to say about his just-completed book, which had been written in said manner, and was in a way a testament to the success of such a method. But at the same time, it felt like a worn-out skin he’d just disposed of, and now he felt naked and raw and undefended. Well, I guess here begins my reconstruction, he thought, stepping onto the bus and finding his way to a seat near the back, wadding up his jacket and stuffing it behind him to make up for the seat’s inability to do other than loll slightly backward after who knows how many passengers, and no apparent lever to adjust it with. As luck would have it, the seat Porkowski had chosen was directly beneath the bus’s air conditioning vent, which meant he had to put the jacket back on and sit slightly forward with his arms crossed for most of the ride.
They bus pulled into Albuquerque about 4;30 and after asking a few strangers where to go, Porkowski found his way to the courtyard next door where many more strangers were waiting for the train to Santa Fe. An older lady sat down on the bench beside him and he asked her did he need to buy a ticket and learned the conductors collected cash fares on board. “Do I need exact change? That’s how they do it in Denver. Does anyone know?” A kid about twenty years old with a slow southern accent came up and addressed him as “boss.” “I’m not your boss,” Porkowski told him. This odd little character wanted Porkowski to pay his fare from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, ten bucks, far more than mere spare change, yet because this was not Porkowski’s home territory and he was in the waystation between a familiar reality and an unknown one, it seemed like a supernaturally ordained toll.
“What kind of bill do you need to break exactly?” asked Tyler, before leading Porkowski to a hot dog stand he knew downstairs where the owner broke a twenty for him after he purchased a two-pack of Twix and donated it to Tyler.
On the way back to the train-waiting-area, Tyler’s phone rang, and he went through a few conversational arias in his slow, sticky voice, which rang with a note of courtesy, as Porkowski followed behind. “Hello? Brianna . . . Brianna . . . Please don’t start your shit . . . Brianna . . . Please, Brianna . . . the last thing I need right now is some more of your shit . . . Brianna . . . it’s been a hard day, please don’t start your shit . . .”
That’s not even a conversation he’s having, Porkowski thought, after which Tyler folded his cell phone and told him, in the same slow, courteous voice, “I’m sorry you had to hear that. That was my wife.” Before departing, he offered a sticky handshake of melted Twix crusted on in a thin layer. “Thanks, man.”
“Sticky hands,” Porkowski swore under his breath to the woman beside him, wiping it off on one leg of his pants as the woman glanced over, registering little notice. “Sorry, I’ve been on the bus all day.”
“I’ve been on the bus since 5:30 yesterday morning,” she told him, “all the way from some damn city in Texas I forget the name of now.” Her tone was genial recounting this arduous journey but kept a slight edge.
“Wow, I hope your travel’s almost over.”
“I don’t even care. We’ll see what happens when I get there, wherever I’m going.” She seemed quite friendly, despite her obviously embittered state.
An attractive teenage girl wearing overalls with long black hair piled on top of her head was looking at Porkowski. “Is that where we’re supposed to go?” he asked, pointing beyond her to where people were lining up in a loose collection on one of the platforms. “Looks like it,” she said, before saying the same words again with a lilt, “Looks liiike it. Better not miss that train to Santa Fe tonight. Last time I came down here, I missed it.”
“Yes, we must not miss it,” Porkowski followed her over to the group of people on the platform and taking a spot in line between her and the other woman, who’d followed the two of them over. The train came and Porkowski got on board, walking left down some steps to end up in the same car with the tall girl in overalls, a ukulele-playing Anglo teen male with a doo rag and an interested Mexican teen male who fell into keenly friendly discourse with the ukulele player, meeting him, while the girl in overalls carried on an excited conversation on her cell phone across the aisle from where Porkowski sat peering out the train window at the gnarled shapes of trees and dry hot yellow brushes and grasses and graffito’d garage doors the train was sliding past, at times very slowly, with periodic high-speed sequences, hot sunlight shining through the windows in the desert afternoon. For some reason, they weren’t announcing any of the stops. He had to keep watch out the window for the regularly-posted black-on-white signs marking them off.
The guy who was supposed to take the money came through a few times in a red shirt and black cap without collecting any fares. He seemed to be in a very good mood. “Good EVENING!” he said at one point, with great jollity, apparently going from car to car making that announcement.
“Good evening,” Porkowski responded along with the teenagers in his car. At one point, the train halted its motion completely for a long time before starting and Porkowski asked everyone, “Was that one of the stops?”
“No, that wasn’t one of the stops,” the ukulele player informed him. “We just had to stop to let another train go past.” “First time on a train?” cracked the tall teenage girl from another seat across the aisle.
“Where are you getting off, sir?” asked ukulelist helpfully.
“I’m looking for Zia Road.”
“Zia Road’s where I’m getting off. I’ll let you know.”
“Good. Thank you.”
The fare collector came through again in his red shirt and black cap. “Well, I just lost my job!” he announced.
“Oh, no. How come?”
“Well . . . it’s a person who came here, who’s been trying to cause shit from the very beginning . . . said some shit happened, and it was my fault, when really it wasn’t, and now I lost my job. Going home tonight without my job.”
“Damn,” said Porkowski.
The guy went on to the next car, to make the same announcement. He seemed like the kind of guy who really cared about his passengers and wanted to let them know personally rather than just disappear.
“What a shame,” commented the ukulelist. “He seemed like a nice guy.”
“He really did,” said the Mexican kid.
“Sure did,” said Porkowski.
“Just two more stops, it’s all right,” the tall teen girl said sweetly before getting off, yet with possible malicious intent.
“Thank you. I’ve been on the bus all day.”
“It’s all right.”
Lamar and Luella had an unusual relationship of each one continually making objectively kind statements displaying heartfelt concern for the other’s state of well-being in turnabout.
They were always hovering around each other like helicopters explaining how little things they’d done which might have seemed insensitive had in fact been motivated by a concern for the other’s well-being because of something the other had done they’d surmised might have indicated discomfort of some kind, and thanking and saying I’m sorry to each other, and so forth.
When Porkowski had first encountered it during the couple’s visit to Denver months prior, it had seemed one-sided, just Lamar being over-attentive like anyone might for a while in a new relationship, but by this time seemed to have become a mutual condition. Porkowski didn’t know how it felt inside the relationship, but from the outside it looked like a manifestation of his own tendency to micro-manage existence and experience, which had alienated lots of previous girlfriends and in part contributed to his current laissez-faire posture regarding romance—that it would happen or not and work out or not naturally somehow—which didn’t give him much to go on, it’s true, but felt less wearing.
While he was there, Porkowski slept on a pull-out couch in the front room and woke up one morning to Lamar and Luella remonstrating their niceties. “And thanks to you both for being such good hosts!” he added from his berth in the darkness when they seemed to have completed the cycle.
“Thanks for being such a good guest!” the couple chorused in response. It felt good, being accepted by them.
That night, Porkowski told them both about how he was planning to reshape his forehead, misshapen from a childhood car crash, in the next few months, making this confession with a surge of emotion perhaps undue an operation the likes of which was becoming more and more commonplace in modern society, probably since it was hard-wired to his sense of self-worth, and the couple was incomparably supportive and receptive. Before the accident, as a little kid, he’d developed an instinctive distaste for people whose lives were in any way limited, defined, or circumscribed by their physical conditions. Now here he was, face to face with the very same limit, prepared to get rid of it finally after decades of ignoring or denying its significance. What will my life be like now? Everything will be different.
So much sunlight in Santa Fe, 80,000 + feet above sea level. They went to a series of Mexican restaurants. Porkowski got take-out from one and it ate through the bag by the time they got home and had to be scooped off the pavement. He ate a couple of pieces of gravel that night with his chili rellenos and tacos, which might have been the source of the stomach-and-mind bug (thankfully without any respiratory impediment or discomfort) which veiled the rest of his stay with a haze of surreal perception. I’m in the Land of Enchantment, he told himself. I’m having a mystical experience. In a way it seemed proper his mind should be veiled during this unplanned mission. Mercury was in retrograde, too, which he felt might enable its success. He kept having to use the toilet a lot, which was embarrassing at close quarters, but the couple was forgiving, being already regularly confronted with Lamar’s young daughter’s poop problems.
The kids were there for the first few days. One morning, after being told he would have to wait to finish watching a program he enjoyed, and just use his own imagination til then, Lamar’s young son shouted, “I don’t want to use my imagination!” causing Porkowski to remember his own parents telling him that as a child, inspiring him to make the comment, “It’s good to use your imagination, Zeb. A guy like me, that’s all I’ve got.”
As a recently divorced single father of two very young kids whose own mother’s Alzheimer’s had recently worsened greatly, and he was also a school teacher, managing people was part of Lamar Cobson’s order of life. It came naturally to him. He did everything with great order, keeping his household spotless always and specifying areas on the counter for his own dishes, Luella’s and Porkowski’s. “You have given me a great lesson about deliberation,” Porkowski told him one day. “You seem to have been living well deliberately for some time now, which is impressive.”
“I try,” admitted Cobson.
“Your way might be better than mine. I always think in impressions and waves. No foundation, all the way down the line.”
“What’s that, Saroyan? And what were you saying the other night about there being some NASA occult connection?”
“Oh, Jack Parsons, sure. That’s just a book I was reading on Greyhound. But yeah, he founded the jet propulsion laboratory for NASA, was a big NASA superhero, and once performed a ritual for Crowley’s O.T.O. with L. Ron Hubbard, before Scientology. Around the same time he was doing incredible moon landing stuff.”
“See, I don’t keep up with that internet world, man.”
“Well, I found out about this years ago, before the internet. Just a part of the little-known history, I guess. Like it’s not even secret. But it’s not like it matters, cause nobody knows, and if you mention it, they think you’re a conspiracy theorist or something, so . . . useless knowledge.”
Later the same day, Lamar asked Porkowski what he thought about the Grateful Dead. “Well, I don’t know about the Grateful Dead. I’m not a big fan, but I can’t see they’ve done any damage, exactly.”
Porkowski had a habit of offhandedly making these kinds of references at inappropriate moments and fixating people’s attention unintentionally.
The week previously in Denver, he’d unthinkingly used the phrase “mind control” in conversation with another author about getting an agent—“Mind control? What mind control!” He read a lot of books like that.
“No, I just mean all the psychedelic bands came out around the same time LSD got popular as part of a plan to discredit the Vietnam war protestors. The Beatles and the Laurel Canyon bands. Allegedly. I have to say allegedly, but I don’t even think they deny it anymore. As part of MK Ultra. To make formerly articulate protester types look like drugged-out love zombies. But it seems like the plan didn’t work in the long run. Or maybe it did, and we just don’t know how yet.”
Lamar worked those two factoids into Porkowski’s introduction the day of the lecture, saying he was able to expound at length on NASA’s little-known occult connections and the CIA’s psychedelic rock agenda (which sounded pretty good, though he didn’t look forward to defending either point as a cause).
Porkowski began by making his statements about intuitive creativity, how he’d learned to write by making up stories as a kid, how this book he’d just finished had been written “as it happened,” how he’d been forced to make severe changes toward the end to “keep it current,” how the lesson of accidental magic had been contradicted by an opposite form of energy right at the end, and how the correction of this oversight, in time, had only been enabled by the book’s accidental or unplanned status until completion. And so on. All of which looked great on paper—stay tuned—but as Porkowski spoke, he became increasingly aware of the lack of and need for more structure next time, an over-arching sequential narrative to better lead his listeners’ attention. The experience served more as the perfect instructive lesson on how to do the same thing correctly next time far more than being a success in the moment, shall we say. The whole thing was veiled by the fog of his stomach and mind bug, so he couldn’t tell how closely his own perceptions aligned with everyone else’s, but it seemed to go well.
The funniest thing that happened was he triggered one of the students unwittingly, this good-natured, broad-shouldered guy with a gray crewcut and horn-rims. “You can’t say anything is possible! I can’t just jump into a volcano if I think it’s possible!”
“I wouldn’t, no. I’m just talking about—”
“If you’re saying anything is possible in fiction, then fine. I have no problem with that. But if you’re trying to say everything’s possible, you lose me right there.”
“I’m just saying that’s the way I wrote this book, I let life lead the plot instead of planning it. Some people might call it a denial of science or facts, being so trusting like that, because it all comes down to trust, but maybe it’s more an admission of everything else, see? That’s just the way I tried to—”
“I can’t eat broken glass and live! You can’t say that!”
“I don’t know, have you tried? Just kidding.”
One of Lamar’s fellow teachers spoke up, an attractive woman with long brown hair parted in the center. “What about the Denver International Airport? Have you ever been there?”
“Sure,” said Porkowski. “There are a lot of murals and Masonic embossing all over the place. I don’t know what all you’ve heard, but it’s probably true, in some part. I’m not saying I know, just—”
“You can’t say it’s probably true!” erupted the broad-shouldered guy with the crew cut. “That airport was meant to suggest the snow-capped Rocky Mountains!”
“Well, have you ever seen that mural of the cops with the scimitars coming to save everyone after the world ends?” Porkowski countered.
“I certainly haven’t seen every mural in the airport, but I can’t help it if somebody misinterpreted one panel!”
“I know you’re full of passion!” interposed an elderly white woman with long white hair, whose boyfriend, a venerable black man, sat beside her. “The writing you’ve shared has been full of passion! The poems you shared have such passion! After reading your writing, I know so much more about you!” Her point in saying all this was unclear.
“Well, sure. Anyone who reads my writing’s gonna end up knowing a lot about me, that’s just how it is.”
Then the guy spoke again. “I’m just saying you can’t say it’s probably true. When you say something like that—”
“I’m just saying there are a lot of indicators that whoever built that airport has a plan they’re not telling the general public about, that’s all. Just good-naturedly fielding a question, see.”
“And he’s not even the one who brought it up,” intervened Lamar. “Can you tell us more about what you said earlier about the assumptive phenomenon?” he prompted.
“Yes,” said Porkowski with relief. This was a concept he’d developed after reading about aliens and Bigfoot perhaps having the ability to assume the shapes most natural to their human watchers’ accustomed view, thus escaping detection by eyes unsuited to strangeness, like chameleon lizards blending in with their surroundings.
Using this model, Porkowski’s idea was that existence itself was responsive to its percipients’ expectations and bound to show them whatever they looked for. In his own case, this condition had first become apparent once he understood Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, or the outer world mirroring the inner, as a teenager and began seeing increasingly more and more of this phenomenon everywhere always the rest of his life.
Predictably, he started off with the irrelevant, if more sensational, aliens and Bigfoot part and muddled the latter important part in trying to get all this told, inciting another uproar from the man in the grey crewcut. “You can’t say that!”
“But if you notice, when he goes night fishing at the end, it’s like he’s surrendering to his delusion deliberately, see, so the story’s agreeing with you in a way. Or is it?” Porkowski couldn’t help smiling.
There was a kid with a shock of red hair and a service dog sitting on one side of the room. “I have a whole different opinion of this class now,” he addressed the others. “A few months ago, when I said 9/11 was Bush, all your jaws dropped, and you looked at me with moon eyes, eating your humble pie. Now you all see it could have been Bush! Good for you, man,” he said to Porkowski.
“Hey, thanks. I don’t know what you mean.” What a trip, he thought. These people are still hung up on 9/11.
The class ended, and the elderly black man came up to him. “What you said about tripping.”
“Ah, yes.” There was a line in the story Porkowski had sent to the class as a warm-up for his visit about a party he’d gone to where everyone seemed to be tripping. “What did that word mean to you?”
“Getting out of our consciousness somehow any way we could.”
“Yes, I know, but apparently that’s just how parties are now, the loud music, the lights. Well, thanks.”
All these students kept coming up and thanking him. At least three or four. Lots of others kept silent. The lecture had been a success, however accidental it had felt.
Porkowski went straight from that lecture to the train station, where he caught one back to Albuquerque for his meeting with a faculty member from one of the colleges there to investigate teaching prospects.
As he sat outside the station waiting for her, Tyler with the sticky hands recognized him as he went past on his daily round. “What’s happening, brother?” Porkowski looked up slightly, nodding.
The woman who came to meet him was extremely vital, moving through all the events in her path at a lively clip, beginning with her first unsuccessful attempt to pick him up outside the train station, during which someone had tried to get into her car after being mistaken by her for Porkowski, before circling back and connecting with the real him on her second pass. “I’m glad you made it!” he exclaimed.
The two of them walked through campus at a brisk pace, going from office to office in search of important connections toward securing Porkowski a job there in nearest future.
At one point, he bent over to drink from one of the fountains, and she caught his arm. “Don’t drink from that. It’s radon gas in there since ‘98. They said they were gonna do work on it, but I never saw any work being done in all that time. I think they just assume everyone knows.”
“My God. Well, thanks for rescuing me!”
He told her how he’d always been conscious of how much power the indigenous peoples seemed to have in this state compared to Denver.
“Like what? I’d say it’s the other way around.”
“I guess maybe it’s more of a faux tribute, then, a faux respect. But I was a child when I lived here, so maybe I saw it with that child’s first magic perception, you know. I remember the Kachina dancers came to our schools, and they taught us about Black Elk Speaks, or that book was around to be read, if you know what I mean. In Denver, it’s really not there.”
“Why didn’t you ask your mom if she still has any connections here? I bet she probably has some connections here still.”
“I don’t know. I guess I should have. The common element in every unfulfilled dream is taking action, and I just thought, I’m going to Santa Fe, while I’m there I’ll look into Albuquerque on my own, just take that action and see what comes of it.”
“That’s silly,” she said, with affection. “You should ask your mom.”
“I will. Thanks for agreeing to meet with me so unconventionally and informally.”
“You’re welcome. I feel an obligation to bring new people into the university. We have to keep talking to people. It’s important that we never stop talking to people.”
“I agree. That’s right. thank you for talking to me.”
At the train station, a short, round, happy, red haired Mexican woman named Maria started talking to him. “When I was training mine-detectors for Vietnam, I told them how to do it in the dark, just by following the humming!”
“In the dark? They couldn’t see?”
“Blind as bats! I taught them to follow the humming of the mines!”
“That reminds me of something called night fishing.”
“There’s no night fishing.”
“Well, I just wrote a story about it where I used it as a metaphor for—”
“No, there’s no metaphor. You gotta respect the fish. Those fish gotta sleep.”
“Well, I guess, then, the people who think they’re night fishing—”
“There’s no people who go night fishing. It’s against the law. It’s just a trick to see who’s a good fisherman.”
Maria told Porkowski about a vitamin he could take to restore his night vision, which was something that had been on his mind a lot lately, and he thanked her. She wrote down the name of that product along with a few other supplements on a scrap of notebook paper and gave it to him.
Maybe I will make this world my new world, he wondered. It’s such an old world. All these strangers talking to each other all over the place. Never happens in Denver like that. But was that Denver or was it just him? How we harden into emotional postures relative to where we are.
Lamar had lent Porkowski a book by Russell Banks about an American journalist’s investigation of Jamaica’s “Maroon” culture of escaped and never recaptured slaves, and one phrase, “You will see what you want to see,” solemn words of a Maroon elder to the uninitiated white man, kept ringing back to Porkowski as just the one he should have used to quell crewcut’s objections to his lecture—“because my philosophy allows for his philosophy, see?” he explained to Lamar. “That anything he believes will be just what he gets. But in his mind, there’s only one way, and he has to be right.” The whole thing reminded Porkowski of Colin Wilson’s theory that all psychopaths and serial killers begin as men who must always be right, though of course that was probably taking it too far in the case of the good-natured fellow in question, whose name was Tom. “I hope he comes to the reading tomorrow.”
“I don’t think you should expect him at the reading tomorrow, man,” Lamar said. “He was raised extremely conservative religious, and now he’s a scientific method guy.”
“So he probably thinks all imagination is like religious dogma stuff.”
“Ah, what a shame. And I reckon I might have expected that and taken steps.”
“But you’ll take them next time.”
“That’s right. Thanks for letting me make this test run here.”
“No problem, man. I’d say the college got its money worth.”
Tom showed up at Porkowski’s reading two days later, even going so far as to apologize, saying, “That was just my thing, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
“No, it’s all right. Thanks for coming. I should have preceded my lecture by saying the same thing. Just trying to explain a style of thinking on my part.”
The human tragedy in a nutshell. All players blinded by themselves. Porkowski realized he should have begun his lecture by defining the word zetetic, which meant never taking anything for granted, however seemingly obvious or unlikely, since that was a real word, and would have provided foundation for everything else. Next time.
He rode the Greyhound all the way back to Denver that night, giving five bucks to a stuttering girl who asked and racing through the streets with his ponderous andiron of a duffel bag full of clothes and books and travel size amenities just in time to catch the last light rail heading south toward the pedestrian bridge on Colorado Boulevard where he finally disembarked, walked across the highway and stepped back down the stairs to the parking lot outside his place.