Original Landscape Photography by Stefanie Schneider | Conceptual Art on Other | Gas Station at Night I (Stranger than Paradise)
Halloween. Junior year. A big bonfire party out by some woods near one of the rich kids’ houses. Some popular kid in our class and me and my buddy pick up the flyer and decide to crash.
We drive out, late, the sun’s already down. We wasted an hour getting tacos and kind of second-guessing whether it’d be worth our time to go or if we could find something better to do on our own. But once we got over the hump and were well into the ‘fuck it, who cares anyway’ time zone, we had the cover of darkness and could infiltrate the territory with a minimum of pretense. Sure, we came to these parties all the time, thrown every weekend, we were on the list, and the giant Halloween blowout was no difference on the night of spirits. We felt stealthy and brave enough, like a black cat cutting your path.
“Have you ever smoked out before?” she asked me. She was all smiles and closeness and I responded in kind, saying, “well, no. I mean..”
“Oh, man,” she says. “I love devirginizing people.”
I took a hit, dragging a tentative cloud of smoke into my lungs. You have to hold it in, someone told me. I held it as long as I could, aiming to impress. Too long. I pushed out a windy, discordant puff of soot.
People were moving at our periphery. The sun was sinking lower over the edge of the woods. Our cozy valley seemed lonely and tired, of a sudden. Alonzo was flirting with Kitt and I saw them exchange phone numbers before I was prodded into taking a second, then a third big hit. I was walking in tiny circles talking to Ilya, and I felt dizzy. Just nervous energy, but I almost knocked the embers out of the pipe and I had a flash vision of setting fire to the leaves and underbrush and all the kids running for their lives from the spreading flames. I caught the pipe from tipping and navigated my headspace back from the jolting vision of disaster, while my headspace shot out and encountered the actual bonfire in the vicinity, and came back and I reveled in the juxtaposition. My wildfire versus the bonfire, they’ll never know whether it was chaos… Or chaos! I rocked back and forth on my tiptoes and did an entirely internal peal of laughter. I looked around suddenly and Ilya was staring at me. She was looking in my eyes and I could tell she could see the laughter there.
“What are you thinking about. Something funny?”
I let the peal of laughter ripple about a bit, opening my mouth and letting the dizziness tilt around me.
“You feeling it?” She asks.
I pulled my phone out. “Hey. Hey, you guys. I want to.. Let me show you this thing I made.”
“On your phone?”
“I made an app.”
“Let me send it to you. Here, text me.”
We exchanged numbers and I sent them the app package and walked a couple of them through installing an app from outside the official app store.
So what does it do?
“Open it up, and read it. It’s called ‘The Button.’”
“This app contains a protocol whereby if you should press the button below — Ilya read, “okay, and there’s a big red button I see… if you should press the button below, someone, somewhere, that you don’t know, will die. But also, you will hear one of several random funny sound effects. — okay, what?” Ilya said.
“That’s my app.”
“So, um… wait, what?”
“It’s pretty straightforward,” Alonzo said. Then he said, “I, well… I for one want to hear the sound effects.” Then he pushed the button, resolutely.
The digital sound effect of a cow mooing could be heard from somewhere in the forest on the edge of the bonfire party.
“You just killed someone, bro,” I said.
“Does it work if I press it again?” Alonzo asked, then he pushed the button several times in succession. The phone cycled through sounds of a comical sproinging, the bassline from David Bowie and Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’, the bassline of Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’, then the clip of an interview where Vanilla Ice tries to explain the difference between them, then coming full circle to the cow.
“Yeah, it does,” I said. “You’re a madman. You’re a mass murderer.”
“How is… In what way is this real?” asked Ilya.
“The crazy thing is, this app is spreading all over the world. And there’s a lot of people who don’t know you who are going to get their hands on it.”
“Alright, now I know you’re fucking with me.”
“That’s why you don’t install apps from outside the app store. Case in point.”
You scared my girlfriend, he told me. She said you told her she killed someone with her phone. I laughed, buzzing. She wanted me to talk to you, but between you and me… He offered me a smoke of another joint. He pulled it from an inner pocket on his slick jacket, from a metal cigarette case.
I was unaware at the time what it means when you lace a joint with LSD. Heating Acid breaks down the drug. So the joint tip or pre-roll is dipped into the substance. He handed me the joint with a deft backhand, for the substance is so potent that it can seep in in the most minuscule quantities through the pores of human skin. I was already high and wanted to be friendly with this slightly intimidating fellow accosting me about his upset girlfriend. I greedily lipped the joint he handed me.
“Keep it,” he tells me. And wanders off back toward the fire and the night.
Shortly after, losing track of friends and time, I find myself wandering along abandoned farmland. I looked up for light. I blinked. Or, was it the moon? The sky was half a peel of orange, and my mind peeled open to dark evergreen and citrus. Being on acid is one thing. Being dosed against one’s knowledge is like becoming a saint one day amid a life of mundane sinning drudgery. God demands to know how you found the key under the mat. Fuck. I was subconsciously drumming through the books I had been reading, earlier that week, centuries ago. I was halfway through a monograph on the Pre-Socratic philosophers, and as the moon blinked on and off as my reptile-lidded eyes peeled and covered, I fancied myself like Thales of Miletus, the first predictor of eclipses. I would laugh, and look around, wondering if they knew. I was the lone, originator, scientist. And here, they burn our kind.
I panicked. I full-on flipped, freaked out. I ran and was not sure where I ran to. Just tried to get away.
When I caught my breath I was in the middle of a thick patch of trees. I could no longer run straight away, I was in the woods.
I was in the woods.
It was so dark. The stars, when I looked up, took pity on me, and like punctuation, in a sentence, I feared to end, I cherished their light. But the bonfire, I could no longer sight. I had gone far into the woods, only running for two, three minutes, at full speed. But completely losing sense, just now, of which way I had come.
My phone— I didn’t have. It was in the hands of the button pressers. There’s no way in hell—
I’m gonna get out of here.
The phrase bounced in my mind, there’s no way in hell. I screamed, as loud as I could. But not so the people back at the bonfire would hear me. My loneliness was echoed in my rage and I screamed for rescue, from some other place, someone, from the stars, from somewhere. I screamed and scream. The phrase echoed and rolled around in my skull with the palpable feel of the cheeks of a child who has sucked too many popsicles. Sugar soaked, cottony, numb.
There’s no way in hell.
I’m gonna get out of here.
There’s no way in hell.
I’m gonna get out of here.
I chanted it, two sides of one coin, flipping out.
Feeling naked and with a chill swirling its way through my winding insides, I balked at the possibility of moving to rescue myself. But a wire of night shocked along the spine on the wake of breath that shot after fear, and sang like dark music of concentrated surging power. I had never felt anything like what this drug was giving my head into. Cosmic discrepancies. Showing me the outlines of, if you want to speculate, are at the edges of the language God wrote the universe in, mathematical diversions from the senses, potential breaks in the code. I worried the surface would shimmer and give way like aluminum foil. I was thrust into an alien realm, like a capsule in the deep of space. My psychology drove itself into overdrive to shore up bulwarks and levies against the need for stronger materials, hull plating, environmental considerations. My pulse thrummed just beneath sheer panic. I was a tall cool glass of mercury sitting on the edge of the bathroom sink. Somehow I had to make sense of what this meant, and if the glass was pushed, fell, or some other version of me drunk it down, the coherent gathering inherent in its logic would make it break apart into self-coherent puddles. I had a fear of losing my mind, the way a silver medalist on the pedestal fears the doom of running the same race forever after. Over and Over.
Theodorus the lovely street girl mocked first scientist Thales for observing the sky but not noticing what was directly at his feet when he clumsily fell into a well.
There’s no way in hell. It took on the sane-giving mantra of Dorothy and friends huddled, arm-in-arm intoning, ‘Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, oh My!’ as they carefully eeked down the yellow brick road. I hadn’t stopped screaming, no. I had settled on my method, though. I was walking, straight ahead, the direction I had come best as I could muster it. A dead reckoning back to when it was better, when it made more sense, when it wasn’t so dark all around. There’s no way in hell.
I’m gonna get out of here.
I had to get away from the bonfire. I was sure they were out to get me.
My other option was over the arc of some of the low bends in the trees, I could see the light that I recollected was likely from the slight signs of civilization in the area. The fluorescent-lit gas-and-gulp, the truck stop highway exit, and presumably some place I could make a phone call. I supposed I could call my parents, or the paramedics, the idea of help and authority blending into some general hope of rescue and the clarity of who would be on the other end of the line as faint as the promise of the low-hazy light over the canopy of trees was bright and promising.
I was already thirsty when I began, but I started to become more and more so as I walked on.
I got the feeling I was walking from a fire at my back through a forest that was also a desert, free of water, and somehow the importance of water was amplified in a way that took hold of me like a giant throttling hand at my jogging chest. I walked at a stumbling pace as I thought of conserving my water and energy, but the only hope of getting more water was to get to the light. And the longer it took, the more time would drain my body of water.
I could only then completely agree with Thales, that water is everything. That the world in its existence floats upon water. And we are granted the meaning of life by its substance.
I drudged through a simple trek through the deep dark woods in a pleasantly cool Halloween night like a man forced through the gears of some great grinding machine. I thought of Charlie Chaplin, hesitated in a mimicry, almost turned my feet out pigeontoed, feeling an urge to cling to something familiar but stopping myself from committing to the act, for to act would be to step into an unfamiliar territory, where I was creating, improvising something other. I would be in the footsteps of some character that wasn’t me. That was as good as a caricature, and I felt the gears grind, stuttering. Chaplin in Modern Times, lamenting the frustrations and inhuman side-effects of purported progress. The famous scene where he is dragged into the machinery at a factory and is pulled full-bodily through oversize gear-works. Where caricature meets cartoon.
Oversized, I pulled back from an overthought of the fraught effort of desperate grasping at being something, I’m not, being something I’m not. There’s no way in hell, I’m gonna get out of here. And lift my head to the pale dark sky and see the snakeways of light through the fractal iteration of trees to branch tips, focused on the slate shade of blue that makes me feel both fallen, back into the knowledge of my thirst, and open, clear, to a sense of air and endless density of possibility. A righteous greasy doubletake of atmosphere whereby I catch the above, the roof is raised and my throat still flesh and blood and air pulled in and raised over and my tennis shoes scratching a path like a sketch artist outlining a model, something found intensely beautiful. But the intricate paths the instrument strikes the page, all seem moments of confusion, struggling to explain, this beauty, to the world, and in the end, if anything ends, recreated, it will read as incommensurate. Incomprehensibility.
Awe and awful.
How hard it is to keep moving.
In the failure of electrolyte and piston grease, my salty sand-filled mind cried a dusty message with a lazy finger into the beach of itself. We are machines of desperation and distraction. To come up against the object reality of our meaning is an uncomfortable teeth-pulling thing. It makes me mad to be in this state, I can’t imagine living in this awakened mind all day.
I approached the grease splotched gas station lot and was inspired by bursts of flame and fuel in my internal workings. I smashed open the glass convenience door and wild-eyed assayed the scene. Grinned a crazy hello to the dark-skinned man behind the counter, flashing him some hearty hello with a loose hand, pulling up my pants and waddling to the rear line of frosty cabinets. Water! I pulled open the vacuum-rubber puckered doors and started uncapping greedily larger and larger bottles of water. The glorious diversity of products of a prosperous nation of lucky souls. Downing water and agreeing with the clerk who was cheering me on ‘Yes!’ I said, indeed, ‘Call the police!’ I needed the police to come! I needed rescue. It was going to be just fine! I needed to repair to a safe place to recoup my senses and be nursed back to good health. The water was a great start, but I would need loving and tender care. ‘Call them!’ I stalked the aisles like a romping surveyor of the motherlode. Candy bars and bursts of colorful packaging. While I was experimenting with the silver metallic skin of a creature named Starburst, two men burst in with guns drawn. The police had arrived. I pointed back the orange square of flavor. A click and something flew across from the man on my left. He had some kind of spider webbing from his wrist and electricity coursed through my skin. I had inadvertently removed my shirt to contemplate the Starburst more intimately. I slipped backward on my heels as the force threw me, and I hit my head on the rack of gum, Now and Laters spinning in front of my eyes as my skull jacked onto the hard tiles of the water-splashed floor. The fluorescent lights mixed with the brain being rattled in my skull. As I was being pushed onto my slack face into the cold wet and shoeprinted floor, I wondering if this was the meaning of the orange square. I went limp with incomprehensibility. It was too much for one small mind to entertain. Enlightenment proved not a flash of bliss, but… I shot my eyes open for a moment, hard focusing on a thought, when they rolled lightly I said to myself. Did… Someone at the party… Someone, who not knows me. Did my app work? Did they push the button? Am I the stranger? Is it my turn? And then I was in the back of the cruiser and on my way.