In which Jan and Dean go to Area 51, the great Number One hit “Dead Man’s Curve” comes to be written—and The Age of Conspiracy begins.
Illustration by Stephen Olson.
Jan and Dean Go To Area 51
So Jan and Dean decide on a whim to drive out to Area 51, near Roswell, New Mexico. It’s the summer of 1963, and The Age of Conspiracy has yet to begin. I mean, there are stirrings, but so far Roswell, New Mexico is just another little red dot on the gas-station highway map. Nothing special. And the maps are still free. Jan and Dean are stars whose light has maybe begun to fade. Stars are especially sensitive to such things, vibrations from distant galaxies, light from the past or future, yet to arrive on our planet, already very old when we see it for the first time. Jan and Dean have a couple of hits under their belt, some written by them, some written by the Beach Boys, their rivals and friends in the genius cluster that is southern California in the early ’60s. Jan and Dean are looking for inspiration. Everybody needs that, even stars. Especially stars who haven’t had a hit in a while. They pack up the Corvette, a silver convertible, and start driving out in the desert, in the direction of Roswell, the Air Force Base near the town. Everything they own fits in the tiny trunk. They’ve heard things are going on in the desert, stimulating things. Maybe being there will jog them into another hit. Like electricity in the right dose as a treatment for depression. They are patriots, Jan and Dean. They love their country. They aren’t having any conspiracy theories, which in any case aren’t needed yet. It’s July of 1963, and the road is open all the way to Roswell, the dotted white line running right down the center of the asphalt into a crystal blue sky, splitting open a fat cumulus cloud. Jan is at the wheel. The ’Vette is humming, better than the day it left the factory. The body is fiberglass, and the car is fast as hell. It’s a beautiful day in America, desert dry. Dean is in the passenger seat as usual, and, as usual, he is worried. He takes things harder than Jan, Dean. More to heart. Even though he’s part of a team, he feels the fact that they haven’t had a hit in a while is his fault. Jan learned long ago not to pay any attention to the invisible, inaudible, subliminal humming in Dean’s body. Or perhaps that’s just Jan’s nature, not to attend. He drives, the road passing up and through him like an arrow.
There are certain American cars that aim to go higher. Much higher. With Dad at the wheel, of course. During the time of which I speak, Dad was always behind the wheel if it was a journey of any significance. Going to the supermarket was one thing. Crossing an entire continent, for example, was an entirely other matter, passing over tectonic plates in uneasy symmetry, hungry for motion, though frozen, for the moment, in time. At least compared to us. Wee dots of protoplasm in the back of a station wagon, moving ineluctably from violin lessons to football practice and all stops in between. Dad’s bulk. The bristles of his mighty face, something out of Rushmore, in between Teddy and George, Ghost Dance of the White Fathers. The high dome, stretching upward to the heavens, just like the Pantheon in Rome, engineered so beautifully that even though there’s a little hole way up there at the crest, nothing gets through, nothing, within, falls to the ground where the crowds shuffle in aimless circles. Dad the Driver. Prone to unexpected emissions, deep-earth gases, escaping between plates as the plates shift, a millimeter a decade. Then latch onto each other again for epoch after geological epoch. The entire country spread out around us in planes of dust brown, overlapping, subtly angled, interleaved. The West. Mom might be behind the wheel sometimes, sure. If Dad isn’t around to take the wheel in his rough hands, flat fingernails. If he is on the train to the city, ready for the Darwinian struggle for the dollars needed to keep the Juice flowing, the lights on or off, the Mixmaster grinding, the Osterizer spinning, metal against metal, the faint blue light around everything. Life. As it is lived in the kitchen, between breaths, the going up and the coming down, inhalation and exhalation, odors of family. We know each other by our smells. Choose our mates because they smell different from our families. We don’t know that, though, of course. If we did, then they would start marketing it. The platform is long and empty, scattered with leaves, the last few the October wind can’t be bothered to sweep away. Cold. Snapping the flags, though flags aren’t yet what they will become. They’re just there, big rectangles of obvious color. It is an Era of Overcoats. Of hats. Everybody owns one. Look at the pictures. You won’t see a man with an uncovered head. Not until Kennedy’s inaugural. Ask not. Ask again. Shake that Eight Ball and keep shakin’ ’til you get the answer you want. Hip shakin’. Hip huggin’. Swirl of black and white. William O. Douglas administers the oath of office and hats are swept away. Twirling. A cyclone of hats, blowing away in an ever tightening spiral until they disappear. Well made hats, American felt. Worn in. Sweat around the band. Monogrammed in letters that fit neatly into a diamond. Well worn, well made. Some American cars are like that, too. When you get in, strap yourself in, you know the power is waiting to overtake you. You are held in the palm of a giant hand and lifted, lifted, the power coming up through your waiting behind toward the stars, which are connected to us by thin wires of envy, ambition, and desire, moving in smaller and smaller circles, glowing and alive. After Kennedy finishes reading his inaugural address, everything begins to change. Slowly at first, then faster and faster. But nobody knew it. The Age of Conspiracy hadn’t begun. Dad was still behind the wheel, his breath musky and masculine with Jack Daniel’s. Buick Roadmaster to the stars. What a ride!
Area 51 has been hidden from the American people. For a long time. For their own good. Very much so. Need to know. Who needs to know? No one except those who have clearance. Who are clear. Free and clear. Clearance to understand The Unknown. A vast network of blue lights, coming and going in the desert, place of change, of exchange. The desert has always been a center of exchange. Something for nothing. Moisture for dryness. Could anything be secure here? Can there ever be a secure base in the desert? Jesus was there, for forty days and forty nights, examining the lizards one by one, checking out their scales, their greenness, their brownness, the slickness on their sides, that little erotic tickle when they escape your hand, running for cover. He wonders how they survive on so little water. Jesus Himself, now, He is always thirsty. Sweats more than he would like, right through his robe when he’s addressing the crowds. Embarrassed him at Cana. The creatures of the desert, they breathe through the skin, he thinks, and need less that way. They don’t sweat. Don’t embarrass themselves. Just go about their business. Small and trembling flanks. Whiplike tails. They carry their need lightly. Jesus, He is worried, because He needs the world so much. The whole world. He needs it like a junkie needs to fix that hole in his vein. He knows now, out there in the desert, sand slipping through His fingers just the way it falls through an hourglass, that He’s going to have to die to get what He wants. For a long time, He hoped and prayed that there was another way, a way out. A narrow passage leading to another World. A place of crystalline order, beyond the desert. A world of which this world is a mere reflection. An alleyway leading to it, if you know where to look. His Gnostic brothers told Him so, and He believed them. A hope He held on to, just as the narrow part of the hourglass holds the sand, squeezing it down to a finer and finer thread. Now He knows it’s not so. There’s just this world, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. This is why He came to the desert, and this new knowledge will be his way out, his way back to the world. He will retrace his steps, one by one, already filling with sand and scorpions, until He reaches the place where He came in. He will look the same when he goes out from this place of exchange, but He will be different. Very little different. Only a shade of difference. One degree. Mysteriously so. But it will be just enough difference for His fate to swing into action, like an action painting. Jesus has managed to disillusion Himself back into life. That’s why He’s here!
Jan and Dean are on their way to Area 51. Jan’s idea. They’ve been drinking, and they’re not getting along.
Dead Man’s Curve
Jan and Dean are on their way to Area 51. Jan’s idea. They’ve been drinking, and they’re not getting along. Some of their best stuff gets done that way, sparks off metal. It’s not fun, but being at the top of the charts isn’t about having fun. Ask Brian Wilson. Dean has a filament of song spooling in his head, a little thing about a drag race. Ghostly hint of melody through the words. Not fully developed yet. Dean is better with words than music. The song is set at night, unusual for a surf song. Surf music is filled with the warmth of the sun. The sand on the beach. The palm trees, French bikinis. The XKE pulled up on the right. The XKE, maybe the only car more dangerous than the ’Vette. Lithe and sensuous, something slightly feminine about it. Suspect, not only for that reason, but also because it’s British. There’s nothing feminine about the ’Vette. It’s all American muscle. A machine, like a fighter plane. Like the planes that won the Battle of Britain. It takes you down with straight-ahead power. The XKE can take you down, too. Plenty fast. Elegant, curving lines. Racing green. But it might seduce you first, get you to lower your guard. That’s the difference, right there. The ’Vette will never seduce you. Run over you, leaving you flattened on the asphalt in its wake like an opossum or a skunk. Go you one better if you’ve got the nerve—let’s race all the way to—Dead Man’s Curve. All the way. Let’s go all the way. Going all the way still means something. Not everybody goes all the way. That comes later. All the way to a mythical place. A place that never existed. And is all the better for that. Better as a place where dreams begin, a mother lode in the desert. Making a dream, that’s what it’s all about. Something better than your life really is. Life with Dad. Ask Brian Wilson. Area 51, up ahead, in New Mexico, blue lights glowing in the desert. Jan and Dean have never been there. They don’t travel all that much. Just drive up and down the coast to the same few places, thinking about business. Now they have to get out. Revive. Touch the mother lode. The Project. Whatever that is. They’ve heard of it, rumors. Everybody in LA lives on rumors. In the film business, the music business. But they don’t really know what to make of this particular strange rumor. Jan doesn’t. Dean doesn’t think. He feels. Right now he’s just sulking. Jan has hurt his feelings again. Again! How many times can he do that? How long can this go on? They’re not married, but it’s harder to break up a successful group than it is a marriage. More riding on it. Dean is sulking, not talking much. Sulking, and nursing scraps of song. He feels responsible. In their two different ways, they’re being drawn into the field of Area 51. Where America begins and ends. Summer of ’63. They do good work this way, Jan and Dean: on the road, each man in his leather bucket seat, the goal there—present but not fully defined, drinking and snapping at each other like lovers. Thread of song. My machine’s running fine. Let’s come off the line now at Sunset and Vine. Sunset and Vine, that’s a real place and a myth. Something to anchor them in the desert all around them. Running fine. Blue lights. Big construction. Desert weather. The unknown. Going from? Or going to? Jan drives, as always. Dean sulks. Not always, but often.
I was cruisin’ in my Sting Ray late one night. Todd and Buzz are also cruising in their Sting Ray—but in a different medium. Jan and Dean’s Sting Ray cruised on vinyl. A vinyl highway, groove by wiggly groove. 45s. The ones with the big hole in the center. There were special record players that played 45s, but only the cool people had those record players. Down in the basement, in special places called rec rooms that the same cool people had. Where you learned what the inside of a mouth felt like, tasted like. Like nothing else. Going a long way in, a long way down. Learning, in the groove. But those were only moments. Most of the time, you had to make the 45 fit over an ordinary spindle, the kind made for LPs. Or even 78s, if your parents had those hidden away somewhere, in the cabinet underneath the stereo like something pressed in an album that no one ever looks in anymore. An attic, upside down. Victor Herbert might be stored in there. Might have been stored in there for decades, waiting to lie flat up against the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. If you wanted to make a 45 fit on a thin and ordinary spindle, spinning dreams the ordinary way, you needed a plastic insert, a yellow, orange or red disk with cutout parts, that suggested a swastika to me. Not that it looked that much like a swastika, but to a pudgy Seattle Jew boy, dazzled, through his thick glasses, by, and also terrified by lithe blond girls in their bathing suits at the Beach Club, an awful lot of things could suddenly look like swastikas without much encouragement. All you needed to do was take one of those swastikas out of a black-and-white photo of a Nazi rally, great big red-white-and-black banners flapping amid regalia the Nazis stole from Mussolini, who stole it from Rome, take one of those, pop it in the record—and out came the Righteous Brothers singing “Unchained Melody” or “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.” The bottle spun round and round and stopped and you got kissed, down there in the basement, not too far from the little record player that played 45s. Because you were, for a fleeting and not-to-be-repeated moment, largely because of one girl, down there with the cool kids, without supervision, almost one of them, for a moment. Shameful? Exciting? Wet? Yes, yes, yes. Todd and Buzz were cruisin’ in their Sting Ray in a different medium, though, which was television. So long ago it was a different thing. That was some time after the invention of stone tools, chipped and sharp, for scraping hides, flakes and burins. And an equally long time before the invention of the VCR. Which meant: everyone had to watch at the same time. Or: poof! It was gone. Forever. Never to be repeated until someone finds a crappy old kinescope hiding in the Museum of Broadcasting. Or at least until: summer reruns. And even then, the same is true: You have to be there together. Todd and Buzz, dressed in jeans and tight shirts, are cruising Route 66 on their way to somewhere. California, probably. Somewhere/nowhere. So long ago that no one, except a psychoanalyst, or a few people hidden deep away in San Francisco, would have said they were gay. No way. They were Todd and Buzz, on the road, the tank inexhaustible, the Sting Ray always shiny, never touching one another, but never out of range of the magnetism flowing between them. Route 66.
Blue glow goes everywhere we know.
Deep beneath the surface of the earth, channels and tunnels, tunnels and channels, dividing and reconnecting, arteries down to ordinary vessels down to capillaries, tiny and blue, linking their fingers. Blue glow goes everywhere we know. Is what we know. In outline, in full view. Grainy and exact. We have it. The house next door has it. Everyone has it. How does the blue light arrive? How does it know exactly where to go along the empty streets, under the mountains, across the prairie? Millions of households, connected umbilically by the fact that they’re watching the same program at the same time. We’re still in sync. In time. Together. We haven’t yet spun out, gyrated into our own thing. Our own things. This thing of darkness, I acknowledge. Mine. The world hasn’t been divided up into billions of personal digital spaces, each equipped with its own tastes, its own psychic upholstery, its own personal list of the greatest hits of all time, a veritable universe, a bubble, within which a tiny ego sits enthroned, penetrated left and right by white earbuds. Of course Todd and Buzz aren’t the only ones cruising the new medium. There’s Vic Morrow of Combat. The blue glow brings him to us like a shadow. War-weary sergeant’s stripes. Wrinkled. Shaves in his helmet with a bayonet, just like the rest of them. Somewhere between Sword Beach and Berlin, the bunker where Hitler’s corpse smokes like an unfiltered cigarette. Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco. Smoke ’em if you got ’em. Vic Morrow, suburban pastor, shepherding his lost lambs toward the Finish Line on KuDamm, up ahead through the Forest of the Ardennes bulging with tanks and artillery. Stone cold and lonely, just like living at the bottom of a grave. Blue glow for us, always. World War II wasn’t that long ago. Just a little while. Rocka my soul. Rocka bye. Tippy tap, tappin’ boots. Combat boots. Your mother wears ’em. No, really. In her other life. The one you never see. Always the same night. The blue underworld tunneling through the earth, threading and dividing like the billion synapses of the brain, arriving precisely at the right address, front door or back. Living room or bedroom, kitchen or basement. Coming up through the laurel bushes in the front yard, dry Seattle summer earth fragrant with tanbark, through the leaded panes, into the den. Where we float, serene and beautiful, a family of bullfrogs on lily pads of light, watching future and past roll toward us, ripples on the pond, last evening light painting a golden stripe along the top of each lakebound ripple. Who knows the blue glow, knows himself. We do. And nothing else.
Making and Breaking Affectional Bonds
A secure base. That’s what they need, Jan and Dean. They haven’t had a hit in a while, and new things are in the air, molecules agitating each other, making and breaking new bonds all the time. Change is now. Their manager keeps saying they can be replaced. In their hearts, they know it’s not true. Nobody can replace them. Jan and Dean are, after all, Jan and Dean. Nobody does it better, the thing they do. The thing they’ve always done, on their own or with others. There are, to be sure, the Beach Boys. And a few others. The Surfaris, for example, who do the classic “Wipe Out.” Even Telstar sounds a little like that, and it comes from Britain. The eternal music of the surf. The seventh wave is always bigger. Coast music. Voyage music. It’s all there, tucked in right next to the headlines. But only Jan and Dean are Jan and Dean. All they need is a little R&R. They’ve done this before: packed up the ’Vette and headed out into the desert. They always find something out there, come back refreshed, ready for more of L.A., the city where the ocean ends and decides, for the first time, not to begin again. This time Jan gets it into his head they should go to New Mexico. A little town called Bethlehem. No, that’s wrong. Roswell. Strange things are happening there. Just the way strange things are happening in the music, underneath the big beat of Carol Kaye’s bass. Lights have been seen over the town, near the Air Force Base. Strange lights, blue and glowing, that move too slow (and suddenly sometimes too fast) to be airplanes. Lights that give you a feeling of being known when you look into them deeply. Known. But by whom? They hover but never hang around long. Some people who look at the lights come away changed. Moving a little slower, not laughing quite as loud. Not so sure of themselves. Dazed? Wiped out? Hard to tell whether the change is good or bad. Just different. More worlds than one, it seems. That’s what Jan’s been hearing from his sources. He organizes the trip. Dean goes along, his creative juices shot. He needs getting away. Their manager, a man with a little mustache scraping along on, just getting by, on his upper lip, warns them to be careful out there in the desert. They know he’s just worried about his property. That is to say, about them. They pay no attention. He’s there to book the gigs and count the money, no more. Jan and Dean are Jan and Dean. They live on a whole other level. They don’t need to listen to the squeaks and beeps, a different language, that come out of their manager. They’re listening for other sounds, sounds humming out of the earth, the rumbling and crushing of tectonic plates, the friction of the sky on the coastline at night. Sounds from the heavens, inaudible to the human ear yet fully real. Something is happening, and Jan and Dean know it. They just don’t know what to call it yet. They know they’ll find out in the desert, near Area 51. They are magnetic poles, Jan and Dean, north and south, anode and cathode, positive and negative, male and female. Dipole moment. Current between them. It’s always been that way. That’s where their hits come from.
Out in the desert near the town of Roswell, New Mexico, Colonel R.H. McMaster is deep in his work as commanding officer of The Project.
Out in the desert near the town of Roswell, New Mexico, Colonel R.H. McMaster is deep in his work as commanding officer of The Project. It’s late at night in McMaster’s little office, with its sweeping view of the electrified fence, and beyond that, flat, dry sand forever. The shades are half-drawn; there’s no one, at this hour, to look in on him and his eternal calculating, line after line of equations on a yellow pad. Above the dome of his head—a single pale blue bulb. He stubs an unfiltered Camel out in a stamped metal ashtray already full of butts, splintered and shining, golden tobacco spilling out where the white paper, with its tracework of gray, has been wounded by blunt fingers. Even by military standards, which are at the same time demanding and confusing, Colonel McMaster has a tough job. He’s in charge of a project so secret he can’t even tell his wife about it. Maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe it’s easier not to tell her much of anything anymore. He wonders what she’s doing tonight while he wrestles with his equations, his budgets, his personnel files, his top secret files, his phone messages from Washington DC, many of them, pink rectangles scattered on his desktop. One reason he likes working late is that it’s too late for calls from the Pentagon. Time difference. He pushes the thought of his wife out of his mind for the 10,000th time this month, lights another unfiltered Camel, brushes the ghost of ash from the front of his blue-gray uniform jacket, which he often wears even when he is working at his desk alone, as if to remind himself, even in the absence of saluting subordinates, who he is. Really. Commanding officer of The Project. The long yellow pad is half-filled with notes, equations, thoughts searching for final form. The past and present of The Project, lying in uneasy balance, like a snake with its tail in its mouth. They haven’t found it yet. His men will have to dig deeper. Through the desert, through any obstacles they find, into the heart of the earth, a living thing. The scientists in Washington, Los Alamos, Berkeley, say their computations have shown definitively that deep under the earth, surfacing in many places, is a network, filaments of energy, branching and reconnecting, a dense tangle with its own logic. A network that holds more power than the splitting of the atom. That is responsible for much of what happens on the surface, and above the surface, maybe even the weather. It’s the next step in the race. The geared and pinioned Leviathans, creaking and surging, now one ahead, now the other. Whichever uncovers the network and draws power from it will rule the world, may even control the weather, sending torrential floods down the competition, to be followed by plagues, disorder, full-on system collapse. The arms race will be over. The Land of the Free will have won. In Roswell, New Mexico, for reasons no one understands, the network runs particularly close to the surface. Close enough that careful digging, beginning at Area 51, going down and out in the sand, should find and capture it, pin it down, turn its awful energy to Stars-and-Stripes uses. It’s going slow, though. Very slow. Despite all the runs on the mainframe computers in the large intestine of the Pentagon, that were supposed to show the blue underworld with the clarity of a gas station road map, The Project has so far turned up nothing. Oh, they’ve found boots, worn and crusted, a few skeletons, pickaxes, crates of rifles dating from the 1870s, sealed and in working order, and a whole lot of snakes. Some of the enlisted men have taken to calling the base Snake World. They’ve even found water, where there wasn’t supposed to be any. But nothing like the network. None of the glowing blue filaments, columns of light, the low hum of power, of victory, domination. McMaster keeps crushing pencils into yellow pads and smoking Camels down to the nub. It’s in there somewhere. He knows it is.
Have Gun Will Travel. Odd name for a television show, any way you think about it. Although thinking about it wasn’t exactly the point. For that show, or any of the others, each with its own appointed day of the week, its hour in the temple. Its sacraments, vestments, prayers flying upward like high tension wires. This one had a man with a dark mustache, faintly bad skin, dressed entirely in black. Looking Mediterranean, though his name was strictly Anglo. Giving off an air of weary, slightly dissipated refinement. A European sensibility, as though he liked rare books, cigars from Cuba before Fidel, old brandy, leather sofas. That whole men’s club thing. Yet underneath it all, when you think about it (and, as I mentioned, thinking about it was never the point, was perhaps even against the point), he was no more and no less than: a hired killer. Someone you could presumably find in the Yellow Pages under Murder, Commercial. A killer with a business card no less. Now that was strange, the business card. Do gunmen have business cards? Did they in the Old West? Can’t imagine James Arness with a business card. Or Doc or Kitty. What would theirs say? Alcoholic sawbones? Whore with a heart of Saran Wrap? Well, this one did. Chess piece embossed on it. Black knight, moving ahead and lateral. On the board of America, broken by stocks and bonds in neat piles, real estate, Boardwalk and Park Place, pylons carrying thousands of volts, mountains rising out of the plains like huge blocks of cement. Paladin. Isn’t that some kind of a knight? We don’t know. And we don’t think about it, because thinking about it was never, ever the point. The point was suspending ourselves in the blue glow from the screen, at the right place and the right time. The right night of the week. Neither early nor late. Nothing should interfere. Nothing ever did. And, when we were seated in the pews, then: let the show do the talking, thinking, feeling, everything, for us. Enfolded in it as if it were geologic time, magma piled, folded and broken; timeless and yet of specific duration. An hour. Maybe forty six minutes if you subtract commercials, which were, when you come to think of it, the point. We sat there, unmoving. Unthinking. And yet most vividly alive. In the blue glow. Paladin. Isn’t that some kind of knight? Moving across the chessboard of our lives, at one with the neck of his horse, business card and all. Until next week, then. Cue the theme music. Fade the images, one by one, until they’re walking tall, dreaming by themselves. Paladins all.
As they snake out into the desert, the road gets smaller, towns farther in between.
The Cold Glass Dome of the Sky
As they snake out into the desert, the road gets smaller, towns farther in between. The air is drier, and it feels like they’re standing still, even though the needle says a hundred and ten. Dean wants so badly for Jan to love him. Jan doesn’t say much, ever, which is a profound source of hurt for Dean, even in the good times, which seem fewer and farther between these days, as if they were only a memory. Like a blade that keeps cutting. Jan drives the ’Vette, which is colored gray, invisible as the hidden thoughts of the human heart. He drives fast and he drives well. But that isn’t what Dean wants. He wants the carefree, warm Jan back. He knows it won’t happen until they have another hit. And not just any hit: a Number One. Dean is so softhearted he thinks everyone else is the same way. He thinks Jan is just worried about their future, and that’s why he withdraws. Dean wants, badly, to make it right, to bring Jan back. He thinks a number one song will do it. So he’s writing. By himself. In secret. Keeping the song to himself until he’s finished writing it. Until he knows it’s as good as it has to be. To get to number one. Then he’ll show it to Jan and everything will be alright again. The words come to him one by one late into the heart of the night like a snake coming out of a hole in the desert, sliding into the night reborn under a thousand stars incised like flaws in the cold glass dome of the sky. He captures the words on scraps of paper, matchbook covers, checks from truckstops, paper towels from gas station men’s rooms. The scraps bulge in the pocket of his Levis. He pats them from time to time to make sure the music is still there. It is. Always. As close to him as skin and hair. Ghostliness of youth. The wheels of the ’Vette spin and spin, humming like flying saucers, straight as a plumb line, toward Area 51. Roswell, New Mexico. Jan, because he thinks something new is happening in the world, and if they hear that new sound first, they’ll be back on the charts for a whole new epoch. World renewing itself. Dean for one reason and one reason only: to make Jan love him.
The White Coat Boys
Things aren’t going well for Colonel McMaster. The big hole in the desert, dug exactly where the boys from Washington in the white lab coats said to dig, is growing, day and night, driven by the largest, most expensive earth-moving equipment in the known world. People who drive the West think they’ve seen big trucks, graders, earth-movers, bulldozers, draped along the side of the road, framing the folded and broken geological strata, the pieces of the puzzle that stretches down from the Great Divide to the Pacific. Those trucks are nothin’. Declassified. All they are is what the civilian world knows, which ain’t much. The Army and Air Force have ways of keeping things secret, entire worlds, whirled within worlds, that the civilian hemisphere knows next to nothing about. And probably never will. They have equipment ten times bigger, faster, harder, than anything civilians get their hands on. Until years later, when the next-generation stuff has already replaced it, and the game goes on, like a snake swallowing its tail as it creates the universe we know, which is little more than a pale shadow of the real universe just beyond our grasp. The real world. Seen through lenses as thick and opaque, as distorting, as Roy Orbison’s. The employees of the base drift into town when their shifts are over with tales of monsters moving earth. Their throats are dry, and they need beer after beer to take away the taste. Down, down the hole goes, every day and every night now, under the lights. There are always some of the white-coat boys around, hovering on the edge of the hole with their clipboards, “advising,” which is to say, muttering to each other in an incomprehensible dialect spoken only in the outer rings of the Pentagon, pointing the hole a bit this way or a bit that way, shifts too subtle to matter to anyone but them and yet enormously important, empires rising and falling with each small movement of the clipboard. Could anything be more important? And along with them, vague civilians from Washington in gray suits and black shoes, with ultra-high security clearances. Higher than the President’s. Imagine that. Certainly way higher than McMaster’s. He’s just a little pissant Colonel. Not even a full bird. But he’s running the goddamn project. Or is he? Sometimes he wonders whether the thing has a life of its own. Whether it’s calling itself into being there in the desert under the cold dome of the sky for its own reasons, whatever those might happen to be or not be. It could be running him rather than the other way around. He’s had that thought. As well as running the vague civilians from Washington, with their round-toe black shoes, the white coat boys, the employees of the base, military and civilian. It might even be running the dogs at the perimeter, highly trained German shepherds sniffing carefully the crotches of anyone leaving or entering the base. The dogs have been trained to detect specific electromagnetic fields. Sometimes they get erections. McMaster has seen it. It seems arbitrary, but maybe it isn’t. They’re all going crazy here, McMaster thinks, under the winking New Mexico sun, the heavy tablesilver New Mexico moon. Late at night he admits it to himself. To the real McMaster. When he’s finally removed his blue-gray Air Force jacket and is sitting in his short-sleeved blue Air Force shirt with his dark blue Air Force tie and dark crescents of sweat under his armpits. When he’s ground the fiftieth Camel of the night into the stamped tin ashtray he won at a shooting gallery in Tijuana. The one with “Viva la Muerte” stamped in its circular rim. McMaster doesn’t speak Spanish, has no idea what the inscription means. It’s just that it’s the one thing he ever got by skill alone. Everything else he got in life, he got just by hanging around long enough. That includes his wife. It doesn’t look as though he’s ever going to be a full chicken colonel, either. The white-coat boys are right. There is a network in the earth, tendrils of energy animating the cosmos, holding it together, imbuing it with meaning like the juice squeezed out of a ripe orange running down over your hands and out of your mouth, chewy pulp and seeds and all. But the network can’t be reached and used the way Washington wants, as a weapon for winning World War III. In his soul, deep under the rings of sweat that dye the pale blue polyester dark and darker, McMaster knows that. But he can’t say what he knows. To anyone, inside the perimeter or outside. They’ll call him crazy. He’ll wind up discharged unfit for service. Or worse. Since he knows about The Project, he’ll wind up in a room in New York, anonymous building on the East Side near the river, looking like any other commercial building, up there on the sixth floor, pumped full of drugs that don’t even have street names yet, not knowing who he is, moving toward the window, raising the sash out onto the desert air, reaching for the million frantic wriggling stars…
Spin and Marty
Brothers under the skin, they are, suspended on the top rail of the corral, dusty sun, waiting for something to happen. Dudes at the dude ranch. And something always did. Happen. An awful lot happened at one dude ranch for two teenage boys to figure out. Solve. Resolve. Adults were lying, taking things from one another, doing each other damage, deep damage, in the core of the world. Children suffered. Spin and Marty straightened it out, restoring order to the picture, even better than the test pattern, bringing things to a conclusion at the right minute in the script, protecting the innocents unharmed. And looked good doing it. Shiksas in matching cowboy outfits. Broad-brimmed hats. Neckerchiefs freshly laundered, smelling of the love of humanity. Hand-tooled belts. Jeans. Boots. Erections. Not on camera, but right there in the picture nonetheless, just out of sight. Hanging over everything. When the Hanged Man falls, every part of him goes limp and dies. Every part but one. One thing. One alone. Resisting the fall, defying gravity, wishing for the prelapsarian world, aiming for the heavens, hard as a big hunk of whalebone carved for cribbage, ivory pegs in ivory holes, a big square-rigger fighting the cold sea, down and down again, bobbing up, straining, every timber tested to the max. In the eye of the storm, where it is cold and hot at once. Held in the mouth of Jesus, who spewed forth what was neither cold nor hot. Spurting, spurting, the seed rises, cools and falls, unable at last to resist the downward pull of the cool earth where everything returns to write its final sentence. Soon everything is still. But where the milky stream hit the ground, the mandrake takes root, sending up stem, shoots, leaves, flowers. And in its root resides the power of the shaman. The shaman is not special because he has powers of his own. He is simply the one who knows where power is, how to find it in the earth, how to ferret out its magnetism, directionality, use it for good or evil depending on his nature. Long tendrils of destiny stretch back and join him to the original creation, the egg, the time when the brothers are fighting, two by two, in the shadow play that gives birth to the world, leaves it trembling in its newness. The shaman, not special in himself. He is merely the one willing to give up everything else to search for the source of power. In a high-tension wire or a broken root hiding in the earth, looking strangely like a little man, edible and enticing, holding in its fibrous body endless secrets of expansion and contraction. All of that and more lies hidden under the skin of Spin and Marty, black-and-white martyrs to an age that is about to pass them by and devour them. They are already nostalgia by the time the episode finishes and the theme music begins again. In forgotten things: power!
I Get Rubber in All Four Gears
As they drive, it gets hotter and drier. LA was already hot, but there’s always the ocean. This is a different heat, a different dryness, heat and dryness distilled to their essence and released on an unsuspecting world. It feels like the desert is still adapting, millions of years later, to the moment when everything changed and the heat was released on it, locking in its destiny. They drive at night, staying off the main roads, circling in a labyrinth of small towns, hanging on, almost dead, drying out until they’re thin as a leaf. At night, they stay in cheap motels swimming in circles of yellow neon, shivering in the AC, each clinging to his side of the bed as if it were a continent and they could swim off into an ocean of air on either side. They could stay in two rooms. Even if they haven’t had a hit in a while, they’re not broke. But they never do. They tell each other it’s to placate their manager back in Hollywood, the Jew with the Hitler mustache. But that isn’t the reason. The real reason is the state of mind they get in when they haven’t had a hit in a while. A dark place, where they spiral down, lose touch with the world above, feel panic. That’s when Jan gets his impulsive ideas. Like going to Roswell. Anything to break the circle, to escape that feeling of going down, swirling, losing contact, force, substance, reason. Their manager has become the stated reason for many of things they do. But he isn’t. It isn’t clear he still even exists, except as a force field between them, a memory of what it was like when they were at the top of the charts. They never go to his office any more, so they don’t know whether he’s working there with his secretary and her aging beehive hairdo or not. Their check keeps coming through the mail slot every month, so they have no need to go see him. The air conditioning hums and whirs, pushing Jan deeper and deeper into cold sleep, sleeping like a man in a refrigerator. The noise wakes Dean, who gets up, crosses the floor in the dark, goes to the bathroom. Closes the door quietly. Turns on the light. Sits on the toilet, pulling from his Levis all the scraps of paper, napkins, matchbook covers ripped into curved scars, checks from roadside restaurants named Pop’s or Mom’s, receipts from gas stations where he filled the tank of the thirsty ’Vette. He leans down, spreads them out on the tile floor next to his bare feet, an arc of colored dots, isolated moments of clarity, rhythm, power, just like the moments when Jan takes the Hurst shifter from first to second to third to fourth, getting rubber in all four gears. This is how Dean is made. This is what he retains of the trip toward Area 51, up ahead in the desert darkness. Moments, spread in an arc before his feet, beads waiting to be strung and joined in a loop, a necklace, a round trip. He breathes quietly, not wanting to wake the man sleeping on the other side of the flimsy bathroom door. This trip isn’t over yet. He peers down into the cards spread out before his feet, waiting for the picture to assemble itself, trying to see how it all will end.
What is it like when your world explodes?
What is it like when your world explodes? First, everything slows way down. Slo mo. Slower and slower and slower and slower. Maybe there are more frames per second or something in the camera, because things take a long time to unfold. Just a normal, little gesture, raising your hand in front of your face to ward off the impending impact, takes forever. Forever and ever and ever and ever. And while the moving picture unfolds, you have absolutely no control over anything. The steering wheel might as well be ten feet across and made of polished granite, weighing a ton-and-a-half, for all the good it does when you try to turn it. Slowing toward some asymptotic bottom of life. When things have slowed to the absolute slowest possible, as if you were an atom bouncing around near absolute zero, you are still square to the world, yellow line solidly on your left, as usual, pylons clicking by the side of the ’Vette in a metronomic blur. Then you’re sideways to the world, road coming in through the side windows instead of the windshield. Now, that’s really odd. Then, instead of a continuous picture, the road begins to blink on and off through the side windows. On. Off. On. Off. Like a stoplight at a crossroad out in the desert somewhere, both arms of the cross empty, late in the desert night. Sky. Road. Sky. Road. Sky. Road. Blinking with the slowness of a sacrament. Then suddenly everything resumes its normal pace: terrifyingly, sickeningly, blinkingly, fast, and faster and faster, skidding until the passenger side of the ’Vette crunches the concrete base of an overpass, out in the middle of New Mexico, blue ink night, a million stars, very far away, silence. No motor. No nothing. Just a heat click where the motor sound was. Has always been. The rock of the world. The base. The bass. The sound the music is built on. Twin valve V-8, with overhead cams. Half the car pierced by concrete like the steel bow of an ocean liner breaking a wave in half and leaving both halves behind on the surface of the cold blue ocean, one smaller than the other. Jan opens the door, leaves it, gets his boots on the ground, walks, in shock, with no idea who he is or where he is. He has no idea that “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” was ever on the charts, let alone Number One. He doesn’t know he recorded that song with Dean. What’s left of Dean does not move. Stuffed in the pockets of his jeans are the first draft of the song he was working on, the one he hoped would bring Jan back and get them on the charts again. The song started coming as they left LA, late at night. On La Cienaga he saw a Jaguar XKE, British racing green, purring through the dark, silent streets. Just before they rolled, Dean asked Jan not to drive so fast. It scared him sometimes, the way Jan drove. Jan brushed it off. He brushed off a lot of things Dean said. Right now it’s not a problem. Jan doesn’t have any problems, because he doesn’t know what a problem is and he doesn’t know what Jan is. He’s as far out of himself as a desert prospector, hallucinating from thirst and hunger, wandering away from his dead mule, flat in the sand, staggering toward distant lights that might or might not be real. While all around, the silence of the desert is like someone waiting for an answer to an important question, the kind of question that can change a relationship, depending on the answer, a coin rolling down the slot of a jukebox, falling until it hits something solid and inside the machine’s gears begin to whir and a mechanical arm picks out the right disk and begins to spin it, forty-five revolutions per minute, under the lights, no further instruction needed. Commitment.
The Pain of the Earth
By this time the hole is threatening to swallow the entire Air Force base at Roswell. McMaster keeps phoning Washington on his secure line to the Pentagon, big heavy red telephone, one number only, asking for permission to suspend operation. They’ve dug exactly where they were ordered to dig, he says, hands cupped over red receiver, feeling the heft of it, voice like river gravel from thousands of Camels, no filter, ground down in his tin ashtray with its salute to death. They have all the monitoring equipment in place, he reports to faceless superiors, sensitive detectors of magnetism, electricity, gravitation, and other forces, which McMaster, barely a college graduate, doesn’t pretend to understand. These forces are measured by boxes flown in from Washington on C-130s, surrounded by guards, bristling with submachine guns, shoot-to-kill orders sticking out of their pockets. McMaster isn’t a scientist, isn’t sure exactly why he was put in charge of The Project. It seemed like a chance for promotion finally to full chicken colonel. But there must have been hundreds of volunteers eyeing the promotion list, thinking the same thing. So why him? But he saluted when he was given the assignment. And he’s done the absolute best he can to carry out his orders. McMaster is a patriotic American, with a bristly gray flattop to prove it. They’ve convinced him, not directly but with hints here, there, indirection, that penetrating the deep earth network, understanding it, taking its power, will be a huge step toward winning the Cold War. As big as Fat Man or Little Boy. Like every American who is awake and alive to his times, McMaster’s deepest wish is to win the Cold War once and for all, let the world live in peace. In McMaster’s mind, the wish for peace has become hopelessly entangled with the idea of reuniting with his wife, living in a bungalow in LA, reachable only by mail, if even that way. After months of digging, the base is a shambles. The buildings and airstrip are still on the surface, but around them, deep and growing are manmade canyons carved in the brown desert. Piling up near the perimeter are huge mounds of sand that once lived below the surface, now above, like big fish on an even bigger dock. Mixed in among the piles: lumber that once shored up mineshafts, piles of boots, skeletons of hundreds of mules, rusting lunchpails, a scattering of gold coins, quickly fished out by enlisted men with metal detectors. Somewhere in the sand, preserved by the dryness and fully readable: a newspaper account of the assassination of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt’s midnight ride from the Adirondacks, borrowed horse and all, launching pad for his myth of potency. Above the base, fighters turn regular boxes, day and night, refilling from the KC-135s that trail them like nurse sharks. No civilian overflight permitted at Area 51. High security. And above the fighters, another layer of lights, blue and soft, observing, steady, not interfering, glowing with sadness, drawn by the pain of the earth, its low hum of violation, withdrawal, shutdown, farewell.
Jan doesn’t return to himself for quite a while. The White Coat Boys find him wandering in the desert, talking to himself about being back on top of the charts.
Jan doesn’t return to himself for quite a while. The White Coat Boys find him wandering in the desert, talking to himself about being back on top of the charts. Number One with a bullet. His clothes are burned off his body and he has bruises on his face that make him look ancient beyond belief, like the desert itself. The White Coat Boys are amazed he’s alive. He must have the constitution of a mule. They can’t figure out how he got past the fence and managed to wander around in Area 51 for two days without being caught. They have no more idea who he is than he does. They take him to the little hospital on the base, a private room, put him in bed, doped up so he won’t move. They put wires in him, tubes, recording devices. The room is a beeping, blinking sanctum in which they expect a miracle: transubstantiation. Over the bed is a big machine that measures every known form of radiation, from the deep infrared all the way to the far ultraviolet and beyond. The beige plastic cone of the thing, like the tusk of a prehistoric creature dug out of the ice, is pointed at Jan’s sternum. They keep him there for weeks trying to question him, bringing him up into the glare of consciousness, then sedating him down so deep the lights and beepers in the hospital room show barely a trace. From time to time McMaster drops in, late at night, on a break from his yellow pad, his computations, his endless calls with Washington, almost pleading now to end The Project and reassign him before McMaster’s men have displaced the entire state of New Mexico, piled it up in huge dry mounds, a Maya city after the inhabitants have seeped back into the jungle, victims of nameless catastrophe and collapse. The White Coat Boys are sure Jan’s a spy. It’s all an act: accident, bruises, amnesia, disorientation. He’s there to snoop on The Project. Help the Russians get there first. Like the Rosenbergs. An agent of the Other Side. Passing science secrets. Nobody winds up wandering around Area 51 by accident. But after a couple of weeks they get a telegram from the New Mexico Highway Patrol. Seems they’ve found a gunmetal gray 1963 Chevrolet Corvette accordioned into an abutment with what’s left of a dead guy in the passenger seat, the driver apparently in shock, wandering the desert. Now the White Coat Boys begin having second thoughts. They huddle with McMaster in his office late at night when the base is quiet. They have a problem. As usual, it’s up to McMaster to solve it for them. The line to the Pentagon has gone silent. He goes to the base hospital, stands at the foot of Jan’s bed, looking over the tan form. In the drug-induced roller coaster of consciousness and unconsciousness, a lot of Jan’s color has returned. He no longer looks like an ancient wandering out of a desert cave with a message of chastening from Jahweh. He looks once more like a California boy, tan and smooth, youthful and ageless as ocean water. McMaster has never heard of Jan and Dean. Even the Beach Boys mean nothing to him. His idea of a singer is Teresa Brewer. McMaster lights a Camel, stands smoking at the foot of the bed, letting ash tremble to the linoleum floor. A nurse tries to make him put his cigarette out, he brushes her off. Down near the head of the bed, a man in a white coat holds up a syringe. He looks to McMaster. McMaster nods, inhales, lets smoke leak from his nostrils into the world. The man in the white coat holds the syringe up, shoots a thin stream, gold in the fluorescent lighting. He pulls the sheet back and pushes the needle into Jan’s bare left shoulder, vulnerable and exposed, tan as ever. Jan will wake up in a small local hospital near the site of the accident. He will get the sad news about Dean. He will not remember the crash or what happened after. He will never know he has been to Area 51. Those circuits will be silent. The Project will be safe. The doctors will tell Jan that people who have accidents often don’t remember the impact or the days and weeks afterward. Nothing abnormal. The best thing is not to worry about it and pick up the thread of his life. After a while he appreciates the wisdom in the advice. Jan was never one for regrets, going over what might have been until you’ve worn it out like an old carpet. That was Dean. Jan is glad to be rid of that kind of thinking. It always brought him down. Now he’s free, really free. For the first time in a long time. And he wants to get back on the charts.
The Age of Conspiracy Begins
A week later Jan wakes up in a hospital room remembering nothing after the ’Vette started driving sideways. He barely remembers who he is. At first he thinks he’s one of the Beach Boys, then knows he isn’t. He’s Jan, of Jan and Dean. A kindly nurse, elderly, with gray hair and bright blue eyes looks down at him in bed. Around her head, starched nurse’s cap pinned to her hair, is a golden haze. Looking into it, Jan blinks. Slowly, like layers of stiffened skin coming off a burn patient, Jan’s self-awareness returns. Every layer is pain of a different color: red, white, and blue like the flame of a Bunsen burner. When he can sit up and has been up and walking around the room in his PJs, they tell him about Dean and give him Dean’s things, everything that is left of his partner in song. He sits in a chair next to the bed, propped up on pillows, going through everything they returned: Dean’s wallet, his suitcase, what was in his pockets. He finds the lyrics Dean was working on. They’re not complete, and the song doesn’t have a name, but Jan knows it will be a hit. Jan and Dean will be back on the charts at Number One. With or without a bullet doesn’t matter. Jan knows he was right to take them out on the road. His instincts were always right, whether Dean could see it or not. And it’s still true. Even sitting in the straightbacked chair in the hospital room, barely able to move, he knows it with everything he’s got. The price was high, and they never got to Area 51, where he still thinks the future is hiding, but the trip was right, in spite of all that. The motherly nurse checks in on him from time to time to see whether he’s eating, helps him to the toilet. Even though he’s still so weak he has trouble walking, she sees a change in him, and she’s glad. She knows Jan will have to carry something for the two of them now, all the way to his own death, almost as if he were living two lives, when it’s hard enough to live even one. She knows this, but doesn’t know how to explain it to the bruised boy in the PJs with the yellow ducks splattered on them. The more she knows, the more she understands how much she can’t explain. Her special gift is that this knowledge doesn’t make her lonely. It’s just the way things are. Jan finishes Dean’s song, fills in the few missing words, imagining backing tracks, humming countermelodies while he sits on the toilet, waiting for his bowels to unfreeze. Sometimes, lying in bed at night, he tries to figure out how many days he was unconscious. He can’t. When he’s well enough to travel, he checks himself out of the hospital in the middle of the night and leaves without saying goodbye. Even to the nurse with the halo. He didn’t like her anyway. Jan doesn’t like anyone who has power over him. He rides the bus to LA, not looking out the window at the road, the cars, the desert, the stars. Two days later, he’s in the studio. Jan sings his own part. He auditions a bunch of singers until he finds one who sounds a lot like Dean and hires him to come in and sing Dean’s part. The last thing Jan records is the spoken bridge, the one the survivor recites from his hospital bed. The bridge wasn’t in Dean’s version. Now he records the bridge, late at night in the studio, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, avoiding thinking about Dean. No one in the music business knows about it yet. Jan wants to keep it that way as long as he can. The record, by Jan and Dean, is called “Dead Man’s Curve.” It goes to Number One the week it’s released. The Age of Conspiracy has begun.
Meanwhile, back at home, we continued to watch all our favorite shows, one for each night of the week. From time to time as we sat on the scratchy brown carpet, or on the couch facing the set, with its back turned to West Laurel Drive, Our Father Who Art in Heaven would pass through, stand and watch for a while, on his way from Somewhere to Somewhere Else, wearing a white shirt of polyester blend with two short sleeves. He would lean in behind us and watch, then move on, silent, thoughtful, taking some of the blue glow with him wherever he was going. Flying on another plane. I wonder sometimes whether in Heaven he’s spinning back one of those tape loops now. Just the minutes he watched of Combat, 77 Sunset Strip, Route 66 or Have Gun Will Travel, worlds without beginning or end, recreating the rest from the vast libraries available in Heaven, where everything that has ever happened or ever will happen or ever can happen is preserved, holograms of past and present, filed in massive steel drawers waiting for whomever on a particular day wishes to assemble the Cosmos again, starting from scratch. And at other times Our Mother of Bloody Tears, who seemed to care how much television we watched, would scream in, threatening, loud and clear and I read you good buddy, to cut off the plug, silencing the scratchy soundtrack from Burbank, turning off the blue glow once and for all, letting it fade to black, into the walls of the mock Tudor house with its leaded panes, back into the dark earth just outside the window, the azalea bushes, between Lake Washington and Puget Sound, quieted by the rain in all seasons except summer. I remember once she actually did cut off the plug, severing the curving brown snake from its two-pronged head. We had to twist the wires, stiff and fine as copper hair, together again, and wrap each strand in Scotch tape to keep it from shorting itself out. While we sat like embryos bathed in blue saline, lit from within, covered by a semi-permeable membrane that allowed us to see and hear but not to touch, each other or anything else. Waiting, like the future, to be born.
John Benditt had a distinguished career in science journalism before making the transition to writing fiction. His debut novel The Boatmaker (Tin House) was longlisted for the inaugural Brooklyn Eagles Prize and for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award for debut fiction and won the Goldberg Prize, the Jewish National Book Award for début fiction.