I’m in a marketing meeting in my office. I am bored bored bored bored bored.
This is a comfortable fate, I think to myself as I rock back and forth in a leather armchair, fingers drumming a marble conference table turned freezing by the office air conditioning. The world’s three most useless TVs, mounted on the opposite wall, display perpetual slide shows of employee head shots. The head shots smile down upon our meeting.
Lunch has been served. I am going for a personal record. I can probably knock myself out if I get past the three sandwich, four cookie, salad with no dressing, half can of Pepsi threshold…
“Hey, I’m going to the bathroom? Does anybody want a water? Actually, I’ll just bring a bunch back?” says my co-worker Émit. Whenever anybody leaves the room they are compelled to return with an armload of cold 12-oz. Poland Springs. Every marketing meeting concludes with a ratio of four half-finished water bottles to each attendee.
“The wanton consumption of natural and mental resources of these meetings is an epidemic,” I whisper to Stroker, who is cruising on his iPad to my right. “The water mammals are drying up! Soon they’ll outlaw baths in California!”
“What?” he says.
“I said, can you pass me a water?”
As I rock and ruminate, my phone buzzes. A text from Josh, the jobless one:
“Cum outside now!” it demands.
I roll my chair backwards, look down out the window. The windows are huge. A hundred years ago this building was probably a garment factory where immigrants perished. Death still haunts the industrial buildings of yore. Today, in this very room, I see it written in the sallow skin of the nicotine-addicted, the black eye of the alcoholic who got messy at happy hour.
But from the window I can also see hope. It’s Josh’s desert-sand Toyota Avalon idling in the middle of 5th Avenue.
“Fuck off!” he yells at the swarm of black Ubers honking at, and swerving around, his stationary vehicle.
“What was that? Did anybody hear that?” asks Winkee, who is leading the meeting.
“Hey, um, I’m getting a call, so I’ll be back,” I say, careful to tell the truth, but qualify it with no details that might answer questions like “when?” or “why?”
I slide down the fire stair banister, skip out the lobby, vault a peanut cart, pull the purple zip tie looped around what remains of the Avalon’s passenger door handle, blow some cigarette ash off the seat, sit down, strap in, and we’re fucking outta there.
“Josh, what the fuck? I was in the middle of our weekly meeting. This better be important.” We keep serious eye contact for one second, then burst into laughter and high-five as he guns the car through a red light.
“After you, asshole!” screams a pile of J. Crew bags trying to cross the street.
“So, really, what’s up?” I ask.
“Look in the backseat!”
I turn around. There’s the usual pile of shit. Clothes, bags of Reeses Stix, a bocce set, empty bottles of white wine, beer cans, a countertop induction range cooker, a book with a snail shell on its cover titled “The Geometry of Life,” drum sticks, a keyboard, stacked tupperware containers.
“Nothing out of the ordinary back here today…” I say.
Josh turns around. “Hold on…”
He shoves a mound of towels off the top of the pile, revealing the black cloth case of a Travel Scrabble set. I notice that the case is kind of… weird. I would almost say it’s giving off a glow, but it’s not that. It has an aura, and I can see it. The Avalon weaves through traffic on 5th, and I am suddenly, strangely transfixed by this object in the backseat. I am aware of the trees and the Citibikers and the double-decker tour busses and the buildings going past the windows, but Travel Scrabble becomes the destination at the end of a tunnel contained within the moving vehicle. A peculiar feeling of ease settles in my mind. Random images manifest. For the first time in many years I think of strobe lights. I see the green hills and red barns of rural Vermont. I see a short man in a loose-fitting dress that is black with pale red circles.
“Do you know what that is?” Josh asks.
My mid-day reverie dissolves. “Me about to kick your ass in a game of wordplay, you little bitch!” I say.
“No, no, no,” Josh says. “Open it.”
I unzip the case, open the board. There are two gummy bears, each on Triple Word Score markers.
“I took a little drive down to Prospect Park this morning…” Josh says in his Olde English accent.
“Oh, yeah you did, baby!” I say, mocking him. Prospect Park is where Josh’s acid dealer, Phil, lives. “Good to hear the jobless one is getting out of the house!”
“Arrest thy tongue, lest it make a mockery of thee. Those gummèd bears contain the most exquisite LSD ever synthesized.”
“Oh, I bet. You get us that Hells’ Angels Altamont shit, Joshy?”
“Dude, will you shut the fuck up? Did I not just give you an excuse to get the fuck out of that stupid office that you insist on continuing to crawl back to?”
“Good point, pal. So… what makes this shit the holy grail?”
“Phil said it came from a couple guys running a DIY operation out of their home in Vermont. Turns out they made one batch of this shit, and in it there is a singular ingredient.”
“And that ingredient is…”
“The cerebrospinal fluid of dead Phish roadies.”
“Holy shit, dude!” I say. “I’m totally feeling their vibes right now! I feel like I’m eating some cabot cheddar under a disco ball in the middle of a muddy field!”
“And yet, we’re about to cross the Williamsburg bridge!” Josh says. “Quick, let’s take this shit before we hit the Outer Boroughs.”
I remove the gummy bears from the Triple Word Score markers. We toss them back. The final light on Delancey Street turns green. John smashes the gas pedal and the big Toyota commences its usual rattling forward motion.
The acid hits me instantly, and it hits me hard.
Sometimes it feels like a drug gets going the instant you put it in your mouth. The first sip of alcohol, the first tang of a pill on your tongue: you feel the stuff course right through your body, just a tiny jolt, but it happens even before the chemicals could’ve possibly started fucking with your brain. I guess this is just a symptom of addiction, the brain saying “thank you.”
But I haven’t even finished gnashing the bear before the world around me starts melting. The wind blowing through the car windows becomes the din of tens of thousands of cheering people. The East River beneath us has turned into chocolate ice cream with gooey marshmallow swirls, caramel swirls and fudge fish. The cars on the road have all turned into Volkswagen Westfalia camper vans.
“Josh, are you feeling this?”
“Dude, YESSS! This is AMAZING! Look up there!” I look ahead to the first of the bridge’s two towers. The arch within the tower has filled with a kaleidoscopic pattern, swirling like a green-screen hurricane, fading at the eye of the storm to what I can only describe as “eternity.”
“Holy shit, dude! It’s a portal!”
“We’re going through that shit!” Josh says.
I watch the speedometer’s fluorescent needle climb the dial at a very slow pace. 25… 30… 35…
At 40 miles per hour, we drive through the arch and its swirling portal. Everything fades to black and we enter a zone where there is existence without place.
I’m unsure how long we are suspended in the darkness between worlds. I perceive a coldness, a loneliness, not unlike that which we face in our earthly experience… but an underlying sense of comfort accompanies this sensation of being stranded nowhere. I feel like I could be in this place for eternity, contentedly non-content, devoid of polarities, free from need or want.
Another thought enters my mind: Well, this is nice, this could end at any second.
And that is when, with a violent whooshing sound and a high-pitched pop, we are sucked out of the place that is no place, and jolted into a physical reality unlike anything either of us have ever experienced.
“Fuck! Dude, where are we?” Josh asks.
It is dark and it smells of earth and rubber. We are under something. I am kneeling in patchy, matted grass and my hands are stretched in front of me. I think this is the downward dog position. There is a black ceiling a few feet over us with a busy network of metal poles and electrical wires. Strange noises come from the other side of this ceiling - an ambient mix of jangly guitars, pianos, tom rolls. I turn to look at Josh and see a short, fat, goateed man. He’s also downward dogging. He is balding at mid-scalp but what remains of his long, thin hair has been pulled back into a ponytail. He wears thin-rimmed oval glasses. I look down at my arms - they are burly, covered in wiry black hair.
“These are not my arms!” I say. “Josh! What is going on? Who are we? Why is there… a candle… burning in front of us?”
The ponytailed man speaks. “Dude, I don’t know, but let’s… hold on, let’s just think about this. Whatever this is, it’s… it’s definitely reality. This is not an acid trip right now. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m not on drugs… in this particular instant. In one sense, everything about this is completely normal, it’s just… these obviously aren’t our bodies and I don’t think these are our lives…” He trails off and I listen to the noise that comes from above. The guitar noodles formlessly; the piano tinkles unassertively. Occasionally a bass note pops through like a quick metallic fart.
Then it hits me. It’s the soundtrack to my high school years of driving around the suburbs on weeknights, passing a blunt around a packed Camry, melting into its cloth seats, eyes bloodshot, shitty music crackling out of the speakers.
“Josh! Do you realize what’s happened to us? Phil totally fucked us with that acid! Don’t you realize where we are? We are at a Phish concert!” I shake a freckled, hairy fist at him.
“Are you telling me,” he begins after a moment of silent contemplation, “That we have assumed the end-of-life realities of the Phish roadies whose cerebrospinal fluid was in the acid we ate… so that we can prevent their deaths… which were apparently untimely?”
“Yes, Josh, that is exactly what is going on! Our minds are the engines powering these vessels in the name of some deep cosmic retribution shit! God dammit… I can’t fucking believe this is the card that fate played me when I walked out of that meeting!”
“Well, if we don’t figure out what ended these guys’ lives and prevent it, we’re gonna be dead with them, so I mean, you can bitch about the life you left behind all you want, or we can figure this out…”
We assess our surroundings. We are definitely under the stage. We crawl in the direction of a faint light and emerge through a tie-dyed velvet curtain in the food vendor area. It’s a cool fall evening. A full moon hangs high above; strings of hanging bulbs illuminate the rows of food stands. Concertgoers mull about the gouda cheese stand, the hamburger within a mound of cotton candy stand, the Ben & Jerry’s stand…
“That cotton candy hamburger looks pretty fuckin’ good,” Josh says.
“Not now! Pay attention to anything that could be conceived as an imminent threat!”
“Look at the moon, dude. It’s a blood moon.” I look up and see that the orb does have a foreboding ochre tint.
Nothing in the food area looks like it’s going to kill us. We make our way backstage. We pass stacks of black boxes containing instruments, step gingerly through mazes of cables; we look for exposed wires and for light fixtures that threaten to come crashing down upon us.
“This is like Final Destination,” Josh says.
“Except it isn’t, because it won’t be ours,” I reply.
The band is slowly ramping up. The amoebic jam is evolving to a more advanced songform. Friendly guitar arpeggios signal the beginning of the 17 minute, 46 second-long - and that’s just the album version; live versions can go hours - “You Enjoy Myself.” We emerge from the backstage gauntlet unscathed and walk towards a gated parking lot full of trailers.
“Hey Bert. Hey Jeff,” says a man at the gate.
“Hey Alvin,” I say. The words come from my mouth without thought.
“They’re on one tonight!” Alvin says.
“I know! This is going to be the best You Enjoy Myself since 12/9/95!” Josh says.
We proceed through the rows of trailers. “Did you pull that date out of your ass?” I ask.
“I was gonna ask you the same thing about ‘Alvin.’ Then I realized that the brains in these bodies have retained some of Bert and Jeff’s thoughts and preferences. We need to figure this shit out, dude. I’m feeling less Josh-like by the minute.”
We find a white trailer labeled “Roadie Lounge” and walk in. A cloud of pressurized marijuana smoke is released; it hits us and we stagger back before climbing the steps into the trailer. It’s dark in there, and the first thing we see are candles, maybe thirty or forty of them flickering throughout the room, and a group of 10 or so roadies, all with bodies similar to the ones our minds currently inhabit, sitting in a circle on the floor. At the head of the circle, against the opposite wall, is a shrine: a pyramid of candles crowned with a gold-framed photo of Trey Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist. The glass within the frame flickers in the candlelight. There’s Trey with his swept-back sandy hair, orange beard and Sesame Street smile. Above the pyramid, a TV on the wall live-streams the concert. The band is plunking their way through the pastoral portion of You Enjoy Myself where Paige McConnell takes a bad piano solo. The roadies sit in the lotus position, their eyes are closed, they hold hands. One of them opens his eyes, sees us, says:
“Bert! Jeff! What took you so long? We’re probably seven minutes away from ‘the note!’”
Another crew member adds, “Bert, did you say the prayer?”
Josh and I look at each other. I figure “the prayer” explains why we were kneeling under the stage in front of a burning candle, but it’s still unclear which one of us is Bert and which is Jeff.
“We said the prayer,” Josh says.
“Oh, good, good!” the seated roadie replies. “Let’s get you both a drink.” We follow the roadie to the kitchenette counter, where he fills a red solo cup from a pitcher of purple Kool-Aid.
“Don’t drink that,” Josh whispers.
The roadie clamps a meaty hand on my right shoulder and looks me in the eye. “Bert, I just… well, ‘tall happened so fast, y’know. I’m glad we took those weird mushrooms yest’rday. ‘Member how this all began? How you started, y’know, waxin’ all poetic about death, how it’s… how’d you say it, anyway? Somethin’ ‘bout how it’s comin’ for us all, but not none of us knows when, and what if we could jus’ control that moment, decide to die in a moment of pure good feelins? T’night, when Trey hits ‘the note,’ it’s gon’ be… well, it’s really gon’ be somethin’.” He puts his other hand on my shoulder and gives me a little shake, and his eyes go wide, and he smiles. “The sacrifice, Bert! ‘The note!’”
“Oh yeah, yeah, the sacrifice. I’m with you, I’m in. I’m definitely still doing it!” I tell the roadie. “Remind me… what’s in the Kool Aid?”
He screws up his face a little. “Nothin’, man. The fuck you on? It’s jus’ Kool-Aid.” He walks back to the circle.
Josh and I stand by the counter. “What is ‘the note’?” he asks.
“It’s a moment that happens about halfway through this song, You Enjoy Myself, that the band is playing right now. There’s this passage of funky tension and it kind of alternates between 4/4 and 7/8 and the drama builds and everybody keeps getting funkier until it’s ended by a meek attempt at a Phil Collins drum fill, then Trey - that’s him over there atop the shrine, he’s Phish’s guitarist and one of its bad singers - Trey bends a very high note on his guitar and sustains it for an extended period of time. It’s actually kind of like a really boring, really long fuck giving way to an unexpectedly long… good… orgasm. This ‘note’ is a hallmark of Phish culture. Some even call it the greatest note in the history of recorded guitar…”
Josh nods. “Dude. Fuck, man. Look at that. Over in that corner.”
There is a huge shotgun and a can of paint thinner.
“So, these meatheads are going to take their lives in the midst of that ecstatic musical moment? They will die doing what they love?” he asks.
“Seems that way, my guy.”
I look around the candlelit trailer at the roadies, this loyal group of men who have dedicated their lives to supporting this band that plays, night after night, hours and hours of the music that they, and hundreds of thousands of loyal fans who follow the band across the country, love. Culty bullshit aside, they are clearly so content to exit the world during a moment that is, for them, this pinnacle of beauty… peace… release… oneness.
And it makes me wonder… oooooh, it really makes me wonder… should we just participate in “the sacrifice”?
Josh senses my hesitation. “Dude, these are not our lives. Don’t be a bitch. Rise above. Focus on real music. This is stupid as fuck. Let’s get out of here. Hamburger in cotton candy stand?”
“Yes,” I say.
We move quietly towards the door.
“Where are you going?” the roadies ask.
“We’re going to… to get one last pint of Phish Food!”
“Wow! Great idea!” one of them says.
“Chocolate ice cream with gooey marshmallow swirls, caramel swirls, and fudge fish!” Josh says.
It is not our job to talk the roadies out of the fate they’ve chosen. Averting their deaths does not seem to be our duty and could, for all we know, upset the universal balance in some detrimental way. Josh and I return to the food vendor area just as the band enters the funky passage that foretells the arrival of “the note.”
“I can’t believe saving our asses was that easy,” Josh says. “They have it way tougher in Final Destination.”
“Yeah, dude, but that’s a movie, and this is life. Bert and Jeff obviously weren’t meant to die. What glitch in the system made them hatch this suicide pact and kill themselves?”
“And now that we’ve altered the events of history, how will the lives of Josh and Wiley be changed?”
We are on the cotton candy portion of our snack and still have yet to reach the promised hamburger within when “the note” penetrates the air. The blood moon looms overhead. The crowd cheers. We hear muffled shotgun blasts that others must easily mistake for the drummer missing a few beats.
A small, wizened old woman approaches us. She thrusts out a wrinkled brown hand. In her palm are two tabs of acid. They are stamped with the green circle symbol of Brooklyn’s G-train. We cannot see her face, and she says nothing.
“Josh, I think this is how we get home…”
“Hurry the fuck up!” says the woman.
We put the tabs on our tongues. The crowd around us dissolves, and I feel myself descend into the blackness between worlds…
I come to in the conference room of my office. The marketing meeting is still going on. On the other side of the vast expanse of freezing marble table, Émit stands up and says,
“Hey, I’m going to the bathroom? Does anybody want a water? Actually, I’ll just bring a bunch back.”
I roll my chair backwards to the window, look down into the street. Traffic moves smoothly. No Avalon, no Josh.
My phone buzzes. A text from Josh:
“That was a really fucked up trip,”
“Wild,” I reply. “Did we learn anything?”
“Don’t think so. Didn’t need to go a Phish concert to know they suck.”
My body seems to work normally; the conference room and its willing prisoners seem unchanged. I look around at my colleagues. They take notes, twitch for want of cigarettes, rotate in their chairs. Stroker is still swiping through his iPad to my right.
“Do you think life is just a tragicomedy?” I ask him.
“Many dreams, the rare beam of happiness, a little bit of anger, then disillusion… years of suffering, and the end.”
“I don’t really know. For better or worse, we all have to play our part,” he says.
I figure he is right, so I text Josh, tell him it’s a beautiful day, why doesn’t he come pick me up and we’ll just go sit in Transmitter Park and look at the Manhattan skyline across the east river, watch the people and their dogs and their babies walk by.
“Yesssssssss duuuuuuuude. I’ll pick you up in 20 minutes,” he says.