tonguing the zeitgeist: excerpt

lance olsen
© 1994


Ben took the elevator down to the luminous white lobby and collapsed into a black beanbag chair across from the two-meter-wide HDTV, shut his eyes, and concentrated on making the tremor in his hypothalamus go away. Only he didn't have much luck. No matter how hard he struggled to fix his thoughts on something neutral, a tiny army of termites continued to gnaw away at his brain stem. He searched his pockets for some Ephedra, Phenylalinine, anything, but all he turned up was a minuscule knot of fly wings and dust.

So he reached for the remote control panel half hidden under a pastiche of Androgemorphys and Hardcore Californias on the plexiglas coffee table in front of him and began flipping channels.

The televangelist Joey Taboo's face overran the screen. An intense closeup accented the pores and blackheads on his chubby nose, the individual follicles in his bushy slaty beard, the golden stitches in his navy blue GO YANKEES baseball cap. A pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses balanced over a pair of regular black plastic ones. Behind these, his sun-staring visionary iron-blue eyes were unblinking.

Here was a guy with oceanic power who really knew how to use it. It didn't take much to understand what people saw in him. Taboo'd started thirty years ago on the floor of the Tokyo Exchange, an indentured boy from just outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He hustled his way up through the ranks toward freedom, dropped from public view five years (claiming later that he'd entered the Nevada desert to meditate, though other reports hinted at insider-trading scandals), then unexpectedly flashed into the big time as CEO at Air Pyrate Muzzik. Over the next decade he spent his energy gobbling various media concerns and building a small communications empire, then launching his Cult of Aloneness out of Las Vegas.

" . . . honest with you, so help me God," he was saying. "I ain't gonna lie to you. I ain't gonna tell you no falsehoods. No, friends. I'm gonna tell you God's holy truth. I need another car for my estate. I need another vehicle."

His face faded into footage of rolling spray-paint green pastures laced with fog, a scarlet sun burning through dawn haze, Arabian horses cantering along white fences.

"I'm thinkin' Cadillac," he said. "I'm thinkin' pink. I'm thinkin' circa nineteen hundred and fifty nine. You know the one I mean. You know the one I'm thinkin' of. Close your eyes. Lower your head. You can see it too if you try."

Zoom on a white-trimmed red barn. Inside, row upon row of antique automobiles: beach buggies and land-rovers, golf carts and racers, a metallic silver 1970 German Volkswagen next to a matte black 1925 English Daimier Limousine next to a nail-polish red 1998 Alfa Romeo.

"Those fins on the rear. You've seen them. Smooth and sharp. Can you imagine runnin' your hands over their polished surface? Feel the curve. Feel the tensile strength. Feel the sacred sense of grace and line and shape."

Between an ivory 2013 Sendai Electric and a pale yellow 1899 Packard was a space waiting for the new arrival.

"Feel those decorative silver strips running up the sides. Feel the magnitude, the hope. Here is a car that speaks of purity, seamless form and love. Here is a car that cries out for humility and praise from us. Before it we are small. Before it we understand our finitude."

Closeup of those iron-blue eyes.

"But let me tell you something, friends. Let me share with you the truth. Such cars don't come cheap. Uh-uh. They aren't God's little giveaways. They demand generosity, a good credit rating. You have to pay for these things just like you have to pay for all things in life. Because life is a stock market, friends, and that market is forever in flux.

"And, God knows. God knows: I simply don't have the credit. I simply don't possess the wherewithal to purchase such a beauty. So I come to you.

"I'll be frank. I'll be fair. I need your help. I need your compassion.

"Praise the Lord of Solitude. Praise the Lord of Loneliness."

Pan back to include the cigar in his right hand aimed at the lens like Uncle Sam's big finger.

"I need seven-hundred thousand credits by next Wednesday and I'm lookin' to you to provide it."

Warm avuncular smile.

"I'm givin' you the bottom line. I'm givin' you the brass tacks. I'm givin' you the respect you've always given me. I'm readin' you the fine print. I'm warnin' you about the cosmic clause. This credit ain't destined for my church. This credit ain't destined for some highfalutin charity. Uh-uh. This credit's destined for my new Cadillac. This credit's goin' for my new vehicle. And I know I can count on you to help me out. Put the credit into my account, friends. Put the credit into Nixon Savings. Let me be able to say, along with the woman in Luke 15:9, 'Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had sought.'

"You're standin' up right now to git a pencil and paper to write down my number. You're walkin' into the kitchen as we speak, gettin' ready to dial 1-900-GOD-SQAD. That's 1-900-GOD-SQAD. Ten credits per call, plus five credits per minute, seven minutes minimum. You must be eighteen to lift that receiver. Operators are standin' by.

"Bless you. Bless you all.

"I can see each and every one of you out there. Your pure hearts. Your crystal souls.

"I can see you call.

"There you go! THERE YOU GO! Praise the Lord!

"Our switchboards're LIGHTIN'!"

Then "They're going to tell you something," he said gently, voice low and slow as if on a cassette whose batteries were running down. "You need to notice things you didn't notice before. Single strands of hair in the keys of your computer board. That fingernail caught in your mouse. They'll blame it all on AJAKS."

"Hey," Ben said, instantly flushed with sensory alertness.

"They'll blame it on Anarchists for Jesus the Anointed King and Savior. But look elsewhere. Watch for worlds behind you."

Joey Taboo closed his eyes and opened them again. The intense color had drained out of them. Now they were fluorescent disks.

"It's like my head is teeming with electrons," he said.

He opened his mouth and brilliant white light shot out.

"My heart is a cathode ray tube. My mind is a satellite receiver. It's beautiful, Ben. It's so beautiful I could die."