Michael Phillips, The Airstream Chronicles - This Is The End Beautiful Friend, The End

This Is The End Beautiful Friend, The End

The double-wide was dark, which was unusual at four in the afternoon. Bell was usually up and around by then. I walked in without knocking (a habit learned from Arty), and called out the bosses name.

"Bell! What have you done with my TV you scabby prick!" No answer. I made my way toward the spare bedroom/broadcast studio, and as I passed the kitchenette I noticed a larger than usual pile of crusty dishes in the sink. Water was dripping onto the pile and trickling out of the full sink. "Odd," I thought, "normally Arty would have slipped on the wet floor by now and knocked himself unconscious, and the little woman would have been pounding on the airstream door, screaming that her beloved was dead. Again." As I passed the bathroom an unfamiliar stench attacked me and attempted to eat the corneas from my eyeballs. It was then I realized something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

The door to the spare bedroom/broadcast studio was closed, and from the other side I could hear muffled music, and what sounded like the shrieks of a small animal being drawn and quartered. I tried the knob - it was locked. I knocked on the door. "Arrrteee, come out and plaaay..." No response. I banged on the door a little harder, then began to kick it. The horrible wailing continued from inside, so I pulled the pins out of the door hinges (Bell had put them on wrong-way-out after some "home improvements") and set the door aside. What I witnessed was truly shocking.

I've seen Bell holed up in the spare bedroom/broadcast studio before, and trust me, it wasn't pretty. But this - this was something else all together. The first assault was on the ears. He had a bootleg flea market Doors 8-track painfully blasting "The End" out of his best Radio Shack Optimus speakers. The bass was all the way up, and the distortion was truly impressive. It was completely dark in there, with the exception of a flickering candle stump - just enough light to make out some sort of movement as the mad howling I'd heard wound down to a raspy whimper. The smell of decay was palpable, as an empty two liter plastic drug store gin bottle rolled slowly toward my foot, stopping a few inches away.

"Arty, what the fuck?" I shouted over the music, "Is this another experiment you forgot to warn me about?" He did not respond. "Bell!" Nothing. "Fine man, I'm not into doing this right now anyway. I just want my TV. What the hell did you do with it?" Still no sign of life. I threw my hands up and said, "Forget it." Then, from out of the cave came a mournful, high-pitched sing-along: "This is the end! Beautiful friend! The end!" I stopped and said, "Arty, what's going on?" There was a slight pause, then way behind the beat, "My only friend! The end!"

I ran my hand along the wall of the hallway, found the light switch, and turned on the dim fluorescent ring. A growl rose up from the din, then a bark. The next thing I knew there was gunfire coming from the spare bedroom/broadcast studio, and I hit the ground. It only took him four shots to hit the light and take it out. By now I was beginning to suspect that things may have taken a turn for the very weird, so I tried to crawl toward the front door and make my escape.

Suddenly the music stopped, and I heard the distinctive click of the 8-track tape ejecting. Then a voice not unlike the demon in the Exorcist was chanting, "They took my soul...they took my soul..." I kept crawling until a few more rounds were fired into the front door of the double-wide, and the demon sang, "No leaving, no leaving on that midnight train to Georgia..." I stayed right where I was, there on the brown shag, between shards of glass, dirty socks and empty TV dinner boxes. "This is the end Georgia," he croaked, "This is the midnight train, my beautiful friend..."

I hugged the floor for what seemed like hours, listening to his addled rambling. "...What do we have for him Vanna? my lucky dog, my lucky soup dog soup bone...we've got a thing that they call radar lube...knock three times on the heart of San Francisco, Danny boy! Jews! fucking Jew new twenty dollar bill hoarding bastards! Set the controls for the radiation belt loops, boys...this land was made for you and me!" All this was punctuated by the occasional burst of automatic weaponry, and the sound of scratching, moaning and empty liquor bottles being ejected from the room. Every time I tried to move, more slugs would hit the front door. I could hear them whistling above my head, and I was pretty sure a couple would find me before long. Just like Bell to get it all backward - the employee is supposed to shoot up the workplace, not the employer.

I gave up on trying to get out, and laid there doing my best corpse imitation while Bell continued to rant. After 45 minutes or so, the sentences began to come together. The synapses in his brain were starting to fire in something other than typically random Bell patterns. I could make out bits of seemingly sensible statements, but by then Bell was muttering and sobbing, so I couldn't exactly follow what he was saying. Then, something I did recognize - Bell's bastardization of my initials; "Emmm jaaay beee...emmm jaaay beee! You're not listening..." My options at that point being ridiculously limited, I did all I could do, which was answer him.

"What is it Arty? I can't hear what you're saying."

"MJB, come closer..."

"Boy, I don't know Arty, I think if I get any closer it's just going to give you a better shot at me."

Before I'd even finished the sentence, a Smith and Wesson .45 rattled to the floor an inch from my head. Then, a few seconds later, an Uzi crashed to my side, coming to rest aimed right at my belly. These were followed by several rifles, live hand grenades (complete with pins, I'm alive to report), a BB gun, three cans of pepper spray, a crossbow, twelve sticks of dynamite tied together with yarn, and what appeared to be a small catapult.

There was a slight pause, then he repeated, "MJB, come closer..."

Since it was probably safe to assume he was now relatively unarmed, I rose unsteadily to my knees and squinted into the dark room. "I can't see a damn thing, Arty. How about I get some light in here?" Without any warning he hit the switch of a 50,000 watt emergency searchlight he had wired to a series of old Geo Metro car batteries, and I was temporarily blinded. When my eyes adjusted I saw him sitting on the floor, with the light aimed upward from just beneath his chin. Like an eight year old trying to scare the hell out of his little sister on a stormy night.

I could see everything. Bell's face was covered with camouflage makeup, his thinning hair, matted with god knows what, pointed straight up, with several visible bald patches, where I can only assume he'd torn great hunks of his Just-For-Men dyed locks right out of his scalp. He was wearing a thirty year old Navy uniform, which apparently had taken a lot of effort to get into, since only one button of the shirt could be fastened, and the pants were twenty years and forty pounds away from closing. he appeared to be wearing rubber gloves, and a pair of Ramona's high heel shoes (not the first time I'd seen that, but this is not a story about Greek Night).

In the middle of the room he had erected what can only be described as a monolith, comprised of every sort of electronic equipment imaginable. VCR's, the microwave oven, his precious ham radio rig, my TV (god damn it!), microphones, stereo parts, what appeared to be a chunk of an electric garage door opener, computer monitors, his 486 "mainframe," clock radios, the oven door - all topped off with Ramona's "magic wand" vibrator that Bell had given her for valentine's day ("for her shoulders"). The entire mess was lashed together with duct tape and coat hangers. Everything was charred, as if he'd tried to burn it all, but failed when he discovered none of it was really flammable. I couldn't make out anything else in the room, as all the furniture had been broken beyond recognition and pushed into the corners, the drapes pulled down to make a throne of sorts, that Bell sat on. The window was covered in a dark, greasy substance that I could not (would not) even hazard a guess at what it was.

"You've come to hear the truth..." he whispered.

"Actually, I came for my TV," I said, glancing at the monolith, "but your truth has to be much more interesting than anything I could see on the Pahrump Cable and Surveillance Network."

"Sit down," he said. I looked around as if to say, "where?," but Bell's eyes were closed, and he continued, "sit down and hear the truth, MJB. God knows, you've suffered in ignorance long enough."

"Arty, what the hell is going on? It looks like you finally went over the edge, man. I warned you."

"MJB, it's worse than I ever imagined."

"What is?"

"The truth. Everyone says they want the truth," he opened his eyes to look for something to quench his thirst, prying a fresh two liter jug of gin from the base of the monolith. "but they don't, really. Oh sure, they cry 'truth this' and 'truth that,' but MJB, the truths is so awful." he choked back a tear, twisted the cap from his gin, swallowed a few ounces, and sufficiently fortified, continued. "Ah, the truth is so god damned ugly and horrifying - I tell you, it would drive most men mad."

"I can see that."

"Quiet!" he snapped, spittle and bits of teeth flying from his dry, crusty mouth, "You came seeking the truth, and I shall provide it to you at no charge!"

"Okay Arty, go ahead."

"The truth. The truth is...the truth is...it's all a lie! All of it, MJB! Aliens - the grays, the greens, the blacks...crop circles...for the love of Jesus, they're man made! Hale Bopp monsters, extra-terrestrial anal probes, ghosts, the militias, Roswell, demonic possession, the plot of the Federal Reserve to count the money in your pocket via satellite, reverse speech..."

"No, not reverse speech!"

"Yes MJB, reverse speech! It's a lie! I'm sorry, I know this is painful, but you have to know! All of it...all lies...chupacabra, the pyramids, HARP, bigfoot, remote viewing - do you know that remote viewing stuff is all made up?! What imaginations! Dr. Duplinski's boner pills, that god damn wind up radio, GMX water purifiers, video phones, flying cars..."

"Whoa, whoa, easy there big guy, you're getting off track."

"I'm sorry. It's just all so disturbing. It disturbs me more than almost any other disturbing thing I can remember being disturbed by. It's shaken me to my very core, man! Don't you understand?!"

I looked around the room and said, "Oh yeah, I understand."

"Then you know what I'm saying, MJB! You know what I'm saying!"

"Well, Arty, I believe you're saying that...everything is a lie?"

"Exactly! Now you're beginning to get it!"

"So Arty, when did you have this epiphany?"

"Jesus, man! I'm getting to that!" he took another gulp from his jug and continued. "So many people have been hoodwinked! So many people have been had! I tell you MJB, I only thank the good lord above..." here Bell tried to look heavenward and cross himself, but he tipped over, spilling rot gut all over himself. He scrambled back to his quasi-lotus position and picked up where he left off as if nothing had happened. "Yes, I thank the good lord that I have the intelligence, and the presence of mind to see the truth."

"Okay, I'm a believer. What finally opened your eyes?"

"It was last Friday. I was having a nap in the hammock, out in the garden," ('the garden' being a ragged 12 by 12 foot piece of Astroturf laid over the dirt in the shade of the double-wide) "I was rocking peacefully back and forth, enjoying a refreshing libation and the marvelous Fall breeze, when the next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, sun in my eyes, and feeling the beginning of a nasty headache. Now, first thing I thought was alien abduction! I checked my watch for missing time, but I didn't know what time it was before the incident, so that benchmark proved useless. Then a funny thing happened. The abduction thoughts just disappeared. Like the smoke of a fine Tiparillo cigar, the thoughts of aliens, the paranormal, things that go hump in the night - they all evaporated."

"So basically, you fell out of the hammock, banged your head on the ground, passed out and woke up clear-headed?"

Bell stared at me for a few seconds and then shouted, "Yes! I believe that's what happened!

"Well, why the lunatic siege in the double-wide?"

Bell's eyes began to cloud, he dripped a few gin tears and said, "That's the horrible part of the story, my friend. When I had my revelation I immediately ran into the house to share it with Rowena..."

"You mean Ramona?"

"Whatever - anyway, I ran into the house to share the good news, and I met up with a wall of resistance that was truly saddening. Rhonda..."

"Ramona."

"Whatever - began screaming at me. Accusing me of ruining her life, lying to her, and making her look like a fool in front of her family and the Pahrump Ladies Needlepoint And Survivalist Tea Circle. But I was so excited...I couldn't understand her resistance. We began to scuffle, and she struck me about the head and torso several times with the umbrella stand and a genuine ceramic collector's edition Evel Knievel wine decanter, and locked herself in the bedroom. When she came out she was carrying a suitcase, her framed picture of John Denver, and a grocery bag containing my entire winter's supply of beef flavored Top Ramen noodles."

"She left?"

"Yes!" Bell sobbed, tipping over again, this time on his side, and coiling himself up in a fetal position. The button of his navy uniform shirt popped off and hit me in the nose.

"Man, Arty, that's rough. Did she take Art Jr. with her?"

Bell wobbly righted himself. "Who?"

"Your son, Art Jr."

"Is that who that was? Holy shit, I knew I'd seen that kid somewhere. Oh!" he sobbed, "Oh my dear son! Oh god! My dear son and my darling Rolanda!"

"Ramona."

"Whatever."

"So that's when you retreated to the studio to do your Richard Dreyfus Close Encounters imitation?"

"No. After Rita..."

"Ramona."

"Whatever - after she and that kid left, I sat on the davenport and watched a couple of movies. 'Days of Thunder,' and, I think, 'Arachnaphobia.' Broke out the six dollar whiskey and decided to have a fine time and enjoy my new lease on life, my new, superior outlook."

"Well what, then? What created that beast who tried to murder me an hour ago?"

"Like I said, I was armed with the knowledge that it's all a lie, so I decided to phone up a few pals and share the joy. First I called my dear friend C., of the C. Crane company, and told him the great news. Of course I also told him it would be morally objectionable for me to sell his useless, overpriced electronic crap, now that I was a new man."

"Oh man," I laughed, "how did he take it?"

"Now that's the odd part. He didn't say a word, just hung up the phone. Seeing how easy it was going to be, I made more calls: that marble-mouthed reverse speech imbecile, the queer old 'exorcist' priest, that fool who had me convinced the seas would be boiling within a year...all of them."

"And?"

"And that's when it got strange. The next morning I woke up and they were all standing over me, scowling and murmuring that I had to be 'contained' and 're-indoctrinated.' Crane jumped on top of me, and I thought, 'Oh shit, I always knew the son of a bitch wanted me!' but I grabbed his crotch, and he wasn't even hard, so I relaxed a bit, and that's when the others swarmed me. I was blindfolded and stuffed into a burlap sack. They put me into the back of a truck and drove me to Area 51 where I underwent unbelievably painful operations and they attempted to wash my brain."

"Really."

"Oh, yes, yes. But I'm too clever for them now, see? So I escaped. I made my way through a hundred miles of desert on foot, surviving by my wits, rugged good looks and individualism. I made it back to home sweet home on Sunday. Took a shower, had a couple of Lean Cuisines, and went into the studio to do the Dreamland show."

"Okay, let me see if I have all the details straight: you suffered a blow to the head which gave you increased insight. Your wife and son left, and your radio show advertisers and guests kidnapped you and brought you to a government base to 'wash your brain.' You escaped, walked back home through the desert, took a shower and prepared to do your show. Is that about right?"

"Well, when you put it like that it sounds almost made up! But yes, those are the facts."

"I understand."

"So there I was doing Dreamland, and that Linda woman was droning in my earphones - we call them 'cans' in the radio biz - and I was falling asleep. As I was drifting off, the old thoughts began to creep back into my head, MJB! For a minute there I almost believed in bigfoot again! So I knew then and there I had to quit the show. Monday morning I woke up, renewed and invigorated, and I called the network headquarters in Los Angeles."

"And you told them you quit?"

"Well, no. When the secretary answered, I hung up. But I vowed to tell them on Tuesday. One more night of the show wouldn't kill me, right?"

"No, I guess it wouldn't. So you told them yesterday?"

"Well, no, actually I did not. I called L.A. again, and I said to the secretary, 'This is Art Bell! Put Mr. Maroney on the phone immediately!' but when the chief muckety muck picked up...well, I hung up again. But when I was doing the show yesterday, the thoughts came back!"

"No."

"Yes! And it was a battle, I tell you! The voices were telling me to do things I knew were wrong! We began to do battle - an epic fight, it was. Halfway through, I signed on to do my last segment of the show and that's when I pulled together the courage, I pulled together every ounce of bravery I had, and I told my faithful audience of several thousand listeners that it was my last show. I could barely get through the announcement, what with the blue meanies and evil gnomes biting me and carrying on. But I did. When I hit the switch for the last time, I was attacked by a good three or four dozen monsters, but I fought them off bravely through the night. Then you showed up."

"So what are you going to do now, Arty?"

"Me? Well, keep this to yourself, but I'm making a run for the border. Mexico, my friend! I hear they have senoritas down there who love you long time for five American dollars! Hell, I have fifty-five dollars! And four...um, three, liters of fine booze, two clean pairs of underpants and a full tank of gas in the Geo Metro that Rhoda..."

"Ramona."

"Whatever - a full tank of gas in the Geo that she didn't take. I tell you MJB, I'll live like a king down there!

"What about the double-wide? Shit, what about the airstream?"

"They're all yours, my friend. After all, what does a king need with a trailer?"

mjp
10/14/98

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