Issue #106 / 18 July 2008
vision quest: noun: A period of spiritual seeking...that typically involves isolation, fasting, and the inducement of a trance state for the purpose of attaining guidance or knowledge from supernatural forces. —American Heritage Dictionary
THE WAY OF ENLIGHTENMENT IS STRANGE. I thought it would be something from the heavens, something bright and shimmering, otherworldly. Ethereal, you know. Glowing raiment and angels. Or something Indian. A coyote, trickster I meet in a diner near Taos or a little town in Arizona. Carlos Castañeda and all. This was so mundane, the strangest thing. An old man turns on the television.
I have whined on about it for some time now. Getting old. My concerns, the angst. I've asked for guidance. It has come in the strangest way. An old man turns on the TV.
I couldn’t sleep out of all the thoughts of my mortality, the things I hadn’t done in my life, my failures. And rather than listen to the murmur of my angst I turned on the TV. Blindly, fumbling, I found the remote and clicked on the box. But the channel changer wouldn’t work. That happens, and when it does I have to re-program the remote. Well, hell, I wasn’t going to do that, so I stayed in bed. I’m going back to sleep soon, I said; I’ll just watch whatever crap is on my unchangeable channel.
And who was there but Ron Popeil, The Gadget King, doing an infomercial? My three A.M. non-choice. You know, the guy who did the Pocket Fisherman and pasta maker and juicer. It dices; it slices. Funny, plastic stuff. He was there with his blonde assistant going on about...wait a minute. What was he saying? He was talking about...my life! Oh, Jesus. I turned off the TV. I think I pinched myself, shook my head, cliché stuff. Then I turned the television back on. It’s flickering blue light filled the room. On the screen, Ron Popeil was still there. And I was still there.
Yes, there, in place of the juicer, the pasta maker, was a picture of me. An eight-by-ten glossy. Damn if it wasn’t me on his counter, and his assistant was pointing to my picture and calling me by name; and then she used her pointer to indicate a placard sitting on an easel.
“Special. Today only. Popeil Vision Quest for Britt Leach. Enlightenment can be yours, old man. Follow these instructions. Have no coffee in the morning. At exactly ten o’clock put strawberry mousse in your hair. Go to Sav-On and buy a pair of Big Dog wrap-around sunglasses. The color should be orange. For lunch have only a Coke, no food. After lunch order The Popeil Pocket Fisherman from this toll-free number. And in the evening go to the nearest mall. There you will receive your enlightenment. This offer not good in Alaska or Hawaii.”
The infomercial repeated; the room was full of its flickering blue light.
I fell asleep; and the next day, when I awoke, I did it, what the infomercial told me to do. It seemed that I didn’t have a choice. The Coke and no coffee and no food. The mousse and shades. I ordered the Pocket Fisherman. The order taker called me my son. She said, “And when you receive the Pocket Fisherman in four to six weeks, you will frame it, my son. And you will put it in the hall, next to the wedding photo. Smile.” And she hung up.
And late that afternoon I went to Fashion Square, a glitzy mall near my home. I was very hungry. The smell of the mousse in my hair was sickening. The parking lot attendant looked like Milton Berle. After I parked the attendant looked like Sandra Bernhard. It was very hot; I almost fainted. But the air-conditioned coolness of the mall soothed me. And the mall music. It was ABBA and very pleasant. “If you put me to the test, if you let me try / Take a chance on me / Take a chance on me.”
I was weak and nauseated. The mall’s light was blue and flickered. Where could I sit? I found a chair at a Starbucks. The whole floor of the mall was filled with Starbucks, no other stores. I put my head on the table to clear it. So faint. And when I looked up, Pat Sajak was sitting with me. He leaned over and kissed me, on the lips. “Spin the wheel,” he said. “Spin the Wheel of Fortune.” And he was gone.
Donald Trump sat down at my table. He was wearing a tutu and toe shoes. “You’re an old man with no money. Socialism is for chumps.” And he left, with a pirouette and a grand jeté.
The Starbucks clerk came over. “What’ll it be today? A latté? A latté? A latté? A latté? A latté? A latté? A latté? A latté?”
And I said, “No, Could I just have a cold towel? Why are there so many Starbucks in the mall?”
And she smiled. “Death is just another latté with cinnamon sprinkles. Here’s your latté. Call me if you need a latté. She looked like Jessica Lange as the Angel of Death.
The towel looked like a dollar bill and smelled like a hamburger. Ray Kroc, the McDonald’s guy, sat down. “Vegetarianism is for chumps. Here’s a Big Mac; here’s a large Coke; here’s an order of fries and four Happy Meals. Then he flew away; he had wings that looked like golden arches.
I heard a siren. An ambulance came up the escalator and stopped in front of my Starbucks. Chris Farley and John Belushi jumped out. Belushi said, “Gonna eat those fries? You should have stayed in showbiz. Great work if it doesn’t kill you!” And Farley said, “Mind if I have that Coke? Yeah, if it doesn’t kill you.” And they were laughing and speaking to me out of black body bags that they zipped up from the inside. And the bags started spinning and glowing and then the body bags separated and between them was suspended a television screen on which was a quote, "The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so. —Robert Green Ingersoll.”
I was looking at the screen when Pat Robertson sat down. “I need some change. Got two tens for a five? Got two fifties for a twenty? Wanna buy some oil, vitamins, Jesus? Wanna buy some Jesus? You don’t believe that happy here crap do you? That atheist stuff? Do you believe in me? Get real. Believe in Pat.” And he was gone.
And L. Ron Hubbard and Deepak Chopra sat down together, and they pointed at the screen. “That stuff is for chumps, ’cause we didn’t write it, and we’re not making any money off it.” They were speaking in unison. “You can’t be happy without us! Know about Scientology? Know about "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success"? Know about body work and Thetans and mud therapy and reflexology and guru, goo-goo guru, goo-goo guru, guru, guru?” And they started making out. Hot stuff. And still in unison, “If you’re going to watch; you gotta pay. Aren’t we pretty together?”
And they were gone. And Ron Popeil sat down at the table with his Pocket Fisherman in his hand. He waved it at the screen and smiled at me and disappeared. And the words on the screen in front of me faded and in place of the quote, “The place to be happy is here,” I saw Ray Kroc and Donald Trump and Pat Robertson and Deepak Chopra and L. Ron Hubbard. They were all tap dancing. An upturned hat was on the floor in front of them with a little sign, “Spare Change?” They were tapping and hoofing and huffing—singing their accompaniment, TV commercial ditties, through large gaping mouths.
Someone sat down at the table with me and looked at the screen. And started laughing. Slapping his legs. Roaring with laughter. It was me, old me. Pointing at the people on the screen and their desperate energy and the sign that said, “Spare Change?” And laughing. And then he pointed at all the Starbucks, the whole floor filled with Starbucks, and laughed some more, couldn’t get his breath, crying, he was laughing so hard.
I looked at the other tables. I was there too. Older me. Laughing, laughing. All around me was me, laughing.
It was cool in the mall, and the light was blue and flickering. And ABBA was singing in the background, really pleasant. “If you put me to the test / If you let me try / Take a chance on me / Take a chance on me.”
Reprinted from country CONNECTIONS, the July 1998 issue, published on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday. And here it is, ten years later; and I'm seventy. I had promised a piece about friendship this week; it's possible that it will show next week. The beautiful part of the composite image at the top is by Catherine Roberts Leach.