The Unknown: The Red Line.
  On our way west to Kansas, we camped at Alley Springs, in the Missouri Ozarks near the Current River. Frank had flown out to meet us, to meet Gaddis, and to attend our reading at Big Sleep Books. After the reading, a bunch of art majors from Washington U. presented us with, by way of a parting gift, a bottle of Moet Chandon White Star, an original oil painting, and about 35 whippets of industrial-grade nitrous oxide. On our way out of town, we managed to get a case of champagne flutes, 99 red balloons, a whippet dispenser, a pack of hot dogs, a bag of marshmallows, and, for good measure, a bag of ice, a case of beer (we wanted Budweiser just to immerse ourselves in Saint Louis culture, but Frank reminded us of their deplorable labor practices, so we bought Grolsch instead), and a first aid kit. William and I had the tents pitched by dark, and Dirk started a fire while Frank gathered wood. Pretty soon William was playing ukulele and we were roasting wieners. It was good, and we were happy. Dirk opened the Moet Chandon. It was warm, and the cork flew out on a gushing spume of sparkling champagne, the pop echoing against the mountainsides. We cheered, and toasted Saint Louis, and had a fine meal. Then we brought out the whippets and started filling balloons until the metal dispenser was so cold from the supercooled gas that it threatened to stick to our hands.

Things started to go in and come out. We inhaled gas and commented to each other in strange low voices, like tapes played at half-speed. We laughed and laughed at the same things, at different things, at nothing. There was darkness and I realized I was looking down upon myself from a great distance. Then a point in the darkness began to open into a wild echoing undulating noise. There was a prick of light and warmth that was approaching me. Then the sound became crickets and cicadas and the crackling of fire. The circle of light engulfed me and became the world. I was lying on my back on the picnic table beside an overturned beer. I could hear Frank mumbling about stages of consciousness. Someone released a balloon from unconscious fingers and it shot off into the night with a flatulent exhalation. And then as a trickle of sensation began to irrigate my nervous system, I became aware of another presence.

I turned my head slowly away from the fire and there was a gigantic shambling thing, a monster of insane proportions, a bear standing beside the car. It was tearing open the bag of marshmallows with its teeth and rummaging around in the trunk. I heard the clanking of the box of metal canisters. The bear put another handful of food into its mouth. There was a piercing squeal of escaping gas and the bear turned to stone. And swayed. And fell over backwards.

Frank was still talking about stages of consciousness and William and Dirk were both prone and motionless. The bear lay there and shuddered and released a very slow moan. It had inhaled a breath of nitrous. It had passed out. It would come to very soon. When it did, it might try to eat us, and we were in no shape to fend off a bear. We had no weapons, probably not even a jack in the trunk. I sat up and looked around desperately. I grabbed the case of beer and the Swiss Army knife. I crawled over to the bear. It smelled like a wet carpet. It groaned. It lay on its back, eyes vacant, mouth open. Hoping to keep it unconscious, I opened the Swiss Army knife’s bottle opener and opened a beer and poured it into its mouth. And then another. And then another. And then I dropped another whippet into the dispenser, tightened it, filled a balloon, and then released the gas into the bear’s face.

William staggered to his feet and was stumbling to the underbrush when he saw me sitting there, smoking a cigarette, feeding drugs and alcohol to an inert bear. William and I looked at each other for a few seconds, and then William shook his head slowly, walked into the woods and threw up.


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