Special thanks to Sara Clarke and Phillip Garland, the best editors in town. Also John Darnielle for such an inspiring title.
He sat in the orange pastel study room on the fourth floor of the library. The sides of the wood laminate carrell within the cramped room acted like blinders with no purpose; not blocking out anything but more carrells and a series of CD/Tape players, with headphones, that were barbarically bolted to the tables. A stack of encyclopedias ranging from “O” to “G” and a few introductory history of western civilization textbooks were crammed into the carrell beside him. The room was quiet but not silent as the thrum of the fluorescent lights competed with the ticking of the clock for auditory supremacy.
He was flipping through the Encyclopedia Britannica: Cont. E and reading without thinking: Estonia, officially the Republic of Estonia, is a state in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. The capital and largest city is Tallinn. This mindless absorption and cataloguing of minutia was now a relaxation technique, though not of his own making.
After getting accepted to a reputable but modest state school he hadn’t found a successful use for all the knowledge in his head. The smell of pages was a cue to sit still, and the second-nature of the task allowed his mind to drift and a memory to surface.
RING. The phone shook.
“Dorlin honey? It’s mom, how are you sweetie?”
“Oh, hi Mom. I’m fine, you?”
“Now my darling boy how many times have I told you not to sound so glum? Just because you’re off at school doesn’t mean you’re not my little honey bumpkin.” Her voice was sweet and chased with aggravation.
“Well you just remember what this is like when you have kids of your own. You’re father wanted me to ask about your grades, how are your classes going?”
“Well they’re_” he was cut off.
“It’s just that, we got a letter in the mail today. It was from the school and we had no idea, NO idea that you were falling so far behind. What’s the problem muffin? Are there a lot of distractions this semester?” Dorlin knew that she knew that he knew his parents paid his stoner roommate Brad 10 bucks a week to keep them updated on his comings and goings. “Because sweetie, if there is something, or someone_” her voice broke off, expecting an interruption. “Then it’s perfectly natural to be falling behind a bit but we aren’t paying for you to be fooling around all the time.”
The truth was that Dorlin’s parents didn’t pay for school at all. They doled out money for “extra expenditures” on a monthly basis depending on the quality of his grades. His tuition, room and board were courtesy of the Humprey P. Smithstone scholarship given to the school by a wealthy, highly eccentric, carpet manufacturer who believed that the adhesive used to make the backing on his carpets was the cause of a sentient tumour in his brain. He had vowed that a student of capable means but less than adequate funding should not share his miserable fate. This was in spite of protests from his tumour who was a staunch believer in “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” This was chronicled in Smithstone’s death bed memoir Tumour Diaries which Dorlin had read cover to cover as a stipulation of receiving the scholarship. The issue of who paid for what was one Dorlin had ceased to bring up with his parents.
“I understand Mom. I’m trying my best, in fact I’ll be headed to the library to study soon.”
“You know that’s all your father and I expect dear, but you can’t blame us for being a little worried, can you? The Richardsons, from next door, you remember them, the ones with the little white dog? Well they’re having a barbeque so I have to be going. You’ll call if anything changes won’t you?”
“Of course I will Mom.” He knew she’d call again in two days regardless.
Dorlin Toledo had a difficult time forgetting anything, especially conversations with his mother. His mindlessly erratic flipping of the encyclopedia had lead him to a portion of an article on escape artists. He finished the article and cross referenced its place in the index, another old habit. His eyes were used to the strain of reading under poor lighting for long periods of time but he was not used to the grinding pressure of academia. He was already a week behind on an essay that was supposed to unequivocally tie links between British Colonialism in India and Russia’s stranglehold of the Eastern Bloc of Europe.
Dorlin was strictly a facts man. He did well on straightforward question and answer testing as well as logic based problem solving but he was dumbfounded by ideology. Unfortunately the best option, fiscally speaking, for his studies was a liberal arts university. Dorlin despised the notion that one could make their soul beautiful by a well rounded education. Even if he could wrangle together a cogent analysis of such metaphysical assertions he knew which areas he could excel at and those which he could not. His last history paper involving communism had taken a drastic turn for the worst when he went into a frenzy equating Walt Disney’s trial under the House of Un-American Activities Committee to the oppression and double crossed treachery of Polish nationalists during the Warsaw Uprising. He had amalgamated so many facts that it had ceased to become an essay as much as a brief exercise in temporary madness. The professor had said as much in a full page afterword to Dorlin’s essay, which read less like an academic critique and more like a scathing review in the newspaper.
I am shocked and appalled that a student such as yourself could have made it past primary school…this paper is not fit to be burned…. your incredulous assertions along with the sheer magnitude of your failure lead me to believe that you are completely mad…you are staining my reality with your own warped sense of purpose…
Dorlin needed an out.
As he glanced at the clock the lights in the library switched off and on in rapid succession. A signal. If you’re still here at midnight on a Saturday we sure as hell don’t want to be. The contempt of underpaid student workers oozed toward him through the darkness. He pushed his chair back and sighed. Gathering his books in pale, pudgy arms he made his way out through the dim fire escape and past the check out counter.
Dorlin passed a ubiquitous, free-standing billboard in front of the library plastered with campus events: film nights, fundraisers, and the occasional tutoring advertisement. Dorlin required distraction. Anything to prolong the usual routine of trudging across the campus square to his dorm (approximately four-hundred and fifty steps) which would either be empty and quiet, or punctuated with the sounds of un-hushed sex and bong rips. There was one flyer with tear-away tabs that read: HEAD FULL OF FACTS BUT WALLET FULL OF NOTHING?! Sultan Swami’s fantastic Game Show EXTRAVAGANZA is looking for you!!! If you are drawn toward the limelight and have a head full of facts $100 cash could be YOURS! Enquiries should be directed to the phone number below, no head shots necessary!! Willing participants only. Dorlin didn’t know what it was advertising for, but he did know facts and he could use one hundred dollars. He tore off the neon strip with a phone number scrawled on it and jammed it into his pocket.
Upon arrival to his dorm room Dorlin found Brad staring intently at a piece of white bread slathered with jam. Brad looked up with a start.
“Oh heyyy D man, look, have you ever seen a piece of white bread that wasn’t white? This jam, this spread has like totally robbed it of its essence.”There were roaches littering the floor beside Brad. He had forgettable features except for his long blonde hair and the almost prepubescent thinness of his body. He was currently wearing “Marvin the Martian” boxers and Dorlin may have been amused, except Brad rarely wore anything but his MtM underwear. Brad was slow to move, yet he talked rapidly with his hands waving.
“No, Brad. I can’t say I’ve encountered an essence-less piece of bread before. Does it taste any different?”
“Man, I’m like scared to even try it, dood. I’m worried it will open up some horrifying realizations, like tumbling down the rabbit hole. What if it tastes like nothing? What if it’s completely breadless?! That puts into question the malleability of anything’s primary essence. On the other hand if it tastes exactly the same then essence is immutable, unaffected by change, and how are we supposed to hope for progress if nothing can be changed. I mean really changed?” Beads of sweat had started to form on Brad’s brow as he held the bread like an ancient scroll.
Dorlin moved past and dumped his books on his desk. “That’s a puzzle Brad, a true puzzle.”
He emptied his pockets of all his spending money (about $2.24 in loose change) and lint feeling the slip of crumpled paper between his fingers. “Brad may I ask you something?” Brad gave a nod. “Have ever heard of a man called Sultan Swami?” Dorlin’s voice faded as Brad’s brow furrowed. He was still looking at the bread so it was hard for Dorlin to know if he had even heard the question. After a moment Brad’s eyes closed and minutes passed before they floated open.
“Man, you know, yeah, that sounds familiar. I was down in the lounge a few days ago with Tim Macky, you know Tim? And you know he’s always flipping through channels cause he’s been popping pills since breakfast and I did see__”
Some jam dribbled onto MtM’s head as he trailed off. Dorlin snapped his fingers.
“JESUS, yeah anyhow, yeah I did see some show on channel twenty-three, that public access bullshit with this guy looking like one of those dudes you see in a booth at a carnival. Fucking trippy. And yeah, yeah, Sultan Swimmy, I think that was his name.”
“So, what was the program about?”
“Well like I said I was with Tim Macky and I just can’t__” At that moment Brad’s head lolled and the bread did a face-plant onto his crotch. Dorlin looked down at the neon piece of paper in his hand and realized it didn’t matter what exactly this TV show was about, he was broke and failing school one of those things needed to change.
After a long, boring and typical Sunday spent finishing the “Cont. E” and starting in on the “F-G,” it was finally Monday. As early as he felt it was appropriate to call (the average American wakes up at 7:45 a.m.) Dorlin picked up the phone and punched in the numbers. It rang four times, and he was beginning to expect the beep of an answering machine when the call went through. “Yes. Yes?! I’m so glad you called.”
“Hello?” Dorlin replied.
“Yes, hello is this about tonight?”
“Yes, tonight. I believe I’ve been expecting a call.”
Dorlin was more than puzzled.”Well I’m not sure how that could be, I’m responding to a flyer. I’m from the Unversity.”
“Ahhh The University. Marvelous!” The voice had cut Dorlin off. The man had a way of making it sound like he was saying each word with a capital, like every word was a proper noun.“And who is with that I’m speaking…from The University?”
“My name is Dorlin, Dorlin Toledo.”
“Dorlin! Dorlin! It is my pleasure, you saw the ad: Head Full Of Facts for $100 Prize, not bad not bad eh?” Dorlin had never had the impression one could wink over the phone until this moment.
“Well yes, that is why I’m calling. And with whom am I speaking?”
“My apologies, most rude of me, I’m Sultan Swami of course, born Terri A. Kane but there’s no law saying a man can’t use his stage name day to day is there now! Well enough with the frim fram and ho haw, we need you Mr. Toledo, it’s mister isn’t it? Haw haw. We need you tonight! Can you make it?” Dorlin was overwhelmed but managed a stunted yes. “Fine fine well you’ll go down Pine from The University take a left on Main and a right on 15th Avenue. I’m sure you’ll see us before we see you, Haw Haw. Tonight then!” The line went dead.
That evening Dorlin made his way down the long winding university drive to the bus stop, a long refuge at the base of the campus grounds. The only bus on this route was the 247 and it’s timetable was less than predictable. There would be days it would show up twice in ten minutes then vanish for an hour, circumventing the twenty-five minute rotation that was supposed to keep it in check. The 247 was a force of nature and a kick-me-when-I’m-already-down to those students who couldn’t afford a car.
Dorlin only had to wait twenty minutes when the bus came screeching to a halt. He jumped on, flashed his transit card and was immediately thrown forward as the driver shifted into first and ground the pedal to the floor. Dorlin was never alone on the 247 although he knew of no reason why anyone outside of the university would ride this route. The area beyond the school became increasingly rural and you’d need a car to live out there anyway with the limited service the bus offered.
As Dorlin found an empty seat a crackle came over the bus’s speaker system. “Well evenin’ folks, as I was saying earlier you may think it’s chilly for October tonight but it’s nothing compared to the October of ‘43. Let me tell you! Up on the left the Thompson brothers got caught up in a gale while hunting that caused ‘em both to fire nine rounds on accident. One of ‘em happened to plug the other, Gail as I recall, and got sent up to jail on account of manslaughter charges. Yes sir, THAT was an October for the books!” Dorlin stared aghast at the back of the bus driver’s head a thinning scalp with stringy black hair bobbing around as he clutched the microphone in one hand and gripped the steering wheel with the other. The Guide. No one knew his real name, bus drivers going ever present as anonymous figures, but his reputation preceded him. In an attempt to fulfill a lost dream of driving tour buses The Guide would wax on through his entire route about minute and what many believed to be totally falsified accounts of local anecdotes. The most chilling thing about The Guide was not only his incessant, near neurotic banter but also his increasingly reckless driving the more fantastical his tales became.
Dorlin’s pudgy fingers gripped the seat railing tighter as The Guide launched into a brief history of agriculture in the area. The bus careened over a railroad crossing causing an old woman in the back to lose her groceries. Green onions and chicken stock erupted in a rustling shower. “Ya know folks, interesting thing about the small field to your left is it was cleared for alfalfa, can you imagine?! Alfalfa! With this climate? That ship didn’t sail. Now we’re approaching the old Lander place, can’t quite make it out on your right there but folks say it’s haunted. Yep, the barn, well there was a barn, burnt down an took all the horses. Not that I believe it myself but some say on a foggy night you can hear ‘em stampin’ n’ screamin’.” The view was so dark Dorlin could barely make out the ditch the bus’s was flirting with entering. He glanced around and saw the transformation of vague indifference into fervent horror as fingers crossed and white knuckles gripped whatever was most stable. All passengers shared an unspoken solidarity of hope that they would make it off the bus alive, maybe even without whiplash.
By the time the 247 reaching the outskirts of the meagre metropolitan area that rose out of the field and forest Dorlin’s brain was waltzing between thoughts of the ignition temperature of gasoline (232 Celsius) and the statistical probability of getting thrown clear of a potential wreck (approximately 32%). The Guide raced through a yellow light and swung onto the main thoroughfare into the heart of the city. Dorlin lifted his hand to push the stop button and the bus rocketed forward. The brakes slammed and Dorlin felt like a paratrooper in the Second World War jumping into occupied France.
Once his feet hit the pavement Dorlin knew he had survived. He also hadn’t learned a damn thing from The Guide, though his brain had retained and catalogued all the facts despite himself (the fifth favourite local dish in the area was beet soup, etc.). He started walking, relishing a slow pace, and took a right turn south on 15th Avenue. He saw two swaying inflated clowns the kind seen at used car lots and electronic store openings. They danced in the night like a pair of drunken sports fans. Between them was a rent-a-sign that bore the words “Sultan Swami’s Fantastic Game hawSExtragonaza!” There were never enough signs to mess with in a city. Dorlin walked past the clowns an into a nondescript two-storey warehouse.
Inside was a card table that read “check in,” and a note pad with a pen taped to a piece of string. A thirty-something woman with braces sat behind the table and eyed Dorlin, “Yes?”
“Hi, I’m here for the show.”
“Mhmm,” her eyes flicked up and down resting on the notepad.
“So, do I, what do I do?”
“Well if you read the sign, you have to check in.” Her voice lisped with the excessive amount of saliva caught by her braces. The woman stared past him the entire time and when he finished she gestured down the corridor with a flap of her hand.
Dorlin made his way through the narrow hall and into the main warehouse. The floor had a low stage in the centre with four podiums all in the shape of lava lamps and a gigantic tie-dyed mural strung up in the background. It reminded Dorlin of the set of “Jeopardy” if Alec Trebec had been a Deadhead. In front of the stage were two camcorders mounted on flimsy tripods and a row of folding chairs. There were two bright floodlights attached to the bare rafters that cast a bright and paling light causing Dorlin to blink horribly. As he walked toward the chairs he could make out some figures seated, some standing. One wearing a gold turban turned around.
“Ahhh, there’s our last contestant, Mr. Toledo is it? So glad you could make it m’boy.” Sultan Swami was only a few inches taller than Dorlin but much more agile as he flew out of his chair and began to shake hands. He was dressed in a turquoise robe with gold lacing that came down to meet curled slippers. “Let me introduce you to the other players for tonight’s Extravaganza! It is with my most extreme pleasure to introduce Edith Warton and Stanley Donald. Along with you lovely and distinguished personages is our director of photography as well as producer and composer Mr. Mortimer Smith and last but not least our cameraman Allen. Say hello everyone!”
Dorlin was met with a few waves and one muffled “Hi.” Seated in the chairs were an 82-year-old woman, a man with a rumpled suit bearing fresh coffee stains, another senior citizen with a pony tail and a pencil necked high school student. There was a murmur of greeting and they all rose ambling toward the stage. Sultan Swami was still shaking Dorlin’s hand which had gone numb. “You see Mr. Toledo we must, yes certainly must get started shooting as soon as possible. Ms. Warton was extremely insistent about her finishing time, something to do with her medication. Right this way please!”
As they walked up to the stage Dorlin shuffled forward slowly, still struggling to focus properly under the harsh lighting. The elderly man with the pony tail, Mortimer Smith, began giving out directions. He spoke in a harsh voice and Dorlin noticed he had a crude tattoo of a dagger cutting off a bird’s head on his left forearm.
“OOOK, Ms. Warton you’ll be at number one, Stan you’ll be at number two and the kid will be at number three. Places!” Dorlin shuffled on the stage to the third lava lamp behind the other two contestants already at their positions. Edith Warton was hacking and Stanley Donald’s legs were twitching madly. Despite his marginal eyesight and increasingly sweaty palms Dorlin felt a surge of confidence.
“OOOOK, I said places everyone! Give us a second here, Allen’s gonna mic you up. ALLEN?! Where the hell are yah?” Allen appeared from behind the tie-dyed fabric sheet with a handful of wireless microphones and receivers the size of cigarette packages. Allen tried to mic Edith Warton but she quickly put up a fuss over his fumbling so he just set the mic on top of the lava lamp.
“Fuck. Allen, just give them to the people they should be able to figure it out. All right then, just run those down through your shirts and put the receiver in your pocket.” Yelled Mortimer Smith. Allen had climbed off the stage and was nervously pressing buttons on one of the cameras. “Allen, cut it the fuck out. Make sure those are switched on and the lights are green.”
“Oh, I believe mine is well, it seems more of a lime than a real green.” rasped Edith Warton.
“We’re not in a paint shop Ms. Warton, a green is a green. We’ll do a quick test than it’s Showtime!” Smith’s voice boomed like a drill sergeant as he took the lens caps off of the camcorders.
Dorlin looked over at Stanley Donald who seemed transfixed at the rounded top of the lava lamp podium. Suddenly all four lit up and Sultan Swami jumped out from behind the curtain. He had either glued or drawn on a pencil thin moustache, it was impossible to tell which. Or, Dorlin thought, perhaps he had just grown it backstage, channelling his energy toward his hair follicles.
“Let the show begin!” He shouted in a rich baritone.
Two red lights were visible in Dorlin’s view as a synthesized version of Grateful Dead’s “Candyman” blared through the warehouse. Edith Warton seemed frozen as the music overpowered those on stage then slowly faded out.
“Welcome young and old to another episode of Sultan Swami’s Fantastic Game Show Extravaganza! It’s been two long weeks since we last aired and I know all of you tuning in are hungry for another display of intellectual prowess.” Sultan Swami’s voice echoed as one camera panned over the three lava lamp podiums that held the contestants.
“You’re in for another night of incredible feats of mental hurdles and Jerry, if you got my letter and you’re watching just know it’s ALL for you. Let’s meet our contestants, first we have Edith Warton a distinguished member of the community and librarian of the central branch for more than thirty-four years! Next, we have Stanley Donald a respected member of the Lions Club as well as an automobile insurance broker who requested we mention, ‘Fantastic Deals can be had at the price of your convenience at Donald & Sons Insurance.’ Last, Dorlin Toledo a student of The esteemed University. Welcome all! Please remember to press the red buzzer on your podium if you know the answer. One hundred points if you are correct and minus one hundred if you are wrong. May the best brain win!”
The moisture from Dorlin’s hands was fogging the top of his podium as he eyed the giant red buzzer with a painted white “YES!” on top.
“Our first question! In the year 1965 the seminal rock group Grateful Dead formed in Palo Alto, California. Who was the author that also lived in the same city and was famous for his Acid Tests?” Sultan Swami’s moustache rose and fell dramatically as he spoke.
Dorlin’s brain flitted to simultaneously to his readings from Encyclopedia Britannica’s “D” and “S” for definitions on recreational drug use and sixties culture. Before he could finish processing Edith Warton’s buzzer rang. “I believe that the dangers of acid use are well chronicled in Roger Lambert’s 50 Ways to Die Foolishly in the ‘Self-Improvement’ section of the library.” She hacked again.
“Ms. Warton that isn’t an answer, more of a statement really. Am I led to believe you wish to select Roger Lambert as your answer?” Edith Warton nodded as she continued to cough and grabbed the sides of her podium for support.
“I’m afraid Ms. Warton that is INCORRECT!” A cacophony erupted as Edith Warton’s lava lamp shut off. Stanley Donald was fixated on a loose thread on his suit jacket as Dorlin finally arrived at the answer.
“K-Ken Kesey.” Dorlin stammered as his hand squashed his buzzer.
“That is CORRECT!” Screeched Sultan Swami to an even louder eruption of bells and whistles. Edith Warton’s grip on her podium was fierce as her arms became rigid. Stanley Donald maintained composure through the racket and Mortimer Smith ran between the two cameras pushing buttons and twisting lenses. “One hundred points is awarded to Mr. Toledo!” Allen emerged from behind the curtain holding a paper with a scrawled “$100” that he taped to the front of Dorlin’s podium.
“Now that the bus is rolling, let’s get on the highway! Question two_” Sultan Swami stopped as he looked over to the adjacent lava lamp and noticed Edith Warton’s body, no longer hacking and supported by the podium, had fallen to the stage. “Ms. Warton, Ms. Warton, are you incapacitated?” The prone body gave no reply.
“WELL FUCCCK.” Shouted Mortimer Smith as the red lights blinked off on the cameras. “ALLEN!” There was a quiet rustling behind the curtain. “ALLEN! We have a situation out here.”
Allen emerged from backstage with frantic swiftness and immediately tripped over the body of Edith Warton crashing over the stage and sending the first contestant podium sideways, and then knocking over the second and third. Stanley Donald, completely oblivious, looked up from fiddling with his suit within just enough time to avoid the incoming lava lamp, but still fell backstage through the tie-dyed mural. The harsh lighting and barrage of sound had disoriented Dorlin causing him to misjudge the severity of the three oversized lava lamp podiums toppling in his direction (the total weight of which was about 20 times heavier than a normal lava lamp, 64 pounds). A light fell, effectively blinding Dorlin for a moment, who stepped into the path of a falling podium. A warm crushing sensation came over his left foot as he watched a gelatin blob drift lightly over his toes.
“I haven’t seen a shit storm like this since Hamburger Hill.” Grumbled Mortimer Smith who climbed up beside the body of Edith Warton and switched off her microphone battery before rolling her over. “Ms. Warton, MS. WARTON! Can you hear me?!” A small amount of droll trickled down Edith Warton’s cheek.
“Terri! Goddammit Terri we need an ambulance.” Mortimer Smith looked back at Sultan Swami.
“I thought I asked you to refer to me by my stage name at all times Mortimer.”
“We don’t have time for that shit now Terri, just get to a fucking phone!” Mortimer Smith began to perform CPR on the unconscious Edith Warton and Sultan Swami quickly shuffled off in his satin slippers.
The ambulance arrived and loaded the body of the still unconscious Edith Warton as well as a shaken Stanley Donald who was sure he could file an insurance claim of some kind if he went to the hospital. After getting Edith Warton’s heart beating again Mortimer Smith had pried the podium off of Dorlin’s foot using the leg of a folding chair. Dorlin had watched as Smith’s tattoo bulged at the effort, the dagger and decapitated bird becoming larger and slightly more formidable. Allen, slightly bruised had begun a haphazard clean up effort under Smith’s stern direction. The paramedics had assessed Dorlin’s foot and decided it probably wasn’t broken they had advised him to check with the clinic on campus if the pain got any worse.
Sultan Swami’s moustache drooped as he took a seat beside Dorlin in front of the wreckage. “Well that’s show biz as they say Mr. Toldeo. I’m sure that you had higher expectations being an aspiring academic but there are good days and bad days when the cameras start rolling. It is not a show without a little shake rattle and roll! Though I must say I thought we’d make it a bit further on this episode.” He grabbed the tattered “$100” sign that had fallen off Dorlin’s podium. “I believe that duration aside you did come out as the winner, whenever a Sultan makes a promise he keeps it, even those of us who throw on such garb for the zip and the do-dah.” He reached into the folds of his robe, grabbing a satin pouch with drawstrings. Between the fistful of coupons and crumpled cheques he found a set of worn twenties that he counted slowly and pressed them into Dorlin’s still sweaty palm.
“Thanks very much Mr. Swami. I should probably be getting back to the University. The bus only runs so late.”
“Why of course Mr. Toledo, wouldn’t want to be stranded so far from The University, would you? Just remember, a head full of facts can get you far but it’s how you use them that counts.” Sultan Swami winked as he jumped to his feet and assisted Mortimer Smith in directing Allen on the clean up.
Dorlin put the twenties in his pocket and limped out of the warehouse. On his way back to the bus stop he felt the roll of bills once more and smiled. He had found a key, but was still looking for a door.