In the four days following the self-destruction of my WiFi connection, I read One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the third time. When the WiFi returned, I watched the movie. That was five days spent almost entirely with Ken Kesey’s masterpiece, which left me emotional and disturbed, as it ought to. But even after those five days, I found nothing more profound in it than the introductory line, a quote from Emily Dickinson:
In much madness comes divinest sense.
That was a comfort, I thought. I am not crazy. I am enlightened.
And yet, I could not shake the creeping sensation of madness as I made my way to Moe’s Barbecue to meet with Reginald Baker. I suppose this came mostly from the attitude of everybody I had discussed the ordeal with. Nobody could tell me why it was a terrible idea to meet up with a stranger who had sent me a vaguely cryptic e-mail about Bottom Shelf Whiskey. They all simply said, “You just don’t do that.”
David/D. Hunter, the message had read. Other night I was walking up College when I saw an emblem that caught my eye. I looked closer and read your poster. Couple days later I looked into your blog.
I’m in Auburn now, working on research and such self-involved horseshit as that. And I thought to email because I know what it means to hear that someone out there in the great clamoring void had read, was reading, might read. I believe you have some talent for the written word and that you are not entirely stupid.
If you would be interested in meeting for a beer or likewise let me know. I believe we could talk books and hillbillies.
Perhaps now you understand my irresistible urge to meet up with this character. We were meeting in public. I would buy my own drinks. What could go wrong? After all, it’s not every day that I hear from a loyal reader that I am not entirely stupid. And anybody named Reginald Baker, I presumed, must have stories to tell.
And so it was that I began to wonder if I had gone crazy. I have always had a paralyzing fear of going crazy. I usually assuage this notion by remembering that crazy people do not know they are crazy. As long as I think I am crazy, I therefore deduct, I cannot be crazy.
But this time the feeling did not come from the inside— it was other people treating me like I had gone crazy, perhaps sucked too far into an alternate reality in which meeting for drinks with strange men named Reginald Baker seemed rational. Four days off the WiFi, they thought— perhaps the isolation had driven him mad. And I was beginning to wonder if they were right.
I arrived at Moe’s around 8 pm and met up with Reginald Baker shortly thereafter. I had been sitting at the bar for five minutes when he saw me. I was trying to drink Evan Williams and triple-checking my wallet to make sure I could not afford Southern Comfort.
“Hey, man,” he said. “You Hunter?”
I had told him earlier that I would be wearing a denim Richmond Braves hat and drinking whiskey. I shook his hand. “Sure am, nice to meet you,” I said, and he returned the greeting with similar pleasantries.
I guess Reginald looked a bit crazy—no crazier than I looked, of course, but I was no longer prepared to use that as a measuring stick. He had brown hair that was unkempt, and he was wearing a barn coat and reading glasses. He ordered several cans of Busch Light at once and proceeded to tell me he had read everything I had written.
“My favorite piece was the one about the goby fish and the shrimp,” he said. Shameless plug: that story is called Talking to No One is Strange. It was never my favorite, but then again, Robert Plant hated Stairway to Heaven.
“Did you read Bleeding John?” I asked. That was my favorite.
“I did, and I liked it, but I thought the first dream sequence was a bit clumsy.” I later checked and realized I had written “It was a perfect day” after describing a perfect day, an egregious mistake for someone who prides himself on being succinct.
We began to talk about things we were working on—he was between jobs for the time being, looking for freelance opportunities and generally bumming around drinking beer. I was working on—am still working on—According to Jones, a novella about cowboys and justice in the Old West.
“You’re Catholic, right?” he said, after some time. I was taken aback—as far as I know, I had not said anything about being Catholic, and I was not wearing my rosary, having left it in Stone’s room to ward off an obnoxious poltergeist that was disturbing our cat.
“I am Catholic—how did you know?”
“You just seem Catholic,” he said. “I’m always reminded of that James Joyce quote— about leaving the Church—”
“What liberation would it be to reject an absurdity that is logical and coherent and embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?” I answered automatically.
“That’s the one.”
At this point I’m fairly certain the bartender was likewise beginning to think we were crazy. He was giving us a distrustful side-eye and talking to a conspicuously average man with a North Face jacket and stocking cap on. The more Reginald and I drank, meanwhile, the more collegial and ridiculous our meeting became. We were acting like old friends and saying things out loud that are best whispered in quiet libraries by intellectuals who actually know what they are talking about.
“Trump is the Armageddon of Bush and Obama. And Armageddon was a Greek word, meaning the unmasking, the unveiling— he is our government, stark naked, a mirror for the American people—”
“It doesn’t matter, really— mankind is bound for extinction, the Fermi Paradox proves it— and the clams shall inherit the Earth—”
“Aw, come on, man, you’ve got at least got to root for the home team!”
“It’s all very Sisyphean, isn’t it?”
There we were at the bar, drinking whiskey and ducking out to smoke cigarettes, diving headfirst into pompous criticism of the world around us, referencing classical literature along the way. I began to feel a change coming on— for years, I had regarded literature as a hobby, and I felt like a college student disguised as a writer. Now, as I joined forces with Reginald, I transformed into a writer disguised as a college student. The side-eye from the bartender intensified.
As it turned out, however, Reginald was not very crazy. He was a little eccentric, perhaps, but he seemed to be basically in his right mind. The same, I think, could have been said for me. Despite our increasingly bizarre takes on religion, politics, and James Joyce, neither of us had any trouble remembering exactly who we were and what we were doing.
And then we ran out of cigarettes.
It’s funny— sub-setting a sentence like that is a tactic the best writers use when they wish to convey some sort of symbolic change in the course of the plot. But the cigarettes in this case were no symbol, and neither was the misfortune of running out— at least, I don’t think so, although I have not checked with my English professor. In retrospect, it was a small inconvenience that symbolized nothing. However, it did set in motion a chain of events that would brand themselves in my mind forever.
It began when the man with the North Face Jacket bought his last round and asked for the bill. As he did so, he pulled out a pack and placed it on the bar. I noticed Reginald eyeing it longingly.
“Excuse me,” I said, once the man paid his bill. “Do you think my friend and I could bum a cigarette?”
“Oh.” He tossed two in our direction. “You boys go to Auburn?”
“I do,” I said. “Reginald’s in town for the weekend.”
“It’s my first time here,” the man said. “The weather is terrible.”
“Welcome to Auburn,” Reginald said. “What are you in for?”
“Oh, I just came from D.C.,” the man said. “Doing some business for the Department of Justice.”
Reginald and I exchanged looks. I wondered if he had overheard our vaguely communist diatribe against the #DeepState. “You work for Jeff Sessions?”
“Yeah, I work for Jeff Sessions,” he said. “And for Trump.”
“You work for Trump?”
“Well, I support Donald Trump, and I support Jeff Sessions, so I guess you could say I’m working for them.”
Reginald and I exchanged another look. “Some sort of funny business going on in Alabama?” I said. “Voter fraud, racketeering?”
The man in the North Face jacket looked surprised. “Why, haven’t the two of you heard?” he said. “There’s a cabal of militant liberals going all around Alabama. They’re abducting women and planting false memories inside their brains. That’s what’s going on with Roy Moore.”
It’s probably telling that I considered for a moment whether this was something that Jeff Sessions would actually think to investigate. Then the man in the North Face jacket threw out the last of his credibility. “It’s because Roy Moore is in the 39th Legion of the Knights Templar,” he explained. “They have to stop him from getting into power, because they’re afraid of people like him, and—” then, as an afterthought, “people like me.”
At this point I decided the conversation had gone far enough— I made a move away from the bar, gesturing weakly toward the back door, but Reginald had taken a keen interest in the man’s story. “So what do they have you working on, anyhow?”
“Well, this goes back a long way. It started in 1984, with Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. Five-star Bocephus— that’s the Illumanti code name for Alabama— although Texas lays claim to the name, so there’s some dispute there. It really began in Lee County back then, when Reagan visited—he was one of the Knights Templar, too—”
“How does the cabal implant false memories?”
“This is a very well-organized enemy. They abduct these women and make them think they’re telling the truth. About the molestation thing, you know. They can implant anything— it’s called cerebral dysphoria— but most people don’t understand. I try telling people, but it’s no use. They’re not like me….”
I finally dragged Reginald away from the man in the North Face jacket. We made our way out back to smoke. “That dude is batshit insane,” I told him.
Reginald laughed. “I know,” he said. “Paranoid schizophrenic, most likely. It’s strange, though— he’s a well-dressed guy, clean-shaven and all. You wouldn’t think he was crazy.”
At this point the man in the North Face jacket walked past us, directly into the women’s bathroom. We watched him go. “Do you think he did that on purpose?”
“I don’t know, but we should probably get out of here,” Reginald said. “I don’t want—”
“So, is this the smoking lounge?” It was the man in the North Face jacket. He had emerged from the ladies’ room and had an American Spirit between his teeth.
“I guess it is.”
“Any updates on the Knights’ Templar?” I asked nervously. If I’d felt any braver, I might have asked him where the Holy Grail was, but I didn’t want to provoke him. Besides, I’ve read the Da Vinci Code, so I know the deal.
“George Washington was in the Templar.”
“And you are too?”
“Yeah, I’m in the Templar. By the way, do you guys know where the bus station is? I’m trying to get down to Florida soon.”
“Is there a Templar investigation in Florida?” Reginald asked.
The man with the North Face jacket no longer seemed to have any idea what Reginald was talking about. It was only then that I noticed he was carrying a backpack—it looked like a nice hiking backpack, and it occurred to me that anybody who saw it would likely assume he was on his way up north to the Appalachian Trail, or perhaps taking a short hitch-hike road trip around the Southeast. Paranoid schizophrenics aren’t supposed to wear brand name winter gear.
“The weather is terrible,” he said again. “What do you boys do for a living, anyway? We might have a spot for you in the Templar— you’d have to undergo plenty of examination, though—”
“I’m in school.”
“I’m a writer.”
“A writer?” the man seemed intrigued. “Have you read James Patterson? He’s a genius.”
This was the breaking point for Reginald. He had withstood sexist lectures about Roy Moore’s accusers, delusional claims about the Department of Justice, and a crash-course lesson on the ongoing political activities of the Knights’ Templar. But nobody was allowed to think James Patterson was a genius of any sort. He had a ghostwriter, for Christ’s sake.
“Nah man,” Reginald said. “I think he’s terrible.”
The man in the North Face jacket seemed to think Reginald had misspoken. “No, James Patterson— the author, you know.”
“Yeah,” said Reginald. “I hate that shit.”
There was silence now in our corner—the “smoking lounge,” as the man in the North Face jacket had called it. He did not attack us, as I was beginning to fear he might, but instead, he looked hurt, as though another two would-be comrades had rejected his entire worldview in one stroke. Without saying a word, he picked up his backpack, took a decisive puff from his cigarette, and turned on his heel and marched out of the bar, his chin brushing his neck as he hung his head mournfully.
“Damn, that guy was crazy,” Reginald said. “Good cigarettes, though.”
Crazy indeed. And American Spirits— additive-free.
We exchanged a look— a telling look, as we had grown accustomed to doing in the past twenty minutes. I knew at once that he was thinking the same thing I was, and, as a writer, he summed it all succinctly: with a curt, sorrowful shake of the head.
The poor beggars up at the bar who had gone through a shameful amount of whiskey and beer—running on all the while about aliens, Joseph Conrad, and the #FakeNewsMedia— were not crazy at all. In fact, Reginald and I had a hauntingly strong grip on reality— it was all a joke, a colossal, tragicomic, Shakespearean joke, and we were in on it— or at least, we knew there was one being told by somebody somewhere. I was not a danger to myself or others, and neither was Reginald.
The askew denim hat and my buttoned-down shirt with the reindeers on it— the reading glasses and barn coat and Reginald’s long, unkempt hair— the cheerful acceptance of absurdity, met with uproarious laughter and humor of the darkest order— it might have fooled a few people that night, including, for a moment, myself. But I knew now that insanity was not our predicament.
Tonight, psychosis was masquerading as a well-dressed, well-spoken man. How many of them are not so far gone that they chase Roy Moore accusers and terrorize young men in college bars? How many of them work in our cubicles, live in our neighborhoods, represent us in Congress? And how many of them are so lost in the fog that they have no idea who Roy Moore is, or Donald Trump or George Washington, so far gone that they cannot cry for help, and would not be understood if they tried?
Meanwhile, the man in the North Face jacket took his demons into the grim night alone.