"Really Ronald, we do have to go" Sid said calmly.
Hubbard remained unmoved, locked in his own gaze. Sid thought the man might actually drool. Hoping to gain Hubbard's attention, he slowly slid a huge vase of flowers toward the edge of the plinth on which it stood. Reaching its tipping point, the crystal vase and its cargo hung there for a moment, then crashed to the ground, shattering, and along with it, Hubbard's trance-like state.
"What the fu . . ." Hubbard stopped in mid-word when he noticed Sid standing there, wearing a slightly bemused expression. "I, uh, well, I was looking at this, uh . . . nevermind, what was it you were you saying?"
"I said we really should be leaving for the keynote. Remember? We dropped Steven off at the Convention Center to prepare?" he said, one perfectly shaped eyebrow arched for effect.
"That seemed so long ago, but I guess it was only . . ."
"Yesterday. It was just yesterday." Sid interrupted.
"I'll never get used to this place." Hubbard said, shaking his head.
"Oh, trust me Ron, you will. You will." Sid put his hand on Ron's shoulder as they walked, "But first you'll go quite mad. I certainly did. One can only meditate for so long, believe-you-me. You try everything to stem the creeping madness, really. Suicide doesn't work. It all hit the fan for me right around 250 years in, give or take a decade. You really have no idea how long that is. I've been here ten times that. You'll come out the other side with fresh perspective if you can keep your wits about you, but it can be a hell of your own making. The thought that this might last forever still haunts me from time to time. I mean, the universe has to end sometime, heat death and all that, but what if we're outside it somehow? Intriguing, don't you think? Ron? Hello?" He waved a hand in front of his now frozen companion's face.
A fear gripped Ron unlike any he'd ever known. He'd always gone on about billions and trillions of years in his space operas and colorful yarns about the whole-track, but he knew this was different. Sid was talking about going crazy after just a couple of hundred years. This was impending eternity, and it felt like standing on the edge of a bottomless chasm, it made him feel sick.
"Oh, but I seem to have alarmed you. I do apologize. How incompassionate of me. Come along Ron, that lovely car of mine is just across Pierce Street." They stepped out into the simulacrum of a brilliant, Florida day.
"I half expected that we'd be back in Vegas once we passed through that door." Hubbard said, trying to be funny, but he was still shaken.
"The journey of a thousand miles, Ron . . ." said the Buddha with mock profundity.
"Yeah. Right." Ron grumbled.
Ensconced once again in Sid's sleek car, they cruised through the streets of Clearwater. Unlike his recent car rides, there seemed to be normal traffic here. Hubbard tried to peer into the cars to see who was in them, but the other vehicle's windows were all tinted, or slightly mirrored.
"It all seems so real. Is there even anyone in those cars?" Hubbard asked, betraying more than a little discomfort in his voice.
"You never know in this reality, Ron. In a way, we're each of us, alone here. There is interaction with other realities. Intersectionality as I prefer to call it. Karen, Lisa, and Shelly, for example. They weren't leaders as you were. They had no followers in their time. They were peripheral to you. Others like them can intersect with you, but they don't necessarily dwell here. 'Where' the others go is still a mystery to me after more than two millennia. Do they live other lives? There's no shred of evidence that reincarnation exists. I wish it did." Sid looked almost wistful. "I mean, I can tell you it was quite a blow to my ego to end up here. Others react differently. Poor Ayn, she just hated the fact that she survived death. She'd made such a big deal of being an atheist and a materialist. Chris Hitchens won't come out of his hotel room. He's not in a loop either. He simply refuses to see anyone. He was clearly wrong about materialism, but atheism? Well, I'm not so sure. Two thousand years and I haven't seen so much as one god. Not even a small one. We all have a lot to learn, Ron, but for what purpose, if any, I just don't know."
This kind of philosophizing would have thrilled Ron at one point in his life. Now he just felt panicked and slightly nauseated.
Sid's phone gonged in the console. The words "Call from Steve Jobs" appeared on the big screen between them. "Answer call" said Sid. There was a moment while the phone connected and then Sid went on, "Hello, Steven, how's the talk coming?"
"Fine, I suppose. I'm still writing it. I'm nervous. I never used to be nervous about a talk. I wasn't a nervous guy, Sid. I don't like this." Jobs said. He sounded as sour as ever. "Oh, by the way, is he coming with you?"
Ron leaned into the console as though Steve might actually be in there somewhere, "Yes I am, and don't ask me why, I'm just along for the ride these days."
"Sid, am I on speaker? What the fuck, Sid? Really?" The man in the phone sounded incredulous.
"Now Steven, calm down, we're all in this together. I think you two have a great deal to learn from each other. Really, I do." Sid said soothingly.
"Right. Whatever. I mean, you're the Big Bad Buddha, right? Just let me know next time, OK? I was going to say 'I don't have time for this shit,' but I guess that's all I really do have." There was a long pause on the line, a sigh, then, "See you when you get here." The phone chimed and went silent.
"Is he always like that?" Hubbard said making a face. "I mean, what the hell did I do to him?" Hubbard was not used to non-deferential treatment.
"The man only recently died, Ron. And he died relatively young and unnecessarily. He was a man in control. He thought he was the king of the world, and in some ways, he was. He always thought he knew better than the next man . . . until he didn't. And now, all he can do is watch that world moving on without him, so he feels a bit let down by things. His wife moves on. His children grow. His yacht sails without him. He really loved that yacht."
Hubbard snorted and rolled his eyes.
Really Ron, I'd think an old sea dog like you would have a bit more compassion about that. Well, I imagine he'll cover it all in his keynote." Sid touched the screen in the middle of the dashboard. It had become a map of Clearwater again, a tiny, pulsing dot representing their progress.
They were now on the Campbell Causeway headed for Tampa. Hubbard could see that the bridge disappeared into fog bank dead ahead. The sea fog that rolled in from the Gulf could be formidable. He found himself wishing that Sid would slow down a bit. But instead he heard the motor whine and felt the car make a great leap forward as they shot into the soupy gray.
"Uh, say Sid, don't you think we might want to slow things down a bit in this fog?" He was really nervous now. He could see the digital readout passing 100 miles per hour. The car was still accelerating with an eerily quiet smoothness.
"Alarming, not being in control, isn't it?" Sid said casually. There was no menace in his voice. He looked over at Ron with the faintest trace of a smile, and then, he took his hands off the wheel.
Ron was tempted to grab the controls, but for some reason, he thought better of it. Sid just looked at him. He was hypnotically calm. Ron sat back in his seat and looked straight ahead. He could see nothing but gray. It didn't even seem wet. He could see no road. The speedometer read zero. The clock was all zeroes. The map still showed a pulsing dot, but in a featureless background. No guard rail. Nothing but a gray void. "What the hell is this?" he asked.
"A little shortcut I know" The Buddha said casually.
Some time passed, or did it? It's hard to tell time in a void.
"Are we even moving anymore?" Hubbard wondered aloud.
"Were we ever?" Sid smiled at him and opened the sunroof above them.
No wind. No roar of the tires on pavement. Hubbard put his hand out tentatively. No discernible temperature to speak of. It was deeply disturbing. Then . . .
BAM! A blast of pressure on his hand! A roaring of wind and road, a cold damp and the sense of movement once again.
"How the hell did you do that!?" Hubbard was agog. "Can I learn how to do that? And speaking of learning, what about all this mind reading stuff that goes on here? And don't say . . ."
"All in good time?" Sid interrupted.
"Yeah. That. Don't say that!" This guy could be really maddening.
"It really comes to you when it comes. Look at how quickly you managed to manifest what you desired. Clothing and your fine watch. Food. Drink. Old friends . . . and foes. I heard about what happened at the party."
"Oh, that. Well, I, uh . . ." Hubbard's face reddened.
"We all have our faults, Ron. All of us. Did it surprise you to see Alisa after all these years?" Sid asked.
"Uh, sure. Yes, but not so goddamned much as her introducing me to Lenin! A goddamned communist . . . the goddamned communist!"
"Were you jealous? What did you feel when you saw her?" Sid probed.
"I . . . I get mixed up with . . . feelings, you know. I've never been good with that sort of thing" Ron blustered.
"And your son? How was it seeing him again?" Another question.
Silence. Then, "I don't want to talk about him! I won't talk about it! You can forget about that whole thing, mister! It's done with and that's all there is to it!"
"It hurt, didn't it? Our trespasses are terrible to deal with" Sid said compassionately.
"I'll be the judge of that" Ron mumbled.
"The only judge, Ron. The only judge. And one with many verdicts over time."
They drove in silence until it grew dark. Hubbard figured they had to be in Alabama or Georgia by now. Then Hubbard remembered the last drive they took. Who could say where they were? The fog had lifted and they were driving on a featureless highway. No roadsigns. No other cars. Just a ribbon of asphalt reeling in at a tremendous rate of speed.
"So, Sid, why aren't we there yet? Hell, why are we driving at all when you can just whisk me from Vegas to Clearwater in the blink of an eye? Torture?"
"I didn't whisk you. You did. You run things up to a point and then . . . well, intersectionality rears its head. Besides, there are things to see, Ron. People to meet. Comings. Goings. We'll be there on time. But first, I'm rather hungry, aren't you?"
Hubbard was hungry, and tired.
"How do you feel about French food, Ron? I've grown to love it. There's a little place I love to stop in at once and a while. We can have a fine meal and get a couple of charming rooms for the night."
"Sure. Swell, let's just get there in one piece, please." Hubbard was getting irritable at this point.
"Café Enfant de la Lune it is, then." And with that Sid began decelerating and after about a quarter mile, he flicked the right turn signal on and they started down a long, dirt road. There seemed to be crops growing on either side of them. Fireflies flickered in the dark between the trees. Once again, moonless moonlight illuminated everything in a soft, blue/white glow. After a passing a few tumbledown, sharecropper shacks, Ron saw lights up ahead. The illumination was coming from a collection of a dozen or more old mobile homes arranged in a circle with hundreds of light bulbs strung festively between them. 'What a dump' Hubbard thought. Glowing above the crazy assemblage on a tall, metal pole was a neon sign depicting a small child fishing from a crescent moon with six stars arranged around him. It said "Café Enfant de la Lune" in yellow cursive neon. A more ramshackle destination Hubbard could not have imagined. Still the scene before him did seem like it could have an odd sort of charm. Under the lights were picnic tables with candles and checkered tablecloths These were full of chatting diners all enjoying each other's company on what appeared to be a warm, summer evening.
"This is where we're going?" Ron asked incredulously.
"Really? I thought you'd find it rather homey, Ron. Don't fret, old boy, I think you'll enjoy yourself once you tuck into Jean's ratatouille. It's simply divine!" Sid parked the car and the two travelers got out and stretched in the warm night. The Buddha thought about what one might pair with ratatouille and produced a bottle of
"Máo!Rúhé dìyù, nǐ hǎo ma?" said Sid in what sounded to Hubbard like perfect Mandarin.
The sleeping man snorted violently and tried to roll over unsuccessfully. The cat shifted to compensate, yawned and went back to sleep. The man had one arm hanging over the side of the chair with a cigarette lodged between his index and middle finger. The ash hung precipitously over an overflowing pie tin of butts.
"Shàngshēng! Dìguó zhǔyì zhě zài ménkǒu!" the Buddha said forcefully.
It was with those words that several things happened. The man's cigarette ember finally reached his fleshy fingers. The searing pain caused him to scream out, launching the formerly dozing cat into the beer tray-table sending empty cans clattering to the ground. The can cacophony roused the seemingly dead Tick Hounds who scrambled unsteadily to their feet and began stomping about in circles baying at the two strangers in the makeshift lobby.
"Well, Sid, I'm still waiting for the charming part." Hubbard said snidely.
Now the portly man who had been so soundly asleep, began to shuffle toward them. "Gǔn kāi, gǒu! Gǔn kāi, gǒu!" he yelled at the dogs, swatting at them over the desk with a sheaf of note paper that had been on his lap. His black hair was a greasy mess but his face was utterly unmistakable, this was Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party. 'What was this? Commie Day in the afterlife?' Hubbard wondered to himself.
"Shut. Up. Fucking. Dogs!" Mao roared coarsely, followed by a splendid belch. The dogs ignored his admonishment and kept baying with gusto. "Sid! You madman, what the hell are you doing here? Who have you brought us this time?" the Chairman said looking over his reading glasses at Hubbard.
"Zedong, old man, how the hell are you?" Sid said shaking Mao's hand vigorously over the desk. "Where's your better half?
"In the kitchen. Where else?" said Mao with a gesturing with his thumb toward the saloon doors to his right. "Jean mon amour, nous avons plus de bouches à nourrir" he hollered in perfectly accented French.
Bursting through the double doors with a loud "what now?" came a vibrant, beautiful woman in her forties. She had short cropped hair and bright blue eyes lined with care and kindness. Her sudden smile was radiant. She was practically bursting with glee upon seeing Sid. She rushed around the counter, past Hubbard and embraced the Buddha heartily, taking care with the large Sabatier knife in her right hand.
"Goodness me, I'm glad you're on my side!" Sid laughed as he held Jean out at arms length to have a look at her. "Beautiful as ever."
"You've been gone so long! We miss you when you're on the road!" the woman said with a strong French accent. "But, forgive me, who do we have here? A new friend?"
Sid took the woman's hand and turned to Hubbard, "Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, Madame Jean de Vouthon and Mao Zedong, the proprietors of this happy establishment. I believe you would have known of Jean by her more common name, Joan of Arc."
More historical figures. "Well, why not?" Hubbard said, extending his right hand to the chef, who was busy wiping her right hand on her well-used apron. "Enchanté" he said, bowing slightly.
"So, what am I, chopped liver?" said the founder of the People's Republic of China.
"Oh, uh, sorry, there. Mao, is it?" Hubbard said, shaking his hand.
"'Great Helmsman' is fine with me, we don't stand on formalities here. Not anymore." There was an uncomfortable silence and then Sid and Jean burst out laughing. Mao rolled his eyes. "You forget jokes already?" He was a master of the deadpan reply. "Anybody see where Shao Qi went? My cat? He ran off."
"Don't look at me, I'm just along for the ride." Hubbard said.
Then the Maid of Orleans said, "Chien! Silénce!" The dogs stopped barking instantly and went outside. "Ze, mon amour, get these two dangerous looking rogues some rooms and set them a table, they must be famished. Tonight you're in luck, we're serving ratatouille!"
Mao rolled his eyes again and said wearily "we only serve ratatouille. Nobody is surprised my dear."
"Well, if it's any consolation, I'm surprised." Ron said, always eager to earn some kind of points he might redeem in a future pinch.
"Just get them set up, you? I have to get back to my kitchen. Sid! I love you! So glad you're back, and Lafayette, welcome. Eat up and enjoy!" And with that, she banged through the saloon doors and began shouting instructions in French at some unseen kitchen help.
Mao sighed and pulled out a ledger book for them to sign-in and gave them each a key to a trailer. "We got no bellhops. You get your own bags." And with that he shuffled off, scratching his ass and looking for his cat.
The two Tick Hounds escorted Ron and Sid back to the car where bags had materialized in the trunk. They made their way, two men and two hounds, walking single-file through the crowded dining area and over to trailers 4 and 5 which were opposite the office/kitchen trailer. Using his suitcase to block a particularly persistent hound from entering, Ron found that the accommodations were surprisingly homey and comfortable. He unpacked, ran a comb through his thickening hair and headed back out to find Sid.
The two travelers met at a table where an aproned waiter beckoned. The server pulled out Hubbard's metal, folding chair and placed a large, plastic covered menu in his hands. It had one word typewritten on it: "Ratatouille." He flipped it over and there was a mimeograph of a drawing of the Enfant de la Lune sign under which they sat.
"Well, I suppose I'll have the ratatouille" Hubbard said ironically.
"Mais oui, a superb choice!" the waiter said enthusiastically writing down the order on a pad. "And for you sir?" he asked Sid.
"Oh, I don't know, what do you recommend?" said the Buddha with no hint of sarcsm whatsoever.
"May I suggest the ratatouille? It's magnifique!" said the garçon with no small amount of pride.
"How can I say no to that?" replied Sid with a bemused look. The waiter dashed off to put in their order.
"Alright now, what kind of cockamamie place is this?" Hubbard was in no mood for nonsense at this point.
"Really Ron, just a place for weary travelers and friends to meet up, eat some ratatouille and rest on the road. Nothing more."
Ron just gave him a suspicious look and they sat listening to the laughter and happy conversations around them for a while. Their officious waiter had reappeared with water and wine glasses for the bottle that Sid had brought to the table. He uncorked the wine and decanted it ceremoniously. He bustled off to return moments later with a hot baguette and olive oil. Then came a beautiful consommé followed by the Ratatouille. It wasn't a let down. It was simply fabulous—one of the most delicious things Hubbard could ever remember eating.
He was just about done cleaning his plate, swabbing up the last of the ambrosia with a piece of the freshly baked baguette when Hubbard noticed their host shuffling toward them through the crowd of diners. He had been stopping at various tables to chat with diners. Mao had found his enormous cat who he was cradling as if it were a baby. Ron hoped he would pass them by, but sure enough, he made his way to their table, pulled up a rusty folding chair and sat next to Hubbard.
"So, Ron, I been reading about you" Mao said with a knowing tone. He set the cat down, which wandered off to beg for scraps. "Very interesting business you had there. Very interesting. I never heard of you, but Jean told me a little bit about you and I thought I should definitely read up. I do love books, you know."
"Well, no, actually. I didn't know how you felt about books. I'm afraid I don't have a terribly high opinion of you, sir, if truth be told. I know all about what you folks did." Ron said in his best haughty tone.
"Smoke?" Mao said pulling a pack of Chinese cigarettes out of the breast pocket of the plaid shirt he'd thrown over his wifebeater. "I know you like a good smoke, Ronnie."
Ronnie. Nobody ever called him Ronnie. "Look here, Mao . . . "
"No! You call me Zedong! We're brothers now, you and I," Mao said ingratiatingly. "We're brothers in the celestial kingdom." He gestured upward grandly, staring intently at Hubbard.
"Well, whatever your name is, I'm not your brother! Wherever we are." Hubbard ratcheted up the dudgeon.
"Oh, I think we have more in common than you like to admit, Ronnie." Mao took a deep drag off his cigarette. "I have to live with what I did." The chairman was punctuating each line by pointing his cigarette toward Ron. "The lives lost to my greed and self-importance, they're beyond counting. I spent a decade in my loop writing down name after name after name of those lost in the terror I created. You have no idea, Ronnie. No idea. But you! You called us evil! You were the big, bad commie fighter! Then what do you do? You copy us! You used some of our most insidious mind-control on your people. The thought stopping exercises. The cruelty of 're-education,' the horrors of jiǎntǎo, the self-criticism. You say I'm a monster, and I was, Ronnie, I was. I'll spend the rest of my time here trying to wrestle with what I did. We're all monsters here Ronnie. So, what are you? Why are you here? What are your crimes, Ronnie, what are your crimes?"
Mao's rage abated. Slowly transforming into a strange calm. The chairman rose, smiling that beatific smile that still beams out over Tienanmen Square to this very day. "Who knows?" he said leaning into Ron's face. "Maybe you thought I was doing a good thing, after all weren't there 'too many chinks?' in China Ronnie?" He stood back and walked away, laughing bitterly and shaking his head, "too many chinks, what an asshole."
Ron sat frozen. A mass of conflicting emotions flew around inside him like panicked birds. They fluttered and they darted and kept banging into the walls he'd erected in his psyche until they finally lay unconscious and unfelt inside him. Then he noticed it. He was alone. Sid was gone, as were all the diners and revelers that had been there moments ago. He looked toward Nº.5 and saw warm light emanating from Sid's trailer. The Buddha was inside, getting ready for bed. As he scanned his surroundings he noticed that he wasn't entirely alone; Jean was sitting on the deck in front of the office. She was drinking out of a bottle, smoking a cigarette and petting one of her Tick Hounds. She gestured for him to join her. He really was tired, but there could be advantage in having an ally—points he could cash-in at some future date.
He walked over and sat next to her on the steps. "So, what are we drinking?" he said picking up the bottle to examine the label. An Islay single malt. It smelled of peat and smoke.
"Take a swig Ron. Would you like a smoke?" Jean said offering him a crumpled pack of Galloise.
He pulled out one cigarette and she drew his hand close to her and lit it with her own. He took a big drag and coughed violently. He washed it down with some whiskey and coughed even harder. They both laughed.
"Strong medicine, no?" she said.
Jean was really quite radiant, Hubbard thought. Not especially pretty, a little mannish actually, but simply radiant.
"Zedong gave you some strong medicine too, I hear." she said.
Hubbard just looked off into the distance.
"I know Ron. It's hard. Awful at times, examining what we've done. Zedong suffers greatly. I know you don't see it. But I do. When I found him in his loop, his hand was calloused and twisted from writing down the names. Millions and millions of names of those who died as a direct result of his policies. His edicts. He thought he was so right about everything. He still did when he came-to. He didn't even know what he'd been doing for almost ten years. Much like your own loop. I hear tell you were typing. Do you know what you wrote?"
He had no clue. "I think it might be in folders I have" he said seriously. "Back at the hotel. I suppose I should read it." He really didn't want to.
"Did you notice the other diners tonight?" Jean asked.
He hadn't, other than the din of their conversation and laughter. He was usually hyper-vigilant. He really didn't give them a second glance. "No, not really." he said sheepishly.
"If you had, you'd notice that they were mostly Chinese. Remember the young woman, Lisa that you encountered the other night?" Then, more intently, "do you remember her Ron?"
"Sure, sure. Remember? That's not something I'll ever forget." He was getting used to everyone knowing everything about him by this point.
"Well, imagine that times a few tens of millions. Zedong has a lot on his conscience. They're not all that intense, some connections are more direct, others very distant. But for them to be free, they need to intersect with him, Ron. Like you did with Lisa. We don't know where they go, if anywhere. But we think it's freeing for both parties." She took a swig from the whiskey and a slow drag on her Galloise, blowing a long plume of smoke up at the stars. "So, we serve them, Ron. His people and mine, too. I have a body count as well, mon ami. People died in my god-fueled mania. Be glad you have so few followers, Ron. You should be able to get through this fairly easily. It begins with acceptance. Accepting what you've done."
Was that another dig at him? 'Be glad you have so few followers.' He wanted to protest, then he thought better of it. Jean seemed to look right into his core. It was very uncomfortable. She gripped his hand tightly and said "I know of what I speak, Ron Hubbard. And now, I'd better get some sleep. That ratatouille isn't going to make itself, you know." And with that, she picked up her whiskey bottle and said something to her dog in French and they disappeared into the office trailer.
The neon sign and the strings of lights all switched off in random order as he made his way back to his trailer. He laid down on the bed, fully intending to get up after a few minutes and prepare for bed, but the next thing he knew, it was morning. There was a rap at his door. He opened it and there was Sid in a beautiful celadon green silk shirt and pleated, creme, wool trousers with matching pigskin belt and loafers. He had his suitcase in hand and a straw trilby at a rakish angle on his head.
"Well, I guess we're leaving" Hubbard said wearily. "I'll get my things." He turned around to grab his bag.
They walked across the circle of trailers and loaded the bags into the trunk of the Tesla.
"Should we say goodbye?" Hubbard asked.
"No, I don't think so. They usually sleep-in. They only do lunch and dinner here. We'll pick up something on the way."
Hubbard was going to mumble something about coffee, when he noticed there were two steaming travel mugs in the console of the car. 'Plusses and minuses' he thought to himself regarding his new situation.
"Plusses and minuses, indeed" Sid said thoughtfully as they made their way back down the country road to the highway. They were in some rural area, lightly wooded, the road was dirt and the shacks he had seen by moonlight were even more dilapidated in the light of day.
They were coming around a corner when Sid suddenly slammed the breaks on to avoid hitting two people in the middle of the road. A little boy stood over an old man who was in a fetal position in the road. The boy was crying inconsolably, trying to rouse the old man.
"What did I do? What did I do?" wailed the little boy.
Sid and Ron emerged from the car to see what they could do. Sid tried to comfort the boy, but he ignored Sid, unwilling to leave the old man, whose body was now beginning to decompose right before their eyes. Hubbard watched in horror as the corpse turned to ash, leaving just a windbreaker, jeans and cowboy boots behind. A stick poked through a pile of ash that had once been a gripping hand, on the stick was a colorful sign on which was printed in big black block type, "GOD HATES FAGS".