Chapter Thirty-Seven

There was more sex, drugs and rock and roll in Oz than I'd ever imagined, and I spent most of the next couple of weeks checking these out, when I wasn't writing of course. Or having a hangover.

After everything, after the non-stop partying, the post-war euphoria I never thought I'd ever personally experience, after all the strokes, the accolades, after writing down what I'd been through, finally there was a silence there. Oh, the festivities hadn't shown any sign of letting up any time soon, but I wasn't participating any longer. I stood in the eye of the hurricane, in the still moment where I had to make a move.

It was time to go.

I was a ball of confusion all the way over to the gate building, feeling like maybe I should reconsider. I took a last look around the wide, green-glowing streets of Emerald. Even rubble-strewn and damaged as it was, the place was starting to look pretty good to me. I figured they'd probably fix it up like new just as soon as everyone got tired of drinking, feasting, singing, fucking and taking drugs. I was thinking maybe I should be there to help.

Sure, I had a lot of bad memories. I'd almost been killed about forty times (at least it felt that way), but that seemed like another lifetime ago somewhere. I had started to collect a bunch of good memories, too. Emerald was back to being the righteous fairyland it was supposed to be. Like I'd never seen it.

The people here were certainly sweet, if spookily cheerful. If I stayed here, nobody would probably try to give me cancer or shoot me, or snuff me in any other baroque manner like the CIA might. I could probably live a pretty nice, quiet life for a few hundred years, who knows? Maybe Dorothy's Uncle Henry could teach me to ranch goomers or something. (Yeah, the old bird was still around!)

On the other hand, if I continued into the gate building, and took the Ozma Express back to Kansas or wherever I landed, my life was a lot less certain. I could die. Or become obscenely famous for fifteen minutes. Or both. But hell, the place I'd be headed for was my world, my earth, and did it deserve to be co-opted by the likes of Meaty-Meat Corps and Pace/Horner? That was the big question. Not that I was gonna stop them or anything, but I had at least the capacity to pull their pants down around their ankles in public.

Speaking of pants around your ankles: it was tough to say goodbye to everyone, but it was extra tough saying goodbye to Ledelei. We both knew that the whole arrangement had been temporary, but when I picked up my pack and headed out her door for the last time -  well, we weren't in love, but it still hurt. She gave me a really good kiss and told me that I might see her sooner than I thought, whatever that meant. And then she turned around and closed the door.

My backpack was cradled in my arms as I ambled down Gilabola Avenue towards Ozma's Gate. It was early morning, and most of the revelers were still in bed. I was still a little bit worried that somebody would try to snatch my laptop. Of course it wasn't as sexy now that its little occupant had taken off for the Burzee Universe, but it worked better than it ever did. I'd been thinking of writing some code to randomly insert nonsense every once in a while. But it wouldn't really have been the same.

I guess I really kind of missed that little Mickie.

Ralph had assured me that nobody would want my computer now, now that the shit had hit the fan, and most of the shit had been blown back into Uncle Sam's face. But I was still paranoid. I thought about what was on the hard disc, and whether or not it would still be there when I got to the other side. Hell, there was still the unpleasant possibility that I wouldn't get to the other side, no matter how remote that possibility was.

I was about ninety-nine point nine percent decided to return to Earth, but that little part of me that wanted to stay was still yammering away. I stood there for a long time, in the street in front of the giant gingerbread door to the Gate building. There was no way to make a rational decision in a situation like that. So I didn't. I followed the path my heart makes, the one Allallo had told me about.

There was no line to wait in that morning. I pushed the door open.

The trip through Ozma's gate was not at all the same as my first wild ride. For one thing, no ugly, uptight creep checked to see if I was carrying contraband. On the contrary - people kept coming up to me while I waited for the few in front of me to go through to Earth. They kept trying to give me stuff: cookies, bottles of strange alcoholic (and otherwise) concoctions, kisses. But I graciously declined their offers (aside from the kisses). I was carrying enough weight.

A little mustachioed bald man in overalls finally escorted me into a tiny room with an overstuff sofa in it. He asked me to sit down. Then he, of course, smiled and left.

And there I sat. Like I said, it wasn't at all like the first time. I was reasonably relaxed, for one thing. For another, I was stationary.

This did not last long.

Within seconds of sitting in the chair, and the little man closing the door behind him, the floor fell away. Well, that's what it felt like. Jesus, it scared me.

A few seconds after that I realized that I wasn't so much falling as just not being attached to the room any more. I think that anytime your brain finds itself in that kind of situation: weightless, whatever, it reads it as falling.

The sensation eventually ceased. I had my knees drawn up, my head jammed into the backpack. I'd landed. Somewhere.

I raised my head, and saw dirty white porcelain. Wherever I was, it was smelly, like old urine.

It took me a few moments to realize I was in a toilet stall. I stood up and looked around me. Graffiti. Crude drawings of hairy orifices and penises. Phone numbers with blowjob invitations.

Home sweet home.

I pushed the door open and looked at the rest of the room. One more stall. But no sink. I thought that was odd. There was a device on the wall that I'd never seen before. It was a spherical thing with a large opening in the front of it. I read the sign above it. "Dry Wash. Hair, hands and face. Try it! Feel that cleanness! Washington Enterprises."

My face felt a little greasy, so I thought I'd give it a try. I stuck my face up to the opening. Immediately, there was a quick buzzing sensation and I heard a click.

"Thank you! Feel that cleanness!" the machine said, in a near-human voice I can only describe as, well, slobbery.

I felt my face, and it was perfectly clean. Like, really clean. Rather amazing, I thought. I wondered if they had a full shower-stall type version of that thing.

I grabbed my bag and walked out of the restroom to find myself in a busy restaurant. It wasn't anything fancy, just a short-order type deal with mediocre food that you order by pointing to the pictures. I saw a menu on the table. Howard Johnson's.

Wherever I was, I figured it wasn't Salinas. Hojo's was an east coast franchise as far as I knew. Some of them had motels attached to them. Ones like these were generally at rest stops on thruways back east. Could I have been dropped as far as the New York or New Jersey? I walked to the front of the restaurant, and out the front door to find out.

A cold blast of air hit me as I stepped outside. It was like the moon out there. I buttoned up my ratty cloth coat up to my neck, wishing I'd brought along the ogre vest for a souvenir.

Sure enough, there was a motel next door. It was night, and I saw trucks whizzing by on some sort of interstate beyond the parking lot. It looked like I was gonna have one severe case of jet-lag. I looked up into a sky brilliant with stars, and watched the white clouds my breath made against the fluorescent lights. I smelled exhaust fumes. Greasy food made of animals. Home.

One star I'd been looking at started to grow. At first I thought it was just a plane I'd mistaken for a star. But the thing started to swell up to the size of the moon disc, then shoot across the sky and disappear over the horizon.

"Jesus!" I shouted at a trucker who was on his way into the restaurant. I pointed at the sky. "Did you see that? Holy shit!"

He laughed. "Aintcha never seen a fittle before?"

"A fiddle?"

"Fittle. Fit. El. F.T.L "

Then he squinted at me, like he was considering if maybe I was a little bit nuts, and moved on.

Maybe this was some unexpected side-effect of inter-dimensional travel, I reasoned. There hadn't been things like fittles and Dry Wash when I'd left. Which led me to my next line of inquiry.

There was a newspaper vending machine behind me. I bent down to look at the front page. It was the Perth-Amboy Evening News, dated December 23, 2007.

There was a Gateway to Oz, evidently, in New Jersey. In a toilet at a Howard Johnson's on the New Jersey Turnpike. And my three weeks had turned into nine months somehow. Go figure.

The headline was freaky also. It said:

NEWCOMERS EDISON, VAN GOGH ADDRESS U.N.

GENERAL ASSEMBLY PROMISED NEW ERA OF PROSPERITY

Edison? Van Gogh? What the hell was going on here? And what was a "newcomer"? It vaguely reminded me of a bad science-fiction movie I'd seen as a kid.

I was suddenly struck with the urge to go back inside and eat some clams.

I went and sat at the counter. When the waitress came, I pointed to a picture of fried clams. I didn't have any cash, but I had plastic; I'd paid off what little debt I'd had before I left for Kansas. Lucky me. I could get a room for the night next door, get a bus to Newark or JFK in the morning and try to get a flight back to L.A. I wasn't even gonna worry about the car in Salinas. At least not until I found out what my status was.

I got the clams, and a cup of coffee. Was it breakfast? Dinner? I don't know.

"Clams," somebody next to me said, "they are good."

I hadn't paid attention to who was next to me when I sat down. I glanced over and saw a bedraggled blonde kid, who looked to be maybe nineteen or twenty. I had had enough experience with Oz people to know that he was a Winkie. Anyway, he was wearing one of those blue pointed hats, which kind of clued me in. He was drinking a coffee, but he looked like he could use something to eat.

"Want some?" I asked him, and you would have thought I'd asked him if he wanted a million dollars. I got the waitress to bring him a plate of clams, and put it on my bill. He thanked me profusely.

"I am Meldo," he said, extending his hand. We shook, and I told him I was Gene. Of Los Angeles. Surprisingly, it didn't ring a bell.

"I have been here much long time," he said sadly, "long time." He ate a forkful of clams. "Do you know of the Blue Note?" he asked me.

"Blue Note?"

"The Blue Note Records. Horace Silver. Thelonius Monk. Bud Powell. Miles Davis."

"Sure." I'd worked in a record store for a while. Jazz wasn't my favorite, but I knew my way around it.

"I met in Oz an army man once, a soldier from American Army. He had with him a machine that play music. A phonograph."

"Wow. It must have been-."

"The One. Yes. Only one. He had with him many of these Blue Note records. Only these. I listen, and do not understand at first, but here my life was changed. The music there spoke to my heart. I listen often, and long. I learn everything from this man about the music that I could. It became a part of me, this beautiful sound.

"And I knew that one day I must to come here. To find the Blue Note."

Jeez, I thought. What with the wacky time dilation I'd just experienced, what he had just described might have gone down in the sixties. Or the forties. Who knows? The time thing didn't seem consistent at all. Ralph and Guttierrez seemed to stroll back and forth all the time without all the timelag. Maybe it was just me.

It was like he was reading my mind. "This was many years ago," this young man said, "and far away. I come, finally, through the Gate of Ozma. And - " He took a deep breath and shook his head. "It was a lie. These things not here. All these things I dream of - Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack studio. Birdland. Minton's" He looked beseechingly. "All long gone." He smiled like someone does when tears are the only other alternative.

"Time not working the same way here. Things of legend do not remain, here, except in memory." He ate more clams. "I didn't know this. I didn't know."

Suddenly, I wasn't so hungry anymore. I told him I was sorry. I didn't know what else to say.

"I can't go back now," he mumbled between bites. "The Gate is closed. I can't go back. I stay here, I do little work, little things for money." He laughed. "I have little disc player, see?" He lifted up a little ancient minidisc player. "Sometimes, I buy a recording." He pulled a little flat box with "Birth of the Cool" printed on it out of his pocket. "When I can hear it, things not so bad. Not so bad."

I was done with my clams, and my coffee, so I paid the bill and got up, wishing Meldo well as he put the headphones over his ears, wishing that Ozma, or Glinda, or the Burzee or whatever, could come and claim lost luggage like him. Maybe they still would.

I figured the thing to do next was to get a room next door. Not that I thought I was going to sleep - I'd just gotten up. But I could doze, watch T.V, whatever - try to pretend that my body thought it was night until the next morning.

I strolled past the counter covered with Howard Johnson Candies on the way out, and past a rack of magazines. I was just about out the door when something stopped me dead in my tracks.

I whipped around, back to the magazines. There was something very peculiar on the cover of Newsday. And Pace. And a few of the others.

It was one of those slobbery, hairy, Dr. Seussian goomers. In a suit. The goomer was in a nice suit, and it was wearing a red tie. Underneath the picture, the caption on Pace read:

BEING OF THE YEAR

NEWCOMER, GEORGE WASHINGTON

FATHER OF FASTER-THAN-LIGHT DRIVE

Fittle. F.T.L. Faster than Light. Moons flashing across the sky and over the horizon. Washington Enterprises. Feel the cleanness!

Jesus H. Christ. The goomers were the newcomers! Of course. Every sentient animal that ever came over here from Oz had been rendered normal, dumb and edible as soon as it passed through. It made a lunatic kind of sense that the one incredibly, pathetically stupid animal in Oz would be the exception, would turn Super-Genius once it came this way through the gate.

I bought the magazine and went over to the motel. The groggy night clerk told me there were vacancies. I checked into a room without much fuss, flipped back onto the bed and started to read about the goomer George Washington, about his being CEO of his own Fortune 500 company, holder of several new medical and aerospace patents, one being the faster-than-light drive. His Virtual Light Transmitter would replace the computer screen. And his company's inexpensive gene therapy would make humans live as long here as they did in Oz. And this was only one goomer! Guittierrez had brought over a boatload of these guys. Old George was an average representative of the general population of goomers in the U.S. There was a sidebar with the names and faces of other "newcomers" and a list of their impossible achievements in recent months.

My body evidently started to believe it was nighttime, because in a few minutes, despite this exciting news, I was sound asleep, and slept until the sun blasted through the open curtains and into my face, some time around seven A.M.

I got back into Hollywood the next afternoon. The plane's engines had been enhanced by the "Tesla" Corporation. The trip wasn't faster than light, though. You couldn't do that, for some reason, within the earth's atmosphere; the flight lasted an hour. The shuttle ride from L.A.X. to my house took longer.

My job was waiting for me, just like Ernie said it would be.

Penny just about shit a brick when she saw me. She was really glad to see me, but a little freaked out, as she'd sublet my room. Luckily, the guy she'd rented it to was going on tour with his band in a week and a half, so it wasn't really a problem. I'd spend a few nights sleeping on the living room couch. The only real drag was that all my stuff was boxed up, in the hallway, in her room, and in the garage. But what else could I have expected? I'd been gone for nine months, and she had no idea if I'd ever be coming back.

The cats were all glad to see me, in that nonchalant, feline way. After a while, though, they wouldn't leave me alone. Penny had been feeding them way too much. They were all obese.

I settled back in to my regular life, and waited for the other shoe to drop. But to my amazement, no black helicopters arrived to spirit me away to Langley, no poison darts were aimed at my throat.

Somehow, I'd slipped through the cracks just like Ralph said I might when we'd sat together after closing time in Topeka, watching Allallo clean up shop, that penultimate night in Emerald. But he'd also warned me to leave well enough alone, and keep my mouth shut, which I'd done so far.

But I knew in my heart that was going to be a problem for me. I thought about Aurora, about how she'd poured her heart out on these pages. I thought about what we'd just been through, even as the reality of it faded as my life returned to normalcy.

As far as anyone on Earth knew, the U.S. Government's man in Oz, Agent Ralph Dudley, had saved the day on their behalf by blowing up the source of the Evil Warlock Bhennigh's power. The U.S. military personnel on the field of battle had been possessed, and Ralph's actions, thank God, had snapped them out of it. And the Salinas Gate had been closed, temporarily, in order to preserve the security of the Continental United States from the continuing threat of possible cross-dimensional invaders.

Not a lot has been published to contradict the party line, aside from what you might hear in the free weeklies, or on Pacifica radio now and again, and you know how many people listen to that. Not many people who'd come back from Oz in the wake of the war were willing to speak out. And could you blame them?

But I knew the party line was bullshit, didn't I? I was there. Didn't I have some kind of obligation to the truth? Didn't everybody else at least deserve to hear it, even if they didn't believe it?

My comfy little life might be disturbed if I did this. I knew that. I also knew I might have a way out:

Shortly after getting my room back to normal, I was pissing around with the laptop, as I usually do when I finish writing. I was looking at all the junk I was carrying around on my hard drive, trying to see what I could get rid of.

Along with assorted downloaded crap I'd been hanging onto forever, there was a folder in there named "Happitty." I clicked it open, and found myself looking at a peculiar animated icon. It was a little pulsating energy ball, sporting a winking and grinning smiley face.

The name under the icon was "GoToOz"

As soon as I finish these last few lines, I'm saving all of these words: mine, Aurie's and the Mickie's, as a compressed text file, and posting it to alt.conspiracy and a few other high traffic newsgroups on the web. I'll slap a copyright notice on there for good measure.

Whether or not anybody believes it, or cares, remains to be seen.

Hell, maybe the CIA will offer to do an investigation of itself.

Maybe Pace/Horner will option the film rights. And Captain Meatball can sell little Gene and Ledelei action figures at the drive-through window.

I'm gonna wait and see. Maybe I'll get rich. Maybe nothing will happen. But if things start to look the least bit dangerous, I'm going to double-click that funny little icon my buddy left me. I'll make sure the cats are crawling all over me first. I've always wanted to find out exactly what they think of me.

- L.A. 2/3/98 3:28 PM

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