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A Scanner Darkly
Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.
Having nothing else to do or think about, he began to work out theoretically the life cycle of the bugs, and, with the aid of the Britannica, try to determine specifically which bugs they were. They now filled his house. He read about many different kinds and finally noticed bugs outdoors, so he concluded they were aphids. After that decision came to his mind it never changed, no matter what other people told him ... like "Aphids don't bite people."
They said that to him because the endless biting of the bugs kept him in torment. At the 7-11 grocery store, part of a chain spread out over most of California, he bought spray cans of Raid and Black Flag and Yard Guard. First he sprayed the house, then himself. The Yard Guard seemed to work the best.
As to the theoretical side, he perceived three stages in the cycle of the bugs. First, they were carried to him to contaminate him by what he called Carrier-people, which were people who didn't understand their role in distributing the bugs. During that stage the bugs had no jaws or mandibles (he learned that word during his weeks of scholarly research, an unusually bookish occupation for a guy who worked at the Handy Brake and Tire place relining people's brake drums). The Carrier-people therefore felt nothing. He used to sit in the far corner of his living room watching different Carrier-people enter--most of them people he'd known for a while, but some new to him--covered with the aphids in this particular nonbiting stage. He'd sort of smile to himself, because he knew that the person was being used by the bugs and wasn't hip to it.
"What are you grinning about, Jerry?" they'd say.
He'd just smile.
In the next stage the bugs grew wings or something, but they really weren't precisely wings; anyhow, they were appendages of a functional sort permitting them to swarm, which was how they migrated and spread--especially to him. At that point the air was full of them; it made his living room, his whole house, cloudy. During this stage he tried not to inhale them.
Most of all he felt sorry for his dog, because he could see the bugs landing on and settling all over him, and probably getting into the dog's lungs, as they were in his own. Probably--at least so his empathic ability told him--the dog was suffering as much as he was. Should he give the dog away for the dog's own comfort? No, he decided: the dog was now, inadvertently, infected, and would carry the bugs with him everywhere.
Sometimes he stood in the shower with the dog, trying to wash the dog clean too. He had no more success with him than he did with himself. It hurt to feel the dog suffer; he never stopped trying to help him. In some respect this was the worst part, the suffering of the animal, who could not complain.
"What the fuck are you doing there all day in the shower with the goddamn dog?" his buddy Charles Freck asked one time, coming in during this.
Jerry said, "I got to get the aphids off him." He brought Max, the dog, out of the shower and began drying him. Charles Freck watched, mystified, as Jerry rubbed baby oil and talc into the dog's fur. All over the house, cans of insect spray, bottles of talc, and baby oil and skin conditioners were piled and tossed, most of them empty; he used many cans a day now.
"I don't see any aphids," Charles said. "What's an aphid?"
"It eventually kills you," Jerry said. "That's what an aphid is. They're in my hair and my skin and my lungs, and the goddamn pain is unbearable--I'm going to have to go to the hospital."
"How come I can't see them?"
Jerry put down the dog, which was wrapped in a towel, and knelt over the shag rug. "I'll show you one," he said. The rug was covered with aphids; they hopped up everywhere, up and down, some higher than others. He searched for an especially large one, because of the difficulty people had seeing them. "Bring me a bottle or jar," he said, "from under the sink. We'll cap it or put a lid on it and then I can take it with me when I go to the doctor and he can analyze it."
Charles Freck brought him an empty mayonnaise jar. Jerry went on searching, and at last came across an aphid leaping up at least four feet in the air. The aphid was over an inch long. He caught it, carried it to the jar, carefully dropped it in, and screwed on the lid. Then he held it up triumphantly. "See?" he said.
"Yeahhhhh," Charles Freck said, his eyes wide as he scrutinized the contents of the jar. "What a big one! Wow!"
"Help me find more for the doctor to see," Jerry said, again squatting down on the rug, the jar beside him.
"Sure," Charles Freck said, and did so.
Within half an hour they had three jars full of the bugs. Charles, although new at it, found some of the largest.
It was midday, in June of 1994. In California, in a tract area of cheap but durable plastic houses, long ago vacated by the straights. Jerry had at an earlier date sprayed metal paint over all the windows, though, to keep out the light; the illumination for the room came from a pole lamp into which he had screwed nothing but spot lamps, which shone day and night, so as to abolish time for him and his friends. He liked that; he liked to get rid of time. By doing that he could concentrate on important things without interruption. Like this: two men kneeling down on the shag rug, finding bug after bug and putting them into jar after jar.
"What do we get for these," Charles Freck said, later on in the day. "I mean, does the doctor pay a bounty or something? A prize? Any bread?"
"I get to help perfect a cure for them this way," Jerry said. The pain, constant as it was, had become unbearable; he had never gotten used to it, and he knew he never would. The urge, the longing, to take another shower was overwhelming him. "Hey, man," he gasped, straightening up, "you go on putting them in the jars while I take a leak and like that." He started toward the bathroom.
"Okay," Charles said, his long legs wobbling as he swung toward a jar, both hands cupped. An ex-veteran, he still had good muscular control, though; he made it to the jar. But then he said suddenly, "Jerry, hey--those bugs sort of scare me. I don't like it here by myself." He stood up.
"Chickenshit bastard," Jerry said, panting with pain as he halted momentarily at the bathroom.
"I got to take a leak!" He slammed the door and spun the knobs of the shower. Water poured down.
"I'm afraid out here." Charles Freck's voice came dimly, even though he was evidently yelling loud.
"Then go fuck yourself!" Jerry yelled back, and stepped into the shower. What fucking good are friends? he asked himself bitterly. No good, no good! No fucking good!
"Do these fuckers sting?" Charles yelled, right at the door.
"Yeah, they sting," Jerry said as he rubbed shampoo into his hair.
"That's what I thought." A pause. "Can I wash my hands and get them off and wait for you?"
Chickenshit, Jerry thought with bitter fury. He said nothing; he merely kept on washing. The bastard wasn't worth answering ... He paid no attention to Charles Freck, only to himself. To his own vital, demanding, terrible, urgent needs. Everything else would have to wait. There was no time, no time; these things could not be postponed. Everything else was secondary. Except the dog; he wondered about Max, the dog.
Charles Freck phoned up somebody who he hoped was holding, "Can you lay about ten deaths on me?"
"Christ, I'm entirely out--I'm looking to score myself. Let me know when you find some, I could use some."
"What's wrong with the supply?"
"Some busts, I guess."
Charles Freck hung up and then ran a fantasy number in his head as he slumped dismally back from the pay phone booth--you never used your home phone for a buy call--to his parked Chevy. In his fantasy number he was driving past the Thrifty Drugstore and they had a huge window display; bottles of slow death, cans of slow death, jars and bathtubs and vats and bowls of slow death, millions of caps and tabs and hits of slow death, slow death mixed with speed and junk and barbiturates and psychedelics, everything--and a giant sign: YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD HERE. Not to mention: LOW LOW PRICES, LOWEST IN TOWN.
But in actuality the Thrifty usually had a display of nothing: combs, bottles of mineral oil, spray cans of deodorant, always crap like that. But I bet the pharmacy in the back has slow death under lock and key in an unstepped-on, pure, unadulterated, uncut form, he thought as he drove from the parking lot onto Harbor Boulevard, into the afternoon traffic. About a fifty-pound bag.
He wondered when and how they unloaded the fifty-pound bag of Substance D at the Thrifty Pharmacy every morning, from wherever it came from--God knew, maybe from Switzerland or maybe from another planet where some wise race lived. They'd deliver probably real early, and with armed guards--the Man standing there with Laser rifles looking mean, the way the Man always did. Anybody rip off my slow death, he thought through the Man's head, I'll snuff them.
Probably Substance D is an ingredient in every legal medication that's worth anything, he thought. A little pinch here and there according to the secret exclusive formula at the issuing house in Germany or Switzerland that invented it. But in actuality he knew better; the authorities snuffed or sent up everybody selling or transporting or using, so in that case the Thrifty Drugstore--all the millions of Thrifty Drugstores--would get shot or bombed out of business or anyhow fined. More likely just fined. The Thrifty had pull. Anyhow, how do you shoot a chain of big drugstores? Or put them away?
They just got ordinary stuff, he thought as he cruised along. He felt lousy because he had only three hundred tabs of slow death left in his stash. Buried in his back yard under his camellia, the hybrid one with the cool big blossoms that didn't burn brown in the spring. I only got a week's supply, he thought. What then when I'm out? Shit.
Suppose everybody in California and parts of Oregon runs out the same day, he thought. Wow.
This was the all-time-winning horror-fantasy that he ran in his head, that every doper ran. The whole western part of the United States simultaneously running out and everybody crashing on the same day, probably about 6 A.M. Sunday morning, while the straights were getting dressed up to go fucking pray.
Scene: The First Episcopal Church of Pasadena, at 8:30 A.M. on Crash Sunday.
"Holy parishioners, let us call on God now at this time to request His intervention in the agonies of those who are thrashing about on their beds withdrawing."
"Yeah, yeah." The congregation agreeing with the priest.
"But before He intervenes with a fresh supply of--"
A black-and-white evidently had noticed something in Charles Freck's driving he hadn't noticed; it had taken off from its parking spot and was moving along behind him in traffic, so far without lights or siren, but ...
Maybe I'm weaving or something, he thought. Fucking goddamn fuzzmobile saw me fucking up. I wonder what.
COP: "All right, what's your name?"
"My name?" (CAN'T THINK OF NAME.)
"You don't know your own name?" Cop signals to other cop in prowl car. "This guy is really spaced."
"Don't shoot me here." Charles Freck in his horror-fantasy number induced by the sight of the black-and-white pacing him. "At least take me to the station house and shoot me there, out of sight."
To survive in this fascist police state, he thought, you gotta always be able to come up with a name, your name. At all times. That's the first sign they look for that you're wired, not being able to figure out who the hell you are.
What I'll do, he decided, is I'll pull off soon as I see a parking slot, pull off voluntarily before he flashes his light, or does anything, and then when he glides up beside me I'll say I got a loose wheel or something mechanical.
They always think that's great, he thought. When you give up like that and can't go on. Like throwing yourself on the ground the way an animal does, exposing your soft unprotected defenseless underbelly. I'll do that, he thought.
He did so, peeling off to the right and bumping the front wheels of his car against the curb. The cop car went on by.
Pulled off for nothing, he thought. Now it'll be hard to back out again, traffic's so heavy. He shut off his engine. Maybe I'll just sit here parked for a while, he decided, and alpha meditate or go into various different altered states of consciousness. Possibly by watching the chicks going along on foot. I wonder if they manufacture a bioscope for horny. Rather than alpha. Horny waves, first very short, then longer, larger, larger, finally right off the scale.
This is getting me nowhere, he realized. I should be out trying to locate someone holding. I've got to get my supply or pretty soon I'll be freaking, and then I won't be able to do anything. Even sit at the curb like I am. I not only won't know who I am, I won't even know where I am, or what's happening.
What is happening? he asked himself. What day is this? If I knew what day I'd know everything else; it'd seep back bit by bit.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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