There is a long string of notes that play as my body blocks the laser and reflector that triggers the siren-song of passage through the door of the old gas station/convenience store. Not a ding or a dong, but a series of dings and dongs that warps into a version of some melody no one has the time to sort out. Least-wise when Keystone Light is on sale for 8 bucks a suitcase.
The coffee station lay dead ahead so I walk over to it. There is but one size of cup: big…like 20 ounces big. I dutifully fill the cup just beyond the demarcation, heeded by more sensible men, that was printed on the cup by the manufacturer. I snap the lid into place splattering coffee onto the counter and my hands.
“Shit!” I yell without a thought.
“Hey, this is a family store,” retorts a voice.
The voice’s origin is blocked from my view by a glass case filled with all various paraphernalia one would need to “paint the town red”, to borrow the nomenclature of the kids. I can hear that this is no stereotypical convenience store clerk. The voice belongs to an old woman, which isn’t so strange I guess. I’m just used to clerks who are not fluent in English (more fluent in English than I am in Bengali, to be clear). Occasionally, the clerk is a gen-Xer whose life expectations had punched them in the back of the head so hard that it rendered them incapable of interaction with other people in a meaningful way (oh generation X, what happened to us? Insert jaded “blow-off” quip here). This is a sweet old lady. It is cliché to assert that a town is: “a place that time forgot”. Valentine is a town that afflicts time with amnesia.
“It’s not a big deal, so you burned yourself; there’s no reason to be cussin’ and chasin’ out all my candy buyers and their parents.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
“No harm…no glory; that’s what I say,” as she wipes the counter dry.
We walk over to the register so I can pay for the coffee. The register has the benefit of being near the window, offering a view of what John is up to. I wouldn’t put it past him to leave me here for dead.
“You’re from outta town.”
“Yeah I’m here from the Seattle-area doing a story about Mountebank International.”
“International indeed, John went to high-school with my boy, he’s lived here all of his life. Then he starts welding together oversized steel coffins in an abandoned parking lot, and all the sudden he’s a bonafide globetrotter? Horseshit!” “Sorry,” she quickly interjects. “It just gets me upset!”
I feel semi-obliged to tell her that it isn’t my rule she’s violating. It is hers. I think better of it.
“So you’re not a believer?” I ask.
“A believer? That’s perfect! These guys are the revival-tent preachers of the impending apocalypse; they invite a bunch of paranoids to their job shacks and fleece them without even taking the time to set up the backdrop of a crystal cathedral, or ball. Bunch of goddamn hucksters! Sorry,” again.
At this point I’m distracted, but I make note that I should come back.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Good to meet you Didi, they call me Patso.”
“Why do they call you that?”
“Because I make them.”
I give her a buck for the coffee, and head out the door, John is on the move and I don’t want to miss my ride.
“Come again,” Didi shouts over the warped melody.
I guess she has more in common with her Indian colleagues than her pale complexion lets on.
John’s in no mood to wait around, he is waiting to pull out of his parking lot onto highway 83 southbound, but when he sees me risk my life to run across the road he has pity on me and waits. I climb into the truck and he makes it clear that he is none-too-happy with my choice of words when I spoke to his clients.
“This is the problem with you media types, always got an opinion. Leave your opinion in your pin-head when you talk to my clients or you’ll be hitchin’ back to the airport.”
“You got it. Sorry about that.”
“Fuck your apologies! This is about money!”
Fifteen miles–or so–can seem like a long distance when you find yourself on a desolate stretch highway in a truck with a stranger whom you’ve pissed off and whose grasp on reality is questionable. We turn off on a non-descript dirt road (though I had some descriptors for it). We arrive at a small grassy field. I’d guess us for a quarter-mile, through the woods, from the highway. But it’s hard to estimate distance on a shitty dirt road.
There’s an excavator for digging and a bulldozer for leveling the site. The grave that holds the shelter is still open so the utilities can be hooked up. Inside the hole rests 3 40′ storage-container. The family who purchased this 1000 square foot monstrosity is nervously walking around the site. The work crew is comprised of two guys–both employees of John’s.
It turns out, having two guys do the work of four is motivated by more than the bottom-line.
“Three people can keep a secret, as long as two of them are dead,” John cryptically informs me when I ask him about the small size of his crew. I also ask whether or not he brings in sub-contractors. “No subs, no inspectors. It’s a matter of security.”
The family of preppers make a bee-line from the edge of property to John’s truck when they see him. They seem confused.
“We just thought of somethin’”, says the man.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” John answers.
“Where are we going to hide our truck once we get up here? I’m perfectly willin’ to pick off any soul willin’ to risk his neck by comin’ on the property, but I don’t wanna advertise we’re here.”
“We’re gonna build a blind on the north-eastern corner of the lot, then we’ll cover the whole lot in gravel so that there will be no visible driveway or ruts for when you move from the highway to the blind. We maintain the gravel until the day of reckoning. Then, once you move in, you let the weeds and whatnot grow as per usual. It’s all in the paperwork.”
“That’s what I was tellin’ my wife, but I couldn’t remember for sure.”
They both seem more relaxed after that, relaxed enough to finally notice me.
“So is this the newspaper guy you was tellin us about?”
“Well I’m not really from a newspaper,” I begin but I’m interrupted by John.
“Yeah, this is him.”
“What does he mean he’s not from a newspaper?”
“He just means he doesn’t work for one newspaper he writes for a couple of them,” John replies giving me a look to play along.
“Yeah that’s what I meant,” I say confidently. But now I’m confused.
The tour of the shelter begins in the “media room” of the underground shelter. There, I’m shown the security-camera monitoring system.
“The cameras capture images from every angle of the property, lettin’ us know if anyone is here who’s not s’possed to be,” says the man. “They’re all powered by solar with a battery backup that can be charged by the diesel generator that powers the main grid.”
We tour to the living quarters, the sleeping quarters, the kitchen, and the cold-storage area where around a year’s worth of “food” (enough powdered eggs and canned beans to make me wish I’d have died prior to reaching the shelter) could be stored. All of these spaces are cozy enough to belie their subterranean perch. But for the lack of windows, it is easy to forget that one is in a dungeon of one’s own making.
“The idea here is to be able to live in the shelter for a year or so, till the heat blows over, while havin’ the ability to go out–when it’s safe–to hunt or fish or whatever. The security keeps you aware of threats you may have to eliminate, long before they become an unwelcomed surprise,” John explains.
“No such thing as a welcomed surprise,” the woman quips.
“She can talk,” silently I marvel.
The explanation is unnecessary. This is a culture of people who are so narrow of view that they are nothing, if not self-explanatory. It is becoming apparent to me that self-explanation is the second favorite pastime enjoyed by the preppers…right behind: paranoid squirrel impressions.
There are hushed deliberations between John and the customers. This is a reoccurring role for John. He is, for lack of a better term (or mayhaps in the midst of a wealth of better terms), a lunatic-whisperer. Once all is said and done, everyone seems at ease. The crew works tirelessly as Mr. Mountebank quiets any and all concerns. Then it’s time to go back to town.
I have a room at the Trade Winds Lodge just a bit north of the parking lot that serves as Mountebank International. John takes me back there for the night. We pull up and John watches me into my room. He leaves. I walk out of that room, through the door that connects the next room over…the room in which I’m sleeping. I never considered myself a paranoid person. But when in Rome…the point being, I just don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about all of these preppers, and it seems prudent to hold on to a few secrets of my own. I chose this hotel because, while I was doing some research on the story, I came across a story about the owner. He had had a business partnership with Mr. Mountebank that turned sour. The story made it clear that he was no fan of the local “prepper-cult”. His words. I trust that the secret of my decoy room is safe with him. He makes the arrangements for a rental car to be driven out to the Trade Winds Lodge, just in case I have to drive out of this place pre-maturely.
Yes, I’d never considered myself a paranoid man. But I’m dealing with people who think it’s a good idea to kill a body over powdered-eggs. Right or wrong: the entertaining of the idea, in my opinion, is a moral short-fall.
I think a bit about the conversation I had with the family whose bunker I’d visited that day (it is hard to describe people when they won’t give you names).
“What lesson do you feel you are teaching your kids about humanity with all of this talk about the end of the world and the fall of society?”
“These are lessons that I wish my folks would’ve taught me: look out for number one, everyone is out to get what you have and they will do anything to get it. These are hard lessons, I know, but they are the truth. The sooner my kids know, the better”, the wife replied.
“But do you worry that those things are not actually true, that what you are really doing is perpetuating a paranoid worldview, and causing undue stress in the lives of your kids?”
“I don’t know what you mean by all of that, but I can tell you that it is true…I’m absolutely convinced of that.”
I could see in her eyes that she was, and there was nothing more to say about it. I’ve had similar run-ins with the self-assured, and I’ve learned when to count my losses and drop the subject. How do people become so dead-set on an idea that is accompanied by no evidence? There has been no catastrophic failure in the social fabric, the likes of which preppers preach, in recorded history. But on this assignment over and over again I’m hearing the subjective first-person accounts of “this power-outage” or “that ice-storm” that had miraculously subsided: “but if they’d gone on for one more week…all hell would’ve come uncorked.”
Do these people have some insight concerning the frailty of society, or are they just so grateful to have a hobby that it matters little to them what the social impact of their crazy ideas are on those around them? And if their paranoia is so crazy, why do I have a decoy room?
I’d witnessed a sampling of the hobby of paranoid preparedness but tomorrow’s tour of the wilderness survival and firearms-safety camp, owned and run by John Mountebank’s brother and business partner Tim, is sure to be a whole new level of end times improv:
“I am going to grab you in the woods, kill you, and rape your wife.”
One thing I’ve learned about improv is you always answer “yes, and”.