Eyes and Ears
he withered little woman called herself Mother Earth, but there was absolutely nothing hippie muffin about her. She reeked mostly of the cigarette smoke that had yellowed her long, tangled hair and what few teeth had not yet rotted out of her mouth. The tall bourbons she tossed back like tap water sharpened the bit of an edge on her breath, too.
Cigarettes and corn liquor had reduced her voice to a glass-scratching rasp, so I had to lean in close to hear over the noise of the bar’s happy hour clientele. To curious patrons it might’ve looked like I was making romantic moves on a skeleton that had let itself go, but the noisemakers surrounding us were clearly too preoccupied with their own end-of-workday commiserations and come-ons to bother themselves with curiosity about our dialogue.
“So you’d like to tour my facilities,” the woman cackled. “I’m flattered, but should I be? How do I know you’re not another of those snooping young gentlemen sent by the government? They’re very curious about my endeavors, you know. Too curious, if you ask me. I always return their poor, pitiful spies full of misinformation.”
We all work for the political elite now, I could’ve told her—whether we know it or not. Some of us are their eyes and ears. Others of us assume the roles of victim or professional foe. Most don’t even notice being nudged along by the powers that be because it’s become so normal. But I would’ve gotten nowhere going that route. So I repeated what she wanted to hear instead.
“I produce a television series featuring unique environmental efforts,” I said. “On cable. And when we first heard about what you’re doing, we knew we had to invite you on our show.”
When Mom, as she insisted I call her, had drained every last drop from every last glass there in front of her, she lowered herself off her stool with a steady grace and motioned I should follow her. Mom’s hunched, hurried gait parted the happy hour masses with mysterious ease and we were suddenly standing behind the bar. Ignoring the bartender and servers at work around us, Mom pointed at a hinged panel in the rough wooden floor beneath our feet.
“If I’d known somebody was stopping by to make me famous on reality TV, I would’ve invested in a welcome sign. Maybe next time, huh?” she said. “You’re younger than I am, Junior. And it’s virtually impossible to just hear about me. I go to great lengths. So, government or not, you get to do the heavy lifting.”
The old door, it turned out, was rigged to glide technology, so it practically floated open. Everything that I saw under that bar that night was rigged to a system of one kind or another. About that, I had few doubts. Because what I saw down there most certainly wasn’t natural.
At the bottom of a few steps, where I would’ve expected to find dusty cases of inventory stacked in rows so upstairs fridges, mirrored shelves and carbonated shooters could be quickly replenished after happy hour ended or at the end of a long night, I found something else entirely: rolling hills of verdant pasture that stretched as far as I was able to see in every direction. The ceiling/sky of this odd basement Eden was outfitted with a lighting system I recognized from hydroponic marijuana arrests I reported on back when I earned my keep as a genuine journalist. But this system had been modified to glow with a golden warmth that seemed to drip vitamin D.
The real sun rarely achieves such a radiance—and then only in select geographies of the globe.
Once my eyes adjusted to this light, I noticed how the lush carpet of grass on which we stood grew into taller prairie grasses and colorful wildflowers off in the distance, the swaying horizon broken with stands of trees that looked as if they’d been around since the earliest days of the earth itself. Their canopies rustled with the slight breeze.
Whatever this landscape was I was looking at, it had a too-perfect Disney quality about it—like an enormous, elaborate amusement park ride conceived as a tribute to those past masters of paintbrush and pathos, Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade. To resurrect and/or redeem them, maybe. The view before me also resembled an exaggerated 3-D cartoon of somebody’s idea of what nature looked like once upon a time, except scrubbed clean and polished to a hospital shine. I kept expecting little critter characters to appear, scurrying around our feet, singing sappy songs.
“These are pretty real-looking visuals,” I had to admit. “How do you animate your trees? Hologram? CGI? I don’t notice any smoke or mirrors.”
“Hollywood special effects don’t figure into it,” Mom replied. “All I do is plant seeds.” She cleared her throat. “Photosynthesis does the rest. Rain showers deserve some of the credit, too, I suppose.”
“Of course.” I nodded. “Photosynthesis. Rain. Typical bar basement weather for sure.”
“You never know what might be happening right under your nose,” she said with a shrug. I had no clever comeback for that simple statement of fact, which was a first for me. But as unlikely and amazing as this scene was, it wasn’t what I’d wanted her to share. The rumor on the street, the rumor that I’d discovered via a series of encrypted email messages, was that this woman had created something called a “bliss suit” using old-fashioned garden sod. Wearing it was supposed to be enlightening, spiritually speaking.
According to the briefing I’d received, heads, hipsters and hangers-on to utopian dreams forever deferred had big hopes for this “bliss” technology.
A grass-based fashion movement would be too ubiquitous to fail. Or so they idealized.
But my superiors had ideals, too. Among them was the quashing of utopian movements, as soon as I could confirm that a “bliss suit” actually existed. The powers that be I called my bosses had zero interest in the spiritual enlightenment of our nation’s fringe citizenry.
So imagine my disappointment. With no mirror in sight, the only person I’d observed in this unlikely little heaven-under-earth was Mom, the woman now doubled over in front of me, coughing up, it sounded like, the toxic contents of every cigarette she’d ever lifted to her mouth. Her small frame looked like it might shatter with every cough. But my more immediate concern, at this moment, was that I’d seen no signs of a suit. This fact concerned me, mostly, because I was afraid that this old crazy was about to expire on me. Before I had something more to show for my evening with her than a tall tale nobody would believe in a million years.
From where I was standing, this woman’s idyllic meadow illusion, however she’d created it, didn’t seem much of a threat to anybody.
Then I saw that the woman was coughing up huge handfuls of dust. Or it looked like dust—until I looked again. Mom was coughing up piles of seeds, then tossing them around her feet.
She shot me a seriously odorous stink eye. “Not what your primetime demographic cares to watch, Junior? Or is this not what you’d expected to see? You quit pretending to scribble notes on your pad a while ago.” Then she was doubled over again, barking up more garden starts.
“You disappoint me,” Mom continued, between coughs. “You traded your imagination. For cynicism. But those dour government twerps. Whose ridiculous bidding you’re here to do. They’re sadder than you. They settled for power. Well, power and paranoia.”
I lacked a clever comeback for this simple statement of fact, too. Not that it mattered. Because Mom wasn’t done lecturing me. She caught her breath, then started in again.
“You’ve probably never met those fools you work for in the flesh. I most certainly have. Again and again. They’re small men. They’ve been small since the days of Napoleon. Baby steps are all they take. Only their hairstyles change. Their shortsightedness never ceases to amaze me. They wage their wars to convince themselves and each other who’s in charge. In my experience,” she said, “people who think they have all the answers usually haven’t asked enough questions.”
Enough, indeed. I’d heard all I needed to hear of her histrionic jabber—and seen nothing I’d hoped to see. When I turned to leave, to head back upstairs for another happy hour drink special or two, I saw those seeds Mom had just tossed around her feet were grown flowers now. These weren’t like the normalish wildflowers on the far hills. While I wasn’t paying attention, they’d shot up from the dirt and arranged themselves into gaudy wreaths like those usually seen around the neck of a winning racehorse or propped next to a casket at a funeral. If those wreaths were usually fumbled together by an amateur in mittens after a few too many.
These freak flower arrangements were so real, I couldn’t help but smell them.
“Okay. You’ve got my attention,” I said. “But is there some point to all this hocus pocus? Because up-close, it’s even more impressive, but it still isn’t the ‘bliss suit’ I’ve heard all about. And I wanted to feature it on our show,” I added in a half-hearted scramble to maintain my illusion.
The old woman’s eyes widened and she uprighted herself when I mentioned the bliss suit.
“The suit,” she nodded. “Makes sense my failed little DIY experiment would merit ‘official’ inquiry.”
“DIY,” I parroted her. “Exactly. That’s what our viewers are interested in seeing.”
“People always say they want to conserve the environment,” the woman frowned at me. “That’s all they talk about, until it’s time to make any actual sacrifice. I know that now.”
“Sacrifice?” I said.
She took a long pull from a flask she’d retrieved from I have no idea where. She offered it to me, and I accepted it. Gladly. “Grass doesn’t grow itself,” she said, lighting a new cigarette. She inhaled. “I didn’t make it clear, apparently, that my suit was a serious life-long commitment, not some cutesy on-again, off-again style thing that was effective at clearing your conscience, but not particularly good for more than that.”
With the old woman’s change in mood the weather in this basement idyll had turned dark. The horizon in every direction was now the threatening purple of a thunderstorm.
I retrieved my notebook to beat the rain. “So your suit turned wearers into—”
“The future,” she interrupted. “I was recreating your environment, thank you very much. Organically. One man, one woman at a time. Or that was my idea. Unfortunately the lightweights I recruited had ideas of their own, once it was too late and that was no longer an option for them. Those roots simply did what roots do. They struggled deeper, until they discovered a biological source capable of sustaining life.”
“Doesn’t sound all that blissful to me,” I said after another swallow from Mom’s flask.
“It tickled at first,” she said. “But once those roots were in their central nervous systems, nothing they said made sense. Not the first time nonsense gibberish got mistaken for epiphany. Ever wonder why you only heard from suit beginners?” she asked me.There were no ecstatic, satisfied customers by the end. “In no time, their giggles turned to complaints, then to screams. Consider yourself fortunate you never had to listen to that. Please inform your fearful leaders that I cleaned up my mess. If you think of it, tell the bastards ‘You’re welcome’ for me, too.”
“So what happened to folks who climbed into your suit?” I asked, even though I knew.
All I had to do was look around.
All rights reserved to Brian Beatty.
Illustration by Alex Fukui.