Human Gauntlet

By Peter Clarke

He’d been up in Chico getting medical treatments for several years. Before long, he was just another midtown scene-kid who’d moved on (people were always leaving for San Francisco, LA…). He was forgotten, for the most part—except whenever a group got together and ate pizza with psilocybin mushrooms.

I grew up religious, so none of this seemed too weird to me. If you know what it’s like to pray every night and actually feel something there, then you know how any shit you want can become real if you keep a line of communication open. You send signals out there, sure enough you’ll get something back.

Several years is a long time to get medical treatments. No one knew what sort. All the better. Ideally his life was in the balance. We could only speculate how his medical team was a group of spiritual quacks, herbalists, and drug dealers.

“I saw Dante last night,” someone would say. They’d say, “He was in the shape of a wild boar.” They’d say, “I heard his voice in the train whistle. He was the train going by.” They’d say, “I saw his ghost. He’s dead.”

It’s like Schrodinger’s cat. You put Dante in medical treatment in Chico; for as long as he stays in Chico, he occupies two realities. He’s both dead and alive. It can’t be confirmed either way, but it can’t be neither.

When you see him alive, he’s alive.

When you see him dead, he’s dead.

According to quantum mechanics, he’s in a super position. He’s not one thing or another until someone looks. So far, no one has peeked into Chico. We’ve only got these mushroom trip visions. They go either way.

Chico is a dead town. A dead, bro, dusty town. From Sacramento, it’s only an hour and half away. You could sleep in and still drive there and back by noon.

All of us secretly doubted that, though. The way we figured it, if we drove there, we’d get sucked in. We’d never come back.

As far as Schrodinger’s cat is concerned, it’s not that simple. The cat was just in a box waiting to be either killed or not killed at random. In Chico, Dante was receiving medical treatment. Doubtless his life was in the balance. At the same time, you could bet he was somehow transforming himself.

A few summers ago, right around the time he left for Chico, I ran into Dante at Espresso Metro, the filthy little coffee shop at Sac City College. He was in a corner drinking coffee and staring at a girl with her blouse tied in a knot at her belly button. I sat down and said hey. He kept staring at the girl, then looked at me. He was there to sell a mushroom bag. That’s what I figured since he was wearing his pizza uniform. He’d been fired from the pizza place months before, but he never returned the uniform and still wore it for drug deals.

“I failed the human gauntlet,” he told me. There was meaning in this. He was on the mushrooms. I said a few things but he didn’t respond. The girl he’d been looking at got up and left. He just kept saying, “I failed the human gauntlet.”

He must have said that about ten times before I noticed that the side of his head was all bloody. His grungy look made it hard to tell, but after noticing it once, it was obvious: his long, dark hair was definitely matted with blood. I looked more closely and also saw that he was hiding a black eye under his sunglasses. His shirt was torn in several places. His posture was off, as if something was wrong with his spine. Casually glancing under the table, I saw his bare legs were wrapped in bloody gauze at the knees.

I was late for class so I had to rush away. It was the last time I ever saw him.

“I failed the human gauntlet,” he said, staring down at his bloody hands.

Years passed and I was still working on my associates degree. It was my fifth year at community college. My life was going nowhere.

One night, I ordered a large pizza all for myself. I was supposed to be studying for my midterm exams, but I didn’t feel like it. What’s the use of an associates degree anyway? I figured I’d just eat pizza, get fat, and drop out. I also had a small bag of mushrooms. I’d been saving them for exactly this sort of night.

Around 1 a.m. I started having visions. There were all kinds of religious undertones. That’s not much of a surprise given the way I grew up. I figured I’d start to really feel something any second now, the way I used to when I’d pray every night before bed. More beautiful and pure and true then anything. I felt it coming on.

The sun rose at some point during my visions—and I guess I must have been asleep. I was outside along the side of an empty street. Nothing around me looked familiar.

It took me over an hour to figure out where I was, although to this day I don’t know what the hell happened. I was in Chico. Of course I was. I was in goddamn Chico.

First thing I did that day was to walk to a coffee shop. It was a long shot, but I’d heard that Dante’s brother worked at the place. I had never met the guy, but I recognized him immediately. I introduced myself.

“Is Dante around?” I asked.

“No,” said the brother. “He’s gone.”

“Gone?” I blurted. It was like he might as well have said “dead.” I asked, “Where did he go?”

The brother finished pulling an espresso shot. I could tell he was hungover and didn’t want to talk. Also I sensed he was suspicious of me. But he finally told me anyway.

“He moved to Hillsboro—up by Portland—about a year ago. He works for a mattress supply company as a delivery guy.”

I nodded, not quite understanding, and took my coffee outside. It was already warm out, even though it wasn’t even 9 a.m. And the place was a dump alright. A wasteland. The exact opposite of the bohemian paradise we tried to create in the Victorian attics of Sacramento. It was enough to crush my soul at a single glance. Goddamn Chico. I’ve been stuck here ever since.



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Peter Clarke

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