"All I can say right now is that we've got specific, detailed information that the French government has been acting in concert with the Iranians, Osama bin Laden, the North Koreans, Chinese, Iraqis and remnants of the Taliban to launch a pre-emptive attack against this country at the exact moment of our weakness...therefore we will pre-empt this pre-emptive attack, and counter-attack beforehand with the full might of our coalition's armed forces."

-Defense Secretary Ronald Dumsfeld; September 10th, 2008, 5:30 PM PST.

 

Since the winnebago began passing through the normally-congested light-industry sprawl east of LA, the Wetnesses have begun to sense there's something seriously wrong. The attitude here inside the Battlestar is one of sinking nervousness, tinged with the remnants of hyperactive anticipation. This is supposed to be their big LA show. They were all hyped up and anxious to lay down their dirtiest, fiercest, most righteously vicious licks ever for all the cool kids and the suits. It's to be the climax of their three-thousand mile haul through half the seedy clubs and honky-tonks between here and Brooklyn.

But all the cars on the freeway are stopped dead in their tracks, trying to drive the other way.

Coming through Berdoo they saw the head of this nightmare, where tanks were set up blocking the eastbound lanes, turning people North toward the amphitheater at Devore.

Which is probably not going to be a concert and is definitely the wrong amphitheater, as Joey pointed out. All these suburbanite cats packed into their cars with their screaming kids and all kinds of coolers and water jugs and shit -- well -- they're looking pretty harried and not so ready to party, either.

The westbound 10 is completely clear though, and the Battlestar is setting a fast clip. Billie's taken over the driving, her little pixie face barely poking out above the huge steering wheel. Joey's sprawled limply in the corner over a beaten leather chair that they picked up next to a dumpster in Omaha. Kenny fixes himself a grapefruit juice and stares at the miles and miles of stopped cars from the comfort of the threadbare sofa in the middle of the living room.

"Do you get the feeling," he says, vaguely talking to Billie, "like we're making a really, seriously huge mistake here?"

"Yeah," she says, "but I get that feeling like twenty times a day."

"It's times like this I wish we had a radio in here."

"Fuck it," says Billie, and smacks the CD player between the front seats, sending the punky jet-crash speed drumming of the Walkmen dropping in through the living room speakers like a bag full of ice picks.

Kenny sets down his tart glass of juice and meanders toward the back of the bus. He knocks on the bedroom's sliding wood-paneled shutters, hears no reply, opens them and steps inside. Doonan's passed out drunk on the bed, limbs entangled over and under the semi-nude sleeping bodies of Tina and Will.

"Hey guys," says Kenny, "I think you should wake up and check this out."

Will's awake. He screws up his nose and his eyes all at once, like he's stifling a sneeze. "What is it?" he says. He tries to get out of bed but Doonan's torso is collapsed deadweight on his bare knees. "Hey, move it," he gives Doonan a kick.

A low "Ghu-uhhhhh," ejects itself unconsciously from Doonan's lungs as Will rolls him over.

Tina blinks long eyelashes into consciousness, scurries out of bed, dragging the sheets with her for coverage.

"You guys should start getting ready," says Kenny, "we're almost there. See if you can get him up, too," he points at the shitfaced Doonan. He turns and goes back into the living room.

Will jumps onto the bed, squats in his boxers over Doonan's chest. "Hey!" he says, grabbing the guitarist's nostrils and slapping his cheek.

"Pqqqhhkkakkakaaa!" says Doonan, coming awake. Reflexively he slams a fist into Will's balls.

"WHAAAAAA!" Will screams.

"They're up," Kenny informs Billie.

"Whup, up. Who's up? I'm up!" Joey excalims.

"You guys that's really great," Billie deadpans, snapping off the music, "but I think I just messed up."

"What do you mean?" Kenny joins her at the helm, standing over her and leaning against the windshield. Billie's pulled them down off the Alameda exit just as the compact, silvery cluster of LA skyscrapers ahead of them is catching the last red rays of sunlight.

"Well," says Billie, "the freeway up there was all fucked up. I thought it might be more tanks."

"So what's the fuckup now?" Kenny asks patiently.

"I don't know how to get there from here."
"Doonan!" Kenny shouts. "Surface streets! Help!"

Doonan comes dashing up to the front, falling sideways and smashing like a crazed bat into the bathroom door as Billie takes a hard turn to the right; he crumples to the floor.

"Whatever," Billie says, "sit down. I can find it."

 

When the Winnebago finally chugs up Cahuenga and reaches the Universal Studios entrance, Billie pulls over and hastily switches seats with Kenny so that he's driving. This is in case any talking needs to be done.

As it happens, no conversation is necessary. There's no line of cars at the gate, no shrieking mob of groupies to honk their way through; no wait at all, actually. Kenny pulls the Battlestar right in up the main driveway, past the vacant guard booth, and starts following signs toward the Amphitheater staging area. They pass a second guard booth, equally unguarded, and follow a long curving driveway down a steep hill with pine trees growing along it until they come into a large parking lot built on a flat mesa abutting the rear of the theater. In the blue twilight they can see below them in the other direction the graded levels of similar parking lots stretched under blue halogens between the overgrown hills, a repetetive series of warehouse-style sound stages, then the artificial woodlands and lakes and all the fake-fronted movie sets tumbling down the mountainside toward the flatlands of the Valley.

This place hits Doonan with a thrill of familiar excitement as he wrenches himself down the gangway of the Battlestar, following the others across the big empty lot. Not much parked here other than a couple of yellow Caterpillar tractors and a big red semi truck over on the far end by the drop of the hill. No cars. Everyone must have scrammed.

They're all walking kind of uneasily toward the back entrance of the theater, not sure what they'll find. Doonan's holding out no hope at this point of actually putting on a concert tonight, but he'd like to know what's going on anyway.

He's spent a bit of time on the Universal backlot before, though under very different circumstances. When they were sixteen, he, Nick, Chaz and Chevy discovered a secret exit from the Citywalk Mall parking lot, circumventing the guardbooths and allowing access to the guts of the property. The first few times in they limited the length of their travels, aware that they were trespassing, afraid of getting caught or getting lost. But as they began going back weekend after weekend the adventure became an addiction; it was like some wild hallucinogenic trip. They became experts at navigating the wooded hillsides where no cop car could catch them. They knew every motion-activated floodlight and every dead-end. They bragged that they could get in and out of the lot blindfolded; occasionally they even led tours, bringing two or three other friends along for the ride. To their friends it was a scary good time; to the original four, it was war. Sometimes they'd prepare for days in advance, dress up in full camouflage; other times they'd be eating burgers at In'N'Out of a Friday night when the urge would overtake them suddenly, unexpectedly. The trip always started the same way but ended differently; they would sneak down a certain, well-hidden stairwell, go dashing across the well-guarded road and through the pine forests, slipping down graded hills all the way to the lowest mesas. Once there, they'd lose themselves in exploration among the fake wooden storefronts of the old west town, the glamorous propped-up financial towers and plasticene snowdrifts of the New York set from a hundred Christmas movies, the half-constructed faux suburban neighborhoods with their clipped lawns and white mailboxes, Munster and Psycho houses lurking in their midst, the Jaws lake, the Back to the Future square and a dozen other unearthly locales so oddly familiar from their TV childhoods, so creepy and necrotic in the lurid LA night. The rule -- the Universal Law -- was that they would only make the trip if they were all stoned out of their gourds. This heightened the natural sense of deja vu into a dreamlike nirvana. The war aspect was that during the entire three to five hour adventure, they would dash expertly from one safe spot to the next, eluding the guards and sherriffs who patroled the vast terrain. They would crawl through the brush and the enormous, sticky spiderwebs, prowl amid the shells of empty buildings. It was as if they were the post-apocalyptic survivors of some culture war that had left all the world a grand, immaculate fa┴ade with all of the guts torn out of it.

Maybe everything started right here, Doonan thinks vaguely. We just got a head start.

The rear doors of the theater are locked. Doonan leads the rest of the band into the trees around the side of the hill and whispers for them to wait. Some kind of preternatural Universal sense is kicking in here, telling him to keep quiet, lay low. He creeps a hundred yards through the trees, avoiding open spaces, until he's gotten up the hill and around the side of the theater. He's on a steep slope now, a hundred feet of forest separating the amphitheater's pedestrian walkway from the road below. Crouching at the edge of the forest he scans the wide strip of concrete in front of the entrance. At first he thinks it's completely devoid of life, but then he sees two shapes moving against the darkened trees maybe sixty yards across the plaza. They look like feds, wearing all black, caps pulled down low, rifles slung over their shoulders.

He doesn't move. The feds don't seem to be guarding the place, looks like they're just checking around. Silently, walking on the outermost sides of his feet, Doonan disappears back into the darkness of the trees, careful not to snap a twig as he moves.

A soft, farting-like noise emanates from the woods down behind him, where the band is supposed to be quietly waiting.

One of the feds cocks his head in Doonan's direction; both of them freeze.

Can he see me?

The fed goes back to poking around in the trees on the other side. As soon as Doonan feels it's safe he breaks into a soft run down the dark carpet of pine needles.

"Dude," he says in a loud whisper as he gets closer to the band. The longhaired kids are all squatting in a circle, passing a joint. In the darkness they vaguely resemble a troop of orangutans playing with fire.

Billie looks up. "What's the haps, brah," she wheezes, pretending she's all stoned. She releases a lungful of smoke and passes the joint on to Will, who's sitting indian-style with Tina's head on his lap. He gives Tina a drag and leans down to shotgun the smoke from her mouth.

Doonan hasn't said anything, he's looking around for options. He looks back and whispers to Billie, loud enough for the rest of them to hear. "I almost got caught. There's cops around the front, or feds or something. Anyway it seemed like they were looking for people."
"We're not doing anything wrong," Will says softly, blowing out a big innocent lungful of pot smoke. "We're just here to play some music."

"Yeah but nobody's around to hear us," says Joey. "They'll probably just arrest us for looking like ourselves."

Joey's 'fro, now dried, has puffed out to its full three-foot diameter. With his black motorcycle vest and nattily striped tie he looks like Art Garfunkle on PCP; Doonan can't help agreeing with his assessment.

"Let's go back to the Battlestar and get some shit to sleep on," Doonan decrees, aware that he's their natural leader in this situation. The Wetnesses are an unusually egalitarian band, in that they write all their songs together and they all sing different parts; kind of like the way The Band used to be. They even switch instruments. Joey's nominally the lead singer, because he's got a sick set of pipes and because when they first started he didn't play guitar so hot. Now he plays guitar and has pipes, so he's basically like the rest of the band.

It's easy to imagine that an arrangement like this could lead to a lot of bickering over who gets to do what. But the bandmates all know their own strengths and weaknesses pretty well from spending a couple years on the road together, musically and in everyday situations, and they've figured a few things out. When you need to get into something, you need Kenny to do the talking; when you need to get out of something, Billie's got to be up front. If you're in a fight, Will's the man on point; wanna get laid, follow Joey. And if you need to be crafty and get away with shit, you want Doonan leading you.

Plus, Doonan's been here before and he knows the terrain backwards and forwards. So naturally they follow him.

"No lights," he orders, as they duck into the Battlestar and start grabbing shit. "We need blankets, music and liquor. And any food we got."

"How about these?" says Billie, holding up a jar of dill pickles. "I've heard they're good for you."

"Do we have anything else?"

"There's half a can of V-8."

"Bring the pickles."

"Yeah, Doonan. Maybe we can catch a squirrel and pickle it," Joey mouths off. Here it is: One of the many seams in the outwardly smooth fabric of Wetnessness. Will and Kenny are standing with leather-clad arms crossed, waiting to see the outcome. Billie, already knowing the outcome, is wrapping the pickle jar tightly in a fuzzy blue blanket.

If Joey gets to be in charge right now, they're fucked.

"We may have to stay here awhile," says Doonan, "until things calm down. Unless you want to just see where the cops tell us to go."

"Well maybe we should," says Joey. "Maybe there's a reason why, y'know, everybody on the planet's going somewhere while we're fucking around here. Maybe there's a bomb gonna drop or anthrax or something and if we don't get safe now we're gonna die out here."

"It's smallpox," Billie shrugs, "there's an outbreak."

All of them turn to her at the same time with the exact same stupid expression on their faces. "What?" they say.

"Smallpox," she says, trying not to laugh at how confused they look.

"How do you know this?" Doonan asks.

"I saw it on the TV when I went to the bathroom. In Indio."

"Why didn't you say anything?" Joey presses her, totally bewildered and a little mad. He looks at Doonan, but Doonan's just looking down and away, thinking about something.

"No one asked me," she shrugs. "Anyway, who cares?"

"Dude, our parents --" Doonan begins.

"Well I guess they're giving everyone shots wherever they were going," says Billie.

"So we should go get shots," Joey insists. "Otherwise we're fucked."

"Dude, those shots can kill you," Doonan says. "Anyway, we're safe where we are, aren't we?"

Kenny nods sagely. "Safer than going down there with all those sick people," he cocks his head toward the innocently twinkling lights of the Valley.

"But whenever we decide to leave here we'll be the only ones...the only ones who haven't gotten shots," worries Joey.

"Dude it's not gonna spread through people once they get shots. They'll contain it," Doonan insists. "Listen; trust me; if we have to we'll get vaccinated later. I don't want to go down there when every person we run into might be sick, when there are tanks driving down the freeway. And I didn't like those cops up there, they looked like they were ready to shoot someone. I think we oughtta stay here, get some food, chill out and wait for shit to get normal again."

"You're just being irrational," Joey contests, "because I wanna go down there, you wanna stay here." He sounds wounded; he's taking it personally.

"Dude, chill," says Billie.

"You're his girlfriend," Joey wheels on her. "I know what you wanna do."

"Okay," Will interrupts. Ever the drummer, he's been silent up 'til now. "Okay, okay. I'm deciding it because," he thinks for a second, shifting the hair out of his eyes. "I'm deciding it because I'm gonna beat anyone's ass that disagrees. We're doing like Doonan says. We give it a day. Then we send out a scout."

Joey's mouth twists into a fractured scowl, but he says nothing. He's outnumbered and outgunned.

"Alright," Doonan moves into action, "Good. We got all the shit?"

"Yup," says Kenny, "I got the guitars."

"Pickles," says Billie.

"Alright. I got the weed? Yeah. Come on, quietly. I know a good place to hide out."

 

Next Chapter --->