How to Lose Money Running a Speed Lab
BY JOHN DOLAN
Part Five: Back to Berkeley for the Big Epiphany
Butler knelt by the beaker while the white flakes drifted down, chanting “every one a $20 bill.” There didn’t seem to me to be as many as there were supposed to be, a light snow at the bottom of whatever toxic liquid was in the beaker. But he was the chem. Major, not me. And the sooner we finished the final sacrament the sooner we could pack up the Frankenstein glassware and pour the leftover poisons down the sink and get out of there.
I did feel bad about leaving my parents’ property steeped with the cat-pee smell of speed cookery. Even asked Butler to help me wipe the walls down, but he had to tend to the product. We bagged it, still wet and yellower than I’d expected, more like a paste than powder. He double- and triple-bagged it, put it inside his Clark Kent sportcoat and headed back to Berkeley.
When I stepped off that creaking porch for the last time my knees were gelid with relief. Unbelievably, we’d gotten away with it. A week of the vilest stench seeping out of that leaky old frame house, while Benecia cop cars cruised past every hour, and nobody’d kicked the door down. It was enough to ruin your faith in law enforcement.
I could kick back now. That was our deal: I’d do the cooking and provide the kitchen; he’d sell what we’d made. That wasn’t going to be a problem. Butler had connections. He liked to talk about them, in fact. His story always had the same theme: everybody except Butler was an idiot.
He loved showing off his little chem-major magic skills, so naturally the unveiling of the dried and ready product at Bongoburgers was a big event. I came over next day, after Terry’d gone to work, to see the final dealer-prep before the big sales offensive. Butler would be doing the selling. He’d be the wholesaler, that is; the retailer would be his dealer pal Pink Cloud, who hung around Barrington selling to the Coop kids.
Butler made a solemn ritual trip to check the apartment door, then to his room, closing the door behind him so I couldn’t see where he’d hidden the stuff, then came back with our product, five ounces of yellowy white gummy stuff that smelled like all the cat pee in the history of the world distilled into one plastic bag.
Butler shook the product into a shallow metal pan, lovingly shook the last gummy lumps out of the bag, and weighed it. Grunted, said nothing. I snuck a disloyal look at the gauge. It was hovering around the high 4’s. Not even five ounces. Butler unhooked the pan from the scales, slid the product out onto his bedroom mirror, took his library card and chopped at the product. Every now and then he’d stop to clean gummy bits off the card. Not sneery for once, proud and calm like a doting dad combing out his kid’s hair. I tried to guess the next move: “So we baggie it up now, huh?” using “baggie” as a verb because it was streetier.
Butler allowed just the hint of a sneer to disturb his Mona Lisa smile. Suddenly he was laconic: “Tomorrow. ‘s gotta dry.” Nod like I knew that all along, while switching to Voice B, the Unworldly Academic with A Dark Side: “Ah right of course should’ve realized that yes I noticed it seemed a little matted—“ Where did I get “matted”? Now we’re dog groomers? Time to shut up.
Butler didn’t even sneer. “Oh no no no. We have to bulk it up first.” He got another plastic bag out and held it over our product. “Everything’s stepped on, customers just figure that in.” He got more moral then: “A lot of assholes put anything in, even toxic crap for a cheap kick. What we’re using….” As he started pouring the powder onto our product, “…is Vitamin B. It’s depleted by amphetamines anyway, so we’re actually helping them out.” As he poured, the scales tipped: we had a fat seven-plus ounces now. He knew what he was doing.
In fact the only time Butler ever conceded he might not be superb at anything was when he had to apply to Pharmacy School. He asked me to write his letters of interest, vaguely implying that mere clerkish words were beneath him. Of course those letters of interest would have given Balzac writer’s block, they were such typically foul, dishonest auditions for grad school. You were supposed to sell yourself to an admissions committee while maintaining your dignity, coyly implying that you were the next big thing while maintaining a chuckly modest tone. I’d had to do one myself to get into the Ph.D. program so I knew all about it. And in a sense, testing a young candidate’s ability to flatter, flirt and lie on paper probably was a good way of culling grad school applicants.
And it was time for me to get back to my day job, my deep cover as a budding professor, teaching the Aristotelean enthymeme to Berkeley’s first-year pre-laws. We’d scheduled the speed lab session for winter break, and spring semester was beginning. I had to break in a new TA, a little old man with a beard, twice my age. His name was Henry Wolf and he was the special pet of the mean old drunk who ran the department that year, Jeanette Robinson.
Henry was trouble, that was very clear. But it meant very little compared to the fact that Heidi was now laughing her laugh two doors down from my office, in the TA room. She smoked those Canadian Export A’s. They’re rare now, but occasionally I stumble into that smell and want to die and kill all over again. Professor Robinson personally escorted her aged pet, Henry, to my office and entrusted him to my care while I did my usual nodding and simpering while the body devoted itself wholly to mammal grief, to picking up the high notes of that laugh and the waft of those cigarettes fresh from her lungs.
Henry was a nut, but that didn’t especially bother me. TAs came in only a few varieties anyway: nuts, dullards, careerists—and of course all the possible combination of those three types. All sorts of half-coyote half-poodle combos bouncing around those hallways, and nuts were as common as underbred shortlegged black lab mixes.
There shouldn’t have been any problem; everybody was clear and simple about. Henry was an old nut of some kind, under the Department Chair’s protection, and I was to shepherd him through his first semester as TA. I’d done it many times before, and who cared anyway? Compared to Heidi laughing away approximately twenty feet away. I hadn’t spoken to her in eight months. My last message was dictated by Paul, who suggested an old favorite of his for those times when you had to draw the line: “You’re right, I’m wrong, have a nice day.” It seemed like a good idea when I wrote that on her last furious note and even added a smiley face. But it worked too well. Eight months now of silence, and no more Paul to offer advice and moral support. Paul had fled down to Orange County when I let his girlfriend jump me in her filthy apartment, too scared to refuse her and make her upset.
A clean sweep, then. Decks all cleared away. Hence the decision to become a bad person, hence Butler and the lab. It wouldn’t matter once we were rich and evil. We’d be in perfect tune with the world, naturals.
But Henry was trouble from the start. He wouldn’t shut up. He’d been in Paris for 20 years, which was stupid, and he wanted to talk about it. He was a writer. He’d starved for it. Yeah, yeah, yeah…he was fifty or something. And five=four at the most. Both of which immediately excluded him from consideration, but he kept trying to bond, while I leaned toward those bitter unbearable evidences of Heidi, the TA office, kittycorner across the hall. Henry was babbling something about, “The funny thing is you can actually get fat from a diet of just potatoes, a lot of my artist friends found that out….”
I didn’t care about Henry or even believe in Paris or potatoes, that was some old painting; I just wanted to flee the proximity of Heidi, and what made me saddest was the certainty that Heidi wasn’t doing it on purpose. As if. She’d moved on long ago. A friend told me that she and her fat ugly hippie fop friend Charles Aitel would share a joint and choke up doing impressions of me as “ye constante lover,” mooning and pining away for her. Apparently they called me “Buddha” because I’d shaved my head in grief. “Buddha ye Constant Lover.” I told my friend maybe Charles would understand my pain better if I broke every bone in his face and it must’ve got back to him because my friend said they’d stopped doing that routine. Around him anyway.
I took Henry just wanted to get back to the other life, Bongoburgers, compare notes with Butler, see how sales were going. Terry was still at work, selling stocks for his dad (indicted by the SEC a few years later) so it was me and Bulter alone across the formica table, Paul’s old chess set scattered against the wall, the map of the universe full of dart holes.
Butler wasn’t as happy as he should’ve been. He wasn’t bragging and that was a bad sign. “Those stupid fucking headbangers, you know how they are….” Which I didn’t, so he explained, careful as always: “You know, hardcore meth heads, all they want is Crystal to bang their stupid heads with…they don’t even appreciate it when you give them Benzedrine—I mean Benzedrine has been shown, clinical studies, it gives you, improves your IQ 20 points and Crystal just 10!”
That was his big selling point, and I’d heard it maybe a dozen times before, but the thing was it couldn’t actually be used to sell our Benzedrine because we were trying to pass it off as Meth. I said, “So…do they…I mean do they not like it, do they realize it’s not Meth?”
Bulter shrugged, irked. “They think it’s meth they just think it’s bad meth. Not heavy enough for them. Fucking idiots.”
I knew the idiots in question. I knew exactly who Butler was trying to sell to, though he’d been careful not to tell me. He was always very cautious, believed in making random u-turns when driving, never giving people his real name, and lying to stay in practice.
But I knew because Shiela’s brother Bruno was one of these people, and he’d mentioned Butler. Bruno was an anarchist or some nonsense like that. Also short, and a hippie. From Orinda; anarchists are always rich. He and his quasi-wife and their loud buddy John Simpson and some guy calling himself Vinnie lived in a trashed warehouse in West Oakland, with a room wallpapered in egg cartons so bands could play there. They nailed all the doors shut against their neighbors, the black people they were theoretically in solidarity with, and snuffled down the old staircases to the lower rooms where they snorted up amazing quantities of speed. Selling speed to them was like opening a liquor store in Moscow or a gas station next to a Hummer dealer; you couldn’t lose. If they didn’t want it….
That was as far as I let such disloyal thoughts go. Loyalty, that was the big thing. There was going to be honor among thieves, if nowhere else. Everybody was a bad person, therefore there is honor among thieves. Not the soundest foundation for an ethical system, but then, as Berdyayev said, Western ethics can be paraphrased, “Man is descended from the apes, therefore let us love one another,” which isn’t that great either. If I’d had to grade that as the thesis-statement of one of my first-year papers, it would have flunked. We had very strict guidelines for those thesis statements. They had to be perfect Aristotelean enthymemes, in a single sentence…and they were not to be revealed until the last line of the essay.
That was what drove my crazy little TA Henry Wolf round the bend once and for all. He was willing to sit through my classes and do a little office-hours coaching, though it was clear he’d left his brain back in Paris and was totally non compos. But when one of the students came to me saying, “Henry told me I should put the thesis statement at the beginning of the essay, not the end,” we were screwed. That was the whole gimmick of the Rhetoric Department: thesis statement at the end!
Made no sense, of course. Eventually we had to change it; too many profs in other departments telling their students, “And don’t write one of those stupid Rhetoric essays where you don’t know the point till you get to the end!”
So Henry the nut was right, and I was wrong. I went to him and taxed him with his heresy and in his quiet fierce nut voice he said, “Oh no, that’s, that’s, no, that’s not right, at the end, no, no, I, no, I can’t do that.”
So I went to Brandt, the spoiled old dribbler who was in charge of the writing program, and he told me it was a shame no one would stand up for their beliefs, and bad TAs like Henry just got passed through with good evaluations, and if he were me, what he would do would be to report Henry, get him fired.
And I nodded and went back to Bongoburgers to see if Butler had sold any product, but he wasn’t around. Terry was there, eating a Blondie’s pizza, and said Butler was never home lately, and was “actually kind of a weird guy.”
Next morning I went to see Jeanette, the chair of Rhetoric and Henry’s protector, to request a new TA who’d put the thesis statement at the end. She screamed at me: “I will not have a man of Henry’s quality railroaded out of the department by the hostility of one or two men!” It slowly and painfully dawned on me, as I groveled and shuffled out of her office, that I had been used again. And by Brandt, a man barely sentient enough to drive a car. Cat’s paw to a dotard; that’s a painful job.
Heidi’s hippie asshole friend Aitel’s office was across the hall from Jeanette’s too, and smelled of Export A’s, and there was that laugh from in there too, his little incense-stinking Tibetan-wall hanging lair. I could barely make it the four blocks to Bongoburgers, maybe get a little good news.
Terry was there again, holding up a bill with big holes cut in this. “Hey John!” he said, laughing his familiar incomprehension laugh. “Look what that weirdo Butler did!” We went into Butler’s room and found it completely empty. Cleaned out. The bills were phone bills; instead of just dumping the bills in a trash can like a normal person trying to hide his tracks, Butler had taken a razor blade and carefully cut out of each page every number he’d called. And vanished. With the product, and the glassware I’d fronted the money for.
I told Terry, “Weird,” and went home and lay in bed and made all the noises I’d been saving up since seeing Heidi come out of the breakfast place with the deadhead dishwasher and Paul’s face after Marian told him what I’d done and my parents when they first smelled the cat piss smell of the house in Benecia where we’d cooked the product and Brandt’s senile grin as he advocated doing the principled thing and the smell of the Export A’s from the TA room. The noises were no problem because my building had been converted to an SSI hotel, the only way the landlord could make money under Berkeley’s rent control laws, and besides the traffic diverters directed all the traffic in town right past my window, so between the shrieks and gibbers and motorcycles and VWs—VWs are the loudest, actually, you wouldn’t think so-with all that background noise, you could shriek as long as you wanted.
And from those hours of shriek and contemplation came a vision, my new purpose in life. I would make a little compartment in the black raincoat I wore everywhere, and in that compartment I’d put a length of good steel pipe, maybe a foot or so, because—I had it all worked out—a knife or a gun would imply premeditation but a pipe, you could say you picked it up from the gutter on an impulse, like say you ran into Butler just by accident and he laughed at you and you just grabbed the first thing, this pipe, and beat. His. Fucking. Skull. To. Pulp. Oh yes indeed. Everything was finally clear.