This was one of the first things to come out of the box…I guess because when I was packing it was at the bottom of a pile of papers and was thus one of the last things to go in. I found the second page first and wondered what the hell it was. Then the first page surfaced. It’s a very short and ridiculous story, one that at first I didn’t even remember writing. Here it is:
The Conspiracy by Brooks Caruthers
The sky was slate gray and the cold air blowing off the lake stank of oil and sewage.
“I don’t believe it. I can’t.” I turned my back on Tim and threw another rock into the lake. Didn’t skip once. Sank like a stone. I laughed.
Timothy sighed. “No one will.” He threw his rock with a practiced flick of the wrist. It splashed six times before sinking. “I just thought you two might at least consider the possibility.”
“Come on, Tim,” said Johnson. “If what you’re saying is true, then everyone would have to be in on it. The TV, the radio, the newspaper, and all the stores. All of them lying to us all along.”
“I know.” There was a glazed desperation in Timothy’s eyes that haunts me even now.
I tried to sound lucid. Rational. “It’s just not possible that all of these people would lie to us. There’s no way to keep something this big a secret. Always, there are leaks. Always, someone succumbs, if not to their own conscience, then to greed, or maybe just to that urge we all have to whisper things we’ve heard. Humanity is congenitally incapable of maintaining a lie this huge.”
“Are you saying that your own parents are liars?” shouted Johnson. “Really Tim? Your own parents?” He didn’t even try to skip a rock. He just threw a small boulder into the lake. The splash hit all three of us.
“Yes! My own parents! And yours!” Timothy turned away. “You don’t understand. Last night I…I heard something I wasn’t supposed to hear. They didn’t know I was listening…”
“Maybe they did. Maybe they were just trying to throw you off.”
“No. You’ve heard the rumors. Haven’t you ever thought about how the whole thing is just physically impossible?”
“It IS possible Timothy! You have to have faith!”
“Faith?” Timothy laughed bitterly. “I don’t even know what that is anymore. Face the truth. Here and now. There is…no…Santa Claus!”
He walked away from us, down the shore.
“What if he’s right?” asked Johnson.
“He’s lying. Or he just heard it wrong. Silly rumors.”
“Are they? I don’t know. But I know what we have to do. We can’t let THEM suspect we know. Otherwise…”
…no more toys!” I finished grimly.
“Now listen to me very carefully.” Johnson’s eyes were like bright pinwheels. “We can’t let Tim go on like this. Who know who else he might tell?…”
“But he’s our friend!”
“Do you want Christmas with Santa or don’t you?!”
I took a deep breath. “Okay.” We spit on our palms and shook hands.
Timothy could tell something was up. He tried to run, but we ran faster. We gave him a wedgie he’d never forget. Rocks in the underwear — nasty stuff. The whole time Timothy was screaming and crying, “What’re you guys doing? What’re you doing? NO!” Johnson wanted to go further, but I stopped him.
Last night, on the news, the weatherman reported that an unidentified flying object on the weather radar was getting closer and closer to our town. Grandpa wheezed and said, “You know what that really is, don’t you?”
“It’s Santa, Grandpa!” I smiled and he winked, just like last year, but it felt like an act, like my smile was painted on.
Today I got everything I wanted for Christmas. But last night I couldn’t sleep. I was listening for the sound of reindeer. All I heard was the bitter sound of an old man’s laugh.
So, what the hell was that? Well, for starters, the original “title” at the top of the page actually said “Conspiracy As Trauma”. It was written in 1997 on a word processing program that no longer exists on a computer that no longer exists running on an operating system that no longer exists.
There were other pages with headings like, “Conspiracy as a Joke”, “Conspiracy as Mental Illness”, “Conspiracy as Truth”, “Conspiracy as Art”. Those were not stories. They were short essays and film reviews. All were written in 1997 as part of a failed cover story about conspiracies and paranoia for The Little Rock Free Press. The impetus for the story was the release of a so-so movie called Conspiracy Theory, starring Mel Gibson.
I approached the idea of conspiracies in a sort of abstract way, writing little essays about the Church of the SubGenius, the Mel Gibson movie, The X-Files, (which was peaking in it’s 5th season,) and a jaw droppingly bad shot-on-video-in-Little-Rock movie that combined every evil rumor about Bill Clinton into one turgid fictional lump. I had the idea that we could format these essays, weblike, to create the feeling of connectedness that comes with a paranoid view of the world. An idea like that would be unthinkable in a normal news weekly, but there was nothing normal about The Little Rock Free Press.
But of course that didn’t work. No one could make head or tail of what I was bringing them. There was no coherent way to tie the essays and stories together. Conspiracy as Delusion. I’d basically thrown a bunch of ideas at the wall to see what would stick and then abandoned my basic responsibility as a writer to make sense of it all.
Conspiracy as an Excuse.
As it turned out, 1997 was a pretty fallow year for me. The theatre company I was involved with, Red Octopus, was also hip deep in failed projects and restructuring and didn’t manage to put on a successful show for nine months. But we did have some really great video parties, and the following year I managed to turn those parties into a regular Little Rock Free Press column called Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre.
And, while I wasn’t looking, the World Wide Web continued to blossom and spread and promulgate the growth of information and misinformation. In the process, wouldn’t you know, it took all the fun out of conspiracy theories.
It’s a nice day today. I think I’ll post this and take the dog for a walk. I’ll leave you with a recent improvisation from my band Opera.