2001: A Space Odyssey can be interpreted about a million different ways. That's a big part of its appeal. But have you ever felt… hungry while watching it? That's because the movie is actually about food. Look closely, and you'll see it too!
Audiences have always paid close attention to Stanley Kubrick's carefully crafted films, but the documentary Room 237 really brought the practice into focus. With The Shining having been analyzed down to the last detail, it's only natural to turn the focus to another of Kubrick's enigmatic masterpieces. 2001 is a movie people have made sport of interpreting since 1968. It may have polarized the critics (Pauline Kael famously called it "monumentally unimaginative"), but its popularity has endured, and it continues to fascinate.
One angle that came to my attention after repeated viewings of the film, and a chance encounter with this clever essay from 2007 by Josh Ronsen, is this: Have you ever noticed the characters are constantly eating? That cannot be unintentional — this is Kubrick we're talking about here. During a recent screening at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, I could not get the idea out of my mind. Breakfast meetings! Trays laden with mushy portions! Sandwiches that might be chicken! And every time someone eats, something significant happens soon after! With a hat-tip to Ronsen and his hilarious observations, let's investigate further.
In "The Dawn of Man," the ape colony is first seen munching on grass amid a herd of tapirs… until good old "Moongazer" realizes, as Richard Strauss orchestrations boom in the background, that he can use a bone as a weapon. He smashes the pile of bones at his feet, and then we see a tapir take a dive. Next scene: meat feast for everyone! It's implied, of course, that the sudden appearance of the monolith is what caused the ape-brain to realize how to craft, and deploy, a tool. But what if the monolith also transmitted the message that meat is delicious? And it makes you a badass, especially when you've got your newfound weapon in hand? Step off, you less-enlightened other apes… the water supply is ours and you are not invited to the pig pickin'.
Many, many, many years later, Dr. Heywood Floyd is headed from Earth to the space station en route to the moon. Though the Pan Am shuttle comes standard with flight attendants wearing "grip shoes," there's no meal service, so one of the first things Floyd asks his space-station contact is "Do we have time for breakfast?" Fortunately, Howard Johnson's Earthlight Room beckons for a quick bite before heading up to Clavius Base, where another monolith awaits, looming like a giant diner menu in space.
But there's more eating in store before Floyd gets there. First, there's a tray of liquified "food" (based on the packaging: fish, corn, peas, and carrots) to be sipped in zero gravity (before visiting, naturally, the "Zero Gravity Toilet"). Given that was presumably lunch after the HoJo breakfast, no wonder Floyd is stoked when, en route from moon landing to monolith site, he's presented with a cooler of sandwiches. Solid food, yo. Hey, we're heading over to the most important discovery in the history of mankind, but first … a snack! The exchange goes like this:
[Rummaging] "What's that, chicken?"
"Something like that. Tastes the same anyway."
"Got any ham?"
[Rummaging] "Ham, ham, ham…"
No wonder the monolith is righteously annoyed when they finally get to the crater. It taught pre-humans about the tasty benefits of being a carnivore eons ago, and now these dudes are chomping on sandwiches with simulated ingredients ("They're getting better at it all the time!") and the crusts cut off, followed by coffee served in what appear to be wasteful paper cups. Who really knows what its primary motive is in emitting an eardrum-exploding shriek of a radio signal toward Jupiter, but a little aural punishment for culinary offenses committed is certainly in order.
As a side note: not everybody thinks those sandwiches look like they're made of plastic... or at least appreciates them for being revolting. Shoutout to this food blog and its author's appreciation for "grotesquely comforting space sandwiches."
"Jupiter Mission," 2001's longest segment, is set 18 months later. Astronauts Dave and Frank have quite a lot to amuse themselves with on the long road to Jupiter (exercise, sit under the sun lamp, sketch, play chess, receive transmissions from home, watch news reports about themselves...) and of course eating is an important part of the day. So important, in fact, it's one of the first things we see them doing. A divided tray, similar to what Floyd was served on the way to Clavius, holds rectangles of food-like substance that pop, piping hot, out of the wall. Though it comes in different colors (mostly shades of brown), it all appears to have the approximate consistency of mashed potatoes, and is shoveled into the mouth with a long, thin, spork-like implement.
There's no joy in eating here, no excitement like Floyd's delight over the sandwiches. Really, who can blame them? The only food that even looks appealing appears only on a TV screen, when Frank's parents dial in with long-distance happy birthday wishes, sitting behind a huge cake laden with candles. No cake for you, spaceman.
The only character in these scenes who doesn't eat is HAL, for obvious reasons. Stay with me here, as I adjust my "this theory's getting a little wackadoo, so what?" hat, but perhaps HAL's inability to eat means he has to be destroyed before the next encounter with the monolith? As soon as Dave shuts HAL down, the pre-recorded message pops up to inform the crew about the discovery on the moon, and its connection to Jupiter and the mission. Not long after, the space monolith appears. "Beyond the Infinite" we go, and whooooooo's hungry, because once Dave enters the antiques-in-the-cosmos series of rooms, he sees a man, who is actually an older version of himself, seated at a table. Eating.
Frustratingly, we can't see exactly what he's noshing on, but it looks like the most civilized meal we've seen in the past two and a half hours. There are china plates that make old-school clinking noises, there's real silverware, there's a little bread plate with a roll on it. There's also a glass that breaks when it crashes to the floor. Old Dave reaches down, then Old Dave looks to the bed, where Even Older Dave lies. At the foot of the bed, the monolith towers. "You've finally had a good meal," it seems to say. "You may now pass into the beyond, and be reborn at a higher level. We'll just put that broken glass on your tab."
And I'd be remiss if I didn't include the ultimate part of Ronsen's theory, which is too genius not to mention:
Why are the dimensions of the monolith 1 to 4 to 9? Sit down: the answer will shock you.
1:4:9 are the proportions of ingredients in a recipe. What recipe?
Those are the proportions of butter to half-and-half to sugar used in chocolate fudge, a bar of which the monolith resembles.
Of course, we're still left wondering... what was in those "chicken" sandwiches? Tapir meat?
Jim Trusdale had a shack on the west side of his father’s gone-to-seed ranch, and that was where he was when Sheriff Barclay and half a dozen deputized townsmen found him, sitting in the one chair by the cold stove, wearing a dirty barn coat and reading an old issue of the Black Hills Pioneer by lantern light. Looking at it, anyway.
Sheriff Barclay stood in the doorway, almost filling it up. He was holding his own lantern. “Come out of there, Jim, and do it with your hands up. I ain’t drawn my pistol and don’t want to.”
Trusdale came out. He still had the newspaper in one of his raised hands. He stood there looking at the sheriff with his flat gray eyes. The sheriff looked back. So did the others, four on horseback and two on the seat of an old buckboard with “Hines Mortuary”printed on the side in faded yellow letters.
Trusdale put the hand not holding the newspaper to his head as if to feel for his hat, which was a brown plainsman and not there.
“In your place, is it?” the sheriff asked. A cold breeze kicked up, blowing the horses’ manes and flattening the grass in a wave that ran south.
“No,” Trusdale said. “I don’t believe it is.”
“I might have lost it.”
“You need to get in the back of the wagon,” the sheriff said.
“I don’t want to ride in no funeral hack,” Trusdale said. “That’s bad luck.”
“You got bad luck all over,” one of the men said. “You’re painted in it. Get in.”
Trusdale went to the back of the buckboard and climbed up. The breeze kicked again, harder, and he turned up the collar of his barn coat.
The two men on the seat of the buckboard got down and stood either side of it. One drew his gun; the other did not. Trusdale knew their faces but not their names. They were town men. The sheriff and the other four went into his shack. One of them was Hines, the undertaker. They were in there for some time. They even opened the stove and dug through the ashes. At last they came out.
“No hat,” Sheriff Barclay said. “And we would have seen it. That’s a damn big hat. Got anything to say about that?”
“It’s too bad I lost it. My father gave it to me back when he was still right in the head.”
“Where is it, then?”
“Told you, I might have lost it. Or had it stoled. That might have happened, too. Say, I was going to bed right soon.”
“Never mind going to bed. You were in town this afternoon, weren’t you?”
“Sure he was,” one of the men said, mounting up again. “I seen him myself. Wearing that hat, too.”
“Shut up, Dave,” Sheriff Barclay said. “Were you in town, Jim?”
“Yes sir, I was,” Trusdale said.
“In the Chuck-a-Luck?”
“Yes sir, I was. I walked from here, and had two drinks, and then I walked home. I guess the Chuck-a-Luck’s where I lost my hat.”
“That’s your story?”
Trusdale looked up at the black November sky. “It’s the only story I got.”
“Look at me, son.”
Trusdale looked at him.
“That’s your story?”
“Told you, the only one I got,” Trusdale said, looking at him.
Sheriff Barclay sighed. “All right, let’s go to town.”
“Because you’re arrested.”
“Ain’t got a brain in his fuckin’ head,” one of the men remarked. “Makes his daddy look smart.”
They went to town. It was four miles. Trusdale rode in the back of the mortuary wagon, shivering against the cold. Without turning around, the man holding the reins said, “Did you rape her as well as steal her dollar, you hound?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Trusdale said.
The rest of the trip continued in silence except for the wind. In town, people lined the street. At first they were quiet. Then an old woman in a brown shawl ran after the funeral hack in a sort of limping hobble and spat at Trusdale. She missed, but there was a spatter of applause.
At the jail, Sheriff Barclay helped Trusdale down from the wagon. The wind was brisk, and smelled of snow. Tumbleweeds blew straight down Main Street and toward the town water tower, where they piled up against a shakepole fence and rattled there.
“Hang that baby killer!” a man shouted, and someone threw a rock. It flew past Trusdale’s head and clattered on the board sidewalk.
Sheriff Barclay turned and held up his lantern and surveyed the crowd that had gathered in front of the mercantile. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t act foolish. This is in hand.”
The sheriff took Trusdale through his office, holding him by his upper arm, and into the jail. There were two cells. Barclay led Trusdale into the one on the left. There was a bunk and a stool and a waste bucket. Trusdale made to sit down on the stool, and Barclay said, “No. Just stand there.”
The sheriff looked around and saw the possemen crowding into the doorway. “You all get out of here,” he said.
“Otis,” the one named Dave said, “what if he attacks you?”
“Then I will subdue him. I thank you for doing your duty, but now you need to scat.”
When they were gone, Barclay said, “Take off that coat and give it to me.”
Trusdale took off his barn coat and began shivering. Beneath he was wearing nothing but an undershirt and corduroy pants so worn the wale was almost gone and one knee was out. Sheriff Barclay went through the pockets of the coat and found a twist of tobacco in a page of an R.W. Sears Watch Company catalogue, and an old lottery ticket promising a payoff in pesos. There was also a black marble.
“That’s my lucky marble,” Trusdale said. “I had it since I was a boy.”
“Turn out your pants pockets.”
Trusdale turned them out. He had a penny and three nickels and a folded-up news clipping about the Nevada silver rush that looked as old as the Mexican lottery ticket.
“Take off your boots.”
Trusdale took them off. Barclay felt inside them. There was a hole in one sole the size of a dime.
“Now your stockings.”
Barclay turned them inside out and tossed them aside.
“Drop your pants.”
“I don’t want to.”
“No more than I want to see what’s in there, but drop them anyway.”
Trusdale dropped his pants. He wasn’t wearing underdrawers.
“Turn around and spread your cheeks.”
Trusdale turned, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart. Sheriff Barclay winced, sighed, and poked a finger into Trusdale’s anus. Trusdale groaned. Barclay removed his finger, wincing again at the soft pop, and wiped his finger on Trusdale’s undershirt.
“Where is it, Jim?”
“You think I went up your ass looking for your hat? Or through the ashes in your stove? Are you being smart?”
Trusdale pulled up his trousers and buttoned them. Then he stood shivering and barefoot. An hour earlier he had been at home, reading his newspaper and thinking about starting a fire in the stove, but that seemed long ago.
“I’ve got your hat in my office.”
“Then why did you ask about it?”
“To see what you’d say. That hat is all settled. What I really want to know is where you put the girl’s silver dollar. It’s not in your house, or your pockets, or up your ass. Did you get to feeling guilty and throw it away?”
“I don’t know about no silver dollar. Can I have my hat back?”
“No. It’s evidence. Jim Trusdale, I’m arresting you for the murder of Rebecca Cline. Do you have anything you want to say to that?”
“Yes, sir. That I don’t know no Rebecca Cline.”
The sheriff left the cell, closed the door, took a key from the wall, and locked it. The tumblers screeched as they turned. The cell mostly housed drunks and was rarely locked. He looked in at Trusdale and said, “I feel sorry for you, Jim. Hell ain’t too hot for a man who’d do such a thing.”
The sheriff clumped away without any reply.
Trusdale stayed there in the cell, eating grub from Mother’s Best, sleeping on the bunk, shitting and pissing in the bucket, which was emptied every two days. His father didn’t come to see him, because his father had gone foolish in his eighties, and was now being cared for by a couple of squaws, one Sioux and the other Cheyenne. Sometimes they stood on the porch of the deserted bunkhouse and sang hymns in harmony. His brother was in Nevada, hunting for silver.
Sometimes children came and stood in the alley outside his cell, chanting, “Hangman, hangman, come on down.” Sometimes men stood out there and threatened to cut off his privates. Once, Rebecca Cline’s mother came and said she would hang him herself, were she allowed. “How could you kill my baby?” she asked through the barred window. “She was only ten years old, and ’twas her birthday.”
“Ma’am,” Trusdale said, standing on the bunk so that he could look down at her upturned face. “I didn’t kill your baby nor no one.”
“Black liar,” she said, and went away.
Almost everyone in town attended the child’s funeral. The squaws went. Even the two whores who plied their trade in the Chuck-a-Luck went. Trusdale heard the singing from his cell, as he squatted over the bucket in the corner.
Sheriff Barclay telegraphed Fort Pierre, and after a week or so the circuit-riding judge came. He was newly appointed and young for the job, a dandy with long blond hair down his back like Wild Bill Hickok. His name was Roger Mizell. He wore small round spectacles, and in both the Chuck-a-Luck and Mother’s Best proved himself a man with an eye for the ladies, although he wore a wedding band.
There was no lawyer in town to serve as Trusdale’s defense, so Mizell called on George Andrews, owner of the mercantile, the hostelry, and the Good Rest Hotel. Andrews had got two years of higher education at a business school back East. He said he would serve as Trusdale’s attorney only if Mr. and Mrs. Cline agreed.
“Then go see them,” Mizell said. He was in the barbershop, tilted back in the chair and taking a shave. “Don’t let the grass grow under your feet.”
“Well,” Mr. Cline said, after Andrews had stated his business, “I got a question. If he doesn’t have someone to stand for him, can they still hang him?”
“That would not be American justice,” Andrews said. “And although we are not one of the United States just yet, we will be soon.”
“Can he wriggle out of it?” Mrs. Cline asked.
“No, ma’am,” Andrews said. “I don’t see how.”
“Then do your duty and God bless you,” Mrs. Cline said.
The trial lasted through one November morning and halfway into the afternoon. It was held in the municipal hall, and on that day there were snow flurries as fine as wedding lace. Slate-gray clouds rolling toward town threatened a bigger storm. Roger Mizell, who had familiarized himself with the case, served as prosecuting attorney as well as judge.
“Like a banker taking out a loan from himself and then paying himself interest,” one of the jurors was overheard to say during the lunch break at Mother’s Best, and although nobody disagreed with this, no one suggested that it was a bad idea. It had a certain economy, after all.
Prosecutor Mizell called half a dozen witnesses, and Judge Mizell never objected once to his line of questioning. Mr. Cline testified first, and Sheriff Barclay came last. The story that emerged was a simple one. At noon on the day of Rebecca Cline’s murder, there had been a birthday party, with cake and ice cream. Several of Rebecca’s friends had attended. Around two o’clock, while the little girls were playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Musical Chairs, Jim Trusdale entered the Chuck-a-Luck and ordered a knock of whiskey. He was wearing his plainsman hat. He made the drink last, and when it was gone he ordered another.
Did he at any point take off the hat? Perhaps hang it on one of the hooks by the door? No one could remember.
“Only I never seen him without it,” Dale Gerard, the barman, said. “He was partial to that hat. If he did take it off, he probably laid it on the bar beside him. He had his second drink, and then he went on his way.”
“Was his hat on the bar when he left?” Mizell asked.
“Was it on one of the hooks when you closed up shop for the night?”
Around three o’clock that day, Rebecca Cline left her house at the south end of town to visit the apothecary on Main Street. Her mother had told her she could buy some candy with her birthday dollar, but not eat it, because she had had sweets enough for one day. When five o’clock came and she hadn’t returned home, Mr. Cline and some other men began searching for her. They found her in Barker’s Alley, between the stage depot and the Good Rest. She had been strangled. Her silver dollar was gone. It was only when the grieving father took her in his arms that the men saw Trusdale’s broad-brimmed leather hat. It had been hidden beneath the skirt of the girl’s party dress.
During the jury’s lunch hour, hammering was heard from behind the stage depot and not ninety paces from the scene of the crime. This was the gallows going up. The work was supervised by the town’s best carpenter, whose name, appropriately enough, was Mr. John House. Big snow was coming, and the road to Fort Pierre would be impassable, perhaps for a week, perhaps for the entire winter. There were no plans to jug Trusdale in the local calaboose until spring. There was no economy in that.
“Nothing to building a gallows,” House told folks who came to watch. “A child could build one of these.”
He told how a lever-operated beam would run beneath the trapdoor, and how it would be axle-greased to make sure there wouldn’t be any last-minute holdups. “If you have to do a thing like this, you want to do it right the first time,” House said.
In the afternoon, George Andrews put Trusdale on the stand. This occasioned some hissing from the spectators, which Judge Mizell gavelled down, promising to clear the courtroom if folks couldn’t behave themselves.
“Did you enter the Chuck-a-Luck Saloon on the day in question?” Andrews asked when order had been restored.
“I guess so,” Trusdale said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
There was some laughter at that, which Mizell also gavelled down, although he was smiling himself and did not issue a second admonition.
“Did you order two drinks?”
“Yes, sir, I did. Two was all I had money for.”
“But you got another dollar right quick, didn’t you, you hound!” Abel Hines shouted.
Mizell pointed his gavel first at Hines, then at Sheriff Barclay, sitting in the front row. “Sheriff, escort that man out and charge him with disorderly conduct, if you please.”
Barclay escorted Hines out but did not charge him with disorderly conduct. Instead, he asked what had got into him.
“I’m sorry, Otis,” Hines said. “It was seeing him sitting there with his bare face hanging out.”
“You go on downstreet and see if John House needs some help with his work,” Barclay said. “Don’t come back in here until this mess is over.”
“He’s got all the help he needs, and it’s snowing hard now.”
“You won’t blow away. Go on.”
Meanwhile, Trusdale continued to testify. No, he hadn’t left the Chuck-a-Luck wearing his hat, but hadn’t realized it until he got to his place. By then, he said, he was too tired to walk all the way back to town in search of it. Besides, it was dark.
Mizell broke in. “Are you asking this court to believe you walked four miles without realizing you weren’t wearing your damn hat?”
“I guess since I wear it all the time I just figured it must be there,” Trusdale said. This elicited another gust of laughter.
Barclay came back in and took his place next to Dave Fisher. “What are they laughing at?”
“Dummy don’t need a hangman,” Fisher said. “He’s tying the knot all by himself. It shouldn’t be funny, but it’s pretty comical, just the same.”
“Did you encounter Rebecca Cline in that alley?” George Andrews asked in a loud voice. With every eye on him, he had discovered a heretofore hidden flair for the dramatic. “Did you encounter her and steal her birthday dollar?”
“No, sir,” Trusdale said.
“Did you kill her?”
“No, sir. I didn’t even know who she was.”
Mr. Cline rose from his seat and shouted, “You did it, you lying son of a bitch!”
“I ain’t lying,” Trusdale said, and that was when Sheriff Barclay believed him.
“I have no further questions,” Andrews said, and walked back to his seat.
Trusdale started to get up, but Mizell told him to sit still and answer a few more questions.
“Do you continue to contend, Mr. Trusdale, that someone stole your hat while you were drinking in the Chuck-a-Luck, and that someone put it on, and went into the alley, and killed Rebecca Cline, and left it there to implicate you?”
Trusdale was silent.
“Answer the question, Mr. Trusdale.”
“Sir, I don’t know what ‘implicate’ means.”
“Do you expect us to believe someone framed you for this heinous murder?”
Trusdale considered, twisting his hands together. At last he said, “Maybe somebody took it by mistake and throwed it away.”
Mizell looked out at the rapt gallery. “Did anyone here take Mr. Trusdale’s hat by mistake?”
There was silence, except for the snow hitting the windows. The first big storm of winter had arrived. That was the winter townsfolk called the Wolf Winter, because the wolves came down from the Black Hills in packs to hunt for garbage.
“I have no more questions,” Mizell said. “And due to the weather we are going to dispense with any closing statements. The jury will retire to consider a verdict. You have three choices, gentlemen—innocent, manslaughter, or murder in the first degree.”
“Girlslaughter, more like it,” someone remarked.
Sheriff Barclay and Dave Fisher retired to the Chuck-a-Luck. Abel Hines joined them, brushing snow from the shoulders of his coat. Dale Gerard served them schooners of beer on the house.
“No, I don’t want a glass of water, but I’m worried that I might want one.”
“Mizell might not have had any more questions,” Barclay said, “but I got one. Never mind the hat. If Trusdale killed her, how come we never found that silver dollar?”
“Because he got scared and threw it away,” Hines said.
“I don’t think so. He’s too bone-stupid. If he’d had that dollar, he’d have gone back to the Chuck-a-Luck and drunk it up.”
“What are you saying?” Dave asked. “That you think he’s innocent?”
“I’m saying I wish we’d found that cartwheel.”
“Maybe he lost it out a hole in his pocket.”
“He didn’t have any holes in his pockets,” Barclay said. “Only one in his boot, and it wasn’t big enough for a dollar to get through.” He drank some of his beer. The tumbleweeds blowing up Main Street looked like ghostly brains in the snow.
The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”
Mizell asked Trusdale if he had anything to say before sentence was passed.
“I can’t think of nothing,” Trusdale said. “Just I never killed that girl.”
The storm blew for three days. John House asked Barclay how much he reckoned Trusdale weighed, and Barclay said he guessed the man went around one-forty. House made a dummy out of burlap sacks and filled it with stones, weighing it on the hostelry scales until the needle stood pat on one-forty. Then he hanged the dummy while half the town stood around in the snowdrifts and watched. The trial run went all right.
On the night before the execution, the weather cleared. Sheriff Barclay told Trusdale he could have anything he wanted for dinner. Trusdale asked for steak and eggs, with home fries on the side soaked in gravy. Barclay paid for it out of his own pocket, then sat at his desk cleaning his fingernails and listening to the steady clink of Trusdale’s knife and fork on the china plate. When it stopped, he went in. Trusdale was sitting on his bunk. His plate was so clean Barclay figured he must have lapped up the last of the gravy like a dog. He was crying.
“Something just come to me,” Trusdale said.
“What’s that, Jim?”
“If they hang me tomorrow morning, I’ll go into my grave with steak and eggs still in my belly. It won’t have no chance to work through.”
For a moment, Barclay said nothing. He was horrified not by the image but because Trusdale had thought of it. Then he said, “Wipe your nose.”
Trusdale wiped it.
“Now listen to me, Jim, because this is your last chance. You were in that bar in the middle of the afternoon. Not many people in there then. Isn’t that right?”
“I guess it is.”
“Then who took your hat? Close your eyes. Think back. See it.”
Trusdale closed his eyes. Barclay waited. At last Trusdale opened his eyes, which were red from crying. “I can’t even remember was I wearing it.”
Barclay sighed. “Give me your plate, and mind that knife.”
Trusdale handed the plate through the bars with the knife and fork laid on it, and said he wished he could have some beer. Barclay thought it over, then put on his heavy coat and Stetson and walked down to the Chuck-a-Luck, where he got a small pail of beer from Dale Gerard. Undertaker Hines was just finishing a glass of wine. He followed Barclay out.
“Big day tomorrow,” Barclay said. “There hasn’t been a hanging here in ten years, and with luck there won’t be another for ten more. I’ll be gone out of the job by then. I wish I was now.”
Hines looked at him. “You really don’t think he killed her.”
“If he didn’t,” Barclay said, “whoever did is still walking around.”
The hanging was at nine o’clock the next morning. The day was windy and bitterly cold, but most of the town turned out to watch. Pastor Ray Rowles stood on the scaffold next to John House. Both of them were shivering in spite of their coats and scarves. The pages of Pastor Rowles’s Bible fluttered. Tucked into House’s belt, also fluttering, was a hood of homespun cloth dyed black.
Barclay led Trusdale, his hands cuffed behind his back, to the gallows. Trusdale was all right until he got to the steps, then he began to buck and cry.
“Don’t do this,” he said. “Please don’t do this to me. Please don’t hurt me. Please don’t kill me.”
He was strong for a little man, and Barclay motioned Dave Fisher to come and lend a hand. Together they muscled Trusdale, twisting and ducking and pushing, up the twelve wooden steps. Once, he bucked so hard all three of them almost fell off, and arms reached up to catch them if they did.
“Quit that and die like a man!” someone shouted.
On the platform, Trusdale was momentarily quiet, but when Pastor Rowles commenced Psalm 51, he began to scream. “Like a woman with her tit caught in the wringer,” someone said later in the Chuck-a-Luck.
“Have mercy on me, O God, after Thy great goodness,” Rowles read, raising his voice to be heard above the condemned man’s shrieks to be let off. “According to the multitude of Thy mercies, do away with mine offenses.”
When Trusdale saw House take the black hood out of his belt, he began to pant like a dog. He shook his head from side to side, trying to dodge the hood. His hair flew. House followed each jerk patiently, like a man who means to bridle a skittish horse.
“Let me look at the mountains!” Trusdale bellowed. Runners of snot hung from his nostrils. “I’ll be good if you let me look at the mountains one more time!”
But House only jammed the hood over Trusdale’s head and pulled it down to his shaking shoulders. Pastor Rowles was droning on, and Trusdale tried to run off the trapdoor. Barclay and Fisher pushed him back onto it. Down below, someone cried, “Ride ’em, cowboy!”
“Say amen,” Barclay told Pastor Rowles. “For Christ’s sake, say amen.”
“Amen,” Pastor Rowles said, and stepped back, closing his Bible with a clap.
Barclay nodded to House. House pulled the lever. The greased beam retracted and the trap dropped. So did Trusdale. There was a crack when his neck broke. His legs drew up almost to his chin, then fell back limp. Yellow drops stained the snow under his feet.
“There, you bastard!” Rebecca Cline’s father shouted. “Died pissing like a dog on a fireplug. Welcome to Hell.” A few people clapped.
The spectators stayed until Trusdale’s corpse, still wearing the black hood, was laid in the same hurry-up wagon he’d ridden to town in. Then they dispersed.
Barclay went back to the jail and sat in the cell Trusdale had occupied. He sat there for ten minutes. It was cold enough to see his breath. He knew what he was waiting for, and eventually it came. He picked up the small bucket that had held Trusdale’s last drink of beer and vomited. Then he went into his office and stoked up the stove.
He was still there eight hours later, trying to read a book, when Abel Hines came in. He said, “You need to come down to the funeral parlor, Otis. There’s something I want to show you.”
“No. You’ll want to see it for yourself.”
They walked down to the Hines Funeral Parlor & Mortuary. In the back room, Trusdale lay naked on a cooling board. There was a smell of chemicals and shit.
“They load their pants when they die that way,” Hines said. “Even men who go to it with their heads up. They can’t help it. The sphincter lets go.”
“Step over here. I figure a man in your job has seen worse than a pair of shitty drawers.”
They lay on the floor, mostly turned inside out. Something gleamed in the mess. Barclay leaned closer and saw it was a silver dollar. He reached down and plucked it from the crap.
“I don’t understand it,” Hines said. “Son of a bitch was locked up a good long time.”
There was a chair in the corner. Barclay sat down on it so heavily he made a little woof sound. “He must have swallowed it the first time when he saw our lanterns coming. And every time it came out he cleaned it off and swallowed it again.”
The two men stared at each other.
“You believed him,” Hines said at last.
“Fool that I am, I did.”
“Maybe that says more about you than it does about him.”
“He went on saying he was innocent right to the end. He’ll most likely stand at the throne of God saying the same thing.”
“Yes,” Hines said.
“I don’t understand. He was going to hang. Either way, he was going to hang. Do you understand it?”
“I don’t even understand why the sun comes up. What are you going to do with that cartwheel? Give it back to the girl’s mother and father? It might be better if you didn’t, because . . .” Hines shrugged.
Because the Clines knew all along. Everyone in town knew all along. He was the only one who hadn’t known. Fool that he was.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” he said.
The wind gusted, bringing the sound of singing. It was coming from the church. It was the Doxology.
I am what is commonly known as a binge drinker. I don’t ever drink at home, but I like to go out. When I go out I like to drink a ton. When I hit the town, I, like all of the other true partiers in the world, want a place to go where I know the vibe and know I am going to get my mind crushing buzz on with the least possible hassle, combined with the most possible fun.
It should also be cheap. For a boozebag, checking your wallet the next day can be a terrifying experience.
Which is why I always have a regular bar that I frequent. The last thing you want to do if you really want to get hammered is wander around aimlessly looking for a good place to drink.
I have been a regular at different bars numerous times throughout my life. In my past, I have had many failed relationships and a myriad of life crisis, and through these horrible times I have always had a regular bar to call home.
When used correctly being a regular at a bar can be a good thing. For one, it is economical. I used to hang out at a place where I became so friendly with the bartender that I drank for free and only tipped. I would run up 70 dollar bar tabs, then throw down 30 bucks for a tip and walk out. Sometimes I would just walk out and throw the bartender money the next time I came in. This went on for a few years. The end result was that the bartender was fired (I wasn’t the only one he was giving free drinks to) and I had to find a new bar. It was more traumatic than it sounds.
Being a regular makes it much easier to get laid, for a while anyway. Instead of being an unknown predator, you are this dude they see all the time, it helps of course if you are funny or mysterious. But then eventually you become the only thing worse than an unknown predator, which is a known predator.
Which brings me to my main point: there are positive and negatives to being a bar regular.
The positives: everyone knows you.
The negatives: everyone knows you.
You need a lot of skill to go to a bar solo and fit in. It can happen, and I can do it, but the other regulars and bartenders are always going to look at you a little askance. The best thing to do is to have a bunch of different friends you can bring with you to the bar at different times. That way you avoid the whole lone wolf stigma, but then you have to beware of your friend ruining your rep at your hangout. Because if the regulars and bartenders don’t like your friend, you are screwed as well. Nothing kills the scene worse than an idiotic wingman.
Any true drunk knows the lifecycle of the bar regular. There are four significant stages that occur, some may take months, and some years, but in time, all of them will occur to varying degrees.
At first, of course, people don’t know you. Keep to yourself on your initial visit, be friendly, but not too overzealous. Wooing a bar is pretty much the same as wooing a lady. Show confidence. Say things when you feel like it to whomever you want at the bar, or the bartender. But if you don’t have anything funny or interesting to say, don’t say anything at all. If you aren’t funny and interesting, nothing is going to go well for you at the bar, so this article is not for you.
A lot of people get freaked out at the thought of sitting at a bar by themselves. Don’t be one of those people. Sitting at a bar is one of the finest pleasures known to man. Don’t let your fear own you.
Tip well, and say funny things, chat up the bartender, but be subtle. If the bartender is a woman, flirting is fine as long as you don’t overdo it, if you can’t do it well in real life, for fuck’s sake don’t do it in the bar.
Buy some drinks for others and tip well. This is like putting money in the bank. If you show love to your bartender and fellow regulars they will show it back when you need it. Trust me on this one.
The biggest thing: just keep showing up. If you like it there and act cool, people will eventually like you too. That’s how bars work. If you weren’t there looking for someone to talk to, you would be drinking at home.
The bartenders call you by name when you arrive. My favorite ever was a bartender yelling out, “It just got a whole lot cooler in here!” as I walked through the door.
People are genuinely happy to see you. You get a free drink here and there. It starts to feel like you really have a scene. If the bar is too crowded, you start to get irritated by all the other people who aren’t regulars taking your seat.
It seems important that you go to the bar now. If you are home, you wonder what is going on at the bar. It always seems like you are missing something when you aren’t there. Your bar calls your name.
The bartender knows you usually tip well, so it isn’t that big a deal if you tip on the light side here and there. People know you, it is easier to bum smokes because of that and you don’t need to buy a pack. You get cut off on the rare occasion, but you handle it like a gentleman. You start getting laid a lot. You say things and people laugh.
Basically, it is party time.
On Your Way Out.
Now when you enter, the bartender still says hi, but it is a little forced. He had to throw you out a week ago, and things haven’t been quite the same since. It wasn’t your fault, this chick kept saying you were in her space when you were just trying to drink, but for some reason the bartender doesn’t seem quite over it.
You have bummed too many smokes and sometimes people say no when you ask for one. You now take the fact that you used to tip well as a reason to tip badly.
Once, a few weeks ago you left on the tab, and didn’t come back for a few days to clear it up.
Sometimes when it is a slow day, maybe just the beginning of the night, there are only five girls at the bar. You’ve lied to all of them, slept with three of them, and stolen from one. If you weren’t so hammered you would feel uncomfortable.
You say things and you are ignored, albeit in a polite way. The “friends” that you bring with you are of lesser and lesser quality by the day.
You find a new bar.
It has to happen… Your relationship has run its course. It was beautiful while it lasted, but it is over. The romance is gone, and there is no getting it back.
Remember that other place that you went that time? They had cheap well drinks for happy hour and the bartender seemed cool. Tomorrow would be a good time to check it out.
The Thing scampers across the Antarctic tundra in a dog suit. A Norwegian helicopter gives chase with bad aim and incendiaries. It’s in humanity’s best interest to kill the dog before it transforms into a “pissed-off cabbage” made of twelve dog tongues lined with thorny dog teeth. (Taking over the world requires imagination, psychedelic detailing, and a little hustle.) The dog, referred to by Thingsplainers as “Running dog-Thing,” is smart; it will go on to perform incredible feats. Like helping oatmeal cowboy Wilford Brimley build a spaceship. Like sticking Kurt Russell inside a fifth of J&B. Like replicating the frailty of the human mind in conditions of paranoia and subzero isolation. All of these, unbearable likenesses. Running dog-Thing has earned its customized bass lurk, composed by Ennio Morricone, which, in fairness to your ears and mine, could be an expensive John Carpenter imitation.
This opening sequence for Carpenter’s The Thing prompted cheers at BAM last month, as part of a retrospective of the horror director’s work. I whooped for my own dread, maybe rooting for the thirteen-year-old version of me who saw The Thing with my dad in 1982, after my parents’ divorce. I relished those early quiet moments at U.S. National Science Institute Outpost 31, before the dog exploded and everyone started side-eyeing each other’s ratty long johns. Before, if you’ll forgive me, things got messy.
Thawed by a team of Norwegian researchers after being entombed in ice—with some 85,000 years on McMurdo’s volcanic barrel sponge—the Thing makes its living by assimilating and copying other organisms. The Thing seems to be all for biodiversity, at least by appearances, while also making a convincing argument for keeping the permafrost intact. The Carpenter adaptation hewed more closely to the John Campbell story “Who Goes There,” rather than remaking the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, directed by Carpenter’s hero Howard Hawks and starring Gunsmoke lawman James Arness. Carpenter once called the Arness Thing “a blood-drinking carrot from outer space.” This fiendish carrot could later be seen in Halloween, on a TV set next to a sewing basket, just before some lunatic in a William Shatner mask ruined babysitting for the eighties.
Carpenter’s Thing, for its part, discouraged the future of dog whispering, if not mankind in general. Running dog-Thing was played by Jed, a half wolf that neither growled nor barked. Richard Masur, who played the station dog handler, remembers how Jed would just give you “that look” when he grew uncomfortable on the set. That Thing look. So watch Jed closely. Watch Jed pad down empty hallways. Jed nosing the door open, looking out of windows. Jed listening to Stevie Wonder.
Early in the film, Jed visits a shadow sitting on a bed, causing much speculation among Thing viewers. Who was first to be infected? The geologist? The chef on roller skates? Some believe it was the stoner helicopter mechanic who gives a shout out to Erich von Däniken. This means, as Carpenter once joked, the Thing was high for most of the movie. (And subsumed the memory of reading Chariots of the Gods.) When I spoke with Carpenter last month, he would only tell me it was Kurt Russell’s stunt double—the shadow of a mimic—sitting on a bed.
The film poses a series of existential questions, the first one being whether it’s even possible to discuss the Thing without sounding totally high. Can one be the Thing if one is worried about being the Thing? Or does the Thing fake-worry about being the Thing, so as not to reveal its cosmic sloppiness? I can see how easily the Thing can take over one’s entire life, an unstoppable force assimilating and mimicking one’s existence—like the Internet. One look at Thing message boards confirms the theory that the Thing should be just as freaked out by humans as they are by it. In the film, Wilford Brimley’s Dr. Blair supposes this while performing an autopsy on Norwegian Two-faced Thing, his eraser head traveling directly from an astro-parasitic entity to his own bottom lip. A clear violation of Thing health code.
Carpenter made nineteen films besides The Thing, many of them great: from the yuppie capitalist satire They Live to the lo-fi goof Dark Star. While working on this story, I attempted to get away from The Thing by taking inventory of every other Carpenter memory within reach: one shock-haired ghoul on bicycle, with cards flapping in spokes; one ax-wielding book agent; one Ice Cube on Mars; two Eyes of Laura Mars; one inflatable pet alien named Beachball trying to tickle one Dan O’Bannon to death in an elevator shaft; one existential yet failed attempt to talk one bomb out of detonating itself; one film that pits Superman, Luke Skywalker, and Kirstie Alley against six telekinetic children; one script, unused, with Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” as the sound track for a nuclear meltdown; one case of birder outrage concerning validity of “bullshit binocular shots” used in Assault on Precinct 13; one canister of ancient liquid evil that allows you to transcribe end-times code at lightning speed; one Fog doctor, identified in the closing credits as “Phibes”; one Rowdy Roddy Piper, identified in the closing credits as “Nada”; one kid at summer camp who was kind of a dick, which could be related to the fact he was actually named Michael Myers; one childhood friend who turned the Halloween theme into the new “Chopsticks”; one Carpenter sound track collaborator, Alan Howarth, nodding in headphones with eyes closed while I played him MC A.D.E.’s Miami Bass/Halloween classic “How Much Can You Take?”; one time sneaking back into Escape from New York just for the opening credits, when words appear on the screen as images to be watched, not read, so as to commit one nasty keyboard riff to memory; one Snake Plissken recital (“I don’t give a fuck about your president”) in the fifth-grade gym locker room, unaware that Coach Frank Zerbinos was present, resulting in disciplinary one mile “fun run” on the track in front of the cafeteria on pizza day; one obligatory mention of “Carpenter synths” when referring to music that may or may not remotely sound like “Carpenter synths”; one e-mail from a friend confirming yes, his ten-year-old son did indeed march in a Chewbacchus parade in New Orleans while carrying a sign declaring, I CAME HERE TO KICK ASS AND CHEW BUBBLE GUM, ETC.; one roommate singing the chorus to Big Trouble in Little China; one stranger happily informing me that the Psychokinetic Energy Meter (PKE) used in Ghostbusters was recycled for law enforcement in They Live; one Brooklyn record store called The Thing that contains one original copy of Donny Hathaway’s Everything Is Everything; one (and only) Donald Pleasence.
And another important question for John Carpenter: What was the fog machine used in The Fog?
They have a machine that takes this grease oil base—called it “fog juice.” Big thing. [Starts making fog-machine noises]. They have a giant one called the Valley Fogger and they just fogged everything up. Then they had a handheld device you could walk around with—it’s like a leaf blower only it blows out fog.
Rob Bottin, who played the ghost of a vengeful seagoing leper in The Fog, was in charge of special effects for The Thing. During filming, he joked about the geologist’s stomach ripping open and turning into “a big mouth that bites this guy’s arms off.” Carpenter took him seriously. Bottin would do such a thorough job—literally ending up inside the Thing, for the finale—that he’d check himself into a hospital after the shoot completed.
Rob Bottin and the Norris Spiderhead.
For Bottin, exploring the imagination of resemblance was a matter of catching this creature in the act of sorting itself out (or as Lovecraft once wrote, “correlating its contents”). The Thing may have been gross, but the reality was downright disgusting and could be sourced from the grocery store. Ingredients included creamed corn, Jell-O, mayonnaise, microwaved bubble gum, and five-gallon pails of K-Y Jelly—all supervised by a twenty-two-year-old, high on candy bars and cola, wearing an “I Love E.T.” shirt.
For all of Bottin and Carpenter’s efforts, The Thing did a box-office face-plant on release, having the misfortune of debuting on the same weekend as E.T.—outgrossed by an alien with a beer gut who flew a bicycle into the face of a full moon. (Kurt Russell and E.T. both drank Coors.) But unlike E.T., the Thing deserves its own diorama among the frozen animal impressionists at the American Museum of Natural History. Right next to the snow wolves. As Bachelard once wrote, nature went mad long before man did. Just consult your local lobster guts: in Reverend Thomas R. R. Stebbing’s History of Crustacea (1893), an illustration of a lobster’s stomach “opened up to show the teeth, the central one of which has been supplied with eyes, nose and mouth to represent the lady in the chair.”
Despite The Thing’s reputable excess—having been revived in a decade not known for its restraint—the idea of vodka-infused Wilford Brimley–Thing assembling a UFO out of helicopter scrap (in an expertly carved ice tunnel, no less) is allowed to play out in our heads. At the BAM screening, I gauged the audience during the infamous scene where the geologist’s disembodied head sprouts spider legs and gets torched by a flamethrower for its trouble. One kid over from me, maybe thirteen, just shook his head. Big whoop. Not even a chuckle for the Lash LaRue bullwhip tongue. But did he catch a glimpse of Brimley dragging someone along the floor by his face? (Watching Brimley work the film’s Not-It nerves is a real pleasure.) The biggest crowd response was saved for a more human act near the end—Kurt Russell’s stunt double executing a dive roll when the Thing, in an uncharacteristically boneheaded move, grabs the dynamite plunger.
For me, it was when the camera, accompanied by the Morricone theme, revisits the empty rooms and hallways of the station, those old dog haunts. This memory trek also served Halloween well, as if foreshadowing a survivor’s nightmare. It becomes part of you. An alternate Thing ending shows another dog, Jed 2, running across the snow, on to another station. Next stop: Global Seed Vault? Canadian Forces Alert Signals Intelligence Station?
Though we’re left with more hope for a sequel than for humanity, it’s encouraging that, against Hollywood odds, 50 percent of the black characters survive. And should a proper sequel materialize, there will be no lack of cogitation about how the Thing should resume business. Carpenter referred me to a follow-up that appeared in Dark Horse Comics: “It’s unbelievably great. It involves a submarine. But I never did anything about it. Nobody asked me to! You have to get it and while you’re reading it you have to be singing into a vocoder.” (Thing in a sub! Who wouldn’t?) Meanwhile, I’m left wondering if the Thing can retain the dream memories of those it absorbs, turning to Freaks and Geeks for answers. For it was the great leveler Millie Kentner who once cried, “Life is not that dog’s dream!”
It’s currently nine degrees McMurdo outside my apartment. Wind: feral. Optimal Thing conditions. I’ve been assimilated by my own couch, in danger of becoming the Blob while reabsorbing the film that nearly sabotaged Carpenter’s career. (Who’s the Thing now!) At the moment, the film is paused on Garry, Outpost 31’s station manager. He’s still tied up after spending an eventful blood test sitting right next to the Thing, on the verge of bursting not into the Thing, but into an angry man with snowy eyebrows. I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter tied to this fucking couch!!!
John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, an album of new music, is now out on Sacred Bones Records.