The Snow That Killed Manuel Jarrow

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Disco Biscuits: New Fiction from the Chemical Generation on 1 January 1998

“So it’s, like, cool, this doesn’t hurt,” he said. “It’s a free ride from now on.”

“Is it really?”

“Fer sure. I’m just waiting for the clear light. Sorry about the piss, though. It must stink. I couldn’t help it.”

“Quit it, OK?”

“Is that the sirens?” he asked, staring up at the flashing strobes. “The lights?” The boy lay on his back at the far edge of the dancefloor. Most everyone else had gone back to their partying - he was just another tripped out kid. Couldn’t handle the scene. Or did they ignore him for fear of caring too much? The empathy of E can work in reverse: you simply avoid what you don’t want to meld with. “Fuckers,” he said, half laughing. “Can’t wait till they see the stretcher.”

“Don’t,” she said.

“I’m just talking, Bess,” he said. “Makes it easier to stay awake. I’ll stop.”

“No. It’s better to stay awake. That’s true. I’ve heard that. Say what you have to. Even if it’s mean.”

“It’s not a concussion, you know. It’s not like I’m going to keep myself out of a coma. It’s not that at all. I’m dying here.”

“Don’t talk that way. Someone’s coming with water. You’ll be fine. If you don’t give up. Feel yourself free. Just think ‘life’.”

“Did you read that on some rave flyer? Something in LA? Or was it some TV ad against abortion? You can be so dumb sometimes.”

“And you can be cruel, Manuel.”

He watched the other kids dancing, oblivious to his plight. It was a madhouse, he thought. Some essentially good vibe had been there at the outset. Back in the early nineties. Maybe. But now the energy and karma of all these kids was just being siphoned out as cash by some businessmen. They had been sucked dry. Pure energy converted to pure marketing.

And, to Manuel Jarrow, this place seemed to symbolize it all. A much-too-shiny New York nightclub pretending to be a rave venue. No matter how late it was - two? three? - or how many of the Day-Glo kids pressed together in the room, the whole place reeked of business, grime and scam-artists. New York really was a terrible place to try to throw a party. It was a nightmare to get anywhere. In the UK, a rave meant a road trip. In SF it meant a hike to the beach. But in NYC, it meant a subway ride (with two transfers) through rat-, bum-and cop-infested tunnels that smelled like human piss - just to get to stand in line in the cold and wait for a fat guy with a walkie-talkie to decide whether you were cool or rich enough to be let inside.

Bess went off to try again for some water and to see if the ambulance was coming. Manuel couldn’t tell if it was the lights or his head making everything spin so. He wished he had his camcorder. To document the fall of the scene. There were so many scenes he wouldn’t ever have the chance to tape. So many he should have, too, but didn’t. Now he never would.

The dehydration wasn’t bothering him any more. He had been so thirsty before. Back when he went to the bathroom only to find all the sinks shut off. But now he wasn’t thirsty at all. Just tired. Ready.

“The girl at the Smart Bar gave me this,” Bess said, returning with a small plastic cup of orange liquid. “She said it would help.”

Manuel waved it off, but Bess knelt beside him and held his head on her knee as she moved the cup to his lips. “You have to try.”

He swallowed a gulp or two and smiled. Then he wretched it out all over her leg. “I’m sorry, Bess,” he said, “but I told you…”

“I wish we never came here tonight,” she said. “The raves were never like this in San Francisco. We never should have come to New York at all.”

“It was your fucking idea.”

“That’s not fair,” she said. “You wanted to come, too. You thought you’d get a job doing guerrilla TV, remember?”

“You were the one who loved it here. The big city. The real people. So close to Europe and history.”

“I liked it until now,” she said. “What did we do to deserve this?”

“It was the coke,” Manuel said. “I shouldn’t have spent that last tenner on the blow. We were so thirsty, too. I should have seen what was happening. But the water cost three-fifty a pop and we hadn’t done any coke in so long. The E was so pure, too. Nothing speedy in it and I was starting to fade. I guess I learned my lesson.”

“But you didn’t deserve this.”

“Deserve to die?”

“That’s not what I meant. You’re going to be OK,” she told him. “Everything is going to be OK.”

“Yeah. You just keep telling yourself that.”

“You do it,” she said. “I’m too beat.”

Now in his mind he saw the billsides of Santa Cruz, just behind the university. The place they called Elf Land. He was sitting on a rock with a bunch of college students - a few years older than be was. They were all drumming together into the night.

Maestrooms were such a special drug. So natural. So real. They made you dissolve into the words and then get born all over again as part of the Earth’s green network of creation. Like Swamp Thing. The beats of the boys’ drums - the rhythms mixed with the many rhythms of the forest. The crickets sang along, their high-pitched chrips in tentative syncopation with the human tribal celebration.

This was one of the things be had seved to shoot. Close-ups on the bands as they pounded the skins, intercut with high-magnifications of cricket legs scratching together. He meant to go back there and find those kids again, but with his camcorder and maybe some battery-powered lights. Blues and greens to match the woods.

The idea came shortly after dosing in a dorm room. They knew nothing about drumming but felt called upon to add to the pool of resonance in which they found their heads already swimming. Someone just grabbed a drum and headed outside and it felt so right to follow. They had wandered for hours before finding the spot. The special spot where, as the ‘shrooms came on, all five boys realized at once they had meant to be united forever in time.

The music began in clumsy fits and starts. Military beats with strict male conformity, eventually giving way to affected tribal rhythms and Zepplinesque flourishes. Questions and answers. Day-o, Day-o, Manuel thought, like tourists on a cruise ship. The harder they tried, the more pretentious it got

But once they gave up trying something happened. They were no longer playing with one another, listening consciously and trying to fit in or assert a new counterpoint. The form and meter just disintegrated into dots of beat. Waves of sound, disconnected from each other yet completely articulate as a whole. They just danced around one another’s rhythms - no one leading, no one relegated to the click track. Spiralling hands against animal skin, generating waveforms that reverberated against the trees. Perfect and unstoppable. Infinite yet contained. A total sound so complete it may as well have been squeezed out of a toothpaste tube. Another image he would never record.

He got an e-mail maybe six months later that one of the boys had died in a wreck. On the way back up the hill from a Full Moon rave on the Santa Cruz beach. The van just toppled over the cliff. It took the cops hours to extract him from the car. They were trying to keep his neck from moving, but be died of internal injuries in the meantime.

“We never went to that guy’s funeral, did we?” he asked the girl who was kneeling beside him on the floor of the club, now, on Manhattan’s lower West Side.

“We couldn’t get a ride, remember?”

“Why should I remember that?”

“We could never get rides out of San Francisco. That’s part of why we came here.”

“Right. To suffer together and then die.”

“Why are you being like this?” she asked. “You’re not going to die, OK? And even if you are, why kill everything else, too?”

“Am I killing something? Really? You should know.”

“Stop it, OK? You’re being such an asshole.”

“Look, I’m a little freaked-out, OK?” he said, retreating into the convenience of his own demise. “Don’t listen to me. I always loved you, ok?” He didn’t know whether he wanted to go with the tables cleared off or not. “I won’t bring up all the nasty stuff again, ok?” he said.

“You can be so sweet when you want to.”

“And it’s all fake. It always was.”

“You fucker. Why are you doing this?”

“I don’t want to ignore anything. I want to look. I don’t want to chicken out.”

He dozed off for a few seconds that seemed like minutes. There was still no sign of an ambulance, and the kids on dancefloor were all pressed up against one another on the other side of the room. Pete-E, the kid who had sold them the doses was bending down over Manuel, trying to get him to drink some water from his canteen.

“Bess went to call for the ambulance again,” Pete-E said. “You should really try to drink. You’re dehydrated, that’s all. Just drink some water.”

“Those fucking club promoters want to squeeze every last dime out of us,” Manuel said. “It’s not enough to charge fifteen to get in. We won’t buy their fucking alcohol so they plug up the sinks to make us pay for their mineral crap.”

“It sucks, I know,” Pete-E said, ‘We’ve got a petition started. But right now you have to drink something. If you don’t they’ll stick an IV in you when they come. You don’t want that, do you?” Pete shuffled uncomfortably as he stood over his wan, corpse-like customer. “We don’t need that kind of mess, Manuel, do we?”

So that was it. Compassion always turns out to have that “ass” in it. “I better leave you with this water and go. You won’t say anything about me when they come, will you?”

“You’re clear,” he said. “Go!”

Manuel was thinking about Bess. He knew she had faults from the time he met her. But the fact that she was so rich seemed to make her immune to the grabby-grabbies that now infected everyone else in the scene. All anyone cared about anymore was how to make money off newbies. Sell the vibe. Make better flyers than the competition. Have a better-stocked smart bar. Hell, there were already ten brands of “herbal ecstasy” on the market, all practically identical except for the packaging. And every one of those smart drink powders came from the same damn company in Southern California. Club promoters just printed out their own labels on the Mac, slapped them on and then marketed the same old stuff as something unique.

Bess didn’t care about making any money. She had her trust fund, and if she was looking for anything it was some traction. Friction. Some meaning in the from of conflict. That’s why she took to Manuel, even though he was just a squatter in the Mission district. He was doing something real, and she could appreciate it.

Meanwhile, Manuel could appreciate her indifference to the demands of the social marketplace. Plus, she could cut the line at any club in town. The fact that she paid for his Sony Hi-8 camcorder, didn’t hurt either.

Did he love her? Who knew? As long as he didn’t think about it too much, everything was pretty cool. She had a great figure and a really pretty face. At twenty-six she was a few years older than him, but that was cool, too. It meant she didn’t fall for all the posers and their wide-eyed schemes. Well, none of the posers except for Manuel, which was fine by him.

He never should have left for that camcorder conference in Berlin. The video he shot of the homeless in the Panhandle clashing with city police put his work on the map, and an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe - his first time abroad - was too tempting to pass up. That’s what gave it all away. It broke the sham. He was in it for the promise of stardom, and nothing he told her about the opportunity to network and exchange ideas with other camcorder artists sounded real. He could have gone that wasn’t the point. It was how much he panted over the whole thing.

Plus, she was seven weeks pregnant. At twenty-one the last thing he needed was a baby, but he wasn’t going to be the one to make a life-or-death decision about a foetus. That was the girl’s job.

So he left Bess and the whole dilemma behind to go gallivanting in Berlin with the coolest of the cool, squatting in buildings bombed-out since the Second World War. So what if he was being a bit irresponsible? He was the younger one, after all. The artist with no allegiance other than his work.

The fifteen-year-old girl he met at the pub in what used to be East Berlin and just had to sleep with didn’t help matters, either. It wasn’t for love, he insisted later, but for the pure aesthetic adventure. She was five feet eleven, blonde, blue-eyed, and just through puberty: the perfect Aryan princess. The kind of girl they put a bunch of make-up on and photograph for the cover of Vogue. It was a mythic experience no artist should pass up.

But he shouldn’t have taken the E and then called Bess at four in the morning to confess the whole thing. By the time he got back to San Francisco two weeks later, Bess had aborted their baby and made plans to move to New York.

The two eventually made up leaving their respective indiscretions unchallenged. The only term of their reconciliation was that she would be more in charge of things than him from now on. She’d pay the rent in New York, and he’d stay out of trouble - not legal or artistic trouble, mind you - only the kind of trouble she didn’t approve of.

He flashed on that big house in Oakland where everyone would go for the whole weekend and do LSD. These parties weren’t raves. They were more like what he imagined went on at Timotby Leary’s Millbrook estate back in the sixties. Each room of the four-story Victorian was dedicated to a different theme. Some were just “ambients”, like a room with corduroy-upholstered walls, floor and pillows with some Brian Eno music playing in the background. You just went into a room and chose your trip.

Up in the attic, three pretty girls drew pictures with crayons. The whole space was converted into a mock playpen. As he looked about the room his perceptual apparatus transformed its subjects into three year olds at a mursery school. He wished be had his camera. He had always planned to go back and shoot one of those parties.

He remembered being higher in that house than he had ever been, and standing at the foot of the long staircase, holding on to a banister while everything spun around him. Then a huge dog, some kind of hound, began lumbering down the staircase towards him. The animal stepped on a pile of VHS cassettes that slid out from beneath his paw. Manuel watched as, seemingly in slow motion, the dog bounced down from step to step, flipping over himself several times, his paws flailing for a level surface, step after step, until he landed smack on his chin on to the hardwood floor at Manuel’s feet. He and the dog regarded one another for a while. The dog was not embarrassed by his clumsiness. The dog was a Buddha, the boy decided. He was revealing to Manuel his own inner state. The pile of videotapes. It all made sense. If he had only brought his camera. He had been there. The right place and right time. But now he’d never be able to go back.

And that guy with the funny last name. Sekula, maybe. He had taken a whole page of blotter and then locked himself in the downstairs bathroom. Every once in a while someone would knock and ask if he was all right, but he just told them not to distract him. He was keeping the world in motion and the smallest miscalculation would throw the Earth out of orbit and the time-wave continuum. Irreparably. But by four in the morning one of the guys who lived at the house finally pried the door open with a crowbar, and everyone peered into the bathroom to find Sekula sitting on the toilet, naked, trying to jerk off. His eyes frozen wide with fright.

“Are you feeling any better?” she asked him. “Did you drink some of the water?”

He saw her but could no longer remember her name. She was the one who cared about him. She really did; he could feel it. It wasn’t just the E. Beneath the vicarious thrills she got out of living with a squat-loser, she felt for him in real life, too. He had underestimated what they shared. “I don’t feel anything at all,” he said. “I don’t want to feel anymore. I don’t want any water.”

“You should drink, honey, really.”

“I’m going to die, babe. There’s no more ‘shoulds’.”

“You’re going to be just fine,” she tried to sound like she knew this to be true.

“You’re a great girl, whoever you are. Just don’t listen to me any more.”

As she looked down at him he contemplated her breasts. The videos she let him make of her dancing around the apartment naked. The ones he wanted to get on public access. Then he felt it. A weird cold cloud down by his feet. It was death - competing with the rays of warmth from the E. It was harshing his mellow in a big way.

“Do you know how to use my camera?” he asked.

“No. You never let me touch it.”

“I should have.”

There were all those real movies he had wanted to make, too. Feature films with commercial prospects. He could produce them low-budget with his friends, Why hadn’t he ever gotten around to it? He finished the whole script for that one film, a borror movie called Spike_, named after the weapon that the retarded hardware store box-boy, Mike, used to kill his victims._

In one scene, the hardware store boss’s daughter goes on a date with a popular boy from school. Mike follows secretly and sits behind them at the movie theatre. Just as the audience screams in terror at an image on the screen, Mike plunges his spike through the back of his rival’s seat, piercing bim through.

Then later, when the girl has hidden away at grandma’s house, Mike tracks ber down and rings the bell. The tiny old woman uses a stool to climb up to the peephole in her door, when Mike plunges the spike through the glass lens, puncturing her eyeball and boring a hole through the back of her skull. Dying, the woman kicks the chair out from beneath herself, and dangles against the door, suspended by nothing but the spike through ber head.

Bess called the script “disgusting”, and told him it had no social merit whatsoever. He thought it was cool in its grossness. But he saw her point. How would it have helped the vibe at all?

But now it was just another movie be would never make.

For a moment Manuel thought that maybe she was right. He was going to be fine after all. This was just some kind of bad E trip. He had fooled himself into a panic. He hadn’t felt that cold grip in his abdomen for a long while now. Maybe death had passed him by. Not likely. She wouldn’t let go. She was just resting for a minute. Or maybe he had gotten used to her. He could feel his heart speeding up yet diminishing in strength at the same time. A tiny, rapid flutter in his chest.

“Try to drink again,” Bess said. “They’re on their way.”

“Let me just rest a minute.”

Back in high school he and his friend Henry bad bought a sea-monkeys kit from an ad in a comic book. They were both smart enough to know it was a scam, but they wanted to see what sort of monkeys might come in the mail, anyway. When they put the little sugar packets of freeze-dried monkeys into the water, they hadn’t expected anything at all to come to life. But sure enough, a few days later there were these tiny translucent creatures swimming around in the clear plastic box that was shipped along with them. The sides of the box had little bumps that served as magnifying glasses, and through them you could see the almost-microscopic brine shrimp a little better.

That next weekend the boys got proofed and rejected by the doorman at a big rave club South of Market, so they decided to go home and throw their own party with the sea monkeys. Henry put a speaker on either side of the sea monkeys’ plastic home and turned up the music. The water vibrated from the bass - all they had back then was techno and maybe a little garage. These were the vintage rave days when everything still felt virtuous and European. Wher it was just kids throwing parties for other kids. By the time Manuel was old enough to go clubbing for real, the whole scene was dying anyway.

The sea monkeys really got off on the music. Or maybe it was just the waves in their water that made them swim around that way. And what really was the difference? Waves are waves. Were the monkeys merely swaying passively in the currents, or were they flapping their little arms intentionally? Did it matter? Even if they expressed no conscious will, weren’t the sea monkeys moving in a way preseribed by the aerodynamics of their little bodies, in a manner dictated by centuries of sea monkey evolution? Didn’t that count as active participation?

After they took a couple of bong bits, Manuel and Henry felt certain that the monkeys were fully engaged in a total trance dance, and that the tiny ravers were ready for some drugs. The boys took a whole hit of E from their meagre stash and dedicated it to the monky communion. Henry opened the capsule and let the powder fall into the water. They shook the whole tank to help it dissolve, then placed it back between the speakers. The monkeys contorted in renewed frenzy - motions that could have easily been captured with a macro-focus lens, but Manuel didn’t own his camera yet, and now it would be too late to capture the image ever again.

Or the time about a month later when Henry fashioned a bong out of Lego and rubber tubing. They would fill the air chamber with por smoke, then turn a tiny spigot releasing a balloonful of nitrous oxide that would push the smoke and then itself into the user’s lungs. The look on Henry’s face as be realized why Manuel wanted him to try it first. Because Manuel was chicken to play the guinea pig. Henry would always have to go first. And at that precise moment, as the nitrous filled Henry’s lungs and Manuel waited watching with baited breath, they both knew who was the true adventurer among them.

“Manuel?” she asked him. “Can you hear me?”

“Hmm,” he mustered. The cold weight was bearing down on his chest now and he could barely speak. He thought he could see the lights from the ambulance near the entrance to the club.

“You fell asleep. I got scared.”

He just wanted some air, but he was trapped in a stone cold vacuum. Had they stopped the music? He couldn’t hear anything at all. They kept turning the lights lower and lower. And the music. Where was the music? He wanted to tell her to pull the cement off his body, but he couldn’t make the words come out. He squinted from the pain. Then the pressure just went away all by itself.

When he opened his eyes he saw the other kids in the club gathering around him. They were smiling, unafraid of his body on the ground. Some boys in fractal T-shirts knelt around him and slowly lifted him above their heads. The room was bathed in soft blue light as they carried him across the club.

“Sorry we didn’t see what was happening to you, Manuel,” one of them said as they gently guided him to a table they had prepared a table with a pitcher of water and some glasses. The club promoters were all gone. It was just the kids from the scene, and they had all the water they wanted.

They sat him down. He wasn’t dizzy anymore. He felt like he could finally take a drink. The snow had been the whole problem, he realized. That’s what freaked him out. Why do coke when you’ve got E? Coke is the total ego drug. It covers everything up in bullshit, personal pride. Coke is so … New York City.

“You had us worried there a minute,” Pete-E said to him, handing him the glass. “But it looks like you’re going to be all right now.”

He drank the water all down.

“Don’t drink it too fast,” Pete-E advised, lovingly taking the glass from him and filling it up again.

The DJ put on some gentle ambient music and a few of the kids peeled off to dance a little. They weren’t moving away from Manuel as they did before, though. They just let their bodies respond to the smooth sounds coming from the speakers. It was completely natural.

The scene hadn’t really disappeared, it had just gone away for a while. He could feel the E taking hold again, letting him become one with the gently throbbing mass of people, yet somehow conscious, unique, and an observer at the same time. He thought of a documentary he had seen once, a long time ago, of Tibetan monks on a snowy mountaintop in China, chanting and swaying to the sounds of gongs and the little clicky-clacky things they swung back and forth in their hands. And then Manuel knew where he was going.

Bess had been looking down at Manuel’s prone form for some time. He was just a child, she thought. She had gotten lost in his face - the way he habitually curled his bottom lip up in an angry pucker like a bulldog puppy, just to prove he disapproved, but now it looked like a snarl, frozen.

The ambulance drivers cleared a path through the oblivious club kids to find Manuel lying on the ground with Bess kneeling beside him. They lifted him on to a stretcher. One of the men checked for a pulse and then shook his head. Bess didn’t let herself understand.

“Sir,” she asked one of the men in white. “Excuse me, sir, is he going to be OK?” Both men just looked down and attended to their business, strapping the lifeless body to the clean linen.

She shouted after his corpse as they wheeled him out. “Manuel! Please.”

The DJ had enough presence of mind to turn the music off while they wheeled the fallen raver out of the building. It only made the beating of Bess’s own heart sound that much louder.