Friday, July 08, 2011

The Burning

Let’s start with The Burger King Incident, which doesn’t really deserve much attention. I’d mentioned it in a Facebook update and Patti suggested that I blog about it. I told her it wasn’t worth blogging. I’ve never met her, although she seems like a nice woman. She’s married to the brother of Jane, a friend from long-ago drama classes and high school and fellow-participant to everything that came with all that.

Patti follows my updates because I'd commented on something that she'd posted, she bounced something back and we read each other's blogs and there's some degree of simpatico in our attitudes. It’s the 21st century equivalent of pen pals and it spurred the impetus behind writing about something that doesn’t really deserve much attention (see above).

I witnessed The Burger King Incident across four lanes of traffic on a recent Wednesday morning at approximately 8:23am. Two Burger King employees in standard uniforms (generic short sleeved shirt, polyester pants, nametag) escorted a guy in a Burger King costume (tunic, freaky mask with built-in crown, burgundy pants, odd yellow boots) out of their restaurant. They didn’t toss him onto the street exactly, but flanked him in such a way that it encouraged his departure from their premises in the universal we can do this easy, or we can do this hard sort of way.

Once the King was ejected, the employees stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the door and stared at him wordlessly. His Highness ignored the surprised passers-by and stood a respectful distance from his former minions to plead his case, perhaps hoping to be welcomed back onto his throne as the once and future king of fast-service dining.

I couldn't hear what he was saying, but the employees were having none of it and after a minute or so the King headed west, maybe to the subway. I know of a Dairy Queen franchise a bit north of there, perhaps he was heading in that direction for solace in alternate regal surroundings.

Patti wrote:

Well THAT'S weird, I think you should consider blogging a story that might be behind that whole thing.

I didn't - don't - want to write about it because, appearances notwithstanding, it's not organically weird. His Most Royal Majesty was either a former employee trying to make a point, or a high school student or frat pledge believing that this stunt would make them a legend, or some truly demented collector of Burger King ephemera with a proud sense of accomplishment thinking This is my dream! for reasons I can't fathom. In any case, the incident collects itself fairly easily and the world goes on. Genuine, organic, hardcore weirdness can't be broken down quite so easily. Any explanations swarm and multiply into alternate scenarios that are no less weird or unfeasible than the event itself.

A few weeks ago, I went to a Lightbox screening of Toby Dammit and Suspiria and watched Guillermo del Toro complain about the pressures his producers put on him to downplay the weirdness in his movies and instill some sense of logic for American audiences. He was delighted by the fact that Dario Argento ignored that and distilled genuine horror in his films. del Toro said:

"It can't be explained. If it it's logical, it won't be horrific. "

He was referring specifically to the complete lack of sense, logic, or respect for coherence in Suspiria and Inferno, but it reminded me of at least one slow-horror moment where I couldn't quite attribute an incident to anything other than something without reason or tied to a reason I wanted nothing to do with. It wasn't scary per ce, but it matched del Toro's concept of illogical horror for me at the time. I've never quite forgotten it because it was weird and apparently a low-level secret on the part of the person who showed me. I'll write about it now because a guy in a Burger King outfit is eccentric, strange or ill-advised, but not weird.

You want weird? Read on.
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I was 15. It was the summer of my grade 10 year. There was a girl involved. There are no romantic, erotic or nostalgic overtones around anything that follows.

Marnie was pretty and had long straight chestnut hair and features somewhere between Marcia Brady and (if cartoony freckles were applied) the female lead of an above-average road-company version of Anne of Green Gables. She had shown up, improbably enough, to a Dungeons and Dragons game I'd been invited to. It was also improbable for me to have shown up. I'd indulged in a lot of early adolescent geeky pursuits (sci-fi action movies, learning top 40 songs on the piano, bike riding, a Jim Morrison fixation), but D&D wasn't really a passion.

Stefan, a guy I'd known from a volunteer job the summer before, needed extra players. He was hosting some kind of event where three games/three dungeon masters would be running at the same time. I went for lack of anything else to do, only to discover that one of the dungeon masters hadn't shown up so there were only two games on offer. I barely understood the game in the first place, so I didn't mind waiting around and watching other players while munching junk food (this clip pretty much sums up every D&D experience I ever had - I was the guy asking about the Cheetos). Marnie was also between games so we chatted.

She was very pretty and she wasn't dressed in early 80s neon but in a nicely fitting black t-shirt, jeans, sandals. She'd wouldn't have been out of place at a Doors concert in '68 or a U2 concert in '82, that sort of look. I think I mentioned that being stuck in a basement was sort of cool, it was like John Carpenter's The Thing set in suburban Toronto and not Antarctica and there wasn't a shape shifting monster trying to kill us and replicate our DNA (I really hope I worded it differently than what you just read), but I was young and hormonal and given to stream of consciousness at such moments). Film geeks tend to find each other and Marnie and I talked about Carpenter and Blade Runner and A Boy and his Dog and the Star Trek movies and generally had a better time than we would have playing D&D.

Eventually, she said we should see a movie together. This was great - a chance for a date without having asked for a date. Maybe it meant I was cute or at least interesting. I found out she lived on the other side of town near a church where I'd been attending a youth group. We made a date for the following Saturday and she left the gaming session before I did.

"She dated a guy I knew for awhile," Stefan told me, "They broke up. She's an okay D&D player."

Not a lot to go on. I didn't care. There was a pretty girl, a warm summer, nothing else to do. Even if I didn't get anywhere with her (and I put my chances, as always, at 50/50) so what? It was a date and that was always a good thing.
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I almost rode my bike to her house - which would have changed later events - but ended up taking a bus. She lived in a suburban house pretty much like all of the houses my friends' families lived in. I showed up an hour before the movie was supposed to start and she took me into her kitchen. Nothing unusual. She said she had an older brother, I never saw him. Her mother (who looked just like her, perhaps 25 years older) sort of nodded at me before heading out to go to a party. Marnie gave me a coke and we sat in her living room wasting time before the movie.

I finally suggested that we should leave if we didn't want to be late. She stood up saying "Give me a few minutes, I should..." before hesitating and looking at me carefully. She finally gave me a slightly shy conspiratorial smile, said “C’mere,” and led me by the hand upstairs into her bedroom.

I had no problem with this.I also had no idea what to expect. In a perfect world, she might have suggested an abbreviated make-out session before the movie, which would have been more than welcome. I didn't actually think I was that charming (or lucky), it's just that I couldn’t imagine any other activity that required both a bedroom and the lack of parental oversight.

She asked me to close the door and gestured for me to sit at the edge of her bed before saying “I’ve got to do something before we leave, so…you can watch, I’ll talk about it later. ‘Kay?.”

I nodded, maybe a bit disappointed. This was not going to be the unsolicited seduction I was so sure I richly deserved. Still, the odds had been slim to begin with and I really couldn't complain.

She reached into her dresser drawer and fumbled around for a minute before taking out a small ceramic dish with scorch marks in the centre. I assumed that she used it for incense. Then she found some matches in her purse, put them on the dresser, and went back into her purse to find something else. I assumed she had a joint or some hash. I wouldn’t have joined her – couldn’t handle the smoking and was terrified of the effects – but had no problem watching her. If this is how she wanted to go to the movies, so be it.

She finally pulled out a small pocketbook, took out a $10.00 bill and began folding it carefully. She started at the corners before folding it lengthwise a few times, turning it into sort of a rectangular pyramid that stood on its own base. Then she looked back towards me, lit a match, gave me another shy, conspiratorial smile, and set the money-pyramid on fire.

It burned slowly, which I found surprising. Smoke collected near the bottom at first and the sides of the bill blackened, rather than combusted. Then it burst into flame at once with a single, long orange flicker that swallowed the remaining paper leaving only ashes. Marnie stared at it with the intensity of prayer and wafted her hand once through the smoke before her concentration was broken and she turned back to me.

I was for dying to her to explain this.

She didn’t. She smiled sweetly and said, “Thanks. Wanna get going?” And we did.
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I didn't ask. I can't exactly say why. Shock, most likely. Even at 15, I knew that I wasn’t going to like any answer she’d give me. If this was a bizarre attention-getting device simply to mess with my head, I just wanted out. If it was some kind of ritual that she wanted to share, I didn’t need to know the practice/philosophy/religion it belonged to because it would be crazy and crazy begets crazy. I was hoping that Stefan and the D&D crowd were going to appear en masse laughing their asses off and Marnie would say You should have seen the look on your face! or whatever you say after a good practical joke. But we just walked to the Golden Mile and got in line for the movie (Buckaroo Banzai, which I’d already seen) and talked about parents and pay TV and private vs. public school (she'd gone to both).

The movie felt very long. When she put her head on my shoulder in what I thought was a 'puppyish, convivial way' (I had just read Gatsby for the first time so the quote was fresh), I shuddered. I was either too polite or didn’t have the guts to ditch her and run for the exit, so I endured the movie.

Outside the theatre, she asked me back her house for a coke and she looked soft and beautiful and like she really wanted me to go with her. It was exactly the kind of offer I’d been hoping for until she’d held the tiny $10.00 bonfire in her bedroom.

So I bailed. I mentioned that I had to get up early the next morning to mow lawns (which was actually true, if rather convenient) and she looked disappointed or surprised for a second and asked if she could call me the next week. I said “It’s a free country,” with a laugh, not really caring how she’d take it. She laughed as well and hugged me and smiled and I pointed out that the bus arriving just then was, wonder of wonders, my bus. It was heading west on Eglinton. It could have been going to Moosonee. I didn't care. We hugged again and I found myself gratefully alone on that bus.

Marnie never called. And I politely declined Stefan’s next invitation for an afternoon of Dungeons and Dragons.
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There's probably something truly banal in the background; maybe a back-of-a-Black-Sabbath-album high-school variation of white witchery passed down from a friend of a friend who had a cousin who supposedly knew about such things (I've known a few very nice Wiccans and don't want to piss them off, but I really don't think this is their bag of blessed be). Or maybe Marnie had a well-thumbed paperback that promised to teach the secrets of gaining wealth and making friends through voodoo or something along those lines. You can Google money-burning on your own time. I didn’t know anything about spellcasting when I was 15 and don't feel a pressing need to investigate it now.

The incident still has no visible means of support; it was mass-market voodoo or homemade spells or burnt offerings or simply something she saw in a movie and thought was cool. None of those explanations make it sane. And her desire to share the folding and flame is no less disconcerting than the insanity behind it. Her story is harder to explain than a former Burger King employee or a frat boy with a costume getting kicked out of a crowded restaurant during the breakfast rush.

I explained all this it to my neighbour who was furious that I didn't ask Marnie why she did it.
"Michael! You were supposed to ask! Find her! She's probably on Facebook! Try LinkedIn! You've got to tell me what the hell was going on!"
Not a chance. Crazy begets crazy. I deal with enough of the unsolicited variety. I don't want to invite it.

Horror isn't logical.

Worst. Date. Ever.


July, 2011

Match painting by Paul Hutchinson

2 comments:

Patti said...

OK - you win. That IS weird. And I'm rather enjoying your "crazy begets crazy" philosophy. (Not to mention the summoner geeks clip.)

I've said it before - I'll say it again. The whole world's crazy.

Derbecker said...

Credit to you - I hadn't thought about it for years. Your Burger King suggestion brought it back into my consciousness. Was there a horror flick way back when where somebody burned money?

The writer behind Summoner Geeks went on to write the Community tv series. Same sense of humour...

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