Numbers of the bEast; or, the bEast Who Came to Portland (for Joe Pulver)
In the old days, we met people in person, and that was the way we became friends. Even people who lived somewhere other than where we lived ourselves, those people remained strangers until we met. Then once some kind of relationship had been formed via face-to-face interaction, we might stay in touch via phone calls, or the occasional handwritten letter.
But these are no longer the old days. Now we meet a million people online, and the few that become true friends, we eventually end up meeting in person.
That’s how it was with Joe Pulver and me. We’d become internet buddies after getting to know each other for a year or two on Facebook. We compared notes on favorite ECM records, shared ranked lists of the all-time best Brian Eno drones, and endlessly debated the best songs by our mutual favorite band, Duran Duran. I always ended up winning our arguments and debates, as I’m sure Joe would agree, but despite this, Joe was always gracious, fun and grouchily good-natured. Like a cool, wild uncle or zany big brother.
And for a long time, I thought it would be fun to meet Joe in person, though it didn’t seem too likely to happen. Joe was American, but he resided in Berlin, which from what I’m able to tell on Wikipedia is a little country near Germany. I was living practically on the opposite side of the world, in Portland, Oregon, on the West Coast of the US. But that was OK. We could just remain internet friends.
Then out of nowhere, I received a bizarre late-night visit. A yellow-robed figure knocking on my door. I figured this must be somebody playing a weird trick. Though I’d always had lots of nice, normal friends earlier in my life, once I became involved in writing weird stuff, suddenly everybody I knew and hung around with was crazy. When I answered the door, it must’ve been after midnight. All the street lamps outside had gone dark.
The robed figure spoke from behind what appeared to be a mask, without identifying himself. Or maybe it was herself.
“Joe Pulver is going to be coming to Portland,” the voice said, “to be a guest at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. It’s a convention, you know, a bunch of people dress up, drink too much. Maybe you’ve heard of this kind of thing? We need you to let Pulver stay here, at your home. Show him around Portland. Make sure he gets to the panels on time.”
“Really?” I thought about it only a moment, my puzzlement turning to interest. This yellow-robed figure had to be one of the organizers of the convention. Maybe they’d scheduled more guests than they had hotel rooms to go around. That made sense. This was their way of trying to get places for guests to stay, having this weirdo in a yellow robe show up at the home of somebody the guest knew on Facebook, and suggest the idea like it would be fun, letting the guest stay in the person’s home.
“Sure, yeah,” I said. “We could do that. Joe can stay here. We’ll take care of him.”
Lena, my wife, knew Joe too, and liked him a lot. She wouldn’t mind.
“Really?” The masked figure seemed at first to be mocking my own initial response.
Then I realized he — or in fact, I kept thinking, maybe it was she, because how many dudes really want to go around town running errands, dressed all in matching yellow? — anyway, maybe he or she was just surprised at how readily I’d agreed. This should have tipped me off that things wouldn’t be so simple as I’d guessed. Yet still I entertained the idea this would be fun, not a problem.
“Joe Pulver has…” The figure leaned close, apparently trying to intone ominously. “…most unique… requirements.”
Blithely I blundered onward. “It’s no problem, we’ll take care of him. Make sure he’s comfortable and fed, at least.”
“Fed…” This person was difficult to read, concealed as they were by mask and hood and many-layered cloak. Did I mention it was yellow? It was really quite the elaborate get-up for a stunt like this, trying to arm-twist an invitation for a con guest. But from what I could read of body language, I guessed this yellow person almost turned and ran off without another word.
I realize now they felt guilty, sticking me with such a terrible burden, without at least some hint of what lay in store, for me and for Lena. For our household. For our very sanity.
“Unique requirements,” the figure enunciated. “Very particular. You might say extraordinary. You should be prepared–”
“I think I know Joe Pulver pretty well,” I interrupted. Have I mentioned my blithe, blundering dismissive overconfidence? Ah, such ignorance. The sweet bliss of unknowing. “Joe and I Skyped for nine hours, just this week. It’s weird, though, he never mentioned anything about this.”
The masked figure made a dismissive farting noise with his or her lips, or what I assume must have been lips. “You know nothing, Mike Griffin. Everyone who Skypes with Joe Pulver always Skypes for nine hours. Always, everyone. He Skypes in nine hours blocks, four times a day. I know what you’re about to say, that’s mathematically impossible. Four Skype calls, nine hours long each one, that doesn’t fit into a twenty-four hour day. That’s what you might believe. For most people that would be true. Pulver is different. And if you understood him one-millionth as well as you like to believe, you would at least know that.”
This response knocked my blithe, blundering overconfidence down by half. Still, this person seemed bizarre. I was more worried about this odd character occupying my doorstep at the Witching Hour than I worried about Pulver himself. That, of course, would change.
“Very well.” The robed ambassador of night steepled his or her hands, gloved yellow of course. “Most of his needs, he will tell you himself when he arrives. But for that first night, you should have ready at minimum, the following.” He produced from within his billowing wizard’s sleeve a list scrawled on a sheet of legal paper. Yellow, of course.
I scanned the listed requirements as well as I was able by the squalid illumination of our flickering porch light, slowly dying.
“Eight gallons of brewed green tea — NO SUGAR! Sixty-four ounces of Cajun trail mix. Three dozen eggs. Five pounds of bacon.” I looked up, about to tell my visitor that while this seemed like lot of stuff for a first night snack, we could certainly accommodate such a list.
But when I looked up, my visitor had vanished!
The remainder of the list, for it contained far more items in full than what I listed above, I saved for the following day. With the good humor of blithe, blundering overconfidence, Lena and I shopped, enjoying the process of buying unusual foods and drinks we might not normally purchase for ourselves.
“What kind of person eats so much bacon?” I asked.
“I can’t wait to meet Joe!” Lena said, her own blithe overconfidence nearly identical to my own, though slightly less blundering. “But eight gallons of sugar-less green tea… Why don’t I just brew him up some real tea?”
But she knew the answer. The list… was the list.
At the appointed date and time, we showed up at Portland International Airport, and waited outside the gate for Joe to arrive from his flight. By then, I had forgotten my strange night visitor. All that occupied my mind was a pleasant anticipation of meeting an internet pal for the first time. Within my wildest fancy, there existed no hint at all of the manifold terrors yet in store for us.
Joe came drifting past the security gate, in sneakers and shorts and a tye-die t-shirt. When he saw me and Lena waiting, he seemed surprised, but delighted. He claimed he’d been led to believe someone from the obscure and secretive HPLFF organizing committee was supposed to pick him up. “I heard from this strange figure in yellow,” Joe said, and shivered. “A few nights ago, we Skyped. Nine hours! Anyway, it’s so great to finally meet you guys.”
We exchanged pleasantries and hugs, happily chatted about Joe’s flight. All of us enthused about our anticipation of a fun three-day convention. We piled Joe’s luggage into the Griffinmobile, and as I drove the three of us out into the night, Lena mentioned we’d obtained all the items he needed. Everything was ready, at home.
“How did you know about all that?” Joe asked, and clarified. “My special list of requests.”
“That strange character,” I said, finally recalling. That night meeting now came back to me. How I had tried to forget, to wipe it from my mind! I wanted to ask Joe what he thought about the person in yellow. But before I could speak, Joe made his first declaration.
“Pickles,” Joe said. “Were those on the list? Pickles?”
Lena and I both stalled, waiting for the other to answer. We had both memorized the list, had shopped carefully to obtain every bizarre item, to be exact in the quantities procured, yet neither of could remember pickles being on the list.
“There are… no pickles,” I gasped.
“No pickles!” Lena cried.
A grim and horrible expression overtook the face of the Author and Editor, Joe Pulver. He trembled, seeming to enlarge and to redden, expanding with the growth of all his hunger and desire, all his unmet craving and unsatisfied need, which had accumulated too long within him and sought satisfaction or release!
I thought, Great, this must be what the yellow weirdo was talking about. Joe’s going to rage now, because there are no pickles.
Joe’s face remained red, and his eyes bulged, his rage seeming imminent, ready to erupt. But what issued forth was not complaint, not recrimination, not foul epithets. Just a single word.
“Bubbies!” he cried.
This desperate word contained not a trace of rage, not disappointment, and did not even seem to derive precisely from hunger. His longing was plain. “Can’t get real American food over there. All I think about when I come here is this stuff, my list. I have to have it, or I’ll go mad. And number one, that’s Bubbie’s beautiful, wonderful dills. So garlicky. So tangy. So delicious.”
Now I could see his emotional outburst was not that of a demanding guest, not some literary prima donna, but merely a man driven mad by cravings for such exquisite delicacies, now lost to him in his adopted homeland, as garlic dill pickles, Cajun trail mix, real Italian sausage, hot dogs, and a giant simmering pot of my notorious Death Chili.
Yet there remained the matter of Bubbie’s pickles. This seemed a dilemma, a conundrum. As so often happened, Lena explained things simply, and what seemed to my mind an overcomplicated, insurmountably vexing problem with an obscure, ineffable and unreachable solution, was in fact simple. To sate this greatest of Joe Pulver’s overwhelming needs would be, in fact, as simple as stopping at Fred Meyer One Stop Shopping Center on our way home.
Oh, if it had always remained so simple!
“Just one jar of Bubbie’s!” Joe wailed as we stood looking through the misted glass of the refrigerator case. He trembled with need, with anticipation. I was reminded of Gimli, asking the beautiful Elven queen Galadriel for a single strand of her golden hair.
This man-poet Pulver, this bEast from the East, asked me for one jar of Bubbie’s.
I gave him three.
At home, we witnessed the emergence of his true, childlike bliss. Our guest clutched the enormous plastic container of Cajun trail mix, cradled it like a newborn baby. The first gallon of green tea may have been sugar-less, but Joe clutched it sweetly as a lover, caressing the plastic bottle against his skin with an almost perverse fondness. He held open the door to our refrigerator and marveling, he counted the eggs, numbered the packages of bacon, inventoried consumables. Such bounty. Such pleasure. “One… three… six… nine.”
Lena and I exchanged a look. Relieved, even happy. This wasn’t bad, wasn’t bad at all. Our guest was pleased. It was just Joe, after all. Our friend. Nothing bad was going to happen.
That first night, we planned to rest. In the morning begin our convention fun.
And it was fun, what I remember of it now. Three days passed in a wild blur, half our time spent in the brewpub across the street. The bEast Joe Pulver was in his element, standing outside the theater, smoking cigarettes and holding court. He told stories of earlier conventions, times when Lena and I had not been present. At this very theater, meeting Laird Barron, Michael Shea and Marc Laidlaw. Times like this, Joe might satisfy himself for hours with only cigarettes, and stories with friends.
But with the passage of time, inevitably there arose again that inexplicable, animal need. I admit, it was a need to which I contributed by feeding. Hell, I don’t know, I must have even encouraged his sick madness.
Yes, as I write this, I remember what I said. I cannot deny my own words. “Whatever you want, just ask. You’re our guest.”
So Joe asked. He was not at all greedy, the foods were not fancy or expensive. His requests were very specific, frequently disgusting, in measured quantities, designed to fill some specific, occult need. Ingredients in a potion of his own design.
“Three slices of that sausage pizza.”
“Madness!” I cried
“When we get home, I want two more liters of your damn Death Chili, SuperSTAR.” Joe had taken to calling me SuperSTAR, after seeing my spangled suit, and watching home video of my ice skating routine.
“You’ll spoil your tummy!” Lena warned.
“And hot saucesssssss,” the bEast hissed. “Forty-two kinds to try!”
“Now that sounds good,” I agreed.
“Nine habanero hot wings! Nine in cheese sauce! Nine more, sweet Kentucky BBQ style!”
“Twenty-seven wings,” I gasped. But I could not escape, not since I had made my initial pact with that that weird fucker in the yellow robe, hood and mask. Really what kind of person showed up outside somebody’s house in the middle of the night, dressed like that?
After the convention’s end, because Joe’s return flight to Berlin didn’t depart for several more days, Lena and I took him the hundred miles west to visit Lincoln City, on the Oregon Coast. If I had been deceived by any foolish notion or ridiculous fanciful wish that this yellow madness might cease at the convention’s end, that delusion was soon utterly and jarringly shattered!
We sat in the Kyllo’s bar, overlooking the Pacific. Our waiter arrived.
We let Joe order. We gave ourselves over to the mercy of his desires.
“Six oyster shooters, two for each of us,” he said.
That was only to start.
“Calimari. How many do you suppose there are on a plate? I bet there are ninety-nine.”
“Shrimp salads all around, with Thousand Island.”
This was not yet the end.
“Three cups of clam chowder.”
Still not finished! Oh, fie!
“Crab cakes. How many of them come on a plate, per order?”
And here, because they had no plastic bottles of Splenda green tea, it was real Earl Gray, no sugar. Cup after cup, beyond number. That is, I did not count them. I’m sure Joe did.
And the last thing, the very last final object he requested, was a quantity of only one. A single object, and yet, piled on at the end of a week of such overwhelming excess for us all, only the fact that we were, all of us, already provably insane prevented us from being driven insane right then, that moment. Actually, I’m realizing as I write this that being insane in advance as a way of preventing yourself being driven insane later doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Anyway…
Yes, the last thing. A solitary excess. One gruesome extravagance, piled on top of too much everything. Oh, my aching belly.
“Okay, then,” Joe said, “one slice of your key lime pie. Three spoons.”
Insanity! Lena and I teetered on the edge of irrevocable destruction. A black abyss…
It was terrible, wonderful. What might have outwardly resembled gluttony was not that, but a finer thing. It was an expatriate’s love for familiar American foods inaccessible in his new home. Nostalgia taking the form of food and drink. Not a desire for fine, expensive things, not delicacies, but a need to revisit the comforts of memory.
I shall never forget bEast Pulver’s many requirements, and the gruesome smorgasbord we visited alongside him. The variety of treats, which I had been compelled by otherworldly forces not only to procure, but to share. The set quantities, specific measures, a convoluted menu suitable for a madman! This is how we came to know… the numbers of the bEast.
(Bowie – Blackstar ; Michael Nyman – Decay Music ; The Necks – Aether ; David Sylvian – Sleepwalkers)