The hookah glinted gold in the Pink Floyd chords sifting through opium den smoke, and Melo felt sluggish. Sluggish and yet somehow determined to not be sluggish. He let the hose and its baroque chess piece knobs slide through his fingers, the braided hose coiling with the curve of his leather bean bag. He got up and walked to the aquarium. A gold fish swam up to his eyes, made contact, and winked. Do fish even have eyelids? He turned around to ask his friends. But Amar’e was asleep, his leg twitching like he was running from a train. Tyson wouldn’t care. And J.R. was smoking from two hoses, exhaling a double helix of apathy. Melo turned back around; the fish was now blue.
“That’s a fish of a different color,” he said, but the words slid off the glass like condensation, and he walked around the ring of bean bags, feeling the thick shag of the carpet through his socks. A cash register rang. Coins clang together. And a bass line led into a voice singing out, “Money–”
“Damn straight,” said Tyson, smoke veiling his eyes. He took a sip of champagne.
They had been here forever, thought Melo. “Do you think he’s going to see us?”
“Does it matter, bro? What else do we need?” Tyson gestured toward the caviar buffet with one hand and to the aquarium with his champagne glass. The fish inside had turned green. J.R. snapped his fingers to the beat while Amar’e slept on.
Melo approached the door, started to knock, and backed away. He slumped back into his beanbag chair. Tyson passed him a champagne glass and toasted to leer jets. Melo stared off into the distance, dreaming of mountains and snowfall, dreaming of worlds outside the city. The champagne tasted too warm.
He looked for his shoes. When he found them, their ruby color reflected the spinning light of the room’s disco ball. Someone had tied the shoe laces together. The fish in the tank turned purple. J.R. kept snapping. “I might get another tattoo,” he said.
Melo walked across the room. This time he knocked on the door. A part of the door swung outward, and a man named Dolan poked his head through and in a high-pitched voice screeched the words, “Can’t you read? There’s a note.”
“There’s no note.”
The man twisted his head around like an owl’s looking for the note. There was no note. He told Melo to wait a minute. Then he came back with a note. The note said: Ring Bell. Then the head disappeared, and the hole in the door closed back into a solid surface. Melo looked around, then he saw it: a thick rope descending from an eight-ball sized hole in the ceiling. He pulled it. The music stopped mid guitar solo, and the door opened to a room shrouded in darkness. Varicose veins of light interloped through the blinds. Melo didn’t know whether to proceed. He turned around expecting to see his three companions still seated in the beanbags, smoking, but they stood behind him with their arms interlocked like a trio of square dancers. Then came the voice.
“Melo, I say we run,” quivered a normally masculine voice. Melo looked back to see Tyson squinting through his cobwebbed hands. Amar’e and J.R. each bit their lips, faces wrinkled in fear as well.
“No, we’ve been here too long just to run away now.” Melo locked arms with them, and they all trespassed into the darkness.
Fire shot up out of nowhere in two great bellowing columns, and a voice that seemed to come from all around them called, “I AM OZ, THE GREAT AND ZENFUL! WHO! ARE! YOU!”
“Isn’t that what the caterpillar says?”
“Shut up, J.R.”
The fires continued to burn, but did not light the shadows. Melo admitted to himself that maybe Tyson was right–maybe they should have run, hauling ass back down the yellow-lined highway that brought them here. But he had no time to finish the thought when the room flashed green and a cloud of purple smoke erupted from an empty office chair behind a rather large and imposing desk. The room was not as dark as it once was.
“WHO ARE YOU?!”
Melo swallowed. “I’m Melo.”
“I KNOW YOU, BUT WHO ARE THESE THREE CRETINS YOU HAVE BROUGHT BEFORE ME? YOU, TALL MAN, WHO ARE YOU?”
Amar’e stepped forward in a manner that suggested his joints were rusted tin. “Yuh-you see,” he started, “a while back I came from Ari-Arizona and DiAnton-DiAntoni–”
“QUIET! HIS NAME WILL NOT BE SPOKEN HERE! I WILL MELT YOU DOWN UNTIL YOU ARE NOTHING BUT BLOOD!”
“Yes, sir. . . .”
“AND YOU, TYSON!” The voice paused. “BOO!”
And Tyson responded in kind by fainting in a bearded heap on the floor.
“AND YOU, J.R.! YOU THINK I HAVE SOMETHING FOR YOU! CONTEMPLATE THE CENTER OF NOTHING AND THEN NOTHING THE CENTER OF CONTEMPLATION. AFTER ALL, YOU ARE NOTHING.”
“YOU HEARD ME–” The voice’s authority cracked apart in the sounds of coughing as another purple plume of smoke rose from the altar of the mighty desk. “Cuh-Cuh-Cuh!” The sound grew worse and worse. “Just a minute.” More coughing. The smoke dissipated, but the sound continued. The lights clicked on, and seated behind the desk was a man who would have looked rather dignified in a professorial sort of way, except with one finger raised in the air he sounded like a man choking on water.
“Mr. Jackson, Mr. Jackson, are you alright?” Mr. Jackson continued to cough. “You boys may have to come back and see him another time. He’s, well, he’s allergic to to purple smoke, but he just loves the effect–he’s a fan of effectiveness you see–” The coughing pursued. “You’ll just have to leave your requests with me for the time being. What was it now? Oh, yes, a heart for you, perhaps courage for you, and um was it a brain? Yes, that’s exactly what I believe it was. It’s all written down here in Dr. Jackson’s notes. He’s not a doctor, but I call him that sometimes. He’s a great man. A magnificent man. He’s got ideas and plans and ideas of plans and plans–you’ll see–”
“And who are you?” asked Melo with an air of defiance.
“Me? Well, I’m Mr. Woodson,” said the man pushing his glasses farther up the bridge of his nose. “Yessir, Mr. Woodson is what they call me.”
Dr. Jackson pounded on his chest with an arthritic fist.
“Yo, can he get out of that chair?” asked J.R., and Melo had to admit he had been wondering the same thing himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he could still see the aquarium—what color was the goldfish now?