Operation Liquid Freedom

Illustration by Mitch Handsone“Hey, man.” “Hey.” “Something to drink?” “The Usual.” “Sounds good. Coming right up.” To understand The Usual, one must understand the Schechners. Most of us are familiar with Hector Schechner, the semiretired comedian. As his biographer since 1998, I get invited to parties and funerals and such, and it was at one of these (a wedding, in 2002) that I met his ex-wife, ex-comedian Vanessa Nava, and their offspring, Carlos and Olivia. The occasion was Nava’s wedding to General Orlando Blackburn (retired), at the general’s heavily fortified estate in rural Santa Barbara County. At that time, Olivia was going through a nasty divorce (it’s still not over) and living with old friends she no longer much cared for, and Carlos had just received his undergraduate degree in visual arts from the University of Tasmania Hobart, and returned to South California to find himself terribly disturbed by his mother’s new lifestyle and spouse. Retired General Blackburn, you see, is a tremendously unfunny and powerful man who’s spending his retirement drinking expensive scotch, smoking illegal cigars, and devising new and profitable ways for the wealthy to prevent the rest of us from pursuing happiness. He’s really not a very nice man, and he has lots of friends. But as a show of good neofamilial faith, the general offered Carlos and Olivia $50,000 to open a coffeehouse, and they couldn’t think of a good reason to reject him. So very recently they opened The Dirty Old Coffeehouse in downtown Las Pulgas Beach. It’s a nice, slow place, with good light, fresh beverages, high ceilings and non-robotic background music. It’s also the only place in the world, at this point, to get The Usual. The Usual is a caffeine-free organic compound that Carlos created while in school. Virtually flavorless and easily dissolved into hot beverages, The Usual nullifies caffeine’s stimulating effect on the central nervous system while simulating the presence of caffeine in the user’s blood, thus rendering a false positive for caffeine in urine tests. You might recall that last year, after the federal government mandated caffeination of public drinking water (“Operation Liquid Freedom”), it authorized, rather quietly, the DEA to oversee random urine testing; this after so-called independent studies determined that without a minimum of 100 mg of caffeine per worker per day, the American economy would collapse in the summer of 2049. For his invaluable consultation on the implementation of Operation Liquid Freedom, General Blackburn received $2.4 million from the pro-caffeinationist lobby that sponsored the studies and purchased the requisite senators. “Hey, Joanne,” said Carlos to the customer. “Hey, Carlos,” said Joanne. “Something to drink?” “The Usual. To go.” “Coming right up.” So I was hanging out with Carlos and Olivia at The Dirty Old Coffeehouse, drinking The Usual and waiting for the elder Schechner to arrive with some old letters he’d found, to see if any were worth putting in the book. After that, we were going to invite Carlos and Olivia to shut the place down for an hour and go look at some art down the street. It was late morning, and foot traffic was light. Most customers ordered their beverages to go, or sat for 10 minutes reading the newspaper and then left. Olivia, who’d been in the backroom, talking on the phone with her attorney for 20 minutes or so, emerged at last, looking utterly exhausted. She looked at Carlos and me, and we looked back, and she nodded, so we nodded back. “Is Dad coming?” Olivia asked her brother. “Yup,” said Carlos. “Shit,” said Olivia. “Well, before he gets here . . . fuck.” “What?” “Well, I know you don’t believe me, but I think we need to discuss the cow.” “The cow at Mom’s place? Again?” “It’s not Mom’s place! It’s the general’s place! And it’s the general’s cow!” Carlos had told me about this cow situation several times. After their mother retired from standup comedy in 1995, she moved to Tibet, then returned, in 2002, to marry the general. She couldn’t or wouldn’t explain how they’d met; she no longer communicated with her old friends, favoring instead the company of other retired military men and their wives and Bloody Marys. Vanessa Nava and the general invited Carlos and Olivia to one of their Republican-style dinner parties, where nothing terribly interesting happened apart from Olivia, who’s never exhibited other signs of paranoia, determining that the general’s cow was not a real cow but a mechanical bovine spy. “Right. Sorry,” said Carlos. “General’s place, general’s cow.” “But not a real cow,” said Olivia, nodding. “Say it.” “No, I won’t say it,” said Carlos. “Because it’s just a cow, Olivia. It’s a real live Guernsey cow. And it was standing a good 10 feet from the kitchen, watching us eat ham-and-cream-cheese rolls.” “No! It’s not a real cow, it’s a cow-shaped animatronic surveillance device. That’s why there’s never any milk. And it wasn’t just standing outside the kitchen. It was sticking its head in through the open window while we were talking about The Usual, Carlos! And I could see a camera lens sticking out of its mouth. And I’m pretty sure one of its eyes was a microphone.” “Okay,” Carlos replied, shaking his head. “Don’t you ‘okay’ me!” said Olivia. “I’m serious. General Stepdaddy NeoCon Motherfucker is on to The Usual, and you don’t even care! He can make it illegal, Carlos! You know what he does!” “Fine,” said Carlos. “Whatever.” “No. Not ‘Fine, whatever’! That cow is not a cow.” “What cow isn’t a cow?” It was Hector Schechner, standing in the doorway. At the same time, a customer arrived, squeezing past Schechner and making eye contact with Carlos, who nodded back, got up and attended to the counter. Olivia threw up her hands, muttered, “Fuck it,” and headed back to the storage room. Schechner showed his palms, waiting for acknowledgment if not affection. “Be with you in a second, Dad,” said Carlos. “Hey, Richard,” Carlos said to the customer. “What can I get you today?” “The Usual,” said Richard. “To go.” Schechner remained standing in the doorway, in full performance garb: big long shaggy coat, big shiny black toupee, big shiny black mustache, ridiculous bright-green nose plugs. “What cow,” he repeated, “isn’t a cow?”

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