A long, drawn out giggle that trilled up and down a scale of hilarity first alerted me to the existence of my soon-to-be bosom buddy Danelle. Like many other misguided innocents at Hapless University, I was attempting to join a “social” club, our own pathetic version of a sorority. Danelle and I pledged the same club, Tri-Krappa. I was doing standup comedy for talent night, and with the exception of Danelle’s non-stop laughter, my jokes were falling extremely flat. Which, in turn, made me believe Danelle was making fun of me.
Although she proved herself to me with her kind nature and willingness to laugh at anything I did or said, it took two years, a giant song and dance number and a trip to Europe to really cement our friendship.
After college, we went our separate ways (except for that time we spent together in Asia), and we kept in touch. Danelle became a high school English and theater teacher in her painfully small hometown in Texas. I admired her bravery for working with the underdeveloped and undereducated of Texas, but tried to warn her of the dangers of surrounding herself with such a toxic generation. Alas, Danelle would soon confront the harsh reality of teenagehood during one epic night that Lifetime Movie Network would come to call “Speed Dating in Hell: The Danelle Russo Story.”
On a regular old Texas day in which the sun blazed down on the population, Danelle taught the finer points of Plato to a room full of burnouts in Arp, Texas. One sweaty child raised his sweaty arm and announced, “I have a cousin who lives in Plato.”
With an eyebrow arched and a trilling snort of derision, Danelle explained to the wayward child that Plato and Plano were, alas, not one and the same.
And yet, thought Danelle, how wondrous would it not be to live in Plato? To live as the characters in the allegory of the cave lived and to see life as but a series of shadow-puppets, only to be cast into the light and to stumble into understanding the true force behind life. Ah, to live in Plato.
A shrill bell sounded, ending Danelle’s reverie. That mildly sweaty student approached her with his most-definitely-sweaty arms and addressed her with astonishing forcefulness.
“Ms. Russo, you haaaaave to come hang with us tonight! We be zimmin’, yo.”
Danelle would never understand this strange way the youths had of speaking, try as she might.
“What’s that, Horatio? What is it you say you and your fellows are doing tonight? Getting the jiggy on it?”
It was Horatio’s turn to snort, as it became obvious that Ms. Russo would never be able to jive like a hep cat.
“No, Ms. Russo. Ain’t nobody gettin’ jiggy wit’ it. I’m borrowin’ my brother Tito’s El Camino and we’re going to Speedzone. You totally gotta come!”
Danelle had long given up attempting to correct the grammar of these sweaty adolescents. She contemplated Horatio’s offer for a moment, and with a slight nod of her head that gave a bounce to her golden tresses, she assented. All my attempts to warn her against fraternization with the enemy had been in vain.
Horatio met Danelle next to the dumpster behind the school later that evening. Yes, there was just the one dumpster. The little burnout pulled up in a bright turquoise vehicle meant to transport only those with classier tastes.
“MS. RUSSO!” Horatio screamed with delight. Danelle got into the passenger seat and could tell right away that Horatio had been eating the Pop Rocks and the Pixie Stix and whatever else the kids are snorting and shooting up with these days.
“Sorry I made you meet me out hizzah, but da shawties at Speedzone gonna straight be trippin’ when I fly up in der wit’ our crazy gringo teach.”
Exasperated at the slang the residents of the Azalea District in nearby Tyler would refer to as “Spanglionics,” Danelle pointed the air conditioning vents at her head to admire the way her auburn tresses floated in the faux breeze.
“What exactly is Speedzone, Horatio?”
“You don’t know!?!”
As Horatio screeched quickly around a corner, Danelle thought it wise to put on her seatbelt.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t know.”
“It’s fo’ sheezy a speed dating club, Ms. Russo.”
“A what, now?”
“It’s a club where we go on, like, five-minute dates wit’ people to see whether or not we like ‘em.”
“Oh no, Horatio, this does not sound like the kind of establishment I should patronize.”
“It ain’t dat scary, B. You need to chizzizzle.”
“I have no idea what you just said Horatio, but I’m not going to some sort of club where young people ‘date’ each other. I’m 10 years older than you, for crying out loud! What would I do there?”
“I don’t know. But it’s gonn’ be so flippin’ funny, Paco’s gonn’ have him a stroke.”
“Horatio! I do not exist for my students’ amusement. Take me back to my car this instant!”
Unfortunately, the wheels with the rims that keep spinnin’ every time Horatio stopped didn’t slow.
“I already got my mind made up, B.”
“Horatio…are you kidnapping me?”
The automatic locking system, which Danelle was surprised to find existed in an El Camino, was thus employed, along with the child safety locks that would prevent her from exiting the slum-ride to Hell.
“If kidnappin’ be a fancy word for taking you against yo’ will, then yeah. I kidnappin’ ya, boo.”
The short ride to Speedzone had been punctuated by Horatio’s warbling along to songs on the radio the likes of which Danelle had never heard and hoped to never hear again. What exactly were apple bottom jeans and boots with the fur? She became even more nervous with her kidnapping as Horatio pulled off of the main road and began to pursue paths most definitely less-traveled. After turning onto a dirt road, and then another, the car stopped short, surprising Danelle.
“Where? There’s nothing here.”
“You’ll see, teach. When you get yo self out da’ car.”
Horatio unlocked the doors. Danelle began to exit and thought of running, but quickly dismissed the idea. For one thing, she had no idea where she was and lacked any ability whatsoever to backtrack, as I had discovered one rainy evening while sightseeing with her in Venice. Besides, thought Danelle, Horatio’s just having fun with me, right? Although I am uncomfortable with him tricking me into coming out here and forcing me to do it against my will after I learned what this was, to him it’s all a big joke. What could really go wrong?
Even in her own mind, that last thought had rang horribly optimistic.
Horatio had emerged from the ghetto cruiser by this time and walked around to Danelle’s side of the car. He pointed to a dusty flat spot in the field about 50 feet away that lacked any vegetation. As they walked toward it, Danelle thought she could make out a sound, like a loud bass thumping. That’s bass as in music, not the fish.
As they walked closer, Danelle saw what appeared to be a trapdoor in the dirt.
“We’re going to a hole in the ground?” Danelle asked with what was beginning to be real panic. “I’ve read ‘The Lovely Bones,’ you know. This kind of thing never turns out well.”
“You gotsta chill, Ms. Russo. Ain’t no bad shizz goin’ down tonight!”
“So bad ‘shizz’ usually happens?” Danelle asked while employing the air quotes gesture.
Horatio was beginning to get frustrated, and in his frustration, he tended to incorrectly answer questions, if the results of his recent pop quiz on Beowulf were any indication.
“YES! Now, tonight gotta theme, dogg. ‘Jam’N the Night.’ How tight is that?”
“Pretty tight,” Danelle said with a heavy sigh.
Horatio pulled a dusty and near-invisible chain from somewhere in the dirt and the trapdoor opened. The loud bass thumping (music, not fish) was suddenly much, much louder. Narrow stairs led down into a cramped tunnel filled with the glow from a blacklight. As Danelle descended the stairs, she expected to meet fuzzy posters depicting happy mushrooms, but instead she saw posters of young women wearing tight jeans that emphasized their rear ends complemented by boots with fur trim. Suddenly a song she’d heard Horatio singing began to make sense. But this apple bottom business? There were no apples at the bottoms of these jeans.
Danelle heard Horatio close the trapdoor behind them, but it was hard to make him out in the exotic but improperly illuminated tunnel. Being a woman of taller proportions, she had to crouch a bit as she made her way toward the light.
The tunnel opened into a cavernous room filled with teenagers, loud music and disco balls.
Pairs of teenagers were seated at about 20 tables arranged in a haphazard circle in the center of the room, leaving about five feet of space between the outside of the circle and the cave walls. Blacklights beamed down from nearly every direction, but one large light was fixed on several people sitting along the wall on the opposite side. Danelle could not tell what those people were doing, but it appeared they had their backs to the room. Through the hum and roar of the music that some would refer to as Gay Vermont Disco Music, Danelle heard the distinct sound of a bell ringing. Those sitting at the tables in the inside of the circle, all male, got up and moved to the table to the right. On the other side of the table, the girls remained sitting. The rearranged pairs then began to converse, although with the wild gesticulating, it appeared to be subhuman conversation to Danelle.
Horatio grabbed Danelle’s arm with his sweaty hand and led her toward the circle. The first problem, thought Danelle, is that there is not a vacant table.
“Shoot! It’s all packed, yo! I knew we shoulda drove faster!” Horatio exclaimed.
Wait – what am I thinking? Danelle thought. The first problem is that I’m even here. AT. ALL.
Horatio walked toward his friend Scumalot, a terrible nickname for poor Scot Barry, who most definitely qualified as subhuman. Danelle felt a more appropriate nickname would be Stewie, because his high-pitched voice and need for diapers reminded Danelle of a sketch show character who was as spastic as Liz Taylor’s colon. At the moment, Scumalot/Scot/Stewie was deep in conversation with Jess Posely.
“Scumalot! Look who I brought, man! Yo, get up cuz we need a place to sit.”
Scumalot/Scot/Stewie just looked at Horatio with that owl-who-writes-Shakespeare-on-napkins look. Danelle felt it was time to speak up. If she actually sat at one of these tables, the students would think she wanted to be involved in this nonsense.
“Horatio, Scum, no offense, but I’m not interested in this whole speed dating thing. Also, there’s the statutoriness of it to consider.”
Several students had stopped their subhuman gesticulations and gone to staring and mouth breathing. Kris Biggs, her least favorite mouth breather, stood up from his five-minute date with what, Danelle noted with alarm, appeared to be a he-she. Biggs approached the confused English teacher and her teenage kidnapper.
“If she doesn’t want to be here, why did you bring her Horatio? We could get in a lot of trouble with Farmer Elvis Jujubee if he knew we dug a cave under his alfalfa crop and his mother’s plot.”
More students had risen from their clearly consanguine courtships and were huddling around the incident.
“It’s true. I don’t want to be here. Horatio kidnapped me, for crying out loud, and although I appreciate a sweaty arm as much as the next chick, I’m not about to pull a Mary Kay LeTourneau. I obviously can’t walk home, so someone will need to drive me.”
Biggs eyed her as Danelle imagined the serpent must have eyed Eve, and then said, “You’re not going anywhere, teach. You’ve seen too much. You’re going to remain here for the duration of Jam’N the Night. Possibly longer.”
Danelle could hardly believe her ears. Was Biggs, the little lizard, really threatening her? She began to back away, but bumped into some other sweaty twerp. She felt positively jammed into Jam’N the Night, and then forced to goosestep it to the wall of the cave where the people she’d noticed earlier were sitting with their backs to the room. However, on closer (and forced) inspection, Danelle saw the three people were shackled to the ground by rusty chains. More horrifying was an unoccupied set of shackles, into which Danelle was then literally jammed.
During all this, Danelle had been anything but silent. Her screams were just as trilling as her laughter, but it was only met by the hollow feeling the jam-packed room deceptively projected.
Once shackled and facing the wall, Danelle found she could turn her head left and right, but for the most part could not see the rest of the room. All she had to look at was the curved wall of the cave. After struggling uselessly against the surprisingly strong chains, Danelle tired out. Although she couldn’t see her captors, she realized she could see their shadows cast on the wall directly in front of her. When she turned her head, she could make out the other captives watching the shadows play on the wall.
With a dejected sigh, Danelle gave up trying to see around her and gave in to looking at the shadows, figuring she could deduce her captors’ actions from their dark counterparts.
The speed dating continued on, with some pairs occasionally leaving the group to have discussions away from the din. The puppetry grew boring to Danelle. Her mind began to wander and her eyes unfocused slightly. She remembered her girlhood in the wilds of Texas, laying in an open field watching the clouds overhead as the antelope and bulls gamboled around her, the war cry of an Indian chieftain as she imagined pictures and portents in the rain-heavy clouds.
Just there – a shadow to remind her of her first crush: Antonio P. She was four, and so enamored of Antonio P., the son of the Mexican woman who cleaned Nana’s house, that she drew little hearts on her walls with a scrawl that she believed to be a real written language, although she wouldn’t find out until much, much later that it was called English. Antonio P., called Tony in his younger years, spurned her advances and went on to become the greatest wannabe rapper that central Tyler had ever known.
Recalling the love she had once felt for Antonio P. logically led to reminiscences of her other great love and former flame Christophe Casem. Any time she was chained to a floor, she thought of Christophe. She first met him at the Lawn Gnome Bazaar. She thought he would hate her forever when she smacked into him, chipping a front tooth of his new gnome.
Danelle met Christophe again later, during a meeting of The Yaks Guild letter-writing campaign to Bazel David, university president, requesting that he disband the Unnatural Attachment Brigade. Christophe had chipped his own front tooth smacking into a real-life gnome, thereby enforcing his connection to Danelle.
Although they had much to talk about, such as lifting Volkswagens with brute strength, Danelle had moved on from Christophe and broken his heart when she entered a radical phase of her life.
She hardly knew what had gotten into her when she spurned everything she had ever been taught and began knitting scarves. Her steel-toed-boot-clad friends watched her in disbelief as she perfected her apple pie recipe. She didn’t feel she could relate to Christophe and his unwashed hair any longer when she took to wearing pantyhose.
Alone and completely respectable, she finally transitioned out of that shocking period of time after draining her finances by repeatedly calling and donating to a PBS telethon.
Though, looking back, she wouldn’t change a thing. How else would she have begun to consider the two extremes – radical and conservative – if she hadn’t moved from the humdrum usual of throwing molotov cocktails at the bourgeoisie? Without a rebellious stage during which she began shaving her armpits, she never would have began her obsession with absolutes.
Danelle’s obsession with absolutes captivated her the way a cheap Celine Dion fragrance captivated at least five Canadians. She thought about absolutes constantly. She carefully considered the existence of right and wrong versus a land of moral gray area. On the one hand, there were things like puppies, which are an absolute MUST. Also, there were Joaquin Phoenix movies, gelato and her best friends, Sarash and Laura.
On the other hand, there were questionable areas like listening to Evanescence and drinking Squirt while wearing a plaid hat.
More importantly, could absolutes exist without a God? Could God exist without absolutes? Danelle was sure she would ponder this for many years.
Thinking about absolutes and God always made Danelle come back to the bigger issue: Texas. Despite her situation, she couldn’t help but thank God, yet again, for Texas. What if she had been born in some horrible, backward place like Nebraska? She actually shuddered when she remembered corn husking.
Texas was magical. Texas, with its warm and dusty winds, dried her tears when she cried. Texas, with its blazing sun, smiled with her when she laughed. Texas, with its sharp contrasts in topography, was a sympathetic friend when she changed her mind 20 times a day. Texas, with its highways near civilization, saved her from the Indian Turnpike. Texas, with its hugeness, made her feel less freakish as she towered over midgets. Also with its hugeness, Texas reminded her of her heart.
“For the love of Texas, release me!”
Danelle knew she had said the magic words. If nothing else could command Horatio’s respect, Texas could. Danelle saw his shadow rise abruptly while his short, frizzy companion, Stacy Faifth, blabbered on about one of her eyes. Just the one.
“Alright, teach. For Texas. For Texas you straight up released.”
Horatio knelt behind Danelle and removed the chains. With a gentle hand, he helped her stand. With all eyez on them, the two left the cave and climbed the tunnel toward free air. A great light blazed from the mouth of the tunnel, as many hours had passed during Danelle’s imprisonment. She stepped out hesitantly and blinked into the glaring sun. She could just make out what she once thought was an El Camino, but now understood to be the great auto-beast guide that brought her to the mouth of hell, only to show her what life and Texas were really all about.
Danelle gave a long, drawn out giggle that trilled up and down a scale of hilarity.
“Now I’ve really lived in Plato,” Danelle said with a contented smile.
“Huh?” Horatio said.