I ARRIVED at the hotel shortly before check-in. The lobby bar was silent as I approached. Something, probably the gleaming floor at the foot of the front desk beyond, assaulted my nose with its artificial cleanliness.
I came to take the California State Bar Exam this second time in order to pass, foremost, but also to find the perfect description, the most representative exemplar of the madness that the exam and its process drew as candidates. I looked for that bloated pseudo-intellect, mindless and ovine, redolent of the perceived exceptionalism that defined the spirit of the bar exam and its candidates. The embodiment of that ideal might be found and properly described if I looked deeply enough into the chaos of the three-day test. At least, that was my hope, naïve as it might have been.
I stepped up to the bar, at which sat a freckle-faced geek of about twenty-five. He sipped a juice concoction on ice through a straw, and he sported a designer short-sleeve polo with a gaudy label. He cut his eyes to look at me as he sipped further down the glass.
The cubicle-monkey took his lips from the straw.
“I’m in town to take the California State Bar Exam. My name’s Pete. I’m going to be a lawyer like my dad!” His nasal voice was barely less annoying than the content of his speech. I shook his outstretched hand.
“Yeah? I’m taking it too.”
He looked me over, as if he were measuring up his competition. Satisfied that I was no threat, he smiled at me and sipped once more before speaking again.
“Where’d you go to school?”
I ignored the question, mercifully saved as I was by the presence of the bartender.
“Pentuple Wild Turkey on the rocks.”
The freak in the polo gasped.
“Well, then, put it in a pint glass!” I shouted after the barman mumbled something imbecilic about ice and volume.
“You’re drinking the day before the exam?!” The green-faced snot nose had become my lifecoach, and quick. “Is that a good idea? Me, I brought my own juicer to use in my hotel room. You should come up and try some.”
I glared at him.
“Actually, I’m undercover with the FBI, working the exam.” I showed him a fake plastic badge a hooker in the Tenderloin had given me after a particularly revolting encounter. “You seem like a good kid. I’ll let you in on some inside information: There’s a bomb threat. Occupy Wall Street or the Weathermen or something. Probably Obama related.”
“Oh, God. Why?! This can’t be happening!” His reedy voice quaked. He paused to gather himself. “Is nothing sacred?! It’s the California State Bar Exam! Those Bastards!!!” He slammed his fist into the bar top spilling slightly his juice off its rocks and onto the bar. Several pasty losers in the restaurant raised their heads above banquets, turning like prairie dogs at the sound of his fury.
“Well, I’ve got to go. We’ve got one last briefing before tomorrow’s carnage.”
“No. Please stay. I need to know more.”
But I was already marching to the front desk over checkered and antiseptic terrain with my pint glass sloshing before me.
The greasy-haired front desk manager laughed maniacally when I told him I wanted to book a room for the next three nights. They were at capacity. They would remain at capacity. He called over an assistant, a corpulent fellow with eyes like a weasel, who laughed even more maniacally when told of my situation.
“There hasn’t been a room available for the Bar Exam since last May. Not for anywhere from San Jose to Tiburon.” The greaser smiled, then hissed through yellow teeth: “Though, we might find you something for sixteen times the normal rate if you consent to be filmed while you sleep.”
The assistant smiled at me and slid his tongue across his upper lip.
I told the perverts where to go, and I left through the lobby. I passed the bar again as I retreated. The kid looked back at me with worry in every freckled square inch of his scrunched face. I winked at him. He might have been sobbing; I couldn’t say for sure.
If the onanists had no room at their inns for me, I would have to rent a car. I resolved to drive each day from my Tenderloin studio to the convention center for the exam. The security at this sort of thing was a labyrinthine prophylactic against my designs, and if I didn’t have a base of operations close to the site of the exam, I couldn’t circumvent it, or even function. A mobile base would have to be arranged. Yes, I needed the car. What if I lost my psychedelics? Spilled my Adderall into the convention center toilet as it flushed away my attention span?
Where would I store my Fentanyl lollipops?
I left voice messages and sent texts to acquaintances who might help me with my hotel situation, or lack thereof, while I searched the most rotten crevices of my brain for a place to rent the proper car for my purposes.
I returned to San Francisco, making it somewhere south of Cesar Chavez where a friend of a friend of a friend worked for a fly-by-night rental car lot. He was the seediest of motherfuckers; I trusted him less than I would a cop. He laughed a laugh that caught in his sinew-y throat as he told me there were no rental cars available during the days of the Bar Exam. Not ever. From Palo Alto to Sausalito. He hacked into his hand and wiped it on his scratchy-looking tweed trousers.
“But, I might have something for you, buddy. It’ll be four times the normal rate, unfortunately, to make the logistical changes necessary for that sort of automobile on such short notice.”
It’s been the same story throughout this process, from law school application to the Bar Exam: packs of liars erected artificial barriers to my achievement, one after the next, each one more petty than the last. The pock-faced monster with the vicious grey eyes, Dean ______ of ________ School of Law, who said: “This is not China. We do not take bribes for admission.” I enrolled at the desk of his secretary within the hour. The interminable political harangue for a last-minute Bar Exam ticket in which family connections had to be used just to speak with Someone Who Can Do Things exhausted my parents. I was on the conference call with dear old pa and ma, when Someone Who Can Do Things said: “Why the fuck did he even want to go to law school in the first place? There’s nothing in law anymore. It’s all finance now.” She promised to fast-track my application for a favor or two, and a literal golden ticket arrived a week before the exam, just as I was beginning to regret how far I had been willing to debase myself for her.
I pulled the 1978 Studebaker Walpole out of the lot about the time the Sun hovered over the Avenues out west. The friend of the friend of the friend had helped me push start the behemoth, as its sagging belly scraped sparks against the asphalt. The cavernous boot of that immense vehicle was to be a great help for my cause, if it came to hiding the bodies, though the seven miles-per-gallon would not. Something rattled in that trunk as I hit a pothole, and my phone rang. It was an unknown number. The manifold complications associated with the Bar Exam had surely reached a limit, so I answered. A syrupy female voice responded.
“Jamie. Gareth’s cousin? He said he spoke with you about me.”
He had, and I had forgotten: I was responsible for ferrying not one, but two lost souls through the depraved process of the next three days. She sounded like a game-show host whelped by Tammy Faye Baker and sired by George Corley Wallace. Her enthusiasm sickened me.
“Oh, right! Great to hear from you!” Fight fire with fire.
A classmate had asked sometime in the hazy drunken months before the exam if I might watch over his cousin—from Oklahoma—as she took the exam. I, in an unfortunate bout with Good Samaritanism, promised to procure accommodations for both of us. Gareth told me that she was an amateur photographer of considerable talent, and that as a part of her experience, she would be taking pictures of her fellow examinees. Her intentions, then, weren’t out of line with mine.
I sideswiped a series of compact sedans and knocked over a bicyclist.
“I’ve reserved for us two of the finest rooms in Berkeley.” I lied.
“Berkeley?” fear, insect-like, caught in the amber of her voice. “Isn’t that the place with the hippies, drugs, and perverts?”
“The very same, but there are pockets of deviance in every city, Jamie. Be assured, though. I solemnly swore to Gareth that you will be protected from every horror that depraved city has to offer us.”
Silence on the phone; rattling in the trunk.
“Hey, Jamie? I’m driving to the vet right now. My puppy is sick. Why don’t I text you the name and address of the hotel in a few minutes?”
Click. Or some present electronic analogue of that sound.
I looked down at my phone as I ended the call; a UPS driver hurtled into his truck, narrowly avoiding my bumper. I had received fifteen texts in response to my queries. I checked them in succession as I crossed the bridge to Berkeley. I responded to one cruel joke after another, as if a metaphor for my day. The godforsaken and terminally unable to operate moving vehicles veered and crashed into one another as I sped through the resultant wreckage. If I had reservations for rooms in Berkeley, I would have to go to Berkeley.
I drove from hotel to hotel to motel to motel, greeted by nothing but cruel laughter and acned noses and unkempt moustaches. NO VACANCY. They were all at capacity. They would remain, all, at capacity.
Finally, I found a dilapidated shack of an inn on the very outskirts of Berkeley. The cramped front room stunk of mold and patchouli and the body odor of a thousand transients. At the front desk, the woman in charge, goitered and overrun with facial tics, greeted me three times before I could reply once. The scumbox had exactly one room to let for the term of the bar. She coughed from the darkest depths of her lungs, barely catching her breath each time. I had no choice but to take my only offer, so I rented the room.
I texted the name and address of the hotel to Jamie as soon as my credit card was approved.
I retrieved my kit from the Walpole in the adjacent alley. As I walked through the “lobby” the consumptive old hag at the desk followed my every move, coughing in time with my footsteps. I took the rickety, grease-covered stairs to my foul room, only to find that it was windowless and had but a cot instead of the promised twin-sized bed. I took the Gideons’ from the plywood nightstand and threw it out where there should have been a window. Knowing that the room was my only choice out of one option, I hoped aloud that the cousin was not some sort of tribadistic pervert as I laid out my balloons of various powders, medical grade plastic zip-ties, and high voltage mini-taser.
The woman with the profound cough greeted me twice when I returned to the reservation desk. I asked if anyone had asked for me, as I had received no electronic reply from Jamie and there was no phone in the room. I wanted to reassure the cousin that we had accomodations before I left to scout the convention center.
The old woman frowned.
“Oh, yeah. She was here. An odd-looking woman asked if you checked in. She said she was going to the convention center. Is she a friend of yours?”
I shook my head.
“I’m supposed to be taking the Bar Exam with her, but I’ve never met her.”
“Oh, you won’t have a problem finding her. Just look for the woman with the large black apparatus on her face.” She shivered. “You’ll recognize her, alright.”
God be damned. I couldn’t be seen with a hirsute genetic fumbling mistake with an apparatus on her face, even if she was Gareth’s cousin. Not on the first day of the exam! And not on the second! Or the third!
“Have you been tested for tuberculosis, ma’am?” I said.
She shook her head in the negative.
“I’m a juris doctor, and that cough of yours has the signature whoop of the tuberculotic. I might just have some curative powder for you.”
“Oh, dear. Thank you. What’s the proper…”
I was pushing the Studebaker to jump start it before she could finish her question the fourth time. As fearful as I was of Jamie’s appearance, I was happy to hear that we were sympatico as to scouting the location the night before. When I reached the convention center, I saw a lone woman standing on the sidewalk, staring through the unending line of glass doorways. She was tall and had straight dark hair, but she was not a freak at all. She was wearing large, black-framed glasses and carrying a camera.
“Facial apparatus.” I slipped.
I introduced myself, pleased to see that she was not a grotesque.
“I’m pleased to see that you’re not grotesque.”
“What were you expecting?”
“Nevermind. Just remember that this is not Amarillo, or even Tulsa.”
“Oh, I’m just happier than a pig that you found rooms for us.”
“Sure.” I cracked my neck nervously.
“I’m just so on edge about the exam. I’ve heard so many horror stories.”
“I’ve seen some, actually. Horrible things.”
She frowned and looked at the dirty concrete.
“I heard,” she giggled, “that a woman once gave birth during the exam through a hole she cut in her chair. After the proctors whisked away the baby in a file box, she finished her test. And! She passed!”
I smiled. I was amused by her chipper attitude in person, and she didn’t seem like the Fascist torture-for-information-in-a-tiny-hotel-room type. I dropped my guard a bit as I told her a story in return.
“Last year the proctors maced the examinees after the first section of the second day.”
“No.” She trembled incredulously.
“I was there. The proctors walked up and down the aisles, macing away like demented crop-dusting bi-planes. None of the examinees said anything for fear that the proctors would auto-fail them for conduct detrimental.”
“I can’t believe that. You’re joking.”
“I wish I were. That’s why this year I brought a mini-taser and knockout powder.”
“What’s that?” She was, just as I, terrified by a world in which proctors pepper-sprayed examinees without provocation.
“It uses electrical current to affect neuromuscular incapacitation.”
“No. I mean, what’s knockout powder?”
“Oh, it’s a concoction of high-grade synthetic opiates and drano that I’ve perfected.”
She looked back into the convention center.
“Is it safe in there?”
She placed her hand against the glass of one of the doors, as if to feel the potential violence inside.
“The herding behavior of the group is dangerous, and the proctors are menaces of the first degree, but don’t worry. At the first sign of trouble, I’ll tase a proctor and bomb the room with knockout powder.”
She looked at me, nervously smiling.
I wasn’t kidding.
We were silent as we walked back to the immense jalopy. As we walked I tried to accurately describe the scene as it would be the next morning.
“This sidewalk,” I said, “will be overrun with bodies; thousands, and many of them will be in various states of inebriation. It’s an amazing spectacle of scum: fainting, crying, attempting to copulate in their final moments, trampling each other, and fighting with broken whisky bottles and replica katanas. If we can make it through the cacophony and violence, we might be able to take the exam and pass it.”
She was silent.
“Gareth said you are interested in photographing some of the more interesting freaks at this circus.”
“I am. I want to objectively depict the experience. Is that a bad idea?”
“A brave documentation of the events surrounding this exam is needed. It’s a great idea, if properly executed. I also want to describe—with words—the truth of what it is like. Maybe we can present our work together.”
“Sure. I only wonder if I’m brave enough.”
“So do I.” I shook my head.
We pushed the car to a start and jumped in without much more than a skinned knee between us.
“To survive this, we’ll have to be careful.”
She nodded somberly.
“There are three kinds of particularly depraved sub-humans we will have to avoid tomorrow: men wearing Harvard windbreakers, women in seven-inch stiletto heels, and drooling idiots in sleepwear.”
Her face drained of all color.
“What kind of people…”
“They aren’t people, Jamie. They’re less than human. The anvil-headed Ivy League windbreaker wearers will be self-promoting date rapists, probably imposters who went to Stanford, ready to club you in the head and drag you into hours of torture in the bowels of the convention center.”
“I wish I were. And the women in the stiletto heels make me the most uncomfortable of all.”
I adjusted my awkward seating position. My pants were suddenly too tight.
“The kind of preening twat who arches her back each time an ill-fitting suit comes near?” Jamie said. “I know the type.”
She laughed as we sped through the median.
Before we settled in for the night, I found a restaurant I hoped was appropriate for our last decent supper before the chaos of the exam. She wondered aloud why there wasn’t any meat on the menu, and I had to tell her about the recent prohibition on anything animal-related west of Fresno, or so. We talked about the differences within American culture, education, the current economic tailspin, casually acquainting ourselves. She represented herself well; she was a decent woman, which made me all the more regretful about the fact that I would be seeing her torn limb from limb before me by the jackals in the streets the next morning.
Jamie was not as upset about the sleeping arrangement as I thought she might be, which made me suspect that she might be a tribadistic anarcho-Fascist, after all, but during the night she behaved. We took four-hour turns sleeping on top of each other. I woke that morning with an embarrassing hard-on pressed against her thigh, which seemed to bother her much less than the sticky mess.
At breakfast across the street from the foul shack where we stayed, we discussed the coming events and the previous night over scrambled tofu and artisanal instant coffee.
The night before, she had taken pictures of every one and every thing, to the point that some of the guests in the restaurant were seriously and vocally offended.
“I’m just documenting reality.” She defended herself and her habit of showing the subject of the picture what they looked like.
“Remember, you’re in California now, the Bay Area. People don’t like to see reality as it actually exists. They want to see reality as they want it to exist. Why do you think that we had to leave the restaurant so quickly?”
“I thought it was because you used the taser on our waiter.”
“No. The barbs flew right past.”
“He screamed when the electrical arc hit him.”
“Well, even so, be careful.”
Though neither of us could be aware of the fact, this was the last decent conversation we were able to have for the duration of the exam period. Our lives would spin irretrievably out of control, into a hazy and confused, drunken daymare. During the questions of the exam, hours upon hours of correct and incorrect answers, judgment calls on essays, and stress-induced arrhythmias bled together in a slick and sticky film across our memories of those three days. After the testing hours the streets devolved into riots, punctuated by the ritual sacrifice of a plastic surgeon in Jack London Square. That is the sum of my unrefreshed remembrance.
Now, as I look at the notebook I carried in those dark days, I can perceive better what actually happened. Although pages—each soaked in whisky—are missing, torn, and burnt, they describe to me the events of those three days.
Fires swept the city of Oakland all day during the first day of testing, only to be extinguished by the torrential rains of that evening. The second and third days were notable for the flooding that took place and the nerve gas attack in the Ashby BART station.
On that first day Jamie and I arrived at the convention center just before the recommended arrival time, in order to see how the circus was built. After my whisky and tofu breakfast, I sewed my hip-flask into the lining of my hoodie, and I snorted what Adderall I hadn’t stored in my false ear plugs. Examinees and their chauffeurs parked on the sidewalks, some driving through the glass windows of the convention center, turning over bus stops and benches for blocks around the examination site. At least three homeless men were summarily shot for impersonating examinees. The riot police stood motionless in blue uniforms in uniform rows with blackjacks and shields and firearms.
“Why the riot police?” Jamie asked.
“Maybe there’s a bomb threat.” I thought of the scrunchy-faced boy at the hotel bar.
It was an unending parade of pimps, whores, and thieves. Women in hats that extended to what could have been a second-story floor attempted to secret in exam-taking robots; men on stilts in seersucker suits hid communication devices in their platforms. Underage girls in bikinis distracted the kiddie-porn-loving proctors’ attention as famous Contracts-law professors, hog-tied and gagged, were dragged into the examination area and hidden beneath the desks. These disgusting falsifiers were to be the future of our legal system, a future that would unfortunately not break from the past. I resigned myself to that fact and tongued my false tooth filled with knockout powder.
Jamie expressed her novel fear of an earthquake during the testing period.
“Hmm. That would be the best thing for all of us,” was all I could think to say.
She pushed on, camera in hand, stepping over bodies—some alive—and I fought my way after her, scribbling unintelligible notes. The mass of slow-moving ingrates went on for blocks, as the acrid smell of fire filled the air. We had made it through to security. The body cavity search was less intrusive for me than it was for some others, and through my arrangement with the state bar, I was able to procure for her a seat next to mine in the exam room.
After the singing of the National Anthem and the signing of the loyalty oaths, Jamie looked back at the sea of examinees situated in row after row of desks behind us and in column after column to either side of us. From behind me I heard a man scream:
“Don’t look at me, you bespectacled freak!”
The proctors took him away quickly, while they beat him about the face and neck with shiny rubber blackjacks. The first day’s questions were distributed, and we were ordered to start. That first day carried on uneventfully, but for the swarming and the beating by the riot police after we were released for the day. Someone had tased a proctor just as we were being released from testing, and in the aftermath a herd mentality took over as we rushed to the door, a mentality that saved many of us from serious injury at the hands of the pigs in blue.
The following two days were nothing but madness. The following nights were nearly catastrophic. But we pressed on. Horrors I cannot recount in person, unprintable all. When we were released on the third day, there was finally a calm moment. The thousands of us unculled by the proctors or riot police or the fires or the floods or the stress of the exam marched in an orderly fashion through the lasting evidence of violence in those streets. Burnt out husks of buildings and overturned police cruisers lined the melting asphalt of the street. On our way to the Walpole, that freckle-faced boy from the hotel bar, now something approaching a man, looked at me longingly. I could see in his eyes that he was ready to understand.
“I could’ve gotten you a job with the FBI, but you fucked it up by bringing so much attention to us that day.”
He hung his head in shame, but looked up, eager to please.
“You think I could be an agent?!”
“No, you perverted carbuncle. There’s no job for you.”
Jamie looked at me, then him; she had begun to enjoy whisky in these three days; her potential for perversion was great, and despite that—possibly because of it—she had a gift for seeing things as they really were. She took an incredible series of pictures in that moment—rapid-fire—that represented a perfect embodiment of the ideal for which we had searched. She looked at me, knowing she had something special. Had we finally found it in that atavistic twerp, who had been hollowed-out and then crushed by the afternoon of that third day?
“Who was he?” Jamie said, awed by his movements as the green face stumbled off.
“Some little shit I met at a bar three days ago. He thinks I work for the FBI.”
She laughed, almost maniacally, as we pushed the car.
“Let’s get back to the hotel,” she beamed.
The perversion in her eyes reminded me: I had to make sure we got a second room that night; I was tired of her frottage, and her appetite for quality drugs was infringing on my use. Besides, she probably wanted to perform tribadistic fantasies on some corn-fed Heidi with downy-haired arms in a separate room. When I told her of the change in sleeping arrangements, I was surprised that she looked disappointed.
Noon the next day, someone knocked on my door.
“Go the fuck away!”
“Do you want breakfast?”
It was Jamie.
“Go the fuck away!”
“Let me in.”
I got up, shaking beyond voluntary control. I tried to unlock the door, but the latch wouldn’t budge and the knob kept slipping out of my grasp. I was in bad shape. Three days of riots, self-tasing, and prodigious drug use had sapped my system of its essential strength.
“Come on, man!”
She had become insatiable.
Jamie kicked the door: once, twice, and it crashed open. I fell back onto the tiny bed, its stained sheets moist from some accident or another. She came in, or a post-impressionist’s painting of her floated into my blurred vision.
“That’s gonna cost you.”
She laughed and snorted some of my left over Adderall on the nightstand.
“Jesus Fucking Christ, woman.”
“I know,” she said as what looked like a smile cracked through her unfocused image.
I got up again and saw myself in the mirror. The horror. If the freckle-faced geek was our present ideal, what was I?! The future? I could barely stand as I contemplated that reflected image before me. My hairline had receded beyond my temples; my nose had been smeared across my face, both eyes black and swollen in their own conjunctive way; my head was twice its normal size, and I was wearing what looked like a dravraH windbreaker. It was too much for me to handle in this state of come-down. She tried to take a picture of me, but she was shaking so much she couldn’t keep the camera in focus or press the button or do both at the same time. I was saved! No one else needed to know this terror. I wanted the cruel truth no more than the next be-dreadlocked trustafarian or corporate-synergy-spouting polo wearer.
“We’ve got to get out of here.”
I ripped off the windbreaker.
He hangs partway out the missing door of the 1978 Studebaker Walpole, held only by the frayed seat belt, a white powder dusted across his face. The shattered continuation of a hangover pierces her temples as she shields her red and puffy eyes from sunlight reflected in the rear view. His head wobbles through the wind outside the passenger seat. Bits of safety glass pepper the air around them; the trunk rattles, menacingly. He is half-naked and the seat is wet beneath him. Every so often he chokes and spittle is sucked out into the ether beyond the giant automobile.
She arrives at the airport and wraps him in a blanket before tossing him onto the sidewalk at the nearest gate. Security personnel swarm just as she tears off to the highway, nicking an airport shuttle and spewing knockout powder from the window. She laughs maniacally as she rages down the highway. The ensuing chase proves unfruitful for the scum-sucking cops that follow.
Months later, the results of the exam are finally released.
My phone rings.
“I passed, you pigfucker!” She screams.
“Good for you,” I croak.