The middle of the night’s got its own economy, heroes, political third rails. It’s a whole different place than daytime, which is why it takes so long to get there. There’s that first little bit, the couple hours after evening when folks fuck and drink and watch teevee and wash the children, and then there’s the final squeezings, that inky-purple patch that morning people and joggers claim as their own–because they’re greedy fucks, morning people and joggers–but between them is the middle of the night, which is ruled by cannot.
Can’t have a fancy wedding at two in the morning. (And bear in mind we’re not speaking of Las Vegas here, just normal locales.) Fan belt’s not getting replaced; shit, the bus isn’t coming by for hours. Translators and stenographers are of little to no use; piano tuners, even less. Your options for ethnic foods are severely curtailed. Art museums, pick-your-own apple farms, pool supply stores: no, no, no. You could not adopt a pet or a child in the middle of the night, at least not legally. The teevee went off at three. Draculette signed off–“Good night, boogers. Try not to die.”–and then you were on your own. You could get a drink, or a burger, or stabbed, but that was about it and some folks couldn’t even get out for the stabbing. Look up next time you’re walking through the middle of the night: always a few lights burning with the curtains drawn. Listen, too, and you’ll hear the same voices. Babies crying out hungry, and dying men calling out lonely. Bong-induced coughing fits.
And the AM radio. AM radio lives in the middle of the night, and that’s when Mark Lake did his show on 770 KHAY.
He had competition, too. Draculette and the Late Show ruled the ratings because all the other stations literally stopped coming in clearly around eleven at night, and the FM stations from over the hills got crackly, as well, but the AM powered up at night. FM and teevee are line-of-sight transmitters, but the AM signal gets bounced off the ionosphere and back down to your car radio. When the sun goes down, the air cools and this sends the ionosphere hurtling upwards, increasing the stations’ ranges. It’s just trigonometry, but it brought in all kinds of sounds to Little Aleppo at night. The super-station blasting 150,000 watts from Tijuana, with that scratchy-voiced guy who seemed far too excited about introducing a Dion record. From New York, even: Jews pretending to be Italians, and speaking quickly as a magic trick. There was KJRC from El Paso, and they only broadcast about Jesus and never, ever played a Chuck Berry record, not even once, and you could sense it immediately upon setting on the station; you could listen for only two minutes and know–comprehend in your soul, dig?–that not only did these motherfuckers not play Chuck Berry records, these motherfuckers probably didn’t even own a Chuck Berry record, and by golly what kind of way is that to live? It was understandable to pray to Jesus in the middle of the night, but no one could bear being lectured at about Him at that hour. It was too late to rock and roll, and too early for Jesus.
So Mark Lake didn’t play records. There were recordings, but never records. Mark played stuff he’d get sent. Servicemen, and folks who served, but just not in uniform, and government contractors. Their names and ranks were never revealed.
“It might be as dangerous for you to know their names as it would be for them to be known,” Mark would say. He had a voice from the West: all his consonants got clipped and dropped and swallowed, and the vowels flattened out, and there was almost no nasality. His jaw did more work than his lips did; they sounded thin, and just along for the ride. In stories from his childhood, he would always mention the desert. He never mentioned which one.
“Caller, you’re on The Middle of the Night with Mark Lake. You got Mark.”
“Hey, Mark. Big fan.”
“Uh-huh. What’s your name?”
“I wanted to talk about the Silurian Hypothesis.”
“Oh, yeah. Fascinating stuff. Love to. What’s your name, caller?”
“I’d rather not give it to you, Mark. My safety is paramount on remaining anonymous. I know too much about this.”
“About the Silurian Hypothesis? That there was a lost society of reptile-people around 350,000 years ago? How could any knowledge about that put anyone in danger?”
“Oh, okay. That makes sense.”
“Very jealous of the reptile people. It’s like an inferiority complex thing with them.”
“I can see that, sure. Now, caller, how did you come by this information?”
“Working for the amphibian-people.”
“In what capacity?”
“They have specific toilet needs that we as primates don’t take into account when designing buildings. I had to do a lot of modifications for them. They secretly own every racehorse. It’s like how that one company sells every brand of glasses? The amphibian-people own all the racehorses.”
“There’s a lot that never added up about horse racing that, with your contribution, now makes more sense. Why are you coming forward now?”
“They like to purge their human support staff every few years, so I felt my life was in danger.”
Mark’d hang up on you, but he wouldn’t tease you. He took the confessions of the weird, and he had his vows just like a priest. No screeners. You called, and he answered. This was, he often told his listeners, the way of nature. The Lord meant for us to screen our calls, we would’ve been born with secretaries. You called, and he answered, and you could tell your story. He’d poke at it a little, edge it towards the juicy chunks, slap it back in play when it rambled towards the railing, but it was still your story. You could tell it on the radio, late at night.
Workers from Dulce Base had called in, with a strange clicking sound in the background like a tape recorder running. Folks had the wrong ideas about aliens, they said. They were time travelers. The gray ones with the necks and the big eyes? They were us from a million years from now, and all of them–there were currently 411 at Dulce Base alone–had broken the timestream getting here and had no way back; they were hellaciously pissed about it, hence all the anal probing. A sizable portion of the Defense budget went to entertaining them.
Fran Kukla called in every month or so. She had discovered what she called the Moving Mountain, which was a mountain that moved. Fran wasn’t great at naming things, but she could spot the fuck out of a mountain.
“It’s in Utah, Mark. I’m in Utah, right outside of Provo, and Moving Mountain is here. I’m looking right at it.”
“This is exciting news, Fran. I’m glad you call me first with these things, it really means a lot.”
“Oh, thank you, Mark.”
“Now, Fran, do you perhaps have a camera on you?”
“I do not, Mark. You’re just going to have to take my word for it. I could describe it for you if you’d like.”
“It looks like a mountain.”
Fran was good at spotting mountains, not describing them. She and Mark would talk for a while, and then she’d hang up and call back in four or five weeks with Moving Mountain in her sights, this time in Mobile, Alabama or somewhere.
Lights in the sky hovered, zoomed, changed direction impossibly fast on The Middle of the Night with Mark Lake. Drexian warships loaded for bear play peak-a-boo behind skyscrapers in Chicago, Hong Kong. A case was made to give voting rights to maple syrup. Squatch still lurked in the hills and hallucinogenic mushrooms grew from their scat. Most of the Senate were cyborgs; most of the House were androids; the Supreme Court were all secretly related to the Royal Family, and also reptile-people. Virtually everyone is a reptile-person, if you think about it. Reagan (who is also obviously a reptile-person) set up a task force called Glorious-28, which was supposed to take a census of alien life on earth, but ended up collaborating with the Drexians and infiltrating the Department of the Interior.
“Oh, sure,” Mark would say. “Department of Interior doesn’t belong to us anymore. Not for a while.”
The world was shadowy, but a shadow needs a subject. There had to be a reason, Mark’s callers demanded. Someone did this. Someone is responsible. The world wouldn’t have done this to itself, after all. The world was too messy and confusing to be random; hell, it was too damned random to be random. There had to be someone behind all this. Moriarty’s out there. Satan dwells. Amphibian-people gonna getcha.
“Mark, I agree with the last caller. February clearly doesn’t exist.”
“The evidence is there. However you wish to interpret that evidence? Well, that’s up to you. But I do agree that there is strong, strong evidence that the month of Febraury is fictional.”
“It’s a way for the government to get an extra four weeks of work out of us for free.”
“It’s amazing it’s gone on this long.”
“It’s the Big Lie theory.”
“I actually called to talk about Operation: Full Moon.”
“Yes, yes. The Navy’s experiments into weaponized lycanthropics. I hear that they’re still working on it.”
“Me, too. My sources say that they’ve been successful and turned several sailors into werewolfs. I had one question, though, Mark.”
“I have many questions. But go ahead with yours.”
“Sure, okay. Uh, why the Navy? I don’t understand how it helps you to have a werewolf on a boat.”
“The Navy has people who leave the boat.”
“Yes. They have guns and everything.”
“Huh. Okay. That’s good information, thank you. But it does bring up another question.”
“Questions tend to do that around here.”
“Would the werewolf sailors still have their guns?”
“Now, that’s interesting. It depends. Were your sources specific that they had been changed into werewolfs, and not wolfmen?”
“Quite specific, Mark. I pinned him down on it.”
“Then they would need some sort of custom weapon.”
Mark Lake took your calls until there wasn’t any more night left, picked up the phone himself and let you tell your story. He’d add yours to his, and the listeners would place it with theirs. You weren’t paranoid, Mark’s patience said; the world was stranger than it seemed, but you were not. His show was called The Middle of the Night because that is the only time it could exist, and it was on AM radio broadcasting live and strong from Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.
For Art Bell.