|"Pleasant Hell" by John Carroll Dolan
John Dolan's new novel Pleasant Hell has just been released by Capricorn Publishers. You can purchase it on-line, or better yet, demand that your local bookstore orders ten copies and prominently displays them, or you will construct a large papier-maiche puppet of the store owner and hold daily protests in a free-speech zone across the street.
I'm still drooling as I write. From a chemical burn. My tongue hurts the worst, but there's plenty of throbbing pain left over for the roof of my mouth.
It started when I noticed packets of betel nuts at the Thai grocery around the corner. They were supposedly addictive, which sounded promising. They had that Southeast Asian mystique going for them, too. So I looked up "Betel" online and found a bunch of hippies rhapsodizing about the way chewing betel nut cheered you up, made it easier to work, suppressed the appetite.
All those effects would be welcome in my case. Besides, it seems they're perfectly legal.
That should have warned me. Whenever you find something that's legal, there's a reason. Either it doesn't work at all, or it doesn't work AND it's a vile poison nobody would ingest more than once.
So naturally I was determined to try betel nuts. I went back to the Thai grocery with a fistful of cash, in the hope that if they really overcharge you wildly the stuff might be worth trying. The betel stuff was in a special little tray, in the back room. Promising! All the components were there: the actual betel nuts, little dry brown disks of leathery plant matter; the betel leaves (botanically unrelated) you're supposed to wrap them in; and the key ingredient, the lime you chew to release the alkaloids.
When I say "lime," I don't mean the happy little citrus fruit. I mean chemical lime, the stuff they use to dissolve bodies. It came in a little plastic jar, with the chemical wrapped tight in a plastic bag. Looked yummy.
I bought seven packets of rice noodles and three curries, just for camouflage, but the Thai lady behind the counter didn't seem interested at all. I left the shop only $15 poorer, and fully equipped. Feeling jaunty, like some Graham Greene expat. A guy who knows his way around the mean betel alleys and betel dens of Saigon.
According to these hippie websites, you didn't actually chew the nuts. You pouched them in your cheek, added some lime and sucked on the whole fibrous wad. The disks of dried betel weren't all that disgusting, not compared to some other things I've tried. They just tasted like wood.
Now it was time to add the lime. I sawed open the packet of pink playdough, and a sour chemical stink poured out, like a coral reef at low tide, only far more vehement. The sites said to take about a gram of the stuff. Reminding myself, "You've taken worse stuff," I took a big pinch of the goo, stuck it in my cheek and sucked.
You know that scene in Dumb & Dumber where they both eat hot chilies on a dare? It was very much like that: first the milliseconds of stoic posturing, "It's not that bad," then the pain cutting right through the pose, and then the loss of all dignity. I ran to the sink groaning, drooling, trying to flush the lye out of my mouth.
The water seemed to spread it around in there. Surfaces I didn't know I had were in pain, little mucoid folds of tissue not heard from in years were screaming. Milk, milk is supposed to help -- so I tilted a carton of yogurt into my mouth. It burned. Whatever the active ingredient in chilies is, it's chemically unlike the one in lime. I'm quasi-living proof of that. Yogurt poured on that burn was like kerosene.