Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia: Part 2
Lena Valencia’s “Mystery Lights” appears in four parts this week.
The full story will be published on Friday, March 29.
This is Part 2. Part 1 is here.
Previously on “Mystery Lights” — Marfa Lights—a nineties-era cross between X-Files and Twin Peaks, with a healthy dose of Texas flair—is getting a reboot. Wendy leads her team to Marfa, TX for their audacious experiential marketing campaign designed to coincide with the premier. Meanwhile, the team is having issues with one of the influencers hired to promote the show, and Wendy is having issues with her estranged daughter, Emma, who has dropped out of college to pursue her art in Brooklyn. Frustrated by a call with her husband about Emma, Wendy heads to the bar…
Dead Horse Saloon was a tourist’s dive bar. Whoever had designed it had done so by focus group, ticking off all the boxes. Neon beer signs, check. A jukebox playing Hank Williams, check. Dark varnished wood everywhere, check. Dartboard, check. Dilapidated pool table, check. There were craft beers, though, and a cocktail menu, and instead of an old grizzled barkeep there was a clean-shaven young guy who would have fit in at any coffee shop in Silverlake. Wendy could see Paul and Katie sitting at the bar in front of him, looking at their phones. The rest of the room was empty except for a booth of girls around Emma’s age, all wearing brightly-colored bobbed wigs and taking selfies with one another. When had this narcissistic ritual replaced conversation?
Paul looked up and caught her eye, “Shit. The boss is here.”
“You came,” said Katie.
“I thought we may as well celebrate.” She examined the cocktail menu and ordered a tequila drink called a Green Goblin. “What’s up with those wigs?”
Katie inhaled sharply, as if about to say something, but instead looked down at her beer.
“They’re high as fuck,” Paul said.
Katie glared at Paul.
“What? They are! They told me—hang on, I wrote it down—” he pulled out his phone and read, “We are here to bring purity through chaos. Serenity through disorder.”
Wendy glanced over her shoulder. One of the girls was caressing the tabletop with her hands, a beatific expression on her face.
“Sounds like they’ve been watching our campaign,” she said.
The bartender set her drink down in front of her. “Seven bucks,” he said. She dug her AmEx out of her wallet and set it on the bar.
“Open or closed?”
Wendy hesitated. “Open,” she said.
“All right!” said Paul, giving the bar a slap.
The Green Goblin tasted tart and sweet and gave her heartburn, but she drank it anyway and ordered a second and a third one as Paul prattled on to her about bad Tinder dates, television shows, and a new bar in Highland Park that served only Texas beers. She’d never really spent time with Paul outside work. This is good, she told herself. Morale-building. But Katie’s morale looked like it could be better. She was ignoring them, mesmerized by something on her phone. After several minutes of this, she left, muttering something about a call she needed to make. When she was gone, Wendy took the opportunity to ask Paul what was wrong with her.
He shrugged. “She’s probably just tired,” he said. “Sick of me.” He smiled, his green eyes dancing, and brought his bottle to his lips. She thought of young Chris, driving her around the city in his gas-guzzling baby blue Ford Bronco, bottle of beer between his legs.
The girls behind them were playing the jukebox, singing along to a country song about a daughter forced into prostitution by her mother. One voice carried louder than the others, deep and breathy. Wendy gasped and gripped the bar to steady herself. It was Emma’s voice.
She spun around in her stool and stood up, clenching her cocktail napkin, inspecting the faces of the girls in the wigs. The one singing had her eyes closed and was belting out the chorus, Here’s your one chance Fancy don’t let me down, her face contorted in a passionate snarl. Not Emma. But the voice was nearly identical. The song ended and her wigged friends clapped.
“You okay?” said Paul.
She stared at the cocktail napkin she was holding and unclenched her fingers, letting it fall. The floor swayed beneath her and she realized she was drunk.
“I should get home,” she said. “Big day tomorrow.”
“Need a ride?” said Paul, eyeing the wigged girls.
“I’ll walk,” she said. “I could use some air, honestly.” The bartender brought her the tab and she paid it, then stumbled through the door and walked through the night back toward the hotel.
In bed, she opened Instagram and typed emmaraldcity into the search bar. A bunch of tiny square-framed Emmas sprang to the screen. In the most recent photo, she sported an asymmetrical haircut, long chunks of platinum hair framing half of her face. Her heavily lined eyes held a defiant squint, her dark lips in a pout. The caption had no words, just one of those little cartoon pictograms of a yellow girl smiling with scissors in her hair. Where was she? The photograph was taken outdoors—there was a street sign in the background. Wendy tried to zoom in, but accidentally double-tapped the image, causing a white heart to bloom and disappear over her daughter’s face. Crap. Her own account had no images—she used it only to monitor the various social media campaigns for work. It was her name, BendyWendy, that Emma might recognize. Some doll that Chris had found once at Toys-R-Us and bought for Emma, and the two of them could not stop laughing. She was still Bendy Wendy whenever she went to yoga, whenever either of them wanted to disarm her in her bursts of temper. She looked at the likes underneath the picture. 476. There was no way her daughter would notice one more, was there? She put the phone down and let herself drift to sleep.
The tour of the Chinati Foundation, with work by Donald Judd and several other minimalist artists, was supposed to be time off, a bit of culture before their final meeting with the drone pilots in the afternoon. Wendy had booked tickets for Katie and Paul, but Paul had texted moments ago declining, saying he had too much work. Probably just had a hangover, thought Wendy, sipping her third cup of coffee in the hotel café as she watched a group of girls pose for selfies in front of the mural across the street that said, simply, “See Mystery Lights” in bold white letters on a navy-blue background. It had rained overnight, and was threatening to continue on and off today. Wendy prayed it would let up by the evening. Her head throbbed. She had hardly slept the night before. Katie walked into the café at 8:15, fifteen minutes early. She looked tired, or tired as a girl her age can look, as she ordered a large coffee to go.
They walked out to the parking lot. “Rough night?” asked Wendy.
“Just some jitters about the premiere,” she said, forcing a smile.
Katie’s nervous silence throughout the short drive was punctuated by gulps of coffee at every red light and profanity at the wrong turns she took despite the GPS’s directions. They still arrived at the Foundation early enough before the tour started to wander the grounds, a cluster of military buildings surrounded by a field dotted with Donald Judd’s rectangular concrete structures—picnic tables for giants. Their sharp lines stood out against the rippling yellow grass, alien and imposing.
“What do you think?” said Katie finally, inspecting the sculptures.
“I don’t know yet,” said Wendy. The blisters on her ankles burned. The truth was she didn’t understand what the big deal was about minimalist art. Chris loved it. Used the word “sublime” to describe a painting that was nothing more than white paint on canvas. It felt out of reach to Wendy, who had spent her life in marketing, trying to make ideas accessible to the masses. Chris was the one who had insisted she book the tour.
“I think they’re magnificent,” Katie said.
They moved closer to one of the sculptures. It was taller than it had seemed from a distance—big enough for Katie and Wendy to stand inside, which they did, the concrete radiating a musty cool.
“Feel this,” said Katie, running her hand along the sculpture’s wall. “He poured the cement into plywood molds.”
Wendy ran a hand over the concrete. It was textured with a swirling woodgrain. A jackrabbit bounded by them, nose twitching. Thunder sounded in the distance.
Katie glanced at her phone. “There’s something you need to see,” she said, and handed her phone to Wendy.
On it was a YouTube video titled TURN OFF MARFA LIGHTS.
“Is this one of ours?” asked Wendy.
“Just watch it.”
“Greetings,” said the young woman in a purple bobbed wig. She sighed heavily, her entire body deflating as she exhaled. Her blue-painted lips were turned down in a somber expression. “Sometimes, we are taken advantage of. Our youth, our beauty used to make others wealthy.” She paused, nostrils flaring. “They’ve corrupted our language. Words like ‘radical’ are selling organic hand creams. ‘Disrupt’ is used by tech executives peddling apps. We’re sedated by mediocre narratives that keep us in our beds and on our sofas, keep us from engaging with reality. You have the opportunity to stop one before it starts, friends. I’m asking you to disrupt, to spread your radical beautiful energy around the small desert city of Marfa, Texas, where one of these shows is having its premiere. Hit them where it hurts, friends. Do what needs to be done. Purity through chaos. Serenity through disorder. Meet here on September 14,” GPS coordinates flashed across the screen. “This is Maria Montecito, signing off.”
Wendy glanced at the views. It had nearly six hundred thousand. More than any of their own promos. She handed the phone back to Katie. “I don’t understand.”
“Those girls in wigs last night, those were some of her fans.” She looked close to tears now, her face bright red.
“Katie,” said Wendy, placing a hand on her back, tentatively. “What’s wrong?”
“Her followers—her fans—they’re kind of unstable.”
Katie winced and typed something into her phone. “See for yourself.”
MARIA MONTECITO FANS LOSE IT, read the title of the video. In it, a group of wigged twenty-something girls were gathered outside an office building, chanting something inaudible. Two of them lit the contents of a trashcan on fire. The shaky camera panned to a cluster of girls throwing bricks. “Watch this,” one shouted at the camera, “I was in varsity softball.” Cheers erupted as the building’s front window shattered. The clip ended.
“That was outside the Denver Post newsroom after one of their columnists wrote an op-ed about Maria’s negative influence on young girls,” Katie said. “Maria sent a hand-written letter to each of those girls in the video, thanking them.”
“Did you tell Irv?”
Katie looked down and kicked a rock free from the dry dirt. “He’s going to call you about it this morning.”
“Christ,” said Wendy. It wasn’t my idea, she imagined herself saying to Irv. But that wasn’t the way things worked. Katie was her employee, therefore the work she came up with belonged to Wendy. And Irv didn’t care about details like that.
“We should go,” said Katie glumly. “The tour’s about to start.”
To be continued…
Next time, on “Mystery Lights” — Wendy and Katie take the anticipated call from Irv, steeling themselves for a reprimand. What can be done about Maria Montecito’s inciting video? The team bickers as they begin a trek across the desert to meet the drone pilots who can’t seem to do anything on time. Wendy’s personal crises—Emma’s silence and Wendy’s own failure to consider sensible footwear—threaten her composure.
LENA VALENCIA’s writing has appeared in Joyland, 7x7LA, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in fiction from The New School and is the recipient of a 2019 Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. She is the managing editor of One Story and teaches writing at Catapult and the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. For more information, visit lenavalencia.com