On Assignment: Shem The Pen & The Real Candy Crush Saga
I'm freezing in the back of a battered blue pickup truck, stalled in traffic as the Nogales, Mexico sign looms just ahead. Federales roam the cars, sniffing out bribes like stray dogs. Fortunately my driver Hillbilly Carl knows the game, his hairy arm leaning from the cab with a palm full of pesos. Good thing, because I've got enough contraband in my backpack to spend my next five lifetimes in a Mexico City jail cell.
And why not? If you're going to check out the premiere underground international phone game competition, you've got to do it right. I don't know what kind of scene to expect down there, but it ain't a bingo game in a church basement. This is big money, big drugs, big trouble. Too big even for America, which banned competitive Candy Crush in 2013 after kids started started dropping dead with spinning eyes. If there's anything both sides of the political aisle can agree on, it's that Candy Crush is spawned by Satan Himself.
Perhaps they have a point. Competitive Crush swept across middle America in the early 2010's with the terminal efficiency of a potent strain of crystal meth. A few curious dabbles with the innocuous game soon turn into an obsessive habit and then a full on addiction, complete with sexual favors for a few more coins. And that's just the housewives. Professional Crush is a different beast, employing only the most psychotically deranged souls for games that run up to 72 hours at a time. They say that kind of run leads a man's mind down a Kurtzian river of madness, into a bubble smashing dementia from which one never returns. That's where I've been sent by the Keystone Statement.
Hillbilly Carl starts up the truck, slipping in to an open lane. He nods to the moustachioed federale who waves him through. I light up a smoke and smile to the old woman in a black shawl and her bug eyed kids with whom I'm sharing the cab. I hear a squawk underneath me, shuffling aside for one of her chickens. And then we're through border toll booth. Somehow the air, the sky, the atmosphere has changed as we roll onto a highway into Mexico. Or maybe the Donald Trump acid is just kicking in.
You're not supposed to get iced drinks in Nogales. The don't-drink-the-water thing. But I figure, fuck that. I'm here to cover an illegal Candy Crush tournament with a head full of purposely foul psychedelics and a bag full of dirt weed and street Celexa. A case of the runs is the least of my worries.
I order a Tom Collins. I've got a table at a little cantina called The Aztec, a dive bar for tourists and drug runners. The walls are decorated with velvet portraits of hustlers and gamblers, which are already beginning to spin and smirk at me. This Trump acid is heavy stuff, not for college students or gentle hippies. It's only for true freaks - psychedelic veterans like Phish roadies and freelance journalists. I've got an envelope full of cash from the Keystone offices as well. How a local sports and entertainment website maintains such a healthy liquid economy is a question I don't ponder. I just get more orders, pick up my envelope, and go to battle.
The tournament sounds like my kind of scene. Candy Crush pros are a wild bunch, swiping madly at tablets and iphones to riotous crowds. They stay awake by sipping a concoction known as 'Crush Juice,' a potent cocktail of kombucha, Adderall, and pure cocaine. Last year's winner Ruben Sanchez did not enjoy much of a victory tour; he was the victim of fatal blast from an RPG fired into his apartment complex that took out three floors and injured twenty. Such is the life in professional Candy Crush, where even winners are blown away like so many red jellies. The rumor is that the Yakuza will have a presence at this year's tournament, though their likes are also common at the Keystone Statement offices in Pittsburgh.
But there's something different here in Nogales, a depraved lawless aire reminiscent of Burroughs' Interzone. I'm supposed to meet a contact named Lil' Tony, who'll lead me to the tournament grounds. The location is such a closely guarded secret that I'll likely be blindfolded for the trip, which is no problem because my wife and I are into that so I've brought along my own silk monogrammed blindfold.
"Shem The Pen," comes a high pitched whine from behind me.
I turn around to see a midget in guerilla military regalia, his shabby bearded face scarred down one cheek.
He hops into the booth across from me, his tiny legs dangling.
"Didn't they tell you not to drink the water?"
"I'm a journalist. I like to live to live dangerously."
"Well, in that case, you should try the meatloaf here."
"Not that dangerously."
A waitress drops a cerveza before him. Lil' Tony is a runner, a facilitator of all things nefarious. Meaning that even outside of a Candy Crush tournament, his is a good number to have in your phone. I respect his mercenary attitude. So long as he gets paid, he doesn't care where I have to go or how many drugs or underage whores come with me. The acid has kicked in to a warm numbing glow, though there's a dark unpredictability to this Trump stuff - you're as likely to end up in a street fight as see Godzilla in an alleyway.
Soon we're off, Lil' Tony driving his jeep down battered dirt roads. Since his feet can't reach the pedals, he has an old man down on the floor pressing them for him. I nod and smile politely down to him, though I don't even want to guess what sort of road leads a man to a job like that. God hates us all, as my great-grandmother's needlework always said.
Lil' Tony, as it turns out, is a talker. Particularly once he realizes that I'm good people and not the usual perverts that the Keystone Statement sends down here. He tells me about his wife, who would have won Lil' Miss Mexico if not for a judging irregularity. One thing that can be said for Mexico is that corruption is out in the open, so society's gears can operate without America's grandiose illusions of purity. Dictatorship is the only form of government that really works, so long as you can find a decent dictator.
We chat about all this as the jeep drives away from the city and across the vast farmland toward the mountains on the horizon. When we finally reach the base, Lil' Tony casually presses a button to open a door on the mountain side to drive on through. It is the sort of thing you have to pretend not to notice, particularly when you're tripping on Trump acid and you're not sure if it's an hallucination.
But it's not - the mountain range is actually an enormous indoor arena complete with stands and giant screens. The tournament has not started but early qualifiers are already practicing. I begin to get a sense of what a crazy scene this is going to be, imagining the giant purple candies crashing on all sides to the cheers of drunken fans. I reach down for a few snorts of Celexa from my Folger's can. I offer some to Lil' Tony, and though I get the sense that it goes against his general principles, he obliges. I start to offer some to the old man down at the pedals but Lil' Tony shakes his head, curses at him in spanish, and kicks at his face. But by the time he drops me off the main betting windows, I feel a kinship with Lil' Tony.
"I'll see you in a day or so," I say.
He just gives me a stare of cold pity that chills my spine.
Some may enter the mountain, but few ever leave.
I head right for the bar. I order a double scotch and sign it to the Keystone tab. It's a heady crowd around the bar, a mix of gaiety and desperation, not unlike happy hour at TGI Fridays. TV's up above alternately flash the pregames and leaderboards with betting odds. I'm not here to get into that action. I'm a journalist, not a gambler. Besides, I get the feeling that I'll need the rest of the cash to get out of here.
I wander to the jukebox and put on "Shadowboxin'" by GZA. Say what you will about an illegal international phone game tournament, but they've got Liquid Swords on their jukebox. As I flip through my next selections - Necro, New York Dolls, Olivia Newton-John - I feel a hand on my shoulder.
There is no mistaking him. Carlos Consuela is king of the Nogales crime syndicates, a man who runs every racket from peyote edibles to holy basil extract. His hair and beard are a distinguished gray, his brown smile warm but brimming with dark authority. He is attended by his bodyguards, a phalanx of small brutish women with eyes of sharks.
"Shem The Pen, we've been expecting you," he says.
Before I can process what's happening, I'm ushered behind the bar and into an elevator with aquarium walls. We are heading up, my mind slinking about like the fluorescent eels in the tanks.
"It started as a dream," he's telling me. We're sitting on royal chairs in his expansive office overlooking the arena below. Everything is immaculate save for the cigars, which are plastic tipped. "That's a line from one of your great American poets, no?"
"Notorious BIG. 'It was all a dream.' From 'Juicy.'"
"Ah, well there you go. See, I knew I was dealing with a literary man. You are Shem The Pen, of @dropthemichaiku."
"Among other things, yes."
"If you're from the Nobel committee, I thought I've already made myself clear that I'm not interested."
"No, no, that's not it at all." He nods to the servant who sets down two bottles of Yoo-Hoo in an ice bucket between us. "I am interested in a more mutually beneficial relationship."
"You see, this whole thing started on the tiny farm where I grew up. We were poor, so poor that all we had was what you call basic cable."
"I'm so sorry."
"We were forced to entertain ourselves. I still remember the tinkling melody of the food truck that would pass just before dusk. It was reminiscent of the guitar riff of a song called 'China Cat Sunflower' by an American rock group called The Grateful Dead. Are you familiar with them?"
Smiling, peering out at the trails of falling candies on the giant screens, I nod. "Yeah, I know the song. Very well."
"Yes, St. Garcia. There is a statue of his likeness in my village. And yet we were too poor to buy food from the truck. All we could do was smell the wonderful aromas of the burritos. And dream. We had our dreams. And so it was that fateful afternoon, Mr Shem, that a single item fell from the truck as it passed. A piece of candy. To this day, I'm not sure what it was. A Smarty? A Starburst? It doesn't matter. And we all watched it, all of us poor starving children. And yet no one dared to snatch it because it was such a busy road. As you may know, the speed limit is really just a suggestion down here. As the American poet Samuel Hagar once said-"
"'I Can't Drive 55.'"
"Yes, you are well versed. And you see down that road came another truck, an eighteen wheeler. It honked at us as it passed and then finally we saw our chance to snatch the candy. But it was too late. I remember it was young Sixtos, one of my dearest friends, who got to it. He held it up to the day's dying light and cried out, 'The candy has been crushed!' That was my inspiration. I ran right back to the PC in my parents' barn and coded out a beta version of what you now know as Candy Crush Saga, And the rest is all this."
"Right. Well, thanks for the story and the Yoo-Hoo, but I have to get home to wife and see this blindfold here-"
"Oh no, you're not going anywhere. You have been chosen. You, Shem The Pen, great author of haikus and proprietor of @dropthemichaiku and Shemthepen.com, you are the one who will tell my story. A literary biography. Something highbrow. I'm thinking of calling it 'The Candyman Can: The Carlos Conseula Story,' but I'll leave that all up to you. I've got you penned in for the next, say, six years or so. Should be sufficient. And if I don't approve, I'll kill you."
"No, you can't-"
"That Yoo-Hoo you just finished contained a heavy sedative. Tomorrow you will wake in a cell at my compound. There is much work to be done. You'll have a used Acer laptop and three meals a day. We've got a licensing deal with Sbarro."
"You'll also have a phone. But no service. We will set you up with unlimited coins for the newest Candy Crush Saga, of course. I'm proud of this one. I was inspired by a trip out to Los Cabos..."
I can't speak, my vision blurring. I can only see traces of falling colors, candies, jellies, repeating into infinity.