The below excerpt comes from Robert Guffey’s Chameleo, a breathless true story of “invisible spies, heroin addiction, and homeland security,” out now from OR Books. By turns exuberant, resourceful, hilarious, dubious, and emotionally affecting, Chameleo thrives on the contact high of the possible, much like the twin arts of paranoia and conspiracy, from which it takes its manic energy. True to its title, Guffey’s book camouflages itself in bouts of obsession and incredulity, recounting an episode of American insanity that weirdly implicates the Department of Homeland Security, the NCIS, and the state of American welfare, among other parties. Along the way, Guffey’s book also proves that a certain strain of powerful but thwarted American intellect — one often wielded by the disenfranchised, American loser — is alive and well in our homeland today.
But the thing I love most about Chameleo is that it’s a story about a sustained American friendship. Also, it deals with invisible little people and shapeshifting rooms.
What do you need to know about the chapter below? Dion, a heroin addict, the narrator’s friend, has already been apprehended and released by government agents after a man he doesn’t know brings stolen military equipment, including night vision goggles, to one of his drug parties…
— Jonathon Sturgeon
While attending the Clarion Writers Workshop back in 1996, I learned a phrase that describes an error many young writers make while beginning to write stories. The phrase was coined by novelist James P. Blaylock. It’s known as “the Octopus On the Shelf.”The Octopus On the Shelf is an element in a science fiction or fantasy story (though I suppose it could just as easily occur in a mainstream story) that causes the reader to think, “What the fuck? Where did that come from?” But not in a good way. Not in a way that keeps you interested in the story, but in a way that makes you question the sanity and skill of the writer.
The first Octopus On the Shelf (oh yes, there were several) occurred when Dion called me one day in a panic and told me that invisible midgets were infiltrating his apartment.
“How do you know they’re midgets?” I said.
“Never mind that,” he said, then proceeded to regale me with stories about people brushing up against him in his living room when no one was around, pushing him over, moving furniture around, and making a general nuisance of themselves.
I had now reverted to my old opinion that Dion had gone nuts. After all, it was more than possible that government agents were indeed watching him (because they thought he was still hoarding their precious night vision goggles) and that Dion was also suffering from meth paranoia at the same exact time. These were by no means mutually exclusive situations.
But as Dion kept babbling I became intrigued by the weird little details that tumbled from his mind. For example, at one point he said he was in his bathroom getting something out of the medicine cabinet when he caught sight of one of the little fuckers. In the split second that it took him to open the cabinet door, he spotted a little man in the background standing only about ten feet behind him. He didn’t get a detailed look, but he saw enough to know someone was there. Dion started opening and closing the mirror like mad, but by that time the homunculus had skedaddled. I thought this was a very intriguing detail. As the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said, “Always ask the next question.” If someone had an experimental invisibility suit based on light-bending technology, it made some sort of cockeyed sense to me that the suit might become visible temporarily while the mirror was in motion. Dion was hardly a science fiction fan, nor did he own a subscription to Popular Science. It’s not the kind of detail he would make up off the top of his head. He was just reporting what he was seeing.
Another detail he noticed was that, occasionally, parts of the little people would become visible. Depending on the background, a vague outline would appear represented by dots of light floating in the air. Dion said they looked something like the auras he would see when suffering from a bad migraine. In fact, at first he thought that’s what they were. But then he began seeing them more and more frequently, often when he wasn’t suffering from a migraine, and only when he could sense the presence of other people in his apartment. I had no idea what this detail indicated. The flashes of light made me think of visual phenomena that some people report while hallucinating. Again, there was something about this detail that seemed authentic to me. I couldn’t explain why, however, so I just put it in my “gray basket” (neither positive or negative, just gray) for the time being and promised myself I’d try to follow up on it later.
Meanwhile, Dion kept insisting on referring to his visitors as “invisible midgets.” This was partly an example of Dion’s dark humor, but also semi-serious. He seemed to think they were very diminutive people. If you were going to use these super-suits in order to infiltrate sensitive military locations in other countries, you would want to train small and agile people to use them. Gymnasts, perhaps? Dancers? Jockeys from the nearby Del Mar Race Track? Dwarves? Why not? (“Naval Intelligence In Need of Vertically-challenged Individuals for Sensitive Intelligence Work. Must Be Willing To Terrorize Harmless Drug Addicts 24/7. BYOB.”)
Not long after the invisible midgets started showing up at the apartment, Lita Johnston made a return appearance. Early one afternoon, all the terrorist madness just ceased. The jarheads who were parked outside drove away. “Huh, maybe they gave up,” Dion thought. About twenty minutes later, however, Lita herself appeared on his back doorstep with two male agents in tow. She was polite and friendly. She asked Dion how he was doing. He said he was okay. She then asked him if he’d changed his mind and would like to tell her where the goggles were hidden. He insisted he didn’t know. She said that was too bad, because if he did know she could probably help him out.
At that point Dion just came straight out and asked her if she had people tailing him. She laughed and said that was silly. She then gave him her business card and told him if he changed his mind he could call the number at any time of the day or night. He said he couldn’t call the number because he didn’t know anything. She just nodded, and all three of them left in their unmarked, government vehicle.
A few minutes later all the chaos re-ensued. The flotilla of spies resumed their positions, invisible people started moving furniture around the apartment, and jarheads camped out in the supermarket parking lot next door and blatantly took photographs of him. All day, all night. Some of these guys would remain parked in the lot outside the apartment and play loud music for hours while beaming their headlights right through his bedroom window. Strangely, none of the neighbors seemed to mind. It’s important to note that since his arrest in July almost all of Dion’s neighbors, one by one, had moved out of the building. All the apartments were now occupied by new people, people Dion had never seen before.
The landlord started acting more and more nervous and kept asking Dion—seemingly for no reason—if he was planning on moving soon.
One time Dion asked him, “Is there any reason why I should move?”
Perspiring like mad, the landlord said nothing and crept back into his apartment.
Then the room started growing. Dion called me one afternoon—several months after this whole mess had begun—to tell me that earlier in the day he had entered his apartment through the front door and was surprised to see that the living room appeared far larger than normal. “This house is evil,” Dion told me, “and it grows!” At this point he (and I) thought he had definitely lost his shit, until a couple of days later when his friend My Lai came over and said, “Say… does the place look, like, way bigger to you?”
Again, I didn’t have the technical knowledge to explain such phenomena, but I knew it was not a typical Dion hallucination. I had known him since we were both sixteen, and by this point I was used to how he behaved while under the influence of a panoply of different drugs. None of these symptoms were familiar. I’ve known a lot of drug addicts in my life, and not one of them ever hallucinated that their apartment had transformed into a tesseract house; no one ever shoots heroin and dreams that their domicile has become the stand-in for Doctor Who’s Tardis. Hell, heroin and meth aren’t even hallucinogens. Dion despised hallucinogens and always had. His personal kinks were heroin and speed, and that was pretty much it. All those mellow hippie drugs just put him in even worse moods than normal.
Again, I wasn’t sure how one could make a room look bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside, but my intuition told me it wasn’t impossible.
Then came the Boris Vallejo virtual reality mindfucks. One day Dion glanced out his living room window and noticed that the scenery that should’ve been there had disappeared. Instead he saw what he described as the background of a cheesy Boris Vallejo painting: swirling green mists, alien vegetation, three suns in the sky, everything but the furry throat and the big breasted woman in the loincloth. I thought it was significant that the scene didn’t even look like a Frank Frazetta painting; it looked like a Vallejo painting. Leave it to a U.S. intelligence agent to pick the second-rate cheesy painter instead of the first-rate cheesy painter for their little virtual reality scenario (it’s important to note that this scene didn’t appear to be a mere two-dimensional painting—it looked real, as if Dion could open the door and step into it).
After seeing this Vallejo Wonderland, Dion ran over to the windows on the other side of the apartment and saw the same things he’d always seen: the grocery store and the gas station and the power line next door. No weird vegetation, no green sun, no swirling mist.
He went back to the other side and glanced out the window again. Nothing had changed: Vallejo everywhere. When he opened the door, however, he saw exactly what he was supposed to see. Only when looking out the windows on one side of the building did the scene look surreal.The scenery remained this way for a few hours, then morphed into something else. This continued for several weeks, driving Dion nearer and nearer to The Edge.
Late one night, fearing for his life, he wrote out a huge sign that read “PLEASE DON’T SHOOT ME” and hung it in his front window. He crawled into bed and within seconds saw a shadow projected onto his bedroom wall on the other side of the room. It was the silhouette of a giant hand gripping a gun, and the gun was pointed at the silhouette of his own head. It kept tilting up and down, aiming at his forehead and pulling the trigger. Over and over again.
The strange occurrences persisted as the weeks turned into months, from July of 2003 to January of 2004. About seven months. Now, you might be asking yourself: Why didn’t Dion just leave? This question often comes up in regards to haunted house scenarios. How come these idiots don’t just bail if it’s so damn scary? Well, when you don’t have a lot of money it’s kind of hard to leave. Also, Lita continued to warn him over and over again not to leave the city.
Yes, Lita continued to show up at his door from time to time with the same two agents in tow, asking if he’d found the damn goggles. He kept saying no, of course, since he’d never even seen them in the first place.
But it was around October that Dion began doing his own detective work in Pacific Beach. He went to all the thugs he kept for friends and asked if any of them knew what Lee/ Doyle had been up to. Had he really been running some kind of smuggling ring out of Camp Pendleton? Dion uncovered some scuttlebutt that indicated Lee/Doyle had stolen the goggles in order to sell them to the Hell Angels. At first this might sound ridiculous, but the Hells Angels are involved with a great deal of drug smuggling in San Diego and Mexico. A supply of hi-tech night vision goggles is exactly something you’d need to make your job easier while smuggling major loads of contraband over the border at night. However, it’s not clear to me that Lee/Doyle understood the severity of his crime. It’s not possible that those night vision goggles were just normal everyday goggles. They couldn’t be. You could repurchase twenty-five pairs of those babies through eBay for far less money than it would cost to keep this psychological warfare game going against Dion Fuller.