Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Last Resort

The following is a short story that I wrote this spring. It's the first time I've tried to write fiction. It's on the long side for a short story so, if you're game, maybe printing it out is the better way to go. If you do take the time to read it, thank you truly.

The Last Resort

There were two days left in April the day Jackson boarded the bus. It was evening and the warm Houston dusk was swelling like a bruise, from blue to black. Whiffs of drying tar and severed grass careened with pollen in the breeze like suns in a broken universe. He stepped on gnawing an apple and yawning, feeling blank. He was drunk on the punch of Spring, spiked with adrenaline and a cheap sense of progress after a whirlwind of yard sales and internet liquidation that had consumed everything from the material facts to the dreaming embers of his discounted little property of existence. Many things flowed into his heart and mingled at the mouth of feeling, canceling each other out and making him yawn.

He had never traveled this light. Instead of luggage he had only a thin, sand-colored jacket, a three-month-old copy of Vogue he had lifted from a salon an hour ago and an mp3 player. The cleanliness of the bus surprised him. He chose a seat by a window near the back and dipped approvingly into a soft, ink-colored cushion, which reminded him of one of his daughter's plush animals. The windows were tinted in grim indigo and the twilight poured through them onto the blue seats, dyeing them a made-up, cerulean shade. All that blue and humidity made it seem to Jackson that the blood was being drained from everything while soaking in a warm bath.

He was the first on and watched the following arrivals in limp curiosity. Together, their facial expressions formed a dour bouquet and had a shared vanilla quality – nice enough but colorless. He lost interest in people watching almost immediately. Like Jackson, none of them carried any bags and boarding for the entire bus was finished in a leisurely ten minutes. He noticed there were no luggage compartments. A vehicle for detachment, he thought. He turned and looked out at the asphalt lot, which was now lit ghoulishly by incandescent lampposts and the runny half-egg of the cracking sun. As soon as he had turned, he felt a familiar peripheral pull and looked back just in time to see the crest of a redhead settle into a seat four rows up. Beautiful women have their own magnetism, like planets, he thought. Then, I should write that down. He reached for a trusted notebook that had saved the life of so many fragile phrases but remembered he had just thrown it away; and then why. He sunk back into his seat, learning for the first time of his affection for that little notebook and its grave, funereal attire of black leather binding and white paper collar.

Night finished falling and the bus belched a diesel smell before gliding gumpily onto the expressway. After an hour or so of brain-dead window gazing, which consisted of watching black blurring, he tried and failed to read his women's magazine, yawning more than ever as he did. It was written in the language of human interest, a code he now found uncrackable, not to mention slightly indecent, and he buried it in the seat pouch in front of him. He turned to the mp3 player for help and scrolled the wheel of options coldly before settling on a recording of the later, more famously difficult, Beethoven string quartets, which he hadn't had a chance to listen to yet. He nestled his ear buds in, smudged his forehead against the window and pressed play. Within seconds, he stopped it and sat up. What the hell? He had just been listening to an assortment of whines and scrapes – audio nonsense that wasn't, the way a foreign language sounds indecipherable yet organized. There was no way he was going to spend this drive trying to get into that. Forget you, Beethoven, he thought while he rolled the wheel trying to find something more famailiar. He chose for comfort: the sound of the California Dream itself, Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." He pressed play with confidence, slouching toward the window, but stopped mid-lean. Track one, while still smothered in an expected honey of layered harmonies, was a garble; opaque and, somehow, maddeningly impossible to concentrate on. Have I lost my mind? he wondered, fuming more from irritation at the indignity of this small loss of control – today of all days, this trip of all trips – than actual worry about his brains. He was reminded of the Bible story of the Tower of Babel where an enterprising community had tried to build a ladder to the stars and God, in the limitless pettiness of his Old Testament style, had thwarted them by scrambling their speech and leaving them stammering like idiot chickens. Lately it seemed everything reminded him of Bible stories.

He wrapped the black wire of the headphones around the gadget and showed it to the man to his left.

"Want it? I'm done with it."

"What!" The man unrolled a prefabricated grin that was cold to look at. In this grin, it seemed to Jackson as if all the varieties and instabilities of the chemical, fluctuating life didn't exist. No bright raptures. No dim valleys. Jackson was repulsed as much by its empty ease as its dirty afterscent.

The grin said, "Really, man? Yeah, thanks!" Then he turned ominously, like a ratcheting tank turret, and focused his full beam of positive vibes at Jackson's head in a practiced way that had been calculated for maximum annihilation. "Maybe I'll take this with me on the launch. Go rocking out!"

The man's diaper breath wafted in and out of Jackson's nostrils and he was astonished at its rank strength, as if it were a soul he was smelling in decomposition.

"Sure," Jackson said, rolling away. Ryan Seacrest motherfucker. He took his jacket off and made a pillow. It was his third bus in two days and he was surprised at his new napping chops. Within minutes he passed out, lulled to sleep by the jostling of the road, his neck bent to the side and mouth open as if cut down dead from a gallows.

At twilight they stopped for gas in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Jackson opened his eyes to see the low silhouette of a mountain shielding a sliver of flashlit crayons melting over the horizon. He had a parched, tense-necked realization that he had slept through the night and all of its stops. His spine ached a little but not much considering how long it had been kinked. He unscrunched his jacket and stretched as he threaded his arms through its sleeves. Then he joined the zombie herd shuffling with slow, wordless determination out of the bus and into the convenience center.

Inside he wandered through the aisles in want of a craving, squinting from the copious fluorescence. He noticed the redhead standing in front of the toiletries and reflexively took a pack of chewing gum off a shelf and put a stick in his mouth. She wasn't what he'd imagined. Her impatient crinkle of a face was pretty in an annoying way. She caught Jackson looking and he winked. She stared at him sleepily, unimpressed. He stared back while he picked a random candy bar and dropped it in his pocket. What do you think of that, snuglepuss? he thought, watching for signs of crinkled judgement in her face. But her cheekbones rose in smiling disapproval and a wicked mirth sparked from her flinty eyes. Why you devious beauty. I had you all wrong, of course, he thought as he muffled a massive yawn. One of Jackson's favorite things about himself was that his first impressions nearly always proved to be wrong.

He was distracted by the need to piss and turned to do something about it but stopped cold at the site of a line, ten men long, outside the restroom. He walked instead through the front door, around the back and urinated a blurry heart on the flecked paint of the station wall.

A moment later, back in front, Jackson saw a small, still gathering of people watching the mountain range, which was lit more now by the extra few minutes of twilight. Turning now to look at the monumental rock, he noticed that it resembled a humongous pipe organ. He considered the body language of the group and thought about how it was separate but communal, the way a huddle of smokers can say nothing while appearing to share an experience. It was then that he noticed the little girl with the smirking dark arches for eyebrows and lion cub's underbite. He froze with adoration and rage. Who brought their kid? She was standing in familial proximity to a skeletal blonde with a sickly dye job and eyes that were watery and blood-soaked like fish paper. He stared, trying in vain to get the woman's attention to spit at her with his eyes, but she was lost in the tumult of private dawn terrors and didn't notice. With newfound expertise, Jackson yawned in acceptance, handed the lioness his stolen candy bar, and got back onto the bus.

In a few minutes the rest of the travelers migrated back into their seats as quietly as they had left. As the bus resumed its course, heading north onto I-25, Jackson watched the dawn in disbelief, the birth of light reflected in his eyes. Spiked leaves of Yucca shrubs lay everywhere on the reddening plain like medieval weapons. He passed out.

Just before eight, the bus curved off the highway, turning onto a white belt of desert road and parting a wake of billowing sand as it went. A few hot hours later the sound of crunching rock finally stopped as the wheels met the newly smooth pavement of a gated driveway. The bus slowed to a stop on a circle drive ringing a bleached stone fountain. Several strips of lizards stuck to it, grilling in the sun.

They disembarked into the gushing heat. As soon as Jackson set foot on the blazing pavement he took off his jacket and smiled to himself, thinking of the old bat at his yard sale who had wanted to buy it and how, suddenly sorry, he had changed his mind and told her it wasn't for sale; and about the sound of her geriatric shrieks as they fell into a preposterous tug of war. She had eventually relented, settling for speakers and a lamp. He considered his cloth friend, folded in one hand like a limp kite. I suppose I loved you, too, jacket. He dropped it the nearest trash bin.

And there it was, seeming thin and temporary like a Hollywood prop. It had looked better in the brochure. While the others hurried into the cool lobby, Jackson stood facing the wide chalk of adobe walls. He felt sorry for the beautiful old mission and its garish new sign, seemingly fastened in afterthought onto the orange clay roof. It read brightly: The Last Resort.

There had been something of an orientation in the lobby. Out of the chaotic chatter sprang a sharp blade of a voice from a tiny pocketknife of a woman. She was compact and stunted with jagged hair and closely tailored clothes that lent precision to her bosom, which heaved as she spoke. She had ascended a small wooden box and was giving them the rules in nasal lightening bolts like it was holy law. The lobby was open-aired and the cool shade was soothing but light kept jolting into the sides of Jackson's vision as if his eyes were an overexposed camera. This gave him a headache and a craving for a nap. When he started paying attention again she was talking about formal wear, which they had been fitted for in advance and now needed to be picked up. Jackson had been measured over a month ago, back in Lewisburg, and had completely forgotten about this part of the event.

"All we ask," she thundered, "is that you see the tailor no later than three p.m. This will give them ample time for any necessary alterations. You should receive a stub with your claim number but the tailors will call your room as soon as–" And so on, all of it relayed with the sort of giant certainty of some minute people. Jackson yawned so big it squeezed tears from his head like fruit. "Dinner is served at seven." She took a quick survey of the room and reconsolidating their attention. "Also – and this is important – there will be a curfew. We ask that all guests be in their rooms to stay by ten. There will be absolutely no one permitted outside of the western wing after that time."

The lobby became a cage and went still. That last bit about the curfew had piped a sense of stifling surreality back into the air. The fact was, the freshman class of The Last Resort (and this suddenly seemed pathetic) had been actually bustling, comforted and distracted by the familiar exchange of identification and keys. The routine of it, attached as it was in their memories to the modest odysseys, meager escapes, and mapping of their sexual geographies, created a thin mist of normalcy, which evaporated at the mention of a curfew. Freedom surrendered, even freely, was still bars. Now there was quiet – and the light was really bothering Jackson's eyes, causing him to close them as he listened.

"There are maps on that table there if you need them." She paused to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything. "Launch, of course, is at dawn."

When she had dismounted and slid the boost under the closest table, activity returned to the room, if not energy. Jackson fell into one of four forming lines and stood, blank and cattle-like, like the others. When it was his turn he asked for a room facing east. "What's in the east?" asked his concierge in a welcoming but detached tone, eyes downward, rapidly typing.

"The future," Jackson said in his unbeatable deadpan. The future, motherfucker.

The concierge was gaunt, with dark freckles and spoke in a heavy baritone. He performed his job upright, with a sense of gruff rhythm and dramatic pauses. Jackson imagined he had been doing this long enough to care about something like timing, but not so long it had gone slack with overuse. "I'm sorry," he said, "but all of our rooms face west. You'll have a nice view of the past though."

"Well," Jackson said, "Just make sure there are curtains."

The concierge leaned in and a crude tattoo of the sun done in a cave-drawing style peeked above the horizon of his collar. Jackson had a second of vibrant déjà vu.

"You know, the curfew–" The concierge stopped himself. Up until now he had been speaking in a fairly loud and impersonal volume and he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial rumble. "After curfew, you're supposed to stay in the western wing. But there's no rule that says you have to stay in your room."

Jackson felt like he had been winked at. Then, with nothing so overt as a nod, the concierge lightly aimed his face at a place behind Jackson, two lines over. He was indicating a sultry redheaded woman; Jackson's sultry redheaded woman. With his face motionless in her direction, he slipped Jackson a silver key card that was overly futuristic, as if created to the specifications of an interstellar feng shei. Jackson stared at the card. He was halfway to a nap as it was, and it took him a moment to absorb the fact that the concierge was trying to get him laid tonight.

"Well, thanks for the tip," he said, putting the key in his pocket. "That's quite a service you provide."

"Happy hunting," replied the concierge before thrusting his attention back over Jackson's shoulder and belting, "May I help who's next?"

He had no trouble finding his room. The entire resort was about the size of a suburban grade school, with four wings forming a giant cross of bleached stucco that, from the air, looked as if someone had dropped a crucifix on a beach. He swept the preposterous card through the reader and opened the door to what were modest and fairly beautiful accommodations. The room was furnished with the preordained discretion of upscale home decorating chains, but with undertones of uniqueness, as if someone at some point had cared enough to impart something of themselves into its formation. He looked around for the usual items of hotel décor – an ice bucket, miniature toiletries, plastic cups in plastic bags – but they didn't exist here. There wasn't even a television. He then began to notice the subtle, exquisite details. There was a vase of see-through black glass sprouting a bouquet of lilies with slight white petals. Through its dark glass the submerged stems formed an ominous silhouette of a black hand poking through soil. Next to this was a porcelain figurine about the size of a coffee pot, all soft edges and white. Its mute, Asian features had a totemic quality, like a god waiting to be painted to life. He picked up a heavy black ink pen with chromed trimmings. It had been laying on a thick pack of stationary a shade of olive that, until now, he had not known existed anywhere else but his true love's skin. His chest winced. Reminded of her, and standing before the simple forms of paper and pen, there came a fleeting and seismic feeling that he could finally explain himself, right here, with that pen and that paper, in the vivid succinctness of scripture. Whole sentences popped fully formed into his mind. Then, with a brutal aestheticism that now came easy, he suffocated the whim and picked up the phone, hoping to wrangle a whiskey out of room service. It rang without answer.

He set down the phone and pulled the window curtains aside. His room looked out onto a courtyard of sand and brush split by a small stone pathway. Its emptiness reminded him of his empty afternoon, in which he had only the one responsibility: to visit the tailor. There would be plenty of time to sleep. And so, drowsy with boredom as much as a fatiguing will, he limped onto the bed and instantly collapsed into a dream.

He was seeing himself asleep on the bus last night, dreaming. And he could see the dreaming as well, and was in it as well as apart from it. He had fallen asleep resting his head on a paperback book and all of the book's contents seeped by touch into his dream through a kind of macro osmosis. Alongside the bus in which he was sleeping rode figures from Arabian antiquity, on camels in the darkness, neck deep in the sand billows. Impossibly, their camels ran with the galloping form of horses, only far faster than horses, and they kept up with the bus, racing at the furious speed at which Jackson's life was falling away from him. Dipped dreaming, as he was, into the source, he recognized them for an army of 30,000 warriors under the command of Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman that had miraculously beaten 150,000 Persians in the battle of Nihawand. And now here they were, nearly 1,400 years later, to finish the job. A phrase of incantation looped in his mind and its repetition seemed to ward off the deadly mirage. He became the wind to swim within the wind within the sin within her. Then all the Jacksons, split like reflections on the broken mirror of dream, began to cry. Soon, the bus, which was Jackson too, sped up not to be outrun by camels, but the warriors kept pace. The bus responded by soaring to unsustainable, rattling speeds. But the warriors kept up with ease and he knew then that they were after his iniquity – the capitulation of his illusive, Zoroastrian will. And then all of them were moving faster than the speed of tangibility, faster than the speed at which a thing may think of itself as one thing, moving into each other, and their pallid pillars of unity – Jackson, Bus, Warrior – flaked apart like salt statues. As they crumbled, he saw the warriors for the sand that they, and he, had been all along, scattered out of the simple rub of wheels over desert road. And with shame and hilarity he understood that the bus had been engaged in futility – of trying to outrun the scattered byproduct of its very self. And still, even after understanding this, he made one last attempt at solidarity and took a plastic bag out of his pocket with a sandwich in it, opening it and holding it out lamely to catch some last part of his crumbling self. But it caught nothing and he just fell apart holding a bag with a sandwich. And that was crumbling too.

He woke up making a choking sound. Stillness. Hum. The lily vase. The black hand. The faceless god. The unwritten confession. He looked around the room blankly, licking the rock salt out of his dry mouth. His mind was syrupy and lost. The clock read six forty. Fuck. Dinner was in twenty minutes. He had missed the tailor. There was no way they'd still be open for him to pick up his tuxedo. He snatched the phone and dialed the front office but again it just rang. Now what? He could show up to the dinner dressed as he was. But he didn't feel like being the only idiot there not in black tie. He took stock of his urges, looking for direction. He wasn't hungry and the thought of gathering together with those lunatics in some kind of half-assed social ritual seemed embarrassing. He looked out his window at the dimming courtyard. It would be an evil dusk. He decided to go for a walk.

When he stepped out of his room and saw the other guests leaving for dinner, he noticed the difference. They were decked out in pressed formal wear, the women jeweled, perfumed and over-caked with death masks of makeup. There was a restless, nervous gloom in the air. But the difference was in Jackson, who was now completely indifferent to his kind. The human features seemed suddenly grotesque and arbitrary. Faces and bodies were just a random assortment of appendages, growths of hair, and bulges of flesh. Only their eyes retained something Jackson could remember as personality, and were varying degrees of mannered worry. He listened in on a conversation:

"...said they just ran out. Out into the desert. Can you believe it?"

"They'll die!"

"Oh. They'll die terribly."

"Do you think anybody'll go after them?"

"What for?"

Escape, Jackson thought. It should have been obvious that it was useless. The system was like a perfect chokehold, the key being that there were no buses out of The Last Resort. The ones that came in left immediately after dumping their contents, while everybody was still tanked on curiosity and before anybody could really lose their nerve. He had no idea how often a fresh busload arrived. Once a week? Every day? Could it be every day? That was theoretically possible since every single guest would be gone shortly after dawn, allowing cleaning and preparation time for a new group before noon. The thought of this kind of efficiency, of the Auschwitz-like turnover, made him hate this place even more than he already did. But no, coming here was a choice which there was no way back from. With no buses out the only recourse for the squeamish and regretful was death by consumption from the arid desert elements. Still, he wasn't surprised to hear some had fled. As Jackson saw it, life begins in a state of baffled panic, walled in on every side by decay and force. From there, the dissonant din of reality, of every note between ecstasy and desecration playing at the same time, in which all choices have their own logic as well as their own insanity. To choose death, as the organism frequently does, is insane. But to continue to live, and believe in living and the stories about living grown weed-like from the rock of antiquity, is just as mad. It was a consideration of degree.

He caught himself sinking into reflection and snapped out of it moving. If there was one thing he was good at, it was finding a place to be alone. He had a talent for it and a series of guessed-at doors and random turns in hallways, all the while navigating only by a sense of where he was not supposed to be, led him finally up a series of darkened stairs and out onto a short balcony that he imagined continued around the resort roof. Jackson, who had been both the winner and the victim of a lottery of amoral luck that left him as susceptible to falling pianos as shooting stars, had stepped outside at the precise instant of the sun's setting. If the dusk could have tolled like a bell, it tolled at the papery snapping sound his shirt made from the rippling wind. Then he noticed the man standing to his right, as if conjured from the sound, contemplating the bluing desert in front of them.

They stood without speaking. Below, he could see the ant-like activity of uniformed men busy with the maintenance of a massive catapult. It was larger than he could have imagined, easily the length of a football field and nearly as long as the resort itself. For some reason he had assumed it would be crude and wooden like a Roman cross. But it was metal, hard and gray with large components, any one of its joints larger than a man. The dusk dirtied everything now and they worked by lights. The work seemed only precautionary and technical; no tightening of lugs or fastening of straps; just the swarm of savages with clipboards bustling underneath their mammoth idol.

Finally Jackson faced the stranger. He had swallowed a heaping of dread in that first moment of seeing him and his stomach had been half rotting ever since. The man was dressed with impeccable severity; a white oxford, open at the collar, and thin, gray linen pants. It wasn't the clothes, but the way he wore them, that gave the impression of priesthood. He was slight, with thin skin and hair, the hair graying, the skin fossilized with light blotches. He wore no watch or belt, and his only accessory was a bronze ring without markings on his right index finger. He was missing a pinky finger on the same hand. He was the most refined looking man Jackson had ever seen and something about this austere apparition disgusted and relieved him at the same time, as if he were pissing away his very self in his pants after holding it in for so long.

"You're him," Jackson said.

"I'm who?" the stranger replied with a lacerating voice.

Jackson didn't answer and the stranger said, softer, "I'm who? Your angel?"

"No. Him."

The stranger worked the ring on his finger. "Oh, right. Him. You mean the devil."


They rubbed gazes and Jackson saw slits of wretched moonlight reflected in his cat's eyes. "Well, if I am the Devil, who is it you think you are?"

The last word of that sentence was like the final spoken ingredient of an incantation, which set things to work and stung and shook Jackson. His mind, thwarted and falling like dominos, bucked and sloshed down spills of comprehension and truth into his learning, feverish heart. His mouth hung a little open and his eyes pinched.

The stranger said, "Don't answer. Instead, tell me, why you came here?"

Jackson felt sure that in this moment of destroying and acceptance he would be able to reach down finally, past the filthy backup of black energy clotting like slime and hair in the blocked drain of Jackson, deep enough to produce a totally pure answer to the stranger's question; the first of his life. He believed he could see past his own shifty virtues and aborted revelations to grab a terse answer for this man from the swarm of truths that now swam, invitingly within reach, in the shallow pool of his urgency. Trying, he said, "Sometimes I think that I've already died. But not just at some vague point in the past. I've even narrowed it down to a few possibilities. Maybe fall of '98–"

"You're not dead. For all intents and purposes you have life to lose."

Jackson sagged into himself. "If you say so. But… I feel useless. Like shed skin." He went to the edge of the balcony and hopped up on its wall, hanging his legs over the edge. "I wish I could remember it. Just remember when it happened. So that I..." He sat staring at invisible plagues with bothered prophet's eyes.

The stranger said, "Do you remember the story you read once of the god who created the world but forgot, and spent his life wandering his own kingdom, cursed in ignorance?"

Jackson nodded, half listening as he watched him working the bronze ring between the thumb and pinky nub on his left hand. Wasn't he missing a finger on the other hand? He heard the question late. "I get it," he said. "I'm God."

"I wouldn't go that far."

Jackson swiveled off the ledge to face the stranger. "So are you the devil or not?"

"I am a reflection. From the heat that escapes the sand at the end of the day. It's you who are the devil without the devil's memories."

"Meaning what?"

"That all of this," he used his wounded hand, the right one again, to indicate the desert night, which hung veiling the rest of the earth, "is yours, Prince of the Air. Your dream. The world's riches, so to speak, are yours for the remembering."

Jackson said, "I can't remember my parents' birthdays, let alone creating the universe." The quip lay flat in the air and embarrassed him.

"It's not a question of memory as much as acceptance. You've known, always, what there is to know."

"It's funny. I think my dad used to wonder if I was the devil. Or like the devil was speaking through me. We'd be having these arguments about religion and he'd say stuff like, 'Dear God Jackson. That's the same thing that Lucifer said in the Bible.'" He looked at the stranger for a reaction that never came. He leaned back against the wall. "But my dad saw the devil in everything." Then he stood back up, as if remembering something. "Wait. Why would you say it like that? That I'm the devil. If I made the world, why not just say I'm God?"

"They're words. We both know words."

"True, but..."

"You are the Dreamer. But a demented dreamer, with a soul in doubt."

"Doubt is good," Jackson said in a hard tone. This was one of his only real beliefs.

"Doubt isn't right or wrong, but dreamt in sickness just the same."

"So then… is there… something more pure?"

"I have no idea," the stranger said.

"You have no idea."

"I can only know what I see. And I see what the world sees. Heat needs to go somewhere. The wind has to go somewhere. The earth's truths, like its forces, are in motion. Because of your immense vacancy at this moment, I have come into you."

Then they didn't say anything for a while. In the distance the sound of music and people was getting louder as the dinner turned to dancing. Thin, diamond clinks of glass and silverware punctuated their silence. Finally Jackson said, "This all reminds me of something..."

"The temptation of Christ."


"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. And the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 'All this I will give you,' he said, 'if you will bow down and worship me.'"

"That's it."

"It's just a story. Duly mangled in translation."

"In what way?"

"In a way that makes it mean a completely different thing. Jesus was tempted not in the desert, but by the desert. Tempted to believe that the world was not his and could be given to him. That it was not of his making. There was no devil. At least no devil apart from him."

"You're saying Jesus was the devil too?"

"In a manner of speaking. The devil was part of a conversation he was having with himself. An invention, like all of life, of the desolate soul."

"That's your insight? That Jesus was talking to himself?"

"Yes. We all are. All of the time."

More silence passed. These silences were not awkward with the stranger. They seemed to both reach the need for pause at the same time. There was more wind now and Jackson was scratched by the sand it kicked up. None of this, however, seemed to touch the stranger.

Jackson said, "When I was a kid – I grew up in the city – and I would have this nightmare that the world was turning into concrete. That it was spreading over everything. The funny thing is, this nightmare was basically the same thing I would fantasize about during the day. Only in my daydreams it was great because everything – lawns, parks, trees – was paved. Which meant I could skateboard on it. I remember just staring out the windows at school all day, picturing riding all of those great shapes. But in my nightmares it was terrible because I was turning into concrete too, and my parents would be waking me up. They'd tell me I'd been crying and saying, 'I can taste it! I can taste the concrete in my mouth!'" Jackson laughed but the stranger just listened.

"And here I am, twenty years later, and I'm doing the exact same thing. Only I'm out here, in this desert, and I think the world is turning to sand. I would say I lack imagination."

The stranger, who was fading, still said nothing. The wind whipped meanly, sweeping more sand into Jackson eyes, and tiny blue veins of static crackled in the kicked-up dust.

"Genie, where are you going?"

That night Jackson slept well, thick and without dreams. It was as if his body had stopped making them the way women's bodies stop making estrogen later in life, when the ovaries have no more magic to perform. He had woken in the black minutes before dawn feeling more rested than he could remember. He sat on the edge of his bed now, before a mirror, showered and dressed in his only clothes. His stomach was empty but not hungry. He had an overwhelming sense of rightness; of satisfaction, not just with his physical body, but his entire self. It seemed to him this morning that his hair was the perfect length for his face, not too long or too short. That he was the right weight. He felt a rightness about his understanding, too; that a day more of life experience would have soiled his truth; any less and it would be incomplete. His head was free of music; his thoughts of distraction or detail. He felt none of the usual habitual impulses to touch his dick or floss his teeth. He was like a piece of fruit on the verge of ripeness, about to be detached from the tree. Before leaving he stopped and picked up the pen to write something on the stationary but couldn't think of anything and set it back down before walking out.

As he made his way toward the catapult, he tried not to stare at his fellow guests, many of whom were still in last night's black tie. Some looked worse off than others, with half-removed makeup on pale faces of shock, squirrelly, uncombed hair, missing earrings, half zipped dresses – there was one man who, defying belief, had switched into golf shorts and sandals while leaving the top half of his tux in tact – and a good many more who simply wore the defeated uniform of middle-class leisure; ill-fitting shorts and T-shirts, as if dressed for dirty work. They marched unkempt through the halls looking like the washed-up passengers of a cruise ship that had wrecked mid-ball. Jackson felt a satisfaction with his own clothes, which, unremarkable as they were, lent him comparative dignity. Because he was Jackson, he doubted the motivations of the rest. He wished they weren't here and as they walked he imagined and resented their rash annihilation fantasies, petty spirits, and dearths of imagination. They were soiling the white sheet of his perfect act like the crude peripherals of an otherwise tidy dream. But he had a genius for loneliness and soon he was able to drown them out, coddling himself in a familiar inner sanctuary where life sought his permission. In this place, before something could be right or wrong, before it could please or pain him, it faced the lasers of circumspection of the wounded judge, covered in burn scars and cruel from love. From here he was safe to rejoin his own heart and, eventually, the others as well. He knew that they were, all of them, alone to understand this world, and if he rejected them as deficient gods, he still felt linked to them as animals.

Outside, the seep of twilight was easing the desert into detail. He heard soft crying and squinted admiringly at the morning, which was already warm. As he stepped in line for the catapult his mind was clear with a second wind of resolve.

Jackson was the ninth person to be launched that morning. When it was his turn he slid out clumsily into the massive sag of fabric and padding that formed the catapult's basket. Once in, there was nothing to do but lay down on his back. In its center it sunk so low that you couldn't see anything but the basket and the sky above. He lay there calmly and looked up at the pool of light blue, ready to dive in. Then, there was a metallic tearing sound and he was hurled heavenward at hundreds of miles per hour. The thwarting world, which had resisted him passively at every turn, now fought him outright and his face bubbled back against the pressure. Within seconds his vision went red as the capillaries in his eyes burst like pomegranate juice and he left the world the way he came in; weightless, confused, and blinded by blood.

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