Atom Jack and the Dreams Merchant
by Alfredo Álamo
Translated by Graciela Inés and Don Webb
A large green lizard was whiling away the reddish, dry desert evening, lying full length on the hood of an old, neglected Cadillac. The highway seemed to come from somewhere and run towards nowhere. As far as the lizard knew, the black asphalt line ran from one horizon to the other, and cars passed now and again, shocking the occasional flies.
An electrical buzz began to sound, and the lizard slowly turned its head. A diner’s neon lights were trying to switch on. By the side of the road they fought against tons of desert sand that loomed up and almost made them invisible. In the parking lot roofed with sheet metal, four or five cars and some trucks awaited their drivers.
Suddenly, the wind changed.
The lizard was the first to become aware of it. Licking out its tongue several times, it stood up on its feet. From the far end of the desert, a sand cloud was coming, surrounded and pushed by a torrid, sticky wind, creeping with an ugly accuracy toward the little eatery in the middle of nowhere. Maybe the lizard wasn’t aware of every little detail, but there was something in that wind that impelled the lizard to disappear; it moved away slowly and stealthily, and the desert dunes gently covered its traces.
When the sand arrived, the impact tinkled on the glass of the diner windows, startling the customers and darkening the evening sky even more. When the sand cloud had passed by, Mary, the sole waitress, threw open the door. The sand had accumulated up to thirty centimeters all around the place, filling old gasoline cans and the holes in the sheet metal roof. In the parking lot there was a new car.
The dreams merchant switched off the ignition, adjusted his tie, carefully folded a New Mexico road map, and picked up his imitation leather briefcase before he got out of the car. His Italian moccasins treading the sand-covered path, he walked toward the door, where Mary’s startled face was looking at him.
“Good evening, Mary,” said the dreams merchant, entering the narrow dining room.
“Good evening,” said the waitress, while the door slipped shut, dragging in a quantity of sand and ringing an annoying bell.
The rest of the costumers barely noticed the merchant and concentrated on their large coffee cups or their eggs and bacon.
“A coffee, please,” he said jovially as he climbed up a stool by the bar. “I have been driving for too long,” he added, and rested his thin hands, with a golden Rolex on one wrist, on the bar.
Mary picked up a large coffee pot and filled a generous cup. Then she looked at his black jacket, his gray shirt, his matching tie, and the tie pin in the shape of a magician’s wand. She also noted his tailor-made trousers, his silver rings, and his nails’ excellent manicure.
* * *
The evening slowly faded down to a molten black in the desert. The stars and constellations glimmered a bit more brightly that night; it was warm, even too much for that place and season. The outline of the diner seemed to be fixed on a photographic film, the one point of light on earth for kilometers around. The customers were gradually leaving their seats and being replaced by other travelers, all lost in their own thoughts. The dreams merchant drank another cup of coffee while checking some papers in his briefcase.
Near midnight, a ramshackle truck parked by the merchant’s car. A big, middle-aged man — almost huge, actually — rolled out of the driver’s seat and sauntered toward the door. The lights of the diner fell over him, showing a logger’s shirt, a Knick’s cap, and a careless beard on a liquor-ruddied face.
“Hi, Jack,” Mary murmured, and spat out the stick of gum she was chewing.
“Evenin’, Mary,” Jack said, dragging himself to a table. “Anything to eat?”
“I can heat something in the microwave,” Mary said, bringing him the coffee pot. “Have some coffee, I see you aren’t feeling very well tonight.”
Jack remained sitting for a while, absent-minded, and Mary put something that resembled roast chicken and potatoes before him.
“God bless you, Mary Bierczcosky,” Jack said devouring the first piece of chicken.
The merchant’s hands arranged the papers, separated two of them, and stored the rest in the briefcase. Then, the left hand, the one wearing the Rolex, picked up his coffee cup.
“Excuse me,” the merchant said, approaching Jack’s table. “May I sit down?”
“Of course,” Jack said his mouth full. He paused and swallowed, then he continued, “I like dining in company.”
The dreams merchant sat in front of Jack at an angle precisely calculated to leave his face in the shadows. A portion of apple pie followed the chicken, and there was another cup of coffee for the merchant.
“Aren’t you Atom Jack?” the merchant asked bluntly.
Jack had the fork with a piece of pie almost inside his mouth, but the merchant’s question made him lose his appetite. His fork loudly tinkled on his plate.
“That was a long time ago,” Jack said, and he put his napkin on the table. “Nobody remembers.”
“That’s not true, Jack,” the merchant smiled in the darkness. “I remember. What color was your suit? Yellow?”
“Yes,” Jack remembered, “with an atom on the back. You know: ‘Atom Jack, the power of the nucleus’...”
“They even made a cartoon series, didn’t they?”
“Yes, even a movie,” Jack said, sweeping the sweat off his forehead. The children had loved him.
“I think I remember, too, that you made trips to shopping centers and schools How about all that?” the merchant said. “And forgive me if all this is bothering you, okay?”
“Oh, no,” Jack answered, adjusting his cap. “The government stopped testing in New Mexico. They said it wasn’t appropriate to explode bombs on American soil. They talked about cancer and radiation and said it was convenient to change strategy, or something like that.”
“And they took away your dream,” the merchant pointed out.
“Yes, in a manner of speaking,” Jack said. “Rather, they took away my best job.”
“A pity, really,” the merchant said, ordering another coffee. Mary filled his cup solicitously. “Now tell me, don’t you miss it?”
“You kidding?” Jack answered, his face full of incredulity. “That was the best time of my life.”
“What if,” the merchant slowly insinuated, “I said you could be Atom Jack again?”
“I would say you’re kidding me,” Jack answered and set the pie aside.
The merchant put on the table the papers he had selected from the briefcase and brought them near Jack. The document was almost completely covered with very tiny print, and Jack’s eyes were unable to read it, but in that sea of words was an item written in large, neat, blue letters:
I, Jack Arnold, declare I desire, in full possession of my physical and mental faculties, to recover my dream, which consists in converting myself to Atom Jack and possessing the power of nuclear fission inside my body once again, this being my will and respecting the rest of the rules detailed ut supra.
“You can’t be serious,” Jack said, looking up from the papers.
“Believe me, I tell you that it’s in my power to have you fulfill your dream. All I need is your signature.” And the merchant’s hand drew forth a stylized pen.
Jack took the pen, heavy as lead, and moved it to the place where the merchant gently pointed to. The writing wasn’t steady, but the signature was legible.
“In red?” Jack asked, looking at the color of the ink.
“It’s just an unimportant formality, Jack. Mary, dear,” said the merchant, turning round to the waitress, “would you help us for a moment?”
Mary walked up to them wearily, looking at her watch, just about to tell them it was time to close.
“Please, Mary,” the merchant said in his best sweet tone, “we need a witness for the contract signature. Do you mind?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Mary said doubtfully.
“Please, sign here,” Jack asked.
“All right,” Mary said with a smile and signed the document with the dreams merchant’s heavy pen.
The pen’s rip on the paper was almost audible while forming Mary’s name in coppery tones over the thick, high-quality paper.
“Now, you have it, Jack,” Mary said moving away a little.
“Thanks,” the merchant said, nimbly collecting the papers. “This copy is yours, Jack.”
For a few seconds the merchant stayed there, sitting with a hand outstretched, still grasping the contract, waiting for Jack, who was uncertain at the last moment. Then, as the merchant knew he would, Jack accepted the piece of paper carrying the promise of a dream.
“When will I begin again?” Jack asked, thrusting the paper in his shirt pocket.
In an elegant, measured gesture, the golden Rolex glimmered for a moment under the fluorescent tubes. “Right now,” the merchant said.
* * *
The speed of an atomic explosion is said to be faster than sound, so fast that you don’t hear its tremendous noise until the wave of destruction passes.
If time could have slowed down, Mary might have noticed how Jack glimmered blue, how a blinding flash came, and then a violent reaction in which Mary herself was consumed along with the rest of the diner and the few remaining customers.
The glare from the explosion covered the sky and frightened a large, green lizard, which absconded into a ruined bunker in the middle of the desert.
The shock wave and thunderous noise came later, raising an enormous sand storm and setting off alarms on seismographs. The desert trembled again as it had in years before. The night was illuminated by an aurora, normally unseen at that latitude. Afterwards — because even these things have an afterwards — the wind began to blow strongly again, carrying away the ashes and dust and distorting the mushroom cloud that nobody could have seen in the night.
The dreams merchant walked quietly to his car and traced a meandering mark in the dust covering the hood and roof. He opened the door, took off his jacket, and put his briefcase on the passenger seat. He hung his pleated jacket on the hanger in the back. He sat down in the driver’s seat, and his fingers fumbled with keys as he put them into the ignition. He took a deep breath in the center of the chaos crystallized by the enormous temperature and waited till the wind changed direction.
And then he blew away.
Copyright © 2005 by Alfredo Álamo