by Luke Jackson
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
He eased his Chrysler LeBaron into a spot directly in front of the dive bar’s padded rubber door. The place was low, made of shapeless white stucco, a bland and generic drinking outpost in the industrial wasteland by the airport. He had only been out here a few times before, to peruse Bakersfield’s unimpressive strip clubs.
Inside, he made out immobile figures scattered throughout the dim bar, contrasting with the harshly energetic music thumping from the jukebox. He ordered a bad Scotch and eyed the sedate night creatures around him as he sipped his drink. He could feel them eyeing his plump, suited figure.
As Bob’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, he made out the contours of a pale kid next to him at the bar. The kid had a mop of hair that looked like a failed attempt at dreadlocks and big, dopey brown eyes with dilated pupils — probably in some state of chemical death or resurrection.
“Our car broke down on the way to Burning Man,” the kid began with synthetic earnestness. “Last year was, like, crazy. Burning Man was huge, they, like, set fire to him and we all danced around. There were witches, their naked bodies were, like, painted, and they were wearing wings.” Despite his best instincts, this cryptic prose-poem piqued Bob’s interest.
“What’s your name, kid?” Bob asked. He would have to teach the kid the proper rituals of social etiquette.
“Christian, but I’m more, like, gnostic, or pagan,” the kid replied.
“A round of drinks for us,” he said to the barmaid. The ice she was embalmed in seemed to crack and melt as he spoke. Or maybe, it was his inner ice that was cracking and melting, as the warmth of the Scotch worked in his system.
“What are you having?” he asked the kid.
“Red Bull, vodka,” the kid said, his eyes widening. The crew-cut barmaid whipped up their drinks and set them in place with surprising speed.
“Thanks a lot,” the kid said.
“So who is this man you burned, and why did you burn him?” Bob asked the kid, trying to crack the code of his jargon.
Christian said he could only show, not tell.
* * *
After the sixth round, Bob felt himself open up. He opened up even more on the desert road to Nevada, surrounded by backlit sculpted rock, tearing through cases of Natural Ice behind the wheel of his hurtling LeBaron.
“You’re a spiritual seeker, like me,” Bob realized, staring at the sparkling velvet sky overhead more than the road weaving in front of him. He patted the kid’s lanky back and held his thin upper arm affectionately, keeping his hand there a beat too long.
“Thanks,” Christian said, not looking at him and his arm tensing. “You ever tried Fire?”
Liquor had loosened both of their tongues, but the kid could still throw him.
“Yeah, fire,” Bob said. “Since the Stone Age. Trippy.”
The kid shook his natty head.
“No, Fire’s new,” he said, fumbling in the voluminous pockets of his corduroy pants and pulling out what seemed to be a sticky, unwrapped lozenge. “Acid washes out your mind, but Fire burns out your soul.”
“Go ahead, try it,” the kid said, his big vacant eyes unblinking.
Bob shrugged, grabbed the sticky lozenge from the kid’s hands, and swallowed it dry. The kid wasn’t going to trip out an old-timer like him with his penny-ante head games. He gyrated his tongue to show he’d swallowed.
For some reason, the kid looked scared. “No,” he said, “you’re supposed to break it up into pieces.”
“This isn’t going to make my I.B.S. flare up, will it?” Bob mumbled to himself, feeling his bloated belly through the open buttons of his shirt.
Before the kid could respond, purplish orange flames began licking about his empty eye sockets, casting a demoniac glare upon his frail cheekbones.
“That’s the most Fire I’ve ever seen anyone take, man.”
“Shit,” Bob whimpered, veering off the road and crunching the bulk of his car against cruelly jutting rock. He killed the engine, and could make out the distant sounds of wailing and drumbeats on the night wind.
With the car suddenly still, the lights dimmed and the radio quiet, Bob made out tiny figures on a distant plateau. The silhouettes were paying homage to a massive burning effigy, placing their upraised hands against its bulk. The fire leapt onto their hands and curled around their doll-like limbs, iridescent and serpentine halos.
“What’s this?” Bob asked with numb tongue. “A Jim Jones mass suicide deal? This isn’t my thing, kid...”
“Don’t get weird on me, Bob,” Christian said in a voice too old and knowing while his eyes flickered and his fiery tongue writhed. “I thought you could handle this.”
The kid reached out and held onto Bob’s shoulder, bringing with it an explosion of burning pain. Bob shoved him away and heaved the heavy car door open. He fell out onto the desert sand, a black handprint burned into the wool of his suit.
“This is everyone’s thing, man,” came Christian’s voice, ancient and cracked, but all Bob could see were the flames reflected in the car window above him.
Bob heaved himself up and began running for the desert rock, nursing his shoulder.
* * *
It was a dream where you keep returning to what you’re trying to escape from. He sought blackness, nonexistence, ran in the opposite direction from the enflamed idol, but it kept appearing before him, massive and crackling with energy. Sparks the size of a human head spat from its bulk, floating like globes of flame between dancing human shapes and still canvas tents.
He finally relented when he became aware of his thirst, of his gray parched lips, and the fact that the surrounding black desert was dry.
“Anything to drink?” he murmured in a desperate staccato to a young barefoot girl in a floral print dress, running a comb through her tangled head, and hoped that he sounded sane.
“Mulled wine,” she murmured, gesturing towards a warm red pot with pieces of floating fruit.
Bob began drinking like a dog, burning his mouth as he slurped from the bowl, desperate for the liquor to erase these cold sharp edges and return him to comfort and warmth. It was too weak; it wasn’t working.
“Goddammit!” he yelled with his stained red mouth, suddenly enraged at the girl. The warm pungent wine sloshed around the sides of the bowl and he licked his fingers greedily. “Why don’t you kids drink whiskey like normal people?!”
The girl laughed, a strange and uncertain laugh, and continued pulling at the knots in her hair. Bob was suddenly aware of the unblemished purity of her young features, the heaving swell of her chest beneath the baggy floral print. She was the first one Bob had met who wasn’t on Fire.
“I can light you on Fire,” Bob said dreamily, reaching his thick fingers out towards her and watching the arcs of light spanning between them. The girl squealed and backed away, but Bob grabbed her by the wrists. The circle was closed and the fire leapt between them, instant and intimate.
“I’m on Fire a lot,” the girl whispered in his ear as Bob rubbed his febrile bulk against her and between her thighs. “What you’re looking for isn’t in the wine, and it isn’t in me. Go inside.”
Bob tried to laugh away this faux hippie insight, but the loop was too powerful and he couldn’t avoid turning in on himself and seeing the black and wasted interior landscape. “Shut up,” Bob grunted, “oh please shut up.”
“The bad shit’s inside you,” she kept whispering, no matter how hard Bob squeezed her wrists. “You have to kill it inside yourself.”
The girl was forcing his gaze inward, towards Death. He pulled his hands back from her wrists and the circuit was broken, the fire dimmed. His hands were already dying, gray and cold, only crumbling nails and flaking skin. He reached towards his neck and squeezed until his vision dimmed and the floating fire globes, dancing black shapes, and pounding drumbeats took on a distant quality.
She was right — he had to kill it inside himself.
“This old guy’s really bad-tripping,” he heard the girl say, distantly and from above.
* * *
He woke up in the warm shadow of a drooping canvas tent, lost amidst the burnt embers of the Man. He rose to his toes and stretched his tanned muscles in the still heat. Somehow he had ended up with a spotted silk tie around his neck last night. He fingered it absently, then made it into a bandana.
“You’re runnin’ and you’re runnin’ and you’re runnin’ away,
But you can’t run away from yourself,”
another Bob chanted in a tinny transistor voice from the next tent.
She was still sleeping in the shade next to him. He ran his hand along her side and she murmured sleepily.
“Better now?” she asked.
“It’s all good,” he said, looking over at the wrecked Man. He unzipped himself and pissed on the embers, planning how to build a bigger, better Man over the next year, one that would finally be able to rise up and move when set aflame. The desert glare revealed uniform still tents as far as the eye could see, all with sleeping youth soon to be reborn.
The thought of all the work ahead of him made him thirsty, though he hated to drink. He pressed such unwanted thoughts down, drowning them in the black sea of subconscious, where they belonged.
Copyright © 2007 by Luke Jackson