The American: Murder in the Sky
The Last Great Novel Before Paper Disappeared
Start under the Big Sky, in a place known for its spirit and spit: Montana. I am waiting in a small saloon beside the Flathead for a radioactive female. I have an appointment with her to shoot nudes for a magazine and for her website. I want to pose her in the meadows where she grew up. She wants to shoot in a studio, says her agent, and show the toxic chemicals leaking out of her skin, a sweat of poison. Montana isn’t beautiful to Murphy Tolstoy, says the agent, and she wants you to know it.
But let’s start with yesterday evening, in another part of the state, where I am sitting in a car and dictating some notes about Kit Carson when I am interrupted by a man with a briefcase. He smiles as I roll down my window.
“Mr. Blue? I’m Edward Bing. You can call me Ed.”
I get out of the car and we shake hands and he looks at my Pink Floyd pants and raspberry crocs and cannot hide the surprise swimming across his face. This is a journalist? He wonders if my editors are keeping an eye on me. But he’s seen worse; I am a liberal, from the East, he thinks. He sweeps his hand along the horizon and says, “Lookit this sunset, just as good as anything you see in Jersey, right?” and laughs. He wants to know if I want coffee from the Rangers’ station but I am eager to hit the road and we climb into his truck.
Edward Bing is a biologist who works for the federal government, and it is his job to regulate the timberwolf population, to recommend measures to keep both wolves and ranchers happy. This is an extremely difficult line to walk, and now he is walking on the ranchers’ side. What do you tell the yuppies’ young children when they ask why you’re allowing wolves to be hunted and killed, I ask him, and he winces, since he has children of his own, but he answers: “Well, my kids eat hamburgers, and the farmers have to be able to raise the cows so we can have hamburgers and the trick is to have the right amount of wolves and the right amount of cows and then we don’t have to hunt anything.”
He stops to show me a dead cow, only minutes away from the rangers station. The cow is lying next to a fencepost, and its head, belly, neck and anus have been eviscerated. Flies buzzing create a soundscape so loud we shout to hear.
“I can show you the wolf that did this.”
“She’s on her own, since her sister and her mate were killed a few months ago, and she’s got pups,” I say.
Edward Bing looks at me as if I have lost my mind. What is this city fool talking about? I lift my chin and howl, a comic-book silliness out of a late-night campground, and Bing cackles.
“Are you a goddang fool, Blue? What the hell you talking about? You gonna tell me you know this wolf?”
I point to the ridge, and a grey wolf looks at us from where she stands on a black hill. The Sun is setting behind her, and I can smell her scent trailing on the westerlies, even with the stinking cow torn to pieces at my feet. Makes my heart swell to see her, so I am smiling. Bing, beside me, stares at her in amazement. He looks at me, mouth agape, and then back at the killer. He says something to himself, and then we watch the wolf sit down. She looks at us as wolves do, stealing glances, unable to stare back, too shy to reveal their souls, even if this one is willing to expose herself at my call.
“Do you want to shoot her, Ed?”
“No, no, of course not. The rancher will freak when I tell him about this. Jesus. He’s not going to believe me.”
“You can’t tell the rancher, Ed.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because I’m going to shoot you.”
Edward Bing is shocked. He senses a trap, suddenly, the Floyd pants, the pink crocs, he’s fucked, but he’s Marine Corps and he decides in an instant to rush me and at least fight for his life, only to find my gun is inches from his face, and he freezes.
“I grew up playing pinball, Ed, sorry.”
“Listen . . . listen . . .”
“Nobody will shoot your wolf –”
“Look me in the eye when you speak to me, Ed, you aren’t a wolf and neither am I. Don’t look away or I’ll pull the trigger.”
“Listen Blue goddangit nobody will touch your wolf I swear but let’s talk this grievance out like men goddangit. Please.”
“She’s not my wolf, Ed. Never met her before. Me and you standing here have nothing to do with her. It’s just a personal thing between you and me. I don’t like your work, the lawyer stuff. Bugs me.”
“I’ll fucking quit jesus just think this thing out what you’re doing here . . . Listen . . .”
“You going to quit and join the Sierra Club?”
“I swear it, yes!”
“Raise your kids to defend wildlife and boycott dairy products?”
“I swear it!”
“But you drink milk, Ed.”
“Ah jesus –”
And of course at this moment of guilt he looks away, a dog, and I pull the trigger and he catapults backwards into eternity, face splintering into the dark. I kick his body out of the rutted road until it rolls next to the cow, and leave him there for rodents and flies. The wolf is gone, of course. They don’t like conflict. I drive Bing’s truck back to the rangers’ station and call the Wall Street Journal and ask to talk to the reporter Smalls who I have impersonated, and apologize to him in advance for the FBI and everyone else crashing into his life in the next few days to investigate a murder he had absolutely nothing to do with.
“Who is this?”
“Listen Mr. Smalls, Hollywood is calling me on the other phone and you never know it could be my big break so I cannot linger with you a second longer because Angelina Jolie waits for nobody.”
Hollywood really is calling on the other phone. It’s Murphy Tolstoy and she’s worried I won’t make the shoot on Thursday because I have canceled on her too many times before and then disappeared, and nobody ever does that to Murphy Tolstoy. I am like a sliver in her paw, too small to deflect her from her destination, but too sharp for her to move without discomfort. I bug her. She has things to say to me. I ignore her call and shut off the phone and drive through Badlands twilight, purple and lavender and perfectly lethal. I’ll be on time for her, and I am sitting with a mulberry scone on a picnic table outside the saloon next to the Flathead when she pulls up in a scatter of pebbles and jumps out of her truck.
Murphy looks great. Vibrant, young. Hard to believe she is wholly toxic, from eyebrow to toenail. It will be tough for me to take pictures of her in this light and weather and not be tempted to include the doom I see swirling around her. In Hollywood, she’s a temptress and a B-Movie queen too late to make the A-list.
“Hot enough, Blue?”
“October isn’t what it used to be, Sweetheart.”
“No, that’s why there are postcards. But I don’t want to shoot, I want to talk.”
Not this again. I go back to Studio City and some Euro-trash producer yells at me when this happens: “Where are the nudes! Where are the naked pics I’m paying you for?” Murphy will offer me money, a payoff, if I’ll shoot her mood, instead of her nude, but my rep is getting shaky on Ventura Boulevard, and she knows it. The cool thing about Murphy Tolstoy is she doesn’t care.
“How’s your health, Blue? I can see from your body language you’re worried or in pain. I can’t imagine you worried about anything, so you must be hurting.”
“Are you a rodeo doctor or something? I’m fine, Murphy.”
“You want me to pretend, I’ll be happy to, but I know all the doctors here so just tell me before you buy a ticket to go see your dentist in Bombay or Bangladesh or wherever.”
We drive into the park and head for the lake. The plan is to walk along the mossy trails and find a shot of Rainbow Mountain and the larch trees and get Murphy to walk along the water’s edge: The lake is deep blue, as is the sky, and the larch is yellow, so Murphy’s pale skin and red hair makes for a loud shout of a picture, a burst of colors. If she shoots nudes today, if she decides to talk rather than shoot. Because Murphy has things to say.
We met a year ago, in this very park, when I came to shoot her for a magazine. And the very first minute of our shoot, the model from Red Water tells me I cannot use the real name of her town in my story about her. We can still shoot in Glacier, she says, on a family homestead the government can’t close down, but I must use the name Red Water instead of her local town’s real name.
I agree to meet her in Polebridge, the tiny town on the North Fork of the Flathead River, next to the little-used entrance to Glacier National Park, the shiniest gem of Montana’s natural jewelry. And on the way to the lake, I laugh at Murphy’s words about the government looking to wrest away the family homestead, because here is Montana’s paranoia again, common to nearly every resident: the condominiums are coming, the price of land is stratospheric and rising, while the water is flavored with fertilizer and pesticide . . .
“Why would the government want your homestead, Murphy?”
Her answer is spiked with suspicion and defense: “My folks have the most beautiful piece of land in Glacier, right on the river, deep into the park, and you bet they’d like to rent it out to a family from Chicago for two hundred bucks a night.”
Murphy is always nervous about being back home. She is working in Los Angeles now, taking her clothes off in front of cameras in the Valley for a living, but her disquiet at home isn’t because of scandalous Lalaland gossip. She’s famous here because her family is dead, poisoned by a gold mine. She’ll wander Lake Bowman naked for my camera, no problem, but she doesn’t want to talk about dead people.
“I’ve got a little brother who plays football in Missoula, and I’ve got an aunt who hunts with a bow and arrow given to her by a Lakota thirty years ago, and there’s me, and you said you were interested in me because I read Voltaire and have red hair and can be Venus in your photo shoot,” says Murphy Tolstoy on the first phone call from Hollywood, “But if all you want is to talk about the people in my family who died from the chemicals in Red Water, no way.”
Relax, I tell her, I just want the nudes and the work in Montana. Journalism is somebody else’s cross to bear. I’ve never shot Montana, and I do indeed have a story about Venus that Murphy can illustrate.
We met in Polebridge a year ago, and she apologized for being so brusque on the phone. Look, she says, the place is burnt down. She waves her hand at the blackened trunks along the road from the saloon at Polebridge to Lake Bowman. At the Northern Lights saloon we listen to G. play flamenco guitar and argue briefly about the origin of bullfighting: Murphy is sure it started in Ronda along with flamenco, at the same time, but G. is not ready to agree. He whispers to me, when she isn’t listening, “She may be right, the Red Water girl, but I’m not gonna agree with somebody forty years younger than me unless she’s willing to give me a reference, Wikipedia or something. You know how many people’s word I took in my lifetime, only to end up with grief?” G. also tells me the condominiums are certainly coming when I mention people in Montana being a little touchy about the future.
“We’re losing everyone like Murphy, to Hollywood for moving pictures, or to Texas to look after the rest stop facilities, all the young people, and I agree with you that the Californians are paying the taxes for the state of Montana to some degree, and they’re not using the schools, but they’ve got a virus on their shoes, just as if they were bringing in fruit flies,” he whispers to me in the saloon’s daytime darkness. “And that virus is condominiums. The need to imprint on something beautiful, make it yours, give it your smell, your color.”
The road to Bowman is scarred with burnt trees. Larch, mostly. Murphy asks me if the scalded terrain looks like Venus. It’s 900 degrees, I tell her, and no Larch tree exists on that planet. Nothing but rock and an acidic air you couldn’t breathe unless your lungs have the power to breathe under water, at 3,000 feet below.
“My brother and me, the Red Water chemicals, they’re coming up in our lungs,” says Murphy quietly. I’m wise enough to keep my mouth shut. But she doesn’t say anything else about Red Water.
We reach the head of the lake and take pictures. Murphy Tolstoy is smiling. “The Sunshine likes you, because it doesn’t often come out in late October,” she says. “You can shoot me in front of the window, and it will look as if I am in California, warm.”
As long you have the Venus acid in your face, I say, the shoot will be just fine. She starts to rehearse her lines, about falling in love with a redhead and waking up on a planet that everyone on Earth describes as Hell. Except that for Murphy Tolstoy, Venus is a pretty place. A cauldron it is, maybe, but Venus is not the crippled little Montana town where 27 of her people lie buried, with more to come. As we shoot, she turns sullen, clouded. She clambers out of her clothes, and lifts her chin at my camera, barely following my instructions. I have shot with her before, twice, and I adore this sort of attitude because it gives the images depth that flesh will not guarantee.
“I was just thinking,” she says, “That people look at me like the tourists look at the Lake or Rainbow Mountain. Pretty on the outside, but secretly ripped to pieces inside.”
Montana is attractive, I think, because of its fragility, because of the superfund sites, because of the clean water burbling beneath dams of toxic sludge swelled with age and poor design, but I don’t find Murphy Tolstoy so ruined, and I tell her so.
“I’ve got the same gunk in my veins,” she says. “Maybe I can pose with a bottle of beer and flash you a smile and help you sell tires at the racetrack, but I look in a mirror and I am just now beginning to feel sorry for myself. Sort of like Montana.”
She will not let me shoot her outside, among the Larch trees or beside Lake Bowman. She’s reluctant to exploit her state, already mined to death. She tells me we can go to a fake place like Lake Powell for those kinds of nudes; she’s paying me for emotion, and not for cheesecake.
“Did you take a picture of that wagon?”
“Sometimes I stand there and look at it with the blue mountains behind, and think it’s a metaphor for beauty, that wagon, broken down.
“How so, Murphy?”
“Your eye appreciates the ruins, whether it’s old forts in India or stone temples built by the Incas, right? And you look at me and see youth in ruins. At least, I do.”
I protest a little at this, because Murphy will be young for a long time, and I tell her this, too. The wagon is debris, and Murphy is dynamic, ambitious: I look at her and feel the future, but she shakes her head solemnly:
“You forget, I’ve got Red Water in my blood, and the Venus atmosphere in my lungs. Sometimes it feels like a rock is on my chest, a big stone out of Rainbow Mountain, rolled onto me by the future. Every breath I have now costs me how many more breaths, later?”
The shoot is over. I have my own pains, real and imagined. A urologist is leaving me messages on my phone back in the Imperial City. I have my own history with radiation, I am my own little Hiroshima, exploring the graceful places of my planet with a memory of destruction always hovering nearby. How does a survivor listen to the melody of a small brook tumbling through the forest when his dry cough reminds him of every breath in his future, already spent?
“Thanks for the job, Murphy.”
“My agent will write you a check.”
“I’m going to write a story about the girl from Red Water, about the rocks crushing your breath.”
“Cool, Blue. Put some nudes of Montana in there for me, too, so I can decorate my website with eye candy for my subscribers. They won’t have to know what I think about condominiums and gold mining.”
We stop at the Northern Lights. G. is standing outside the bakery, waiting for a ride as if he has waited all his life, his guitar from Sevilla encased. Clouds everywhere. There is a local who wants to talk to me about the Badlands in the East, a place called Makoshika. He is Lakota, related to the man who gave Murphy’s aunt her bow and arrow 30 years ago. I notice that Murphy is short with him, brusque, barely acknowledging his nod. G. pulls me aside.
“Make sure you make Murphy look like she’s gonna live forever,” says G. to me, loud enough so the model can hear. “She thinks she’s sick, but we’re all sick, we’re all coming apart, it’s the nature of being. She’s pretty and she’s young, so maybe it’s a shock to realize it in her case, but she’s something special, what with the Voltaire and the smarts she pulled out of the forest. She’s from Montana, so we gotta act as if she’s fine, not torn up for profit, if you understand what I mean.”
I do, I do. I will tint my pictures of Murphy Tolstoy with immortal sheen, and show them off next to pictures of her spawning ground, of her crib of flowers and trees, pristine and serene, of a place as big as the sky where models sprout from the woods quoting Voltaire and studying the atmosphere of Venus, willing to go out on a limb as she has done to claim there is no more gold in Montana, no matter how rich the property looks.
The Lakota waits silently until Murphy and G. drive away; she is taking him to his homestead.
“I’m a miner,” says the Lakota. “So Murphy can’t talk to me, and I respect that, but I have some things to say to you about the Badlands, because I need a photograph of a certain rock there, and I wonder if you got it.” He leans toward me, and I can smell blood in his tobacco and leather. “But first, let me just say, with all respect, that what the Tolstoy family has in their blood, we all have. Me, my kids, you, the writers, and even all the people from California. We’re all the same, only so many moments in a lifetime.”
The Lakota tells me he wants to take me to a place where the land is bad. The tourists come for the pretty rocks, and the local rednecks come to shoot at the rifle range, but the spirits are never good so he and his people stay away. Even for the tourists, the rocks are called The Badlands. The state park officials say they represent the cusp of time between the age of reptiles and dinosaurs 65 million years ago and the age of mammals that followed the space rock landing in the Yucatan and snuffing out the Sun. The Lakota isn’t buying it. The spirits are bad because of the light and shadows, and not the fossils of big dinosaurs. Who cares about a lizard as big as a truck? This is a place you can misplace yourself, a place you might be snatched or scarred or touched by something the Lakota is unwilling to describe. Is it because he doesn’t know or won’t say?
The conversation is over. He stands up and brushes the dust off his pants, and as I load this photo my niece calls and says she will be late because her friend has just had a car accident; she will call from the hospital. Okay, I say. The Lakota grins. Bad news or creepy experience? Why did you go play in those shadows when there is the rest of Montana to visit, and other yuppies’ footsteps to follow? Why come all the way out here just to brush your skin against something the Lakota will not describe and which I cannot write?
“You gonna tell me something, first?” asks the Lakota.
What does he want to know?
“You have to be careful about who you are,” says the Lakota, “And before I take you into a secret I have to know something about you nobody else knows. I can see an eagle following you, a wolf in the mirror, bear tracks on your skin, so I trust you with the place, the trees and the sky, but the tides, and time, the light of the Moon, these are different things, rhythms of a world you might infect with ambition or profit, and I need to know something about you, a secret, something you can share that shows me I can trust you with the pulse of my neighborhood.”
No problem says me. I can tell you this:
The first time I fired the Magnum I knew it would be too loud for the work I needed to do. The kick-back from the gun when I pulled the trigger at the firing range jammed my shoulder and left my arm as dead as it had ever been from carpal tunnel syndrome. My first murder was delayed for a day as I visited my acupuncturist.
Nobody in the movies or in literature ever explained the effects of fear on the idealistic killer’s approach to his prey. The knotted stomach and trembling fingers reminded me of that instant I took the stage or the microphone during the days when my success as an artist seemed imminent. Performance. The best speech, the best gymnastics, the best touchdown are accomplished because of the urge to flee or fight, and committing a murder is no different.
Raymond Warner was not a big wig at Capitol Chemicals, but he was a lawyer and a lifer. After thirty years of obscurity in the offices of counsel, he’d emerged to testify to Congress about falling profits. The petrochemical giants were making less money than normal, so they appealed to government for help. I watched Warner speak on cable, and was struck by his enthusiasm for his profession.
Did he have a family? Did he collect stamps? Did he like to water ski or play golf?
I only found out two things about him before I shot him in the chest. He collected coins from the Balkans and he liked to scuba dive. I completely missed him with my first shot as a result of my performance anxiety, and we both crouched in the stairwell of the Capitol Chemicals building while the echo pounded our eardrums.
“You’re fucking serious,” he exclaimed.
“What did you think I came here for, Asshole? This is not a theoretical exercise.”
“Jesus fucking Christ, why?”
“Because the planet is my mother, and I’ve caught you clubbing her over the fucking head and I don’t know about you but I love my mother.”
“Are you with the animal rights people, PETA?”
“No, I’m with the human rights people.”
And then I pulled the trigger again and ran by Mr. Warner as he tumbled down the staircase. On each floor, curious people cautiously opened the doors to the stairwell to investigate the blasts from the gun. I waved the Magnum as I ran by, and they fled. I looked behind me as I scurried through the corridor, and was surprised to see a trail of moist footsteps in my wake. Raymond Warner’s blood. My sneakers were splattered with his blood.
I fought a sudden queasiness but made it to the car and drove quickly and firmly away from the murder site. Despite my pounding heart, I knew I’d executed my plan almost perfectly. I’d researched the site (no armed guards), studied Warner’s routine for a week, walked through the building dressed in green overalls with a watering spout in my hand, and pulled the trigger when I needed to. The missed first shot annoyed me, and my shoulder was throbbing again, but the same thing had happened at the firing range and I’d made the adjustments.
And I was lucky.
Raymond Warner didn’t die until he’d managed to speak to the police. He repeated my line about the planet being my mother, and even remembered the “clubbing her over the fucking head” part, and of course this wound up in Time and Newsweek and all the major dailies and had a strange impact on the nation’s consciousness, which you probably remember well since you’ve bought or borrowed this book. What I’d done was awful, no question about it. Mr. Warner had some good qualities. But somehow – and this is not hubris – the awful thing I’d done turned out not to be quite as awful as a lot of other awful things which happen in the news every day. Some egghead kids in cyberspace even made noise about emulating my action, and then that got on the news – but more on all this later, because this is a biography of my life and not the blow-by-blow account of the last days of an imaginative assassin.
For a week I waited for the police to show up at my door. Several of my friends read about the killing and joked with me about how similar it was to my own dead-end fiction.
“Damn, Blue, was that you?”
“The shit about clubbing my mother.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Damn, man, shit sounds like you.”
But back to the moment, right now.
The Sun bounces over the rocks of the Bad Lands, as I wait for the Lakotas to see me. They are bringing me their secrets. There are bands of orange and streaks of red, and on a small butte westward a single bison stands silhouetted in the ends of the day. He reminds me of my childhood in the dappled hills of Spain, where huge advertisements for sherry and brandy loomed out of the horizons, billboards made of plastic and steel, and climbing up those scaffolds into the horns of the fake bull I would look down on the tourists driving by looking for a cheaper drink, and sometimes they would be looking at me looking at them looking at me and if I had my airgun I’d fire pellets in their direction, practicing for today, I guess, when I still fire away at strangers but also home like a wounded falcon to any wilderness where tourists no longer go, like here, in the Bad Lands, alone in the sunset’s fading glow. And like I did then, nestled in the horns of the big bull advertisements, I wonder what my future holds and where I go. Except now, unlike then, I wonder why I go, why I am, and why I fire at strangers, at people who have not hurt me, at people who have not charged me too much or closed my credit card or locked the doors of my bank or served worthless notices to reclaim my worthless houses . . . Is this really just ego at work? My failures as a writer, my impotence as an artist; how much do these wrecks weigh in my pursuit of becoming a serial killer without parallel? Sometimes I think my life might have been different, and had I played by the rules there would be an airport bearing my name, or a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike, or a post office in some small town, any of which would attract a visitor curious to know, who is Reagan, who is Hubert H. Humphrey, who is this guy named Blue with a service plaza in his name in the sweltering fragrances of south Jersey?
But having gone this route, traveling my labyrinth of revenge and imagination, the magazines and televisions and Net games will ask Who Is Blue and Why is he so angry at us? The answer will outlast any airport, outlast any center for law enforcement building named after a man in charge of the FBI who destroyed homosexuals but wore a dress in his closet, or for the CIA center named after a president who sat in a secret society at Yale when his son masturbated while he lay in a coffin surrounded by the other young men who were once the best and the brightest my country ever produced. Why is Blue angry? The answer will take some time to understand, even if you read all the pages of this book.
Because tonight the news has leaked that I have assassinated or murdered or “cleaned” or executed three lives and possibly a fourth, and my name and face will be everywhere, an icon that will mushroom beyond MTV and People Magazine, because I’m here to tell you that it is not three people or possibly four that I have assassinated or cleaned or murdered or bludgeoned to death, no, not three or four, but thirty-nine and counting. And I want to tell you about them first, before you hear or read about them anywhere else when somebody who should know better ascribes a motive or a pathology to explain my actions, because their version can sell more supermarket tabloids, while my version of the story might inspire other people to act as I have done, ruthlessly on behalf of my mother, Nature, and let me tell you before we go another paragraph further, of the thirty-nine people I have cleaned or killed or however you wish to define it, there were a few mistakes, I admit. The baseball player who shot the rhino, a mistake, the goldmine operator in Montana who actually had plans to clean up after himself, another mistake, I should have done some more research and not acted on the triggers in my blood, pulling me into action when reflection might have served me better.
Yes, there have been mistakes, but on the whole I have to say the overwhelming majority of the thirty nine and counting dispatched by me deserved their fates, and if at the end some angel with a bugle shakes my hand and says Welcome to the Future but you can go back do it all over again if you wish, I’d leap at the chance to pull my trigger 39 more times. Perhaps next time with a little better aim.
The Lakota takes me into a gulley. Salt is everywhere, glistening. Strips of white under the purple blacklight of the Moon.
“As a kid, I played in the salt pans around the neighbors’ wheat farm,” says the Lakota. “The salt crystals were cool. We chewed them in summer, even when our folks said not to. The salt is coming out because the bedrock is so solid just beneath the surface, and the meltwater from the snow and glaciers can’t sink deep enough to shed the salt.”
I remember Murphy Tolstoy telling me about licking the salt: Hers came spiced with arsenic, too, from the rocks taken out of the mine and left in standing water. She liked the color of the water downstream, iron red and barbeque salty.
“You were here a year ago,” says the Lakota, “And a cousin of mine who is also a cousin of Murphy’s saw you go to the Vancouver place the night the accountant fell into his well.”
Now I’ve got alarm bells tingling in my skin. The .44 is in my hoodie, beneath my jacket, but the Lakota’s body language is too calm to threaten. What is going on? Where is he taking me? In the frosty contours of the fields we pass I see the wolf canter over a hummock; she’s been taking shortcuts and knows where we are going, and her presence reassures me.
“What are you talking about?”
“Vancouver, the accountant, falling into his well.”
“You were driving a green truck with a bumper sticker about god being a bad idea. We all laughed about that.”
God is a Bad Idea. On a green 4WD with cow catchers twisted from the impact of driving into the mountainside at 50 miles an hour. The model Abbi Hendrix was driving, and she’s my next gig after I stop in Hollywood. It was her bumper sticker, and it was part of the reason I got rid of the truck when the killings started because I knew it would stick in the memory, and now here it is, haunting me in Montana, staining the days to come in Belize, where I am headed after Hollywood, to shoot Abbi in her hideaway among the manatees and reefs. The whole literary package suddenly feels tight, as if somebody is writing it, and it’s not me with the pen under my control, and this pudgy Lakota wearing the Greenpeace t-shirt driving into the gulley to show me a secret is not part of my script.
“We followed you to Yellowstone. We originally thought about following you to Los Angeles,” says the Lakota, “But when we found the accountant at the bottom of his well, begging for help, we all laughed about that.”
“You found him alive?”
“Everyone owes him money, so we let him sink, and one of our guys threw all his coins down on top of him, but we had to keep quiet because the government here is quick to sign us up for blame and we already got enough heroes behind bars.”
We pull up to a shack where two men cradle rifles. They are dressed in Greenpeace shirts as well. The shirts are smudged and torn, but uniform nevertheless. This is the Red Water gang, as Murphy described them to me when we talked about her childhood. What did she tell me? “They’re full of purpose but very nervous.” The three Lakota seem very calm to me, and brimming with purpose. What is my role here?
“What is my role here, Boss?”
“Check out our secret.”
The Lakota walks brusquely into the shack, lit with a red light, a darkroom, and on a mud floor sitting in a crooked chair a bald man in half a business suit looks up at me in surprise and hope.
“You the negotiator?” asks the bald prisoner.
“He’s the executioner,” laughs the Lakota, and jerks his thumb in my direction. “He’s gonna do what our morality prevents us from doing. Shoot you in the brain. But you can make your case directly to him if you wish.”
The bald man stands up and starts to sing. As the Lakota walks back out to wait, presumably, for the sound of my gunshot.
The virus has changed, from version 53 to version K56, with the K added as an indication of lethality. A person with a face flecked by moist lavender spots can cough and you’ll suffocate within 24 hours if phlegm particles splash onto your skin. I remember I read a book dozens of years ago that predicted a world just like the one I read about on the front page.
But the bomb that dropped two months ago surprised everyone. Nobody said this would happen. Of course we all worried about it. We grew up thinking murderers would sneak into our houses at night, or our parents would die in a car crash, or nuclear annihilation is a touch of a button away. But nobody described the where and when and why of the bomb in Tel Aviv two months ago. The front pages all around the world still gasp in outraged shock.
The front page has never been so shocked or shocking. Hollywood is bankrupt, Miami is under water, the Arctic and Tel Aviv and downtown Marseilles are gone or destroyed, and whatever is next will still come as a shattering surprise. I am surprised there is still a stock exchange, still currencies, still freighters loaded with sneakers and tanktops headed to America. Nothing is more shocking than business as usual.
“What did you think would happen?” asks Murphy in her hospital bed.
“I thought photovoltaics and the Internet would save the planet. I thought Fresh Fields and Ben & Jerry’s were signs that society could save itself from collapse.”
Murphy laughs and coughs. It hurts her to move, but she laughs at me the way she did twenty years ago, and I recognize the grimace. She thinks I lost touch with reality long ago. When we met?
“Did you think you were always going to be some kind of Bambi?” she asks.
“It’s like you grew up in a meadow . . . happy in some mother’s shadow for a little too long. Maybe that’s what happens to poets, they’re protected longer than the rest of us. We have to fight in small, mean ways to stay alive, to succeed. Ask for a raise, arrange a divorce, pay for a kid’s lessons on a cello, but a poet avoids all that.”
Murphy isn’t smiling as she says these things, and a nurse watching her starts to frown. The nurse purses her lips and I know it is time for me to go. I stand up and Murphy coughs again; the nurse and I shrink from contamination.
“I met you when you were Bambi, and I never thought you would end up stinking of opinion and routine and too much steak and ice cream,” says Mirinda. “You’ve become a man.”
I kiss Mirinda on the forehead even as the nurse recoils at such a bad idea. Mirinda closes her eyes so she won’t see me leave. She’ll be dead in hours, and nobody is here to hold her hand. We are all too scared of infection. But not me. With the tumor in my lung and my plans for murder in my blood, I march like a zombie towards the end of my existence. Months ago, visiting Mirinda like this would have swelled me with despair or rage. But now, I fear only falling behind my schedule.
And I drive out onto the range with Muse blaring on the stereo, a pack of swallows dancing beside me, either for protection or to be protected, headed toward the purple clouds of the mountains and a man named Farley who I will befriend in a day and ask him dozens of questions about his autistic son before I push Farley down a slope of slippery shale toward the trap he’s set for his enemy, the coyotes he hates so profoundly. Maybe it’s an official job, his extermination of what he calls civilization’s parasites, and maybe his concern for his son and family and neighbors is real and deep, but I have no qualms about shooting him in the face with his own weapon and jamming him into his own trap. The swallows will be with me the entire time, a chorus flitting around the deed, a witness for the future, a translator for the coyotes living on reprieve.
But I have no future. I will be on the front page myself the very next day, but not for anything having to do with Farley, the varmint exterminator of western Colorado. And the next evening on the national news I see my own doctor holding up an x-ray of my chest and saying I have no tumor. I was shown the wrong x-rays, says my doctor. You have no tumor.
“Hey, Doc, it’s me, Sean.”
“The FBI are on the phone –”
“Cool. I’m on the road. I just wanted to check with you about those x-rays.”
“You must think it’s a trap.”
“No, you guys have made mistakes with me before.”
“I’m sorry about that, as you know.”
“So there’s no tumor?”
“I already threw away the meds.”
“But you still have the prostate medicine, don’t you?”
“I threw that away, too.”
“The prostate has to come out.”
“I know. It will have to wait, because I’m behind schedule.”
“Excuse me, this is Ashley White, Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
“I hope you’re doing something about the music industry, Detective White.”
“Why did I have to buy ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ seven times at fifteen bucks a pop when the price should have been half that?”
“That’s got nothing to do with me --”
“Get on it, then. Investigate the music industry.”
“You and I have some other things to talk about --”
And I hang up on Detective White. Drive another three hundred miles slightly east to Taos where there is a hot springs as good as anything in Iceland. Three cascading levels and a view of ten miles in all directions, so I can’t be snuck up on by either yuppie or cowboy. I will look for Shirley Maclaine and Julia Roberts in the supermarkets while I buy dragonfruit and Asian pears, and I will visit galleries to look at the O’Keefe derivatives, and I’ll read the local classifieds as I sup chai in a coffee shop that looks like a sushi bar. I will buy some pretty stones, a chunk of dendrite, perhaps, and release them back into the desert. I’ll pay for the stones with the cash I pulled out of Farley’s wallet, but I make sure to pay for the chai with my own money.
There will be messages on my cell phone from doctors and law enforcement and some astonished friends who have just seen me on the news and think this must be some sort of grand performance art piece, but there will also be, surprisingly, a message from Murphy. She will have lasted a day longer than I thought she would:
“Thanks for visiting and I’m sorry I coughed, but I remembered your story about the woman who had a stroke in Yellowstone and how you promised you would take her to see the gorillas in the Congo as you held onto her paralyzed foot. How romantic your story was. But you never finished it. I suspect she figured out that all you wanted was a cuddle for the rest of your life, and she went somewhere else to have a baby instead of to be used up by you without any reward. Because at least the baby would be there when it was time to kiss her goodbye. And you, you are never on time. Take care of yourself, and listen to the people who love you.”
I will cry like an old man in a gulch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Play the message over and over, remember Yellowstone and the Congo, the stroke and the gorilla . . . I do not have the time to explain myself, and maybe I only have days left, or hours, even, but I will always have the time to feel the fright of goodbyes, because I know they last forever and cannot be undone and will happen no matter how much you wish them not to.
I agonise as time evaporates.
I have only one chance to tell the story of how the world ends, and I am blowing it. There will be many versions of this story, and some have already been broadcast to other worlds, into the ethers of radio and existence, where other intelligent lives will consider what happened to us and conclude we blew it. Those other intelligences may very well be our own progeny, homo mirabilis, but in the story of me, of what happened to me, these future beings will understand the American part of mankind’s evolution. Because I am an American, make no mistake, and I am the last American anyone needs to know about in the future. Because I can tell you right now, before you read another word, that we are at the end of the line and I am already here, one step ahead, selling tickets to a carnival nobody will see.
But time evaporates, and I am blowing my chance to tell my story. I simply cannot stay on schedule, and there is only so much daylight left before ash and darkness kill my chances at getting this story of mine into your hands. But if you are reading this, chances are good that you’ll get the whole story from me, and not just the sexy parts.
Then again, what kind of an American begins a story by misspelling the second word of his story? A typo in the very first line. What kind of a story begins like this, in error? What am I trying to hide in that first line? I agonise. You’re hung up on that word, misspelt. And in this way you don’t really get the import of the first line; I’ve softened the opening punch. Time evaporates. You don’t run out of time.
Time evaporates. The evidence of its existence, once upon a time, will no longer exist. And neither will you. So why waste a moment of what’s left on me and my story? Because I will tell you some secret about existence? Because I will explain what an American is, and why you are or are not an American? Because you are bored with bad TV and stupid movies and ridiculous bullshit like Harry Potter?
Or because you agonise, too. Like me. Time evaporates. One day you will not exist.
(And if you resist these words as you read, with belief in afterlives and angels, in redemption and gods like sparklers who light up the dark, don’t even bother turning the page. Go back to your delusions. Because if heaven is your insurance policy, you’re already fucked. By the time you get to the last page of my story, you’ll realise it’s time to act, and you may not be capable of doing so. There are other things to read that can tell you what you want to hear or what you already know. You don’t have to waste your time or twist your mind with me.)
You agonise and I hear you.
Murphy has just been featured in a commercial on the Super Bowl, and is in demand for all the bridal magazines, one of which she will grace for the Valentine’s issue. But she hates the commerce. Where is the art in L.A., she wonders, where are the scripts that show me as a thinker with imagination and dreams? Look where I have ended up, she declares, and we look around my kitchen, adorned with lights for this scene, microphones at the ready, and she starts to read from the book in her hands, the wonderful “Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences” that has become an odd bible of inspiration for me. It is written by an obscure Ivy League professor, and it is an accidental work of genius. For all the wrong reasons, the professor got it right: the novelty of nature leads to the invention of art and science. The rainbow is always a surprise, he says. And for me, chaser of the aurora borealis, this is not correct enough, because no rainbow made by rain can match the auroras from our Sun. But what is the actress reading? I realize she is reading from the end pages of the book, and not from the professor’s text: she is reading my scribbled words, not his printed sentences. This is how I give actors their lines, in ink, at the very moment I want to shoot them speaking. This makes the actor the co-author of my words, and they are careful not to spill or bruise them, because they have given them birth. There is not much an actor will protect, but good lines are like helpless hungry babies which every actor must parent.
This scene happened before Murphy got her diagnosis. Before my encounter with the wolf and the biologist Mr. Bing, and before the Lakota asked me to play the roel of executioner. Murphy came to visit my eagle’s nest in Laurel Canyon, at the very top of the Hollywood Hills. Jennifer Aniston had lived here, and Gina Gershon, whose chest of drawers contained my manuscripts and socks, and Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey, Jr. The kitchen floor was made of slats painted blue, wide enough that rings or drigs could slip between the slats, and my friends often joked about tearing up the floor to see what lay beneath it. Every time Jennifer Aniston started to fuck somebody new, or stopped fucking somebody she’d been fucking for awhile, the pulp magazines would knock on my door to ask if they could come and shoo the vista. I was the highest resident in Los Angeles, perched on a saddle between Beverly Hills and Hollywood, living with owls and a lynx and hummingbirds and packs of coyotes. On every streetlamp parents would post signs looking for a lost tabby cat or a missing terrier, but nobody answered these posts because we could hear the kittens and dogs mauled by coyotes at night in flash attacks of howls and yips and then a cutting silence. And yet Paramount Studios was 15 minutes away down Laurel Canyon Boulevard into the Valley. Murphy hated Los Angeles, but she loved staying with me above Wonderland Avenue, in my perch in the stars.
I still have the book about wonder and the rainbow, and when I see the scene I played with Murphy I reach for the book and flip to the back pages, where my handwriting in red ink leaps out at me, written on Valentine’s Day:
“I used to think lovers were joined at the hip, twins, but I learned from you that every lover has his own weapon. And yours was your smile.”
I watch the actress pick up a sword and wave it at my camera, and she says: “Do I scare you? Do you think I can hurt you?” The camera backs away, and then I am running down the stairs and Murphy is chasing after me, whipping the Berber sword in my wake until we are trapped in the bathroom, the camera on the half-naked bridal queen who whispers: “Should I use this blade on you the way you used your smile on me?” Long, long pause as the camera quivers a bit and the edge of the sword comes closer. “How many times did you cut me,” she asks, “How many cuts!” And then the sword lowers, and her hand is on her ribcage beneath the jacket as I can barely hear her whisper: “Every cut made a leak in my heart, and now I’ve got nothing left to bleed.”
How curious that a creative act like this spins over a large part of your existence and slaps you with surprise when you encounter it in a different context than when you created it! I realize with a small shock that the piece will slot perfectly into a current idea, of impotence and fright, as I have to admit that I would rather lie down with my synthetic confections than fall in love. I am too busy to fall in love! I would rather write than taste her skin, rather edit, of all things, than plunge into her mind and see myself reflected as delight. Rather make words strut and sing than fuck under a starry canopy, rather invent a string of syllables that praise or prick than flirt in the half-lit mysteries of misheard affections or misunderstood intentions. This is a personal treason: I cannot be bothered to fall in love again, except in my memory, when falling in love was a continuous addiction of swell and break, of firework, deflated, of flames blown out and reignited. I fell in love with a glance, with a smile, with a glimpse of goosebumps, and now, I casually tell a friend, it would be nice to have a bottle of Merlot and kiss all night except the cost in emotion and energy is too great; more simply, I’ve got no time for that shit.
This is my Valentine’s Day. It’s the signpost of every year. I am always planning a musical or a movie or a book to be made public on this day of love and lust, and I always miss the deadline. But then I look at that end page in the Ivy League professor’s accidental book: the Murphy Tolstoy wrote her own note inside that book, and I am only seeing it now: “I can’t be bothered to have sex with anyone any more, unless it’s with somebody I don’t know.” Here is a gift! I make a note for later today, to send the Ivy League professor a copy of this handwritten exchange written on Valentine’s Day, with a new note from me to him, to say thank you for writing such a lovely book about wonder even if he needs to upgrade his rainbow to my aurora, and as I think this I know he will pause in small jealousy, wondering when he will ever get to be chased by an actress with a sword who wishes to make a crime of his smile.