The alien astronomer gazing into his telescope light-years away, someday he might see you. Pull over and jump on the hood and flail your arms and shake your fists, for you will leave no other trace.
The restless ghost of Lake Lahontan fills the desert. A primitive mind would accept no explanation short of smoke from the extinguished sun. An educated one might fear that again a great asteroid has struck.
“You can’t drive,” she says. “It’s a sandstorm.”
“I thought it was the gentle mist of a rainforest. I’m recharging the battery.”
“Do we have to listen to this?”
“It’s an antidote to the techno music. Dean Martin soothes me.”
“How bad is your sunburn?”
“Don’t look. I can feel the pressure from your eyes. Amputation might be necessary in one area. I hope we can still be friends.”
As though celebrating the celebration of a celebration whose meaning mutated across some great Chinese whisper, three gypsy women with pink hair and Hula Hoops lurch into existence. A plaid unicorn struggles to keep up then splits in two, amoeba-style. The posterior curses the anterior. You buzz the window down and call to them but they keep going, making their way back to the Martian Mardis Gras.
“Close it!” she says, covering her eyes. “The sand will ruin the stereo. Are you out of your mind?”
“I spent the day wandering around in a desert. If A then B.”
She laughs and takes a long drink of water and hands you the bottle. “You have to drink even if you’re not thirsty.”
“[E]mploys secrets and intrigue as a driving, page-turning force” Publishers Weekly
What will you say to your friends at work about this dustbowl Dada exhibit, this infomercial for Archetypes Gone Wild? Will you mention it after a discussion of the ballgame? Words, those crude nets sufficient for trolling shallow waters, how will they transport these fantastic creatures? The inability to describe something makes it your captive. And vice versa.
“How long do sandstorms last?”
“This is no biggy,” she says.
“What about Ozymandias?”
“That statue was ruined, not buried. Let’s try again. This is romantic.”
“It hurts too much. That stretches the skin. Think of a balloon inflating.”
“Why did you have to walk around nude?”
“Because I never did before and this is the place to do it. I can’t believe we saw your friends.”
“That was so weird.”
“You didn’t have to yell to them.”
“They won’t remember.”
A man in red, white, and blue greasepaint walks at an angle against the wind as though approaching an angry god not by faith but through sheer force of will. Fantasizing about a motel with soft sheets and a pool, you watch a yellow submarine materialize out of a receding brume. Brontosaurs of black rock slumber in the distance.
“It’s clearing up,” she says. “Let’s go.”
Enter a world where Nature endowed her children with bioluminescence. They dance and roll and galumph across the playa. Held by an indecisive stagehand, the moon can’t decide which circus ring deserves attention. If an alien astronomer 12,000 light-years away peers into a telescope it will see the campfires of those who once lived here, see them fishing cutthroat trout, nursing babies, dying. How long until a band of nomads are burning effigies on the floor of Lake Michigan?
You climb the spiral staircase of a dragon’s neck and stand in line for two Martinis. “We shouldn’t be boozing,” she says. “Alcohol is a diuretic.”
“I read the all the survival crap too. Think of it as medicinal. We don’t have to worry about snakebite. Is this Burning Man bigger than last year?”
“Probably. It’s hard to tell.”
Enchanted by throbbing bursts of sound, a gathering of gyrators proceeds as if dancing in the moonlight is no less natural than flying south for the winter. Maybe they’re right.
“Let’s find the Abstininthe bar,” she says. “Keep your eyes peeled for Sigmund the sea monster.”
“There are 30,000 people here and we’re going to hang out with your ex. We saw his lame costume at Halloween.”
“At least he has one.”
“In case anyone asks, what are we?”
“You’re Angry Sunburned Guy. I’m your longsuffering girlfriend who’s really an android.”
“Why am I angry?”
“You thought I was conscious but it’s only a simulation.”
“All this time you’ve been faking. That’s a crusher.”
Outside a tent lit from within by a strobe light, two men in pink suits sip piña coladas. They’re wearing stools on their heads. You gawk. Perhaps the absolute absence of meaning creates a black hole from which not even thoughts can escape.
“Think about it,” says one. “You can figure it out,” says the other.
No you can’t. Like the sound of one hand clapping, this koan withholds its satori.
“We’re pieces of gum.”
Standing beside you and taking judicious inhalations from a balloon, Moses Jr. says, “I don’t get it. Why would gum wear a suit?” He offers you a hit. It’s a simulacrum of dessert, matter-free whip cream. The sounds of things stretch and convulse on their way to your ears, slithering on the ground where they receive an electric charge. Everything you’ve heard heretofore has been acoustic. Now it’s plugged in and distorted by a wah-wah pedal.
You look to the stars for mooring, the only constants in this carnival of flux, but you’re forgetting something. They are no more eternal than breadcrumbs tossed across a dark pond. Permanence is relative; oblivion, patient. That even they must die, these cherubs who shone for billions of years in a wondrous way, should their mortality bring you comfort, a familial affinity, or despair? Are ceremonies underway on any of their adjacent planets or have they all blown themselves up?
She takes your hand and leads you away. You catch the vapor trail of her thoughts until the magic gas releases you from its spell. Why couldn’t our atmosphere be composed of nitrous oxide? Would that not ensure utopia?
A statue of Medusa dwarfs you. Glow Stick serpents flap in the gritty breeze. Zealously she withholds her raison d’être or denies its necessity. What were the surrealists rebelling against? you wonder, clinging to the absurd idea that all this makes sense in some Big Perspective if you step back far enough. Careful. You could fall off the edge of the world before figuring it out.
“I wish you wouldn’t huff that shit,” she says. “There’s no way of knowing if it’s pharmaceutical grade or the stuff they use in cars.”
“If it’s good enough for A.J. Foyt it’s good enough for me.”
A man draped in green rags calls to her. They hug. Reluctantly you bump knuckles with her ex. “A tossed salad? That’s hysterical.”
“I’m Sigmund the sea monster.”
“No one remembers that stupid show. You could say you’re low tide, or a pile of leaves, or the Green Reaper after he’s fallen on hard times.”
“I’m Sigmund the damn sea monster, alright?”
She scowls at you. “This is awesome, hey?”
“Yeah,” he says, which marks the high water mark of their conversation. The tedium of what follows, how it hobbles the frenzied majesty of the night, serving to demonstrate the banal essence of language, proving that whereof one cannot speak he should remain silent. (But could a romantic poet do any better? Dante, maybe.)
“You ready for the burn?” she asks him.
“Why do they burn it?” you say. “Per Frasier’s Golden Bough why not have a corn man everybody eats? Or, to symbolize the transitory nature of things, they could have Dissolving Man, who’s made of dry-ice and fades away to nothing. Burning is too medieval, too inquisition-like. Don’t they want something more in tune with paganism?”
They regard you with brute stupefaction. “Have you seen Steve?” he asks her, not deigning to engage your inquiry.
“Hey Squidward, is there a port-a-potty around here?”
“Sigmund! Yeah, keep walking that way. You can’t miss them.”
Your not-so-distant male ancestors would have bathed in his entrails. You’re not fit to kiss their feet. You hear her apologize for you being “like that.” How wonderful it must be to have risen so far above our nature. How did she do it? And why hasn’t she shed temper tantrums and her belief in astrology, or do those increase with enlightenment?
Harpo and Groucho ride unicycles while juggling bowling pins. Chico sits on his haunches yelling some eastern European dialect into his cell. “I loved Animal Crackers,” you tell them. “It was your best one.”
Groucho smiles but shakes his head. “Night at the Opera,” he says, his voice an accidental property of his accent.
The splendor of five-foot cupcakes cruising past is negated by the painful need to defecate and knowledge of the horrors it will entail. Why must the earthly trump the transcendent? How can Flesh prevail over Spirit, not content to conquer it but insistent on derision? When you raise your eyes to heaven you get kicked in the groin.
“Did you find one?” she says.
“No, but there was a signed urinal out in the open.”
“That was an exhibit,” says her ex.
“Relax, Spongebob. I’m joking. Let’s get going.”
The space you travel cannot be measured in meters or minutes. It’s more like the distance between Alice in Wonderland and Zod Wallop. A wave of sand deposits Ye Olde Nutmeg Tent. Subsequent waves threaten to take it back.
“Hot chocolate drinks aren’t going to be too popular,” she says.
“Nutmeg? No way.”
You smile at a girl who’s wearing a Daniel Boon hat, furry boots, and nothing else. Below her pierced naval, four tattoos depict an animated sequence of dancing bears. The narrow entrance to heaven is not obscured by any dark medium. “Nutmeg is like a six-hour panic attack during a hangover. It makes you feel –” The first bear, red, stands with feet planted. The second bear, green, has one leg lifted. The third —
“Why don’t you take a picture. If you wanted to drool at naked women you could have spent the week on a stool at Heartbreakers.”
“I wasn’t looking at her tits.”
“I’ll give you that.”
Clouds at dawn exhibit more evidence of design than anything below. Chariots of mutant divinities scramble for parking. And that hovering molten ball, what is it?
“I can feel something,” she says. “It’s kicking in.”
Should you mention the neon paisley swirling on her skin? Hopefully the realization that this was not an ideal time for spelunking inner space will be as fleeting as most sensations. If it bothers you, subdue the monstrous blazing ball with the cure-all potion of familiarity. Compose a dossier. It’s 31,000,000 times as far away as your apartment is from Heartbreakers. Its age spots are cancerous and malignant. We revolve around it and it revolves around something else and what if it starts leaking? One drop will burn everything to cinders. Grab her hand and run!
“What’s wrong?” she says, the two worst word-thingies to hear at this time.
“Nothing. Just trying to block the glare.”
“Here. We need to keep drinking water even if we’re not thirsty.”
An unspoken rejoinder seeps into your mind. Or we’ll die. But what is death? Stranger still, what is life?
Four chessmen skip past holding hands. Maybe they’re refugees fleeing the genocide of pawns in the Old World. Will their communist experiment result in an egalitarian paradise or even worse horrors? You know the answer. Stop them before it’s too late.
“It’s getting hot,” she says. “We should look for shade.”
Or we’ll die. Killing time on acid was precarious enough in an air-conditioned hotel room after a Grateful Dead concert. This is of a different order of magnitude. What were you thinking? Her brainless ideas — foolish in theory, disastrous in practice, unyielding to the stern professor of experience, subjected to the analytic rigor of a child at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor — why don’t you act as the break of sanity? “If you think about it, Burning Man isn’t any stranger than the sun,” you tell her, longing for companionship on the lonely frontier of obvious but neglected musings, the stock-in-trade of your rueful choice for breakfast.
“How’s your sunburn?” she says. A malevolent gleam in her eyes suggests the interior is being leased to demons.
“Would you like to see my tan?” And in an instant you’re observing the redundant ritual decreed by the one tyrant against whom there can be no uprising. It commands your return to the oneness whence man emerged, its titles as silly and insufficient as the strings of letters and numbers used to name distant galaxies. Those crude and diminutive monikers, make love, coitus, fuck, are they not the flimsy shields of cavemen cowering before an unfathomable force?
Aggregate of life’s bliss and purpose, beauty and filth compounded, joyous mocker of our spiritual yearnings, derider of the conviction that our lives are necessary and not the by-product of hapless rutting brutes, why must it come with the disconsolate reminder that the best thing about existence is the means of its perpetuation?
While an earthquake crumbles the crust of your mind, pulverizing the shanties that make you different from other animals, the misery of being human abates. Sweet misery. Focus on the counterpoint between the squeaking seat and the rhythmic squish until the little geyser aimed toward the future departs the present.
“Sometimes nasty, brutish, and short is even better than nasty, brutish, and long,” she says.
“Your perception of time is all goofed up. That was at least three hours.” You supplement the post-coital euphoria with one of her cigarettes. “An ultra lite? Why don’t you just read about having a smoke? That would be more intense.”
“Let’s walk around. It’s too hot to stay in the car.”
A Stonehenge of wiry sculptures stands on the dusty plane, skeletal extraterrestrials reaching toward the sky as though forsaken by their mother ship. You feel their pain. The artist walks beneath a purple parasol, beaming. A motley assemblage of admirers compliments him. His pride is misplaced. Look at his hands. They did not create. They transported items from the warehouse of the Possible to the garden of the Actual. But who guards that warehouse? Who laid its foundation?
Under plastic palm trees, dreadlocked drummers beat out Morse code in many languages, each competing for aural supremacy. As always, the sum absorbs the parts, nullifies them. Remember that. A green-haired fairy with nipples like drawer-pulls performs a rain dance, waving a magic wand. One of her wings flaps in the breeze; the other dangles from her back as though swatted by a surly ogre. Correlated to her supplications or caused by them, gray and white intestines ooze from a mortal gash in the sky. The lake that once resided here, perhaps it’s only vacationing.
At the main camp sits a throng of laptop jockeys. What on earth are they blogging about (other than the all-important fact that they’re blogging)? The one in the mink shawl and aviator goggles, maybe he’s updating his Facebook profile to reveal that asparagus is his favorite vegetable.
“The dust is going to mess with their computers,” she says, dancing to a jazz trio composed of obstinate soloists. Beside her a girl rolls a crystal ball from arm to arm and over her shoulders as though privy to its orbital irregularities.
“What do you get when you cross the cantina from Star Wars with the Mall of America?”
“Base camp isn’t like anything,” she laughs. “Your dumb metaphors don’t apply.”
“Similes. And everything is like something. It’s a matter of figuring it out.”
“Why are they cheering?”
“The man is burning,” she says.
“Why is that a good thing instead of a reason for mourning? If the ceremony doesn’t have a fixed meaning it could be interpreted as some purgative tragic festival.”
“So cry if you want. Maybe some over-arching theme will be created retrospectively. None of the big religions started all at once. The stories snowballed. What if the man keeps coming back, like a phoenix?”
“They can do better than that contrived mess. How did a bird set itself on fire? Did it rub two rocks together? Weren’t the Egyptians aware they lack opposable thumbs?”
“I don’t think it was meant literally.”
“It’s the curse of the Pharaohs. No one can go within fifty feet of a keyboard without making a reference to it.”
The man implodes. Like the anointing of a holy spirit, the pyre bathes the crowd in light and embers.
“Let’s do a theme next year,” she says.
Good news: she plans on being with you in a year’s time. Bad news: she plans on being with you in a year’s time. “I heard Epcot is having a Burning Man exhibit. Let’s go there instead.”
“That’s not even funny.”
A sandstorm absorbs the cars and tents, dissolving them like solids in a clear plastic blender. You feel like a tranquilized animal on a nature program. Sweet blessed exhaustion. You can enter the kingdom of sleep as an honest man. No need to storm the gates with her little white pills. Hobbling across the bridge to Nod, your last thoughts resemble a prayer. Grateful for this gift, you bless the arbitrary and deranged source that doles it out, the way prisoners freed from the Gulag thanked Stalin. A tenebrous dream about marionettes riding a train with no conductor infests your sleep.
Conspiring in an empire’s decline they disassemble the carnival. What analogue does this willful, ordered, peaceful fall of a civilization have? Monks smearing away a Mandela? A video of ants building a colony played in reverse? The obscure theory that Time ends in neither a quiet diminishment nor a wrathful judgment but a yank back through every instant of history to that first moment when the Great Watchmaker finished winding?
“It’s a long ride home,” she says.
“Seventeen-hundred miles will go by in a snap. I can’t wait for Nebraska. Remember to pinch me so I don’t think I’m in heaven and go off the road.”
Driving down I-80 you feel like you’ve seen a ghost. Something maddeningly more than the sum of your senses yearns to escape but cannot be freed. Is that not a form of possession? How will you describe it? As it slips through your verbal nets you’ll wonder if it happened at all. You sneak glimpses in the mirror but there’s nothing to see. The celebrants at Burning Man, shamans replete with rituals and sacraments but no creed, shadows cast by spurious deities, paintings by Louis Wain on the canvas of the desert, their beauty and mystique is a function of their impermanence. Leaving neither fossils nor temples they vanish, created ex nihilo and parting with equal abruptness.
“Someone should at least plant a flag,” you say. “Archaeologists won’t even find footprints.”
“That’s one of the main principles.”
Take solace. The alien astronomer gazing into his telescope light-years away, someday he might see you. Pull over and jump on the hood and flail your arms and shake your fists, for you will leave no other trace.