This Classic Series Is Based On A True Story!
This book is different from other books.
You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens.
There are dangers, choices, adventures and consequences. YOU must use much of your enormous intelligence. The wrong decision could end in disaster—even death. But don’t despair. At anytime, YOU can go back and make a different choice, alter your path, change your story.
0. Two hikers found you crawling through the desert, gave you a water bottle, and left for help. You will wait an hour before moving again. In the meantime, you lift your legs and ease yourself towards the shadow of a juniper. You wet your lips. Three peanuts. You think you hear a siren, distant like scrambled egg or fishy smells that linger after dinner, maybe an ambulance at the trailhead. Or a crow, circling your body, still crumpled at the bottom of a wash. A faint throbbing follows the cry. You tilt your neck to scan the horizon. Rotor chop. Thin clouds like surf on the empty sky. The heartbeat thrums, faded. You relax back into the sand. Then it returns, sharper and more definite. A propeller plane flies overhead, so high and small it might have been a fishing lure flicked along a lake.
If you allow yourself to remember, turn to page 1. If you do nothing, turn to page 108.
1. You’re driving from St. Louis to Los Angeles to visit your brother. He works at a media company producing interviews with young celebrities. Graduation was hard, leaving New York and instant gratification. Bagels on every block, independent cinema, etc. For a month you lived in a cabin trying to learn Spanish, writing and reading the contemporary novels you had missed in college. Too much Austen, etc. But it had been a struggle to escape self-doubt, humid runs around the lake, buckwheat pancakes, solitude and silence. You hadn’t listened to the radio for weeks, and when you drove home, it felt great to hear Icona Pop. Your best work had been on road trips, and you thought a trip west would stimulate your desire to think, to do, anything other than vegetate.
Turn to page 2.
2. Your sophomore year you caught C. diff, if one can be said to catch such a disease. Clostridium difficile is a bacterium that lives in equilibrium with other flora, but excess antibiotics can wipe out “good” bacteria. White hats in eternal struggle with the bad until an outside intelligence interferes. Then, C. diff reproduces unchecked, its population a Malthusian nightmare. The damp curves of the jejunum are covered with miniature cities, industrial agriculture, textile and plastic factories that dump toxins into the waterways. You rush to the bathroom nine times a day, wrecked with cramps that writhe from groin to chest, trying to shit even when the rectum is empty. Shivering on the toilet. You live in a suite with a jazz band called Ace of Cake. They take mushrooms and improvise. They also have very bad bathroom habits. One morning you wake up to an urgent need, the door is locked, the public restroom down a pre-war elevator in the basement, and you are struggling to control the convulsions lapping your abdomen. In your room you shit in a garbage bag.
Your bathroom reading is Tamburlaine the Great. You are shitting to the rhythm of Act IV, Scene 4. You will confute those blind geographers that make a triple region in the world, excluding regions which you mean to trace.
You recover and finish college without incident, but the day before your trip, another attack threatens. You have a supply of medicine, and after a day of rest, you begin to improve. Yet the prospect of pulling over at gas stations and sprinting to the toilet causes you to hesitate.
If you’d like to continue with the trip, turn to page 3. If you’d like to wait until you feel normal, turn to page 4.
3. You drive to Kansas City and eat burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s. The pork is sopped with grease but you stuff yourself with little sandwiches of white bread. You turn north to Omaha on empty.
If you stop for gas before the interstate, turn to page 7. If you wait for the first exit on I-29, turn to page 8.
7. A sign warns, “next gas, 81 miles,” but you miss the exit. Frantic glancing at the map while passing trucks and you see a town big enough for services. You peel off the highway onto a country road that rips through corn fields towards Savannah. Praying for gas and coasting down hills you sputter into a Conoco. An hour detour but no damage.
In Omaha, you eat dinner at Stella’s Bar & Grill. The hamburger is overdone and greasy. You can feel your intestines knotting under the force of beef fat and char. It comes in a paper napkin wet as toilet paper.
If you sleep in Omaha, turn to page 12. If you continue to Lincoln, turn to page 14.
14. Another night in the Holiday Inn Express, oatmeal for breakfast to settle your stomach, peddle the stationary bike, steaming over Stalking the Wild Asparagus. To the Museum of Roller Skates. You grew up across the street from Saint’s Roller Rink, circled under the disco ball to Britney Spears, feeling elementary romance. Someone’s sweat in your socks.
You drive to Seward to see the world’s largest time capsule. In 1975, Harry Davisson buried a Chevy Vega, thousands of letters from Seward to the future, and a leisure suit. After his record was contested, he built a pyramid on top and stuffed it with another car. The tomb is cool like mohair curling lime wall to wall. Inside there are wonders that will disintegrate in 2025 when touched by sunlight.
On your way to lunch you visit Lee’s Legendary Marble Museum and Antique Store. Mr. Lee has filled a greenhouse with marbles. One German specimen,18th century, is a dewdrop. Another is filled with a bone cross, perhaps a fragment of St. Stephen’s leg.
What is a Runza? A Runza is a small loaf of white bread stuffed with peppery ground beef and onions. Nebraskan kolache. Like Jello, Twinkies, or Kool-Aid a Runza tastes like nothing other than itself.
Corporate body odor is the smell that smells like nothing other than itself. Its unique pheromone: Subway, Super 8 motels, Head & Shoulders Shampoo.
The cashier tells you about a ghost town south of the interstate.
If you go looking for Stockham, Nebraska, turn to page 29. If you continue without stopping, turn to page 30.
29. Stockham is crowded for a ghost town. Spirits and squatters feed on propane tanks, satellite TV. Ghost town revival is common practice in Nebraska. A family can sink into the green sea, house flooded with prairie kelp, siding rotted into silt. Their histories are for the taking, for taking shelter.
Southwest of Stockham is Hastings, a big city by Nebraska standards. Big enough for a science museum. Dinosaurs, minerals, a taxidermy zoo next to a history of Adams county. You stop for the exhibit on Kool-Aid. There is an outside of nature and it is soft drink powder.
Southeast, Spring Ranch, another ghost town vanished into farmland. You drive across a wooden bridge where a man and his wife were lynched. You eat a lemon bar.
You can’t find a restaurant you like in Kearney.
If you give in to McDonald’s, turn to page 41. If you’d like to drive on to North Platte, turn to page 52.
52. You are sorry you continued to North Platte, because dinner at Merricks Ranch House is rehydrated rolls, iceberg with ranch, a gassy steak, and potatoes with white gravy. You find Dairy Queen and suck down a cookie dough blizzard. The next day you are driving to Denver.
Turn to page 53.
53. In Denver and not even dead. You need a new to-do list.
This is not the Denver of Roger Adams, neon strip malls, cutout suburbs, asphalt flats. This is not Zevon’s speedball. The air tastes reverse ozonated, the streets are vacuumed. As in Singapore, gum chewing is punished with public spankings.
You woke up in North Platte, drove I-80 to Ogallala. A sour cream donut. A Taste of Paradise. Finished Nebraska listening to Red Simpson. Hello, I’m A Truck.
In Colorado the elevation comes slowly. From the northeast you forget that Denver is nestled a mile high in the mountains.
You eat carnitas Michoacan at Tacos Patzcuaros. The horchata is a quart in a tin soda shaker. Perhaps you’ve been domesticated.
You wake up and gorge yourself on a cinnamon roll and a raspberry donut from Taste of Denmark. The counter girls are European-style.
The Red Rocks amphitheater is seated between Ship Rock and Creation Rock. You hike through wildflowers, come in under the shadows. Here is the boundary between Cambrian and Pennsylvanian geology. On your way back to the city you have lunch at Shangri-La, where you can choose between 23 panini.
You park at the hotel. A girl in white and green stripes watches the desk. She will not remember you when you die.
You are walking around getting drunk alone, in Denver. Cody, piebald, remodeling a Chick-Fil-A, rants about illegals. You heard it on the Glenn Beck Show, and you want to enjoy your beer, the thin air, without politics. You stagger to Colfax, stare at a man blowing his ignition lock. But you’re on your way to drunk, 4:40 in the afternoon. July 4th seems like the right day to drink, alone, in Denver, in the afternoon. You are drinking, and drinking, swived by a patty melt and fries. You feel yourself looking at an interesting jaw and laugh lines. With her family. A French fry, the elegance of plucking a long fry, bent double and the dangling end dredged in ketchup, is lovely. You’re stuck alive, lightning over the mountains where you are going.
If you want to take I-25 north to Cheyenne and I-80 west to Salt Lake City, turn to page 31. If you prefer the scenic route, highway 40, a winding two-lane through the Rockies, turn to page 64.
64. Your breakfast is a pecan sticky roll. A couple from Texas asks for a kolache. Grandma looks at them bewildered.
You drive highway 40 north through Empire City. Berthoud Pass, a slide of switchbacks around the mountain edge. You pass Steamboat Springs and Aspen, both sanitized like baby food. No chewing necessary. You stop in Hayden at a café called Wolf Mountain Pizza. It’s the only real restaurant in town. You order Rocky Mountain Bullfries. Thin strips of testicle, deep-fried. Now, you understand the oyster analogy, bivalvular snap, swinish. Served with cocktail sauce.
I-40 leaves the pines for bushier, hotter hills. You buy gas, beverages, take a leak in Dinosaur, Moffat County, Colorado.
Utah is how you imaged the West. Sand, stretches of pasture, buttes. The towns are stuck to the earth like a tooth tongued loose and caught in the gum. Petroleum, fast food. And Mormons!
If you drive through the night to Salt Lake City, turn to page 61. If you camp out at Starvation State Park, turn to page 75.
75. You’re camping at Starvation State Park; origin of name unknown. The park circles an artificial lake, turquoise under a turquoise sky. Families drive RVs onto the beach. You find a spot a hundred yards off the water, sandy enough, and pitched under a shaggy juniper. A slate mountain of cloud is moving in from the West. You’ll write until the rain then retreat to the tent, or if the fly gives, to your car.
The wind rocks your car, the tent. A test for new gear. Try it out in a haboob on a reservoir a hundred miles south of Provo.
After making camp you drive into Duschene for supper. Cowan’s Café, estab. 1933, three decades after the town. (You hear that the Sundance Kid might not have died in Bolivia, might have returned here to farm. His grave is in the Duschene cemetary.) A cup of clam chowder, fried fish sandwich. A warty crowd except for the pretty young Mormons.
You hear the rain, so dense each drop collapses into a roar. The wind down but thunder hovering in the distance.
Turn to page 76.
76. Sunrise at Starvation Lake. The sun boils over the mountains, at first a winking streamer of light, simmering, then a frothy red bubbling behind the clouds. You know what it means for a storm to gather. For a man to piss in the wind. You turned out the lantern and the wind returned, spinning the tent like a kayak in high surf.
You drive to Salt Lake City without stopping, into the mountains again north of Strawberry River, the meanders pleasant in the valleys. You arrive at Ruth’s Diner, maybe the second oldest restaurant in Salt Lake City, at 8:40 a.m. Have a “mile-high biscuit.” Each table is equipped with a silver pot of jam expressly for the biscuits. Delirious with raspberry jam. A fine plate of huevos rancheros. You don’t have much experience in the huevos way, but you like eggs and tortillas. Three cups of coffee. You find a parking spot by Temple Square.
Mormonism is super-real. On the west end, the temple itself, a Disney Magic Mountain carved from sandstone or popped out of a can in one piece. On the north, the administrative building inspired by the wet dreams of J. Edgar Hoover. Clean-cut. A fairyland of flowers, fountains, and bronzes of Joseph Smith. Missionaries stroll the gardens, starchy or skirted to the ankle. In one visitor center you find plenty of mannequins depicting the lives of prophets. In another, a diorama of family values. It reminds you of Berlin. You see John Taylor’s watch that stopped a bullet and saved his life, a sampler in honor of Smith sewn with a 13 year old girl’s hair, Brigham Young’s spy glass, the printing press that spit out the first edition of the Book of Mormon. Mormonism as Bible fan fiction.
A block south of the Temple is a massive outdoor shopping mall with Microsoft, Cheesecake Factory, Macy’s, etc. The air is polluted with corporate body odor. You hike north to the Utah State Capital Building. South to E-Born Books, explore the mammoth assembly of Mormonalia—fiction, nonfic, magazines, genealogy—buy a book on the Middle West.
You are hungry at 4 pm so you drive to the Red Iguana, wait a half hour then drink horchata. You settle on half negro, half poblano moles, tossed with turkey.
If you want to take a four hour detour to see Spiral Jetty, turn to page 62. If you want to save two hours in both directions and go straight to Arches National Park, turn to page 77.
62. You want to write here, at Spiral Jetty. Thoughts are slippery.
The drive to the jetty follows a dirt road through Promontory Ranch. No trespassing. To reach the jetty, visitors scramble down a field of basalt. A fellow traveler has stacked smaller rocks into cairns. When the lake is low enough, visitors can walk onto and round the nautiloid arc. The water is mauve, and over years it deposits glittering salts on the stone. Robert Smithson sculpted the jetty from the same basalt, but today, it is colored pink, yellow, grey, and white. Suds froth at the edges like bubble bath. Sludge washes onto the path and bakes into glaze. The jetty curls like the coccyx of a giant skeleton. Gnats swarm on the pools and knobbles. The air smells like a public swimming pool.
A depth unfolds outside your reach. The spiral is a glyph on the sea, a vista, the labyrinth at Chartres. Post-apocalyptic or extra-terrestrial, and yet the strongest expression of living man’s love for the earth. Or for a soul outside society. You feel fine for the first time in a long time.
You backtrack to Layton, pull into the parking lot of Sill’s Café, anticipate the crowd, underestimate the seven plus families of seven plus kids piling in. A single stool opens at the counter and you sidle in before anyone notices. Order a coffee, a “scone,” and “Emily’s Breakfast,” biscuits and gravy, ham, one egg over easy. And black coffee. You sit next to a man who defines grizzle, deaf, who drinks four glasses of chocolate milk. The strangest fritters leave the kitchen, frisbees of fried dough. One scone is a saucer wide crowned with a paper cup of honey butter. As if to suggest, let me melt on this scone, or spoon me out, a half stick, whipped and salted, sweet as cream. A boy with a buzzcut tears bits off with his fingers. Two teenage girls rub their butter over the scones and then proceed with fork and knife. You’re sweating. Thomas-Builds-A-Fire said, “some days it’s a good day to die. Some days it’s a good day to eat breakfast.” At Sill’s Café, the two can be scheduled together.
From Layton you make the run to Arches with one stop in Price for gas. One road bisects the park. It obeys the curves of mountains sculpted by wind. Here is the boundary of salt beds and sedimentary rock, the pressure of centuries and the will of water, which in sum bend stone into fantastic spires, catenaries, loops, and whorls. When you see two-million pound boulders balanced on fulcrums thin as a pin, the possibility of angels is not so remote. In comparison to the force that created this waste, all human art and craft seems faint, the fruit of our hands withered and sour. The conceit of a park to contain this will, in such excess of the human imagination, is the arrogance of Jesus praying to God. Why has he forsaken us? I am thirsty. It is finished. Even if we destroyed these arches they would still exist. History cannot understand inhuman beauty. Arches proves the impossibility of conquering a world that does not speak.
You drive into Moab for dinner. Moab is half tourist bullshit, spas, candy stores, rafting companies, and half trailer park. You have found all of Utah to be similarly strange. The cultural and political dominance of Mormonism creates contact zones with the homeless and hobos. You’ve never seen so many hitchhikers. They are tan with highway grime and squatting under exit ramps for shade; and migrants, a gang outside a motel in Ogden, waiting for rides; a man in a wheelchair begging for change. A peaceful, uneasy feeling.
The night before you die you have lamb enchiladas. They are expensive and boring but you don’t care. You figure on a lifetime of dinners, a sea of tortillas and cheese into which that failure will disappear.
The night before you die you sleep at Devil’s Garden, actual name of a campground at Arches. You pitch your tent in the shadow of a red rock. “There is a shadow under this red rock, / (Come in under the shadow of this red rock).” That was all you had memorized of The Waste Land.
You are reading Stalking the Wild Asparagus by lantern when a storm passes over the desert. Having accounted for freak showers, you had already attached the fly. You wait for the sky to clear, and then you throw back your head and watch the stars for as long as you can bear.
Turn to page 63.
63. At dawn you have a nice bowel movement, break camp, then drive to the Devil’s Garden trailhead. You take one water bottle and a packet of Planter’s Peanuts, one perk of preferred membership at the Holiday Inn. You are wearing an orange Longhorns cap, a running shirt from your first marathon, cargo shorts, and gray New Balance tennis shoes. The time is 7 a.m., the sun low, temperature in the high 70s. You check your phone. No service, even in the parking lot.
If you drive 15 minutes to reach cell phone service, text someone to tell them your itinerary, where you are hiking and when you’ll be finished, and then drive 15 minutes back, turn to page 81. If you think the trail will be well-trafficked, clearly marked, completely safe, and that there’s no need to waste your morning like a neurotic, like you always do, turn to page 90.
90. A paved trail leads to Landscape Arch. The rock stretches across the sky like a suspension bridge. Pieces of the arch have crumbled off the bottom since you were born, thinning it out to a tightrope. German tourists ogle. Otherwise, the desert is empty.
Devil’s Garden splits, the main trail heading to Dark Angel, to the right, the “primitive loop” through an abyss of deep sand. A sign warns tourists to bring at least a gallon of water. That the primitive loop cuts across slickrock. Is unmarked except by the occasional cairn. The total distance is seven miles, no problem for a young man of your fitness. You consider food and water.
If you hike the primitive loop, turn to page 92. If you return to your car to visit Delicate Arch, turn to page 101.
92. The primitive loop narrows into a line of red sand, two footprints wide. You slog through the dunes. Jackrabbits, chipmunks, lizards, pincushion cacti are indifferent to your slow progress. Junipers, twisted by drought and wind into bonsai, are the only shade besides great boulders of sandstone rolled across the desert like marbles. You drink a mouthful of water and watch for cairns. A sign is staked in the sand to direct a confusing intersection. You walk 100 yards into the waste and realize your mistake.
You pause between two sandstone fins to take a picture on your phone. They will admire it afterwards.
Another mile along the loop you spot a cairn perched on a ledge. It seems to smile, shoulders slumped, as jaunty as stone can be. You scramble up around junipers and broken rock, find your footing, and walk along the ledge. The flat surface of the trail narrows until it collides into a slab of rock. You walk ten feet. It feels wrong. But you wonder whether the next cairn is hiding, visible another ten feet along the ledge. You walk back to the cairn and examine it. You take a picture on your phone looking back down the slope. You turn and squint ahead. If the trail has been this uncertain thus far, how will you finish it? Perhaps you made a mistake and the real trail continues along the dried riverbed. You climb down, search for footprints, and finding none, climb back to the cairn. You can still return to the car. You will have had your exercise, can drive to Delicate Arch and then continue to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. But how would a trail in a National Park, crowded with thousands of hikers every year, be a legitimate danger?
If you turn back, turn to page 101. If you don’t turn back, turn to page 83.
83. You take a mouthful of water and walk forward ten feet, to the point where you had first hesitated. You continue another ten feet. There, you can see that you are not on the trail at all. You turn back. The ledge has narrowed to one sneaker width, your left foot gripping the angled cliff. You start to walk back and your left foot slips on a crust of loose rock. You fall and slide down the half dome.
You lie on your side at a 45-degree angle, right arm extended behind your head, left holding your half-empty water bottle. A film of sand has stopped your slide. Are you even close to the trail? You can see the red wash below, the suggestion of a path through a thicket of junipers. You extract your phone from your shorts, delicate as a dentist, taking care not to dislodge yourself from the cliff. No signal. Maybe the trail did continue alongside the cliff and you had followed a phantom cairn up to the ledge. A hiker might happen past and rescue you. At 8 a.m., the heat is manageable. You can last a day, even with afternoon temperatures near 100. But if you do wait, and no one comes, you will be too weak to save yourself.
How long will it take for the rangers to notice your car at the trailhead? To set out on the primitive loop with dogs? By then, you will have shriveled up into a sun-dried tomato. They will find your mummified corpse. You estimate the cliff at 15 feet, a very survivable height. If you land right, you might sprain an ankle, retrace your steps, and limp out on your own power. Of course, if the trail never did descend into the wash, you might be trapped. From where you have stalled, the odds of climbing back seem low. The stone is smooth like a porcelain bowl. In case you can’t reach the upper ledge, you will continue to slide off the edge.
If you wait for help, turn to page 94. If you jump, turn to page 25. If you try to climb back to the ledge, turn to page 96.
96. You button your water bottle into your pocket. You are still holding a map in your left hand. You throw it over the cliff. You reach up with your right arm, scrabble in the sand, kick your feet against the rock to get leverage, and start sliding. You claw against the rock, scraping your fingers against the sandstone. One of Buffalo Bill’s murder victims, a chubby girl, captive in his basement pit, so desperate to escape that she leaves behind a purple painted fingernail. Your feet leave the edge. You shut your eyes.
Turn to page 97.
97. Falling off a cliff is nothing like what you imagined. No drop of the stomach, no roller coaster butterflies. A crushing, quick darkness, and the conviction that there would be nothing. A flat blank, black.
Then you hit.
Afterwards, park rangers will follow your bloody trail back to the cliff and find a handprint high on the sandy rock. You fell 30 feet. It didn’t hurt at all.
You land on your right ankle. A satisfying pop. You lose your glasses. Velma stumbling blind around the Mystery Mobile, you are laughing, hysterical, but you can see your right foot pointing the wrong direction out of the shoe. You crawl in circles looking for your glasses. Not a chance. You break a dried juniper branch to fashion a crutch, but you can’t bear any weight on your left leg. Your right foot feels like a numb, sickening club attached to the ankle.
“God help me, please God, help me, somebody, help me Help me.”
Your voice echoes in the canyon.
The first time you asked God for help, sincerely, with faith, at the mercy of a power beyond your understanding, your mom was in the hospital, her mouth and eyes covered with sores, dying, and you were driving to school and pulled over, blinded, breathless, slamming your head into the steering wheel and screaming “God help me don’t let my mom die she can’t die Can’t die” and now you are screaming “God help me I can’t die out here Out here” but you are going to die in a canyon, alone, and it was going to be your fault.
Turn to page 98.
98. You are in a movie about another person. The actor playing yourself needs to stop screaming. He needs to conserve his strength. A jumble of footprints pattern the wash, and you wonder whether this is a side canyon or the real trail, whether the tracks can lead him to safety. Whether these tracks are from yesterday, or last week. If he waits and screams on schedule, drinking every hour, he might be heard. But no one knows he is here. No one except you is looking.
If you wait, turn to page 107. If you crawl, turn to page 108.
108. It is hard to say if you’re in Hell since you’re not sure whether you could recognize it. As if stranded on a connecting flight you might stand on a bridge between terminals, eat a burger, fries, ketchup, and sense the outside stretched into Bangkok, Budapest. You are dislocated. You could walk past the sign, “No re-entry beyond here,” walk through the arriving crowd and onto a street that could take you anywhere. But you glimpse a familiar bump across the runway, a ridge, an arch, an island, a whorl of cement, and squinting the skyline comes into focus. Freedom Tower, Trump, the Statue of Liberty, like points of comparison between fingerprints. Your intermediate destination is New York. You are delayed, waiting for a gate change and your flight home.
Hell cannot be identified like a fossil shell or a flower. Its anatomy does not correspond to a field guide. Where stone tissue convolutes and turns in smooth curves there is an impossible geometry. Hills are the hidden skins of canyons, canyons the insides of hills, a desert the dried sea floor. The trail is an animal scratching in the sand.
Crack open the snail, thresh seeds from the sunflower. When you trace the spiral it seems to lead into a secret center. But the canal is cut into the surface of a sphere like wrinkles folded into brain or cracks in a glass eye. Every forward motion swings along a concentric circle. The snake swallows itself. We will walk around the mountainside forever. One contour is our universe. The blind geographers have imagined a labyrinth of fine lines with no entrance. Like a wedding ring, keys, a cell phone, you can never find Hell when you’re looking for it.
Lost in the afterlife, it is impossible to stop for gas, check the map and comfort the wife, “no need for directions, we were in Hell all along!” You do not know Hell when you see it. The gas in Utah is very expensive.
A thumb is sucked, sore, wrestles, in bathwater, wrinkles, crimps piecrust, loops shoelace, leads a shuffle, snaps a beer tab, parks a car, unbuttons, unzips, texts, types, turns pages, wears golf gloves and later, when she can’t clean herself, latex, stiffens and creaks in winter, wrinkles again, skin stretched like putty over newsprint, tip washed away. Yet its autograph is legible no matter how it fades. If our man forgets himself, his face a stranger one morning while shaving, he can walk to a police station, bathrobe flapping, and ask to check whether he has migrated between bodies like a drunk waking in a strange basement. Hell is being told that your fingerprints are yours, yours alone, but succumbing to a conviction that the inspectors are confused or conspiring against you. Hell is coming home a stranger.
Turn to page 109.
109. You are crawling in a circle sandwiched between two skyscrapers. You see your broken back, paralyzed and arms writhing, screaming “God help me, please God, help me, somebody, help me,” “Help me,” the taxi stopped at the intersection of Madison and 23rd street.
You are crawling in a circle at the bottom of a swimming pool. You see your body, blue, neck snapped.
You see footprints swarming across the sand. You are crawling.
You are crawling under a juniper, on your belly, your cheekbone scraped and cradled by its parched roots. Its branches curl like stumps of coral, dead and bleached in a dead sea.
You are crawling on a gravel road, the footprints feeble like pencil marks in a library book. There is a pickup truck out of sight, a bucket of cold beers, two cowboy hats and boots to match, one sundress. The skin is dangling off your knees and hands. You unbuckle your shorts and pull them down. It is Sunset Boulevard. You are crawling through the desert, pants around your knees, nose sniffing out the next print. You are huffing paint in your garage. You are facedown in the sand. You are drowning in your own vomit. You are taking a breather, screaming, the road a beach and an empty flat white ocean and you are following footprints.
You know only a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water. Only there is a shadow under this red rock. (Come in under the shadow of this red rock.) And I will show you something different from either your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
You have never understood The Waste Land. You have never understood what you once thought you did.
Here is no water but only rock Rock and no water and the sandy road The road winding above among the mountains Which are mountains of rock without water If there were water we should stop and drink Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think Sweat is dry and knees are in the sand If there were only water amongst the rock Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit There is not even silence in the mountains But dry sterile thunder without rain
You drink a mouthful of water. Three peanuts.
Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together But when I look ahead up the white road There is always another one walking beside you
You remember it all.
You recognize the signpost, your own footprints now turning to the waste. You are climbing the hill when you hear voices behind you, two voices and you are the third saying “Thank God.”
Turn to page 0.
0. You lie sideways on the hill to keep blood from draining into your feet. Two hikers found you crawling through the desert, gave you a water bottle, and left for help. You will wait an hour before moving again. In the meantime, you lift your legs and ease yourself towards the shadow of a juniper. You wet your lips. Three peanuts. Tell these stones to become bread. You think you hear a siren, distant like scrambled egg or fishy smells that linger after dinner, maybe an ambulance at the trailhead. Or a crow, circling your body, still crumpled at the bottom of a wash. A faint throbbing follows the cry. You tilt your neck to scan the horizon. You think you hear a helicopter over the canyon, the faint put-put-putting of a golf course sprinkler feeding the greens. Thin clouds like surf on the empty sky. The heartbeat thrums, faded. You relax back into the sand. Then the drumming returns, delicious as ice tea, a sweet drive off the teebox, a brook trout erupting from mud on a taut line. A propeller plane crosses high overhead like an empty lure skipping along a pond. You take out your cellphone, to listen to voicemail, but without any signal, you are stranded in silence. Your only game is Farkle.
You aren’t on Earth, you are sure. You have either folded up like an origami box into your own cortex or you have gone to some afterlife. With all eternity unexplored, you open Farkle and wait for the devil.
Turn to page 110.
110. You are being wheeled on a litter out of Arches. There is a cool neckerchief on your brow. The search and rescue team laughs and grunts as they drag your dead weight to Landscape Arch, around the crowds of tourists, to an ambulance.
At Moab Regional Hospital, you are sedated. The orthopedic surgeon is on a rafting trip. The attending physician tries to reduce your dislocation, fails, and you will remember the anesthesia dream. You ride two hours to Grand Junction.
You are morphine, you are Dilaudid, and the bed is dissolving into sand, crumpled sheets crumbling between your fingers, your body dropping into a waterfall of red sand and the black night sky.
The sun is rising red between the arches. You are screaming “Help me Help me Help me,” “Help me.”
You are casting again, your boat drifting off center. A sweet thwack, ping from the eighth hole, and ten thousand bullfrogs.
You are walking the course at night, bullfrogs and the empty rustle in your chest.
It is quiet, because the golfers have gone home.
You are sliding off the toilet seat, spinning with cramps, possessed.
You are waiting for a mouthful of peanuts, their salt wonderful on your lips. Fear never felt so much like grief.
You are done with surgery, your foot swollen into a child’s idea of a foot.
You are floating sideways through Kansas. You are hopping on your walker through the Holiday Inn. You are eating Chicken McNuggets in the parking lot, and you have never tasted anything more delicious.
You are listening to Warren Zevon and you feel nothing.
You are hosed off in your driveway like a dog.
Turn to page 111.
111. You are at your high school track, on your eighth lap, head bent between your knees, pink and scarred, squeezing out extra muscle like orange juice. The grass is neon, the track red and pebbled, the dusk sweeping in with a storm. You are at homecoming, wishing you were dancing with the Mormon girl. You finish your circle and start another, before the rain, and another, and another. Immense effort nowhere. There is thunder over your hometown, which is different than it has been. You are crawling, and there is the sand, the rock, the juniper, Turn to page 108.
Jason Bell is a Midwestern writer recently transplanted to Oxford, where he is studying American literature and drinking warm ale. He misses baseball, barbecue, and a pug named Nell. Read more of his work at http://jasonebell.com/