pd mallamo

The Asphalt Bible

I’m offering you a choice: Drift with me and risk a wreck on the reefs of authority or strike out now for the shore.
MOTHER LONDON - Michael Moorcock

After church that day he drove aimlessly around Salt Lake City with his windows down playing Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet until his ears rang and his disappointments were swallowed up and lost in the great pain of the world and in the simple glory of the Rolling Stones.

On Temple Square he saw a one-legged supplicant with black teeth who wore a blue and yellow FBI t-shirt, carried a miniature bulldog and waved a dirty cardboard sign that denounced in large black letters and by various and inventive spellings the French Communist Party, Lyle & Eric Menendez (“killors”), Rush Limbaugh (“drug atik”), St. Paul (“fals profet”), the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake (wouldn’t let him preach), the Mendosa Brothers and a local television weatherman, who, by some sinister influence, had brought on “this afol drobt.” Beneath the large print was small print that read “do you realy went to here my crazy bollshit!!!? juts giv me a buk PLZ and I wont not say it!!!!?” He met somber PETA disciples gripping photographs of bloody minks in front of an upscale department store on Main Street, as if Salt Lake groaned beneath a massive encumbrance of fur-clad socialites; then, on West Temple, a line of twenty-five shouting young women in cargo shorts and tank tops just wild about a monologue premiering on a local stage. They waved placards that blared, “Honk If You Love Vaginas.” He honked. Well I’ve never done that before, he said to himself.

Before dinner he read in the small library off the vestibule of his father-in-law’s enormous house. All it contained were Mormon books except for six volumes on a dusty shelf at the very bottom. These included a thin anomaly explaining how Russian scientists evolved detonation protocols for various hydrogen weapons; two garish tomes dealing with the end of time, complete with flames and the naked dead; an illustrated introduction to Renaissance suicide cults, apparently for psychology students; a brief history of the Egyptian Secret Police written by Jesuits but published by Lutherans; and a book copyright 1934 by one Earl Bruce Douglas (and heavily marked with someone’s penciled-in counterarguments) that proposed the idea that a large part of the western world worships a charlatan or crazyman, which, in turn, produces still more frauds and more insanity. He couldn’t imagine how any of them had gotten there and was reasonably sure not one had been opened.

When the doorbell rang he watched Carolyn peek through narrow blinds, then run in mincing steps to a large mirror framed in gilt and primp like a junior high girl. She opened the door to admit a church authority and his handsome widowed son who grinned like a Bolshevik and bore the precise likeness of a television actor in a pharmaceutical commercial for synthetic erections. When Carolyn had spoken with this man in church even the subtle protocols of her body language were unmistakable, clear as semaphore: Kyle did not miss a twitch, sway, touch or smile. He had looked about himself in the chapel after it emptied and noticed, for the first time, how pallid it was. The only color in that room was a bunch of flowers left over from a funeral two days before, a box of Kleenex, and the EXIT sign. All women want a pig, he thought, even my Carolyn. What am I doing here? People are supposed to make all this bloody progress in their lives and look at me I haven’t made any at all no not an inch. For instance, when is the last time you gathered the hag in your arms at vespers and told her she was the center of your world? Not in some time, he laughed, primarily because the hag does not readily lend herself to gathering and I don’t need an attitude or a battle. It’s too late for that.

She was more excited and more beautiful than he had ever seen her, clearly overcome by the presence of royalty, though she was royalty herself, and he could feel the force of her attraction from the next room. Now, he thought, she can have everything her heart desires, at last. He felt transparent as glass, felt his very soul emancipate by this straw that broke a marriage so desiccated that it simply crumbled to dust before his eyes.

Carolyn descended from two church presidents and traced her genealogy from Liverpool to Nauvoo, then across the dreadful plains to Utah where her immaculate people prepared to both endure and interlock the Second Coming. But Carolyn, like most of her Mormon sisters, had plainly staked her claim in the material world and her chocolaty Hollywood eyes inquired endlessly of that stranger and his stallion and nomad tents somewhere across hot sands. Some days she wore large hoop earrings and milky lipstick. She piled her chestnut hair high on her head and enjoyed the viscous eyes of both men and women upon her Cleopatra neck, her successfully accentuated breasts and tiny waist, slim supple hips and long long legs so well enhanced by heels. She cultivated a voice in the low registers peculiar to chanteuses from Berlin and high-end prostitutes though there were none of the former and really not so many of the latter in Salt Lake City. The first thing Kyle noticed after they married was how she unwrapped herself before the mirror each evening, as if the present she opened were her own fine body. Then the No Trespassing signs popped up. Kyle didn’t have a stallion, just a Saab. They had two children, Ryan, who was seven, and Nichole, who was five. He barely knew them. All they wanted was Grandpa. Carolyn saw to that.


I could feel sorry for myself but if I broaden my perspective to include Bangladesh and Sudan I’m OK. He smiled at this grim musing and left the same way her celebrities had entered. They disappeared down the hallway and sat before good food, among Carolyn’s parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sister, their spouses, a thousand children in all shapes and sizes - quite a crowd, all by now subdued before the offering of grace and noticing his absence not at all. In a moment they would be discussing ecclesiastical infrastructure, a Mormon obsession and a topic that bored him to the point of physical pain, one time in his lower back, another in his stomach or throat. He closed the door softly behind him and walked a half mile of the stark orbit of his life to his spectacular house, sat for five minutes on a couch with his head in his hands until he had finished crying then considered what to take hello sweet terrifying freedom. He pushed his straight thick brown hair away from his face and cleaned his round wet glasses with a shirttail.

A long metropolitan table ran just below the western picture window and two large leaping yellow fish figurines at each end framed the city far below. Between those fish he had many times imagined the magnificent flash and roar, had felt the earth quake beneath his feet and seen brown debris move in a tidal wave of ashes and bodies across the city, obliterating towers, temples, hospitals, homes, while high in the Wasatch the al Queda boys who’d smuggled the Pakistani device across the Mexican border jumped and screamed and threw their sombreros and serapes and radioactive dope packs across the face of the western slope and kissed each other because the city was gone and they did not have to speak bad Spanish any more and now they could enjoy themselves in Las Vegas for a day or two before they nuked L.A.


The house adhered to a small steep lot among many other expensive houses on small steep lots and he loathed it. He had always wondered what it meant, this neighborhood, the way so many enthusiastic young professionals prefer to live and what passed for beauty or even comfort. The semiotic was inaccessible and he knew it, tied as it was to money and fast success and death of culture in a frenzied admixture of Mammon & God singular in the history of Earth. Scattered across higher and even steeper elevations were larger and more expensive versions that looked out over Brigham’s valley like the giants of Easter Island, accidents waiting for the first tremor of the last days to slide and tumble, wrong as chickens packed eight to a shoe-box cage on a factory farm. Carolyn needed the house like a blood transfusion. He would rather live in a trailer park.

He shouted “Oh God Oh God Oh God” then sat down again and cried very hard, hoping through his pain to be swept away in the first genuine deluge of his life. Leaving was inevitable but enormous, and he wondered if he was not initiating the first in a series of diminishing, irreversible exchanges. He had paid off the house in ten years. She could have it and everything else, the entire fable. She had only done what most humans do, which is move automatically into the vacuums of the lives closest to them and insist that they be filled with more work or missionary service or Boy Scouts or couches from Italy. In a different American culture it may have been the Marine Corps, or, had they been Episcopalian, school construction in Haiti. In his life it was the comings and goings of Salt Lake’s radiant upper echelon, which he eventually found unendurable, though he was slowly aware that the darkness he saw all around was mostly on the inside. He could not imagine that his wife was disturbed, only acculturated into a system that at her level was myopic and unforgiving, though periodically he was struck by how little he himself expected from marriage or from life or Deity. He wrote her a note: “I never want to see you again. Your father can raise the children. They know him better than me anyway thanks to you. I don’t care if you live or die. I don’t care if I live or die and to tell you the truth I never loved you either.”


He paged haphazardly through Carolyn’s latest Pottery Barn catalogue, then hurled it across the room. He thumbed through advertisements that had fallen out of that morning’s Deseret News: lawn furniture patterned on formal pieces from the court of Louis XIV, bigger televisions, underwire bras for twelve year old girls. He grabbed the TV remote and flipped channels through the same nightmarish daytime shows and news magazines in Zion as Sodom, a useful reminder both that rational atheism is always an option, and that side by side with America’s fabled movers & shakers exists an underclass more soulless and abject than any other population on the face of the earth. He watched two plastic surgeons work over a trussed up breast reshape/liposuction candidate like a side of beef, one of them even twirling his forceps like an 1871 gunslinger, then settled on a program that featured hit & run victims and howling 911 calls in that southern variant of American English now spoken by most generals and a ruling class suddenly familiar with coon hunting and cornbread. A portrait of the Serene Nazarene gazed down from an adjacent wall, not an ounce of judgment in his blue Scandinavian eyes though he knew, of course he knew, what Kyle was about to do. He packed clothes, hygiene, and an old King trumpet he’d played since high school and with which, in troubled moments, he’d fantasized running away and blowing backup for Jah in a mighty reggae band. He stuffed everything in the Saab, which was also paid for. Books, two boxes of CD’s, loose CD’s, more CD’s, a good titanium road bike, journals and compositions, and a short twenty-gauge double with three boxes of magnum Federal duck loads that he took back out and returned to the closet in case he decided to fly somewhere. Two minutes later he retrieved the shotgun and ammunition and put it back in the car. Then he ran back for the title to the Saab. He started the car, then ran back for his passport. He rolled halfway down the driveway and ran back for a Ray Charles boxed set he’d left on the stereo in the living room. He stopped again on the road in front of the house and ran back for a Bill Monroe boxed set that had arrived in the mail three days before and that he’d left in the drawer with the bills.

“I’m thirty-five,” he said to the uninhabited house, “young and strong if not quite free. Goodbye Utah.”


He drifted deliberately from his east Wasatch bench and for the last time drove the quarter mile on Oak Canyon Drive to Canyon Cove, then west, tasting a keen but fleeting sense of high plains romance. At Wasatch Boulevard he headed north, and at the thirty-eight hundred stop light a low-slung, heavily-primered Chevrolet sedan with small chrome spokes and a steering wheel wrapped in purple velour pulled beside him in the left-hand lane. A muscular arm tattooed with a red and blue interpretation of the Madonna shot from the dark interior and pointed over the mountains. He heard the man say to an unseen companion, “East, Mendoza, east! I’ve been there. I know!” - then something about a Navajo homicide, the phrase, “straight up, bro,” and the words “beat,” “shit,” “no shit,” “queer” (twice), “asshole,” “kill” (four times), “die” and “dead.” The Chevy launched off at the green and disappeared up Wasatch. He considered the event propitious and as revealing as it was bizarre, a blithe portent of adventures to come, if not quite on par with authentic angelic manifestation which he had repeatedly solicited but never experienced. He considered that his opportunity for epiphany of any sort to have long since evaporated though he knew that he retained the mark of the true believer: He saw signs and wonders everywhere.


He cell-phoned his boss, a woman who had sold him discounted stock by which he’d gained almost half a million dollars, and told her voicemail that effective immediately he resigned and good luck and thank you for everything.

Carolyn was an attorney for a large Utah firm, her father’s to be exact. She would deal with the health insurance and the water bill, the social calendar and everything else; where she could not, her rich daddy would step in or any number of dull high-functioning brothers. He’d saved a little money in anticipation of this day. Carolyn did not need it all.


“Goodbye my beautiful city,” he said. “O God what does this mean what does it mean?” He thought for a moment and concluded that it meant Goodbye my beautiful city and left it there, mere places, that’s all, goodbye sweet stupid life.


He backed up, switched lanes, entered Highway 215, and followed it until it became Interstate 80 eastbound, blasting through the sweeping curves and thin sedimentary layers of Parley’s Canyon and past whatever once living thing god had folded within the thick layers of rock long before there were men on earth to endure fear and guilt. Guilt and fear rose like thunderheads twenty-five miles past Park City and he pulled over and thought for an hour. Heat radiated beneath his skin and traveled from his neck to the back of his head and he felt his ears burn. He considered the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he frequently did when in duress or melancholy, and the ugly lie the Church told about him, that he was not really human - incapable, unlike the rest of us, of darkness and gross ignominy and rich spontaneous life below the pathetic categories of mortal propriety. He allowed the heroic portrait the Church placed in their chapels and upon their brochures and books, and the cries for precise obedience in this, the Age of Clones, and believed completely Joseph’s sweet and fluent account of the Vision in the Grove, but in his pure want he accepted only Joseph’s authentic life, the life he lived in the floating worlds of Kirkland and Nauvoo where the essence of Eros had permeated the soils and forests and where Joseph had taken his waterbrides with an abandon that approached madness. His Prophet reaped more than his share of earthly delights in those honeyed nights, in fact had seemed insatiable, overwhelmed by appetite, as if he were hoarding sensation against darkness everlasting. The effortless nonchalance with which he approached sex and matrimony made him a man best adored from afar if you were a married woman with no inclination for adventure; or, if you were that kind of woman, or a believing woman intent on fulfilling the wishes of the Great God Himself, you embraced him furtively and fiercely and then held those things secretly in your heart until the day you died. He remembered Carolyn naked and the gentle uplift of her breasts and the fine skin he touched inside her thighs when her legs were parted and wondered why they had never made love. They’d barely had sex. He was in the same relation with Carolyn, he knew, as he was with the Church and he thought they were remarkably similar, his two brides, both handsome and poised, yet enervated, dry as desert bones, devoid now of Old Magik with power to animate and inspire. He walked into the sagebrush and for the first time in many years took off his shirt and let the sun heat his pale flesh; he broke off a sage sprig and rubbed it between his fingers. He brought it to his nose and deeply inhaled the sharp primeval tang again and again. This, anyway, was real. A thought formed with startling clarity: You have cast your net into barren waters. Stop wasting time. Move on.

He recognized it as a message with which Mormons were familiar. It was how they discovered the Salt Lake Valley. Maybe, as he slowly wound his way to the little basin so far removed from the rest of the world, Brigham had heard the same dusky angel declare, “West, Mendoza, west! I’ve been there. I know!”


He fled in a direction opposite his forefathers, who, truth be told, had made their joining with the Church only four generations earlier in Ohio. Their trek was somewhat reduced in valor by the advent of rail travel, but there it was, a history nonetheless, and certainly not so stigmatic in his deep Mormon microculture as the shallow histories of the newly-converted whose mettle had yet to be tested and likely never would be.

“What am I?” He hit the steering wheel with his fist. “Who am I?” Strong cross winds pushed a liquefied petroleum gas tanker into his lane and he almost rammed it. He slowed down. Shattered animals of many sizes and colors and attitudes of death littered the shoulder. He knew he’d be afraid and lonely for a long time and scanned the FM frequencies, stopping when he got to NPR. A guest and his wife were attempting to revive the dialectic of Socrates in bars and laundromats across the USA. Reception came and went amid redrock cliffs and dun sage hills near Evanston but he heard the man express his fear that Americans were losing their ability to think, unintentionally describing the life cycle of democracy. A train roared past and then another, both pulling flatcars loaded with Hanjin containers from Korea and ochre freightcars bedecked with dazzling graffiti created by lives a lot more interesting, he was sure, than his own. A new guest said something about see-through silk dresses and citruswood tables from way back B.C. as “refracting an obverse, almost redacted concupiscence” and then it was gone and he was glad, thank god, what a fool. The highway shook and thundered with trucks. Besides him only a few poor souls still traveled by automobile, smoking old Fords and Toyotas advancing slowly in the right hand lane with junk, failure, crutches, cigarettes, depression, desperation, severe ignorance, ninety-nine cents a gallon wine, Jesus, incest, hepatitis and Kentucky Fried Chicken from Good Friday last staring out the back window. Bumperstickers: “I’m Hooked On Fishing.” “Back the Badge.” Union Pacific locomotives pulled Pacer Stackers, and trucks, trucks, the highway literally a railroad without rails - APL, Vernon Sawyer, NOL, Beautyrest, Comet, Floyd & Beasley, NPT, Bell, TRL, Walmart, Edwards Bros., Savannah Transport, Jim Palmer, Atlas Van Lines, U.S. Xpress, FedEx, Trilex Express, Werner, Purple Sage, Hammell, Central Refer, Marten - he began to wonder both that there were people left to do other jobs in the United States of America and that sanitary napkins and hair spray were so important that they had to be shot from one end of the country to the other at such lethal speeds.

In the wail and rush of one hundred ten miles an hour with all four windows down and the sunroof open he abruptly wondered at the joy so many seemed to take in coffee. The unexpectedness and unfamiliarity of this thought surprised him, as if it had been waiting for years ready to leap from his subconscious, and he realized that, indeed, his adolescent adventures were just beginning, with something even so simple as the innocent and wildly popular drug caffeine. He had taught Sunday school classes to the effect that such substances reduced one’s ability to receive inspiration from On High – as a matter of fact, it reduced one’s ability to receive instruction on the evils of caffeine itself and other associated prohibitions like football on Sunday, Bertolucci films, and brown-skinned tango dancers from Argentina (so unlike his Carolyn). In the glorious free hot wind of August he wondered why the Lord God was so silent on the subject of religious addiction or the violations of His senior servants in many Christian churches or the awful machinations of pedophiles and men who beat their wives or wives who manipulated and humiliated their stupid husbands until something broke. He wondered at the monstrosities man has created from the simple teachings of Jesus. I am a fool he thought, and my life has suddenly become a singularity without reference or base - even though it is undeniable that the best music, like the Word of God, comes through poor radios, all the more powerful for the suggestion generated by static, distance, and defect. I am a fool and I deserve what that poor woman and that great church did to me. It’s just fine, my life is what it is. See me, Joseph, in my travail, and give me what guidance you can. You’ve been in my shoes before, my friend, my brother.


After NPR faded altogether he scanned AM and FM and found nothing but very bad modern county music, downhome ads for Dodge pickups, Paul Harvey (who he thought was dead) a Christian soap opera in which abject self-loathing substituted for pornographic but unforgettable sex, another Christian program about J.S. Bach’s prodigal son who apparently just wore the old man out, and a preacher screaming at the lost and beholden survivors of Wyoming his timeless symbiotic with whiskey and the Devil, as if the endless wastes were just the place to find a boatload of trouble - woman trouble, liquor trouble, money trouble, government trouble, uncle trouble, God trouble - anything for which one might require the services of a lunatic. He pulled off at Exit 102, drove two miles into god-awful Rock Springs and stopped at a Conoco Minimart on the north end of a little strip mall that featured a few other essentials of American Capitalism including a Naughty & Nice lingerie shop, a liquor store, a check cashing service & bail bond, and a tattoo parlor. The gas pump played Musak to the more or less total desolation of Wyoming and a little sign by the pump handle disclosed that the fuel island was under “constant video surveillance” which seemed like the most wonderful overkill out there. Well that’s nothing knew, he thought, these hicks don’t know the first thing about surveillance, I could tell them a thing or two, I’ve been under more or less constant surveillance since the day I was born. He filled his tank with premium and when he walked inside to pay he spotted the coffee bar. The man in front of him smoked unabashedly and looked like he’d been dragged behind a train for thirty miles. He slapped his list of to-do’s on the counter, then fumbled in his wallet for bills. Kyle read the list: “Jim Bean, Lotto.” He read it again and smiled, suddenly and inexplicably delighted.

Life, really, was so simple.

When the clerk handed the man his lucky ticket he said, “Awright I’m gon take the got-dam thang outside and stomp on it and speet on it.”

“Haw haw,” said the clerk.

He pinched the cigarette with his fingertips, slipped it carefully into his shirt pocket and said, “Cuz you know it jest like a woomen, the worse you treat it the more love you git.”

“Haw haw oh you get lots a love, Jonny” said the attendant. “We can see that.”

Eighty-five cents bought a big cup of crude black coffee. He added a goodly amount of white sugar and powdered cream substitute, stirred it well, snapped on a top, grabbed a small handful of napkins against high speed cattle-on-the-highway swerve spills and got back into his car. He popped off the top to smell the appalling concoction and began sipping. It was delicious. He again set sail across the Vast West and the drug reached his arteries in ten miles. He threw on John Coltrane’s Olatunji Concert and cranked it up. The sun screamed down upon the crown of his head and Coltrane’s saxophone made his little red car a charging elephant the middle of nothing and he kicked the European turbocharger and shouted and sang at the top of his lungs. He huffed and slurped the bad coffee, sang and shouted some more, and wondered what had taken him so long. “I can see clear on out to the Cumberland Gap,” he yelled at cattle past which he shot like a fiery Chinese missile. “Surely there is a god! When do I start missing my children? When does all the bad shit come down upon my head!”

When he finished the coffee he tossed the cup out the sunroof. Well I’ve never done that before, either, he said to himself.


He realized some months later how fortunate he had been to avoid detection and arrest, much less instantaneous death, during his high-speed flight across Wyoming.

The chaos of Olatunji resolved to coherence and majesty, as he hoped his own life would, and when it ended he drove in silence for several miles.

Then he chose Jenny Toomey’s Antidote, an imaginative double album that celebrated the irresistibly hopeless state of American heterosexual love.

He made several new acquaintances in his sudden highway community.

When a line of semi’s passed him downhill he got stuck behind an enormous recreational vehicle with Jesus fish plastered all over the back and a sticker that said “Retired and Loving It.” Hate energy issued in malignant green astral bursts from the beige behemoth and as he pulled alongside he saw that it was driven by glowering old people. They did not seem like they were loving anything, least of all each other in their rolling American hell. “Long enough,” he yelled. “Long enough!” He passed an elderly gentleman in the only new automobile he saw, a silver Cadillac with Colorado plates that read “Ex Lax.” He drove in so relaxed and elegant a manner that Kyle would have bet a considerable sum that he was legally drunk. A pickup from Nevada pulled a horse trailer with a sticker featuring a bucking bronco, an airborne rider, and the words “Let’s Dance.” The cowboys inside stared straight ahead and did not move a muscle, stoic and archetypal. They all wore Stetsons and had big mustaches and he admired them like he was supposed to. They made him momentarily proud to be a westerner but he had so little in common with them that they may as well have been goat herders from Kafiristan. A young white woman in a white Mustang convertible with the top up and the back window ripped out and a small white poodle that bounced from seat to seat and stickers that read “Back Off I’m a Goddess” and “Jailbait” passed him at blazing speed, then slowed down until they were even. He gave her a good look. She was a Goddess all right, a tremendously fat one, and in two seconds she shot off again. Her face was layered with so much makeup that he could not imagine what she really looked like. She teased him from Rawlings to Laramie, passing him and smiling, flashing the two-fingered “victory” sign, then slowing down and smiling and flashing again as he passed her. Five miles from Laramie an unseen skinny girl jumped halfway out the back window and scared him so badly that he swerved onto the shoulder and almost lost control. She pulled down the neck of her T-shirt, rolled her tongue and mouthed the word “nas-tay” three times, then fell in a laughing heap back to the floorboards. The Goddess herself laughed so tremendously that he could hear her above the roar of the slipstream. She pulled off at the first Laramie ramp and waved goodbye with her hand above her roof.

Billboards: Painless Vasectomies, then Guaranteed Vasectomy Reversals; “Hey, Trucker!”; Winston Churchill flashing another two-fingered victory sign with the injunction: “Never Give Up.” New spray-on tans, apparently a social requirement in Asscrack, Wyoming; HUGE PORTIONS; Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi. Then, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi; Tires Tires Tires Tires Tires Tires Tires Tires; Bible Bible Bible Bible Bible Bible Bible; a hamburger so big he wondered that a human could eat it all; Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Diet Pepsi SEE LIVE RATTLESNAKES/PET THE BABY PIGS/ROSCOE THE MINIATURE DONKEY/2-HEADED COW a Look but Don’t Touch strip show for long-haulers that described his life to a T - Skypilot and The Pusherman squabbling over the same little flock in a titanic struggle of iron will and abominable taste.

The Ugliness of America was unrestrained, hopeful, vigorous, without malice, endearing, deplorable. Oh our blessed blessed lives, he thinks. Think Bangledesh. Think Sudan.

He passed twelve German sports sedans with Utah plates between Laramie and Cheyenne, and not one person in any of those cars smiled at him. He noticed that a few wore driving gloves and all seemed to take themselves very seriously. He decreased his speed and fell behind the last car which had a large American flag glued oxymoronically next to the German manufacturer’s emblem. The Luftewaffa continued east at the junction of interstates 80 and 25 and he took this as a divine recommendation to alter his trajectory. He veered south onto Interstate 25 and headed for Denver.

Late summer cumulonimbi gathered silently on the oriental horizon and flowered to the very edge of space, pavillioned kingdoms of crimson, azure, a thousand grays and lightening far above his head that floated placidly across the Great Plains and from the sunlight cut dark shadows that were themselves big as cities. He drove automatically, breathing deeply and slowly through his vast and implacable desert of worthlessness and fear, pushing and stretching the clear plastic envelope that was his dear Mormon life. Humanity, he saw now, was irrelevant and irreplaceable, infinitely precious, a microscopic layer of intent that surrounded earth like an atmosphere. Thousands of small black birds swarmed across the highway in a shifting elliptical flock with smooth edges that stayed perfectly intact with each sudden, poetic change in direction. He found Sun Ra’s Fate In A Pleasant Mood in the pile on the passenger’s seat and slid it into the CD player. Let the car drive itself his father had told him, and that is how he drove, one hand low and softly on the wheel to provide only the slightest direction. It was the only good advice his father had ever given him and he made the most of it, thank you, Dad. I am slowly awakening from a nightmare, he thought. I am the starship Nostromo and if I’d read Freud I might have some idea what all this means. Our long lonely voyages across the galaxy while Earth destroys herself will feel just like this. He thought he would move as far into the Lush & Dangerous East as he must to break through, though he knew the membrane was strong and would not easily yield. He’d satisfied his university electives with music theory and performance classes. He ran scales every day, and wrote charts for jazz quartet, he did not know how good. Carolyn hated his music and would not let him practice in the house so he blew the trumpet in his red Saab with the windows rolled up.

He rented a room at a dingy Motel 8 in north metro Denver, urinated, then fell asleep for nine straight hours on top of the bed.


He left as soon as he woke up and continued southerly, spotting downtown Denver from ten miles away. He took the 20th exit and drove east into the bright busy city. At Coors Field he turned right on a street called Wazee basically because it was called Wazee and moved slowly past tony new lofts and beautiful century-old red brick warehouses set off classically against a pearl-blue sky until he saw a coffeehouse named Common Grounds on the corner of 17th. Why not, he thought, I have nowhere else to go. The shop was crowded with Denver’s young new-economy elite and he felt right at home. He finished two cups of Costa Rican Terrazu, ate a cranberry muffin, bought two more plus a banana and ate everything, then went outside into brilliant sun for a walk, going east on seventeenth, then back to Wazee and south to fifteenth, then back up Wazee again to Common Grounds. Jax Fish House occupied most of the ground floor of a building that stretched half a block south along 17th from Wazee; above were offices and lofts. The Jax sign was yellow lettering on a green background and the lettering was constructed in the subtle shape of a fish. Within the Wazee Street window was a small neon that spelled “shrimps” and looked to him like it came from Louisiana. The building was plum and black and had awnings and ironwork on the ground, and shared 17th with a men’s clothier, a cleaners, a restaurant that had actually been three different restaurants in the last four years, an architect, a Russian art gallery that he would come to believe was a front for the Russian Mafia, a spa & salon in a lovely old white building you could see all the way through from east to west, a very nice hotel, an ugly modern called the Sugar Beet building and a flophouse. He saw a small sign advertising an efficiency on an upstairs Jax window. Its maker had given it the shape of a beehive. He borrowed a phone at Common Grounds and called the number. Ten minutes later a waitress from Jax let him into an immaculate room with plank floors, a small gas stove, waist-high refrigerator, and four large windows, two on Seventeenth and two on Wazee. A bathroom and closet shared the same tiny space.

For no sound reason he leased it for six months, the minimum. That afternoon he bought a futon, sheets and towels, a folding table and folding chair, a few pots and pans, a very nice plate and cup at a ceramics shop on Larimer street, a knife, fork, spoon, and groceries.


Next morning he sat in the sun at a sidewalk table in front of Common Grounds’ 17th Street windows with another cup of Terrazu and sheets of music he had written in Salt Lake City. Through the glass he could see that ambitious red geraniums had taken over the sills and part of the floor; Sonny Stitt played through the propped-open door and he liked it very much. He wasn’t doing anything with the charts but they were good company and, anyway, he wouldn’t look idle at his table, a sin of considerable proportions in the world from which he had traveled. The street hummed with self-absorbed young professionals who hardly gave him a glance.

A shadow fell across his table and he looked up. “Hello, Exile,” she said. “It’s your lucky day. You think I’m a prostitute, don’t you? Deus ex Machina – here I am!” She spread her arms and smiled broadly.

She was tall, flaxen-haired and angular in the manner of Leslie Stahl and Candice Bergen, comfortable in sandals, faded Levis and a snug sleeveless pullover. She jerked back the only other chair at his small table, sat down, folded her supple legs and tapped on a pack of French cigarettes.

“I only smoke two or three a day,” she said. “And, they have filters. That’s not so bad, is it?”

He leaned back and looked at her and, a little high with the Terrazu, wondered what this was. He took off his glasses and swung them around a little. In a moment he said, “A thousand cigarettes a year? I’d say that’s not so good.”

“You sound like a Mormon.”

“That’s because I am.”

“That’s what I thought.”


“I live upstairs, too. I read your rental application.”

“They show that to the other tenants?”

“I’m the only other tenant.”

“Still –“

“And,” she lit the cigarette and took a short pull to get it started, “I own the fish house. I am they.”


She pulled luxuriously and rapturously on the cigarette, casting her pale blue eyes heavenward and holding her breath for several seconds. “What are you doing here? Don’t Mormons usually go to Disneyland?” She smiled just short of laughter and watched his face, her own enwreathed in deliberately ascending smoke.

“So I hear.”

“In Utah you have a critical mass of uncritical people. In a word, zombies.”

He regarded her closely for a moment and said, “You’re Mormon, too. Aren’t you?”

“Well I’m not Falun Gong,” she laughed. She drew from the smoking cigarette and tipped a little ash to the sidewalk. “Once a certain number if people start believing something and have a million kids it takes on a life of its own. Then there’s no stopping it.”

“A generous appraisal.”

“I do what I can.”

“And the Gospel?” he asked, moving directly to a point that suddenly seemed important.

“What about it?”

“That’s my question.”

“Well,” she said, taking another draw, “I don’t know you at all. If I tell you what I think you might get mad and shun me.”

“Probably not.”

“Jesus is lord. We must obey. White people are marvelous.”

He laughed and said, “The short version.”

“Standard Nineteenth Century revivalist hu-ha with a few Indians and aliens thrown in.”

“You mean ‘angels.’”

“I mean aliens.”

“That’s interesting.”

“Have you ever seen an angel?”


“Neither has anybody else. Now we have more options. We can see aliens. Another word: Roswell.”

“Have you ever seen an alien?”

“No, but a friend did. She gave a very convincing account. And proof.”

“Which was?”

“Three small triangles punched in her wrist.”

“You saw them?”

“I sure did.”

“She made them herself.”


“Well then?”

“We are temples not made with hands.” She held her own hands palm-up toward him. “Even our hands aren’t made with hands. That’s obvious.”

“Heaven, hell….?”

“All right here, darling.” She waved her cigarette around their space.

“I’ll go that far with you.”

“Some of our people think these are the Last Days.”

“What do you think?”

“Honey, the last days come every day for some people. I believe its called death.”

“I don’t think that’s what it means.”

“We realize we’re going to die. Of course we cook something up. Myself, I remain optimistic despite the evidence.”

(Instantly in his mind’s eye he perceived entire galaxies of Mormons rotating grandly around the axis of a God who only wanted more and more, one Lordly Whole, complete and entire until the End of Time. Here and there a star shot off into vacant space and began the process all over again, from which still others hurled themselves into darkness to reproduce, magnify and revolve, filling every corner of the boundless void, all inexorably subsumed into God’s Unimaginable Machine. The very core of this looked suspiciously like a kaleidoscope and made him dizzy. He could not tell how long the vision lasted. He closed his eyes so tightly that electricity streaked over his pupils. He shook his head and blinked. She was still talking.)

“Denver on the other hand is just plain dumb” – she waved her cigarette across the street. “Twenty miles out of town you may as well be in the Ozarks. Then there’s Boulder. One day up there and you’re nostalgic for patriarchy.”

“Nostalgic?” he asked. “Nostalgic for what?”

“I tell the truth, that’s all. It’s a curse. What will you do here?”

He took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. He looked around himself, then at her. Nothing had changed. “What?”

“What will you do here?”

“Learn trumpet.”

She had a good laugh. “That’s original. Why don’t you play the guitar like everyone else?”

“I’m not everyone else.”

“Eric Clapton plays guitar.”

“So I hear.”

“It’s good enough for him.”

“I suppose it is.”

“He’s white, you know.”

“I know.”

“There are actually professors of trumpet running around. Ph.D’s.”

“There are.”

“It’s amazing. That little horn. How much could there be?” She waved her cigarette around again. He could see that waving was a habit. “I’ve always considered great jazz musicians a cross between mathematicians and chefs. You didn’t leave your nice Mormon wife did you?”

“Who are you?”

“If I didn’t know better I’d say you just left you nice Mormon wife. You have that look. I’ve seen it before. This is interesting.”

“For you maybe.”

“So did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Leave your nice Mormon wife?”

“And if I did?” He rubbed his eyes and blinked again.

“What does she do?”

“You mean, ‘What did she do’”?

“Oh we’ll get to that.”

He shook his head again and said slowly, “In a way she’s a mother. More importantly she’s a lawyer.”

“Uh oh,” she said. “We’re getting close.”

“No worries.” He swished his Terrazu appreciatively, then drank it down. “I didn’t want anything anyway.”

“That’s good. Because that’s what you’re going to get. Who does she work for, if I might ask?”

“Her father’s firm.”

“Uh oh.”

He pronounced the names precisely and spaced them conspicuously: “Bringhurst – Merrill - Sturdiman - Taft.”

Before he finished she had choked on her cigarette, doubled over, coughed explosively, shot back up and shouted, “That’s it? That’s all you got?”

He squinted and tried to comprehend. He shook his head. “What? What?”

“Well Good God, man, you’re not even trying!”

“What are you talking about?”

She put her left hand over her mouth and offered her right.

“Leslie Bringhurst. But you know this already. Is he paying you or is this a ‘calling’?” She made quotation marks with her fingers.

“Paying me for what?

“Spying! Of course!”


“My father.”

He slumped back in his chair and felt some life go out of him. “You’ve got to be kidding!”

“I’m definitely not kidding.”

“I left home. I told you!”

“So this just happened? You - here?” She laughed out loud.

He shrugged. “I guess so.”

She said, “I knew you were coming. I don’t know for sure you’re a spy, but what else, really?” She took a long drag on her cigarette. “The point is, I knew.” She paused a moment and said, “You saw the sign in the sign, didn’t you?”

“The beehive?”

“Just for you!” She clapped her hands. “Do you want to know how I knew?”


“I had a dream.”

He dismissed her with a gesture and made sure she saw him looking at the smoking tip of her cigarette. She shook it at him and said, “This means nothing. I’ve paid it forward. I could shoot heroin and I’d still be good. You don’t know.”

“Maybe you don’t know.”

She waved him off and coughed blue smoke. “Your cover’s blown, Jethro. Give it up.”

“I left my wife. Believe it or not, I really don’t care.”

She observed him quietly for a full minute, pushed her blond hair back over her head.



“Then how in hell did you end up here?”

He shrugged. “A left turn, a right turn. I don’t know. I thought you did.”

“Bringhurst, Merrill, Sturdiman & Taft.” She paused philosophically. “All four of those guys are Presidents, one kind or another, you know, in the Church? They’re president-crazy. Presidents all over the place.”

She flipped what was left of the French cigarette into the street and stood up. “We can’t smoke or drink but fat and stupid is no problem, God doesn’t seem to mind at all. Clarify that for me, Elder Kyle.”

“I wish I could.”

“I’ll be right back. Then you’ve got some questions to answer. Boy do you have some questions to answer.” She shook her head and looked far away, over the tall buildings. “The X-Files.”

“I’m not spying on you.”

“I don’t believe in coincidence.” She bunched her hands into fists and tucked them under her chin. “I half believe you.”

“You should all the way believe me.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“No comment.”

“Am I losing my mind? It’s happened before.”


“Spies. And losing my mind.”

“Well it’s not happening now.” He laughed a little and said to nobody in particular, “Do I have a sign on my face?”

An obese woman with green lightening bolts tattooed beneath both eyes and the words “GYPSY WIND” printed on her right arm walked by. She wore a black robe and a bicycle chain around her neck, and was accompanied by a dark man with ebony pirate eyes, a red bandanna and a wooden flute.

“Elder,” she said, “I don’t think we’re in Utah anymore.”

He laughed and she said, “A left turn, a right turn.

“A left turn, a right turn.”

She shook her head.“I can hardly believe it, that’s all.”


She bounced across Seventeenth in long, graceful strides that belied, he thought, her more or less constant smoking, and was out of sight in fifteen seconds. He wondered whether he’d just experienced genius, another dose of the extraordinary state of Twenty-First Century American womanhood, an act of God, or sheer serendipity, which, as far as he was concerned, was an act of God. Both Wazee and Seventeenth swam with females, many adulterously clothed and precipitating little sidewalk sensations. I am a hick with my dark-eyed looking, he thought, aware that he was caught in asceticism so involuntary, persistent and painful that it might be genetic. He could not imagine how others lived - a good indicator, he knew, of a big problem.

Ten minutes later she reappeared carrying a large parcel.

“Canvas. Three of them. I don’t stretch my own. Got enough to do.” She sat down again. “Are you looking at the girls?”

“Excuse me?”

“Everybody’s a supermodel. These bitches are capable of anything. Keep that in mind.”

“Oh I will.”

“They believe in hydration, that’s about it. Talk to one sometime, you’ll see.” She pointed to her head. “Nothing in there. You wonder how they get a driver’s license.”

He pointed to the canvas: “Do you paint?”

“I do.”

“What do you paint?”

“Whatever I want.”

“That doesn’t tell me much.”

“And that’s OK. We’re loafers and subversives until we make it. Then we’re little Da Vinci’s. There’s not much middle ground.”

“Do you show?”

“I do.”

“Is this your living?”

“Let’s put it this way: Anything with a woman on her back and her legs in the air sells in forty-eight hours. But it’s rarely what I feel like painting.”

“Well I admire your principles.”

“You haven’t seen the rest of my work.”

“Actually, I haven’t seen any of your work.”

“There’s a book,” she said. “The Artists Way. If you work like hell, really throw yourself into it, the universe meets you halfway and you succeed. It’s a guide. Maybe you should read it.”

“Is it true?”

“The artist’s way is humiliation and failure.”

“Then why should I read it?”

“You’ll know what kind of thinking to avoid. Very important.”

“Have you failed?”

“Oddly, no, but not because of anything the universe did, believe me.” She lit a cigarette.

“I thought you only smoked two or three a day.”

“You make me nervous. This is serious.” She took a deep draw and said, “But I’m going to quit. Next week. You’ll see. I’m already taking vitamins and drinking olive oil. I’ve been thinking about our conversation.”

“We met because I turned right in Cheyenne. That’s all. I came to Denver instead of following a posse of BMW assholes across the Great Plains. This isn’t Fate or Prayer if that’s what you’re getting at.” He leaned back. “What are you getting at?”

“I had a dream,” she said. “I can’t explain it.”

“Did you see me?” He pointed redundantly to himself.

“Not exactly.”

“What, then?”

“Seagulls and crickets. I’m not kidding. I knew something was going to happen. So I made the sign. Here you are.” She tossed the cigarette into the street. “You are freshly arrived from SLC, darling. You don’t know how to act or what to say. Everything looks so big when you blow in from the sticks.” She patted his hand and squeezed it, then leaned across the table and whispered, “But it’s thrilling, isn’t it, in this day and age, in this awful place, to have some woman you don’t even know not only strike up a conversation but actually sit at your table. And in Denver, He’s not always looking over your shoulder.” She tilted her jaw toward the sun. “Kind of a relief, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Now,” she asked, “what else will you tell me about your wife?”

“Nothing. What’s the point?”

“The wrong people are so fantastically boring. That’s why they’re wrong. My god it’s like dining with corpses. So perhaps she’s right on that one.”



“I didn’t tell you that. How would you know?”

“Oh darling,” she said, “I know a 400 pound transvestite named Ed. I’ve seen it all.”

“Her right people were the wrong ones for me. In Salt Lake everyone’s boring, in case you’ve forgotten. Of course you seem to think I’m a hillbilly, too.”

“You didn’t leave your wife because you’re gay, did you?”

He laughed and shook his head. “Not even close.”

“OK, stupid question. May I ask why you left your wife? If you really left your wife. I am assuming you left your wife….”

“Thank you.”

….. and that you arrived to confirm a dream from a god I barely believe in.”

“Seagulls and crickets?”

“Oh come on. We’re family, same little hive.” She made wings with her hands and a buzzing noise.

He laughed and said, “She has a boyfriend. He might not even know. An Authority’s son.”

“A crush! President Merrill’s married daughter has a crush! Oh Oh Oh!” She squeezed her hands together, dipped her head between her legs and blew like a whale.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying this.”

“Ouch! Ouch! Oh that’s big medicine. You know, life is different at that altitude since the beginning. Back in the day” – she lit another cigarette – “she could have been married to both of you at once.” She took a long draw and blew the smoke out in a rush. “Of course you would have been number two. I think that’s called sloppy seconds.”

“I didn’t hear that.”

“But you’ve only told me a tiny little bit of your story…”

“A mere fragment...”

“…from a long sad tale.”

“…a mismatch from the start. We didn’t begin well. It’s not her fault.”

“That’s magnanimous.”

“I have nothing to lose.”

“And that’s honest.” She sat up in her chair and folded her arms. “Can I tell you something?”

“Why not?”

“I like you.”


“I’m serious.”

“I can tell.”

“That’s not good?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Do you think I go around telling men ‘I like you’?”

“I have no idea what you do.”

“Well I don’t.”

“I’ll have to believe you.”

“I’m also considering the possibility that you’re not a spy.”

“Thank you – again.”

“That’s a big leap for me.”

A tall man jogged past their table wearing modern wraparound sunglasses that gave his face the proportions of a Peruvian constrictor. For an instant Kyle wondered why the man had not gotten better advice during his selection of eyewear. Perhaps he was alone. Perhaps he had no one. He felt terrible for the unknown man and his distorted face and looked after him until he passed. He sat very still, and for a moment considered the distance from the red geraniums in the coffee shop window to the mighty and delicate billow of the ivory anvil cloud he felt manifesting ominously over the plains, almost to Kansas.

Then, to his utter astonishment and dismay, he wept. He held his coffee-stained napkin against his nose and eyes but it quickly saturated. Leslie moved her chair next to his and gently rubbed his back and neck. She got up for more napkins, then wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly for several minutes, holding her head next to his with great tenderness, oblivious of the pedestrians crossing before them.

“Oprah says it’s OK now for an older woman to marry a younger man,” she said softly. “Maybe your wife saw the show. Of course, maybe she’s younger than The Son. In that case never mind. Oh god I’m stupid. I’m just really upset, that’s all. I don’t know what the hell’s going on. Here you are! What are you doing here? Get lots of sleep and take vitamins. Look five times before you cross the street. Knock on my door if you’re in trouble, even if it’s 3 a.m. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She left him with a pile of dry napkins, strode across Wazee and past the front of the fish house, then disappeared down Seventeenth. He dried his eyes, blew his nose, gathered his few belongings and went for a walk.


He woke up at 2 a.m., felt good, neither fearful nor lonely in his bare, womanless room. He wondered if he had already cried her out of his heart, if there was only that small amount of grief, two days of widely intermittent tears, hardly the magnum opus of anguish he had expected. All that suffering and unhappiness had turned out to be just suffering and unhappiness, certainly no memorandum from God or the Cosmos. Long years, two children, a poor ending. The soft sounds of the great city sleeping drifted though his windows with a cool breeze, a gentle roar that came from everywhere. Crickets sang in unison, and along Wazee and 17th an upper floor window was open here and there. In the splendid isomorphic August night he imagined Mars so close and so red, and watched sleek jets high and fast, with flashing lights red and green in perfect digital trajectories, then airliners drifting on a soft black sky from Kansas City and looping slowly around Denver to touchdown. He made a great effort to see and hear, to peer into the nirvanic center of that very moment. Maybe this itself is nirvana, he wondered, the night, Denver, the jets, the sky. He considered the painless and unconscious ways he could expire and waited for the brief reality of that moment to dissolve or at least be revealed for the sham it was. It was not a sham. He’d left the shotgun in the Saab. Then he fell asleep again.


“Paris it’s not,” she said, pulling out the same seat. “Jesus Christ! Three shitty little tables and six chairs. No trees, no awnings, no shade. See what I mean about dumb? I’ll look like eighty-three in a month sitting out here. It’s like an x-ray machine. Well the coffee’s good. I feel like the 8th Circle of Death until I’ve had a cup. You were snoring like a duck in there. I heard you through the wall.”

“I was really tired.”

“What did you do this morning?”

“I walked all over the city. It was wonderful.” He leaned back and regarded this female unabashedly, the first woman he’d really looked at since Carolyn. They were so different, Carolyn all soft curves and deception, the next thing to untouchable; Leslie complex and classic, obviously jeopardized in ways he could only imagine. Her chiseled face was a cliché of secrets. He could not guess her age.

“Thirty-four, in case you’re wondering,” she said. “And what did you see out there?” Her tone was both condescending and tender.

“Ballerinas for one thing, at 13th and Lincoln. When I walked by they were smoking. Two hours later I passed the other way and they were at it again. The same ones! I’ve never seen so much smoking. It’s worse than Japan.”

“Of course you’d pick that up. Ballerinas smoke everywhere, darling. It’s how they stay thin. Do you think they don’t eat?”

“I thought they just danced, actually. That’s not enough?”

“Have you ever smoked?”


“Never even tried it?”


“A virgin,” she said. “Let me show you how.”

“Thank you, thank you Lucifer, but no.”

“Oh come on. The tribes smoked tobacco as a ceremonial drug. It doesn’t work like that if you use it all the time. Then it’s just a drug and not a very good one, though it does keep you thin as we’ve discussed. But once in a great while – oh boy. I miss that. Don’t worry child, I won’t let you get hooked.” She tapped a cigarette from the Gauloises pack and handed it to him. “Two or three little puffs. Consider this your homeopathic dose of sin. After this you’ll be immune to everything. Even me.”

He turned it over and over in his hands and smelled the tobacco through the paper - yet another unknown world. His heart beat. He imagined this is how he would feel right before he had sex with a strange woman – at this point literally any woman on earth, including Carolyn.

“I must look vulnerable.”

“Has anybody ever taken advantage of you?”

“That depends how you look at it.”

“It’s thrilling. Let’s give it a try.”

He put the filter to his lips and she reached smiling across the table with her lighter. He tentatively drew a little smoke into his mouth, then looked both ways on the sidewalk. They were alone. He felt like a teenager.

He leaned back in his chair and drew one moderate pull into his lungs and did not cough. He did this twice more then sat back and waited.

A series of soft detonations shifted his brain in his skull. Neurosis and inhibition evaporated, replaced by a smooth unknown ardor, reaching and indiscriminate. He sat awed for several minutes and savored a revolutionary perspective. He was completely unafraid.

She took a draw from her own. “You can’t know how much anxiety you carry until you smoke one of these.”

“How long does it last?”

“Seven minutes. Once every two years. If you light up again tomorrow it’s going to be nothing, like you’ve two-packed it your whole life. Thus the wisdom of Native America.”

“Those people,” he said. “I love them.”

“Do you feel like crying again?”

“Yes, but this time for the Tribes.”

She laughed and then flicked her own cigarette into the street. “That’s the herb talking my friend. I’m going to quit. You’re right, a thousand a year is way too much. That’s what happens.”

She stood up. “It’s a good lesson. Little things add up. Little good things or little bad things. Then someday it’s very good or very bad. It’s called time, I believe.”

He dropped his own barely smoked cigarette still smoking into the gutter and followed it with a hastily gathered gob of spit.

“Sorry. That’ll do it for me. Thanks for the memories. I’ve got a graduate degree. I served a mission to Japan. I made lots of software money. I married a beautiful woman in the Salt Lake temple.”

His mouth tasted awful and this time he spit way out in the street.

“Excuse me. I have two healthy, intelligent kids. I live in a house so high on the East Bench I’m practically an astronaut. My life is over. Finished. There goes your theory.”

She sat back down. “You’re still young. Actually, I’m still young. By twenty-first century standards.”

“Not enough time?”

“Maybe not.”

“It’s sure adding up for me.” He spit again. “Excuse me.” He held out his arms like an airplane. “I’m flying!”

“Ten years ago I was a happily married woman. Or so I thought. A Mormon woman if you can imagine. We were visiting my auntie in St. George, my father’s much older sister. We slept on the front room floor in bags. At three o’clock I heard something and woke up. My eternal companion was doing something I will not describe with one hand and doing something I will likewise not describe with the other. One of auntie’s mantle figurines was involved, a yellow fish if I remember correctly. I could not imagine. He was arching his back and making little noises. At the time it was beyond my comprehension. My mind did a somersault. I just sat there and watched.” She shook her head and laughed.

“Thus the gay question. No clues, huh?”

“Oh sure. Disinterested in bed. But aren’t you all past a point, chasing the holy buck. I figured it was normal. A year after we married we did the delayed honeymoon thing on Naxos. His father paid for it. We were there five days. He disappeared for two or three hours every afternoon while I read. Said he needed to walk on the beach. To think and get a little workout. He told me he did pushups on the sand.” She made a pumping gesture with her fists upturned at her hips. “He wasn’t doing pushups but he was getting his workout all right.”

She looked far away, rubbed her eyes wearily and thought for a minute. “God I hate existentialism. Especially when it’s the theme of a movie. If you’re not French don’t give me that shit. Existentialism from Hollywood. Can you imagine!”

“What are you talking about?”



“I don’t know.”

“What is it”?



“You’re kidding.”

He sighed and spit again. “Maybe I’m still tired. I should know this.”

“I’ll bet that’s it. You’re also still high. You’ll remember in the morning.” She stretched her long white arms above her head, smiled at him and said, “Joseph won all those wrestling matches on the Mississippi River, didn’t he?”

He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “What are you talking about?”

“Joseph Smith!”

“Where did that come from?”

“I don’t know.”

He bent slightly at the waist, buried his face in his hands and said to no one in particular, “Oh God.”


Next morning he stood at the entrance of Kolachny Music on Broadway until it opened. An hour later he had traded in his amateur trumpet for a twenty-one hundred sixty dollar b-flat Martin Committee model number T3460, plus a new mute, two extra mouthpieces in 5C and 10½C, stands for both sheet music and trumpet, a cleaning kit, a tube of slide grease, two bottles of valve oil, and Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book. The clerk assured him that his old horn would be refurbished and sold to a young person on the very cusp of the art who would be grateful for its history and good vibrations. He stepped outside smiling, clasping the case and a bag, into the blinding sunshine and his beautiful impossible task.


He stopped at Gart’s Sports on Broadway and bought a rod, brush, swab, solvent and oil for the twenty-gauge. At a drugstore he bought a shaving brush. It was the best tool for applying oil in the tight spots.


Leslie called to him before he reached the fish house door. She crossed 17th carrying three more canvasses, out of breath. She motioned toward the case: “What is it?”

“A good trumpet.”

“Ah ha,” she observed. She lowered the canvas to the sidewalk and daubed her forehead with her sleeve. “A good sign. You’re serious.”

He stepped a foot from her face, studied her lips, nose, eyes and softly said, “You crawled under the fence yourself.”

“As if you weren’t ready for this.”


“Free at last, free at last! Good God almighty you’re free at last!” Her laugh was low and deep. “Are you terrified or does it feel wonderful yet?”

“I’m scared to death. Sometimes I think I’m going to die. Actually physically die.”

“You won’t,” she said. “I won’t let you.”


He climbed the trembling stairs to the little room full of hope and fear. He did not care about anything but this. The precise gleaming instrument felt like a soul in his arms, or an altar to Jehovah, the very throat of an angel, this instrument that had descended one hundred years before into sordid and despicable American nightclubs to make blood music, which is another name for the music of God. He would do the same with all intent and resolution. He did not feel unholy or foolish to chase that dream, or that feeling, or, more accurately, that variety of internal atmosphere that usually manifests itself in the image of a beautiful woman or high, dark continental weather or Ocean. His Mormons had once cast charms and spells; with talisman, rod and stone they hunted treasure by the yellow light of the moon. He would do the same. When he boiled it down he saw he had nothing better to do, no worthier objective to pursue, nothing that obsessed and delighted him more than this hopeless task, what a man could make from thin air with a horn. He was struggling, he knew, to stay within that narrow band of reality – between that which could be, and that which could not. Behold the filthiness of the world, he thought as he laid the trumpet on his bed and gently closed the latches of the case. What flower can we grow in this fine soil?

pd mallamo’s fiction has lately appeared in Barcelona Review, Construction and Sunstone. He holds degrees from Brigham Young and the University of Kansas, and lives in Taos, New Mexico.
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