Happy Friday and Happy New Year, reader. Wherever you are in the world, whether it’s in the greatest nation on Earth–Thailand–or elsewhere, you’re probably in some form or another…locked down. If so, here’s something to distract you momentarily–the last few pages of my un-asked-for and unwanted novel, The Suburbs of Babylon. If you missed the previous installment, you can find it by scrolling down my blog’s homepage.
“When I woke up the next morning, my beautiful companion was gone. There was a note by the bed that said simply “Thank you” and nothing more to prove she was ever there. A second later the boys called, said they were still at the Rio gambling and would be home in an hour or so. I told them I was leaving and I’d see them back in L.A. in a couple days. They asked if I was OK. I said I was fine. They asked if I got laid. I said I got something better.
On my way out, I stopped for a few games of Blackjack. The dealer’s name was Maude, a lady in her fifties who had a motherly quality I couldn’t resist. We chatted. I told her a bit about my experiences from the last few days. About my angelic visitor the night before, about my epiphanies concerning the future and about a soul mate lost somewhere in the world. She said that that kind of love was worth waiting for. I told her I’d been feeling off and on like I needed to get away, go on a long trip. She hinted that maybe that was God trying to tell me that the woman of my dreams was someone I’d have to go looking for. That maybe I’d have to use every resource and talent at my disposal to catch her, and that if I did, I’d best hang on tight, jump in feet first, and be ready to hand my heart over to a new owner for life. I said I wasn’t sure I had my heart to give. She said I’d better get it back and stop giving it out to “any idiot with a pretty face and a perky butt.” I thought that was good advice, and was so engrossed in the conversation I almost let her win all my money. But on the last hand I doubled down and won ninety bucks, and knew that was the moment to pick up and head out. I said good-bye and thank you to Maude, and sent the valet to get Loretta.
Waiting for the car, I began to think of L.A. and what I was returning to. I thought of my answering machine light blinking, and knew that the person returning those calls would not be the same one that had returned them before. And the words I would speak would hardly be recognizable to her, and there would be a change. A renewing. Or a recovering.
Driving out of Vegas in the noonday sun, I was struck by how unlike my life the last few days had been. At first I attributed it to luck, then switched to the thought that maybe I’m getting better looking, and that’s why I’d been given so much attention. But then I thought of the blind girl, who seemed to sense something in me apart from the aesthetic. Then I just shoved it all away, not wanting to analyze it for once, content to let the road of life even out its snags and run before me on the black pavement, a broken line to mark the way. The life I knew had slipped. Had hiccupped, and landed me on my feet in a semi-daze, lost between what I knew and what I’d always hoped for, like a dream becoming real, or a song finding its melody. I almost didn’t recognize myself, my thoughts, the sound of my voice. Like an out-of-body experience out of someone else’s body. A personality so like mine, but so mis-fitting, so lacking in all the negative colors I’d always displayed, like I was becoming something else, shedding my skin, molting into someone more vital, molding into someone more strong. Gaining an edge on the world, taking on the face of destiny.
As the desert flashed around me I looked up at the sun. At a lonely cloud passing over the Earth. It was shaped like something. It could almost be a hand, beckoning, floating away into the sky.
Did you know your father was an island? Did you know your mother was the sea?—Tears for Fears
The worm is dead, thank God for small favors. It is all he can see, the only thing his eyes will focus on in an otherwise blue-gray world. A mealworm, short and fat, lying about six inches from his nose. He can only wonder how it got there, hasn’t though yet to wonder how he got here, and then he notices the heat. His head is hot. He can’t feel the rest of him, but what he can feel from the chin up is hot. He is on his side, feeling weighed to the ground and very hot. He stares at the worm, knowing it is dead but waiting for it to move anyway. If it were to move right now he thinks he would go insane.
A hangover? He can’t recall where he’s been the last few days, or what he’s been doing, but there is a familiar smell that makes him think of bars and fights. It is a sickly sweet odor; it gives him visions of pumpkin pie and vomit. Then he makes the connection.
The worm is from a mescal bottle. The odor permeating his senses is coming from the mescal bottle that shattered when—
What? He can’t remember.
He can smell something else. Gasoline. He tries to focus on the murky light coming from beyond the worm. He tries to turn his head and finds that he cannot. He concentrates. Then the world begins to fall in. He sees a steering wheel, then a seatbelt. Beyond that are a million shimmering stars. He struggles to focus. The stars become bits of glass on a highway pavement. He is looking through a broken windshield. But something is wrong with his view. Everything is sideways. Then it comes together. He’s been in a car accident. He is in a car and the car is on its side in the middle of the highway. And a mescal bottle has broken, and the worm has come to rest a few inches from his nose.
He is lost. He knows it. He is looking inward, to that small voice, the direction-finder, to hear it tell him where he is and which way is out. But it is silent. It has shut up, or shut down. There is only a kind of giddy quiet. He stifles a laugh. He is embarrassed before the gods in this surprised instant of epiphany. He is lost. He has just found out.
He wonders how long. When did the voice start giving him bad information? Yesterday? Ten years ago? He can feel the source of the voice smirking within him. Was it lying to him this whole time? So much of his power depended on his unflinching confidence in instinct. This voice was part of that. Now it had failed.
So not only was he in a serious situation, but he was starting to doubt himself as well.
He remembered her skin, white and shimmering. The taste of it was mild. It was still on his breath. He imagined her hair, black, falling against his chest. In his mind’s eye it was damp form their sweat. He had been sweating all over. Her breath had cooled his neck, breaking it into gooseflesh. She had poured wine down her bare breasts and stomach, over her thigh, and pulled his head to it. He had tasted the liquid, tasted her skin. She had kissed his mouth, licked his lips, and smiled, to herself, he felt. Even at that moment she was leaving him.
He looks around, at the dull darkness, and waits for a voice that will not come. He thinks now that it had folded up when he kissed her (and hadn’t he known it would? Hadn’t he said to himself as he was leaning up to her, “Don’t. Wait. The darkness—“), but it had stopped giving out good information a long, long time ago. That’s the only way he could explain her. How he could have looked at her and not turned away. But it wasn’t all the fault of the voice. He had started to think he was indestructible. And why not? He had practically dared the devil to come take him, had give the bastard every chance in fact, but he was still here. The dark man. Instrument of the gods. And yet, at this moment, in a vacuum, on a flagstone of dark potential energy, he began to wonder. It all was beginning to feel like a sham. Like someone was playing him. He felt the voice, not speaking and smiling.
So that was it. He had walked into death, thinking he was so large, so fast n his feet, listening to the voice, wielding a knife, taking lives, taking love, as if he was some kind of grim reaper and therefore immune. And he had even allowed himself to think that it may have been because he sought death. After all, it was the only justifiable end. But now, as it came down around him, in the silence of the voice that brought him here, he wondered.
He opens his eyes, leaving the darkness for the light one last time, and can hear voices. Real voices. One of the voices is hers.
“I don’t give a fuck about your problems! You can take your ‘I wants’ and ‘I hopes’ and “but what about this or that’s’ and shove them up your ass. If you’re with me, then stop whimpering and get with me. But do it now, because I’m going back to Vegas, with or without you.”
“But lover, please,” another voice returns. “I’m just looking out for you, is all. I mean, this could be some serious shit. You can’t just walk away from this. I mean, people could figure out you—“
“What, Brian? Figure out what?” Softly, seducing him, hypnotizing him. “the only one alive who knows about this is you, and you’re not going to do anything to hurt me, are you?”
“Of course not, I just, you know—“
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Your love is electrifying. Now get the fucking car and let’s go before someone drives by and sees us.”
Footsteps falling away. Silence. Then the click of heels. She’s coming closer. For a moment his pulse quickens; for a moment he actually things she will help him now, in spite of what he knows. Her feet come into view. If he could lift his head higher, he’d be able to see her face, as she is standing in the frame of the broken windshield. She steps through into the car. Her foot is an inch from his face. She bends, reaching through toward him. He feels her pull his wallet from his pocket. He is staring at her foot.
Unbelievably, there is a stain on her ankle. It is wine, from the night before. When he licked it off her body. It is still there. Ridiculously, as she turns to leave, he manages to stick out his tongue and touch it to her skin. She doesn’t react. It tastes like a dream.
She turns then, and says, “Don’t think I’ll forget what you’ve done for me. You always took care of me. You gave me more than anyone ever has. But I wasn’t satisfied with you. I know I said I was, and I did think I loved you. But it all just—faded away. I know I said ‘forever’ but I want something new. If you’d have had the sense to get lost instead of reaching out to me, you wouldn’t be where you are now. So it’s your own fault.” And then she turns and walks off.
Her footsteps are drowned out by the roar of a car pulling up. A door opens. She spits an obscenity. The door closes. The car speeds away, the sound fading into the distance like a memory. He is left in the silence and the heat, unable to move. It’s just him and the worm. His eyes begin to focus on something on the far side of the road. It looks like a hand, and he realizes he can’t feel his right arm from the elbow down. He forces the thought away.
She had surprised him, but then again she hadn’t. He simply allowed himself to love in spite of the truth. She was consumed in darkness. The same darkness that spawned him. A darkness he knew well enough. Her heart was lost in some desperate, hateful, lifeless world that he told himself he could enter. He told himself he could find it, save it. The precious heart, the thing he never saw. This was the embodiment of his love. It would save her and then she would save him. He knew it wouldn’t happen. But he fell in love with the lie.
She was on a journey of self-destruction. She was given over to death will still a child. Had been driven by a blind hate ever since. He was convinced he could beat the darkness. He would beat it because he knew its game. He would use it against itself. His love was strong. Stronger than death.
She wanted to go to hell. He wanted to follow, so he could protect her. In the end, he went alone, and she went to Nevada.
* * *
He closes his eyes on the sunlight he will never see again, happy to let it go. He thinks of the fatherless child he once was, of the years of solitude when he learned about darkness, about the life that exists in the black. About killing the soul in order to bleed love from hate and turn silence into song. About hearing the voice, about the grim gods in dreams, who taught him isolation, and fear of love (real love), and light, and above all else to never ever give his heart to anyone.
Now the voice was gone, its job done, its purpose fulfilled. But the music, low and stealthy, came up over the desert. The notes met him like old friends, salutary. Emissaries to a new destination. The end of the road. The smiling gods not speaking, watching like a family photograph. He felt himself slipping; the heat of the car softening to a mild, homey, melted-chocolate-at-the-back-of-the-throat kind of feeling. Time slowed to a standstill, and it seemed to him like he’d been there for a millennium. He could look back on everything up to this point, compare it to the growing emanation before him. And then hesitated. A thought was there, in the road. Like carrion.
He had been wrong all along. The darkness didn’t protect him from anything. It all still got him in the end. He could find a grim satisfaction in watching life unfold in the midst of a dead garden as if death bowed to his will and would yield a love and a life almost as true as the light. This was a cruel joke, this unyielding truth. The ultimate truth.
But after all, there was still the music, and the silent gods, and the loneliness, and the gift of a heart to another who would take it with cold satisfaction. You can’t hold onto it, no matter how much hate you gird yourself with. No matter how many lives you take. You will love, and you will be loved and the most there will ever be is a fleeting kiss, a swell of euphoria, exultation like a taste of God, and then they are welcoming you, in silence, from the desert, out of a shattered car, a decimated life built and deconstructed in a heartbeat out of nothing and into the music, empty-handed and alone.
He passes through the darkness into a light like flames. It is not hell; the car is ablaze. The fire is so bright it blinds him. He’s leaving the catastrophe he got himself into. The fine mess. He is moving onward, into something. Someplace he can’t see. He is flying now. Totally blind.
I’ve been away too long. I know that it was wrong, but I’m coming home.–Depeche Mode
Part of me died in the desert on the way back from Vegas. Alone on the highway, speeding into the inevitable, and being overcome with a feeling, like a tap on the shoulder, and the certainty that it was all about to change. The wheel moving from an unseen hand, steering a course that no longer needed the road I was on. Loretta roaring a death cry, the angry scream of metal. And then nothing. Like the world reached out with conviction and swatted a fly, and the silence that followed was utterly satisfying, post-climactic.
You could say that God stepped out of the wings and showed Himself, and better yet, showed Himself to be in control, guiding everything, watching keenly the goings on of His little creations, saying when enough was enough and deciding it was time for something, or someone, to give.
I didn’t die, but the Dark Man, who I’ve always thought was the shadow of my lost and searching persona, met his end. Or at least, I let him go, like a bottle into the sea.
I did in fact crash Loretta, and lay for six hours in her mangled remains with a broken arm, a concussion, and three cracked ribs. In that time I hallucinated a little, contemplated a lot, and dreamed of something new. For three months I convalesced. Then when I felt strong enough, I sold all my worldly possessions, bought a laptop, an ipod, and a one way ticket to New Zealand, where I’ve taken a teaching job in a small coastal town. I’ve no idea what to expect, or what my life will become, but such trifles are less important than the act of leaving, of moving on or moving off, of saying goodbye to the here and now and starting over new somewhere else.
I’m presently sitting in my seat in the economy class section of the 747, wedged between a Welshman and a French hippy-chick. I’ve bade farewell to no one, haven’t told a soul where I’m going or even that I’m leaving. Art will be surprised. I picture him standing in the doorway of my empty bedroom with a bewildered look on his face. And as the plane increases speed and I feel the wheels lift off the tarmac, I know for the first time what it is to be alive, and to feel a sense of goodness about the future.
Wherever I end up, I hope there’s good surfing there.”
And that’s the end of the semi-coherent semi-autobiography I chose to name The Suburbs of Babylon. If you stuck with it all these many weeks, I hope you found it at least a small distraction from what most of us would agree was the worst year of our lives. Coincidentally, the events in this memoir cover some of the darkest days of my life before escaping to this Asian wonderland. Here’s to hoping for better things in 2021. Cheers.