I couldn't stand the cell phones any longer. I couldn't stand the swarms of people with phones pressed up to their ears, eyes bright with hi-tech happiness, walking and talking endlessly about nothing. When I started amusing myself by calling them "phonies," even though I'd always avoided such terms of contempt in the past, I knew I needed a change. So I took my dog and drove out into the desert, planning to stay away as long as I could.
Two hours east of the city, I came to a town I'd been to several times before. But everyone there had cell phones, so I knew I had to go further. I drove east another two hours and came to a town I'd never seen on a map, a place where all the buildings seemed to be more than a hundred years old. I parked and watched the people going up and down the town's main street. For more than an hour, I didn't see any cell phones. It looked like I was in the right place. At first I thought I should find a hotel, but I wasn't ready to be around other people, so I drove thirty miles out of town, found a hiking trail, and started walking.
The desert was filled with canyons and mesas, ringed with towering mountains. It felt good to walk with my dog in a silence broken only by the cries of circling hawks and the sound of wind. There was no need to think about what I'd left behind or what I might be doing in the future. There was no need to do anything but enjoy what I was looking at. I felt like radio music finally arriving without any static. The more I walked the better I felt. The sky was blue enough to drink. But finally I needed shelter from the sun, so I called my dog and we sat in the shade of a huge rock. I poured water into the small plastic bowl I keep in my backpack and my dog drank it quickly. Then something caught his attention and he took off down a steep slope into a canyon.
I sat and stared into the distance. Thirty minutes passed. The words that were telling me what I was thinking went backwards. The same thirty minutes passed again. The words that were telling me what I was thinking went backwards. The same thirty minutes passed again. For less than a second I became a tall cactus on a ridge thirty yards to my left. I saw myself sitting with my dog in the shade of a huge rock, staring at the sky. The words that were telling me what I was thinking went backwards. The same thirty minutes passed again. The wind was picking up and getting colder. The sun was about to go down behind a mountain, at least one hour too soon for a late March sunset. My dog still hadn't come back. I called him three times. His name echoed only the second time. There was no sign of him. I knew I had to find him before the sun went down. I took a long drink of water from the bottle in my pack. Then I stumbled down into the canyon.
The canyon floor was a labyrinth of tall blade-like rocks and jagged shadows. I started walking toward what I thought was my dog barking in the distance, but it turned out to be the stiff wind amplified and distorted by the rocks and walls of the canyon. The wind kept getting louder, blowing sand into my face, forcing me to take shelter behind a rock. The shadows were getting longer and I knew I had to get out. But I couldn't leave my dog in the canyon all night. Finally I decided to go back to my car and get a flashlight. I stumbled through the gathering darkness up the steep side of the canyon. The stars were coming out in the deepening twilight. When I got back to my car, my dog was sitting there placidly chewing a bone. He looked up at me and wagged his tail as if nothing had happened.
We drove back into town. I stopped for gas and then went into a small café for dinner. The only other customer was wearing black robes and a conic black magician's hat. He was eating a double cheeseburger with French fries and a coke. The waitress came and asked me what I wanted. I ordered a double cheeseburger with French fries
and a coke.
I stared out the window onto the street, the dark line of brick buildings, all of which seemed to be empty, though jazz was playing from someone's open window. I looked at the man on the other side of the room. He was looking looking at me as if I should have known who he was. I looked back at him as if he should have known who I was. For less than a second, I felt like I was dressed as a magician. I knew the words of power. I knew all the shapes I could take.
The waitress brought my food. It was the best cheeseburger I'd ever tasted. The fries were perfectly crisp. I'd never had a better coke. Soon after I finished, the waitress brought me another double cheeseburger with French fries and a coke. My hunger had increased and the food was even better than before. Soon after I finished, the waitress brought me another double cheeseburger with French fries and a coke. My hunger had increased and the food was even better than before. I looked at the man across the room. He met my eyes with silent laughter. Then he got up and left. The conversation we could have had hovered like fine mist about three inches above his empty plates.
The waitress was tall and thin, with long brown hair and glasses. She wore a blank white sweatshirt and faded blue jeans.
She said: Can I get you anything else?
I thought for a minute: No, I guess not. Just the check.
She smiled: How was your food?
I smiled back: Incredible.
She said: That's what everybody says.
I said: Why aren't there more people here? You make the best burgers on the planet. Why isn't the place packed?
She shrugged: Beats me. But I'm not complaining. The owner pays me pretty well even if no one shows up. And he lets me sit and read if there's no one to wait on. It's a good situation.
I said: Sounds like it. Does that guy who was here before come here often?
She said: Every night. And he always gets the same thing.
I said: Does he live here in town?
She seated herself at the table and said: I don't think so. I've never seen him anywhere but here. I live right across the street, and if he lived in town I'm sure I'd have seen him at some point during the day.
I said: Maybe the only place he exists is right here.
She looked at me in silence. The wind was rattling the windows. The clock on the wall had stopped at 3:15. She finally said: What's that supposed to mean?
I wasn't sure. So I smiled and said: I'm joking.
She said: I don't get it.
How was I going to explain? I wanted to get up and walk out. But something about the darkness of the wind prevented me from leaving.
She said: I really don't get it.
She looked impossibly serious. I knew I had to say something. But the pressure to speak was making speech impossible. I put my hands flat on the table and stared out the window, tracking the line of streetlights into the distance, watching them advancing
and receding, a double motion so carefully balanced that nothing seemed to be moving.
I looked back at my hands, flat on the table. I lifted them two inches, moved them two inches to the left and put them back down, lifted them two inches again, moved them back two inches to the right and put them back down.
I couldn't stand the silence anymore so I said: The other day I saw that new townhouse condos were being sold a few blocks from where I live. It's not like I can afford a townhouse condo. But I wanted to see how much one of them cost. There was an open house so I went inside. They were fairly nice—three bedrooms, three baths, three floors, pretty good urban views from the top floor. But the rooms all looked like showrooms in a department store, fancy but totally boring. They cost a million dollars each. A million fucking dollars! And it's not even a rich neighborhood. Can you imagine? And if you bought one of these places, you wouldn't even get a yard or a
She said: I hate swimming pools.
Something about the way her voice expanded around the word hate got me up from the table and out the door. I got in my car and drove like a maniac, running two stoplights. The darkness on the edge of town had never been more inviting.
I wasn't sure where I was going. There were no road signs, and I had no map in the car. All I knew for sure was that before too long I was climbing, circling up into the mountains, and the air was getting colder. Soon I had to roll up my windows and turn on the heat. On either side of the road was a dense pine forest. I knew I should probably go back and ask for directions, but something about the hate in the woman's voice made the whole town seem sinister. I thought of turning west and going home, but I knew there were cell phones there, and hundreds of other technological obsessions, many of them waiting in the future. I thought about how much I hated video games and automated answering systems, plasma TVs and digital cameras, shopping malls and subdivisions. Suddenly one woman's angry voice didn't seem so dangerous. But the night was parting in front of me, closing in back of me, as if it wanted me to keep moving. I felt powerless to resist. An hour passed without any road signs. The wind was getting harder and colder. Soon I began to see patches of snow in the forest. I knew I had to find a place to stop.
Finally I saw what looked like a driveway. I turned off and followed it more than a mile, until it stopped in front of a huge stone house, apparently uninhabited. My first impulse was to turn back, but my car was low on gas, and I didn't want to spend the night on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. So I went to the front door and knocked as loud as I could. The door opened on its own. I stepped inside. The darkness felt like a series of transparent curtains, opening finally onto a broad staircase. To my left and right were doorways into large rooms filled with old furniture. I stumbled through the room to my left. Above an old stone hearth was a painting of someone who might have been me in the nineteenth century, standing in front of the house I was currently standing in. Or at least that's how it looked in the moonlight coming in through dusty casement windows. Turning away from the picture, I wasn't sure what I looked like anymore. I carefully ran my fingers over my face. Was it really the one in the picture? Beside the casement was a grand piano. I sat at the bench and banged on the keys. Instead of music, I heard laughter. Something to told me to leave as fast as I could.
But something else told me to go upstairs. I went upstairs. On either side of the landing at the top were identical bedrooms, apparently suggesting that by falling asleep in one of them I would also be falling asleep in the other, dreaming precisely the same thing, though perhaps at slightly different speeds. The rooms were furnished with the same combination of antique mirrors, dressers and armchairs, with freshly made four-poster beds. I wanted to sleep. But the beds were so perfectly made, the sheets were so crisp and clean, that I felt I'd better sleep on the floor.
I tried the lamps but nothing worked. I stepped out onto the landing, looking for a light switch. Moonlight coming in through a round window at the head of the stairs revealed a small door, which opened onto a steep narrow staircase. I climbed into what I assumed would be an attic. But it turned out to be a large room with French windows looking out over an expanse of pines toward the moonlit snow of distant mountains. I collapsed into a small unmade bed, warming my freezing body with an old blanket I found stuffed under a battered armchair. I fell asleep in seconds.
All night I could hear the wind at the windows. I felt like I was sleeping on a cliff by the sea, and waves were crashing endlessly on jagged rocks beneath me. At some point I woke. The wind was louder and colder and the room had gotten smaller, compressing itself in response to a vacancy in the moonlight, a space that could only be filled with words, and not with my words, but with words that were passing through me, arriving from the same vacancy they were meant fill, depicting my experience in the desert and the café, as if the house were haunted by my immediate past, which existed only because I would later feel compelled to describe it, a verbal interval whose sole purpose was to bring the past into the present. I drifted back to sleep. Or rather, I drifted back into something that felt like sleep, but also felt like a series of doors, the sound of my feet going down at least one staircase. I woke the next morning in my car, with my dog beside me wagging his tail, eager to be fed. I got some dogfood out of my trunk. He ate in less than ten seconds. I took a long look at the house in the frozen daylight. The longer I looked the harder it was to tell myself what I was looking at. The wind was loud in the pines and then fell silent. The wind picked up again and then fell silent.
I drove for hours down mountain roads, the landscape changing gradually from pine forest to desert scrub. Soon I was flooded with sunlight on a straight level road. I stepped on the gas and made good time, arriving for lunch in a town that seemed to be one street of old brick buildings. I found a small café and went inside. The man with the magician's hat sat at a corner table, eating a double cheeseburger with fries and a coke. Slow jazz came from someone's open window. When the waitress appeared with long brown hair and a white sweatshirt, I ordered a chef's salad, but she brought me a double cheeseburger with fries and a coke.
I said: I don't mean to be a pain in the ass, but this isn't what I ordered.
She said: It's not?
I said: No. I ordered a chef's salad.
She said: That's not on the menu.
I said: Can I see the menu again?
She looked at her pad and said: I wrote your order down right here. You ordered the double cheeseburger platter.
I said: I'm sure I saw a chef's salad on the menu. Can I see the menu again?
She looked puzzled but nodded and smiled and went back into the kitchen. When she didn't come back right away, hunger got the best of me, and I quickly devoured the best double cheeseburger platter on the planet. She finally returned with another double cheeseburger platter. I got frantically hungry all over again, and ate quickly, ecstatically. She soon returned with another double cheeseburger platter. I told myself I was eating too much too quickly. Instead of wolfing down more food, I thought I should try to talk to the magician. But he met my eyes again with silent laughter, only this time I could see that it was more than silent laughter, that his eyes were telling me about a conversation we could have been having, an exchange that would have conclusively shown that all communication is miscommunication, that the best we could hope for was a playful misunderstanding, which might become a tragic misunderstanding if we tried too hard to make sense, and I didn't want to admit that I agreed with him, especially since by agreeing I was also admitting that I didn't quite understand what I was agreeing with, especially since my words were nothing more than a rough translation of what I thought I could read in his face. I looked away. I looked at the food on my plate. I felt frantically hungry. I ate quickly, ecstatically, and when I looked across the room again the magician was gone.
The waitress came back and said: Can I get you anything else?
I fought the urge to say no, I guess not, just the check. Instead I said: What's going on here?
She stood there with her mouth open, pencil poised above her pad. Finally she said: What do you mean?
I wasn't sure what I meant.
She said: What does what's going on here mean? You're in a small café. You ordered something for lunch.
I wanted to blurt out something about absurdly overpriced condos. I wanted to make her say that she hated swimming pools. I wanted to take the hate in her voice and fill it with vitamins and minerals, grind it up and put it in a can and sell it on a shelf in a convenience store on a moonlit road road that no one used anymore. But I knew that I hated swimming pools too, and though I told myself that the hate was the problem, I couldn't get myself to believe that anger and disgust were out of place, especially when I thought of all the happy self-important faces on cell phones. Who was I to turn away from someone whose only crime was that she bluntly expressed the contempt we both felt, the contempt we both felt any intelligent person would feel and want to express?
She tapped her pad with her pencil, cocked her head and said: You're in a small café. You ordered something for lunch.
I looked out into the fading light. Again the sun was going down too soon. According to my watch it wasn't even half past four. I looked at the waitress tapping her pad and cocking her head. I cocked my head and started tapping my finger on the table. I tried to crease my brow so that I looked like I was thinking. I tried to tell myself what I was thinking. It wasn't easy. As soon as I put my thoughts into words, it felt like I'd replaced my thoughts with words, with sounds and shapes that had no firm connection with anything beyond their own sounds and shapes, defining themselves only in relation to each other.
I looked back outside. My car's windows were open. My dog had jumped out
and was running down the road. I put a twenty dollar bill on the table, excused myself and rushed out to my car. I drove as fast as I could but my dog seemed always to be the same distance away, a dot on a long white road, until he disappeared into the deepening twilight.
The road was climbing out of the desert into the mountains. The fading light was deceptive, the pavement increasingly icy. I felt that at any moment I might skid off the road and over the edge of a cliff. On the other side of the road was the forest, pines framing patches of snow that grew larger and more frequent as the road curved upward. The steady sound of the engine was making me sleepy, bringing me to the edge of a trance filled with shifting patterns of moonlight split by thousands of branches bending in the wind. To keep myself awake, I turned on the radio. The DJ said she was broadcasting from the moon, which I thought was a stupid joke, except that the music was unlike anything I'd ever listened to, resembling the motion of a box kite in the wind, erratically darting up and dodging side to side and diving, resembling the motion of a swing gliding up into a sunlit pause and gliding back down into shade, resembling the motion of a waterfall plunging and rising in faint prismatic mist, resembling the motion of an ambulance on a slippery mountain road, sliding up and down one steep switchback after another, resembling the motion of a lifeboat in a storm, lifted into the sky with each wave, trembling briefly in the foam of each crest, dropping quickly into the frothing dark before the next wave, analogies superimposed, each above and between and below the others, not moving and changing from moment to moment, but moving and changing into the depth of a single deepening moment, finally stopping in front of a huge stone house.
It looked at first like the house I'd slept in the night before. But when I circled it several times, peering through the windows, I saw that the rooms were empty, not filled with antique furniture. I carefully opened the front door after knocking loudly several times. I had the distinct impression that the doors in the front hallway had all been quickly but silently closed and locked the moment I stepped inside. I paused as my eyes grew accustomed to the dark. Then I walked down what seemed like a long corridor filled with Dutch landscape paintings, though I could see that the walls were bare. Finally I came to a staircase. I went up slowly, pausing with each step, for some reason trying to count my way up, but mixing up the numbers. When I finally got to the landing I walked straight into what looked in the dark like an open doorway, until I realized that I was stepping into a floor-length mirror, passing through my own reflection coming toward me. It felt like a split-second of rain. Something told me to stop but I kept going, refusing to turn back and look at myself turning to look back from the other side of the glass. Even though I was now apparently functioning as a reflection—an unobserved reflection—it didn't make any difference. My footsteps made the same sound they always made on bare wood floorboards. I walked down the hallway to another flight of stairs, which spiraled up into a large room filled with moonlight.
I sat in a battered armchair facing open casement windows. The scene was changing like pages of a large book slowly turning, a sequence of black and white landscape photographs, each containing snowy peaks and a half moon. I knew I'd seen this book before, but I couldn't remember the title. I fell asleep with the name on the tip of my tongue. I woke the next morning afraid that I might get in trouble if someone found me in a house that wasn't mine. I told myself I wasn't in any real danger, but the fear persisted, reminding me that as a young boy I'd always looked for private places, zones of safety where people couldn't find me, bathroom stalls with locks on the doors, closets underneath flights of stairs, secret rooms in basements and garages. As an adult, I'd kept searching for such places, though of course I'd been careful to conceal what I was doing, mastering ways of looking normal that still allowed me to live in secret, avoiding people who felt it was their job to be in charge of others. I looked outside and thought of the book whose name I couldn't remember. In the sharp mountain daylight, it was hard to believe that such a book existed. Or perhaps it was hard to believe that anything but the book existed. I got up and left.
Soon I was driving back down the mountain. Five thousand feet below, the desert floor stretched out for hundreds of miles. It looked so pure, so free of morons blabbing on cell phones. But something was wrong. If the desert floor was a page in a book, the words were having trouble holding the scene in place, suggesting that the late morning light pressing down on each object might just as well have been peeled off and folded up and used for something else.
I drove for a long time, hoping my dog would suddenly appear as a distant dot in the deep white space. I turned on the radio. A tragic voice caught between bursts of static announced that President Bush had been struck by lightning. I turned to another station. A tragic voice caught between bursts of static announced that President Bush had been struck by lightning. I turned to another station. A tragic voice caught between bursts of static announced that President Bush had been struck by lightning. I pulled over and got out. I lifted my arms to the sky and shouted with joy. For ten seconds, I believed that nature functioned according to moral principles. But then I remembered that good people often got killed in earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions, while bad people routinely did horrible things without cosmic retribution. I also remembered that even if Bush were dead, he would be replaced by a sinister vice president who probably wouldn't get struck by lightning any time soon.
I looked at my watch. It was 2 p.m. Why was the sun going down? Why had
the days gotten shorter? Where were the missing hours? Would the same thing keep happening as the days passed, until there was no time left at all? Was it up to me to invent the time that was missing? And if I failed to do so, would the disappearance of time mean that I too had vanished? It was too soon to tell. But it did seem clear that there had to be a connection between the rise of George Bush, the obsession with cell phones, and the sudden collapse of time. Was it too much to say that the world had become so stupid that there was no longer any reason to keep track of things, that time was vanishing because it had better ways to spend its time? The question circled above my head like a hawk in the desert sky, something I could only admire from a distance. I felt closer to the assumption that I was slowly giving myself up to a pattern of behavior and events that existed only because I was slowly giving myself up to it. No matter how limited such a world might be, it was better than being surrounded by people on cell phones.
I stopped for gas. I wanted to get a map but the convenience store was closed. I could see the lights of a town in the darkening distance. But when I got there everything was closed, perhaps because the president was dead. At the end of the main street, something moved in the dark. I called my dog's name and he came running, wagging his tail. He jumped into my car and I broke out a can of dog food. Then I saw that a light had come on down the street on the second floor of a brick building, and soon some kind of jazz was floating softly from an open window. I followed the music through a door beside an empty storefront, up a flight of stairs, and down a hallway to someone's apartment.
I knocked three times. There was no answer. I opened the door and stepped inside, prepared to make an awkward explanation. But the room was empty. I called out to see if anyone was home. No one answered. Jazz came from a CD player beside a bookshelf, on top of which I saw three tropical fish in an artfully furnished aquarium. Their graceful movements made the music even more graceful, and I realized that it wasn't jazz I was listening to, but the same lunar symphony I'd heard in my car the
I went down a hallway past a kitchen where three hamburgers were frying in a skillet, came to a small dark bedroom and switched on the light, but no one was there. Just another bookshelf and a mattress on the floor, a pillow on top of a neatly folded blanket, a faded oval rug that looked like the earth photographed from the moon. I turned off the light and went back to the living room and sat on a futon couch. The music was enchanting, advancing and receding at the same time, making the distinction between the two motions obsolete, but the sound of food cooking in the kitchen distracted me. I got up and turned off the flame. Then I went back and sat and watched the fish and listened to the music. I've always liked music better in the dark so I turned off the light. Between the fluttering white silk drapes, the open window framed a half moon floating in the dark windows of old brick buildings across the street. The bubbling sound of the aquarium filter played with the gusting sound of the wind, as if they were parts of the music I was listening to.
Soon I got hungry. I turned the stove back on, waited a minute or two, got bread from the breadbox, and quickly gobbled up two delicious hamburgers. I took the third one outside and gave it to my dog. Then I brought him up into the apartment and he curled up on the floor and fell asleep. I found a bathroom down the hall and took a quick shower. The warm relaxing water felt like music on the moon. Then I stretched out on the couch, covering myself with a blanket I took from a closet next to the bathroom. The cold wind playing in the drapes filled me with pleasure, which took the form of doubt: Had anything really happened? Had any of my encounters over the past few days been real? Had I been so devastated by the world of cell phones that my perceptions had been permanently deformed? Or was I rather about halfway into the process of recovering from a world so pathologically fake that partial unreality was the best my perceptions could do? There was no way to know for sure. But I did feel certain that something had to have happened, even if I wasn't sure what it was. And if what I remembered wasn't real, it was up to me to fill the emptied space those unreal places and actions occupied, to come up with alternatives to the recent past. But since those alternatives would also have been uncertain, nothing more than verbal constructions, I saw no reason to waste my time inventing them, which left me with no recourse but to accept what I now remembered, approaching its uncertainty with pleasure, much as the drapes accepted the wind that was tossing and shaping them. I fell asleep slowly and pleasantly. At some point in the night I woke briefly to the sound of footsteps moving down the hall to the bedroom. But when I got up the next morning, the room was empty, looking precisely the way it looked the night before, except that the blinds in the window above the bed had been opened, offering a view of distant mountains above the housetops.
Suddenly monstrous noises came from the street. I rushed outside. The moment felt like a huge balloon about to get popped, or a slab of cold meat someone was planning to use in a sandwich. At the western end of town, I saw wrecking machines at work, knocking down buildings. I stood there for ten minutes, watching in shock. I felt like Superman eating a tossed green salad secretly dressed with green kryptonite, or Batman forced to take a job as a minor league bat boy. Where old brick buildings had been, there was nothing but dust and shattered glass and the grinding of engines. Each minute felt like an anthill in the shadow of a descending shoe. Each second felt like a page of a screenplay whirling away in a spiral of wind. By the time I came to my senses, half the street had been knocked down. I wanted to find out why, so I walked down the street and signaled to a man driving a yellow bulldozer. He scowled but shut off the engine and spread his hands, wondering what I could possibly want. When he shook his head in response to my questions, I figured he was either deaf or didn't speak English. The men driving the other two wrecking machines showed no understanding of my questions, shook their heads impatiently, and went back to work. I went upstairs, got my dog, and drove out into the desert again.
I tried to get some local news on the radio. But between bursts of static, I heard nothing but voices tragically discussing the death of President Bush. Finally, at the far end of the dial, I heard something about plans to wipe a town off the map, but I couldn't get the name of the town or the reasons for its destruction. I told myself I should get a map, but the only store on the road was the place I'd stopped the day before, and it was still closed. The only thing to do was to keep going straight, hoping I could find another store and get a map. I wondered why I felt such a need for a map, why I wasn't just finding hiking trails and walking around and looking at things. If there wasn't really any place to go, why was I in such a hurry to get there? Was I still so hooked into the world of cell phones and computers that I needed to see where I was in relation to everything else? Was I afraid of being lost? I didn't want to think so. I wanted to think of my need for a map in purely aesthetic terms, much as I liked having an aquarium not because I liked fish but because I liked their colors and motions. I remembered how as a child I would spend hours looking at maps, connecting names with places, imagining my life in all those places. I stepped on the gas and soon the road began climbing into the mountains.
There were giant boulders on either side of the road, so white and smooth they might have been huge eggs. They all seemed to be exactly the same size, perfect ovals perhaps fifty feet high and thirty feet in diameter. After climbing slowly for half an hour, I stopped and got out to look at the rocks more closely. There were hundreds of them on the slopes above and below me. Each one looked like it was just about to start rolling downward, colliding with other boulders and causing an avalanche. The closest one was twenty feet above the shoulder of the road, thirty feet in front of me. The closer I got the more it looked like an egg. I was afraid that if I touched it even slightly, it might start crashing down the slope. But finally I took the risk. It felt just like an egg. I thought of huge predatory birds hatching and circling into the sky and sweeping over the desert, wreaking havoc on the civilized world. I found this unnervingly funny. I imagined people with cell phones wandering through shattered streets talking endlessly about nothing, finally starving or dying of thirst, until there was only one person left blathering into a cell phone, the last human words on earth, with no one listening. I got back in my car and started driving. I wanted to get away as fast as I could, but the higher I got the more icy the road became.
The sun was going down, even though it was only half past noon. I turned on the radio but there was nothing but static so I turned it off, turned it on ten minutes later, got nothing but static and turned it off again. My dog was sleeping peacefully beside me, apparently not even slightly concerned that time was being carted off piece by piece. The sunset was a blaze of reds and golds on huge clouds changing in the wind. I felt like my car was about to get blown off the road, so I pulled over and got out. It was colder than I expected. I took a heavy coat from the trunk and got back inside. My dog woke up and watched the sunset for a few minutes, then put his head in my lap and went back to sleep. There was something so comforting about this that I felt no need to start the car and find a place to stay for the night, and as the clouds and colors faded slowly in the west, I fell asleep.
All night I could hear the wind slamming into my car. I felt afraid and woke up several times. But when I felt my dog's head in my lap, the fear dissolved, and I went back to sleep. I woke at five. It was cold so I started the engine and got on the road. Soon I was driving east and I could see the sky getting lighter. The road was still climbing, but after running east for half an hour, it leveled off and I knew I'd come to the top of the mountain. The predawn blue of the sky felt like a blue I'd seen perhaps fifty years before, two thousand miles away. The sudden connection between times and places made the sky seem deeper, as if it were gazing back at me and feeling the same connection. I wanted to rest in that feeling forever. But suddenly the road was lined on both sides with old brick buildings.
I stopped, got out of the car, and walked up the street. There was no sign that anyone lived there. The silence felt like pages turning, pages filled with descriptions of pages turning. At the end of the street I turned right. There was nothing but rocks and scrub vegetation. I turned around and saw the same thing in the other direction. The town was only one street. And apparently not even that. From where I now stood, in back of the buildings, I could see they were flat, held up with blocks of wood, like painted stage props. As the sun began to rise, filling the street with light, my suspicions were confirmed: the town was unreal. I told myself it had to be an abandoned movie set, and sure enough, as I walked back down the street I saw something I'd missed before, an open three-ring binder with pages turning fiercely in the wind, apparently a screenplay, though most of it was missing. I sat and read what remained, lines for characters named Phil and Connie, parts of a witty conversation about fall-out shelters in the early 1960s.
I laughed at first, but soon I started getting angry, thinking back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy's face on the picture tube making a speech, pushing the world to the brink of mass destruction. Then I thought about Bush and got even madder, especially since the radio fragments I'd heard the day before made it sound like the nation was mourning his death. Why would anyone mourn the death of a man whose actions had done so much to ruin the world? I was glad that I wasn't in touch with the rest of the nation.
At the other end of the street I came to a small cafe that seemed to be real. I went inside. Ceilings fans made slow shadows turn on broad white floorboards. Two of the walls were exposed brick floor to ceiling, decorated with posters featuring criminals wanted dead or alive, all tastefully framed as if they should have been hanging for sale in a gallery. The freezer in the back of the building seemed to be working, stocked with eggs, bacon, bread, and other breakfast foods. The grille was working too, and soon I was standing with a spatula while eggs and bacon popped and snapped and bread got brown in the toaster. The morning light was refracted by the dust and cobwebs in the windows. The cold wind blew the door open and closed. I'd never had a better breakfast. It was so good that when I was done I got up and cooked another one, and another one after that, amazed that I didn't feel bloated. By the time I got outside and walked down the street again, the day had clouded over, and the wind was colder. At the end of the street, I heard what sounded like jazz coming from an open second-floor window. My body relaxed in response to the sound. I felt like I was walking on the moon or on the ocean floor, as if the music had been composed to replicate in heightened form the visual integrity of whatever objects it might be surrounded by. But when I looked up between the tossing drapes into what should have been a room of some kind, I saw no interior space, nothing but the same stormy pack of clouds that was surging above the building. The music was gone. Instead, I heard my dog barking at the other end of the street, terrified by screenplay pages whirling in the wind. I told myself I'd better leave. But I didn't want to let all that free food go to waste, especially since I wanted to see what was on the second floor above the café.
I found a small staircase in a hallway in back of the kitchen. My dog ran ahead of me up the stairs, then started barking furiously in the room above. I entered the room prepared to make an apology. But except for my dog barking at the wind in the drapes, there seemed to be no one there. From a CD player on a nightstand by a bed, I heard the same music I'd heard the past few nights. I had to admit that the DJ was right: The music sounded like jazz being played on the moon, where the sounds were free to perform in ways that the fierce gravitational pull of the earth prevented or confined, a composition designed for the absence of an atmosphere, taking the place of an atmosphere, shaping itself with jagged rocks and craters, making me feel like a half moon above sharp and shining mountains.
I sat on the bed. Across the room on a small table, cigarette smoke twisted up from a souvenir ashtray. As I watched it curling and twisting and folding itself, I became aware of something new, the sound of someone taking a shower down the hallway. The sound was curling and twisting and folding itself, filling the moment precisely, doing precisely what the moment required. I tried to make my dog sit, but he started barking again and ran out the door, less obedient than the smoke or the sound of water. I got up and followed him down the stairs, through the café and into the street. It was already dark. A half moon lit the mountains in the west. The music from the second floor window stopped and the light went out.
I got back in my car and drove down the mountain. The moonlight made the driving fast and easy. I reached the desert floor an hour before dawn. I stopped for gas. Finally the convenience store was open. The girl at the counter was tall and dressed in a white sweatshirt. If she'd had glasses, she would have been the waitress in the café. She looked at me as if she'd never seen me before, and I knew that if she were really the same young woman, she would have recognized me. But then it occurred to me that without her glasses, she couldn't see me clearly.
I said: Hi there. Do you have any maps?
She said: Maps? What kind of maps are you looking for?
I said: Maps of the region. A simple road map will be fine. Do you have one?
She said: Let me check.
She went back into a small room furnished with a gray metal desk and a row of metal file cabinets. I heard her open a drawer. I heard her mumbling to herself. Her voice became a voice in my head, the voice of an old friend in a phone conversation a week before, when he called to say that he'd finally gotten a cell phone. After struggling to make out his words mangled by satellite transmission, I asked him to call me back on a real telephone.
He said: This is a real telephone, and right now I'm on my way to the bank. I'm talking to you from my car. It's the first time I've ever driven and talked on the phone at the same time. I used to think it was dangerous when other people did it. But now that I'm doing it myself, it really feels cool.
I laughed: I can't believe what I'm hearing. After all the times we ridiculed people for getting caught up in hi-tech fads, here you are caught up in a hi-tech fad.
He said: Right. But now that I've got a cell, I can't imagine living without one. I mean, I can get in touch with anyone from anywhere at any time.
I said: Yeah, but they can get in touch with you whenever they want to. You're a moving target.
He laughed: When people get in touch with you, you feel like a target?
I said: I just think it's important to have chunks of time when I'm not hooked up to the rest of the world.
He said: Sounds to me like you'd like huge chunks of time when you're not hooked up to the rest of the world. Why such a need to be out of touch? I mean, I haven't heard from you in months.
I said: I'm always dealing with people at my job. When I'm not at work, I need time to myself. I—
He cut me off with something I wasn't prepared for: You know what? I've been thinking about the way you keep to yourself all the time. And it seems to me you've got a Noble Victim Complex. I heard someone talking about it on TV the other night, and he was saying that--
I said: I've never thought of myself as a victim. It's just that I—
He said: It's just that you isolate yourself from what's happening in the world and then complain when you think you don't get what you deserve. But never mind, I'll change my wording. How about a Noble Outcast Complex?
I said: Actually, I think words like outcast are too extreme, too theatrical, at least when they're applied to people like me, who haven't really been cast out of anything. It's true that I'm easily annoyed and try to avoid things that annoy me or give me anxiety. But really, if you're not annoyed by all the idiots glowing with hi-tech happiness, it probably means you've become one of them—
He said: In other words, you're not just easily annoyed; you're also paranoid.
I said: I feel like the main character in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not that asinine remake that came out during the Reagan years, but the fifties original, starring Kevin McCarthy, and I'm talking to someone who used to be my friend, except that now he's become a pod person, with headphones in his ears and--
I stopped because I could tell that at some point in the past five seconds, our connection had been broken, and before he could call me back I went outside and took a long walk. I saw people on cell phones everywhere, eyes bright in a trance of hi-tech happiness. I knew I had to get out.
The pain of that moment brought me back to the present. I looked around the store. Everything on the magazine rack was in black and white, as if I were back in the 1940s and cell phones, TVs, and computers didn't exist yet. But if I were back in the 1940s, I wouldn't exist yet either, so I turned my attention back to the girl in the office. I was suddenly afraid that she might pull out a cell phone, calling her boss to see if there were maps in the store. But then she was back at the counter saying she didn't have any maps.
I said: Where can I get one?
She said: I don't think you can find any maps around here. At least, I've never seen one. What would you do with a map in a place like this?
I looked at her in silence. The moment stretched out and curled up like a dog preparing to sleep. I told myself that if I could gently nudge it awake, it might open its eyes and playfully lick my face. I felt confident. I decided to try something bold. I said: By the way, my name's Phil.
I extended my hand. Of course, I hadn't given her my real name. But I wanted to see if using the name Phil would make her use the name Connie, confirming my belief that words were nothing in themselves, mere sounds in the air or marks on a page that became significant only in relation to each other.
She reached into the pockets of her apron, pulled out her glasses, put them on and blinked three times. Without shaking my hand, she leaned forward, narrowed her eyes, looked at me closely and said: Can I help you with anything else?
I wasn't sure what to say so I said: Do you have any dog food?
She said: For you or for your dog?
She burst out laughing. I started to laugh but something about it felt wrong, so I told her to have a nice day and got back on the road. I drove for several hours. The sun came up but before too long it was setting. I wondered if the death of time meant that the world itself was ending. I didn't think so. But I did think that things were out of balance, that the human race had been abusing time for so long that time now existed only to give space the time it needed, and it seemed to be needing less and less, perhaps because it was now taking the two-dimensional form of a landscape photograph, framed as a decoration above a mantelpiece in a room in a world where the human race didn't exist. For maybe ten seconds I saw the photograph clearly. But the image dissolved when I came to an old hotel.
I stopped and went inside. The check-in clerk was snoring with his head in his arms on a dark wood counter. I quietly slipped a key off a hook and tip-toed up the stairs in the back of the lobby. The room was on the top floor three flights up. It had a great view of the desert, the moon fading into the dawn above the silhouettes of mountains. I watched until the sun was almost up. Then I got in bed.
I've never liked hotel bedsheets. They always feel stiff and formal. But the sheets in this bed felt like I'd been using them all my life, which the made the process of falling asleep so delicious that it seemed to be happening over and over again, the same dissolving image of a half moon in a window framing the silhouettes of mountains. Then suddenly I was awake six hours later, pleasantly rested and ready for breakfast. As I went downstairs I could smell bacon and eggs from the café beside the lobby. The place was charming, with brick walls, old wooden tables and broad oak floorboards. Patterns of light and shade played in the folds of lace curtains tossing slightly in the breeze. Three men wearing dark robes and conic black hats were sitting in three corners of the room. I sat in the fourth corner, completing the pattern. The three men ate with such pleasure that I felt I was eating their meals, and after a few minutes I was so full and satisfied that I got up and left without eating.
I went back up to my room. My bed had been made and a gun had been left on
my pillow. I thought at first that it was a message from the universe telling me to go back home and start shooting the phonies. But even though I was sure that the world would be better off without them, I didn't want to use a gun to get rid of them. I've always hated guns, especially in movies. Whenever guns appear on screen, it's a sure sign that the director has lost control of the narrative, resorting to violence as a substitute for plot and character development. I knew I wasn't a character in a movie. But I did try to live as if I were part of a narrative generated by someone with high aesthetic standards. It was true that I didn't know exactly what those standards were. But I knew that they didn't involve guns, so I took the gun and threw it out the window. I heard it hit the ground three floors below, a sound which made the silence of the desert more intense, as if it were no longer filled with all the words that weren't being spoken, no longer filled with technological noise that was too far away to be heard, leaving a space where something had to happen. If I'd known what that something was it wouldn't have happened. But since I didn't know what it was, it had the chance to be what it was. I thought of all the houses in the world. I thought of all the rooms in all the houses in the world. I thought of all the light in all the rooms in all the houses in the world. I thought of all the light and all the shade in all the rooms in all the houses in the world. I thought of all the time in all the light and all the shade in all the rooms in all the houses in the world. I thought of all the views and all the time in all the light and all the shade in all the rooms in all the houses in the world.
I knew what I had to do. First I would find a part-time job. Maybe they needed help downstairs at the desk. Maybe they would offer me free room and board and a little spending money on the side. Next I would get to know as many local people as possible. Once I'd become well known in the town, I could serve on the town council and before too long become the mayor. Then I would get a law passed banning cell phones, turning the town and perhaps the whole county into cell phone-free zones—and ultimately into media-free zones. With any luck, I could even restore the missing fragments of time. It was true that I'd never been in politics. It was true that I had no appetite or aptitude for the kind of semi-human interaction politicians need to master. It was true that there might be state laws preventing local politicians from banning destructive technologies. It was true that the town might not exist anymore. But what choice did I have? Though I knew that cell phones would be obsolete by the end of the decade, this would only mean that the phonies had been given something even dumber to waste their time with, that the nation had become even dumber than before, that someone even dumber than George Bush had been elected.
I went downstairs and woke the guy at the desk by touching his arm. His head shot back in alarm. He looked at me like I was crazy. For one long moment I thought he might have a gun, a badge, and handcuffs. But when I told him I wanted a job he nodded with obvious pleasure. He smiled as if he'd found his long-lost brother.