Burnout (1)

I was in the desert when I heard the screams.

It was the last night of the gather. The sky was hollow to the heavens and the moon a silver lantern hung out just for us. There were cars and campfires and temples and tents going off in every direction. Just no people. Everyone was off watching the big fellow burn.

We’d lived there for a week, a little city in the sand made only of what we’d brought. Before it had been desert and to desert it would return but for those few days it was a city of dreams, fancy made firm and flesh made fancy, all the things the world had thrown out all washed up upon a single shore.

It was the last night and so everyone was pressed together as close as they could, trying to burn as bright as people could burn for tomorrow they’d be ashes drifting out on the wind. I wasn’t with them. It was nice and all, but it wasn’t for me.

Instead I climbed through the lonely temples and watched the little smoldering fires or just wandered up and down the deserted streets. Six days a city, one night a ghost town, and tomorrow nothing but sun and sand. For a week it had been ours. For that night it was mine. I wandered the empty city. I just liked it.

Sometimes I’d stumble on a person who was too tripped out to make it to the burn. And I’d call for help, and when help arrived I’d go. Sometimes I’d stumble on two people or three or four who had their own heat to make. And I’d smile and leave them alone, together. But mostly I’d just wander. And the next morning pick up and blow away.

I was walking between a hand-stitched teepee and a semi cab with tank treads. The air was cold in my lungs and the sand still hot beneath my bare feet and the night smelled of sand and sweat and smoke. And there was a scream and I felt my eyes narrow like a camera shutter, capturing the moment. I’ll never forget it.

It was a man screaming. For a moment I thought, oh, a man, and I started to relax and take a breath. Then I hated me for thinking that. And I started to run.

Where would I run? It came from everywhere. The empty city made strange echoes and the desert swallowed the rest. I ran past a paisley bus and clutch of three-story bicycles, a bamboo tea house, a tower of scaffolding draped with strands of silk. The screams moved as I moved. Was the man running? Was it just me? I doubled back, cut through a field of poppies mounted on the back of a dozen little red wagons. I knocked over a Harley and hit my head on an orange box with a question mark. Turned a corner. There he was.

There was a man screaming. He was round and bald and bearded, his hair salted, he wasn’t a businessman or a bum but he didn’t look like a burner. He was down on all fours and screaming. He held a piece of clothing in one hand and was slamming that hand down and down. His face was breaking.

I knew then that it wasn’t fear that was screaming. It was rage, and despair. This was a wounded animal dying off in the night.

I forced myself to walk up to him. I stood there above him and his head snapped and looked up at me. His face was red and so were his eyes and sand stuck to his wet cheeks.

He looked me up and down. Saw me shirtless, saw my dreads, even looked down to my bare feet. Then he sagged, and a little more. And he stopped screaming. And just started to cry.

He slumped down onto his side. My heart ached. I wanted to reach out to him, but I didn’t think he wanted me to. He was too sad and too angry and too ashamed that he was.

I saw what he was holding, gripping it like a lifeline or a neck, roughed and crumpled in the sand. It was a photographer’s vest. It had dozens of little pockets. It looked like each of them had been opened. They all looked empty.

I waited a few minutes. He didn’t seem to be getting better. So I started talking to him. First softly, which just made him rock a little. Then I talked loud and even a little stern and he stopped crying and went still. And his body opened, and he forced open his eyes, and he rolled and got to sitting and just stared at me.

“What happened?” I asked.

At length he was able to say the words. He held up the vest, and stared at me like he was looking up through a cell grate.

“Ripped me off,” he said. And when there was nothing I could do, closed his eyes, and began once more to cry.

***

Some drug dealers are used to getting ripped off. They’re prepared for it. Accept it even. At least the understand. But that kind doesn’t come to a gather. Not that type, not for us. We get guys like this. Nice guys. Guys with houseplants. Guys in their forties. Guys who like being one of the kids.

I got him inside his RV and he saw what I was and he started to talk to me, talk as he sobbed. They’d taken everything. Some coke, some ope, k, x, mushrooms, acid, peyote, DMT. Some vallies and some poppers, a few wierd tryptamines. I could tell it was his collection. His hobby. His life. And also his livelihood. Thousands and thousands of dollars, all in a moment: gone.

There wasn’t anything I could do for him. Give him a joint, light it for him watch him smoke with a shaking hand. Get him into his bed. Watch him sag and slump, broken. Lay him down. Hope he’d get some sleep.

I looked around the room. Framed photos. A wicker basket. Navajo blankets. Three bongs in a cabinet of wood and glass. A quiet life. Maybe lonely, maybe sad. No room for bad people. Not ready for anything like this.

Poor man.

Poor man who couldn’t make an insurance claim. Poor man who couldn’t call the police. Poor man who had no idea who did this and never could and never would find out. No recompense. No closure. Poor man.

Nothing looked broken in. Nothing much looked touched. The closet door was open. Must have been where the vest had hung. Had the thief known just what to look for? Known where it was? Known what he’d get? Or she? Or they? Did I really know anything? Not really. And never would.

I locked the door behind me. Walked into the street as people began to drift back from the effigy and the end. Walked through the people and the first rays of dawn. Walked back home.

Home was a pickup truck. I made sure the cab was still locked. Then I unlocked it and checked that everything was still there. Everything I owned was there. Not much worth stealing. Not much at all. Not worth much to anyone but me.

I could have used some sleep. But suddenly I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was parked on the edge. I always was. So I turned the key and turned around, and drove away.

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~ by davekov on 17 November 2012.

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