(This story is dedicated to Linda Gurasich who brought me from a deer twisting on a fence to the dream of Mars. May we all be so lucky.)
I woke up (fucking hell) and like many of us I was still in bed: not on a floor, not in a pantry hiding from remnants of a defeated army. The bed was in a standard room on the third floor of a nondescript Hilton. I opened the curtains. My eyes were immediately blinded. Outside was a brick-bright desert town near the Mexican border. It was all coming back to me.
Against the wall was a humming refrigerator with a door featuring small bottles of whisky, vodka and beer. I took one out and downed it with some of my special medicine prescribed by a woman whose face was slightly scarred. She was a sort of therapist who specialized in storm clouds and treated me like the survivor of a sunken ship. When we were together, we stayed up all night avoiding people we felt certain were trying to find us. Her counsel was mostly touch, pull, and push, but she also was willing to listen to my whingeing. My complaints centered around kids standing against a wall and then disappearing in the concussion cloud of a bomb, instantly turning bodies dusty white, minus ear drums, and the deafness stretched from the pilot’s cockpit, to the mountain tops, and then across the oceans, through the capitals, and into the gold-plated rooms of countless presidents and prime ministers: no one could hear a thing. War was a merry-go-round from one century to the next and I believed it was not a problem of politics, but rather chemistry, genetics, the ringing of church bells, the call to prayer, the flutter of cash counters, the wail of a sirens, the silence of the aftermath, idiots standing over bodies. It was all of those things and more and my therapist was good at shushing me to sleep with her quiet voice and appeal to childhood memories. Yet, for all of that, I was still a man who was slowly going deaf.
Today was the end of time. The clock face chided me. I was scheduled to contribute an educational talk at the local high school. Wrong, wrong…I knew without a doubt. My heart probably couldn’t take it and I’d die in front of a hundred people.
Amidst the sadness and angst was one piece of humor. The mascot of the school was called “The Heater,” and whoever this poor bastard was, he wore metallic pants, a tin breast-plate, and some kind of barbeque grill on his head. I’d seen The Heater on a billboard at the airport. He was obviously a spaceman who had been enslaved to cheer teenage athletic teams. I was doing the whole thing because I owed an old friend. Her name was Linda and I knew she was going to end up hating me.
A few teachers had sent me a flyer advertising the talk. There was a background of fire and overlaying the flames were capital letters: “GENOCIDE, WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE FROM THE INSIDE!”
I considered this a paid vacation, even though I’d bought the plane ticket. A local group of Chicano boosters were reimbursing my room and meals for a day. I’d get a check after I delivered the lecture or maybe even cash. That would be nice.
Money was not my specialty and my most recent attempt at entrepreneurship was a disaster. I’d lost a few paychecks and much of my self-respect. The venture had made a fantastic leap into the new and exciting market of recycled used rubbers. As strange as that sounded, it definitely looked good on paper, at least to me. After shredding and a hot chemical bath, both male and female condoms were to be melted and formed into synthetic rubber bladders for basketballs. Nobody would be the wiser, bouncing long rides and furtive quickies up and down the court. The hook was the environmentally friendly aspects of the business and the fact that it required no special training for employees, only steely determination.
We figured to hire hotel maids and taxi cab drivers who’d been fired. Only instead of the shit they normally put up with, they’d get gloves, masks, and company showers. It was to be all minimum wage, but with a chance at profit-sharing once we had made it as the first recycled used condom company in the world. Our tentative name, only for discussion purposes, was “Melted Balls, Inc.” I was to be the CEO.
My ex-partner, who had hoped to become the CFO, started the whole mess with a simple, yet complex question: “Do you know how many used condoms there are in this country every day? Just look at the sky on a clear night. That’ll give you an idea. We’re talking about god here, in more ways than one.” After a few drinks, he convinced me to write the business plan and put up the seed money. “My brother is a big deal at an investment firm. The fix is in,” he smiled. “We’ll get the financial backing, no problem.”
“How about collection of the rubbers,” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll come up with something.”
At some point in our corporate relationship I realized he was pissing on my shoes, but then I noticed it was me pissing down my legs and I was half asleep and there were bottles all over the floor. I am ashamed to admit that I have a Marketing BA from a very conservative, but prestigious university. My favorite teacher only had one arm and used to fart in front of the class. Nobody laughed. My business degree is an atomic bomb and as fate would have it, the used rubbers proved to be the radioactive fallout.
I walked into the high school to check out the gym where I’d be speaking that night. In the office I asked for Linda. They told me she was on a different campus and that I could wait in the teacher’s lounge. The bell rang just as I sat down in an overstuffed chair. Teachers were washing their hands and taking final bites of food and the halls were alive with loud, dramatic students. As the last teacher went out the door I asked if I could get some coffee. “Sure, but somebody broke the pot, so you’ll need to go downstairs to the other lounge. There’s a good coffee maker down there,” and then she was gone.
The other teacher’s lounge was easy to find. Just to the side of the lounge door was a card table with drinking glasses. As I passed the table I bumped it and a glass fell and shattered. Nobody was around except a kid sitting outside one of the classrooms on the floor. He got up and walked over to the glass and stomped on the shards. Then he sat down, took off his shoes, and started to remove the glass fragments from the rubber soles.
I went into the lounge and found a nice ceramic pot, but there was no coffee. I grabbed a newspaper and went back outside and started to scoop up the broken glass. Just at that moment a teacher came into the hall and walked down to the boy.
“You need to come back to our door,” she said. The kid said, “Hmmm…no…can’t do that.”
“Don’t make me call your mother.”
“Go ahead. She won’t answer. She was drinking last night.” I was becoming interested in the kid. The defiance in his demeanor was religious, spiritual, a kind of invisible dance.
“Then I’ll get the principal.”
“So? He’s a dick. I’m tired of him trying to bully me.” The teacher went back to her classroom.
The kid continued to pick glass out of his shoe and then he cut himself. It wasn’t a bad cut, just big enough to produce a dribble of blood. He took his other hand and squeezed down on the finger to get even more blood to flow. He began to collect the drops in the indented grout between the white tiles.
“What are you doing?”
“Making a swimming pool for vampire ants,” he said.
“Does it hurt?” No answer. “What’s your name?”
“Nimit,” he said, “and no, it doesn’t hurt.”
“You mean Nimitz?”
“No Nimit. Just Nimit.”
“What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s my name. I’m an Indian, with a little Mexican. I’m different from you. I don’t like you.”
“I’m giving a talk tonight at the gym. Are you going?”
“How old are you Nimit? Do you drink coffee?”
“What’s it to you?” Long pause. “I’m sixteen, or so they tell me. Yeah, I like it black, no sugar, no milk.”
“So do you want a cup? I need to go get a bag from the teacher’s lounge upstairs, but when I come back I can make us some.”
Nimit looked at me and shook his head. “Hmm…I don’t want no coffee from you.”
I looked at Nimit and imagined Linda. She was framed between two moons. I thought about reading “The Martian Chronicles” on the plane the day before. As the pages fluttered, one after the other, pushed by ancient winds on the surface of canals, marked by crystal fruit dangling in the dreams of dry cities, the waving death, all the mixed up insanity, I wanted to go to the Mars of Bradbury’s brain. I wanted to escape who I was. Instead, I was on my way to talk about genocide to high school students with chlamydia and deep frustrations.
There was the breath of futility in what I had become and a dead Mars seemed preferable. I was carrying the poetry of the book in my mind. These were not the walls of a public school. No, I was inside a 50,000 year old temple. I was an intruder attempting to make changes, trying to influence the apparitions of priests and coveted maidens. I realized who I was, but it didn’t matter. Just because I was inside a different world, I was still ignorant; the most ignorant man in the high school. There was a circle on the ground and beyond the circumference, I could not see. My awareness caused me to think about ghosts and how the past might overtake my reality. Thousands of bodies stretched before me wherever I looked. The antiseptic halls of the high school became telescopes that magnified the killing grounds. I alone was living the “Martian Chronicles” and like the book, it was a lonely enterprise, unbalanced, and without hope.
I hesitated for a moment and looked back down at Nimit. The blood pool was getting longer. It was beginning to look like a canal as the blood extended past one tile and then another in a moving line. “Do you want anything? Maybe the nurse?”
“Hmmm…no, nothing from you,” and then he smiled. Nimit was the kind of being that personalized everything and everyone. I sensed he was content with his shitty life, closed off from people, living in a future devoid of past pains. The moment was his ground and he would defend it until death.
“Nimit,” I said, “I’m predicting great things for you. Don’t let me down.” I began to walk away.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be unexpected, you’ll see.”
“Are you going somewhere?
“To Africa, it’s another planet…I’ll see you there someday,” and with that I went out into the street and walked back to the hotel.
I hoped Linda would understand how difficult it was for people caught on the surface of Mars. How the sand storms blew over us, burying our bodies upon strange highways. I had intruded on Nimit and he wanted nothing I offered. For that matter, he had rejected most of the human race and all of its high school ideas and motivations. Nimit had given me courage. My measly words about genocide would have to wait for another day and forgoing the $200 from the Mexicans was no big deal, not for a man with over $600 in his bank account.
The Hilton waited and I went inside to pack my bags. The pressurized suit was laid out neatly on the bed and I thought about how lucky I was…how I had dodged the used condom train and all of the millions of dollars that would have made me so unhappy.
I was more Martian than not. I was becoming just like Nimit. Shit, maybe I was Nimit.
May we all be so lucky.