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From a major new international voice, mesmerizing, inventive fiction that probes the tender places where human longings push through the cracks of a breaking world Under Cancún's hard blue sky, a beach boy provides a canvas for tourists desires, seeing deep into the worlds underbelly. An enigmatic encounter in Copenhagen takes an IT consultant down a rabbit hole of speculation that proves more seductive than sex. The collapse of a love triangle in London leads to a dangerous, hypnotic addiction. In the Nevada desert, a grieving man tries to merge with an unearthly machine.

After the Sun opens portals to our newest realities, haunting the margins of a globalized world thats both saturated with yearning and brutally transactional. Infused with an irrepressible urgency, Eikas fiction seems to have conjured these far-flung characters and their encounters in a single breath. Juxtaposing startling beauty with grotesquery, balancing the hyperrealistic with the fantastical as though the worlds he describes are being viewed through an ultraviolet filter, in one Danish reviewers words he has invented new modes of storytelling for an era when the old ones no longer suffice.


'Striking literary craftsmanship in an experimental mix of shock-lit, sci-fi, dada and Joycean glints presented as loose time scenes that slide in and out like cards in the hands of the shuffler. By the end, this reader had the impression of having been drawn through a keyhole'-Annie Proulx

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2021
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Penguin
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english
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			RIVERHEAD BOOKS

			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			penguinrandomhouse.com



			English translation copyright © 2021 by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg

			First English-language edition published by Riverhead 2021

			Originally published in Denmark as Efter Solen by Forlaget Basilisk, Copenhagen, in 2018

			Copyright © 2018 by Jonas Eika

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			Riverhead and the R colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Names: Eika, Jonas, 1991– author. | Hellberg, Sherilyn Nicolette, translator.

			Title: After the sun / Jonas Eika ; translated by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg.

			Other titles: Efter solen. English

			Description: New York : Riverhead Books, 2021. | Originally published in Danish as Efter Solen by Basilisk in 2018.

			Identifiers: LCCN 2020042277 (print) | LCCN 2020042278 (ebook) | ISBN 9780593329108 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780593329115 (ebook)

			Subjects: LCSH: Eika, Jonas, 1991– —Translations into English. | LCGFT: Short stories.

			Classification: LCC PT8177.15.I43 E3813 2021 (print) | LCC PT8177.15.I43 (ebook) | DDC 839.813/8—dc23

			LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020042277

			LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020042278

			International edition ISBN: 9780593420188

			Cover design: Lauren Peters-Collaer

			Cover art: Dorian Legret

			Book design by Lucia Bernard, adapted for ebook by Maggie Hunt

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblanc; e to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

			pid_prh_5.7.1_c0_r0





CONTENTS


			Alvin

			Bad Mexican Dog

			Rachel, Nevada

			Me, Rory and Aurora

			Bad Mexican Dog





ALVIN





I arrived in Copenhagen sweaty and halfway out of myself after an extremely fictional flight. Frankly, I would use that word for any air travel, but on this trip I had, shortly after takeoff, fallen into a light feverish daze in which I relived a series of flights I had taken earlier in my life. First, there was the trip home from Nepal with my ex-wife, then-girlfriend, our first trip together, when we, maybe out of boredom, curled up in our seats and took turns miming various sexual scenarios that the other person had to guess and sketch on a piece of paper, which we cut into pieces and reassembled into new situations to mime again, so that the game could continue for eternities. In my daze was also my departure from Copenhagen six years later, after she became pregnant around the same time that she had been cheating on me with a colleague, and I was so panicked and grieved by my jealousy—which seemed just as impossible to live with if the baby was mine as if it wasn’t—that I packed my things, went to the airport and said Málaga to the man behind the counter, for some reason I said Málaga. Additionally, I relived a flight home from a work trip a few years later, during which I was unable to work, to say a word to anyone, because I was completely paralyzed by what I had seen from my window during takeoff: Past the gates, overlooking the runway, there was an observation deck where kids of all ages stood with their parents watching the planes take off. At one corner, a woman stood with her back to the railing—long, dark hair in the frozen sun—looking at a man running toward her, across the deck, and as we flew past he fell to the ground as if shot by a gun. I couldn’t hear the gunshot, if one had even been fired, and the plane continued into the clouds with me sitting stiff in my seat for the rest of the flight, doubting what I had seen. What was uncomfortable, feverish, about the stupor in which I reexperienced these flights, was how it slid across the surface of sleep as if over a low-pressure area, into a zone in which I was vaguely aware of the original flight, the one I was on now, which for that reason was hidden somewhere underneath or behind: the cabin hidden behind, the food cart, my fellow passengers and the clouds outside the window hidden behind these past, recalled and also in that sense extremely fictional flights. I felt a hand on my shoulder and opened my eyes to a single-faced flight attendant. Everyone else had already left the plane. The cabin was quiet and empty. On the way out, I looked at the windows and the carpet, the overhead luggage compartments and emergency-exit signs, and I ran my fingers along the thick stitches in the leather seats. At passport control, I passed quickly through the entrance for EU citizens. I took the metro to Kongens Nytorv and hurried to the bank’s headquarters to make it in time for my meeting with the system administrator that afternoon. As I turned the corner, I smelled something moldy and burnt, a mix of fire and vegetable rot, and when I saw the red-and-white police tape, I started walking faster. The building had collapsed and tall piles of marble, steel, pale wood and office furniture lay dispersed among other unidentifiable materials. Beneath the scraps I could make out the edge of a pit, places where the earth slanted steeply into itself in the way that lips sometimes slant into the mouths of old people. Three or four servers protruded between the floorboards and whiteboards; funny, I thought, since the floors had just been elevated in expectation of rising sea levels. A police officer told me that the cause of the accident was unknown, but most likely—given the blackout and aftershock that had awakened most of the street—some kind of explosion in the power supply lines had opened the pit that the building was now sunken into. It had happened late in the night, no one was hurt. His eyes wandered as he spoke, as if he were keeping an eye out for something behind me. Behind his head hung a thick swarm of insects, coloring the sky black above the wreckage. I called my contact at the bank and was sent straight to voice mail, walked to the nearest café and took a seat at the high table facing the window. I was eating a bowl of chili when the door opened and cold air hit the left side of my face. A person came over and sat next to me. I looked up from my chili at his reflection in the windowpane: young man, mid-twenties, short dark hair parted to one side, tall forehead, round rimless glasses. I could see the street through him, but then again his skin was also pale in an airy way. “Hey, you,” he said, and ordered what I was having. The smell of café burger filled the room when the kitchen door opened, and turned into sweat on the back of my neck. “Where are you from?” the guy suddenly asked. “Um . . . here, actually,” I said, looking down at myself, “but I’ve been living abroad for a while now. What gave me away?” “Your clothes, your suitcase, your glasses,” he said. “Everything, just your appearance, really. You’re not from here.” “Have I seen you somewhere before?” I said, and regretted it immediately, tried to explain that I didn’t mean him, but his reflection in the glass, the way I was both seeing and seeing through him. He smelled like eucalyptus and some other kind of aromatic. A big group left the café, and then it was empty like the plane had been empty when I was awakened by the flight attendant, except that now the waiter was gone too and it was quiet in the kitchen. “I’m going for a cigarette,” the guy said, getting up. “Do you have an extra?” I said, even though I didn’t smoke. He grabbed his coat from the rack and said yeah and I realized that he probably just wanted some air—so damn quiet in that café—and that he probably preferred to go alone. “Nice with some smoke out here in the cold,” I said. He nodded and looked at me, his face blue-white in the frozen sun. I looked at our legs in the window and took out my phone to search for a place to stay. I was supposed to be staying in the bank’s guest apartment, that is, in one of the rooms that now lay in pieces, spread among other rooms. “Where are you sleeping tonight?” he asked. I was going to say “at a friend’s,” but that could get awkward if he asked me the address, and I couldn’t remember the name of a single hotel. “I’m not sure yet.” “You can crash with me. Everything is booked because of that summit meeting.” Neutral gaze, his blank eyes like metal bolts in the cold air. I looked at my phone. “You don’t need to check. I’m telling you the truth.” He lived in an attic studio off Bredgade. The room had no molding or stucco, its lines as sharp as the lines of his face when the light was dimmed. It shone from a floor lamp pointed upward, so that the ceiling was covered by a disc sun with two eyes in the middle from the filaments. There was a shower cubicle, a steel sink, a refrigerator and a hot plate, a full-size bed, two chairs and a trestle desk. The window was small, the cracks around it filled with sealant a shade whiter than the yellowish walls. The narrow sides of the room were bare of furniture, but one of the walls was blanketed by a spangled sheet of packaging: empty candy and chip bags, cereal boxes, paper and plastic wrappers from lollipops, chewing gum, jerky and soda bottles, all from brands unfamiliar to me, as if they had been collected in a parallel universe, where every product was slightly different from the corresponding one in our world, so that you could recognize something as, for example, a chocolate bar, but at the same time find that word an inadequate denomination, because you were encountering the object for the very first time, and it was glowing, the wall was glowing with colors I had never seen before. “Souvenirs,” said Alvin, because that was his name, and threw his coat on the back of a chair. I did the same. Alvin sat down on the bed and pulled off his shoes, and I did the same. “Nice and warm in here,” he said as he removed his socks—sweet heavy smell of winter feet—and laid them on the radiator. The room was about two hundred square feet, and so sparsely furnished that you couldn’t help but register every movement. I looked up and noticed a small metallic bottle with white waves down its body and a soft plastic straw, sewn into the fabric that held all of the wrappers together in a mottled thicket against the wall. This dull and characterless object, whose purpose was to contain and be emptied of a liquid called POCARI SWEAT, shone before my eyes with a brilliance that was wildly inciting. I blinked and felt suddenly exhausted, like after a long illness. “I think I’ll take a nap—if that’s okay with you?” “Make yourself at home,” Alvin said. I awoke from a nightmare in which I was being slapped by a floating hand—the rest of the body above the elbow disappeared into white fog or smoke—to the sound of Alvin in the shower. The curtain clung to his scrawny legs, itty-bitty, bulging chicken legs. As long as he’s not expecting anything in return, I thought to myself, before realizing that he was doing just as he would if I weren’t there. It had a calming effect on me, like someone sprawled on a bed saying “I’m not afraid of you,” and so I didn’t need to be afraid of him either. It smelled like eucalyptus. Alvin was quiet, only audible in the sound of water hitting his body and falling to the floor in splashes. Trying to be polite, I rolled onto my other side and was playing possum when he stepped out of the shower, and I waited another ten minutes before yawning and saying, “Nice with a little nap.” “Take a shower. If you want,” he said, and I did. Afterward, Alvin smoking at the desk with his back to me, I got dressed with the intention of taking a walk, but then realized it was three o’clock in the morning. Still no word from the bank. Alvin offered me a cigarette. I sat on the chair next to him and smoked. The program running on his computer resembled the internal operating system that I was here to help the bank install. When a company of that size purchased that kind of software, they also had to pay for someone to implement it, in which capacity I was to travel from Málaga to Copenhagen six times, this being the fourth. In fact, I appreciated traveling for work, even though it filled me with a sense of randomness, a suspicion that the buildings and the people and the vehicles around me could just as easily be some other ones. It was so random that I had gone to Málaga, and that there was, in Málaga, a company that specialized in the development of operating systems many companies in the Scandinavian finance sector found to be sublimely compatible with their internal organizational structures, such that I, who spoke Danish and could also get by in Swedish and Norwegian, was hired as a software consultant, despite the fact that I lacked any actual experience in the field. It was as if the contingency of all of the circumstances that sent me to Copenhagen or Bergen or Uppsala so thoroughly saturated my experience of those cities that it felt like I wasn’t really there. Sometimes, my entire working life felt like one big coincidence, or like the inevitability of a network of connections that belonged not to me but to the market, the market of Internal Operating Systems. Alvin clicked between tabs listing various amounts, some of them substantial, some staggering, connected to ID numbers that referred to other numbers, and the screen glowed silver on his forehead. “Stocks,” I said, “is that how you make a living? Actually, I install operating systems for investment banking firms sometimes, but I could never imagine myself . . .” “Derivatives,” Alvin said. “I don’t speculate about the future, I trade it.” “Bonds?” I asked. “Well, let’s start with the farmer,” he sighed, and told me about derivatives, those mechanisms which I now accept as a precondition for the economy, but which at that point made my brain press against my skull and my nose bleed. The farmer—who made an agreement with a buyer to sell his next harvest at a predetermined price at a specified date in the future—was the original example of a derivatives trader. By doing so, he was able to insure himself against market fluctuations and unpredictable weather. Conversely, the buyer could earn a profit if the value of the crops exceeded the predetermined price. Prior to 1970, derivatives trading was largely illegal, seen as a kind of gambling, but by this point, in the year I met Alvin, derivative capital grossly exceeded the capital that came from the production and sale of goods and services, including stocks. For derivatives no longer referred only to the future value of a sack of flour or a ton of rice, but to anything: the price indexes of raw materials, interest rate differentials, exchange rates, credit scores of entire corporations and nations, obviously all in the future. And they were cross-linked and interwoven and resold in large bundles, “future on future,” Alvin said, handing me a paper towel. “Forget about the forces of the free market, my friend. Commodity prices no longer refer to any value, past or present—they’re just ghosts from the future.” In the morning, when the window was fogged up and Alvin had fallen asleep with the computer on his stomach, I knew that he had told the truth. After half an hour, we had switched places, so that I could do the clicking while he told me what to click on. I don’t know whether it was the friction of the mouse, its smooth, slightly greasy surface, or the amounts being transferred, disappearing and reappearing, inseparable from their ID numbers and in time with my clicking—or the fact that we were actually having a nice time together; Alvin heated up a can of curry soup and bought more cigarettes, and at some point we laughed a lot because I had accidentally bought the rights to buy a massive batch of chickens, millions of them, from a farm in Jerusalem a few months from now—in any case, I felt at home in derivatives trading, as if it had been waiting for me, and I for it. We brought the computer into bed with us and continued trading on Alvin’s stomach. He told me—in a neutral voice and with his eyes on the screen, as he said everything else—that his parents were dead, but that he had inherited some money, which he had grown large enough in stocks to enter the world of derivatives trading, where you never actually buy the asset in question, but always resell the agreement before the closing date. He mumbled something about a guardian and about “trading without attachments” and fell asleep. I lay beside him in the pale light of the day outside, joyful and tense, like when my mother was on maternity leave with my little brother and let me watch him whenever she took her morning shower. Propped up on one elbow, my face a few inches from his, I held my breath to listen to his, afraid it would stop if I was inattentive for a second, and overjoyed every time it repeated. I had arranged his stuffed animals paw-to-paw in a circle around us, so they would be ready for him if he were to wake up. I couldn’t sleep, but that was okay, I didn’t mind lying in bed, watching Alvin’s face twitch, the contours of a dream quivering under his eyelids. Thin skin covered his eyeballs in a way that laid them bare, which made me think that maybe we all sleep with a distant awareness of being watched. At one point, he rolled over and swung his leg over my crotch, and I got a completely unexpected erection. I swear I wasn’t sexually aroused or having any fantasies about Alvin—he was beautiful only in a cold, statuesque way—my penis rose merely as a kind of reflex, irrespective of what was behind the contact or could be linked to it. We woke up after noon and went out to get something to eat. On the way, we smoked a cigarette, and the feeling of rust returned to my throat like a memory. The cars on Store Kongensgade idled in traffic, their exhaust calm and white, the faces of cyclists frozen. Roadwork was under way as usual, and Alvin disappeared for a few seconds in the steam rising from the manholes. At the café, he ordered five Secretary’s Brunch platters with orange juice and asked to have them brought out together. For ten minutes, he considered each plate one by one as if he were trying to uncover all the sides of the meat and cheese, yogurt and eggs. There was an attentiveness in his gaze that could turn to skepticism, even resentment. Every two minutes, he decisively pushed away another of the brunch platters until he was finally left with one, which he ate without deigning to look at the others. “You better get used to it,” he said, and explained that it was the only way he could get full. It wasn’t so much a matter of being able to choose, or of throwing something away; the idea of surplus didn’t interest him. But the thought that there were a hundred brunch platters just like his was unbearable, which was why he ordered five, always five, of everything. That way he could pretend to limit the offering in order to reject the four least real, “to isolate the actual brunch from the imitations,” he said. I thought it was ridiculous. Alvin took out his phone and showed me pictures of him at various shiny plastic tables, with fast-food meals in front of him. He was sickly pale in the way that people tend to be in pictures from the nineties. “This is me at KFC when the first one opened in Denmark . . . Me at the first Burger King, did you know they proposed a Whopper–Big Mac mash-up, in the name of world peace? . . . Here I am at Subway . . . Domino’s . . . The Bagel Company when they opened their first shop on Gothersgade in ’94. I swear, tasting these things for the first time was completely . . . how should I say, unique. Like I was tasting exactly them and only them. I always take pictures the first time.” The pictures had clearly been taken by someone else. It made me weirdly sad to imagine Alvin walking up to the counter and asking to have his picture taken, and the employee, out of politeness and because there weren’t any other customers at that time of day, following him to his table to do so. Alvin looked so alone and happy in all the pictures. When we went up to the counter to pay, my card was declined, the one I usually used when I traveled to Denmark for work or to visit my younger brother. I often wondered whether my ex-wife still lived here, how it would feel to run into her again now that my jealousy, which had entirely blocked my longing for her the first few months in Málaga, had disappeared. That was the worst thing about her infidelity: how the anger and powerlessness and all the other jilted feelings ended up dissolving my memory of her into a cloud of pornographic images, and when they finally left me, it was as if she had died. While Alvin took care of the bill, I turned around, ran to our table and shoveled some eggs and pastrami from one of his scrapped brunch platters into my mouth. Back in his room, he asked if I wanted to borrow some money to cover my expenses now that my bank account was sunk in the ground. I said no, it was more than enough that he was letting me spend the night. “It’s not a handout,” he said. “I think we can help each other. I’m planning to look at some silver tonight.” Two hours later, I had used the monstrous sum he had transferred into my Spanish bank account to purchase stocks in silver mines. Shortly after, he signed an agreement to buy a quantity of silver so large that my shares rose almost 30 percent over the course of the following day. This inspired a number of other people to invest in silver, which in turn increased the value of Alvin’s derivative, and by the time he resold it two days later, we had both earned a month’s salary, or at least what that would have been for me. During the intervening night, we had started the same process with another asset and its derivative, and so we continued for the rest of the week, each process morphing into the next and the nights merging in cigarette smoke and the light from our computer screens. There was something tender about the way he grabbed the screen with both hands, looking it in the eye, whenever a crucial deal was about to be signed, and then when it was: no celebration, only an affirmative nod. Even his slightest movements affected me, the way he moved in harmony with the room’s inventory or as an extension of it: his right foot jiggling on the leg of the desk chair, right hand resting on the mouse, forearm parallel with the edge of the table and opposite wall; the gentle, pious way he paced across the room, like when you’re carrying a bowl full of soup, which he often was, bringing it to me and sitting down to tell me more about derivatives trading. He wanted me to understand that it was an “effective art of promise and expectation.” “You need to learn to think of the commodity as existing in advance,” he said, “like when there’s something you’re looking forward to. As soon as the idea of a given product is on the market, it acts, and a sewer is constructed, a sewer that drains from the future in which the product will be sold, back in time, back to us. A sewer that you can of course only move through in one direction, against the current so to speak, but where you can also stop at every stride and sell your spot for a profit or at a loss, depending on how bright the light at the end of the tunnel is shining in our collective eyes at exactly that point in time, yeah, sorry for the death image, it doesn’t have to do with death at all, because you can, as I was saying, usually crawl out before you get to the end, through one of the more or less rusty and financially attractive hatches in the wall, or switch places with another sewer-walker, you know, make a swap, right, and the light was never really death, but the commodity, which has a life too, it can be sold too, don’t forget that.” It felt like we were lying in a tent on top of a tall and sad building. Nights flew by. “Alvin,” I might say in a cautious voice when it had been quiet for many minutes, feeling it was okay to speak to him in that way, “hey, Alvin?” “Yeah?” “Are you asleep?” “If I was, I wouldn’t be answering you, would I?” “No . . . but Alvin, you were on fire today! You demolished that municipality when you sold them that swap loan. As soon as the interest rates start to rise, and the trigger is released . . .” “My friend,” he said, “of course the money we’re making is money other people are losing. That’s just the nature of derivatives. But that doesn’t mean that we’re doing it because we want others to lose.” “But that kind of leverage is completely integrated . . .” “Yes, exactly, that’s what makes it possible for the market to even exist. It’s so obvious that it doesn’t make any sense to think about it.” I couldn’t do it myself, but I could easily imagine that it would be possible for someone with many years in the business to refrain from rejoicing in those who were necessarily losing. To edit them out of the image, by an act of will working slowly and covertly inside you, so that in the end only your own victory remains, and you’ve completely forgotten that you’ve done it, that you’ve edited them out. Where does that ability come from? How can you give it up? When the window was wet with condensation, the day flooding white through it, and Alvin had fallen asleep, I carefully closed his computer and put it on the floor. The sound of the CPU fan ceased like someone had stopped breathing. Alvin’s face was hard and strikingly white against his dark hair. His lips pressed together in a line that slanted a little into his mouth. I was overcome by sadness, a big, gray-white feeling, and at its edge hovered a dark object that I couldn’t grasp. Occasionally, I glimpsed a corner or a fracture, but as soon as I tried to uncover more of it, it disappeared, and then when I wanted to return to my flimsy starting point, that was gone too. I wanted to cry. I missed my ex-wife and the few friends I used to have here, all the ones who let me down or whom I abandoned as soon as they showed they needed me. Suddenly, I felt like I had given up my life back then, ceded control to someone else. My life was lonely and irrelevant. Alvin’s hands weren’t quite folded, but intertwined in a forced grasp, as if they had been trying to find each other when sleep came over him. “I’ve never been to Romania.” I gave a start under the duvet. “Have you ever been to Romania?” I heard as Alvin’s lips moved again. “No,” I whispered. “Never.” We arrived in Bucharest late at night and took a cab from the airport to the hotel. Still slightly drunk from the flight, we threw ourselves on the Bordeaux-red bedspread, wrecking the two towel swans. It felt like we were inaugurating the room, just lying there with our computers on our bellies, checking stock prices and receiving offers on their derivatives, and an hour later—when eucalyptus streamed from Alvin’s shower and intermingled with the smell of our socks on the radiator—I felt at home, and had entirely forgotten that we were in Romania. “Your turn!” Alvin shouted. I threw off my clothes, squeezed past him at the sink and stepped into the tub. “Why didn’t you use the free shampoo?” I asked through the shower curtain. “Someone else can use it,” he said, handing me a little torso-shaped bottle. “I discovered this in South Africa in ’08 and it’s the only thing I’ve used since. Give it a try.” I squeezed a little blob out of the bottle—aromatherapy: stress relief—and massaged it into my scalp. A prickly coolness penetrated and settled under my skull like an internal shower cap made of a hundred tiny massaging hands. “Fantastic,” I said, feeling the steam relax my airways as I rinsed out the shampoo. “Yeah, right?” said Alvin. “And hey, didn’t you say something about your back hurting? It’s also great for knots and tension.” Unable to reach the painful spot under my shoulder blade, I must have groaned, because Alvin said “Let me” and stuck his hands through the opening in the shower curtain. “Don’t worry, I’ll stay out here. Give me some shampoo.” I squeezed a blob into his hand, olive green and viscous, and turned my back to him. He moved up from my lower back until I said “Oooooeeee, yes, yes, right there!” and then he pressed until the knot loosened and dissolved into my body. “You seem very tense in general.” He continued up my neck and down again along the left side of my spine. “These essential oils come from a species of eucalyptus called fever tree. Isn’t that a wonderful name, fever tree? It’s because people used to plant tons of them in areas with malaria. They dry out the swamps where the mosquito larvae hatch.” He was now squatting on the other side of the curtain, massaging the back of my thighs. “The active ingredient in the oil, eucalyptol, is pretty strong. Sometimes, when it’s very hot and there’s no wind in the forest, eucalyptus trees emit so much volatile oil that even a little spark, from a cigarette for example, can trigger an explosion and start a fire. Turn around.” A slap on my calf, I turned my chest toward him. There was so much steam in the room that I could no longer see the opening in the shower curtain or what was on the other side. I leaned my head back and watched the water fall out of the air like warm rain made especially for me. “More shampoo.” I squeezed a blob into his bowl-shaped hands. They distributed the liquid between themselves and began to massage me from the forehead down. Alvin kept talking, but I was no longer listening to what he was saying. The words splashed out of the air like blobs of sound with the water, running down my face and chest with his hands, his finger pads pressing against my muscles so I could feel their soreness. The camphoric cold heat spread with his hands. From my groin they moved in arcs around my genitals and continued down my thighs. Eucalyptus, like a living suit under my skin, covered my entire body, apart from the places his hands had left untouched: my eyes, mouth, groin and ass. And because of the intense sensation all around them, my eyes, mouth, groin and ass disappeared, or they felt like lumps of nothingness, like infinite holes that would swallow anything that came near. I registered a tightening sensation at the base of my stomach, growing in intensity, like dark matter contracting into itself, and as his hands stretched to reach around my ankles, and his cheek came into view against the curtain, the sensation became so small it disappeared. For maybe ten seconds, I was in a funnel of time, seeing only myself at the other end. It was very lonely. Afterward, we lay in bed with towels wrapped around our waists and shared a cigarette. The next day we rode tirelessly around Bucharest on the kick scooters that Alvin had brought in his duffel bag. The sidewalks were smooth and nicely droning to roll across. Ornamented buildings in harmonically round shapes were interspersed with massive apartment blocks from the Communist era. A man was standing in front of the entrance to the metro with outstretched arms, his hands full of cucumber peelers. From a string tied around his neck, long, dark green peels dangled, sweating in the sun, as evidence of the efficiency of his product. Another man handed me a sheet of paper with a strange illustration on a background of twilight beach lagoon: a Barbie-like figure in a white bikini straddling a rocket headed toward the upper right corner, the rocket transparent, so you could see its three layers: three penises contained within each other, gradually increasing in length and thickness along the measuring tape running parallel to them. I folded the piece of paper and put it in the pocket of my khakis. A woman, her eyes pure iris, dropped a watermelon in a pedestrian crossing. Impossible to see the sky behind power lines stretched between telephone poles. CABINET PSIHOLOGIC was written on a yellowish house with cracks in the walls. A group of kids observed a beetle trapped inside a glass vase turned upside down on the asphalt. Water like dust fell onto my boiled skin from valves in the cafés’ awnings. Cash made of plastic in Alvin’s cold hands, impossible to rip, soak, set on fire. He said, “What’s mine is yours.” “Thanks” died unsaid on my lips, as if someone had placed a long, cold finger over them. I remember all the things he used to do: pelvis against the handlebars of the scooter, center of gravity sinking into his knees, he leans into the bumps on the road. The slight irony in the way his fingers hold a cigarette. That day, even the planes were beautiful. Broken air. Plants shooting up through broken asphalt. Rancid smell of beef and other dead animals in a market on the city outskirts. A gorgeous butcher shop, wasps floating in blood. “I never use public transportation,” Alvin said. We were eating breakfast in dark-green patio chairs in the fenced parking lot of a gas station. We had taken a busy road lined with apartment blocks and auto body shops, a good hour past the railway tracks that bordered the city to the west. Under umbrellas five yards from us, a group of men in work clothes were drinking beers and smoking with their eyes on the screen. You couldn’t hear anything over the traffic, but the outdated television set and their silence were enough to make me feel like I was sitting in a bar or community center with its own slow kind of time. Most of them were about my age, one closer to Alvin’s. The skin on their faces was hard and dry like the skin of hands. Their heads followed the waitress, who I think was the owner’s daughter, not more than twenty years old. Every ten minutes, she would come out with a new beverage and candy bar for Alvin and me, since Alvin had ordered a large assortment and paid extra to have her serve them to us one by one. Now she was filling our plastic cups with a black liquid that resembled Coke, but that turned out to be terribly bitter, almost antiseptic. “When you travel by scooter, you don’t miss a thing,” Alvin said. “There aren’t those breaks in continuity, like when you arrive at one place from another underground or in the cabin of a plane . . . Oh fuck, I’ve tried this before! It’s just Romanian Chinò!” He held up the cup in front of his face, disgusted. “Exactly this . . . I’ve had this before!” he said, and dumped the liquid onto the sidewalk. He gathered his composure for a moment before he continued: “But still, it’s like the city stays at the level of surface. I think it’s because of the speed, how everything just slides by. You can’t pretend you’re able to see through any of it.” And then the cup was yanked out of my hand and emptied like Alvin’s. I looked up at a tall, sunburnt man in work clothes. He put my cup back on the table and nodded toward the street. We followed his gaze and looked back at him, perplexed. “Yes,” he said, looking me in the eye with crossed arms and a didactic expression on his face, patient and determined, and I felt ashamed. “What does he want?” Alvin asked. “I think he wants us to leave,” I said. “But we’re in the middle of a tasting here—” “Yes,” the man repeated. One of the younger men in a black tank top came out of the shop with the rest of our purchases in a bag, which he dropped into Alvin’s lap. “Okay,” Alvin said, gathering the empty wrappers and cans. We got up, unfolded our scooters and rolled away, bottles and papers hanging out of Alvin’s pockets, bulging out of his duffel bag, clinging to him. Back in the city center, we passed an exact replica of the Arc de Triomphe. The boulevard was forty yards wide, divided by a bed of flowers and a fountain lit up in neon colors: blue, pink, silver. There were clothing stores with names like Fashion Victim and Shopping Is Cheaper Than Therapy. In the old city center, we stopped at a street theater, folded up our scooters and stood among the other spectators. I could feel the body heat, not only from the people standing closest to me, but like a homogeneous cloud that everyone in the audience was simultaneously producing and contained within. Everyone’s attention was focused on the stage. The sun had set but its light was still in the sky, a pale blue afterglow canceling out the dark for a little longer. Some had children on their shoulders, others leaned their heads back and laughed into the sky whenever something funny happened. On stage, about twenty yards in front of us, were two people on stilts, one with a snare drum and the other with some sort of little horn hanging around her neck, playing a medieval tune mixed with a bit of jazz. At their feet, two petite figures, costumed as knights in red and green, approached each other and exchanged what sounded like hostilities. I repeated their words out loud. A peculiar combination of sounds I didn’t understand entered my body and came out of my mouth; I didn’t know the language, but it made me high. Just as involuntarily, I repeated the next thing that was said, and Alvin responded by repeating the lines of the other knight. Now they were throwing themselves forward, tightly interlocked at the elbows, using all their weight to drag each other to the ground. The one in green gave in and took a step backward to keep his footing, tipping his upper body back so that the one in red was lifted into the air, where he hovered horizontally for a few seconds before he landed, sending the one in green into the air in turn. Their struggle turned into a dance, their bodies like leaves somersaulting in the wind without letting go of each other. They kept shouting, the dance an extension of their struggle, and we kept repeating what they said. Abruptly, the knights came to a stop in the grip with which the dance had started. Their feet yielded beneath them and their bodies lay outstretched, almost horizontal in the air. And then they fell to the ground with their foreheads pressed against each other. It was quiet. They raised their faces and looked each other in the eye. One of them said something, loud and clear, but with a tenderness too, and as I repeated what he said, applause erupted around us. I turned to Alvin and repeated the line, yelling as loudly as I could, again and again, until I felt a poke on my shoulder. A young woman, laughing, said in English, “Do you know what you just said to your son?” “No,” I said, “he’s just my friend.” “Your Romanian is terrible.” “But what did I say? What did it mean?” “You said, ‘My brother, you may never leave me again.’ ” I don’t know whether Alvin heard her, he looked as indifferent as usual: horizontal mouth and metal-bolt eyes, not a single direction in that face. Back at the hotel, we took a shower one at a time. “Use my shampoo,” he said, squeezing past me. I can’t describe the joy I felt lying next to him, all of my muscles exhausted, unable to fall asleep. The darkness was thick, our breathing heavy, but each of us knew the other wasn’t asleep. Our awareness filled the room like something large and encompassing, and if I was inside it then Alvin was too. Later that night, I heard him sit up, swing his legs over the edge of the bed and put on his clothes. He got up and gently lifted the duffel bag that had been packed in advance, but couldn’t avoid a little clinking from the bottles and paused for a second. He stood still, probably trying to hear whether he had woken me up, though I prefer to think of those seconds as seconds of doubt. That way he can stay, as strong and indefinable as ever, sleeping, trading, showering in my memory. After he closed the door behind him, I stayed in bed for several hours without turning on the light. When morning streamed white into the room, I packed my things and left the hotel on the scooter he had left behind. At the airport they told me that I didn’t have any money. None of my bank accounts existed anymore, my debit cards were untethered, their ties fluttered in the wind. I laid all the cash I had on the counter and was told that I probably had enough for a train ticket. The continuousness of the trip calmed me down. Back in Copenhagen, I went to the bank hoping to get in touch with one of the employees who knew and could probably help me. The ruins were still there. I climbed a piece of marble at the edge and looked over the wreckage, which lay spread across a large expanse, torn up like a lake full of garbage, steel-gray and gray-white, yellowish with wood here and there. Above hung a dense swarm of insects and a dark, sweet smell like rotting tea leaves. I broke into a run across the wreckage, calculating my leaps and landing deftly, all at once feeling young and in control of my body. I found a pit between two big pieces of marble that was fairly accessible and appeared to flatten out a few yards below. Holding on to the marble, I lowered myself down, finding a foothold in the jagged walls. The air became heavy, the insect sky framed by the opening of the pit; my toes grazed the ground, which seemed solid. I let myself fall, hunched over and continued on all fours through the narrow tunnel that opened darkly in front of me. The marble was hard against my knees; in places, I had to pull them up to my belly or arch my back to avoid sharp edges and protrusions. The tunnel narrowed and turned, and I followed its path on my elbows, dragging my torso behind me, until suddenly my head was poking into something that resembled a room—a big hole created when the building had collapsed: steel, plaster and wood held up by large rock fragments. But the materials were all so irregular, haphazardly placed and full of cracks leading to other tunnels, that it was impossible to get a sense of the room’s dimensions. Bank employees lay curled up, in broken and cocooned positions dictated by the uneven walls of the pit, with computers in their laps or on their stomachs. Their faces were dirty and pale, some were wearing masks in the dusty air. “Are you looking for someone?” a young man asked, and came over to help me out of the wall. “No,” I said, and managed to stutter the name of the system administrator. “Follow me,” he said, and showed me through the cracks and holes, crawling, climbing and snaking ahead depending on the spatial parameters. Something about the writhing way he moved his body gave me the sense that he was being pulled or sucked through the passageways. That some subterranean intelligence or will had laid the bank in ruins and was now forcing its employees into new shapes. People had set up work spaces in the most unexpected places. Cables drew electricity in every direction, illuminating the connections between them. I imagined a monstrous and hollowed-out architecture, the crushed building materials poured into a colossal anthill, held together by internet waves and the fermented, organic breath that swelled in every tunnel. A choir of fingers on keyboards rose from the depths. We slid around a warped steel plate, legs first, and into another room. At its center, the system administrator was seated on a pillow in lotus pose with three screens in front of her. A mouse rested on a hunk of marble by her right hand. “What the hell,” she said, and looked up at me, laughing. “Weren’t you supposed to be here ten days ago?” “Yes,” I said, and started to make up an excuse that made no sense to me, and took a step forward, kicking some small rocks with my foot. After maybe ten seconds, they hit the water. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, dismissing my apology with a wave of her hand. “Let’s get to it, then.”





BAD MEXICAN DOG





There’s something special about the beach because I’m a beach boy. Something’s supposed to happen down at the beach. I remember the beach in Essaouira, Marseille, San Juan, where it didn’t happen, and every night I looked up at a sky so blue between power lines it made my face hurt. Not because there’s anything special about the sky, only that it’s sometimes a very hard blanket stretched tight over my head, making me feel an impassable distance. If I was in heaven I’d be looking up at Earth, blue between power lines. I’m a fifteen-year-old thin and brown-haired boy with green eyes. I move with a little curve in my back like a panther, small and bashful because no one notices me. Now I’m in Cancún, Mexico, and I’ve been standing in front of the counter for a while without being seen. It’s early in the morning, and the owner is fighting with his wife about a boy who quit without notice just today. I picked this beach club because the lion on its flag reminded me of an English tourist with a full beard who gave a big tip in Essaouira, Marseille, San Juan. The owner turns to look at me with short-fuse eyes, but before he gets the chance to tell me off I say this:

			“Word is you need a boy?”

			“We always need boys,” the owner replies, “but are you a real beach boy?”

			I say yes, I’m made of the right stuff, and list my previous employments.

			“All right then, follow me,” he says, and walks around to the back of the square bamboo hut, which is also the club’s bar and reception. He opens the door to an elongated storage room. Towels, fans, sunscreen, after-sun. Half-liter bottles of mineral water naturelle in a cooler. The morning sun makes spots on my skin through the bamboo wall. The owner throws a pair of black swim trunks and a white undershirt on the bench and tells me to get changed. Then he leaves the room, and while I undress, I can see, past the bar through a chink in the wall, the sky and the ocean so blue between beach chairs it tickles my crotch. There’s something I’m here for, there’s something I have to do. In the sand in front of the bench, an elongated pool has been dug and covered with pool-blue plastic. The water is full of small jellyfishy blobs swimming around like living water. My legs are too short to reach, but I can feel the slimy dampness under the soles of my feet.

			“You know the deal?” shouts the owner, and opens the door as I’m pulling the swim trunks over my hips. “You keep your tips. The rest is mine.”

			I agree, and he straps a fanny pack over my swim trunks. There’s a pouch for lotions on one side, and four round pockets that’ll stretch for water bottles. I can feel the owner’s chest hair against my shoulder as he suits me up. He says the other boys will tell me everything I need to know about life on the beach.



* * *



			—

			There are 480 beach chairs total, 24 rows of 20, and we’re 6 boys, that’s 4 rows or 80 chairs for each. If you’ve got your own section under control, if none of your guests need anything—beverages, lotioning up, a little shade or face fanning—then you can try your luck up by the entrance. It’s on those twenty meters of boardwalk that stretch from the reception desk down to the beach chairs that you have to make the right impression. This is where I get to see the other boys in action, get to know their style. This is where I see Immanuel.

			When the French lady in the sun hat is halfway down the boardwalk, he lifts one foot and takes aim with a decisive gait. But he does it cool, and the way he makes his hips tilt as he walks, long waves of bone and tawny brown skin pulling him across the sand, makes it happen in slow motion in front of me: each step reveals all of its stages, from the heel strike to the sole worming toward the pads of his toes, and the sand jumps little angel hops around his heel. My eyes slide up to his hips again, and I can see his pelvis tilting with each step from side to side, and I think of crustaceans and mottled fish swimming around in the shell of his pelvis, in the light blue ocean lapping against his pubic bone. It’s very powerful, Immanuel’s groin, rocking up the boardwalk as everything else about him fades, his long black hair and tawny brown skin, and when he’s ten feet away from the lady in the sun hat something ashen has come over him, like an old waiter at a French café.

			“Welcome to the beach club, madam. What if I were your personal boy for the duration of your stay? Shade, sun, sunscreen, massage and cold drinks, whatever you need?”

			And the lady with the sun hat says thanks for the offer and hands her bag to Immanuel, and he winks at me as they walk by. He’ll make good money on her, sure as the ocean is blue.

			Then it’s my turn, I strut straight ahead with a little feline curve in my back toward the English couple on the boardwalk so they can’t not see me, but they don’t see me until we’re a few feet away from each other and I say, “Good morning, what if I were your personal boy—” but by then I’ve already missed my chance to make a natural break in their path and offer myself, so they know they want me without knowing I want them—I didn’t hit the beat like Immanuel—and the man waves his hand disapprovingly.

			Getting yourself a side gig and some extra cash: you get one shot a day. So I trot restlessly up and down through my 4 rows of 20 and offer to lotion them up and fan their faces. I change their towels and adjust the parasols to follow the path of the sun in the sky, getting bored at the zenith. In the afternoon, the guests start to fry, and I rub sunscreen and after-sun all over their bodies. As I’m straddling a Swedish man lying on his belly with two belts of flesh over his loins, I see Ginger, the English boy, giving it a go up on the boardwalk. He’s whiter than the sand, though the sand is white as the coconut filling in a Bounty bar, and his hair shines copper in the sun. He’s beautiful, Ginger, but his gait is a bit too bovine, very thin knees, he doesn’t exude that supple, light-on-the-toes feeling you look for in a boy at all. A beach boy can’t look like he’s obeying gravity too much, I think. The Swede’s flesh belts slip between my fingers. As I’m holding them tight and pulling them apart so I can rub the sunscreen deep into his back, I see Jia, the Chinese boy, heading toward two German women, waddling carelessly, like his bones and joints aren’t fully formed. With his bulging round belly and small hips, he’s a real boy, maybe the most boyish of us all. The Germans take the bait right away. One of my hands has disappeared between the flesh belts closing around my wrist. I rearrange the organs in there, pull out a kidney and fling it across the sky, and see myself trailing behind it like a shooting star or just a seagull maybe, but I’m a beach boy. That’s the contract I signed.



* * *



			—

			Then it’s nighttime, and I’m sitting on the bench in the changing room next to Immanuel. His skin is hard and smooth like stained wood. He peels an orange and slices into the flesh with his knife, and orange fills the room. The sun is in front of me now because the sun sets in the ocean. He feeds me the sliced-off flesh, raises the hunks to my mouth on the blade of the knife: a hard metallic flavor beneath the fresh sweetness. In his other hand, he’s holding the sliced wedges together in a bouquet, the long white string lying flaccid in the center, held together at the bottom by a little circle of peel. He loosens the wedges and spreads them into glistening tentacles, a coral, he says, and pulls the white string erect. “See, that’s the dick,” he says, laughing, and I laugh too, and he shoves the whole thing into his mouth, juice dripping down his chin. Afterward we’re silent, and Immanuel takes my dick in his hand. I rest my arm on top of his arm and do the same to him, up and down. Through the chink in the wall, the sun makes a window of light on his stomach. I can see the ocean in it. It’s throbbing in my hand. Squirt of thick white juice, first Immanuel and then me, turns orange in the sun lands in the pool-blue pool under our feet, as if the horizon is emanating from our groin, and for a second I remember a room behind the ocean. There are things I have to do, things I have to get done while I’m here.

			“Immanuel?” I ask.

			“What’s up?” he says. “And hey, just call me Manuel, it’s so much with that first syllable.”

			“Manuel, how do you do what you do up on the boardwalk?”

			“I take a guess. I guess where they’re from and how much money they have and then I try to imitate the waiters they know from back home. But you have to make yourself completely blank on the inside. If you want to look like their idea, you have to become the thing.”

			“Does that always work for you?”

			“If they’re old anyway, then they like the comfort of it. But if they’re in their twenties or thirties, they’d rather not know you’re doing it for their sake, they don’t want you speaking English to them in their own accent and all that crap. So whenever I see them with, for example, SKINNY MEXICAN BOY in their eyes, I say LET ME AUTHENTICATE THAT FOR YOU, but I say it inside and just do it.”



* * *



			—

			So, the next morning I’m standing there looking at the beach with its 480 beach chairs, 24 rows of 20. The rows look like giant tapeworms, each chair its own segment, or they’re running through the sand like rivers of meltwater trickling into the ocean. They’re the ribs of the coast. Then I get what Manuel meant, and I say it to myself up by the entrance when the German woman comes walking backlit down the boardwalk. I make myself blank and let her eyes wander over my front, which gets very hot while the wind cools my back, and when I greet her, it’s with a fresh Mexican accent on my tongue, and she says yes, certainly I can be her personal boy.

			During the next five hours, I lotion her up and fetch her cold drinks from the bar. When she gets too hot, she raises her hand and points at her face: I get down on my knees and fan it. Then she tells me to get lost and come back in ten, and as I’m walking away I can feel the cold in my back, as if that side of me has withdrawn, turned away from her and the sun. I jog up and down my 4 rows of 20 and tend to the other guests while I can. Fortunately, Jia and Ginger are helping out with my section. Manuel is taking care of the French lady with the sun hat. Today she asked specifically for him. At the zenith we’re all really busy, everyone wants water and light breezes and sunscreen for their bodies. Ginger stumbles in the sand with both hands full and lands on a young woman, his face between her butt cheeks. She screams and her boyfriend jumps up and grabs Ginger by the neck. He’s gotten up and is saying sorry with his hands above his head. I start running toward them, screaming that it was an accident, but the boyfriend doesn’t hear me; he only sees PERVERTED ASSHOLE STICKING HIS NOSE BETWEEN MY GIRLFRIEND’S LEGS. He forgets that Ginger is a boy and boys aren’t interested in that kind of thing. Ginger falls onto his side with blood coming out of his mouth; long red squirt turns orange in the sun lands on white sand. The boyfriend straddles him and lets it rip on his face. In his rage, he grabs a rock, thick red pool next to Ginger’s head. Then he gets up and turns, flees along the water, and she runs after him. Me and Jia hurry to bring Ginger’s body up into the changing room before the other guests see the hole in his head.

			After the zenith, our work rhythm falls into sync with the sun and my sleepiness. My head is throbbing like the temples of the beach, blood is pumping under the sand. The German woman says goodbye and gives me a nice tip, but by now the cold has crept into my back, which she can’t see, and turned into a hole inside me. During the last hours of the afternoon, I stop multiple times to look at the things I think are beautiful: the beach chairs, 480 in 24 rows of 20. The parasols that we move with the chairs to follow the path of the sun in the sky. The other boys wandering up and down along the rows in their sections, offering their services. The ocean topped by waves, and it’s like the beauty of all these things goes into my body and turns into a pain that keeps the hole open. I’m thinking: The ocean is beautiful without the power to keep itself blue and postcard-like all the time. It’s beautiful without the will to spare the ships sailing on it tonight. A massive pool of complete obedience. The contract it’s signed. And at the same time, I know there are sides of the ocean I can’t see, there are sides of the beach chairs and parasols that withdraw and turn their backs to me, and there’s a hole in every boy.



* * *



			—

			When me and Manuel have gotten changed, orange in the room and the sun a window to the ocean squirt of thick white juice orange in the pool-blue pool, we carry Ginger’s body out to the beach. The sand, the ocean and the sky are the same shade of black. The wind is cold against my face and makes the flagpoles groan, and things we don’t know make sounds that mingle with the ocean’s. The beach chairs appear as we pass them one by one. The sand laps against our bare legs. I’m holding Ginger’s arms, Manuel his ankles, and as we’re walking down the beach with the body between us, I get a strange feeling. It’s not romantic or tender because it’s not concentrated in any one place, like my stomach or my crotch, but spread all through my body. As if in the changing room I put on a nice new dress, an imperceptibly tight dress made of the knowledge that I’m here with Manuel and that I’ll be seeing him again tomorrow.

			We kneel and lay Ginger’s body down in the sand. A little while later, Jia and the other boys join us with six buckets of water from the pool in the changing room. We dig out the shape of a body in the sand where the boyfriend split Ginger’s head with the rock, and fill it with the water from the buckets. Hundreds of small white squirts swim around in it like living water. We grab his arms and legs and lower the body into the hole. The water splashes a little before it calms down and covers it fully, a thin layer over his face and stomach. Steam rises in the cool air. In a pentagon around the hole, we plant five parasols upside down in the sand, twist them down into the viscous layers. The last three inches of the shafts sticking out of the sand we grease with after-sun before getting on our knees and letting our assholes slide slowly down around them. We look at Ginger’s body as Manuel sings monotonously:

			We believe in Ginger / working honestly and patiently / many hours in the hole inside ourselves / Our desire for Ginger breaks loose / from Ginger / and travels through the hole over the greatest / distance / until it no longer belongs to us / We believe in Ginger . . .

			Manuel repeats the verse, and we join in one by one, rocking on the shafts. We sing while looking at Ginger’s body. It lasts for hours. Once in a while, the steam takes on colors, fluorescent blue, red and purple. Now and then a squirt of thick white juice that comes to life in the water. And when the after-sun and our secretions run dry on the shaft, the pain and the blood begin to run. White squirts in the water gather around Ginger’s skin and coalesce into a suit of jelly: the lines of his body blur, the body flickers. I can’t separate my own voice from the others’ assholes from the hole deeper inside me where the pain and foreign blood run down hollow parasol shafts soaking the sandy soil below the basin. A pool of color whirls at our knees. Then Manuel’s voice stands out from the choir, dissonant. The rest of us join in tentatively, one sound at a time, until the words take shape and we sing in unison:

			Desire for Ginger comes back through us / Desire for Ginger / as he is: the desire to create him / Ginger / as he is / to create him / The two become one . . .

			The water lights up and changes from blood red to purple to orange teeming with pink dots. A slimy fog the same colors rises and condenses in the vague outline of a body webbed with veins. A glowing creature is now visible, hovering above the basin. Suddenly it hits me that I’m thinking about dead Ginger, not that he should live again, and in the same second the creature becomes flesh and falls into the basin with a splash.



* * *



			—

			Later, we walk into one of the early-morning spots with dirty tiles and white light, where the concrete workers and taxi drivers are drinking their coffee. I like the people who work at night. We pour our tips into Jia’s hands, and he goes up to buy eggs, toast and orange juice with all the money. The liquid is very cold and pulpy in my throat. In a bowl on the table, there are wrinkly oranges that Manuel cuts into little corals. “This one is Ginger!” yells Ginger, and mashes one of them with the ashtray, squirt of thin yellow juice turns gray in the electric light lands on the tiles. We laugh and stick our fingers between the tentacles of our corals, pull the long white strings to see who has the longest and laugh again. Afterward, we play a game where we take turns impersonating people from the club.

			“Manuel?” I say into the darkness on our way back home.

			“What’s up?” he says. “And just call me Manu, it’s so much with that last syllable.”

			“Manu, how did we do that to Ginger?”

			“It was Ginger who decided to come back.”

			“But how?”

			“I don’t know, that’s just how it is. Most people want to come back, even though they forget everything they saw while they were gone. That’s the contract they signed . . . Anyway, this is me.”

			He lays a hand on the back of my neck and gives it a squeeze before turning down a dusty road with concrete buildings like mine. He says good night and winks, and as he’s walking away with his back to me, he shrinks into a little cat and lopes away, and I would like to run after him, so we could be two small cats lying together talking in his bed.



* * *



			—

			Afterward, I keep walking, looking up at the sky between power lines. It’s a very dark blue, and at the same time lit up by a secret little light because the sun isn’t here yet, but whispers up over the sloping of the globe that it’s on its way. My face hurts a little. A thin memory of something important that’s supposed to happen on the beach. A room behind another room. I can’t make it home anyway, so I find a bench near the club and sleep for an hour and a half. I dream that night has fallen, but the guests haven’t gone home yet. They’re still lying there, immobile, with their eyes closed or sunglasses on, as if they haven’t realized that the sun has gone down and it’s cold now. Then all the big cats get a whiff of the fried skin steaming in the cool night, jump out of the trees on the boulevard along the beach and flay all the guests into little pieces. Streamers of flesh and guts hang over the beach chairs, 24 rows of 20.





I can move with a little curve in my back like a panther, but I rarely do it because I’m a beach boy. I’ve sort of taken Manu’s place, because he’s taking care of the French lady with the sun hat, like he’s done for the last three weeks. She pays him a fixed salary, and they’ve started to develop what I think you’d call a personal relationship. He learns ten new French words a day. She asks about his life, also about the time before he started at the club. She’s like a pool in your backyard, says Manu, that you can’t use anyway, so you might as well throw your trash and old furniture in it. When the guests come walking down the boardwalk from the entrance, I make myself blank and approach them. LET ME AUTHENTICATE THAT FOR YOU, I say if I see them with, say, SKINNY MEXICAN BOY or SCANDINAVIAN SIMPLICITY in their eyes, but I say it inside and just do it. I’ve gotten good, maybe as good as Manu, and I know that the owner has noticed. He’s hired a new boy and pulls me aside one night to ask if I want to make a little extra. Obviously I say yeah. He gives me a bag with a video camera and some official-looking documents. He shows me pictures of a young couple and tells me play-by-play how it’s supposed to go down. He’s printed it in typewriter font on a piece of paper, which I read over and over in bed before I fall asleep. The next day, when the couple shows up, I make sure I’m their personal boy, and I do exactly like the owner said, and it works, I get it all on tape.

			When I get back later that afternoon, there’s chaos at the club because Manu is curled up in fetal position on the French woman’s belly, so the new boy has to cover two sections by himself. I jump in right away, and the next hour I rub sunscreen and after-sun onto so much skin that my hands get tired of impressions: Smooth, hard skin like stained wood. Elastic, speckled, suntanned skin, falling like curtains around my fingers. Or a gooey, vaguely greasy pelt, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. The skins are sticky, the sand is burning, the woman’s foot tasted like orange peel. My nerves are shaking and I don’t have the energy to respond to them. The other boys disappear behind parasols and suntanned hands hanging in the air and waving me over: I run around and fan faces, give massages, fetch drinks. I’m exhausted. The sun is shining.



* * *



			—

			As we’re sitting on the bench in the changing room, glittering knife in orange sun falling in wedges and the ocean, Manu gets up and pulls me down into the pool. There’s a different light, a fluorescent blue fog that makes my skin tight and slimy.

			“I’m not mad,” he says, and hugs me from behind.

			We spoon, the water covering half my face. Manu holds me, but at the same time pushes against me in a small way, his face between my shoulder blades, his knees against my thighs, so maybe I’m the one holding him. We stay that way for a long time. I can’t make out the different parts of his body anymore, his chest, arms, feet, forehead, he’s just a little shrimp on my back. The other boys are somewhere in the pool too. We’re all very small. I want to cry. I breathe in through my left nostril, which is above the water, and breathe out through the right. I close my left eye and keep the other open, so the surface of the water becomes a lid on the world. The bubbles of oxygen coming out of my nostril look like cats jumping up and down, exploding the second they hit the surface. As if they can only exist at a distance from it. But at least there they’re wild and agile, and kind of funny too. Suddenly I get water in my left nostril; the water level has risen, and I cough. I sit up and look at Manu lying there, crying silently.

			“Manu,” I say. “Manu, shouldn’t we just go home, together? I’m so tired.”

			“You go,” he says without looking at me, an eye on either side of the surface of the water. “I want to stay here a little longer.”



* * *





			We were about to leave the club when the boy with the pretty green eyes, who had been bringing us water and snacks and asking if we needed anything, came running after us with a bag on his shoulder. He politely asked whether he might be able to tell us something from his heart and if we didn’t want to listen he would let us go. Obviously, we said yes.

			Besides being a beach boy—which was just a way of getting by—he was studying film here in Cancún, and had a big exam coming up. He took some papers out of his bag—an ID card, some official-looking documents—and said that if he did well, he could get a scholarship to one of the best film schools in the United States, I think in Los Angeles or New York, I can’t remember. Texas, maybe. Calmly, he told us about the exam, that he had to film a few tiny scenes of everyday life and he was supposed to play the lead role; it would take an hour tops. He just needed a few extras.

			Lasse and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Um, do we want to?” he said. “No, of course we don’t. C’mon, Lasse,” I said. “But don’t you think Melanie would say yes?” he asked. Melanie was the coolest woman, about thirty years old, whom we had met on our trip and loved right away. She didn’t have a job or a place to live, she did nothing but travel. We were just so fascinated by her life.

			Then the boy said that of course he would understand if we were thinking, Why don’t you just get some of your Mexican friends to help you, but they’d just make fun of him, whereas Europeans are way more open to this kind of thing and just get it when you have a passion for something. I smiled and said yes, what’s the worst that could happen.

			We followed him to the hotel on the other side of the road. It didn’t look very inhabited, a large, cracked stone house with moisture in the walls, a little cold and desolate. I was actually pretty scared, but I didn’t want to say anything to Lasse, so I just giggled a bit. But now I know that you should always trust your intuition, even when it’s made of fear, because otherwise you might end up getting into a car headed somewhere strange. And even though you can’t keep up—maybe you’re still standing on the sidewalk—your body is in the car, and then afterward, every time you’re reminded of what happened, it feels like somebody else’s bad feelings, but you’re the one who has to feel them, you can never leave your body all the way. So we followed the boy up to the third floor and into his room. He went out on the balcony and set up two white plastic chairs with a view of the ocean. I was relieved that we were supposed to sit out there because at least I could just jump off and get away if he turned out to be dangerous. The boy took out his camera and set it up on a chair inside the living room, to film me and Lasse through the sliding glass door.

			The boy pressed record and got down in front of us on all fours. First, he was going to play the table, he said, we were just supposed to put our feet up on his back and talk about our time here in Mexico. We spoke in English while looking at the ocean. Afterward, he wanted to be a dog. He went behind the camera and said we should call him a dog’s name—Tikki, I think it was—and then he came in on all fours and crawled around between our legs. We were supposed to act natural, to push him a little with our feet and keep talking. Then we were supposed to call him again and ask him to clean the floor. He came in with a wet rag and rubbed our feet too, the tiles were shining.

			None of the scenes lasted more than two to four minutes, and after each one, he went back to the camera and told us what was going to happen next. Then he asked Lasse whether it was okay if he licked our feet, because that’s what dogs do to clean them. “Um, yeah,” said Lasse, and the boy started to crawl again. First he licked Lasse’s feet, slowly up and down the arch of his foot, but when he got to me, it was like he was going to eat my whole foot! It was really warm and tickled between my toes. I couldn’t stop laughing and couldn’t stay in character. He gave Lasse the camera and asked if he wanted to give it a try. Next, I was supposed to walk him on a leash (made out of a T-shirt he had tied around his neck, I was supposed to hold the other end) and make him do things, dog things. He kept licking my toes and sucking them. I kept pulling my foot away and laughing to Lasse, though I couldn’t see him behind the camera. The lens looked like a peephole in a metal door. Now the boy wanted me to use him like a table even though he was a dog. I was supposed to scold him and say all these mean things. “Bad Mexican dog.” I tried to get into character, but he stopped me and said I should kick him harder and say that I didn’t like Mexicans. I didn’t want to do that, and I was on the brink of tears, so I said to Lasse, “Babe, I can’t do this anymore. Tell him we’re done.” Lasse kept filming for a few seconds before he handed the camera to the boy and said we had to go, that the shot was probably good enough as it was. Lasse was about two heads taller than him and calmly laid a hand on his shoulder. The boy said thank you very much, and that he would come join us in two minutes for a cup of coffee.

			We got out of there as fast as we could. Lasse was laughing and said it was nice to have such clean feet. I said I felt a bit violated and would rather not talk about it. In the lobby of our hotel, we ran into Melanie and actually didn’t want to tell her about any of it, but I couldn’t keep it inside, so I said to Lasse, “Tell her what just happened to us.”

			Melanie was totally shocked. She would never have done such a thing in her life!





RACHEL, NEVADA





And then she turned her cheek to him. Even before the train left the platform, she let her waving hand fall into her lap and stared at the empty seats of the compartment in front of her. He remained on the sun-bleached wooden platform off Nevada 375 and watched her disappear into the desert toward Alamo, and he said to himself: She is always in the company of loved ones. He was frustrated because he, for almost seven years now, had only been able to live in the loneliness of their daughters’ absence. While she, even when alone and full of grief, always tried to be part of something. I’m really looking forward to being among mothers and daughters, she said back when she bought her ticket for the show. And as soon as the train started moving, they were there with her, her face radiating the same light he knew from her daylong meditation sessions in the living room. A raving look of bliss would come over her, as if her organs were being replaced one at a time by small pieces of sunlit glass. She was eighty-three and you would have thought her bones were corroding.

			Antonio’s bones were corroding; at least that’s how he felt, as if he had been lying dormant in this alkaline desert since the last ice age. He walked with slow, truncated steps, carefully lifting each foot to avoid tripping over a loose rock or the roots of a desiccated saltbush. His knee crackled and sent a dry stab of pain into his hip. With the highway at his back and the yellow setting sun in the corner of his right eye, he walked by the Little A’Le’Inn and past each of Rachel’s forty-two homes, most of them mobile, which always made him think of the town as a kind of camp or settlement, somewhere that still bore traces of arrival. Six years ago, after they buried their daughters—who had both, within a year and a half, died of cancer—Fay and Antonio sold their apartment in Boston and bought a camper to drive across the country in. It was Fay’s idea: If we’re going to go on without them we need to figure out where to go, she said, pulling Antonio out of bed. He was depressed and afraid of falling asleep at the wheel, so she ended up driving most of the way, through Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Colorado, until the road became itself a kind of sleep across the long stretches of Nevada desert. Something about Rachel, not so much its isolation as its peculiar and elastic time—which you could sense on the endless bush steppes and at the local UFO club where everyone, eager for new sightings, would mostly just wait and see—something about its protracted present, had told them that they had to pull over here, that they had to spend their final years here. Fay went to the Little A’Le’Inn and joined the club right away, and Antonio walked into the desert, as he was doing now. At the end of the gravel road, instead of going home to wait in their camper for Fay to return from the concert, he wedged a note in the mail slot and continued toward the dry steppe, which stretched dull brown from Bald Mountain, diagonally ahead, to the next mountain range twenty miles west. Out there, the mountains were black in their own shadows, the sky above them still orange between gray-purple clouds, and behind them, another steppe was flanked on both sides by mountains running parallel from north to south. The desert continued like that all the way to the Sierra Nevada, ribbed by streams and salt lakes but without any outlet to the ocean, reaching back to the Rocky Mountains five hundred miles to the east. The thought made Antonio dizzy and defiant, like the explorers who, in their journals, which he had read with enthusiasm, relentlessly rode through the desert in search of the Buenaventura River that was believed to cut across it. There was something unyielding about that image of the Great Basin, the wide-open desert devoid of a single trade route; it refused to settle in their brains.

			He opened his eyes and didn’t know he had sat down on the steppe. It was happening all the time lately—at any moment he could be drawn to the ground in a daze. A mineral darkness would bubble up inside him and begin to harden and crystallize. He got back up on his feet and shook the images out of his head, put Rachel farther behind him and turned on his flashlight. The soil was pale and rocky, sporadically covered in yellow straw, mugwort and snakeweed. It was silent, only the wind moving across the steppe, cold on his face and neck. Some nights, you could hear the small planes transporting military personnel to and from Area 51, another twelve miles into the desert. Or jet fighters in training broke the sound barrier, sending thunderous shock waves through the air. Occasionally, rays of light would shoot into the sky from LED flashlights in the hands of UFO enthusiasts signaling hope of contact. The truth was out there.

			But not tonight. Antonio reached the foot of Bald Mountain and trudged up the first stretch to the rock formation that shot vertically into the sky, and continued along it, letting his fingers slide along the surface, smooth, fluted, jagged—the fossilized irregularities like an ancient collage. Some geologists had hypothesized that a meteor had struck the shallow expanse of water that covered the whole area a good 370 million years ago. The rock face broke off, and Antonio continued in the direction it pointed, down a hill and a few hundred yards ahead, where the ground began to drop into the darkness in front of him. Guided by the beam of his flashlight, he located the tarp at the edge of the lake, pried it loose and uncovered a car battery and a lime-green carry-on suitcase.

			First, the lightning sound of electricity moving across a semi-vast distance, and then the dry lake was weakly illuminated by the lamps mounted on its shores. The lake bed a few yards below was level and white with salt deposited in layers. His hand on the suitcase, Antonio crawled down the small incline and set course for the Sender in the middle of the lake. The dark began to pulsate with crawling movements, and slowly, individual organisms appeared. First, the scraggy creosote bushes that smelled like rain and should not have been this far north—the call of the Sender must have reached them by wind and made them wander up from the Mojave. Next, the mugwort and snakeweed and evergreen goosefoot, which usually kept to the edge of the lake. A few plants had reached all the way to the Sender, where the animals were as well. A matted fabric of fur and snouts, they writhed and rubbed themselves against one another: a mountain goat, three pronghorns and a herd of black-tailed jackrabbits, kangaroo rats, rabbits and other mammals, all nuzzling the Sender.

			It had integrated all the forms of life that flocked to it, so completely that you could see it just by looking at the swarm of plants and animals. And as such, Antonio said to himself, the Sender was no more or less than the gathering it hosted. Still, he felt the urge to locate it under the fur, his gaze kept sliding upward, about five feet off the ground, where some of its surface was still visible between the lizards and reminded him of its dimensions: approximately two yards high and maybe half as wide, like a bale of hay, except parabolic on top. When he had discovered the Sender almost three years ago, its exterior—with the exception of a bulge it had acquired in its encounter with the desert soil—appeared perfectly whole and aerodynamic, crow-black and smooth, like an object meant to travel through the world oblivious to whatever matter it encountered. Now it was overgrown with a greenish-white fungus that had fused with its surface, making it spongy and porous. Its wound-like, almost breathing quality made you feel that you could stick your hand right through it—Antonio had tried once, and gotten to his knuckles. Below its outer, symbiotic layers, the Sender had perhaps retained some of its original metallic constitution.

			But it was a willing metal. At the bottom it had given in to the animals’ constant nuzzling and redistributed its mass so that there were small hollows and soft burrows that the rabbits and kangaroo rats curled up inside. Curlews and snipes had nested at the top, and at its base the metal had oozed into a trench containing just enough liquid for a cluster of fairy shrimp to hatch from their hibernation cysts.

			When Antonio first discovered the Sender, while out hunting rabbits a little farther into the desert, he kept his hands off. It must have come from Area 51, fallout from some aborted flight testing, and he wasn’t about to get involved in any of that. Whatever military exercises were conducted inside the barbed wire, they cared enough about keeping them secret to have ten uniformed men posted along a two-mile radius. Later that day, he sat with Fay at the Little A’Le’Inn, eating lunch before the weekly UFO club meeting. Should he tell her about the Sender? This was his chance to isolate her from the others—just the two of them in the desert, lonely, together—but she would probably insist that the discovery belonged to the club and everyone else searching for signs of alien life. So when she went to the meeting, he drove into the desert, hoisted the Sender into the back of their pickup truck and drove it carefully away from Area 51 to the dry lake at the foot of Bald Mountain. Five days later he returned, and when he reached the top of the hill and saw the Sender surrounded by birds and mammals, he screamed. And he watched how the animals tensed and hovered for a second above the white lake bed. He heard his own cry resonate with the call emitted by the Sender: a dark and clear metallic dissonance. With horror and pleasure, he felt an amorphous desert life unfold inside him with tectonic slowness. Then the animals fell to the ground and resumed their rubbing against the Sender. He imagined that it had been sent from Area 51 into space to attract alien creatures with its cry, but instead had crashed and was now calling out to the aliens of the earth: the waders, marsupials, wild rabbits and horned ruminants, ancient species with memories from before the earth was peopled. But it didn’t matter to him where the Sender had come from and why—all theories seemed irrelevant. Deep in his lungs he could still feel the scream that had just been in his throat, and that the Sender screamed without pause. And he felt the foreign life, simultaneously inside him and swelling in full daylight on the lake bed. It was as if the feeling he had had since their daughters’ death, of being completely isolated from everyone, had found its voice and finally become a thing in itself, a breathless, metallic longing. He had to become the Sender.

			Now, three years later, he was finally ready to go through with the operation. Five yards from the Sender, he parked the lime-green suitcase, unzipped it and arranged his implements: the scalpels, mouthpiece and spoons; they quivered with the sound of the scream. Fay was probably winding through the mountains that wrapped around Las Vegas to the north, he thought, following the train’s likely progress on a map in his head. What was she looking at right now? The closer he came to the transformation, the more he wished, the more concentratedly he prayed, that she would know what he was up to, even now on the train, before she returned home and found his note in the mail slot. He was so afraid of losing himself that he could only do it if he imagined her there holding his hand. And at the same time, he needed to be alone to come out here and do it. It had been like that since their daughters had passed away—he needed so badly to be alone, ideally somewhere deserted, and as soon as he was, he missed Fay and wanted her to be there with him. She had always seemed so calm and fearless in their relationship, as if she didn’t have any sense of being-an-I that could be destroyed. It was the same humility with which she met other people, like when they first settled down in Rachel. She had never been interested in aliens before; nevertheless, she started going to the Little A’Le’Inn, listening to people’s stories without judgment, participating in the weekly meetings and excursions of the UFO club, even studying the representation of extraterrestriality in Western popular culture on her own. You shouldn’t dismiss the actuality of these myths, she would say to Antonio when he couldn’t muster more than a laugh at that freak show, sad and frustrated to be spending yet another night alone in the camper while she was in the desert with them. He couldn’t help feeling that she was being unfaithful to him and their grief. But it’s all just business and projection, he would say, citing, for example, Ted Riddle, the owner of the Little A’Le’Inn, who in his own words started believing in aliens when he realized they were good for business, but also imagined them floating in collusion with the Feds and the UN, part of a conspiracy to take away good citizens’ right to bear arms, and that’s how they were preparing for the alien invasion, simply selling the planet. Or Antonio would cite the numerous unemployed priests in the area who had become mediums for life-forms from other solar systems. Or the self-proclaimed ufologists who numbered a good half of Rachel’s fifty-six residents, including Ted Riddle’s son Chris, who investigated the various cases of animal mutilation that occurred in the area. Horse and cattle corpses were found with their eyes, tongues and genitals cut off. In many cases, the rectum had also been removed with a razor-sharp hexagonal plug that had been driven into the animal’s asshole and ripped out with gut and flesh. Or the spine and the brain might be missing, it varied from case to case, as if someone or something was collecting the various parts necessary to re-create our species on their own planets, was Chris’s theory. And a lot points back to him, Antonio said. Think about how he’s always finding those animals before the ranchers, or that he’s just coincidentally around the corner whenever they call—he’s obviously the one mutilating those animals, but no one else sees it, because the prime suspect is some Scandinavian-type alien. In Chris’s case, thought Antonio, UFOs were a distant fiction that gave him license to commit these crimes, and even to make money off them, in the form of the beautiful, impressionistic identikits that he painted and exhibited at his dad’s bar. Wow, Fay said with a drawn-out sigh, you really don’t believe in other people’s belief, do you? Haven’t you noticed how people here, honest folks like Ted Riddle and myself, are staying up all night, staring at the sky and listening to radio signals? Haven’t you noticed the people painting and writing books and making music about aliens? They’re doing so much more than the bare minimum. Besides, all of the tourists nowadays want to see proof before they get here. And so it’s nice that we actually do see things, she said, and started listing the sightings she had been part of: an indefinable ray of light with a color and intensity that couldn’t have reached her from the stars; an object flying in bizarre fits and spurts across the sky, with none of the smooth continuity characteristic of human technology; and then again, a few months ago, another one of those unlikely plane crashes that seemed to occur around Rachel every six months. Each time, military personnel were at the crash site within a few minutes, quarantining the area, vacuuming the ground of wreckage for a day or two.

			Antonio opened his eyes with a start at having fallen asleep, looked down at himself and all around him, as if someone had been there and done something to him while he slept. Everything was the same as before, the lake bed golden white in the lamplight, and the bushes stretched out, reaching their roots toward the Sender. The animals nuzzled against it in their strangely patient way, quiet with the exception of their furry breath. He understood the people who believed that they had been zapped by aliens and subjected to experiments or sexual abuse. That alarming sensation of a rupture in continuity, having taken place without one’s knowledge, like waking up behind the wheel of a car about to collide with another car. Or the endangered elephants awakening groggy on a television show with chains around their necks. If anyone believed in aliens, it had to be those elephants. Antonio got to his feet and shook the images out of his head. It was time. Fay was probably standing in the concert hall among mothers and daughters, waiting for Karen Ruthio, “The Wandering Woman of the Desert States,” to come on. He set the suitcase upright, spread a paper tablecloth over it and laid out the implements in front of his right hand. The scalpels lay there, looking indifferent to the pain they were about to inflict. That’s what he told himself as he grasped the largest one. That to the metal it wouldn’t be violent, merely an encounter with a softer and more viscous material. He broke out in a cold sweat and trembled in all of his muscles. Of course his body would resist, but he couldn’t deal with that now. If he was going to go through with the operation, he needed to do so by willing himself into a state that he could now only perceive as a threat. The transformation demanded he put himself at a distance, he understood, that he disregard his body. With the index and middle finger of his left hand he located the two hard rings of cartilage right beneath his larynx, stretched the skin taut between them and made a horizontal incision. The skin opened with a slight delay, as if it first had to realize it had been sliced, and then came the blood and pain, sweet, acidic, warm. He tasted it as much as he felt it in his nerves. With a slightly smaller scalpel, he deepened the incision, working through the layers of skin, through the blood vessels and fatty tissue, while he held the wound open with a spoon in his left hand. The pain shot through his throat in fiery rays. But even if he imagined that his flesh belonged to someone else, there was still something impossible about maneuvering the knife, something unreal about the measured motions through layer after layer of human flesh. Almost in sync with his working hands, he had to reach for something to come, with an open hand like when you want to touch the rain, and summon all his courage from there. It felt like leaving the task in someone else’s hands. Suddenly his windpipe popped out of the wet flesh, distended and fluted with cartilage.

			Feeling his own breathing flow against his index finger through a thin wall—combined with the almost electric pain in his severed nerve endings—filled him with an animate nausea, an appetite he hadn’t felt since he was young. Wind passed through the open wound, thick as water.

			He raised his head and looked at the Sender, just like Fay and the others in the audience were looking at Karen Ruthio—how was a voice like that coming out of a seventy-nine-year-old woman? The scream was still a mystery to him, that dark, metallic tone that sounded like dissonance in itself, as if it were out of tune with the world. He hadn’t been able to scream that scream since that day almost three years ago when it suddenly quivered inside his throat. Not because it was outside the range of his vocal cords, but because it was located somewhere in the depth between two frequencies, a secret gap that broke with the mathematical principles they had always followed. One day, almost a year ago, after screaming at the Sender for hours, he squeezed himself between the mammals and laid his forehead against it. Through its outer, fungal layers he felt a weak vibration, deep and metallic like the scream, and suddenly knew that he needed to have some of it inside him. That the scream could only be produced by the specific composition of the Sender, which was both malleable and very hard. With his angle grinder, he had sliced off a small piece, squeezing his eyes shut at the brightness of the crystals that appeared at the incision site: half an inch in diameter, glowing clear green and citrus yellow, the likely result of a very slow cooling process. Something about the way the material liquefied above the Bunsen burner—the way the particles collectively yielded their solid form, as it changed from gray-purple to orange to smoldering sun yellow—made him think that the heating up was a kind of overture, that he was caressing the material with the flame, just like the animals were nestling against it, that it let itself be melted down because it had been touched with a tenderness that exceeded the bonds of its atoms. That’s the grace of all things, he thought, or for a moment sensed at the edges of his consciousness and, blinking, forgot again.

			Now the mouthpiece lay ready on the operating table: one and a half inches long and one inch in diameter, it came to a point at a fifteen-degree angle. The new crystals were not visible, but the material still retained some of the greenish sheen to which he attributed its ability to bond to other forms of life. He leaned his head back, located the two rings of cartilage beneath his larynx and cut a small entry to the windpipe between them. Leading with the narrow end, he pushed the mouthpiece in, and exhaled so his vocal cords gaped open. He felt the mouthpiece slide through the opening, then made a noise with the last of his exhalation so that his vocal cords tensed around it, holding it tightly in their V. Lastly, he mounted the respiration band: an eight-inch-long section of flexible plastic tubing, one end in his mouth and the other in the hole at his larynx.

			The mouthpiece was cold and hard and way too smooth for the mucous environment of his throat. He could feel his own vocal cords down there too, small reptiles rubbing against the instrument. He looked up at the Sender, listening to it, to the cry that radiated green through the fungus, the lizards, the scraggy mammals and plants, and bound them together in a drawn-out, mystical labor. Its meaning was hidden to him, but if he could transform himself into the Sender, if he could produce the Sender’s cry in his own throat, he would produce its meaning inside himself and so become part of the ritual. Tensing his lungs and throat as much as possible, he screamed, and then screamed again with a little less force, trying in any way possible to express the feeling in his stomach, but mustered only a cough. The salt deposits lay like ancient puzzle pieces on the lake bed, which made him think about how the lake had both evaporated and drained into itself, how the whole desert was a massive basin emptying itself out like that, up into the sky and down through its base. He thought about the humility and zeal of that movement as he screamed again. After a few minutes, the mouthpiece began to vibrate in his throat. With varying force, he repeated the movement until a sound reverberated and the animals around the Sender stopped to listen. The scream swelled as much from his own mouth as back through his windpipe and down into his belly, where it was making his organs oscillate, a pitch-black dissonance that made it impossible for him to think of the cry as an expression of his loneliness or anything else inside him. It was more like someone or something was stimulating his throat into speaking, and as a side effect, was activating the memory of a distant, desert life.

			Antonio inhaled and accidentally broke the stream of air that sustained the scream. The animals turned back to the Sender and resumed their nuzzling overtures. The respiratory band was working well, though. Air flowed from his mouth into the plastic tube that led back into his windpipe beneath his larynx, and it would have probably continued if he had not gotten in the way. If he could only abandon his breathing, that eternal preparation. You take a deep breath to get ready for what’s to come, just like in the UFO club, where you couldn’t do more than wait and prepare. But he was tired of the waiting and wanted to enter the present. He wanted to create a streaming band of respiration—the continuous scream—inside himself. He envied Fay her belief. He had realized it six months earlier, up at the Little A’Le’Inn, during the last of her six lectures on aliens in the history of film. He was seated in the back of the room, admiring her above the heads of the members of the UFO club. It was strange and beautiful, sixty-one years into their marriage, to see her standing in front of the screen, with the remote control calmly resting in her left hand changing the slides in time with her speech, the complex and supple language that she had acquired over the course of her studies, and which she was now speaking with an ease that made a long academic career unfold out of a past she must have been living in parallel to the life they had lived together. Over the course of the last five Tuesdays, she had, through comparative readings of selected biblical passages and the most important films of the past sixty years about encounters with extraterrestrial life, put forth her theory that aliens signified the return of the Judeo-Christian God in Western popular culture. The key motifs in the representation of alien intelligence could all be correlated to specific biblical revelations, and the cinematic development of the alien-image roughly corresponded to the shift from the Old to the New Testament God, from the almighty, unpredictable aliens, punishing from above, to those who, in some biological form, had made their dwellings among humans and had to play by earthly rules. But for some reason everyone has skipped Paul, said Fay, and turned off the projector. Silence fell over the Little A’Le’Inn. Only the wheezing of the oldest members of the audience was audible. The overhead lights turned on, Fay squinted. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Why haven’t any of the sci-fi screenwriters read Paul? She looked out into the room and let her arms fall to her sides, sinking a bit into herself in front of the screen. I know I haven’t been here for as long as many of you. But what I’ve seen in this town, I have no doubt that it’s faith. I know that we’re waiting for spaceships just like we’re waiting for the Savior. And I know that those of you still working are praying that they’ll come and keep your businesses afloat. Just like you prayed you would hit a new vein in the mines when they were about to close. And what were we offered instead? New lights in the sky! Antonio watched her with a mixture of envy and shame at envying her her faith, as if it were something she owned. But it gave her something that he didn’t have; namely, the possibility of living with things that were as if they were nothing, or the other way around. Just as her belief that the souls of the dead were stored like information in the atmosphere made it possible for her—through long fasts and rituals that were supposed to open her up to cosmic radiation—to receive their daughters inside her, however transient and painful that might be. Maybe it was also possible because she had known them before they were born, and felt their bodies as a part of her own when she carried them, nursed them and bathed them, and since then, everything she had done with them had added to that feeling, filling the same place in her body, which had become empty and open when they died. To Antonio, they were gone, or in the best case existed in a realm that he could never access because he couldn’t believe in it, and it felt like a humiliation. It was humiliating to accept their definitive absence, but it was the only way he knew how to grieve: in solitude, like the residue left behind when they no longer existed in their own particular ways, but had fallen back into something dead and formless in the earth. Sometimes it felt like there wasn’t anything left for him to do on Earth. It was a demeaning form of consolation to call their phones, whose plans he had secretly kept paying, to listen to their voice mail greetings, at once so unreal in the breathless telephone receiver and corporeal with the sounds of their moving tongues and mouths, amplified by the microphone’s compressor. Fay concluded her presentation by suggesting an authentication of faith, an acknowledgment that aliens could manifest in here as well as out there, which over the next few months radically changed the practice of the UFO club. They started to supplement their sender and receiver equipment with a kind of spiritual technology, rituals in which each person renounced parts of themselves in the form of secrets, possessions, hair, nails, teeth and blood, and intimate visions of the coming life-forms. With these rituals, they generated a kind of communal energy, capable of attracting aliens in the night, and at the same time made space in themselves to receive them. At first, this had a calming effect, fostering trust among the members of the UFO club and in Rachel in general. The sense of spaceships as a looming danger or part of a cosmic-federal conspiracy ran slowly into the sand. But then a new nervousness started to quiver in town, as if the aliens, finally torn loose from their earthly conceptions—and especially from Area 51, lurking south of Bald Mountain—had once more taken on the violent potential of something, something that didn’t yet have a name or shape, but that you still, or maybe exactly for that reason, needed to prepare for. Ted Riddle stopped foisting monitoring equipment and badges onto UFO tourists because he honestly didn’t know whether the aliens were correctly depicted, or whether they even emitted radiation that would reg