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February 28, 2024 Fiction


Paul Thompson

Mosul photo

I was 20 minutes outside Vegas in a motel with robin’s-egg fixtures and bad wifi watching streaming television shows about towns so small one murder could change everything and I was waiting. I went back and forth to the ice machine with my door propped open. My rental car got so hot I couldn’t grip the wheel. I did pull ups in the doorframe and I closed and opened my email waiting for you and I never complained. 

The bar up the 15 was called The Cliffs and when the Sentra cooled a bit that’s where I took it. On the way there were billboards: $49 INTRODUCTORY HELO RIDES and DISCOVER THE VERTICAL WORLD. These signs were everywhere and yet when I looked up, I never saw any helicopters. I imagined putting the $49 on a credit card and jumping—some burned-out instructor faintly clawing at my back—just to disappear before I hit the ground. Tumbleweeds and state troopers bounced past me in fits. 

I parked diagonally. The bar closed around me like a cocoon, Vietnam vet hats and fake red leather. Days, weeks. I watched men play darts; I watched men play darts with women. We watched together: Raiders-Colts, cable news, local news, Raiders-Jets. For a Few Dollars More, everything on mute. I heard about wives in court, on chemo, in Phoenix. Fuck ‘em, I agreed, and drank. The sun was outside but we weren’t. Sometimes we played pool—badly and for little money. I learned how to do this trick with a knife someone won in Mosul. You hold it… exactly. 

Both bartenders liked me in their tolerating way, not enough to bite when I offered up bits of myself. Creased posters all over the wall, an hourglass smashed so the sand could form the Adidas logo, stuff like that. The cool made my skin feel damp. There was a jukebox but I don’t think it was hooked up, because the music was always the same: pre-Depression ballroom numbers that had been warped and buried in distortion like they’d been beamed in from the afterlife. I’d read about the guy who made the songs—English, I think, obsessed with Alzheimer’s and God. A little avant-garde for the place, I thought, but people seemed to like it. Waitresses circled the room like vultures. Sometimes I dreamt of laying down on the hot sand, my spine fusing to it, nerves sizzling, going blind from the light, my chest cavity ripped open while they pecked around my ribs—the waitresses, I mean—for whatever they could salvage, whatever was still good. Dipping into me like a thousand unsure knives. I tipped well. 

One night a man came in, sat down, and stretched his hands high above his head, his shirt rising just enough to show some flesh, some body hair. He saw me looking at him. An hour later he bought me what he was drinking and it burned my throat. He had a tattoo on his forearm, scorpions, interlocked; it reminded me of the tile art you see in pictures of Tunisia, the Middle East. (Later, when I was steeling myself in a bathroom mirror—when I was wondering what he was going to do to me—the word came: mosaic.) I’m Ryan, he said, extending the scorpion hand. I told him my name and we talked about the heat.  

 He played French pop songs while we drove and when I asked what they were singing about, the women, he said he didn’t know. 

His plot of land was flat on its Eastern edge but rose gently into the foothills. There was a house, all right angles. (Inside he had an irrigation map, on drafting paper, like a blueprint for the hills themselves. It was bigger than it had to be—it must have been a reproduction, I don’t think there were any folds in the paper—and it was framed on one wall, took up the whole thing. The system of streams was so complex, the lines representing them so tiny even at this magnification that it looked like a diagram of the body’s nervous system. None of those streams existed—or they existed, but they were dry, they were invisible, for now, forever.

The idea of the room was that it was a mirror: On the opposite wall he had another framed drawing, same dimensions, same size. Only this was by an artist. I forget his name—he lived to be 100, I think. French, too. A surrealist. Ryan told me about him. He did what he called automatic drawings. He’d touch his pen to paper and let his subconscious move it. This one looked like the artist a dozen times over, hunching, folding into himself, like the act of work was a contortion of body so intense that it became one of spirit. I said it was sort of crazy that people took this seriously as an artistic movement, and Ryan said, Don’t you like it? I said that aesthetically, sure, but how is the notion that the subconscious is moving someone’s pen any more believable, or any more sophisticated, than kids playing with a ouija board? He said, That’s not really the point, but then he said that the artist would probably agree with me, that later in life, he left the surrealists and started painting in a more formally rigid style about baser things, sex and war. I reached for that quote about the ordered life of the rich producing violent art, but I couldn’t quite remember.)  

A property line high above it was marked by barbed-wire fencing so perfect it could have been from a movie set.

Anyway. It didn’t do anything, he said. 

—What didn’t do anything? 

The fence. Most nights coyotes woke him up, howling. When the sky had been black for hours they crept down the hills. They were lazy, he said. Or: They’d gotten lazy. Predators reduced to scavenging. I said that scavenging might be harder. He shrugged and asked if I wanted to shoot one.