The American Book of the Dead

Chris Lites

This piece is very much a homage to William Gibson, but it is an experience all of its own. Rich brown writing, this.

The sign pointing off the interstate once read OASIS. Its steel bolts are scoured chrome by the sand, and the truck stop hasn't been, not really, not for a very long time, an oasis.

Now, Rand sits in the last hours of sun under the chemical hemorrhage of sky, watching the truck stop logo play itself out in an epileptic loop of hologram butterflies. Polychrome glint reflected in the angle of a fading wing. An old gas station logo from childhood that he remembers. The butterflies sputter over the concrete, and the sand that has come in to reclaim the blacktop, winking in and out of existence, oil-on-water wings, but the hydrogen pumps they advertise have long since ceased to function. He watches from the motel across the street, here where travelers would once have stayed, when these thick lanes saw traffic. Sitting in the old deck chair out on concrete where the silt shifts under the wind at the bottom of the pool, a gecko nearly the same blue as the pool's faded paint regarding him with its limbic eyes.

Rand's fingers trace over the peeling laminate of the old photo album, cheap even in its heyday, its cover a bubble-gum pink smudged now with age. Inside, the happy family he has constructed awaits. Someone else has assembled the pictures, the post-cards, the fragments of self, none of them really being related except by proximity of date, but Rand has made them into a family. On the cover, where the label card used to be, someone has written in old marker, in thick block capitals: THE AMERICAN BOOK OF THE DEAD.

Rand gathers his pack from his car, shifting the vehicle on its carbon frame, thin and light as insect legs, just a husk now, desiccated, powered out, useless, left here under the sun. He'll need further transportation if he's going to continue to follow her, pursue the steady distal pulse of her GPS across the desert. He pops open the second to last of a self-cooling bottle of real Alaskan spring water and thinks of his days on Farm 14, cool Pacific days along the coast so far from the tip of Florida where he grew up. Far from the chaotic changes of the lower forty-eight where things were going south rapidly. He saw it firsthand, with his real family, before he became a privatized orphan.

The sky has bled itself out and his gel-contacts squirm in a way he has never gotten used to, adjusting to low light. He forces a door to one of the motel rooms, allowing the stale air to puff out toward him. He has stirred dust and particles of sand in the old room. Nothing more than a bed, a vanity, a bathroom and moth-eaten curtains shifting in the wind. Old style TV, one of those big types from last century, the cathode ray tube long gone, he learned about those at Farm 14, a piece of early technology. The gutted TV is now some half-assed shrine left by passing migrants. Candles burnt down to lozenges, a sun-bleached animal skull and what he takes to be an ill conceived haiku, a sad offering to whatever animism the nomads have taken to following these days. Never really having recovered from the depression, they just broke off and franchised into a whole floating sub-culture out here in the new dust bowl. Still, a place to bed down for the night, find transport in the morning. He amps up his gels, the unsettling squirm of proto-amphibian, bioengineered life. He opens his photo album, so long now a prosthesis for absent things.

He has no idea, nor does he want to imagine, who so carefully assembled the pictures. They are, he has come to realize, from a period of not more than two decades of the great American century. And while the people in the album are not strictly a family, he likes to imagine them as such. There is Father, Mother, Son and Daughter, their faces, body types and clothing shifting; they spend their days among the same summers, along the same roads of an American world rich in Googie architecture, cantilevered coffee shops, curvilinear UFO-inspired drive-in's, huge Lumber men, tiki gods lording over shark finned future cars streamlined to roll their occupants directly into the world of tomorrow. They are culled from the unconscious of the "space-age". A time that maybe never really was, Rand has come to realize, but one with which he has become so intimately familiar and entranced, that, in the evening, before he beds down, he may be found taking in a few of the white cardstock pages, the collected photos secured with NuAge corner bonds, Kodak film almost exclusively - pictures of happy people, people with bright futures limned in possibility, rocket trajectories, beeping satellites, Fuller-domed moon bases...

Hotter this morning, contacts giving him a HUD for temperature, wind speed, his basic vitals, the present statistics of his world and being. He takes his MultiFilmTM out of his pack and unrolls it on the scratched table of the motel room. It adheres with a hiss, sealing temporarily over a history of dust and grime. Rand wipes through the muddle of tickers, broadcasts, news feeds and banner ads and directly to his bookmarked tracking of her GPS. Making a steady beat for the Pacific coast to find transport back to Brazil, to Rio, home. Always the memories of the wet warrens and flooded barrios of that city inside her. He remembers watching her when she would come, looking at him, but truly far away, staring at him from beneath layers of aquatic sunlight, all the stunted promises of drowned kingdoms reflected in her eyes.

She is at least a day and a half ahead of him now, perhaps more if he doesn't find transportation. But if he follows her too closely, she may shut down the GPS altogether, may zone out, drop off the radar and disappear back into the jungle. It is a game of sorts, their game, or anyway he tells himself that this morning as he does from time to time. Or, if he is going to be honest with himself, which he isn't, not today, too hot for that - rivulets of sweat finding their way down his buttocks, down the backs of his knees - it's really just classical conditioning. Projecting onto the women in his life what he wants to be there, that's what he does, that's what he learned... back then, in Gainesville, with his sister.

His sister was born with a brain that the doctors could just never fully correct. There were therapies employed, long string names that he had forgotten and been too young to understand anyway. What it amounted to was that, while she was present, most of her would always be locked away. So, who she was became more a reflection of who you wanted her to be and, though he would like to remember that, he tried to allow her to be whatever it was that was inside herself, but he knew that was not the case. His sister, the archetype, the blank slate, the art project, more often a case to be managed, a situation to be solved, a story problem. Keeping her occupied was the thing to do. He remembered her OCD impulse for tying things around her fingers, anything that would bend, anything you would give her - straw wrappers, thread, filament, fishing line, errant hairs (hers-black) - starting with the index, then down to the pinkie, left, then right, like scales. When you could get her doing that, it was a kind of security. She wasn't lost, off exploring the perimeter wire, the rusting razor falling into the rising surf, where she would mark the progress of the escalating tide with colored ribbons, more knotting, her own chart of the global upheaval. She wasn't at a pier trying to catch a glimpse of refugees being broken upon the naval cordon as they tried to get into the country, keeping her own inscrutable mental tables of their arrival and failure. She wasn't running off amidst a riot that broke out during a particularly militant protest of an Amnesty International splinter group. She sat there as police moved in with their bulky, comically sci-fi riot gear, mother and father desperately searching for her. She appeared on no less than three news feeds, the calm center of the local fraction of global chaos, mother and father looking on, stunned. Within two weeks, all three of them were dead.

Rand examines the back of the walk-in refrigerator, long since out of power; the insulated walls are warm to the touch. He finds a spring catch for a manual release which opens an antiquated physical mechanism, a door to an emergency shelter.

Narrow concrete steps leading down to what is little more than a cramped basement, canned supplies including vast quantities of spam - the allegedly edible variety and bottled water - but not self-cooling, All of it older than he is, this panic hoarding having been popular with a certain strain of eco-survivalist who thought the climate shifts were going to do them in before the economics or the human reactions did.

Under an olive drab tarp, an early solar-powered electric car, probably not particularly fast, but still in working order. It will have to do. He hikes up another set of stairs and releases the catch on a latch in a trapdoor that leads outside the diner. He rolls the Multi-FilmTM into binoculars, dials up the magnification and scans. Razor-edged horizon slipped between desert and the wheeling shoals of clouds tacked to a block of blue sky.

The family was always on vacation. People never took pictures of just being, not back then. Or, if they did, they didn't put them in albums. Pictures were special then. It wasn't recording everything as it happened, it was recording what you wanted to remember. He hasn't ever given them names; they are simply placeholders in the atomic age nuclear family, their faces and hair colors shifting while the essence of their meaning remains the same. Father under sun-bleached white of desert sky, Cabazon, big dinosaurs. Mother holds Daughter who is young and making a face at the camera, Son holds plastic miniature versions of the two behemoths in the background, one T-Rex and one Brontosaurus. Though the Brontosaurus was a mistake, wrong head on the wrong body, he looked it up, in the Farm, on what they called microfiche.

The skin of the vehicle whorls with mad-trip colors, absorbing the sun, the outside has become a Panorama blue screen projection, panels of motion somehow much removed from the interior and not a part of Rand's immediate present. He is the lone car on the interstate, traveling through the dust bowl, along this road that once might have carried his picture book family. Oldsmobile Futurematic. Futurematic combines beauty with utility... styling with a purpose. Hydromatic drive! The smart way. The Futurematic way. The Oldsmobile way. Futurematic is a brand new word, created to describe this brand new, post-war, General Motors' car. Now he drives past the sagging lines that once were necessary to carry communication, their shadows forming a lattice between the dry tufts of yellow grass that shoot up through the old road.

This sun-powered car he drives now has no new words to describe it, affords no psychic real estate that he knows of. It is too old to have its own HUD so, he has stuck the MultiFilmTM to the windshield. Her GPS still radiating on the screen, but fainter now as she reaches for the coast... He remembers reading about white line fever and prays that it might visit him now as the endless klicks unfurl in monotony around him.

She was one week out of Rio when he found her, wet and feral and smelling of the septic, flooded barrios of that old and tangled city. Her name a passion, a curse, a guttural expulsion. Why she had come here, she wouldn't say. Weeks spent trying to adjust twin pairs of Sony ear-bead translators to the twists of her patois. But nights, their sweat drenched skin clung together; he imagined he could smell the orange and fish scent of the markets on her, mystery of jungles in her own dark, pubic curls. Lying there, under the ceiling fan of a broke-down hotel, she would unfold childhoods both confusing and utterly fascinating, all the dark mystery of a stratified society of commerce and savagery down there in the heart of Brazil. She described a place that had gone back to more primal ways long before the rest of the world. He could imagine her sometimes looking out to the slips of beach, eyes finding the coastline, the suggestion of the sea and all that might lie beyond.

He'd heard rumors of cults and human sacrifice, of street gangs mad with cheap meth roaming the canals, river rat gangs on Jet Ski's tearing through the heart of overindulged myth, Aztec fantasies and paranoid memes. Rio had been virtually cut off from the mediated world for years now, and nobody much cared to investigate. So suspicions went there to dream and ferment, and one of them, he suspected, had become her. Grown in the dark curls of hair, twisting strands of genetic code had rooted and grown, producing this girl, with her coppery skin, her aquatic eyes, her mind subject to its own, ever shifting, unstable mental winds.

He might imagine them, from time to time, these two women in his life, like the fall of a camera's shutter, dividing then from now, before from after. His sister and this strange woman from a stranger land. The one before, the one after, and the bridge of self he had formed in between seemed so inadequate and ad-hoc now. A person more likely imagined by the aggregate imagination of the two of them, clinging as he did to the pursuit of the one that was still alive and the memories of the one who wasn't. A dream of a thing called Rand, flipping through the sun faded days of a century long gone, through smiles, years dead, tints in flushed cheeks stripped by decades' faded hue. A world comprised of promising thrusts of architecture, of Muffler men thirty feet high, of all night Bowling alleys described in neon, of Tomorrowland at Disneyland, of Eames furniture played out as the space age equivalent of Lucite kitsch. There, Father, red haired this time, Mother pregnant, the children merely possibilities now, standing in front of the Big Boy, his perm-a-grin suggesting some compulsory happiness, some fascist cheerfulness in the aggressive upsweep of his Brylcreemed coif, hefting his burger above as some capitalist trophy. Or, the whole family standing in front of a Sputnik parodied satellite atop a road sign, spikes every-which way, the dream folded and folded upon itself again, kaleidoscope origami.

She would catch him sometimes, when he would sit in the bay window of the house abandoned near the sea line, the sound of the surf, paging through the days of the family. And she would laugh and make fun of him in Portuguese and English, laugh at him for the fondness he had for that dead century and its people. Laughing, Rand took it, at his need for his surrogate pantheon in these faded pages in their kitschy binder, for his inability to form a Rand divorced from the sad tomorrow land their futures had become. While she, with her lean muscles and erratic behavior, stalked the atavistic Serengeti's of her mind, finding older cores to build upon. So fucking lonely, so fucking American she would say, as if the word had meaning anymore.

Out here, amongst the scrub and hollowed towns, they collected e-waste, once, a futile attempt at early recovery. Mounds of obsolete computers, PDA's, televisions and other electronics harvested for the copper and any other reuseable parts had accumulated, an economy of subsistence. Started by eco-hippies as first, the e-waste had once gone to third world countries where villages would burn the refuse to get at the valuable scrap, inhaling PVC's, cadmium, lead. But soon it became a domestic franchise, the re-farming of machine dreams, IT engineers, programmers, high priests of tech who had to give up their white collars to be drawn out, backs to the sun, working under masks, columns of smoke rising into the sky, eking out some semblance of an existence, trying to resurrect lives. He had seen that sort of desperation, back in Florida, before the storms hit. The town already collapsing under the weight of economic failure. Empty storefronts becoming ersatz shrines for those who were taken in by the sudden urge to find God, the big fix paradigm. One crazy sect he had seen projected their crucified holo-Jesus over neo-flagellants, slung over the street as some disturbing, displaced Macy's float like Rand had seen on television.Faint ripples of maxized bandwidth creeping over the Jesus's wet, slick flesh, hinting at organs seeking to push through the wound of the unseen Roman spear. Men were stripped to their waists, flailing themselves in front of their pitiable Lord hung from his neon cross. There, the Jesus lolled its head as if in some opiate slumber of pain and religious ecstasy, his final moment of apotheosis come, in this, his last submission to the physical form. Rand winced as the ball bearings tore into the men's flesh, his father pulling him further down the street away from the display. The Lord sputtered in and out, and became intangible above him. He had asked his father why they did this, and his Father said because the men were in futures, and the market was bad for futures now. Rand figured any fool could see that. His father had laughed and said that wasn't what he meant. The next day, the Jesus and the men were gone.

Her trail continues along through the transparency of the screen. He is, he thinks, perhaps gaining too close a proximity to her. Best for her to know that he follows, but not so close as for her to panic. He wonders if those eyes stare from beneath their marine depths to watch him watching her on some MultiFilmTM of her own. Observe this game that he imagines she too still plays, remembering the times he has tracked her down before. She had always let him catch up before.

She never settled into his life. He'd wake nights; watch her through the floor-to-ceiling window as the tide came in, brown ankles in the surf, huddled in a frayed duvet washed too many times, and invariably she was looking south.

He could see her tension, at the parties, forming at the corners of her mouth, conversation tinkling around the backyard of a fashionable house in a gated suburb. People talking recovery and opportunity and hopeful buzz words like nanotech, bio-growth, market-states, but never any of it coming to anything more then drunken speculation. He'd watch her across the concrete patio, the light refracted from the blue plane of water played over her. Mentally she was already gone. His friends had never really been hers, or really his he supposes, just people collected through work, which was itself an abstraction. The next night, when he woke, she wasn't on the beach and her bag was gone. In the morning, he left in pursuit.

A skirmish line of broken hotels along a beach. The property, once so prized, now chipped at, worn down by accumulated tides, left to ruin. A few feral dogs pick through the old structures, some nothing but foundation, others holding the reinforced concrete shells of multiple stories, scrubbed paint, empty windows. Old anodized chain-link fence pokes out of the tide line, tsunami ideograms warn of catastrophes that might have come a few years back. Rand removes his shoes, which squelch and morph to a more relaxed size as he does, the sand wet under his feet, padding his way down the shore.

Further on he can see a man, brown from the sun. Rand has crested a hill and watches him below. He wears tattered cargo pants cut at the ankles and carries a sturdily made wooden rake. He has fashioned the beach into the precisely combed concentric waves of a Zen garden. Beach rocks serving as the locus of their radiation outward, he has fashioned his own movement so that his footprints do not disturb the whirling patterns he has traced. He is almost done. The tide creeping ever closer, his ephemera creation soon to be carried away in much the slow, deliberate process as it was made.

Perhaps twenty meters away from him, atop the same rise, the man climbs and watches as the waves lap and blur the lines in the sand, the garden, until only the rocks remain. He then lights a fire he has prepared and walks to Rand, offering a cigarette. Rand accepts, and by the fire, they smoke. The man covered in sand, clinging to the wet of his body, a red bandana gone black above his brow. Up close Rand can see that he is perhaps Polynesian. In any case, he doesn't seem to speak English, and so they sit in silence. They finish their cigarettes, and Rand shows the man his map. On it, the trail of her signal has led here, paused, and then gone south. There was a port here, according to the map, but no structures Rand has seen suggest so. Much of the current topographical data can be unreliable these days. He pulls up a picture of her and shows it to the gardener who nods, points south, and takes the map from Rand. The man's fingers work over the worn film, his nails surprisingly well-manicured, and he returns it to Rand, a new map keyed in one corner window to another port, or perhaps the right one all along. Ten miles south, her GPS pulses once more and then cools, fading over the Pacific. She has, he realizes, finally turned it off. They sleep by the fire, and the sand makes Rand dream of the scratchy surplus blankets huddled under at the Farm. Communal barracks, morning shower, cafeteria meals, everything regulated but not uncomfortably so.

He trades the old solar powered car for passage on a Tasmanian freighter headed south. He maneuvers onto the gangway through the brine scent of ocean air and the press of travelers, merchant marines and freight haulers. Shipping has become suddenly vogue given the cost of most air freight these days, the west coast not yet having been hit by that wave of prosperous recovery the news feeds claimed was rolling over from the east. Rand unrolls his MultiFilm™ one more time, but she hasn't turned her signal back on. She won't, she has dug herself out from the membrane of connectivity now, slipped south now and quite probably gone.

His hands run over the rusted hull as the ship sets to port, reassured by its solidity. He imagines that perhaps the Son might be there, on a single frame of old Kodak, right next to him, bleached color of that era's film stock, his olive drab uniform that much more so. The next picture reveals the family gathered along the dock. Today their hair is predominantly blond, the Mother and Father just that bit older as Son is seen off to a strange tropical land they've never heard of, but always, they can believe, for the best of causes. Rocket trajectories, satellites, smooth, flowing, Futurmatic lines… And here in these two frames, at the end of the book, the nuclear family fissions and begins to part. They become the fast-motion images of desert test sites and mocked up homes blown to atomic winds. Coca-cola signs gone to tinny rust, Googie coffee shops plowed under yellow Tonka monsters, tiki gods desiccated from lack of worshippers, Apollo capsules burnt to dust on re-entry. It begins with a son, putting to port for a faraway land, coastline of home receding behind him.

© Chris Lites 2007 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 09:44 Wed 12 Nov 2008
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