Mark dreams of the desert: every fall his father buys instant oats and canned beans and unrolls the sleeping bags from the crawlspace. His mother fills two-gallon jugs of water and they pack the car and drive south along the river. Mark associates the changing season not with tingeing leaves, but with the bedroom warmth of the station wagon’s backseat crowded with mildewed quilts, the rowers gliding alongside his window in boats as liquid light as bird bones.
The drive takes three days and they always spend the first night outside of Chicago, where Mark’s grandmother lives. She smells of cloves and is called only Boo Boo by everyone. Boo Boo plays a game with him about rowing a boat, only instead of a boat it’s the couch; Mark falls from the cushions and becomes a mischievous fish. He has never been in water deeper than the bathtub, but Boo Boo says it doesn’t matter and casts her line over and over into the carpet, reeling him in from out of the itchy blue depths. Boo Boo tells him he is an incorrigible little salmon who will taste delicious on a bagel.
They always leave Chicago so early that the sun isn’t up, so early that the next thing Mark remembers is his father twisting in the passenger seat to shake him awake, saying, “Maka, it’s Nevada.” His mother rolls down her car window to grasp hands with a smiling woman who says, “Welcome home.”
In the desert Mark is always falling asleep in one place and waking up in another: on his father’s back; in a hammock; curled on the wine-stained passenger seat of a stranger’s camper van, the heat rising off the playa through the windshield and both his parents passed out beside him. There are other children around sometimes, but he rarely plays with them. Instead, he follows his parents through sunbathed wooden rooms where faceless figures wander mystical-naked, sprawling, multi-level cities tattooed across their collarbones in indigo ink. Sometimes Mark chases the water truck between tents, howling with laughter, the water silky on his face as he flies, lifted by his mother and, on the other side, a man who isn’t his father, a friend of his parents who wears a rubber suit and a beard down to Mark’s eye-level. After, his mother combs his hair with her fingers and the man in the rubber suit plays “This Land is Your Land” on the banjo and his father sings and they all eat tomato and melty cheese with toast. Mark wears wool socks at night because at night, the desert is cold.
Also at night, the desert bursts to wheeling, mesmeric architectures. Multi-level cities come to brilliant, psychotic depths on the sand. Mark grips his father’s hand and stumbles back through the cold between campfires. His father, in nothing but a pair of gym shorts and a paisley handkerchief, bends to tuck Mark into a sleeping bag. Only once, their final year in the desert, does Mark manage to stay awake to watch the concluding celebration, a towering nighttime incineration that he nonetheless anticipates every year with certain manic desire.
Once, that same year, he unzips the flap door of his parents’ tent and finds his parents and the man in the rubber suit, except without the rubber suit, the man grinding his hips on his mother’s, her breath fast, her eyelids fluttering, her mouth open on his father’s. Once, in the blue wash of a cold Nevada dawn, Mark’s mother holds him hard against her skinny chest and says, “We used to share a body.”
Mark dreams of the auditorium of P.S. 167: Eli Ghosh pulls him up on stage during the school talent show. The entire school is before them, a faceless tunnel of white, and the stage smells like heat and sawdust and the faint, chemical whiff of something that Mark imagines at the time might be asbestos, piles of which notoriously line the stage under their feet. Later he will realize that asbestos is scentless.
“I didn’t sign us up,” Mark hisses towards Eli’s shoulder, even though it’s stating the obvious. No one signed them up. That’s what makes Eli cool, no one has to sign him up for anything and yet everyone treats his presence as the ultimate validation. When Eli moved to Eastern Parkway freshmen year, the two of them somehow bonded in third period biology and Mark found himself rocketed to unlikely popularity as Eli’s brooding straight man.
For a moment they stand side by side, squinting into the light. Then someone pushes a mic into Mark’s hand and Eli whispers “Tell the fighter pilot.”
“You do it,” he says, knees weak.
“Dude, no way.” Eli steps forward and throws out his arms, locking his elbows to grip the invisible control yoke of an airplane. He bends his knees like he’s about to jump and, for a moment, Mark thinks he is. There’s a ripple of laughter from somewhere behind the light.
Mark blinks and resigns himself and says deadpan into the mic, “There’s Pierre, the French fighter pilot.” His voice is too loud over the sound system, loud enough to suck the air from the auditorium. “He’s, uh, taking his girlfriend out for a ride in his plane. Her name is—” But he can’t remember her name, or any other name. The silence is immense. He wills himself to think. “Isabella,” he says. His mother’s name, the first he can think of. “Her name is Isabella. Isabella leans over in the cockpit and says, ‘Pierre, kiss me.’ But Pierre grabs a bottle of red wine and throws it in her face. Isabella screams, ‘Pierre, what’re you doing?’ And Pierre says, ‘I am Pierre, ze fighter pilot! When I have red meat, I drink red wine!’”
The audience giggles. The sound warms him up a little. Eli’s eyes are starting to get glassy. “Then they kiss,” Mark continues. “But Isabella stops him and says, ‘Pierre, kiss me lower.’” Delightfully, Eli mouths the words along with Mark, swiveling his hips and then, smooth as anything, flicking open the top two buttons of his shirt. Mark can hear the tidal movements of amusement. “So Pierre rips open Isabella’s shirt and begins pouring white wine all over her boobs,” Mark says. “Isabella yells at him again, ‘Pierre, what are you doing!’ and he says, ‘I’m Pierre, ze fighter pilot! When I have white meat, I drink white wine!’” Eli throws up his hands in mock-affront, and Mark feels laughter harden in the back of his throat. He gulps it back. “But as soon as he tries to kiss her, Isabella stops him and says—” Mark lowers his chin a little, and growls into the mic, “‘Pierre—kiss me lower.’”
Eli’s shirt is suddenly almost all the way unbuttoned, and he glances back at Mark and mouths silently, hurry up, and Mark starts talking faster, which only seems to make it funnier. Eli’s chest is almost hairless, concave, paler than his arms and face.
“Pierre grabs a bottle of cognac and pours it all over Isabella,” Mark says, “and then he lights a match and throws it in her lap. And he sets her on fire and the whole plane bursts into flames and Isabella is screaming, ‘Pierre, you idiot, what the hell are you doing?’” Even obliquely, Mark can tell that Eli’s grin is rubbery with triumph. The crowd gets louder but he still has them and there’s movement in the wings and Mark throws up his hands and howls, forgetting the mic, “‘I am Pierre, ze fighter pilot! When I go down, I go down in flames!’” The audience erupts. He still can’t see anything beyond the light but he doesn’t need to. He can feel them.
Out of nowhere, there’s a hand like a vise on Mark’s upper arm. He twists right into Principal Chowden, whom everyone calls Chowderhead, and Eli turns to give Mark a high five and his eyes go round and white, his hand levitating between them like he’s about to give a benediction. The auditorium lights flicker and the house lights come up and then Mark can see the students, all frozen, all watching him.
“Mark Glass,” Chowderhead says loudly in his ear.
“Hi,” he answers giddily.
“You need to come with me.”
Eli steps forward, but the principal waves him away. A ball of paper lands on the edge of the stage. “We’ll deal with—this—later. Mark, your father is in my office. There’s been an accident.”
The talent show is the one and only time Mark speaks directly to the entirety of P.S. 167, and it is the one and only time the principal speaks directly to Mark, and somehow it occurs to him later, that the two things are cause and effect, that he shouldn’t have used his mother’s name. He shouldn’t have said her name to all of them, not like that.
Mark dreams of the desert: when his father finally kicks him out of the apartment he gets on a bus to Chicago, but he misses the connection and another one after that and ends up in Texas something like two days later. High above the bus are clouds that look like rocks, voluptuous thunderheads fixed in the sky like dormant volcanoes. If he thinks about it he can say that he misses his transfers because he’s too busy looking at them, the clouds that follow him all the way out of the city and then, in the desert, become the city: far-off and multi-level, billowy civilizations crouched on the cliff of the horizon, their foundations shifting to match the curvature of the earth. Watching the clouds, he can ignore the bus-side slideshow of peeling clapboard houses and rusty, laddered railroad tracks; gas stations with pumps like twin gravestones; a field crosshatched in bent stalks. At the last stop on the route, Mark shrugs his backpack out of the adjoining seat and goes to stand outside the station. An older man in tight jeans comes and pauses next to him and lights an unfiltered cigarette. The sun is just starting to get low. Everything turning pink reminds Mark of a poem, his mother’s favorite, he can’t remember the name. He remembers it mostly because it had the word naked in it, and something about rocks: pink rock, rose rock, raised up or raising maybe, crystal by crystal.
The older man turns to him and says, “Travelling alone?”
“I’m in the wrong desert,” Mark says, as though that’s a reply. He’s still holding a Styrofoam cup of sweet tea that he bought at a service plaza three hours ago, the ice long ago melted.
“Where were you trying to get to?”
“Nevada,” Mark says. But could this be Nevada? There is a desert, and there’s the bus station behind him: four cement walls and three rows of plastic seats, orange plastic maybe, a poster advertising great careers with the us border patrol, which strikes him as funny. He tries to picture the land as though from above, to remember what borders Nevada has with anywhere else, from which direction it can be gotten to.
“Gambling?” says the man knowingly.
Reluctantly, Mark turns his back on the clouds and goes to check the bus schedule. The bus station seats are yellow. He goes into the bathroom and splashes water on his face, ignoring his own eyes in the foggy mirror. Sometimes Mark swears he starts to see language, neon bright filaments sweated out over surfaces like broken spider webs, binding, illuminating, whatever fucking words do to a thing. The whole world is covered in it, the glossy heat of discarded words, the whole of everything damaged and dirty by being overspoken. Sometimes when people speak he can see their little puffs of pollution smoke straight from the source, sugar-spun ringlets of lavender laughter, gobs of mercury drool. Even his own mouth is lime smudged with it. Seductive and the most sinister, the way everything is slippery with its own name.
He goes back to the front of the station, but all the paper schedules are gone from the display. Through the windows, he can see the light coming pink and golden and, oddly, upwards, as though from out of the earth. A bus appears on the road. Mark doesn’t know where it’s going; he simply points to the conical headlights as they turn into the station and says to the gum-chewing woman behind the counter, “Can I please have a ticket on that one?” The sentence spills down over the counter and curdles in the indentation where change goes.
“What’s your destination, sir?”
“The farthest point,” Mark says, and by some miracle she doesn’t ask anything else. When she exhales he can see the braces on her teeth. He’s almost out of money. He goes outside.
The doors of the bus jerk open and Mark walks up the steps and down the aisle to a window seat in the back. The floor sticks a little on his sneakers; the light slides grainy and arc-shaped across the ceiling. Across the parking lot, a woman jumps out of the passenger seat of a car, a swaddled baby clutched to her chest. “Please wait,” she shouts, loud enough that Mark can hear her through the closed windows. The bus driver is still standing below the row of windows, sorting tickets into a zippered blue pouch, and the woman waves, gratefully it seems, and goes to him. Mark can’t hear what they say, but she gets on the bus with the baby and sits near the front, clutching the strap of a nylon duffel bag in one fist. When he looks back to the road, the car is already gone. The older man in tight jeans isn’t on the bus.
Maybe the poem had something about quartz. At night the desert is darker than he remembers. But then there aren’t many stars over any worthwhile city; real cities speak their own silhouettes across the sky. The bus lumbers onto the road. Mark’s mother liked poetry but he doesn’t, not really. Pink rock, rose rock, naked flesh. Mark thinks that if he could remember the words it might help. If the bus could shudder the words out of him, maybe then he could sleep without dreaming. Just for a little while. Just until they reach the horizon.
Dana R. Glass lives in New Orleans, LA. Her work can also be found in The Grief Diaries and The Stoneslide Corrective.