It was officially the day after we arrived at the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, and my circadian clock had been cleaned, dismantled, and reassembled to reflect the attributes of a perpetual motion machine. I’d never sleep again, and if anything was okay, that was too.
I parked Chris’s Golf curbside and parallel, between two fire trucks.
Morongo was aflame. Fire eaters and pyromaniacs were running inside and firefighters were dragging them out, setting them down, telling them to stay still. You can’t keep moths from a lightbulb without first turning it off.
The yellow-suited inferno fighters had out their hoses, but were merely bullying a fiery tantruming toddler made of combustion and motion.
This big sparkly lotusland was longing for hydration, and in that way, it was becoming less a blemish on the desert than just a part of it. The desert’s obelisk-shaped nose, maybe, if you looked from the right angle. You could hold a quarter to the flaming, disintegrating building for size reference, but the heat would make you drop your coin and run for the hills. Which many were doing.
Chris was awake now.
“I said to drive anywhere but here, you lying sack…” Chris trailed off as he realized that the hell he’d tried to escape was becoming, temperature-wise, more and more fitting.
I left him with his fear and—I still don’t know why—I walked toward the flames.
From my pocket I took and discarded a handful of napkins noted front and back in blue inexplicable ink. They fluttered, like down plucked from the breast of a Christmas goose, into a smoldering trashcan. I stole a moment, watching the fire grow slightly as it ate the silently honking serviettes then simmer back to its original rage as the ink, first a cobalt fire, was then spat into the cloud above the garbage pail. The foul fumes looked then like a “come-hither” finger. I approached and walloped the smoky hand with a limp left hook.
I felt a distressing fit of forgiveness well in my chest like a burnt-borsht belch and swallowed hard, keeping hatred in its proper place: behind my ribcage.
The heat singed the hair off my arms. Everything was on fire. The smell was exhausting.
I walked with unidentified purpose to the smashed-in sliding glass doors. I caught the attention of one of the smaller heat-hating firefighters, waved for him to follow, and snuck behind a column of smoke. He met me there and I decked the hero and took his yellow hero-suit. It didn’t fit, but nothing ever really has.
I stormed the entrance carrying the little guy over my shoulder while his co-workers hollered that I was going the wrong way.
“He forgot his pants!” I yelled back, which felt appropriate considering he wasn’t wearing any.
I thought the casino floor’d been a mess before, but the orchestrated pandemonium had devolved into hyper-chaotic stampedes. The machines were hooting, screeching, spitting sparks. The charge of escapees seemed to stop at each large table or betting appliance, making sure they lay longways before the swarm swarmed on toward the exit.
Fat and skinny regulars, stout and svelte out-of-staters, surfer dudes, beach blanket bingo chicks, cowboy-hatted hicks, frat and soror bros and sissies, underwear models, Hollywood dropouts, geriatric actors set to star in catheter commercials, horse jockeys and people who still own lawn jockeys, desert freaks, George Clinton wannabees, hair-transplant addicts, they were there in the swarm. So were those two truly obese figure skaters, all those Peggy Lees and their handlers, the human reindeer with big felt antlers, waiters, bartends, security guards, Morris Day, The Time, and a guy with a Morris Day and the Time tee shirt.
I saw Blanches, Bevs, Harolds, Henrys, Sheps, Iras, Byrons and Quinns.
I saw too-easy-to-spot celeb stalkers, ranchers with fuck-tucked jeans, newlyweds, teamsters, moneybag dreamers, bellhops carrying steamer trunks, scavengers, bottom-feeders, and barely primatial vulture-people. Swarming with them were the ugly, the old, the wheelchaired, the scootered, the Rascal-drivers, the motorcycle-helmeted, the Druidic orders of tuxedoed gentleman and gowned ladies, and two stark-naked babies—who never should have been there in the first place—all rushing the exit, each a drop of water in a roiling river of sweat, piss, panic, and expired tonic water.
I maneuvered around this and that dark, hard object. I entered a sort-of fugue state and Keanu’d my way through to the elevators, dodging falling fiery timber and projectilized poker chips.
The golden doors were ablaze. I took the guy’s hand, the fireman I continued to carry, and pressed his finger into the up-arrow button. The doors opened. Someone was watching over me. But not the fireman. His hand was all burnt up so I left him there.
Lacerated muzak saturated the upwardly mobile rectangle. I hummed along to a tune I knew I knew but couldn’t place. Only when I reached our floor did I recognize the strings, horns, and pocket-sized percussion had been applied to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Someone had been having some fun and it certainly wasn’t me.
The doors opened sesame and I was blown back on my ass by the backdraft. The hallway was wild with sharpened blades of netherworldly red. This was no campfire, Auntie Em.
I crossed myself and ran in the direction of our room.
C.C., I know he’s in there. I’ll get him. I’ll make him eat it. You’ll see. I’ll choke him with it. I do this for you.
I kicked in the door and there they were.
Tom was still in his tuxedo, painting something on the wall in ash. Peter was wearing headphones, jigging in the corner. Sam and Seth were each occupying a bed.
And Chris was asleep in the window seat. How did he get up here?
“Hey buddy,” Tom said at me without looking. “Born in a burning barn?”
I squeezed the door shut against the flames and de-suited. I reached into my boxer briefs, pulled out the peanut-butter sandwich I’d made and sealed in a Ziploc bag so long ago, and asked to have the room. “Seth, you stay.”
“Uh, well dude,” started Tom. “Thing is, there’s a huge fucking fire out there. And, y’know, cool suit and all, but, like, we’re not goin’ out there.”
I saw his point. “Well, can you guys just go in the restroom or something?”
I threw the bagged sandwich at Seth. It hit the headboard and fell on the paperback copy of the novelization of The Dark Knight Rises.
Seth looked at the bag for some time. The window seat’s window showed hints of flame. The burning monster was moving skyward.
“How, I ask, in kindness, do you expect me to consume whatever this is?”
Seth’s tone was evil, evil as the hand that held out, in display, the bag of peanut butter sandwich.
“You’ll eat it and you’ll like it.”
It was supposed to be different. I’d had contacts. I was going to make him eat this sandwich in his sleep. Choke him with it. Make him wake up to his error of keeping both eyes closed.
The hubris that he’d pretended not to be my nemesis. The games he’d played. Oh, how I despised him. Oh, the villain. A villain with a biblical name. There are so many. He who replaced Abel. But also Cain. As double-sided a character as you could find. His two faces were shown to me then.
“Uh, guys? Can we, like, leave soon?” Peter the priest was muffledly protesting from the lavatory.
“You shut up!” I demanded.
“You think I killed Celene and you–“
“Don’t you say her name,” I ordered.
“Very well,” Seth agreed to my terms, decamping the bed, standing at his full seven feet.
“What shall we call her?” Seth the child-killer daintily placed the bag of sandwich on the still-made bed.
“You won’t call her anything. You’ll eat your supper and you’ll know what’s good for you and she won’t come back to me and it’s your fault and it’s all your fault and—” And I lost it. For the hundredth time that weekend, I really fucking lost it.
Somewhere in there was a nightmare. The nightmare of so much drinking. Of not telling the truth. A nightmare where I didn’t get to be me but instead had to be a teller of tales, big or small. A person more concerned with stories about life than life itself. A fictionalist. In my nightmares, I’m a fictionalist.
There’s so much dumb stuff. Television and bad movies and books nobody should read. Teachers who unlearn things that help and teach things that hurt. Countless intentional errors rack up on the board and we bet in their favor and because we all bet they win. This horse is named The Time My Daughter Died and I’m the only one left willing to gamble.
He stumbled in through the French doors. The ones I’d installed. He woke Cleo. Cleo gave him water. Cleo woke me. I asked him why he was in our house. He was incoherent. I told him to go home, to his wife, to his children, but he was, himself, falling apart.
Pity was my error. My sin.
I told him I’d make him some pasta. He pulled from his coat a Ziploc bag full of something tawny and six slices of bread.
I asked him if it was peanut butter. He drunkenly nodded his affirmation.
I reminded him that C.C. was allergic. He nodded his affirmation.
I said he could sleep there or do whatever he wanted, just keep the stuff out of sight.
I pulled C.C. into our bed, of course without complaint as she tried to slip between us most nights, and went out for a drink. A single drink.
A single drink.
“A single drink!”
Chris was suddenly there, handing me my flask. The one I’d left behind.
“We have to go,” someone said.
“No, I won’t go until he eats what he deserves.”
The mold of many years entered Seth’s mouth. He succumbed to my vengeance. I won. Everyone knew. Everyone had known. We were a people without an audience playing out a drama expected. And we were very, very bad at our jobs.
But I saw him. The green and blue and black he choked down. The ossified peanut butter that’d never really hurt him. And I had my drink.
I took the gin of the flask down in a gulp and threw the flask at Seth’s head. It smacked a howling, ceramic, bandana’d wolf-hound in the head, breaking it off.
“Well, we’re not getting our deposit back anyway,” remarked Tom.
Chris took his pink scissors from his pocket and handed them to Peter. Tom was back at the wall, painting its eggshell shade with a deep darkness.
Peter snipped the black plastic wrist-ties that were keeping Seth from vomiting properly.
Chris cut my hair with a strong pair of office scissors. In bits and pieces. All along my scalp. Shorning me in my crying grief.
Tom was back at the wall finishing his ash mural. “We should get a move-on,” he casually remarked.
Seth was digging around in his mouth, pulling out gobs of decomposed sandwich and dropping them to the carpet.
He wasn’t dead. I couldn’t kill him.
I surrendered my vengeance and took a heavy seat on one of the beds. A haze began filling the room.
Chris sliced up the yellow suit, handing strips to Peter, who made five masks.
Sam’s burly arms wrapped my face with one of the flame-retardant veils. Like I’d carried the little fireman, Sam threw me over his shoulder.
As we moved toward the door I looked up to see, on the wall, Tom’s ashy message.
“Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.”
And we made our escape from that Morongian Babylon.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.