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Centigrade

Poetry & Prose | April 29, 2013

“Let me tell you how I lost my pinky,” she tells me, so I shouldn’t be surprised when she spread-eagles her right hand out in front of my eyes and there’re only four digits quivering there. But I am. She looks up at me through that matted black, long hair and again through that fan of lonely fingers. Her name is Erika, and she spins me something unparaphraseable, something about an ex of an ex and a car door and unpaid rent, fractions of stories I had heard whose sum total was now a severed pinky finger.
I’m listening only peripherally. My mind is at the back of my neck where the light of neon suggesting Budweiser strikes me, hot. The warmth is like sugar to my veins. And now, tuning in again. “He got this look in his eye.” The shredded ice in my glass makes my teeth shriek goosebumps down to the root. Somewhere across the bar, the front door opens wide and with the frozen mountain air goes my patience. “I’ve got to go,” I slur, my words chewing on each other in the mouth (cannibals of convenience), but she’s taking my ten in her nine and now she’s dragging me out into the night and at this point I figure if I’m going to get out of the cold I may as well do it on her dime.

Afterwards, I ask why she took me home and all she can tell me is that I looked tired. I fall asleep shivering, and my dreams are haunted by snowfall and storm clouds. I wake up and she’s gone and her roommate (imposing in her wakefulness) tells me to get out because it’s after noon already, and she’s shooing me away so fast I can’t get my coat and, slam, the door to that apartment hits my back, and I’m out in the cold again, and the moment I understand that this angry woman will not open the door to give me my coat back is the moment I realize that I have to leave Denver forever.

It isn’t until I’m going headed south on I-25 that my fingers start to warm up again. I’m still north of Castle Rock and billboards urge me to regulate marijuana; there, on that highway, they tell me that God is imaginary, and that I am not alone, and to pull off here for Cracker Barrel and to save the Colorado River and to please, for the love of Christ, call if I have any information regarding the whereabouts of Leonel Steiner, thirteen years old and five-feet tall and blonde and missing for eighteen months now. I’m trying to take it all in, the pleas and the bargains and the downright assaults, but I’m so drained of the cold that I guess I’m not really paying attention to anything else, much less the road and just when my eyelids are the heaviest I have to swerve to avoid an oncoming Silverado. Not even the honkings of every motorist in a mile are enough to stir me. So I get back into my lane and then again onto the shoulder, slowly, and before my head even touches to steering column, I’m asleep.

I’m up at the crack of something at my window, but my first waking thought is: the heat! My eyes closed, all I can hear is the purr of the heater. I squirm under the warmth, taking care to enjoy fully my newly-thawed joints. But crack comes the something again, and I open my eyes and the something is a police baton, and the someone cracking is a policeman, and I’m about a thousand yards from where I thought I parked and now that you mention it (fuck, fuck) my car is actually moving, oh so incredibly slowly down the shoulder, so I slam on the brake (an inordinate jerk given that I couldn’t have been going any faster than, say, a policeman on foot) and allow myself a moment to stare, somehow alert but vacant, out the windshield (asleep!) and ask myself (at the wheel!) what the hell happens next. The answer comes faster than I’d like —a third crack—and I’m forced to deal with the reality of impending arrest. In short order it comes, bearing iced handcuffs and accusations levied against the strength of my character. He assures me in gruff tones that my car will be taken care of, however, and the backseat of his car is even warmer than mine. In short order I’m asleep again. My last memory is the purple of the setting sun cast over the melting Rockies and through my closed eyelids, autopsy-blue.

A growling wakes me. I turn my head to a jewel-eyed fox. She scratches at the earth beneath her. This is strange. Where have I seen those hands before? (Paws, of course. Paws.)

Hurry, she says, or you will be late, and then you will die.
Oh, yes. That makes sense.
You are afraid.
Am I? I shouldn’t think so.
Where are you?
I don’t know. I don’t care! I’m alive, yes? I must be exceeding expectations.
Why are you running?
Because I can.
What is behind you?
Rent I can’t pay. Parents who don’t pick up the phone. The cold.
What is before you?
Nothing. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.
Then I tell you again: hurry. I don’t think you are going to make it.
Then her head snaps to the horizon and she starts to run, faster than anything. The sun is tied to her by a rope I cannot see and it takes off, too, like her, like lightning, and strikes the other side of the earth. The now-night sky has been shredded in their wake. There is an incredible stillness for a moment. Then a rumble, and then the air itself turns to static and every fiber of my being is magnetized up, now, and just before the crash, just before the stars explode and my heart stops

I’m thrust awake again. Spitting and gasping, this time, and when my vision clears and the wet is out of my eyes, I can see that it is only another policeman who stands above me. The bucket he holds above me is empty; I can only assume that the contents have just been dumped into my face. We are outside. It is intolerably bright and this man wears aviator sunglasses, polished to a sheen. My vision adjusts to the scorching of the sun’s rays and once I get my knees under me, slowly, clumsily, the man points to the horizon. I turn to see where he is pointing—south, and to the east—and find myself on the edge of a desert. How did I get here? Where is my car? The questions start to bubble up, each vying for priority, wishing themselves resolved.

I turn and the cop is already walking away from me. “H-ey!” My voice cracks. It is foreign to me, dry.
“Yeah?” He does not break stride. His back remains turned.
“W-here is this?”
“Where do you think you are?”
“No idea. N-ew Mexico?”
He shrugs.
He has reached his car and when he opens the driver side door, he turns to me. His frown is impossible to read, and I can’t think of anything else to say before he gets in the unmarked Crown Victoria, closes the door, starts the engine and drives, just drives straight away from me in a line to the north. I watch him for as long as I can but after a minute or two he is far away and the light from the sun devours him. I turn again on my heel and squint into the south-east and there, as far as I can imagine, pure light shimmers high on a mountain top.

I turn again around myself. This place is impossible, I declare to no one in particular. This desert is impossibly flat, and those mountains are impossibly far away, and the air is so still, so quiet, so bright – blank-canvas sterile. But the sun is warm. I have not been this warm in a very long time. And my body is intact, if sore; so I point in the direction of the star on top of the mountain and, putting one callused foot in front of the other, I walk.

The first night is a terror. As the sun goes down the temperature plummets, and the still heat of the day turns to a quiet freeze. There is no wood for a fire – nothing at all, in fact, save the occasional boulder, obsidian-black. My only thought, since even in darkness the star on the mountain keeps bright, keeps sputtering without rhythm, is to keep walking. But in the night my body quickly fails, and soon I collapse to the sands beneath me. Still the cold persists! A voice deep inside tells me dig, dig, and so I claw into the sands with the urgency of any man with only one route out of the cold. As I dig I bury myself beneath this foreign sand, my fingers frozen and raw and unable to stop their work. After hours, after forever, all my body to my nose is entombed; and although I shiver, sleep finds me.

The next morning I emerge with the rising sun. My head pokes out, first. For a while there is nothing to watch but the star on the mountain, but soon the sun crests the peaks and then, suddenly, the sand before me begins to roil. About a foot in front of my face a copperhead snake pops its head out of the sand. He wriggles free of the earth and basks, at the height of his climb, in the newborn morning sunlight. He turns to me, now, and his eyes catch the purple dawn gleaming.
“Hey, buddy.” I whisper, unsure.
Nothing. But his tongue tastes the world, finding me.
“You’re not from around here either, yeah? This must be new for you too.”

A hiss, impossible to interpret. I take him in my arms, and he coils upon my still-buried chest.
“Just so you know,” I say, “I got bit by a snake once. True story! I was in Laos. I know, I know. What possible reason does someone have for being in Laos? Well, temples, mostly. There are the most beautiful shrines in that part of the world, my friend, and so I found a guide and we saw all of these monuments these Buddhists had built all those centuries ago.

“So it’s about three days in, and its sunset and we had just left Wat Simuong in Vientaine. The light is coming in sublime, the purple of cough syrup dripping through the jungle canopy, and my guide and I are setting up camp for the night. I go to find some wood for a fire, and I set one foot off the path and, snap! Right through my ankle, the teeth of a temple viper. Tropidolaemus wagleri. Their bite contains a powerful hemotoxin. Once infected, the blood starts to jelly. It congeals until is sits, plump and semi-solid, lazily bursting through the veins. Untreated in humans, the toxin can kill in an hour; but my guide was wise to the ways of the viper and he sucked the poison out of my leg and in thirty minutes I was in a hospital and two days after that I was on a flight home.
“But what do you do after that, little buddy? Your cousin almost killed me out there. And all I could think about on that hospital bed, on that cozy flight home, were those five minutes: those five minutes where I felt the evil squirm of something wrong coursing through my veins. How can you trust yourself after something like that? When, Christ, even homeostasis isn’t a given, how can you trust your body to keep warm?”

My friend, tactfully, refuses to comment on the sins of his extended family. Instead he slithers, over my face, down the crown of my skull, back onto the sands. I follow him with my eyes until he unmistakably makes his direction known. So I too rise, and I walk toward that constant and blinking star.

For four days and three nights I hiked like this, with unspeaking creatures, snakes of all kinds (even a few dreaded vipers wagleri) crawling out of the sands to join our procession. Still I bury myself at the end of each day-long march. The star’s sputtering spurred me on, now; for although there was no pattern, I could almost catch intention in its light, some scrap of meaning in some ancient language, encoded by some long-dead hand. On the third day the mountain seemed to approach; and by the fourth day, now, I came to sit at the foot of the mountain itself.

There is no path, but I climb. The star is huge above me, now – larger than the now-setting sun. Its blinking has resolved to an ever-bright sparkle, almost painful to look at. The swarm of reptile-beasts climbs with me, too. Their quarry is so close. But the night becomes cold, even as it is eerily bright under the gaze of the star, and as we climb many of my companions begin to slow. They slow, brute by brute, and begin to stop there on that mountainside. There is no sand into which they can dig. Many try, in mania, but fail and succumb to the cold. They crumble into themselves and soon the mountain hisses with the cries of dying and scaled beasts.

I have scaled taller mountains in my life, certainly; but never before have I felt such a numbness, such a burn in my bones. Finally (I should have died, I should have fallen off this goddamn mountain, my tears are frozen on my cheeks and my blood is pudding), I have reached the summit. Here is a tower of white stone before me. Like a lighthouse it rises, topped by a great glass dome in which the star itself (impossible to look at directly) hovers, contained, yelling to me in a frequency I cannot begin to understand. Now that I have stopped, though, feeling has begun to return, shrieking, to my extremities. If I sit still in this cold for any length I will surely die. So while my feet are still blunted, I run toward the spire.

There is no visible entrance. If there is a hidden one, it does not make itself known to me. And the exterior walls are far too smooth to climb. I have pushed and pulled and pounded on every inch of its surface in my reach. I am so close! How warm that chamber must be! In there, I had assured myself, the humming of the star would tune itself to my eyes and my ears. I strike the tower with my broken fists. Damn. Damn.

I collapse, unanchored, the spell broken. Where am I? What kind of dream is this that flips so swiftly between fantasy and nightmare? On top of it all, the cold of the night remains, ravenous, a carnivore. I curl in tight. I clutch myself with shivering arms. Far away, at the other end of the world, the horizon is highlighted in a deep purple. But the night is still young, yet, I can feel it, and I have climbed so far, and (I ascertain from the edge of the cliff upon which the tower is perched) beside this dreadful star I find that there is nothing left for me in this world. This body of mine can take no more frozen nights. It will move no further.

I sit with my feet dangling over the edge, the desert floor far beneath me. Logically, there is only one way to go, and that is down. But there is something deeper within me. I had forgotten, but there it is, that old companion, emerging now from the tightest corner of my soul. I have met it only a few times before, half-glimpsed at the height of my darkest nights; but it swallows me now and tells me this cannot be the end and so I close my eyes and between chapped lips and chattering teeth I pray for the sun.