“That boy you were here with is here.” “What boy?” “That retarded one.” “I was here with a retarded boy? What are you talking about? I’d never been here before you waylaid me last week.” “Sure you had. You and that skinny, retarded boy who was here some long time back. You’uns stayed for a month, got to be a regular fixture so I’d see you two leave to walk out across that field every evening taking some air.” “Why haven’t you mentioned it?” “Why should I mention something you already know? You stayed in the same room for shit’s sake, and you left the same way you was planning to this here time too. I told you I’d seen it all, mostly from you!” “Have we been back since?” “Oh sure, but not to stay, and not up to the office where I could get to you, mostly walking down by that road.” “And this retarded boy is here now?” “He’s in your room. But stay out.”
A tag hung on the outside of his door knob saying the room was occupied. His belongings were still in the room. Jack could hear the two men in the arcade from a chair on the building foundation in the chalk court only in the sharper syllables that prick and slice the packed vacuum of the valley floor in so piquant slaps. The standing man, alike to other men, holds two chambray shirts tied into a sort of tarp over a man squatting, after their short conclave in the room looks smeared out of slumber and verges toward it again as the standing man talks. Each seems confused in the bent of their respective loquacity and vegetation. The man on the ground looks like an invertebrate version of the erect man, but everyone looks like a version of everyone else.
Jack spends the night down the wash out of the surveil of the motel. He sits on the flag wellhead and gets up frequently to reconstruct the merestone downwind with the dune peak. He sleeps intermittently. A hard windstorm batters the wash stringing the dune crests out like hair blowing or whispers of hoarse smoke. The wind distributes the sand down the valley where a glow arises over the latitudinal horizon.
The approaching morning will be the eighth day stranded at the motel. The new glow is promising, like a curtained window. He returns up the rock field and across the chalk road to his occupied room which is lit. He kneels to the vent at the curtain and sash. A blend of amorphous shadows on the wall wave in syrupy pseudopods. Their overlapping edges grow slightly darker as if the occulting body is translucent and should not be casting a shadow at all. The air conditioner engages without the compressor and throws the hem of the curtain up and the erect man stands before a lamp with a thin blanket over him and hanging out from his arms billowing. Lit as well from the other direction the same obscure shade leaks out onto the chalk by Jack’s feet. Unnerved now even more by the unexplainable postures and productions in the room that are casting the shadows he runs back into the chalk wind and up to a low growth of pinyon pines above the office.
The soft light around it illuminates footprints in the chalk leading away from the arcade, stopping at the building pad, and continuing out to the road. Jack can see a man far out where the road bends down to buttonhook the tail of the mountain range en route to the glow streaming out the horizon as if wind could draw up light. Jack emerges from the trees to retrieve his belongings and follow the man before the night manager materializes to detain the both of them.
The door is ajar from the other man’s flight. Shameful acts happen quickly, thoughtlessly. Darkness falls from the jamb onto the thin chalk breezed over the arcade. In the room, in his haste, he passes over the dim shape in the bed. It is sweltering and eerie in silence. The room might say something. He cuts on the air conditioner and the walls immediately are damp. After collecting his things out of the order of the room the discrepancy of a man laying there startles him. By sight he cannot say the shape is a man. It doesn’t have a face within the contours of its outcropping from the mattress, yet the sheet is tucked below its erstwhile chin. If not a man, it once was, recently. It is greater than a man because it is not a simulation. It is something different. The inverted power of the effigy is that it needs no action or emotion, simply its form, to haunt. Yet it haunts only with the vehicle of discovery and condemnation. On that fleeing man now the transit of this malignant shadow eclipses his form completely.
Jack listens beneath the air conditioner to the irregular rattle of the bound man’s breathing. The man is focused on him. Jack moves toward him to take his hand and speak to him. The bed clothes are warm and damp. A gummy discharge stiffens the fabric, swelling his eyes and burning his nose with an empyreuma smelling of scorched flax. Clean towels are piled in the lavatory.
Here is a child he never would have borne. He can’t fathom who might have. Why would the choice now be his of whether its life is sustained? Its shadow even now creeps across the wall as the curtain billows. A vague thrill lies in the primacy of his own survival even in that shadow.
If life was sacred, if life had value in itself, it wouldn’t end. The whole bacterial colony of life doesn’t stop, only its individual segments. He buries a smile. How was it even his course to intervene in this death. It was hubris. He can give the life that is tapering, suffocating, in the bed, an immortality relative to himself by carrying its stain in him, a slightly lengthier limbo, unpredictably born by the fled man as well, and as many other keepers as this body had known. Jack could count only on the death of others for his own lasting life, its immortal pause in these chambers.
Jack cannot bear to be in the room any longer. The heat is not drawing down with the air conditioner and the breathing begins to validate his existence above the phantom life that has tenuously stabilized him in these rooms. He is nothing but ephemera, not capable of being concrete, not capable of being a man with this man together as the eyes track him blowing into the wind like light or sand.