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Authors: Roy Scranton

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BOOK: War Porn
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“Medium rare,” Wendy said.

“Still mooing,” the man said. “Thanks.”

“Coming right up!” Matt said, his voice going high and brittle, hoping a fat smile would numb his unease. He cracked another beer and drank deep. He pulled the vegetables and tofu off the heat and wrapped them in foil, then laid on the salmon and Wendy's steak.

The man walked up and offered Matt his hand. His grip was gentle but strong. “Hey,” he said. “I'm Aaron.”

“Matt. Nice shirt.”

“Thanks. Wendy got it for me on the internet.”

“She's good at t-shirts.”

“Yeah. She thought it'd be funny. She said you work with computers.”

“Yeah, I code. I'm sort of
. . . 
well, what I do now is part-time tech support for the county, but really I'm working on a freelance project, data-processing. Sort of global forecasting.”

“Like stock markets and stuff?”

Matt chuckled, hating the self-deprecating note he struck. “Well, sort of. What I'm trying to do is use turbulence in complex systems to predict unforeseen events,” he said, waving the barbecue tongs. “The problem with ‘unknown unknowns' is that you don't know what you're looking for. Take 9/11 for instance, or the fall of the Soviet Union. The patterns were there but we weren't looking for them, and there was no way to know
in advance
which data points were the important ones. What we needed was a tool for monitoring data systemically, for helping us watch events not as points or lines but as flows and breaks. The program I'm developing uses chaos theory to visualize predictive data as a field. Then we can use those visualizations to shift our frame of reference so that something that
would
have been an outlier becomes something we're looking for: from an unknown unknown into a known unknown. It's about letting chaos show its underlying order. I mean
. . . 
Whoa, I gotta flip this shit.” He turned over the salmon and Wendy's steak, then reached for the last two steaks and threw them on. “Hey D,” he shouted. “Just a few more minutes here. You wanna get the stuff?”

“Got it,” she said, handing the weed to Rachel and going back inside. Aaron nodded after her, his look lingering for Matt's taste a second longer than was really necessary.

Rachel lit the pipe and passed it. They smoked. Chatted. Dahlia came back out with a pitcher and glasses. Time slowed.

When did the porch light come on? Who turned the light on?

“Fuck,” Matt said, turning back to the grill and sliding the salmon on a plate, forking the steaks and serving them up, while Dahlia portioned out tofu for Rachel and Mel and divvied up veggies and spooned out the vegan potato salad Mel had brought. Everyone moved to the picnic table. Matt lit the tiki torches and citronella candles and Dahlia passed the tabbouleh. They tore into their food, washing it down with beer, ripping into animal and vegetable flesh, throats bulging. Their steak knives flashed in the light, flecked with fat and blood.

They discussed: the virtues of cats v. dogs, as pets and generally, how best to marinate tofu, the election, how sick they all were of the election, the curious nature of modern life where it feels like part of you is connected via mass media to this hyperlife that doesn't objectively exist but functions entirely as “news,” but what's news if not events yet the news isn't the event and you don't really experience the event but only the “
news
” of it, “yeah like 9/11,” and how sometimes it feels strange when there
isn't
some disaster happening, like there's a gap in the matrix, and as Wendy parsed this phrase they talked about
The
Matrix
and then other films commenting on Contemporary Life Post-9/11, and also music they'd been listening to like the new Wilco, then Rachel told a story about one of her second-grade girls who'd memorized all the lyrics to “Toxic” and had made up a dance to go along.

They compared tattoos: Wendy had a jaguar on her ankle—this was her Aztec horoscope, she said—and a fleur-de-lis on her lower back; Mel, a flaming skull with
born to lose
on her left shoulder, a barbed tribal band around each bicep, and a complex floral design going down from her hip into the joint between her thigh and pelvis that she only showed the very top of, tugging at her jean shorts; and Aaron a crude circled A on his right shoulder, which he laughed off as his first tatt from back in ye olde punk days, an inverted cross on the inside of his left forearm, and then, pulling up his
enemy combatant
t-shirt, sweeping across his muscled back a pair of intricate spiked wings, crested in Gothic script reading
long is the way and hard
. Neither Matt nor Rachel had tattoos. Dahlia had a dahlia, on her hip, which she didn't show anyone.

How it had gotten dark. How they made a circle with lawn chairs, smoked another bowl, and drank some whiskey out
of plastic cups, the coals dying behind them, the moon rising into the stars. Their bodies hummed, satiated, lips slick with grease. Dahlia got a little cold and went in for a hoodie. Rachel got cold too, and Mel wrapped her in her leather jacket. Aaron lit an American Spirit. Xena chewed a bone. Balinese gamelan banged and gonged from the boom box.

“So, I have a story,” said Wendy.

“Let's hear it,” said Mel.

“Alright. Aaron already heard this one, but it's really weird, so I'll tell it again. Thursday night I was driving to Grand Junction. I was going to a poetry reading there. It was one of those days where nothing seems to quite catch, you know, like Mercury's in retrograde, like the universe is off-kilter.” Wendy paused, casting her gaze into the distance. “It's like I wrote once, ‘The fissure between the thought and deed, against the universal, the palsy in the hand of God.'”

“Nice,” said Matt.

“The reading was this guy David T. Greene, who won the Yale Younger Poets prize last year with his book
Emblazoned Arcadia
. He's at once very classically concerned with craft and meter, but also super experimental, right, and he's working with hypertext and interactive poetics, doing things with New Media artists, and has a blog. So that's where I heard about the reading, the blog: he'd gotten a grant to drive across the country and write a sort of cyberpunk-Whitman long-poem meditation on America, blog it, and along the way he organized a series of readings. So he was reading at the Black Cat in Grand Junction, and . . .”

“Why didn't he read here?” Rachel asked.

“Well that's interesting. I asked him the same question myself. I told him about Eklectika and Back of Beyond and that there's actually quite a dynamic poetry scene here, but he said he had to leave early to make it to Salt Lake City in time for his reading there on Friday and then it was up to Washington and yadda yadda yadda. He seemed really edgy—his aura was totally broken up. He'd planned to have the readings be auxiliary to the experience of writing the trip, but instead he'd just been driving like crazy, barreling through to get from one reading to the next, and he hadn't even really had time to write the poem
. . . 
But first, before all that, I was driving across the desert and do you remember the lightning storm Thursday?”

“Sure,” Dahlia said.

“The sky was a ‘charcoal smear livid with electric fire.' I watched it as I drove
. . . 
I was halfway watching the storm in the distance, the way the light changed against the mesas, and halfway watching the road. You know how you do, espe
cially when the highway's empty. I had an old mix tape Aaron made me years ago—I found it the other day and thought, wow, right before I get to see him in I don't know how long, here's this mix tape. And it was playing
‘Teclo,' right, the PJ Harvey song, and I was very much in the moment, the speed and the storm and the rain flicking on the windshield and PJ Harvey sort of moaning right, ‘let me ride on his grace,' and I flick on the wipers and then there's a coyote in the road and
bam!
I feel the car hit him.”

“Oh my God,” Rachel said.

“I slam on the brakes. But it had just started raining, right, and you know how all the oil on the road floats to the surface after a dry spell, and the car skids, slips sideways, and I panic. My foot's jammed on the brake and all I can think is ‘They say steer
into
the skid but who are
they
? What do
they
know?' My mind is just whirling, right, but my hands do it, steering into the skid and I pump the brakes and the car slows and I pull over and stop. I'm like, shaking. In the rearview I'm so white I'm like dead and I remember thinking
maybe I am
, and then I felt like throwing up but just sat there, waiting, on the shoulder by the median—the wrong shoulder, you know?—and this Captain Beefheart song comes on . . .”

“‘Clear Spot,'” Aaron said. “I put ‘Clear Spot' on that tape.”

“Yeah. ‘Clear Spot.' I was like, wow. And the squealing fading in my ears and the shaking calming down and I think—what about the coyote? So I get out and walk back and I remember the sun going down, right, and the storm, and it's sprinkling rain like any second now the sky's gonna unleash the deluge and I walk back to where I started braking, and then I go back a little further and look and there's nothing. No coyote, no blood, nothing, and I climb over the median and check out the other side because you know, I thought, maybe the force of the car threw him clear but still nothing. So I run across the highway and check the other shoulder and there's still nothing, so that's when I think, oh my god: he's under the car. He must be jammed under the frame somehow. Maybe still alive. So I go back to the car, walking slow, trying to get hold of myself, and as I walk I watch the car and the road, looking for signs, drops or smears of blood, fur, anything. I get to the car and I so much do
not
want to look underneath
. . . 
but I work up my courage and squat by the tire, sort of so I can hide behind it if he jumps out at me, and I look underneath and there's nothing. I can't believe it. I cannot believe it. Fender, grill—no sign at all I hit anything, no contact with anything, no remnants of flesh or blood, only the idea.”

She paused, sipped her beer.

“Wow,” Matt said.

“So what happened to the coyote?” Rachel asked.

Wendy held her hands open, palms up.

“Then what?” asked Mel.

“I threw up and felt a little better, then I got back on the road. I was a few minutes late to the reading, so I sat in the back—I mean, there were only like five people there—and it was a great reading but my mind was still on the coyote,
on the absence of the coyote, and afterward, I went up to thank David and say hi, and we got to talking and then, later that night, when I got home . . .”

“You're leaving out the middle part,” Aaron said.

“Oh, we had a drink, you know, and talked—”

“Talked,” Aaron said.

“Anyway,” she continued, “the important part is when I got home. It was a weird night, weird energy in the air, and there's that witchy feeling you get sometimes, that feeling like there's a door open somewhere, right, like ‘fragrant portals, dimly starred.' So I got home and drove up the lonely road to the driveway and came to my trailer and when I make the last turn, my headlights sweep across the mesa and I stop—because standing right there in the middle of my headlights, right in front of my trailer door, is a huge, mangy coyote, his enormous yellow eyes staring right at me. I'm so scared I almost pee myself, so I just sit there watching him and he stands there watching me. I leave the headlights on, because I'm not going to get out till he leaves
and I'm not going to turn the lights off so I can't see him, and
he just stands there, and then—and this almost made me start crying—he sits back on his haunches and starts panting, still just staring. Finally I sort of come out of it and think to honk the horn, but it does nothing. He ignores it. I roll down the window and shout and honk but none of it makes any difference, he just sits there, staring. I turn off the headlights. In the dark I can still see him there. I crawl in the backseat, check the locks, and go to sleep. When I wake up, he's gone. No prints in the dirt—nothing. Nothing but a faint smell, like an old dog, ‘the scents of ghosts, the memory of lithic days.'”

“You think it was a ghost?” Rachel asked.

“Who knows?”

“That's really incredible,” Matt said, wondering how much, if any, of the story was true and not really caring, because her telling had given him license to watch her lips move gleaming in the torchlight, her eyelashes flutter, her delicate fingers trace gestures in the air. Wandering his gaze over the curves and hollows of her body made him feel better about the energy he felt flowing between Dahlia and Aaron that he kept telling himself he was just imagining. People look at people, he thought, and that Aaron's knee had been resting against Dahlia's for the last several minutes was no sign of anything, no red flag, no indication of anything other than his own weed-stoked paranoia. It's all in your head, he thought, then again: say something.

BOOK: War Porn
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